Saturday, April 11, 2015

Pure Fiction

When I was a young child, I read the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books. The premise of the books was simple: The reader could literally choose her own adventure. The reader would be presented with a plot and, at a critical moment, the choice to pursue one course of action or another. For instance, if you witnessed a robbery, you could "follow the bank robbers" and turn to page 15. If you chose instead to "call the police," you would turn to page 37.

Like no doubt countless other children, I would number and add a paper bookmark whenever I was confronted by a decision in the story line. That way, if I were unhappy with the story that ensued, I could simply go back to my bookmarked page and proceed with the other choice and story line. In one particular book, I remember littering the pages with so many numbered bookmarks that I gave up and resigned myself to the literary fate my choices had taken me. After all, there were always other books to read, other adventures to choose, other lives to live.

What if real life were like that? What if, whenever you were confronted by a crossroad, you could simply place a bookmark there in that moment in time? That way, if you chose unwisely or unhappily, you could simply un-live the life you just lived, go back in time to that bookmark, and live a wholly different life with a different ending - a little wiser and without consequence.


It was a Friday night and I was drunk. Very very drunk. I was at the annual company retreat and tonight was the final night. We were in a large ballroom, all three hundred of us. An open bar stood in the corner, promising good times and unspoken mischief. I was on my third or fourth whiskey on the rocks and laughing at every witty and witless joke I heard.

At this particular moment, I stood admiringly by Anna, a beautiful senior analyst who was almost a decade older than I was. "You have the perfect body," I said, eying her slender figure. "I could motorboat you." Anna laughed hysterically. Alec, a senior vice president who was standing nearby, smirked and said, "We need to see more of this side of you."

I looked at Alec and laughed.

I remember the first time I met Alec. It was at my interview, two years ago. He walked briskly into the lobby where I was seated, held out his hand, and tersely said, "I'm Alec. Nice to meet you." I immediately stood up, shook his hand, and replied, "Nice to meet you too." He stood at an unremarkable 5'9, with disheveled dirty blonde hair, a plaid shirt, and skinny jeans.

Alec worked in the company's L.A. office, while I was interviewing for a position in the New York headquarters. The position would not be reporting directly to him, yet would work closely with his role. During our interview, Alec struck me as incredibly intelligent, articulate, and unabashedly cantankerous.

I accepted the job offer immediately.

Over the next two years, we collaborated on numerous business decisions. Our interactions were always professional and perfunctory, sprinkled with a polite joke or anecdote about the weather, our kids, or other mundane topic. Once in a while, he would visit the New York office to have some face time with the other senior executives. I could tell he missed living in New York.

Tonight at the company retreat, Alec was leaning against the wall with a beer in his right hand, quietly watching Anna and I banter. Anna noticed I was running low and offered to get me another whiskey. "Sure," I said, while every cell of my liver pleaded no. She left me with Alec, and we stood there talking for minute or two about an upcoming project. Anna then slipped a new glass of whiskey into my hand and whisked off to mingle amongst the throng of other drunken coworkers.

I sipped my whiskey, and for the next hour or so, Alec and I talked. He talked about his wife and how he thought she was amazing the first time he met her. He told me about the company's history, his irreverent opinions of his department, and his frustrations with the bureaucracy.

"You're not thinking about leaving, are you?" I asked. He paused and looked at me unwaveringly. "No, you can't leave," I pleaded, grasping at his arm with both hands. "You're the only one who responds to my emails!" He laughed, unpersuaded by what I perceived at the time to be very persuasive reasoning.

And at that moment, Alec wasn't a senior executive anymore, but merely a guy I was chatting and joking around with. I was now leaning against the wall facing him, my right arm close to his, and feeling pleasantly intoxicated and disarmed. And then it just crept up on me. This strange yet warm, nostalgic feeling, something I hadn't felt in a very long time.

"It's crowded here," Alec said, eying the door. "There's another bar in this resort. Want to go?"

"Sure," I said. I playfully linked my arm in his and we left the room of rowdy coworkers. After stumbling through a couple carpeted hallways, we arrived at the bar. Closed.

"Oh no," I said.

"Hmm," Alec said and paused. "Let's go to my room."

"Okay," I said. I felt something within me gently yet earnestly pull me towards him, and I let myself be pulled. As we walked up a couple flights of stairs, my arm still linked in his, my incoherent mind began to register what was materializing in this story line. What is going on? Is this really happening?

He unlocked the hotel room door and let me inside. I stood there for a moment facing the dark room as I heard him close the door behind me. The room remained dark, save for the dim moonlight that streamed in through the windows. I slowly walked to his deck and looked outside, over the shadowy trees and mountains beneath the moonlight, feeling serene, excited, and scared.

"Come back inside," he said quietly.

I turned around and walked towards him as he sat in an armchair. He took my hands and gently pulled me closer to him. I felt him place his hands on my waist near the edge of my shirt and his fingers touch my skin. It was then I realized that I really didn't know Alec that well, other than our business relationship and cursory small talk. Somehow, through a sequence of events, I was in his hotel room, feeling intoxicated by him, the whiskey, his hands touching my waist, and wanting very much to be with him.

It is at this moment in time where I would have placed a bookmark. That thin slip of paper I could always revisit just in case I chose a story line that ended unhappily.

I moved his hands from my waist and held them in mine. He then guided us to the bed.

"This is crazy," I said to him as I sat in front of him.

"I know," he replied, pulling me toward him.

"This is crazy," I repeated. "We're both married. With kids."

"I know," he said. "But I have this irresistible impulse to be with you."

"What, why?"

"I just got this feeling that you really wanted this," he said. "And you just looked so cute."

A part of me melted, and the feeling inside seemed to grow and emanate and reverberate between us. His words seemed to blur my senses and again I felt myself being pulled toward him.

Yet a part of me knew that this, all of this, was very wrong. And so, I made my choice: I resisted. And, after much awkwardness and weirdness, I left his hotel room.

Later that evening, in my own room, I replayed the events of the evening in my head, feeling confused, anxious, and exhilarated. I got three hours of sleep that night. The next morning, I was a nervous wreck. How would I act around Alec? Would we just pretend nothing ever happened?

The answer was yes.

The retreat was three months ago, and we have resumed our regularly scheduled charade. Conversations are painfully professional. Emails are terse. I am rightfully, agonizingly kept at arms' length. And I think back to that paper bookmark that hovered tremulously over his bed in his hotel room that night, and wonder, "what if."

What if I had given in? What if I had chosen the other path, the one filled with broken vows, guilt, and the inevitable destruction of both of our lives? What if I allowed myself just one night of pure selfishness? How exquisite and vile.

That night lingers in my mind, painfully, hauntingly, like a hangover I won't cure.

Yet, what of my husband and my children? They are indelibly etched into my heart, and I could never, would never, unweave their stories from my life.

And so I am a contradiction. A dichotomy. Like a book that has already been written, with two story lines that cannot possibly coexist yet are bound by a brittle spine. If I had chosen the other path, where would my story have taken me? I wonder if, at this precise moment in that alternate story line, I would have been experiencing the same magnitude but a wholly different kind of angst. I wonder if I would be revisiting that bookmarked event behind closed eyelids in the ephemeral moment between consciousness and sleep. I wonder if that other version of me would also be asking a different version of "what if."

But all the questions and metaphors mean very little when the reality is that this story has already been written. This life has already been lived. And the other story line is simply an idea, a pure fiction that was never chosen, never read, and thus never existed.

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