Unforgettable

In Issue 62 by Richard McPherson

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Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

Today, near Washington, D.C.

Beth’s mind was almost gone but her beauty refused to abandon her. Kindness was unmistakable in her deep brown eyes, and a generous heart illuminated her smile. Her seventy-four years, over half of them married to him, were confused shadows, judging by her rambling. But Michael could easily remember Beth’s fearless intelligence, and he often sat by her bedside and closed his eyes to bask in the velvet voice which still soothed him. These glimpses sustained his love, battered by life’s unavoidable trials and avoidable mistakes.

Beth’s days in the dementia facility were empty but comfortable, untroubled by her inability to recognize their adult daughter or even Michael, the past submerged by the relentless rising tide of Alzheimer’s. She remembered nothing of raising a family, little of Michael’s distinguished career with the State Department, or the countless accolades for her inspiration as a theater professor at Georgetown. She could recall virtually nothing from her life.

Except Sasha, damnable Sasha.

Michael nodded to her as she thanked him for stopping by. This morning she thought he was her doctor, yesterday he was the embassy driver, before that an actor whose name escaped her. She turned to Michael. “I want to see Sasha again.” Michael braced for her next words, knew they would feel like a fresh stab, even though he heard them every day, could recite them by heart: “I want him to know how I feel about him.”

The doctors told Michael that dementia patients, even those unable to remember family members, sometimes retain an event clearly in their minds, able to replay it in detail like a recorded loop. He forced a smile and nodded.

##

1982, London

Michael tapped his champagne flute with a silver salad fork and gazed out the dining room windows while his guests’ conversation quieted. He took pride in the view of gracious, timeless stone buildings, flanked by the glowing art galleries and restaurants of Mayfair, only blocks from the U.S. Embassy where he worked. It was no matter that his posting was temporary, that he was junior to most other diplomats, or that Beth worried about taking a year off from teaching theater. They were in London and would make the most of it: he would become a respected expert in the burgeoning field of space technology, and Beth would immerse herself in the busy theaters that crowded the West End. In fact, it was an actor who prompted tonight’s dinner, a Russian who had become a new friend of Beth’s. Not too good a friend, Michael hoped as he looked at Sasha, whose dark eyes, strong features, and easy laugh suggested an appealing availability.

Michael looked around the table at two couples from the embassy, a British couple from the Foreign Office, and the two Russians: Sasha and a large, bald man who was the head of the visiting Soviet theater group. Michael noticed Sasha’s penetrating glance settle on Beth, who rewarded him with an affectionate, almost proprietary smile. He lifted his glass. “Please join me in welcoming Sasha to London. I know your absence from Moscow theaters must feel tragic to Russians – of course, most things do.” He paused for light laughter. “But Beth tells me it would be far more tragic if London students didn’t get the chance to learn Chekhov from you.” Michael studied Sasha’s handsome face and forced an even broader smile. “Tonight, we’re free to overindulge in champagne and escape the day’s demands. That will be our crime, but I doubt there will be any punishment.”

##

Beth’s chin settled on her chest, her eyes closed, and her breathing slowed. Michael watched her slip into a world only she could see, and he braced himself. A minute passed, then another. There. There it was. The smile that crossed her face when she fell asleep, a smile that radiated joy. He was certain she was dreaming of Sasha and wondered how one person—someone she knew only briefly—could escape the fate of almost everyone else from Beth’s life, remain vivid when others had been erased by some chemical assassin of a disease. What must their relationship have been, to be so unforgettable? She could remember characters from a few plays and recall scraps of places they lived. But only two people were clear in her crippled mind: Sasha, and her father, the Admiral, an American hero eulogized by two presidents and an ardent supporter of her marriage to Michael. The Admiral’s picture, his arm around a young Beth, hung on the wall just above the fresh flowers Michael brought regularly.

