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Bunny-boiling 101

The Tantalus Letters: Part I, Chapter 5

Laura Otis 17 December 2006

www.lablit.com/article/185

If ever there were female rage, it’s everywhere today, a great, big flask of 10M sulfuric acid that just shattered all over the floor...

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 5

17:20 - 5 February 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Non-Sequiturs

You got it. I’ll talk any talk, be any voice, as long as you’ll hear me.

There’s this guy in my Sex and Death class who I can tell is going to be a problem. He has his hand up to talk all the time, but nothing he says ever has anything to do with what people have just said in the discussion. He just throws things in at random, like a guy shoveling coal onto a heap, one shovelful as good as another, all contributing equally to this pile called Participation. He’s like noise. I can tell the other kids want to swat him, and I might, except I find him too interesting. Could anyone really be that stupid? Or is he seeing something we don’t see? God forbid he should ever get e-mail.

21:36 - 5 February 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Non-Sequiturs

Wouldn’t know about non-sequiturs.

Everything I say is meaningful, purposeful, lucid, and constructive.

The Stalwart Shoveler could be a misunderstood genius.

Keep studying him and let me know.

Good on class, now give me book-talk.

17:00 - 6 February 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

How are you? How are the cells, and how is the physics situation?

This is really funny. Josh wants me to tell him about my book, and I can’t. After I turned my thesis into the first one, my mind sort of went blank for awhile, but in the past few weeks something has happened, and I know what I want to say in book #2. If I had the guts, I’d call it Boiling the Rabbit. The Crucible, Liaisons Dangereuses, Fatal Attraction, they’re just so much alike. The words just sink into your flesh like arrows, especially Miller’s: harlotry, lechery, where my beasts are bedded.

I want to write a book about representations of female desire and female rage. Marcia has it down: in real life both men and women sleep with married people with kids, but for some reason it’s the single women, the free radicals, who come across as monsters, the desecrators of the family. Valmont does do quite a number on the Tourvels, but it just isn’t the same as Alex and that rabbit or little what’s ‘er name starting the witch hunt. I have to figure out what the difference is, and when I teach Liaisons this semester, I’m hoping to find out. Do they think we have more imagination or something? Or just that we’ll actually do what they wish they could do, kill their wives?

It’s keenest in Miller, in that language. I guess this is how you turn out if your father’s a professor and your mother’s a pianist: an angry harlot with a hypersensitive ear. I know the mindset, and I know the words that make it up: self-control, self-sacrifice, self-denial, always self with that hyphen linking it to something heavy to drag like a freight train. Never a happy little-engine-that-could self, puffing along uncoupled. Why can’t self just hook up to a freight car for awhile, pull it around, and then let it go? It’s a whore unless it pulls a whole train for life, and everybody thinks that if it just won’t pull anything period, it must want to ram other trains and derail them.

So I’m supposed to talk to Josh about this? One sentence, and he’d be screaming to Scotty to raise the shields. I just don’t see any way to make this funny, and if I show him even a little tip of it, he’s so damn smart that he’ll get it all. The one I’d really like to talk to is Marcia. She knows what I’m talking about. Do you think I could talk to her?

21:27 - 6 February 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

The cells are good – physics is not. I haven’t heard from Owen in a few days, and I’m worried. It could just mean he got another run of accelerator time, but I’m still not sure whether he’s going to tell her, and without me as the safety valve, he could blow up and spew his guilt at her instead. I don’t like it.

I don’t think I feel female rage the same way you do. I don’t rage – I work.

The concept of the book makes sense, just not the trains. We need trains to get the carrots we grow out here to you and Josh in New York, and if the little engine that could decides in Kansas City that it’s sick of hauling carrots, you and Josh get vitamin A deficiency. Wasn’t the little engine that could a hero because it pulled a heavy load of toys? I thought it won a prize for self-control, self-sacrifice, and self-denial.

