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Danger: Contents Under Pressure

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Four days. That’s the longest she and Roy have gone without really speaking in the past. After he left her at the hockey game on their first date, she wouldn’t take his calls for three days. He refused to say a word to her for a day after she drunkenly told him she thought his mom was tacky for wearing white to someone else’s wedding. The four-day record was hit when he, in turn, drunkenly hit on her cousin at a different wedding.

They’re going on close to a week now without saying any more than the odd hello and goodbye and whatever, tiny words that don’t even come close to covering everything they should be saying. When she’d gotten home from the Wedding Warehouse, the house had been empty. He didn’t even come home on Sunday. The first time she saw him after they fought was Monday morning when she came into the kitchen to get coffee, but they’d both just mumbled at each other and spent the ride to work in silence. Now, somehow, it’s stretched out to the next weekend. No discussion, no conversation, no confrontation. It’s not even because they’re angry at each other, she doesn’t think. They just…don’t seem to know what to say.

“Are things still bumpy between you two?” her mother asks when she calls Friday night.

“I guess.” Pam supposes bumpy is close enough. She’d only told her mother that they were having some disagreements. Telling her that they’ve barely spoken in almost a week is too daunting. “I was hoping he’d help me do stuff for the wedding this weekend, but it’s not looking like he’ll have time.” Or like we’ll be on speaking terms.

“Is there any way I can help?”

“Do you know any good seamstresses? I need to have those rips I told you about in the dress fixed.”

“Pam, don’t be silly, a seamstress will cost you an arm and a leg. Come over tomorrow and spend the night, I’ll fix it for you.”

“Oh, could you?” Pam asks in a flood of relief. “That would be fantastic, Mom.”

“Of course. What are mothers for?”

*****

Roy’s not home again. He’s been off with his brother somewhere since Thursday, his truck sitting in the driveway with the keys tucked above the driver’s side sun visor. She was supposed to leave for her parents’ house an hour ago but she didn’t want to leave without at least telling him she’d be gone for the night with the car. When noon comes and goes and he still hasn’t shown up, she starts hunting for a post-it. The note she leaves for him reads, “Gone to parents’, mother repairing dress, back tomorrow with the truck.”

It’s nice to be in the car by herself. The air blowing through the open window is cool and a little wet, definitely spring-like. Outside the car window, the trees are just starting to get leaves, their branches laced with pale green. Soon it’ll be summer. Somehow the season changing makes her feel like maybe she can change too, that this whole fall and winter were some kind of horrible aberration, a Pam she doesn’t really know making all the decisions.

Her father’s waiting for her at the curb when she pulls up. Knowing him, he puttered around in the front yard until he could hear her car turn the corner so he would know when she was there. She waves at him through the window as he lifts out her overnight bag out of the back even before she cuts the engine.

“Hi Dad,” she says. She comes around the hood of the car, the garment bag holding her new wedding dress draped over her arm, and they give each other one-armed hugs.

“Hi sweetheart, how was the drive?”

“Good.” She follows him up the walk. It’s always a little like entering a time warp when she comes home. No matter how different she feels, the house is always the same.

“Your mom’s in the kitchen,” he says as he sets her bag on the floor in front of the stairs. “We have to leave for Jersey by three so don’t you let her get too distracted.”

“Jersey?” she asks, momentarily confused. “Ohh, right, the Wiederman wedding. I forgot that was this weekend.”

“Well so did your mother,” her father grumbles good-naturedly. “The woman needs to have her datebook tattooed on her arm.”

“I heard that!” her mother’s voice calls from the kitchen. Pam’s father rolls his eyes skyward and sighs dramatically. Pam only laughs and hefts the dress in her arms on her way into the kitchen.

******

“How on earth did this happen?” her mother asks, peering through her bifocals at the biggest tear and frowning. “Wherever you got this, they don’t take very good care of their merchandise.” Pam just shrugs, trying very hard to look nonchalant.

“It was discounted,” she points out. “And I was desperate. I wasn’t about to complain.”

“That’s the problem with you,” her mother says absently. “You never complain when you should.”

The mild criticism hits home too deeply. Pam fiddles with her keys, ignores the pricking behind her eyelids. Her mother doesn’t notice, though, and keeps chattering away, telling Pam about the wedding and how scandalous it is that Amy Wiederman is marrying someone she only met two months ago and who’s clearly a mobster, ask anyone.

“I’ll tell you, it makes me glad that Roy’s a part of the family. No nasty surprises.” Pam can only smile and nod weakly. God, her mother would be disgusted with her if she knew what she was doing. And Pam would deserve it. Roy is a part of the family and she’s been treating him like garbage.

“Mom?”

“Hmm?” Her mother doesn’t look up from her needle. Pam knows she’s listening, though.

“Did you ever wonder if marrying Dad was the right thing to do?”

