On one hand, I suppose I should be grateful for what I have, and one of the things I have is time. I’ve had a number of years in my life up to this point, and hope to have many more in the future.
Now that I’ve quit my old advertising job in order to write, I have a lot more time in my day — though not nearly as much as my friends think, and often less than they do when it comes time to hustle.
But even when I’m busy and my plate is full, I can still choose how to use my time. At any moment, I can pretty much decide what I want to do.
I love most of those things, but the fact that I’m able to decide can make even tough or unpleasant chores more palatable.
On the other hand, I resent that Time’s so unflinching. She never, ever, ever gives second chances.
Nothing else is like that. If I say the wrong thing in conversation, I can correct myself. If I have a bad date (I’ve had many; I don’t automatically hop into bed with everyone no matter what my father thinks), I can go out the next night and search for someone better. If I make a stray mark on a sheet of paper with a pencil, I can erase it. I can edit my books before I publish them. I can edit my books after I publish them. Even the times I’m on podcasts, I can ask the hosts to edit if I flub.
But that’s not how it is with Time. I can take a photo, but before I so much as look at the picture, the moment I captured is gone. FOREVER. If you’re not used to overthinking everything like I am, the notion may not be fazing you right now. So I’ll ask you to take a minute and really consider it:
That moment will never, ever, EVER come again.
If the finality of that statement doesn’t scare you at least a little, you’re not human.
If you turn your head just as your child takes her first steps, you will never see those first steps.
If you rip your only copy of a beloved photograph in anger, you will never have it again.
If you allow a friend who is too drunk to drive to take the wheel and they end up in a fatal accident, you can never — no matter how much you beg and plead — go back and make the choice that might have saved them.
Being the way I am (I call it determined, but those who know me sometimes say stubborn) gives me a fundamental problem with absolutes. Because there is always room to bargain in life, isn’t there?
You say you’d never part with your grandmother’s vase? What if I offered you a million dollars?
I can never be president? I’ll admit it’s a long shot given my likely antics in the Lincoln Bedroom, but it’s not truly, in the most concrete sense of the word, a “never” situation.
The expression goes, “Never say never.” I’ve also heard, “Uncertainty is the only thing in life that’s certain.” We live by these principles as axioms. Although we may think of many scenarios as highly, highly unlikely, we know in a secret, optimistic part of our brains that there’s still a sliver of a chance. That sliver keeps hope burning for so many hopeless people and hopeless situations. That sliver is the reason we say things like, “Nothing is impossible.”
I hate Time for her adamant refusal to never, ever budge. Time is a one-way train that refuses to pass any stop twice. You have exactly one chance at every encounter. One second to seize any given second. And then it is gone.
Just thinking about it makes me feel like I’m in a free-fall. That’s what life is like, though. You’re screaming past events and opportunities, and must grab them while you can.
It’s terrifying to think about. How can I possibly make all of these decisions correctly? I don’t have time to weigh all of the pros and cons of a thousand choices per minute! Time travel stories always talk about the Butterfly Effect, where tiny changes to the past carry huge consequences into the future.
If that’s a real thing, how can I possibly know what tiny choice I make today might forever mar my future happiness? Which small action might ruin my shot at meeting the man of my dreams, or at succeeding where I might otherwise fail?
Slow down! I need time to think!
But you can never pause. You can never rewind. All you can do is live this movie from beginning to finish … with only one chance to get everything right.
For any competent writer, telling stories is an act of intimate exploration and a way of expunging demons, so when I decided to write Fate, I knew I’d be coming face to face with some of my own personal terrors. At the same time, my fear of asking “what if” (and knowing that if I didn’t like the answer, I wouldn’t be able to change it) meant that I had no choice but to tell this story.
Writers are masochists. We’re shown a dark room with a curtain at its end and told never to peek behind it. And so of course, we do.
