At first Jim doesn’t notice anything amiss. But Jim will admit that he isn’t the most observant. Jim would even go as far to confess that he is, in fact, an idiot. His uncle’s gambling problem flew over his head for decades — and Uncle Frank took Jim to the tracks with him.
So he doesn’t realize his wife has a thing for the boom mic guy until it’s too late.
Because the boom mic guy is definitely into Pam too.
And Jim doesn’t realize how into that he is until he’s already blown it.
“Look at that.”
Meredith is leering. Jim doesn’t know at who in particular, but that doesn’t matter. With Meredith, it could be anyone human-shaped. She once tried to feel up a scarecrow. Jim is distracted by Pam stocking the shelves just outside the break room, and also distracted by trying not to look like he’s distracted. Beside him, Karen shifts.
Oscar‘s hand is resting on his heart. “Those jeans should come with a defibrillator.” Ah. Must be the boom mic guy.
“I’d hit that,” Andy says. His sweater vest and bow tie are chartreuse today. Jim longs to place him in front of a green screen. “I mean.”
“I’d hit that,” says Karen, with a sliding glance at Jim. She’s got a weird expression on her face. “And I dated Omarion.”
Kevin chokes on his soup. Phyllis says, “Watch your back, Jim,” and moves Stanley’s cholesterol medication away from Dwight. “I heard Brian was a model in college.”
Jim tosses a grape into his mouth. “I’d hit that too,” he says. “So does his trainer, I bet.”
Oscar splutters. “Personal trainers,” his hands move at the level of his indignation, “are for petty boy toys and daydrinking housewives. Brian does solo weight training, I assure you.” Kevin is starting at Karen, open-mouthed. Surely no one has fantasized about Omarion for so long in the past decade.
“I bet you anything he goes to the gym off 10th,” Andy says, slapping his hand against the table. “All the hot dudes go there.”
“Those are not the triceps of someone who attends a showy glam gym!”
A shouting match, and subsequent bets, are placed on Brian’s workout preferences. Dwight looks furious. So does Karen, when Pam catches Jim’s eye through the glass.
Like Jim hasn’t noticed. He’s noticed. He’s chill. He’s with the times. His best friend is gay; his sister is bisexual. He is probably some kind of something if he cared to examine things, but introspection really isn’t the Midwestern style. His aunt died with a paper clutched in her hand that said I buried Mark’s treasure in the backyard, 1973. The treasure was a Where’s Waldo book. Mark was her neighbor who’d she’d evidently been pining after for twenty years. Tragic.
Jim and the boom mic guy would even go out for beers back in Jim’s Pam Pining days, to commiserate over women and their implacability during March Madness or College Football or the Stanley Cup or the NBA Finals. Then Brian met Alyssa and Jim finally, finally landed Pam, and every week seemed to have fewer days.
Once, just before Pam had moved back from Pratt, Jim and Brian were arguing over the correct ranking of the Batman reboots when an attractive man whose cheekbones must have been forged with knives slid Brian his number.
Brian blinked. He smiled and shook his head, in the polite manner of someone accustomed to being propositioned by total strangers, and slid the card back.
Jim was floored by the aplomb with which Brian handled this extraordinary event. If this were Jim, he would have been staring into this man’s ice blue eyes and generally falling apart in an effort to not offend.
The man said, “Oh, sorry. Didn’t realize you were together. You’re both passing.” He laughed and clapped Jim on the back. Jim had no idea what this meant. In grave aside, the man told Brian, “Take care of your boyfriend like you take care of those shoulders.”
Roy walks into a room like a bully walks into a cafeteria.
“There’s a —” Pam looks hopeful and hesitant. It’s like watching a trembling rabbit that doesn’t know its cage is already unlocked. “There’s this art show thing downtown. It’s free. If we leave right after work, we can get there in time for hors d’œuvres too.”
“What? I’m not going to that crap. I got us tickets to an amateur MMA match tonight. There’s even two chicks on the lineup.”
