HARD WATER

 The interviewer picked her up in an unmarked car. When she called the contracting firm, they could not provide her interviewer’s name. At first she thought this was impressive, but then an associate clarified that their systems were down. She had done as much research as possible, sifted through the government’s shabby javascript for things to say. She worried they would ask why she’d left her last job. Because I love my country, she chanted on the way to the pick-up spot. However, she was black.

When the interviewer rolled down his window, there was a moment she felt him registering this. She had opted out of the diversity section on the application, but had assumed that per the powers of the United States government, they would know the basics. She wasn’t hard to find. There were things on the internet, pictures, and regrettably, poems.

The day she applied for the job she sent an email to the owner of autumnpoetry.com and asked if he could take down her sestina. She had written it when she was thirteen, before she understood that reputable anthologies were not hosted on Yahoo! Geocities, and that nothing on the internet could be lost. The pictures were easier. After the purge, she was an innocuous sock-bunned avatar, and per her Linkedin, active in her church. A prime recruit for the Department of Defense, which had an opening for a submarine librarian at their Bethesda base.

During the interview, she did not talk in her normal voice. She talked at length about her previous work scanning glass-plate negatives for an archive of independent film, about freelancing for a genealogy conglomerate, scanning death certificates caked in mold. She did not talk about the moments in between, the open mics in Alexandria where she stammered over filthy trochaic verse, the month she spent in beauty school, tending to the cuticles she burned with glue. She did not talk about the affair with her previous manager Henry, how he left his wife and regretted it immediately, how she had not asked him to do this, but had felt so bad that she let him sleep on her couch. When she mustered up the courage to ask him to leave, at the urgent behest of her roomates, he’d made a show of unplugging the coffee maker, the only joint purchase they had ever made.

“What is your greatest weakness,” one of the interviewers asked. His name was Alex, and he was the youngest man on the panel. He was also black. It put sort of a wrench in her performance.

“Sometimes I have trouble standing up for myself,” she answered, and she could see how this endeared her to the white men, but not to Alex, who was unimpressed. After the interview, Alex escorted her off of the base.

“You’ve never served,” he said, jerking the manual Saab to life, cruising through the checkpoints with a flash of his CAC.

“No,” she said, taking this to mean that he had. Even out of context, in the car with the soft alternative instrumental, she felt he was just the sort of grim, carefully creased human who joined the navy, or air traffic control, where the difference between life and death was a matter of degrees.

“You’ll probably get the job,” he said softly, stopping for a flock of geese. “Next time you come in, wear pants. We can’t get rid of these birds, and people have been hurt.”

“Will I be working in a submarine?” She asked, because truthfully, she still did not fully understand the job description. On the contractor’s website, along with advertisements for luxury yacht security, the details were spare and byzantine, unlike her work with the National Archives, which was bad for her lungs but rote—the dust and damp census records and flaked celluloid, the archival gloves as they softened and began to sag. But there was paper acidity, and there was war. She looked at Alex, hoping their shared blackness might excuse her candor, might welcome the conspiracy required for her to ask the actual question, which was: is it safe for me here?

“No one here works in the subs. You won’t even see one until it’s time for testing, and right now they’re spraying the basin for silverfish.”

They drove out onto MacArthur Boulevard, and she directed him to the scenic overlook where she had parked her car. She hated driving in D.C., but the lush stretches through Maryland and Virginia, the hairy trees and dark cement and the inevitability of some tiered, Grecian star across the water, this was why she stayed. When he got out of the car, she noticed that he had a prosthetic leg. Then she noticed a ticket under her wiper. “Honestly now. Why do you want this job?”

“I need this job,” she answered, sliding the ticket into her purse. But this was nothing new. Her life had been shaped principally by need. The want had been used early and frivolously, on a tongue piercing that became so infected that she could no longer roll her rs, on a string of druggy, sanguine white boys, and in undergrad, on a post-modern exploration of the villanelle. Now, she could not afford to have principles. She could not afford shampoo. “And because I love my country.”

*

She waited for her security clearance results. For the most part, she wasn’t worried. Her mother had robbed a small bank in 1971 but was now a Seventh Day Adventist who did elder care in upstate New York, and her father was a veteran who channelled his energy into the restoration of small binary clocks. And with one exception, all of her former managers could say she was professional and on time. What she worried about was the THC.

She went to an office in Arlington and squatted over a cup while a nurse stood outside the stall. She had not smoked since she received the first interview request, but for her level of use, a month was not long enough to get clean. She did what she could, juice cleanses, cardio, niacin pills. After five quarts of cranberry juice, she received a call notifying her that she had been cleared and that she was to attend a briefing in Arlington about treason. When she arrived, they had trouble taking her fingerprints. The index and thumb of her left hand had little character and put the technician in a bad mood. So when she arrived to the briefing, which was held in a small computer lab where the computers all ran on Windows 95, she was quizzed the most, though frequently the answer was either prison or death.

