As always, spending a night on the town with his girl induced unique joy in the heart of Jim Heller. The crisp, cool early Autumn air fed into their romantic frolicking. Dinner at a local Italian restaurant proved itself quite successful, as Jim even managed to avoid the marinara sauce staining his thoroughly white shirt. The food, however, lost luster in comparison to the fine companionship found in the woman he loved. Penelope McCormick: strikingly beautiful with hair like the leaves of fall, and eyes like those of spring. Everything that Jim could hope for in a woman was found in Penelope.
Throughout their schooling, Jim fascinated himself with Penelope. While he hid in the background, she drew the attention of so many others. Long did he consider it hopeless that the perfect girl, who possessed the rarely-found gift of choice, could ever love a nobody like Jim Heller. In a quizzical blend of courage and aloofness, Jim found himself telling Penelope of his feelings for her. To his surprise, she returned the interest and their relationship began. And soon, this bond of romantic friendship blossomed into love.
They held hands as they walked through the bustling activity and brightly festive downtown. The town lights brilliantly advertised products of every liking and delicacy. Times Square, 1966: a place of expanding promise, capitalist temptation, and carefree enjoyment. Jim and Penelope together found it oddly romantic and nothing short of the perfect place to enjoy their time together. They found a bench and she put herself against him as his arm went around her shoulder. Closing their eyes, the world became whole in their hearts. To put this moment in the most bromidic of manners: nothing else mattered, nothing but their love and each other.
After working up a considerable amount of courage, this time the wisest and truest of all courage, Jim released his lover and stood from the bench. In confusion, Penelope pondered to herself why her lover stood. The moment was one that even those most deaf to emotion knew not to break with silence and to Penelope, emotion blared, so she remained quiet. Her answer came to her in the best of ways as Jim took a knee and a heartfelt, but subtle smile. Penelope's hand reached her gaping mouth in surprise. Carefully, she listened as Jim asked of her, “Penelope, I love you so, so much. I want all of this, the love, the time together to never end. You are so beautiful and I'd be a fool to pass you up. Penelope McCormick, will you marry me?”
Words escaped her. One simple word needed to come. Penelope stood to her feet and with a tear of a joy, she exclaimed, “Yes! Yes!” Jim helped to put the diamond ring on her finger and then he stood. Their eyes shared a moment of connection and at last, they pressed their lips together. Many things are lost in the abyss of time and memory, but not this kiss; it stands forever. When they finished, celebration was in order. A wine perhaps? It mattered not. The pressing need to just go somewhere filled the air. Again, their hands joined and they were off.
They were so carefree that they went to the street caring not for whatever might oppose them. First to realize this mistake, Jim looked to his left and saw the headlights. His first, and only thought was to Penelope. He pushed her out of the way. The two lights and the blaring horn signaled the impact as the car slammed through his body. Jim flew through the air and rolled on the pavement. The world faded away as he saw Penelope over him crying, “Jim! Jim!”
He awoke to the presence of literally everyone he knew. They stood around his bed in a darkened room, looking upon him with remorseful expressions. Jim knew not where he lay, but instantly he knew he did not like it. At the center stood Penelope and his mother. None seemed to be phased by the fact that he had survived his car crash. Something from within kept Jim from speaking. It could then only be assumed that the same thing stopped all around him from doing the same. Fear and confusion flooded his mind, which struggled to ascertain time or place.
When Jim closed his eyes, the people vanished and suddenly, no longer did he lie. The surreal grew to a point of absolution, with the only reality being the man before him. A nondescript man sat before him in an equally nondescript chair. No room provided occupancy, only an empty void. Overwhelmed, Jim fell back and landed in a chair like the plain man, who told him, “Relax.”
Jim replied with nothing but a look of confusion and to an extent, despair.
“Relax, there is nothing you can do but relax now,” the man poured him a glass of water. “Drink.”
Jim took the glass and drank. His composure stitched itself together and at last he asked, “Am I dead?”
“If you were dead, would we be talking?”
“Then where am I?”
“You're nowhere. This place isn't real.”
“That's right,” the man answered. “This is the only place you can be right now. You've lost your connection with the world and now you're reconciling by making them in your mind.”
“I don't understand.”
“Give it time and you might, but you might not. Either way is fine, because neither way really matters.”
Jim shook his head and took another sip, “Who are you?”
“I am just like this place. I'm not real, therefore, I'm no one. You needn't worry about who I am.”
Taking him at his advice, Jim tried then to pick up the pieces. He saw flashes of the night before. Penelope smiled at him from across the table and then again said yes at the bench. Then the headlights blinded him before he flew through the air. Last he saw her panicking face before he knew to ask, “What about Penelope?”
“She's fine, but she's broken up about you. You mean the world to her.”
“She means the world to me.”
Jim drank some more, “Where is she?”
“She's with you now.”
Jim looked around, “No, she isn't.”
“Yes, she is, you just don't know it.”
“How can I not know it?”
“The car crash didn't kill you, Jim, but your mind has been severed from your body. The world, time, place, none of it matters now.”
“I don't understand.”
Jim sat back in his chair and sighed, “But who are you?”
