n: (General Physics) the idea, used in chaos theory, that a very small difference in the initial state of a physical system can make a significant difference to the state at some later time
Folklore surrounding the Trevi Fountain in Rome, Italy surmises that anybody that throws a coin into the fountain is destined to return to Rome. It’s a romantic trope that has been exploited in film and television throughout modern history, and for us millennials, it is perhaps most widely known because it was featured in the 2003 film, The Lizzie McGuire Movie.
As a child, I loved tossing coins into fountains after wishing, with all my might, for my heart’s deepest desires to actualize. When I visited Rome in the winter of 2013, I knew only what I had learned in pop culture and history books of the Eternal City and its mystical fountain, but I was nevertheless thrilled to be adding another stamp to my passport and a Euro to the fountain’s magical waters. Little did I know, no amount of wishing could have prepared me for what awaited me at the Trevi Fountain.
During the fall before my trip, I had started dating a guy named Patrick* (*pseudonym). I had met Patrick in the summer only a few weeks before I moved thousands of miles away to college, from my homeland of Small Town, Wisconsin, to the big, bad city of Boston. We spent some of the best days of my life so far together at the end of the summer of 2012, creating memories that I will never, ever forget. Just a few months prior to meeting me, however, Patrick had been seeing a different girl named Claire*.
Claire and I had never met, but I knew she was pretty active on social media. At this point in my life, I was, as well. So–and I’m not ashamed to admit this, because we all do it–I checked out her Facebook profile once…or twice..or maybe a few times more than that. I feel less bad about it because I had evidence that she was doing the same to my profile. She made it very clear to Patrick’s friends that she did not like me, mostly because she wanted to be dating Patrick. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that she just wanted Patrick to want to be dating her. Regardless, it hadn’t ended well between the two of them, and all I knew were the few things that Patrick told me about how she had mistreated him.
Nevertheless, I wanted to meet her. I heard through the grapevine that she was throwing some shade my way when she hung around Patrick’s friends, and I wanted to put on my hottest dress, slap on some makeup, and show her how awesome I was. For any of you ladies reading this, I know that you know what I’m talking about. It’s not that I necessarily felt threatened by her, but the fact that she was still such a hot topic of conversation, and that I was younger and less experienced than she was with partying, college, etc., made me feel as though I had something to prove to both her, to Patrick’s friends, and, admittedly, to Patrick.
Small Town is not too far from Milwaukee, so throughout the summer, Patrick and I would meander down into the city to party with his friends. There were a couple of times when he warned me beforehand that Claire would be there. I would get excited, curious to finally meet her, but it just never happened. We were never in the same place at the same time, and as the summer came to an end, so too did my chance to meet Claire. Though she went to the same university as Patrick, and though I visited that university a handful of times, I just never ran into her.
Flash forward to March of 2013. I was anxiously preparing to travel with my university’s choir to Rome, Italy, to embark on an international singing tour. Patrick and I were still going strong, and we were both excited that I had this amazing opportunity to travel in such a meaningful way. I was not keeping tabs on Claire, but Patrick’s friends still talked about her from time to time, and I was aware that she was spending the spring semester of 2013 studying abroad in Europe. She was not in Italy, but she was in mainland Europe.
After an 8+ hour plane ride–and a few glasses of red wine–from Boston to Rome, our tour group departed from the airport to begin our European adventure. After taking a bus from the airport to the city center, we made our way to one of the first stops of our trip: the beautiful Trevi Fountain. We were told that we had 45 minutes to wander the city independently–perhaps to grab a bite to eat or snap some photos–and then we were to meet back at the fountain with the rest of the group. So, I grabbed a few of my friends from the trip, and we walked to the nearest pizza and gelato shop that we could find.
As we walked back to the Trevi Fountain after enjoying the most delicious slices of pizza I think any of us had ever consumed, I gazed at the beauty surrounding me, soaking it all in. This place was so beautiful, so rich in history. I was enjoying every second of it, tacitly contemplating the humanity hidden in each cobblestone, in each sculpture, in each piece of artwork we passed. We kept walking, edging nearer and nearer to the fountain, when I looked to my right and met the gaze of a young woman also looking to her right, likely considering the very things I was. I had met her gaze only in passing, but almost instantaneously, my brain registered some kind of recognition. I looked again, and this time, I knew exactly why familiarity was my instant reaction…
…it was Claire.
