Title: Jam fluff
Series: The Office
Theme No.: 52; speechless with the memory of a drowned moon
Notes: This takes place at the tail end of Season 3, in the little margin of time between 'Beach Games' and 'The Job'.
Waking up alone was a familiar feeling, and that was the worst part.
Jim knew the stages of it like he knew his favorite song; hopelessness was comfortable, a second skin, and when despair came he greeted it as an old friend. It was beginning to happen more often, now that he was back in Scranton. The old feeling of hollowness was taking advantage of his weakness when Karen was away on business trips, and sometimes even when she wasn't.
Because Jim was too much of a gentleman to admit it to himself, but he was using Karen, as a shield and a distraction. What they had built between them had worked, for a while; there was love in their kisses, and passion, and if it wasn't the kind of love that reached inside of you and wrenched your soul from the inside out like sunshine and cocaine, well, it wasn't just a schoolyard crush, either.
There had been enough love and hunger and real human contact to fill up the empty places inside and hold back reality. And it had been so long since Jim had been in love (at least, the kind of love you could taste and touch), that for a while he had been happy.
But then the old emptiness started coming back again, padding into his apartment (Jim could not think of it as theirs) on silent paws at two-thirty in the morning, and Jim woke up alone. He was always alone, even with Karen stretched out beside him, hogging the covers and murmuring in her sleep, real in every way but one.
Sometimes he laid back in bed and gazed at the ceiling, trying to stare through it to the stars, and those were the brave times. He let himself feel it, all of it, let the howling demons come crowding into his mind one after another, pounding and rushing and screeching until it made his muscles ache. He challenged the shame and the anger, he met them and battled with them and lost; he fed them platitudes, of how happy his life was, how great Karen was, how he could start again, renew, move on. And still they came, until he knew them each by name, and how they tormented him. Anger like a breach between the chambers of his heart. Regret; sour yogurt on his tongue, stale sweat clinging to his skin, all the things he'd ever hated in himself. Despair like the moon on still water, like the full moon on Lake Scranton and betrayal and truth.
Sometimes it scared him. Then he got up, dressed in silence, and left; sometimes he went running, through darkness that might have been dangerous anywhere but Scranton, and sometimes he walked. Sometimes he tried to see how far he could go and how fast without falling to the ground, because he thought somehow that maybe the pain would be gone if he could just learn how not to breathe.
The adrenaline of these morning excursions usually managed to flood out anger, and regret faded with the night. But no matter how hard he ran, no matter how far he went and at what speed, no matter if he almost flew or if every fiber of his body wailed in pain, he could never quite exorcise all of the terrible aloneness. Some of it remained, lurking in the back of his mind, past where even dreams could reach it. Some things stayed with him always.
Despair, and the moon on still water…
He was going crazy. The sleeplessness was starting to wear on him, leaving circles under his eyes and crevices in his mind that not even heart-arresting amounts of coffee could combat. He was slacking off; at work, yes, but in everything else too. His iPod sat unused, gathering dust, and emails multiplied unanswered on his computer, and Karen worried about him and then grew sick of worrying and got angry instead and suggested he see a counselor or something, a doctor, to get sleeping pills – that or take up drinking.
Jim laughed, and made some witty retort, and that was enough. The words were always enough, with Karen. He had learned long ago that all he had to do was make a suave observation, botch a joke, and she latched on to the sound of his voice and it threw up a barrier between them -- between them and world -- as protection.
Banter sanded down the soft edges of things, gave a graceful escape from any situation without having to address the dark mire underneath. It was a way to focus their attention. When Jim was busy coming up with clever things to say, he wasn't in love with another woman; and Karen could hold on to her illusions as long as silence didn't force her to think about them. Jim's mouth was full of witticisms and then full of the taste of her lipstick, and if both were lies, he could only hope that they somehow canceled each other out.
The banter was necessary. Karen was too sharp, too brittle, too full of energy; she didn't handle silence well. She gripped it like a gun, with her hands clenched tight under her desk, trembling on a trigger, bracing herself for the backlash. The pressure of emptiness built up, built up, dying to explode, and Jim couldn't help but feel that it was always aimed right at his head.
So he talked, and she laughed, and they never really said anything, but that was all right; he was used to that. He was used to not saying anything, even if this was a different kind of denial than the one he'd been so good at before he moved to Stamford.
But he couldn't think about Stamford anymore, because now he was back in Scranton, and it took all of his strength just to deal with that, to deal with what the little Pennsylvania hamlet had become. It took all of his strength just to deal with how much things had changed…
Oh, how things had changed!
And then, one night, all the changes bubbled up to the surface and burned back into his brain everything he'd forgotten, and everything he had never been able to forget. Just when he'd been moving on – just when he'd gotten up the nerve to go to New York, Karen's kind of city, and live Karen's kind of life – just when he was starting to convince himself that he could feel normal again…
How could a single moment on a darkened beach destroy so much?
Sometimes Jim wished that it had been him instead of Dwight who had leaped fearlessly onto the coals, only to end up writhing in the embers with mild burns over most of his body. Then he could have gone home, and missed the moonlit confession. It would have been so much easier that way.
After the management-training games on the beach, Jim started waking up alone every morning, and he would leave Karen oblivious in the bed they shared, and he would go running through the sleeping city. Because the adrenaline helped, a little bit; and because he was almost able to convince himself that he was running towards something instead of merely running away.
And then, the day before he and Karen were due to drive up to New York and offer their lives up for sacrifice to Corporate, Jim returned from one of these morning excursions to find Karen already awake, dressed in her sleek lines-and-angles power suit, making breakfast. Panting, he sat down at the kitchen table and gripped his steaming mug of coffee in both hands, staring into the thin veils of vapor dancing above the rim as though they might part to show his future. And he barely noticed that Karen was talking, outlining plans and puns in her melodious voice, saying anything just to fill the silence.
He might have tried to answer her. But his mind was elsewhere; the adrenaline hadn't worked this time, the sunrise hadn't burned away the memory, and the feeling of alone was still with him, filling up his head with the heaviness of the sand on that beach and the murky darkness of that lake. Inside his skull the lakeshore night expanded, soaking through his thoughts like ink, pushing out all of the words and leaving only silence and despair.
Despair, which felt like the icy water soaking his socks as he waded out to where Pam stood, and didn't care about his shoes getting wet. Despair, which was him asking if her feet were all right and hoping madly in some terrible tiny part of him that she had been seriously burned, because then he might have gotten the chance to carry her in his arms.
Despair stayed with him; and it reminded him of that night in Lake Scranton, when he had looked at the new glowing determination in Pam's eyes, and he had looked beyond her to where the reflection of the moon drowned in the glass-black water, and he had not been able to decide which was the more beautiful.
He didn't break up with Karen until two days later, after the interview at Corporate had crystallized for him the utter mess that his life had become. But the day before he left, he sat in the kitchen of their (his) apartment, staring into his coffee, and suffered a slow, creeping sense of foreboding, like the near-silent fraying of a tenuous thread.
Karen was talking to him; she wasn't comfortable with silence, it always left too much unsaid, but she couldn't say those things either, because that might have wrecked them altogether. Instead she baited Jim with silly questions, teased him with playful insults, challenged him, mocked him; begged him to answer, because if he would then they could fall back into their familiar pattern of taunt and retort, and everything would be okay, she wouldn't be losing him, she wouldn't be fighting (for him or against him, she never knew which).
But Jim's head was full of clouds and stars and eyes that weren't Karen's; and the memory of that drowned moon sat heavy on his tongue, shackled his speech, emptied his eyes and left him capable of nothing more than lovesick despair and silence.