FINDING ME - How to Catch a Russian Spy: The True Story of an American Civilian Turned Double Agent (2015)

How to Catch a Russian Spy: The True Story of an American Civilian Turned Double Agent (2015)



While my parents were busy at the office, I reconnected with many of my old public-school friends at Hastings High School. I was even more committed to the principle that schoolwork should never interfere with hanging out or having fun. One day we had a substitute teacher for health class. I decided I should jump out the window. I raised my hand near the end of class.

“Yes, Naveed?”

Politely, I asked: “May I be excused early today?”

Maybe she felt that having the class clown leave would make her lesson go more smoothly. She answered, “Yes.”

“Thank you,” I said, stifling a smirk. I stood, glanced at the door out to the hallway, then turned and quickly scrambled through the window onto the empty lawn. As I pulled myself to my feet from the four-foot drop, I could hear my classmates laughing uproariously.

The teacher was not amused. She wrote me a pass to the principal’s office. I proudly showed the infraction sheet to all of my friends: “Student left via the window. Did not return.” I was developing my own awkward sense of cool.

That summer, my parents gave me their old silver-and-gray 1984 Honda Civic. A car like that would have labeled me nearly homeless at Hackley. At Hastings, it wasn’t the coolest car on campus, but my friends were happy enough to ride with me. I used it until spring, when my parents sold it and I convinced them to buy me a black-and-gold five-speed 1984 Pontiac Trans Am. The car had seen better days. It was slower than a minivan. But what a great-looking cruiser! With the T-tops off, my Orlando Magic cap on backward, and a small gold hoop in my left ear, I would lower the windows, turn up the radio, and cruise Central Avenue just to be seen, or head down to the city. How different could you get from my parents in their black Peugeot? That was the point. They were cluelessly nerdy. I wanted to look like I came from the Bronx.

We had life down to a careful science. I’d meet my friends outside the school on Friday and Saturday nights, then we’d head off to the houses of whichever parents wouldn’t be around. We weren’t bad kids, just a bunch of overprivileged brats who, like many teenagers, considered themselves untouchable (exactly how I don’t want my own children to be). We had too much money, too much booze, and way too much time. Even we understood that. The Hastings Bubble, we called our lives back then. The cops might hate us and everything we stood for, but what were they going to do? If they tried to arrest us, someone’s parents would only call the chief of police to express firm displeasure. Everyone knew how that would turn out.

My own parents watched with their usual distant dismay, convinced I wasn’t using my gifts to their full potential but hoping that, when I was finally ready, I’d come around. Sadly, there wasn’t the slightest sign of that in sight.

Senior year, this son of doctoral- and master’s-degree holders applied to exactly zero colleges. I ducked my appointments in the guidance office. I deflected all questions from concerned adults. I didn’t see any reason to rush into whatever it was that might be coming next. How could it ever be sweeter than this? At graduation, the principal called my name. I walked onstage in my cap and gown. My parents sat with the other parents in the audience. But I was the student who got the empty leather case with no diploma. When all my credits had been tallied, I had inexplicably come up one course short. I told myself I couldn’t let that get me down. There was always a way to make something work. To become an official high school graduate, I enrolled in a life-drawing class at Westchester Community College. I chose that class because I’d heard they had naked models.

As things turned out, my drawing skills didn’t show any special promise. But I was pleased to discover the naked-model rumors were true—right up to the second class, when the nubile female grad student was replaced by a pudgy fifty-five-year-old with man boobs and a beard. I told myself that was what the teacher must have meant by “suffering for your art.”

That August, with an actual diploma in hand, I rode with my parents into the city and signed up for courses at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York. I wasn’t enrolled in a degree program, though the courses I took could later count toward one. But at least I was out of the house in Hastings. I could say I was going to college. I could stay in an apartment my parents owned on Riverside Drive. And I could pick my own roommates. I wondered if I could major in Just Hanging Out.

* * *

I took a couple of political science classes and joined the Army ROTC. The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps wasn’t too popular on the Hunter campus—or at any of the other New York colleges, as far as I could tell. Our unit from Hunter was so tiny that we met on the Fordham University campus along with students from Columbia, NYU, and a couple of other schools.

I didn’t depend on those few ROTC cadets for my college experience. I had lots of friends and friends of friends living in the city, and I made time for many of them. Early freshman year, I ran into a guy named Peter, who’d gone to school with my old kindergarten pal Jason. Peter was a freshman at Columbia, living on the fifth floor of Shapiro Hall at 115th Street and Riverside Drive, a five-minute walk from my apartment.

“We should get together,” I said.

“Let’s do it,” he agreed.

I went up to his dorm a few times and met some of his Columbia friends. Columbia was an Ivy League college, but it wasn’t all tests and homework for Peter. We spent hours playing Doom and Duke Nukem, first-person shooter video games.

Living across the hall from Peter was a cute girl named Ava Brent. She was thin with dark, wavy hair and an easy, quiet charm—friendly and open without being pushy or loud. I heard she was a biology major.

