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Visit from the top quark

The Tantalus Letters: Part I, Chapter 8

Laura Otis 7 January 2007

Only a wimp would run out on his quark to save his family, and wimps don’t get grants

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 8

17:21 - 21 February 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

Well, it’s happened just as you predicted. I lost it, really lost it and screamed at him in cyberspace. I was telling him everything I felt, practically begging him not to turn me away, and he tells me to go talk to a shrink. I just couldn’t believe it. I can’t believe it’s the same guy who told me I was so wonderful and he’d always dreamed about running his hands up my skirt. Was he lying? About the first part, I mean. I just feel completely, totally humiliated. The way he’s cutting me off now like a gangrened foot, I can’t believe he ever liked me or respected me at all. I’m diseased, and he’s severing the connection, and that’s it, no more to say. But I have so much more to say! He’s really threatening me, and I’m just as terrified as I am furious. If I write again, I could lose my job. He’s not kidding either. That steel I felt that frightened me a little bit when he pulled me against him (C’meah), it’s defensive as well as aggressive, and if I advance one more step, he’ll blow me away.

Power, I think I’m dealing with power, and I just hit the Maginot line. Great metaphor here, but it’s true – now I’m the Nazis trying to march into his life, and he’s going to blow me off the map. How did I become the Nazis? For the first time I understand how you feel. What did I do wrong? How did I become the aggressor, trying to invade and conquer and kill and destroy? I’m the bad guy? Funny – this is Michael Douglas’s line, and I’m supposed to be Glenn Close. Always they turn you into Glenn Close when all you want is to be connected to them in just the smallest way. Well, the Nazis won this one, and what I want more than anything now is a way to march around the Maginot line. If I’m going to be a Nazi and evil, at least I get to be smart. For awhile they were smart.

19:07 - 24 February 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Owen Bauer

Are you there? I know I shouldn’t be breaking radio silence at a time like this, but I wanted to be sure you’re all right. How is everything?

19:15 - 24 February 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

Leo! I am hearing you, but I’m desperate. This grant proposal has to be postmarked in 4 days. Just DON’T WRITE TO HIM. Hang on! Write to me, write to Marcia. We want to hear from you!

20:45 - 25 February 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

I’m sorry to have taken so long to write. Thanks for the valentine! I was waiting for something to happen before I wrote to you again but finally decided this was the wrong strategy. Things are happening all the time, just nothing big enough to qualify as something.

They’ve found a bed in a nursing home, and we’re negotiating financially. To get her in at all, Trish had to understate her behavioral patterns – they like patients who just lie there and gurgle, and one who’s mobile, verbal, kicks and smears shit around is their worst nightmare. Money-wise, it looks as though Medicaid is the way to go. If you do that, the person or guardians can’t have more than $70,000. in assets, which is no problem for us, since we’ll probably never see that much money in our lives, but Trish’s mother has that much. Either way, the house has to be sold.

Her sister continues to criticize, accuse and sabotage with every step. She’s such a vile human being. She never wants to do anything herself, but she always wants to be involved in everything, and screwing up other people’s attempts to solve problems gives her a feeling of power. She’ll come over when Trish is giving Jeannie her dinner and the mother has escaped and is making her way across the yard. Trish says it’s like Murphy’s Law: she takes care of one, the other one creates a crisis, and either way, the sister always shows up just as the chaos hits its peak: the mother making her way down the icy driveway, for some reason clutching a pair of scissors and muttering about cutting them all up, or else poor Jeannie crying because she’s hungry and bored and mommy is busy cleaning up the mess grandma made. The sister sounds off about that day’s chaos, watches while Trish cleans it up – and then leaves.

I never quite know what keeps Trish going, but she always does. She’s a bulldozer going over rough terrain, leveling problems one by one – and now I’m one of them. I have complete confidence that she’ll do it: park the mother where she needs to be parked, soothe the sister, be kind to Jeannie, sort through the house, clean up all the mess. She has never run out of gas.

I shouldn’t be telling you this, since I’ve vowed never to talk about our personal relationship, but she got me through a lot of hard times years ago when I was ready to give up on life altogether. If only – I feel like I’m a problem, just one more bad thing – happening to her that she has to deal with. I even feel as though she sees Jeannie this way sometimes, although no one could be a better mother. She just never seems to need or want any help. Now that I’ve screwed everything up, it’s almost as though she predicted it, as though she expected it.

