All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Over all the paths and crossroads of life, few of them turn out to be pivotal. If we say “pivotal”, we think of all of the events in life that hold great personal significance to us, and were memorable and dear to our hearts, but what we really mean is this: this thing, this choice, changed the direction of life forever.
I keep a small, private, personal list of dates near at hand. Partly for sentimental reasons, it’s mostly to shore up my famously unreliable memory for dates and anniversaries. It seems this list counts just under a hundred recallable events in my life bearing some special meaning worth recording.
I can see the day I bought my first new car, my graduation dates (even grammar school), employment dates for all the different hats I wore in a variety of careers, and important birthdays, anniversaries and dates of death.
But which of these, really, can truly be said to have changed life forever?
I’m hoping you can help me figure out how one could best answer this question.
Certainly, my early decision to leave home and join the Army was pivotal. Certainly, the date I met Grant was epochal; that was the day we two picked as the anniversary of our long and wonderful permanent partnership. I think we would also have to count my decision to enter college. In today’s volatile workplace, I would never count employment dates as being life-changing events, even though I finally ended my working years with nearly two decades in a single firm.
Truthfully, when we strip out all of the nonessentials, no matter how many times I go over it, I still can come up with no more than six or seven dates, out of a reasonably long lifetime, where I can honestly say “This mattered. This made a big difference.”
In my own uninspiring history, I might have at least supposed, with each of these pivotal dates, that I could recall some shock of awareness in being about to commit to a momentous decision. I can remember a few such realizations, but they were seldom pivotal events. Most were just important events.
I am looking at one really cryptic entry on the list. There’s nobody else left in my world who could have any idea what it means. To this day, even I am not sure whether it was actually a pivotal event, or only just another date. That day had a profound impact on me either way.
My entry reads: “Stone Mountain GA trip American Amalgamated 1978.”
It was just a routine company training trip. Something still happened that I never could completely shake.
A couple of years before I left Amalgamated, the company sent some of us across the country to Stone Mountain, Georgia, for three days of intensive training. Stone Mountain always was a hard-drinking town. Social and business expectations were different back then. Our executives probably set records for hard work and hard play.
We were greeted in the hotel lobby with a command invitation to a party in the Vice Presidential Suite. It’s such a pleasant boost to the ego when the vice-presidents go out of their way to mingle with the worker bees. You know there is always the subtext that the VP’s might be sizing us up socially for more important positions. But the booze still flowed into the early morning hours, and we were royally entertained.
I admit not remembering much about the next day’s classes. I do remember most of the notes I took back home to Reno were illegible. After classes, Mike, one of the VP’s, suggested to me that we mosey over to the hotel bar on the other side of the parking lot from the convention center. Mike was not only a very senior VP, meaning you wouldn’t ever want to pass on an opportunity like this, he really knew our business, and he was one hell of a nice guy.
At the bar we both ordered beers with scotch chasers. Mercifully, my horrible hangover from the previous evening began to subside. We had a great chat about the business, too. I had some half-cocked idea about the way we put the new business on the books, and I forget what it was, but we enjoyed a good half hour of lively one-on-one conversation. We ordered a new round of drinks.
The bar was open to the public, and also had a dance floor, currently empty, but it was still noisy inside. Then some kind of recorded music started. Couples started trickling out onto the dance floor. It got noisier.
I do enjoy people-watching. Mike and I raised our voices to continue our talk at the bar. I happened to spot one young lady drifting out onto the floor with her dance partner. This might have come to my notice only because she turned as they went out, and she looked, I was pretty sure, straight at me. I hadn’t even been in Georgia since my Army days. Yet I, on my part, was pretty sure that I knew her.
What I was sure of was, I’d never seen the guy she was dancing with before in my life. I scooted my chair closer to Mike’s so I could hear him. I tried to keep an eye on this girl without being too obvious.
The thing is, if this was that girl, she’d gained some weight. It’d been a while, so that was certainly possible. The other thing that didn’t fit was, I knew Janeen from back when we all lived in Reno. Her boyfriend had been my best friend. This girl was smiling on that dance floor, something Janeen didn’t do a lot of in the old days, but her smile and her eyes looked exactly the same to me. She didn’t look my way any more at all, and I turned back to talk with Mike.