My heart raced as we continued walking. Was this really happening? Were my eyes playing tricks on me? I had never even seen her in person! This couldn’t be! I had only just met the people I was walking with while on the plane, but I spit the words out as fast as I could think of them, recounting the story of who Claire was. We all turned around several yards away from where we had seen her, looking back behind us to see if she had noticed me, too, and our doubts were quickly dispelled. There she was, ten yards away, surrounded by her friends and staring at me in disbelief.
Patrick and I had been dating for nearly six months at that point and dated for almost another year afterward, and I never saw Claire again. To this day–three years after the fact–I have never seen her. I currently work in Milwaukee, and I’m confident that she lives and works here as well, but I still have never, ever seen any sign of her. In the summer of 2012, we were separated by a distance of twenty miles, at most. We were in the same city many nights, probably only within a few blocks of each other, and I did not see her once. When I visited Patrick in his small college town, she was there. I was there. But we met not a single time.
The only time I ever saw Claire was at the Trevi Fountain, in the heart of the Eternal City, while she was taking a weekend to travel while studying abroad in Europe, and while I was traveling from my university in Boston to sing in cathedrals throughout Italy.
Take a second to think about that. Really think about that.
Every single moment leading up to the split second during which we locked eyes had to have happened exactly as it did. Had anything at all been different about that day–had our plane arrived a second later, had we stayed in the pizza shop a second longer, had I turned my head to the left instead of to the right while taking in the sights of the city, or had she had her back to me when I did–I never would have known she was there. In fact, who’s to say that we still would have shared that moment had anything at all in either of our lives leading up to it been any different. It all came down to a split second, a blink of an eye, an intuitive decision on my end and on hers to look to the side at the passers-by. Why does anybody turn their head to the left or to the right when they are looking at something? Why does anybody wave their hands when they talk, or look out the window while seated at a restaurant, or do any other seemingly mundane, seemingly insignificant, seemingly random act?
I don’t have the answer to that, but this particular occurrence taught me that these small acts matter. They are not random, nor are they mundane, and they are far from insignificant. Because the fact of the matter is that at any time, you may look up from your newspaper in the middle of a coffee shop, and your life could change forever. I liken this to a principle underlying chaos theory, which posits, essentially, that the flap of a butterfly’s wings could lead to a catastrophe. Seeing Claire at the Trevi Fountain was beyond any possible scenario I could have ever imagined–I would have been less surprised to see Patrick standing at the fountain with a bouquet of roses, or even a friend from high school who was studying abroad. But not her. Not there, not then.
In some of my darkest moments, I have returned to this moment at the fountain. I have returned to the lesson it taught me about life and the unpredictability inherent in it. I think of how not only did I not expect that something like this would happen, but I had absolutely no idea that something like this could. I didn’t plan this, I didn’t dream this–how could I have? I think of how absolutely everything, every moment of my life before this one, had to have happened exactly when and how it did in order for me to see Claire–to not only see her in Rome, thousands of miles from our home, but to see her at the Trevi Fountain. I couldn’t have known until that moment how significant each instance of my life was, no matter how random they may have seemed at the time. I couldn’t have known the reason why things happened, and most of the time, I probably didn’t even think there was one. But I was wrong.
It sounds crazy, and that’s because it is. People say things like “anything is possible,” and “everything happens for a reason,” and “you just never know what’s going to happen,” and most of the time, I don’t think anybody actually believes those words. The words seem too cliche, too simple to capture the complicated, unpredictable mess that is life. My mom would say those things to me often when I was growing up, and I could never will myself to believe them, no matter how badly I wanted or needed to.
But in my darkest moments, when I feel that the world has given up on me or forgotten about me, I think about seeing Claire at the Trevi Fountain. I think of how little I knew about the path I had traveled and the one lying ahead, and how my path would ultimately intertwine with the paths of others. And it is in these moments of doubt that I pause and think: if something so amazing like this can happen, what else can?