Authors: Lara Prescott
“He hung up.”
I rolled a pea around my plate with the back of my knife. “But what does this have to do with now? That was years ago. Stalin is dead.”
“I’ve long regretted what I did. Or, rather, what I didn’t do. I was given the chance to stand up for my friend, to save him, and I didn’t take it. I was a coward.”
“No one blames you for—”
Borya pounded his fist on the table, rattling the plates and silverware. “I won’t be a coward again.”
“This is not the same—”
“They’ve asked me to sign letters before.”
“This is different. Feltrinelli already knows to ignore anything you send that’s not written in French. You’ve prepared for this. It won’t be a lie. It’s simply a measure of protection.”
“I don’t need protection.”
My anger grew. “What about me, then, Boris? Who will protect me?” I paused before unleashing everything. “They sent me to the Gulag once before. Because of you.” I’d never laid the blame for my arrest directly at his feet, and he looked aghast. I said it again: “They sent me to that place because of you. Do you want to be responsible for sending me back there?”
Boris went quiet again.
“Well? Do you?”
“You must think very little of me,” he finally answered. “Where is it?”
I went to my bedroom and returned with Polikarpov’s telegram. He took it from me, and without reading it, signed his name. I sent it to Milan first thing in the morning, followed by a telegram to Polikarpov saying it had been done.
Borya and I didn’t speak about the telegram again after that, and in the end, it didn’t matter anyway. Feltrinelli ignored it, as we knew he would, and a date for publication in Italy was set for early November.
I had tried my best, but my best was not enough.
was a speeding train that could not be stopped.
Sally Forrester arrived on a Monday. I’d gone to Ralph’s with the typing pool, at Norma’s pleading. I knew she was only interested in getting the scoop on my relationship with Teddy, but I’d agreed when she offered to buy me a burger and a chocolate malt, knowing I had soggy tuna on Wonder Bread waiting for me at my desk.
The typing pool’s usual booth was a tad cramped, so I sat with my long legs turned out to the aisle. As soon as we ordered, Norma volleyed questions at me. “Come on, Irina. You’ve been dating for what, a year? And you don’t tell us anything. We don’t know anything.”
“Eight months,” I said.
“I was engaged to David after three,” Linda chimed in.
I smiled politely. Fact was, Teddy and I had become a real couple without my even realizing it. Our first dinner at Rive Gauche turned into dinner and a movie the following weekend, which turned into dinner and dancing, which turned into dinner at his parents’ expansive home in Potomac. Teddy had introduced me as his girlfriend, and not wanting to hurt his feelings, I hadn’t corrected him—even after months passed. Maybe it was because we got along well, or because Mama loved him and he had an impressive knowledge of Russian culture and mastery of the language. “You speak better Russian than my cousins, and they were born there!” she’d told him.
Plus, I was comfortable with him in a way I’d longed to be with a friend my entire life. I didn’t have to analyze my every word and move with him. It was a friendship, but I hadn’t yet given up hope that it could turn into something more. I was waiting for that lightning bolt, that electric shock, that weak-knees moment—every cliché I’d only read about.
There were other perks too. Teddy was seen as an up-and-comer at the Agency, a potential member of an inner circle that, as a woman, I could only hope to see the outskirts of. He’d take me to the Sunday dinner parties in Georgetown and the fancy cocktail parties at the Hay-Adams Hotel. And he wouldn’t send me off to chat with the wives and girlfriends; he’d pull me from conversation to conversation with the men, and squeeze my hand when he felt proud of a point I’d made.
Teddy was a Catholic and never pressured me to do anything I wasn’t ready for. It wasn’t that he was against sex before marriage—he’d lost his virginity to a substitute teacher his senior year at prep school and had three more partners in college—but he was respectful of my boundaries. I wasn’t against sex before marriage either, although I’d let him believe I was more of a prude than I actually was. Teddy didn’t know it, but I was no virgin. I’d lost—or rather, given away—my virginity to a friend my junior year. I’d approached it as something to get over and done with, and invited him to my dorm when my roommate was away. He came through the door and I asked if he’d have sex with me. Poor guy was so taken aback, he initially tried to talk me out of it, but he relented when I took off my blouse.
I’d always approached sex as an anthropologist. Instead of turning the gaze on myself, I was most interested in observing the man and his reactions. And I liked how Teddy responded to touching me—even more than how it made me feel. His restrained desire made me feel powerful, and that was a revelation. Teddy was everything I should’ve hoped for—and yet.
Norma’s questions came to a halt when Sally breezed into Ralph’s. Linda alerted the group by widening her eyes. “Who is
I looked at the same time the rest of the Pool did.
“Way to be inconspicuous.”
