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all the things that happened after casino night (and all the things that didn't)

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It’s not as if she’s never seen his desk without him sitting there, because of course she has. He’s stayed home sick, made occasional—if unexciting—use of his vacation days, gone on sales calls — she knows what the office looks like when the shape of him is missing, when she glances up and there’s an absence where the slope of his shoulders is supposed to be.

It’s an unusual sight, but not an unfamiliar one. And so the day he leaves for Stamford, Pam tells herself that this is no different. Sure, she prefers work when Jim is there, misses him pointedly when he isn’t, but she’d had a place at Dunder Mifflin before she’d ever shown a gawky sales associate with a goofy haircut to his desk. So she’ll adjust back, learn to retrace her steps from the days before she could exchange an inside joke with a glance over the top of her monitor, before turquoise teapots and spectacularly awful high school yearbook photos and bumping elbows at the table in the break room.

As she settles in that first day of his absence, hangs her coat and takes her seat, Pam lets herself miss him as a coworker and as a best friend and that’s it. Work will be work, with or without Jim Halpert.

But that’s a lie, because of course it is.

Each day it’s harder, when it starts to sink in that this doesn’t mean a handful of days out recovering from the flu or visiting his brothers, but that there is a new and permanent Jim-sized hole in the fabric of the office. So she plays sudoku to avoid noticing the absence of his voice, doodles in notebook margins during conference room meetings to ignore all the jokes he can’t whisper in her ear or the feel of his shoulder leaning against hers. Slowly, Pam adjusts to not seeing him in her periphery, learns what it looks like when it’s her coworkers fishing for jellybeans at reception instead of Jim’s forearms resting on the top of her desk. She adapts, but never without noticing all the places, moments, instances where he used to be.

At some point, Ryan is relocated to Jim’s old desk, promoted from temp to Jim’s old title, and it unsettles her in a way that it shouldn’t. He isn’t replacing Jim, because no one can replace Jim, and it’s irrelevant anyway because Jim was promoted and because Jim chose to leave.

Still, it’s hard not to feel flickers of nostalgia when she sees movement out of the corner of her eye where Jim’s desk sits, discomfort when she glances up and it’s the clean cut of Ryan’s suit, dark brown hair that doesn’t curl up over the ears and sleeves buttoned at the wrist rather than rolled up to the elbow.

She knows she looks over more than she should, becomes familiar with the look on Ryan’s face when he catches her eyes on him because she’s still seeing a different sales associate sitting there.

Sure, she adjusts, but that’s one habit that she never quite learns to break.

 


 

“You look so pretty.”

But it’s impossible to miss the judgment in Kelly’s face as she looks over Pam’s usual button-down and cardigan combination meant to double as a first date outfit, the same face of light makeup she applies every day for work — because it’s work and who is she trying to impress? Not that she can’t wear makeup just because she wants to. Not that there was anyone to impress before.

Besides, it’s been nine years since her last first date. It’s not her fault if the steps feel rusty or if they never felt smooth and seamless in the first place. What does Kelly really expect—what is Pam even supposed to do—when all she has to work with is a high school hockey game and the feel of cheap bleacher seats on the back of her legs as she waited for her later ex-fiancee to remember he’d forgotten her. How is she supposed to act calm, collected, sure of herself when these are waters she hasn’t had to brave since she wore the canvas straps of a backpack, when one of her greatest responsibilities was remembering the combination to her locker.

Given the circumstances, nerves are expected, anxiety a prerequisite. So she fakes a smile for Kelly’s benefit, still hovering at reception and passing on advice about not sleeping with him on the first date—which Pam wasn’t planning on doing anyway but she can understand Kelly’s good intentions are there—and deciding that if she can walk away from this experience with an evening that wasn’t too miserable, she’ll call it a win.

But then Michael is there and though Pam has learned by now how to successfully tune out his inappropriate comments about wedding dresses and the number of buttons to open up on her blouse, there’s a jarring and sharp jerk back to reality when he mentions Jim’s name. Asks if she has a message she wants her boss to relate to her former coworker, and she doesn’t expect that hitch in her breathing or the hopefully subtle tremor that runs through the lines of her hands. There are a thousand unspoken thoughts and jokes and words waiting on her tongue and she wants to share all of them with Jim and none of them through Michael and her eyes flick back and forth because how is it that she suddenly feels thrust into the middle of the spotlight?

“Um…”

And no, that’s not what she wants to tell Jim—because she doesn’t even know where to begin with all the things she wants to tell Jim—but it’s too late because Michael and Dwight are parroting her stuttered and half-formed reply all the way out the door and to a conference where a Jim who isn’t hers and never was hers and now belongs to Stamford is waiting.

It’s a missed opportunity, but she’s had more than her fair share of those when it comes to Jim.

That night, she laughs politely at “freedom fries”, shifts uncomfortably and re-buttons her blouse when her date’s eyes drop down to the opening at the front of her shirt. She doesn’t know what to do with his well-meaning smile or Kelly curled up against Ryan in the opposite booth and at the doors of the restaurant, she smiles and gives him a goodbye consisting of pleasantries and platitudes that she knows he expects but that she doesn’t really mean.

Because, sure, he was nice enough. But as she says to the documentary crew:

“I think when I like someone again, I’ll just kind of know.”

Which is true. And it isn’t her date’s fault that all he has to offer are edgy cartoons that aren’t really edgy instead of practical jokes and terrible halloween costumes. It isn’t his fault that he can’t give her a kiss on casino night or inexplicable information on the expiration date of her mixed-berry yogurt.

It’s not his fault that he isn’t Jim. And Pam doesn’t offer a second date because she knows “freedom fries” isn’t her guy, just as sure as she knows who is.

 


 

Days like these, it’s hard not to miss Jim.

Not that she doesn’t always miss Jim—because missing him isn’t so much a peculiarity as a constant, as much a part of her life as the prints on the tips of her fingers—but that there are days when Michael’s absurdity reaches a fever pitch that she shouldn’t get to experience alone. That the privilege of grief-counseling in the conference room deserves a partner in crime, calls for the endless levity in Jim’s smile that can coax a joke from any situation.

