As some of you know, before I ever wrote a word about the shidduch world, I wrote about worlds that don't quite exist. I wrote 64 short stories, mostly during my high school and college years, and entertained a dream of producing a TV series based on these stories. Like many dreams, including playing shortstop for the Mets, this didn't come to fruition (yet) and eventually I turned my attention to such mundane things as fixing the shidduch world, encouraging mass aliya, and fighting Amalek. Maybe I never really left the worlds that don't quite exist, and maybe that's not a bad thing.
In any case, here is one of these stories, Zero Time, which was published in a magazine called Tales of the Unanticipated in 2001: http://www.totu-ink.com/ix/
Aside from being one of my favorites, it's especially appropriate for these days of quarantines and self-isolation. Enjoy!
Marvin Felder leaned back in his plush office chair and closed his eyes. When he opened them a few moments later, everything was exactly the same as before. This reality was one to be expected, but it depressed Marvin nonetheless.
This is not to suggest that Marvin had a bad life. Were one to have questioned Marvin himself, in either a normal fashion or with the aid of hypnosis, his denial would have been of equal vehemence. He had no reason to complain about his fortune, and had concluded such in his own mind on various introspective occasions. What bothered him during these quiet moments had nothing to do with health, family, or material concerns.
It was time.
Not mortality, mind you. Marvin was well aware of his eventual demise, and while not particularly pleased about its inevitability, he was resigned to its necessity in the course of things. What Marvin worried about was his inability, due to his continuous occupation with satisfying the needs of his temporal existence, to sit down and traverse the labyrinth of the mind. To ponder, contemplate, and cultivate ideas both foolish and profound. Marvin’s life was full of deed, rich with experience, yet he could hardly begin to examine this life with anything more than a superficial probe. More, the few quiet moments he did enjoy were often spent lamenting their very scarcity.
Marvin left the office and trudged the half-mile back to his apartment. His mind was full of random thoughts, far too many to organize and classify during the course of his walk. Tomorrow would bring new items to consider, and these would be superimposed upon the old. An image flitted through Marvin’s mind: a billboard completely covered with flyers. Before he could focus on any of them, a new layer would be pasted over the first.
Marvin greeted the doorman, who looked up from his paper and nodded. Marvin flipped through his mail, discarded most of it on the spot, then headed for the elevator. His apartment was on the sixth floor, and an uninterrupted ride up the elevator lasted fourteen seconds. Enough to begin to wonder about something, but never enough to truly explore anything.
He solemnly watched the little red number, hands clasped behind his back. The elevator whirred, and the number began its own quiet ascent.
2 . . . 3 . . . 4 . . . 5 . . . . . . . ?
The elevator stopped. The floor indicator should not have been able to project this symbol, as any curvatures in numbers were displayed as right angles. Marvin pressed the six button three times, which produced no noticeable effect. His gaze shifted to the alarm switch. Marvin hated having to sound the alarm, as that would concretize the idea that he was in trouble. After a full minute passed, however, Marvin decided that he had no other intelligent choice. He flipped the switch, but all stayed quiet.
“What is this?” he muttered, pressing any and all buttons desperately. He finally desisted and glanced nervously at his watch. It, too, had stopped.
Marvin began to contemplate such dreadful subjects as insanity and starvation, when the doors suddenly opened. Marvin instinctively took a small step forward, then stopped in fear. What stood outside the elevator was not the lobby of the fifth, sixth, or any other floor of his apartment complex. It was a door. Nor was it another elevator door, but one with hinges and a knob. A standard door in an entirely abnormal location. Marvin looked around him, verifying that he was still, in fact, inside an elevator, then turned the knob.
The door opened halfway, and Marvin belatedly wondered if he should have knocked first. It didn’t matter, though, as a glance through the opening showed him an unoccupied room. And what a room it was! The most exquisite leather chair Marvin had ever seen was prominently situated directly in his line of sight. A small round mahogany table stood to the right of the chair, while a tall reading lamp proudly attended the opposite flank. And in the background, there was nothing but endless rows of neatly shelved books.
Marvin opened the door the rest of the way and stepped through. The moment he cleared the elevator, its doors slammed shut with a speed far beyond their mechanical ability. Marvin instinctively turned and tried to pry them open, unsuccessfully. After the helplessness of his situation settled within him, Marvin resignedly closed the hinged door as well.
