A Russian Soul
By Jimmy Maher
I sat up in the bed in confusion, eyes searching the room for some frame of reference, fastening finally upon the red digits of the clock that seemed to jump toward me out of the darkness. 3:07 AM. Elizabeth rolled onto her stomach with a muffled groan as another ring sang out. My hands fumbled over the top of the nightstand, knocking my reading glasses to the floor, before locating the receiver.
"Hello?" I mumbled.
"Is this Ambassador Cheever?" The voice on the line was very awake, very nervous, and very American. I was surprised, having expected to hear a sleepy Russian who had dialed the wrong number. "Yes, speaking," I replied. "What is this about?"
"Mr. Ambassador, I’m calling from the embassy. We have a little bit of a… situation down here." There was an awkward pause.
"Yes, go on, please," I said.
"Mr. Ambassador, we have brought in a woman for questioning. She is suspected of conducting espionage against both our government and the legitimate government of Russia on behalf of certain elements of the old Communist party. She insisted that we contact you, saying you would – to use her words – ‘sort this all out in no time.’ Her name is Katiana Cherokova. Does this name mean anything to you, Mr. Ambassador?"
Last night’s chicken Kiev fell down into my groin. I almost dropped the phone.
"Mr. Ambassador? Are you still there, sir?"
"Yes, yes, I’m here," I replied.
"Does the name Katiana Cherokova mean anything to you, sir?" The young man was nervous, but persistent.
"I might have heard it before. I’d have to check my files," I blundered.
"Sir, I’m sorry, but she said you would want to come down and talk to her right away. She acted like she knew you quite well, actually. Shall I tell her you’ve better things to at three o’clock on a Thursday morning?"
I was gradually regaining my composure. If this was the end, I wouldn’t go down easily. I affected a casual air, saying, "I’m curious enough about this Katiana… Cherokova, did you, say?… that I think I will make the trip."
"Okay, then, sir." The young man sounded surprised. "Take the elevator to Basement Level 2 and ask the guard for Wilson. You’ll need your full identification packet, of course. The quicker you can get here the better. We’ll have to tell our Russian friends about her soon, and I don’t think we will be able to hold her long after we do that."
"I understand, and I’ll see you shortly, Mr. Wilson." As I hung up and flicked on the lamp, Elizabeth touched my arm.
"What’s going on, Harry?" she asked, her voice still thick with sleep.
"Oh, kind of a strange one, Beth. It seems they’ve captured a spy of some sort, strictly a two-bit sort of operative, and she’s asked to speak to the American Ambassador. Since that’s me…"
"Surely you’re not going! They shouldn’t even have called you over such a ridiculous request."
Was she suspicious? "I’m… curious for some reason, Beth. It won’t take long. Just go back to sleep, okay?" I said.
"You’ve never heard of this… Katiana… before?"
The sound of that name coming from my wife’s lips chilled me. Damn! I shouldn’t have said the name out loud. "No, sweetie. Go back to sleep." I seldom lied to my wife, and when I did it usually involved Katiana. Points for consistency, at least.
I met Katiana in the fall of 1978. I had been at the State Department in Washington D.C. for about a year, having come there, through the good offices of an industrious and connected professor, straight from Columbia University with the ink still wet on my Master’s Degree in Russian Language and History. I had fully expected to change the world. I would join the new Carter administration, and with the aid of the new wind of cooperation I felt blowing between Washington and Moscow I would forge a new understanding and a lasting peace between our peoples.
The reality did not match my dreams. I spent my days in a drab office on the third floor of an anonymous office building shuffling correspondence and filing paperwork. What my six years of schooling had bought me was a secretary’s job. No one asked my opinion about what flavor of soda should be stocked in the vending machine, much less what direction to steer the ship of state. My mentor back at Columbia kept telling me to stay the course, to pay my dues, and other such noisome cliches. In the meantime, I felt all adrift, friendless in a city where everyone seemed to have more money and more fun than me.
