What it's really like to date a spy

When Emily Brandwin joined the CIA, she quickly realized that the skills that made her colleagues great agents also made them terrible boyfriends…

Mr and Mrs Smith landscape

When Emily Brandwin joined the CIA, she quickly realized that the skills that made her colleagues great agents also made them terrible boyfriends…

When my date Sam arrived at my front door with a duffel bag casually swung over his shoulder, I asked, ‘What’s in the bag?’ He looked suspiciously around before walking inside and replying, ‘A few pieces and a couple of ammo carton – you know, for work.’

We undressed and dropped to the floor to make love. Sam looked like he’d neglected the gym for a couple of months, but with his crystal-blue eyes and mop of shaggy blond hair, he was a sexy grown up version of Saved by the Bell’s Zack Morris. ‘What took you so long to get here?’ I asked him. ‘I had to drive a surveillance-detection route’ he said. I knew what he meant: a long, circuitous route with planned stops to determine if he was being followed. ‘Remember, no one at work can know about our relationship’, he explained, winking and grinning. ‘Just think of me as your asset. It’s your job to keep me safe.’

‘Assets’, ‘surveillance-detection routes’, duffel bags packed with weapons – these were no by-products of a kinky fantasy life; this was my very real relationship with a CIA officer. I’d met Sam, a 34-year-old weapons expert with a long-term girlfriend a month after joining the agency. I was 24, a sexually inexperienced new officer, and blinded by Sam’s seduction. Our passionate encounters erased any reservations about being the other woman.

We’ve all been warned not to date our co-workers, but soon after I started at the agency I realized that, if I wanted a love life, I had little choice. The CIA gives covert employees cover jobs so as not to arouse interest and, thanks to my vague government position, I was a complete yawn to potential dates outside the agency. I lived in Washington, DC, where everyone has an impressive career and expects their dates to have the same. If I had a relationship with a colleague, at least I could be honest about my work. Plus, everyone at the CIA dated one another – it was like DC’s version of Melrose Place.

But dating within the CIA adds a degree of difficulty to a process already fraught with therapy-inducing anxiety, The US government trains intelligence officers to lie and sneak around to prepare them for the dangerous job of stealing secrets overseas. Adopting a new persona at moment’s notice becomes second nature. When you deceive successfully in the CIA, you don’t get fired – you get promoted. And the men I dated were products of excellent government training.

After a solid six months of clandestine rendezvous in out-of-the-way locations and communicating in coded texts, I started to resent the fact that Sam was practicing his well-honed spy training on me. Did we actually need to drive a surveillance-detection route to ensure that his girlfriend wouldn’t spot us every time we went out for dinner?

Not all the CIA men I dated treated me so cavalierly; some had severe boundary issues. A few months after I’d broken up with Sam, I was stranded in my apartment one night during a horrible winter storm when my new office flirting buddy, Jeremy, called. ‘Whatcha doing?’ he asked in his endearing Minnesota accent. ‘Just hoping the office will be closed tomorrow so I won’t have to scrape the ice off my car,’ I said. ‘Oh, you won’t have to,’ he announced. ‘I was just at your building and did it for you.’

How gentlemanly – a Midwestermer with a fondness for flannel, scraping the ice off my old Honda. Jeremy went on to comment that I ‘looked so peaceful reading, all snuggled under the blanket on the couch’. But I hadn’t told Jeremy my unlisted address and, at the time, Google-stalking was in its infancy. This meant that he’d not only used surveillance to find out where I lived but he’d also watched me through my third-floor window with night-vision binoculars.

In the CIA, following a girl isn’t considered stalking, it’s all in a day’s work. I found it sort of sweet that Jeremy used his CIA skills to do something kind – albeit creepy – for me. I could handle a well-intentioned stalked if it meant my windscreen was clean. But in typical stalker fashion, Jeremy became very clingy very fast, and our relationship didn’t last.

After Jeremy, I found real love with Bobby, who I met on the first day of a specialized training course. He was highly ambitious and had bright greenish-grey eyes. Within a month, we were head over heels in love. For two years, we valiantly attempted a ‘normal’ relationship but, with espionage training and hopping on planes from one overseas mission to the next, Bobby and I spent so much time apart that it eventually took its toll. During 72-hour windows when we were both in DC at the same time, we’d discuss the future. ‘How many kids do you want?’ I’d ask. ‘I don’t know if we should,’ he’d reply. ‘We may be stationed in Afghanistan or Pakistan. I’m not sure kids are an option for us.’ Naively I thought perhaps we’d get married and the CIA would station us together in some family-friendly locale. But Bobby would never be satisfied working without the possibility of gunshots ringing in the background. With both of us facing overseas deployment a month before my 30th birthday, I knew I needed to end it.

After six years at the CIA, I grew increasingly frustrated with my espionage life. I’d lost good friends because of the lies I was forced to tell; I’d return home from a mission, exhausted from a 16-hour flight, to an apartment that desperately needed decorating. A female TV undercover agent would never have to contend with jet lag and clandestine meetings with misogynists telling her she had ‘veddy nice teets for an American girl’. Working overseas was exciting, sure, but it was also isolating and paranoia-inducing.

Even though I’d been lucky enough to be involved in several prominent covert operations, I knew that I would never call the CIA home. I I wanted a genuine relationship and a more normal career, I needed to leave. A year after breaking up with Bobby and the agency, I settled into a new life as a writer and occasional improv comedian in Los Angeles.

It was during one improv scene that I met Jeff, a dashing and musically gifted guy who also belonged to my comedy troupe. I quickly started dating and, to my relief, there were no lies, no quick jaunts to war-torn countries and no additional girlfriends. Two years later, we got married.

I don’t regret my years with the CIA. If they hadn’t frustrated me both personally and professionally, I would never have moved to Los Angeles, where I met my true match – and learned that funny honest guys are much sexier than spies.

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