Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Lawrence Blick had been in the CIA in the 1980s, and it had ruined him, really. It’s not that he had killed people or been forced into morally compromising positions. Blick’s job had been to read newspapers in various Slavic languages. Five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he had noted in one of his weekly reports that Serbs and Albanians would try to annihilate each other given half a chance. Many years later, when the Balkans exploded, he became insufferable simply as a result of having said it in 1984. Every headline gave him cause to shake his head and bemoan the obtuseness of the “so-called intelligence community.” But Blick had not fought for his insight at the time, and it didn’t appear to have weighed on him since. He’d left the CIA in 1991, mostly as a result of being fed up with the office politics of his section. From the era when the Iron Curtain crumpled, his most vivid stories were of being unappreciated by nonentities; of slights at the water cooler and in the parking lot; of football pools that had been conducted unfairly. He was the kind of man who would probably have been ruined by any position that allowed him to feel a degree of insider superiority, and the particular spin that the CIA experience gave to his insufferability would have been of no interest to me whatsoever had Lawrence Blick not married my youngest sister.
Patricia Marie, called “Pebbles” by the Donnelly clan, was the family’s delicate flower, with aster blue eyes, a round porcelain face squared off by bangs, and a nose so pertly snub that all our aunts would wring their hands briefly, at a loss for words, before pronouncing her “cute.” You always felt a little let down calling Pebbles cute, but words did fail. She had a modest, ethereal air, ears like nasturtium blossoms, and hair like fine-spun gold. By the time she was born — quite late in our mother’s life, after a period of quiet anguish and a distinctly Catholic decision — the rest of the rowdy crowd of Donnelly children were already in school, and Pebbles was left to cultivate an exquisite world of her own at home. In the big, quiet house, while our mother pursued the activities beyond motherhood that she had been promising herself for years, Pebbles played with her dolls and stuffed animals and made complex worlds for them to inhabit. We were constantly stepping over her societies-in-progress, Raggedy Ann and Eeyore and a dolphin that made squeaking noises living out their mingled stories in Pebbles’ imagination.
She was a gifted child and capable of genuine artistic absorption from an early age. She drew endlessly. She colored and painted and sculpted in clay, overwhelming the refrigerator door with masterpieces, crowding the shelves with Brancusi-esque figures, complicating the house’s airspace with wind chimes and mobiles. In a family of musical dolts she sang like a tiny angel; as she got older, she played the flute, the piano, and the mandolin, learning the instruments in spite of us all. In our cutthroat Donnelly games of Scrabble, while the rest of us labored to maximize our midrange consonants, clotting our words around the high-scoring squares, Pebbles spun prodigal strands of letters into the board’s open spaces, squandering her resources on undoubled regents and dahlias and adding the letters to turn pi into thespian when she could have gotten more points just by spelling hit. But it made her happy to have the board look nice.
By the time Pebbles started high school, I’d left home, but I kept in touch with her as you would check in on a maturing orchard, delighting in the steady growth of the vulnerable trees, fearful of frosts and blights. In a world rife with nematodes, medflies, and parasitic borers, I wanted my sister to bear her particular sweet fruit. She took up photography and used to send me beautiful pictures of the shadows from Venetian blinds and endless nature shots: rolling Virginia landscapes, spider webs with dewdrops hanging from them, icicles. She would play the flute for me over the telephone: haunting, vaguely Celtic melodies she’d composed herself. I was living in California by then, and my own disappointments with the real world were well underway, but it never occurred to me that Pebbles would be anything but blessed. Her fineness seemed indomitable.
My “little” sister, as I continued to think of her, met Lawrence Blick not long after she had graduated from the University of Virginia. She was living in McLean in a tiny apartment with a view of the Potomac, working part time in a photographer’s studio, taking bread-and-butter portraits of law-school graduates and new grandchildren but still bent on doing something artistic. Pebbles’ first reports of the relationship did not seem particularly alarming. Blick was toward the end of his time with the CIA at that point, and he and Pebbles met when he came to get a new passport photo taken. I think she found his self-absorption intriguing. Blick had a natural aloofness that could pass for nobility. He managed to make several remarks of a world-historical nature before she had finished taking his picture, and Pebbles told me later that she felt big windows opening up in her mind. She loved the idea of a man on familiar terms with the lingering effects of the Ottoman Empire.
I wasn’t surprised that Pebbles had fallen for an older, more serious man. She had dated in college, but she’d treated her suitors as she treated almost everyone in her life: with a slight impatience. They simply weren’t that interesting. They were crude and unrefined, sights zeroed in on beer and sex and how much money they would make after graduation. Even her artsy beaus had struck her as dabblers, guys who would take her to museums and coffeehouses and expound upon this and that, but who never quite seemed to get around to producing anything. Blick, Pebbles noted, was the first man she had ever dated who wore a tie that hadn’t been a Christmas gift. He took her out to lunch, ordered wine, and opined ceaselessly. His interest in himself at that time was disguised as disgust with Americans’ ignorance of the Balkans: Sure the history was complicated, but that was no excuse for abandoning an entire corner of Europe to the forces of something or other. Hadn’t anyone read Clausewitz? Hadn’t anyone read Churchill, for God’s sake?