I eventually turned to that last refuge of lonely souls everywhere, the personals. Thumbing through the back pages of the Washington City Paper one slow morning, I spotted the following:
Attractive Russian émigré seeks male companion for friendship and possible romance. Please be kind, romantic, and free-spirited. Looks not as important as your soul. 202-414-6226
That evening, my sweaty fingertips pecked out the number. One ring, two rings, three…
A click, and then… "Hello?" She certainly sounded attractive.
"Hello," I answered in my best Russian. "My name is Harry. I noticed your ad in the paper and thought I would give you a call to see if, you know, you’ve already located someone or not."
"I’m sorry, sir, the painting has already been sold," she replied. "But had I known, I would certainly have held it for one who speaks such good Russian as you."
"Um, okay…" I could hear her moving the receiver from her ear. "Um, no, wait, please. I mean the… the personal ad."
She laughed. "Oh, that. Why, I would be delighted to talk to you about that…"
It was ten after four when a guard ushered me into Wilson’s office. Wilson was indeed very young. His smooth pink face perched incongruously above a burly body. He rose quickly and offered me his hand. The palm was sweaty, but the grip was firm. "I’m so sorry to have awoken you at this hour, sir," he said.
"No problem, Mr. Wilson. You did the right thing," I replied, helping myself to a shabby chair in front of his paper-strewn desk. "What exactly is the story here?"
"Well, sir, this is a mite embarrassing for everyone concerned, but it seems… it seems this lady was engaging in, shall we say, intimate relations with at least one American security officer and two members of the Russian Parliament. She was apparently harvesting whatever stray scraps of information she could and selling them to a rather militant wing of the Russian Communist Party. Further, she has a long and rather sordid record of espionage, including some time spent in Washington D.C. in the late seventies. We only determined her real name shortly before calling you…"
"Okay, Wilson, that’s enough. I know all of this. I was just seeing how much you knew. I read some files that you don’t have access to before coming down here." I was surprised how calm I felt. I leaned forward conspiratorially. "There is much more here than you are aware of. This situation must be handled with the utmost delicacy," I said.
He stiffened in his chair. "Yes, sir, of course," he said.
"I will need to speak with this woman immediately. Just the two of us. All surveillance devices must be turned off in the room where this meeting will take place. Understood?"
"Yes, sir," he said. Then curiosity got the better of him. "But what is going on here, sir?"
"I can’t tell you that," I answered. "Please arrange things as I’ve requested."
"Of course, sir," he said. "But perhaps we should at least leave video surveillance on in the room? She could try something…"
I chuckled. "I’m getting old, Wilson, but I think I can handle myself against an equally middle-aged and unarmed woman. You have searched her haven’t you?"
Wilson reddened. "Yes, of course, sir." He rose to his feet, grabbing at the last second a folder that threatened to spill to the flower. "I’ll make the arrangements. You can wait here, sir. There’s coffee down the hall if you’d like some."
I nodded to Wilson as he made his exit, then sank back in the chair and remembered that first meeting.
Katiana wadded the wrapper and tossed into the greasy sack. The napkin came up to daub at her rouge-red lips, somehow managing not to smear the lipstick. "You are an idealist, no?" she asked.
I shifted uncomfortably in my chair, more conscious of Katiana’s flesh-and-blood reality, of her perfume and her stockinged ankles that brushed against mine under the table, than of any such abstractions. "Yes, I suppose so," I said. I took a deep breath, and got a second wind. "You know, I took the time to learn your language and to study your culture because I don’t believe that the Russian people want this conflict any more than the Americans do. How could the people who gave us Tolstoy and Pushkin and Tchaikovsky be the evil monsters they’ve been portrayed to be in the media?" I winced as soon as these words left my mouth. This was too soporific, too much like a talking point from my days in college. How many times had I said this exact thing in one smoky coffee house or another?
