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Dangerous liaisons and the diagonal sweep

The Tantalus Letters: Part 1, Chapter 2

Laura Otis 26 November 2006

If I don’t keep the money coming in and this lab going, we’re all out on the street. Is this what it feels like to be a mother?

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of an original novel by Laura Otis. Set in the mid-1990s when e-mail was just becoming mainstream, The Tantalus Letters is an epistolary tale of four academics – two scientists and two English professors – caught in a virtual net of love, lust, science and literature.

Chapter 2

18:03 - 18 December 1996
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

Of course I want to see you. Funny, this time of year has been making me think of Germany, too, pitch dark at eight in the morning, dark again by four, gray – in between. I remember you at the Christmas Market, in the dark of course, trying to figure out which little wooden animal to buy.

Watching Jeannie grow shows me the distance I’ve come since then, the way the water grows between your ship and the dock you’ve left. I still can’t believe I helped make her. She’s so smart, talking for herself, thinking for herself.

It’s good to come home to her, because work sucks. The damned accelerator is down again, and everyone’s pointing fingers at everyone else. Our department head Rhonda mainly points at me, and it’s going to be awhile before I can get any experiments done. Why does this woman hate my guts? Just looking at my face seems to drive her crazy. In the meantime I’m on the phone, lobbying, ordering, fighting for the chance to do something useful.

Trish is depressed. She gets this way sometimes. Right now she has a pretty good reason – her mother back in New Jersey is getting stranger and stranger, and it looks like she’s going to need someone full-time to take care of her. The other day a friend of her mother’s called us because they were out shopping, and the mother suddenly started crying because she thought the dog was dead. “We’ve been out here for three days,” she said, “and he hasn’t had any food or water.” She needs to go to one of these Oliver Sacks guys. You must know more about this than I do. Trish has a sister not too far away, but she and the mother were never on good terms, and someone has to take responsibility. Her father’s dead. I want to help her, but it’s one of these cases of paralysis where everyone has to agonize for awhile before anyone can do anything. I’m trying to be as supportive as I can.

She may be in New Jersey with Jeannie when you’re in Chicago. The temptation is going to be strong. I haven’t done this for four years, and I don’t want to blow it for Jeannie. I can’t imagine life without her any more. But I want to see you. When do you get here? Where will you be staying? Let me know, and I’ll see what I can figure out.

11:22 - 22 December 1996
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: The Key to All Mythologies

Hello darlin.

Here the sun blasts away, spent the morning at the beach with the kids, writing the cell book in my head. Thinking about Middlemarch by the Dead Sea is something to which only Casaubon could relate. Hope I’m not him.

This is the right way to think about cells, though, contexts and connections. Whole place is a palimpsest, endlessly rewritten, everyone fighting to erase a piece and rewrite it again.

So many people to see, but vacation can’t keep me away from my favorite drug. Five days out, and here I am in cyberspace – Dan’s computer summoned me like a witch doctor calling his zombie.

So thought I’d wish you a happy new year and assuage your New York fears. This ain’t the Bronx, darlin, they won’t blow us up. Here the streets are safe and the borders are murder.

Looking forward to future contacts, to try in your lock my Key to All Mythologies.

18:30 - 23 December 1996
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

Your chair sounds like the evil king in the Tales of 1001 Nights. Is it possible he’ll run out of women? Maybe to halt his devastation of the female population, we could get Marcia to tell him stories. Would he listen to stories? If we could just keep him with one woman, he would stop smashing the egos of all the female grad students and endangering the future of science. Who would want him, though? Have you considered saltpeter in his coffee?

Josh is shameless. He finally writes me something – well, more than suggestive, from Israel, no less, with his wife and kids close at hand. But who am I kidding – I totally loved it. You know, I don’t even know his wife’s name. He always just refers to her as “my wife” – I hate when they do that, like “my golf club” or something. There are some things he’ll never tell me.

