What If?

Encounters between people, it often seems to me, are like crossings of racing trains at breakneck speed in the deepest night. We cast fleeting, rushed looks at the others sitting behind dull glass in dim light, who disappear from our field of vision as soon as we barely have time to perceive them. Pascal Mercier

A young woman, a young man, reading a book, the same book, passing each other on trains going in opposite directions. From the November 8, 2004 New Yorker cover. What might have been if they were seated next to one another on the same train? A brewing romance? A brief conversation? Will they be getting off at the same station?

I often think about counterfactuals. How might my life had been like if I had gone to law school, rather than graduate school in psychology? Or if I had gone to the school in the east, rather than the one in the west? As for that question, I never would have met my wife, if I had gone to the eastern school.

After I graduated in psychology at Berkeley, I was offered a job at a new university in the east. My wife and I went back to meet the members of the Department and so I could give a seminar. Afterwards, we looked around for a house to buy, the lawns were brown, it was bitterly cold and my wife found it impossible to imagine living there. What might our life have been like, if we had stuck it out and remained in the east and the now-rather-prestigious university?

It was Sunday, in the early afternoon on a warm sunny day in Lucca, Italy. I was casually moseying around the Piazza Napoleone when I came across a woman looking intently at me. And then when I passed by her, she did something women never do to me--she smiled.

A few days later, I saw her again. She saw me. We practically stumbled across one another. Both of us smiled at each other broadly. But we were at the train station. I was on my way back to Florence. It appeared she was returning once again to Lucca. Should I have stopped and forgotten about the train waiting on the tracks? Should I have even smiled at her when we saw each other again? She did. What was I to do? Pretend to be blind?

Twelve years ago, Philip Roth imagined a counterfactual history of this country in his novel The Plot Against America. He wrote that the legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh defeated Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election.

Lindbergh was an isolationist, as well as a Nazi sympathizer. In The Plot Against America he signed an agreement with Hitler that the United States would not enter the war. At the same time, the agreement had dire consequences for America’s Jewish population.

All I can think of as I recalled Roth’s novel was the current political scene in this country. Like many others, I worry about the apparent popularity of the leading candidate for the Republican nomination.

Are we approaching something similar? Can, as Roth wrote, … the shameless vanity of utter fools can so strongly determine the fate of others? Who knows? The possibility is frightening.