Some days, Pam wants to invest in a loud ticking clock for her desk, to remind everyone else that seconds are slipping away while they hibernate in their paper cave. She doesn't need the reminder; every moment spent in the office was unbearable with Jim gone. That would have been expected no matter what the reason for or duration of his absence. He was gone for months before Pam even tried to separate boredom and loneliness from heartache, but even then, she still missed her friend most. So maybe she had been pining, just a little, but she hadn't been walking around under a black cloud of anguish.

When she heard about Jim coming back to the Scranton office, she started being a little hopeful. Not very hopeful, because if she'd been sure they were meant to be together she would have called him in Stamford. If he'd been sure they were meant to be together, he would have waited, right? She felt a little silly being hopeful, but she started a mental tally of all the things that Dwight had done that she hadn't thought of a sufficient response for, confident that Jim would know what to do. She restocked bags of candy in her desk. She straightened up and systemized the supplies so that she'd be indispensible in locating highlighters.

She hadn't felt silly about dressing up a little on the day of the merger. There was a whole new staff, and she had wanted to make a good impression. And she had wanted Jim to be happy for her. She wanted to look happy, but she also wanted him to see everything he'd missed, the adventure that had been on hold since he'd left. Their accidental conversation had whetted her appetite.

The last time she'd been hopeful like this about a relationship, she had been hopeful about a boy and the possibilities had seemed so much wider. What kind of man would he become? Who would they grow to be together? The last time she'd dated, just dated, it had been so exciting, imagining how that boy could fit into the rest of her life. Could be the rest of her life maybe.

She had still hoped for a different sort of forever, couldn't and hadn't wanted to imagine how her life would play out as a receptionist in Scranton, but she thought she knew what kind of man Jim was, and it was a whole different kind of exciting to imagine looking towards a specific new future.

She thought she knew what kind of man Jim was, but it turned out that the man who walked back into the office from Stamford wasn't the man she had known six months earlier. Feeling silly that morning had nothing on the actual embarrassment of the afternoon. She had never been so glad for the cloud of obliviousness that hung over the office, or for Michael's endless acting out. Instead of counting the moments they shared once they were reunited, Pam had counted the moments that were interrupted, or avoided or were shared with someone else.

She'd thought, maybe, that once he was back that the time apart would fade away. Maybe she'd been watching too many romantic comedies. Maybe she should have been watching Camille, Love Story, Moulin Rougeā€¦ then she could count herself lucky that she didn't have a terminal illness.

When he'd walked up to her in the parking lot, she had still harbored a tiny romantic hope, that maybe Karen was just a handsy, pushy kind of woman. He'd noticed that things were weird, but then with his next words, she was over it, was over hope for more. "We'll always be friends," she'd said, but she wasn't as sure as she'd sounded.

Now she thinks about getting a cat, but is irrationally worried that she will turn into Angela. She worries that she might finally meet someone new and would resist pursuing him because she wouldn't want to be whorish. She's always liked dogs better anyway, but then she thinks what if she fills in so many spaces in her life that there was no longer room for...for someone to share it with her.

If she'd thought life was torturous while Jim was gone, it turns out that the monotony is worse after he returns here and he's part of it, doing his best Oscar impersonation, someone just clocking time in the asylum so he can get back to his Real Life. The day she realizes that she's been lying to herself, that in every other way, he is as engaged with the office as he's ever been, breaks her heart all over again. She watches him joke with the others in the break room. She watches him with Karen, and even when he's nothing less than professional, Pam misses being the one smiling up at him.

Things that she'd finally stopped missing while he was gone, all those little moments, flood back into her brain, but she doesn't try to recreate them, doesn't try to force it. She doesn't want to feel awkward anymore, and she doesn't want him to be uncomfortable. He was still her best friend - how sad is that - even if she wasn't his anymore, and you don't do things that make your best friend uncomfortable. She revels in the moments she still gets, like when he belatedly accepts her Christmas present, but she tries to remember not to push.

She didn't feel stuck before. She'd never had any illusions, had always known that she was in a dead-end job in a dead-end office largely peopled with crazy people, but she'd always viewed it through what she now recognized was Jim's lens. She realized that Jim's lens was a kaleidoscope, and that it made everything hundreds of times more interesting than it would have been on its own. She wonders, if she'd never been there, if Jim would have been the same person. Would he have found another ally, or would he have pranked alone. She'd kept up the tradition with Dwight, but it hadn't been the same. It was retaliation now, and felt a little mean-spirited, if necessary, when she looked back on it a few days later, but maybe that's how it had been for Jim.

