A Fool's Errand
Benny navigated his shopping cart into the next aisle where he stopped to price the soup selections when his eye caught sight of a woman further down the row standing behind a cart staring at items on the shelf. She was stunningly attractive but that's not what drew Benny's attention. There was something about the woman's presence that made her strangely familiar to Benny who was gawking in her direction for several moments trying to place her.
The woman must have felt his eyes boring in on her because she looked up from whatever it was she was studying and caught his eye. It was her face that triggered Benny's mental computer file and he knew exactly who he was looking at.
"Ellen," he said.
She was still processing her own computer chip inside her head and it took her a few additional moments to come up with the right answer.
"Wow," he said with true amazement. "It's been a long time."
"Yes it has," she agreed.
Benny moved his shopping cart closer so he wouldn't have to shout and he was pleasantly impressed at how great she looked when he got nearer to her. She was taller and thinner than he remembered. Her hair was much shorter with a few hints of gray in the otherwise brown shade. He wasn't surprised that she had trouble placing him – he was thirty pounds heavier than he had been as a teenager. His black hair had given way to white gray and he wore a beard now because it was easier than shaving. He also wore wire-rimmed eye glasses.
"You look fantastic!" Benny said it with more enthusiasm than necessary but it was true.
Ellen was sexy in a middle aged sort of way that gave her a certain aurora that Benny hadn't sensed in a long time.
"Thanks," she said, sounding shy and slightly embarrassed.
"I didn't know you were back," Benny said.
"My mother's sick," Ellen revealed.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," Benny said with sincerity. "I've see her at Johnny C's sometimes."
"She's pretty much house bound now," Ellen sighed.
"You're staying with her?"
"I moved in with her," Ellen clarified.
"Wow!" Benny said, surprised by the unexpected announcement. "Weren't you in New York?"
"I was," she said, sounding slightly uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was taking.
Benny sensed her awkwardness. "I'm sorry," he said. "None of my business. But it really is great to see you."
"Thanks," she said again, starting to push her cart by him. "See you, Benny."
He watched her disappear around the corner and he sighed with sadness remembering a time a long time ago when he fell in love for the first time.
Under normal circumstances, Benny would have let such a chance encounter slip from his mind by the time he got to his car with the groceries but for some reason the sentimental memories of sweet young Ellen Kroll stayed with him long after he arrived home to his comfortable but lonely condo.
Truthfully, he hadn't thought about Ellen in years. They were classmates through junior high but he went off to the Tech School while Ellen continued in the St. Anne's Catholic School system. They "dated" that summer, at least within the restrictive limitations of Ellen's parents who were devout Catholics and extremely protective of their fifteen year old daughter. It was Benny's first venture into the semi-romantic world but Ellen's parents were suspicious of his motives because they didn't consider Benny to be a "Good" Catholic seeing how his parents were divorced, he wasn't an altar boy, and he didn't do much at the parish except show up for (most of) Sunday Masses. Ellen was conflicted, of course, wanting to stay true to her Faith beliefs and teachings while honoring her parents' wishes and rules, but she was genuinely attracted to and liked Benny so that certain summer was one of excitement, exploration, discovery and maturing.
Benny had a part time job at the Hillsboro Pizza House putting pizza boxes together and washing dishes that summer. Ellen wasn't supposed to ride her bike off of the Hilltop section of town but because both her parents worked she would sometimes break the rules and sneak down to the pizza shop when Benny was at work. Ellen was allowed to ride her bike to the outdoor public pool at the community center, though she was required to wear her shorts and shirts over her one piece bathing suit. Benny met her there too and they would sit on the side of the pool and talk.
Ellen's family was upper middle class. Benny came from a broken home and he spent time at his grandparent's house because his single mother worked a weird shift (2 p.m. to 10 p.m.) at the Plastics Factory. Ellen was blessed with a generous weekly allowance but Benny was constantly trying to pick up the tab when they were having (discounted) pizza at the pizza shop, ice cream at Red's Tastee Freeze, or French Fries and a Malt at Johnny C's Diner.
"You don't have to be a big spender to impress me, Benny," Ellen told him.
Ellen learned that summer that Benny had an older sister who ran away from home. His father had a drinking problem and that's why his mother left him. His grandfather spent five years in jail when he was twenty one for involuntary manslaughter after a barroom brawl. Ellen wasn't sure if her parents knew these facts but she wasn't about to volunteer any information.
Benny was the first boy Ellen knew who wasn't 'classy'. He wore older clothes. His hair was often unkempt. His eyes looked sad. She felt sorry for him but he never seemed to feel sorry for himself and he was always happy to be around her. That made her feel special and appreciated.
Ellen told Benny things about herself that she never told another boy. That she was afraid of spiders. That her father yelled a lot when nobody else could hear him. That she once spit in Julie Norris' chocolate pudding when she wasn't looking because Ellen thought she was a brat. Ellen found herself showing off in front of Benny, doing stylish dives off the community pool diving board, reciting famous quotes, and proving her knowledge on all sort of subjects including the songs on the jukebox at the pizza place. These were all new behaviors for her.
Benny watched his language when he was with Ellen. He started reading more. He showered every day. He stopped stealing cigarettes from his grandfather. He treated Ellen nicely and that made her feel like she was important. Benny respected the rules Ellen followed even if he didn't agree with them. Sometimes he'd tell her not to sneak down to the pizza shop to see him because he felt guilty about her breaking the rules and he didn't want her to get in trouble.