Her smile grew until it seemed Beth would laugh out loud. Then the smile vanished, her eyes shut tighter, her brow furrowed. The joy was gone, replaced, it seemed, by worry. Michael felt helpless to defend her from worries, unable to prolong her joy, to do anything to show his love for a woman who was still the center of his life. He smoothed her blanket as he sat in the chair next to her bed. He gripped his head in his hands to crush the familiar anger, furious at fate for selecting Beth, enraged that he could do nothing for her. If only he were a magician able to conjure up Sasha, just to see her eyes fill with joy. Michael’s head snapped up.

“Why not?” he whispered into the stillness.

The idea was so wildly improbable that he had to stifle a laugh lest he wake her. He had nothing left to give her, except perhaps the only thing she wanted. What if he could bring her Sasha one more time, let her say whatever was trapped in her mind? He shook his head in disbelief. How would Beth react to seeing Sasha? Was he prepared for God-knows-what emotions, both his and hers? He looked at her face and felt his bizarre notion harden into a daring, undeniably reckless plan. But his doubts were swept away by the chance to see Beth smile once again, even if the smile wasn’t for him.

He stood to leave and took a long, parting look at Beth. His heart filled to overflowing before he focused on the task at hand: he needed to find someone the age Sasha was when they suddenly left London all those years ago. He needed an actor.

##

The NATO meeting ended early, and Michael was able to grab an afternoon flight for the short hop from Brussels back to London. He wasn’t scheduled to return until late evening, and he warmed at the thought of surprising Beth with an invitation to dinner at their special place, a recently discovered Indian restaurant, crowded with conversation and reliably redolent of curry.

##

He swept past the facility’s reception desk and called Max, whose connections in the region’s theaters and the Kennedy Center were second to none. What’s more, he trusted Max, felt confident he wouldn’t laugh at Michael’s wild idea. Max had been Beth’s mentor, and a virtual family member, for decades. He was almost as heartbroken about her as Michael. He would understand and could find a local actor who could briefly become Sasha and pay a visit to Beth.

Max answered right away, and Michael poured a breathless torrent of words into his cell phone in the middle of the facility’s driveway, almost begging for help. He waited in the silence until he heard Max blow out a long breath.

“Yes, it does sound crazy. And it’s incredibly generous of you, Michael. It’s anybody’s guess how she’ll react. Are you sure that you’re ready to hear about her affair?”

“Max, I just can’t stand to hear her ask for him every day.” He breathed deeply. “She always denied there was an affair, and I always thought she lied about it, to save the marriage. I made peace with that long ago. At this point, I’m prepared to hear anything.”

##

The iconic, squat, black taxi scurried through London’s maze of streets, making impossible turns to dodge choked thoroughfares. Michael squirmed in his seat and leaned forward, thrusting a fist of pound notes toward the driver. “Just drop me at this corner, near that Indian restaurant.” He would pop in, ask them to hold a table, then dash the two blocks to their apartment and fetch Beth. Michael stepped onto the sidewalk and stopped so suddenly a tall elegantly pin-striped man bumped into him. Michael muttered “Sorry,” frozen where he stood by the sight inside the restaurant window. Beth was sitting with Sasha at a small table, both bent close in intense conversation. His annoyance turned to something darker as he watched the couple – they looked every bit a couple – who were oblivious to other diners and pedestrians. Michael drew a deep breath to prepare a suitably neutral greeting, took a tentative step toward the door, then stopped again. His head swam as he watched Sasha take Beth’s hand. She smiled, didn’t withdraw, let Sasha pour out a torrent of words.

Michael watched Sasha’s obvious courtship of Beth. His immediate instinct was to rush inside, interrupt the two, and assess their reactions. But Michael knew one thing from experience and diplomatic training: first impulses, without facts, are very often wrong and voicing them can ignite a damaging conversation, the kind that leaves a permanent stain on a relationship. His father had been a jealous man, and he spent his life trying to be better than that. And his strict training as a new foreign service officer had taught him calm observation in place of emotional reaction.

