By FIONA MAAZEL
from Woke Up Lonely
I had a career, I tanked it good. They’d sent me to middle of nowhere, Australia, which was, quite possibly, the most desolate place on earth. Eight hours a day listening to the North Koreans. Most tracking stations are remote for the obvious reasons of privacy and uncluttered air space, but what really matters is being within the footprint of a satellite’s broadcast range. Hence: Nowhere, Australia, under Intelsat 2 stationed over the Pacific Ocean and handling the equivalent of about a million pages of text per second. It was grueling work and peculiar for its mix of boredom and anxiety, both of which verged on the unbearable. Rumors about the global listening system called Echelon abound, so let’s just dispense with the mystery and say yes: It exists. The UK countries listen in on what Americans are doing and then pass on the information, which loopholes that nasty proscription against spying on our own.
When you eavesdrop, you have to probe what you hear for nuance and sarcasm, doublespeak and lies. You have to wonder if they know you’re listening. You don’t have the pressure of an analyst who has to slog through what you’ve translated and decide what’s important, but you do have the problem of making sure you transcribe accurately the intent of what you hear. Old friends and colleagues share a language no one can fathom without initiation. It took me three years of listening to North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister before I could diagnose the timbres of his voice because the man never said what he meant and I mean never.
In 1994, things were hot in North Korea. They had just defueled the core of their reactor at Yongbyon, unloaded enough plutonium for about five nuclear bombs, and had been, for several months, threatening war if the Security Council imposed sanctions. It was looking very bad, very scary, and all of us on the line were listening hard. And getting nervous. Maybe we didn’t know how to unpack irony after all? Korean is a stealth language. I knew I was missing stuff, but had always assumed I could create a picture without needing every piece. It got so bad those months, everything we translated went straight to Fort Meade without being vetted first. I’d record an hour’s worth of bedwetting children and someone at Meade was looking it over. We simply had no idea what the North Koreans were thinking, but our job was to find out.
At the base, when you weren’t prodding the sky for news of vital international importance, there was nothing to do but drink, fuck, and camel cup, which only happened once a year, anyway. The Camel Cup, biggest sporting event of the season. I empathize hugely with those guys on duty for the three-month siege at Waco. For sheer boredom, they drag-raced their tanks from sniper hive to home base at the end of each shift. It sounds appalling, but I get it. In boredom, you will turn to anything. Do you know a camel can spit more than ten feet? And while I’m at it, do you know what it says about your life when getting spit on by a camel is a) the most interesting thing that’s happened to you in six years and b) the closest contact you’ve had with a carnal fluid in same? I’d been told there was a salacious component to our tenure on the base, but I’d yet to see it. And the camel spit, it was a little galling. I’d just spent the afternoon listening to the DPRK’s negotiator who was scheduled to meet former President Carter in the next few days for a last-chance dance. The minister was ripped with stress and grieving the loss of his mistress, whom he paddled twice a week, not so much to hurt her as to make her scream, though when she offered to scream without the paddle, he said it would lack for authenticity. I have a night’s worth of tape of this woman rehearsing her squall, looking for the treble of fear that would make her man cum because, after all, it was the treble he wanted, nothing else.
I’d listened to him well into the evening. The man actually liked to talk to himself. Mostly he was shocked—his mistress had fled to South Korea. Did he really want to send in the goons to haul her back? Was he really so unappetizing, she’d crossed the border to escape? Whatever happened to a simple breakup? He’d beat her, maybe send her to family camp, but eventually she’d be released, what was the big deal? He groused and puled and so it was hard to hear the rest, but I was pretty sure that bound up in this self-pity were plaints about the negotiations. He resented his new orders—if he’d been a better man and more expert in snatching advantage from the enemy, he would have never gotten the orders—only I couldn’t tell what the orders were without listening several times over, the words coming out muffled and broken, possibly because he was speaking them into a pillow. When my shift was over, I passed on what I knew to the next guy and called it quits.
