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Sex and brain-zapping

The Tantalus Letters: Part 1, Chapter 1

Laura Otis 19 November 2006

It seems like we can either know a cell and kill it, or let it do its thing and know nothing. I’m a knower, of course, but I hate trashing things

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.

Part I: Winter

Chapter 1

“No neuron is more than five to ten synapses away from any other neuron.” - M. P. Stryker

19:36 - 16 December 1996
From: Professor Lee Ann Downing [Department of English, Hutchison University]
To: Professor Rebecca Fass [Department of Neuroscience, University of San Diego]

Josh left for Israel today. “I’m taking them to Israel,” he said. I wonder how his wife would put it – ”he’s taking us to Israel?” I picture them on the plane, in the night, after many hours, the kids finally quiet, the dull roar of the air, the chill, that blue felt thing they call a blanket. He falls asleep against her shoulder, all that outrageous brown frizz crushed against her neck. As his thoughts scatter in the darkness, does he think of me? I doubt it. He should be out of touch for at least a month.

Funny, it shouldn’t matter where he is, New York, Tel Aviv, or cruising at 33,000 feet. I can only talk to him in cyberspace. It’s as if there are three levels with this guy. First, real life, dressed, face to face, the most distant, everywhere people watching. We talk but say nothing and don’t even dare risk a look.

The second level, the intermediary one, is e-mail. Even with this one, though, there are servers and hackers and I don’t know what all who can supposedly read the stuff, so it’s not safe. We’ll have to write to each other in code, he says. So I send in-jokes, metaphors, French, recurring images, bizarre references, until it’s all like a dream. What he sends, I couldn’t say whether it’s code or just a testosterone screen, but if it’s passion, it’s got to be the most muted passion I’ve ever seen. E-mail magnifies my passion in translation, like a sprayer on a hose. On his hose, it’s a heavy foot that slows the flow to a trickle. Out of the e-mail valve I pour enough words to keep me sane, all the words that bubble up like lava when I re-run the images of the third level. Since the last time I saw him, it would be most accurate to say that the images run me. They’re in control, like a virus – they use my life to perpetuate themselves.

The third level is bed. Can I say this one is the most real? It drives the other two, gives them their reason for being. It’s never more than a few hours, like some time-window that opens between parallel universes, briefly, only briefly. I’ve never known anything like it, this window.

The first time I ever saw him was during a talk I gave on Tess of the D’Urbervilles and female desire. I was saying how Hardy keeps dwelling on her mouth, when I looked up and saw him studying me intently. He wasn’t just looking – his eyes seemed to be focused on my own mouth, analyzing the way it formed the words, until I got so self-conscious I could hardly talk. I felt myself blushing, burning under that laser-gaze. When the session was over, I waited for him to introduce himself and was sort of surprised when he didn’t. He was over in a corner with a whole bunch of people, and they were doubled over laughing at something he’d said. He seemed to know everybody in the whole room except for me.

And then, when I was talking to one of the other panelists, I suddenly felt a hand on my shoulder, and I tensed. He’d somehow snuck up behind me, I don’t know how, because I thought I’d been watching him the whole time. “Hi, I’m Josh,” he said, and he asked me to go to lunch with him. We talked for two hours, fast, excited talk, books and theory and New York, one tangent after another. He never mentioned his wife or kids in all that time, although I did see the ring on his finger. “Lee Ann,” he said, “that’s too much name for a woman your size, you got a one-word body.”

I blushed. I never blush. I don’t know what it is about this guy, that he can make me blush like that. Never fails, either. He said he would call me Leo, because I looked like a hungry cat. “Leo,” he asked, “would you come back to my room with me now, would you do that?” He was looking at me with that penetrating stare, direct, intense, yet full of laughter. I had known him for two hours. “Would you do that, Leo?” I realized I was trembling all over, but especially in my lips. This had never happened to me before. I mean, guys have come onto me, but never point-blank like this. This was chutzpah the like of which I’d never seen, and I loved him for it.

