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The mask biology wears

The Tantalus Letters: Part II, Chapter 6

Laura Otis 25 February 2007

I need a reference point, and I’ve detached myself from mine – I feel sort of like a moon without a planet

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 6

19:42 - 5 May 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

The semester is careening toward its end, and just to the left of me I have a stack of fifty papers I’m supposed to be reading. To the right of me is Josh’s mirror book, the one that won him that prize. I’m still stalking him in the stacks and the online catalogue now that I no longer have him on my screen. And I still have these odd feelings of guilt and fear – I blush when I see his name in print. I know all his books and articles are in the public domain, but I read them in the private one as though they were written especially for me. This one he’s written since he pushed his way inside of me, since he came with my hair tumbling down into his face and since he told me I was the most beautiful crazy sexy vixen he’d ever seen and he wanted to fuck me from here to kingdom come. That was four years ago when he was writing The Victorian Mirror. The book came out a year later.

Did it really happen? If it ever existed, if it continues to exist, it does so only as a memory. I’ve relived that memory so may times, reinforcing it as it wears, that I no longer trust my own records. I don’t know what’s original and what’s a patch. I can know the truth, if there is any truth, only by comparing it to his memory, but he’s not talking, and God only knows what he’s done to his version.

My own memory of it is like my father’s New York Times shirts. My mother would always say it’s time to replace a shirt when you can read the New York Times through it, and I used to test my father’s shirts and undershirts all the time. I can read right through this memory now, and I find there’s no template of truth to which I can compare it if I want to restore it.

The only reality is that ecstatic stab of level three, bed, and that’s inaccessible now. I may never have that again. The motions are going before the words – I can’t remember now, last fall, if he asked me who won the Mets game before or after he pulled me down on top of him. I just remember the sound of his voice, no r’s, ironic, full of fun: “So, Leo, you heah who won the game tuhday?” and I threw back my head and laughed and laughed, until he flipped me, expertly, so that he was on top of me – yes, that’s it, you remember the words, and the motions follow.

So I look for the memory in his book. My terror is that if we cease to remember it, it will cease to exist, and I’m staking everything on my certainty that he wrote it into the book. One day, I’m positive, he was sitting there writing about Victorians looking into the mirror, and he looked into his screen and saw me beneath him on the edge of a scream, pushing back so that I strained every muscle. And as his fingers reached for the word, his virtual ones dug into my upper back, and inwardly he screamed with me once more and typed me into the book. It has to have happened, and I have to find it. I read like Freud, looking for his desire in every word.

Josh has a thing about mirrors. The book centers around George Eliot’s pier glass metaphor in Middlemarch – have you ever read it? She describes a shiny metal surface, shiny enough to use as a mirror but covered with millions of tiny random scratches. If you hold a candle up to it, the scratches appear to fall into a pattern, radiating outward from the light – the randomness becomes centered and ordered. Of course, though, it’s an illusion, since a new “pattern” emerges every time you move the candle. The beauty of this “parable” is that you’re never quite sure what it’s about. The most obnoxious reading is that it’s an individual’s perception of her community, viewing all connections and meaning as radiating outward from her, when in reality she’s just a point in the network no more significant than any other.

But it’s also about the novel itself. The coolest thing you can do nowadays in literary criticism is prove that a novel is really all about language, but there the critics are all doing a pier glass themselves, reading Eliot’s scratchings in the candlelight of their own fascination with words. I’m really no worse than they are, peering at Josh’s scratchings and watching them fall into concentric circles around the illuminating truth that he wants to fuck my brains out. Desire in language, what can I say? I bet I’m actually closer to the truth than most other readers are. Writing, driven by desire, fills the space where there is an absence (you write about something because it isn’t there), and the most basic, implacable desire of everyone who ever picked up a pen is the desire to be filled up oneself.

Josh is fascinated by our perceptions of chaos and order and by our comical and bungling attempts to use language to turn chaos into order. In this book he’s arguing that Victorian fiction is a mirror that attempts to reflect chaos back as order but ends up incorporating the chaos it hoped to airbrush out. As data he uses the astonishing number of instances in which Victorian heroines look at themselves in mirrors. The scenes, in which chaos is just on the other side of the wall, become the ironic context for the reflected images.

