Chapter Four: Sight
Disclaimer: Again. Don't. Own. Nothin'.
Author's Note: Fourth part to Sense. LOTS OF NEW DEVELOPMENTS, and plenty more on the horizon. Theoretically, this will be a five-part (five chapters) story, each bearing one of the five senses as its theme. So, theoretically, one more chapter left. Again – FEEDBACK IS FOOD. It will determine how quickly I put up the remaining chapters, if at all. Thanks, all.
He stood in the parking lot of Dunder-Mifflin Scranton. Baffled. Irritated. And completely, utterly, deliriously…happy. It was too early to make sense of the clashing emotions, so he let them slide. He knew he had neither the ego nor the spirit to make a grand, self-important entrance, but damn – it was so prosaic to walk in with a box and a spring in his step. Not that there was anything to be…springy about. He considered waiting it out – maybe sit in his car until the onslaught of employees shuffled their way through those dreaded doors, Stanley leading the pack of unwilling participants, generously grumbling his disapproval but just as quickly trudging to the office so he could get a head start on those sales calls. He smiled; he sometimes enjoyed these little contradictions that had less to do with hypocrisy than with the bottomless, unknowable nature of people.
So he thought it'd be best to wait. But he didn't.
As he walked through the once-familiar doors, he wondered how different things would be now. Probably not by much – at least that's what he hoped. Irony duly noted. Leaving hadn't been easy, but he'd certainly wanted a change of pace. Earlier he couldn't quite comprehend his vexation, but he realized now that it was the thought that these last three months had been a complete…waste. Not of time, because he wasn't foolish enough to believe that time itself held any more value than what he allowed it to have, but of resolve. A waste of resolve.
A wasted effort of trying to do the sensible thing. Which, inicidentally, meant leaving Scranton and leaving – well, leaving. That was enough.
And yet, apparently not. Because, as the elevator doors opened, he saw plainly and exasperatingly the futility of trying to take life into his own hands. Not that there's anything wrong with initiative. But life always had other plans, plans that, while not wholly unrelated to initiative, tended to be a bit coy. Not fickle, but tricky. He thought about natural disasters – typhoons, tsunamis, hurricanes. Storms. Those were supposed to be the unavoidable things in life. But then, so were the unnatural ones; hubris kept them from seeming like real threats, but – well. Only months after leaving for Stamford, he found himself in the middle of a moderate, unnatural panic: The branch was closed down and forced to consolidate. With Scranton. He heard Lady Fortune laughing her jolly ass off, her laughter ringing in his ears, making his head explode with contradiction. He didn't mind all that much, even though the joke was on him. It was kind of funny. It was during moments like this that he thought of his mother and her charming speeches about the infallibility of ambition. Of boot-strapping grit. Of initiative. So, as he chuckled a bit at himself, he was chuckling at her too. And that felt good.
People who didn't know him assumed he was a momma's boy. He didn't always contradict, but he knew what he knew. He wasn't much like his brothers, who rarely failed to meet her expectations. And it wasn't that her expectations were complicated – expectations never really are. But the fulfillment of them? Well, he'd never been an ambitious child. Or adult, if he could indeed consider himself one. Idealistic, yes. Passionate. Like his father. Besides, ambition was for people with goals, not dreams. Passion – that was for the dreamers. And his ideals didn't involve lots of money. He suddenly felt a little rush of sympathy for his third-grade teacher, who had the unfortunate task of reacting to his particular brand of aspiration: To become a clown. That was before he came upon Stephen King's rendition of bozo-hood. The lights in his room didn't go off for years to come. Hell, he'd just wanted to make people laugh.
Until he met her. Then he stopped trying to make people laugh. Not that they didn't, but their laughter wasn't so important anymore. Only hers. Hers was the sound he listened for, the smile he looked for. And when he sometimes caught her giggling, those tiny shoulders shaking – swaying – ever-so-slightly to the sound of her own laughter…well, he couldn't even describe it. Couldn't make sense of it. And since when did perfection need translation.