Besides, she can’t imagine anyone who deserves hearing about Dwight’s resorbed twin more than Jim Halpert.

He should be here too. Rather, he never should have left at all.

But then the inexplicable spiky ball is tossed into her lap and Michael’s giving her an expectant look—because he wants her to be grieving, demands that she say something—and she hates that when she thinks of ‘grief’ there’s only one person who comes to mind.

Although it’s not like grief is really the right emotion anyway. It’s not as if Jim is dead, not like they stopped being friends just because he moved.

And if there’s a part of her that grieves for breaking his heart after he kissed her—because she did, and she knows she did, and she’s not sure if she’ll ever stop hating herself for it—or that grieves for all the things she didn’t say, or that grieves for all the thoughtless and useless things she did, well, it’s not like she’s prepared to share those thoughts in a circle full of her bored coworkers.

After a beat, she ends up giving Michael a story, which is all he was really looking for in the first place. One that she turns into a joke, because Jim isn’t there, but she is, and it’s what he would have done. And she chooses Million Dollar Baby because Hilary Swank is beautiful and inspiring in a way Pam knows she will never be — and two years from now, she’ll unflaggingly defend that exact point to Kevin until the workday winds to a close.

She’s proud of the subtlety in her delivery regarding her ‘aunt’, the female boxer — makes an effort to keep the smile off her face.

Though how Michael misses the connection between Ryan’s stampede of wildebeests and the death of ‘Mufasa’, she’ll never know.

Later, when the day makes the usual unexpected turn from strange to inexplicable, when she’s crafting a coffin for a bird from an old box of Kleenex, it feels profoundly unfair that this is something she’s also doing alone.

But the eulogy she gives in the parking lot isn’t a joke, and it isn’t for Jim, and she doesn’t read from her prepared notecards thinking that this is something he would have done.

Still, she can’t help but feel his absence as Kevin lights the box of shredded paper, sending the dead bird off in true Viking style to the tune of Dwight’s recorder.

 


 

It’s twenty past five and Pam’s got her coat on and bag in hand when the phone rings.

She debates for a moment about answering it — after all, technically she shouldn’t even still be here, but Michael overindulged on a sweet soft pretzel—because of course he did—and his extended nap meant a lingering stay at her desk twenty minutes past the standard end of day.

And, well, she is still there, so it’s equal parts obligation and impulse that has her reaching for the handset and saying, “Dunder Mifflin,” with a slightly tired edge in her tone.

Uh, hey.”

And — oh, oh.

“Oh my god.”

Hi.”

“Hi.”

Witty. Clever. Exactly the kind of thing she’d imagined herself saying to Jim when they finally reconnected after too-many-months of radio silence. It’d be tempting to bury her face into her palms if she weren’t too busy holding the phone like a lifeline.

Sorry, I forgot Kevin’s extension. It’s a fantasy football thing—”

Oh.”

“—and I was just gonna go through the system, because I didn’t think you’d be there.

It’s hard not to wonder if he’d been making an effort to avoid her on purpose, if he’d waited to call until twenty past five because she’s supposed to be gone and he’s supposed to get an impersonal phone tree instead of a receptionist who rejected him twice in the same night.

Why…why are you still there?”

She does her best not to read into his tone. Tells herself it’s curiosity, not the faint edge of disappointment she hears in his voice.

But she can read his mood from the back of his head, and sometimes it’s not a blessing, how well she knows him.

“I had to work late.” And then, because that sounds flimsy, goes on. “Jan’s making me keep a log of everything Michael does all day.”

Wow.” She can hear his smile over the phone. “…Do you think you can send me a copy of that?”

“Yeah, totally.”

And she’s smiling, too—because it’s Jim and she isn’t sure her face is capable of behaving any other way around him—but there’s something nervous and careful in the lines of her expression that isn’t usually there. She’s missed him—missed this—but knows that a subtle shift occurred in their relationship that can’t be undone, that things might never be as easy as they once were.

“So—“

So—“

Do you—“

Oh, I’m sorry, go ahead—“

They never used to trip over each other’s words like this, and Pam wonders if it wouldn’t be a favor—a mercy—to make some excuse and cut the call short, to let Jim go back to his life that doesn’t include her, that consists of a phone tree in the place of a receptionist because it’s kinder and hurts so much less.

But in the end, she decides to be selfish. After all, she’s missed him too much, and there’s a part of her that’s convinced they’re just a little rusty, slightly out of sync. That if they stay on the phone and fumble through the unfamiliar paths shaped by confessions of love and long-distance, they’ll remember the steps and patterns they both used to know so well.

That doesn’t mean she knows what to say, though, and the words ring stilted and uneasy in her ears as she fishes blindly for some scrap of something to carry on the conversation a little longer.

“Uh, no…Everything’s pretty much the same here.” Except—god, no—of course it isn’t.

Oh…good.”

She amends her previous statement. “A little different.” Because she needs him to understand that even though the routines of the office cycle on, haphazard and inexplicable and fundamentally unchanged, no part of that environment could ever be the same to her without him there. Then, because this distance between them feels like it must consist of a few thousand miles instead of 150 at best, she asks, “what time is it there?”

…What time is it here?” He pauses, something uncertain and unsure in his tone. “Um, we’re in the same time zone.”

Oh, yeah, right.”

How far away did you think we were?”

I don’t know.” Far enough that phone calls felt insufficient, letters too slow, email an inadequate substitute. “It felt far.” And she can hear his thoughtful assent, his quiet agreement that suggests it’s more than just the miles dividing Stamford and Scranton that’s currently between them.

It takes another few moments—silences a little too-lengthy, words a little too-hesitant—before they settle back into a rhythm that starts to feel familiar. But then she’s teasing him about his typing speed and her laughter isn’t forced or polite but genuine in a way it only ever seems to be around Jim. And he’s lightly making fun of her 28 Days, 28 Days Later mixup—which she understands, because even she laughs at the memory of sitting on her couch waiting for Sandra Bullock’s love story to start in the middle of an apocalypse—and the size of her new apartment and then he’s calling her “Beesly” and she swears that no one should be allowed to say her last name but Jim Halpert.

