By the end of May the regular TV season was almost over so on this Saturday night my wife Sally and I had decided to watch a movie on Netflix. The movie, a British one, was called 45 and, according to Netflix, was about a couple ready to celebrate their 45th anniversary when some kind of secret comes out to disrupt things. Maybe we decided to watch it because we too were an old married couple, in our case 52 years, and we were curious about what kind of secret had been hidden all those years. It turned out that the husband had a prior girl friend, maybe pregnant, (I wasn’t watching too closely) who was killed in an accident while they were in the Alps. The wife says that this discovery tainted their marriage, but they go ahead with a big party and the film ends with the husband declaring that the best thing in his life was getting the wife to marry him and the couple dances romantically to the strains of “Smoke Gets in Your eyes.” I didn’t think the movie was too good; the ending, after all that fuss, seemed flat. I would have ended it with another scene, the next day the wife is packing her suitcase. At any rate, Sally and I agreed it wasn’t too bad all things considered but we were glad a couple of our regular shows would be on Sunday night. Then we went to bed.
I opened my eyes and was suddenly wide awake. I looked at the bedside clock; it was three o’clock. I thought of Elsa. She was my prior girl friend before I met Sally. Nothing dramatic like being killed in an accident happened to her. We met in San Francisco. She was from Minnesota and her father had a heart attack so she felt she had to go back there to tend to him. She never returned to San Francisco. I wrote a short story about that; I called it “One Last Drink.” In it, the couple meet for a last drink before she leaves. I had them having an argument the night before about her leaving and him offering to marry her if she doesn’t but she knows he doesn’t really want to. In my own case with Elsa we were nowhere near that stage yet. Then, the week after she left, something else happened. The small market research firm where I worked closed up and I was unemployed.
In a way my affair with Elsa and my being unemployed were related. I’d been so preoccupied with her that I’d missed the signs that my firm was in trouble, the loss of some clients and the decrease in assignments. I was still smarting from losing my girl friend but losing my job had greater consequences. I had to find another one to pay the rent and continue to stay in San Francisco. This was a time way before e-mails and texting but Elsa and I did stay in touch by exchanging letters. With one of her letters, after I’d written her that I’d lost my job, Elsa enclosed a small check, to help me along, she wrote. I thanked her but sent it back. Then, in what was to be her last letter, Elsa wrote that her father had recovered but that she’d re-connected with her old high school boy friend and was staying. Somehow I wasn’t surprised. Shortly after that I did get another job, with the State, where I worked for almost 30 years. I also met Sally, we married, moved to Sacramento, the state capital, so that I could get a promotion, bought a house, had three sons and all the rest.
So what if Elsa’s father hadn’t gotten sick? It was entirely possible, I thought, that I might have married her and then who knows what would have happened. I never did mention Elsa to Sally. Maybe having gone to a different job and making different friends had made Elsa and anything connected to my market research job seem to belong to an already distant past. In any case, Sally and I weren’t the material for a Netflix movie, just an old married couple who’d have their 53d anniversary later that year, no big party planned, no new revelations, but I still wouldn’t mention Elsa to Sally. Having made this decision I went back to sleep.