Deuma du nua gulumau mon, dolosa didiuta nua śi.
(Nobody knows their deathplace, but all will find it.)
This meeting invitation definitely didn’t look right.
The subject line said Discussion with Under Secretary Lehrman, so I’d figured someone had copied me on something intended for my boss’s boss, Director Turner—in which case I could safely ignore it—or maybe that Turner was calling a team meeting to talk about a discussion he’d had with Under Secretary Lehrman—in which case I could also safely ignore it.
But when I finally got around to opening the meeting invitation while clearing out my inbox before grabbing coffee, I discovered there were only two people on that meeting invitation for tomorrow morning.
One of them was Stephen Lehrman, the Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment (or EGEE). Lehrman was one of the highest-ranked leaders at the State Department.
The other was me. Matt Moro. A mid-level analyst at the department’s Office of Cultural Intelligence. A guy who reported to a manager who reported to a director who reported to an assistant secretary who reported to the Under Secretary for Political Affairs (not EGEE).
On the State Department’s family tree, that made Under Secretary Stephen Lehrman my great grand uncle. There was no conceivable reason for him to meet with someone as far down the chain of command as I was (and someone else’s chain of command, at that).
I’d been listening to a focus playlist on my headphones and staring at my screen all morning, willfully oblivious to the goings-on around me, so I didn’t even know who else was here in the office yet. I poked my head up and looked around.
Six messy desks with old computers took up most of the floor space in the cramped office that was home to the Office of Cultural Intelligence (OCI). The room was illuminated by a combination of morning sunshine and sickly fluorescent light that was the visual equivalent of drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth. Pinned papers and sticky notes took turns fluttering on the wall as the oscillating fan went about its business. The air smelled of ozone from the photocopier.
One of my coworkers sat at his desk obsessively reading and organizing his emails. Another ate her yogurt and flipped through a thick federal report looking for any parts worth reading—and finding none, as usual.
Tim, my direct manager, sat behind a worn-out, gray steel desk on the other side of the room. He was a chubby, middle-aged former jock who’d somehow managed to rise to a leadership position at OCI despite being a marketing major, a terrible writer, and a low-key racist. I had ambiguous racial features myself thanks to a Guatemalan mother and a Nigerian-born father, and had gradually come to realize that most people were at least a little racist. Tim was just worse at hiding it than most. I honestly kind of preferred it that way, since at least I knew what to expect from him.
That said, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was irked that a guy like Tim could get promoted in an office that was supposed to be providing cultural intelligence to the State Department. Maybe that’s what he got for hanging out at the sports bar on G Street with Director Turner three times a week, though.
(Meanwhile, I had a master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology from Duke, spoke a dozen languages competently, and could beat anyone in the office on any kind of global cultural knowledge test. But you know, whatever.)
I had hoped Director Turner would be there so I could ask him about the meeting invitation, but he wasn’t, so I’d have to ask Tim. I generally tried to avoid talking with him, but this seemed weird enough to be worth the annoyance.
I cleared my throat and spoke quietly. “Hey, Tim, I got a meeting invite to meet with Lehrman. Any idea what that’s about?”
Tim’s face, round and shiny from decades of excessive onion ring consumption, rose from the sports section of the newspaper to look at me. “Who’s Lehrman?”
His eyes went wide. “That Lehrman?”
“There’s got to be a different Matt over there he meant to send it to, right?”
“Yeah, I can’t imagine Lehrman wanting to meet with you. About anything. Ever.”
“Okay. I’ll just reply and let them know.”
He resumed skimming the sports section. “Cool.”
I paused. “Unless…maybe it’s about the thing?”
Tim looked up again. “What thing?”
“You know, the, uh…director position.”
Two weeks ago, it had come out that Chet Turner, Tim’s boss, was taking a cushy gig at the FBI. With Director Turner on the way out and his boy Tim having no say in the hiring process, I figured might actually have a shot at something around here for once, so I went ahead and applied for the position as Director of OCI. I needed the extra income to get a second apartment.
Tim, however, considered himself the presumptive candidate for the position, and seemed puzzled that I hadn’t taken his friendly advice not to bother.
“So, you actually applied anyway?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Yeah, sorry. Figured I might as well take a shot.”