I can take the nightly phone call because I know the hell she’s living in. I know she’s living mainly on ice cream, and I know that everything she’s telling me, I deserve to hear. Do you look at my Victoria’s Secret catalogues, she asked me last night, do you picture her in all that stuff? (Actually I’d never thought of it, but now that she mentions it, it seems like a good idea.)

Pretty soon we’re going to have to make a decision. The mother can either go into a home in New Jersey, or we can put her into one here in Chicago near us. With the sister, of course, Trish loses either way: if Mom gets parked in New Jersey, she’s abandoning her and dumping all the work on the sister; if Mom gets parked in Chicago, she’s excluding the sister from all the decisions and taking her mother away from her.

Dismantling the house is proving to be a painful adventure in archaeology. You’re never conscious of all the stuff you accumulate over a lifetime until you suddenly have to get rid of it all. It’s a lot harder to get rid of it than to get it. Records! What are you supposed to do with records? Who wants them? Clothes you can generally give away, but what about stuff like dishes, beat-up furniture, curtains, garden tools? If only a house could just decompose like a body when you die. Actually I suppose it could, just no one would want to look at it.

So as I said, a decision. I want to get Jeannie out of there – that grim, half-stripped house is no place for her. Trish knows I’m right, but she always finds some excuse to keep her there. It’s as if she thinks I’m infected now, and I’ll contaminate my daughter with some disease.

I’m getting increasingly worried that maybe Trish isn’t planning to come back. If she doesn’t, I don’t know what I’ll do. This is terrible to say, but it’s Jeannie I really couldn’t live without. Whatever it is that makes you want to get up in the morning, she’s it for me, watching her grow and change. I can see I’m going to have to fight to get her back, and I’m doing everything I possibly can to convince Trish I’m still a decent human being.

This is hard since, inspired by my wife, I picked up a catalogue last night and began imagining you in all sorts of things, and right now a virtual you is sitting on my console wearing them, legs wide apart, and I have a hard-on like you wouldn’t believe. I wonder if she could be right after all. She almost always is. I’ve always been very attracted to her, everything has always gone great in that department. What happened in Germany came as a complete surprise, yet it seems as though something that powerful and overwhelming has to have been a long time in the making. You know what happens when I see you. If only I could have it all – be worthy of Trish and a great Dad to Jeannie and still feel the foam of your clean good wishes. I miss all three of you.

In keeping with some other law, not Murphy’s, work is taking off. Work always seems to go inversely proportional to life. We’ve got my top quark. “Got” is a funny word – it existed for about 10-19 seconds, but we’ve finally got the evidence – traces of the tiniest flicker that we’re scrambling to inscribe so that we can call it existence.

Now that things are looking better, Rhonda is riding me even more. She calls me “lover-boy.” Where is she getting this? You know that physics is a macho thing, and me, I can do the physics, but I’m just not a macho kind of guy. There are so few women who make it in this business, the ones who do are more macho than the men. She’s really good, really bright, so they promoted her as fast as they could to prove they’re not sexist. Now she’s running the show, and they can have it all because with her, physics stays safely in the hands of machismo.

It’s as if she can smell weakness. It reminds me of when I was a kid and the guys used to call me a faggot and beat me up. Every time she says “lover-boy,” I hear “faggot.” It’s as if she knew. She’s picked me out because she senses I’m a fissure in the housing, a weak point through which something might escape. Today it was “How are those calculations, lover-boy, you ready to publish yet?” Christ! How do you answer that?

Dave and the other guys think it’s a riot. They even think she may have a thing for me, but I think she just wants to get me the hell out of here and replace me with a more hermetic personality. Maybe she thinks she’s motivating me, and these are her management techniques. I’m doing everything I can to keep her from finding out about my home situation, since this would just reinforce her notion of me as a wimp and make her more sadistic. Well, I can’t put it off any longer. Time to make the nightly phone call.

All my love,


20:30 - 27 February 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Owen Bauer

What’s happening, lover-boy? God, that’s horrible. I can’t believe she calls you that.

Our Chair just sleeps with the grad students and leaves them depressed for life. Other than that, he treats me pretty decently – I think his respect for our work may even have increased since the hookup with my student Marcia. The imminent uncoupling had me almost more scared than it did her, but he seems to have retained his interest in the cat’s occipital cortex even after dumping the woman who inspired it. He’s always asking questions at beer hour, how’s it going, how are the cells, and he is really bright.