The evenings were brisk in June, high forties, and so it was nice to walk around. Nice for the first three minutes of stargazing until you recalled what else was out there. The UKUSA agreement that had everyone listening to everyone else was just creepy. Not so creepy that I didn’t like it, but creepy enough to make you wonder what other activities were being prosecuted in the name of our best interests. I went to the pub. All our facilities were on base, including a supermarket and even a daycare for anyone who’d procreated by accident. We were a young lot, linguists are restless and itinerant, and, like I said, this place was not the most hospitable. I took a stool at the bar and ordered a beer. I didn’t much like beer, but it seemed more sociable than the liquors, which was the idea because there was Teddy at the far end of the room, draining a beer of his own. He was sitting by himself, just another linguist who’d heard it all, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian. It’s a funny thing about languages—if you are good with one, you are generally good with several. I could probably speak Tagalog in a few months if I tried. Teddy, née Teddy and not Theodore, had been at the base for about fours years, his first post, as well. We were cordial, always said hi on the street, but had never actually talked. This state of affairs described all my relations, so the evening’s thaw between us was interesting, already, for its deviance, though I could not have known what sort of umbrella word deviance would become by morning.
I sat at his table. Our common ground was the weather and North Korea’s intransigence re: special inspections and also maybe next week’s cricket match so, predictably, our dialogue lurched and stalled until I got bored. I never had any patience to get to know anyone. Also, I couldn’t stop thinking about the negotiator. What was he talking about? Why so down on the new orders? Why so emasculated? I’d flushed my mind with the night air, had a beer, and was ready to listen again. I would block out everything I’d translated already, hone in on the rest, and maybe find meaning in the carnage of this guy’s self-esteem.
I told Teddy I wanted to go to the cave, which is what we called a mostly neglected listening room in the basement. You went there primarily to do what I had in mind, which was to recue a tape and try again. He seemed eager to come with, and I figured four ears beat two, so why not. Also, he was lonely. We all were. It’s true I kept to myself and that I liked reclusion, but this did not militate against the loneliness of just breathing in and out and all the other fundamentals you do alone each day.
We passed through security and made for the stairs. The building we worked felt more lab than prison, though it was a close call, and anyway, I might have preferred either. At least in prison you had windows—barred or otherwise—and in a lab, I don’t know, but maybe better lighting: less undead, more soft-watt. The floor was false—built six feet above the real floor and in between, miles of cable—which made the panels croak underfoot, like any second you might fall through. I always suspected the false floor did double duty as a warning for we grunts on the line so that we never got too comfortable, but no one else was prepared to endorse this theory, it was destabilizing enough to be eight million miles from home, where even your tracks in the clay were wiped out by dawn.
We got to the cave, the door was unlocked, and inside were a few cryptanalysts I’d seen around, but never talked to. They were gathered at a work station-turned-bar, and playing cards. The three were ecstatic to see us. Hey, Teddy, and, you, what’s your name again? I said I had some reviewing to do and not to mind me at all. Suit yourself, they said. Teddy was dealt in and I retreated to a corner. I sat with my back to the room, put on my headphones, and cued up. Okay, now pay attention. I listened once just to get back into the zone, twice to access my guy’s headspace, and a third to parse content from emotion. By the sixth, I had completely tuned out his whimpers and clamor of self-disgust, but I still could not make sense of the rest. I pressed my headphones into my ears and went: listen.
Meantime, the others were kissing. I’ll just get right to it, they were kissing. Not that the card game had escalated into strip poker, not that there’d been any pretense to make these amorous gestures compulsory—as per spin the bottle—just that the four had tired of one pursuit and moved on to another. I went back to the tape. I knew this was important and that if I missed something big, I’d get fired, and that I was running out of time. And so, wouldn’t you know it, the tension that should have spurred me on to greater facility instead began to manifest in a libidinal stir whose accomplice was the knob of denim pressed against my vulva. Pressing harder if I pushed forward, so that, faster, faster, done, and then I could relax and be successful at my job. I had always been like this. In high school and even college, the dwindling of time for an exam, the five-minute warning, then two, always aroused me so that I would orgasm with an intensity inversely proportioned to the time allotted to finish that sentence or logarithm. I’d had sex only once before the cave and, given what later became my antipathy for protracted intercourse, anxiety cum seemed like a good idea, albeit rough given the knob of denim and on this occasion it being the cave at a tracking base in the middle of the desert where, oh jeez, two of the four, the two who were boys, had found their way to each other.
