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Frying his fish

The Tantalus Letters: Part II, Chapter 4

Laura Otis 11 February 2007

The fact that you yourself have not succeeded in combining good physics with a family life does not mean that it cannot be done

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

21:45 - 21 April 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Owen Bauer

The force of your honesty and your human feeling would inspire faith in anyone, and from me you can be sure not only of trust but of undying respect and admiration. I’m trying hard to think, and I really can’t imagine anything you could do that would turn me against you. I trust you because of what you are, not what you do, and that isn’t going to change. If you ever think you’re capable of nothing good, I can assure you that what you’ve done for me alone ensures you’ve accomplished something beautiful here in this world. You’ve given me a few hours of happiness so intense that no matter what happens to me now, I’ll fight to keep on living in hope that I’ll know such moments again. Hardly anyone has ever seen me as a woman, and sometimes I really wonder, but you’ve made me appreciate what I am, and I hope I can do the same for you. You’ve made me love being alive.

Well, I’m glad to hear you’re eating. But what I really want to ask you about is Rhonda. I’m intrigued with this woman. Maybe I can help you deal with her – the gender frontier, that’s my territory. What’s her last name? Where’s she from? What does she look like?

00:27 - 24 April 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

Writing is the last thing I should be doing now, but I have to. I just got done talking to Rhonda. Well, “talking to Rhonda” isn’t exactly the right words for it – being threatened and bullied, then vomiting everything out all over the place, that would be more like it. It’s actually getting to be funny, and it would be if it were happening to someone else. What kind of job should a person have who, when cornered, can think of nothing to say but the truth? Not physics, that’s for sure. In physics you have to tell the truth when you do it but lie in order to be able to.

She’s not usually around this late at night, so she really took me by surprise. Just as I was starting to write to you, she burst in and demanded to see what I’d written in the past week. I said Dave had it, which is true, and she asked me, who’s writing this article, lover boy, you or him? I suspect she knows he’s covering for me and has been looking for hard evidence. Technically there’s nothing wrong with his helping me, but collaborations have always bugged her, especially any she hasn’t set up herself. Possibly she smells a conspiracy.

Tonight the “lover boy” hit me like a wet towel in the face, and something happened, I don’t know what. I just suddenly stopped caring. I suddenly wasn’t afraid of her any more. “Don’t call me that,” I said, and I could see her slow, spreading smile as she prepared for combat she seemed to have been desiring for a long time. I shouldn’t be so sensitive, she said, it was just a joke, take it easy. What really concerned her, and what had led her to use it, was my inability to find a balance between my personal life and my work. I asked her how well she was doing in that respect. It was fun – it was as if I were listening to someone else talk to her. I have no idea how I was coming up with these things. I just didn’t care.

As I watched her conceal her rage (I’d really landed one that time), I thought of what Dave had said about how she was actually attracted to me and wanted me to overpower her. It was inconceivable. She barely seems like a human being, let alone a woman I’d want to make love to – but I guess what he’s talking about has nothing to do with love. “Look,” she said, “you know the truth. You’re not cutting it here. This is big time, not some 9 to 5 job to support your family. You put anything before this, you don’t belong here. There are a hundred guys out there willing to give twice what you give. You’ve got the brains, but your passion is going someplace else.” I asked her what she thought passion was and where hers was going. She never hesitated. “Passion is wanting something bad enough to give everything,” she said. “And I want this group to do good physics. I give everything, and you give everything, aw yawr outa heah.” Her New York accent always gets stronger when she’s trying to intimidate you.

I stood up. I had been sitting in my chair looking up at her, feeling like Don Giovanni arguing with the statue. She is statuesque, maybe five nine or five ten and built, but as you know, I’m quite a bit taller. It didn’t phase her at all – she just mocked me with her eyes. “How did you get this kind of power?” I asked her. “You know nothing, nothing about motivating people. We DO do good physics here, but it’s in spite of you, not because of you.” Her voice was level, disgusted, as she told me my attitude was completely unprofessional.

Her eyes kept going to the picture of Jeannie, all blond curls and happy smile, over my desk. I finally answered her accusing stare. “The fact that you yourself have not succeeded in combining good physics with a family life,” I told her, “does not mean that it cannot be done.” She smiled at me, a chilling, mocking smile, as she retorted that she wished I could think as clearly when doing my job as when defending my lack of commitment to it. Her personal life was not relevant here.

