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The Tantalus Letters: Part II, Chapter 7

Laura Otis 4 March 2007

There’s nothing like science to teach you not to talk

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

9:26 - 16 May 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

Triumph! My quarry has broken radio silence! I got him hungry and semi-conscious at 4AM, still functional enough to hit me with a guilt trip. He really has been listening all this time.

I owe it all to you, I think, my cyberlover’s return. I sent him his past and my body, virtually, and it’s proved to be a potent aphrodisiac.

Actually, I think cyberspace itself is the aphrodisiac. I just sit down and start tapping, and I’m turned on. I type out things I would never say in a million years. Inside I’m smiling, one great, mad smile, pure exhilaration, and my hands dance over the keys the way my mother’s did over the piano. I think this is the rush that computer geeks feel, the superman rush: you step into the virtual reality phonebooth, you whip off your Clark Kent suit, and voilà, supergeek. You leave your body, your past, your hassles, and you enter a new realm, drape yourself in a new super-identity, the cape of cyberspace.

But it’s not even that. You can say anything about yourself, and people will believe you – how could they know? You type out your own mixture of life as it is and life as it should be, and nobody ever knows the difference. That’s the rush, I think, absolute freedom, absolute power. I knew he was hearing me all this time, just knew it.

Well, what do I do now? He’s just hit the ball to me, and I have to hit back. What do I want?

18:47 - 16 May 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

You’re asking ME? Sounds to me like you want the mirror back, although God knows why. I am having a hard time thinking about this right now because I’m leaving for Germany in two weeks and have to make sure everyone has something useful to do and everything is set up for the two months I’m away. Also I’m negotiating hard with that soon-to-be postdoc from Marin’s lab. I want him to do anatomy here and bring in some of their staining techniques, but he wants to get away from anatomy, and they don’t want him to take out anything with him. It’s a little like an engineer going from Ford to GM and GM asking him to take the plans for the Taurus with him. But that’s the way it works – you try to gain as much as you can with each new person you bring in and to lose as little as possible with each person who leaves you.

I think that’s also the real story with Owen and this Rhonda woman – she wants him out, and she wants him divested of that top quark before he goes. I’m afraid she’s going to do it, too. He’s in bad, bad shape – sort of like you say, writing me things you shouldn’t ever say to anybody, although not the kind of things you have in mind.

I’ve never known anybody who needs people the way he does – it’s something beautiful about him. Me, I go home, open a can of soup, turn on NPR, look at the mail, and plan what I’m going to do tomorrow – you, too, right? Different food, different channel, but same concept. sometimes I don’t go home at all. But he needs to go home and tell somebody what he did today, and what he wants to do this summer. Isn’t that what a computer is for? I feel like asking him, but I’m not that mean. He’s never had the same relationship with a computer that you have. Sounds like you make love to the thing.

I’m afraid to tell you what you want – it’s been fun but scary, making this thing happen from afar. What am I, the guy with the remote? I tell you what to say, you say it, he does it, and maybe no more Beth and the boys? But, OK, yeah, he’s not Owen. You want what you’ve always wanted, Leo, for him to want you so bad his whole universe is one big mirror reflecting his own lust back in his face.

19:56 - 16 May 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Felix Leo

Oooo, you make me a happy cat. You know what I like: I am a hungry lion, I love a good mouthful of meat. I want the mirror back, want the mirror-back, want that mirror at my back, pleasure and truth at once. Come on, Josh. Tell me about your book.

11:20 - 19 May 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Felis Leo

OK, you devouring feline, you got it.

Still in your mirror stage, huh? Welcome to subjectivity, the fall into language.

Swoon, and I’ll catch you – right after I subvert your identity with my reflected images.

The cell book: actually I’m calling it the web book. It’s about representations of nervous systems, communications networks, and communications between people in Victorian literature: Middlemarch above all, but also Dracula and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I’m totally into it. They’re obsessed with communications, but their plots are built around miscommunication. Seems almost like you can’t tell a story without miscommunication, like you can’t get anything going on in a circuit without resistance. Could it be a variation of the second law?

Hey, I wanted to ask you, this friend Rebecca, think I could write her and ask her some stuff about neurons? It would really help.

And you, you queen of the beasts, you been pokin around in my mirror book or somethin?

In between stalking me in the stacks and prodding my libido and my long-term memory, you been writin anything of your own?

