Authors: Lara Prescott
The sound of car doors opening and closing set me in motion. I went to Mitya’s room first, but saw his bed was empty. “He didn’t come home last night,” Ira said, startling me from behind. She went to the window above Mitya’s desk. “There are two cars now.”
I watched as four men leaned against their cars, smoking and chatting nonchalantly, as if waiting for their girlfriends. I watched as one put out a cigarette in one of my flowerpots and another washed his hands in my birdbath. I closed the curtains and went to the telephone. “Get dressed,” I said. Ira left the room.
Dialing Mama’s number, my hands trembled terribly. “Mama?”
“Are they there?”
“Yes. Are they there too?”
“They are just trying to intimidate us again. You have nothing to worry about.”
Ira emerged, dressed in her most conservative outfit: a long beige skirt and matching jacket. “Is Mitya at Babushka’s?” she asked.
“Is Mitya there?” I asked Mama.
“He came last night. Drunk again. He’s too young to drink like he does—”
“He’s up now. I told him to stay put.”
“Good. Keep him there.”
Three hard knocks on the front door shook the floorboards. Ira grabbed my arm. “I have to go, Mama.”
I walked to the entryway with Ira holding my arm like a small child. A man wearing an expensive-looking trench coat cut through the four men in the cheap black suits, leaving muddy tracks across my grandfather’s Akstafa rug. “We finally meet.”
“Welcome,” I said, poised as a hostess.
“You were expecting us, of course,” the man said as his smile grew. “No? You didn’t imagine your activities would go unnoticed?”
I forced a smile to match his. “Care for some tea?”
“We can help ourselves.”
I knew what they were looking for—and they wouldn’t find it at Little House, nor at my Moscow apartment.
The day after Borya was put into the ground, the money—the foreign royalties that would prove I was guilty of crimes against the State—had been given to a neighbor who never asked what was inside the brown suitcase.
Hours passed. Eventually, one of the men, the one with a small scar down the center of his bottom lip, carried a dining room chair out into the drive where Ira and I waited. He asked if we wanted to sit. Ira replied no and the man shrugged, took a seat, and lit up a cigarette. He barely looked at us as we stood and watched the others continue to tear apart our home.
We heard a bicycle approaching. Midway down the drive, Mitya hopped off his bike, letting it crash to the ground. “You have no right,” Mitya cried, his voice cracking.
The man with the scar continued smoking. I went to Mitya and took him by the hand. “Hush,” I said, noticing his sour smell. Looking at him, I could see his shirt was stained with vomit. “Where is Babushka? I told her to keep you there.”
The three of us huddled together as we watched the men emerge from Little House carrying boxes filled with our possessions. When they came out with stacks of journals belonging to Ira—likely filled with musings on school and boys and broken friendships—she stiffened next to me but didn’t say a word. And when the man in the trench coat came out and stumbled on a loose board, Ira squeezed my hand instead of laughing. The image of him tripping would stay in my head later, after he became my interrogator.
I went willingly—without struggle or protest. The man in the trench coat didn’t even have to ask. He just pointed to the second black car. I kissed both my children goodbye and got inside.
My children didn’t look as I was driven away. Ira stood in the doorway, surveying the damage the men had done. Mitya sat on the top step, his head resting upon his knees. I closed my eyes and didn’t open them again until we’d arrived at the big yellow building.
“What’s the tallest building in Moscow?” the driver asked me when we stopped.
“She’s heard that one before,” the man in the trench coat said as he opened my door. “Haven’t you?”
Without answering, I got out of the car, straightened my skirt, and let them take me.
I woke to the sound of my daughter wheezing. My dear Ira. They say she helped me conceal foreign money, and now she sleeps in the bunk across from mine. She is ill. A fever. They’ve allowed me to stay with her until she shows improvement. But I don’t want you to worry, Anatoli. She’s fine. I’m fine. I just thank God they left my Mitya alone. At least there’s that.