That’s when it happened. I wanted to hit her right on her square, bronze jaw, but instead the truth baled out of me of its own accord – I was crashing and burning, and the truth just baled out. I told her she wouldn’t need to worry about my family taking time away from physics any more, because I no longer had a family. Trish had left, taking Jeannie with her. This phased her. I saw the impulses run across her face (she does have a striking face, in her own way) and the mocking smile disappear. She considered for a nanosecond that maybe I would have more time for physics, then immediately rejected the idea realizing that the misery involved in the ensuing reaction would rob me of what little worth I had. There was also scorn – whatever she may think of families and traditional gender roles, she was disgusted that I hadn’t been man enough to keep my wife. And she also felt sorry for me, even as she hated me for being a loser. I could see it there, treading water in the contempt, and drowning. Sympathy is dangerous for her, I could sense. It keeps you from destroying losers, who crop up everywhere and undermine your ability to achieve. People like me are an infectious disease to her.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know.” I just looked at her. “You write a good article,” she said, “FAST, and show me what you’ve got, and I’ll take it into consideration in the rankings. Just put this behind you and write.” I told her I WAS writing a good article. “Right,” she said, “you do that.” And she was gone.

The shock has hit me only afterwards. I think she respects me more for standing up to her and less for having lost my family, so I’ve come out even. This most likely means I’ll be out of a job by the end of the year. But who cares. I’ve somehow always felt like an impostor here anyway.

Oh, about Rhonda. I don’t think her background is very important, but if you’re interested, her name is Rhonda Tiedemann, and she’s from somewhere around New York where they say things like “yawr outa heah.” Looks? Somehow the concept seems not even to apply to her: tall, athletic, good figure, I guess, not a pretty face, but dresses well. Not someone I’ve ever considered to be in my mating pool. Please write me something from the world where there are sane people, and thanks so much for your kind words about me.

8:30 - 25 April 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

This Rhonda is scary. Her last name is Tiedemann, and he says she’s tall and well put together, sort of like the bionic woman. Is she the one? I wonder how she got that way. She really hates him, and I can’t understand how anyone could.

9:01 - 25 April 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

Shit! That’s her! I have to teach in four minutes, and there’s a stack of papers coming in. He’s going to have to get out, because with her in charge, he doesn’t have a prayer.

19:06 - 28 April 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Marcia Pinto

How goes it in the lab? The book on female rage keeps growing in my head, and each new example keeps leading me in new directions. As soon as this semester ends, I’ll be free to write, and I can’t wait. I envision days and days at my desk, watching the oak tree and listening to the ice cream truck and writing about our myths of women on the rampage.

To be ready for this, I need to ask one more question: what makes you maddest? What do you think makes a woman angriest? In this book, you get to be Freud, the “approximately normal person.” If you ever do put tetrodotoxin into the fishtank, what will it be that puts you over the edge? What is this stuff, anyway?

20:20 - 28 April 1997
From: Marcia Pinto
To: Lee Ann Downing

It’s great to hear from you! We’ve been working non-stop here, trying to write up this new finding on how darkness affects synapse formation before Becky heads for Germany in a month. She’s going to be there for about two months, studying this new technique they have of intracellular recording.

Oh, before I forget, tetrodotoxin is a sodium channel blocker. If you put it anywhere near a neuron, no sodium ions can go across the membrane, and it can’t form an action potential. This is real good if it’s your lab and you want to study other ionic currents in isolation, and it’s real bad if it’s your neuron. It would fry his fish. I may yet do it – he just needs to do one more thing to, as you say, put me over the edge.

Let’s see, what would do it? Maybe if he walked by me just one more time as if I weren’t there. What gets me is when they think you don’t feel. Guys have this amazing ability to shut feelings down when they think the feelings are not good for them: getting angry won’t do me any good, so I won’t get angry; wanting this woman isn’t good for me, so I won’t want this woman any more. And so he just doesn’t. They decide what they’re going to feel, and then they feel it. And they assume you can do the same thing. They tell you to do the same thing, feel the emotions that are convenient.