Pam’s face falls. “Oh.”
Brian locks eyes with Jim. He coughs and calls Roy over for a talking head in the conference room. He winks through the window as Jim sneaks over to reception.
Jim is sitting at a traffic light with no memory of arriving there. They left No Longer Boom Mic Brian at lunch nearly half an hour ago. Pam has been talking and Jim must have been responding, but he couldn’t tell you what he’s been saying. He can’t even make a crack about the existential crisis Brian must be going through. (If a boom mic man loses his boom mic, does anyone hear it? That’s not right.) All he can see is the intensity with which Brian looked at Pam.
Jim knows that look. Jim’s been doing that look since he signed the employee handbook in the annex on day one.
He thinks of all the days he’s been in Philly. He’d always pictured Pam with the kids; Pam at home; Pam at the grocery store. But Pam exists outside of Jim’s radius. Pam has friends. Pam has places Jim knows only by hearsay. He’s never stepped foot in the coffee shop on 5th, or the Goodwill by Millie’s place, or the yoga studio-then-cocktails Thursday night combo with Kelsey and Tiff.
“Jim, that was our street.”
It’s not a stretch to imagine Pam and Brian at the bar. Leaning in. Brian’s hand on her arm. Jim sees a flash of Pam against the headboard, eyes closed, clutching at Brian’s shoulders, mouth open. Brian’s back beaded with sweat.
Pam is standing outside the car, holding open the door. The car light burns his eyes. “Are you planning on sleeping in here?”
Jim cracks a smile. “I — just need a minute.”
He is in no condition to stand.
Pam says okay but her eyes are worried. She looks over her shoulder, scooping up a stray soccer ball on the way inside.
Jim exhales. Lets his head fall back against the seat. He doesn’t know if he’s jealous or envious.
Brian is blocking Jim’s path to the parking lot. It’s boiling inside because Andy is MIA on a boat somewhere, and Dwight has taken the opportunity to break the thermostat and save himself greenhouse costs. His pits are sticky with dried sweat. Jim wants to be home and on his couch.
Brian’s hands move in abrupt gestures.
“I get it. I’d be pissed too. But believe me, we never— She’d never do anything. She’s crazy about you.” Wryly: “Trust me. I’ve been watching you guys for nine years.”
“Wow. Way to make it weird.”
“I’m just saying —” Jim has a good four inches on Brian. He’s never before been tempted to use the height difference to his advantage. “I’d never. I wouldn’t come between a couple like that.”
“Stay away from my wife.”
Jim rides a wave of rage. He’s exhausted. He has to drive to Philly tomorrow. He has to give a pitch that he’s only halfway researched.
Brian stumbles back. “Jim—”
“I don’t really care about this friendship you’ve apparently developed. I don’t want you and Pam hanging out alone. You get me?”
The elevator opens.
Phyllis bustles out, dabbing sweat with a linen handkerchief. It’s embroidered with penises. With a kindly pat to his arm, she advises, “Stay young, Jimmy.”
The door has swelled in the heat. It takes her a couple of tries to open it.
Brian scrubs at the back of his neck. “Yeah. I get you.”
Jim bribes the camera crew to let him see the footage of Brian defending Pam. It isn’t hard; Ted, the videographer, got the Dunder Mifflin gig in the first place because of Brian. He waves off Jim’s thanks, handing over a thumb drive at a Panera Bread by the mall — it’s weird to see any of the crew in normal life, out of the office context — and says, “But tell Vern and we’re all fired.”
Jim watches the footage at the Athlead office. Everyone else has gone home. Darryl is at the apartment. Jim doesn’t know why, but he wants to do this alone.
He watches Brian knock out the warehouse guy over and over. He watches for the same reason that he secretly loves the ballet and openly loves hockey. The fluid grace and athleticism with which Brian swings the boom mic. The way he launches himself onto the other man. The way they grapple.
