One of my favorite movies is 1998’s “Sliding Doors,” starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The movie’s central idea: Harmless, inconsequential decisions set in motion the domino/butterfly effects of our lives—change one thing and you risk altering everything. That’s incredible and scary. We are faced with hundreds, even thousands of those kinds of choices every day. How can we recognize the important ones from the “it’s not even going to matter” variety?
The summer after I graduated from high school in 1987, I lived in Australia for a year as an exchange student. I fell in love with the country first, then a boy. I’ll call him Daniel.
Daniel was a confident, wiry, blond-haired boy who could charm a baby from a dingo’s mouth. He had an impish grin, a swagger to match and lips like the sweet, marshmallow center of a pavlova (one of Australia’s most popular desserts).
Our relationship exemplified teenage love—immediate attraction, followed by a horrendous, forced break-up (dating was a no-no for exchange students) followed by a John Hughes movie-worthy reconciliation, rules be damned. And it ended as all good romances do: Before its time, with lots of tears and “I’ll never forget yous,” and the worse case of airsickness ever.
When I returned home, we wrote real letters (all of which I still have) and called each other once a month or so, but we never talked for long. Neither of us could afford enormous phone bills, which was probably a good thing. The pain of hearing his hypnotic voice like he was close enough to touch but knowing he was on the other side of the world destroyed me every time—and drove me to listen to Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting” more than any person should.
In the early 1990s, my university began offering student email accounts that included an instant message feature. I hunched over a keyboard in the chilly library in between classes, and marveled at Daniel and my ability to keep things steamy with nothing but neon green letters on a tiny black screen.
Not long after that, Daniel decided to come to the U.S. for a visit. He intended to travel around the country by hitchhiking, train, and bus before coming to see me, although his adventure was cut short by a tenacious upper respiratory infection. But he was not about to let a “little” bug interfere with our reunion.
Before I left Australia, Daniel and I had agreed to date other people as a matter of practicality. We both did, but no one compared, at least not for me. So as I waited for him at the Amtrak station that bitter January night, I trusted that once I saw him we’d pick up right where we’d left off.
He stepped off the train, his grin the opening move of our reunion. Ten cars separated us. He inched toward me across the icy platform. When he reached me, he flung his arms around me, smashing our bodies together. And like I had anticipated, something was there between us—it was the crunch of his brown oilskin coat, petrified by the winter air.
But that was it.
I didn’t understand. I’d been dying to see him for years. I’d imagined the moment when we’d finally be holding each other again, and it was exactly like this—except with feeling.
He sensed the shortfall, and I acted like he hadn’t. We did our best to pretend “it” was still there, but neither of us dared test it.
In the days leading up to Daniel’s visit, I had made up my mind to return to Australia to live there permanently, and had researched what I needed to do to make it happen. While he was visiting, I received immigration information from the Australian government.
I didn’t have the training or education required for a work visa, and I wasn’t willing to accept a short-term student visa. I wanted to live and work there, as a citizen.
I was crushed.
“What about the other option?” Daniel asked.
“Which one is that?”
“The one where you marry me.”
At first I refused. I wouldn’t even consider it. I reminded him of his family’s devout Catholicism and said that while they liked me before, their opinion would change if I married their son for his citizenship.
“Besides, you know I don’t love you like that anymore.”
“I know,” he said, with more grace than I could have pulled off. But I couldn’t change his mind.
“You don’t love me like that now, but I think you could, eventually. You did before…you might again.”
I wanted to believe that. But I wanted to live in Australia more.
Against my better judgment, but unable to let go of visions of a life down under, I called the courthouse and arranged our wedding date.
We told my parents. If they thought the idea asinine, they never said so—they recognized the value in letting people, especially their children, make their own decisions and live with the consequences, especially the bad ones.
My parents’ role as bystanders let me play out all the possible pitfalls.
I imagined living with my new husband in a tiny apartment in Sydney…and bringing a cute boy home for a nightcap.
I envisioned his parents’ disappointment when they learned of our marriage…and then our divorce.
I pictured myself roaming the streets of Sydney…homeless and alone.
The day before our wedding, I called it off. Daniel and I were both disappointed, but for different reasons. That alone should have made backing out, squashing Daniel’s hopes for rekindled love, and staying put in my homeland a brilliant decision.
But it led to so much more.
Years later I married a man I did love and not for his citizenship. We moved to Chicago to take jobs each of us ended up hating, then returned to Iowa even though I wanted to stay.
Once home, I met a woman who I consider one of my best friends to this day. After a five-hour coffee, she pronounced my marriage to my chronically unfaithful husband “so over.” She gave me the courage and permission to ask for the divorce I saw coming after my husband revealed his first indiscretion.
Two months before we married.
After I received our divorce papers in the mail, I collapsed on our kitchen floor and cried. After that, I picked up my pen and started journaling. Within a few days, I wrote this sentence:
“I think I’ll apply for a job at Borders.”
I already had a job and didn’t need another one. Those words seemed to come from someone else, maybe the person who knew what was best for me. It certainly wasn’t me.
So I followed orders.
On my first day at Borders, just a few weeks after I wrote that journal entry, I met the man who would become my second (and guaranteed last) husband just eight months later. Five months after that, we were pregnant.
Although I had made tons of decisions before choosing not to marry my Australian boyfriend, that one taught me the most. Something as simple as saying no, even when the choice demands a yes, may turn out to be the smartest move you ever made, even if it takes years to realize it.
I often think about one of the best repeated lines of dialogue in “Sliding Doors.” It reminds me not to get too worked up over decisions because you just never know…
James [Gwyneth’s/Helen’s love interest]: “Cheer up. Remember what the Monty Python boys say.”
Helen [Gwyneth]: “Always look on the bright side of life?”
James: “No. ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.’”
What was your most brilliant decision? What happened when one of your “it’s not even going to matter” decisions turned into a life-altering one? How do you go about making decisions when something important hinges on them? Do you make lists, vision boards, talk to friends/family, close your eyes and jump?