Tim rolled his eyes. “I told you, man, that’s not how it works. You gotta pay your dues and work on those people skills. It’s a leadership position. You’re a great analyst but ranking up as a leader isn’t about how much you know.”
He was right, of course. As far as I could tell from my experience with government leadership, there was actually an inverse relationship between knowledge and promotions.
“Anyway,” I said, “Maybe that’s what this meeting could be about?”
He shook his head. “EGEE doesn’t have anything to do with OCI.”
“That’s what I thought,” I said. “It’s just a mix-up.”
Tim went back to his paper for a moment, then looked up again with a suspicious tilt of his head. “Did you talk to anyone over there?”
“About whatever. About me.”
“Why would I—? No, I didn’t talk to anyone. I don’t even know anyone over there.”
He interrogated me with his gaze a moment longer, but I gave him a What? expression and he finally turned back to the paper.
“Fine,” he said. “Just tell them they got the wrong guy.”
I nodded. “Alright.”
“And where are you at with that Valhalla thing?”
“Wrapping it up. Done by Friday.”
“Jenkins keeps asking. Don’t make us look bad.”
I flashed a thumbs up. “You got it, bossman.”
I went back to the calendar invitation and hit Reply, then typed I think you emailed the wrong Matt. I’m Matt Moro from OCI in Political Affairs and sent it off. The tone was maybe a little casual, but a guy like Lehrman didn’t read his own emails anyway. He had people for that.
I grabbed my coffee, then came back to the strategy report I was writing for Under Secretary Jenkins about how U.S. law enforcement could potentially infiltrate Valhalla United, a small Canadian right-wing extremist group with a New York branch that had recently conducted an anti-Muslim attack in Buffalo. As a “foreign threat,” the group now had the attention of the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism. The group had already sniffed the FBI’s first attempt to infiltrate it. The head of the Bureau of Counterterrorism mentioned this in a meeting with Director Turner—who seldom passed up an opportunity to kiss ass—so Turner offered OCI’s help in understanding the culture of the organization to allow for a more successful second infiltration attempt.
The hardest part of anthropology is internalizing the way other people think, bypassing your own assumptions and seeing the world through their eyes. It could be a little disturbing sometimes, as in a case like this one, but it was also the most interesting part of the job. This was why I’d gotten into anthropology in the first place. I could put Matt Moro on pause and become someone else for a while, someone from a different culture with an entirely different worldview.
I spent months doing online field research for this project, hanging out in video game chat rooms posing as a right-leaning teenager and making myself an easy recruitment target. It didn’t take long for someone to start reaching out and grooming me with politically incorrect banter, gently escalating the conversation and eventually inviting me to hang out with other groups of like-minded individuals. The first several layers of membership didn’t even feel like anything organized, even though I knew they had a database and were actively tracking me through stages of recruitment.
In my report, I explained that the FBI’s main mistake had been their eagerness. Groups like this expected recruits to be hesitant, not enthusiastic. Everyone in the organization was always on the edge of changing their mind, and it took all the tactics they had—and they had some good ones—to keep them on board and moving deeper into the organization.
Law enforcement officers have to deal with their leadership barking at them to hurry up and advance the case, though, so they rush. That’s exactly what the last undercover agent had done. Four weeks into his recruitment, he was talking openly about wanting to shoot Muslims. They sniffed him out easily. Anthropologists know how to slow down, though. It takes patience and humility to understand another culture, and that can’t be hurried or faked.
I wrote up a full cultural breakdown of how the organization would feel on the inside, based on patterns I detected in their communication and behavior. I explained the probable leadership structure, initiation rituals to expect at different levels, and details about speech mannerisms, appropriate and inappropriate topics, and conceptual metaphors that guide how they see and talk about the world. I even assembled an updated glossary of slang terms and euphemisms since theirs was outdated by at least three years. Basically, I taught them how they could pass as one of them.
The Bureau of Counterterrorism had only asked for 15-20 pages, but I was already up to 119. I liked to be thorough. Now I just needed to write the conclusion to tie it all up, and then it would be perfect—and would inevitably wind up being ignored and eventually forgotten in a filing cabinet somewhere deep in the bureaucracy, just like everything else I did.