When he pulled open the door to his old office, he knew she wasn't going to be at the receptionist's desk. But he looked anyway.
He suspected that Ryan was probably used to his forlorn gaze by now. As were the cameras. He wondered, for a moment, if Ryan still called himself the "Temp."
"Hey, welcome back."
He thought he sensed…embarrassment?
"Oh. Is it – "
"Season 1 'Newlyweds.'"
"So that's still – "
He glanced quickly at the camera situated at the watercooler. Heh.
That's when he noticed the seating arrangements had changed. To account for the new employees. He didn't mind, except that his desk was still next to Dwight's. With a less than optimal view of the front desk. Of course.
But the thought of her in NYC, doing what she loved best – that made him happy. Though he knew it was just a workshop, he couldn't help but imagine her in paint-stained jeans and an old T-shirt, free-flying across a blank canvas with paints and pastels, with colors in her hair, on her hands, between her toes, in her smile. It was a pretty generic image, he knew that, but then again, his only real understanding of graphic design was that it made her laugh more than usual. And he couldn't complain about that. He smiled. As he looked over to the receptionist's desk, he realized it was well worth the persistent presence of a sullen Ryan mulling over Nick and Jessica's scintillating escapades on the home-front.
All in all, he'd liked his co-workers at Stamford, some of whom were quietly adjusting to their new surroundings as he looked around. Three months was long enough to form lasting friendships, but he had been too focused on moving on to actually move on. Not that Stamford had been a haze. A drone, yes – much like Scranton, sans Michael's occasional interruptions and Dwight's persistent…Dwight-isms. It was the way he'd thought Scranton would be when he first came. Quiet. Subdued. Predictably boring. And without complication.
But he wasn't sorry to leave. Irritated, yes. But not sorry.
He looked at the camera. Maybe a little bit sorry.
So, so sorry.
"Not the way I taught you."
"Sorry, Michael. Whathuuuu – "
"Stop. Just – Welcome back, Jaaames."
He watched Michael's face register the name.
"Oh ho…Jim with a zinger!"
The rest he managed to block out. He looked over at the front desk again; damned reflex. That desk held a lot of memories for him. Memories that were somewhat tainted by Ryan and his "Newlyweds" splurge, but as he looked at it – and he couldn't help himself – he replayed the last thing she'd said, whispered to him on the day he left.
Don't give up on me.
He hadn't turned around, turned back. He'd just kept walking like he hadn't heard her. And it had nothing to do with sense; he wasn't even thinking about that. He wasn't even thinking. He was just – what?
He couldn't help it. She was fucking with his mind. His heart. As if he was the one giving up. He was surprised, genuinely surprised at her audacity. For putting the ball back in his court. Because it wasn't, not really. So he kept walking – his head down, his hands in his pockets, his sense on autopilot, his heart on save. And he thought he should feel proud of himself. For his resolve. He was pretty sure his mom would've approved, would've been proud.
But he wasn't.
He couldn't really remember the next few days – boxing things for the big move, getting flak from Mark for standing up a "bro." He was pretty sure it involved some alcohol and false fortitude, but other than that, it was a blank canvas. And, even though she wasn't there to paint it with color, she was still there. He slept through his last days in his apartment, getting up only to piss and pack. For Australia. And it was strange, because he'd really looked forward to the trip, especially in his last weeks at Dunder-Mifflin Scranton. But something had knocked the fun out of it. Something. And suddenly, he saw it for what it was: An escape. And he knew all about escaping, about running away – he'd done it often enough to recognize the gesture. Except that he wasn't thirteen, Australia wasn't his friend's house, and she wasn't eighth-grade Algebra. As he stuffed his duffel bag with swim trunks and sunscreen, he wondered if, like Algebra, this situation might seem, might feel, less severe with time. He wondered if he'd be able to look back on it and laugh a little. Probably not. The Algebra fiasco still wasn't very funny.
And then, the night before his flight, she called.
He didn't pick up, but he listened to her message. Over and over and over again. She sounded like she'd had too many second drinks.