But still. His cheeks felt heated as he watched Beth hold Sasha’s hand to her face before releasing it; he knew that touch, knew how it felt to the Russian. Michael turned to walk home. He would calm down. He would ask her. Later.

##

Max settled on Michael’s sofa, swirled the ice in his glass of Scotch, then set it on the coffee table. His voice was soft. “Are you sure you want to know the truth?”

Michael tilted his head back, studied the ceiling, then examined the blue drapes Beth loved so much. “Nothing can change whatever happened in London. It was forty years ago, and nothing like that ever happened again. The years since London were wonderful, we raised a beautiful daughter. I just hate to see her so anguished. If I can bring her a little peace, I’m willing to risk it.” He shut his eyes. “The pain can’t be worse than it already is.”

“But an actor who doesn’t know a thing about the relationship? That’s pretty risky.”

“I spent yesterday online trying to locate the real Sasha and even contacted the theater society in London. Nothing. Zip. It’s like he disappeared from the stage after London. I don’t even know if he’s still alive.” Michael shrugged. “Besides, who knows if she’d even recognize him as an old man. No, I think we need someone who can bring Sasha back to life, as she knew him.”

“Well, if you’re sure, I’ll make some calls and find someone who’s really good at improv. He’ll be on his own without knowing the history.” Max dropped his voice. “The parts that you don’t know about.” He let the comment linger. “While I look around, think about how you’ll prep our actor with details of Sasha’s public life, places he should know. Find an episode you know about and give our ‘Sasha’ plenty of details, so he can fall back on that in conversation.”

##

Beth entered the apartment and dropped her keys on the floor when she saw the lights on. Her eyes filled with surprise when she saw Michael. Or was it alarm? “Sweetheart! I didn’t expect you home this early.” She hurried to him, embraced him, then stood back. “You look worried. Was everything OK in Brussels? You were supposed to have dinner at NATO, I thought.”

Michael tried to read the concern in her face, forced a matter-of-fact tone. “Everything was fine. The German minister had to cancel, so we postponed the discussion of Spacelab.” He managed a tepid smile. “I hoped we might grab dinner at the Taj, but you weren’t here, so I raided the fridge. What have you been up to?” He hoped it sounded like a neutral question.

“Oh, I wish I’d known. Indian would have been lovely.” Was she nervous, or was he reading too much into her tone? “I watched the rehearsal for Uncle Vanya – it’s going to be fabulous! – and visited with Sasha and the cast.”

“So, you’ve eaten?”

The slightest pause. “Yes, I got a bite. Now tell me about Brussels. Were you a star again?”

Not a lie. Not the whole truth. Why not mention that she had dinner with Sasha at the Taj? Unless she was hiding something. Michael was confused and a little dizzy. But he wouldn’t stoop to confronting her, not yet. He scorned jealousy, believed it was for weak people, felt pathetic for feeling even a hint of it. But this was so out of character for Beth. Michael felt the whiplash of an unfamiliar fear, suddenly terrified that life as he knew it was in danger. The emotions were so chaotic they made his decision simple: he knew that highly emotional, badly confused people shouldn’t jump to dangerous conclusions. They should remain silent until they were calmer, had some facts. Perhaps she was deflecting Sasha’s advances. Perhaps there was some harmless explanation. Perhaps. He loved her and determined to give her the benefit of the doubt, even as he knew that doubt would become his constant companion. He would wait and see if she acted odd.

##

“Thank you for doing this. I know it’s a strange request, but Max tells me you are the right actor.” Michael waved the handsome young man to a deep, red, wing-back chair and studied his muscular build and face. With a beard, some hair coloring, and the right clothes, he could look the part.

Max took charge. “The opening night pictures from your scrapbook weren’t great, and young Kevin here is not as hefty as Sasha. But we’ll put him in a bulky Irish fisherman’s sweater, throw on that beret you said he always wore, and you’ll have a reasonably close Sasha.”