As far as I can see, all his books are really the same book. They’re all about misreadings and the motivations of misreadings, and they’re all about illusions of order and control. And they’re all dedicated to Beth and the boys, in one way or another. I wonder if she reads his books. I take a secret delight in knowing that she – that no one – can ever read them the way I do, with the same candle that lights up his scratches for me.

Josh picked mirrors for a reason. He loves mirrors. Back when he was writing that book, that first time we were together, he wanted me so badly he grabbed me the very instant he kicked the door shut, and he lifted me up and told me “God, Leo, you weigh nothing.” There was a full-length mirror in the room, and he undressed me before it, watching me watching him, watching him watching me, devouring every part of me with his eyes as it appeared in the image before us. Then finally he took me standing up – he was strong enough to do that, with my back smashed right up against the silver coolness and him staring into his own reflected eyes as he enjoyed me. He never closes his eyes when he does it.

But oh – horrible thought! What if he has done the same thing with his wife? What if he has done it in the mirror with twenty other women? Would they all read The Victorian Mirror the same way? If that were true, I would feel as if I didn’t exist. Beth and the boys. I wonder if he made those boys looking into a mirror. I just keep looking into his book, looking and looking and looking. The mirror is “alluring,” he says, a “seductive” device, “one that promises truth and pleasure at once.”

I go with Nietzsche on this one: truth is the abyss, truth is what you see when you ram Leo up against the mirror and push and push and push until it shatters.

20:12 - 6 May 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

I understand now. For the first time, I understand. I always wondered what drew you to this guy who has a hell of a mean streak and doesn’t quite seem to want you. He really does, doesn’t he? I would wager you’re right, and it’s you he’s got up against the mirror when he’s writing it all for Beth and the boys.

Significance? Whatever you want it to mean. I’ve long since learned that when a guy wants to have sex with you, it means that he wants to have sex with you. It doesn’t mean he thinks you’re brilliant, it doesn’t mean he thinks your work is fascinating, it doesn’t mean he likes you as a human being, and it doesn’t mean you are a good and worthwhile human being, although he may very well tell you this or you may think you hear it. If a guy wants to have sex with you, it means he wants to have sex with you, period, and any other significance it has is the significance that you give it.

But you know this – why am I telling you this? I should be telling it to Marcia. Or should I? I’ve never experienced the kind of sex you’re telling me about (by the way, do you think you should be writing this stuff over e-mail?) – it sounds wild, violent. Part of it is just logistics – you don’t do it standing up with a five-foot-nine, 140-pound woman. Gee, now I’m talking about it over e-mail. The best I’ve ever had was with Owen, and it (don’t laugh) had a religious quality to it – beauty, tranquility, goodness, peace. My guess is you do something to Josh that brings out parts of him he’d rather not think about. I can understand how you could do this to somebody. Josh sounds like pure aggression, and maybe a little sadistic as well. He hasn’t ever hurt you, has he?

That central, illuminating truth that gives the scratches a pattern and a meaning – you called it right, Leo, he wants to fuck you. Is that a truth? I wonder. In my business (actually in yours too, right?) we’re trying to separate the signals from the noise – theoretically, the signal is the meaning, minus the noise, no, relative to the noise. This kind of wanting strikes me as noise – the problem with associating meaning with this kind of firing pattern is that he’s probably wanted to fuck a thousand other women exactly the same way. It’s biology.

Of course, who’s to say what’s the noise and what’s the signal, and listen to me here dissing biological drives in favor of beauty, harmony, tranquility, and the form of the good. Probably this is the mask that biology wears for me when I’m with Owen; for you guys it wears another face. I’m sure he tells himself it means nothing at all – I can hear him now, they always say this when we catch them: “it didn’t mean anything.” He’s right in that there’s no meaning that goes beyond the event, no meaning apart from the experience. But the experience IS the meaning, so powerful for you, and even to me now, reflected in that mirror, that it will live on and on. There’s no way he’ll ever forget it.

