Erin M. Grillot © 2020
All Rights Reserved
They often say you have to let something go, and if it comes back to you, it’s yours. For the longest time I believed that was bullshit—the worst damn advice ever given. That those words, like so many others, were just one of the many lies we would tell ourselves to convince us it’ll all be okay. Patronizing and empty.
Or, so I had thought.
But, sometimes, you give up your queen to protect your king even if it isn’t what you want to do. You may not get that piece back, you may be stuck with a pawn the rest of the game, but you saved your king. And in a game of chess, that can be the difference between a win and a loss; and in life, the difference between survival and death, happiness and apathy, success and failure.
A headache builds near the edge of my temple tonight—just an inkling so far, spurred on by the limits I seem to keep pressing and expanding. History has proven that it will blossom into a full-blown one by tomorrow. It means I haven’t been sleeping enough, and I’ve been squinting at papers and screens for too many days in a row. I should go home, eat a real dinner, and sleep, if even for a few hours, in my own bed. I also know, as I know many things, it is unlikely to happen, not at already half eight and after an unexpected phone call with an undisclosed, yet disgruntled French government employee destroyed my productivity earlier this afternoon. A small sigh escapes me as I rub the bridge of my nose and turn my eyes back to the file in my hand.
I jest about my job sometimes to myself, oversimplifying it to the hero-and-villainesque themes of a childhood comic book. A therapist might say it is a coping mechanism, which may be true, but if I think of it that way, then the real-life complexity doesn’t matter to me. I am aware my day-to-day decisions are more gray than black-and-white. The business of secretly making sure the free world stays that way isn’t a quiet desk job for the faint of heart. It is an unending mess of data and decisions juggled and balanced with ruthlessness, subterfuge, PR, and ridiculous amounts of coffee. A veritable nightmare some days, but utterly fulfilling in its endgame.
These last few years, I am rarely active in the field anymore, generally spending my time in either the planning or cleanup stages of the operations, hidden in some windowless office that justifies my lack of knowledge about the weather. But the past weeks, I have ended up involved in multiple side tasks that take me back to my beginning days here at Department 5. Side tasks that come with their own laundry list of issues. And while I thrive on it all, relish each time I tick something off a to-do list, close out a deal, solve an international incident, save a life, take a life—there is still a limit. I need a break, probably more than I realize.
Some days, I am not even sure what it is I do all day, what this job has made of me. There are papers and meetings, decisions and actions. I oversee budgets and tactile missions in the same sentence somedays, make war and peace on two different continents in the span of hours, make a decision about copier paper and which guns to supply with the same signature. I’m still damn good at my job, even when I don’t always quite know how to define it.
There was never an interview, at least not an official one. My title and job description don’t actually exist. I’ve been here edging toward twenty years now, and after years of missions and working my way through the ranks, it seemed to simply happen. There was suddenly an open office and a second bodyguard; respect and fear; John, my mentor, quietly slipping out of the picture. And it was never said out loud, possibly never even thought—all my door says on it is my name—but it was as if it didn’t need saying or to be written. It simply was. Someone always needs to be at the top.
Sometimes, though, sitting in my office late at night, I wish I could see a self-portrait of myself. Do I look as old and tired as I feel, despite still being in my midthirties? Is this suit the powerhouse I imagined when putting it on this morning? Are the worry lines showing on my forehead; how disheveled does my hair look today? The physical attributes I feel define me…are they noticeable, or is it my own inherent belief that these things matter that makes them so? My elbows crooked at a crisp ninety-degree angle, resting along the desk with my sleeves rolled, tie and vest still in perfect condition…is it the picture that I think it is?
Image—being seen, or not seen, as I want to be—has been an armor for me since I was little, since I first discovered what it could do for me. The first time I learned how to hide in the library, how to camouflage myself as belonging somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be, looking the part to get handouts, not looking the part to avoid the critical eye of the police or school counselor. Clothes, demeanor, actions, stance, pronunciation…all a part of the package perfected in many ways over the years. It is an everyday thing for me now and as intrinsic as breathing.
My mind runs through it all in the background, juggling to keep a million things straight and on their course as I scan through the proposal—an eighty-plus page document that should have been twenty. Flowery and overdetailed, the analyst has potential, but he’s too fresh, too eager. I’m forcing myself through the pages, jotting notes and underlining the key pieces that were relatively well done. It’s tiring, more so than it should be, but there’s something important about knowing your employees and colleagues and what their thoughts and potential are. I expect a lot of my employees, and they rarely fail to deliver, but I also teach them well. I’m a hard boss, but I am also a fair one. I work more hours than anyone under me, something I make sure of each week. I can’t expect it of them if I can’t do it myself.