Those eyes hadn’t left my lips, hoping to catch my answer in the process of formation. I thought of Gone with the Wind, of Scarlett at the Bazaar in mourning. Rhett Butler bids a hundred dollars in gold to dance with her, and Dr. Meade says, “she will not consider it, sir.” And then, ringing out across the great hall full of colored hoopskirts, comes Scarlett’s voice: “Oh, yes ah will!” That line has become my motto in life, and that’s what I told him, oh yes ah will.

Actually, that’s not what I told him. What I said was, “let’s go.” We tried not to run down the corridor. When the elevator doors slid closed, he said “C’meah,” and without waiting for me to obey, pulled me right up against him. It was pure aggressive concupiscence, his tongue sliding neatly, startlingly into my mouth. “Wow,” he breathed when the warning ding of the elevator forced him to push me away. That was the first time, a lost afternoon of violent interpenetration. We’ve done it every year since, four years, same meeting, same machinations, same time window opening between two universes that explode when they come in contact.

His hands are always so confident, as if they have every right to be on me, as if they belong on my thighs, where he says he’s been imagining them all year. It’s the thought of him fantasizing about me all day long that really turns me on. But that isn’t the best part of it. I open my mouth to speak, and he’s saying what I’m going to say. Everything he tells me about him, it’s as if I already know it, and he knows everything about me. I’ve never felt so close to anyone. When we’re lying next to each other, we are wide, wide open, and he tells me everything he feels. His hair is so much softer than it looks, sweet, springy brown stuff.

God, I wish I were that neck he could fall asleep against. That’s my dream, to fall asleep next to him and wake up with him. I never have: he kicked me out as usual this time when the fear set in, and the time-window slammed shut. I don’t blame him – he was thinking of his kids.

That leaves e-mail – or it did until now. So I subject you to my images, if you can take it. If you talk about somebody when he’s not there, is it a kind of revenge? How is the lab? Is there a winter solstice in California?

19:22 - 17 December 1996
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

I know what you mean about the levels. I should be lecturing you to stop thinking about men, especially unavailable men twice removed, but I would only achieve new levels of hypocrisy.

I’m in this lab fifteen hours a day now, getting ready for this conference in Chicago. But on the oscilloscope screen and the computer screen and even in the kitties’ cage in the animal room floats Owen, and I’m running out of strategies to make him go away. The thought of his four-year-old daughter will usually get his face off the screen for a few minutes, long enough to write a good caption. Basic fear is pretty good, fear of screwing up or not finishing on time. Best is someone asking for help, or even better, needing it and not asking for it.

I’m worried about Marcia. She’s been living with our Chair, Killington, and he’s reached his average half-life for a relationship, six months. (God, I hope you’re wrong about all the people who can read this stuff). The son of a bitch dumped his wife five years ago, and since then he’s been going through 23-year-old grad students and lab techs with the glee of a four-year-old smashing people’s sand castles. Now it’s my grad student. She’s been depressed lately, and she’s been wearing these really sexy clothes to the lab. I hope she doesn’t lose it when he dumps her. I’ll tell her what my advisor told me, that men will come and go, but nobody can ever take your PhD away from you. And to think that they neuter these poor kitties.

Last night there was another one. You can always tell them because there’s a silence at first, as if the guy is deciding whether or not to go through with it, realizing he’s going to have to say it to a real person. They start slowly, and you have to humor them, because it could always be a legitimate call. This guy last night said, “uh, hello, is this Dr. Fass?” and I said yes, it was me. But once he knew he had me, he didn’t waste any time. “You torturer, you criminal, you fucking Nazi,” he hissed. “We know what you’re doing to those poor little cats, sticking needles in their brains for no reason! You’ll burn in hell, you Nazi bitch! God sees what you’re doing!” I hung up at this point. I always wait too long to hang up. I’m just so fascinated by the way they think, I can’t resist listening, even when it hurts this much. They’re sick, of course, but you can’t help wondering. Maybe I really am as evil as they say. You have to keep an open mind, keep looking at yourself and what you’re doing. I just wish they wouldn’t call me a Nazi, though. I hate it when they call me a Nazi.