“I'm the closest thing you have to a link to the outside world. I am, for a lack of a better word, your subconscious. I can hear everything that goes on and I keep you breathing, but I am passive.”
“So you can hear Penelope? What is she saying?”
“She's reading your favorite book to you, Catcher in the Rye, she's about halfway through.”
“She's been coming in for weeks now, talking to you.”
“But I can't say anything back?”
“No, I'm afraid you can't. Your mind has only just started letting you actually think more than just the subconscious, much less move any of your body.”
“Oh,” Jim stopped smiling. “I'll be out of this soon then.”
“No one can say when you'll awaken, for now, all you have is this.”
“We're in your mind.”
“So to speak, yes, you are, but this is the only reality that you have right now. Embrace it.”
Jim found no understanding as he tried to wrap himself around all of it. He found it exerting.
“Your mind is tired, Jim. It's time for you to rest.”
Jim nodded and the closed his eyes. He had many more questions, but exhaustion overtook him.
When he awoke again, Jim found himself in the same place with the same man. Nothing seemed to have changed and everything stood in timelessness. He had hoped that after this rest, he and Penelope would reunite. Instead, he returned to this strange place. Jim asked, “What's happened? Outside, I mean.”
“I can't say how long it's been, but Penelope finished Catcher in the Rye and then she read through The Things They Carried, now she's reading Heart of Darkness and she's about a fourth of the way through.”
Jim laughed, “She should put that away, she hates that book!”
“She hasn't missed a single day in visiting you.”
“It must have been months then that she's been coming. What has she talked about?”
The man's face was saddened, “She talks of how she misses you and how she'll never leave you. She loves you much. Sometimes she gets on the bed and just lays with you. I wish you could feel how she holds your hand. There is so much hope in her voice. People tell her that she should move on, but she is faithful.”
This made Jim smile and a tear came to his eye, “I want to be with her.”
The tear dropped, “But not like this. Not like this.”
“I know, but one day you'll be free. One can only hope.”
“I need to be out of here.”
“You are lucky to be alive, Jim, and healing takes time. Let it run its course.”
Jim nodded and then closed his eyes again. Periodically, he would open them again and the man would still be there. They talked of many things, mostly things stored in his mind. He entertained himself to pass time, which was still lost. Mostly, however, they talked of Penelope, who never stopped visiting day by day. Jim was glad at this, up until a certain point.
“She needs to move on,” Jim told the man.
“Why? She still loves you and you love her.”
“It's been years now,” Jim started to cry again. “It must have been years. She's read so many books now that I've lost count. I appreciate it, but she can't love a man who can't love her back.”
“You do love her.”
“I can't show it to her, I can't give back!”
“Perhaps just being there for her to talk to is enough.”
“It isn't! It can't be! I don't want that for her! I want her to find someone and to be happy with him because I can't make her happy any more. All I have left is false hope and sorrow,” Jim sobbed. “She needs to move on. She needs to go on without me.”
“She doesn't want to, Jim.”
“I don't want to be here, but that's just how it is. She doesn't want to move on, but that's the best thing for her. She's so beautiful, she can't waste it on a vegetable that can't appreciate it.”
The subconscious said nothing as Jim went back to into his sleep. He slept for a long time, longer than ever before.
When he awoke again, he was surrounded by utter darkness. The man no longer sat before him because there was nothing. Jim panicked and then felt that he was in his own body again. He grinned before realizing his situation. He lay straight and then when he tried to sit up, he head met a soft roof less than six inches above him. Trapped! A box? No, a coffin. Jim squirmed and fought as he knew he could not be dead! He yelled and screamed, tossed and turned, and breathed hard. As the air escaped him and thought he had found his dying breath, the coffin opened. Jim squinted for it was bright.
When he opened them again, he found himself in a strange room. It did not take him long to realize that he was lying in a hospital bed. Everything was different, it was almost as if he was aboard a spaceship. The equipment in the room seemed so different, but so advanced. How long had it been? Jim looked around him and saw that the room was empty. Sunlight crept through the window, indicating it must have been around midday, at least at Jim's estimation. For a few minutes, he said nothing and didn't try to call a nurse. Instead, he just tried to understand it all. He knew he had been in a coma, but had it really been so long?
A woman dressed in white suddenly entered the room. She saw Jim's wakened eyes and jumped in shock. He was awake! She instantly called, “Doctor! I think you better come in here!”
“Where am I?” Jim asked.
“You're in a hospital, Jim, you've been out for a long time.”
The nurse looked down at the floor.
“Well?” a pause. “How long?”
“It's been thirty-eight years.”
“Thirty-eight years?” Jim's eyes went wide. He just couldn't grasp it. Thirty-eight years? Last he remembered, he had proposed to Penelope at age twenty-three, so he must be fifty-one. Fifty-one. “Oh, God!”
An older man wearing a lab coat stepped through the door and asked the nurse, “What did you tell him?”
“Just how long it's been and where he is.”