A sharp rap on the door startles me, and I blink slowly. The clock reads eleven thirty, and another slow blink reveals the same. Hours have passed without my knowledge. Peering down at the papers still in my grip, I find myself on page seventy-two, same as when I’d glanced at the clock striking nine. I roll my neck gently. My headache won’t be the only thing bothering me tomorrow.
I stand as Robert turns the knob and eases the door open. He stands up fully as soon as he spots me, and the slight frown already on his face deepens.
“Ready?” he asks.
My eyes cast wistfully toward the stack of papers for only a second before I grab them, nod, and follow him out of the room and down the hall. He holds open the car door as I climb in the back, and as he pulls away from the curb, a small yawn escapes my lips. His eyes track to mine in the rearview mirror, but anything he thinks of saying is silenced by whatever he sees on my face. If it is enough to leave him off his mothering, it probably isn’t good.
Five minutes later, he pulls in front of my building, and the car crawls to a stop. The small light in the entryway is on, which means Robert has made sure someone is on duty tonight. Despite my tiredness and headache, the smile tugs at the corners of my lips, and it doesn’t leave until I hear the car pull away after I shut the door behind me. I climb the stairs and unlock my own front door out of muscle memory.
I loosen my tie and, for just a moment, lean back against the door, letting the faint feeling of home wash over me. It is a small moment, over almost as it begins, but it gives me the strength to change into sweats and not lie down on the bed, and to make notes on the remaining twelve pages of the proposal brief I’d been working through before officially calling it a night.
The next morning, after a brief phone call with one of our agents abroad, I find myself walking into a semi-familiar office right at seven thirty. Caitlin is the director of our analysis team. We collaborate from time to time, so I’ve been to this wing of the building but haven’t had a reason to lately. They have a strategy session this morning—my term for it as their more colloquial “hash session” is too inane to ever pass my lips. They’re down a team member, so they’ve been a bit harried lately, and I was asked to attend, help toss ideas around, and strategize from a wider perspective.
Forty minutes in, we’re arguing over semantics, and there are too many voices. I’ll bow, somewhat reluctantly, on the translations they’ve done, but I’m refusing to yield on the strategic analysis point I’ve brought to the table. It was fifteen neat pages with a bulleted timeline and a mission I felt so strongly about I’d just volunteered to handle it myself.
“Sir, I’m not sure you should…” one of the junior analysts begins—Phillip, if I recall—before his eyes meet mine. Caitlin coughs discreetly, and I can’t help the small smirk that pushes at the edge of my mouth as he stutters to a stop.
“I do rather think this isn’t your area, sir,” she begins, “but do note that we would welcome you on this mission freely. And, let it also be noted, we are cooperating fully with your recommendation.” The last part was coupled with a quick, yet pointed look around the table.
I stand and nod, clap Caitlin briefly on the shoulder as I step out, mission successful.
And suddenly, the next moment I have to relish the blink of my eyes and a slow breath, it is half seven on Thursday night, and my day has been thirteen hours long already. I’m still only halfway through the last file I’d wanted (sworn) to clean off my desk today. The papers in front of me are scattered, any previous organizational schema long gone. It is a familiar sight—days long past of being kept company by little besides the light above my head and the near-constant cup of coffee at my elbow as I weed through pages of intelligence. Long hours should fall into my job description as they are as ubiquitous as the ever-present coffee that keeps me going.
My desk is messier than it was this morning, despite my progress, but there are piles now I’ll be able to put away or pass along. They’ve been sorted, analyzed, signed, closed, or otherwise marked. It will be a fresh start tomorrow. There is a deep mahogany trim along my desk that I haven’t seen in weeks and I’ve dearly missed. My morning coffee mug matches it nicely, and the thought of that gracing my Friday morning brings a small smile, motivates me a little more. I’m already mentally laying out the tie that matches them both.
