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Conquests as a function of time

The Tantalus Letters: Part I, Chapter 9

Laura Otis 14 January 2007

You’re always in competition with everybody, always being watched…If somebody tells you you’re smart or you’re beautiful or your work is good science, you just melt.

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

18:12 - 4 March 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Marcia Pinto

I found your comments on Attraction truly inspirational. Sorry to have been out of touch – I’ve been overwhelmed by work. I just wish I could tap into every woman the way I’ve tapped into you. I get the feeling we could all be one great big brain, but something keeps us from firing in sync, as Rebecca would probably say.

I can feel this book bubbling, thanks to the snakes and lizards you’re throwing into the cauldron. It’s supposed to be about female desire, but really it’s about female rage, female rage and female desire which I’m starting to think are the same thing. Rage is the sound of desire unfulfilled, and I begin to hear it everywhere. So far you’re an enormous help.

Can you keep going? Have you read The Crucible? I need to know what you think about that. And there’s more: real life, if you’re willing. You said you had a lot to say. I’m holding out a mic here: talk to me, Marcia, talk to me.

21:36 - 4 March 1997
From: Marcia Pinto
To: Lee Ann Downing

God, I wish I could do English and write about female rage. Do you really get to do anything you want in English? We just get to stick electrodes into things and try to figure out which is the signal and which is the noise.

I don’t know how much I can help you with The Crucible. I read it in high school, I think, but the real book has been erased by the movie I just saw. It was incredible. I know why you’re asking me, because it’s amazing how much like Fatal Attraction it is. I can’t tell whether the story always was this way or whether they played up the similarity because Fatal Attraction has now created a mold for every movie about adultery.

Same deal. It’s even harder to identify with little Winona Rider pointing fingers and calling everyone a witch than with Alex leading the terrified kid around the amusement park. The married guy has fucked her and dumped her, as usual, and she goes berserk and destroys everything like a supernova. No, not like a supernova, more like a virus, because it’s a progressive, self-propagating destruction.

The guy is so virtuous, so repentant, such a lover of truth. He’s hiding one thing, one huge, ugly, festering thing, but you have to root for him anyway. The girl takes the rap and does all the lying for both of them. Same as with Alex, you feel guilty even for feeling sorry for her.

There’s this one scene that really got me, when they meet alone in the woods, sort of a showdown. You can see how happy she is, she thinks he wants her again, he can’t deny that he wants her, her little body just beams triumph, and she lets her pretty brown hair spill down over her shoulders. And then he grabs her, shakes her, curses her, calls her a whore, and throws her on the ground, all that pretty brown hair against the cold, wet dirt. “We never touched,” he says. These guys, they make their own truth, and they believe it.

That’s about all I have to say about The Crucible, but if you’re really serious about real life, I don’t mind telling you. What do I have to lose? I can be an experimental animal, we can win fame and glory, and you can write the greatest book ever about female rage! I suppose we could get sued, but I’ll let you worry about that. It’s like Winona in the dirt: the guys make the laws, the guys make the truth. They screw you, they sue you.

The guy who screwed me was Chair of our department. Until a few weeks ago, I was living with him. Then I was living for awhile on Tony’s couch, because my guy decided he’d rather screw Bonnie, this new student in Gordon’s lab, and as of this week I’ve moved into a house with a bunch of people from genetics.

At the time I never saw it as screwing. It lasted about six months, and what kills me is that at the beginning he was so nice to me. I don’t know what English is like, but around here you just never hear anything good about yourself. You’re always in competition with everybody, always being watched, and every day you have to show what you’re made of. You have to have a great mind, a great body, and big balls, and you keep having to prove it all the time. You just get tired. If somebody tells you you’re smart or you’re beautiful or your work is good science, you just melt.