Katiana didn’t laugh at my platitudes, though, merely tucked a cigarette into those bloody lips and lit the fuse. "So you come to work for the State Department? Are they not the ones who say these awful things all these years?"
A bland little bureaucrat ducked around the table to toss the remains of his lunch into the bin, shooting me a surprised glance as he passed. "I think times might be changing, Katiana. It just takes time. Surely you’ve heard that détente is in the air?" I tried to give this last a note of both hopefulness and sarcasm, figuring that way she could choose whichever suited her.
She chose the latter with a smile and an appraising glance. "You have a Russian soul. When I say you are an idealist, I do not mean in the geo-political sense. I mean in the interpersonal sense."
I hung fire, sucking up the last of my soda, paper cup sweaty in the high autumn sun.
She leaned back and took another tack. "As you know, I have not been in America very long. I know almost no one here. I used to have a regular boyfriend in Petrograd. Yes, my art sustains me to some extent, but… Would you be interested in, how you say, dating me? Or are you involved with someone already?" This last was in English.
I tugged at my collar. "I’m sorry, this is all a bit strange for me. Most of the American girls I’ve known have not been quite so… direct."
She smiled. Was it a nervous smile, or was I projecting? "Yes, bluntness is considered a virtue among us godless Russians. More so than among you decadent Westerners, anyway." The smile returned. "But are you seeing anyone?"
"No," I replied. "I’ve not been here long myself." I decided not to mention the last year of evenings spent with my cat and my television in my two-room flat. "Only a few months. I’m just getting my feet wet myself, socially speaking."
"Very good. May I kiss you now?"
My heart thumped. Lord knew I wanted to kiss her in the worst way, but I was a U.S. government employee. Standards and decorum and all that. "Katiana, I can’t. Not here."
"Shall we go somewhere private then?"
"I have to be at the office in twenty minutes," I replied.
"I know somewhere," she said. Then she was on her feet and away, red dress rippling across her hips like a watercolor in a rainstorm. I gathered up the remains of our lunch and tossed them in the bin, then hurried after her. She never even looked back to see if I was coming, just made a beeline for a free-standing lavatory. She opened the door to the women’s side a crack, sneaking a quick peak inside, then grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me through in one motion. She removed one shoe and pushed the heel between the door handle and latch. My protest died on my lips as she pushed her body against mine, pinning me between the sink and the wall, and pushed her open mouth against mine. Her tongue tasted sweet, with the slightest smoky aftertaste.
We kissed for several moments, until at last she pulled away. "May I see you tonight?" she asked.
"I don’t know. It’s a school night." As I flashed a weak smile to go with my weak attempt at humor, I realized that we were speaking English again.
"I can come to you. I will not keep you long, Harry," she said.
"I might keep you longer than you expect," I said, as I struggled to put a man-of-the-world expression on my face. Was this really happening?
She glanced at her watch. "You must go now, yes?"
"Um, yes. Can you… Why don’t you call me after work tonight? About six?"
"Well, great," I stuttered. "Look forward to it." I fumbled with her shoe in the latch. I handed it back to her and turned to go.
"Harry?" She touched my shoulder, bringing me up short. "Just one other thing."
"You know, I do not earn much from my art yet."
It was coming at last, the pitch for "financial support." Katiana must have been sadly misinformed if she thought I could afford a Washington mistress on my clerk’s salary. The dream was over. "Katiana, I’m sorry, but I’m way out of my league here. I think you should talk to someone else…"
She put a finger to my lips. "Harry, are you calling me a whore? Many women take offense to such things, you know."
A moment’s silence, then her smile returned. "Luckily for you, I am not just any woman. I know you have little money. I can tell by the clothes you wear. I was just going to say, Harry, that I have some friends back in Petrograd who are very interested in American… memorabilia. Perhaps there are some items around your office: old ID badges, coffee cups with U.S. government logos, old papers with the State Department seal, even pictures of your workplace." She affected a casual air, but didn’t entirely pull it off.
