Photo source, Muppet Wiki: Fork in the Road
During college, I spent a semester in the south of France. For my spring break, I went up to Vienna to see the Spanish Riding School. This meant two days on trains going over and two days going back. Who wouldn’t want to spend most of a vacation week on trains?
Totally worth it.
Needless to say, none of my classmates were of like mind. I went alone.
On the way back, on a train platform somewhere between Austria and France, I met a charming young man. We hit it off immediately. Chatted for five or ten minutes as if we had been friends for years. Plus, he was cute. When his train arrived, he invited me to come with him. I declined. I had to get back to class.
I smack myself. Not that I didn’t go. I smack myself that it never occurred to me to go. That I never even considered an alternate path. My college program was expecting me in class on Monday. Class is what one did. Back I would go. What’s the opposite of teen rebellion? That would have been me.
So, of course, I wonder.
Hopping on a train with a random stranger was not as flaky as it sounds. Early 80s Europe was awash in students with Eurail Passes clutched in their grubby paws. In Vienna, I shared a hotel room with two women from Kalamazoo College who I had met on the train on the way. We met. We got along. We shared a destination. We shared a room. Made sense. Changing the gender changed the dynamic, but the underlying idea remained.
I’m interested in the incident as much from a narrative point of view as anything else. Given the same starting characteristics, how would the story have ended differently?
Forks In The Road
It might have changed everything.
He might have been a horrible person and I would have ended up as a statistic.
He might have been a wonderful person and our meetcute in a train station is the story we tell our grandchildren.
He might have been a mix of both and the experience prompted me to change my major, take up the cello, insert abrupt life/career offshoot.
The fork in the road is story-telling staple. A small change launches the protagonist down a different life path. For example, “Spell My Name with an S” by Isaac Asimov, wherein a major global realignment results from shifting a Z to an S.
The fork in the road idea is often combined with time travel, wherein the protagonist makes a small change that has enormous repercussions. For example, “Sound of Thunder” by Raymond Bradbury, which gives new meaning to the term Butterfly Effect.
Or the protagonist goes back in time with the specific intention of making the small change to affect the grand design. I recall a story that hinged on going into the past to a specific hospital closet in order to move a box of drugs from one shelf to the next. (Memory does not record what happened or which story this was. Too vague for surfing success. Ring any bells?)
Bumps In The Road
It might have changed nothing
I run off. Have grand – or not so grand – adventures. Eventually return to class. Get yelled at for my absence. Resume studies. Life returns to status quo ante, with the addition of a few fond – or not so fond – memories.
Convergent fate appears less often in fiction. Less interesting. Less plot potential. If it shows up, it is usually as a reason that time travel cannot make changes to the past. One of Jodi Taylor’s St. Mary’s books has a moment where a character almost intervenes only to have a heavy statue almost land on them. The message is Don’t Mess With History. (Or so my memory tells me. It would have been one of the early books. Any Taylor fans out there want to confirm?)
Here’s speculative example from another area of my life. Let’s say I had taken a different part-time job in high school. My friend would not have been on hand to wear me down about filling out a college application with seven (7!) essays. Since I met my husband in college, and since we live were we do because of his job, a different college would have meant a different life for me. Maybe not. Maybe I would have taken a different job than the one I did, met my future husband on a work trip, and ultimately ended up right where I am now.
Forky Bumps In The Road
It might have changed everything and nothing.
As part of an undergraduate history class at the University of Chicago, Professor Ada Palmer does a participatory reenactment of the papal election of 1490. While the characters are all historically accurate, she jiggers the plot just enough that there is no “right” answer. UC: A Papal Election Here on Campus
As a result of the election, nothing changes. A bad Pope is elected. War comes. Historical forces will not be denied.
As a result of the elections, everything changes. Which man? What families rise as a result? Which families fall? Where does the war break out? Which towns burn?
In my case, I might have ended up as a freelance writer (no change) living in the Deep South (no change, sigh), with a completely different husband (big change).
Questions For The Audience
For everyone. What think you? History/fate/life is an exploding array of diverging choices? History etc is inevitable? A mix of both?
For three people. Did you attended Kalamazoo college and visit Vienna in early 1982? Did you chat up a stranger at a train station, probably somewhere in France, also in early 1982? If you did either of these, drop a me line. Let me know how your life turned out.