Despite that depressing reality, though, I forged ahead. I wanted to build an impressive portfolio of well-researched, well-thought-out work that I might somehow be able to turn into a proper anthropology position at a university someday. I didn’t have much else to show, so I had to work with the opportunities I had.
Lost in thought, I turned and gazed through the dirty third-floor office window next to me. Across the street at Kelly Park, sprawling trees swayed lazily in the summer morning breeze. In the long shadows, I saw the tall bronze replica of the Discus Thrower atop a ten-foot granite column, his loaded arm twisted behind him. I often imagined him launching that disc into the wall of the State Department building, smashing it and liberating everyone inside. Man, what I wouldn’t give to get out of here.
It was almost lunchtime when I noticed a new email, this one from Lehrman’s assistant.
You’re the correct individual. U/S Lehrman wants to meet with you tomorrow morning. He’ll provide more details at that time.
“Welllll, crap,” I muttered.
“Is Matt Moro here?” a woman’s voice asked.
I turned and saw Samantha, the redhead from the front desk at the main entrance lobby downstairs, standing in the doorway flashing her professional-grade smile.
I often entered the building through the main lobby in hopes of catching sight of her blue eyes and shampoo-model hair, even though it was a pretty roundabout way to get to the OCI office. I’d never actually spoken to her, but I couldn’t count how many times I’d gone out of my way to walk past her since I started working there.
That said, I’d never actually seen her come to the OCI office before.
“I’m…Matt,” I finally said, raising my hand. “Over here.”
“Hi, Matt, you have a visitor!” she said in a cheerful sing-song tone one might use with a child. She stepped to the side. I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed that she wasn’t there to see me herself, but then gripped with sudden anxiety at the idea that Under Secretary Lehrman was about to walk into the Office of Cultural Intelligence.
What actually happened, though, was even worse.
My mother—a short, weary-looking woman in a floral print dress with a clip-on visitor badge—stepped into the doorway holding a large paper bag.
I felt all light and air being sucked from the room as if a black hole were forming horribly right before my eyes. I glanced at Tim and the others, who were all watching intently because we rarely received visitors in our department—and I was least likely of anyone here to get one.
“What are you…? Why…?” I couldn’t form a sentence.
She smiled her thanks to Samantha for guiding her to the office and walked toward my desk. “Hey, baby, I know you’re working hard so I brought you lunch. Plus, I always wanted to see your office!”
She delicately placed the paper bag on the edge of my desk, then pulled out several plastic food containers and set them on the desk in front of me.
Standing in the doorway, Samantha clasped her hands over her heart. “That’s so sweet. I could just die.”
“I made you some kaq’ik,” my mother said proudly, pulling plastic food containers from the bag and placing them on my desk. “Also, some beans, and of course a few of my famous empanadas….”
My heart was pounding. “Mom, you really don’t…you can’t be here.”
“It’s okay, I don’t want to take up your time,” she said, folding up the paper bag and putting it in her purse. “You finish working and come home tonight, okay?”
“Okay. Alright. Thank you.”
She leaned over and hugged me, and I patted her back in a businesslike way. She nodded to me one last time, then turned and walked back to the door. Samantha gave me a quick scrunchy-nosed smile, then closed the door behind them.
I sat and stared at the food now arrayed squarely on my desk.
My manager Tim stared with wide-eyed delight from his desk. “Was…was that your mom?”
“Guatemalan. I’m half Guatemalan.”
“That’s cool, I always wondered what you were. What’s the other half?”
I sighed. He’d probably been dying for an excuse to ask me that since the day we met. “My father was born in Nigeria,” I said.
Tim’s eyes widened with genuine surprise. “I thought Mexicans didn't like black people.”
If somehow a miracle happened and the position of Director for the Office of Cultural Intelligence ever came to me, I’d find a way to fire Tim before even sitting down at my new desk.
That evening, I stood at the door of my apartment, staring at the key in my hand. I didn’t want to open the door. I’d been arguing with my mother all day in my head and didn’t want to experience the ordeal in person as well. I knew it’d be better to let it blow over.
I slid the key into the lock and turned it, then nudged the door open.
