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Regret Machines Emily May Rose

Regret Machines

Originally published in VLB’s Comme la fois où, translated by Melissa Bull.

As a teenager, it seemed like my entire life hinged on stories about the future. On the things I’d accomplish, and also on the things I might potentially regret not doing if I didn’t act immediately, or soon.

I became somewhat obsessed with time. When I was sixteen or seventeen years old I’d get home late from a bar crawl or a CEGEP party. I’d be drunk but still full of energy, and I’d sit on my bed writing melodramatic poems filled with references to this time going by too quickly, and to the crucial decisions to make before my youth got stale. Then, as the glow of dawn broke apart Montreal East’s silhouettes, I’d turn off my lamp and sleep until noon. Carpe diem, but not that early.

I still have those notebooks. I reread them recently, sitting on another bed, in another millennium, and in a very different reality than the one I’d imagined for myself. Twenty-five years later, what’s clear in those writings is a kind of despairing hope that the stories I’d someday tell myself would exceed the expectation of those I’d imagined in my youth.

Which, of course, didn’t stop time from speeding ahead or keep me from wasting the equivalent of entire years in futile pursuits, senseless activities and a depressing amount of games of Solitaire. And now my friends and I are no longer fifteen years old but forty, and we organize events like “The No Kids Super Party!!!” We sit in Sarah’s yard on a warm summer night that smells like barbecue smoke and mown grass, we eat off paper plates, drink better wine and catch up on each other’s news.

Between jokes and anecdotes, the evening flies, and then it’s late, the night’s magnificent, the volume’s cranked for a Depeche Mode hit we’ve always loved. Sitting on a garden chair, I watch the girls dance on the lawn like they did after our prom in 1990 when we wished the DJ would save our lives with a song and that all of this—a fancy bungalow on the west of the island, and all of us pretty much identical to who we were, deep down inside, just older—even just the notion of the “The No Kids Super Party!!!” wasn’t a possible conclusion to anyone’s poems.

I look at the girls, then, and the scene melts into similar moments. We don’t often see each other anymore—the vagaries of life and work and kids have gradually separated us—so it’s kind of a punch to the gut to see them each time. Sarah, Karine, Mélanie. Their faces so familiar. Still there despite the years that have passed. But shaped by time, with their lots of faded love, remorse and suffering.

Not everyone’s here anymore. Some have committed suicide, some died in accidents or from natural causes, others were taken by mental illness or dependencies of all sorts. Some live in Australia or in Italy, some signed up for the Canadian Armed Forces. Mélanie’s partner died suddenly in his early thirties, leaving her stranded in a distant suburb with three young children. Life. Just life.

We have our own folklore now, our own legends, stories told a thousand times over, and we’re tied to each other by various complex layers—a long list of pop tunes associated with just as long a list of memories. The time at Orford, the time at the Repentigny marina, the time when what’s-his-name did that thing at Foufs, the time we found ourselves slamming with skinheads in a church basement in Longue-Pointe and it ended in a fight. That’s what stays with us after the spent decades, the comings and goings: a handful of stories.

An example: seventeen-year-old Sarah at a party, sitting beside me in a booth, trying to drown a breakup in peach schnapps. There was a moment when she placed her head on my shoulder but, frozen by her sudden proximity or my scruples, I was incapable of taking the moment in hand. A friend didn’t have the same hesitation and they kissed for a long time right beside me in the booth. Then it was three in the morning and we found ourselves outside on a glacial night, smack in the middle of the Plateau Mont-Royal and far from home. We had no money left, so we walked for over two hours in minus twenty weather. I walked Sarah back to her place in New Rosemont. Great deserted streets and vines covered in ice. Quick kiss on the cheek. Good night. Good night. See you Monday. Then I walked the painful three or four kilometres to my place, my feet blistered and frostbitten. Chivalrous, but incapable of doing the only thing I really wanted to.

It’s often like that—whether at seventeen or at forty. We’re incapable of becoming the hero of our own stories. Despite our hopes for the contrary, we’re regret machines.

“The No Kids Super Party!!!” was the name of the Facebook event but the kids are never very far. They’re the subject of half our conversations. What the oldest did or said, what the youngest wants to be when she grows up, the story of the latest’s birth. Karine and I are part of the rare group of non-parents, and we find ourselves in a quiet corner discussing this non-parenthood. The right conditions never really presented themselves. Love turned out to be rarer and more difficult to navigate than we’d predicted. And then there’s everything else there is to do in life. Time goes by so fast and suddenly our twenties are finished, our thirties are over and the circumstances were never less ideal.

Regrets? Maybe. But they’re quickly buried beneath the reasons why that’s just not the course our lives took. Other choices were made. Other joys lived.

In grade eleven, our English teacher had us learn “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. The verses resonated against the concrete walls of the classroom, read by Sarah, who was ignorant of the fact that one day she’d be divorced, a single mom and a stewardess; by Karine who had no idea that at forty she’d be single and childless in her little house in Vieux-Rosemont; by Mélanie who knew nothing yet of the terrible pain of watching the world crumble around her from one day to the next; and by me, of course, my head crammed with tales of glory. I knew nothing, nothing, nothing.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.

It’s a poem that, at first, seems to speak of the merits of choosing the less-frequented path. The text appears to be a glorification of marginality, of rebels marching to the rhythm of their own drums. But when you read carefully, which I can now do, with my better grasp of English and with some complementary information gleaned from Wikipedia, you can see the poem is in fact saying something entirely different.

The subject-poet is immobile in a forest. Before him, a fork. He has to make a decision. The two roads are identical, each not often travelled, each just as covered in dead leaves. He can’t see where either leads; he hesitates. He opts for the path that seems more agreeable, telling himself he’ll go the other way next time, in that way we always do when we’re confronted with a difficult choice and we tell ourselves we can go back on our initial decision. But deep down, he—we—knows very well it’s not true. A decision leads to one situation, which leads to another, and to another, in perpetuity. We can never go back.

So the guy takes a road knowing that one day he’ll regret it because he’ll never know the marvels that the other road would have held. To attenuate his future regrets, he chooses to lie (to himself). Later, he’ll say he took the road less travelled and that it was for the best.