It makes her even more sad to realize that maybe it had taken the combination of Pam and Jim for the glee to appear, and that now maybe there was actually one less source of joy in the world.

She sits at her desk and watches wasted seconds tick by. It's rare that anything holds her attention for more than a minute now, rarer still that it's something either entertaining or productive

She thinks of ways to fill the time, things that she could describe as worthwhile to a stranger. She has moments of being proactive, of thinking that she should be more committed to her job, since her job really is the only reason she's here now. She tries to imagine what a really good receptionist would do, but she can't think of anything that doesn't necessarily involve not being at the desk to answer phones or greet people. It is vitally important that she be the person to greet people. She believes that she is by far the least frightening, except for Jim and maybe Ryan, but Jim is never turned towards reception now, and Ryan is avoidant, so it is just her separating Dwight from the outside world. Of course, it's possible that Dwight's rational mandate would preclude him from doing the receptionist's job in her absence, but she can't be too careful.

So she sits at her desk and waits for the phone to ring or for someone to walk in or for someone to bring her work to do that doesn't involve leaving her desk. She also can't leave her desk, because where Jim sits now, at her desk is the only place where she has a clear view of him, even though it's just the back of his head.

Pam decides that if she can't find a way to fill her time with things she's being paid for, she will fill her time with things that she would like to be paid for some day. Rarely, she will have an assignment from one of her classes that can be worked on with the limited space and resources at the office. More often, she assigns things to herself. For a while, she alternates between vague assignments like "drawing from memory" and "drawing something in the room" but when she realizes that a disproportionate number of the sketches are of Jim, she tries to be more specific. She tells herself to draw a picture of everyone in the office in a different style, and when she finishes and realizes that she has drawn the people she doesn't like only in caricature, abstraction, surrealism, she stretches, goes through again and tries to make Angela dreamy and wistful in graphite instead of like Satan's cheerleader in ballpoint ink. It's a step up from solitaire, but a poor substitute for teasing eyes and shared smiles.

When she goes to select pieces for the show, she wonders about what kind of artist she'd like to be, and how best to show where she's headed. She decides that she wants to be the sort of artist whose coworkers don't hate her, or feel sorry for her. Or pay her any attention at all, really, which becomes ironic when she considers that she spent all that time boxing them out of her heart, and then expected them to show up to support her. She had been painting her life, did nothing but paint her life, but the important pieces... she couldn't have submitted those paintings to the show, when they would have meant too much to everyone she knew, people she still had to work with every day. She was torn between wanting to be brave, and needing the people she spent her hours with to be proud of her. Making them angry would not make them proud, although it might have increased her credibility with the other students if she'd created something that alienated someone, and then maybe they could have been her new friends. Eventually she convinced herself that her life was about focusing on the little things to get through the day, so she'd compose her show of little things. She maybe hadn't thought through the fact that she would have to explain her art to other people, or that outside her head, the collection was perhaps a little... very tame.

She called her artwork Impressions. Her teachers said to paint what was real to her, and that was real. Work was real, her mug was real. Gil might have been right, that it was motel art, but that was her life's fault, not her art's. She had thought she had courage, too. She had thought it took courage to move out on her own, but the more she thought about it, she thought that Gil had been right about that too, and that maybe treading water in a new sea was still treading water. And when Michael said, "My god, these could be tracings," that should have been her wake-up call, that she wasn't just tracing her art, she was tracing her life, but her shading sucked and sometimes there were lines where there shouldn't have been.

Motel art was fitting for her motel life. No one intends to stay there. The Days Inn room 238 wasn't meant to be a permanent home, and Pam had helped Karen move on. She had helped Karen move on with Pam's life, while Pam was stuck in limbo.

She doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about Karen, really. Karen isn't much of a presence in the office, her quiet competence being overshadowed by flashy ineptitude of so many different stripes. And not thinking about Karen means that she doesn't have to think about Jim quite so much while she watches the steam rise off her mug and the seconds tick by.

end note:

I had such a struggle with tenses in this. I think I got most of it reined in, with an intentional transition from past/past perfect to present-sort-of-tense the afternoon of the merger, but... I think it's still sort of a train wreck. I can't even tell anymore. I hope it wasn't too distracting for anyone.