I’d seen this on TV, the phenomenon that is boys kissing, and felt then that my interest was anthropological. Here, too, minus the part where I could stare without offense. Unclear if in the dawn of an orgy—because I was pretty sure that’s what I was looking at—unclear if in this dawn staring is ever met with offense, but what did I know. I tried to get back to work. I tried to listen to my Korean guy in whose mewling hung the balance of war with the U.S. and to silence my SCREAMING VULVA because the boys in love had moved on the girl—her name was Morgan, since when does a girl named Morgan let two boys in love touch her at once?—and who can even call that touching? And frankly, why was no one touching me? I was wearing a Disneyland sweatshirt with Tinker Bell in flight over the castle, jeans with an elastic waist, and clogs. Nothing says I am a frozen bread loaf better than clogs, except, perhaps, tight-fitting denim with an elastic waist, but come on, was this a discerning orgy? Well, fine. I’d had some gin, I started after my tenth listen and I was up to about forty-three, but still, it’s not like I was too drunk to wrest provenance from this neglect, like if I got orgied, I’d also get an STD, so lucky for me no one noticed me panting across the cave. Why couldn’t I understand what the negotiator was saying? Why couldn’t I penetrate his wounded feelings? If I got fired and had to go home, I’d hang myself from the showerhead, never mind the WAR that would be my albatross for life. Some people get the lie that broke their lover’s heart and I get a WAR? Where was the justice in that? I was just some girl from Anaheim with a crush on her parents and no talent for intimacy with anyone who mattered. Ok, so I was getting upset. And the room was a thousand degrees.
That night was a lesson learned: There’s the erotics of a woman who feels so miserable and wrecked and anxious and sad she will get on her knees and let four people have at her with varying degrees of rupture and bliss, and then there’s everything else. I unplugged my headphones and let the tape feed through the wall speakers. The others had been listening to reggae, but not anymore. Now it was all about my weepy Korean and Morgan, who was putting to superlative use the chops God gave her, not to mention the cavities, too.
Teddy paused in the gorging of the other guy’s rectum—his rectum!—long enough to register me standing courtside. None of them minded the Korean, and so it was as if his voice kept my head in quarantine while the rest of me went to town. Who took off my clothes? Had I ever kissed a girl? Were ablutions lavished with judicious regard for people’s feelings and self-esteem? Are these the questions that spring to mind? We were five. I’d been a two once, I understood what that meant. But there was no coupling here. And so, a new formula. Five people, three holes each, fifteen in toto. How many ways to share fifteen among five? Well, there are restrictions to consider, it’s not like three holes require three people, just two, sometimes one, which meant, wow, that a fivesome was actually no more likely to disenfranchise someone than a foursome, despite the hegemony of the even numbers. The others seemed to understand the math, as well—they were cryppies, of course they understood—and so we were mobilized on all fronts. It was exhausting. Labor intensive. You gave up what you got, were debased and exalted, and also, mind you, kinda profligate in the disport of your limbs so that they might land anywhere and on anything, and sometimes on the volume button of your listening console so that just as Teddy cums (and on your forehead because you are not, after all, a porn star and can’t even catch rain in a storm), you suddenly understand loud and clear what your Korean negotiator is saying: I am not a man, my shame is paramount, in short, North Korea will bow its head and freeze its nuclear program in exchange for light water reactors.
A major concession. If the U.S. knew this ahead of time, they could call Carter off, Carter who was making the administration look impotent and ridiculous, calling in an ex-president to negotiate for them. God, I felt good. Alive. And I was slick with the proof, my thighs were wet, my lips and hands, so that when I went for the tape, hit eject, I don’t know, my finger slipped and the tape jammed. Got caught halfway. I realize our equipment was at the vanguard of technology, but this did not mean we were above a primitive malfunction now and then. But what was I supposed to do? The place reeked of jizz and sweat, and I had done the horrible, corner-cutting thing of using the original tape, a dupe took days, which meant the only way to recoup the information was to keep hitting eject until the button jammed as well. I knew we shredded transcripts and also that we had an entire building filled with tubs of acid to dissolve paper, but that maybe we were not also above dissolving the linguist who screwed up big time.
Morgan was threading her legs through spandex, snatching her accoutrements, bra, earrings, pink panties, and bolting for the door. Tape jammed in the machine was bad, bad you didn’t want to be anywhere in its vicinity bad, and so Teddy and the other two almost clotted in the doorway for how fast they were trying to get out. I put on my clothes. Things in my body felt misplaced. Semen was leaking from my ass because no one ever tells you about that part in sex ed, I just figured your nether tissue would absorb it. There was no time to get cleaned up, the Carter talks were the day after tomorrow. I went to my boss’s quarters and briefed him on what I knew. Did I have the tape? Sort of. I’d wiped out evidence of our trespass in the cave, but the smell defied what meager perfumes I’d levied against it. My boss snapped the tape trying to get it out, and I was redeployed. Or sent on leave, whichever you prefer.
Fiona Maazel published her first novel Last Last Chance in 2008. She is the winner of the Bard Prize for 2009 and a “5 Under 35” honoree for 2008.