Ronnie sat in the cafe waiting for his coffee to cool off a bit. He was wondering why he should continue living. He wasn’t suicidal, exactly, but he was probably on his way there. At this point, it was simply a vague question in the back of his mind. He wondered why he was alive. Why should he continue like this? He had done nothing worthwhile in his life. He seemed to have always made the wrong decisions, taken the wrong paths, chosen the wrong people. No, not that he had made the wrong decisions, it was that he had let others decide for him. And now he was just going through the motions of life, not hating it, but not liking it, either.

At the moment, he had a severe case of the What-ifs.

What if I had majored in the performing arts, like I wanted to, instead of getting an education degree in English? Even if I’d never become famous, I’d be just as broke as I am now. I’d have just as much student loan debt. Even if I worked a boring job to pay the rent and spent all my free time doing community theater, I’d be better off, wouldn’t I? Would I be less depressed? I’m teaching people who don’t want to learn in a school with no resources, where I have to teach the kids to pass standardized tests instead of teaching them to love literature. I hate the constant low-grade fear that maybe one day the school shooting on the news will be my school. When I made the decision, becoming a teacher seemed sensible and mature. Or rather, my father’s advice to become a teacher seemed sensible and mature. The odds of making a career in acting are not great and teaching used to be a nice, safe career. Not anymore. Looking back, it seems like I allowed my dream to die without ever giving it a chance.

Ronnie took a tentative sip of his coffee. Still too hot.

What if I had traveled the world when I was younger? I had a degree in English. I could have taught in a language school anywhere in the world. It was one opportunity listed in the career counseling center at the university. See the world! Africa! South America! Asia! But my mother had a fit when I mentioned it, saying that I needed to be nearby in case anything happened to her. I don’t know why I fell for that. It’s not like she didn’t have four other kids who lived in the same town who could deal with emergencies. But I was the unmarried one, so it was my job to take care of her.

She always said “unmarried” as if it was a failing, even though it was a boon for my mother. I was always the responsible son, moving in with her after Dad died, taking her to church on Sunday mornings and grocery shopping on Thursday afternoons.

What if I hadn’t stayed single? What if I had married Cheryl? But, I waited too long to ask. I wanted to be more stable financially. And then Dad died and Mom fell apart and Cheryl got sick of waiting and broke up with me. She’s married to someone else now and has three kids. Maybe I’d have kids.

Ronnie’s mother had died six months ago and his life became even more boring. He didn’t even have the obligation to take care of her anymore. There was no reason he couldn’t do exactly what he wanted to do. So, what was stopping him? His own inertia, he thought.

Ronnie wished that his life was more interesting, but he was unsure of how to make interesting things happen. Obviously, he wasn’t good at making things happen. He never had been. But he was excellent at going along. He wished the decision was out of his hands and that an outside force would come and make something happen.

Ronnie lifted the coffee mug to his lips and took another sip. It was still too hot. What did they do to the coffee here? How could it be scalding for so long?

A woman plopped herself down in the seat across from him at the small cafe table. Ronnie looked up at her. He glanced once more around the cafe. There were several empty tables left. Why had she chosen to sit with him? He soon found out.

“Hi,” she said, “I got the message that you were tired of life, so I rushed down to talk to you. I’m Ellen. I’m your guardian angel.” Ellen reached across the table to shake Ronnie’s hand.

Ronnie looked the woman over. She looked about his age, but that was where the similarity between the two of them ended. She was as different from Ronnie as anyone could be. Ronnie was tall, thin and neatly dressed in somber colors. He had shined his shoes that morning. Ellen was short and shapeless. Actually, Ronnie did not know if she herself was shapeless, as he couldn’t discern her shape under the large number of mismatched, flowing garments she was wearing. The sheer number of colors and patterns in her clothes was jarring to the senses. Ronnie wasn’t at all sure if they qualified as clothes. They appeared to be various-sized scarves sewn together willy-nilly and there was a faint noise of a tiny jingle bell coming from somewhere about her person as she moved. For a person who was sitting down, she sure moved a lot, adjusting this scarf and that sleeve, crossing and uncrossing her legs. She was the most restless and the most alive person Ronnie had ever come across.

Oh, Ronnie thought, I see. She’s a nut bar. He decided to humor her. He didn’t have anywhere else to go. His coffee was still too hot to drink and, frankly, she was the most interesting thing to happen to him in years.

“Hello,” said Ronnie, shaking her hand. “My guardian angel? Like Clarence from that movie?”

Ellen sighed. “Yes. Like Clarence. Is that the only guardian angel humans have ever heard of? Absolutely every one of you says that when I show up.”

“Well, it’s a classic,” said Ronnie, shrugging. “So, are you here to show me how much influence I’ve had on others and how this town would not have been the same without me?”

“Hell, no. You have made little impression at all beyond your family and a couple of students. I’m here to get you up off your ass so you can make a difference and have a real life.”

Ronnie looked shocked. “I guess you aren’t like Clarence. ‘Hell, no’ isn’t something Clarence would have said.”

“I’m not that kind of angel. I’m the kicking-butt-and-taking-names kind.” Ellen adjusted a few of her scarves so that she could sit up straighter.

Ronnie laughed. “Okay. Got it. Well, I guess if I had made different choices, I’d have had a much different life.”

