As I turned the key in my front door, a Buick-sized cockroach slipped out of my apartment and slithered over my foot. The Peace Corps Eastern Europe handbook warned us about cockroaches, but it hadn’t mentioned armies of cockroaches. When I turned on the kitchen light, the roaches’ scurrying made the birch trees in the wallpaper appear to sway.
By this point in my two-year stint, I loved my work but was tired of scrubbing the walls, tired of washing my laundry in the frigid water in the bathtub, tired of hanging it outside to dry or freeze, depending on the weather. I was tired, too, of being alone. That night, when I was awakened by a cockroach walking across my cheek, I began The Countdown: there were eight months, or two-hundred and forty-four days left until I could go home to my roach-free, washer-and-dryer-equipped American life. The day after I began The Countdown, I met Aiden.
Aiden was a tall, with posture as straight as an arrow. He had loud-voiced confidence and wore a baseball cap. During the course of our conversation mentioned that he worked for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, which sent an electric shiver down my spine. I fluffed my hair, and thirty minutes later Aiden had my number. That night I wrote to my dearest friend Sandie, "I’ve killed most of the roaches. Also, I think I’m going to start dating a CIA guy!"
On our first date, Aiden and I strolled down a charming, cobblestone street shadowed by ornate onion-domes of an orthodox church. Then, we stepped back into his car and headed to a local café. Aiden was a fast driver. He jerked the car around the threadlike streets as I smiled and gripped the door handle. Suddenly, at a stoplight, he began behaving strangely. As he waited for the light to turn green, he glanced into the rearview mirror several times before muttering, "Oh boy, here we go." Then he jotted something onto a napkin.
He motioned "Shhh" to me. Then, he pointed to the numbers he’d scribbled on the napkin, and then he motioned to the car behind us. The message was clear: someone was following us, and the SUV might be bugged. When the light turned green, the tires chirped as he tore away. He drove quickly through the winding streets, coolly checking the rear view mirror. Then he said, with the loud stage voice of a bad actor,
"So, do you like football?"
"Sure. But I don’t follow it," I replied.
"Who’s your team, then? I’m love the Giants," he said, again – too loudly.
And so it went for fifteen minutes of cat-and-mouse driving and fake conversation. When he seemed satisfied that we were no longer being tailed, we arrived at the café and sat down. I asked him what had just happened, but he made it clear that we shouldn’t discuss the topic in public, the implication being that there could be recording devices anywhere.
My mind raced. Were we really being followed? By whom? What could they want? The intrigue turned me on. My world suddenly exploded with the possibility that espionage still lurked in the cracks of these post-Soviet streets, just like in the movies. And wasn’t Aiden so smart, outrunning those bad guys like that?
Right about then Aiden removed his baseball hat, revealing his gleaming, bald pate. I added two more questions to my racing thoughts: does he do this on all his dates just before he takes off his hat?, and, just how big was his washer and dryer? I wrote to Sandie that very afternoon, "I can’t say much more because you never know who might be reading this, but it is fascinating to experience the challenges of being a CIA Operative”.
Our second date was disappointing. Instead of subterfuge and mystery, I learned Aiden’s life story in excruciatingly mundane detail. Besides the fact that he didn’t ask a single question about my life, the two events that stood out were that he was once sued for assault by a semi-famous actor after a contentious game of pick-up volleyball at the US Embassy in London. ("I broke his jaw, I guess, but the guy was really an asshole.”). The second was the pop quiz he’d sprung on me:
"What is the name of Aiden’s favorite movie of all time?," he asked.
He’d provided the answer to this very question not twenty minutes earlier, but my brain was working overtime to ignore the glaring fact that I might not like Aiden. At all.
“Kramer vs. Kramer?,” I responded. He mentioned that his parents divorced when he was young, hadn’t he?
"License to Kill," he corrected. "Aiden’s favorite movie is ‘License to Kill’.” he reiterated, shaking his head and laughing. He put his arm around me.
"Don’t ask if I have one," he whispered, laughing some more. Then:
“Come on, Sugar, let’s take a walk.”
“‘Sugar’?” I asked.
“I call all my special girlfriends ‘Sugar’,” he confided proudly.
And just like that, without so much as a kiss yet between us, I became Aiden’s girlfriend. He drove me to the only American restaurant in town for a celebratory beer and a cheeseburger, after which I liked him a little better. Later, I wrote to Sandie, "Aiden spent time at the US Embassy in London. He even knows some famous actors! You’ll never guess his nickname for me. It’s ‘Sugar’. Silly, isn’t it?"
After two more dates, Aiden and I kissed, and while he’d tried to speed things up, I wasn’t in a hurry. I knew this state of chastity couldn’t last forever, therefore I wasn’t terribly surprised when Aiden invited me to spend the weekend with him in Krakow. I was, however, terribly surprised when I agreed. In any country, such an invitation is an unspoken agreement to take a relationship to the next level. I tried hard to ignore this and the other secret fact — that by now I hated him – all because I hated sleeping with cockroaches even more. Maybe I could sleep with Aiden for six months, just until my service was over. He wasn’t all that bad, was he?
That weekend, Aiden opened our hotel room door revealing a stunning view and the ominous bed. Later, at dinner, Aiden and I discussed Aiden’s likes (sports and more sports), and Aiden’s dislikes (losing and bad sportsmanship). I failed another pop quiz and chugged four shots of vodka before we returned to our room. Aiden lit a candle, put his lips on mine, and pushed me gently back onto the bed. My bra slipped off, his hands slipped down, and … my brain went haywire. I sat up and said, “I can’t do this, Aiden. I’m sorry.”
Later, Aiden dumped me at the metro stop, and I watched as the life that I could have had disappeared down the road. The babushkas stared as I joined the usual throng of people shoving their way onto the overstuffed train. I lugged my suitcase four flights up the pitch-dark stairwell of my rank-smelling building and waved a weary hello to the cockroaches. I wrote to Sandie, “Aiden and I broke up because it turns out that I hate him. The cockroaches are back, but I can live with them for six more months. It could be worse.”