What does it take to make meaning, anyway? Meaning seems more like something that’s agreed upon than something that exists. Go get ‘im, Leo, if that’s what you want. I like that picture of you two together, shattering the mirror of meaning.

22:06 - 10 May 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: The Mall

The mall is all about wanting, about woman-wanting. I love the sound of the word the way we say it here, mawl, drawn out, cheeks drawn in, the mawl, cawl me. It is a temple to desire, and on this Sunday I have come here to worship, as have all these others: black teenagers, enormous in their bulky pants and jackets; Orthodox Jewish men and their sons in yarmulkes; a dazzled Central American woman and her daughter eating ice cream and staring into a shop; a tiny, ancient Asian woman rocking slowly to her own rhythm; a smiling Latina with dark red lipstick, soft, thick hair, and an attentive boyfriend; but above all girls, fat ones, thin ones, hunting, looking about them. Their lips are outlined with dark pencil and colored in with lipstick that is lighter, creating an eerie, puffy effect that some magazine must be praising this week. We are all here, and we all want.

You have to understand the mall. You come to desire, and you desire to be desired. If you buy, you buy to be desired, and you covet not with your own eyes but with the eyes of another. I look, I touch. We are magpies I think, or maybe insects as we swarm around bins of sparkling earrings on sale.

You never know when it will strike, the first desire of the day, and it comes as a stab and a gift: a shimmering blue-green top that ripples like a veil with the slightest motion. He would want me, I think, if he could see me in that; he could see the shape of my breasts under it, could just barely see them moving. I try it on, and in the mirror I see him seeing me, wanting me, wishing he could press up against me and slide his hands up under the shimmering green veil. Maybe. Maybe I’ll get it. The desire peaks and abruptly ends the instant the lust-generator is yours.

What then is the object of the desire? Not the rippling green; that’s just the cue, the means to the end. It’s you, you hope, you want; you’re the object of his desire, yet you’re also the subject, the one desiring, and him, you want him, but he’s desiring, too; you want him to want you, and I lose my way here amidst the arrows. I think the object must be desire itself, desire that looks back at you from the silver blankness of the mirror.

I love to want. I move in a slow dance; I finger what gleams at me, and I notice the weary men looking as I fondle a camisole. They want me, wanting it, wanting him, wanting me. They imagine me imagining me in it, and I am pleased by their entry into the vortex of my desire.

Victoria’s Secret, that’s the climax, the place where the mall admits what it is. With the rose-scent of free lotion on my hands and the voice of the guitar in my ears, I rub the silks between my fingers and imagine the feel of them against my breasts. I see myself before a mirror, leaning back against him, his hands around my waist, softly, slowly creeping upward, under that silk. What would he like, I think, what do I want in this picture? I have come to live this picture, to dress myself for this picture, to be ready for this picture: that’s why you buy, always to be ready for this picture.

I see a man, a weary man in a chair give me a sharp, quick look. He can see it, I know, he can see my picture, but there is only one man for whose desire I buy, one man I want in my picture. Red, I decide, bright, shimmering, trembling red silk, and red lipstick, and my black air swaying, brushing softly against it. My lips would be bright red, and I would be a glowing red jewel for him in the darkness.

And then the image dissolves as I wander on, the slow march, the impenetrable din of a thousand voices. Sunlight spills in through the candy-store skylights overhead, and the puffy clouds of reality show themselves between the glass panels.

Sometimes a word alone can make you want: Rampage, I always rush straight into the Rampage store. Watch out, Pip, says Joe, she’s on the RAM-PAGE, and I picture Mrs. Joe charging around with her apron full of pins, roaring and brandishing a wooden spoon. I would buy a dress just for that word, for the virtual show of me in it, on the RAM-PAGE, smashing and screaming and running and tearing my hair. Who knew, I wonder, that a woman would buy a dress just for the image of herself on the rampage?