"Katiana, what exactly are you asking me to do here?"
Her hand brushed my cheek. "Nothing that will cause anyone any harm, Harry. These things, they are useless. You and I know that, but these friends of mine in Petrograd, they do not. They will pay for these things, Harry." She gave me an appraising look. "I could split the money with you. How you say? A win-win for us both?"
My head was a spinning mass of lust, confusion, and foreboding. "Katiana… I just… I need to go, okay?" I wrenched the door open and passed through.
"I will call you tonight," she called after me, stepping back into her shoe.
The interrogation room to which I was led was the very definition of nondescript. Unblemshished white plaster walls surrounded a single formica table and four straight-backed chairs. I took a seat to wait for Katiana, cradling my coffee cup in my hand. I knew that behind those blank walls was an array of electronics worthy of any mad scientist. I could only hope that Wilson, a man over whom I had no real authority whatsoever, would nevertheless be intimitated enough by my station to acede to my request.
Of course, I succoumbed to Katiana’s charms and sold out my country. I didn’t do so without a certain amount of spiritual angst, though. All that afternoon, I sat in that little office considering my situation. I knew what I should do, of course. I should not only refuse Katiana’s request and break off all contact, but also turn her in to the proper authorities. Against such moral imperatives, I kept weighing that tight red dress shimmering in the breeze.
When I left the office that day, I carried with me a few harmless papers that I would normally have tossed into the shredder. They weren’t much – duty rotation schedules for maintenance staff at the Istanbul embassy, a chart of electrical usage fees for various office in the UK – but Katiana seemed delighted when she visitied me in my apartment that night. We ate takeout pizza, drank some wine, and then she led me to my bed. She left shortly afterward, leaving me with a sore head, a sore dick, and a sore conscience.
I saw her quite frequently over the next year – once, sometimes even twice a week. She referred to me as her boyfriend, and sometimes even spoke vaguely of marriage, but she never said she loved me. (I said I loved her a few times, in the threos of passion, but she acted as if she hadn’t heard me.) We never went out, and she never stayed past dawn. She said she was a painter, but I never saw any of her works.
After her first few visits, she started requesting that I give her specific sorts of information. Her contacts in Petrograd were getting more demanding, she explained, and would no longer accept janitorial sign-off sheets and the like. If I was unable or unwilling to provide what she requested, she would spend the evening near tears. How would she pay her bills this month now? On these evenings she refused my bed and left early. As time went on, her situation with her employers seemed to change. They were evil men, she explained, more evil than she had ever imagined when she had gotten herself mixed up with them. They would hurt her if she didn’t provide the information they demanded. I didn’t want to see my Katiana get hurt, and so I complied.
After the first year, I began to see her less frequently. Her career showed signs of taking off, she explained, and demanded all her time. I still had never seen any of her paintings.
I met Elizabeth at the Library of Congress, where she was employed as a reference librarian. We began to date. I still saw Katiana occasionally and still passed over the occasional state secret, but not as frequently as before. We didn’t talk of marriage anymore, and our relationship became more and more mercenary. Better secrets meant better and kinkier sex, and we no longer bothered to cuddle afterward.
Elizabeth was a serious Catholic, and we were waiting for marriage.
We finally married during the summer of 1981. The election of Ronald Reagan had meant the end of my job at the State Department, but I found a position as a foreign policy advisor to a prominent Democratic Congressman. My career was finally taking off.
I had three more trysts with Katiana after my marriage. By our one year anniversary, though, she had disappeared. I almost forgot what I had done.
She stepped through the doorway in a red dress that was a dead ringer for the one she had worn that autumn day twenty years ago. (Had she known she would see me today? Does she remember like I do?) She still looked good. The guard who ushered her through treated her with the deference which young men give to all beautiful women, even suspected spies.