He did find some solace in the fact that his present location was an extremely pleasing one. Thoughts of insanity and starvation were temporarily laid aside as Marvin carefully examined his surroundings. The room had no windows and no potential exits other than the one currently closed to him. Its shape was a perfect square, at least as far as Marvin could tell. Light was provided by a series of bulbs along the ceiling.
Marvin scrupulously inspected the perimeter of the room and discovered no control panel with which to summon the elevator. Understandably distressed, he took the liberty of sitting on the leather chair.
“Wow, that’s something!” he remarked, sinking into the deep, comfortable leather.
“You like it, huh?” responded a voice in his head.
Marvin bolted off the chair as though just feeling a spike poke into him. “Who said that?” he shouted, whirling around.
“I did,” answered the voice. “Listen, relax. There’s nothing to be frightened about. I’ll explain everything to you.”
“Please do,” said Marvin, as he plopped back onto the chair. He’d lost all his energy, and his fear of the madness all around him had compressed into a dull inner pulsing.
“Thank you. I’m glad you’ve been able to deal with the recent irregularities without losing your calm. This room, Marvin Felder, exists outside the time and space of your world. And at this moment, so do you. Do you follow me?”
Marvin checked his watch. “Yes. Whether or not I believe you remains to be decided.”
“Very well,” said the voice. “I happen to be aware of your desire to obtain greater recess for your mind, and am sympathetic to the cause. Consider this place a sort of waiting room, one that you can enter and exit at your discretion. While here, you are free to engage in whatever activities you desire, subject to the confines of these four walls. All published literature available to the general public of your world is available to you here. You have an opportunity to gain nearly unlimited knowledge, at least of matters familiar to mankind at large.
“There are a few provisos, but don’t worry. This isn’t a proverbial deal with the Devil, nor is there any fine print. First, Marvin, you can’t transfer items from your world to this room, and vice versa. That means no Swiss bank account and no catching up on your paperwork. Second, no falling asleep. Third, you can’t bring any friends over. Finally, you’ll have access to newspapers and periodicals, but no Internet access. The information superhighway doesn’t go here.
“But there are some happy rules as well, Marvin. You don’t need to eat, drink, rest, or eliminate waste while you’re here. These bodily functions are all companions of time, after all. Similarly, you won’t age, feel pain, catch cold, or see the bright white light. You’re in zero time.”
Marvin leaned forward and his eyes narrowed. “And I can really come here whenever I want?”
“That’s what I told you. The elaborate procedure you went through to get here was intended to soften the impact of this experience. A series of small, strange events was easier for you to adjust to than simply appearing here clear out of the blue. In the future, though, that’s just what will happen. Simply will yourself to come here, at any moment of your life, and you will instantly find yourself here. Decide to leave, and you’ll return to the precise moment of your departure. Any knowledge you obtained in the interim will remain with you, of course.
“I have nothing more to say to you, Marvin. No words of guidance or inspiration from me. Well, just one thing. When I stop talking you’ll immediately forget this entire conversation. You’ll know everything I told you, but you won’t know how you came by the information. It’ll seem like some sort of instinct. And now – toodaloo!”
The voice was gone with that, as well as Marvin’s recollection of it. He still had plenty to think about though, and wasted no time (literally) in getting right to it. What Marvin would have considered hours later, he emerged from his brooding and toured his near-infinite library. It didn’t seem like there was enough space in the room to contain what had to be millions of volumes, but Marvin supposed that didn’t mean anything here.
He selected one after a few minutes of deliberation. In the past, choosing what to read was always a painful experience for him. Marvin was constantly plagued with anxiety that he’d made a bad choice, that his limited time was being used inefficiently. Now, however, there was no such thing as a bad choice.
The only gauge of how long Marvin remained in his waiting room is the number of books he read. After six, he became somewhat bored and chose to leave. The instant he ratified this decision in his mind, Marvin found himself back inside the elevator, between floors five and six. The elevator finished its ascent and settled. The doors opened, confirming Marvin’s return to the temporal world.
