Fanny Perlstein is soft-spoken. Trim. Well-dressed. My brother’s wife. She wears belted skirts and medium-heel Cole Haan pumps. She must have several pairs of them. Or she likely purchases a new pair before the one she has been wearing looks worn. All of them are of a color called oxblood, if that name is still in use. They are always well-polished and all have leather soles and heels made of a material that is clearly not rubber.
The sound her shoes make as she walks is a click-tock. Authoritative. A sound that might make one turn and look. Though nothing else about her would draw any attention to herself. No ostentation of any sort. No indication that a risk of any order higher than crossing against the green would ever be undertaken. Certainly, no social risk. No political stance expressed that opposed a commonly agreed-upon norm.
She calls to mind a slim stalk of winter wheat. One stalk, indistinguishable from the hundreds of others in a field, waiting, green, near-dormant, throughout the cold months, awaiting a return to vitality and growth in the spring. Enduring a period of personal solitude amongst a crowd.
Her’s is not of the look of muted-heather and woolens. The look of old wealth. The look of comfortable socks, tweeds, and natural fabrics you might envision while reading the novels of Thomas Hardy or Edith Wharton. Her’s is more of the Architectural Digest or old issues of the Sunday New York Times Magazine ad look.
When we dine together on occasion, she might order the baked haddock or the pasta of the day, or more often, she’d order what my brother had just ordered. She has never ventured into sashimi, say, or unagi, kasha varnishkes, shawarma, kimchi, vindaloo, or baba ghanoush.
I have never seen her in any state other than unruffled. She is not prone to fits of passion or to indiscretion. I cannot envision her engaged in a flirtation, a dalliance, or a one-nighter in Baltimore, much less an actual affair. She apparently passed through mid-life without missing a step or looking up old high school boyfriends, or buying a new Volvo.
There is something, though. Something measured. Perhaps too measured. Too neatly folded and ironed.
I keep waiting for a revelation of some deep-hidden darkness. For a secret past to emerge in a slipped word or a creased and flattened note fallen accidentally from her wallet or a wry smile at a line in a movie as if she had once been in a similar situation, in a predicament that only a Nikita, an Amanda Peel, or a Dominika Egorova character might find herself caught in and which hinted of a hidden fissure in an otherwise well-concealed life.
She seems like someone kept in a witness-protection program since adolescence. Someone whose name had been changed, and who had learned to root for the Chicago Cubs instead of the Yankees. Someone trained to be unprovoked. Un-provocable. Implacable. Avoiding expressions of pity or sadness, ecstasy, consternation, confusion, empathy, condescension, suspicion. Any of these.
I have come to suspect, with little justification, that she had once been an agent of the CIA. Recruited, plucked out of Harvard or Yale as so many had been in the late sixties. Young men and women who studied hard. Got decent grades, who had been identified by a well-connected professor for some ineluctable qualities of rigor, or academicism, unquestioning patriotism, interiority, intensity, and detachment.
Had she ever poisoned someone, plotted the overthrow of a dictator or a communist leader? Could she snap a person’s neck with her bare hands? Had she used code and encrypted messaging devices? Kept a cyanide tablet in her purse? Taken a lover in Paraguay? A woman who tried to turn her and whom she had in turn tried to recruit as an asset. A woman who was married to the defense minister who was plotting a military takeover of the government. Sex and spycraft seem inseparable.
From whence comes my suspicion?
There were the years she worked for the USAID. A mid-level position. Moving from place to place. Leaving my brother at home. The two children. A year in Paraguay. Another in Eritrea. Disbursing funds for development. Moving easily between Embassy offices and home government agencies, banks, NGOs, learning only enough of the language to seem harmless and friendly. Monitoring the Russians and the Chinese. And then the year in Nigeria. Years in which the USAID and the CIA were joined at the hip. How could she not have been involved? Could not have known what she was associated with? Was she merely an unknowing pawn doing good work for a bad, if not immoral, arm of the state?
We’re having dinner with her tonight. We have not seen them, Fanny and my brother, for over two years. They’ve been living in Miami. COVID restrictions and our own calculus of infection risk has kept us at home. Before that, we hadn’t the money.
We’ve all been vaccinated.
I expect that I will open our door and she will smile, standing a shade behind my brother, and I will smile back. Her smile is complicated. As if she is simultaneously smiling and thinking quickly of something to say to me. Something witty and provocative and to which she knows I will respond equally quickly and wittily. This is how we have come talk with one another. An argot that lends itself to friendly, diversionary, insubstantial, communication. A measure of casual, risk-averse, comradery.
My brother will hand me a bottle of wine, perhaps a pleasant, slightly sweet, rosé from a small vineyard outside of Rome, NY, which we will open and share, with a mild cheddar and a basket of triscuits and wheat thins.
Looking at Fanny, then, taking her coat, I may begin to question my motivation, likely driven by my repressed jealousy and prurience, in having placed on the living room coffee table, along with the wine glasses, a used paperback copy of The Red Sparrow.