“Of course I did,” she says. “I almost called the whole thing off a few times. And even after we were married, I had my doubts. I went to live with my sister for four months just before you were born.” She says it all so matter-of-factly, like she isn’t completely demolishing Pam’s personal mythology where her parents never fought, never questioned, always knew they were meant to be together.

“Oh.” Pam’s not even sure what to say.

“We had to work on things,” her mother continues, knotting the thread and severing it with her teeth before tackling another rip. “We still have to work on things. Marriages are like houseplants.”

“I’m sorry, did you just compare a marriage to a fern?”

“Yes. Well, not a fern, but maybe a ficus. The point is, you grow up thinking plants just grow, but they need work. They need sunlight and food and water, and if you’re not careful you can kill them. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.”

“So my relationship with Roy is like a ficus and it won’t survive if we don’t nurture it,” she says.

“Exactly.”

Suddenly it hits Pam in a rush, how much it’s going to break her heart to call things off with Jim. The knowledge that she has to do it has been crystallizing for a while, but she’s been avoiding it, allowing herself the luxury of ignorance. It’s a luxury she doesn’t have anymore.

*****

“Now, are you sure you don’t want us to stay?” her mother is saying, even as Pam’s father holds out her coat for her to shrug into. “Thank you, dear. We can cancel, Pam, we don’t have to go.”

“No, Mom, don’t be silly.” Pam waves her hand as she trails out the door after them to stand on the front stoop. “You go. I’ll be fine here, really. I can wrestle the seating chart into submission.”

“All right, as long as you’re sure. I left a twenty on the kitchen counter so you can order a pizza.”

“Mother,” Pam says with a roll of her eyes. “I am perfectly capable of getting my own dinner.”

“I know, sweetie, the number for Palermo’s is on the fridge.”

Pam sighs in defeat. “Okay, Mom.” She wraps her sweater more tightly around her waist with both hands as she watches them climb into the car and shut the doors. The car backs up the drive and onto the street, her father driving at his usual glacial speed. “They’re going to take the entire weekend to get there,” she says to herself before turning to head inside.

She’s wrestling with the seating chart when Jim calls. It’s a deceptively complicated task requiring ridiculous levels of logic to figure out who should sit where. She’s so absorbed that the vibration of the phone startles her and she drops her pencil. She stares at the phone for a long minute, not sure whether to answer.

“Hey,” he says when she finally picks up. “What are you doing?”

“I’m at my parents’ house. My mother’s fixing the, um. The rips in the dress.”

“The dress?” he asks in confusion. “The rips in wha- Oh. Oh, the dress.”

“Yeah,” she answers. “They had a wedding in Newark today, they’re gone for the night. She’s going to finish when they get back tomorrow.”

“Oh.” He pauses on the other end of the line.

“What’s up?” she asks, after he still doesn’t say anything.

“There’s just…I just wanted to talk to you.”

“Okay. I wanted to talk to you too.” She’d been hoping to put it off, but maybe him calling now is a sign. No time like the present to dump the guy you’re cheating on your fiancé with and all that.

He inhales audibly but doesn’t speak. The silence stretches out interminably. She’s holding her breath, waiting for him to talk, to cough, to do something. A voice in her head sternly tells her to just say it, get it over with, make it clean and quick to minimize suffering. Though maybe that’s what you do when a horse has a broken leg? Good grief. Even the inside of her head has stopped making sense. It’s just that Pam’s never had to break up with anyone in her entire life so she doesn’t even know where to start. She only knows she can’t do it over the phone.

“Come over,” she says on an impulse. “We can talk here.”

“Are you sure?” he asks, surprised.

“Yeah.”

“Okay. Yeah, okay, I can do that.”

“Just take route 6 to Salem Road and call when you hit Church Street. I’ll give you directions from there.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll see you in a little bit.”

“Okay,” she says again. The phone disconnects with a beep. Hopefully in the next half hour she can figure out the best way to break up with someone.

*****

She’d planned on telling him right away. Really, she had. It’s just a hard thing to say and there’s never a good time. “I think we should stop seeing each other,” doesn’t exactly fall right into place after, “So how was the drive?”

She’d even opened her mouth intending full well to say it after they sat on the couch, but instead heard herself asking if he wanted to watch a movie or something. And once they were watching the movie, well…there wasn’t a whole lot of talking going on. It was almost like déjà vu, actually. The slouching, the touching, the arm along the back of the couch; the last time she was sitting on this couch with a boy it was pretty much the same process.

Soon the movie is drowned out by the sound of their breathing, by the rustle of fabric and the clatter of the remote hitting the floor when she accidentally kicks it off the table. She can’t remember the last time she made out like this, like a teenager, with no thought of sex, no thought of stopping, no thought of anything other than the present. But the present only lasts so long. Soon enough that voice is back in her head, reminding her of what she has to do, of what she’s been putting off because she can’t imagine not feeling the way he makes her feel just once more.

“We should probably stop,” she finally says when they come up for air. The clock on the ancient VCR is broken, blinking, but she knows they’ve been at it for hours.