I am hungry, I realize, but I will not eat – to remain desirable, you can’t satisfy your desires, and I want to be wanted much more than I want. In the candy store, I see the people buzzing around the bins like insects, and I imagine the joy of thrusting my hand into chocolate pebbles as far as it will go, grabbing as many as I can seize, cramming my mouth with as many as it can hold. Then I think of my hips, barely there, and his eager hands all over them, and I think of my hips, globbery and fleshy, and of him turning away in disgust. I turn my eyes away from the candy store. The hunger is a vice pressing against the sides of my head; my picture is alive, enduring, pressing back, reviving with a throb whenever I pass a mirror.

I could be beautiful, the mirrors tell me, if only I could sleep, if only I could lose those dark tracks under my eyes, worn by the lust that summons me every morning before dawn, twisting, writhing within.

I will buy nothing today, but today I have lived, I have wanted. I am dazed from the colors and sparkles and clamor and endlessness of the place – always more, more than you can see, more than you can fathom, but never more than you can want. Wanting is infinity. There is no limit to my desire, no end. As I look into the mirror, as I grind circles into my mattress at four in the morning, my arms pulling at the pillows, I am insatiable, I am wanting itself, and I have come here to cast myself into a wave, to be smashed onto the shore of ten thousand people’s longings. They clutch their bulging plastic bags, and they poke with plastic forks at their Chinese food, and they want with me as I write my way through this dying Sunday afternoon.

12:36 - 12 May 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

Thanks for being out there. I am reading you and feeling you. I appreciate every word, even though I can’t always respond right away. Words come hard now – writing the article is making it all seem like formulas, all of it. The craziest thing – Trish called last night, and we had a normal conversation – our own version of the rhetoric of particle physics, I guess. We talked for an hour – same in-jokes, same problems, complained about the same people, all as if nothing had ever happened. It’s as if we forgot. She even had me laughing, telling me about stuff Jeannie had said. And then we hung up, and they were there, and I was here all alone in a half-empty apartment. I have no idea what brought us together or what split us apart. It’s as if something just happened to us, we crashed into each other, we merged, we gave off another particle, and then we got hit by something and went flying off in different directions. I don’t know what is happening any more. Thanks for being out there.

20:47 - 13 May 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Jones Beach

Why do people go to the edges of things?

I pick my way through the tunnel, cool and dark on any day with evil-looking puddles along the sides. Always there is a child who squeals to hear the echo, used to be me when I was four, testing the power of my own voice while the adults covered their ears against the penetrating shriek. The smell of French fries hits you when you turn the corner and suddenly find yourself facing openness, the nautical flagpole with its trim lines slicing the sky. Beyond it, the sea. That is the smell of Jones Beach as long as I’ve known it: French fries, coconut sunscreen, salt, and wind, greasy humanity clinging to the edge of New York. Even in the bathroom there is that openness, a bathroom for ten thousand sticky women.

Today as always the wind is roaring, relentless, whipping up every loose wisp of my hair. Cheerfulness reigns on the boardwalk, even on this weekday morning – my feet are a light patter on the bleached wooden diagonals, where women walk in twos and threes. I love the smokestack trashcans that curl their heads toward you. At the edge of the boardwalk, a skinny cat slinks along a patch of sea grass. He has a scrap of plastic in his mouth – odd – is he making a nest?

Down I go then to the water, the wind roaring in my ears, plastering my purple jacket against my skin, blowing my bag out crazily behind me. I am all alone: no one but me is mad enough to walk here today. I head west. To my left, the waves churn and foam, the water almost turquoise under the blue sky, but with a greenish-brown aftertaste of New York. A great big seagull has found a horseshoe crab and is dragging and tearing it with his beak. It is still alive, and its remaining legs wiggle crazily in the air. Sandpipers race where the sun sparkles and twinkles in the inch of water left by each withdrawing wave. The wind whips up the greenish foam that is left behind, and it flies up the beach like wisps of dirty cotton candy. To my right, the continuous hiss of blowing sand. The wind has carved a million furrows, white along the ridges, red-brown in the depths, so that the beach is striped, and I clamber along over a great tiger’s hide.

