Don’t Say the P Word
by Jesse Hilson
Recall the Pakistani student at grad school who tested your belief by giving you a bag of skittles which contained pork products, gelatin (if you are a devout Muslim you will not eat them).
Remember the philosophy grad student from Turkey whose office you went to and you talked about Badiou and his wife came and looked at him with concern because she didn’t know who you were, were you dangerous, were you some agent. Or did you just think she thought you were dangerous because it fit the movie in your head.
Remember the Dutch student, who was so hot, who thought you were Jewish, as she was, in the Modern Standard Arabic class. It was full but she sat next to you and flirted, and when the professor asked anybody if they were parents because he wanted to have a conversation in Arabic with them, you whispered to the Dutch woman, “He’s about to blow up my spot,” and she went “what” and thought someone was going to set off a bomb. She didn’t get the slang. Traumatized. No. He just wanted to ask you about your kid, how many months old was she, “khamastashar” you said. “I have a little girl who is fifteen months old.” But in Arabic.
What were you doing. What were you doing learning Arabic. You thought you were going to join the CIA. Your wife let you have that fantasy, like wives let their husbands have fantasies about being guitarists in punk bands, man-boys with fantasies, until they see you getting to be too much of a punk and they bring down reality: “how are you going to go work for the government when you have a wife and child?” Also, “they don’t hire people with mental health issues.” Your wife’s father had worked for TRW in California which made satellites for the CIA during the Cold War, he held top secret clearances, including a Q clearance which is the highest clearance for the Department of Energy in the US Government. Not sure what satellites had to do with nuclear weapons, but there it was, she said. Your brother-in-law said, “that’s all bullshit, if you have security clearances you don’t go around telling people you have them.” Your brother-in-law probably has some kind of knowledge of that, he worked for an avionics firm that had dealings with the Syrian military, long before the Iraq War.
Anyway, your wife killed your spy dreams. You were worked up. Every day in the New York Times there was at least one story about how the US Government didn’t have enough foreign language speakers, people who could read Arabic, translate conversations. They were desperate. You thought you could get a job if you got an Arabic degree. You thought you could help somehow. You were smart. You were like one of the best in the class at the university. The professor dropped hints about job openings working for places like the NSA. You went to office hours and dropped even heavier hints that you were interested in getting the secret nod for intelligence work. But you didn’t say it out loud. You have a crazy memory about somebody calling you on your cellphone and telling you to meet them somewhere obscure in Binghamton if you were interested in a job. And you thought about it. But were too chicken. The window closed. Then you have to ask yourself: “did I even have a cellphone back then?” It all gets hazy. You started noticing people following you on campus. Joggers would appear whenever you walked across the quad, joggers that didn’t look like students. You were put into an advanced Persian class full of second-generation Persian kids from Long Island, it was taught by a guy from Iran who had been a dissident journalist in Tehran and had been locked up by the government for political agitation in his writing. The kids were all monarchists, they wanted the Shah back, fuck the mullahs. The Iranian professor had no love for the revolutionaries but schooled the Persian kids about how their monarchist exile sympathies were WRONG.