*

On her first day, she wore pants. She put her phone in a locker and shadowed an older woman who had been at the DoD for thirty years, and who talked endlessly about how she had managed to lose eighty-seven pounds.

“One night I realized I could stretch my belly over my knees,” she said, as she gave a tour of the base, which, inside, was a mighty show of beige decay, a series of small, joint offices with chunky desktops and bandwidth so chaste and slow you could scarcely call it internet; her boss’ boss talking loudly behind a door that bore the image of Reagan in a cowboy hat, the cafeteria teeming with people speaking some abbreviated language she did not understand, the hot bar decimated at 12:45 PM, so that she returned to her desk with a flat egg salad sandwich and felt that yes she needed the money, but otherwise, she had made a grave mistake. At the end of the day, Alex came by and handed her a dry slice of carrot cake. He stood there until she felt pressured to eat it, and when she was done, he took her to a long room with sliding shelves.

“These are the tapes,” he said, going on to explain that she was to maintain a library of acoustic signature, which was a term she pretended to understand. “This is how submarines communicate. Like bats, or dolphins.”

“Dolphins?” She said stupidly, as she noticed that Alex, in this gulf of intelligence forming between them, was a very striking person. Historically, she was most vulnerable to this kind of intellectual imbalance. She followed him down the stairs and into the building where they kept the basin. They stood on the edge and watched as it filled with water.   The basin was 3000 feet deep and 1550 feet wide, flanked by a steel canopy where a pristine American flag hung on a taut, silver wire. She made a dumb, glottal sound and moved away from the edge, overwhelmed by the basin in the way she was occasionally overwhelmed by the closeness of the moon. The way the moon could be improbably low, the basin was improbable in its depth, in the cement and steel and brazen human hand that had somehow rendered its own sea.

“Do you like it here?” She asked, it being clear, in the abruptness of the question, that she did not.

“It doesn’t matter what I like. The point is to survive,” he said as two divers secured their gear. “We developed acoustic signature because the Titanic sank. Because they couldn’t see what was under the water. The natural environment is hostile, and we have to adapt.”

*

For the next month, she kept her head down. She attended weekly meetings where she understood nothing. She escorted visitors without clearances and repairmen who were installing new windows around the base, office supply reps who came with new cartridges of ink, and lower-clearance employees who came from the Foggy Bottom arm for briefings about the Appleton site. But after their last exchange, she had trouble meeting Alex’s eye. She felt that her disdain had been too evident, that she had looked like a hypocrite, and the channel of black solidarity had been preemptively closed. And she could not stop thinking about his leg. She thought about it luridly and then practically, the tendon and pus, and the silicone, brace, and shoe. And she thought about it sexually, mostly because she thought about him sexually, his propriety a predictable lightning rod for all of the boundaries she was prone to transgressing.

She wanted to be touched, not by Henry, who had begun to text her about his divorce, but by Alex, who sat across from her once a week and went curtly down the agenda, the business of marine physics not entirely sexless on his tongue. She looked forward to his requests for data, the Ohio-class stationed in the Caspian sea, the Seawolf-class testing in Bangor, the TR-2700 coming in from Munich, which was a hardy old machine they had nicknamed Sauerkraut.

As she developed a catalogue, she learned a few things: the difference between infrasonic and ultrasonic frequencies—one a lank delta wave and the other a ragged cosine—and the difference between active and passive sonar, which was technically the difference between a mouth and an ear. She holed up in the cold digital library and started developing a catalog for the tapes, though after a while, the fear of treason began to fade. She wanted to put the jargon to a sound. And so, two months into her project, she took one of the tapes home. It was easy. She put the tape in her purse, retrieved her phone from the locker, and drove home. She felt nothing until the audio cued. Then she lit a joint and lay in the dark, the sound profile a low, mournful sound. She did this every Wednesday for a month, and by the fourth time, it felt ceremonial, her preference overwhelmingly infrasonic, the KHz distinct.

*

And then a shooting. An IT man from a DoD satellite in Silver Spring had entered the Foggy Bottom base, updated the computers, and then opened fire on the cyber-security unit. Because they were not allowed to bring their phones into the building, the news spread slowly. When she took her phone out of the locker at the end of the day, there were three missed calls from her mother.