“But I just got to second base,” Jim protests, burying his face against her neck. She laughs and lets herself tangle her fingers in his hair. He sighs and raises his head. “I guess I should get going if I’m gonna to make it back to Scranton tonight.”

“I guess so,” she whispers. He sighs again and bumps his nose against hers before pushing to his feet. Her knees are shaky as she stands and hits the power button on the television, plunging the house into quiet. Jim doesn’t look too steady himself. That’s the forgotten drawback to marathon make-out sessions: acute sexual frustration.

She trails after him as he moves towards the kitchen, shoes dangling from his hand. She’d switched off the light earlier and now he’s just a dark shape moving in front of her, barely illuminated by the light filtering through the curtains. When she moves in front of him to flip on the light switch, he reaches his hand over her shoulder and stops her. Frozen, she waits, half dreading what he’ll do and half aching for it. She can feel him behind her, his breath on the nape of her neck. The skin there tightens, anticipating his touch. She should stop him. This can’t go on, they have to face reality. Better to rip the bandage off all at once than inch by excruciating inch. But selfishly, she finds she can’t do it yet. She needs to feel like this just a little longer, to burn it in her memory before she gives it all up. To say goodbye. His shoes drop to the floor with a thump.

“Pam,” he breathes when she softens and leans back against his chest. The hours spent on the couch have her body humming like a plucked violin string. When he flips open the button of her pants and slides down the zipper, she’s just about ready to explode. She has to brace herself with her hands against the wall in front of her to keep from collapsing.

“Jim.” She tries to say his name but it’s only a squeak. He teases at first, his fingertip drifting in light circles over the fabric of her underwear, close enough to where she needs him to be maddening. She reaches behind her head to clutch at his hair, his ears, anything she can reach. Those maddening fingers circle, stop, torment her.

“Stop,” she begs him, desperate.

“You want me to stop?” he asks, teasing.

“I want your hands on me.”

“My hands are on you,” he reminds her.

“Don’t be a jerk,” she orders him. He doesn’t answer, just slips his fingers under the fabric and presses them into her. Her mouth is open, soundless.

Abruptly, he pulls his hand away, the pressure of his chest disappearing, and she almost collapses at the sudden lack of support. Dazed, she grabs at the wall, only to find herself being spun around, her back pressed against the wall as he kneels to yank her pants down her legs somewhat less than gently, her underwear following in short order. The sound he makes when his tongue touches her is the most erotic thing she’s ever heard in her life. And she’ll probably never hear it again.

She ignores the tears that spring to her mind at the thought, forcing herself to concentrate on the feel of his hands on her body, the rough scrape of his five o’clock shadow on the inside of her thigh. She doesn’t even notice that one leg is hooked over his back and that he’s basically supporting her weight entirely with his shoulders until she feels him hitch her up into a better position.

Last time, last time, a voice chants in her head, and it’s all she can do not to break down sobbing.

A high-pitched noise swells in her throat when she comes, shuddering so hard that she feels like she might break apart into a million pieces. Jim lets her slide down the wall to the floor as her body shakes with aftershocks. It’s too much for a second, she feels too sensitive and vulnerable to have him so close, and she pushes him away with her heel. She’s still got her shirt on. He’s fully dressed.

“Stand up,” she tells him. He only hesitates a moment before obeying. Now she’s the one on her knees, freeing the buttons on the fly of his jeans and tugging them down his legs. She covers him with her hand, rubs his dick through his boxers. He exhales unsteadily, bracing his hands against the wall above her, eyes closed in pain or pleasure or some combination of the two.

He starts trembling at the first touch of her tongue, starts shaking in earnest when she opens her mouth wide and takes as much of him in as she can manage. His hips buck once, as if he can’t quite control it. The motion forces her head back sharply; she would have smacked her head into the wall if he hadn’t shifted his hand down to cushion it. “Pam,” he says when he comes, sounding hoarse and spent and reverent as he jerks against her. “Fuck, Pam.”

She sits back on her heels, drags the back of her hand over her mouth. His arms are stretched over her head, palms flat on the wall still, breathing hard. They don’t say anything. Not when she stands, not when he lifts her up against him and carries her up the stairs and into her childhood bedroom.

Roy wasn’t allowed up here when they were in high school, through some combination of her father’s rules and her own reservations about letting him see her Anne of Green Gables books, her stuffed animals, the dolls she couldn’t bring herself to get rid off, even though she hadn’t played with them in years. She would have expected Jim to look out of place, but he doesn’t.

The bed squeaks when he sets her on it. It’s narrow and unsteady and too firm, like no one’s slept on it in years, which she supposes is true. She keeps hers eyes open the whole time, watching him strip away their clothes, rummage in his wallet for a condom. Watching his eyes go loose and unfocused when he slides into her. She keeps her eyes open for all of it. If she blinks, she might miss it.