Kevin’s voice was suitably deep. “Max said this was total improv, and I’m not sure how you want it to go. Are you sure your wife won’t know I’m a fake?” He adopted a thick accent. “I can manage to sound like a Russian, as long as I don’t have to know the language.”

Michael nodded. It would have to do. “Say as little as possible. I don’t know what will happen or how she’ll react. Just ask questions and let her talk.”

“Can you give me details of any important moments she had with Sasha, something I could ask her about?”

Michael felt an old, almost ancient pain. “They went to Edinburgh together, with the theater group.” He reminded himself that forty years had passed, shoved aside the stinging memory. “They spent three nights there”

##

“We’re going to stay another night. Edinburgh is great, Michael, the Fringe Festival is huge, and so exciting!” It had been a month since the Indian restaurant and Beth talked about little else than her invitation to join the theater group for two days at the Fringe Festival. Michael had detected no odd behavior from Beth and had even begun to wonder if he had imagined things.

“Is Sasha staying, too?” Michael decided on a test. “Just watch out for him. I think he has a big crush on you.”

Beth’s hesitation was just brief enough to worry Michael. “We’re all staying.” She laughed. “Don’t be silly. Sasha has a crush on all women. I’ll see you day after tomorrow.”

Something didn’t feel right. Michael knew in his soul that Beth was not a liar. But she was hiding something.

##

Michael was bone-tired, depleted from emotions churned up during the hour with Max and Kevin. He slumped in his chair when the young actor asked one last question. “How did it end?” He paused. “Can you tell me anything about that?”

##

Beth returned from the theater, offered Michael a perfunctory smile, and retreated to the bedroom. She closed the door behind her.

Michael stared in disbelief. In three years of marriage, she had never once closed the door to their bedroom. He drew a deep breath, walked to the door, and opened it. Beth was sitting on the bed, her head down, face troubled. He walked into the room and waited for her to look at him. He studied the yellow bedspread that surrounded her, its cheerful hue suddenly an odd distraction. Finally, she looked up. His voice was steady, without anger. “Are you sleeping with Sasha?”

Her look was sorrowful, and Michael prayed for an outspoken denial. Beth’s voice was soft. “No, sweetheart, I’m not.” She seemed on the verge of an explanation, then sighed. “I’m so sorry our friendship has given you that impression.” She rose to embrace Michael. “I love you with all my heart. Now and forever.”

Michael held her and tried to measure her warmth even as he bathed in it. He badly wanted to accept her words. But in some disturbed corner he needed a condition. “I don’t want you to see him again. Ever.”

She stepped back, looked alarmed. “Michael…”

His voice was suddenly sharp, loud. “I saw you that night at the Taj, the night I got back early from Brussels.” What did the flicker in her eyes mean? “I saw you having dinner with Sasha.” He almost spat the words out, “Holding hands.” He paused when he saw the pain in her eyes, then pressed on. “He was trying to seduce you. And it was working.”

She looked stricken, but remained steady, calm, waiting for his breathing to slow down. “Sasha became overly friendly, wanted to see me alone, he said, to discuss his ideas for a new play.” Michael scoffed, and Beth held her hand up. “And yes, he was trying to seduce me. But, no, it was not working.” Her eyes softened. “I would never betray you. I hope you know that.” She shook her head gently. “Sasha was a terrible flirt, hit on other women, but lately, it’s true, he has been pushier with me. I told him to keep his distance, to back off. I told him…”

“I need to hear you say it.” Michael cut her off. He could not – would not - live another day a slave to doubt. This had to end tonight. “Tell me you will never see him again.”

Her eyes filled with tears as she looked at him. She put her arms around him and leaned against his chest. She whispered, “No, I won’t see him again.”

He held her until it felt like she was holding him, until the holding became so precious that he determined never to risk losing her. “We’re going to Tokyo.”

Beth stepped back, astonishment in her eyes. “Did something happen at the embassy?”

