Since the fight on Pam's birthday, the first day of spring, Don had bought a new car and grown a beard. He made up a lot of excuses, but really didn't know why he made the changes. He only knew he should. He also fell back into some old habits: Don had tried five different brands of dandruff shampoo and suffered through three months of disappointments, then this morning went back to the tough stuff. Extra-Strength Denorex.
He lathered up and massaged the brown gunk into his scalp. While the water buzzed on his chest, he closed his eyes and took a big whiff of the medicated shampoo. The scent brought back memories that Don had considered dead and gone.
Embarrassed to require regular treatment with such a harsh shampoo, Don transferred Denorex into a Suave bottle and left it out in the open; nosy guests would be none the wiser. Don had known Pam for three weeks when he let her in on the secret. The shower seemed an appropriate spot.
"What's that smell?" Pam covered her nose with a foamy wrist. "That stuff smells horrible. What is it?" She soaped herself as the showerhead pelted her with streams of water.
Don stared at the off-yellow tile as he massaged his scalp. "Extra-Strength Denorex. It's got menthol in it -- that's what you smell. It's the best stuff you can buy." Don spoke softly, just loud enough to be heard over the shower.
"It's burning my eyes, darling." Pam's voice was harsh, but she was smiling. How should he read that?
She started lathering her breasts.
"Let me help you there," he said. Washcloth in hand, he wiped the soapy residue from Pam's curves in little circular motions. Pam closed her eyes and clasped her hands behind her head. The bathroom light played off her smooth, wet skin. Don forgot about the tingly Denorex in his hair and concentrated on his self-appointed task. He scrubbed Pam's chest, her shoulders, her toned stomach. His breathing got more and more regular. Then she spoke his name.
He jumped, as if he had forgotten that Pam could talk.
"The menthol crap is stinging my eyes."
He switched places with Pam, clumsily, and rinsed the shampoo out of his hair. While he labored under the showerhead, Pam finished scrubbing herself off and stepped out of the shower. The blow dryer roared to life before Don even knew she was gone.
The memory ended there. The menthol foam was swirling counter-clockwise through the drain. His toe moved back and forth on the drain for a moment. He positioned his face in front of the streaming shower and let the water splash around his head, dripping and spattering like frantic tears.
Back when it began, everyone warned Don and Pam about the dangers of an office affair. Gossip was inevitable -- vicious rumors, whispering and pointing. But since Pam worked in development and Don in marketing, they weren't likely to rub shoulders unless it was planned. They decided it was worth the risk.
The next weekend, Pam made a grand entrance to the office Christmas party, ten minutes late. "There's my date," said Don, and the guys on the marketing staff turned to see Pam making her way to their table. She wore a new red dress, a new overcoat, and carried a frilly gift in her right hand.
"Hi, handsome," she said, flashing a sly smile. "Here's your present." While the marketing and development executives looked on, Don untied the ribbon and showed off his brand-new silk boxer shorts. He gave Pam a sweet kiss and, painlessly, they had gone public.
Pam displayed her affection for Don so freely, it made him feel awkward. She would leave a steaming cup of hot cocoa or a rose on his desk while he was giving a rough presentation on the twelfth floor. Don kept his romantic side more private. He slipped a hand-copied D. H. Lawrence poem into her "in" box from time to time or left cute messages on her answering machine at home. That was the extent of it.
Don was really caught off guard by Pam's suggestion to catch a quickie in the second floor stockroom while the legal staff had their two o'clock meeting. He offered hypothetical situations in which they got caught and fired, or maybe even arrested, but Pam's confidence rubbed off on him. The encounters became more and more regular, and Pam got bold enough to hide a pillow and aerobics mat (equipment for a more comfortable tryst) in an empty printer-paper box in the stockroom. By necessity, Don and Pam kept vocalization to a minimum, but passion came through in other ways.
"Oh . . . look at this scratch mark," Pam whispered. "Doesn't that hurt?"
"Only when I laugh," Don said.
Ten minutes later the two of them were in full professional garb, double-checking memos and catching up on the rumors about sexual harassment suits on the fifth floor.
All through the winter, they spent evenings together. Don had the good television -- they watched videos at his place -- and Pam had a kitchen to die for. No matter where they slept, in the morning Don made two hard-boiled eggs for Pam and scrambled some for himself while she went through her long shower ritual. When they were running late, he hopped in the shower alongside Pam to keep her moving.
"Already? Shit . . ."
Pam hurried to get ready while Don washed his hair with her strawberry-scented shampoo and scrubbed himself. He was usually quick enough in the shower to watch her get dressed while he dried off. By ten to eight they were back on their way to work.