Ralph’s was a place for regulars: the typing pool gossiping in the back booth, the old-timers dipping their toast in their sunny-side-up eggs at the counter; the college students studying at the round-tops, having ordered only a coffee or a chocolate malt; the occasional lawyer or lobbyist who took clients there when they wanted to be incognito. Any newcomer to Ralph’s got the Pool’s attention—but this woman demanded it.
Judy pretended she was getting something out of her purse. “She looks familiar.”
Marcos had already come around from behind the counter and was pointing out each and every pastry in the case to the woman. Athena leaned against the register, her eyes on her husband, his eyes on the woman. She was of medium height but wore heels that hiked her up a few inches. She looked young but was far too sophisticated for someone in her twenties in her bright blue knee-length coat with red silk lining and fox fur collar. Her hair was a deep red and perfectly curled—the kind of hair that makes you want to say the color aloud. My own hair resembled the color of an underbaked oatmeal cookie.
“Politician’s wife?” Norma asked.
“Downtown at this hour?” Linda added. She wiped ketchup from the corner of her mouth with the tip of her napkin.
“Besides,” Kathy jumped in, “those heels sure as hell don’t belong to a politician’s wife.”
Judy dangled a French fry from her finger like a cigarette. “That’s an understatement.”
“Is she famous?” I asked. From where I was sitting, the woman could’ve passed for Rita Hayworth, but when she turned and I got a better look at her face, I realized she didn’t look like Rita at all—her beauty was her own.
“Hmmm,” appraised Linda. “Was she in that movie? The one that was banned?
“You’re thinking of Carroll Baker,” I said. “She’s blond, but I guess she could’ve dyed her hair.”
“Too old,” Kathy said at the same time Judy said, “Too curvy.”
Norma licked a spot of mustard off her finger. “That’s no Carroll Baker. Was she in that Garfinckel’s ad? You know, the one with the”—she lowered her voice—“magic inserts?”
“She doesn’t look like she needs any magic inserts,” I said, then covered my mouth as the typing pool burst out laughing.
The woman pointed to a cherry turnover and Marcos boxed up two. She paid Athena and shot Marcos a wink. She turned to leave, but not before a quick nod to our table. We all looked away, pretending we hadn’t been looking in the first place.
That was the first time I saw Sally Forrester, before I knew her name.
The second time I saw Sally Forrester was at HQ. We’d returned from Ralph’s and there she was, standing at reception chatting up Anderson. Anderson, who usually greeted us with some reference to working off the calories we’d consumed at lunch, didn’t give us a second glance as we passed and went to our desks.
here?” Judy asked.
“Someone important?” Norma said.
“One of Dulles’s?” Linda asked with a smile. The spy chief’s dalliances were no secret, and his affairs numbered well into the dozens. It was even rumored he’d dipped into the typing pool. But if that was true, none of us ever owned up to it.
“If that’s the case, no way she’d be standing in SR with Anderson,” Gail said. Anderson had eaten one of the woman’s cherry turnovers, evidenced by a glob of jelly on his baby blue sweater vest. He leaned against the reception desk, trying to look important or maybe casual—a sad attempt at flirting. But the woman wasn’t rolling her eyes like we would’ve. She just smiled and laughed and touched his arm.
She took off her blue coat and handed it to Anderson, who draped it over his arm like a waiter. Underneath, she wore a woolen mauve dress with a gold braided belt. I looked down the front of my navy shift dress and noticed a stain smack in the center of my chest—remnants of toothpaste I thought I’d gotten out that morning. I opened my bottom drawer and took out the brown cardigan I kept for when the building’s heat got spotty. Horrid, I thought, putting it on and rolling the sleeves into cuffs.
“New typist?” Gail asked.
“Nah,” Kathy said. “We’re full now with the Russian.”
“Russian American,” I corrected.
Judy tossed a broken eraser at me. “Go find out, Anna Karenina.”
But Anderson and the redhead were already moving toward us. He led the way, pointing out mundane features of the office, stating that the Xerox machine was “a year away from being released to the public” and the water cooler distributed “both hot
cold.” They reached my desk first.
“Sally Forrester,” the woman said and stuck out her hand.
I shook her hand. “Sally,” I said.
“You’re Sally too?”
“This is Irina,” Anderson said for me.
Sally smiled again. “Pleasure.”
I nodded dumbly, and before I could say it was a pleasure to meet her as well, they’d already moved on down the line, shaking hands with every member of the Pool.
“Miss Forrester is our new part-time receptionist,” Anderson said to everyone. “She’ll be in the office occasionally, helping out as needed.”
We debriefed in the ladies’ room.
