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Sperm viruses and the meaning of life

The Tantalus Letters: Part I, Chapter 3

Laura Otis 3 December 2006

How does it feel to be a point mass? Is it flattering or destructive to have all that energy focused on you?

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 3

17:22 - 14 January 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Flying

Yo, you back yet? I need to know if you do dreams. Early this morning I was flying, the most incredible sensation of lift. I must have been coming in from Europe, because I took off over the ocean, and I know I was headed for New York. I flew into this mist, swirling so thick, I had no sense of space any more. Not only could I not tell whether I was headed West, but I had no idea whether I was veering up or down into the grey waves. But I shot out of it, just at sunrise, and there was New York, and I touched the twin towers as I flew between them. I remember distinctly, I could feel cool, smooth glass against each palm. I almost crashed into the Empire State Building, and I rocketed straight down, along the face of it.

As I headed out over Long Island, it was getting harder and harder to stay airborne, and I know I landed several times. I could always get up again, flapping and concentrating as hard as I could – all a matter of faith. Finally night was falling, and I was getting cold, and I couldn’t get up any more. I asked a man where I was, and he said Bellport, and I thought, oh, good, that’s not far, and he said, “I saw you eying those golf carts. You can sleep in one of them if you want.” I was thinking about it seriously when I woke up.

So when you’re here, shake off the dust and apply your Key to this dream. What does it mean, boss?

11:30 - 15 January 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Back

Yeah, I do dreams, just charge for them.

I flew in – you’re gonna love this – yesterday morning. Maybe I passed you.

You’re built for flying, a hundred pounds of matter threatening to change into energy at any minute, and at least ten percent of it is hair.

New Jersey is a bad joke after Israel – a simulacrum, everything a copy.

Coming out of the sun into that mist of yours, I can’t orient myself. No fixed point anywhere. Why don’t kids have this problem? Just called their friends and ran right off.

I sat down at the computer and found you circling, waiting for an OK from the control tower to come in for a landing.

How’ve ya been? Found any nice young gentleman yet to satisfy those appetites of yours?

C’mon, Leo, you know what flying means.

Stay out of golf carts, though. Golf is highly overrated as a transcendental activity offering access to the world of perfect forms. But sleeping in golf carts could be a great new way to meet a nice doctuh. I’ll have to alert my female relatives about this strategy. Should I also alert the doctors?

18:26 - 15 January 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

Josh is pissing me off. He’s like a push-me-pull-you, the way he turns me on and tells me to find somebody else at the same time. He always hits the memory key and the body key, and my system goes crazy the way it does when you hit shift and control at the same time. And then he says to go away and find a nice doctor or something. What goes through his head? What does he want? Thank God he’s back, at least. The only thing he could do that would really hurt would be for him to stop writing.

Our semester is about to start at last, Thank God. I hate vacations. I’m going to be teaching this new course, Sex and Death, I call it: Shakespeare, LaClos, Stendahl, Nietzsche, Hardy, and Mann. I can’t wait. I always get so many ideas from the kids, and they love the books so much. Then there’s my nineteenth century course, and the horror of composition, but the Sex and Death class makes life worthwhile. How was the conference? I’m glad you’re back, too.

19:42 - 15 January 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

The conference was intense. Marin’s group at the NIH is doing basically the same experiments we are but getting the opposite results, so there were some real tense moments when I had to compare everything we’re doing systematically without giving too much away. There’s a guy there who I think may want to do a postdoc with me, and he’s good, so I have to keep him interested.

Underneath all this, of course, was the impending meeting with Owen, which turned into a whole night and morning – beautiful and terrible now that it’s over. So racked with guilt, I feel I’m in the right position to size up Josh. The human brain has an astonishing capacity to think two contradictory thoughts at the same time. He wants to have wild, uncontrolled, everlasting, screaming, bestial sex with you. And he wants to be a virtuous, responsible, reliable, respectable father and overall good guy. He wants eternal youth. He wants the power that comes with age.

Ever add vectors? When two forces act on a point mass in different directions, the resultant force is the sum of the two component forces. How does it feel to be a point mass? Is it flattering or destructive to have all that energy focused on you? What forces are you exerting on him? You’re just about the least passive person I’ve ever met. Sex and Death sounds great. I had forgotten what it was like. Sex, I mean.

19:14 - 16 January 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

Well, I finally did it – confronted Marcia about Killington. It was excruciating because he’s my boss, and I’m her boss, and I had to reach out to her while still maintaining a certain distance. If I do anything to alienate him, he could make all our lives hell, and how could I know that in her condition, she wouldn’t tell everyone if I let her know how badly I want to do a John Wayne Babbit on him?

She showed up at ten, in spandex, her face all puffy and her eyes as red as a laboratory rat’s, and sat at her desk with her face in her hands. I decided it was time to do something. So I called her into my office and told her I was worried about her and wanted to help. The poor girl was terrified and thought I was trying to fire her or something, and she started crying and swore that she’d work harder, really she would. I lost it at that point and told her I knew what the trouble was, and that I thought she was wonderful and just wanted to keep her.