I have seen this beach so crowded that the sand is one great radio broadcast fighting to be heard, and the Tropical Blends air slides into your lungs, and you can see the waves only as a hundred heads that bob upward in unison. Today I am all alone.

I can feel each muscle in my legs and hips, tight and hard as I battle my way through sand and wind. I close my eyes, and I see all orange; I walk as fast as I can with my eyes closed and know I will encounter no obstacles, collide with nothing. I walk this way in the roaring orange of nothingness for a long time. My head begins to hurt now, and my ears ache from the cold and the endless blast of air. I see a dead horseshoe crab at my feet, its spine pointing at nothing.

Josh, why do people go to the edges of things? Is it that we want to fall off? This same sea that foams at the edge of my state licks also at yours – touches both of us. If I were afloat in it, bobbing in the waves, would I be touching you?

Once I was here late with my friend Rebecca when most people had left. A garbage truck, speeding along, slammed to a halt just inches from a sleeping man’s head. I remember his girlfriend ran up screaming, her hands to her face. I was sure the tires had crushed his head, but Rebecca said no; if it had, his feet would be kicking. She said this so calmly, just as a fact: our brain works so well because of what it turns off as much as what it turns on, and a man whose brain is squashed will thrash like a headless chicken. No horror, just – interest. Rebecca is like that. And yet I think she respects life more than I do. She’s a neuroscientist.

What does it feel like to die? I remember this Ray Bradbury story, three guys flying through space in different directions after their ship blew up. They can still talk to each other, but they know that each of them will die alone when life support fails, sometime after they lose radio contact. That’s how I feel – staggering over striped sand with the full force of the wind in my face, or careening alone through space toward nothing.

You. You are my connection, my ground zero; I was directed toward you, and I want to look forward to that impact again, to slam into you and feel you grind me to pieces like the sea, in me and all around me. I want. It’s wanting that drives us to the edges, and I want to fall off into those powerful arms of yours, waiting to catch me, those arms that I know are out there reaching even now.

17:39 15 May 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

It’s so good to know you’re out there listening. I was thinking earlier today, sitting here at my desk, if a thought falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? Years and years now I’ve come home and told all my thoughts to Trish, and she’s told me hers. Now I have them, they pass, new ones take their place, and they vanish like a dream, experienced only by me. Just falling there like injured birds, they are headed nowhere, and I wonder whether and why they exist at all. Why think if no one ever hears your thoughts? DO you think if no one ever hears your thoughts? Who would know? I lack your sense of the inherent values of things. I need a reference point, and I’ve detached myself from mine. I feel sort of like a moon without a planet – what good am I?

I sit here and think that the azaleas outside are beautiful in the sun, and that I’m glad Mobutu is out of Zaire, but there is no one to tell this to, and it makes me feel disconnected, as though I no longer count. You have been wonderful, but the screen has never quite done it for me. I need a face with eyes that see me and a mouth that speaks to me. You, you have such a lovely mouth. But these thoughts are not conducive to article-writing.

Hey, good news – I almost have (we, I should say) a first draft ready to show Rhonda. That should make her a little less ferocious for a day or two. Trish reports Jeannie can say her letters up to M and may get into a really good nursery school out there.

All my love,


4:19 - 16 May 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Fearless Leo


Oh, your name rolls trippingly on the tongue.

Can’t bust you, babe. You are the craziest, looniest, wackiest, sexiest, most fearless cyberbabe ever to fly into the net.

What do you want from me, Leo? Why are you sending me this stuff? You want me turned on, I’m turned on. Can’t act on it, and am pacing like a leopard in a cage.

Jones Beach, wow. Summer I used to live at Jones Beach, practically, was one of the hundred heads bobbing on the wave.

I am deep in end-of-semester madness, itching to get to the cell book when I take the gang back to Israel this summer.

But now at 4AM, after/during an all-nighter of grading, I am crazy enough to write to you.

You tell me, babe. What do you have in mind? What will satisfy those feline appetites of yours?

I know these little women: they tear to pieces what they love.

Fearless Leo, didn’t your mother ever tell you not to talk to fuckin murderers?