She doesn’t know how long she would have kept sitting behind the desk, fingers wrapped around the handset and cheap plastic pressed to ear, if Dwight and Ryan hadn’t walked back inside. And her distraction lasts for just a moment, just long enough for her to call out a goodbye to the salesmen that’s more into the phone than it isn’t. But by the time she catches her mistake, realizes his misinterpretation of her words, Jim’s making his own excuses and she won’t keep him any longer if he’s trying to leave. 

The office is too quiet when she hangs up, but the office always feels a little too quiet, lately.

 


 

Her gut reaction is to say “no” when Kelly invites her to the Diwali celebration that night, because at some point, she fell into the habit of saying “no” to the outings and evenings she knew Roy wouldn’t want to attend, and wouldn’t want her to attend alone.

Of course, that’s not something she needs to consider anymore—although, really, it’s not something she should have ever had to consider anyway—but saying “no” had become more of an impulse than an opinion and even now, the tendency sticks. And it’s easier to give Kelly a series of practiced excuses—a mental list she keeps with her like loose change at the bottom of her purse—than to wonder why she’s so reluctant to try something different, to assert herself in a brave, new situation.

In the end, she changes her mind — finds herself standing in a high school auditorium lined with strings of fairy lights, bare white socks on faintly cold linoleum and a garland around her neck. Even if she’s a little underdressed, if Michael is probably saying or doing something insensitive across the room, if her dancing to “Crazy in Love” is less coordinated than ungainly and rhythmless, she’s glad that she came.

 


 

He’s the last one to walk through the door, the morning of the merger. By now, she’s had to sit through Michael’s uncomfortable and often poorly-phrased greetings to the five new employees from Stamford, watched the brown-paper gift bags on her desk dwindle in number until Michael’s handing the last one off to a man named Martin Nash and making a painfully inappropriate comment about ‘slaves’. That’s when she sees Jim standing in the doorway, almost as if it’s any other day. As if he never left at all.

But he did, of course, and she can’t help but notice the slightly unfamiliar shape of his haircut as she’s pulling him into a hug that’s too-many-months overdue, cutting off whatever joke he had waiting for his first day back. And too soon, her arms are sliding free and there’s an embarrassingly-wide smile on her face as she looks him over, checks and double-checks that this is really him, that he’s actually standing in front of her.

There’s not an insignificant part of her that had naively hoped things would settle back into their old rhythms once Jim returned to Scranton, that he’d walk through the door and the past few months of long-distance, of absence, of faulty communication suddenly wouldn’t matter. And it isn’t until now, when she’s looking up at him and the smile he gives her in return isn’t quite as wide, or as easy, that she understands it’s maybe a different person who came back from Stamford. One who’s spent the past couple months building a life that didn’t call for a Pam Beesly, and might not need one now. As she takes her seat back behind reception, she’s only half-successful in dismissing those thoughts — in telling herself that she’s being ridiculous because this is Jim they’re talking about. But it doesn’t help that his new desk puts him with his back to reception, when Pam realizes she can’t glance up and exchange an inside joke with the back of his head.

Still, it’s familiar in all the best ways when they walk into the conference room together for the Stamford orientation, take side-by-side seats at the table. It’s old habit to exchange a whispered aside as Michael queues up the video, to condense the size of the office into something with just enough space for the two of them.

It’s jarring, when pretty Karen from Stamford—dark hair straight and untouched by frizz, outlined in the clear, decisive cut of a pantsuit—hands him a piece of gum like it’s their routine. It’s unexpected, the realization Pam never gave herself room to acknowledge that, well, of course he would have made other friends in Stamford. Pam knows better than anyone how easy he is to talk to, how charming and endearing he is without even trying.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, that he found someone else to share his jokes and his lunch break and his workday. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

“Lazy Scranton” is a work of art, but one Pam is having trouble appreciating at the moment.

When she catches up to him in the break room later, sees him pulling bottled water from the vending machine instead of grape soda, her first reaction is to be frustrated, emotions bordering close to indignant.

Her Jim Halpert doesn't drink bottled water, doesn’t lightly tease another female coworker on the unimpressive nature of her voicemail message. Her Jim Halpert drinks grape soda and takes too many breaks to linger at reception.

Except, this isn’t her Jim Halpert. And he never really was.

She papers over her disappointment with a joke. Tells herself it’s nostalgia she’s feeling, not jealousy.

“You’ve changed so much.”

She overdramatizes her facial expressions when she tells him that. Acts like the difference between bottled water and grape soda means more than it does—except, it clearly does mean something—and hides behind a smile he doesn’t notice isn’t genuine.

So she perseveres, tells herself it’s like their phone call from a few weeks back — that distance might have made them rusty, shifted their gears so they’re slightly off-kilter, but that all they need to do is push past until they remember how their relationship used to go. And she does want to hear about Stamford, wants to know if Andy was his new Dwight and how Josh compared to Michael and every one of the other thousand details he’s kept to himself in the past few months. But then he’s making excuses, dodging her coffee-date invitation, and she won’t press if he doesn’t want to spend time with her. It’s not just likely but probable that he’d want to take some time to settle in. It’s practical, logistical — it doesn’t mean it’s personal.

And it’s an unconscious thing, to linger at her desk and wait for him after Michael comes bursting through the front door, saying something about flat tires and Vance Refrigeration, because she takes it as a given that they’d walk down to the parking lot together.

It hurts more than it should, that he doesn’t give reception a second glance when he walks out the door next to pretty Karen, leaving Pam to find a place in the crowd among Angela and Phyllis.

It’s a kick to the stomach, when she sees the two of them walk back inside together, when Karen puts her hand on his back like it’s a familiar gesture, when her fingers slide over the fabric of his suit jacket in a way that suggests more than friendship.

