Library of Cultural References

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My prom date, the spy

Julius found the following short story on Salon.com.

It must have been 1970, 1971. My copy of Joni Mitchell's "Blue" was already badly scratched, the navy of the album cover faded into a pretty patina. If I'm not even sure of the year, I certainly can't be expected to remember his name, which wasn't anything obvious: Misha, Boris. Whenever I tried to pronounce it, I was sternly corrected.

I remember absolutely nothing about his face or body, although I can safely assume that he was, like all of my subsequent boyfriends, tall and thin. He wore a strong adult aftershave, which I found both repellent and sort of interesting. To make out with him was to be surrounded, almost visibly, by a mushroom- (or chef's-hat-) shaped cloud of this aftershave.

He was very serious, with good posture and impeccable manners. He was always careful to tip gas station attendants a neatly folded dollar. "Thank you so much. I appreciate your service," he would say, bowing slightly and rolling those Transylvanian R's. His father had instructed him in this American gratuity custom. I told him that, to the best of my knowledge, no one in the history of Silver Spring, Md., had ever tipped a gas station attendant, but it was clear that he didn't value my input as a cultural insider.

His parents were both journalists who had traveled around the world; I was a bureaucrat's daughter with a set of Encyclopaedia Britannicas that were outdated before we even unpacked them. "Journalists," my father said. "Sure.'Journalists.' They're spies, you imbecile. Spies!"

I thought this was enormously funny. "The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!" I would squeal, running away and flapping my arms as if I were on fire. This much I knew about the world in 1970: My father was a jerk.

But of course the parents were spies. In the den off their living room, they had, instead of a TV in front of a Barcalounger, an entire wall of state-of-the-art transmission equipment with headphones, dials and clocks indicating the current time in Washington, Moscow and London, site of their last posting. The equipment was heavy metal and Buck Rogers-looking, with bad-ass welding joints such as you might find on primitive space shuttles. This equipment, the son told me proudly, was capable of sending a message anywhere on the planet.

Since his parents never appeared to be home -- in fact, I'm not sure I ever even met them -- he demonstrated. He let me type in a message to send to Moscow.

"Eat Shit and Die, Pig Honky," I typed, letter by letter, into the little scrolling window they still use for stock quotes.

That was the current hip expletive: I would guess it was a corruption of something Linda Blair spluttered in "The Exorcist," except that didn't come out until 1973. He pressed a button, and the window informed me, "Message Transmitted."

Or rather, it informed him, in Russian, and he translated.

"If they were spies," I parried to my father, "do you think they'd teach their son how to use the machine? Do you think he'd let me tell Moscow to go fuck itself?"

"He didn't send the message, you moron. He was just trying to impress you, to garner sexual favors."

(Contributed by Julius Mills)

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