Sliding Doors

Last week, I walked down a street I had almost lived on…

…with another person, in another time, and I wondered, “What if…?”

In the movie Sliding Doors, Gwyneth Paltrow plays Helen, a woman whose life goes in two wildly different directions based on whether she does or doesn’t catch a train. In the first scenario, she dodges onto the train and arrives home to discover her boyfriend in bed with another woman. In the second, she just misses catching him and he strings her along for weeks as her life continues on a downward spiral.

In the movie, Helen’s character sports two different hairstyles — a chic blonde crop that quickly became the hairstyle of the moment and a mousey brown ‘do that hangs limply around her increasingly sullen expressions. (The latter was actually a wig.)

More than twenty years after its release date, the movie (along with the fashion!) holds up, even if it is riddled with 90s-era instrumentals — ominous violins during the scary moments, and tinkling sounds like an enchanted pixie harp whenever something good is about to happen.

If the film remains a cultural touchstone, it has everything to do with the central question. “What if that one little thing had happened differently?” There will always be roads not taken, missed moments and unmade choices. There will always be selves we never get to encounter.

What if I’d never gone to that party or answered that email or taken that job? What if I’d moved to another city? What if I’d answered that interview question in a different way? It’s enough to make your mind explode.

Even so, imagining an alternate existence can be kind of fun, like an actor trying on characters. Maybe the grown-up me I pictured in my youth — an early rising, briefcase-toting corporate lawyer with a severe bobbed haircut — does exist, in another dimension. Maybe she had children, or lives in Oregon, or bought a home in the town where I grew up.

The more I’ve spoken to people about this, the more it seems like everyone has their own “sliding doors” stories.

“If I hadn’t had a crush on this guy, I wouldn’t have moved to New York,” reports Sally. “Nothing wound up happening with him, but that move changed my entire life!”

“Years ago, I was trying to get pregnant while working at a job I hated,” reports another friend. “It didn’t happen, and I wound up taking another job that ultimately launched my career. I’ll sometimes think, if I’d gotten pregnant right away, my life would have been completely different.”

“If I hadn’t shown up to a certain dinner party, I wouldn’t have met my husband,” says Maureen. “And if he hadn’t walked in late, I might not have noticed him. So many ifs.”

In my own life, I can point to myriad chance encounters — the job I applied for because I had a snow day, the random Google search that yielded an apartment, the bet that led to meeting my boyfriend (a story for another day). If you shift any of these variables by just a few degrees, the entire landscape changes.

But the question I keep coming back to is this: What wisdom does this alternate version of you have to offer? It can be easy to gaze down the road not taken and imagine it might have been smoother. But if you could meet the person who took that path, they would likely find so much to like about your life.

As a tarot card reader once told me, when I posed a question about my career, “The bus is definitely coming. The question is, will you get on it?” Is THIS the bus? Have I missed the bus? I’d wonder, at every proverbial turn. Now, I like to think that a bus is always coming, the doors constantly opening and closing before taking off in new directions. Life unfolds like a web, where different moments lead to different paths, all of them intersecting in ways we can’t always understand. Sometimes, the best we can do is wait for the next bus. Or train. Or job. Or whatever. And know that wherever it’s headed is going to be an adventure.

Have you had any Sliding Doors moments? Who are you in an alternate universe?

P.S. 12 women share the best career advice they’ve ever received and what advice would you give your younger self?

(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow for Cup of Jo.)