She was on the sofa. Her head swiveled around to me from some trashy reality show she’d been watching. “Hey, baby, how was work? Did you enjoy your lunch today?”
I closed the door and emptied my pockets onto the kitchen counter. “Yeah, thanks.”
“You need anything?”
“I’m just tired. I’m going to go to bed.”
“Okay. If you need anything just let me know.”
I walked over to my bedroom, the only sanctuary that remained in my life, and sighed as I closed the door behind me.
My mother had moved in six months ago—“It’ll be for one week, maybe two”—and the apartment hardly felt mine anymore. The constant reminders of another human in my space stabbed at my nerves. Footsteps. Flushing. Throat clearing. TV running in the background. Doors opening and closing. Things not where I’d left them.
I honestly just wanted the director position so I could afford to get another place for myself while she stayed here. I’d be the only guy in Washington paying for two apartments who didn’t have a mistress.
I sat at my little wooden computer desk, shook the mouse to wake the computer up, and pulled up my personal email. There were four junk emails and one about an anthropology faculty position I’d applied for.
From: “Jersey Rosenblatt”<email@example.com>
Subject: Re: Applying for Anthropology position
To: “Matt Moro” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Dear Mr. Moro:
Thank you for your interest in a faculty position in the Anthropology department at The Ohio State University. The position you applied for has been filled. Please accept my best wishes for your future professional endeavors.
Dr. Jersey Rosenblatt
Distinguished Professor and Chair
What he really meant was: We don’t hire State Department sell-outs, especially those whose supposed “research” is all top secret.
I honestly wondered if I’d already blown my whole career by taking this job right out of college. The recruiter had made the Office of Cultural Intelligence sound like utopia, and it was hard to find work as an anthropologist, so any job sounded like a good one. I was too fresh to realize that the State Department was only interested in academic research mainly as a means to manipulate people and events for their own interests. The nature of the job meant I probably violated the American Anthropological Association’s ethical guidelines on a monthly if not weekly basis.
Be open and honest: fail.
Obtain informed consent: fail.
Make your results accessible: fail.
Do no harm: fail.
I sat on the twin-sized bed next to the desk and looked around the room for something to distract my brain from its current line of thinking. By volume, I had more books in the room than furniture: textbooks, overdue library books, and used books, covering every anthropological topic from modern Japanese subway suicides to infidelity in ancient Turkey. I’d read most of them, the ones worth reading anyway, and I was now going back over them to find high-level trends and patterns as part of my valiant-but-probably-hopeless effort to develop a unified theory of human social behavior. Maybe I’d spend some time tonight refining some affiliation signaling theories I’d been developing.
There was a soft tapping at the door. “Matty, you still awake?”
“Yeah, for a bit. Why?”
“I want to introduce you to someone.”
I cursed under my breath, then went and opened the door.
My mother stood there smiling. Behind her was the Chinese girl who’d recently moved in across the hall. She looked confused.
“Matty,” she said, “This is Daiyu. She helped me bring up groceries this morning. Since she’s about your age, I just thought it would be nice for both of you to meet.”
I nodded to the girl. “Hi,” I said, hoping she could pick up my apologetic tone.
My mother beamed. “I think you guys have a lot in common, so when you came back, I went to get her for you. I told her she should meet you.”
“Nice to meet you,” Daiyu said shyly. I could hear in the way she shaped her consonants that she didn’t speak English very well yet.
“You two get to know each other,” my mother said as she sidestepped away from us and made her way back to the sofa. “I’ll be over here if you need me.”
Daiyu and I took turns not knowing whether to stare at each other or avoid eye contact.
“I…uh…” I whispered, knowing my mother would be trying to eavesdrop. “Listen, I’m sorry about this. It’s nice to meet you, but you can go if you want.”
“I leave?” Daiyu said, pointing to herself.
“Yes, you leave.” I struggled to remember the Chinese I’d studied in college. “Ni likai.” I wished I could have phrased it more politely, but I didn’t remember much more than that. I shrugged.
“Mei guanxi,” she said, and turned for the door.
I couldn’t remember what that meant. It was probably something along the lines of “what a loser.”
“Wait, what happened?” my mother asked, climbing back up off the sofa where she’d just flopped down.
