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A flea on the surface of his life

The Tantalus Letters: Part I, Chapter 4

Laura Otis 10 December 2006

Right now I feel like one of my particles, headed for a collision, waiting to see what I’ll break into

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 4

18:13 - 24 January 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden

So you want to sink your teeth into life before it kicks you to death. Am I right?

22:06 - 24 January 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing

You’re right as always, babe: I wanna eat it.

And you, darlin, what do you want to do with it?

12:14 - 25 January 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden

I want to read it. I want to write it. I want to inscribe it with the tip of my pen and the tip of my tongue.

21:30 - 26 January 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Tips

You can inscribe me any time, darlin. You write all over me.

Your words are a rousing flamenco clatter that makes my middle-aged heart dance. You remind me of my kids, way too smart for me and utterly inexhaustible.

Give a man a break and go apply all your tips to that book of yours.

7:56 - 27 January 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

I’m really afraid Owen is going to tell Trish everything. If he does and destroys their life together, especially that poor little kid’s life, it will be my fault. I’m so ashamed now, and so depressed. Even that guy Jacobsen’s formal request to do a postdoc here couldn’t snap me out of it. I can’t blame Owen, though, because I can’t know what it’s like to come home to someone every day and not talk to her about the monster in your mind. I worry about him, too. What will happen to him if she leaves him and takes the kid? There’s this little old lady in my head who keeps telling me I should have thought of all this before the door to my hotel room clicked shut behind us. I even have the nerve to miss him, with all this. Help.

19:00 - 27 January 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

I don’t fucking believe he’s going to tell her. I mean, what goes on in his head? If you want to talk guilt distribution, I’d say it falls a little more heavily on the side of the guy who indulged his libido despite his wife and kid and is now going to make himself feel better with a Chernobyl-catharsis. God, why do they even have to exist? If only we could reproduce by parthenogenesis.

Today was a particularly bad day to ask for my opinion, since Josh has suddenly lowered his paternal screen and is waving that cross at me again: back, back, dangerous, monstrous woman! I don’t know why I write to him. I’m addicted to it, I guess. Today I want to kick him in his patriarchal – but no, no, I really like him, maybe love him even, in spite of everything. It always hurts so much when he says, “back!” I even look like a vampire, pale, thin, white skin, black hair, always hungry, and he makes me feel like a monster. Sometimes I feel like a flea on the surface of his life, and he’s going to swat me.

You have to hand it to him, though, he’s frighteningly smart when it comes to having it all, so much smarter and ultimately kinder than your sensitive physicist. He’s a genius at keeping it at a certain level, and in the process he saves not only his own ass but also his wife’s and my feelings. If somebody ever broke in and read our e-mail, s/he would see a never-ending series of invitations and libidinal jabs on my part, countered by the most adroit and kind-hearted deflections on his. I am the aggressor here.

He would never tell. If it ever came down to it, he’d deny everything and cut me off before I ever even knew what hit me. What no one will ever see is him pulling me against him, with an insistent strength that surprised me, and saying, “C’meah.” There were no witnesses.

But of the two of them, Owen is the bigger bastard. I wish Josh could talk to him and set him straight. Tell the idiot to keep his mouth shut!

22:14 - 27 January 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Owen Bauer

DON’T DO IT. I mean it. I feel terrible for having done this to you, and I want to help any way I can. I’m here. Talk to me. Maybe you can let all the fast particles out the back door. I can’t know what you’re going through, because I’ve never been married, but I’m absolutely certain it would be a disaster to tell. Maybe this state won’t last, and the particles will lose energy with time. If we were wrong, it won’t help to spill it all over the place. We can just try as hard as we can not to do it again.

Talk to me, talk to anybody, just not to her. Hang on. I was old enough to see what my own mother went through, and I see what Marcia’s going though. For a woman, no matter how much else she has going for her, it makes her feel erased as a person when her guy wants someone else. You can stop it here before it hurts anyone but us. Don’t tell her, don’t do it!

12:46 - 28 January 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

OK, you’ve convinced me for now. I’m going to hold out. I feel like some kind of pathetic dike holding back a tidal wave. Work just picked up, luckily, and I take it as an omen. Trish has gone into a kind of retaliation-withdrawal of her own, angry that I won’t open up. I see hope. Maybe if I reach out and try to bring her back, she’ll forget that I started it, and we can meet in the middle.

