Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What If?

I was a comic book collector for about a decade, spanning my teenage years and most of college. Many of the books I collected were from Marvel Comics, home of Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk, Iron Man and the Fantastic Four, to name a few.

One of the titles I'd buy occasionally was a book called "What If...?" Many issues featured a story that imagined how the Marvel universe would be different if a character had made a different choice, or the outcome of an event had turned out different than it had in the original story.

In 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow starred in "Sliding Doors," a film that followed Paltrow's character through two parallel stories. The difference between the two stories was based upon whether or not her character made it through the train doors as they were sliding closed. I saw it once many years ago, and it was entertaining. I don't remember it being spectacular, as it was rather predictable, but there wasn't anything wrong with it. It's not regarded as a cinematic classic, but few movies achieve that status. I should watch it again some day.

I often enjoy movies and stories about alternate realities, time travel or parallel worlds. It should come as no surprise that I'm a huge fan of the "Back to the Future" trilogy.

Most of us probably play the "what if" game with our own lives. We often wonder how our lives would be different if we did or didn't do something.

The one event I think about most often only affected my life indirectly, but it changed Roast Beef's life dramatically.

Roast Beef is a college friend who I haven't seen much in the past 10 years. I've referenced him occasionally in this blog, but it has been nearly two years since the last time I did so. Eleven years ago half the stories I told seemed to have a Roast Beef reference.

Here's the short version of my sliding door, all dates are approximate:

In the first months of 2000 I organized a small group gathering at the Mall of America comedy club on a Sunday night. I had a bunch of comp tickets for off nights at the club, and Sunday was considered one of those off nights. I organized the trip to see a comedy duo that used hypnosis as the premise of their act. I had been to one of their shows, gratis, the previous year, and it was entertaining. So going back to see them the next year seemed like a good idea.

The duo worked two consecutive weekends during their visit to Minnesota, and in 2000 I organized the trip for their final Sunday night show. That turned out to be a mistake. What I didn't realize was that the final show of their two-week stay was their "erotic show," and the erotic show was considered a special event, making the comp tickets worthless. My group decided we didn't want to pay $10 or $12 a head, whatever the cover charge was, and instead went to the nearby bars for a drink.

We started in the sports bar, playing darts, then went to a beach-themed dance bar for another drink. We ended up at a table next to two blonde women. As members of our group departed, Beef and I were the last guys sitting.

I got up to go to the restroom, and as I came back to our table Beef was chatting it up with the blonde women next to us. I wasn't the least bit surprised. He has always been a smooth operator.

The women were from the Detroit area. They were sisters, Dorothy and Peg, chaperoning a group of teens, Dorothy's daughter and her friends. Her daughter had turned 16, I think, and a shopping trip at Mall of America was her present. It was their last night in Minnesota and the sisters decided to leave the girls back at the hotel and visit the mall bars that night.

The younger sister, Peg, was separated from her husband, as I'd eventually learn. We ended up chatting with these sisters for quite a while, and I didn't worry too much about impressing two women from Michigan, two women who were older than us, married, with children, and living in Michigan.

I don't remember if I knew it that night, but Roast Beef got an e-mail address from one of the sisters. Through e-mail correspondence he began communicating with them. Now here's where I speed up the story. Again, dates are approximate.

In May 2000 Beef flew Peg to Minnesota for a weekend visit. I stopped hearing from him on a regular basis that summer, and when he didn't return my e-mail asking for his new home address, he didn't get an invite to my 30th birthday party in September. In October he was packing a U-Haul truck with his belongings and moving to Michigan, quitting a job he wasn't thrilled with and selling a new townhouse he moved into in April.

I talked to him periodically by phone, and he always talked about how things were going to work out for him and Peg. It was never a question of if, but how.

End of summer 2001 Beef and Peg got married in Indiana. They had a small, civil service in some small town. About a year later they held a formal ceremony here in Minnesota. Chip and I were both groomsmen.

Beef attempted to find a new career in Michigan, but struggled to do so. Their debts mounted and Beef got desperate. In his early 30s he enlisted in the Army.

But the day he was to leave for basic training his plans unraveled. The government claimed there was a discrepancy in his documentation. They claimed they didn't know he had four stepchildren that he wanted covered under his insurance benefits. He never ended up serving his country.

He had been working part-time at a hospital prior to his planned enlistment, and after the Army fell through, he wound up with a decent full-time gig at the hospital. But that didn't last long. He opted to take a job in Iraq, as a government contractor working for Halliburton, He left in early 2005, I think.

His first trip home from Iraq was during the Fourth of July holiday. Chip and I had visited him in Michigan a couple of times, and I had wanted to do so that summer, but I couldn't work it out. My last visit was in late 2004, as it would turn out.

Not long after Beef's summer break Peg decided she didn't want to be married to a guy who was working 12 hours a day, or more, seven days a week. He was expecting to net six figures during a year in Iraq, wiping away their debt and putting their family on solid ground. Peg changed her mind about Beef, allegedly. I never spoke to her once I learned of their separation, and I've only heard the story through Beef's filter. I've never pressed him about the details, and I've always sensed there were meaningful details he never shared with me.

So Beef, slightly devastated, made peace with his future. He negotiated a divorce agreement with Peg, assuming their collective debt and leaving a lot of his non-personal possessions with Peg. He decided to continue working in Iraq to eliminate the debt and build up a nice bankroll for his future. He spent more than four years working on a military base in the desert.

And during those years he met a woman from Washington, a woman who took a similar job as his and wound up working at the same base. I talked to Beef by phone in December 2007. He was planning to marry her in February 2008, on a beach in Hawaii. And he did.

But by the end of the summer he had the marriage annulled, while still working in Iraq. He decided that he had made a mistake. (Gee, do you think?)

He has finally left Iraq and is now living in Boston, allegedly. I haven't seen him since August 2008, and when he does make a cameo in Minnesota, I'm pretty much an afterthought.

I've heard from him a couple of times the past four months. He was in town at the end of this past summer, but I wasn't able to get together with him. He recently rejoined Facebook, but his profile is quite vague about his life.

Beef and I spent a lot of time together during our post-college years. and I've only scratched the surface of his life's story. He was engaged during 1994-95, but called it off. A few years later he lived with a girlfriend who tried to stick him with some of her debt. Another girlfriend moved into his townhouse after about five or six months of dating, and was a bit devastated when he ended their relationship in 1999.

What did you do on Christmas Eve 1999? Late that night I went over to the apartment where Roast Beef was temporarily living and played Nintendo with Beef and his younger brother until 4 a.m.

His family wasn't particularly close knit, and after getting together for dinner on the 24th, it was every sibling and parent for himself or herself on Christmas day. The two brothers spent Christmas day watching television and playing video games at the apartment. I was a part of that until 4 a.m. that morning, and then again Christmas night.

Little did I know how substantially Beef's life was to change in 2000. One of my best friends would soon be leaving Minnesota and on his way to being a footnote in my life 10 years later.

Peg may be wondering to this day how her life would be different had she and Dorothy opted to stay at the hotel that Sunday night instead of visit the Mall of America bars.

Beef may be wondering how his life would be different had our group decided to pay the cover charge and see the comedy hypnotists that night.

I, to this day, wonder how my life would have been different had Beef's life been different. Beef's life is my sliding door. How would our lives have been different had I not tried to organize what was supposed to be a free night of comedy at the Mall of America?

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