Then it came out. He’d done it at breakfast, I think the same morning I was soaping Owen’s back in the shower. He’s been seeing Bonnie, this new grad student from Gordon’s lab who started here in September. “Don’t hold onto this,” he told her, along with some stuff about flow and turbulence and particles and fusion. I think he meant, “Don’t hold onto me.”

Once she got going, Marcia had some interesting things to say about men. “I think what they want,” she told me, “is to fuck women and then just kill us when they’re done so that we can’t ever bother them again.” The force of it scared me, and I tried to disagree. What about men who married, I asked, didn’t they want to stay with a woman? “Oh, they’re exactly the same,” she said. “Don’t you see? It’s just a front. They go out after a few years and start fucking and dumping women same as ever, only now they have the perfect excuse: ‘I’m married.’ If you protest, you’re Glenn Close and want to boil their fucking rabbit.”

Here she had me. It was so hard not to blurt out that I had just been with one of these, and not seeing him when I woke up this morning was agony.

“They’re viruses,” she said. “I mean, think about it. What’s a sperm? DNA in a protein coat, with no means of reproducing itself without help from a real cell. It latches onto the egg, shoots in its DNA, places an order, and we cook a baby – which gets his name when it comes out.”

I finally won her back when I got her to laugh. Given the fucking and dumping scenario, I told her, Killington at least deserved points for consistency for having dumped his wife first. And so we laughed together, her with her bright red eyes and me with all the images in my head I couldn’t let out. I fed her the line about how men will come and go, but no one can ever take your Ph.D. away from you, but it didn’t work as well as I’d hoped – planned lines never do.

I also told her I didn’t think all men were bad and that there was still hope. I wanted to hold up Tony as an example – he’s been going out with this really nice Asian woman from Berg’s lab forever, and he seems to treat her well – but this struck me as bad politics, sort of like telling your kid how good her brother is. God, this really is like being a mother. Anyway, she didn’t believe me. I finally told her to stop wearing spandex to the lab, because it was making me feel fat. “Now, go get in a cell,” I ordered. “Get me one of those diagonal ones.” I can’t say she’s cured, but it did help break the tension.

What I want to know is, is she right? I really believe Owen is a good person. He may dump me, but it will be to save his family, not because he’s sick of me. But maybe I’m just reassuring myself. What do you think?

What about Josh? I just can’t believe that half the human species is bad. Believing that is like hating life itself. Biology runs us and drives us, and monogamy isn’t natural. So what do we do about it? Probably we’re defining “good” and “bad” wrong. I’m sure this is what Killington thinks, and Owen, too. Being away from him now is like physical pain, as is my knowledge that in yielding to biology I may have hurt a woman and a little girl. I’m no better than Killington. If I do a John Wayne Babbit on him, someone should do a West African number on me.

17:49 - 17 January 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

Go Marcia! I mean, all power to her! She’s right, of course, just giving only one side. How old is she, 23, 24? Is she going to tell me she’s never dumped anybody? She’s right – she just needs to cross out “men” and write “people.” Who doesn’t want to have wild sex with someone but not have to deal with his/her moods, mess, interference and offspring?

She’s got Josh down, all right, he’s all male, testosterone out the wazoo. What turns me on with him is the wrestling – he always wants to be in control. He’ll entice me in with some flattery or libidinal dare, then push me away, waving his wife and kids like a virtual hero waving a crucifix at a vampire. I write with the knowledge that he can pull the plug on me any time and walk away absolutely in the right.

Five years older, and he thinks he’s my father – the male thing, you know, you tell him how you feel, he tells you what to do – always ready with helpful advice. I think his heart is good, like Owen’s, the way all our hearts are good. He just hates the part of himself, sometimes, that wants to get it on with me, and that translates into hating me. So we do it with words, steal each other’s phrases and turn them around, grappling with each other in an exquisite lingual battle of pleasure and pain.

As you get older, they force these roles on you – he’s a good Dad, I think, as far as I can tell, does all the things Dads are supposed to do – protect, provide, make the call, settle the fights, totally reliable – but this is never enough, and people have to live for themselves somehow. I see these exhausted people schlepping around after their kids – women with faded faces, who’ve chopped off their hair and gained 30 pounds – slaves, people without identities. The Dads seem no happier, big-bellied, lecturing, teaching, often angry, the women listening vacantly, the kids screaming and running around, little blood-sucking monsters draining the life out of their creators.

I won’t do it. You can either marry and have kids, or live, and I’m going to live. My friends who’ve gotten married and had kids, it’s like they’ve died, or no, it’s like invasion of the body snatchers. The people you know are being turned into zombies, one by one, their souls displaced and their bodies occupied by aliens that can only think about diapers and Barney and apple juice. You’re the only one left, with no one to talk to and an army of zombies after you, operated by aliens via remote control.

