Now Playing: 45 Years

illustration by Brianna Ashby

The sun rises. An older woman, Kate (Charlotte Rampling), will take the dog for a walk. She moves, briskly, through the fields of the English countryside. It’s damp, it’s quiet. She trudges through thick, long grass in boots, determined but relaxed. She returns home by breakfast. The mail is already there, and she brings it inside, setting it on the kitchen table where her husband Jeff (Tom Courtenay) sits. She fills a small glass with water at the kitchen sink. She drinks it.

Routines are built; they are learned. You cannot know them overnight.

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I don’t like knowing anything I don’t have to know about someone. That probably makes me sound ignorant or lazy. It’s possible that I’m one of those things, if not both. The less I know, as I see it, the better. That’s not to say I don’t ask about someone’s day. That’s not to say I’m not curious. But if something’s being hidden, I don’t dig. I don’t look at texts on another person’s phone if I know I can read them from where I sit. What would I do with someone’s email password? Probably nothing. I’d make a horrible teenage detective.

On a first date, I got asked the worst thing I’d ever done. I laughed, nervously, jabbing a straw into a glass of cranberry juice as if digging for something at the bottom. It wasn’t that I was afraid to share—I’m not sure I’ve ever been afraid to share—it was that I knew it would turn, that soon I’d know the worst thing my date had done.

I looked up after what felt like too long and smiled. “Let’s talk about something else.”

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Here is what happened: over fifty years ago, Jeff and his girlfriend at the time, Katya, were hiking in the Swiss Alps, when she fell into a crevasse. An unseen crack in a glacier. A scream and then silence. And then, out of nowhere, the week of his 45th wedding anniversary with his wife, Katya is found.

She’s still there, embedded into the ice, 27 years old, just as he remembered her, frozen in both time and place.

Kate asks some questions, nods sympathetically, does all the right things. What is there to do, really, about something that happened so long ago? Jeff answers questions about Katya, at first cautiously and then openly. He wants to resuscitate the memory of her, bring it back to the surface. When Kate and Jeff eat dinner together that night, it’s as if Katya is right there at the table with them, frozen in the past.

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I move quickly after a breakup. I delete text threads; I unfollow on social media. I put up an invisible wall. I can’t see them but they can see me. Much of the time, that’s what easiest. I spent too many nights in my early twenties scrolling through text messages from someone who used to ask me questions about myself.

If I can’t see what happens to them, where they go, who they spend time with, I can let someone I used to love fade into memory. My brain will twist and turn them into a version of themselves. It’s the easiest way of letting go. I have never sent a desperate, pleading message in the middle of the night because I burn the bridge before it can happen. The only things I hang onto, and even then, tenuously, are the memories. And hopefully, over time, those too will freeze into the past.

Hopefully.

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Slowly but sure, Kate asks more questions.

“Was Kayta blonde?”

No, Jeff tells her. She had dark hair, just like Kate. Even their names are similar.

Kate processes information about Katya slowly, deliberately. She nods. She blinks. She thinks about a woman she cannot ever know. It hurts, she realizes, to know she shares qualities with this mystery woman. She wonders if she’s a replacement. She will never know her husband’s grief, only her own.

Kate asks the question she cannot un-ask and gets the answer she fears most. We think knowing is closure, but it’s not. Knowing is just a new road, a new path.

In the attic, by herself, Kate flips through pictures of Katya. She tries to make sense of this woman’s smile. She tries to see in her what Jeff might see. She clicks through, faster and faster. It is a madness, trying to know.

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Here’s a fun anxiety game I like to play:

Inevitably, at the beginning of a relationship, there is a point at which I don’t hear back from the person I am seeing for an amount of time I consider “too long.” Maybe they’re busy. Maybe I’m being ignored. And then my brain will immediately skip to the worst possible scenario. Something’s happened, there’s been an accident, who knows.

I’ll have been the last person they were seeing. It’s four dates in, but who knows what it could have been. I’ll have to meet their parents, I’ll have to send condolences. People will feel sorry for me. It’s a self-centered, stupid fear, but I can’t rid myself of it. It follows me through every relationship. I’m afraid the last thing they’ll know is me, and they’ll barely know me at all.

“How was 45 Years?” a friend asked after I saw it.

I thought, and then: “It makes a good case for dying young, if nothing else.”

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We can start over at any time. Kate and Jeff tell themselves that. They decide to begin again, 45 years into their marriage. Every day there is a new sunrise, a new walk to take, a new breakfast to eat. There are new conversations and new experiences together. And yet—

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We are all so afraid to be hurt by something we cannot change.