Daiyu slipped out the door, and I smiled and nodded goodbye. She returned both gestures and closed the door softly behind her.
After she closed the door to her apartment across the hall, I turned to my mother. “What the hell? You can’t drop things like that on me.”
“I bring a beautiful girl to your room, and you stand there and yell at me? Can you blame me for trying? Do you even like girls?”
“I don’t need your help.”
“Don’t need your mother, huh? Think you’re so independent? What do you do with all that independence? Spend all your time working at the office and reading textbooks.”
“You said you needed to crash here for a week until you found another place. Maybe you could use some independence yourself—” I stopped, immediately regretting having said that.
She stepped back, mouth dropping open. Her eyebrows jammed together in deep maternal indignation. “Who raised you alone, Matty?” she asked in a low, chilly voice. “You talk about independence? I never had anyone to depend on in my whole life. Do you know what I went through for you?”
My mind automatically began assembling a well-structured argument in reply, but I stopped myself. I’d learned repeatedly that logical reasoning had no place in this kind of situation.
“I’m really tired,” I said. “Can we not—?”
“I didn’t depend on Johnny.”
“It’s kind of a pattern.”
“I didn’t know he’d hit me. How would I know that?”
“You’ve been here for six months, though.”
“Do you know how hard it is for a woman my age to find a job? I dare you to—”
“Mom, I honestly can’t do this right now. I’m sorry. I love you. I’m going to bed.”
The next morning, I skipped breakfast and didn’t shower. I wanted to get out early. I didn’t have the stomach for the obligatory apologies and lengthy displays of diplomatic reconciliation that were supposed to follow an argument—even though I was obviously in the right. Things would be fine between us by tonight, anyway.
After slipping on my clothes and grabbing my satchel, I opened the bedroom door and looked out. A few thin sheets of gray light cut through the closed blinds and pooled into bright spots on the colorless carpet. My mother was sprawled on the sofa, snoring.
I padded over to the front door and opened it like I was defusing a bomb. It was bright and warm outside. I slipped through, pulling the door closed behind me and gently twisting the knob slowly into place so it didn’t click as it latched.
I walked the three blocks to the State Department building while falling into my usual routine of analyzing the cultural signs and behaviors of the people around me. I couldn’t help doing it. I saw their affiliation signals and emotional states in their gestures, their gaze, their pace, their attire, their posture. The charcoal suit across the street acting powerful despite his crushing insecurities. The two hot yoga moms supporting each other’s quest for online validation by taking photos of each other in casually sexy poses. The dog walker trying to convince himself he’s happy just being a pet parent instead of actually having children. The Midwestern tourist family struggling to make their kids appreciate the baffling institution of American government. I was making a lot of assumptions about them, of course, which isn’t exactly proper for an anthropologist, but after seeing the same things day in and day out it was hard not to fall into that trap.
Nearing the State Department building, I decided I could do without seeing Samantha from the front desk after the incident with my mother yesterday. I decided to enter through the more direct east entrance. In fact, I decided I might not ever go through the front lobby again.
The office was empty except for Director Turner, who’d come in early because it wasn’t a gym day for hm.
“Morning,” he said as I walked into the OCI office.
“Hey,” I said, moving past him toward my desk in the corner by the window. I opened one of the drawers and pulled out a comb, toothbrush, and toothpaste, then turned back for the door.
“Where’re you going?” he asked.
“Meeting with Lehrman.”
Turner frowned. “EGEE Lehrman? Why? What…why?”
“Am I supposed to be there?”
“He only asked for me.”
“Is this about Tim’s promotion?”
I shrugged and walked out. He was bailing on us anyway, so I didn’t feel too bad about leaving him hanging. It was disheartening to hear him talk about Tim taking his position as if it had already been decided, though. Maybe that wasn’t what this meeting was about after all.
Under Secretary Stephen Lehrman was a slender man in his late fifties, with thinning gray hair, a matching gray suit, and a mustache from the Nixon era. He pointed toward one of the large leather guest seats in front of a desk that weighed as much as a small car. I sat down.
“Mr. Moro, this won’t be a long conversation, as I can’t share many details until we get you compartment clearance, but I’ll explain what I can. We have an assignment for you. It’s a highly confidential and time-sensitive one, and we hope you’ll accept it even if we can’t get you all the details just yet.”
