“I have to tell you something but you have to swear you won’t tell anyone. Like, no one. I don’t even think my mom and dad know and if they do, their lives might be in danger. I’m not supposed to tell anyone but I know that if I didn’t tell you, I’d regret it on my death-bed.”
I was on the phone with my cousin Kate.
“Oh my god, I’m scared. I mean, I swear.”
“Megan is going to work for the CIA.”
The news that one of my cousins was going to work for the CIA was definitely a surprise. As far as I knew, I was the only one in the family who harbored aspirations of life as a spy. I wasn’t mad at Megan for wanting to work for the CIA but I was sad because I knew one day we would both be spies on the same mission, probably somewhere exotic like Estonia or Seychelles or George Clooney’s Italian villa, and despite being of the same blood, we’d be forced to double cross one another and become rival spies, each unable to rest until the other is dead. Most likely I’d be the one to survive and after an epic six hour spy showdown, I’d find myself alone on a bluff overlooking an ocean, holding the body of my dead cousin, beautiful even in death. In that moment, a peace would settle over me and I’d finally understand the lyrics to Bitter Sweet Symphony by the Verve.
I couldn’t dwell on the inevitable though. I had an in at the CIA. My years of watching Alias were about to pay off.
“Yeah, she has an interview to be a sign language interpreter.”
Anything other than international super spy would have disappointed me but to find out that the job was for sign language interpreting was particularly annoying. None of us, myself and my three cousins, desired a career involving American Sign Language even though our parents are deaf. Our hands are very tired after years of interpreting for our parents. They need a break. They want the freedom to do other non-signing things, like pet a cat, catch a frisbee or receive a kiss from a handsome prince. Yet, despite achieving finger freedom in adulthood, Megan found herself seduced at an Indiana University job fair by the CIA’s promise of benefits and a healthy salary. This bizarre act of rebellion against us Fitzpatrick/Walker CODA’s (children of deaf adults) only fueled my “Megan is adopted” theory. Her sisters and I don’t desire normal lives, why must she hurt us with hers? And why does the CIA need sign language interpreters to begin with? How many deaf people work at the CIA? And are these said deaf people actually deaf? I had so many questions.
“That’s why I think that sign language interpreter is really code for spy,” said Kate. I agreed with her. Of course the CIA needed ASL fluent spies. If the Russians think we can’t hear them, then they’ll accidentally spill the code to the underground bunker holding the really terrible thing that will destroy man kind.
There was enough intrigue around this situation for me to do further exploring. I went to the CIA website and filled out the application for “Sign Language Interpreter”. It was easy to fill out. It reminded me of one of those internet surveys from Old Navy. Sorta long, a few stupid questions, but worth it for your 10 percent discount on your next purchase or job with the CIA.
The holidays were coming around so I didn’t think much of my application after I hit send. I went to Florida for Christmas and it was there that I received a phone call from an unknown number. I sent it to voicemail.
I nearly choked on my Pizza Hut breadstick when I played back the message.
“Hello, this is Dino with the Central Intelligence Agency. I am calling for Sarah Walker. I have some questions for you. Please call me back either today before four or on Monday and Tuesday between the hours of 8-3 or Wednesday between 12 and 5. Don’t call this Thursday or Friday because my office is closed. My office will be closed again the week of December 27th. Thank you.”
Oh my god. This is it. My spy career is about to begin. I wonder if it’s too soon to start fantasizing about my bad ass code name.
I called Dino from the parking lot of Pizza Hut. It seemed like the appropriate place to make this kind of call. He picked up the phone on the third ring.
“This is Dino.”
“This is Sarah Walker.” A longer than necessary pause followed while I debated whether to add, a.k.a Cobra. I didn’t. “I’m returning your call.”
The conversation was brief and consisted of a re-hashing of my application. How did I know sign language and how proficient was I? Am I willing to re-locate to Washington D.C.? What other languages do I know? Could I pass a drug test? I must have answered all these questions to Dino’s satisfaction because then he said, “You’ll be receiving an unmarked envelope in the mail at the end of January. There will be instructions on what to do next.”
“Can’t wait!” I immediately wished I hadn’t sounded so excited. Real spies play it cool, always keeping their emotions in check.
I took the long way home, which really wasn’t very long, and narrowed my eyes as though I were already living a life full of fake passports and lies. Everyone and everything looked suspicious. I passed my old elementary school and shook my head. That place, I thought, there’s something just not right there. Too many swing sets.