I can see why you’d compare a woman to an engine, though. I think I may be pulling this lab. You need an analogy where the engine can uncouple without hurting anyone. Oh, but that’s the idea, isn’t it – an uncoupled engine is more dangerous than an uncoupled guy. Is the guy the freight car full of carrots? The logic is not working here. I can see the idea, though: the free woman is pure destruction, and the free guy is a likeable scoundrel out for a good time. They cried when little Keanu Reeves shish-kebabed Valmont, but they went wild when Ann Archer blew Glenn Close away.

How can you talk to Marcia? What do I say, oh, I’ve been discussing your love life with my friend from college, and she wants to study you for her new book on female rage? Can’t you study one of your own students? This is my lab we’re talking about here, my grad student. She’s still just barely hanging in there, and if she knows I talk about her, she might lose it. Let me know what you make up to tell Josh. This should be good.

18:33 - 7 February 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Book-talk

I want to write a book about wanting – representations of how men and women want, and the myths we dredge up to depict them. It’s only just been conceived, and the cells are only just starting to divide. I know only Valmont and Merteuil, Tantalus and Calypso, Narcissus and – and that’s about it. Dido, maybe. There aren’t too many stories about women wanting men. Why?

18:49 - 7 February 1997
To: Rebecca Fass
From: Lee Ann Downing

Suppose you tell her I’m writing this book, and I want to talk to women 21-25, and I need to talk to some in the sciences, since I only know grad students in literature. I bet she’d go for it. I just won’t let on that I know anything. Given my correspondence with Josh, I should already be up for an academy award. You just have to do a Moll Flanders and always keep something in reserve. It’s the wanting you have to hold back: if he ever finds out you want him so badly you’re about to die, it’s all over. You let him know you want level three, and you lose level two. So you let the wanting out in code, like in a dream, and you get to keep dreaming. I’m sure I can do the same thing with Marcia. Trust me, I’m an expert.

14:33 - 8 February 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Book-talk

Sounds good, Leo.

If anybody knows female desire, it’s you.

Be glad to help you out on the male end. I’m always wanting.

How about Tristan, Lancelot, David, Samson, and all those Biblical guys?

How about Fatal Attraction?

16:59 - 8 February 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

Shit! He knew! The guy’s a fucking mind-reader, I swear. All I said was I wanted to study myths of male and female desire, and he comes up with Fatal Attraction. Does this mean I don’t get to talk to Marcia?

9:15 - 10 February 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

I told her. Not just about what happened a month ago, but Germany as well. I am so sorry, Rebecca. In the end I just couldn’t stop myself. Now it may be all over. I love you both. I have to try now to save my family.

12:15 - 10 February 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

If ever there were female rage, it’s everywhere today, a great, big flask of 10M sulfuric acid that just shattered all over the floor and somebody’s got to clean up – first the glass and then the acid, which has already dissolved most of the tiles.

He did it. He told her. I can’t escape the thought that if I hadn’t done anything, he’d have had nothing to tell, and we’re equally to blame. That poor little kid. Are they going to scream at each other in front of her? He just sent me a couple of lines, a sort of virtual grenade, and now nothing. All I can do is wait and imagine what’s happening in Chicago. I wonder if I’ll ever get to talk to him again.

Well, I did it, and I’m getting what I deserve. Just Trish didn’t deserve this. The glass and acid are rightfully hers. Want to interview her?

If you want Marcia, you got her. She’s doing a cat tonight, and I’m going to work with her. I don’t want to go home. I’ll speak to her and see if she wants to talk to you. My guess is she will. If only I could talk to her about this.

18:58 - 10 February 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

The spineless, shameless son of a bitch! I can’t believe it. How could he? Don’t let this destroy you. I still think it’s his fault. God, these sensitive pricks, they share their feelings like Mount Vesuvius shared its feelings with Pompeii. Don’t be too hard on yourself. He’s not worth it. God, am I glad I’m in love with a patriarchal control freak. These testosterone types lust like crazy, but they don’t melt down.