Marvin decided not to tell anyone about his little waiting room. He wasn’t afraid of being thought of as loony; after all, he could easily allow skeptics to test his knowledge of some obscure book or subject. What worried him was the possibility of losing his friends. He considered it inevitable that people would shun him if they were aware of his special gift. Some would claim that Marvin was intentionally withholding access to the waiting room from everyone else. Others would constantly criticize him for not using it to transform the temporal world into one big utopia.
Marvin thought long and hard about these things, making full use of his newfound opportunity to do so. He didn’t want to become a guinea pig of science, nor did he believe that such a development would answer any questions about the waiting room. Marvin also hated gratuitous exposure; the last thing he wanted was to become some sort of icon – or worse, a political tool.
The concept of using his knowledge to somehow change the world was entirely foolish to Marvin. He didn’t consider himself to be an especially intelligent person, just a curious one. And even if he could use the waiting room for certain isolated benefits to mankind, it was the responsibility of the world to make a better world. Marvin’s best contribution would be to make a better Marvin.
As a result of these conclusions, Marvin’s life underwent no remarkable changes following his initial discovery of the waiting room. His unwritten biography essentially stayed the same, as did the history books. He didn’t use his abilities to become fabulously wealthy, and rarely even entertained such notions. A moralist might claim that doing so would have jeopardized Marvin’s continued access to the waiting room, but such theories are nothing more than fodder for the intellect.
Marvin did glean some amusement out of the whole deal. The common inability to come up with “the perfect line” at the right moment ceased to trouble Marvin. Silencing highbrow intellectuals became a favorite pastime of his as well. (This also helped alleviate Marvin’s occasional twinges of guilt over not trying to make a perfect world.)
Marvin spent nearly as much “time” in the waiting room as in the temporal world itself. One might suspect that Marvin would have gradually begun to withdraw from the real world in favor of his hideaway, but this never did occur. Marvin was a man of very strong principles, and his meaningful goals in the real world were never seriously threatened by the intellectual relaxation he enjoyed in the waiting room.
Zero time was like an all-you-can-eat special. Unlimited free refills. This was the greatest attraction of the waiting room; it provided a constant haven from the inevitable. Marvin could call time out at any point of his life. His own personal clock would eventually wind down, but the waiting room was an unprecedented and unlimited chance to make every tick count.
It was lunch break at the office. Marvin didn’t care for the cafeteria special, and opted to stroll to the deli a few blocks away. This being a spontaneous decision, Marvin found himself eating alone. Whereas this had once appealed to Marvin, he’d come to depend on social company during his free time. As a result, he hurried back to the office in hopes of catching the guys before they finished.
Marvin was not the only person in a hurry that day. Both he and a turning jeep challenged the same yellow light, and they found themselves inexorably vying for occupation of a stretch of black concrete. Concurrent occupation being an impossibility, and laws of physics being what they are, Marvin Felder was in a singular sort of trouble.
This fact became apparent to him an instant before it was actualized, and he instinctively did what he always did when he was alarmed. He slipped away to the waiting room.
Marvin experienced terrible disorientation upon arriving at his haven. Coming here hadn't been a conscious move; he was still mentally reacting to the jeep bearing down on him at high speed. It had completely filled his vision before he removed himself from the temporal world.
It didn’t take Marvin long to realize the nature of his predicament. He was trapped in zero time. The moment he returned to real time, he would be squashed flat by a ton of head-on automobile. There didn’t seem to be any possibility of survival. No, he would certainly be killed immediately.
So I won’t return, thought Marvin. He tried to read something, but couldn’t concentrate. He flung the book away in disgust and settled into his chair. There had to be some way out, some chance of resuming his real life in safer fashion. Marvin Felder had all the time in the world to think of one, and he wasn’t going anywhere until he found it.
This conviction lasted him the approximate of ten minutes on a real-time clock. Things wouldn’t have been so bad if he actually had some company, or perhaps a little more space to explore. The phrase “bored to death” had taken on new meaning to Marvin. Indeed, in the face of eternal confinement, even death didn’t seem so bad.
Marvin defiantly retrieved his book and continued reading it, but the prospect of trading in his static immortality for what’s behind door #2 refused to leave his mind. Did he have the strength to leave the waiting room, the boldness to take the ultimate gamble? Would his existence in the waiting room ever become so intolerable that he would choose to relinquish it forever? And if he did, would he regret it?
The world patiently waits.