Hey Jim, it's Pam. Um…I'm sorry if what I said was weird. Have a good trip. And a good life. I mean – that sounds bad, doesn't it? I just really, really needed to…say goodbye. For me. So you don't have to call me back. Don't call me back.
So he didn't. He just sat in his room all night, his fingers tracing that part of his bed she'd sunk into so many nights ago, her legs crossed as she cradled his yearbook in her lap, giggling at a picture he'd since cut out. And as he replayed the message, all he saw was Pam in her wedding gown, walking down the aisle as his world crumbled at the altar. And he thought about how he wanted to see what she'd look like. He thought he'd go to the wedding just to see her glowing in her anticipation of a new life to come. But didn't think his heart could handle the price to pay for few seconds of shaky perfection.
When morning came, he brewed some coffee, burned the toast, and threw out his plane ticket.
And dialed her number. And when she picked, up, the familiar voice sent him into such an emotional frenzy that he said the first and only thing that made any sense to say:
I'm not leaving.
There was silence on the other end. But only for a moment. Then:
Don't do that. You can't save me.
Well, he couldn't argue with that. Except –
I don't want that. That's not – I know you can save yourself.
And that was when she told him about postponing the wedding. And as she spoke, he felt his heart sinking further, his mouth so dry he reached for the now-lukewarm coffee. Because it meant absolutely nothing except that it bought them more time. Time that was going to be wasted anyway. Time that was of no value to him.
But, because life had a way of being coy, she ended up surprising him anyway.
His first week at Stamford, she'd emailed (his new account) to say that she was taking the internship in New York. Roy – and he winced a bit at reading the name – had finally wrapped his thick head (okay, so he was ad-libbing a little) around the idea, and with Jan's help, she'd managed to set up an arrangement that worked for both her and Michael – for the weekday mornings she'd spend in the Big Apple.
Sometime in July, they'd started calling each other again. She always had so much to say about the internship and so little to say about Roy. And that made him happy. And he started hearing her laughter again, ripples of happiness that quickened his own spirits too. But – and he couldn't help it – he started getting worried. Because it felt suspiciously like friendship. And there wasn't anything wrong with that, but he still wanted so much more. It scared him a little too, the familiarity of their conversation. So when there were moments of awkwardness, little reminders that their camaraderie hadn't completely recovered – he was, ironically enough, relieved. Because maybe discomfort felt like progress too. He needed to believe that, so he did.
In August, when he emailed her about the move back to Scranton, she'd seemed…vexed. Distracted. And it wasn't that he expected it to rock her world – although that certainly would've been nice – but he'd braced himself in case she had some smart-ass, sarcastic thing to say about it. She didn't. And, only days later, he discovered (in reading one of Kelly's long-winded, weekly emails – she would've called him, but he managed to convince her that his cell phone had perpetually bad reception: "And you deserve to be heard, loud and clear," he'd added) that Pam was "taking a break" with Roy. And, even as he smiled a bit to himself, he could see how that might make things…awkward.
Even now, as he swiveled around in his chair to glance past the receptionist's desk, he half-expected Roy to walk in. And he wasn't sure how he'd handle that, because he did feel terrible. In a way. Mainly because he didn't know how much she had told him. And – well, it couldn't feel good to lose her. Especially her.
So, when she walked in, her tiny frame entering the room and lighting it up, he thought he'd show some restraint. And really, she looked the same, aside from her hair (more wavy than curly), which now fell freely across her shoulders, sweeping the pink of her blouse and falling – she now had shorter bangs – across her eyes. Her eyes. And when she winked at him, her eyes twinkling with mischief, it took him a moment to gather himself and notice that, instead of the usual pencil skirt, she was wearing jeans. Not paint-stained, but still. He didn't think he would be, but he was now a firm-believer in casual Mondays.
And, just as he was crossing the invisible threshold to give her a proper greeting – a sensual hug and hot makeout session was proper, right? – he sensed her sudden shift into momentary hesistation.
That's when he saw Roy.