Remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books from the 80s and 90s? These were the ones in which you, yes you, the reader, were the protagonist of the story. You made the decision to go into the mysterious cave or not, or break into the creepy mansion or not, or attempt to tame the vicious tiger or not. You were given a few decision options, each of which would direct you to a different chapter with more decisions, and so on so forth until you reached your self-determined conclusion. This week’s must-read story is a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) of a different type. Jeanne Jones’s “Choose Your Own” at American Short Fiction brings the young adult format into the adult realm with a story that eschews the grand adventure and daring escapades of the originals and instead focuses on the large and small decisions in love and dating that affect all of our unremarkable but dramatic lives.
You are sitting in the bedroom of a house that is inches away from the freeway. Cars whiz past at an alarming rate, and it seems to you that a minor slip of the steering wheel will send a car crashing into the bedroom, killing the occupants of the house. You are there on a date with the man who lives there, a man named Oswald. He complains that the highway was built too close to his house, taking away his front yard—you see the tiny blades of grass that are left of it, so few you can count them, but he does admit that he has an exciting view from his bed.
Do you wake up from a dream? (Go to Section B.)
Or do you remain in this house and continue this conversation with Oswald? (Go to Section C.)
The protagonist (“you”) is a woman, a nice change from the predominate male-ness of the original CYOAs, and the starting point of this adventure is the above ill-fated date—or dream, depending—with Oswald. From here, the story unspools into a web of decisions regarding taking up a hobby, hitchhiking, buying an expensive dress, dating, divorce, and more. There are decisions that lead backwards to a section you’ve already been in, as we sometimes find ourselves in the same places over and over again in life, and sections where both decisions lead to the same place, suggesting that after a certain point, some things are inevitable.
The narrator’s voice is not unbiased. It often intrudes in a conversational tone to offer encouragement (“You go, girl”) or comment on the reader’s selections (“Really? Cooking?”). It even offers advice:
Guess who is taking the cooking class with you? Oswald, the freeway house guy. Jesus. You have to be kidding me, you say to yourself when you see him sitting over there by the spices. I only wanted to flip a pancake or two and now I have to deal with this asshole. Don’t stay. I almost don’t want to give you the alternative. I’m going to lobby heavily for you to leave. He hasn’t seen you yet, so there’s not even the risk of discomfort with this one. Just slip back out the door you came in, wrap your scarf around your neck, and think of a good Beyoncé song to accompany your walk back down the boulevard. Okay, here goes:
Do you stay? (Go to section A.)
Or do you go? (Go to section L.)
It’s almost inevitable, once you follow your string of decisions to your conclusion, that you will return to the beginning and start over, unsatisfied with your result. (This reader tracked each possible decision thread obsessively.) That’s part of the brilliance of how Jones employs the CYOA format in this story; she has you, the reader, returning again and again to the beginning or to a pivotal section to choose a different path in the self-reflexive way that is so true to life: the wondering, the what-ifs, the regrets, the desperate but ultimately futile desire to change the past. The story has that feeling that second-person narratives sometimes do of a woman reflecting on her younger self, trying to guide her down the right path with the power of hindsight, but Jones informs and complicates that model as each potential decision unfolds into each potential decision towards an inescapable conclusion. “Choose Your Own” drives home the pointlessness of regret and the importance of looking forward rather than back. So pour yourself a glass of pure water (you’ll understand when you read the story), and let’s none of us waste any more time on the past.
So much disappointment, sadness, and isolation. How much effort did you misdirect trying to fill up your spaces and how much time did you waste sitting at home listening to old Air Supply songs, wondering where it all went wrong? There are so many places where it did.