They say that Déjà vu is like an out-of-body experience, an electrifying feeling that you’ve been somewhere or done something before, and that you’re witnessing its live re-creation. Words people use include “eerie”, “strange” and “weird”. For a second there, spotting this Janeen look-alike had me going. But it was only in that spooky sense in which we remember a dream that seemed too real for a time.
The next thing that happened was my one and only real-deal, full-blown “Déjà vu”.
The dance was over, I’d guess, as the noise had stopped for just a minute, and then a new song started. I looked up to see if I could still spot this “Janeen”. The dance partner had evaporated, but I saw her coming out of the group on the other side of the floor with a new dance partner in tow. He looked for all the world like someone else I knew. Harry.
It was as if my past had walked into the room and punched me in the face. You can have no idea how hauntingly unreal this episode seemed. One minute I was having drinks with our VP. The next, everything that had been done, settled and buried in the past flashed onto the center stage of my life, alive again, here, in Stone Mountain, in this noisy bar.
I can only suppose my jaw dropped like some kind of idiot. I’d guess that everything that I’m about to tell you only took another five or ten seconds. I am quite sure, during that time, there was no way I was able to converse or maintain my composure.
The first thought that surfaced in my mental inventory was: OK, I’ve had a couple of drinks, and then too, I’m hung over, so I’m more easily confused. I’ve got to get a grip.
The second thing I thought of was: what are the odds this is actually happening? I mean, there I was in Stone Mountain, a smaller city in the hinterlands of the South, for only three days. Their lifestyle would rarely get them as far as Sparks or Carson City. My eyes were telling me, “that’s them!”
The third thing I thought: “If life is offering me a second chance, what the hell should I do about it?”
I apologize to you — I know this must be making little sense. With me, nothing is ever that simple. To explain what this meant, we have to go back a number of years.
This wasn’t about Janeen at all. It was all about Harry.
Every day, my heart had ached over our parting. We’d totally lost touch years earlier; I had no idea how to find him, and I’d tried. On the other hand, I always suspected it was probably for the best.
Back in those days, Harry and I were more than best friends. We were in love with each other. I told you, my story never turns out as simple as that; it would also be presumptuous to say we were lovers. “We are not like that,” we’d say to each other, and we’d laugh and tease and hint that some day we might go for something bolder.
It might have been a lot easier for me if Harry hadn’t egged me on. I’d been hopelessly in love with him, but, left to my own fears and uncertainty, I could have gone to my grave in the closet. We used to do a lot of heavy drinking together. These bouts sometimes ended in frightening arguments. When one is trying to maintain an impossible contradiction, and that very contradiction just so happens to be the keystone of the relationship, I can see now that no one should be surprised at such outcomes.
There were some wonderful times in those Reno years. There were also some horrible times, and we finally went our separate ways. There were many dark days when life didn’t seem worth living. He phoned out of the blue a year later. He’d walked out of Janeen’s life. He was in Louisiana with some guys. He was traveling under a pseudonym. He mentioned some business opportunity. There was a short pointless argument over money: I didn’t have any. He hung up without leaving a number. I never heard anything more about Harry again.
It took me many more years before I was able to deal with my own issues – until just a few months before this Stone Mountain training, as a matter of fact. I don’t know how Harry handled his, or if he ever did.
So, that year when I saw Harry on the dance floor, I found I still missed him all over again. He looked my way once while dancing with Janeen. I looked for a sign, and saw none. Since I was clean-cut and dressed in business attire, so far away from our native stomping grounds, maybe he wasn’t sure either.
How could I NOT know if this was Harry? Would I rather it would turn out to be somebody else? He was wearing his signature nylon windbreaker – and those sneakers with fluffy cotton socks. Anybody can wear those – but what are the odds of all of these coincidences together?