Pebbles was impressed. She wasn’t even sure at this point what Blick did; he had an oblique way of talking about his job that made it seem as if the Soviets would take him out if he revealed too much. But she was ready to be taken to dinner.
“Where did you go?” I asked her on the phone after that first real date.
“Olive Garden,” she said.
I laughed. “Olive Garden!”
“Well, a government salary and all. Lawrence is not in this for the money.”
“What exactly is it that he’s in, again?”
Pebbles hesitated, then said, “I can’t really discuss that on an unsecured line.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“You never know,” Pebbles said firmly.
In retrospect I can see the appeal. The world according to Blick was a grimly serious place, as orderly and attractive as one of Pebbles’ mobiles; he dangled his international system of coat hangers and dental floss, and my sister gaped up at it like a dazzled kitten, batting at it from time to time with her little paw. She had never been cut out for messy reality, and Blick offered an alluring simulacrum. She did read Clausewitz; she read Churchill. He said something dismissive about her photographs, and she put away her camera. They were already engaged by the time I even met the guy, so I never really had a chance to say anything bad about him that wouldn’t have caused a family incident.
It was April, cherry-blossom time. I had come to D.C. to visit, and there happened to be a big Renoir show at the National Gallery. I stood in line for five hours to get tickets, figuring I’d surprise Pebbles, who’d always loved Renoir, only to find that she now considered his prettiness “passé.”
“ ‘Passé’?” I said into the phone. The snideness was new from Pebbles.
“Fluff and mirrors,” she said. “But why don’t you come by for dinner? Lawrence is making his muckalicka.”
I didn’t know what muckalicka was, but I noted, and not for the first time, that she didn’t call her fiancé “Larry.” And when I arrived at Pebbles’ apartment that evening, she introduced him to me conclusively as “Lawrence.” Moreover the first time I called her “Pebbles,” she informed me that she preferred now to be called “Patricia.” Her tone suggested that she had put away childish things. I did the best I could with the new constraint, though it was like talking to her through cardboard. Every couple has to carve out their particular culture, of course. But all I could think was that after Pebbles had read An Otter’s Tale at the age of seven, she had decided that she was an otter. She had turned the living-room couch into her den and spent her days “swimming” around the carpet in an earnest, undulating way, making little otter chirps. She would swim into the kitchen and snag a Fig Newton and swim back to the couch to gnaw at it. She would nurture otter babies and build vast otter shelters out of cushions. For hours on end, for days, she would not speak English, and her concerns were otter concerns. And now I had to call her “Patricia.”
From Pebbles’ guarded but rapturous accounts, I had been looking forward to a lean, mean, CIA killing machine, but Blick was a dumpy blond doughboy with an uncertain mustache and a dimpled chin. He was wearing an apron and holding a wooden spoon; his handshake was soft and off-center. He had a nasal Ivy League drawl, a bad haircut, and a furtive, swooping way of looking at you. I disliked him instantly.
There was never even a gesture toward our getting to know each other. Meeting his prospective brother-in-law, Blick barely paused in mid-harangue. Pebbles had led me to expect an incisive analysis of Balkan actuality, but the predinner talk was all about the clueless jerks he had to put up with at work. He was already talking about quitting; he’d been ignored too many times. It was on such subjects that Blick really found his stride, and his voice rang with conviction. I was amazed that my sister could not see that it was all about Blick. But Pebbles’ face was radiant as she listened to him. I imagined she saw a spy coming in from the cold, a misunderstood man ravaged by the contradictions of postwar Europe, weighed down with tragic knowledge. I saw a history wonk, a Jeopardy! player pissed off about his parking privileges. (Blick had been relegated to Lot C, a clear slap in the face for a G-12 with almost five years in.)
Muckalicka, Blick’s speciality, turned out to be a Serbian pork-and-onion stew garnished with feta cheese. It was tasty enough, and I said so. I envisioned a lot of muckalicka in my future if I wanted to see Pebbles once in a while.
“What’s the spice?” I asked.
“I could tell you that —” Blick said, and paused meaningfully — “but then I’d have to kill you.”
Pebbles laughed. I smiled dutifully. Blick would say this to me at least once every time I saw him for the next six years. It was the key to him, in many ways. He had built the castle of his psyche on the inviolable ground of privileged knowledge. He had been vetted and initiated. He spoke Bulgarian and Russian. He had top-secret/SCI security clearance. Any idiot could have told me the seasoning was paprika with some crushed red pepper.
It didn’t matter what Blick knew, though; it was enough that he knew it. And for all his air of impenetrable secrecy, he loved to display his secret knowledge; I actually got to know the man better than I could possibly have wanted to. It was a private, domestic version of the Church Committee hearings, a series of dismaying revelations of the dark underside of America’s international relations, all prefaced with Blick’s insistence that if I ever repeated anything he’d told me, he would deny he had said it. He also let me know that he was in touch with the criminal element: if my lips ever got too loose, there were people in a variety of Balkan mobs perfectly willing to take me out for a minimal amount of untraceable cash.