Jim watches, chin in hand, elbows propped on desk, until it’s well past time to leave.
The office workflow has been stalled for the past twenty minutes by a pointless debate. Oscar tries for a sports analogy. He sort of gets it. Then Erin bandwagons, and somewhere northeast a stadium collapses in horror.
Jim turns to make eye contact with the only other person in the office who remotely understands sports. Then he remembers.
Phyllis leans over. “Missing your buddy?”
“Uhhh, nope,” says Jim, and pretends to be busy on the computer. He’s adding to his list of famous dead persons that could potentially contact Dwight during a seance.
Pam is watching him.
The comment is offhand. They’re preparing dinner in the kitchen, and then suddenly it’s bath time and Phillip hasn’t had his evening bottle. The hours slip by as a parent. Jim used to play video games until 2 a.m. for no reason at all. It’s not until they’ve washed the dishes and turned the house upside down for Cece’s stuffed rabbit (hiding in the freezer) that Jim says, “Wait, what?”
“He’s only forty-three,” Pam repeats. She tosses a laundry basket labeled DIRTY, filled with unfolded cleans, onto the couch. “Grey hair doesn’t always mean old. My brother started graying at twenty-one.”
“No, the other thing.”
“Monkeys should have a VIP section of the zoo?”
“No, the— What you said before. About your friend who had the thing. With her husband.”
There could be something called a smirk on Pam’s face, if she allowed it to grow up. “You mean the threeway?”
The phone rings. Jim listens to a school recording about health safety initiatives (Excellent! That means a new lice outbreak) and collects discarded bottles around the house. “What did you mean,” he asks, loading them into the dishwasher, “by ‘we both know you’d be the watcher’?”
Pam shrieks. She’s picked up a seemingly empty cereal bowl whose contents were disguised by napkins. She changes her shirt for one of Jim’s, abandoned across the back of a chair. ST TE CH MPIONSHIP ’99 stretches across her chest. “It was a joke, honey.”
“No, I know.” Jim carries Cece back to her room, trying to sound firm when he tells her that this is the Very Last Drink of Water. Neither of them is fooled. “But what did you mean?”
Philip parodies his mother’s shriek, except his has the reverb of a tricked out bass. Once fed and laid back in Cece’s old crib, both of them remember, simultaneously, the new recycling bins that the city dropped off last week. Last month?
“It means there’s two types of ménage à trois people,” says Pam. “Those who participate. Those who watch. You’re not the kind to leap without looking. You avoid stepping over a puddles.” She’s really laying into the plastic straps that bind the bins together. “Do they think we’re trying to kidnap them? Hand me the scissors.”
“I haven’t seen the scissors since February.”
“You used them yesterday.”
The scissors are located under the under the coffee table, along with Philip’s missing pacifier. Pam runs it under the sink. Steam curls around her hand. “You like watching.”
Jim opens his mouth. Shuts it. Thinks of that hour he spent after work, staring at that footage. Fantasizing.
Pam shuts off the water. Their sink is loud, but the fridge is louder. Then it grinds down into sleep.
The kitchen is silent.
Cece is standing in the doorway. “Drink of water, Daddy.”
They spring into motion. Pam fills up a water bottle Jim uses for soccer and tells Cece, This is going to sleep beside your bed all night, so no need to get up again, okay? while Jim flies into the shower to get a grip.
“I think we should invite Brian over for dinner.”
Pam’s voice is light. They’re on the way to Target. If I’m in the car, I’m the one driving, Jim’s brother said once, snatching the keys out of his wife’s hand. But Jim likes when someone else drives.
When someone else is in control.
Jim says, “We probably should. As an apology.”
“It’s the least we can do.”
He stakes out Brian’s glam gym. He could just call. Jim still has the number. Deleting would have felt melodramatic; or at least an admission that something was wrong.