“No,” said Ellen, “That’s where humans always get it wrong. Well, almost wrong. They always get bogged down in the wrong What-ifs. They always think that if they had taken a different path that their lives would have turned out great. But, they forget that there aren’t just a couple of large turning points in life, there are a million tiny ones, too. There aren’t just two roads diverging in a wood. It’s not either/or. It’s not binary. And it’s not always like in the Frost poem. Sometimes the road less traveled is just a bumpy pain in the butt and the more commonly taken path makes a person happy.”

Ellen scooted her chair over next to Ronnie’s.

“Look around,” she said, settling in next to him, the tiny hidden bell jingling. “I’ll tell you about some roads these folks didn’t take.”

“See that guy in the corner? He’s sad sometimes that he stayed here in this small town because, when he was young, he wanted to live in a big city. In one potential version of his life, which didn’t happen, he did just that. He moved to New York. And an airplane crashed into the office where he was working on September 11, 2001. In another version, he moved to New York City, made millions of dollars and then moved to a farm in Vermont after he burned out from the constant pressure of working on Wall Street. But, in all the versions, he’s sometimes sad about the choice he made, wondering if he made the right decision.”

“What?” asked Ronnie, confused. “In one version of his life that didn’t happen, something happened? And it doesn’t matter because he’s still a sad guy? I don’t get it. What’s the point, then?”

Ellen blew out a puff of air. “If you had majored in physics, you’d grasp this concept better. Actually, no one truly gets it unless they majored in both physics and philosophy and I’ve never encountered a person who did that. Let me tell you about some other lives. Maybe I can explain it better. The couple in the corner. See them? It’s a second marriage for both of them. Her first husband used to beat the crap out of her. She took it for a while because her mother said that she had made her bed, she should lie in it. She found other parts of her life to focus on, where she was happy and tried to ignore the beatings. Then, on their eighth anniversary, something in her snapped, and she killed her husband. She pleaded guilty and went to prison for ten years. She was forty when she got out of prison. While in prison, she got a degree in social work. She works with victims of domestic violence now.”

“The man and his first wife went on their honeymoon to Aruba, where the wife dove into some shallow water and ended up paralyzed. He cared for her for almost fifteen years before she died. He never acted like a martyr about it. They loved each other until the day she died and he looks back on their life together with fondness.”

“In the other versions of that couple’s lives, the woman never killed her first husband. He died in a car accident while drunk in one version. In another, he died in a bar fight. In other versions, she leaves him in various ways. None of the versions has her staying with him. She always gets away somehow. I’ll explain that in a minute.”

“As far as the man goes, in some versions, his wife doesn’t have an accident, but dies in childbirth. Sometimes they are still happily married, sometimes they get amicably divorced because they lose touch with each other. In none of them is that man ever morose about what happens. He deals with everything that comes his way and is as happy as he can be with his life.”

Ronnie turned to Ellen, “Oh, I see,” he said, “Your point is that it doesn’t matter what happens to you, you are who you are, and if you’re a miserable bastard to begin with, you’ll always find fault and if you’re happy-go-lucky, then the world can come crashing down and you’ll still walk around whistling a catchy tune.”

Ellen slapped her hand down on the table, startling several people around them.

“Wow! You are a tough nut. No, that’s not what I mean at all.”

She shook her head. “Well, not really. It’s hard to explain. Yes, a person’s attitude is important, but attitudes can change and habits can change and people’s way of looking at things can change. Go to an AA meeting and you’ll see that in action.”

“Also, life choices are important to a point. But you don’t have to choose a path and stay on it. You can stomp on over to another path. Or just make an alternative path like an explorer in uncharted territory. What is most important is to remember that you don’t stop making choices or having an attitude.”

“Your problem is that you gave up making choices, which is a choice, even if it seems like it’s not one. You let stuff happen to you. And you’re not happy now. You need to make stuff happen and it doesn’t even matter what stuff. You want to be an actor? Do it! Don’t want to be a teacher anymore? Quit! Want to see the world? Go! You can do all of it. You can change your attitude, too. Stop being passive. Go out and actively mess up your life.”

“Whoa!” said Ronnie. “How do you know I was thinking about those things?”

Ellen sighed.

“Dude!” Ellen pointed to herself. “Angel. Remember?”

Suddenly, Ronnie realized he believed her. She wasn’t a nut bar. She was an angel. It was simply a fact. He nodded at her.

A thought occurred to Ronnie, and he turned to Ellen. “You told me about those people’s alternative lives. What about mine? What would have happened if I had pursued acting or saw the world or married Cheryl?”

“Nope! I can’t tell you any details of alternative pasts. I will tell you this, though. Not marrying Cheryl was the best non-decision you ever made. That path never turns out well. Seriously, dude! That woman was not for you! Hoo boy!”

Ellen shook her head in disbelief at the thought of it.

“Huh,” said Ronnie. “Guess I dodged a bullet there. Is there a woman for me?”

“Weeeeelllll,” said Ellen, standing up and winking at Ronnie, “There’s an international school in Brussels that might answer your question. I’m just saying.”

She turned and walked out of the cafe, leaving Ronnie staring after her.

He picked up his cup, took a sip of his now cold coffee and grimaced.

He put the coffee mug down and picked up his cell phone, typing into the search engine: international school Brussels.

© 2019 Liza Cameron Wasser