Wednesday, August 19, 2009

On Mayhem: The "What If" Factor

Ah, the "What If" Factor:

"What if I hadn't bloodied that girl's nose in the third grade? Would she still have gone on to be governor of Alaska and a Vice President candidate?"

"What if I hadn't had that burrito for lunch? Would I have still been turned down for that job?"

"What if I hadn't moved to Florida immediately after college? Where would I be now?"

Only one of those three actually pertains to me, by the way.

A "What If" hit me on the drive to work this morning - I've thought of it before but never to the extent that I did today. I have a major "What If" choice that I consciously don't think about, that I have buried, but like most major "What Ifs" it refuses to go quietly into that good night of my memory. Instead it waits until I am weak to pounce, until I am distracted or lonely or driving and at its mercy. I have seriously considered running my car off the road to get away from it, but that's just prolonging the inevitable - it would pop up over my face as I lay on the emergency room gurney, I'm sure, with a toothy grin, big innocent eyes, and pipe up, "Hi! Remember me?"

I had the opportunity to travel to India for a month back in February. I was invited to be a goodwill ambassador with the local Rotary Club (I'm not even a member) and spend the month of February in India, all expenses paid. A month of this:

And this:

When I was in college at UT, I took a core class in world religion. I became very interested in the mythologies and creation stories of different cultures, so much so that the following summer I took on the study of ancient Greek mythology (I gave myself projects to study and research during the summer months because I am a complete and utter nerd who couldn't stand the thought of not studying something during the span between my college summer classes and the beginning of fall term). Later I declared my minor as the Classics and learned more about the Etruscan social structure (and developed a glorious crush on Dr. David Tandy) than anyone should ever know.

It was during that world religion class that I fell in love with the Hindu mythology and the seemingly lush and glamorous lifestyle of the Indian people: the Saris! The red dots! The sensual methods of eating with their hands - the sheer amount of curry used! I even wrote a (rather long) short story centering on a Greek assassin and her Indian fiance as a final project for a creative writing class, which no less than half the class thought I should develop into a screenplay. (I still have the tattered envelope full of critiques of that story - as a matter of fact, just blew the dust off it on Friday, when I did my office "spring cleaning" in August.)

So, the prospect of spending a month in India was more appealing to me, perhaps, than it would be to your average person. And to travel with all expenses paid? That seemed to be the clincher.

Everyone around me gave the same emphatic "YES!" when I asked for advice. The same rounds of "It's the chance of a lifetime," and "Think of all the inspiration you'd have to write," and "My god, you know how much you love curry, you'd be a fool not to go," and "You could email dispatches back every week for the paper, expound it into material for a book" played out as I continued to poll and pester and pepper my friends and family with suggestions and advice.

All except one. My father. And he made the one point that I had overlooked - and I can't say unconsciously.

"But I don't know how you could leave Draper for a month."

I argued and made points (sometimes loudly and violently): He was so young (at the time I had to make the decision, well before the February journey, Draper had just turned three) he probably wouldn't even remember my absence. It was such an amazing opportunity for me, he'd be proud, once he was older, to tell people his mom spent a month in India. I'd bring him presents, lots of them, elephants - he loves elephants and tigers, and India's lousy with 'em!

But my father simply shook his head: he had said all there was to say on the subject and would, in his infuriatingly diplomatic way, allow me to fume and fester and consider and come to my own decision. But he would not approve of my trip nor fund me in any way - I knew that much without asking.

I knew he was right. Deep down, I knew it. I knew I could easily go on the trip, make arrangements for my son in my absence, gather up my selfishness into a ball and swallow it like a sedative. Because that is what I had always done: put myself first. And when I stopped to consider, even in the brief flash of imagination it took to illuminate my choices and solidify my decision, my son's small face wet with tears and crying for me, missing me, a month an interminable amount of time for a small child, I completely broke down. I could not do it. Something inside me snapped, broke, and scattered. That last tenuous hold of selfishness, of "me for me," let go, and I felt it ebb away like a bottle on the Indian Ocean surf.

The trip coordinator expressed his disappointment that I wouldn't join them but said he would keep me in mind for another venture, when my son was older and occupied in school, perhaps. February came, and I wish I could say I stared balefully out windows frosted with ice and snow, wishing for warm weather and a mouth stinging with too much curry. But I can't say that because I was completely happy in February. Happy and in love.

If I had gone to India I wouldn't have reconnected with a man from my past, the brother of my ex-fiance no less, and we wouldn't have fallen so quickly and devastatingly in love with each other. He wouldn't have searched for a job in Nashville, visiting me weekly, driving from Knoxville to Mt. Juliet and Nashville on job interviews, wooing me and my family and friends and colleagues. He wouldn't have accepted a job, left his family and rented a weekly hotel room. I wouldn't have built my life, and that of my son, on his smile and his honey'd words and promises.

He wouldn't have changed his mind, packed his things, quit his job and moved back home. He wouldn't have broken my heart with an email and never spoken to me again. I wouldn't have gone silent for a week, I wouldn't have had to struggle for breath, I wouldn't have let myself give in.

I wouldn't have fallen in love. With him.

I wouldn't have come out of it stronger without him.

I wonder a lot, about so many things. I'm naturally curious - I think that's part of what makes me a good writer and reporter. I always want to know why, and I always want more. So naturally I wonder what would have happened to me in India. There were natural disasters and a Valentine's Day protest that turned "nightmarish" for lovers across the country. Later someone would follow through with a suicide bombing at a hotel, killing nearly 20 people. If I had been there, would I have been involved? Would I have been caught in a field during a monsoon, trapped at the business end of a terrorist's rifle, reprimanded for mistreating a cow?

If I had gone to India, would I have a completely different life now? Published a book of essays on my experience, written blogs and articles for magazines, become a travel writer, a photographer, a local celebrity touting my trip and insight on local news channels and feature spots?

Would I have returned here at all?

Of course I'll never know, because that's the high and low of the "What If" factor: you're left forever wondering, wandering in your own mind, kicking over thoughts and possibilities, peeking beneath to see what may scurry out. I turn the choices over in my head, examine my reasoning for cracks and faults, the fatal flaw I may have missed, but I always, always come back to this:

and this:

and this:

And the "What If" Factor of not having him never even factors into the equation. Not a possibility. Instead I allow myself to wonder, and I wander onward.


  1. Yet another incredible and thought provoking essay. Excellent job, Miss Wiley!