My prom date, the spy

I thought my Russian boyfriend's parents were journalists. My bureaucrat dad was convinced they were spies. Of course, they did have that wall-size transmission device in the living room ...


Lisa Zeidner
September 10, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

It must have been 1970, 1971. My copy of Joni Mitchell's
"Blue" was already badly scratched, the navy of the album cover
faded into a pretty patina. If I'm not even sure of the year, I
certainly can't be expected to remember his name, which wasn't
anything obvious: Misha, Boris. Whenever I tried to pronounce
it, I was sternly corrected.

I remember absolutely nothing about his face or body,
although I can safely assume that he was, like all of my
subsequent boyfriends, tall and thin. He wore a strong adult
aftershave, which I found both repellent and sort of interesting.
To make out with him was to be surrounded, almost visibly, by a
mushroom- (or chef's-hat-) shaped cloud of this aftershave.

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He was very serious, with good posture and impeccable manners.
He was always careful to tip gas station attendants a neatly folded dollar.
"Thank you so much. I appreciate your service," he would say, bowing slightly and rolling those Transylvanian R's. His father had instructed him in this American gratuity
custom. I told him that, to the best of my knowledge, no one in
the history of Silver Spring, Md., had ever tipped a gas
station attendant, but it was clear that he didn't value my input as a cultural insider.

His parents were both journalists who had traveled around the world; I was a bureaucrat's daughter with a set of Encyclopaedia Britannicas that were outdated before we even unpacked them. "Journalists," my father said. "Sure. 'Journalists.' They're spies, you imbecile. Spies!"

I thought this was enormously funny. "The Russians are
coming! The Russians are coming!" I would squeal, running away
and flapping my arms as if I were on fire. This much I knew about the world in 1970: My father was a jerk.

But of course the parents were spies. In the den off their living room, they had, instead of a TV in front of a
Barcalounger, an entire wall of state-of-the-art transmission
equipment with headphones, dials and clocks indicating the
current time in Washington, Moscow and London, site of
their last posting. The equipment was heavy metal and Buck
Rogers-looking, with bad-ass welding joints such as you might
find on primitive space shuttles. This equipment, the son told
me proudly, was capable of sending a message anywhere on the planet.

Since his parents never appeared to be home -- in fact, I'm
not sure I ever even met them -- he demonstrated. He let me type
in a message to send to Moscow.

"Eat Shit and Die, Pig Honky," I typed, letter by letter,
into the little scrolling window they still use for stock quotes.

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That was the current hip expletive: I would guess it was a corruption of something Linda Blair spluttered in "The Exorcist," except that didn't come out until 1973. He pressed a button, and the window informed me, "Message Transmitted."

Or rather, it informed him, in Russian, and he translated.

"If they were spies," I parried to my father, "do you think they'd teach their son how to use the machine? Do you think he'd let me tell Moscow to go fuck itself?"

"He didn't send the message, you moron. He was just trying to impress you, to garner sexual favors."

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My father was concerned about losing his security clearance. "Concerned" is too mild. He was apoplectic. I disputed not only the spy theory, but the fact that my desk-jockey father, who did, granted, work for the Army -- but only as a psychologist, specializing in Human Factors -- needed a security clearance to begin with.

The Russian and I attended a prom together. We felt superior and bored, and ducked out to engage in various protosexual activities in his father's gargantuan car as well as, later
(since his parents were, as usual, out), his house. These were my very earliest sexual experiences and you would think that I'd remember them. I don't. All I have is the cologne, an image of a crushed corsage and my father wagging his finger at me, intoning: "Later in your life, men are going to sit you down in a room and show you a film of you kissing that boy and doing whatever else you did with that boy. You will be up for a job and
suddenly that film will appear."

My career plans were to be a poet. I sincerely doubted that a home movie of heavy petting would prove much of a hindrance.

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The Russian and I saw each other for a while until I started dating Gary (not his real name), with whom I went further and about whom I have more detailed memories. The mildewed basement of Gary's parents' split-level, where I first smoked hash and first performed fellatio, was done up in a nautical theme: plastic marlins, fake starfish hanging from the walls in nets. Gary would later turn very devout and study, unsuccessfully, to be a rabbi. He wrote me two decades later, to catch up about his wife's fertility problems and his career in computer programming.

The Russian was not someone I thought about until recently, when my doorbell rang and a near-retirement-age man with dentures held up an FBI identification card.

He told me his name. He was conducting a background check on a woman who had applied for a job with the bureau and had lived across the street in 1989. Did I know her? Did I know anything about her character?

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"We just moved in," I said. "We don't know anyone."

