Authors: Lara Prescott
“I love a good Russian play,” I said.
“It’s closing in London soon, but should be in the States next year. You know how it goes. We Brits like to test things here before handing them over to you lot.”
Finally, we’re getting somewhere. “When does it open?”
“Early January.” He put on his coat and hat. “But they haven’t announced the exact date yet.”
“December would be ideal. I love taking in a good show around the holidays.”
“I don’t make the schedule,” he said.
“Well, I’ll keep my ear to the ground.”
“I know you will.”
He left, hurrying through the rain to an idling car parked out front. I went back in and ordered Bushmills, then settled up—Chaucer having left his bill to me, of course.
It started pouring as soon as I stepped outside. I arrived back at my hotel soaking wet and left a message at the front desk not to let any calls be put through to my room. “Tell them I’ve taken on a bit of jet lag and need my rest,” I said—code to let the Agency know the Russian
was as good as ours.
December came and a layer of fresh snow blanketed the District. I’d left
in the designated confessional at St. Patrick’s the day I returned from Milan and had gone into a tempo office for debriefing the day after that. I told Frank everything—who’d attended, what the press was saying, what snippets of conversation I’d overheard, and, most important, what Feltrinelli had said in his speech. I went over every detail, except for the encounter with the man who’d managed to slip his card into my copy of the novel. Upon returning, I’d taken the card out of my cigarette case and placed it under a loose tile in my bathroom. Secrets were insurance in Washington, and a girl always needs a few in her back pocket.
Irina and I made plans to meet at the Reflecting Pool—to skate and then have dinner back at my apartment. After renting skates from a ski-masked man out of the back of his station wagon, we trudged our way through the snow toward the rink, but we never made it onto the ice. As we sat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial undoing our boots, Irina blurted it out: Teddy had asked her to marry him. She didn’t tell me she’d said yes, but she didn’t have to. As she spoke, she fixed her gaze on the Washington Monument and never once turned to look at me.
I’d known it was a possibility. I’d known others who’d gotten engaged and married and even had children to cover their tracks, to avoid arrest, to live a “normal” life. Hell, I’d thought about doing the same once or twice. And after returning from Italy, I’d tried to end things with her a dozen times, but a dozen times just dug in deeper. I’d known it could happen—and yet. When I heard the words spill from her lips, I found myself unprepared. It was as if someone had removed a stone from my foundation and I wasn’t sure exactly when I’d collapse. But in the moment, I managed to keep it together. Kept my cool as I’d been trained to do under any circumstance. I congratulated her, saying I’d love to be the one to throw the happy couple an engagement party. Taken aback, she said, in a voice as small as a comma, that that wouldn’t be necessary. When I’d told Irina I didn’t feel like skating after all, that I had a headache and should probably go home and get some rest, she got up and left me on the cold steps. I watched her red hat become a smaller and smaller dot in the white landscape.
That evening, Irina showed up at my apartment, still dressed for skating. She looked as if she’d been walking since she left me on the steps—her nose red, her body shivering. She pushed her way into my apartment, shedding her boots, her hat, her scarf, her coat. When I told her I’d been sleeping, that I thought I might be coming down with a cold and that she shouldn’t get too close, she pressed her cold hands against my cheeks. “Listen,” she said, but didn’t say anything else. She kissed me, her lips adjusting to mine until they clicked into place. The kiss made me feel like crying; I felt a sense of loss as soon as she removed her mouth. “Listen,” she said again. Her words made me want to look away, but she wouldn’t let me. She stepped closer, her stockinged toes atop mine. Even without heels, she was taller than me by a forehead, and she held on to my face as if inspecting it.
She kissed me again, then slipped her cold hands into my robe. Her confidence took me aback. Was she pretending to be someone else, or had she actually become someone new and I just hadn’t noticed?
A tremor moved through my legs, and I sank to my knees on the pink carpet. She followed. My robe now open, she kissed my stomach, and a noise escaped my lips, an embarrassing sound. She laughed, which made me laugh. “Who are you?” I asked. She didn’t answer, concentrating instead on tracing the line of my pelvic bone. Maybe it was the reverse. Maybe I was the one who couldn’t recognize myself. I’d always maintained the upper hand with sex. I’d gauge my partners’ reactions and move, pose, and moan accordingly. This was different. She didn’t expect anything of me. I was powerless.
