At age 15, I carried on my first clandestine love affair. My father had forbidden me to go out with brainy, intense Steve diRocca, one year ahead of me in my suburban Connecticut high school. So I contrived a history-class assignment that required me to do research at the pillared, high-ceilinged library in downtown New Haven two afternoons a week. We’d meet there and talk up a storm or slink into a nearby movie theater and make out in the back corner. I’d take the public bus toward home, and Dad would pick me up at a corner store a mile from our house, none the wiser.
So, from a young age I had resourcefulness, independence, a yen for secrecy and the ability to pull off a convincing cover story.
A quiet kid, I liked to observe others, the way Harriet watched her well-heeled Upper East Side neighbors in my favorite book Harriet the Spy, writing what she noticed in her notebook. “Why do the Kligers not have any furniture in their living room?” I asked my mother, referencing the family of a girl who took the school bus with me.
“They must be house-poor,” my mother replied, explaining the concept to me.
Where I live now in rural Massachusetts, I notice who’s apparently just left for the winter, which families have generators when the power goes out, whose colored survey ribbons signal that they’re getting ready to sell their house, and more. “Goshen Detective,” my husband calls me affectionately.
Add observational skills to my spying portfolio, then. I’ve never respected “off limits” rules, either. In elementary school I took shortcuts across neighbors’ lawns when I knew I wasn’t supposed to. During graduate school I repeatedly went skinny dipping at a do-not-enter reservoir that got raided by police once or twice each summer. More recently I had a tiff with someone whom I felt was cutting down too many of his trees, and he got a sheriff to sock me with a no-trespassing warrant valid for 99 years. He then posted cameras, so no longer could I sneak around the beaver pond and blueberry patch on his acreage.
Boldness and daring I’ve had as well. At age 19 I hitchhiked through Europe with a girlfriend and with just $200 to last me six weeks. (We did fine because we accepted hospitality from friendly residents whom we encountered.) In my thirties I lived in a gentrifying neighborhood in Boston reputed to be dangerous but walked even through dark parks at night alone, believing that I’d mastered a don’t-you-dare-bother-me kind of invisibility. My husband and I befriended the drug dealer/pimp who lived next door, and we gave no energy to the idea of personal security. My comfort with danger: check.
I compartmentalize well, too. In graduate school I had another secret romance, with a tall, blond and goofy fellow student in my small department. In public we showed no signs of a relationship. We simply didn’t want our future job prospects tainted by being perceived, even temporarily, as a couple. Other students and our professors remained as clueless about us as my father had been.
Then there are languages. By age 25 I’d studied Spanish, French, Hebrew and German and could transact daily business in the first three of those. If a spymaster sent me to immersion language school, I could probably bring one or more of those languages up to fluency.
We also have to look at the “con” side of my aptitudes, though. While I kept secrets well and never blabbed because I felt uncomfortable talking, the dynamics of double-and-triple-cross strategies that populate spy novels always gave me a headache. And I do not excel at what-if thinking, the way spies have to see and be seven steps ahead of an adversary. A third and last undercover liaison took place when I worked in China at a time when Chinese/foreigner relationships were forbidden. I concocted a plan to get my secret Chinese boyfriend up to my apartment. Once I successfully diverted the minder who usually guarded the entryway, I gave Bu a huge wave meaning, “All clear, come on.” The minder must have glimpsed my gesture from his back room and stepped back to stare at us coldly. I had no contingency ready to explain away the situation. Drat!
All this is moot because spying was never in my mental set of career possibilities. Everyone I knew well became a lawyer, doctor, professor or research scientist. And because nearly all of my spying aptitudes played out behind the scenes, no spy agency would have spotted me for recruitment.
Oh, well. It’s just fun to picture an even more adventurous life I might have lived.
Marcia Yudkin is the author of 17 books, as well as articles in the New York Times Magazine, Ms., the Village Voice, Psychology Today, Next Avenue and more. She publishes a weekly newsletter for introverts called Introvert UpThink and is completing a memoir, Nothing to Prove: Recovering from Wittgenstein.