18:43 - 19 May 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

This is a new one. Want to meet the Mirror Prince? He wants to write to you. I mentioned you to him a few times, talking about your work, and now he wants to talk to you directly for his new book about nervous systems and communications nets. This could be interesting, not to say amusing. He has no idea you get daily briefings on his academic writings and sexual urges, which as far as I’m concerned are all one and the same. He’s hotter now than he ever has been – always gets really theoretical, really into word games, when he wants it bad. I think something could happen. I wonder if he’ll play word games with you, too?

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

The Mirror Prince wants to meet ME, in cyberspace? God, what’ll I wear? Don’t you know I’m one of the stepsisters, and my feet will bust the glass slipper every time? Sounds dangerous. I mean, a Mirror Prince – what if he shatters, should I pay no attention to the frog behind the screen? If I break him, do I get seven years of bad luck? Do you?

Of course I want to meet him. I’m already recording from him extracellularly, so I might as well go for intracellularly. That’s what I’ll be doing in Germany, learning this new technique they have of intracellular recording, in exchange for collaboration on another project where they need a specialist in development. So Josh could actually help to get me in shape.

Gosh, I’m flattered. Me, a neurobiology consultant. If he’s a player like you say he is, though, why doesn’t he go for Gerry Edelman or something? You can trust me not to let on that I know of his penchant for reflections, and for you. There’s nothing like science to teach you not to talk. I’ll just think of it as one more experiment.

I’m going nuts here getting ready to go to Germany, and I’m afraid I just can’t deal with one more thing before I go, but tell him to write to me once I’m there. I’ll give him my address there when they give me an account.

13:32 - 20 May 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

Something weird is going on. I saw Dave talking to Rhonda yesterday, and when they saw me, they sort of started and got real quiet. He’s been great about the article, reworking everything I give him, and he’s going to get back to me tomorrow about the whole first draft. He says it’s in pretty decent shape and we should be able to show it to Rhonda in a few days. So I may yet go out with a shred of dignity.

The question is what to do next. Rhonda wouldn’t recommend me for a job at McDonalds, let alone a postdoc at some other facility. I know a guy at Brookhaven and will try giving him a call.

I just don’t really feel like doing anything. The spring is so beautiful, I just want to live. It seems so insane to spend a sunny day in a dark tunnel. I would go to the zoo, our favorite place, but the kids remind me so much of Jeannie, I can’t stand it.

I wonder what is going on with Dave and Rhonda. Probably she’s pumping him for updates on my mental status, using some combination of threats and bribes to make him talk. He never will – not that there’s anything particularly good or bad to report, just nothingness – no ambition, no desire, no pain as long as I don’t go anywhere or do anything.

22:42 - 26 May 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Owen Bauer

I think this may be the last message I get out to you before I take off. I’m not actually going until the day after tomorrow, but I’m probably going to be working nonstop between now and then, planning all of Tony’s and Marcia’s and Dawn’s experiments for the next two months, making sure everything is ordered that has to be ordered, and signed that has to be signed, all of this while I’m online with the Germans, asking them to set things up for me there.

They say they can get me a computer account, but they won’t be able to tell me the address until I’m there. Hopefully I’ll be able to access my main account from there. I hate the idea of a blackout, but I see no alternative. Please feel free to call me in an emergency – but what am I saying, in transit I won’t have a phone either. It hurts to think I’ll be out of touch. Until the account is set up, you can call me in the lab there at 011 49 221 506 9021. I think the time difference is seven hours from where you are, nine from here.

Any word from Dave or Rhonda on the article yet? I don’t like the sound of this talk with Rhonda. Could you ask him what’s going on?

This next thing I don’t know how to say, really, but here goes – life may suck now, but life can and will get better. I know who and what you are, and I know your life is worth something and that you have the power to make it good again. I know it has value because of what you’ve made me feel. 99% of life is filling out forms justifying your use of money, kittens, and graduate students. That’s what life is: we consume, and we have to justify it. But 1% is hearing a cell react to light in ways you never expected and feeling your hands slide over my back in the shower. It’s worth the whole 99% to live that 1% of joy and wonder, and you, Owen Bauer, you have to keep on living because you give people their 1%. I don’t know what’s going to happen here, but one of the main things that makes me want to keep going is the desire to see you again. I bet you’ve made many people feel that way and will make many more people feel that way, as long as you keep on getting out of bed every morning. You hang in there, and you take care of yourself for me and your other fans.