Listen, I wanted to ask you about something that I’ve been wondering about for a long time. You’re always talking about being “in” a cell, especially lately since you found this diagonal type. In physics “in” makes no sense – there’s no atom or particle to be “in,” just possibilities that something might be in a given space at a given time, and anything you find, just about, can be smashed up into something smaller. That isn’t even it – there isn’t any anything, there isn’t any “thing,” just very fast associations. So you can’t be “in” anything because not only is there no “in,” there’s no “thing” to be in. I think “in” is a biological idea – keeping things out that want to get in means staying alive.

What does it feel like to be in a cell? I feel as if you’ve gotten into me, and I can’t decide whether it’s a biological “in” or just one of these split-second associations. I always turn theoretical when work picks up. Maybe all those particles whizzing around in circles create a field in my brain. Let me know – I’m really curious about this one.

19:27 - 28 January 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Owen Bauer

Thank God – I mean, thank YOU for holding out. I feel responsible for putting you through this. It’s easy for me – I can just walk away. It sure must be different when you have to come home to someone. Please let me help if I can.

This is a hard question, being in a cell. What I feel is guilt, but this can’t be all I feel, because if I did, why would I do it? I know that the first time I ever saw anybody get a cell, I wanted to do it for the rest of my life. It was the smallness of it, partly – the thrill of being in one cell, one unit of consciousness – but you have a point about the physics. The same thing happens when you get bigger as when you get smaller: is consciousness the units, or just what happens when they talk to each other?

So probably the answer is that I’m an eavesdropping pervert who likes to poke into things. But I do feel really guilty about it. I don’t know. I should ask Marcia. I think she’s in one right now. Or do you want Tony? Do you want a male or female perspective, or shouldn’t it matter?

What does it feel like to be inside of a woman?

19:48 - 28 January 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

He’s not going to tell, at least not now, thank God. He really had me scared. I mean, I did it, it is my fault, and I have to face the consequences, but that poor woman and that poor little kid! He asked me a weird question – he wanted to know what it’s like to be inside a cell. So I asked him what it’s like to be inside a woman, and I suddenly had this terrible urge.

What do you say we experiment on the guys? It figures I would come up with this, considering that my whole life is one big experiment, but this question really intrigues me. Suppose you ask Josh the same thing and we compare what we get. This whole desire to penetrate and – as Marcia put it – implant the viral DNA, seems so foreign. And yet he has a point, this is kind of what I do. I feel as if I’d been exposed or something. You say Josh is pretty testosterone-poisoned, so I’d really like to hear what he has to say. Why would anybody want to do this?

9:09 - 29 January 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

You are a genius. No wonder you get grants. This is the greatest idea you’ve ever had. I’m going to ask him tonight. Of course we should experiment – what else are they good for?

9:23 - 29 January 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: A Penetrating Question

Hey guy. I have a question. Research for my Sex and Death class, you understand, which starts Monday. What does it feel like to be inside of a woman? I feel I need to understand the male perspective. Do you remember in Born Innocent, when all the lesbians rape Linda Blair with a broom handle? Probably you’ve figured this out by now, but no woman has ever had the urge to do anything remotely like that. We’re just not into sticking things into people – well, OK, every now and then a pin, but not on a regular basis. So let me know if you can. Do you think I could get a grant to investigate this?

12:38 - 29 January 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: A Penetrating Answer

You are my favorite vice, Leo, I swear, someday you’re gonna make some guys very happy. It’ll take more than one of us to handle you, cause you are outa control.

So, all right, y’know when you’re peeling an orange, how it feels? There always comes the moment when all the peel is off, and you pull the plug thing off of one end, and you pull the white stringy thing out, and then there’s this empty, beckoning hollow. And suddenly you have this irresistible impulse to stick your thumb straight into it. So you do, and it pushes back, all this moist, firm flesh all around your thumb, hugging it and pressing it, and you can feel it all, all around you, sucking, clinging, alive. That’s it. It’s the impulse to stick in your thumb, because it’s your orange, and you peeled it, and you’ve earned the right to be there.

