Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
And there was one more girl who left a strong impression on me when I was a young man. Her name was Mary Ellen — about the most earnestly Roman Catholic name there could be for a girl in those days. I met her in college, the one year I lived on campus in the dorms.
Actually, I didn’t meet her right away, but I spotted her. And once I spotted her I began to position myself in places where I observed she might be likely to be frequently spotted. She passed through the main lounge on her way to the rear elevator; she walked from the cafeteria to the front lobby; she went from the dorms to the library across the street. I was able to sit discreetly along these routes, reading or pretending to read, glancing up only after she’d gone by so she wouldn’t think I was stalking her.
Even though stalking her would have been a perfectly reasonable thing for any red-blooded American boy to do. She was willowy and blond, with short hair rather than the ubiquitous long-blond look. Her hairdo complemented her face just right, highlighting cheekbones like apricots and, I’ll say, green eyes (thought they might have been blue, or brown) that had laughter in them even when she was walking alone down the hallway. Not noticing the odd skinny guy with round wire-rimmed glasses who was always reading in a strategically placed lounge chair.
The problem was, Mary Ellen was not an English major so I never saw her in classes. I wasn’t sure what her major was. Something business-oriented maybe. Education? She’d have made a good teacher, I think, or a counselor. But one day, frustrated at how rarely I was spotting her, I recruited a buddy of mine to do some recon with me in her wing of the dorms. We went to the rear elevator and rode up to the third floor, started walking toward the stairs in back, and passed an open door. Mary Ellen was in that room, sitting on the bed and talking to another girl, and I felt my esophagus tie itself into a dachshund balloon. She looked up as we passed, but since she didn’t know me yet there was no reason for her to be alarmed. I smiled and pretended to be talking to my friend. We soon found that the door to the back stairs was a fire exit and had to retrace our steps past her room. I smiled again.
In another month or so I met her formally when we both got work-study assignments in the library. We sometimes occupied the checkout desk together, talking music and books. Pure chitchat. She was popular and had a lot of drop-by boys who wanted to spend some time practicing their smooth moves. Mary Ellen seemed oblivious to their intentions.
I finally asked her out to a concert, and she politely declined. Prior commitment. The concert wound up getting canceled anyway.
The best moment I ever had with Mary Ellen came in the spring of that year. I had smuggled my cat into the dorm, and Mary Ellen happened to be walking by and saw me with the cat. She loved cats. She came in and sat with us on the bed, petting the cat and talking with me. It felt great. I wasn’t nervous there in my own room, and she was warm and friendly and looked and smelled terrific, smiling with those eyes, and even laughing at my stabs at humor. I was bummed when she said she had to get going.
I went away to England for a year, and when I came back Mary Ellen saw me in the library one day and said I had become a man over there. I was different somehow. That was sweet and promising, but my spirits took a dive when, in the next breath, she mentioned her boyfriend and let it slip that he was twenty-eight or something. A real man, I thought. Not a fake man like me. Hell.
And I never saw her after graduation, though I knew where she lived in St. Louis and sometimes drove by her house just to see if I might spot her coming or going. Never did though.
As with my dynamic redhead and “me Julie,” I Googled Mary Ellen from time to time and never came up with anything. Till I tried again not long ago and saw her picture on the Google images page. It was an old shot, from not long after college, I suspected, as young as she looked. Vibrant and smart and inviting as I remembered.
I clicked on the photo to visit the page it was from, and there I found Mary Ellen’s obituary. She had died at 50 in 2007. Married for twenty years, she apparently never had children. She was now a grieving man’s beloved wife.
This news threw a strange twist into any “road not traveled” notion I might have dabbled with over the years. To think I’d be a widower now if I’d gotten my youthful wish. To think I’d have that kind of sorrow in me today.
When you look at it from one angle, there are so many roads not traveled that the one we took feels like fate.