I find alternative history to be fascinating. If you’re not familiar with what that term means, “alternative history” refers to exploring what could have occurred if a particular historical event had turned out differently, extrapolating from that change how subsequent events might have changed as well. What if the South had won the Civil War, or the Germans had stayed with the Schlieffen Plan in World War I, or major league baseball had become fully integrated in the 1880s instead of the 1950s. (All of which came close to happening.) A lot of great books of recent years have been based on this concept, including Military History Quarterly’s What If? series and Michael Chabon’s award-winning novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.
Playing the “what-if” game is an interesting exercise when dealing with key historical moments – and maybe even more so when dealing with key personal ones. Think of the movies Sliding Doors, The Family Man, 13 Going on 30 and The Butterfly Effect, all of which hinge on how the protagonists’ lives are affected by a single decision. (I guess you could throw It’s A Wonderful Life in there as well.) Or think of your own (hopefully) wonderful life, and how different choices might have changed it. What if I had stuck with my high school sweetheart instead of meeting someone new at college? What if I’d applied for that job instead of this one? What if I’d gone to the club with my friends rather than staying home and watching Seinfeld reruns? What if I hadn’t taken a swing at that cop? For good or ill, our decisions shape our future.
My point, you may ask? (Yes, I have one.) Well, Peabody, let’s set the Wayback Machine to June 19, 1998 – twelve years ago – and the rock concert I didn’t attend …
In June 1998, I was 28 and had been through quite a bit in the previous six months. I’d changed congregations, feeling (after months of prayer and consideration) that it was God’s will for me to move on. That, in turn, had caused a missions organization with which I was planning to do some long-term work overseas to decide that I was too flighty and drop me like a hot rock. Plus, I had moved from boarding at another guy’s house in a semi-ritzy part of Stockton (he’d been through a divorce and was having trouble making the payments) to getting an apartment of my own downtown. I’d changed jobs too. And my car died in the midst of all this, so I was commuting by bus and bicycle until I could afford to get another one.
When I joined the new congregation, I also joined their young-adults group, which was being run by a couple I’d known years before at my previous congregation. But by June, I was starting to get bored. Looking back, there was no one thing about the group that turned me off – there was a small but loyal core of six or eight sociable people, and the leaders presented a variety of interesting teaching. But I didn’t seem to be making any deep friendships, it just seemed like I was treading water and why bother. In retrospect, maybe I was still down from all that had been happening.
A “progressive dinner” (each course at a different person’s house) was planned for Friday the 19th, and as much as I like to eat, I wasn’t really excited. Especially since I didn’t have a car, so I’d have to cadge a ride from place to place with the group leaders. (That’s not much fun when you’re almost 30.) But there was an alternative (there’s that word again) possibility for how I could spend my evening: Pat Benatar was playing the San Joaquin County Fair.
The fact that I was even considering this was, looking back, a real sign that I was bored with my life. I had enjoyed Pat’s music back in the mid-‘80s when I was in high school, thought she was seriously hot. I had a poster of her on my wall, and had written a review for my high school newspaper of a concert she’d done in the next town over from where I lived then. But shortly after I gave my life to Jesus in 1987, I got rid of all my “secular” records and music paraphernalia, started getting into Christian contemporary music, and really never looked back. Pat hadn’t been a part of my life in a decade-plus. So the idea of going to see this concert was a fairly major departure from my established habits.
I didn’t make a decision on what I’d do that night until a few hours before, when I decided to give the young-adults group one more shot. Besides, I knew I’d get a better meal than at the county fair …
So that evening I went over to the leaders’ house (only a mile away by bicycle). The wife greeted me and said her husband was out picking up one other car-less person, some new girl who would be attending for the first time. He got back, his wife and I hopped in to go to stop number one (hors d’oeuvres). Riding shotgun, I turned to look in the back seat and saw this inordinately tall, skinny redheaded girl sitting there. Okay, must be the new person, I thought. Honestly, that was all the impression she made.
And that didn’t change until the second stop (soup/salad), when she brought up – of all things – some problems she was having with her feet. That may seem like a strange subject for young people to bond over, but I was born club-footed, spent much of my early childhood in corrective casts and finally had to have an operation to correct them; my feet have never been 100% and never will be. So I was her ideal audience, and we ended up spending a good amount of time trading podiatry war stories. And I began to notice that while the redhead was inordinately tall and skinny (and I had always been partial to short brunettes – you know, like Pat Benatar), she was still … not pretty exactly, but striking, that’s the word. Your eyes were drawn to her. My attention was got.
And at the next stop (entrée) I apparently got her attention, through an event that to me seemed perfectly innocuous. We’d all sat down around the table (hosts #3 had decided on a more formal setting), there was some debate about who would be served first, and I had instinctively chimed in with “well, of course the ladies go first” or something to that effect. (What can I say, my Mom raised me right.) Little did I know how impressed Tall Skinny Girl was by that.
By the time we settled in at the final location (dessert), our conversation had ranged all over the place; the best kind of conversation, I think. And while eating, we were sitting at a counter instead of a table, so I got to really look at her legs. It was summer, so she was wearing shorts, and … well, you know the expression “she has legs up to here”? This girl did. Skinny legs, but still, up to here. I knew I had to get her phone number (this was before everyone had e-mail), provided I could work up the guts.
Turns out I didn’t need to – she asked me for mine first. Let’s see – Christian girl, striking good looks, shared experiences/traumas, AND willing to ask for a guy’s number? Yeah, this could work.
Over the next week, we talked on the phone a couple of times. She was expecting the results of some doctors’ tests on June 30 (they were worried she might have MS; she didn’t), so I made a point to stop by her apartment that night, and ended up having to help settle her in when the muscle relaxants the doc prescribed that day proved a little *too* effective. Before she passed out, we made a date for the following Friday (July 3, which I had off due to Independence Day) to go see Titanic, which neither of us had seen because neither of us had dated in years and only masochists go see a movie like Titanic without a date. And later that evening, by the time we arrived at the next young-adults get-together, we found we had become a single, hyphenated word.
No longer was I Ray, at least not to the rest of the group. I had become Ray-and-Nina.
You guessed it – provided you hadn’t guessed it six paragraphs ago, of course. Tall Skinny Redhead was my future wife, aka the Supermodel (‘cause she’s built like one, and ‘cause she’s a good role model besides). Less than three months after that first meeting, I would ask her to be my wife. Just over seven months later, she officially did.
We’ve been through a lot in the last twelve years, things I wouldn’t have wished for, things I wouldn’t wish on the nastiest flea in Osama bin Laden’s beard. We’ve also had some times so beautiful that I don’t think I could describe them. We’ve laughed a lot, we’ve cried a lot, we’ve screamed things at each other we wish we could take back, and we’ve said things we hope we always remember. Most of all, unlike many people we know, we’re still together, ready to make more memories over the coming years.
One of my favorite poems – one of my favorite writings of any kind – is the first portion of Robert Frost’s 1920 work “Mountain Interval”. You probably know it as “The Road Not Taken”. The last stanza is the payoff:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Boy, has it. Pat Benatar, I suspect, did just fine without me showing up that summer night in ‘98. But not as well as I did by not showing up. Thank you, Nina, for the last twelve years, and I look forward to the next twelve, and the next twelve million. You and me for eternity, kiddo …