Over Christmas I’m going to have to see my sister, who will take advantage of the opportunity to lecture me on my ways. She has some nerve. When she was fourteen, she would fuck anything that moved, for Chrissake, and I doubt if she ever knew which ones were married because she was stoned out of her mind. Now she’s gained a hundred pounds, a husband, two toddlers, Jesus, and the ideology of Phyllis Schlafly, and for my own good, she tells me how to live. I’d like to cut her out of my life with a scalpel. You have no idea how lucky you are to be an only child. A sister is a poison you’re forced to drink a few times a year that never quite kills you but makes you feel so bad you wish that you were dead.

She always uses all the words I’ve been hearing for so many years: maturity, sacrifice, character, love. The words and the laws are strong, yet so alien to the feelings they’re supposed to control. My memory is of Josh laughing in bed, us holding out our arms one next to the other. His was strong and brown, mine thin and white. They were so beautiful next to each other, like one hill outlined fuzzily behind another. And then the words – adultery, lechery, harlotry, whore – yes, I’ve been reading The Crucible again. They don’t go together. It’s like some dumb censor put in charge of monitoring art he doesn’t understand.

I ask myself all the time how I got to be such a sleazy whore. Because the truth is that, wife or no wife, I want him so badly it’s like physical pain. If I had another crack at level three, I wouldn’t hesitate. Ten years ago in grad school, I didn’t know anyone who was married. If you liked someone, you got to know him better, and if he liked you back, you’d go straight to level three. There was no need for level two then, because there were no wives – you could say just about anything you wanted, anywhere, anytime. What have I been doing for the past ten years? Finishing a thesis, getting a job, writing books, writing articles, reading articles, flying around, giving talks, grading papers, getting tenure. I’ve always worked at least sixty hours a week. There have been guys, but I’ve always left them without hesitation whenever they’ve gotten in the way of my work. Suddenly everyone seems to be married, but the attractions are exactly the same as they were ten years ago. Except now if you proceed, it’s a crime for which they would stone you to death in Kabul. Hence the emergence of the second level.

I can remember a time when I was so miserable I wanted to kill myself because no guy wanted me. The truth is, though, I’ve never been happy living with a guy. At night they dump little piles of change all over the place, and they shed little hairs all over the bathroom that are a pain to clean up. And at some point they always start telling you what a lousy human being you are. You never get enough work done, and within a few months you start to feel as though you’re not alive. It’s like you’re trapped in a phone booth watching life happen around you.

My work makes me feel alive – what I’ve got spread out on my desk today: Liaisons Dangereuses, Michel Serres, a French dictionary, Nietzsche, a German dictionary, and the latest Victoria’s Secret catalogue. This last works wonders to keep you from eating or picking your face while you read. I know that I would always hate a husband and child for coming between me and my work. I’ve always felt best about myself when I’m alone.

Still, the lust is hard-wired in. Josh turns me on the way the books turn me on, pure chutzpah, pure force of words, pure intelligence. I wonder what it’s like to be his wife. I hate the thought of the sacrifices she’s had to make – the work she can’t do, the little hairs she’s had to clean up, the degrading slavery of caring for two babies, the times he must have turned on her and yelled at her about all the things wrong with her. She’s had to endure all this, and I just steal some of the good stuff and run. Hurting a wife is sort of like kicking a POW from a Vietnamese prison camp.

Yet I can’t seem to stop myself. That moment of laughing in the dark, of studying the curves of my arm against his, followed – I didn’t tell you this part – by his lips descending to kiss it, it’s just more real. It would be worth anything to live another moment like that, and I know that if I can, I will.

Don’t feel bad about wanting to see Owen. I think this is what we’re here to do. I wonder if Killington rationalizes his conquests the same way.

20:21 - 30 December 1996
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Owen Bauer

I’m going to be at the Fairmont, where that icy green canal crosses Michigan Ave. I’m always scared to death walking over that see-through bridge over the canal. I’m dying to see you. If you still have misgivings, though, feel free to call this off. I don’t want anyone to get hurt by this. I would love to see you, but only if we can do it without causing any real harm.

12:43 - 6 January 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

I am torn. Trish and Jeannie will be in New Jersey, and she really needs me, watching her mother’s mind undo itself. I find it intriguing that the first thing she’s lost is the sense of time – is this something so new, fragile, artificial, in us, that it’s the first thing to go? Jeannie already understands the difference between three days and three hours – or was it maybe just that her mother used the wrong word and wanted to say “a long time,” and “three days” seemed about right?