But this still isn’t it. It’s something about the wanting – yeah – it’s when they think you don’t want. It’s when they deny your desire – not deny WHAT you desire, but deny THAT you desire. It’s when they see the connection between you and them as an arrow going one way, from them to you, so that when their desire stops, the connection instantly disappears. They can’t seem to believe that we want them as much as they want us, or that we can’t stop wanting them on demand. When he walks by, greets the people next to me, and looks right through me, I really start to wonder whether I exist at all. Wanting someone, wanting anything, having feelings, feelings that you generate yourself, that’s existing, and when they deny your desire, they deny your existence. I don’t think I want to think about this too much more. Better go back to the synapses. Ask me more questions, this is fun.

18:08 - 29 April 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Marcia Pinto

I find this really fascinating. I think this is it. I think you have it – how are you supposed to act when people refuse to accept that you have desires at all? How can you prove it to them? How can you not end up smashing something? But I’m still concerned about being fair to the guys, much as I want to go on the rampage myself.

Imagine some dork adores you and lusts after you, and you tell him you’re not interested. Aren’t you also denying his desire? Aren’t you also denying his existence? What would you say is the difference? How do you treat guys when you want to get rid of them? Also, if a guy doesn’t want you any more, there’s nothing you can really do about it, is there? I mean, you can’t make a guy want you. If a guy is trying to get rid of you and you hold on with a death grip, I can imagine him asking, “What do you want from me?” How would you answer that question?

20:06 - 29 April 1997
From: Marcia Pinto
To: Lee Ann Downing

Glad I checked my e-mail – this is a great break from choosing which scan to use as a figure. OK, so Case One: desired by a dork. Well, I wouldn’t ever encourage him in the first place. I wouldn’t have sex with him just because he wants to, that’s for sure. And when I told him I wouldn’t go out with him, I’d say I was sorry. It’s all in the way you look at someone, I think. I would look at the dork as if he were really there. A guy I actually did like and had been with for awhile, I’d tell him the truth, but I’d still l talk to him and look at him unless he treated me incredibly badly. I wouldn’t treat him as if he weren’t there, even if I wished he weren’t.

Case Two: I desire him, he dumps me. Sounds familiar. What do I want? To feel significant, I think. To have him smile at me when he sees me and tell me with his eyes that he remembers. I would feel significant if I could believe he’d always remember. Killington hasn’t smiled at me since he told me to get lost. Maybe he thinks I would come panting after him if he smiled at me. But that would mean that he does believe I have desires, after all. How can a guy be afraid of something and not believe in it at the same time? But I think that’s what they do.

19:33 - 30 April 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

He still won’t answer. We’re doing the Lebanese thing here, me shooting at him, him not allowing himself to shoot back, yet somehow he has all the power anyway, and I’m the outlaw. Spring is torture this year. I want him so badly I could scream, and I wake up at 3:30 every morning and writhe and sweat for a few hours in my bed. Then I get up and teach Mann, always Mann for the end of the semester.

My neuro-endocrine system is on a hair trigger – I see a bush of brown hair and a blue cotton shirt and I start as though I’ve been hit – like those baby birds that will follow a stick with a big red dot on it because they think it’s their mother. Funny how in all our eagerness to see what we want to see and be near the people we’ve bonded with, our whole sensory systems are set up so that the most minimal cues are enough. We see them when they’re barely there, and when they’re not there at all. I’m always thinking I see him when he’s not really there, always telling myself afterward, “it could be him.” He could drive here in an hour and a half if he wanted to. I miss his voice, low, light, mocking, lots of “uh,” never any r’s.

I’ll send you the stuff I’ve sent him so far so you can tell me what you think. (Does that mean we’re experimenting on them again?) I just don’t know what to do next. I wonder if he even reads the stuff. He could just be deleting it all as soon as he sees it’s from me, so that all my passion is flowing into the black hole of cyberspace, deep space with the transporter on scatter. If I knew that were happening, I wonder if I would stop writing. Everything I live now is writing, and everything I write is for him, all beamed directly to him. Is this an existence? Is it an existence if he reads it? Is it an existence if he doesn’t read it? How can I make him want me again? What should I write?