“There is an opening in Japan and I’m going to take it.”

“But I thought…”

“We’ll leave next week.”

##

“So, you just took Beth away? And let it go? Didn’t you ever confront her about Sasha?” Max was like a rehearsal director, firing questions at Michael, making notes for Kevin.

Michael’s body grew taut at the memory. “It was well over a year later and we’d just returned to Washington from Tokyo.”

##

The welcome back party with friends from State was pleasant, but the selection of an Indian restaurant put Michael in a subdued mood. He noticed Beth was quieter than usual, also. When they returned to their apartment, Michael unlocked the door, held it for Beth, and tossed his keys on the table. It was time. “We need to talk.”

Beth turned and hugged Michael with urgency. “Yes, I’d like that.” She stepped back and the look on her face puzzled Michael. She appeared happy but serious, something on her mind. “You go first.”

Michael had rehearsed the question, but the words felt alien as he said them. “What happened in London? With Sasha? I need the truth.”

Beth’s face fell, her mouth opened a little. Her shoulders slumped. “Oh, Michael, sweetheart, nothing happened with Sasha.”

She reached for his hand, but Michael withdrew it. “That’s hard for me to accept. There was too much…” he chose the word with great care “…emotion between you. Everyone could see it. And you always dodged my questions about him.” He felt cold, plunged into the void. “I always trusted you, Beth. Always!” He hated it when his voice rose, took a deep breath, spoke more softly. “We said we’d always be honest with each other.” He straightened, put his shoulders back. “Did you have an affair with Sasha?”

Beth’s eyes filled with sadness, first pleading, then acceptance. “Michael, I did not have an affair with Sasha. I already told you that.” She waited in his silence. “That’s the truth. Yes, I was fond of him…”

“And he was,” Michael spat the word, “fond of you, too. Very fond. He drooled around you, couldn’t get enough of you.”

“Sweetheart, I…”

Michael cut her off. “That night at the Taj, the night I got back from Brussels early, I saw you hold his hand to your face! Don’t tell me it never went any further! Don’t tell me…”

Beth stunned Michael when she shouted, “Stop it!” Her voice turned quiet, without a trace of anger, steady. “Just stop it. I never slept with Sasha. Yes, our friendship was confusing for me. Yes, I let him become too friendly. He misunderstood.” She studied his face. “So did everyone. So did you.”

Michael felt torn down the middle. His love for Beth agonized him, his desire to believe her battled with the evidence of his eyes. He had to make a choice at this instant and knew it would define their future. He could believe her. Or at least accept her denial as proof she wanted to push a mistake behind them. He took her hands in his, then drew her close to him, ready to pay any price to keep them together. He refused to apologize for his suspicion, still not sure he was wrong. But he couldn’t tolerate a life without Beth, a world where the sky was never blue again. He hugged her and let it linger. He nodded and kissed her hair, then tilted her face to him and kissed her lips. He stepped back, still holding her hands. “You said you wanted to talk, too?”

Beth’s eyes were the clearest and deepest he’d ever seen them. She smiled and drew him close to her. “I’m pregnant.” He reached out and cupped her face in his hands, couldn’t get enough of her hopeful brown eyes. “You’ll be such a wonderful father.”

##

Michael led “Sasha” into the lobby of the facility, his mind in turmoil, his fever rising with every step closer to Beth’s room. He was terrified this was a massive mistake.

Michael opened the door to her room and smiled. “I brought you a visitor.”

“Sasha” entered, and Michael sat in a remote corner as Beth’s eyes grew wide and followed “Sasha.” She registered confusion, then a recognition Michael hadn’t seen in a long time. “Is it really you? I can’t believe you’re here. We left London so suddenly, I never got to say what I truly felt…” Her voice faded out.

“Sasha” remained standing. “Why did you leave so suddenly?”

“My husband was called away.”

“Where is he?”

