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.