I BARREL THROUGH THE double doors and across the lobby of the State Department, bypassing the metal detector and waving my plastic identification badge at the guard, who nods in recognition. My heels echo off the marble floor as I race down the corridor past the row of brightly colored flags, the tall glass windows revealing smokers huddled under umbrellas in the courtyard. A display of student artwork left over from Black History Month decorates the otherwise drab white walls.
I reach the elevators and press the up button. In an office across the hall, two jacketless, gray-haired men wearing identical brown ties lean over a cubicle divider discussing Cuba, their voices dispassionate and unhurried. A dying fluorescent lightbulb flickers angrily in the ceiling fixture above them. I turn back and press the button several more times, tapping my foot. The smell of scorched coffee, an empty pot left too long on the burner, hangs in the air. The door creaks open and I leap into the elevator, swiping my badge in front of the access scanner before pressing the button. Don’t stop, I pray, leaning sideways against the faux wood paneling and watching the numbers light up as the elevator slowly rises.
A minute later, the door opens. I step out, then pause, momentarily forgetting my haste. August and imposing, the executive floor is worlds away from the bureaucratic lethargy below. Oil paintings of every secretary of state since Jefferson line the tastefully lit beige walls, staring down at me sternly, reminding me to stand straight. Large potted plants sit to either side of the elevator bank.
Steeling myself for the conversation I am about to have, I turn away from the closed double doors that lead to the Secretary’s office, following the chronological progression of gold-framed portraits down the navy-carpeted hallway. At John Calhoun, I stop and adjust my collar before turning the knob of a familiar, broad oak door.
“Hello, Patty,” I say, entering the office and passing through the reception area before the stout, auburn-haired secretary can try to stop me. I knock twice on an unmarked door at the far end of the room, then open it without waiting.
“I want London,” I announce.
Behind the massive oak desk, Paul Van Antwerpen looks up from the cable he was reading and blinks once behind his glasses.
“Oh?” he replies, raising his eyebrows and running his hand through his thinning hair.
I hesitate. For the normally impassive Van Antwerpen, this is quite a reaction. He is surprised, I can tell, by the abruptness of my entrance as well as the nature of my request. The senior director of intelligence operations is a formal man; one schedules appointments to see him and does so sparingly.
“Yes,” I croak at last.
He gestures with his head to the two chairs opposite his desk. “Sit down.”
I perch on the chair closest to the door. The office is immaculate as always, the desk bare except for a few tidy stacks of documents,
the walls adorned only by the obligatory photographs of the President and Secretary of State. On the matching credenza behind his desk sits a telephone with direct lines to the Secretary and the National Security Advisor. Encrypted text, providing real-time updates on intelligence situations worldwide, scrolls down a computer screen.
I smooth my skirt. “Sir, I know we had an agreement…”
“Have an agreement,” he corrects. “One year.”
“Yes.” A year hadn’t sounded that bad when the Director proposed it. Of course I was in the hospital at the time, two days out of Liberia, ten hours out of surgery, and so high on painkillers I scarcely remember his visit. Now, eight months later, a year seems like an eternity, indentured servitude. Not that working for the Director is exactly punishment; as his liaison to the National Security Council, I’ve spent my days shuttling between meetings at Foggy Bottom and the White House. I’ve gained a view of foreign policy at the highest levels of government, and I’ve seen things most people could not imagine in a lifetime. But I have to get out of here now.
And he’s going to say no.
The Director, one of the only people who can still get away with smoking in the building, reaches for the humidor that sits on the far right corner of his desk. I fight the urge to grimace as he clips the end of a cigar and lights it.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he says at last, puffing a cloud of smoke away from me. “I didn’t really think I would be able to keep you here a full year. I’ve had five calls about you in the last month alone. Karachi, Jakarta, Montenegro, Lagos, Bogota, all of the garden spots.”
I smile inwardly. “Garden spots” is a facetious term diplomats used to describe the real hardship posts. Those are the most interest
ing assignments and until now, I always sought them out, proud to say I had never been stationed in a place where one could actually drink the tap water.
“And now you’re asking me,” he pauses, “for London…?” He sets the cigar in an empty glass ashtray behind one of the stacks, then pulls a file with my name typed across the top from his desk drawer. My stomach twitches. I didn’t know he kept a dossier on me. “You’ve turned down London two, no, three times before. You don’t even like changing planes there.” He sets the file down, eyes me levelly. “So what gives?”
I avert my gaze, staring over Van Antwerpen’s shoulder and out the window behind his desk. To the far left, I can just make out the Washington Monument in the distance, the pale stone obelisk muted against the gray sky. I swallow hard and shift in my seat. “It’s personal.”
I watch him hesitate, uncertain how to respond. Normally, such an explanation would be unacceptable. As intelligence officers, we are trained to separate our work and personal lives, almost to the point of forgoing the latter. But I’ve earned my stripes, spent nearly the past ten years putting my life on the line. He’ll feel that he owes me this much. He has to feel that way; I am counting on it.
“If you’d prefer, I can take a leave of absence…” I begin, but the Director waves his hand.