She’s focusing on telling herself tomorrow will be different—better—as she makes her way to her car that night, easing through the parking lot long after most everyone else has left. Which is why she doesn’t expect Jim to still be there, too, to get out of his car when he sees her and stop a few feet away. And he’s trying to make explanations, apologies, excuses—something—for how weird the day was. But Pam doesn’t want him to know how hurt and frustrated she feels, hides her sharp pain behind a pleasantly smiling mask, tells him that things are fine, that they’re fine — as if anything could be fine in a world where Jim Halpert doesn’t seem to notice her anymore.

She doesn’t want to do this, here, now. She wants to get in her car and drive home before he says something that cuts at the fraying strings of their friendship a little further.

More than anything, she doesn’t want to hear the confirmation of her suspicions, doesn’t want to know that—yes, in fact—he is seeing somebody, and that in some unavoidable way, she is now not as important to him as she once was.

She wraps her fingers tight around the metal of her keys, lets the edges dig into the soft skin of her palms to keep her hands from shaking.

With a steadiness in her tone that doesn’t line up with the slight tremble in her limbs, she skates past his last words like they’re unimportant — tells him that it’s fine, that they’re friends, that they’re always going to be friends. Extends her last words like an olive branch, clings to them tightly like her own desperate form of reassurance.

Because if nothing else, they will have a friendship — and that’s all she really needs, right?

There are ridges in her palm left behind by the grooves of her keys. And it takes her a minute, after he leaves, before she’s able to drive home.

 


 

Somehow, it’s Christmas again, and—even if it isn’t exactly part of the holiday spirit—Pam is wishing she could hate Karen Filippelli

She wants to hate Karen — because it’d make things so much easier, so much simpler if she could. But Karen hasn’t done anything wrong except fall for a guy who Pam made the irreparable mistake of rejecting. Truth is, she’s smart and she’s funny, and Pam can’t blame Jim for liking her. Can’t find it in herself to hate her, either.

In fact, as she discovers somewhere between the ‘Committee to Plan Parties’ and neon pink fliers and the ridiculous look of indignation on Angela’s face, she actually really likes Karen. That she's so used to folding in the face of unpleasantries, it never would have occurred to her without someone like Karen to fight back in the form of karaoke and raffles. And there’s something so ridiculous and so wonderful in rival Christmas parties and margaritas in the break room and, yes, Pam is a part of this too, but she is only one-half of a team that wouldn’t exist without Karen.

“Are we talking this too far?” Karen says to the documentary crew, something steely in her tone that Pam has never heard in her own. “You know what, I don't think we're taking this far enough.” Out of the corner of her eye, she catches Pam looking at her, turns her head. “What?”

“I got goosebumps.”

And she did, because it’s hard for Pam not to be a little in awe of Karen, to look at the straight rail of Karen’s backbone and see all the things that she isn’t.

She wishes more than once that day that she could have met Karen under different circumstances. Resents Jim, almost, because now she’ll never really be able to know Karen as anyone other than Jim’s girlfriend, and because she knows that she’ll never really be able to befriend Jim’s girlfriend.

 


 

It’s habit, more than anything else, that has her lingering in the break room when she sees the tired lines in Jim’s face. It’s instinct, to ask him if he wants to talk. To take a seat at the table before she has a chance to consider the implications of what she’s offered.

Besides, first and foremost, she’s his friend.

More than anything, she wants him to be happy.

Right now, happy means Karen — she understands that, even if it hurts. And if there’s something she can do to ease the tension in his shoulders, to watch the frustrated crease in his brow fade back into familiar calm, then she will. Of course she will.

Being the one to elicit a smile from Jim Halpert is worth the cost of her own discomfort.

Patiently, she listens to his perspective on the misunderstanding, detaches herself from the situation enough to give him the sort of sincere and thoughtful advice she’d extend to anyone in that position. But she doesn’t want his thanks — his gratitude that much worse because it’s genuine. Instead, she changes the subject as fast as she can, choosing to focus on the irrationality of Jan and Michael on vacation in Jamaica if it means she can ignore her own sharp awareness of the kind of relationship with him that she doesn’t get to have.

But she doesn’t expect Karen to take her aside in the warehouse and thank her for her intervention—“For talking sense into Halpert,” she says—and she doesn’t expect how hard it is to keep wearing a smile as she takes credit for her involvement in a situation she wants less than no part of. And when Karen smiles and leaves her standing by the shelves, it hits Pam with a kind of awful clarity that this thing between Jim and Karen is real. It isn’t a handful of dates with a woman whose face he doesn’t see, isn’t something casual or insignificant he’s using like his own form of novocaine in the face of her engagement to Roy.

He’s with Karen because he wants something with Karen. Doesn’t want anything with Pam.

She manages to make it out of the warehouse and down a side hallway before she starts crying. She’s proud of that much, at least. Gets far enough away from anyone associated with Dunder Mifflin that she can sink down onto a bench and lower her face into her hands and let the spiderwebbing cracks of her careful composure shatter into blotchy red cheeks and tears staining her palms.

“Who did this to you? Where is he?”

“What?” She looks up to see Dwight standing there, looking unsure and hesitant and instantly ready to avenge whatever wrong must have been done to her. “No, it’s not…it’s nothing.”

She doesn’t know how to ask him to leave, how to politely request that he let her experience this moment of weakness alone. He sees tears and assumes injustice, and she isn’t prepared to explain the difference to him between that and heartbreak.

But then Dwight is holding out a handkerchief and doing his best to avert his eyes and keep offering her some semblance of privacy, and the fact that there’s a moment where he seems to understand her needs better than Jim does is almost enough to have her crying again. Manages to keep her emotions in check, though, as he ties his suit jacket around his waist, slowly lowers himself down so he’s sitting next to her.

“You don’t need to stay here—“

“I know.” He says, a little too quickly, a little too definitively. And she has the fabric of the handkerchief balled up between her fingers and her face buried back in her hands when she feels his arm around her, his hand resting hesitantly on her shoulder, warm even through the fabric of her cardigan.

“…So you’re PMSing pretty bad, huh?”