I nodded in his direction. "That will be all for now. I’ll ring the buzzer when I’m finished here." I waited as he made his exit, making sure he shut the door securely behind him. Then I turned to Katiana, and we gazed upon one another for a long moment. I noticed that she had been scrubbed clean of makeup, and her hair was rather dishiveled. As I looked closer, I noticed lines across her brow and crow’s feet around her eyes. Had I ever seen her without her make-up?
The corners of her mouth turn up in that sheepish, slightly mischievous smile I remembered so well. "How are you, Harry?" she asked in Russian.
"I’m fine, Katiana," I said in English. "Have a seat…"
"You no longer speak Russian to me?" She smiled, then looked away when she didn’t get the response she wanted. "I could use a cigarette."
"That’s a filthy habit, Katiana," I said. "You haven’t learned anything in all these years, have you?"
"Don’t be this way, Harry," she said. "Remember all the good times we had together?"
"What I remember is irrelevant. What do you want from me?"
Her hand touched my knee. "I’m in a jam, Harry. These people that have taken control of my life, they…"
"Bullshit," I said. "Nobody is in charge of your life but you, and nobody ever has been. This little girl lost routine won’t work anymore, so don’t bother crying. You can’t cut me off, either, because we aren’t having sex. And don’t bother offering yourself to me. You’re boring, Katiana. Predictable and boring, and I have other demands on my time. So, let’s get on with things. What do you want from me?"
She regained her composure quickly. She sat back in her chair, and her eyes met mine. The tears were gone as quickly as they had appeared. "Harry, I need you to get me out of this. I know you have the connections to do it. I hate to remind you of this, Harry, but I have quite a lot of information that could be very… damaging to you. I don’t want either one of us to be hurt by what happened all those years ago…"
"I’ve already made a few phone calls, Katiana," I said. "After this interview, I can have you can flown to Vladivostok. There’s a well-guarded apartment and a state pension waiting for you there. You can settle down, maybe find yourself a nice gentleman. Something tells me that won’t be a problem."
Relief spread across her face. "Thank you, Harry. This is more than I ever dreamed you would do." She reached over the table for my hand. "I have missed you, you know. If you ever want to visit…"
I didn’t pull my hand away, but I didn’t return her grasp. "There’ll be none of that. This is the last time I ever intend to see you," I said. "And I said I could arrange these things, not that I would."
She waited, her hand on mine.
"Once I leave this room, I want you to write out the names and addresses of all your contacts, both those you are passing information to and those you are receiving information from. As I said, you have nothing to fear. You will be well-protected in Vladivostok."
Her hand went slack on mine, but she nodded.
"Once you have done this, I will make good on my end of the bargain," I said, and I stood.
She stood as well, and came around the table to hug me tightly. I realized she was crying… really crying. Her hair smelled of coconut.
"Do you know why I do this, Katiana?"
She shook her head against my chin.
"I do this not because of your threat. I do this for the memory of that day on the Capital Mall, when a beautiful girl made an awkward young man very happy." I gently pushed her away. "Take a few minutes. When you are ready, ring the buzzer, and I will have a pen and paper sent in. Good-bye, Katiana. May God forgive us both."
I stepped out into the sickly light of a winter morning. I had a busy day ahead of me. It was time to put the last few hours’ unpleasantness behind me and get on with it. My secretary would already be in the office. I stuck my hands into my trouser pockets for protection from the cold and turned to start down the street. I felt something inside the pocket. I pulled out my phone. Strange, I always kept it in my shirt pocket. Even stranger, it was on. I’d thought I’d shut it off before my conference with Katiana. "Connected," said its readout. I raised the phone to my face. "Hello? Hello?" My voice echoed back over the line to me as from a well. I pressed the hang-up button. The display read, "Call ended. 137 minutes."
Wait. This wasn’t my phone. This was Elizabeth’s. I reached up to touch my shirt front, feeling the familiar lump. There was my phone.
I hurried to the curb, waving my hands in the air. "Taxi! Taxi!"