Authors: Lara Prescott
We’d speculated about Irina since she’d arrived at the Agency. And our suspicions were confirmed shortly after Sputnik took to the skies and Gail saw her name on a memo pertaining to the
mission. She never spoke of the work she did after hours, and we never asked. Like a good Carrier, Irina said nothing of the secrets she carried. But still, it wasn’t long before we found out the rest.
What made Irina stand out in the typing pool was precisely that Irina didn’t stand out in the typing pool. Despite the winning lottery of ingredients comprising her physical appearance, she had the ability to go unnoticed. Even a year after her joining the Agency, she still managed to fly under our radar. We’d be reapplying lipstick in the ladies’ room when she’d startle us from behind, saying that that shade of pink was a nice color for spring. Or we’d be toasting during happy hour at Martin’s and she’d clink our glasses a beat after we thought we’d clinked with everyone. At lunch in the cafeteria, she’d get up to say she had to return to work when no one remembered her having sat down with us in the first place.
Her talent for going unnoticed did not go unnoticed; and with her father having died at the hands of the Red Monster, she had the makings of a perfect asset. After some training, a memo went through the chain of command and Irina was put into the field. And she was good at her job. Irina’s first missions consisted of delivering internal messages around town, but as she proved herself, her assignments carried increased importance. That cold January night in the Bishop’s Garden was her first with the
After leaving HQ that evening, she took the number fifteen bus to the corner of Massachusetts and Wisconsin, walked around St. Albans School to the cathedral grounds’ back entrance, and slipped into the garden through the iron side gate.
Irina was likely wearing her new long camel-hair coat with the brown collar and the red leather gloves Teddy had given her. The day after she received the gloves, Irina had shown them to us. “Aren’t they pretty?” she asked, fanning her fingers as we stood in line to have our hats, coats, and pocketbooks inspected on our way into HQ. “A little small, but they’ll break in.” We all agreed that they were very chic and that Teddy had excellent taste. All except for Sally Forrester, who took one look and said they were knockoffs.
Under the red gloves would have been Irina’s new diamond ring, which Teddy had given her the day after her twenty-fifth birthday. It was a tasteful Art Deco number with a diamond whose size surprised us. We knew Teddy came from a wealthy family, but we had no idea they were
wealthy. The stunner was too large for her ring finger, and she’d yet to get it resized. During work hours, she put it inside her desk drawer so it didn’t fall off when she was typing, sometimes even forgetting to put it back on again at the end of the day. If it had been one of us, we would’ve had it resized the day we got it. But Irina wasn’t the flaunting type.
A wedding in the typing pool always warranted much discussion, but Irina hadn’t seemed interested in discussing hers.
“Will you come back to work?” Gail asked.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“What are your thoughts on taffeta?” Kathy asked.
“Pro, I guess?”
We learned that Irina’s mother was planning the big day, using it to purge the last vestiges of her Russianness by throwing the most American of weddings. “She wants to have red, white, and blue carnation centerpieces,” Irina told us. “She’s planning to spray-paint the blue ones herself.”
To celebrate the engagement, we each pitched in a dollar to purchase a black lace negligée from Hecht’s. We wrapped it in silver tissue paper and placed it on her desk before she arrived. When she sat down, she picked up the package and looked around the room as we pretended to work. She tore a small corner of the tissue paper and a silk strap spilled out. Irina tried to push it back inside but only tore the paper more. She started to cry. We froze, not knowing what to do. One of a typist’s golden rules is never to let them see you cry. Of course, we’d all done it—but from the relative privacy of the ladies’ room, or in the stairwell at least. At our desks? Never.
We wondered whether Irina was thinking of the black negligée as she waited for Chaucer to arrive that night in the Bishop’s Garden. Was that the start of her cold feet? Or had the second thoughts already begun—long before the negligée, before Teddy had proposed, before he’d told her he loved her during their walk around the Tidal Basin as the cherry trees clung to the season’s last pink petals?
It’s hard to say. We can’t know everything.
But we do know that Chaucer arrived right on time and that Irina collected the two rolls of Minox film containing
And we do know she took the number twenty bus to Tenleytown, where she delivered the package to a safe house on Albemarle Street.
The first stage of the mission was complete, thanks in part to Irina. The men patted themselves on their backs for finding such an unexpected asset. But it wasn’t a man who’d developed Irina’s talent; it was Sally Forrester.
Sally was officially a part-time receptionist, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out she was much more. Soon after Anderson brought her around HQ, we discovered it was common knowledge among those in the know that Sally was a Swallow who’d been flitting around since her OSS days. When not sitting behind the reception desk, which was most of the time, Sally traveled the world, using her “gifts” to gain information. Unlike Irina, Sally could never be invisible. Everything about her screamed
Look at me! Look at me! I am the one who should be looked at!