Although I last wrote to you so many years ago, I’ve never stopped writing. Letters composed in my head while I bathed. Letters composed when I could not sleep. Letters penned somewhere deep inside myself. But now I can no longer keep the words from coming out.
I traded knit socks for this pen and paper. I want to purge what is inside me. Now, where was I?
I wonder where you are. Why were you not the one to meet me at Lubyanka and continue our late-night chats? Have you been replaced? Have I been? Do you ever think of me? Does my name ever cross your lips? Perhaps you stayed away this time because I am older now than I was before. Perhaps my company was more pleasing then.
The first time, I was pregnant. I lost my baby. Now I am older and becoming infertile, the man who fathered my unborn child buried. Time is a terrible thing.
I have been here before. And yet, in a way, I never left.
The ink on my sentence has dried. I will spend the next eight years at this place—the first three alongside my daughter, an innocent. I suppose I always knew they would find the money, or at least say they had.
It is March 1961, month three of our sentences, and our surroundings are still a blanket of white, the horizon gray. It is night, and I write under a gas lamp turned so low I can only see the paper in front of me and the shadow of my daughter’s slender back as she sleeps on her side under two woolen blankets—one of which is mine.
Earlier, Ira and I worked at the pit digging a new latrine. Her hands are blistered and cracked and she can barely lift the pick, so I dig harder and faster. I don’t say it aloud to anyone, but part of me has missed this work—putting the shovel to the earth, stepping on it with both feet to penetrate deeper, exposing the soil underneath, dark against the white snow.
I am exhausted, and yet I do not want to sleep until this story is told. I’m pressing the pen harder now. It is fading. I think the woman who is wearing my socks lied to me for the trade; the pen’s ink is almost gone. There is so much more to write. Maybe the rest of this letter will be written in the indentation the pen’s tip makes in the paper. Maybe you will have to read it like braille.
As it is, my story no longer belongs to me. In the collective imagination, I have become someone else—a heroine, a character. I have become Lara. And yet when I look, I don’t find her here. Is that how they will know me when I’m gone? Is that the love story they’ll remember?
I think of Borya’s own ending for his heroine:
One day Larisa Feodorovna went out and did not come back. She must have been arrested in the street at that time. She vanished without a trace and probably died somewhere, forgotten as a nameless number on a list that afterwards got mislaid, in one of the innumerable mixed or women’s concentration camps in the north.
But Anatoli, I am no nameless number. I will not disappear.
In the winter of ’65,
premiered on the big screen. We went together. Some of us were still at the Agency, but most had left by then. A typist’s shelf life isn’t very long. New typists came and went. Many men had risen through the ranks, and some of us had too. Gail had even been awarded Anderson’s position after he died of a heart attack while accompanying his teenage daughter to a Beatles concert at the Coliseum.
We’d married, or not. We’d had children, or hadn’t. We were all a little older—fine lines appearing when we smiled or frowned, our figures no longer quite the lithe young things we used to hide behind our desks.
It was good to see each other. The last time had been at a wedding in ’63. After the
mission, Norma left the Pool to pursue her master’s in creative writing at Iowa, and around that same time, Teddy began to pursue her long distance. They got hitched once she’d graduated, and Teddy left the Agency for a job at another secretive company just down the road from Langley: Mars, Inc. The wedding was an informal affair held at the outdoor dance hall in Great Falls Park with a barbecue reception and chocolate fondue fountains donated by Teddy’s new employer. His parents seemed aghast, but the rest of us had a great time. Henry Rennet was not there, and no one missed him. After Norma tossed her bouquet—which Judy expertly dodged—Frank Wisner gave a toast to the happy couple. It would be the last time we’d see our old boss; he’d take his life two years later, in the fall of ’65, just before
Hugs and cheek kisses were exchanged outside the Georgetown Theater, its neon sign bathing us in a red glow. Tickets were purchased, and while we waited in line for refreshments, Linda showed us photos of her twin boys sitting on Santa’s lap at Woodies and Kathy pulled out snaps of her Hawaiian honeymoon. We talked about how much we wished Judy could’ve made it. She’d moved to California to become an actress, and although she’d yet to hit it big, she did land a bit part on
The Dick Van Dyke Show.
