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Spy Games, Suburban Home

Rhain, my oldest friend in the world, is only 36, but he has lived dozens of lives. The best high school tennis player in Kansas history, Rhain eventually went pro, where he ascended high enough on the tour to play some real opponents. “Pete Sampras beat me 6-0, 6-0, 6-0,” he says, proudly. Soon, though, he shattered his ankle, and it was all over. Next, he went to…


“Let me tell you about the time that Michael Chang beat me with his opposite hand…”

Rhain, my oldest friend in the world, is only 36, but he has lived dozens of lives. The best high school tennis player in Kansas history, Rhain eventually went pro, where he ascended high enough on the tour to play some real opponents. “Pete Sampras beat me 6-0, 6-0, 6-0,” he says, proudly. Soon, though, he shattered his ankle, and it was all over. Next, he went to law school and became a white-collar defense attorney in Chicago, but decided that wasn’t for him and got a PhD in conflict analysis.

As an academic, he has bopped from Northern Ireland to South Africa to Australia, where he worked on commissions for Truth and Reconciliation and Emergency Parades. He met Nelson Mandela.

Rhain is mysterious enough that some over the years have whispered that he was a spy. Strange things did seem to happen around him. He worked as deputy special counsel for former Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash shortly after. When Rhain lived with my brother Kenn in Virginia years ago, Kenn says that he used to overhear Rhain talking on the phone at strange hours in strange languages. Shortly after Rhain moved into his own place, the place mysteriously caught fire one night. It burned to the ground. “He told me he lost all his papers,” Kenn told me. “What 25-year-old has papers?”

Rhain is how we came to be sitting in a tidy suburban home near Melbourne, eating cheese and drinking tea with people we have never met. The home belonged to Keith and Anthea Rees, whose oldest daughter, Ashleigh, has married Rhain. (Rhain, of course, was not there when we arrived; he was playing point guard for the University of Melbourne basketball team at the time.)

The home, which houses the four of them—plus Keith and Anthea’s 18-year-old son, Dashiell—was gorgeous and impeccable and Hannah was systematically destroying it. Anthea and Keith, perhaps the nicest couple in Australia, didn’t seem terribly fussed by our presence, nor the toddler running roughshod over their living room. (“Oh, no worries! We’ll just get something to wipe that up.") Anthea carefully plated the crummy bag of jacked-up chocolates we brought with us as though they were the finest Belgian delicacies, when in fact they were an eyesore next to the boutique cheeses and crackers she set out. Everyone ate one chocolate, just to be polite.

Even Dashiell was well mannered, though obviously suspicious of our presence. Can’t blame him. I would have felt the same if two Australians and their grubby baby suddenly invaded my home when I was 18.

We were instantly smitten with Ashleigh, who was lovely and every bit as welcoming as her parents. And she adores Rhain. When I told her that we’d always considered Rhain to be something of an international man of mystery, she laughed. “He’s a lecturer and the coordinator of the Socio-Legal Program at the University of Melbourne,” she said. “Pretty normal stuff.”

We traded stories, and soon Rhain came home, all sweaty, all smiles. He scored 34 points but lost. He no longer looked like a spy. He looked like a lecturer and the coordinator of a socio-legal program. Once he finished hugging us and fussing over Hannah, he dug into the jacked-up chocolates on the coffee table, and as we sat and got caught up, he and I polished off about half the bag. I’m all for politeness and etiquette, but sometimes it’s good to be around Americans.

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