“No, they’d kill me if I let you do that. You can have London. Martindale,” he pronounces the name as though it hurts his throat, “will be glad to have you. She tried to steal you away from me months ago.”
I smile, picturing Maureen Martindale, the vivacious, red-haired deputy chief of mission in London and Van Antwerpen’s longtime
rival. I haven’t seen Mo in three years, not since we worked together in San Salvador. My next move would have been to call her, if the Director refused my request. He closes the file. “We’re all set then. Just give me a few weeks to get the paperwork in order.”
I take a deep breath. “I’m sorry, sir, that won’t work. I need to get over there immediately. Tonight, if possible. Tomorrow at the latest.” I know that I am pushing the envelope, risking his wrath by asking too much. “I’ll buy my own plane ticket and use vacation time until the paperwork comes through. If it’s a question of my projects here, I’ll finish up remotely, help find my replacement…” The desperation in my voice grows.
Van Antwerpen is staring at me now, eyes skeptical. “What’s wrong, Weiss?”
I hesitate. It is a question I no longer know how to answer. “Nothing, sir,” I lie at last.
“If you say so.” I can tell from his tone that he does not believe me, but I know he will not pry further. Paul Van Antwerpen is an extraordinarily distant man. In the years I have worked for him, I’ve never learned where he is from or whether he even has a family, and he affords his officers the same kind of privacy. His standoffish nature bothered me in the early years when I mistook it for disapproval. Now I just accept it as part of who he is, like the Coke-bottle glasses and the cigars. He stands up, extending his hand. “Good luck, Weiss. Whatever it is, I hope it works out.”
So do I. “Thank you, sir.”
Two hours later, I climb into the back of a battered navy blue taxi. “Arlington, please. Columbia Pike,” I request, pulling the door closed behind me. The taxi driver grunts and veers the car away from the curb onto the rain-soaked street. Garbled Indian music
plays over the radio. I slump back against the torn vinyl seat, exhausted. The reality of what I’ve done crashes down on me like a wave.
The cab lurches to a sudden stop as the traffic light at Virginia Avenue turns from yellow to red, sending the small cardboard box of personal belongings I was balancing on my knees to the floor. I bend to pick up the contents. Not much to it: a “Solidarity” coffee mug given to me by Kasia, one of our Foreign Service nationals in Warsaw, as a going-away present; a few reports that I need to finish up in London that I cannot entrust to the diplomatic pouch; a wood-framed picture of my parents. I lift the photograph from the box, studying it. They are standing by the old maple tree in the backyard of our home in Vermont with identical burgundy wool sweaters tossed over their shoulders, looking like they stepped out of a J. Crew catalog. I run my finger over the glass. My mother’s hair, dark and curly like mine, is streaked with more gray than I remember. There won’t be time to see them before I leave. I know, though, that they have come to accept my abrupt, unannounced departures, the weeks and sometimes months without communication that my work necessitates. They will understand, or pretend to anyway, I think, gratitude mixing with guilt. They deserve grandchildren, or at least a daughter who calls before moving out of the country.
As the taxi climbs the Roosevelt Bridge toward Arlington, I sit back and reach into my coat pocket for my cell phone. For a moment I consider following protocol for once and going through the State Department travel office for my plane ticket. Then, deciding against it, I dial zero. “British Airways,” I request. The operator promptly transfers me to a prerecorded message of a woman’s voice
with an English accent asking me to hold for the next available representative, followed by a Muzak version of Chopin’s Polonaise.
On hold, I lean sideways and press my forehead against the cool glass window, staring out at the white gravestones that line the wet, green hills of Arlington National Cemetery. I have been there twice for funerals, one several years ago and one last summer, both for diplomats whose patriotic valor earned them an exception to Arlington’s military-only burial policy. I think of Eric and once again see him fall backward out of the helicopter as it rises from the Liberian ground, feel the Marine’s arm clasped around my waist to stop me from jumping out after him. I swallow hard, my once-broken collarbone aching from dampness and memory.
“How may I help you?” A British woman’s voice, live this time, jars me from my thoughts. I quickly convey my request. “London, tonight?” the woman repeats, sounding surprised. “I’ll check if we have anything available. If not, can you travel tomorrow?”
“No, it has to be tonight.” Panic rises. If I do not leave now, I might never go.
“One moment.” On the other end of the phone there is silence, then the sound of fingernails clicking against a keyboard. “There are a few seats on the six o’clock flight, but we only have business class available.”
“Fine.” I am certain that Van Antwerpen will sign off on my reimbursement and that his signature carries enough weight to okay the upgrade, as well as the fact that I wasn’t going through the travel office or flying an American carrier. I recite my credit card number, which I know by heart, then memorize the confirmation number the operator gives me. “I’ll pick up the ticket at check-in,” I say before closing the phone.
Five minutes later, the taxi pulls up in front of my apartment building, a nondescript high-rise that caters to transient government workers. Inside, I ride the elevator to the sixth floor and turn the key in the lock of my studio apartment. Opening the venetian blinds, I look around the nearly empty room, noticing for the first time how stark the bare, white walls look. Then I sink down to the futon bed, the only piece of furniture in the room. My mind reels back to the hospital eight months earlier, when I lamented finding a place in Washington to live. “I don’t want to sign a lease. I don’t want to buy furniture,” I complained to my visiting mother.