You don’t want to do that with every orange, of course. Sometimes you just want to run your fingertips over the surface and feel the color. And sometimes you want to smell it, oh, so delicate, right through the peel, and roll its coolness all over your face. Every orange makes you want it in a different way. To stick your thumb straight into all that fullness – that you do only with the few that demand it.

Have I answered your question? Now how does it feel to the orange?

p. s. If you get a grant for this, I’m droppin a dime and callin Jesse Helms.

p. p. s. What goes on in this Sex and Death class?

17:03 - 29 January 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

Agent L, calling headquarters. He says it’s like sticking your thumb into an orange, but now he wants me to say how it feels to the orange. I hadn’t counted on this – he’s experimenting back on me. What should I tell him?

19:57 - 29 January 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

Gee, when did I become the Kremlin? I guess this is what you get for experimenting on people. Interesting data, though! I like this guy.

I know exactly what he means. I do that all the time. It’s the most fun part of eating oranges – except that after the thumb goes in, you usually pull it apart, which would confirm Marcia’s theory: fuck ‘em and kill ‘em (fuck ‘em and eat ‘em?). I really should ask Marcia.

I’ve been realizing these past few days that what Owen asked me is the real question I need to answer on this grant proposal, on which I’m now working sixteen hours a day and will be for the next few weeks: Why do I want to stick electrodes into cells? I can’t use the orange, but Josh has just expressed the first reason I can relate to. Owen is taking his time as usual, letting the particles whiz around for awhile before he responds.

You’re on your own, speaking for the orange. I authorize you to tell the truth. I wonder if we could actually communicate to them what it feels like to have someone inside of you – or even harder, what it feels like to want it. I wonder if a man could ever understand this. Maybe a gay one. Let’s try it. See if he gets it. I like this guy. If anyone ever could understand it, he could.

19:45 - 30 January 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Inside

You’re talking to a guy, and he says what you’re thinking before the words make it to your lips, and he makes you laugh and laugh, and his eyes are so dark, almost black, and his intelligence beams out of them, right through your peel, studying the fissures of your sections. The energy dances all over that white lacy net just under your peel – sparks at that plug thing, which is one focus, but spirals round and round in the globe of you, down from the surface toward a deeper one in you innermost heart.

In the end you never know whether he peeled you or you peeled yourself, but there you are, the hollow leading down into infinity, waiting to be filled. To be that hollow is a great loneliness, a great ache. There is a yearning, a drawing feeling, in every cell of you, almost the way you long to put food in your mouth when you’re very hungry. It’s comforting, but much more than that, when you’re finally filled. You know you’re alive, and you hang on and you push back to show that yes, you’re alive, yes, you want it, yes, more, please more, and you so, so love to be taking it into you.

It’s not penetration. It’s not even phagocytosis, that slow, undulous movement of a hungry amoeba surrounding its food. When it happens, inside isn’t inside any more, there isn’t any inside or outside, Scotty has shut the shields down, and the hull has dissolved, no, the whole universe has dissolved into sweet, warm juice.

That’s how it feels to the orange.

Sex and Death: that’s Shakespeare, LaClos, Stendahl, Nietzsche, Hardy, and Mann, my main men. I’ll consult you periodically for expert advice.

Do you ever go into the city? Can I see you sometime? I miss you.

We started Romeo and Juliet today. Peace be in thine eyes, and sleep, thy breast. Would I were sleep and peace, so sweet to rest.

13:33 - 3 February 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

You ask hard questions, and with a sudden unexpected run of accelerator time (Dave got sick and bequeathed his to me) and another tense period at home, I haven’t been able to think about it. Not even in moments that I guess you would consider research, but I won’t talk about that.

Trish’s Mom has taken to shitting in random places around the house, and the nurse has quit. We need to upgrade to one who is shit-tolerant, and Trish is going to have to go to New Jersey again. She’s very upset, of course. She’s come out of withdrawal and is doing everything possible to get me to talk to her before she goes. She’s in catharsis mode, wants to get all the pain settled and over with before she takes off.

I have headed down into the tunnel, of course, determined to create a smash-up so big and so spectacular that I’ll finally see my top quark. It’s not that different from a bunch of kids getting together and making their Tonka trucks go as fast as they can and then smashing them into each other to see what will happen – just costs a lot more money. Don’t tell the NSF or the Department of Energy.

