What A Brilliant Decision Looks Like

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).

Yum! Photo credit: Rab's Da via photopin cc

Yum! Photo credit: Rab’s Da via photopin cc

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.

Good thing you can't read the text! Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Good thing you can’t read the text! Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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.

Terminus, anyone? Decisions, decisions... Photo courtesy of morguefile.com

Terminus, anyone? Decisions, decisions… Photo courtesy of morguefile.com

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.’”

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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?

10 thoughts on “What A Brilliant Decision Looks Like

  1. I LOVE Sliding Doors! And it’s so hard to find online. I tried to show it to my boyfriend and it seems like no one has it available for streaming. Anywho – the many choices. Yes.

    I once met a man from Australia at the ski resort where I taught snowboarding. A tiny little hill called Brian Head in Utah south of SLC. He was a Burton rep and just in town for a conference or convention or event of some kind at the resort. We hit it off big time.

    So much so that he offered me a free ticket to go back home to Oz with him for the summer/winter. Incredible offer. All expenses paid. Who wouldn’t jump at that opportunity?

    I got my passport and started tying up loose ends, and then I started thinking about what it all meant. I was not attracted to him like that, and he knew it, though he was attracted to me, so…

    He was a gentleman, and we talked about his expectations about my presence there, and he also made it clear the return flight home was no problem at any time if things didn’t work out or I felt weird, but my gut was telling me to stay put. And so I did.

    In ways I do wish I’d gone, because it sounded like one helluva good time, but the gut is powerful. It knows things we don’t. I always try to listen, because when I don’t, inevitably it turns out poorly.

    1. Kelly x 2 — both of you can come to Australia and stay with me!
      No marriage required (although perhaps a little hanky panky under the right circumstances 😉 )
      The guest room is waiting xxx

  2. Great story… I love Sliding Doors… I think about things like this all the time… thankfully I’m very happy where I am so wouldn’t change anything but…. but What If?! What if I hadn’t stayed with my first boyfriend through the first two years of uni – would I be living my mother’s dream and getting married to someone I met there right now? What if I hadn’t taken that job in London, when I really didn’t want to go to the city at all, but didn’t know what else to do? What if I hadn’t ended up quitting that same job? The main push was that I was trying so hard to get a secondment over to Australia and it kept falling through… so I decided to up and go there without the security blanket of a job, en route travelling the world and meeting an American in Vegas who offered me the same deal… since I was in *love* with the US / in lust with Vegas, at the time I thought I’d do anything to stay… But I *did* make it to Oz, where I met my current partner… in a hostel on a beach, where we were both passing through and could so easily have missed each other… and now 2 years later, we’re living in the mountains of NZ, I have my own business, I’ve written a book, and we’ve got our residency…. I’m so glad I didn’t accidentally shut a door to all this on the way! Does make you pause and wonder if things are meant to be…

    1. Man, Sara, what an amazing story! The multitude of tiny choices that could have put you in a different place is astounding. If you think about it too much, it could paralyze you. Enough of that!

      One of my creative nonfiction writing instructors at the University of Iowa had a similar situation, albeit with life and death consequences. If it wasn’t for her dying dog, her life would have ended before his. Take a read here if you want the full story—it’s amazing.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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