18:52 - 28 May 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

I guess you’re gone. I called your house today and then your lab, but at home there was only the machine, and in the lab they told me you’d already left. I don’t know where you are, Becky. I called because it’s gotten so bad, worse than I ever imagined it could be, and I needed your voice in my ear. Letters on the screen are nice, coming from you, but on days like today they don’t cut it.

I called my friend at Brookhaven this morning, and although he was sympathetic, he told me it was hopeless. The Department of Energy is cutting its funding, and the NSF is about to be dissolved altogether. They’re having to cut their own staff, and things don’t look good for a postdoc or even a technician’s job there or anywhere. He told me a lot of guys might be going into industry, using their math and computer skills. Industry – what is that? Up to now it’s just been a word.

I hung up the phone, and I was sitting there at my desk, just doing nothing, looking at the picture of Jeannie, when a guy in a suit came in and asked me if I was Owen Bauer. When I said yes, he handed me an envelope and asked me to sign for it. Right up until the last second, I thought he was some representative of some company, maybe delivering equipment someone had ordered – I mean, no one ever comes here in a suit. And then I opened the envelope. It said that Owen Bauer was being sued for divorce on the grounds of adultery. I’m not doing it justice. The language was terrifying with an official, penal ring, words like a branding iron waved in your face. Adultery. Did I commit adultery? When did I commit adultery? Twice I let myself get close to a wonderful woman, kind, intelligent, competent, wise, and beautiful, in her own way. This is a crime? All the hatred in this world, all the shooting, the maiming, the hurting, the killing, and it’s a crime to love someone? There is something terribly, terribly wrong with this.

For a long time I didn’t move, just sat there staring at the paper. They might as well have hung the scarlet A around my neck, though, because after that, one by one, about fifty people came up to ask me who the guy in the suit was. Everybody saw him, and a guy in a suit around here is like an elephant – there’s no way you can miss him. I just told them the truth. It was interesting seeing all their different reactions – the squirming, the twitching, the sympathy, mostly false. It was the first real science I’d done around here in ages, hitting them with the beam of truth that my wife was divorcing me and then seeing what particles they gave off.

At some point I called Trish. She was home, and she was not in a generous mood. “You’re surprised?” she asked me. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know why I was calling her, really, or what I wanted to hear. “What do you want from me, sympathy?” she demanded. “I’ve known you six years. When in hell are you going to learn that what you get in life is the result of what you do? This is not something bad that’s happening to you! This is the RESULT of what you DID!” I stammered that I didn’t want a divorce, that I wanted to be with her and Jeannie, and she told me, “Well, you should have thought of that when you were taking that bitch’s clothes off!” and she slammed the phone in my ear.

Something really bad must have happened out there today with the mother. I’ve barely ever heard her like this. I hate the thought of Jeannie being around her when she’s like this. What if she snaps at Jeannie? She could really hurt her. I sat there again for a long time, just looking at the picture.

Then I tried to call you. Your voice on the phone is different from your voice in real life – none of those little tendrils that reach out and tickle me. It was actually more comforting to hear the young female voice telling me Dr. Fass had left for Germany – gave me more reassurance that you actually exist.

I can’t take any more tonight. It’s 7:00, but I’m going to bed. Where are you? Overhead? Changing planes in New York? Or will you just fly over the North Pole or something? Are you landing in Germany? Oh, how I wish I could be there with you again.

20:48 - 28 May 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Reflections

So, you want to fuck up my identity, using the surface that reflects pleasure and truth? Every book you write is a mirror book, cyberlover, your language is all one big reflection, you know of what. You just keep crankin ‘em out, and the pleasure and truth are always the same.

Who has fallen into language here? It uses you to make more of itself. My book is growing, too, as female desire uses me to make more of itself, and I’ll be writing it soon, now, very soon.

Why don’t you inject me with something?

00:27 - 29 May 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Reflections, Projections, Injections

Language, Leo, language . . .

Trouble with mirrors, babe: they always show you yourself. If my books are mirrors, now who do you think you see in ‘em? You want to believe you’ve been on my mind, you’ll always find the answer you’re lookin for in my mirror-books. This ain’t a controlled experiment.

