Nate McMullen smoked and was tall, and looked at things through exhausted—morally exhausted—green eyes, and was not a man: Nate was short for Natalie. She was 37, a Yale grad, a political wunderkind, an advisor to the Vice President, a cancer survivor. She had come to Eastern Europe with the VP, who was making a show of NATO unity. When Henry met her, she was wearing leather pants.
Henry, for his part, was more conventionally dressed. Gray suit, blue shirt, navy tie. He was sitting in the control room at the hotel. Nate came in and looked around: heavy drapes, secure laptops and printers, extension cords, cables, rain on the dark windows. Henry and his embassy colleagues waiting in their various chairs for something to happen. Nate happened.
“Which one of you is Henry?” she asked. She had a cigarette, richly brown, the cherry-scented kind, in her mouth, and it bobbed wildly on her lips when she spoke. The motion of it seemed to irritate her, seemed to provoke her into lighting it with a sudden, punitive, annihilating match-flame. There was no smoking in the hotel.
Henry had been watching a colleague scroll through emails on two phones at the same time and didn’t look up at her right away. Everybody else looked, but the two phones, the simultaneous thumbing, Henry was exhausted and transfixed.
“Henry?” Nate asked again. Now everyone looked at Henry, who finally looked up at Nate: black hair oddly short and slicked back, dark lipstick, that tight leather, heeled boots, and a denim shirt unsnapped to mid-chest, with the shoulder strap of a large canvas attaché cutting between her breasts.
She followed everybody’s gaze and identified Henry. “Hi, Henry,” she said.
Henry stood up, but he still hadn’t said anything. He was taller even than she was, and older, gray streaks in his otherwise thriving hair. He buttoned his coat because he’d learned that you button your coat whenever you stand up. Unbutton it when you sit. He learned that from his old man who had been a barber.
Nate exhaled smoke into the room, and watched it lick out, curl, dissipate. Then shook her head, focused her eyes on Henry again. “Alright,” she said to him. “Let’s roll.”
“Where can I get a drink in this town?” Nate asked.
“Where can’t you?” Henry answered. “This is Eastern Europe.”
They were in the hotel lobby now, walking out past the security dogs and wall sconces, the roped-off elevator to the Vice-President’s secure floor.
Nate still smoking. “Aren’t we miles out of town, though?” she asked.
“Twenty minute drive, maybe,” he answered.
“Alright, we got a driver, then?”
Henry looked around. Half the guys in the VP’s retinue were probably drivers—they’d flown in eleven armored Suburbans. And this was a short trip.
“Uh…I probably got a number I can call,” Henry said. He was unprepared. As part of the embassy’s staff, he was assigned to Nate as her control officer, but the whole party was only going to be on the ground for a total of 19 hours, eight of those overnight. Henry had figured Nate’d never leave the hotel except to get in the motorcade, figured she’d never need him. Figured he’d never even meet her. He’d been suffused into the gaudy and misleading bureaucracy of the State Department for more than five years now, working at a couple different embassies, and that was the way it had always gone with these high-level visits.
Henry found the number of a local driver, dialed. A guy standing six feet away answered. When they figured out they were talking to each other, they hung up and the guy came over. Nate smoked.
They rode in the back of one of the Suburbans, though before they got in Nate flicked away her cigarette and took the little American flag off the side of the hood. “No advertising tonight,” she said.
In the wide leather seat, Nate groaned as the vehicle accelerated away from the hotel.
“What’s the matter?” Henry asked.
“I get motion sick,” she answered. “Never used to.”
Henry tried to be sympathetic, conversational. “I’ve gotten more leery of heights as I’ve gotten older,” he said.
“It isn’t age,” she said. She reached into the breast pocket of her shirt and pulled out two small pills, popped them into her mouth, swallowed without water.
“Dramamine?” Henry asked.
“Oxycodone,” she answered.
“Oh,” Henry said. “Bad back?”
Nate stared momentarily ahead, then glanced at Henry briefly. Shook her head. Lifted her shirt-tail to reveal a pinkish, sleek-seeming scar running almost 10 inches across her abdomen, in a diagonal line from bottom rib to navel.
“Holy shit,” Henry allowed.
“Lymphoma,” Nate explained. “Only they didn’t know that when they went in to get it. Two surgeries. Got most of it with the first one, found out what it was, MRI showed some of it still there, they had to go in again.”
“Woke up from the second surgery in convulsions, spasm-type pain. What they gave me then? Oxycodone is peanuts.”
“I see. Chemo?”
“Six months’ worth.”
“When was that?”
“Little over a year ago.”
“That why your hair’s still short?”
“Mm-hm. It came back straight. Most people’s comes back curly. Mine came back bolt-straight.”