I received a heavy, 11×14 package the other day and smiled when I saw the return address: “Jimmee P.,” it said. From Washington.
Jimmee P. has gone by many names in my lifetime — J.R., then James, then back to J.R., then Jim, then Jimmee P. — and he’s had about as many personalities to go with each name. Strangest thing is, he hardly remembers any of them.
I met him as J.R., in high school, when Superman was introducing to me to all his friends in our early days of dating. Even though Superman and I came from the same circles of friends, pretty much, he had this other group of three friends that was separate: J.R. among them. These were friends he’d made in football his freshman year, and he spent many summer days with them after football practice, goofing off with impromptu tackle games, spending time competing with the bench press in the weight room, learning to shoot BB guns, and ditching class — when class started — to sneak off and see movies like Rambo and anything with Arnold Swartzenegger in it. These guys had testosterone soaring through their veins.
When Superman and I started dating, though, there wasn’t much place for me in this small band of friends, and he hung out with them less and less. Although I met them, they tended to treat me as somewhat of a foreign creature. They would look at me as if I were some delicate gecko in a terrarium — one wrong move and I’d flee. So they rarely spoke on the few occasions Superman and I would stop and chat with them — only smiled politely and made small talk (very small) — and when Superman and I would leave, they’d all look relieved.
But J.R., and then another new boy in the group, Thom, who came from Albuquerque and was a teen bodybuilding champion, were very nice to me throughout all our years of high school. J.R. and I got to know each other much better on our senior ditch day, when we all ended up in the same group and hung around for much of the afternoon. On the day we graduated, when J.R. was signing my yearbook, he looked me straight in the eye and said he wanted me and Chris to keep in touch. While most kids were always being goofy and joking around, J.R. always had a seriousness about him, and when he said he wanted us to stay in touch, I knew he meant it.
He joined the Army about four days later. Chris even drove him to the recruiting station, and dropped him off with his duffel bag at 3 a.m., and said goodbye.
And that’s when he became Jim — Private First Class, specifically.
Jim kept his word, and stayed in touch. Chris wasn’t much of a letter-writer in those days, and although he wrote once or twice to Jim, I picked up the slack. I had moved up to L.A. by then for college, and Jim’s letters would arrive faithfully in my little square mailbox in the dorm lobby. I’d pick them up on the way to the dorm cafeteria, and would read them while I ate my Raisin Bran in the morning, then I’d write back that afternoon somewhere on campus, sitting on the rolling lawns and hand-writing long letters on my college stationery.
We were living lives about as separate as anyone could imagine — my letters filled with tales of classes, the students I met, the professors, life in L.A. — while his were filled with bivouacking, mess halls, target practice, the sergeants, the other privates he met, and life in Texas or Oklahoma or wherever he was currently stationed. He was a fabulous letter-writer, and his letters were always filled with detailed stories and funny tales. And although our lives were immensely different, we came together on a lot of the same issues: meeting new people, living in a strange place, when to open up to new people, when to not, missing Chris, missing our hometown, and how to forge our way as young people in a much broader world. He always signed his name as Jim, although I always addressed my letters to J.R. He told me, with a smiley face on one letter, he didn’t mind.
Jim and I wrote to each other for four years. He ended up going to North Carolina, becoming a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne, meeting a girl there, then moving in with her when he got out of the Army. He lived with her for nearly a year, until his uncle died in Montana, and his mom asked him to go out there to take care of his uncle’s ranch for a bit until she could get up there, after selling the house in California. He walked me through all of these decisions, expressing them all on paper often before he did them — how hard it was to decide what to do about the girl in North Carolina, what he would do in Montana, whether he could fill his uncle’s shoes. His letters became long eloquent expressions of all his thoughts.
When Chris and I got married, Chris asked Jim to be his best man. Jim flew out to be in our wedding, and we had a ball together. He provided some of my favorite memories of our wedding week and wedding day (and even our wedding night, when somehow Chris and I ended up driving Jim to his car after the reception, and they talked me into going to In-N-Out hamburgers, and there we were, the three of us, in wedding dress and two tuxedos, eating hamburgers at 2 in the morning. …)
Jim was still there when we got back from our honeymoon a week later — visiting with his parents in our hometown — and he came over to our new apartment and said goodbye.
And that was the last time we saw him as Jim.
About a month later, we got a call early one morning from Jim’s mom, saying he’d been in a terrible car accident in Montana. He’d been broadsided by a diesel truck, and was in a coma, and they didn’t know if he’d survive.