Her eyes were sad. “He disappeared. I don’t know what happened to him. They won’t tell me.” She studied “Sasha” from head to toes. “They picked you up, I suppose?”

“Sasha” raised his eyebrows. “Why do you say that?”

“Because I betrayed you.” She looked confused, then shook her head. “No,” she said firmly, “it was you who betrayed me.” She struggled for words. “You were so … I was so fond of you. Such a complete man, so sensitive.” She seemed lost in memory, wandering between forty years ago and the present. “So unafraid of life.”

Michael shut his eyes tight, bitterly regretting this crazy idea, and braced himself.

Beth’s voice suddenly grew brittle. “I cared for you! How could you try to use me like that? The CIA told me you worked for the KGB.” Her eyes hardened. “A spy!”

Michael looked at her in astonishment, held his breath while “Sasha” remained cool and asked, “What did they tell you?”

“Everything. Your ‘interest’ in me was not affection or even lust, and certainly not theater. You were ordered to get close to me and my husband, get information about the…” she frowned, searching, “spaceship…” she shook her head, struggled, “space shuttle.”

Michael’s knuckles turned white where he grasped the armchair, afraid he would faint.

Beth was in a quiet rage. “You were such a fine, intuitive actor.” She laughed, full of scorn. “You’re probably acting right now.” Her voice calmed a little. “What happened after I left you that night?”

“What do you think happened?”

“They told me you’d be taken someplace neutral, then traded with the KGB for one of ours.”

“Did your husband know about this?”

Beth scoffed. “I had to promise, not even a whisper to him.”

“Sasha” looked incredulous as he blurted out, “You were a spy?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You know I wasn’t a spy, just a foreign service wife, not trained for any of this. The CIA promised not even the State Department would know, so it would never cloud my husband’s career. They trusted me, my patriotism, because of who my father was.” She looked at the picture of the Admiral and her face softened. “My father. I wonder where he is. The fleet could be anywhere.” She refocused on “Sasha,” a moment from the past repeated like a recording. “All I had to do was lead you on, let you in our apartment, see if you would take pictures of fake papers they left out on my husband’s desk.” She harrumphed. “You did.”

“Sasha” waited a beat. “You said you wanted to tell me how you feel about me?”

Beth’s mouth was hard, her teeth gritted. “I despise you. For your lying, for the ease of your lies. I despise you for bringing danger to me and my husband.”

Michael was numb, his mouth hung open.

“I love my husband and my country. You asked me to betray both, and I could never betray either. You are vile. Get out.”

Michael sat mute as “Sasha” left the room. Finally, he stood and walked to Beth’s bedside. She glanced at the bouquet of flowers on the table, then focused on Michael as if the conversation had never happened. She had returned to the present. “Doctor, did I ever tell you that you remind me of my husband?”

Michael’s mind was still reeling. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“Oh, it is. He’s a wonderful man.” She leaned nearer and lowered her voice. “Wherever he is, it must be top secret. That’s the only reason he can’t come to see me.” She whispered knowingly. “Probably Asia.” Michael nodded, and Beth cocked her head and looked closely at him. Her face still took his breath away. “Doctor, I notice you wear a ring. You’re also married?”

Michael wondered if his smile conveyed even a trace of what his heart felt. “Yes,” he answered softly, “happily married.”

“I’m glad. Where is she now?”

Michael ached with tenderness. “She’s away right now.”

“Ah, like my husband.”

His voice was barely a whisper. “Yes.”

Beth looked out the window, then back at Michael. “Well, we must both make the best of it and remember the feelings.” Her smile was like a blessing. “That kind of love you never forget.”

About the Author

Richard McPherson

Richard C McPherson's short stories have appeared in The Write Launch, Black Fox Literary Journal, Unleash Press 2022 Anthology "Conversations," and elsewhere. His first novel, Man Wanted in Cheyenne, has been called "smart, funny and tender," and was released in February, 2023 by Unleash Press.

Read more work by Richard McPherson .