Anyway, this was my first job out of college. I’d been at the association of associations for three years, working in the publications department. I wrote stories for a magazine called Executive Update. Somehow, in those pre-Internet days, I discovered there was a similar publication in England. A copy must have shown up at the office.
I just so happened to be going to England — on my honeymoon! — and so I arranged to meet the editor while I was there.
I was 24, an age when I felt like a pretend grown-up. Luckily, I could do a fairly good imitation. And that’s what I did in the office of this London editor, who was probably in his late 50s, the age I am now. I nodded appropriately when he said something. When he stopped saying something, I filled the space with my own word noise.
I probably quoted Alexis de Tocqueville. (American association people were always shoehorning Tocqueville into conversation, usually this sentence: “Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.”)
At the end of our meeting, we shook hands and promised to stay in touch. When I got back to Washington after my honeymoon, there was a letter waiting for me from the Englishman. He’d had an idea, he’d written. He didn’t specify what it was, but it was something that could benefit both of us. Could I please give him a call?
Could I ever! Did he want me to be the U.S. correspondent of his British association magazine? Did he want me to move to London and take over his job? Did he want me to swallow a balloon full of uncut diamonds and fly to Heathrow? I really had no clue.
I called his office and discovered . . . well, you know. Between the time he sent the letter and the time I read it, the poor guy had died — suddenly and unexpectedly, but irrevocably.
I was sad for his family and friends, of course, but mainly I was irritated for me. Now I would never know what he’d had in mind. A path had been snatched from me and it was no less maddening for being an unknown path — more maddening, probably.
If you believe in the notion of the multiverse, then you know that this stuff is happening all the time. Reality is branching off in infinite directions, like capillaries of existence. On the timeline of some other John Kelly, the Englishman didn’t die. That John Kelly called the Englishman and he said . . .
Who knows? That’s what I wonder to this day.
I’ve experienced this a few times. Once when I was in college and driving down I-95 to the Carolinas, I spotted a handsome young couple — a man and a woman — standing on an off-ramp. They were hitchhiking and they held a hand-lettered sign that read, simply: “French.”
I don’t think I’d ever picked up a hitchhiker. And I didn’t pick up those two. But there was something about that sign that has stuck with me for years. I decided they’d put a lot of thought into it. It wasn’t a destination — it wasn’t “Richmond” or “Miami.” It was a description of them. They were hoping to pique the interest of a potential ride.
So I sometimes wonder, what would have happened if I had picked them up? Would we have bonded, becoming so close that I still visit them every summer on the Cote d’Azur? Or would they have beaten me to death with a bottle of Bordeaux and stolen my Mercury Comet?
This is the stuff of fiction, of books like Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” and that Gwyneth Paltrow movie “Sliding Doors.” But in a way, it’s also the stuff of life. We all wonder about paths we didn’t take.
Of course, on some other timeline, the Englishman’s letter to me was returned unopened. My name was crossed out and scrawled next to it was the word “Deceased.”
What might have been
What about you? Do you wonder about how your life would be different if you had done something that you didn’t do? Email the details to me at firstname.lastname@example.org — with “The path not taken” in the subject line.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.