22:32 - 10 February 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

Leo, you are being so unfair. If he’s Dreck, I’m Dreck. We’re all the same Dreck, made of the same stuff. That’s what my mother called my father for awhile when she knew he was off covering some story every day and some woman every night, and then later when we almost got thrown out of our apartment because he wouldn’t send us any money. Now I get to be Dreck, too. I wonder if it’s dominant, a Dreck gene?

You don’t know Owen. I don’t think either one of us can imagine what it’s like to have lived with somebody for years and shared every thought, even a child that’s half him and half her, and suddenly not be able to talk to her. There’s something beautiful about the way they live that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to feel with anyone, that merging. You need to be able to do that to raise a child, and if he’s ruined it we should at least give him credit for trying. You don’t know how wonderful he is, how deeply he can feel, not just for him but for everyone.

What kills me is that something so beautiful could turn into something so hideous and destructive. Why do we have to be imprisoned like this? All the hate in the world, and two people express their love for each other, and it’s a crime. Beziehung, connection, that’s German for relationship, Ich habe eine Beziehung gemacht, I’ve made a connection. Life is connections, thought is connections, everything is connections. Why do we have to live cut off when we can think and grow and love and touch and open a whole new pathway for consciousness to flow through?

You know, at that conference we talked almost the whole night. He told me about particles and his boss from hell and his daughter growing, and I talked about Marcia and the cats and what it feels like to hear the cells firing and those voices in the night calling me a Nazi. It was dark, and I couldn’t see him any more, only feel his legs against mine and his hand on my arm. Mostly it was the voice in the darkness, the voice that could hear me.

It finally happened at dawn, when we’d welded the connection with our voices, and our bodies just followed, in a sort of dream. We slept a couple of hours, I think. When we laughed and maneuvered in the shower, I’ve never felt so relaxed in my life, and I’ve never lived any moment that was so real. And then he was gone.

Why does that have to be so bad? He’s not going to leave his wife and kid and never send them any money. He lives for them. It was just another connection, but one that doesn’t have to detract from his life with them. You’re always calling yourself a whore, which I think is insane. I don’t feel like a whore, although I’m sure she’s calling me that tonight – what a joke, me a whore, a woman who wears size nine Nikes and has sex once every two years. No, me, I’m the Nazi, the Nazi bitch who sticks needles into cats’ brains to see how they work.

I feel so, so sorry for Trish, but most of all for him. I don’t think it’s weak to tell things. I didn’t want him to, and I tried to stop him, but if I’d really cared enough, I wouldn’t have set him up for this kind of torture. I can’t judge him for not being able to withstand what I don’t know if I could withstand myself. He’s a truly good person, Leo.

Marcia and I stayed up with the cat all night. I guess I felt a little shadow of what Owen must have felt, trying to hold back. I lost count of the cells we listened to – she was the one taking it all down, me just listening to the little crashes of ions going in and out, in and out. We got two diagonal ones, far apart. I’m still not seeing any pattern in where they are – maybe there isn’t supposed to be one.

She’s really eager to talk to you, not just to cathart about Killington, but about everything. If only I could be a grad student again and talk. If only I could talk to him. What in God’s name is going on out there?

10:01 - 11 February 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

She doesn’t know I write to you. That’s why I can still write. I want to be fair to both of you, and it seems wrong just to cut you off. As you know, my primary loyalty is to my family, if I can still save it after what I’ve done. But you matter to me, too. You must be hurting, and you must be wanting to know what’s happening.

Trish is about as devastated as a human being can get, and it’s my fault. She’s going to New Jersey, again, and she’s taking Jeannie, but she’s promised me she’s coming back. Some things are too personal to tell you, and I just can’t.

We’re trying our absolute best to keep it from Jeannie, but she’s too smart and knew instantly that something terrible was happening. Stories, songs, videos, dinosaurs, she just pushes them all away and wants the truth. I get the feeling she settled down with Pocahontas last night just because she felt sorry for us.