Yet things are set up, at this point, so that if you don’t couple up and make babies, it’s almost impossible to make love or even talk to anyone. To make real contact without becoming a zombie yourself, you have to steal intimacy from some poor slave who’s already sacrificed her soul in order to have it. I’m a libidinal gypsy bandit who violates virtually. Cyberspace, level two, is a valve that lets you couple without violating in fact. As far as Josh is concerned, to recover his virtue, all he has to do is turn me off, and as long as he knows this, he’s OK. We need each other. He’s a slave who wants to live a little, and I’m an outlaw who wants to couple temporarily. Who’s worse? Neither you nor Killington deserves to be cut. You can’t cut lust out of a person. Lust is what we are. And Marcia is right anyway. How would you define life?

18:01 - 17 January 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden

How would you define life?

23:30 - 17 January 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Life

Life is an anthill seeping out of a crack in the curb, seething with red crawling things, and a kid kicking it.

Life is all you can eat.

Life is sucking the meat out of a shrimp’s tail.

Life is a grease spot that won’t come out.

Life is breathing through a shower of black hair in your face.

Life is our dog howling at the fire siren.

Life is kicking.

Life is what kicks back.

19:26 - 20 January 1997
To: Lee Ann Downing
From: Rebecca Fass

Life is writing to you and eating this turkey sandwich while Tony and Marcia set up tonight’s kitty. Life is what will happen if I get this grant proposal out in a month. Life is wishing this sandwich tasted like a turkey. Life is the turkey. Life was waking up and realizing Owen was next to me. Life was waking up this morning and knowing he wasn’t. Life is wanting more. Life is the cell that fires only for diagonal sweeps.

19:37 - 20 January 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Owen Bauer

What is life?

12:37 - 21 January 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

Funny you should be asking me this. Who am I to judge? I just live it.

Trish called to tell me her mother woke her up at 3:30 AM, burst into her room fully dressed but with all her clothes on backwards, crying, “I don’t know where I am!” It scared Jeannie half to death. Trish had to explain to her that grandma is sick and that very old people sometimes don’t know what time it is. She’s good that way – I don’t know what I would have said.

They should be back here in a day or two. The mother has been officially checked out by a social worker who has to rate her mental fitness, and there’s a nurse, now, and she’s on the waiting list for a bunch of homes. The accelerator is up, and I really am working day and night. I’m trying as hard as I can not to think, but I want you anyway.

19:11 21 January 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Owen Bauer

I had no idea I would miss you this much. Everything in my mind has been rerouted now, so that all pathways go through you.

I finally did something the other day I’ve been putting off for a long time – talked to my student Marcia about getting it together. She’s been the most dedicated, hardest-working person you can imagine overall, but unfortunately she’s been living with our chair, and he’s dumped her for this year’s model. It’s left her devastated, and she hasn’t been good for much for awhile. I’ve been determined to pull her out of the nose dive she’s been in before she crashes into something. So I did my best.

Through the whole talk, all I could think of was you. I wondered how different I was from my boss, who just sleeps with women when he wants to, then leaves them when he wants to, without regard for their feelings, or social roles, or politics, or whatever. Is he just honest? Are we all like him, just can’t admit it? What do you think?

I have to go now but will lie down with you in my mind, as I have been doing these past few nights and will be doing for many nights to come.

13:13 22 January 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

I think we are like your boss, within limits. These limits hit me today when I picked up Trish and Jeannie at the airport. Jeannie was jumping all around, all happy to see me. What hurts the worst is their not knowing. Until now the only thing I’ve had to keep from Trish is Germany, and that was different somehow, because I went there for a long time, but this time you came here. Why should that make a difference? I couldn’t tell you.

I’m terrified she’s going to read my mind, or at least the signs that show what my mind is doing. I’ve been keeping away as much as possible, feeling safer here in my underground tunnel, less capable of being read. All the face time is scoring points with Rhonda, who feels more powerful if she thinks you’re working 16 hours a day because you’re afraid of her.

And of course I think of you all the time. If I were a cartoon, the bubble coming out of my head would have just one thing in it, you all slippery and laughing in the shower, with soap all over you.

All my love,


9:32 - 24 January 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

I’ve turned into Maxwell’s Demon now. It’s like there’s a barrier between me and Trish with a little window in it, and I sit there perversely falsifying the natural flow of particles. Anything that would normally cost me energy to talk about – work – I let through, and for all the particles that would normally get through – lust, misery, all the images that strike me through the day, I keep the window shut. They whiz and bang and ping off the walls of my closed, frustrated brain.

I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this. Trish has already asked me many times what’s the matter, and I tell her work, Rhonda, fear of losing my job, but she doesn’t buy it. She may be a nurse, but she’s a better scientist than I am: she knows about controls. Work and Rhonda have been closing in on me for a long time, but I’ve never shut down like this before. I think I may have to tell her, just tell her and get it over with, for us to have any kind of life together. This is harder than I ever imagined it could be.