I kept thinking we would stop—that she’d come to her senses, that I would come to mine. That she’d back down. When I voiced this, she said it was too late. “No going back.”
She was right. It was like watching a film in Technicolor for the first time: the world was one way, and then everything changed.
We fell asleep on the carpet, my robe our blanket, my chest her pillow. I stirred with the sounds and smells of the bakery opening downstairs. I went to the bathroom to splash water on my face and brush my hair. The morning light coming through the small window above my shower looked harsh, my image in the mirror jarring. I thought of Irina and Teddy—what their wedding would look like, what she would look like walking down the aisle. And my new Technicolor world returned to black-and-white.
When I emerged, Irina was in the kitchen looking in the refrigerator. She brought out a half carton of eggs and asked how I liked them.
“How does Teddy like his?”
She said nothing. When I asked again, she grabbed my hand and told me we’d think of something. When she said she loved me, instead of telling her the truth—that I loved her too—I pulled away and said I wasn’t hungry, that she probably should just go. And she did.
Freezing rain the last night of the year. Standing in my kitchen, I unwrapped a foil package resembling a swan and heated up leftover filet mignon. I opened the window to my fire escape and pulled in the bottle of ’49 Dom Pérignon that Frank had given me for a job mostly well done in Milan.
I ate my dinner standing in front of the open oven to warm my back, and the champagne was indeed as delicious as Frank had promised.
Earlier in the day, I’d gone alone to the matinee showing of
The Bridge on the River Kwai.
But I’d found it difficult to concentrate and left early. The sky was already dark, the rain had started to fall. By the time I got home, our white Christmas had been reduced to brown slush. The snowman some kids had built in the park across the street had turned into solid ice, its carrot nose replaced with a cigarette, its scarf missing. I hated New Year’s.
To make matters worse, my apartment was freezing—my breath visible in the frigid air, the radiator cold to the touch. I cursed my landlord, a man who owned half the buildings on the block but was too cheap to hire a super.
I drew a hot bath and sank in, careful not to wet my hair. When the water turned tepid, I turned the faucet back on with my toes, a process I repeated twice before finally getting out. Assaulted by cold air, I wrapped myself in an oversized terry cloth robe. I wanted to just slip into bed and fall asleep listening to Guy Lombardo ring in 1958 on the radio. But I couldn’t. I had to dress, put on my face, and eat something before the black car arrived to shuttle me to the party in an hour. I had to work.
After Milan, when Frank and I debriefed, he’d looked pleased but distracted, as if he’d already known the details—which he probably had. He didn’t seem to mind that I hadn’t gotten closer to Feltrinelli. At first, I thought he might’ve shared my assessment that maybe I should’ve stayed in retirement, that maybe I didn’t have what it takes anymore; but instead of politely sending me on my way, he said there was something else I could help with.
“I could use another favor.”
The rain let up just as my black car arrived. I wrapped myself in my white mohair swing coat, leaving my fur in the closet, as I’d done since Irina had told me fur gave her the creeps. “Poor rabbits,” she’d said, running her hand down my sleeve.
The driver, his patent-leather-billed cap in one hand, held the car door open for me with the other. “Gal like you doesn’t have a date on New Year’s?”
I slipped into the backseat.
The District streamed by, a sliver of moon visible in the fleeting spaces between buildings. I wondered if Irina could see the moon from where she was. She was spending the last night of the year with Teddy and his rich family at their chalet in the Green Mountains. Irina couldn’t even ski. I hoped it was cloudy, that the freezing rain had made its way to Vermont.
The New Year’s Eve party was at the Colony, a French restaurant downtown considered among D.C.’s finest, which wasn’t saying much. Hosted by a Panamanian diplomat, the party was basically an office party sans office. This was an inner-circle, invite-only affair. The whole gang would be there: Frank, Maury, Meyer, the Dulles brothers, the Grahams, one Alsop brother, everyone in the Georgetown set. But I wasn’t there to talk with them. I had other work to attend to.