Her hair was cut in the Italian style—soft red curls framing her heart-shaped face—and her figure always seemed to threaten the integrity of her tight woolen skirts and cardigans. And she always overdressed: fuchsia designer trapeze dresses, white satin swing capes, a rabbit fur coat rumored to have been a gift from Dulles himself.
One of the men had taught Irina how to take a package from a passerby on K Street during rush hour and keep walking without looking back; how to leave a hollow book under a bench in Meridian Hill Park and leave without someone’s jumping up to say
Hey, Miss, you forgot your book;
how to slip a piece of paper into the pocket of a man sitting next to her at Longchamps. But it was Sally who finished her training. We don’t know what these trainings consisted of, but we did see a change in Irina. Something about her seemed sturdier—as if she’d become a woman to reckon with. In short, more like Sally.
Whatever it was, Irina did her mentor proud, and soon they weren’t just colleagues but friends. They started sitting at a separate lunch table in the cafeteria. They began going to Off the Record instead of Martin’s for happy hour. On Mondays, they’d come into the office quoting lines from
Silk Stockings, Funny Face, An Affair to Remember.
When Sally would arrive home from a trip, she’d place little trinkets on Irina’s desk: a Pan Am sleep mask, lavender-scented lotion from the Ritz, a squished penny from one of those machines on the Atlantic City boardwalk, a snow globe from Italy.
For Irina’s twenty-fifth birthday, Sally had thrown her a dinner party. We’d never been to Sally’s apartment—a one-bedroom walk-up above a French bakery in Georgetown—so we jumped at the chance when she placed the navy blue invitations on our desks.
Your presence is requested for the celebration of the birth of our dear friend Irina,
read the handwritten silver calligraphy.
When we asked about bringing dates, Sally told us that this party was for us gals. “It’ll be more civilized,” Sally said, laughing.
We wore our most fashionable cocktail attire, several of us even splurging at Garfinckel’s for the occasion. “This is
dinner party. You don’t show up wearing a knockoff of last year’s Dior,” Judy said. “Besides, we can wear it for New Year’s.”
We took taxis instead of streetcars or buses so we’d arrive fresh-faced, with our mascara and lipstick intact despite the heavy snow. We ascended the two flights and at the top heard a song playing on the other side of the door. “Sam Cooke?” Gail asked.
Before we could knock, Sally opened the door, looking stunning in a gold satin wrap dress with tasseled belt. “Well, don’t just stand there!” We trailed Sally into her apartment, her black stilettos wobbling on the plush pink carpet.
Irina looked lovely in her emerald-green skirt and matching bolero jacket. We wished her happy birthday as we pressed our small gifts into her hands.
Sally disappeared into the kitchen and Irina motioned for us to take a seat on the white leather sectional. To break the silence, we asked questions about the apartment’s décor. With Sally busy in the kitchen, Irina answered for her.
“How’d she find this place?” Norma asked. “It’s to die for.”
“Saw an ad in the
“These candlesticks! Where are they from?” Linda asked.
“Inherited. A grandmother, I think.”
“Is that a real Picasso?” Judy asked.
“Just a print from the National Gallery.”
“What did Teddy get you for your birthday?” Gail said.
“He told me to pick out something nice from Rizik’s.” She straightened her jacket. “Sally and I went today.”
Sally emerged from the kitchen carrying a crystal punch bowl filled with fizzy pink liquid that matched the carpet. “And doesn’t she look gorgeous?”
After two glasses of punch, we moved to the dining area, where a long table was set, complete with calligraphed nameplates, white calla lilies, and cloth napkins folded into fans.
“What a production!” Norma whispered.
After dinner, chocolate cake, presents, and a few more glasses of punch, we left Sally’s thinking the party was a bit much for a birthday but agreeing she really knew how to throw a shindig.
Some may now say otherwise, but we never noticed anything off about Sally. Sure, the high attention she was paid by the opposite sex invited the occasional catty remark, but we all respected her. She never said “Sorry” or “Please” or “Just a thought.” She spoke the way the men spoke, and they listened. Not only that, but she scared the hell out of a few. Her perceived power may have come from the tightness of her skirt, but her real power was that she never accepted the roles men assigned her. They might’ve wanted her to look pretty and shut up, but she had other plans.
Later, when Sally’s name had been redacted from every memo, every call log, and every report, we tried to remember whether there’d been any clues about who she really was. But it wasn’t until much later that we put the pieces together.
A week passed. Then a month. Then two. The wedding plans went ahead. Teddy and I would be married in October at St. Stephen’s, followed by a small reception at the Chevy Chase Country Club. My cover would become my life.
Teddy’s parents would be paying for the whole thing, but Mama insisted on taking care of the flowers, the cake, and my dress. Even before the engagement, she’d purchased the material for the gown—ivory lace and satin.
