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Virtual restraining order

The Tantalus Letters: Part I, Chapter 7

Laura Otis 1 January 2007

I wonder what puffs of ions make people want. If I knew, I’d look for a blocker and try to shut them down.

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 7

22:07 - 14 February 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Owen Bauer

I didn’t know a person could be this tired and still live. I should go home and sleep, but I’m too tired to get out of this chair. So how about a virtual valentine? I rub you all over with the warm, sweet-smelling foam of my clean good wishes. I miss you, Owen. Be with me tonight.

11:59 - 17 February 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Une Flèche

Leo, what you’re writing to me is inappropriate. I worry about you.

Your circuit doesn’t have to have a capacitor. Flow is beautiful – why not another energy source? Desire DOES seek to extinguish itself – but you don’t have to.

I can’t let you do this any more. I think we should take a break, and you should focus your energy rays on some guy who’s reasonably nice, reasonably good-looking, reasonably intelligent, and reasonably available. Then you can make nice and talk to me about stuff your university wouldn’t mind payin for.

You know I love ya, Leo, but this is gettin outa hand.

Please do not write to me again until you have accomplished this mission.

17:40 17 February 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

Well, he’s done it. He’s pulled the plug on me, the lousy, patriarchal son of a bitch. Maybe I shouldn’t have sent the French and the chocolate after all. I guess I was still trying to experiment – like if you want to see if the space blob is alive, you poke it with a stick. Well it’s alive, all right, and it just zapped me with a phaser on stun. If I write again he may change the setting. It was all cloaked in for-your-own-good, but Marcia was right, oh boy, was Marcia ever right. He wants me to find some Nice Guy here and refrain from projecting my libidinal energy onto his computer screen. I just feel sick. I feel like I was floating in space and somebody cut my life-line, and I’m going to drift in the black alone until I die. How could he do this to me?

20:42 - 17 February 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

Oh Leo. I’m so sorry. I know how you feel about him. Why did you have to do it? I’m sure it’s fear of some kind. He sounds like he has a pretty good life, and you could screw it up royally.

You’re funny sometimes. The stuff you write, it’s like you’re an exhibitionist, a flasher. You just have to show yourself. Look at it from the perspective of the viewer. It’s scary when people expose their private parts on your screen. I think it’s more of a turn-on for the flasher than the viewer. I would guess that he saw your emotion naked on his screen, undressed and uncoded, and he freaked.

He probably means well. Maybe he’s even thinking of you as he claims and thinks you’ll be happy if you find a guy you can really be with. I’m sure this is how he was telling it to himself as he went at your life-line with the garden shears.

There could be a lot of reasons why he cut you off now. Maybe he’s got people out to get him at work, the way Owen does. He’s got to make sure that if anyone ever breaks into his account, regardless of what he’s receiving, the messages he sends are above reproach.

It could be something at home, too. Maybe his wife suspects something. How good an actor is he? Can he walk around with his head in virtual reality with a black-haired, hundred-pound sprite on top of him and carry on a normal conversation? Maybe your valentines activated his VR implant.

Why did you send them, Leo? Why do you write to him? Excuse me for being the scientist, the Seeker of Truth, but WHY? What are you getting out of it? The brutal, smelly, shaggy, snuffling truth here seems to be that he doesn’t want you to write to him.

I know you, Leo, and I know that right now in your head you’re writing him the most scathing, vicious, outrageous and deadly message of all time. Do NOT send it to him. DO NOT DO IT. Don’t even think about it, Leo. Send it to me instead, and I’ll let you know what I think of it. He’ll go after you. I can see that the guy has a very strong preservation instinct, and guys like this will destroy you if you threaten them.

Besides, I don’t think any one guy can cut the lifeline all by himself. Life support systems always have backup batteries. Go on backup for awhile and write to Marcia instead. Use her as a lifeline, and you be hers. God knows she needs one.

Tonight in the lab it was the saddest thing. Killington’s lab is right across the courtyard from ours, and his lights were on. Marcia just kept watching and watching. Sometimes you could see him flash past the window, a tall, fast-moving silhouette, and I know she was waiting to see if Bonnie would come in. He doesn’t want her any more, but she just keeps looking and looking and looking, trying to suck in all those little flickers.

I wonder what puffs of ions make people want. If I knew, I’d look for a blocker and try to shut them down. Nothing from Owen. I’m so worried.

17:47 - 18 February 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

You’re right about the message. I have nothing to lose any more, so now I can say what I really think.

I’ve been writing to him because that’s how I live. When I’m typing my thoughts to him as fast as I can, I’m living, and after I hit control z and see that 116 lines have gone out I feel the peace, the comfort, and the sense of purpose that you get as you collapse back onto your own side of the bed after making love. In the morning, it’s all a rush and a blur as I race toward the moment I live for, the beep after I type in my password and hit return, telling me that I have new messages. Reading his thoughts on my screen, even if they’re just funny seaweed thoughts washed up from the ocean of his consciousness, that’s what I live for.

