Evelyn Hampton is the author of Discomfort, Madam, and We Were Eternal and Gigantic. Her website is lispservice.com. Her author photo was drawn by Stephanie Brachmann.
One night at a dinner party, our host said that of everyone at the table, Jay was the most likely to be a secret CIA operative or an undercover spy. We laughed out of amusement, then became nervous but kept laughing to cover up what now seemed an eerie possibility: Jay was living a double life. He came to our homes and shared our meals, but he always maintained a distance that let him see us more completely than we could ever see ourselves. After dessert and liqueurs I searched for Jay because I wanted to say goodbye to him before I went home. “Jay?” our host said. “He left an hour ago, you didn’t notice?”
For a while I was house-sitting in a wealthy neighborhood. I started to notice something about the trees: many had electrical cords snaking up their trunks. I would see these cords and wonder about them, but it was some time before I thought to look up. When I finally did, I saw surveillance cameras among the branches. “People are avid about watching birds in this neighborhood,” I mentioned at the time to a friend. I remember now that that friend was Jay. He never made me feel like a fool, even when I acted like one.
His name was not really Jay. That is just what I am calling him. Since he disappeared, I haven’t felt comfortable using his real name. It may be a superstition I am developing—when someone vanishes, they take their name with them, along with our certainty that we ever really knew them. I would not be surprised if, during all of the years of our friendship, Jay was using an alias—not in order to be deceptive, but to protect something, or someone.
I think it is so easy for me to imagine Jay as a spy because he had the most dignity of anyone I have known. The source of his dignity was his patience, which allowed him to be unrelentingly observant. Once, he and I were sitting on a curb in a parking lot of a supermarket, watching the traffic for someone who was supposed to meet us there. While we waited, Jay told me about a test that is given by MI5, Britain’s intelligence agency, to people who want to become spies. They are shown a long video of a busy urban intersection. After they’ve watched the video, they are asked questions, like, How many white cars were in the right lane? How many in the left? In which direction was the cyclist traveling? After about how many minutes did a bird enter the scene? Where did the bird land?
I would not be good at that test—I can’t watch a dull scene for more than a minute without my mind wandering far away from it to some trouble I am having in a relationship or to some list of tasks to accomplish. If something seems familiar to me, then it’s as if it has already happened, like it’s a dream or a memory I’m recalling. Therefore I think I know what’s going to happen next, because I’ve already seen it all. It’s a drastic assumption I make out of a kind of laziness.
Jay never would have assumed he knew what was going to happen next. He would have been great at the spy test. Whenever I was with him he never became distracted, because he never seemed to find any place familiar. It was as if the world and his imagination occupied the same plane, so that to wander one was to wander the other, and to become lost in one was to find himself in the other. He was always attentive to me and our surroundings, aware of the people around us, of our position with respect to all other possible positions, and at the same time he would be listening intently to what I was saying, to the tone with which I was saying it, an apt or clever response always ready. Nothing was happenstance; he could maintain a state of alert-yet-relaxed expectation indefinitely, as if he had never not known a moment in which something startling and unexpected could happen. If he ever did become distracted, I never noticed, which I think is the mark of a good spy: he could pay close attention to so many details at once, even if he lost track of one, he still knew exactly what was going on, because the lost one had left its trace among the others. [. . .]