Something maybe I can ask – Trish wanted to know all about you: your work, what we did when we were together, and that big one, what you look like. I’m trying to tell her as little as possible, but the demon is dead. I’m not a valve or window any more, just a gaping hole between two chambers. I wonder if this is what it feels like to be dead – information just flows into you and out of you, free flow, no selection. How much can I tell her? Do you care? I guarantee you, she’s not the type to send you a letter bomb.

I am thinking of you, and I want you to know how sorry I am that I let this happen. I’ll keep writing to you as long as I can, but if I let her know that I do, she may make me promise to stop. I would do anything now. I’ve never seen a person hurt so much. She hit me, Becky. I wasn’t going to tell you this. She hit me again and again, mostly in the face, I think, and I just stood there and cried.

12:37 - 11 February 1997
From: Marcia Pinto
To: Lee Ann Downing

Hi. How are you? I think it’s great that you’re still friends with Becky after all this time. You knew her at Stanford? Hardly anyone here ever talks to anyone who’s not a scientist. Can you tell me more about the book? She says it’s about single women and the way books and movies portray them, and you wanted to hear the perspective of women in science. Go for it! Ask me anything. Just don’t ask me to shut up. I have a LOT to say right now.

17:30 - 11 February 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

I like Marcia. She hasn’t even started yet, but I suspect she may uncover whole new levels of female rage.

I’m sorry if I offended you about Owen. I just still disagree. I’ll hold back on the four-letter words, but I think you can find a worthier idol to worship.

You’re not a Nazi or a bitch or a whore (I agree that this one is pretty funny – I can’t see you in a merry widow). You’re just a person, and she’s no better than you are. It’s like we have this complex, we think that married women and mothers must be holy, and the rest of us are bitches and whores.

When I think of Josh’s wife, there’s just a blank. She’s just a normal woman, like us, and if I were married to him, she’d do the same thing to me. You’re only a Nazi if you get out the calipers and measure his head and tell him he’s racially impure, and you’re only a bitch if you call her up and tell her her husband said he likes your breasts better than hers, and you’re only a whore if he gives you a couple hundred bucks.

Just get the proposal out and keep doing the cats. I’ll let you know what I hear when I tap into Marcia. What’s going on with Owen?

16:56 - 11 February 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

It’s horrible, horrible. She hit him. I may not even be able to write to him any more. I don’t think she hit him in front of the kid, but the kid knows what’s going on. I can just picture her there trying to pretend she’s watching Pocahontas and wondering why Mommy hates Daddy’s guts all of a sudden and whether she might have done anything to make it happen. I was that kid. I was staring at Bullwinkle, that’s the only difference. What the hell is wrong with my neurons, why can’t they learn anything?

She’s got the kid in New Jersey now, and any time now she’s going to start telling her what a jerk her father is, and the kid will start feeling as if she doesn’t have a father any more. I worry about Owen alone, too. I worry he won’t eat, or he won’t go to work. He’s not like us. He needs people around him to keep him functioning. This morning he sounded like he was in pretty bad shape. If she finds out he writes to me, it could be the end. I wish I could do something to get him through this.

Marcia isn’t doing well either. She’s been working like crazy since the pep talk, but the way she dresses, if she were standing around on the South Side they’d be stopping and asking how much. She must work out a lot, because she has the most extraordinarily beautiful body – long waist, straight spine, lovely breasts, hard butt, no thighs at all, and she makes sure the whole department can see it. The guys must be half out of their minds, but they stay away. I get the idea she’s been permanently marked as “neurotic”: someone who cries, gets angry, and worst of all talks when you dump her, so they look on her as a luscious poisoned fruit. In the lab, though, she’s absolutely trustworthy, someone who sees everything and then wants to talk all about it. Be careful with her. She means a lot to me.