“O…kay,” I said, probably sounding more sarcastic than I’d intended.
Lehrman paused for a moment, politely acknowledging my tone. He looked at a paper on his desk. “Is it true that you speak…let’s see here…Arabic, Bengali, English, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Javanese, Navajo, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Thai?”
“Some better than others, but that’s mostly accurate.”
“You have quite a knack for languages, it seems.”
I nodded. “I guess I do pretty well.”
“Mr. Moro, about a week ago, we lost two of our diplomats. They’d been stationed on an island where they represented American interests with the local indigenous population. We weren’t expecting this sudden absence, and we’ve lost a lot of momentum in our negotiations. We need someone who can absorb their language and culture quickly and hit the ground running. Do you see where I’m going with this?”
“Wait, this isn’t about the promotion?”
“Oh, it’s a promotion all right. You’ll go up two pay grades. You won’t be in OCI anymore, though.”
Well, that sounded intriguing. I wasn’t sure where else besides OCI an anthropologist might fit at the State Department.
“Who’s the indigenous population?” I asked.
“You’ll need clearance before I can share that information. Even if I could tell you, though, it’s nobody you’ve heard of.”
“I specialized in isolated cultures when I was at Duke. I’m sure I’ve heard of them.”
“You didn’t read about these guys in school. In fact, I believe you’d be the first anthropologist ever to set eyes on them.”
I sat up straight. “So…they’ve never been studied before?”
“Only by diplomats and intelligence operatives. Never an actual anthropologist. Not yet anyway. This could be a defining moment in your career, you know. It would have to be classified for a while, of course, but I think we could release it in time if that’s something you’re interested in.”
“Okay,” I said flatly, trying to stay cool. I felt my pulse increasing. This kind of assignment ought to be enough to at least get me a teaching job at a halfway-decent university. Hell, they'd hire me just to share the stories first-hand. That’s how Montgomery got on with U.C. Berkeley after his Amazon trip, even though that knucklehead could barely assemble a coherent syllabus.
“This is at least a 12-month assignment,” Lehrman continued, “and you’d have very little connection to the outside world. No cell phones. No web. It sounds from your profile like you’re pretty well suited for isolated field work, though.”
He’d earlier mentioned compartment clearance, which meant knowledge of the mission was restricted to certain individuals. That typically came with a deep background check, which was probably already in progress. It wouldn’t have taken them long to realize I wasn’t exactly a people person. If I left for a year, there wouldn’t be anyone to miss me except my mother—and, frankly, she’d probably be better off not having me around as a crutch.
“Just so we’re super clear,” I said, “I’m not a diplomat. I’m an anthropologist.”
“And you’re a great one, I’m told. Their culture is very different from ours. We’ve been too focused on persuasion instead of understanding, and it just hasn’t worked out for us. That’s where you come in. We’re going to have you partner with a top-notch diplomat specializing in cross-cultural negotiation. She’ll take care of all the diplomacy side, so you don’t have to worry about it. Your role will simply be to learn everything you can, as fast as you can, and support her with the information and insight she needs to succeed.”
I paused for a moment. “By ‘diplomat’ you mean CIA, right?”
He frowned. “I said ‘diplomat.’”
“Do we even have diplomats who aren’t CIA?”
“You’re wandering off topic, Mr. Moro.”
“Okay, where is this assignment, exactly?”
“I can’t share that with you right now.”
“Did the other ‘diplomats’ quit, or were they fired?”
He cocked his head slightly, showing a carefully measured hint of annoyance. “As I said, I can’t get you all the details yet. You’ll know more once you’re prepped and cleared for the assignment.”
“It’s just…I wish I knew more about it first.”
“I completely understand. This is a big decision to make on short notice.”
“When do you need an answer?”
Lehrman leaned forward and placed his arms on the desk, fingers interlocked. “Mr. Moro, we need someone who can work fast and do it right, and we need that person cleared, prepped, and on a plane within a few days. I’m told you’re the man for the job, and if I’m being completely honest, I think you already know what your answer is going to be. If that’s true, I’d like you to tell me right now.”