He could also stop by Brian’s apartment, which is, infuriatingly, located at 123 3rd Street. Jim couldn’t forget the address if he tried. (And he has tried.) Once, before he’d known it was a real address, he’d given it to Dwight as part of a wild goose chase. Iconic. Dwight had returned, smug, describing the target of his reconnaissance as ‘handsome in a way that puts middle-aged women in heat.’ Jim tried to forget that part. He’s trying to forget that part now, as Brian comes out of the weight room.
“Oh, hey, man.” Brian’s making a face like he’s just opened a doughnut box to find limp kale inside. “This your gym, too?”
“Oh, uh — no. A buddy of mine goes here. I’m on a guest pass.” There’s a tag hanging off the exercise shirt Jim bought just this morning. He surreptitiously rips it off. “This place is pretty legit, though. I’m kind of lost. Want to show me the ropes?”
Brian is inching to the door. “I’m heading out, actually. Sorry, man.”
“Ah, no, it’s cool, man. Catch you next time?”
“Sure, man.” They’re up to five mans. This is bad. “Hey, anyway, how you been?”
Brian fakes answering a phone call. He ricochets off the glass door in his haste, waving back to Jim.
The crumpled tag falls out of Jim’s hand. A gym employee sidles up. “Sir, are you a member here?”
Jim can’t tell Pam how badly he fucked up. She doesn’t know about Jim telling Brian to stay away from his wife like a cuckold in a gangster movie. She doesn’t know how Brian is afraid to look Jim in the eye.
“It’s just dinner, honey,” she tells him. “We can do a double date with Lisa and her new boyfriend instead. Whoever guesses his birthday has to buy drinks. Not to throw you off your game, but: I’ll win.”
Jim cracks a smile.
He was never an all-or-nothing kind of guy until he met Pam. Childhood Jim would lose his favorite toy, shrug, and then occupy himself with the next best thing. But Adult Jim married his dream girl. Adult Jim started a successful company. If Adult Jim wants to have a dinner party with $9 wine and the ex-friend his wife got fired, then he will not settle for Lisa and her barely-legal boyfriend.
“No, yeah, I know.”
Philip starts crying. It’s his explosive You’re about to regret everything cry.
Pam taps the side of her nose. Jim organizes his next plan of attack.
He engineers two more accidental meetings. One at the bougie grocery store near Angela’s, where he loiters by granola for an hour under the suspicious eye of a clerk with a Brady bunch haircut, and one at the gas station downtown.
Brian is aggrieved. He must think Jim is his own personal ghost. “I’m sorry,” he says, backing away. He trips, elbow jamming against the nozzle. Gritting his teeth through pain, he adds, “I promise I’m not stalking you. I don’t know how this keeps happening.” He drives away with the gas cap open and a fresh cup of coffee on the roof.
Jim should give up pranking altogether. He’s become a tortuous spectre merely by genuine interest.
Pam slides into bed. Jim is pouting and pretending to watch basketball. The Pacers are up by two. Whatever. “No luck?”
“Well, if you need someone to ask nicely,” she pulls the covers up to her chin, “just let me know.”
Jim’s fingernails are gnawed to shreds. He’s not proud to be skulking behind shrubbery while his wife asks out the dude they have a crush on — but here they are.
Pam is bringing her best flirt game. It’s a masterpiece. A casual engineered meeting, planned down to the angle of sunlight on her face. What a genius. Brian is hopelessly charmed. Jim, from ten feet away, is hopelessly charmed. Pam touches Brian’s arm. He jumps as if electrocuted, and looks around wildly.
Jim shrinks back.
A tinkling laugh. Pam shifts her weight back. Brian unconsciously leans forward, moving in tandem. Bingo. Jim hits cuticle. He wipes the blood on his shirt.
Without turning, Pam makes the OK sign behind her back. Jim leaps into the air, pumping his fist. He elbows old man in the eye.
While Jim falls over himself apologizing, the old man kindly hints that there’s a soup kitchen down the street.