Thankfully, the idea that sparked Fate was, I thought, one I could handle. It got under my skin in the no do-overs way regret always does, but the scope was less sprawling than the classic tale in which the main character wishes his life was different. My protagonist, Malcolm Sims, actually has things pretty good. He has a wonderful, caring, and (of course) sexy wife. He has two terrific teenage sons. He’s his own boss, makes great money, and has plenty of free time. Malcolm has actually done well enough by age 43 that his wife Carrie no longer has to work, and they take nice vacations, drive a nice car, the works.
He only has one nagging regret: the time at age 18 when he could have hooked up with his high school crush, yet didn’t notice his opportunity. And Time — being the bitch that she is — would never let him try again after he’d looked back and seen the signs years later.
Today, regret is a sliver in his mind. He can’t get past it. He could have been with Molly Pfeiffer all those years ago… but now that he’s older and happily married, he never will.
Malcolm doesn’t want anything to be different. He loves his life, and his wife. He just wants another shot at that one lost chance — back then, in the past — to have the girl he’d spent years pining for. He doesn’t want to end up with Molly. He just wants to sidestep his timeline for an hour or so in order to screw her just once, then hop back on his ideal train.
He doesn’t really even want to fuck her. He wants to have fucked her.
Once the story popped into my head, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It raised a very interesting set of questions. For one, why would it matter to Malcolm, at age 43, if he’d been with Molly at age 18? By then it would only be memory.
When I thought about it practically, it had all the razzmatazz of deciding to swap one cup of coffee I drank six years ago for a decaf. It didn’t matter that the memory was about sex. Once finished, it was done, and would be just one more set of recollections in the larger archive. And in fact, the more I considered it, Malcolm could get what he wanted simply by using his imagination.
When the event in question was 25 years in the past, what was the difference?
And so to start my time travel story, I asked the Lexi Maxxwell version of that well-known question: Is it better to have fucked and lost than never to have fucked at all?
On the surface, the question seems pointless, yet recalls the same sense of desperation as the original, love-based question.
But once something moves into the past, does it even matter that we did it?
I went to Hawaii a few years ago. I drank mai tais and spent some time on a topless beach. But given that my Hawaii trip is over, does it matter? Would it make a difference if I’d never gone, so long as it didn’t affect my timeline otherwise? I didn’t meet any business people while I was there, and I didn’t miss important meetings by being away. If I had simply stayed at home, what would be the difference?
As I pondered, I found myself buried in what felt like very lonely questions. I started to wonder if anything I’d ever done had a purpose. I found myself staring the universe in her eye and questioning every tiny thing. It seemed likely that some parts of my past must have mattered while others were flotsam in the stream. But which was which?
Maybe publishing my first story after years of writing in secret was a watershed moment, instrumental in making me who I am today. But how do I know that it doesn’t just lift right out — and that if I’d never published that particular story, it wouldn’t have made a goddamn bit of difference?
So that’s where I started with Malcolm. Because he was a guy, I knew it wouldn’t matter if he got current-day pleasure from banging his high school honey. He wanted to have planted his flag in her past and then moved on, so I gave him his chance.
And with that, Fate was underway.
Now, you might think I knew in advance what would happen as Malcolm went about his temporal business, but that’s not how writing stories works for me. I didn’t know what would happen, and seldom do. I had to send Malcolm back in time, give him his chance to swap a single card in the deck, then wait to see what unfolded. Believe me — at the beginning, I was more nervous to be back in 1988 than Malcolm.
The good news is that in the end, I came to love Fate and its message more than I dreamed. It was fun; it was serious; it made me cheer and it made me cry. And of course, it made me wet in an uninhibited way I’ve seldom experienced when writing. Because believe me, there are plenty of cocks I wish had been planted in my past — and plenty of others I probably should have stayed away from.
If you haven’t read the story yet, I won’t spoil it. But I will say that Malcolm got what he was asking for, what he needed, what he wanted, and what he deserved.
Time and I still don’t see eye to eye. She’s still a relentless bitch, and she won’t be bargained with.
But after writing this book, I found that I was at least willing to see her point of view.