My parents weren’t above my squinty eyed scrutiny either. Especially not after I told them I was in talks to work for the CIA.* My dad reacted in the usual manner, a positive exclaim that supported my latest scheme followed by an incorrect pop culture reference. “That’s a great idea! You always liked the X-Files.” Not the same thing dad, but okay. However, my mom had this to say.
“You can’t be an interpreter, you don’t know sign.”
“What?” I shook my hands in front of her face. “What am I doing now?”
“Well, you need to work on it.” And she went back to reading her book, expertly ignoring my angry face.
I knew why she was acting like this. My mom wanted to keep me as far away from the CIA as possible. I was getting too close to the truth, to the secret she’s been keeping from me my entire life.
That she too, is a spy.
Around my mid elementary years, I started thinking my mom could actually hear and was a spy for some government agency. I still think this and there are several reasons why:
- She can never remember if she was born deaf or lost her hearing at a later age. To me, things like your name, eye color and how you became deaf are easily remembered. My Aunt can’t remember her deaf story either and every time someone in the family asks about it, she always thinks hard, as though today will be the day it all comes back to her. It never does. My cousins think she’s a spy too.
- Store sensors beep as she walks through them, entering and leaving. You can shrug and act confused all you want, Mom, but I know there’s microchip implanted into the base of your neck to keep your whereabouts known to your people.
- One day I was driving with my mom to pick up some dinner. I was listening to my favorite pop station on the radio. I went in to get the food and by the time I got back into the car, dinner in hand, a Barry Manilow song was playing on the radio. Someone had changed the station. And just like Shaggy said, it wasn’t me.
When I was 9, I came up with a test for my “deaf” mom. I was certain she’d be unable to keep up her charade of being deaf after I said the worst word I knew, fuck. If she really loved me, she’d blow her cover by taking me straight to the bathroom and washing my mouth out with soap while saying things like, “No daughter of mine’s gonna talk like that” and “Surprise! My ears work after all.”
I planned to say it after dinner as my brother and I watched Wheel of Fortune. A big risk for me, considering my brother’s tattletale history, but I knew saying fuck in front of a boy so young and innocent would make the offense even worse.
I made sure her back was completely turned toward me before I said it. I didn’t want to give her any reason to use “I can read lips” as a justification for hearing me. As she washed the dishes, I said it.
No reaction. I must not have said it loud enough.
“FUCK.” Still nothing. That’s okay, I expected this. If your mom is a professional spy she’s gonna be hard to crack.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.” This time I thought I saw her freeze for a half second. Or maybe I just blinked. No. She’s breaking. Definitely. Time to drop another bomb and this time it’s not going to start with the letter F.
“I hate you.” Five painful seconds passed. My mom didn’t react at all. What?! I just told her I hated her for the first time and it was without cause or being a teenager. I decided she was crying on the inside so I quickly followed with a “But not really!” She rinsed off the casserole dish and stuck it in the dishwasher. She didn’t even look at me. It was time to acknowledge my defeat.
My mother’s lack of confidence in my signing abilities didn’t stop me from wanting to sign/spy for the CIA. That happened when I called Kate for an update of Megan’s interview status.
“Supposedly, they’re flying her down sometime in March but she hasn’t gotten any paperwork yet.”
“Me either! Did they tell her what the interview is going to be like?”
“Yeah. It sounds pretty intense. She has to stand in front of a panel of deaf people with a moderator. The moderator will speak and Megan will have to sign what she says. Then the deaf people will all say something to Megan and she’ll have to translate to the moderator.”
“THERE’S A PANEL OF DEAF PEOPLE?!”
“I know. Megan doesn’t want to go anymore.”
“Well, yeah! That’s so scary!”
It wasn’t until this point that I realized my interview was not going to take place on The Farm. The CIA was going to fly me to D.C. to sign in front of a group of deaf people. For a real person job. That I don’t want. What am I doing? My mom’s right, I don’t know how to sign!**
Dropping off the CIA’s radar is easier than you would think. They never sent me the paperwork to set up the interview! The same thing happened to Megan. Since Megan actually wanted the job, she tried to follow up but her contact yelled at her saying they’ve sent her paperwork three times already and they weren’t sending it to her again. Our CIA careers were over before they even began.
…Or were they?
*I’m the worst spy ever! I told my parents about the CIA like, 5 minutes after I got home from Pizza Hut.
**I do know sign language pretty well but my mom and aunt made up their own signs before they learned ASL. So my cousins and I know more of a slang version. Signbonics, if you will.