So having condemned lechery, I wrestle with my own – mud-wrestling would be more like it. Chicago is Owen’s town, and in three weeks I might just jump from level two to level one and/or three like an excited electron achieving a new quantum state. You forgot a level, and I don’t know how to classify it: the phone.

Let’s see: with level one, real life, you get vision and hearing, that’s pretty good, but no touching and no freedom; with e-mail you get nothing, basically, although the freedom is unlimited; with bed you get it all, the whole system shorts out, and then you get a year of guilt and electrical repairs. I can almost hear Scotty now: she can’ take it, captain! But when did Kirk ever pull out because Scotty said she couldn’t take it?

Oh, yeah, anyway, what do we do with the phone? I press eleven digits, right now, and I could be talking to him, a real voice in real time. It should give you the freedom of level two and the intimacy of level three, but no touching. But it’s against the rules. I know when I’m in Chicago my hand is going to be running over those buttons, my cortex sending loud, angry signals to the motor centers not to push hard enough to turn my brain’s private messages into public electronic ones. It would be a violation. His wife lives there with him, and his adorable little kid. I can’t call him without calling them, no matter what kind of signals I want to transmit. Do you ever think about the phone? Ever think of calling Josh? Oh – Tony and Marcia are calling me – they’re in an interesting cell. Gotta go.

23:30 - 17 December 1996
From: Professor Rebecca Fass [Department of Neuroscience, UCSD]
To: Dr. Owen Bauer [Fermilab]

My grad students were in the most amazing cell tonight. I think I told you how it works – the kitty’s unconscious, eyes open, seeing but not knowing he’s seeing. We listen to his visual cortex, sort of like the KGB bugging his brain. It’s so crude. Basically we’re sticking a needle into this beautiful, sensitive, exquisitely-tuned cell and eavesdropping, deciding in our blundering way what turns it on. We can listen because the electrode is hooked up to a speaker – sounds like popcorn when the cell gets real excited, one pop per firing – we turn puffs of ions into sound.

Tonight we got this one that only fires when a bar of light moves diagonally across the screen. Tony kept moving the bar and getting nothing, back and forth, back and forth, and then he finally set it off by accident when he was putting the flashlight down. After that we tried all kinds of things, circles, spirals, backwards, forwards, but it only liked diagonal sweeps. Why would a cell do that? It’s enough to make you believe in God.

Then it died. I could see the potential creeping up from -80, all the bad positive stuff seeping in. We were ripping it with our pushy electrode, and we killed it. A lot of times I feel worse about the cells than about the cats. It seems like we can either know a cell and kill it, or let it do its thing and know nothing. I’m a knower, of course, but I hate trashing things. Tonight I feel like some sort of rapist or serial killer of the mind. What if God is a neuron in the occipital cortex?

Watching that cell die on my oscilloscope screen reminded me of my own mortality. My own cells have been keeping the good ions in and the bad ions out now for 35 years, and the moments I’ve felt most alive have been the ones I’ve spent with you. I mean no disrespect to Trish, and now to Jeannie. But it seems like such a waste to have these feelings and do nothing with them. I want to see you. Four years ago in Germany we bonded, and I knew why I was here. Oh, I would want to be here anyway, to figure out how the brain works, but that was a different kind of living from anything I’ve known before or since.

I’m going to be in Chicago in three weeks, to give a talk at a conference. How would you feel about getting together? We could just have lunch or something. I miss you. It’s strange to miss someone you never see, but the memories persist, and part of my mind demands confirmation. It wants to compare the images to reality and be assured they came from reality to begin with. What do you say?