We waited for a couple weeks to hear word of how he was doing. I went to the local church in Diamond Bar and lit candles one night. Waiting was hard. But, miraculously, he came out of his coma. Yet he wasn’t unscathed — strangely, he could hardly remember anything — he could barely remember his name, couldn’t remember our recent wedding, didn’t remember being in the Army, didn’t remember being a paratrooper, didn’t remember the girl he’d lived with for nearly a year outside of North Carolina. He could only remember his high school girlfriend (he asked for her, instead of the live-in girlfriend), his high school friends, and me and Chris. Unfortunately, short-term-memory loss is much more brutal: He had to relearn how to eat, how to take his first steps, how to write. He could never remember if he’d eaten that day, so had to have someone taking care of his schedule. He would never drive again. Could never hold a job. His family relocated to the ranch in Montana, and they took care of him while he recovered. His mom wrote to me and asked if I could send the letters — all the letters we’d written in college — Did I still have them? she asked. Perhaps they could trigger some memories for him, if he saw his own handwriting that he’d lived this life of paratrooping and bivouacking for four years? — I said sure, and shipped them all up to Montana in a huge box.
The letters, apparently, were interesting to him, but he could not remember the person who wrote them. He’d become Jimmee P. by now, and called to thank me for the letters, but he said it was like reading someone else’s life. He was slowly making progress — learning to write again, learning to maneuver through the town and get to the city on the bus, he got a job with Easter Seals, made slow progress back, could ride a horse again. Years later, he met a Montana woman named Cindy, and they got married in Lake Tahoe, and Chris and I went up to the wedding. It was good to see him again, but it was sort of like meeting another person, Jimmee P. now. He’d asked me if I could bring my yearbook when we came for the wedding, so I did. We all looked at it together — out under the beautiful pine trees of Lake Tahoe, as dusk fell — but he couldn’t put much together anymore. Cindy asked if I could leave the yearbook, and maybe she’d work with him on it. I agreed, but I could see the defeat in his eyes. He was Jimmee P. now, and that was that.
So this last week, when I went home from lunch, I received in the mail a heavy, 11×14 package with the return address: “Jimmee P.” From Washington.
It was my yearbook.
Eleven years later, Jimmee remembered to return it to me. He’d been cleaning up the guest room, he said, along with Cindy, and he found it. When he opened it, though, he could see all the inscriptions to me. He wrote to Chris and said, “I don’t know why I have your lovely wife’s yearbook, but I’ll return it to you promptly!”
In the package, with the book, was — of course — another letter:
Chris and Laurie:
I truly do apologize with all humility for the overdrawn lapse in returning this here book. I have no memory of ever receiving it and therefore no recollection what-so-ever of how long I’ve been in possession of it. For the longest time, I have made note of its existence in the bookshelf of the spare room, but never cared to look through it, as my vision is still weak. Besides, any memories I currently possess are extremely incomplete.
To attempt to explain my situation, I have very limited memories of my past, and what I do have are without a cohesive timeline. I draw parts of various stories which include, say, an individual, but have no timeline in which the various pieces fit together. That’s if I can recall anything at all. I can recognize faces throughout the yearbook, but recognition is all — no names to ever go with the ‘ah-ha’ moments.
But there is my reality to deal with. I do appreciate the loan of the book, and once again apologize for the tardiness in returning it.
Looking through it, though, I’ve been missing my class ring. I can remember that I did have it back in the hospital, except that I kept it on a chain because … well, now I’m not so sure. Maybe not. … No, I believe I’m thinking of when I jammed my finger while riding a horse and ended up with my wedding band on a chain. … No, I do believe I had my class ring on a chain … for some reason. Oh well. I’ll research where my class ring might be and begin wearing it again. I recall that it had a black stone with the V50 in silver and a platinum band.
There ya go — my crazy brain working its magic and confusing me to no end. …
It makes me think about memories, and how much you should hold onto them when they become meaningless to you, and the power of childhood, and the power of childhood friends. And how you don’t know how important some things can become later, like a class ring, or a yearbook, or a letter scrolled carelessly on college stationery, or a fabulous night eating In-N-Out hamburgers at 2 a.m. with a friend who may be fleeting. …
I also smile when I read the letter, because although it’s Jimmee P. now — he’s made that very clear — it’s still the letter-writing voice of J.R., telling me all his crazy stories about the Army, and explaining to me what a “bunk” is, and telling me it’s hard to make new friends and forge a new life. And signing everything with a smiley face. …
I think I owe him a letter.