I love his mind so much. Once a year I go scuba diving in it for a few hours, and I know what’s down there, and there’s nothing in the universe more beautiful. I won’t rest until I can get back there. Whatever it takes, I’m going to plunge into him again and swim around in all that silent, mystic beauty. The surface is tricky, all these whitecaps of self-deprecating humor and these squalls of self-righteous anger, but underneath is all wonder, and it welcomes you and closes softly and silently over your head.

Yeah, his hands are fabulous, and his tongue is incredible. He’s so lingual – it’s rare for a guy to be this way, so into language. But he is one-of-a-kind, an ocean of verbal intelligence with the hormones still there. There just isn’t anyone like Josh. Writing to anyone else – writing for anyone else – just wouldn’t be the same. I just have to get him back somehow.

You know, you’re in this as much as the rest of us, watching the window and trying to snatch at the figures as they flicker across. Write to Owen, for God’s sake! Maybe he’s a flicker-snatcher, too. Guys seem to like it, that the figures flash by and then disappear, but he sounds different. I think he may have been further back in line when they were handing out the hormones. Josh talked his way into first place. I can see him now, sweet-talking God.

I don’t know what wanting is. With him it’s worse than wanting. He cuts me off to survive, but I can’t survive if he does cut me off. I wonder what he wants. I wonder why he ever wanted to dive into me. I wonder if he dove in and then didn’t like it in there. Am I a polluted ocean?

I like your idea about Marcia. I’m going to write to her right now.

20:37 - 18 February 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Life Is What Kicks Back

Dear Josh,

I’d be delighted to oblige your last request, except that you did ask me those questions, and I presume you asked because you wanted an answer.

“What did you think of Fatal Attraction?”

To watch Fatal Attraction is to watch rampant injustice while bound and gagged. The film is a vindication of every man who ever slept with a woman and then shortly thereafter wiped her out of his life and heaved a great sigh of relief. The woman who watches it is bound and gagged because if she dares to speak for Alex with even the slightest murmur of sympathy, she’s an advocate of selfishness, sadism, child-abuse, and mindless revenge. It’s a witch-hunt, and if you defend the witch, then you’re a witch, too. He’s married. She knows he’s married. She dares to desire him anyway. She’s in the wrong. Of course she’s in the wrong – IN THIS CONTEXT. The gag is the manipulation of the context: the damned thing is a synecdoche. One specific situation in which the woman can’t be right is representing a whole host of possible relationships.

Both men and women desire. Both men and women abandon people they’ve made love to, abruptly, maladroitly, driven by habit and by fear. This film, in which the man actually has a good reason to shake off his lover, makes it seem as though every man who’s ever wanted to leave a woman after one night is fully justified. He’s guilty of a misdemeanor perhaps, but the sympathy is all on his side.

Have you any idea what it’s like to watch this film as a woman? With whom is a woman supposed to identify? Not with the man, not by a long shot. I suppose some marketer thought we’d identify with the maligned wife – but who can identify with a victim, a minor character who doesn’t act but reacts, someone to whom things happen, an object? No, a woman as an active subject can identify only with Alex, beautiful mad Alex with her ringlets and her great big knife. These are our choices: an alien, a victim, a psychopathic killer.

Alex doesn’t play by the rules. The rules say that a man can sleep with a woman, then tell her to disappear, and remain completely in the right. If he could, he’d throw her on the transporter, set it for deep space, and put it on scatter. Yes, women do it too. And women are wrong.

Has it ever happened to you? Have you any idea what it’s like to have someone tell you you’re beautiful, that you’re wonderful, and touch you as you’ve never been touched before, and come inside of you with his mind and his body so that he can explore every convolution, read and feel everything in every hidden part of you? To know – they knew what they were doing when they assigned that verb all its territory. And then to have him disown you the next day – no more talk, no more touching, no more knowing, to refuse even to look at you, to turn his eyes away as if you were something evil, a virus that could land on his retina and be transported to his brain through the optic nerve.

Do you know you did this? Or was it a survival instinct so basic you could do it without even being conscious of it? I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me. To meet, to touch, to come together, learn all about each other, then split up because you decide you don’t want to bond, that’s one thing. But not even to want to get to know someone! Not even to care what she’s like – just to penetrate her and then will her out of existence, to do whatever it takes not to see her or hear her any more – this is murder. It’s to wish for her death. I know you’re married. I’m not going to call you, I’m not going to go to your office, I’m not going to go to your house, I’m not going to trash your car, I’m not going to kidnap your kids, and I’m not going to boil your goddamn fucking rabbit. You know I don’t even know your goddamn wife’s name? You’re so fucking paranoid you won’t tell me anything. It’s insulting, Josh, it’s humiliating!