“Nice socks,” I said one day as she was sitting in the fifth-floor TV lounge with her legs up on the coffee table. She laughed and said nothing.

Nice socks? I thought. I’d better think of something smarter for this girl. I vowed to find even more reasons to hang out at Peter’s dorm. A week after the sock flirt, I saw Ava sitting in her dorm room with the door open. I stuck my head in and said hi. As we exchanged bland pleasantries, I noticed a book in her bookcase, Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49. The story involves a California housewife, Oedipa Maas, whose rich ex-lover dies, leaving her as coexecutor of his estate. She gradually discovers and begins to unravel what may or may not have been a worldwide conspiracy.

“You read this?” I asked her, reaching over and pulling the book off the shelf.


“That book was totally formative for me,” I told her.

“It’s great,” she agreed.

No one I knew had ever read that book, let alone called it great. “So is her boyfriend a secret agent, or is the woman going crazy?” I asked Ava.

“It could go either way,” she said. “It’s the shades of gray that make the story interesting.”

I had no idea what a powerful life lesson that would turn out to be. But I do remember exactly what I was thinking as I stood in her doorway and we discussed Pynchon’s postmodernism: Wow! She’s smart, she’s pretty—and she reads Pynchon? This could be good.

Maybe that’s the way guys eventually grow up. I had an active mind, but nothing had grabbed my interest other than my odd obsession with military hardware. Then came Ava. This was a girl I could talk to. She wasn’t just hanging out on campus, having “the college experience.” She was actually going to college—you know, studying and learning stuff. And I even had the feeling she might like me.

I asked her when her birthday was.

“February fourteenth,” she said.

“Mine’s the twentieth,” I said.

That had to mean something, right?

We made an agreement that night. We would get together for our birthdays, over two months away. “Neither one of us should spend our birthday alone,” I said.

My material was getting better, I thought.

Our first real date was February 12, 1995, at a Chinese restaurant she liked, Empire Szechuan on West Ninety-sixth Street. On our second date, I took her to an Italian place I liked near the Off-Broadway theaters on West Forty-second Street.

She told me about her research and asked what I’d been reading. I said I’d been on a tear through recent Vietnam books. I was taking a course at the time on the My Lai massacre. Even though I was half-Pakistani, I told her, I wasn’t into the wars and political turmoil of the Middle East. “Larger global things, mostly,” I said. “The Cold War, the Soviets. The Middle East doesn’t pique my curiosity.”

It turned out we had all kinds of things in common. Ava was born in the city and moved with her family to Westchester. But her parents moved back to the city a year before the Jamalis fled to the suburbs. We both spent kindergarten in the city—she at Bank Street, me at Calhoun—living four blocks apart. The summer after seventh grade, we had another near miss at Buck’s Rock sleepaway camp in Milford, Connecticut. The only reason we didn’t end up as campmates was I was sent home with chicken pox during the first session and she came just for the second one.

“I remember that summer, eating a hamburger, trying not to scratch my chicken pox, and listening to the sound track from Good Morning Vietnam,” I told her. “Louis Armstrong was singing ‘What a Wonderful World.’ I played that song over and over again—as a twelve-year-old!”

She didn’t laugh at my childhood eccentricities. And now the two of us were hanging out together a few short blocks from where my mother and father had met three decades before.

“This is a little creepy,” Ava said when I told her that.

“I know,” I told her. “I don’t care.”

* * *

Despite all the biography we shared, Ava was in many ways my exact opposite. She was grounded and focused. She was an incredibly dedicated student. She worked in a lab. She took seven classes one semester, including developmental biology and James Joyce.

The dating grew more serious. At the start of sophomore year, Ava moved out of her dorm at Columbia. She split her time between my place on 112th Street and her old bedroom at home. We got two fish together, Franny and Zooey. I made some small changes of my own. I shifted into a degree program at Hunter. I couldn’t deny it: Ava’s seriousness about her schoolwork was rubbing off on me. I wasn’t ready to take seven courses in one semester. But as I watched her with awe, I knew I could be working so much more intensely. She was studying hard and making progress and impressing her teachers, not to mention me, and getting maddeningly perfect grades. She didn’t try to make me feel bad about this. But yes, I noticed the difference.

Gradually, I began to think: Maybe I can aim a little higher here. Maybe I can live up to my long-rumored promise. Maybe I can do more. In the fall of my sophomore year, on the typewriter in Ava’s parents’ apartment, with her sitting in a chair next to me, I typed out an application to New York University. That spring I learned I’d been accepted and quickly agreed to attend in time for junior year.

What finally motivated me?

I wanted to please Ava, to show her I wasn’t just a charming fuck-off. But there was also something inside of me, a voice I’d been doing my best not to listen to, a voice that all through high school—even earlier—I had pretended wasn’t there. Now, with my attention being focused by the most driven young woman I had ever met, I was finally willing to listen to that voice. “Time to quit hiding,” it said. “Time to step on the gas and get on a road to somewhere. Time to cut out the shit.” I answered the voice with a stern message of my own: “Don’t. Fuck. This. Up.”