And if it’s him! He’s really a well-known guy, and his work on serotonin receptors is amazing. He has about twenty guys in his group, really hot DNA guys. They make point mutations to figure out exactly where the transmitter binds and how much of the protein they can knock out before it stops working. They should have it sequenced before long. To have a guy like that tell you you do good science – shit, who wouldn’t want to believe it?

I fell in love with his work before I fell in love with him, but he’s a very attractive guy, no fat anywhere, great posture, moves well, eyes that see everything. I just couldn’t resist believing. A few people tried to warn me in a nice way, but I thought they were jealous. I figured they just hated him because he was so hot. I couldn’t believe he could really be interested in me. It was such a rush. He would come over to me at department parties and beer hour and ask me what I was working on. Sometimes he would smile, and I would smile back when I passed him in the hall, as if we were sharing a secret joke, but I never knew what it was.

It happened so gradually I never knew it was happening, really. I would hang out in his lab and talk with them all about the new mutation in the region they thought could be the binding site, and then we would all go out for pizza, except then it was just me and him, and we would go for Chinese food, or we could take it back to his place to watch a video.

It happened the night we got this really scary video about twin brothers who are mad gynecologists and design weird curled instruments for mutant women. I screamed and covered my eyes as they started to operate, and he laughed and put his arm around me so I could bury my face against his chest and hide my eyes better. After that he kept his arm around me, and when the crash of static hit because the tape had run out, he was on top of me on the rug, and we laughed our heads off as he grabbed desperately for the remote. He told me he felt so good with me, so natural, so relaxed.

After that I went over every night, and we would talk science, and sometimes on weekends we’d go mountain-biking together. His lab accepted me, and even though I was a physiologist, they would listen to my ideas about the receptor. They even seemed to like being hooked up with a physiologist, somebody who listened to real, live neurons every day.

It was weird for Becky, me sleeping with her boss, but it was also good publicity. I got Killington interested in synaptic connections, and he’s a really brilliant guy, so he started giving us all these ideas about experiments to do. While it lasted, it was – paradise, nonstop science. I wish I could be like him. He really does think about science 24 hours a day, and his mind is incredible, always questioning everything. I would feel stupid in comparison, sometimes, always believing, taking things for granted. He kept telling me how bright I was and how interesting my work was and how much I turned him on. He wasn’t kidding. Our record was five times in one twenty-four hour period, a time being defined as an independently inspired bout, separated from the previous one by an interval of at least an hour. You know I still feel the same way about the guy? Why doesn’t he feel the same way about me?

I think the trouble started when I moved in. I’d been basically living there anyway, but when I moved the last of my stuff out of the house with the med students, something happened. He would have to go to all sorts of university functions and dinners and receptions and things, and here I’d be with him, this grad student, and they’d all be talking about giving out funding and mortgages and kids and fancy restaurants, and I only knew how to talk about grad student stuff, about getting funding and where to get the best burrito and which professor was the biggest asshole. Sometimes I’d have to switch languages in the same day, listen to complaints in the afternoon and then have dinner with the asshole at night. I was always afraid of forgetting which language I was speaking and giving something away. I was a double agent. I could tell he was uncomfortable, too, afraid of security leaks and conflicts of interest.

As long as we all talked science, we were on common ground, but sometimes I’d come up and they’d be talking science, and they’d change the subject. I was a woman, a pleasure machine. I was one thing, and science was another. It did give me sort of a sick thrill to see the fading, thickening wives of the ones who’d stayed married and feel the men looking at me and fantasizing and thinking, God, how lucky Killington is, if only I had the nerve...

He got rid of his wife, a real controlling bitch. She has the kids in Seattle now, but they never see him. She kept telling the kids what an asshole he was until they were convinced. She never appreciated what he was doing in the lab. Now I wonder. What he’s done with me makes me reconsider everything he’s ever said. Maybe his definition of a controlling bitch is someone who gets pissed when you dump her.