 


 

They both like practical jokes — it’s one of the things she learned about herself after Jim arrived at the office, one of the things she missed most while he was gone at Stamford. And she still remembers the sharp edges of her disappointment and embarrassment when she’d extended Dwight’s fictional CIA file to him at Christmas, and he’d turned it down.

Even if he’d reconsidered by that evening, joked with her about bus tickets and ice cream socials at Langley, the memory still stung.

So when Jim walks up to reception, folds his arms on the top of her desk like it’s muscle memory, asks her if she wants to pull a prank—because, honestly, Andy’s singing has gone on long enough—the first thing she feels is a blissful sense of relief. She can overlook the fact that he went to Karen and Ryan first—that she’s now become his third choice—can recognize an olive branch when she sees it.

She tells herself that she doesn’t need to feel guilty when Karen’s eyes glance up at the two of them as they walk past her desk, Andy’s cellphone hidden between them. Anyone can see that Andy needs to be taken down a peg or two, and it seems a shame to waste the wordless communication between her and Jim when it comes to the execution of a joke.

They’re allowed to be friends, she thinks, as she hears “Rockin’ Robin” echo in the ceiling tiles overhead. And that’s all this is — friendship.

Besides, she’s been patient, kept her distance, given him the space to negotiate his relationship with Karen in the confines of the office. She’s earned a brief moment that’s just the two of them, right? Deserves his fingers tracing a line around the hole punched in the drywall, “it’s not freaking funny!” whispered to her under his breath.

She doesn’t let herself feel guilty for laughing with him. Insists that she isn’t doing anything wrong.

 


 

Phyllis’ wedding is an exercise in deja vu — an unexpected glimpse into her own almost-future when she gets an invitation etched with identical calligraphy in the mail, watches Phyllis walk down the aisle in a dress she once picked out, sees Kevin onstage as Scrantonicity’s shaky opening chords fill the reception hall. It’s unsettling, but not entirely unpleasant. Something to use as a reminder on the rare occasion when she second-guesses ending things with Roy that—no, yes—this isn’t really what she wanted. Isn’t really what she wanted with him.

As Pam sits at the table, listens to Kelly telling her how she’s supposed to be feeling—“There’s no way it’s fine. I’m sorry, but If I was you, I would just—like—freak out, and get really drunk, and then tell someone I was pregnant.”—all she can think is how glad she is to be sitting in this room wearing anything other than a long white dress and a veil.

But she can’t keep herself from laughing as Roy compliments Phyllis’ taste in flowers, decorations, centerpieces. She appreciates his effort—recalls that the times between them weren’t all bad—but there’s no way to listen to his words without being reminded of all the afternoons and evenings she spent planning the details of their wedding alone.

Enough time has passed that she doesn’t feel resentful, has eventually learned to stop feeling guilty.

But she isn’t prepared for how she feels when she sees Jim and Karen slow-dancing in the middle of the room, when her eyes meet his and she has to glance down, look away, leave the room — needs to do something to get a handle on the unexpected influx of emotion at the sight of him with his arms around somebody else. Finds some peace outside the hall in a glass of white wine, focuses on pulling her wrap a little tighter around her shoulders.

She’s barely paying attention when “You Were Meant for Me” interrupts the steady stream of Police songs, fingers tight around the stem of her glass. And when Roy comes up to her, tells her he gave the band twenty bucks, it’s amazing—surprising—how much that small gesture means. Then he’s asking her to dance to a song that was theirs long before she ever knew someone named Jim Halpert and saying yes seems harmless.

It doesn’t have to mean anything, as his hand closes around hers, as he leads her outside and they sway in comfortable familiarity beneath the windows. Carves out a space where she doesn’t have to think about Jim and Karen inside, can narrow her world to the feel of her hand resting on his shoulder.

And then Roy is asking if she wants to get out of there, and there are too many reasons to say “yes” and not enough to say “no” and most of them have to do with the fact that she’s tired of feeling unwanted.

She doesn’t let herself look for Jim as they grab their coats and leave the reception hall. Doesn’t let herself think more than one step ahead as she takes Roy’s hand and lets him pull her back into the easy patterns of their old relationship. Doesn’t feel the chill in the air outside from underneath the wool of her coat, Roy’s arm wrapped around her, but maybe she’s just numb.

 


 

By the time an old woman wanders up—peering closely at Pam’s small collection of watercolors through the thick lenses of her glasses—Pam has stopped making excuses for the absence of her coworkers and fallen back into feeling embarrassed. Starts wondering what’s wrong with her, that an entire office would rather come up with excuses than sacrifice thirty minutes of small talk and polite smiles. And it doesn’t help when Roy finally shows up and points out how lonely her corner of the gallery is, indicative of how little he knows her—how poorly he can read her—that he honestly thinks it’s the right thing to say. Like there’s something gallant or admirable in his being the only one from Dunder Mifflin who cared enough to come

She knows he doesn’t mean it like that—knows he’s trying his best to be supportive—and that somehow makes it worse.

As the night winds to a close, as she pulls back the sleeve of her turtleneck, checks her watch, realizes she needs to start removing the thumbtacks keeping her pages carefully pinned to the wall, it doesn’t occur to her to feel angry. She’d extended an invitation to all of them, they’d all made half-hearted promises to attend — anger wouldn’t be unwarranted or unfair but justified.

No one would blame her, for choosing to feel wronged. But that doesn’t occur to Pam, and instead, she blames herself.

The last thing she expects that night, loose thumbtacks in hand and the page of a watercolor curling up between her fingers, is to hear the voice of Michael Scott. And when he admires her paintings with unabashed enthusiasm, praises her careful amateur efforts with sincere compliments Pam isn’t sure she deserves, it’s almost enough to erase the rest of the evening’s disappointments. He’s looking at her painting of the office like he’s never seen anything so impressive, and it’s validating in a way Pam hadn’t realized she was looking for.

Besides, she is proud of the painting she did of the office — even though offering to buy the work of a student in a classroom gallery is something that would only occur to Michael Scott.

“I am really proud of you.”

She’s not going to cry. She’s not going to cry. But she also doesn’t have the words to tell Michael how much his comment means to her, how much she needed to hear it.

