Over the weekend, I watched a Netflix movie called Mr. Nobody (2009). I liked it a lot. So much so that I may end up watching it again sometime (a rare occurrence for me). I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of alternative realities. I think often about how the past has formed the present, and about what might have been. Not wistful-sigh-what-might-have-been, but literal prediction of the alternative future of that other past, where something different happened or where another choice was made. What if I had taken that job in Alamogordo? Would we still live in New Mexico? Would we still be in the same little house? Would my trips to the dermatologist be even more frequent than they are now?
In Mr. Nobody, the main character is a 118 y.o. man on his deathbed, remembering his life. He remembers not only the life he has actually had—and if you can tell which of the many it is, you’re quicker on the uptake than I am—but also the other lives he didn’t have, the ones he would have had—had he married the other girl, had the leaf not fallen just there on the road, had the rain not washed away the ink of the number he was supposed to call, had the Brazilian not boiled an egg. But it all leads back to the first bifurcation, a time when he is standing on the platform at a train station. He is 9. His parents have split up, and he has to decide whether to get on the train and follow his mom, or stay behind and live with his dad. Soon enough, that train has left the station.
As I thought about this idea, I decided to go back to a Borges story that I’d read in college and never forgotten. I didn’t recall the story in detail, but I remembered the title and the topic. “The Garden of Forking Paths“¹ a selection from his collection of short stories of the same name, published in 1941. (Click title, or Spanish below, for full text, about 10 pp.) Like much of Borges, the story is a lot brainier than it is fun or entertaining. The garden actually refers to a book that functions something like Mr. Nobody. It’s described this way: “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.”²
When I look back, I see the forks. There are three particularly salient ones that determined the course of my life. They were at ages 15, 19, and 29. In 1978—I decide to take Spanish instead of something else when I’m forbidden to try out for show choir because the outfits are too skimpy, thereby freeing up a class period. 1982—my dad asks me if I have any reason to think my girlfriend is a lesbian. Instead of saying yes, I run screaming into the closet, not to come fully out into the light for another 17 years. I break up with her over the phone and never see her again. 1993—I get job offers from UW-Green Bay and the Univ. of Puerto Rico nearly simultaneously. I choose the island.
I imagine my life if I’d come out at 19. If I’d never spoken Spanish (what on earth would that look like?). Living in Green Bay, or wherever that would have led me. Frost was sorry he could not travel both. Me, not so much. I like where I am now; I don’t find myself wishing for alternative realities. Just wondering.
Tell us–where was your fork in the road?
²En todas las ficciones, cada vez que un hombre se enfrenta con diversas alternativas, opta por una y elimina las otras; en la del casi inextricable Ts’ui Pên, opta —simultáneamente— por todas. Crea, así, diversos porvenires, diversos tiempos, que también proliferan y se bifurcan.