Jim’s changed his shirt three times. He hasn’t been this nervous since Pam’s second day at Dunder Mifflin. She says, “I liked the blue one.”
“They’re all blue!”
The doorbell rings. Jim’s still shirtless. Pam pushes him back into the closet with a sweaty palm. Right, not yet. Patience is a virtue. Not that he’s expecting anything. The kids are at his mother-in-law’s. Brian will leave by eight, and Pam and Jim will go to bed alone as usual.
Pam and Brian’s voices mingle in the kitchen. Jim slips into the hallway and turns the deadbolt. Presumably Brian knows how to undo locks, as he is both human and alive, but Jim is banking on his innate Midwest manners.
The table they covered with an embroidered cloth. Food is served by Jim. Pam mixes drinks. Brian looks inexplicably charmed. He’s flushed by the second Mifflin Mule.
They don’t talk work. They exchange holiday anecdotes and TV season rankings. They learn about Brian’s childhood years and Jim’s peewee hockey career, but then, like the impermanence of everything except death, taxes, and assumptions, Brian says, “I’m moving out to L.A., actually.”
Jim spills his drink. He discreetly mops at his pants with a napkin.
“Believe it or not, there isn’t much documentary work in Pennsylvania.” With a wry smile, Brian rubs his hands together. “A buddy of mine just got funding for a new project. A two year gig.”
Pam says, “Wow,” and drains her glass. “That’s — that’s great, congrats!”
Jim asks, “When do you leave?”
There’s a choking noise. Pam thumps at her chest. “As in next weekend?”
Jim drains his glass too.
“U-Haul is packed and ready to go. A subletter moves in tomorrow. I’m staying with my brother for a week.”
“Wow,” Pam says again. She adjusts her cardigan so it sits at a more modest angle. The flush on her neck fades. “That’s…”
“Soon,” Jim says.
He feels as though he’s lying at the foot of a staircase, having missed every step on the way down.
“It was time for a change. Sometimes you outstay your welcome.”
“You are always,” Jim says seriously, “welcome here.” He means in both Scranton and his home.
Brian fiddles with the rim of his glass. They lock eyes for the first time that evening. “Thank you, Jim.”
A warmth spreads all the way to Jim’s fingertips. No one’s a lightweight until parenthood. In college, Jim had on more than one occasion left a beer pong tournament to help his aunt rescue the demon cat. He’d balanced on her roof. Last week he had a glass of wine with dinner and fell over in the shower.
They’re on the couch. Jim doesn’t exactly remember the Point A to Point C it took to get here, but Brian is squashed between them on the loveseat. He and Pam are giggling over a shared memory of Michael Scott lunacy when Brian’s hand drops onto Jim’s leg. He doesn’t move it.
A sip of wine. His glass is gone, then full again. Pam’s been pouring heavy-handed. Stray drops have fallen onto Jim’s wrist. He licks them off. Watches Brian’s gaze follow his mouth.
“You should kiss her.”
There’s a frozen moment.
“You should’ve kissed her,” Jim amends. “Katie. When you had the chance. Now you’re moving and it’s too late.”
Brian relaxes back into the couch. “Eh, it was three dates. Nothing serious.”
“It could have been. If you’d had the chance. I mean, I was this close —” Jim’s throat feels tight— “to never having a chance with Pam at all. You were there. You know. Maybe it wasn’t exactly kosher when she was still with— But it worked out.” He looks at Pam over Brian’s shoulder. “It was magical, that first kiss. You saw it. No one should miss that experience if they can help it.”
Brian shifts. He has the look of a man who has unwittingly wandered into a dogfighting neighborhood.
“I’m, uh. Going to find the bathroom.”
“Listen here, Boom Mic Brian. My main man.” Jim slaps a hand on either side of Brian’s face. He may in fact be trashed. “It is very simple. I want you to take my wife in your hands — like so — and deliver her the most romantic kiss you can imagine.”
Brian goes white.