The bas-relief statues of mythological figures lining the dining room wall were outfitted with party hats, the lounge with silver streamers and gold tinsel. A net of white balloons ready for the clock to strike twelve hovered above the crowded dance floor. A large banner hung across the main bar:
CANNOT WAIT FOR ’58!
A brass band with a satin-dressed singer played in front of a giant clock, its movable hands set at ten. As I handed the coat-check girl my wrap, a waitress dressed like a Rockette with a tiny top hat bobby-pinned to the side of her head presented me with a silver tray of noisemakers and hats. I selected a horn with metallic purple fringe but passed on the hat.
“Where’s your holiday spirit, kid?” Anderson asked from behind me. He was wearing two pointed hats atop his head like devil’s horns, the elastic digging into his double chin. His suit jacket was already off, the back of his tuxedo shirt translucent with sweat.
“Will Baby New Year be making another appearance tonight?” I asked, referring to the time he’d stripped down to a white sheet wrapped around his crotch, stuck a giant pacifier in his mouth, and clutched a bottle of rum at our New Year’s Eve celebration in Kandy.
“The night’s still young!”
“Speaking of holiday spirits, where can a girl get a drink?” My insides were already warm from the three glasses of Dom Pérignon I’d drunk at home, but I wanted to keep the feeling from dissipating; I wanted to keep my thoughts of Irina at bay, at least temporarily.
Anderson handed me his half-full punch glass. “Ladies first.”
I downed it, blew my horn at him, then waved to the waiter with a fresh tray of drinks. Anderson asked if I wanted to dance, and I told him maybe later. I’d already spotted the man Frank wanted me to get to know better across the dance floor.
I watched Anderson go back to a table full of people who cheered his return, then turned my attention back to my man. Henry Rennet stood catercorner to the stage, watching the Eartha Kitt knockoff sing “Santa Baby.” I bypassed Anderson’s table, skirted the dance floor, and found a spot opposite the stage from Henry. Then I waited. The band finished the song and the singer sashayed over to the clock to move its hands to ten thirty. The crowd cheered; Henry snickered, but he raised his glass to the last hour and a half of 1957 anyway. Then he looked my way.
What I knew about Henry Rennet: Yale boy. Grew up on Long Island but said “the City” when asked. Just five years and three months into the Agency, his meteoric rise within SR raised suspicions. Lived alone in a one-bedroom walk-up across the bridge in Arlington paid for by his parents. A linguistics man—fluent in Russian, German, and French. Spent the year between Yale and the Agency “backpacking” across Europe—which really meant hopping from one five-star hotel to the next on his parents’ dime. Orange-haired, freckled, and thick-necked, but did better with women than one might suspect. Had dated two members of the typing pool—in the loosest imaginable terms—neither of whom was aware the other had also dated him. Best friends with Teddy Helms, for reasons Irina did not understand. But I understood. Those Ivy League boys always stuck together.
The other thing about Henry Rennet, and the reason I was at the party, was that Frank thought he might be a mole. Frank had first told me about his suspicions months earlier, shortly after enlisting me for the book mission, and I’d put out a few feelers. When I returned from Italy, he asked that I get to know Henry better.
See, all Agency men had big egos—but usually flexed them only within their own circles. Henry had the type of ego that could get him into trouble. He was seen as a braggart. That and his known drinking problem were enough to raise a few flags.
I didn’t bring it up, and I hoped the rumors weren’t true, but I’d heard rumblings that Frank’s mental faculties had recently been called into question—some saying he just wasn’t the same after the failed mission in Hungary, some attributing his obsession with rooting out a Soviet mole to his diminishing competency.
After some chitchat by the stage, a few spins around the dance floor, and two glasses of punch, Henry suggested we go somewhere private to talk. The singer had already moved the hands of the clock to eleven forty-five and the crowd was readying itself with poppers, cranks, and drink refills for the midnight toast. We slipped away, and on our way out, he plucked a bottle of champagne from a silver bucket. “For our own toast,” he said, holding it up like a trophy.
“Where we headed?”
Henry didn’t answer, walking two paces in front of me. Normally, I was the one to take the lead, and as I quickened my pace, I tripped on a bump in the carpeting and went down. Henry turned to help me up, and the blood rushed to my head as I stood.