Jan/Feb 1999  •   Salon

The Tug of Inevitabilities

by Tom Dooley

I want to knit you a sweater, write you a love letter, make you feel better...
—Joni Mitchell, Blue

It's a new year. Last of the 1900s. The nation is moving on after Monica. No more Michael Jordan. I'm still coming off the end of a decade-plus-long relationship, so it feels like no more lots of things, with not much of note on the horizon.

Last night I found myself at a local sports bar, eating a brick of fried onions and a prime rib dinner. I drank a 20-ounce draft of Killians and watched SportsCenter go through two loops of feeds on the current state of the NFL playoffs. All that might not sound like a bad thing, but it cost me $28 and loaded up my arteries with five times my daily allowance of saturated and unsaturated fat. I was exhausted from having only four hours of sleep the night before, and I couldn't help but feel concern over my weekend slipping quickly away from me with so many tasks left undone. The weird part was I didn't intend to be there in the first place, and given the guilt over money and cholesterol and lost time, I didn't really want to be there at the moment. It was like I had to be, though... receiving some kind of strange, greasy absolution. I was and have been wandering in the wilderness, still seeking truth and inspiration, with only my weakened principles and lingering habits to guide me.

Before the sports bar, I'd been shopping in Target. Actually, not shopping, but shuffling down the aisles as if drawn by a normally resistible source I could no longer resist in my weakened state. What do I mean by "weakened state"? The words "deeply felt alienation" come to mind. When I want to feel really, really alienated, I go to Target or Walmart and walk around in a half-conscious daze. I toy with the idea I'm allowing fate to pull me toward some impending destiny. Why else would I be in Target with nothing in mind to buy unless it was fate drawing me down some particular aisle at some particular moment?

Sometimes I imagine I will be standing there in front of the vacuum cleaners, and I'll look up, as if suddenly awake for the first time in days, and see the most beautiful, perfect woman. She will look up, too, in the same exact way, and I'll say, "You are why I'm here!" But unlike what would actually happen in such a scenario, she won't think I'm a weirdo freak. She'll know exactly what I'm talking about, because she'll have been testing fate, too—following it around like someone who wants to believe in divining rods carrying a forked stick. Was that a tug? Did I just feel something there?

I went around the store twice, thinking I would buy a compact disk or maybe a pillow for my couch. I needed to spend money—to exercise my purchasing power in the face of economic impotence. In the end, I opted for a toilet brush, a six-pack of Slimfast breakfast shakes, and The Duck, a toilet cleanser with a specially shaped bottle that would allow for application in hard to reach places. Carrying these items out to the car gave me no real sense of satisfaction.

Target having failed to raise my spirits, I guess I had no choice but to prove I was alive by eating a steak and drinking a beer. I can see now that fate wasn't what brought me there. It was a close cousin: inevitability. Predictability. In my normal, healthy state, I run around thinking I'm driving my own decisions instead of just doing what is the inevitable next step for my character to take. When I get so tired and out of it like I was last night, I can no longer support the illusion of self-determination. Things happen a little more slowly, and with the appearance of mystery, but they happen nonetheless.

Did I say "my character"? I've got to get away from such egocentricisms, thinking my life is a story with me at its center. If life even is a story in progress, and not just a series of related and random events, I'm almost certainly not the protagonist. I'm probably not even a character—more like part of the background. An element of setting. It's like realizing the earth is, as Douglas Adams put it, "a rather insignificant planet in a rather insignificant part of an insignificant galaxy" (actually, maybe that was Carl Sagan).

Consistency: the hallmark of a good fictional character. It's comforting to know Seinfeld's buddy Kramer is going to bust through that door the same way, every time. I haven't quite figured out, though, if this consistency mirrors real life. I mean, dialogue in fiction, when it's good, sounds "real," but it isn't anything like how people really speak. Is it the same in terms of peoples' characters? Are real people actually unpredictable as hell, and we paradoxically view inconsistency in a fictional character as unrealistic? Because I think for the sake of my sanity, I've got to start believing that I'm capable of inconsistency. I'm just too damned predictable!

I want to talk to you, I want to shampoo you, I want to renew you...

I never used to like Joni Mitchell. In fact, there are a lot of things I never used to like. I've flip-flopped on them over the years, of course. Everyone does. Like how in the seventh grade, girls were "GROSS!" How things like avocados and carrot cake and black and white movies didn't used to sound too enticing, and along the way they transformed into things to crave and savor.

Thank God for flip-flops, actually. They've re-gifted me Shakespeare and baked beans. I'm still waiting for the clouds to lift on bell-bottoms, Broadway musicals, and acorn squash, but I know I might someday come to like those things.

And then there's fate. I used to be pretty big on it. I always had a sense that fate was controlling my life. That fate had written, or was writing with some sense of purpose, my story. I was a fate-aholic, which made me a romantic. Made me. Past tense, I hope. Because I'm determined to quit believing in fate. I want to wise up. Grow up. But it's difficult, because it seems to me the acceptance of fate is often central to the acceptance of love.

"They were meant for each other."

Fate is also something you can find solace in.

"I guess it was just meant to be that way."

Fate is the poor man's (poor in faith) god. What is God, but a manifestation of fate?

"As fate would have it."

As God would have it.

And stories, they're all examples of fate, because fate is a narrative concept.

"It was written in the stars."

Most people have a need for some kind of pure faith in their lives. It's what drives the world's religions. And I submit that faith, on one level, amounts to a clinging to the concept of fate.

I want companionship, but I don't want to someday be back where I am now, newly alone. I can imagine it will be too easy to use fate to justify such a new relationship and its inevitable end. Saying, or worse yet, believing, this new person is "meant" for me, and then later, things were meant to happen the way they did.

"It just wasn't meant to be."

What is wrong with believing someone is "meant" for oneself? Two things: believing, first of all, because beliefs are abstractions, conventions, pretensions. And secondly, what counts is not whether someone is "meant," but rather if someone is "right." As in, right for me, right now, based upon reality and not some romantic notion. If I cloud my judgement on that issue, I'll likely delude myself into building yet another beautiful house of cards that only takes someone's exit to bring down.

I shaved my beard last night when I got home. It was a relief. I had been growing it out for a month. It started with my being too busy one day to shave. Then it was my being too lazy to do it the next day. Then not shaving became a mild act of rebellion. A delicious feeling of self-determination. A reinventing of myself. After a few weeks, though, the beard gradually became something to maintain and even endure. Food particles began to collect in there. Dampness remained after I toweled off in the morning. My face itched.

The wonderful (and/or terrible) thing is, my clean shaven face will now provide the same basic progression. It will be a kind of rebirth—a "new" identity for me—that will quickly become a daily chore to maintain.

It frightens me to think relationships might be like this.

Actually, I'm pretty certain relationships are exactly like this.

I'm on a lonely road and I am traveling, traveling, traveling, traveling—looking for something—what can it be?

I have to believe this will all come to its inevitable conclusion, but that gives me no sense of comfort. I do believe everything happens for a reason, but only in retrospect. We assign meaning to events because once they've happened, the resulting reality was created by them. Take away our sense of authorship, and life seems crazy, purposeless. Take away the comfort of fate, and we have no choice but to become authors of a work in progress.