A quantum of solace

Posted by jdg | Friday, January 16, 2009 | , , ,

At a wedding long ago I met my wife's second cousin and his wife, both former CIA agents. They weren't analysts or Langley office drones but straight-up field operatives who spoke every Asian language and had spent their thirties in the deep jungles of Indonesia trying to dredge up support for cooperative right-wing military juntas or something. That's what I assumed: they wouldn't say a word about what it was they actually did there. Wood's cousin wore pressed khakis and a bowtie that marked him as unquestionably Republican. His wife was a quiet woman without makeup who was self-effacing to the point of near-invisibility. This was a perfect cover, I thought, for the deadly assassin or provocateur she probably was, with a checkered history of black ops in leftist guerrilla camps or rooftop-fisticuffs with Bakin double agents. Every time one of them picked up a toothpick or looked at their wristwatches I half expected to spot the secret detonators or tranquilizer darts they were ready to wield at a moment's notice.

But these were not spies in the way I had always thought of spies, though they were probably a lot like most actual CIA assets: incredibly smart, unassuming people who know how to keep a secret. When I was a kid, I always thought I wanted to be a spy. I imagined a life spent with an attache full of dossiers and passports representing multiple identities that I could slip in and out of like differently-cut bespoke suits. I checked books out of the library like The Encyclopedia of Espionage and An Encyclopedia of Spies and Secrets. I read le Carré and Clancy. I was pretty sure I'd be great at reading microdots and intercepting defectors while in deep cover. I kept spy notebooks (in code) detailing neighborhood surveillance: license plate numbers of unrecognized cars; suspicious dogs. I would practice stealth at night by sneaking downstairs to spy on my parents while they watched television. Fortunately my interest in espionage waned before I spied anything too traumatizing.

Lately, though, I've been watching a lot of spy movies again. The new Bond movies are good entertainment, and my wife will watch them with me for the obligatory Daniel-Craig-in-a-swimsuit shots (same with those Matt Damon punching-bag-amnesiac movies). These movies would have you believe all spies are both dreamy and tough, and only spend time in the most tastefully-decorated locations in the beautiful places of the world. The spy is never a tourist. He always belongs wherever he is.

Perhaps because of this, sometimes during the day I find my mind wandering towards dreams of cinematic espionage: I might be at a red light with two whining kids in carseats behind me and I'll close my eyes and picture myself driving up to some beaux-arts hotel on the French Riviera, leaving a clean Aston Martin with the valet and subsisting for weeks on nothing but cocktail olives and the smell of expensive perfume. Do you remember that scene in Election, where Matthew Broderick's character imagines himself driving a convertible along an Italian clifftop?

That is what I see when I close my eyes to shut out the relentless whining from the two pint-sized slobs crammed into the back seat of our economy car. A sophisticated escape. I doubt that any stay-at-home parent hasn't wished, at least for a second, that he or she had a passport for a secret identity and an account number for a bank in Geneva.

When we checked out of the Westin Cincinnati the other day I had baby roadie duty, carrying the bag of clean diapers and the bag of unwashed shit-filled diapers and all the baby blankets, toys, and suitcases down to the car. When I got there, the fucking key BROKE IN THE LOCK and I couldn't open the trunk. I spent twenty minutes trying to remove the key and detach the kids' carseats so that I could crawl through the backseat to get to the trunk. The backseat smelled like week-old cantaloupe. The trunk somehow smelled worse. While messing with the lock, I closed my eyes and imagined myself under pressure to escape from the clutches of a double agent with a mind bent towards torture.

At some point in this struggle I stepped on the cheap Playskool keyboard that my mother-in-law bought Gram that plays instrumental versions of dimly familiar Steve Winwood and Huey Lewis songs from the eighties. The batteries were dying and the stupid toy starts playing a dirge-like version of Europe's "The Final Countdown."

This, I mourned, was the closest I would get to Europe anytime soon.

How is it you never see James Bond with so much as a garment bag, yet he always manages to have a Brioni tuxedo on hand? I closed my eyes again, and instead of descending the steps of the Vienna opera house with a beautiful redhead on one arm, I pictured myself holed up in a Jakarta slum during monsoon season with a mousy former National Merit Scholar eating rice balls and analyzing satellite data. Most true CIA assets, I told myself, spend most of their time in places where you only drink martinis because you can't drink the water.

Eventually I got the lock cleared and the luggage tetrised into the trunk. When I showed my wife the broken key that certainly wouldn't be starting any ignition, she gasped: "What will we do? Are we trapped here in Cincinnati with a bag of poopy diapers?" I lifted my chin and brandished the spare valet key that I always pack when we leave town, just in case something like this happens. "We'll make it," I said, and after snapping the kids into their carseats, I led the beautiful redhead on my arm over to the passenger side of our stinky economy car parked in an underground parking garage and opened the door for her.

In this car, with her and these two kids, and no job. Apparently this is where I belong.