I was supine on the couch, as I have been for a couple of weeks now, recovering from my very near brush with the Void. I’ve given myself, with my doctor’s blessing, permission to be in a state of “rest” — that retro condition — without guilt, for a while at least; which seems at once naughty and luxurious.
Brian, my husband, made me chicken soup, as Dr. Ealy has prescribed pretty much just smoothies, soups, and fermented foods for me, till I am stronger.
I noticed some chunky white strips floating in the soup, like thick little rafts. “What is that, honey?”
“Pork fat. It will give it flavor.”
“You know this is supposed to be Jewish chicken soup, right?” I asked, smiling.
“You have to respect my Irishness,” he declared.
I did, and the soup was delicious: “restorative,” as we say, half-joking, in our household. I felt the life force burn a little brighter in me as I blew on my spoon, and took it all in.
Chicken soup has a very allegorical presence in our history. A Jewish chicken soup I made long ago, it is not an overstatement to say, turned our relationship from that nervous status of “dating,” to the steady path to marriage.
Nine years ago, Brian and I had been courting for about six months. I was still incredibly jumpy about him, part delighted and part terrified. Half of me believed that he had been sent by some intelligence agency to infiltrate my life and my social network.
What was he doing hanging around me so consistently, I wondered? He was much younger than I, very handsome, sort of scary, extremely comfortable with a range of weapons, and strangely highly trained in many arcane white and black arts.
He was not like anyone I knew. He had hacker friends. He had spy friends, and mercenary friends, and special operator friends. And he was friends too, oddly, with a couple of governors, a couple of ambassadors, and some high-level businessmen; as well as being friends with riffraff of all kinds.
Surely he couldn’t be making the long train journey every week from Washington to New York to see me, just for my sake — just for me, an exhausted single mom, from a completely different milieu?
What was his real agenda?
Friends were continually warning me about just this scenario — of subversion via seduction. A friend sent me news stories about a detective in the UK who infiltrated a group of environmental activists by seducing a female member — he lived with her for months before she realized that the relationship was a setup. Other friends of mine would pepper Brian with probing questions when he accompanied me to parties. He patiently answered them, barely rolling his eyes.
I would ask him about my fears directly.
“How do I know you haven’t been sent here by the CIA, or by Mossad, to kill me?”
He’d answer with a mocking scenario, that always made me laugh in spite of myself.
“Well, if I have, I’m doing a terrible job, and I’ll probably get fired: “Agent Seamus here. What’s going on? Why isn’t she dead yet? It’s been months!” “Well, I was going to knock it out last week, but we had that thing at the Town Hall. Then I was going to take care of it last Wednesday, but we can’t miss Dancing with the Stars. I was going to do it this morning, but Starbucks didn’t open till 8:00 am, and you know I can’t function without that first cup of coffee…”’
So slowly, I let my guard down. I got used to the imponderable world of Brian O’Shea. I got used to finding three different passports on the shelf where he kept his toiletries. I got used to being put on FaceTime to say hello to some wizened, sectarian warlord who had been tossing back vodka shots for some reason with Brian, as he was for some reason in Tbilisi. I got used to hearing that Brian had been detained at a local airport because he had forgotten that there were hollow-point bullets in his carry-on backpack (“Not my fault! I was packing so quickly, I forgot to check the bag.”) I learned to accept that when we stepped outside of a dance club in eastern Sarajevo, where we had travelled for a speaking engagement of his, he froze and turned white at the sound of a car backfiring. He did not go into detail about his reaction.
I got used to weird moments: we were in the elegant, 17th-century, oak-paneled drawing room in the home of the Master of my then-college at Oxford; and we were introduced to a visiting Ambassador. Brian and the official looked at each other with simultaneous white-hot rage, leaving the Master and me standing by in a befuddled silence. A long-ago operation had gone awry, it seemed, in a way that left each of these men infuriated at the other.
There were other strange experiences that were becoming familiar to me. I went to a party in a massive, mostly empty mansion in the Virginia woods. Russians, Serbs, Frenchmen, Argentinians — everyone seemed to be a “tech CEO,” but had little interest in or conversation about technology. One fellow had tiny skulls embroidered as a pattern on his expensive, tailored shirt. I found out later these were grey arms dealers.
I got used to the barbeques in backyards in the suburbs in DC full of young men who were working in the embassies of certain European countries, and young women from those same countries who were all working as “au pairs,” but who all — the young men and the young women both — talked with intense, in-depth knowledge about geopolitics. I got used to meeting “couples” who seemed completely ill-matched, with zero chemistry between them, who indeed seemed hardly to know each other.
I got used to the fact that one of Brian’s colleagues was a gigantic young former Spanish army sniper, whose identity had been revealed by terrorists years before, in a troubled part of Spain. Hence his presence in Old Town, Alexandria, working for Brian. I got used to the fact that “Paolo” was now also a part-time baker. Indeed, he was the second sniper-baker to whom Brian introduced me (“Paolo’s” specialty was macaroons, whereas the second sniper-baker focused upon miniature cupcakes.)
I was scared of “Paolo,” for the same reasons I was scared of Brian; until “Paolo” showed up at the door, when I was looking after Brian; tall and immensely muscled and pleasant-looking, with an open, innocent face, and bearing a small, perfectly decorated pink paper box.
“I am not here to kill you,” he said solemnly, having been told of my fears. “I have brought you macaroons.”
Who were all of these people? What was happening in this world?
Slowly it dawned on me.