“You can break the lease, you can sell the furniture,” she soothed, brushing my hair from my face as though I were five years old. “It’s not permanent.” Looking around the room now, I realize that she was right. The lease has a diplomatic transfer clause in it that will enable me to get out penalty-free. The rental store will pick up the bed the following day. In less than twenty-four hours, it will be as though I never lived here at all. Like everywhere else since England.
I reach into the large leather tote bag that serves as my briefcase and pull out the envelope that started everything. It was waiting for me at the reception desk of the apartment building this morning. At first I hesitated, surprised by the delivery; what little mail I received almost always went to my parents’ house. Then, spotting Sarah’s familiar return address, I tore open the envelope. I had not seen her in more than two years, not since I had changed planes in Johannesburg and she had driven six hours from her hometown of Durban to meet me. In a small airport café that smelled of coffee and rotten meat, Sarah told me the news: her mystery illness, the one that made her right hand go limp eighteen months earlier, had finally been diagnosed. “It’s amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” she ex
plained calmly. I stared at her blankly. “ALS. What you Americans refer to as Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
What Stephen Hawking has, I remembered. I had seen the famous professor in his wheelchair once or twice on the streets at Cambridge. Picturing his wizened body, the way he slumped helplessly in his wheelchair, my stomach clenched. Would Sarah become like that?
“What will you do?” I asked, pushing the image from my mind.
“I’m going back to London,” Sarah replied. “The doctors are better there.”
“Come stay with me?” I suggested.
But Sarah shook her head, laughing. “Jordie, your home is a post office box.”
She was right, I realized; I didn’t have an actual home to offer her. I took her hand. “What can I do?”
“Nothing,” she answered firmly. “I’ll call you if I need you.” We hugged good-bye a few minutes later. Watching Sarah walk away, I was taken by her calm demeanor. She always had a hard time of it. Her mother died of Alzheimer’s disease and her father disappeared into the bush when Sarah was ten.
When I reached my hotel room that night, I logged in on my laptop and researched ALS. It was a death sentence, I learned, my eyes filling with tears. Gradual, complete paralysis. No known cure. I pictured Sarah’s freckled face as we parted, her blue eyes so unafraid. I never should have left her.
After that day, Sarah and I stayed in touch by letter and the occasional phone call. In the past year, though, her letters had grown less frequent until they had stopped entirely six months earlier. I tried repeatedly to reach her by telephone, without success. Then
this letter arrived. A single typed page, signature barely legible at the bottom, it was mostly routine, an apology for not having written sooner, some small talk about the weather in London. And then there was the last sentence: “I wish that I could see you again. If only you would come…” I sat motionless, reading and rereading that one sentence. Sarah was there for my last days at Cambridge, knew how I felt about England and why. She never would have asked me to come unless she was desperate. It was, quite simply, the request of a dying woman.
I could say no, I realized, explain that I could not get away from work. Though Sarah would not believe my excuse, she would understand. But it was Sarah who was there for me at college, ready to listen over tea, no matter how small the problem or late the hour, who had put me on the plane home from England at the end when I was so overcome with grief that I could barely walk, and who had traveled the globe three times to visit me since. She was that friend, loyalty unmuted by distance or the passage of years. Now she needed me, and not in that three-day-visit-and-leave-again way, but really needed me. Now it was my turn.
I refold the letter and place it back in my bag, then reach across the futon and pick up a flannel shirt. Mike’s shirt. I draw it to my nose and inhale deeply, seeing his brown hair and puppy dog eyes. We’ve dated casually these past few months—drinks after work at one of the L Street bars between his assignments on the Vice President’s Secret Service detail, or, like last evening, a late visit when he returned from a trip. Physical comfort, warmth for the cold winter nights. Nothing serious, though I can tell from the way he looks at me that he hopes it will become so. I should call him, tell him that I am leaving. But I know that he will try to talk me out of going, and then, when he realizes he can’t, he will insist on seeing me off at the
airport. No, it’s better this way. I fold the shirt and set it down. I’ll mail it back with a note.
I stand up again and begin to pack my clothes and a few other belongings. Forty-five minutes later I am done. My whole life in two suitcases. There are other things, of course, dozens of boxes of books, pictures, and other mementos in government storage and my parents’ attic, things I haven’t seen in so many years that they feel like part of another lifetime. I think again of the photograph of my parents. Sometimes I wish I could live a normal life like them, full of backyards and dishes and plants. I wish I could be content.
“If wishes were horses,” I say softly, “beggars would ride.” The expression of my mother’s, one I haven’t thought of in years, rushes back to me. Everything seems to be coming back today. I pick up my bags and head for the door, closing it without looking behind me. Twenty minutes later, I climb into another damp and musty cab bound for Dulles Airport. As the car pulls away from the apartment building, and the Washington skyline recedes behind me, my spirits begin to lift. I am on the road again, the only place that truly feels like home.