It is late, though, and has been a long day, and I am not at my best right now; I’m enough of a realist I can admit that, if only to myself. I’m years into this job, and by now, keeping my emotions out of work and in check is practically second nature. But there are still times when it can’t be fully shut out, when it drains me on top of whatever else is going down. Today sported a rash decision by a group we’d been tailing near the Russian border. It was unanticipated, and while poorly executed, it was done near a local school. None of the students were injured, but scars are not always just physical, especially with children, and many of them will hold this day with them for a long time. It has caused all of us to be on higher alert than usual, only adding to already mounting tensions. The end results mean extra work, both in and out of the field, and numerous second-guesses by myself and my team. And that means longer days and shorter nights.
Which for me means more headaches and falling asleep at my desk more often than not. There are no windows in my office. It actually resides on the secondary level of the building, below ground. Some days, I pass my entire working hours without seeing natural sunlight. It is safer underground and, yes, pandering to my childhood villains, adds to the air of secrecy. Still, it would be nice to see blue sky occasionally. Despite this, there are no silly tapestries or wall décor in my office meant to mimic windows or the outdoors like some of the others down here.
With a sigh, I realize I’ve had enough of it today. I decide to get out of the office and call Robert to bring the car to take me home. Those papers can get finished perfectly well at home, with me ensconced in the couch.
The universe seems to have another plan though. Traffic is bad today, even at this later hour—for some reason I’m sure I’d be aware of if I put the effort into remembering—and we’re not making progress. After the slow crawl down Tenth Street where I’d spent bordering on ten minutes staring at the same building, I give in to my curiosity and instruct Robert to let me out.
The façade makes the building look more like a dive than I’d first realized, and I can tell Robert is hesitant to leave me here. One sharp look ends the argument however, and we agree he’ll be back in ninety minutes, barring further communication. Robert’s been with me for years, and there are few people I trust more than him; he’s earned my respect and esteem in numerous ways over the time we’ve worked together. He’s also seen me through more situations than I’ll willingly admit to, and the seamlessness with which we work together is an unparalleled asset. We may disagree on the extent and limits of my safety and wellbeing, but we’ve grown accustomed to a middle ground that works well for both of us.
It was the name that caught my eye initially, staring out the car window. Turn & Sip, the sign read, in a deep maroon script. Not one of those blinking neon monstrosities. I can’t tell what it is exactly when I first step out of the car and am pleasantly surprised after walking in. It appears to be a somewhat eclectic coffeehouse, bookstore, and wine bar all mixed together. Tables, couches, stools, and booths are strewn throughout, and the atmosphere is quiet and relaxed, nearly bordering on funky. Dark, natural colors on the walls, furniture with bold fixtures scattered throughout, and softly emanating lights set the mood perfectly, and my shoulders relax as I take a deep breath.
I’m perhaps slightly older than the median age—hip twentysomethings seem to be predominant—but I’m definitely not the oldest, by a fair margin. I spot a pair of fortysomethings at the bar as well as an elderly gentleman in the corner. Jazz music plays, just loud enough to make a quiet cascade of background noise against the low murmur of voices.
After ordering a glass of Malbec, I settle in with my work at one of the corner tables. Time flashes by in an instant, and I am more productive in the ninety minutes here than I was the last three hours at work. And I feel better as well. Not only are the last of my papers finished, I’ve sorted through some emails and cleaned out two files on my laptop. I leave with a slight smile on my face and a lightness to my step. Even Robert seems to notice the change in my mood, if the frequent looks through the rearview mirror and the small smiles are any indicator.
When I step through my front door, my eyes wander quickly around my stark and virtually empty townhome. It’s home though it wouldn’t look like much to most people who think they know me. The chessboard is sitting in the corner as usual, and I make my daily move in the ongoing game against myself. There is little else really, nothing that isn’t entirely functional. It isn’t often I’ve felt the need for furnishings, and extravagance has always been a hard topic for me.
As a kid who grew up spending most of his childhood wondering where his next meal was coming from and if he would get new clothes for school that year or not, it remains difficult for me to justify owning or buying a lot of things. I never judged my mother too harshly for it. She tried, maybe not as much as she could have, but she loved me and often went without herself, and for that, she helped to mold me into who I am today. I vowed to myself at a very young age to rise above it all so someday I could buy her all the food and clothes she could ever want in life. She died before I fully got the chance, and it is something I carry with me, and always will. I have a hard time spending money on things that do not have a direct purpose. I maintain a certain standard in my wardrobe—it is my outer defense, my armor—and I make sure I never go hungry. But outside of those, I am still that frugal, starving boy I spent the first nineteen years of my life being.