“I didn’t know which base was yours,” her mother said, and then in the same breath: “Can you believe the gunman was black?” That night she watched the news. The gunman was a veteran. Unmarried, taciturn. The next day, security was high. At the gate, the guard turned her badge over in his hands. She avoided Alex. She saw how people were looking at him and knew instinctively that they could not be seen together.

She created the digital catalog with discreet doors, her omissions of data largely dependent on the department’s underfunding, which was technically the reason she had a job and a cabinet of physical records, which, before they became metadata, entered a limbo she was free to stretch. She didn’t understand most of it, not even enough to understand what warranted the confidential stamp, but she understood this abuse of power less as a legal problem than a function of the ecstatic revelation that she could. She never had enough power to abuse it, and so when she lay in the dark listening to the tapes, this too was why it felt so good.

In between, there were parties. The social chair, a veteran who had feelings about his wife’s new hips, corralled them into the parking lot where they fended off geese and waited for an armored van. Alex took the wheel and drove to their usual spot, a pizza parlor in Somerset called The Magic Mushroom, where they celebrated birthdays and resignations, and where there were furtive groups of highschool boys trying not to look high. During one of these parties, after everyone went around the table and said what time they usually went to bed, she went in search of a joint. She found two boys out back and convinced them to share, but as she talked to them, she felt the boys had clocked some general governmental whiff about her and were so obliging because they were afraid.

“Without slavery there would be no rock and roll,” she said, deep into a tangent that started as an attempt to explain why she had chosen to work for the government. When she looked at the boys, their faces were blank. “What time do you guys go to bed?”

“Your leg is bleeding,” one of them replied, and she looked down and saw that it was. She went inside and tried to mop up the blood, which had been flowing long enough to make it into her shoe. She panicked, too high to have to deal with anything happening under her skin, though when Alex appeared and she had to make eye contact with him, it was worse. Silently, he knelt down and tried to assist.

“The geese. I didn’t even notice it was bleeding.”

“You didn’t notice?” He said, and she glanced at his leg. The silver prosthesis against the smooth, dark leather of his shoe.

“Do you still feel it?” She asked, thinking of phantom limbs and of her father, a navy man who was pulled over by the police once a month, who came home from his war activated and mute, their house brimming with the silver and quartz of his growing collection of defunct clocks.

“Yes,” Alex said, getting to his feet. “Sometimes I reach down to scratch an itch and nothing is there.”

*

The next day Alex put in a request for a tape that she couldn’t find. She knew the tape well—an acoustic signature for a George Washington-class stationed in Apra Harbor. A tape that sounded like a Martian dirge and that had paired extremely well with Afghan kush. For a day she marked it out on loan and refused to indulge the possibility that it was lost. But after a joint and a deep clean of her room, she remembered the treason briefing in great detail. She sent Alex a series of emails excusing the delay. She rode the blue line end-to-end and got off at the Pentagon, where she watched security walk their dogs. She tried to avoid Alex, but a week later, when she was working late, she wandered to the basin and he was there inflating a volleyball. The water was high and a Triton 3600 was waiting with an open dome. It was a small, two-man sub, and the hull was made of thick soda glass.

Wordlessly, he handed her diving suit, and she ducked into the bathroom and slipped it on. When she came out, he was adjusting his own suit around his leg. She had never seen the prosthetic without a shoe, and she turned away. They folded their clothes and left them on the lip of the basin, and after he helped her into the submarine, he handed her the volleyball. As the dome came down, some bile rose into her throat. She closed her eyes as he emptied the ballasts and they started to descend, but this made it worse. The gravity became palpable, dense. As the pressure released, a fog developed in the chamber, and she noticed the controls were covered in dew.

Once they were at the bottom of the basin, he pointed to the volleyball, which had deflated into the shape of a bowl. This was what her chest felt like. He said that before he was discharged, he’d been submerged for three months, and that when they crossed the equator they had a ceremony. He said that his bunk was up against a torpedo and he wasn’t allowed to smoke, at which point, he lit one cigarette for himself, and one for her. She took the cigarette, too embarrassed to say that she could not breathe well enough to smoke. She watched the cigarette burn down between her fingers, the cabin so small that when he was halfway through, she could barely see his face. His hand came through the smoke and moved the cigarette from her hand and into her mouth.

“Don’t come to work tomorrow,” he said, and once they were back above water, once the dome opened and released the smoke, and once they peeled off their suits and stood in front of each other in their underwear, he said it again. And when she went home, she considered the phone. She considered it until she was asleep. And when morning came, she turned on the TV and waited for the news.

Raven‘s work has appeared in Granta, The Cut, New England Review, Conjunctions, and McSweeney’s. Her debut novel, Luster, is forthcoming from FSG in spring 2020. You can reach her @RavenLeilani.