There is a character in my head who lives his life in regret, and whom parts of my subconscious try to speak through: a character in a story I’ve been writing since I was twelve, and one that I am here to say goodbye to. I’m sitting behind him in a beer garden, staring at the back of his head. Today is the day of his funeral, but he doesn’t know it. I haven’t the heart to tell him either, so instead I sit behind him and let him enjoy his beer. I feel I owe him that. He is older than I am, and is the vessel for all my regrets. No wonder he can’t fit onto a page. He is a writer as well, so carries the stories I haven’t finished. Or have finished and can’t let go of so keep returning to, trying to rewrite. His name is Draph Nathaniel, and all his life he has been six seconds late.
On the night he was born there was a terrible storm that delayed his birth. All storms are terrible because we cannot control them, and we hate to not be in control. We cling to the notion that we are, but we’re not. We are in a massive machine of circumstance, and must simply hope the clogs turn in our favour. When they do, we call this fate. Or chance. Or luck. And we say that’s where we are meant to be. A better man than myself once defined this so elegantly:
The two prime movers in the Universe are Time and Luck.
That man was a writer named Kurt Vonnegut Jnr. I never met him so can’t attest to what his character was, but from reading his work I am assured of the following: he held regret and knew the damage time can do. This essay, in part, is homage to him and the lives we both have and haven’t led. The things we’d like to undo. It’s about the decisions we’ve made. It’s about where we are and where we sometimes wonder we should be. It’s about regret and why regrets mean nothing. And it’s about how the decisions that have led us here have saved our lives. So I bid you: listen.
I flipped a coin and I lost my life.
These words were overheard in Chinatown, Manhattan, by a journalist who broadcast them via Twitter. Intrigued by the phrase, her friend, another journalist, decided to follow the story. She tracked its origin to a 30-year-old man named Dennis, a masseuse at the Health Trail massage parlour, which specialises in people’s feet. The words were spoken by Dennis at the age of 26. Both he and his brother, Kyle, had just graduated college, so naturally they were unemployed. Education seems to mean so much and so little. After a while they were forced to return home to live with their father, the owner of the parlour. Their father gave them an ultimatum: one of them had to continue the family business. Neither of them wanted to. After days, weeks, possibly months of avoiding the discussion, they one day, quite casually, decided to settle it with a loser-takes-all proposition: the all, of course, being the burden of the business and the loss of their life and all they had thought it would entail.
The bet was waged over a cup of tea, devised from an old ritual determining luck. If the tealeaves floated upside down with their stalks protruding from the water, you were to have a fortuitous year. Between the two brothers, however, the stakes were somewhat higher: they decided whoever had the most stalks protruding would have a good life. The cups were set. The tealeaves were placed. The water boiled and poured. Dennis watched as his tea leaves rose, presenting numerous stalks. With wide eyes and a smile, he looked to Kyle’s teacup. Kyle’s teacup had many more. He sat in silence for countless minutes, blank, coming to terms with what this meant.
It took the grace of time, however – several months in fact – for Dennis to realise it was the best decision he could have made. Despite never actually having made it. Kyle asserts there never was a gamble: had he lost, he wouldn’t have gone through with it. He claims it was all about Dennis, who was terrified of making the decision. Terrified it might be wrong. That it was not what he’d planned for his life. But secretly, he wanted it: he just needed prompting.
In ancient Greece, Xenophon of Athens and his men were being pursued by a Persian army. Xenophon decided to turn and confront them, and chose the edge of a cliff as their battleground. There was nowhere to retreat to. There was no option but to fight. It sent the message to the Persians that Xenophon and his men were going to fight to the death, be it by sword or fall. ‘Embrace the cliff,’ he is reported to have said.
I used to ponder the decisions I’d made, and one decision in particular. One choice I made when I was so much younger that has shaped every day of my life since. For so long I have framed it as a regret, but now realise that by pulling a thread, everything I hold dear today would come unravelled. This happens when you place your life in a frame. Make a tapestry of it. A decision can seem inconsequential when looked upon from a distance, but it has the power to make people non-existent. Think on that a second: one decision, one thread, and someone doesn’t exist.
I’m at the end of grade six – a twelve-year-old kid – and I’m lying in bed, pillow wet with tears. My mum’s asking me what I want to do, and if I’m sure. I’m at a crossroads, and am already grieving because I know which path I’m taking. My primary school friends are all going to the same high school. My older sister, however, goes to another, and there’s something inside of me saying I should follow her. I have to go. Some ‘hard road’ kind of crap. It means the death of all those friendships. This is an age before Facebook, mobile phones, the Internet and the ease of contact. I’m twelve years old, and trading the old for the new.
For years, that there has been the moment: the decision that shaped my life and gave birth to Draph. The next few years of high school were spent in relative solitude. The library became a haven, a place I didn’t have to worry about fitting in. Or avoiding people. Or being seen wandering around the yard alone, or worse, trying to keep up with people who weren’t that bothered if I trailed behind. Ever since I’ve felt disconnected, knowing I let go at that point. And I’ve spent the time since wondering if it’s been them or me, the reason I’ve felt misplaced. So many times I’ve revisited that moment: wondering who I would be if I’d made the other choice. But if there is one thing Draph has taught me, it is this: it is so easy to lose yourself in the past, and once lost it can be so very hard to find your way back again.
The signposts erected since then are not hard to follow. One points directly to the next, and they form a network of people and places and friends. I fell in love with a girl in high school. She left to go to another school. I followed her. I hated it, and we didn’t work out. I left. I arrived at another school and made some friends. They introduced me to some of their friends. One of them had a sister. I shared a house with her years later, and when she left a girl from Hobart, Tasmania moved in. She was in a band, and they would practice in our garage. The band had a lead guitarist. That guitarist is now my wife.