The effects on my sister were painfully obvious. Pebbles’ apartment had been purged of her nature photos, the glimmering prints of Monet cathedrals, and the Turner skies and seas. Her mobiles had disappeared. It was not clear yet what sort of art Lawrence Blick favored, so the ghostly rectangles of unfaded paint floated on the walls like windows to an empty future. Pebbles herself was already talking about law school.
“What about your photography?” I asked that first night. “What about the flute and the mandolin?”
She’d given all that up, she said, and Blick nodded approvingly. I restrained an urge to physically assault him. The day had passed when I could beat up the bullies who picked on my little sister, especially since she seemed bent on marrying this one.
After dinner we played Scrabble. Blick won, but Pebbles was all over the triple-word scores now. She and Blick challenged every unfamiliar word and were constantly turning to the dictionary to settle disputes. In the old days Pebbles had often allowed even clearly made-up words to go unchallenged if they sounded pretty and you could come up with a clever definition. I had once scored 87 points with lamufaw, passing it off as a brightly colored Indonesian bird. Pebbles had thought the lamufaw was fantastic.
The two of them duly married. Blick quit the CIA not long afterward and found a series of jobs in the computer industry. The esoterica of the information revolution suited him, but he couldn’t hold a position for long. He was forever misunderstood, forever uncredited with brilliance. Whenever I would visit them, he would make his stew and rage against the world’s stupidity, with Pebbles-cum-Patricia chiming in. She had his back; she had the Donnelly gift of passionate loyalty. But Blick did not have her back, and it broke my heart. I would steal a private moment with her once per visit and sidle up to the edge of pointing out that I thought her husband was a blight upon her soul. But every time I got close to saying anything, Pebbles would shut the conversation down. It was like trying to tell her when she was seven that her otter civilization was imaginary: true, but not relevant, and possibly even cruel.
It was not until the Aldrich Ames scandal broke in 1994 that I began to see signs that Blick’s act was starting to get old with my sister. Blick took the news that the head of the CIA’s Soviet counterintelligence division had been a KGB double agent since the early eighties, that scores of operations had been compromised and perhaps a dozen intelligence sources betrayed, captured, and killed, with predictable self-satisfaction.
“I knew we had a mole in 1985,” he said. “They were rolling up our networks left and right. It was obvious to anyone with a brain that we had a high-level leak.”
“What did you do about it?” Patricia asked.
“I made my opinion known, I can tell you that. But nobody —”
“No,” she said, “what did you actually do? I mean, people were dying, right? Who did you talk to? Did you write a memo?” The tone in which she said “memo” was unprecedented.
Her husband blinked and said uneasily, “It would have been counterproductive to commit anything to paper at that point.”
“Nobody up the ladder wanted to hear anything about it, Patricia. We were up to our ears in shit after Iran-Contra, and the last thing the Company needed was another spectacular public failure. It would have been career suicide at that point to push it.”
“It is what it is,” Blick said, as he often did when further inquiries threatened to get inconvenient.
“I see,” Pebbles said.
And apparently she did, because when Blick, in a bit of a huff by now, excused himself to get another drink, she looked across the room and met my gaze for the first time in what seemed like years, and I saw something in her china blue eyes that hurt my heart. The moment I had longed for had arrived: Pebbles had begun to realize that her husband was an ass.
“I’m so sorry, Pebbles,” I said, rather than, Sweetie, I could have told you this in 1989. In any case, it seemed to me that I was an ass too. None of the men who were supposed to love Pebbles had managed to use their so-called intelligence when it really mattered.
Pebbles shrugged. “It is what it is,” she said, with an irony that I might have welcomed once upon a time; and she gave me a hard, tight smile that was sadder than any I had ever seen.
They argued often after that; more and more, Pebbles could hold her own against Blick. They had a kid, and then another. Then it began to get truly ugly. He broke her arm once in a fight, though she kept this on a need-to-know basis and didn’t tell anyone about it until long afterward. She was ashamed by then to be living with him, and she started the proceedings for a divorce. Blick fought her every way he could, tried to get the house, tried to get custody of the kids, tried every debilitating trick in the book for almost three years but ultimately failed. With the papers finalizing the divorce on the desk in front of him, he blew his brains out one January evening, knowing she would find the mess. It wasn’t a CIA gun; the CIA had never let him carry a gun. He’d bought it at a sporting-goods store.
Pebbles was in law school by then, a bitter single mother with two neglected kids. She was determined to learn how to fight the world’s dirty fights better than people like Blick, but she sounds a lot like him now, carping on the judicial system’s flaws and the allotment of secretaries in the law firm where she works. She’s got Mondrian on the walls and furniture made of polished steel. I nod at the appropriate points in the harangue; I call her “Patricia,” as she wishes; and I try not to think of the bright-faced girl swimming through the living room of our childhood, and how I let her down. There is no changing things now, if there ever was, and it is a terrible thing to hate the dead.