"And where did you live before?"

I told him.

"And can I ask you to spell your name?"

I spelled. My 5-year-old son, who was in the other room watching "Spy Hard," came out to spell his name as well. With a flourish, the FBI agent wrote down my son's name.

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The next day, while I was on the phone with a distraught,
divorce-bound girlfriend, my phone began to emit some bizarre-sounding clicks.

"Are you bugged?" she asked.

"Funny you should ask," I said. "The FBI was here yesterday. In fact, I think they're here right now."

Walking with the cordless phone toward the window, I saw a man idling in a sky-blue K-car right across from my house.

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I ransacked my past for un-American activities other than the Russian. Later in high school I had helped establish an underground student organization called Merlin, but our most
political act was to get the lunch break extended from a half-hour to 45 minutes.

I forgot about the car until my husband, John, called to me from another room about a week later: "Some guy's outside taking pictures of our house." He was in another square car of no character, at a discreet distance. When we saw us looking, he drove off.

I am not paranoid. There are many reasons why someone might take pictures of our house. We live in Haddonfield, N.J., in a historic district of stately Victorians; our house was built by a dentist who treated Abraham Lincoln at Colorado Springs and did a stint as the personal dentist to the dictator of Peru before returning to become a pillar of the community: a Quaker banker. People around here make life works of restoring their exteriors and often stop to compare paint colors or local real estate tax assessments.

But the phone kept clicking. And I'd been thinking about the Russian. So I called the FBI to see if there was, indeed, a file on me.

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I expected a runaround. Instead a cheerful lady at the Philadelphia branch put me right through to Special Agent John R. Thomas, who pretty much dictated the letter I should send to his attention, and reminded me to get it notarized.

"He was so friendly!" I reported to my husband.

Whereas everywhere but Los Angeles I still have to stifle the urge to smile and wave at policemen -- when I was a girl, they gave me such delightful princess treatment -- John, who is eight years older and almost had to move to Canada to avoid the draft,
still harbors all sorts of fear and loathing about authority figures.

"Yeah, right," he almost spat. "'Friendly.' It figures. The FBI," he said, "is like the Catholic Church. Thirty years ago they were still executioners, terrorists. Now they just sing
folk songs."

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He's right. Pretty soon the FBI will have its own Web site. "Airport Security & You." "Desert Storm Support Groups."

I walked the two blocks to downtown Haddonfield, quaint as a set from a movie about small-town life (the Rotary Club, a banner gushed, would soon host its annual oyster supper), and had my letter notarized. How adorably antiquated: I present a driver's
license to a Rotarian's wife with a beehive, and she attests that I am me. Like she'd know if the driver's license was a fake, any more than I'd be able to spot a forged FBI identification card.

"Can't I fax it?" I had asked Special Agent Thomas, but he said the notary's seal had to be an original. So I mailed the letter certified (another charmingly quaint custom, given UPS and FedEx tracking software) and waited.

The very next day, an out-of-town colleague, a fellow novelist and professor who had left a couple of messages on my answering machine, finally caught up with me.

Last fall he had gotten a disturbing death threat over his university e-mail account. The mail was traced to the library at my university, which supposedly kept track of who uses the
computers. But despite the fact that the library had recently been victim to a bomb threat -- a pipe bomb had been found in a hollowed-out cookbook on the stacks, after our president made some remarks taken to be racist -- the library had no record, couldn't help at all. Did I have any ideas?

"No," I said. "The library is open to the public, though, so it could be anyone. Might it have anything to do with something in your work?"

"Unlikely. Whoever it is knows far too much about the politics in our department. A disgruntled undergraduate seems the most likely suspect."

I asked him if they'd checked the law school, the business school.

"Good idea. I'll pass that on to the FBI. They're handling it now, because I was pretty upset and couldn't get anywhere here or with your university police."

"Hate to break this to you," I told him, "but it appears that I'm your main suspect."

"Don't be ridiculous."

I outlined the events of the past weeks.

"Oh for heaven's sake," he said. "I'm awfully sorry. I'll tell them to lay off, OK?"

As if the FBI were his own personal mall security force.

We exchanged e-mail addresses and promised to keep each other posted. At this point, even without a death threat, I was indeed beginning to feel paranoid. Let someone intercept my cell phone calls from my car if they were unlucky enough -- despairing negotiations with my husband about who's picking up our son from his after-school program and what we are going to have for dinner -- but I found it distasteful to think about people
reading my e-mail.

I longed for the physical reality of a letter, in an envelope, with a stamp. Letters that can be censored or hidden or lost, like a glove or love is lost. Even an old-fashioned
death threat with potential fingerprints, hand-delivered, made out of letters cut from newspapers, so the typewriter can't be traced.