So she hugs him, whispers a quiet “thank you” into his ear, means it.

 


 

“You're the one who said we needed more culture.”

“This is culture to you?”

“It's her first try.

“Yeah — on Van Gogh's first try, he drew the hands of the peasants.”

“Meaning, what?”

“Meaning, real art takes courage, okay? And honesty.”

“Well, those aren't Pam's strong points.”

“Yeah, exactly. That's why this is motel art.”

Her first impulse, as she’d stood unnoticed behind Oscar and Gill in the gallery, was to be embarrassed — to freeze with shame. To be thankful that they hadn’t seen her—had missed the humiliated flush in her cheeks—as she’d listen to Gill derive insights about her through her brushstrokes. Their words had hurt, at first — in a way, because unfiltered and honest opinions are never easy to hear, in another, because they’d both been more right about her than she was willing to admit.

She turned over their comments more than she meant to, that night — rewound and replayed the snippet of conversation like a looped recording as she’d driven home, brushed her teeth, turned off the bedside lamp.

It was uncomfortable, when she realized they hadn’t been wrong about her. When she considered all the moments from the past year—her whole life, if she was really being honest—when she’d folded in the face of adversity, made excuses to dismiss the validity of her own feelings, focused on being an inconvenience rather than allowing herself to take up space in the world.

But that didn’t mean she wasn’t capable of change. And maybe she’d needed to hear her faults pointed out bluntly, unsympathetically, before she could acknowledge all the things she wanted to fix. All the places where she’d reduced herself into something unobtrusive, the rough edges she’d sanded away to avoid stirring up ripples. And, sure, insisting that Roy join them at Poor Richard’s or making a point of asking the bartender to correct her order weren’t exactly life changing steps. Maybe not quite the courage and honesty Gill and Oscar had noticed lacking — still, it was a start. It was something.

So when it came to Roy—to this part of her life weighed down so heavily with so much history—Pam promised herself that, this time, it would be different. That she would make a point of holding fast in the face of discomfort, wouldn’t let herself be worn down by his arguments and excuses, give in just because she was tired of fighting. If this was going to happen between them—finally stabilize into something lasting and concrete—Roy would have to understand that she’d changed, would have to respect it.

Later that night, after most of their coworkers had filtered out, Pam decides to push herself to take one more step — because in the moment, there is a part of her that honestly wants things to succeed with Roy. Not because she’s still hurting from Jim, because she’s feeling lonely, because it’s easy — but because it seems to make a kind of clear and obvious sense. Roy knows her, loves her, wants to marry her. And she’s found happiness with him in the past, is sure she can find it again.

They’re sitting at the bar when she comes clean, ignores his too-hasty assurances that he didn’t do anything when they were apart—she’s pretty sure he’s lying, doesn’t much care—pushes through to the few secrets she’s kept of her own.

Voice clear, words steady, she tells him about casino night. Honestly and succinctly summarizes her kiss with Jim, the feelings he’d had for her, the ones she might have shared as well. This is supposed to be the last loose end, the one she can cut clean with her honest and courageous scissors before settling into the rest of her life with Roy.

Instead of reconciliations, apologies and understandings and eventual new beginnings, she gets Roy’s anger. Listens to his voice raise a little too-loud as anger colors his tone, as the room suddenly feels too silent. And then—god—he’s pitching his bottle at the mirror behind the bar and everything is quiet but for Kansas playing somewhere in the background and Pam wonders with a painful sense of clarity why it took broken glass for her to realize how wrong they are together.

“This is over.” She says, voice quiet but steady as she slides off the stool, leaves him sitting there and walks to the door.

“Yeah, you're right, this is so over. You kidding me, Pam! Come on!”

She can hear things breaking behind her as she makes her way outside, can still hear the sounds of glass shattering and Roy’s blind and unrestrained fury as she heads for her car.

 


 

It was surreal, more than anything else, when Roy rushed at Jim.

She remembers the moment in flashes — brief bursts and impressions taking the place of a complete narrative. The typical end-of-week rhythms — Jim and Karen’s conversation from somewhere to her right, Kevin’s jacket in the crook of his elbow as he’d walked to the door. Roy’s heavy and deliberate footsteps on the carpeting, voice calling out, “hey, Halpert!”. Jim looking over at her in silent question before offering Roy an unsure greeting of his own. A pause, a beat. Roy’s steps across the office, hand closing around Jim’s jacket. Starting to raise his fist. Her own unheard shouts. Pepper spray.

Then her eyes are burning and it’s Dwight’s voice she hears in the silence, the only one who could manage to sound calm and collected in that kind of situation.

“Pam! Please call security!”

She’s sitting in the break room, mug of untouched tea in front of her, replaying it in her head again when Jim comes in and doesn’t even look at her. Walks past her table like nothing is more compelling than the vending machine in front of him and the loose change in his palm.

“Sorry I almost got you killed.” She says after a beat with an unsure smile, the joke falling flat as soon as she says it.

“Yeah,” he says, a little too detached, a little too stiff. “That was nuts.”

“He could have broken your nose, or something.” She looks down. “Crazy.”

It’s silent, save for the dull clink of his coins rattling around in the machine.

“It’s just so stupid, I mean — getting back with Roy, and everything. I mean, what was I thinking, right?”

He’s got one hand resting on top of the vending machine, the other tucked deep into his pocket. It feels like she’s a kid again, standing in front of a wishing well. Like if she throws enough words at him, enough coins breaking the surface and sinking to the bottom, something has to happen eventually. One of them will have to be lucky.

“No, I mean you guys really seem to have a strong connection.”

“Not anymore. It’s, um, it’s completely over, now.”

“We’ll see.” He says, turning to face her, finally, as he heads for the door. It takes her a moment to recognize the shape of the smile on his face, to label the edge in his tone. She’s never really seen bitterness—contempt—on Jim before. “I’m sure you guys will find your way back to one another someday.” Wishes she could go back before it was a color he wore just for her.

“Jim.” He pauses in the doorway, that carefully blank look on his face. “I am really sorry.”