Jim leans in. He kisses him. Brian jerks beneath him. Then his hand comes to rest on Jim’s bicep, warm and steady.
Jim’s off books. This definitely wasn’t part of the sketchy mental blueprint he’d squirreled away somewhere in his id. But it seems to be working toward the common goal, so what the hell. It’s nice. It’s very nice. He catches Pam’s expression out of the corner of his eye, then jerks back: lightning-struck.
“Hey.” Brian gently knocks his forehead against Jim’s. Like a cat. He’s smiling. “Why’d you stop?”
“Yeah,” Pam echoes. She looks fond but smug. She looks way too damn smug for the situation to warrant. “Why’d you stop?”
Pam, who had pushed for this dinner. Pam, who took great pains to coddle Jim’s pre-invitation nerves. Pam, with all her talk about watching.
Has Jim been masterminded this whole time?
Brian stands abruptly. Jim is thrown to the other side of the couch.
“I should go.”
He makes it all the way to the door. The lock stops him. It makes a heavy grinding noise against the chain. Brian, and his steady suburban heart, grimaces and stoops to inspect the damage.
Jim swoops in. Those two-point-five seconds of Pennsylvania politeness were all he needed. He leans against the jamb: hands in pockets, head tilted, eyes up. He smiles slowly. The smile that Pam claims turns her legs and inhibition to liquid.
He says, “Stay.”
Brian’s hand curls around the doorknob. Jim has an image of it curling around something else and has to grip the wall for support.
Pam comes up behind Jim.
Brian lets go.
Jim has the confetti waiting as soon as the door shuts. Balloons are released like cannons. Cece shrieks and jumps back.
“Look who’s home! My baby! Welcome back to the fold.” Jim drags her into a hug, crooning,“You’ve grown so much!”
“Oh my god.” Cece pulls streamers out of her hair. “I was gone for two hours.”
“Yes, but we haven’t seen you all week.” Jim settles back into the couch. He throws an arm over Pam’s shoulder. She sips at her Oscars Oscar Martinez Martini. “How were your SATs? Is Jordan still dating Sam? Did you change the oil in the car?”
“Mom,” Cece pleads.
“Same questions,” says Pam. “Especially— Wait, it’s back!” She shoves Jim aside. “Oh. Documentaries.” From the edge of the couch, Jim calls, “But Guy Fieri is presenting!”
The door opens again. Confetti crunches under Phillip’s shoes. He walks in cautiously, propping his skateboard by the lifesize piñata. “This is for the Oscars?”
The ceiling isn’t visible through all the balloons.
“Yes,” says Jim, after a pause.
“— eight months on location, living in the homes of the polyamorous couples he interviewed. And possibly participating?” says Guy Fieri. “Eh? Ah. He’s shaking his head in a no comment kinda way.”
Phillip moves toward the living room. Pam and Jim sit motionless. No sudden moves. Let them come to you.
His phone goes off.
Phillip snatches it up. He reads the screen, face brightening, and shoots upstairs. A door slams in the distance.
“— give it up for my man, Brian Johnson!”
Jim collapses against the couch. “Let’s have another. Or maybe just borrow a toddler for a month.”
“Remember that time Cece wouldn’t let go of your legs even to take out the garbage?”
“What a good week,” says Jim dreamily.
“ — would not have been possible without the inspiration of two friends from a past life. I hope they’re watching this and drinking cocktails with some horrible pun name.”
“We have Kay and Cleo’s party next week. They’ll have to see us for that.”
“Ah, forced affection. Let me have some of your Oscars Oscar Martinez Martini.”
Jim takes a sip. His hand shoots out. It’s pointing at the screen.
Pam is distracted by a group chat with her volleyball team. “What?”
“The TV’s cracked. I knew we nicked it. Look at it from my angle. No, closer. Less Pisa, more Titanic.”
Phillip’s voice floats across the bannister. “Isn’t that the guy from your documentary?”