The boy who was always a spy

30th September 2005 at 01:00
When I was 15, I almost fell in love with a boy who (even then) I knew was destined to be a spy. I still have his letters somewhere, just a few, sent during the decade that our lives intersected. They don't talk about us, because there never really was an "us", or at least not in any traditional way. Instead, they described his journeys around the Black Sea and the Sixth Arrondissement and Sofia. In one he recounts being arrested and thrown into jail for carrying a pen that the police thought was a camera, or a coding ring, or a recording device.

I think the police were probably right. He was a spy even back when we were both teenagers, with a spy's habit of appearing suddenly and disappearing with no warning, a spy's enigmatic smile, a spy's ability to get away with never giving anything away.

We met at a high school party where we drank grape juice and vodka and discovered that we had both spent summers since the 1960s on the same island, and that night he drove me home in his ancient black gangster-style Packard. We stopped and parked in the deserted playground of my all-girls school and kissed in the dark on a grassy knoll, and he talked about Mongolia and Tartary but never told me anything about his real life - his mother, his sister, a father who didn't exist (but how? In those days, everyone had a father).

He wasn't my boyfriend, wasn't nearly predictable enough for that. But for ten years he came and went, and when occasionally we met, it was always with the vivid theatricality of a Graham Greene novel: in a seedy bar in Cambridge, on a beach at night during a meteor shower. On the beach he alluded to somewhere halfway across the world where he'd last seen so many shooting stars (was it that time in a tent near the border of Syria, or the time he managed to trade his watch for safe passage out of Kazakhstan? Either story would do).

The last time we met I barely recognised him. He appeared at the door of my apartment disguised in a suit and a dark cashmere coat and I had to squint to imagine my spy in his usual jeans and pullover. It was snowing hard in New York that night, and he assumed I had nothing better to do than spend the evening with him, which of course was true. He took me to a little restaurant downtown, and as the snow piled higher on the silent streets, he talked about his plans to hitch a ride to Antarctica on an icebreaker. It was after midnight that we closed the place, drinking glasses of cognac on the house while he spoke French and Italian to the delighted owners, and I, as usual, wondered who he was and where he had been for the last 10 months.

Later that night I heard him speaking quietly to someone on the phone ("a family friend" he said, though I knew it was a lie), explaining about the problems with transport and his inability to get a taxi home. A few weeks afterwards I saw the announcement of his impending marriage in the New York Times beside the picture of a blonde thoroughbred of a girl, and knew instantly that she was the one he'd lied to in the snowstorm. So it wasn't just with me that he covered his tracks, smiled his enigmatic smile.

And that was the end. I consoled myself at his permanent disappearance by imagining him living in a cosy American suburb, somewhere dull, like Philadelphia, with his cosy American wife and kids. But you can even Google spies these days, and last I checked he was living in Romania with a job title so mysterious it could only mean spy.

If we ever meet again, I'll ask if he remembers the night of the shooting stars. I'll ask why he didn't have a father, and who was the girl he married. I won't ask about how he got to be a spy, though, because I've always known the answer.

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