What if (this suddenly occurred to me) my sophomore boyfriend himself were the Russian operative? Chosen for his young appearance to infiltrate the high schools, where he would
date the daughters of Washington bureaucrats and thus easily obtain access to highly confidential information about the army's research and development? No wonder there were never "parents." While I was in the bathroom, he could rifle through the papers in my father's briefcase, clicking away with his mini-camera.

Just to explore: "Hey Dad," I said, on a visit to D.C. He is retired now, generally much more easygoing than in days of yore. "Remember that Russian I dated in high school?"

"No," he said.

I reminded him. "Spies?"

He shrugged. "Sounds like they were journalists. If they were spies, why would they keep such big equipment right out there in the open?"

"To make it look like they were journalists? Why would an ordinary journalist warrant a computer like that in 1970?"

"It wasn't a computer," he said. "In 1970 they still had the huge mainframes. Johns Hopkins would have had one, not your boyfriend's parents."

I should have known that. Someday, perhaps, I can dandle a grandkid on my knee and reminisce about my first primitive Kaypro computer.

"What were you working on at the time? Anything memorable?"

Animated now, my father told me that one of his major projects had been recently declassified, so he was free to discuss it with me. He had spent a decade as a player on SAMOS, the first space satellite to take pictures of the earth.

This was before it was all done electronically, he explained -- the photographs were dropped by parachute in canisters into the Indian Ocean, recaptured by wetsuited Navy SEALs. His work had to do with photo image interpretation, evaluating the expertise of the interpreters. This was so sensitive that when he took us on a family vacation to Europe in 1968, he had to be debriefed for two weeks on what to do if he were captured by a foreign government. His comportment was fairly critical, since he had signed a paper agreeing that if he revealed anything, the penalty was death.

Talk about covering your ass -- the United States government had the legal right to have my dad terminated.

"So you would have been pretty concerned if I were dating a Russian," I said.

"Sure! If I knew that a neighbor had attended a function at
the Russian Embassy, I would have been afraid to attend a party at [his] house."

So he socialized mostly with other bureaucrats who had secret lives. One man I thought was an importer-exporter worked for the National Security Agency. Another, an academic
completing a masterwork on German culture, was a CIA operative.

I assume he is not making all this up.

"Well, those days are over, right?" I asked. "Espionage is a thing of the past, right? Gone the way of vinyl records?"

"Of course not," he said. "Look at Rich Ames."

"Who?"

"Don't you read the paper? The double-agent who -- wait. How
can you write about this? You don't know anything about this."

"The piece isn't actually about spying," I explained. "It's
really more about -- well, the '70s. Sex."

He exhaled and did his eyebrow-lift, as if to say, And they let you
educate our nation's youth?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The FBI was slow, but not significantly slower than your
average Department of Motor Vehicles. It took a month for me to
get a very formal letter saying that my request had been received. In another month, I got another letter, in an envelope so thin that, like college application responses from high school days, I knew it had to contain disappointing news.

A search of our indices to the central records system as maintained by the Philadelphia Division revealed no record responsive to your FOIPA [Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts] request.

Although no record responsive to your request was located, we are required to inform you that you are entitled to file an administrative appeal, if you so desire ...

The letter went on to tell me where to send the appeal, and how to address the envelope.

"I don't understand," my husband said. "What would you appeal? That you don't have a file? 'I demand that you start a file on me right this minute'?"

Evidently the FBI didn't get very far with my colleague's death threat, either. Since the bomb, our university library had stationed an elderly gentleman to laconically check the book bags of people entering. When I told him about the death threat, he
wasn't even interested enough to look up from the sports page.

"Lotta crackpots out there," he noted.

One friend said she would never have filed the FBI request, because I have probably alerted the FBI to investigate me now. But this friend thinks people hate her if she doesn't hear from them for a couple of weeks, and also cleans up for her maid.

"Of course you don't have a file," my father remarked. "I probably have a file, though."

I must say it is demoralizing, in middle age, to realize that your father's life was racier than your own, more worthy of documentation. Now that my transgressions against the state come down to three unpaid parking tickets and a strong belief in a Republican conspiracy to make sure that whatever tax or health care reform legislation gets passed, I will always pay more, it is deeply cheering to think about a crackly black-and-white movie carefully preserved in a federal vault, of a younger me with longer hair and a more hopeful expression, necking with Yasha or Yuri, the very fate of the nation in my hands.


Lisa Zeidner

Lisa Zeidner's last novel was "Layover." She is a professor of English at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J.

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