The day after Teddy proposed, she took my measurements while I was at the stove making breakfast. The dress—which she said would be her greatest work—was halfway done by February. But by March, she stopped making the gown, complaining she’d have to start all over again unless I put back on the fifteen pounds I’d lost since January. I told her she was being crazy, that I hadn’t lost fifteen pounds, maybe five at most—and even then only because of the stomach flu, which was the excuse I gave when I couldn’t get out of bed for a week following my dinner with Sally.
I couldn’t hide anything from her. Despite my layers of sweaters and thick wool tights, Mama could see my body was shrinking. My skirts had to be safety-pinned not to fall off my hips, and I wore thick turtleneck sweaters to hide my jutting clavicle.
Mama responded by adding bacon fat to everything: to schi, borscht, pelmeni, beef stroganoff; to blinis and omelets. I even caught her tipping grease from a frying pan into the plain oatmeal I ate for breakfast. She insisted I have seconds of every meal and watched my plate as she’d done when I was a child.
On the weekends, she’d bake multiple cakes, saying she was testing which to make for the wedding—honey, drunken cherry, Neapolitan, bird’s milk, even a two-tiered Vatslavsky torte. She’d force me to take multiple slices of each, often spooning vanilla ice cream on top.
Mama wasn’t the only one to notice my dwindling figure. Teddy asked if everything was okay so many times I told him if he didn’t stop asking, things wouldn’t be. He said he wouldn’t ask again but hoped I wasn’t trying some crazy new fad diet. He said I was perfect just the way I was, and his sincerity filled me with an inexplicable rage.
The typing pool also noticed. Judy asked what my secret was and said my waist was as tiny as Vera-Ellen’s in
The rest of the Pool acted like Mama and left doughnuts from Ralph’s on my desk.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to eat; I just had no appetite—not for food, not for anything. It was hard to sit through a movie. It was excruciating to be in crowds. I began walking to work instead of taking the bus, just to be alone. At parties, I didn’t even attempt to make polite conversation. Even at the Sunday Company gatherings, where I used to enjoy the intellectual sparring and the feeling I was getting insider information, I chose to stand next to the wives instead of Teddy, where I didn’t have to say much of anything except that I liked the confetti dip.
Teddy tried to pull me out of whatever I’d fallen into. He tried and tried, and I almost loved him for the effort. I tried to love him, I really did. He loved me more than anyone ever had. So why wasn’t it enough?
I saw Sally twice during that time. Had she made herself scarce for my sake? Had she even thought of me for one minute? The first time, I was leaving the office and she was standing in the lobby as the elevator doors opened. I stepped out and we almost collided. I stepped right, then left. She mirrored me, then we awkwardly repositioned. She said hello and smiled, but I saw her looking me up and down, and I knew from her expression that I must’ve looked terrible.
The second time, Sally didn’t see me. I’d seen her sitting in the booth by the window at Ralph’s, across from Henry Rennet—there in the front booth, at the window, for the world to see, midday on a Tuesday. And the world did see. When I returned to the office, it was all the typing pool could talk about.
“Think they’re dating?” Kathy asked.
“Lonnie said she thinks they’ve been dating since New Year’s. Saw them together at some party. Someone should warn her what an asshole he is.”
“I’ll volunteer,” Norma said.
“Is it true, Irina?” Linda asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, Florence over in Records said she saw them whispering in the stairwell,” Gail said.
“I don’t know. Few weeks ago?”
So that was it. She’d been interested in Henry the whole time. I was nothing but a passing fancy at best. The thought repulsed me. I could take not being with her, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to stand seeing the two of them together.
Unbeknownst to Teddy or Mama or anyone, I spoke with Anderson that day about the possibility of a foreign posting. “Aren’t you getting married?” He looked at my ring finger.
“This is a hypothetical question.”
“Hypothetically, it’s none of my business. But I’m sure we’d find a place for you.”
“Keep this between us?”
He pretended to zip up his lips.
That evening, as the sun bathed E Street with that orange late-afternoon glow, I thought maybe by that time next year, I’d be walking down the streets of Buenos Aires or Amsterdam or Cairo. I relished the notion of shedding who I was, shedding everything, and becoming someone new. It was a delicious feeling, and for the first time in a long time, I smiled.
When I got home, the smell of bacon fat didn’t greet me at the door. Mama was sitting at her sewing machine not sewing. She had a full cup of tea in front of her, the water black from her having failed to remove the teabag. “What’s wrong, Mama?”
“I can’t rewind my bobbin.”
“I’ve tried for hours.”
“Is it broken again?”
“No. My eyes are.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t see out of the left one.”
I went to her side. Looking into her eyes, I failed to see anything wrong. “What? When did this happen?”
“I woke up like this.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I thought I could fix it.”