Day to day, night to night, for three months. It seemed to be working.
"I need a blue hi-liter."
"Don't have one for you, Don."
"Where can I get a blue hi-liter?"
"The boys in legal horde them. Check the second floor stockroom."
Don felt his eye twitch when someone made the suggestion. "I have a presentation at ten-thirty. Does anybody have a blue hi-liter?" Shrugs. Don dug into his wallet and pulled out a bill. "Twenty dollars for a blue hi-liter!" He waved the bill over his head.
"Check with legal," someone said.
Don crumpled the bill and stuffed it in his pocket. "Tell you what. I'll check with legal." He slid the graphs back into his portfolio and leaned it against his desk. As a matter of habit, he glanced at his watch as he made his way to the elevators. Ten o'clock -- the legal staff would be in a meeting right now.
Don hadn't been on the second floor in weeks, but the same old memos decorated the bulletin board. Scuff marks on the floor, the out-of-order sign on the drinking fountain, the vague echo of his loafers on the tile floor -- Pam came to mind again. He touched the stockroom doorknob and shook his head, shuddering. The memories were abstract; he just found himself wondering why there's no good English translation for déjà vu.
Someone yanked the doorknob out of Don's hand before he could turn it. Pam was there, swinging the stockroom door open, as if she fell right out of Don's head and into his sight. She saw him and yelped. Their eyes met. Don couldn't move, while Pam had trouble keeping her balance. The aerobics mat and pillow in her hands plopped to the ground.
"What the hell are you trying to do?" Pam tried to recompose herself. She kept her eyes down. "Who told you I was down here?"
"I . . . I didn't know you were here."
"Just a nutty coincidence, huh?"
"Something like that." He gulped. "What are you doing?"
"I'm getting my mat. I'm starting aerobics again. Why do you care?"
Don found himself making a fist, but released it. "I think that tone is unnecessary."
"Fine. I'll just stop talking." Pam retrieved the mat and pillow and started past him.
"Hold it." Don grabbed her wrist. "I have a question."
Pam struggled. "I'll scream if you don't let me go. I swear I will."
"How do you plan to explain your portable lovenest there?" Don fingered the mat.
Pam's eyes grew narrow as her breathing got heavy and hot. "Blackmail."
She stopped twisting so he released her wrist. She spun around, facing the blank white wall. "Nice beard."
Don rubbed his new fuzz. "Serious?"
"What do you think?"
"Does it matter?" Don stopped himself and shook his head. "Look . . . this is childish. I just want to know what happened. I've been thinking about it all these weeks, and it's still a blur." Don took a breath. "You gave up, Pam. You hurt me and I want to know why." Another breath. "What did I do?"
Pam's shoulders loosened. Her eyes stayed nailed to the wall, but her arms unfolded from her chest and swung at her side. She rubbed her sweater with a thumb.
"What did I do?" Don repeated.
"Nothing, Don. You were perfect," Pam blurted. Her voice's edge had dulled.
"Then what?" Don's frustration showed beneath the new beard. "We were talking about getting married, remember?" Pam flinched, and Don kept going. "Is it so cruel of me to ask what happened to us?"
She told the story.
Birth control pills had never meshed with Pam's body chemistry, so she said. One prescription made her bleed for three weeks at a time and another gave her amusement-park mood swings. It was a losing battle.
Don knew that condoms had a higher failure rate than other forms of birth control, but he took Pam's decision at her word. She warned him that she had an irregular period; a week late or a week early depending on job stress or the time of the year. He listened and understood. "Let it be said," Don proclaimed one night, "whatever may happen as a result of our . . . relation-ship . . ." He smiled. "Well, I'll be with you all the way. I won't run away."
"But I'm not ready --" Pam started.
"Neither am I," Don jumped in. "I'm just saying 'what if.'"
So it was said. Pam's period was due on Valentine's Day, and when it failed to make an appearance Don breathed a sigh of relief. He didn't want to deal with that messy question of sexual etiquette on such a passionate day. Three weeks later, the situation had not changed. Half-jokes became increasingly serious, day by day. Don's lease was almost up and he wondered if all his stuff could fit in Pam's apartment. If he brought it up, she would shrug and complain about an overdraft charge that her bank had slapped on her checking account. She couldn't see how she got in over her head.
Pam refused to buy a drugstore pregnancy test. She wouldn't even say the word 'pregnant'. She treated it like an immaterial concept, an unspoken theory, a hypothetical situation. Don offered options, but she treated the decisions like a mid-morning memory of a dream during a coffee break: fleeting, swirling, gone.