But at any rate, they’ll be away, and it’s all too easy. The anticipation has me bathing in memories of you – always so matter-of-fact, even with your ankles on my shoulders. Why did you always cry when –

But I can’t write this. Two days, and I’ll be living it. I shouldn’t be. I’m a lousy actor and a lousy liar, and you can’t know what it is to have this going on in your head and not be able to talk about it with the person who’s part of yourself. She suspects nothing. I’ve been talking extra hard about work, instead, all of Rhonda’s cracks about funding and productivity. If they don’t renew my fellowship, I’m out of a job, living off of Trish and hating my guts, and renewal depends on Rhonda’s recommendation. We’re very close to having the system up again, and if we succeed, I’ll need to work day and night – that’s what I told Trish, anyway, shifting the balance in favor of her taking Jeannie. It’s true – but that’s not what I’ll be doing.

God, I want to see you. Part of me has been in suspended animation, and it just woke up again. When will you be free?

19:06 - 7 January 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Owen Bauer

It’s hard to know about timing. There are millions of talks I have to go to, and a million people I have to see – not just the competition, but people to talk to about postdocs for Tony and Marcia, who are probably going to be out of here in a year or two. I also want a new postdoc, somebody to do anatomy when Dawn gets a job. Networking – you know – that’s what these meetings are all about, and they’re all depending on me. Reinforcing synaptic connections could mean anything from breakfast at seven to drinks at eleven, so I’ll have to reinforce mine with you in between. I’m concerned about causing pain all around by doing this. Are you sure you still want to? Feel free to change your mind. My dendrites are tingling, but we can keep it at any level you want. It’s your life – you make the call.

22:03 - 9 January 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

Well, the slides are finally all ready, and the timing on the talk is 9 minutes 47 seconds, and I’m ready to go. The ones I was really worried about, Dawn’s EM pictures, are gorgeous. You can see everything there is to see when one cortical cell meets another. Dawn is an enigma, quiet, self-possessed, always delivers. She seems tormented by something but won’t say what. I know she’s very politically active – maybe it has something to do with that.

Dawn and Tony have been great this week – Marcia is, well, preoccupied. I’m going to have to do something about this when I get back. It’s been a marathon – we actually all crashed in the lounge for a few hours last night, or this morning, I should say, didn’t bother to go home at all.

When I go to meetings like this, but more when I write grants, I realize how responsible I am for all of them. If I screw up, if I don’t keep the money coming in and this lab going, we’re all out on the street. Is this what it feels like to be a mother? Something tells me this is more what it’s like to be a father. I wouldn’t know. My own took off with some gorgeous babe when I was pretty young. But you’ve heard all this before.

Aside from the fact that I have to convince everyone in Neuroscience I really am seeing synaptic connections forming in a blindfolded kitty, the main thing on my mind is Owen. He wants to see me, and Trish and Jeannie are going to be away. Am I really low enough to do this? Sleep with the husband of some poor woman trying to deal with her mother with Alzheimer’s disease? I wonder what her mother’s synaptic connections look like. I wonder what mine look like.

What has this woman ever done to deserve this? When you pit biology against morality, biology always wins. I can’t resist the idea of touching him again. It’s been let’s see – about two years since I’ve been with a man, and that was a few nights preceded by the other two years or so since Owen. It’s either this or the orgasmotron from Sleeper. Other men – when I emerge from the lab like a locust, to mate – are like the shadows of the puppets in the cave, and he’s the sun. Once you’ve seen the sun, that’s pretty much it. I wonder how Plato would work the orgasmotron into his philosophy. I need some sleep. I can’t believe I’m going to do this, remembering what my own mother went through. There’s no way to justify it. But if he’ll do it, I will.

Through all of this, I keep thinking of Tony’s cell. It fired just for diagonal sweeps. Why? Why would we need a cell that would do that? What I’d really like to do is stay here in the lab and look for more of them. Thanks for being there. I’ll let you know in a week what happened.