You’d do better to ask me what’s on my mind at four in the morning, when the verboten is de-repressed, and I inject, interject, project, subject, object. I could inject, inject, inject, fill you up with antidote to your female desire.

But then how would you write your book?

Hey, how ‘bout it, Leo? Can I talk to Rebecca the neurobiologist? Leaving for Israel in a week, like to open the hailing frequency before I go.

22:57 - 29 May 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

I don’t know why I’m writing to you when you’re not there. If I had any sense I’d wait for your new address, but I can’t. Maybe it’s a science impulse, the need to record. Maybe it’s just a reflex, a habit I can’t break.

I was still tired when I got up at nine. I was thinking about what you said, though, about how things have to get better, and I forced myself to take a shower and eat something and go to the lab.

As soon as I got in, Rhonda stuck her head in and said could I please come down to her office, she’d like to talk to me. She also made some snide remark about people coming in at eleven – this to me, who’s spent sixty hours a week here for the past three years. But I couldn’t think of a reply. It was Kasparov and Deep Blue – just no fighting spirit left, as he put it. I schlepped down to her office like a bad kid going to the principal.

She didn’t waste any time. She told me she was very sorry about my personal problems, but that they had clearly been taking me away from my work for some time, and she could not recommend the renewal of my fellowship. I had spent three months trying to write an article that should have been done in three weeks. I needed to be out by August, and she suggested I start looking for a new position now.

I asked her what she thought of the article, and then something happened to her face. I saw her arm herself, as I had in our last encounter, but this time I had no power for the shields. “Dave showed it to me,” she said, “and he explained to me what’s been going on.” I asked her what she meant. “It’s his work, Owen,” she said. No more lover-boy, but this was somehow eerier. “He wrote it, and you know it, and I know it. And as far as I can see, he’s done a lot of the experimentation as well. The work was done on his accelerator time. He’s been doing both your project and his for awhile now. He’s not going to carry your weight any more. As of right now, it’s his baby. He’s going to be first author.”

I was stupefied. I’d expected to be terminated, but not this. I told her that this was not going to happen, that he’d never agree to it, and she started to laugh. “Are you kidding?” she asked. “Man, are you out of it. He came to ME. He told me what was happening, and he asked for the top quark project, and I gave it to him. Why should I leave it in the hands of some walking personal crisis who drags his ass in here at eleven in the morning?” I wanted to hit her, but the shock of what was happening just knocked the wind right out of me. She could have been lying, of course. Isn’t this what they do to you in brainwashing, tell you you’re shit and your friends have all gone over to their side? I think so. But deep down I knew she was right. I am a foreign body here, and I’m being eliminated, as I always had to be, for the good of the organism.

Dave, my God. I’ve talked to him about everything, gone running with him a hundred times. People are just like this, I guess. They see you going down, and they run in and take what they can get. I wonder if he did fuck her. Maybe he wasn’t kidding. I wonder if he was already planning this, that day he told me to tie her up.

I should be fighting here, for my project and my life. I just don’t feel like it, though. It’s all so fascinating to watch, so unreal, I just want to sit back and let it unfold. I never was a good physicist. I’ve never really been much good at anything, in fact. Women. I love women. I love kids. But I’ve been a lousy husband and father. Rhonda, Dave, Trish, Jeannie – they’ll find someone else, and it will all work much better without me. I bet I’ve even been bad for you, despite what you say: you’re such a good person, and it must make you feel guilty all the time, what’s happened between us. I should have just kept my distance and told you how wonderful you are.

Where are you today? I can’t stand it much longer. I’m sorry to have to write you this kind of stuff, but since it’s going to California, maybe you won’t have to see it anyway. I could call you and ask you to delete it. Maybe I’ll do that.

17:32 - 31 May 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

You won’t see this until you come back, and maybe it’s for the best. I tried to call your lab in Germany today, but I couldn’t communicate. I’m not sure if I even had the right place, because there was no one there who could speak English. Despite my solid German roots, my four years of high school German, and my three months there with you, I couldn’t say or understand a word. You know me and languages. You always did all the talking, didn’t you? I really am useless. Well, I know what I have to do, what’s best for everyone. I am writing to tell you goodbye, and how wonderful it’s been to touch you and be close to you, and what a beautiful person you are. I don’t ever want to let you down or hurt you the way I’ve hurt my wife. I don’t know how I’ll do it yet, but I think I’ll do it today. It’s what’s best for everyone.

All my love,