Blame it on the poor bar lighting, the noise, the crowd, my confusion, a few drinks, the presence of my business companion – but here I was, doubly paralyzed by indecision, and just that classic dictionary eerie, once-in-a-lifetime, super-realistic Déjà vu feeling.
“You pathetic fool,” I said to myself, “you’re desperate and confused. You’re seeing your past in the faces of complete strangers.” Tell me, what are the odds against finding two long-lost exact look-alikes, both together again, here on this dance floor, in this god-forsaken outpost at Stone Mountain, twenty-five hundred miles from home?
If you found yourself in this situation, what would you do? Cut in on the dance and say “Say, excuse me, aren’t you Harry?”
So much time had gone by. Should one act like this wasn’t happening at all?
I had that chance of a lifetime to know one way or the other, if I did something quickly. Of course, I could just let it slip by, forever out of reach. I remembered how delightfully thoughtful and considerate Harry could be. I remembered how volatile he could be. Here, as never before, I was the potentially unwelcome intruder, under unfamiliar circumstances, on unfamiliar turf. A scene at this point could be a catastrophe. I could always play it as a case of mistaken identity if I was wrong about this sighting.
My allowable ten seconds of slack-jawed gawping would be just about up.
Suddenly Mike said, “You know, it’s so noisy in here, why don’t we just meander back to the lobby and order up some dinner at the restaurant?”
That sounded great to me!
We got up and left. I didn’t look back. I didn’t go back alone, on that or the following evening. I’ll never know if there was a “rest of the story.”
Life just goes on, without regard for celebrants and mourners. In the years after that day, as I rebuilt from shattered foundations, life did get better and better. There have been some truly wonderful decades since those early days. It was all worth it.
Now that I’ve told you this story, I ask you: What if, that night, had I been bold, my boldness had made Harry and me best friends again? My wonderful decades that followed – would they never have happened?
I could tell you that native caution might have prevented me from making a big mistake that night. Out of politeness you might play along.
I could tell you that General Eisenhower held up the entire Allied invasion of Normandy for twenty-four hours, due to inclement weather, so some poor corporal could safely duck down, firmly fixed in a foxhole with tracer rounds whizzing overhead, but alive. Each player made the same basic strategic decision; only the scale was different.
Neither notion still quite rings true with me. I know in my heart I was waffling and indecisive. Maybe in its own way that was a decision too.
I never grabbed that chance to try to make the past right and whole again. Was it, then, one of those truly great pivotal events, passing over my head, right past my unseeing eyes? I’ll never know. I still wonder from time to time how important that day was, but the real answer lies in a path I turned away from.
Someplace out beyond the Andromeda Galaxy, in the greater Magellanic Cloud perhaps, or maybe even in some other parallel universe beyond Stone Mountain, they say the odds are that eventually we’ll discover another Earth, and, in that mathematically and statistically grand scheme of things, it could come to pass there might be some couple, among the billions, that returns to that very dance floor, or one, you’d swear, that looked exactly like it. Are they, wherever they are, whether together or long gone upon their separate ways, asking their scientists and mathematicians: “what are the odds it could have been him?”
Is it ever too late to wish them well? Answers to the questions we ask too late might have changed life forever, even though I’m glad they didn’t. Would I really still want to know? I might have become happy in that world. I might have become embittered. I’m glad to have taken the default path — the path on which you and I happen to be talking now.
So I ask you, how can we have a pivotal event, and even a date for its occurrence, that may never actually have happened? What does it mean when we ask for intimate knowledge of the journey not taken?
When I was a youngster in sunny, blue-sky California, my dad used to press roses in December, into large volumes in the family library. Sometimes he mailed them to relatives shoveling snow in the East. Mostly, he just left them there. Years after he died, I happened to find one, dried and perfectly preserved between the leaves of a history volume. Perhaps this one meant something special to him. To me, the most I could make of it was a fanciful private entry in the cryptic journal of passage.
So, now do you think life sometimes just laughs at our silly pivotal events, important dates, and pressed roses?
And is action still everything, even when it’s no action at all?
short story by Alex Forbes ©June 6, 2009
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