The shower was so loud that Pam didn't hear Don step in to join her. Pam's whole body tensed and she started scrubbing furiously. "It's only seven-fifteen," Don said. "Relax."
She looked back to the showerhead. "You're early."
"I wanted to be with you," Don said. Water beads hung from hairs on his chest. "Are you done with the soap?"
Pam passed the soap behind her back. Suds streamed down her face as she rinsed sweet-smelling shampoo from her hair. Her eyes were closed.
"What do you want to do for your birthday, honey?" Don asked.
"I don't care."
"We should do something outside. That's a good way to celebrate the first day of spring." Don reached past her for a washcloth."You're going to do fine today. You're ready for the Miller account." He ran a soapy hand along her spine.
"I'm not worried the Miller account," she said, "I'm just thinking." She rinsed her body quickly and stepped aside for Don.
He kissed her neck as she hopped from the shower.
Pam put on a towel and fumbled in the medicine cabinet. Her towel came untucked and soundlessly slid off her bare body. "Shit," she mouthed, grabbing the towel from the floor and fixing it around her midsection. Then she felt the trickle; just barely warmer than the drops of water decorating her inner thighs. She looked. It was a spot of red, nothing more, carried on a bead of water down her thigh. She watched it, wordlessly, while the towel swung limply. The bead held on to her skin at the bend of her leg, hung there, and dropped into the cool wetness of the tile floor. Red scattered into the puddle and streamed into nothingness. She closed the medicine cabinet. A deep breath came to her and she felt a breast freely shift. She wrapped the towel around herself, securely tucked it in and reached for a hairbrush. The rushing water and wheezing blow dryer drowned out the sound of Don's off-key singing.
"Happy birthday." Don's voice buzzed on the telephone line, two-and-a-half days later.
"It's late," Pam snapped, holding the phone clumsily as she blinked awake.
"Midnight," Don laughed, "I wanted to be the first to wish you a happy birthday. Did I wake you?" Silence. "Are you there, honey?"
"Yeah." The word was sharp.
"Are you all right? I mean, are you feeling okay? You've been strange lately . . ."
"Don, you can't move in here. It's too small. There's nowhere to put your books or your computer or anything. You can't do it."
Don blinked at the phone. "Well . . . okay . . . we'll find another place. My cousin works at a leasing agency . . ."
"You don't get it."
"What's going on?"
"I'm working late tomorrow. Come here after work and get any stuff of yours that might have ended up over here. Leave the deadbolt key on the table and lock up before you go."
Don had trouble forming words. "But . . . your birthday, Pam. It's the first day of spring. We have plans."
"It makes no difference."
A pause. "This is crazy. What about --"
"Don't say it. You're off the hook. I'm not having a baby. You have no responsibility to me." Was she starting to cry? How should he read that? "Just leave me alone."
"Why are you doing this?"
"People break up, Don. It happens all the time. Goodbye." The phone clicked.
"But why . . ." Don's face sunk and contorted. It was only two minutes after midnight, but Don wanted those two minutes back.
"Forgive me," Don said. "I assumed you had it taken care of."
Pam stood against the stockroom door. "I didn't do anything. The doctor said it wasn't a miscarriage. I guess my cycle skipped a month."
Don began cautiously. "I'm coming out of the fog now, but you still didn't answer my question. Weren't we happy together?"
"The day-to-day laughs were great. But that's not what you were shoving in my face. You were asking for more. Routine. Ritual. Forever. I can't give you that. I can't give forever."
Don started to speak.
"Don't try to change it." Pam reached for the doorknob.
"Memories are forever, Pam. Every night we spent together was part of it. You gave me forever without even trying."
"You'll never get away from memories," Don pressed. "Don't leave it like this. We have a chance to end it with dignity. Didn't we make each other's lives better? Can't you see that?"
Pam brushed wetness from her eyes, which were getting red. "All I can see is that you're making me crazy and this is why I asked you to leave in the first place." She reached for the doorknob. "Keep your memories. Find another forever. Leave me alone and let me be lonely."
Don shook his head. "Three months down the drain." Pam's eyes flashed with anger. She threw open the door and stormed down the hall with her pillow and mat held tight against her chest. The tears had stopped.
Don stayed in the quiet stockroom for a few minutes, leaning against the metal shelving. The conversation washed over him again, like a returning tide. He wondered which memories would be overshadowed by this moment. The breakfasts together, maybe, or the hotel on Valentine's Day, the desktop gifts, the showers, the afternoon rendezvous, the shape of her body under the blankets while she slept, the long lunchtime walks which grew warmer and warmer as the year progressed. He would lose some of them, perhaps all.
It happens all the time.