Since Fatal Attraction we have all become Alex, every woman who ever wanted to maintain a connection that brought her to life. Alex makes it all right for you to cut me off. I just want to write to you, Josh.

I just want to touch your mind. I can’t touch you the way I want to, and I accept that, I have no choice. But I can reach you with my words, and you can still know me. Don’t you want to know me any more? Four years ago I first saw you, and you were making a whole bunch of people laugh, and you sought me out and said, “Hi, I’m Josh, how ya doin?” You wanted to know me, and now you don’t – it’s not right, it’s just not right. The affinity is there, the desire is there, desire like a wind, like a flood, like Niagara Falls. We can still touch each other. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Please, Josh. I beg you, please, don’t do this.

“How are Sex and Death?”

Sex: came at 6:30 this morning, massively, explosively, with your name in my mouth and your image in my eyes and your ghost on top of me.

Death: died at 4:30 this afternoon when I saw your death wish on my screen.

19:23 - 19 February 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

This would be funny if it weren’t so frightening. We talked for an hour in Sex and Death about Madame de Merteuil’s advice about letter-writing: a letter is always for someone else, and you should see the words with his eyes even as they come together in your mind – you should write not what you feel but what you want to make him feel. A big debate broke out, and camps formed between the feelies, who thought you should write to convey truth, and the lawyers, who thought you should write to make people think and do things. I love teaching Liaisons Dangereuses.

Another near-riot broke out between people who thought Merteuil was a sociopath and people who thought that by manipulating everyone she was really only doing what Valmont and the men were doing. As a scientist you’ll be interested to know that there was no correlation between the feelies/lawyers and the pro-Merteuil/anti-Merteuil factions. I poked and prodded each faction, in hope that deep truths would emerge, yet in the end it came down almost to personal taste, a personality test. People either wrote to purge (the feelies), or they wrote to bring about a given effect (the lawyers), and we just couldn’t get beyond that.

I’m a feelie. You – you hand out lawyerly advice, but you’re a closet feelie. Owen has got to be a feelie. Josh is a lawyer. I don’t think he’s ever typed a word into his keyboard without considering how I’d react to it. Me, I just go at it, and his reactions just happen, I don’t make them happen.

Well, he’s gonna react now! He made the mistake of asking me what I thought of Fatal Attraction, and inspired by Marcia, I let him know. Oh, you have dynamite working in your lab! Just set the charges so that she blasts away obstacles to knowledge, because she could blow the whole place sky-high. I love Marcia. Hearing her voice, I’m starting to write my book in my head. I think I will call it Boiling the Rabbit.

Oh so anyway, the funny-dangerous thing happened because I’m just learning to print from e-mail. For a long time I never even wanted to. It was sort of an honor system, creating the messages and then wiping it all clean, like those beautiful sidewalk paintings that get washed away after only a few days. Well, I tried to print what I was sending Josh, and it was about as personal and incriminating as you can get, and it wouldn’t stop coming out of the printer! It was a nightmare. I sent it once, “print stream,” good enough, but then it sent itself again, and then again, this big blurb flashing up on the screen to tell me it was printing when I hadn’t even told it to. Luckily it was late, and there was no one around, so I ran downstairs and turned the printer off and quit out.

I left campus and went to Starbucks for coffee, but then I started to have misgivings and went back to campus and turned the printer back on. It came out again! It rolled out, laughing at me, my own vituperative, incriminating words, available for the whole department to see, “Dear Josh ...” I sent a few innocuous things though the printer to clear it out, like roto-rooter. Probably it was some kind of safety mechanism, saving the last job before you kill the power, but the system’s safety could have been my ass. I am never printing again.

Last night I had this strange nightmare. I was in the Louvre, and I suddenly discovered I didn’t have my little black purse. I was trying to get back to the garderobe, and there were three of them, and I couldn’t get to any of the three. I scrambled up a dirt embankment with one of my students and jumped off what looked like a balcony into a sculpture hall below, but as I jumped it grew infinitely deeper, and I floated down eerily, breaking my fall with a slight bounce on each successive ledge. Finally I landed gracefully, as if I’d been holding a parasol. Then I remembered I’d forgotten to bring any luggage, and I was in Paris with no clothes, no money, no credit cards, not even a hairbrush. I woke up thinking over and over, “you’re not prepared, you’re not prepared, you’re not prepared, you’re not prepared.” But I had read the fifty pages of Liaisons and forty pages of Bovary and twenty pages of Nietzsche that I was going to teach.

11:13 - 20 February 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing

You need help, Leo. I think you should try to find a psychologist who can listen to you the way you need. Do not write to me again, I mean it.

17:17 - 20 February 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden

You murdering son of a bitch, I hope someone DOES boil your goddamn fucking rabbit.

10:17 - 21 February 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing

What you’re doing is sexual harassment. If you write to me again, I will contact the head of computing at your university, tell him I am receiving harassing messages from you, and ask him to look at your account.