But nobody here sees me as a lover. Should I be thankful? You’re just about the only one who ever has. I still haven’t figured out why or how you do it, but I’m grateful.

Given that this may never happen to me again, the next thing I’m going to say may seem completely insane, but I think you should try going to New Jersey. I think about Jeannie all the time. It must be so wonderful to have your own little girl. How horrible it must be for her out there, with a grandma who’s crazy, a mother who’s hurting, and an aunt determined to drive her mother nuts. I feel half-responsible for it – look what happens when I finally get somebody to see me as a lover. I should stick to the kitties. And you – you must miss her like crazy. Why don’t you just show up? It would be harder for Trish to say no to your face. I can see it all happening by default, and it’s such a shame. Save the kid!

Me, I can keep going on the images you’ve given me for a long time and on any new virtual ones you can supply. I am so flattered! I still can’t believe you see me that way. It makes me want to laugh. Oh – gotta go – Dawn has some new EM pictures to show me.

21:45 - 3 March 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

I appreciate the pep talk, especially coming from you. I’ve thought of it, of course, but Rhonda is after me like you wouldn’t believe. She wants me to publish as quickly as possible, and I think we’re not ready. I want to do some more experiments to confirm some things, but of course she’s against it: there are rumors they may have seen the top quark at Brookhaven, and we could get scooped. So she’s dealing with it by giving Dave all the accelerator time, so that I have nothing to do but write. They seem to get along pretty well – I can’t imagine how, but I often see them talking together. And she stops in several times a day to check my progress, dropping hints about fellowships and how you don’t get them renewed without publications.

I wonder how she got this way. I wonder what her family is like. I wonder what she does when she goes home at night. Dave is certain she’s into S & M and swears what she really wants is for me to tie her up. Go for it, he says, then just leave her there, bound and gagged, and we’ll all swear she ran off to Brazil or something, and Murray can be Chair. I’m starting to consider it.

As you can imagine, I’m barely writing anything. Anyway I can’t go because Dave, who feels sorry for me, is promising to give me any accelerator time he can spare, so that I could get access at any time and can’t go away. Even if he weren’t such a good guy, it would be the end of me if Rhonda knew I’d run out before the article was done. Only a wimp would run out on his quark to save his family, and wimps don’t get grants.

I have managed to sneak out to look at nursing homes around here, which is my real hope. If Trish can bring her mother out here once the house is sold, it will help anchor us in Chicago, and I think Trish will feel a lot better if she’s away from her sister the emotional leech.

Have you ever been to one of these places? It’s terrifying, the thought that we may all end up there someday. They smell of steam and bland food and sometimes of urine. The “residents” (inmates, I think of them) sit around in wheelchairs with their mouths hanging open, and every now and then a loud, squealing alarm goes off when someone tries to stand up by himself.

Herself, I should say. At least 90% of them are women. What can I say, you’re a superior model, you outlast us, although looking at these places I see no real advantage in it. They’re all crazy in different ways. One will be banging endlessly on the table, another keeps calling for something, but nobody can understand her because she only speaks Polish, another is clutching an enormous blue rabbit, and another just keeps asking every fifteen seconds, “is anybody there?” The nurses are good people and try hard to take care of them, but they can’t pacify each one every minute. So they just keep calling out – it makes me think about your neurons firing – why every fifteen seconds? “Is anybody there?” I actually timed it, and it was perfectly regular. I wonder if it’s a circuit that’s normally deactivated.

If it were me, I’d be calling for you. I’m not supposed to be thinking these thoughts, but the harder I try to write the article, and the more I miss Jeannie, the more I want you. It may be the last active circuit when my brain dies someday. Whatever it is, my body/mind have assigned it top priority: life support.

Good news! I just got off the phone with Trish right now, and she’s coming out with Jeannie to talk face to face. Her mother is in a home on a trial basis, and the house looks good enough to be shown. She says she’s sorry to have been holding out on me like this and wants to see how it feels to be together again. Two days! They’ll be here in two days! I feel as if I’ve been on death row and the governor just pardoned me! I can’t tell you how this feels. She even put Jeannie on the phone, and she said, “Hi Daddy.”

I don’t know what to tell you except what you already know: I want you, and I love my family. You mustn’t count on me. My joy and relief at this moment make me realize this. We’re going to look at nursing homes here and try to spend some time together. I picture you out there in your lab, at your terminal, with your cats, and I wish I could hold you. But I should go: I’m going to write an article.