Every day we make decisions. These decisions change our lives. These decisions save our lives, and condemn us to an early death. There is no consistency to how they work. No way of telling what the outcome will be. There are better lives we could have led, and worse. Decisions we could have made. One day we’ll have technology that will enable us to speak to our alternate selves. Draph, who is a better writer than I am, wrote a story about that. The device is called the ‘What To Do’. It is a machine worn on your arm like a wristwatch, and allows the wearer to video-chat with him or herself of the future and ask what happened once a decision had been reached and enacted upon. Once feedback is received, the wearer adapts their decisions accordingly. Thus, a new version of themselves can be called, and so on. It never ends, and it never ends well.
Draph also wants to write the story of his life. He’s gotten as far as the title, which is Error in Transfer. I’m sitting behind him in a beer garden. He’s at the table opposite with his back to me, and he’s staring at it right now – nothing but those three words on an empty page of a starving notebook, its ribs so visible. I know because I write him every minute. He’s tapping his pen on those three words as if the ink will spill out and do the job for him. The story he wants to tell is a portrayal of the importance of time, the crucial impact a second can make, and the life-changing ramifications of a seemingly simple decision. This is what he intends it to be, but he can’t get over the first hurdle. That first word. The enormity of a second has him stifled. Has him flummoxed. He does know this much, however: he is forever chasing those six seconds. Counting all events worldwide that can happen in them. Those six seconds were not just lost on the night of his birth. They are constantly repeated. Constantly mourned for. Constantly deemed critical to his current situation and at odds with what would happen each moment if they were accounted for.
So much happens in six seconds. If he divides each one from the whole, it places everything into perspective. In that first second, approximately ten new people draw their first breath in our shared world. By the sixth, 70 people have drawn their first breath, 60 have exhaled their last, and, in every one of those seconds in between, billions of irreversible decisions have been made.
‘Forget the notion you have control!’ Draph would scream. ‘If I can’t account for six seconds, what hope do any of us have of control?’ Seventeen months ago I would have let him scream this. But so much happens in seventeen months.
I know of a woman whose life was saved by the combination of a clumsy finger and one minute. It could be argued that she, in her lifetime, has had many opportunities to die, but we can account for at least two, and they both failed because of chance, perhaps. Or luck. Or the simple motion of gears.
Her name is Elise O’Kane. She’s a flight stewardess, and still is because while rostering on for a shift one night, she got two numbers mixed up. This was her usual flight, but she screwed it up. What a fool. Fat fingers. She had the opportunity to fix that, though, the night before the shift. But in trying to reschedule her shift, in trying to secure normality, her computer stalled. The system lagged – there was a glitch in the matrix, or a terrible storm somewhere – and by the time it was all back to normal she was one minute late. 60 seconds. She spoke with the man who beat her to it, who got the shift she wanted. He was a happy man, new to the job, and expressed his excitement for getting a cocktail once his first destination was reached. But the destination never was. That flight slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
All for a minute – a cursed minute, damned luck – and she hated every minute following until that damned luck became otherwise. We do this a lot in life, I’ve realised. We do it all the time. Where we are is so damned unfortunate or lucky, depending on perspective, but we’re so often quick to feel unlucky more than otherwise. Until something drastic like a minute changes everything. Until something meant to kill us saves us.
Greer Epstein was an executive director at Morgan Stanley. In my opinion, anyone with that kind of title is destined for a short life regardless. But my opinion isn’t well paid for, and barely worth noting or adhering to. On this, it seems, fate would agree. Epstein was known as a hard worker who rarely left the desk. But one morning she did, when a colleague asked her out for a cigarette. Draph and I are smokers, so this story brings us both much joy and heartbreak. I know he is smiling, because he thinks exactly what I do. Then his spirit falls heavy, because mine do too. Midway down their elevator ride the building trembled. When they emerged onto the street they found a city in devastation: that same plane from the paragraph above had struck. Minutes later, Greer Epstein watched as a second plane stuck the south tower and went straight through her office. Everyone she had said good morning to on that floor was dead. And a cigarette saved her life.
Draph falls silent in the same way I do. It is a silence you can feel. It’s recognition of how lucky we are. Of how much a minute or decision can mean. Draph stands and takes the final swig of his beer. He slams the pint glass down and turns to grab his jacket off the back of his chair. My unwavering gaze catches his eye, and for a moment he stares as if we might know each other. As if I might have something to tell him.
I have all of this to tell him. On that night I traded the old for the new, there was no terrible storm but the one swirling in my twelve-year-old mind. It was a storm of time and space and chaos, of infinite pathways and decisions, and one I conjured to make sense of why I’ve felt so misplaced in the world since then. Draph’s lost six seconds is the time I imagine it took me to make that adult decision at such a young age – for me to resolve to one path. The time it took for my life to branch one way and divorce itself of any other. And if it is to come to the decision between Draph – my life of regrets – or a life of forgetting what could have been and instead of embracing what I have, then I know which choice I have to make.
But I don’t say any of it. Instead, I turn and stare out at the road. And in turning away, I make him unwritten – erase him as if he never existed. Because that is what I am here to do. To unburden him of all that I’ve put on his shoulders and made him carry over the years. Because so much happens in six seconds, and so much can change you in seventeen months.
If it were all to unravel – were I to pull that thread – then there is someone immeasurably dear to me that wouldn’t exist. This is the power of seventeen months. This is the power of a massive six seconds, or sixty. This is the magic of decision and chance. A life was saved, another found in tealeaves. A path was taken, and the new embraced. A child was born 17 months ago for a decision I made at twelve. And how could any decision I’ve made be wrong if it led to her: this girl so small, this spirit gigantic. Nothing I’ve done can be regretted.
First published in Kindling (2014, Writer’s Edit).