“We’ll get you to the doctor first thing tomorrow.” I took her hand and felt it tremble. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” I said, trying to believe it.
The next day, I took Mama to an eye doctor, who she complained wasn’t Russian and therefore would be biased. “Biased how?” I asked her. “Dr. Murphy is Irish.”
The nurse called her name, and I got up to accompany her as I usually did, in case she needed help translating. But she told me no, she wanted to go in by herself. I agreed, sat back down, and flipped through
magazines for an hour.
Mama came out, rubbing her arm where the doctor had taken her blood. When I asked what he’d told her, she said he didn’t know anything. “I told you. He’s prejudiced against Russians.”
“He said nothing?”
“They took my blood and put me in an X-ray. He said he’ll call when they know.”
“I don’t know.”
Two days later, there was no scene, no rushed trip to the hospital, no fall, no ambulance, no emergency; there was just a phone call from Dr. Murphy telling Mama what he’d already suspected when he first shone his tiny flashlight into her eyes. There was
as he put it, and when I got on the phone for clarification, he said she needed to go back for more tests as soon as possible, and to discuss “paths of treatment.”
“Paths?” Mama asked when I hung up. “What paths?”
“I don’t need treatments. I need to get back to work.”
She went about the rest of her day as if nothing had changed. When I told her we needed to schedule the appointment, she said she’d be fine and not to worry, but it’s all I could do.
The next few weeks, Teddy sprang into action, going about the task of getting Mama well the way he would approach a project at work: methodically, persistently, and calmly. He secured Mama appointments with the best specialists in Washington, then Baltimore, then New York.
But after going from doctor to doctor, specialist to specialist—including a Chinese herbalist who looked at Mama’s tongue and gave the same diagnosis the others had—Mama told me she wanted to stop all treatments. “What will be, will be,” she said one night as I was serving her the tuna casserole one of our neighbors had brought over.
I served her three helpings, even though I knew she had barely the appetite for a few forkfuls. “What do you mean,
what will be, will be
“It means what it means. I’m done.”
I set the Pyrex casserole dish down with such force that the glass cracked.
Mama reached for my hand, but I refused and stormed out.
When I came home later that evening, Teddy was gone and Mama was at the kitchen table. I went into my bedroom without saying a word. I was so angry at her, at the world, at everything.
In hindsight, I wish more than anything that I’d taken her hand that night in the kitchen and told her I was sorry. I thought there’d be time. Time to make amends, time to let her know I supported whatever decision she made, time to tell her how much I loved her, time to embrace her as I hadn’t done since I was a little girl. But there wasn’t. There’s never enough time.
St. John the Baptist was filled with friends and acquaintances of Mama’s I never knew she had. One person after the next gave their condolences and told me things about my mother I wished I’d known while she was alive.
We unveil ourselves in the pieces we want others to know, even those closest to us. We all have our secrets. Mama’s was that she’d been generous to a fault. I discovered she’d clothed nearly our entire neighborhood for free: she’d tailored a secondhand suit for an out-of-work veteran with an interview to be a cashier at Peoples Drug, repaired the bridal gown of a woman who could only afford to buy one with a broken strap and a wine stain on the bodice from the Salvation Army, patched the coveralls of a bottling plant worker, and mended many socks for an elderly widower who just wanted some company.
And that yellow prom dress I’d helped Mama rebead a year earlier? It had been a gift, not a commission. Mrs. Halpern’s teenage daughter wore it to the funeral, and the sight of her twirling to show it off made me dizzy with appreciation for the person my mother was.
Mama herself wore a black dress with intricate flower beading running down the sheer sleeves. The dress had been another secret. How long she’d been working on it I didn’t know. But I did know she’d made it to wear at her own funeral, as I’d first seen it the morning she didn’t wake up—pressed and laid across the rocking chair in her bedroom for me to find.
Inside the church, the Orthodox priest circled Mama’s casket, swinging his incense, the scented smoke billowing out over his gold cassock and dissipating above his head.
I turned away for a moment and that’s when I saw her: Sally had come. She was standing toward the back, wearing a short black birdcage veil. I turned back toward the priest, who was still swinging his incense—my thoughts on Sally instead of my mother. I wished she would walk down the aisle and stand next to me, take Teddy’s place, then my hand. But she stayed in the back and Teddy by my side.
The funeral ended and I followed Mama’s casket out of the church. As I passed Sally, she touched my arm. Her veil was askew and she had tears in her eyes. I kept walking. The procession made its way to Oak Hill Cemetery, where Teddy had arranged for Mama to be buried in a nice plot overlooking Rock Creek Park. Standing next to Mama’s grave, I looked for Sally in the crowd, but she wasn’t there.
After, Teddy tried in vain to comfort me. Days passed, then weeks. One night, when I couldn’t sleep, I decided to call Sally. My hands shook as I dialed her number, but the line just rang and rang.