You got good at dodging into buildings and changing your route to throw off people following you. You checked out a ton of books from the massive university library, read voraciously, photocopied whole books. But they didn’t have one book: Antitank Warfare, by Biryukov and Melnikov, in English, although their computer card catalog said they had it. It was RESHELVED or missing. You thought it was some kind of Patriot Act thing withholding dangerous books at university libraries. At a used bookstore you had earlier bought an Arabic translation of the book, originally in Russian, that had been put into Arabic to give to Syria in the 1970s as part of some Russian-Syrian anti-Israel alliance. You wanted the English copy to help with translation. You tried to translate some of the book but it was too hard. You were not diagnosed with bipolar disorder yet. You were manically reading about black propaganda and disinformation and forgeries and deluding yourself. Espionage, foreign policy, war, terrorism, were all in the air. Students muttered to each other about the latest news about bombings. Confusing right-wing yet anti-Bush psyop provocateurs draped in swastikas came to campus to test free speech, quickly surrounded by outraged students who were mainly Jewish screaming that “Bush is a friend to Israel” (Binghamton University had a large population of Jewish kids from downstate and it was nicknamed “Tel Aviv West”). You waited in a long line to see Noam Chomsky speak in a massive auditorium, you were sure people were in the crowd taking photos of you all, you were in nosebleed seats while tiny Chomsky on the stage told the audience you were all going to die in a nuclear war. You couldn’t come right out and say you wanted to join the CIA. You just talked about it with your wife who patiently tried to talk you down out of the balloon ride. Midlife crisis, delusions of grandeur, thinking you’re in a LeCarré novel. Cars with Virginia and Maryland license plates started following you not just around the city with the university, but the city you lived in. You became an expert an analyzing the license plates moving around you in traffic, seeing through the numbers to the official government status of the vehicle, the gasoline bill of the people who had you under surveillance must have been behemoth, you were trailed in Binghamton by white vans with decals on the side advertising security solutions for banks (cameras, locks, metal detectors). You started telling your wife you thought people were breaking into your home and putting microphones in your house. FBI agents. Because they didn’t know what you were doing. You started trying to think of ways to communicate to them that you were on their side. Sending signals by checking certain books out of the library which would convey your motives to the people watching you. That you were just really curious but no threat. That was in the news too. Americans being surveilled. FISA courts.
All a crazy person needs to do is read the news and they get ideas. In olden times, pre technology, they thought God was talking to them. Angels, demons. Then someone started inventing technology, electronics, radios. So the delusions went to radio waves, crazy people thought they were getting messages over the radio and TV, in their fillings. So when the world goes to war, in a war on terrorism, with the Internet and cellphones and spy agencies, why wouldn’t it leap to that, why wouldn’t the crazy man start thinking in those terms, all the stories in the newspaper telling you something. Reading between the lines. You mow the lawn. Your job at the hotel, where you work when you’re not driving 90 minutes to take Arabic classes, you start thinking you see things about the groups that come to the hotel for meetings and conferences, some of them are who they say they are, some are organizations under some kind of cover. You start keeping their garbage when their conferences are over: binders, folders of papers. Some of them could have uses. Some of the litter is about the FBI. When you were a boy you had this thing, this kind of madness where you would pick up any piece of trash on the sidewalk IF IT HAD WRITING ON IT. You had a need to read everything. You thought there was some message in everything.
At one time you believed that the text on people’s tee shirts around town gave secret codes indicating that you were already in some afterlife. You can’t explain it. Somebody drove by in a Ram truck and the stylized brake lights which were shaped into a ram’s horns had significance, horned animal = horned god = devil = hell. Everybody was looking at you. Everybody had something to tell you, but using signs and symbols. You had to decode everything the universe was telling you. Ideas of reference, a therapist later called it. The women who break into laughter when they pass you on the sidewalk may not be laughing at you. But you could never listen close enough to what was said before the laughter, to tell.
So you didn’t join the CIA. But you joined the club of men who wanted to before reality slammed their fingers in the door and told them no. And you resented your wife for it. You didn’t have any guy friends to hang out with and talk macho fantasy with and do war trivia with, besting each other with secret knowledge of world history and conflict. You were a smart liberal twisted into a national security hawk by post-9/11 hysteria. You wanted to help and put your talents to use. Now you have bookshelves full of spy nonfiction, books about foreign languages, country studies, cryptography, history. The buzz has faded a lot. You got medicated. Your delusions shuffle through various disguises, the paranoia about the government spying on you goes away and bubbles back up to the surface as paranoia about God, death, the afterlife, religions. And on and on.
Jesse Hilson is a freelance newspaper reporter and cartoonist living in the Catskills in New York State. His work has appeared or will appear in AZURE, Maudlin House, the Daily Drunk, Misery Tourism, Expat Press, Apocalypse Confidential, Pink Plastic House, BS/WS, DFL Lit, and elsewhere. His novel Blood Trip will be published by Close to the Bone (UK) in 2022 and his poetry chapbook Handcuffing the Venus De Milo will be published by Bullshit Lit in 2022. His short story “The Love-Prompts” was selected to be adapted as a radio play by Empty Room Radio. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @platelet60.