Well, at any rate, I gradually got the idea it annoyed him, having my name constantly associated with his. The whole department knew about it. It irked him, having to plan how to include me when people invited him to do something. I got the sense he was embarrassed about always having me around, and we made an agreement to avoid any sort of intimate contact in public. The definition of intimate contact expanded until it included conversations.

We were leading a double life, avoiding each other in the lab and then suddenly trying to switch modes and become lovers at home. We saw each other less and less. Becky had been concerned I wasn’t working enough when I was spending evenings with him, and once the first rush was over, he felt wrong about not being in the lab, too. So finally we were hardly seeing each other at all, coming home in the middle of the night and crawling into bed.

Then one morning at breakfast he said, “Marcia, I’m sorry. This just isn’t working. I want to see other people, and I think you should, too.” I remember staring at the scrambled eggs and raisin toast I’d made until everything dissolved into grayness, just like they say in the textbook. Did you know you have to keep moving your eyes and changing the images going in, or everything dissolves?

It was horrible. I cried so hard I practically howled, and he really did try to comfort me. He said it destroyed things if you tried to hold onto them, and the real beauty of life was its turbulence and the way, with all the wild, random motion, particles could collide and bond and separate and, temporarily, you could get little regions of order. You couldn’t force order, though – that did the system an injustice and showed a limited understanding. You just had to let the order organize itself and watch the beauty of it.

A new patch of order had emerged in the joyous non-linear system of his life, I learned the next week: Bonnie. I went out for margaritas with the female grad students, and we got really drunk, and they told me what nobody had been able to make me believe before, that since he left his wife six years ago, he’s gone through at least one new grad student or lab tech every year. We laughed our heads off about it, and at one point we plotted the data on a napkin, the length of each relationship vs. time to see how he was doing. The trend was that they were getting shorter. Mine came in fourth. The mean length was eight months, with a standard deviation of plus or minus two weeks. Then we made bets on Bonnie. I have ten dollars down that she’ll go four months. They tried to get me to talk about what he was like in bed, but I wouldn’t. When I got home, I threw up.

I hope you’ll put this in your book, I really do. He doesn’t have a rabbit to kill, but he has a fish tank. I remember looking up at the fish swimming around when I was upside down on his Persian rug. How about if I put Tetrodotoxin in his fish tank?

21:13 - 10 March 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

I can’t believe this is happening. She wants to divorce me. That’s what she came home to tell me. I can’t believe it. I never knew she was this good an actress. At the airport she seemed genuinely happy to see me, and Jeannie was all over me like a puppy and wanted me to carry her around. She was laughing, and I was so sure she was happy when she saw the house and told me I’d given her living proof of the second law of thermodynamics. Order has always been her concept, not mine.

She managed to keep this up until Jeannie went to bed, and I was feeling so relieved that everything was all right again. We were on the couch talking after dinner, same as always, when she turned to me, and the smile that had looked so real faded from her face. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about this,” she told me, “and I’m sure.” My heart was galloping toward the next sentence, eager for the reprieve that seemed to be coming. And then she said it: “I don’t think we should be together. What happened isn’t going to go away. I can’t trust you any more. I’ve thought about it, and I think that I would be better off by myself than with you. I just don’t need you.” She has always been direct.

I lost my breath for a moment, and I couldn’t speak. When I finally could, it was of Jeannie. What about her? She was half Trish, half me. Didn’t that give us a reason to try to stay together? She was very quiet now, nothing like that terrible first time, but I could see that her disgust ran much deeper. She asked me how this had failed to occur to me – twice – when I’d climbed into bed with another woman.

What really got her was that it had happened twice. All that time I’d been in Germany, and she’d been home alone, pregnant, me telling her on the phone how much I missed her – and it was true, I did – I’d been touching someone else. Her clear, civil words were all the more terrible for the obscene details and sarcastic jabs I knew she was repressing. I’d lived with her four years since that first time without ever revealing a word; only the second time I’d felt a need to confess. It sounded like an immune response: had four years of hidden guilt antibody production been necessary to make something happen with the second exposure to the foreign body? If it had happened twice, it could happen again.