I can tell you identify with the cell you’re poking, and right now I feel like one of my particles, cycling at top speed, headed for a collision, waiting to see what I’ll break into. Somebody else is working the controls, though. Maybe we experiment to reassure ourselves we’re not the particles or the cells. But basically, like you, I just want to know what’s going to happen, and I’m arrogant enough to want to see it.

To be inside a woman? This should be as biological as you can get, but strangely enough it’s more like physics. The idea of inside and outside no longer applies. It’s more like classical mechanics. The approximations are reasonable enough until you’re moving at the speed of light, you’re with a certain woman, and you can feel her skin against yours. Then there’s no way to define spaces any more. At the same time, it’s the most comforting, the most reassuring feeling in the world. It’s seeing your top quark. It’s knowing that every good thought you ever had about life is really true. It’s a challenge. It shakes up your mind, because you’ve never thought that if all the ideas are really true, then what are you supposed to do? I never know.

All my love,


17:06 - 3 February 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

Well, I told him, or tried to, in orange-speak. To me it’s all spirals and tendrils, these little vines growing out from the tips of your breasts and the outermost point of your pleasure center, growing and growing, turning inward, twisting around and around inside of you all the way back down to your kidneys. Once the vines are in place, they become a net that conducts energy all over the surface of your body, and sometimes a word or an image will supply more voltage than it can handle, and it sparks, the arcs jumping from one primary focus to another.

I think I might have done better when I translated it all into orange-speak. Is that what it feels like to you? A few things are essential to set the vines growing: dark eyes, a wicked intelligence, and an even more wicked command of words. Then they poke out their little green shoots, and if he breathes on them, they grow. So how is it for you? Lift your bleary eyes from your grant application and tell me. What did Owen say?

20:11 - 3 February 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

I conclude that if this is the mind-set of men in 1997, the human species is in trouble – well, maybe not, as long as they want to keep doing it. First we got oranges, and now we’ve got quarks. Go figure. No more classical mechanics, no more boundaries, just time, space – and top quarks. I wish I could compare it to what Killington told Marcia. God, if only we could ask him! Now that’s a data point I’d like to see on the chart.

Me? I don’t want men any more, just Owen. I know what you mean about the vines, but I find it easier to relate to Josh and his orange. I just love plunging my finger into a piece of fruit and feeling it resist. Does this mean I’m gay, or just human?

I’m worried about Owen. I still think he may tell.

What do you think is a good title for a grant proposal on why we have to find out how manipulating the visual environment of cats affects the connections their cortical cells make?

9:23 - 4 February 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

How about, “What You See is What You Get”?

11:16 - 4 February 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Juice

Was that you or the orange talkin, that last?

You know what happens when you reach for a hologram, darlin, we can only play orange juice on the holodeck.

I know where you’re comin from, and you know I love hearin you.

I hate to think of you alone – aren’t there any lucky, lucky fellas out there smart enough to see through your peel? Please think about it.

You are so beautiful, Leo, and you deserve such happiness.

21:29 - 4 February 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Night

There’s a stroke of calligraphy on my screen tonight, a naked streak in the dust where I reached out to touch the screen. I ran my fingers over the words, trying to reach their author. I forgot . . . . I am so, so tired tonight, and I just can’t be that voice you love to hear. I read myself into oblivion today, trying to send so many ideas into the tunnel that there would be no room for any coming out. But my fingers spoke for me instead. I know the limits of this level of communication, and I know what I can’t say.

Alone? I would feel alone with someone who’s not – - no one connects, here, now, no one appeals. I want only to fall asleep in warm, brown arms and to forget myself in a liquid ocean night. To breathe as one, the last whisper lost in the darkness, nestled together on a marshmallow bobbing off into the black. Oh, if only, if only, if only!

11:03 - 5 February 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Back Talk

Oh Leo.

Don’ break my heart.

You know I can’t.

Maybe you shouldn’t write to me.

Just be that voice out there,

be that voice again to me,

and I’ll scratch your back with back-talk.

Just talk Leo.

Talk about your class, your book

your ragin mind,

but no Night.