“Oh, yeah. Don’t worry about it.”

 


 

If it means an afternoon off from work, she’s willing to humor Michael and his “Women’s Appreciation Day”, sitting in the food court of the Steamtown Mall, idly stirring her lemonade. She half-listens as Kelly describes her relationship with Ryan, feels that familiar pang of anxiety and concern as she hears about things that sound several degrees removed from healthy, wonders if she’s supposed to interfere. Except somewhere in the middle of that train of thought, she catches Michael talking about his sex life with Jan and—oh, god —it’s his sex life with Jan and there are so many words he’s saying she would desperately like to un-hear.

Except somewhere it stops being about their sex life and starts having to do with the problems in their relationship, and Pam isn’t heartless and he sounds so helpless and she knows she doesn’t have it in her to ignore the pleading tone in his words. Instead, she watches him borrow a pen from Angela’s purse and set about making his pro-con list on the back of a napkin, black ink scratched carefully over cheap paper as he works.

When he finally reads off the list, some of it is a surprise, and some of it isn’t. It focuses more on Jan’s appearance than she would have liked—wonders if it’s worth pointing out that Jan’s cup size doesn’t really deserve two separate spots on the ‘con’ list—but then she hears him say, “I’m unhappy when I’m with her,” and no red flag has ever felt so apparent or so obvious.

“Michael, you shouldn’t be with someone who doesn’t make you happy.”

It doesn’t feel hypocritical, now that things have really finished with Roy. But it’s also hard not to wonder why this is advice she never considered giving herself at some point during her nine-year relationship.

“I’m happy, sometimes,” he argues. “When we scrapbook, or right towards the end of having sex.”

She knows that feeling too — the brief moments when things would just click and she could justify staying in an open-ended engagement a little longer. Down the table, Karen makes the case for working through their issues, and—sure—Pam can understand that side of the debate. Has lived through it and made the case to herself more often than she’s capable of counting. But—

“Maybe…but it sounds like you’re just wrong for each other.”

And when Michael makes his eventual breakthrough—“I want to break up with Jan!”—she can’t help but smile. Because it’s rewarding in a way she doesn’t expect to see someone else come to the realization she wasn’t courageous or honest enough with herself to have.

It’s hard not to be proud of Michael, in that moment.

Later, when they end up in Victoria’s Secret because Michael deems it an appropriate thank-you—because of course he does—she ignores the lingerie that Karen picks out, doesn’t think about what it means that she’s buying it with Jim in mind. Focuses on sifting through the displays for something she can use, likes the idea of repurposing a Victoria’s Secret bathrobe to serve as hand towels.

There’s a smudge of dirt left on her forehead after she finishes changing the flat on Meredith’s van that she doesn’t quite catch, and it stays there like a subtle badge of pride the rest of the way back to the office.

 


 

By 2:00pm, her hand is already starting to cramp.

She knows Michael well enough to know that he’s deaf to the word "no" when his mind is set. That no matter how much she might want to argue—has tried arguing—that there’s something inherently impossible in trying to write down someone’s ‘indefinable quality’, he can’t be convinced. That she can’t keep track of every move made by twelve people with one pen and a composition notebook. That there is no conversion chart between 10 points and a thumbs-up and a gold star. That she can’t heat up 800 hot dogs in ten minutes.

This isn’t about courage, or honesty. It’s about recognizing losing battles when it comes to Michael Scott and biting her tongue and waiting for his newest idea to eventually fizzle out.

But it’s asking a lot from her—even considering the reserves of patience she’s built up from this job alone—to comply with his every ridiculous and childish whim for several sustained hours. And by the time it’s dark and he’s gathered them around the path of smoldering coals, fire still flickering at the edges, it seems like the only reasonable and natural outlet for her frustration. It’s something slightly reckless and potentially dangerous, the kind of thing she never would have considered a year ago. The kind of thing that seems like a tempting and obvious challenge for her new self.

There’s something exhilarating in the fact that no one else will consider it. That she might be brave enough to push herself into taking steps where they all fear to tread.

She’s reaching for the laces on her shoes when Michael shuts her down — “pointless”. Looks around the circles instead for other volunteers, like her own willingness is an irrelevancy.

“This is about guts! It takes guts, to be a regional manager.”

And, no, she doesn’t care about being regional manager. But his words still resonate. This is about guts, about proving to herself that she’s capable.

Pam is still standing in front of the coal walk after everyone else has slowly filtered away, is now gathered around the fire listening to Michael saying…whatever Michael is saying. She bends her knees and holds one hand a few inches over the coals, can feel the heat brushing her palm and beading sweat from her skin.

Looks at the camera, takes a breath.

God, god — it hurts. Sharp pain pricking the sensitive skin of her soles as she sprints across the surface, toes landing only as long as it takes before she can take the next step. And then she’s done and through and her feet are sinking into blissfully cool sand and—oh, wow—Pam has never felt so incredible.

Her feet are still stinging and adrenaline has kicked up her heart rate so it’s beating furiously in her chest as she jogs over to the circle around the fire.

“Hey! I want to say something.” There’s a smile on her face and she’s feeling full of pride and surety as she interrupts Michael, raises her voice past her usual speaking volume.

“I’ve been trying to be more honest lately, and I just need to say a few things.” It’s silent as her coworkers look up at her, more confused than anything else. Like it must be somebody else standing in front of them because Pam Beesly doesn’t make speeches, demand the attention of the group, stare them straight in the eye and ask that they hold her gaze. “I did the coal walk! Just, I did it.” She knows the pain will really set in later, thanks the blend of shock and adrenaline keeping the ache at bay long enough for her to have this moment. “Michael, you couldn’t even do that. Maybe I should be your boss.” God, it’s gratifying — the look of almost offended surprise on his face.

“Wow, I feel really good right now.” Better than she remembered feeling in weeks, months even. In control for the first time since she called off her wedding. And now the initial buzz is starting to fade a little, the rush of amazement at her own audacity distilling into something sharp and hot and direct.