I swore to her that it would never happen again, I’m sorry to have to tell you, while inside, even as I was speaking the words, I couldn’t be sure it was true. I could tell she was suppressing a bitter laugh. I’ve never been able to hide the truth. Someone once told me that whatever I’m feeling is always written all over my face, and you can watch the thoughts pass like clouds if you sit and study it. Trish has always been my best reader, and she saw the truth.

I swore that for Jeannie I’d give up anything, that I loved her more than anything else in the world. Here she lost control, but what came out was sorrow, not rage. “What about me?” she asked. “What would you give up for me?” She had me. “Does it really feel like such a sacrifice?”

And as she sat there, reading my face, she saw you drift before my eyes. I was seeing you the first time I ever put my arms around you, little strands of your hair blowing loose in the moist German wind and your eyes sparkling in the night. There was no way I could hide it. I’ve loved Jeannie more than I’ve ever loved Trish, from the moment she was born, and I wanted you more than I wanted her. If I didn’t want her, or even if I were just subject to lapses, why should she want me? What good was I as a husband?

I fought for my daughter and for my life there on that couch. Had she ever needed me? I asked. Why had she wanted to marry me, anyway, five years ago? Wasn’t there anything left of what we’d built up together? She told me straight that she had never really needed anybody. Her father had died when she was very young (this I knew), her mother had worked all the time, and she’d taken care of the house and her crazy sister (her sister has always been crazy) from the time she was ten. She had always been fat, and guys had rarely paid any attention to her. She had liked me from the first because no guy had ever cared so much about her feelings and because, she said, she’d never in her life seen anyone with such a beautiful face. Also, she admitted, it seemed as though I needed someone to take care of me, and that was what she could give, that was her thing, taking care of people. Even on the day we married, she’d never been able to believe that such a beautiful guy would really want to be with her.

And she’d been right. Once Jeannie was born four years ago, I’d pretty much ceased to pay attention to her. I was almost always in the lab, even at night, and when I did come home, it was Jeannie I wanted to see. These past few weeks, she’d been able to see it all. I was divided like a pie chart between physics, Jeannie, and you; she had thought it was just physics and Jeannie, but now it was even clearer why she’d had no piece of the pie.

Know what decided me, she said, smiling bitterly, it was this physicist joke that a friend of mine from high school told me. I ran into her out there about a week ago. She’s married to a biochemist, and they joke about physicists a lot. This physicist comes home at three in the morning, really out of it, his clothes all messed up, lipstick on his shirt, and his wife demands to know where he’s been. “Well, (hic) gee, honey,” he says, “I was out with the guys, and I ran into this old girlfriend, and one thing led to another...” His wife looks at him, outraged, and screams, “You’re LYING! You were in the LAB!!!”

Again she had me. I’m in the lab too much to keep a wife and not enough to keep a job. Therapy? I asked feebly. She shook her head. She told me there was nothing new for her to learn about me, and she could never respect me again. She was filing for divorce on the grounds of adultery. They would serve me with the papers soon – at the lab.

Jeannie needed both of us, and although it turned her stomach to think of her with me, maybe meeting you, she wasn’t going to deny her the right to see me and deprive her of having a father out of spite. She was moving back to New Jersey permanently, where she’d already lined up some possible jobs and daycare centers and where she could look after her mother and sister. Jeannie was coming with her; after that, custody was negotiable. I sat there in shock and let her dictate terms to me. Any argument I brought up to make her stay with me she turned against me, even the argument that I loved her. “You know you don’t mean that,” she said with a smile. “Saying it won’t make it happen.”

So I’m here in my hole, in shock. She went around with her usual efficiency, packing their things, making arrangements at daycare and work. Within three days it was done, and they were gone. I even helped. Jeannie doesn’t know yet. She thinks they’re just going back to grandma’s for awhile.