"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference." - Robert Frost.
How many times have you found yourself at a fork in the road and no matter how impetuous or carefully considered your decision was, you couldn’t help but wonder (either at the time or further down the track) what course would your life have taken had you chosen the other path?
Some such decisions might be momentous, such as a career change, moving to another country, saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a business or a marriage proposition. Some might be deadly, as was the case of Alberto Dominguez (the first Australian to die in the September 11 attacks), who at the last minute decided to delay his plane back from the US to Australia by one day, and ended up aboard American Airlines flight 11 when it plunged into one of the towers of the World Trade Centre. And conversely, I remember reading the stories of people who were meant to be in the towers at the time of the attacks, but had missed their bus, or woken up with a cold, or decided to spend the day with their lover instead of going to work – and had no idea of what happened until they received frantic calls from their family (or their wife!) wanting to know if they were alive.
In the movie ‘Sliding Doors’ it is not even a conscious decision, but the simple fact that she misses a train that sets the main character’s life in a different direction. We get to see both futures taking place, and in both futures she finds her way to Mr Nice Guy and out of the clutches of her cheating boyfriend. The German film “Run, Lola, Run” explores three variations of one story, in which minimal things, such as brushing someone’s arm in the street by accident, can cause not just your own future but the other person’s to change in radical ways.
Moving countries from Bolivia to Australia in 1988 was one of the most distinctive forks in the path of my lifetime, and I often wonder what would life had been like if I stayed in Bolivia and pursued a career as a concert pianist. Among the friends who stayed some became renowned opera singers, directors, composers, and one even an internationally famous rock star; whereas I abandoned my career in music when it became too difficult to pursue it in a country where musicians were light-years ahead of me in their training. Admittedly many of my musician friends in Bolivia were not as successful as the others, and struggled to make ends meet; and even some of the successful ones often had to supplement their income doing other jobs.
But even before that, straight out of school, I studied two years of psychology at university. Had I stayed, would I be writing articles for research journals and transforming people’s lives through counselling, as many of the graduates from my class are doing now?
The internationally successful rock star happened to be the young man I was dating before I left the country. At the time, he didn’t even have enough money to buy his own guitar. If I stayed in Bolivia, would I have gone onto marry the rock star? Would he had become a rock star at all, with me pulling him back, perhaps with one or two children in tow? He never married, although I heard that he had a child ‘out of wedlock’ with another celebrity, a television presenter.
I also wonder sometimes whether, if I had married a different man 26 years ago – freshly arrived in Australia - instead of my ex-husband, would I now have the happy family, the kids and the white picket fenced house in the suburbs? Somehow, I think not. Even back then, in my early twenties, I don’t remember ever dreaming this ‘Arcadian’ ideal...
I do remember however sitting for the public service test within months of my arrival. Sometime later a letter arrived offering me a job in the public sector, but by then I had already obtained employment in a private company. I dismissed the letter, not knowing how difficult it would be to enter the public service if you were not already in the system. Many a time in the years that followed I applied for government jobs and didn’t’ even get as far as the interview. Who knows, had I accepted that job offer, I could now be in the Senior Executive Service of Australia…. or, on the other hand, I could be working as a teller at the post office. Either way, I most probably wouldn’t have met the friends and colleagues I now have, I wouldn’t have achieved the things that I’ve achieved in the private and later in the not-for-profit sectors; I would not be working for a highly respected charity, helping disadvantaged people transform their lives, and using my writing skills for a great cause.
Having faced another distinctive fork in the road recently I asked a friend: “how can I know the decision I am making is right?” And she said, whether it is right or wrong, you have to “make it right”. Once you follow one course, you have to decide that this was the right course, and make it work, without looking back. I thought that was pretty sound advice. What is the use of dwelling on what could’ve, should’ve or would’ve have been?
Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges tackled this subject in his short story “The Garden of the Forking Paths”, in which one of the characters analyses Ts’ui Pên’s fictional masterpiece, a novel that is apparently nonsensical, contradictory and chaotic, and explains that:
“In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts'ui Pên, he chooses - simultaneously- all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork. Here, then, is the explanation of the novel's contradictions. Fang, let us say, has a secret; a stranger calls at his door; Fang resolves to kill him. Naturally, there are several possible outcomes: Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang, they both can escape, they both can die, and so forth. In the work of Ts'ui Pên, all possible outcomes occur; each one is the point of departure for other forkings.”