Sally’s handshake had been firm. Not like some of the men whose grips crushed our fingers, but enough to make us notice. “Firm, but not too firm,” Norma said. “That’s how the politicians do it.”
“But why’s she here?”
“Well, I know they don’t put women like that behind a reception desk,” Norma said. “And if they do, it’s for a reason.”
After work, I took the long route home so I could pass Hecht’s. Their elaborate window displays were my favorite in the city: mannequins dressed for the ski slopes atop a tiny hill of cotton snow in winter, searching for Easter eggs in their prettiest pastel frocks in spring, lounging in their bikinis by a blue cellophane pool in summer.
As I passed, a man with a tape measure in his back pocket was arranging a trio of mannequins dressed as witches behind a black plastic cauldron. I told myself I was just going to pass the window and be on my way. When I went inside, I told myself I was just going to browse. When I started browsing, I told myself I’d just look to see if I could afford anything that didn’t look handmade—something that looked like something Sally Forrester might wear.
I passed my hands over the racks, fingering the silks and linens between my fingers, and ran my hand along a skirt’s perfect stitching. If my mother had been with me, she’d have shown me how machines had cheaply achieved this uniformity and how, over time, the seams would fray, the buttons would fall off, and eventually the ill-informed shopper who’d purchased the overpriced skirt would come to her so she could fix it. She’d have held up a calloused sewing finger and told me there’s no replacement for hard work.
As I pressed a red blouse with a red-and-white paisley scarf under its Peter Pan collar against my chest, a salesgirl asked if I needed help. “Just looking,” I said. Salesgirls always intimidated me, which is why I hardly ever went into department stores in the first place—that, and I never had the money to spend.
“Lovely blouse,” the salesgirl continued. She was dressed in a fit and flare black skirt and white blouse, her bangs shellacked into a high arch above her forehead. “It would look fabulous on you. Like to try it on?” She took the hanger from me before I could respond, and I followed her to the dressing room. She placed the blouse on a hook. “Let me know if you need another size.”
Before undressing, I checked the price tag. I couldn’t afford it, but I stayed in the dressing room for a few minutes to make her think I at least tried it on. I’d tell her red just wasn’t my color. But when I opened the door, I found myself saying, “I’ll take it.”
Mama inundated me with questions when I walked through the door. “Where were you? On a date with Teddy? Has he proposed yet?” Any time Mama brought up Teddy, I felt unnerved.
“I went for a walk.”
“Has he broken up with you? I knew this would happen.”
“Mama! I just wanted to go on a walk.”
“Such a long walk! Always such long walks for you these days. God only knows what you’re up to.”
“You don’t believe in God.”
“No matter. You shouldn’t walk so much. You’re already too skinny. And who has time to walk anyway? I needed your help finishing the beading on Miss Halpern’s prom dress. This is a big opportunity for me to get into the American teen market. I do a dress for Miss Halpern and all her friends see her in it, and then they want one too. Next thing you know, a USA Dresses and More for You dress will be on
next to that handsome Richard Clark.”
I sat at the kitchen table next to her, careful to place my purse under my feet so she wouldn’t see the bit of tissue paper sticking out of the zipper. “Wait,” I said. “I know that dress. Yellow chiffon, right?”
“Not a good color for such a pale girl, but who am I to say?”
“But that dress doesn’t have much beading. Just a little on the straps. You can finish something like that in an hour.” Instead of answering, Mama got up from the table. “Are you feeling okay?” I asked.
She turned and looked at me, her brow furrowed. “I’m just tired.”
I wore my new red blouse to work the next day, hiding it under an oversized beige sweater before leaving. Mama didn’t see the blouse, although she did comment on the sweater. “That ugly old thing?” she asked. She pretended to look out one of the half windows of our basement apartment. “Is it snowing outside? You’re not going skiing, are you?”
“You’re back to your old self.”
“What other self would I be?”
I kissed her cheek and hurried out.
Sweating, I waited until I reached the bus stop before taking the sweater off. I held my coat between my thighs and wiggled out of it. A woman passing with her two children dressed in Catholic school uniforms gave me a look. It wasn’t until I was on the bus that I realized my blouse was misbuttoned and a portion of my bra was exposed.
The elevator dinged and I stepped out into reception with my coat draped over my arm, my shoulders back, looking straight ahead instead of at my feet in an attempt to convey that I was as breezy and confident as the woman in the Ban Roll-On Deodorant ad. I glanced toward reception, ready to say hello to Sally, but was disappointed to see the regular receptionist.
“Cute blouse,” she said. “Red’s a lovely color on you.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Got it on sale.” I was always doing that. If someone told me they liked my new haircut, I’d tell them that I wasn’t sure about the length. If someone said they liked an idea I had or a joke I told, I’d attribute it to someone else.