“Why didn’t any of you come to my art show?” She says the words like the accusation that they are, lets herself feel the legitimate anger and frustration she wasn’t brave enough to allow herself to indulge at the gallery. “I invited all of you. That really sucked.” Brow creased as she looks around the circle, watching the eyes of her coworkers drop down to the sand. None of them offer excuses, which is good, because that’s not what she’s looking for. “It’s like sometimes, some of you act like I don’t even exist.”

It’s silent as she turns to look at Jim, his eyes meeting hers from under the brim of his baseball cap. “Jim, I called off my wedding because of you.” Something she’d maybe always known but hadn’t really admitted—to herself, or a circle of her coworkers—until this moment. “And now we're not even friends. And things are just—like—weird between us, and that sucks.” She can’t quite parse the expression on his face as she delivers her speech, as she gives shape and substance to the uncomfortable facts of the situation. That she’s been lying to herself since she stood in the parking lot all those months ago and told him that things were fine. “And I miss you.”

She takes a breath, fights the impulse to look down at the sand.

“You were my best friend before you went to Stamford. And I really miss you.

“I shouldn't have been with Roy. And there were a lot of reasons to call off my wedding, but the truth is I didn't care about any of those reasons until I met you.” It’s the declaration of love she never offered him after casino night, an admittance of the feelings she’d hid after he’d told her the same. Used alcohol as an excuse for the kiss she returned. Doesn’t hide behind her adrenaline now for the truth she’s finally found the guts to acknowledge. “And now you're with someone else, and that's fine. It’s…whatever…that’s not what I’m—I’m not—“

She breaks off, biting back her words at the sharp stinging shooting through her feet. Stumbles over her statements as pain temporarily wins control of her concentration.

“The thing that I'm just trying to say to you, Jim—and to everyone else in the circle, I guess—is that I miss having fun with you. Just you. Not everyone in the circle.” And, no, it’s not quite the triumphant final note she meant to end on, but it’s sufficient. It works. Pam nods a few times to herself, content and reassured that she’s taken this opportunity to say all the things she meant to say.

As she leaves off with a few last words, turns to head for the dark water of the lake waiting a few feet away, she hears Michael behind her.

“Pam, that was amazing! But I am still looking for someone with a sales background.”

 


 

“I haven't heard anything, but I bet Jim got the job.”

He looked good—really good—with his new haircut. And it was such a refreshing change, to be able to give him the warm and uncensored smile for the first time since he’d returned from Stamford. That had felt out of place—inappropriate, somehow—until their conversation at the beach.

She’d meant it, had been sincere when she’d wished the job on Karen. But Pam is practical, realistic. Between the two, there’s no doubt the job goes to Jim.

“I mean, why wouldn't he? He's totally qualified and smart. Everyone loves him.”

Charming, personable, capable. That’s the thing — Jim isn’t just the best candidate for the job, but Jim would be great at the job. Dunder Mifflin would be a better place if Jim is promoted, and Pam isn’t petty enough to deny that or wish him anything other than the absolute best.

“And…if he never comes back again, that's okay.”

Besides, it’s not an impossible thought, right? She doesn’t know much about the corporate hierarchy, but Jan certainly seems to visit a fair amount. Of course, Jan is also dating Michael, and that’s not exactly the kind of relationship she wants for Jim. But she’s also heard the name David Wallace, knows Michael has had meetings with him before. There could still be moments, in the future, when their paths might cross again.

“We're friends. And I'm sure we'll stay friends.”

This, Pam can say with confidence. It isn’t like before, when she’d repressed knowing that Jim left for Stamford because of her. This time, it would be a promotion and opportunity and New York taking him out of Scranton — a life filled with the kinds of updates and anecdotes you share with your friends from back home.

Although it does feel unfair—profoundly unfair—that he’s at risk of leaving immediately after admitting that part of him never really returned to Scranton, after it seemed like he might finally become whole again. It’ll be okay, though. Now, Pam has practice when it comes to speaking her mind, at actually having the guts to say what she means. She won’t be too afraid to pick up the phone and call him, write him an email, send him a Christmas card at the holidays.

“We just—we never got the timing right, you know?”

And on that front, she blames herself. Regrets more than anything that she didn’t hold fast to Jim Halpert when he was standing in front of her, telling her he loved her. When he gave her an out from her crumbling engagement and a kiss that felt so right. But in that moment, it felt like he’d been asking too much of her. To sacrifice the carefully built and seemingly-stable foundation of security she’d spent years building with Roy in favor of a free fall into a new life with him.

She’d been too afraid, to admit that it was something she hadn’t just wanted but dreamed about. Hid behind their friendship as an excuse for not being brave enough.

Broke his heart because she was a different Pam Beesly and she’d said "no" for too many years to imagine saying "yes".

“I shot him down, and then he did the same to me, and…but you know what? It's okay. I'm totally fine.”

And she thinks she is, now. Now that their conversation at the beach gave her the chance to refashion romantic feelings back into friendship, to get some closure on months of lingering thoughts and ‘what if’ daydreams and the dull ache of jealousy she’d carried since learning about Karen. She’s not walking away from this year with Jim Halpert, but she’s taking the careful steps on newborn legs into the life of a new Pam Beesly.

It wasn’t what she expected, what she initially thought she wanted, but it might be better.

“Everything is gonna be totally— “

“Pam? Sorry—“ Then the door is open, and it’s Jim, addressing a hasty apology to the documentary crew, one hand hooked around the edge of the frame. And it feels like some wonderful and cruel hallucination, when he looks back at her, asks, “are you free for dinner tonight?”

She’s too surprised to answer on anything more than instinct. To hear ‘free’ and ‘dinner tonight’ and dimly register somewhere that she doesn’t have plans and tell him, “yes.”

 “Alright.” She can read the hint of a smile as his fingers tap against the window, as it starts to sink in that she isn’t imagining this. “Then, it's a date.”

She looks back at the camera as the door closes, as she feels a grin pulling at the lines of her expression, eyes damp with tears and face feeling too small for the width of her smile.

“I'm sorry, what was the question?”