There is a world of people with clearances, people in the “intelligence community,” people who are associated with embassies, or who are military or ex-military, or people who make their way for various reasons in the margins of that world. I had had no idea. This underworld/mirror world lies, in DC and Alexandria, beneath, or alongside, the overt world which I knew. Before I met Brian, I had spent years in DC surrounded by people without clearances: journalists, policy wonks, White House functionaries. We thought we were everything. But I came to realize that there is a whole shadow-ecosystem: some helping the nation, getting no public credit, and some, their adversaries, trying to subvert or surveil the nation, getting no public blame.
I had no idea of the dimensions of the complex alternative/subterranean world that is the shadow side of the public drama of personalities, roles and relationships that appears to lead the nation, and to set the national discussion, in the glaring light of day.
So I did not understand then much about who this man really was; but I could not help the fact that I was falling irrevocably and helplessly in love with him.
I was at that dangerous, vulnerable point in a relationship in which “dating” had not yet turned into something more committed. At that point, Brian told me that he was very ill with the flu. He could not come up to see me. He seemed surprised and pleased that I offered, if he wished, to come down to see him.
I got myself from Penn Station to Union Station, and from there to the townhouse where he lived in Alexandria. A key had been left for me, and I let myself in.
The townhouse itself was an absolute mystery to me. Just as Brian was like no one I had ever encountered before, this dwelling was like nothing I had ever seen. What was it? What did it mean?
It was a very expensive, small 18th-century townhouse, made of pale yellow brick, in Alexandria’s historic district. Inside, the costly exterior was confusingly contradicted by aggressively middlebrow decor. The interior looked as if it had been staged by a window dresser at Raymour & Flanagan. In short, it did not look like the house of any real people who really lived there.
The walls were taupe — that awful taupe that was so popular in suburbs about ten years ago. There were white wooden motto signs made of cursive letters, placed on white wooden shelves, that said such things as “Smile.” Other signs read, “It’s five o’clock somewhere.” The leather sectional couch was generic, the wrought-iron dining chairs and the round glass dining table were generic, the artificial plants were generic. There were photographs of one of the house’s inhabitants (for there were several, as Brian had explained to me) in white wooden frames in odd places — on the living room wall, for instance, rather than on a bedside table upstairs.
The kitchen had instructions on a printed sheet of paper that was affixed to the inside of an upper cabinet. The instructions seemed to be for people who were entirely unfamiliar with the house, and the neighborhood; even with the dog, who was a big, disoriented-seeming golden retriever who was ever-present.
The name of the dog, in the printed instructions, was different than the name by which the inhabitants of the house called the dog.
Who was this dog?
There were no toiletries in the upper bathroom cabinets. Weird! All three of the people who lived in the house kept their toiletries in kits in their bedrooms.
None of it added up.
Brian had once told me about safe houses. Was this a safe house?
Wherever I was, I had to make peace with it. I looked in on Brian in his upstairs bedroom; he was in a deep, flushed, flu-driven sleep, and looking very ill indeed.
I texted my mom: “What was dad’s Jewish Chicken Soup recipe?”
She texted back: ‘Simmer a whole chicken, a good one. Put two carrots, two celery stalks, an onion and a parsnip, in the water. Add tons of crushed garlic. Simmer. Skim the froth. Remove the carcass, shred the meat, put it back in the broth. Simmer. At the end of a couple of hours, add fresh dill, fresh parsley, and a squeeze of lemon.’
So I did that. And eventually Brian came slowly downstairs, took a bowl of soup, and slowly returned to life. “Jewish penicillin,” it’s called for a reason. He drank that soup and he drank it.
We sat on the weird nondescript couch, and he introduced me to reruns of Seinfeld. “I can’t believe you haven’t watched Seinfeld,” he said, between sips of soup. He later told me that he was amazed that I had come all the way down to DC and made soup for him. No one had ever done anything quite like that for him, he said.
For my part, I blessed my dad’s recipe. For by then I had turned over, in my courtship of this man, every single card at my disposal. Brian at that point knew what I looked like; he knew how I dressed; he knew what my conversation was like, what my apartment was like, who my friends were.
This was the very last card I had.
He did not know I was a nurturer.
It was not just Brian who was restored, as if by magic, by this iconic soup.
One of the housemates, a chain-smoking, shell-shocked military woman who had overseen the notorious prison in a legendary conflict area, also crept down the stairs, as the house filled with fragrance.
She asked humbly if she could have some soup. Of course!
She had her first bowl, and then her second; and she seemed less haunted, and more comforted — even peaceful — with every spoonful.
Everyone needs someone to look after him or her.
Lastly her boyfriend appeared. He was “Force Recon,” explained Brian. Those sent to accomplish the most terrifying deeds. Here was another military giant — a pale-haired young man with a superhero physique, and completely blank eyes.
These people were, I had been trained to believe, the worst of the worst. “Killers.” “Torturers.”
But as we all sat on the back deck, and the house inhabitants drank their soup, and then slowly began chatting more openly with me, I realized — eventually — that they were just human beings; indeed, damaged human beings. These two were just a fairly young man and woman, who had been sent by our leaders, men far above their heads, to oversee horrible things, or to accomplish horrible things. They would carry the tasks they had completed, as burdens, for their entire lives.
Brian’s world may have shifted that weekend, because soon after that, we were going steady.
My world shifted too, though, that weekend. People whom I was trained to hate and fear, I was able to look at a second time, and, through the steam of that magical soup, to see them with compassion.
I brought Brian back to health with my dad’s Jewish chicken soup.
Almost nine years later, he brought me back to life with his Irish iteration.
How amazing it is when we can keep one another alive.
How extraordinary it is when we can feed one another.
What a revelation it is when we can see one another – not as monsters; but simply as living beings, who are always hungry; for nurture, for understanding, and for love.
Republished from the author’s Substack
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