We took up the entire third and fourth rows of the Georgetown. The lights dimmed and popcorn and Raisinets were passed around as the newsreel played, showing footage of America’s military escalation in Vietnam. Those of us still at the Agency remained stoic as the camera panned to show downed planes, burned fields, and collapsed roofs. They knew more than those of us no longer at the Agency, and those of us on the outside knew better than to ask.
When the theater went dark and the music started, a few of us exchanged looks and hand squeezes. And when Lara appeared on the screen in a white blouse and black tie, sitting behind a desk, we all thought the same thing:
Actually, it was Julie Christie. But still—her hair, her eyes. It was our Irina on that screen.
We got chills when Yuri first saw Lara from across the room. We sniffed back tears when he told her goodbye for the first time. We held out hope that the movie would depart from the book and end with Yuri and Lara living in that country house until their dying days. And even though we knew it was coming, we let the tears flow when they said goodbye for the last time.
As the credits rolled, we dabbed our eyes with our hankies.
is both a war story and a love story. But years later, it was the love story we remembered most.
Three years before the Kremlin lowered its Soviet hammer and sickle and replaced it with the Russian tricolor,
came to the Motherland for the first time—legally, that is. Gail sent us a postcard from her trip to Moscow. The postcard was an advertisement for Sotheby’s
Bidding for Glasnost ’88
auction, and her note said our novel was everywhere. The following year, Pasternak was reawarded the Nobel, his son accepting the Prize on his behalf.
We’re ashamed to admit it, but some of us still hadn’t actually read the book at that point. The few of us who knew Italian had read it back when it was first published. Others had read it in the years following the mission, some waiting until after seeing the film to sit down with the Russian tome. But not all of us had gotten around to it. And when we finally did get around to reading
—to reading the words the Agency had viewed as a weapon—we were struck by both how much the world had changed, and how much it hadn’t.
Around the same time, Norma wrote a spy thriller, dedicating it to Teddy. It was her first published novel, and while it received only lukewarm reviews, we still lined up to have her sign our copies at Politics and Prose. The Agency put out a statement distancing itself from the novel’s content—the story of a female agent provocateur who took down a double—but we thought it rang pretty true.
Those of us who remain use computers now: desktops and laptops and smartphones purchased by our children for our birthdays and Christmas, their uses taught to us by our grandchildren.
“You have to move your finger like this, Grandma.”
“Just hold down the
“That’s because you’re on
“Don’t worry about that button.”
“A selfie is when you take a picture of yourself.”
The keys click now, not clack. There is no ding. Our words-per-minute count isn’t what it used to be, but we can do extraordinary things with these machines. Best of all, we can keep in touch. Now, instead of memos and reports, we forward each other jokes and prayers and photos of our grandchildren, and some great-grandchildren too.
We’re not sure who saw it first—we all seemed to see it at the same time. It was an article in the
about an American woman held in London on charges of espionage, awaiting extradition to the United States. What caused such a stir was that the woman was eighty-nine, her crimes of leaking information to the Soviets decades old. The talking heads debated what should be done in such a case.
But our interest in the article was its photo.
Although the woman’s face was covered by her cuffed hands, we needed only a glimpse to know who it was.
“As I live and breathe.”
“Not a doubt in my mind.”
“Never lost her figure.”
“Is that the same fur Dulles gave her?”
The article said the woman had been living in the U.K. for the last fifty years—above a rare books’ shop she’d owned for three decades, along with a nameless woman who’d passed away in the early 2000s.
We look for the other woman’s name in other articles but can’t find it.
Although the success of the
mission became Agency legend in the years to follow, our record of Irina’s career became spotty after Expo 58, her file ending with a brief memo noting her retirement in the ’80s and nothing more.
Our fingers fly across the keys.
“Was it her?”
“Was it them?”
“Could it have been?”
Secretly, we hope so.