He nodded to her and she left. The doctor turned to Jim and told him, “Listen, you need to stay calm. Your mind is in a state of reboot right now and-”
“Oh, I'm sorry,” the doctor realized that 'reboot' probably didn't mean anything to someone who couldn't quite grasp that he no longer lived in the 60's. He snapped his finger and traded his words, “Your mind isn't used to working very hard right now. You need to give it time to get back up to speed. Don't try to think too hard.”
“How can I not th-?” it hit him, “Penelope? Where is she?”
“She comes by once every two weeks now,” the doctor told him. “Listen, I'm afraid I can't tell you too much, I could risk knocking you right back out. I'm going to have the nurse get you some food and then we can work from there.”
The doctor walked out of the room as Jim sat up. No ease came to him as he came up, but the effort proved worthwhile. He looked around the room and saw the things around him. Jim could honestly say that he recognized very little of the medical equipment. Too much, too much to take in all at once. Thirty-eight years tried to come to him in an instant.
“I have to see her,” Jim stood to his feet but quickly fell to the ground as he lost his balance. He hadn't walked in thirty-eight years. Somehow, his legs just couldn't do it.
The nurse burst in carrying a tray of food and exclaimed, “Oh, no!” She helped him back onto his bed and then fed him without saying much at all. The food was standard hospital fare, nothing special. One would think that a man gone for thirty-eight years would have cravings, but 1966 is Jim Heller's yesterday. The real and true yesterday never existed for Jim. There were a lot of forgotten yesterdays; too many to count.
The doctor came back in later in the day. Very carefully and very slowly, he tried to recount the last near-forty years to Jim. Lifetimes passed and there could be no assurance as to who lived and who had died. The internet, the end of the Cold War, the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, globalization, and so many other things eluded his understanding. He felt like a time traveler who had gone into the future to get a glimpse of where life would go, but turning back could never happen. Time and its ramifications eluded him. Despite the doctor's best efforts to keep the history as objective as possible, Jim's questions always shifted back to his dear Penelope. But the doctor refused to let her come in. He told him to take things one step at a time. Time. Time was all he needed. That isn't how Jim saw it though. He saw that he had lost enough time already. Time he didn't know was there in the first place.
Fortunately, the next day brought better tidings. The doctor informed Jim that he had gotten in touch with Penelope and that she would be on her way. Worst of all was the wait, not the eery feeling that she wouldn't be who she was when he had proposed. Jim had gotten the chance to see himself in the mirror. It was haunting. His hair had grayed, his face had wrinkled, and he had gained weight. Jim Heller wasn't there, it was someone else. He had changed but it just didn't feel that way. The same man stared back at him through the mirror, but he was a twisted version of what should be.
When Penelope walked through the door, Jim saw that he was right. He didn't recognize her. Her hair had darkened and was highlighted with silver streaks, her face had wrinkled, and her once excellent figure was elderly and sagging. She wore a beaming smile on her face as she approached the bed. Jim returned it with a tear in his eye. He was both overjoyed and disappointed, not that she was ugly, bu that he had missed the chance to grow old and ugly with her. He had every intention of doing just that.
“Jim!” She sat at the chair beside him. “Oh, God, I can't believe it! It's been so long!”
Jim shook his head, “It's not even been a day to me.”
“I know,” she sighed, “This must seem so strange to you.”
“That doesn't even begin to describe it, Penny.”
Penelope reached over and held his hand. She bore a slight smile as a tear rolled down her cheek, “Oh, Jim, I waited for you for years. I waited so long. I came by every day to see you. I read you your favorite books.”
“You do? You heard?”
“I don't remember much,” he sighed. “It's like a dream, or a long gone memory but I have bits and pieces.”
“Jim,” she sobbed, “I could only wait so long. I'm married now.”
Those words pierced his heart like a sword through the thinnest fabric, or a nail through bread. His world shattered into the tiniest of pieces. All that he cared for and all that he wanted belonged to someone else. The friendships that he had spent the years of life cultivating would be long gone. There was nothing left in this world for Jim Heller. At very first thought, it was a feeling of betrayal. Jim tried his hardest to understand, but it felt as if she had cheated on him and run away after a night. But there she was, old and gone. At that moment, Jim wished he were dead.
Jim Heller never found true happiness in his life. He found a dead-end nine-to-five job somewhere and tried his best to scratch a living. It was hard for him because so many concepts taken for granted were alien to Jim. Eventually, however, he found himself in a unique position in that he could remember the 1960's as if they had just passed. The comatose was an asset to the nostalgic and the historians. Purpose was granted to him, but not happiness. Sometimes Jim would visit Penelope and her family, but these visits served only to remind him of the gaping hole in his heart. That tragic night, Jim Heller survived, but the Penelope he knew had died to him.
She remained faithful to him in a way that could never be what Jim wanted. Penelope was his rehabilitation. With delicacy and care, she helped him understand the world in which they lived. There was barely a snippet of what he remembered in the world. Jim couldn't understand the world and he had no friends left. Common ground was scarcely found for Jim, yet Jim Heller lives on today somewhere, still cobbling together a meager existence. He is admirable in that despite life running from him, he tries to catch up with every nth of effort. Despair and anguish attack him; giving up seems to be the most profitable alternative at times, but Jim lives on. And that's about all that can be done: live on. Live on despite the atrocities.