Each time I am confronted with a fork, or even a branch in the road, this is what I would like to believe: that another version of me has chosen each of the other paths; and thus, there is one of me who is a concert pianist, another an eminent psychologist, another a bohemian artist, another a happy stay-at-home mother, another a senior government executive, another a rock star’s groupie… and so on. In all the versions, I am, and will always be, a writer.
I want to start with a tulip. Then I’ll move onto the water lilies floating aimlessly on the surface of a pond. But let me get back to the tulip.
It was a bright, saffron yellow colour and you fastened it to my collar with a safety pin. You even thought of bringing a safety pin!
My mother wasn’t impressed. She believed that, when it came to flowers, yellow signified disdain. Reds, pinks, whites and all hues in between were perfectly fine, but yellow was the wrong colour if you wanted to make a good first impression on my mother.
She didn’t say anything to you, though. She just watched us take off in your car (would you believe I don’t remember what colour your car was, back in those days?) and she waved us goodbye with teeth clenched behind her smile. Later that night, after you delivered me home, safe, sound and still a virgin, I pressed the tulip, which was already languishing, between the pages of the phone book.
Let’s move onto the water lilies. It’s a fine summer’s day, a lazy Saturday, two years after that first date. The dry tulip, together with the dry yellow roses and daffodils that came later, is now living – or should I say perpetually dying – between the leaves of my journal. My mother continues to believe that your preference for yellow is a bad omen; if you hold me in such contempt now, what will it be like after we get married, after we have children, after we become as used to each other as one does to wearing a pair of old, faded jeans?
She never voices any of these concerns to you, though. She only brings them up with me, usually when we are alone in the sewing room, as she struggles in vain to teach me the art of dressmaking, to prepare me for married life. Much as I try to please her, my patterns are always crooked and my stitches uneven. To her despair, I am not nearly as interested in crafts as I am in numbers, and she blames that on you too, on the formulae you share with me, the theories you propagate, about measured risk-taking, about odds and percentages, about everything in life being subject to the laws of arithmetic.
She must be right, because when you produce the ring out of your pocket this particular Saturday, and kneel down next to the pond, and ask me the question I never thought you’d ask, I answer you with another question:
‘What would you say are the odds of me saying yes?’
‘I’d say ninety-nine to one,’ you answer confidently.
To your disbelief, I snatch the ring from your fingers and cast it into the murky pond.
‘Ha! What do you think are the odds of you finding that ring in the pond?’ I ask, but you are too stunned to reply. You stand up slowly, and stare hopelessly at the pond.
‘Perhaps one in a million,’ you manage to mumble when you find your voice. ‘Have you any idea,’ you then say, striving to sound measured, ‘how many months’ salary I spent on that ring?’
And with that, you turn on your heels and walk away.
Later, when I tell my mother, she insists on walking with me to the pond.
‘The problem with that boy,’ she says as we approach, ‘is that he only believes in numbers, and there are times in life one needs to believe in miracles.’
And I watch my mother, my old, big fleshy mother, strip down to her undergarments and disappear in the green, cloudy water. She emerges at the centre, among the water lilies. There, resting on one of the leaves, catching the light of the dying sun, is the ring.
Image credit: Robert Gavila http://www.gavila.com/artist/Photos/Photos.html
- Flash Fiction by Bel Vidal -
Last Valentine’s day, while sweeping the platforms at the railway station just before the end of my shift, I couldn’t help but notice this gorgeous guy sitting on one of the benches. He was wearing a business suit, silk tie and shiny black shoes, and was holding a bouquet of red roses. He’d been there for a while but didn’t get on any of the trains. He just sat there waiting for his girl to arrive, and she never did.
“Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly... Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man." Zhuangzi
The clock radio goes off at 5.30 a.m., in the middle of the weather report. It snatches Jake out of the depths of sleep with predictions of another cold, cloudy winter’s day with intermittent showers. With eyes tightly shut, he hits the “off” button and tries, in vain, to catch the tail of his unfinished dream. It had been a good dream, a pleasant dream, but apart from that, he can’t remember anything about it now that it’s gone.
Bel Vidal - Débutante novelist (author of Exuberance), blogger,