Benny wasn't allowed inside Ellen's house when her parents weren't home. Ellen wasn't allowed to go to the apartment where Benny lived with his mother near the canal even if his mother was home. She was only allowed in Benny's grandparent's yard if his grandparents were home and even then she wasn't supposed to go into the house. When Benny came into Ellen's house (when her parents were home), he could only be in the kitchen or the family room, never - under ANY circumstances was he to go upstairs or enter Ellen's forbidden zone bedroom. There was a television and stereo in the family room. Benny didn't know that much about music other than what he heard on the jukebox at the pizza place or on the radio in his grandparents' house but Ellen knew all about The Carpenters, The Osmond Brothers, The Jackson Five, David Cassidy and Bobby Sherman among others and she played her favorite records for Benny.
Ellen's mother was a good cook and Benny was invited to stay for supper on occasion if it was okay with his grandparents. He played Trouble, Life, Monopoly, and Sorry with Ellen and her parents around the kitchen table. Ellen and Benny's first official 'going out' date was to the Greenville Majestic - they saw John Trovolta and Olivia Newton John in Grease, but they had to go with a group of neighborhood kids to honor Mrs. Kroll's 'safety in numbers' mentality. Other outings including a day trip to Sun Rise Lake (with Mrs. Kroll and three of Ellen's cousins), the Fourth of July fireworks with Ellen's parents at the Blue County Boat Club, and cooking marshmallows in the back yard (Ellen's parents actually left them alone that time but Ellen and Benny were both too shy and awkward to try anything in the dark!).
Their first kiss was almost accidental and definitely awkward. Benny and Ellen were at Donovan's Department Store in Greenville doing some back to school shopping (Ellen's mother brought them and was across the street at another store). Ellen liked the old fashioned elevators and when they were in it, Benny leaned over without even thinking about it and kissed her as soon as the doors closed, knocking her against the wall. Ellen shook all over and her knees knocked as she trembled with shocked feelings and sensations she never felt before. By the time the elevator door opened, the two young would be lovers were standing apart again.
Ellen held Benny's hand on occasion after that and she would give him polite pecks on the cheek when she said goodbye sometimes but she wasn't ready to do anything else and that was okay with Benny because he wasn't sure what else to do either even though he was crazy about Ellen and wanted to be with her all the time.
Benny was thrilled to have had his first kiss and he was glad that it was with Ellen but their budding young relationship was not without friction and uneasiness. Benny felt imprisoned by all the rules and boundaries of the Kroll family. He was uncomfortable with the pressures Ellen's parents put on him about attending Mass and getting involved in other parish activities. He went to the Church picnic with Ellen and her family but Mrs. Kroll made him talk to the priest for a half hour.
Benny wished Ellen was a bit more affectionate with him (physically) and he couldn't understand why she was always preoccupied about her weight and body image. She was a slightly husky/burly person at fifteen so she rode her bike, joined a dance class, and ran track all in attempts to lose weight.
Ellen felt Benny wasn't invested in their relationship because he wasn't willing to change more for her. She wanted him to wear different clothes, get his hair cut much shorter than he wanted it, and to second guess his decision to go to the Tech School for Freshman year instead of staying at St. Anne's.
"Catholic School isn't going to teach me a trade," Benny said.
"It will save your soul," Ellen countered.
That was the biggest conflict between them and Ellen kept riding Benny about it as the start of the school year got closer.
"Don't you want to be together every day?" Ellen would ask.
"Don't you want me to have a skill when we graduate?" Benny sighed.
"I'll miss you," she pouted. "If you really liked me, you'd stay at St. Anne's."
Benny's mother and grandfather insisted that he go to the Tech School and Benny knew deep down it was the right thing to do but Ellen never forgave him because she felt he was choosing the Tech School over her.
On the day before school started, Ellen and Benny met at the community pool for one last summer fling before summer ended. Ellen broke one of her parents' rules by coming out of the locker room wearing a two piece bathing suit instead of the required one piece. It wasn't a bikini but it still revealed more than either of them was accustomed to and Benny wondered if she was trying to bribe him to stay at St. Anne's. They had a fun day but near the end when Ellen went down the water slide (it was the shooty-shoot back then) the back of her bathing suit bottoms came down on the slide surface and Benny (who was right behind her) got a good shot of her bare behind as she hit the water.
Neither of them said anything as Ellen quickly pulled the bottoms back up in the water but she knew that Benny saw her fanny and she was ashamed of what happened. Benny wanted to tell her that it was okay and that he felt special but he decided that pretending nothing had happened was the better strategy.
Freshman Year began - Ellen continued at St. Anne's and Benny started at the Tech School and by Christmas their 'relationship' was over. Ellen was seeing some altar boy from the parish and Benny was crushed but he knew the break up was enviable. Ellen was from the hill and a good family and a strong Church life. He was a nobody from the canal apartments who barely stayed awake through Mass.
Benny went to Church just to steal a glance at Ellen but after a while he lost interest in that. His grandfather died junior year and Ellen was kind enough to show up for the funeral home service (with her boyfriend). Benny eventually lost touch with Ellen all together - he knew she went off to college and on occasion he'd bump into her parents at Johnny C's or the Blue County Country Fair or somewhere else and they would provide an update - she was on the Dean's List, she got a job in Washington DC, she was engaged, she got married, she had children, she was living on Long Island,
Benny only saw Ellen once after his grandfather's funeral - he came for her father's funeral about twenty years later - she was standing in the receiving line with her husband and children and Benny barely said a word, feeling totally out of place and unworthy. Ellen's husband was some important rich guy and her kids looked perfect and Benny realized that he made the right decision going to the Tech School - he never would have become an Electrician if he had stayed at St. Anne's.
And now Ellen was back in town all these years later and Benny found himself thinking about her all over again even though he knew there was no point. The summer after eighth grade was a lifetime ago and trying to bring the past into the present was a fool's errand.