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Hell hath no fury

The Tantalus Letters: Part I, Chapter 6

Laura Otis 23 December 2006

Female scientists look great in red satin

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.

The author’s translation of the French passage in this chapter is available here.

Chapter 6

20:25 - 11 February 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

I’ll treat her better than the guys do, don’t worry. I would keep writing to Owen to make sure he’s OK. Don’t feel guilty about writing – I think the immunity still holds for e-mail, so it can’t be a real violation. Probably it’s helping him.

This is actually what I wanted to ask about tonight. Valentine’s Day is coming, and I’m dying to write Josh something red and soft and sweet. I want to break the rules for once, really make him remember, really make him writhe and twist in bed at night the way I do. I want to make him hard. I’m not sure how far I can push it, though. If he gets mad, which he always does if he senses an intrusion, the least he would do is cut me off. I mean, shit, he could have me busted for sexual harassment or something. He’s really scary when he gets mad. All that intelligence crystallizes into formal, ice-cold, articulate phrases that slam down in front of you like a spiked portcullis. If it falls on you when you’re fleeing his castle, it pierces you and crushes you to death.

But then again, if he lets your message in, and lets the heat of the words flow all though him, and says mmmm…It’s a gamble – no, not a gamble, a carefully crafted irrationality that demands every shred of your skill. I don’t know what he feels for me, but for just one night I want him to feel for me what I feel for him – this terrible, lustful, mystical, murderous longing. It’s as if it wants to reproduce itself, and it pushes me to write the words that will do it. What do you think? Should I go for it?

17:44 - 11 February 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

Sounds risky. Why don’t you run it by me first?

22:30 - 11 February 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

OK. Here’s what I’d like to send him. Read it with his eyes.

Valentine’s Day in New York

It’s eight in the morning, dazzling bright for February, and I’m walking down to get my week’s worth of bagels. They fish them out of the vats, gooshy and steaming, and shovel them out of the ovens, brown and burning hot. They warm my ribs all the way through my down jacket on the walk home. I see the old Chinese man walking his two little granddaughters to the bus stop, and I am so, so happy to be alive and walking down this sunny street this morning, because I am going to see you today.

Waiting for the train, I am singing Hot Stuff, happy, brazen woman-wanting – I usually sing my moods before I know I have them. The train comes scouring and chugging up, and even its great roaring yellow snout seems to be smiling. My black boots crack up Fifth Avenue, faster and faster, until finally, as I see you beside the lion, I break into a run. You spread your arms wide, and then they lock around me, and you catch me up and spin me around and around next to our lion. I swing my legs up and spread them wide in a great big jitterbug V for victory, and they wrap around you and lock behind you. When you are done kissing me, you say, God, Leo, I sure am glad to see you, we’ve waited way too long to do this.

You keep your hands on me all day. I love your hands so much – warm, firm, knowing, so utterly confident. They know what they want to touch, they touch it, and they touch it well, no shame, no hesitation.

At the museum I lean back against you and try to look up at you before the Picassos, and I say that must hurt to be cut up in little pieces like that, a breast off to the left there, a nose way over there on the side. But you say, no, he knows what he’s doing, that’s just the way it is. That’s not the way you see it, but that’s the way you think it. You can think very fast, like the frames of a movie, but no matter how hard you try, you can only think of one part at a time. I don’t know, I say, but could you please feel me to make sure all my parts are in the right place.

We are talking, talking, talking, about the paintings, about our students, about our books, about ourselves, about people from our high schools we haven’t seen in 20 years, and we only fall silent in the hushed circle of the water lilies, holding onto each other in the apricot shimmer and not saying a word.

In the street the wind blows every way at once, and my hair swirls up so that I can’t see or breathe. You pull it away from my face, and then suddenly you pull me against you and kiss me, your tongue hotly alive in my mouth. The people on Fifth Avenue are cursing and elbowing their way around us, a few tourists hoot, and finally one guy yells, hey, BUDDY, do ‘er at home, will ya, yer blockin the friggin sidewalk! And we have to stop kissing because we’re laughing too hard. My face is glowing from the heat and the wind.

All around us, every window is red and pink foil, the street is a great tunnel of roses and chocolate hearts. Leo, you say, I’m starvin, and we find a coffee shop. You ask me what I want to eat, and I say nothing, I’m too happy to eat, and you frown and say, that’s no good, Leo, you gotta eat, so I get a fat-free, sugar-free cranberry orange muffin, and you get a roast beef sandwich. We break the muffin into little pieces, and you feed it to me, bite by bite. Then you say, I know what you need, Leo, and you disappear for a few minutes. When you come back, you have a baby red heart from the Duane Reade Drug Store next door, just four pieces of chocolate in it, and you tell me here, this is for us. You pick one, and you hold it up to my lips, and I bite into it, gently, slowly, softly, so that my lips close over your finger and thumb, and you say, oh…Then I feed you your piece, and you say, mmm, and kiss my fingers, and when the chocolate is all gone, you say, c’mon, Leo, let’s go for a walk.

Out on the street my hair is everywhere again, and you say, this is gettin outa hand, Leo, we gotta do somethin about this, and you buy me a great big red satin scrunchy from a booth on a corner, and it does the job.

We go into the park, and we look for parts where there are no people, and finally we find one, between some trees and some cold, hard rocks. I say, Josh, I’m freezing. C’meah, you say, I’ll warm you up. You’re always warming me, you never get cold. I press as close to you as I can, and you fold yourself all around me and push me back against the rocks and start to whisper in my ear. I run my lips all over your neck, I always loved your neck, and I dig my hands into the brown springiness of your hair. Leo, you’re whispering, I want you so bad, I want to be inside of you, and I say I wish you could be, and you push against me as hard as you can, as if you really were. Finally we just stop moving and hold each other, as tight as we can, until finally I have to say stop, Josh, stop, I can’t breathe, and these rocks, they’re hurting my back. Something is making you want to stop, too, but you won’t tell me what it is.

The sunlight is fading, and the gray is coming, and we head back down Fifth Avenue, where people are starting to shiver and hurry. We pat our lion as we pass him, and we stop for one more cup of coffee. Tomorrow I teach Liaisons and Robinson Crusoe, I say, and you say you teach Moll Flanders and Hard Times. We are holding hands, hard, as we’re washed down the gullet into Penn Station, and you say, you first. You go down with me to my train, and as we wait for the doors to open, you pull me against you again, and you say, You know I can’t do this, Leo, but you know the truth. I think you’re so wonderful, Leo, and I say, No, you, you’re wonderful, I like you so much. And then the bell rings shrilly, and the doors open, and you say, you be good, Leo, you take care of yourself, and you push me into the car. I wave to you, my big red scrunchy on my wrist, and you wave and turn to go, and I’m drained and empty inside, thinking of nothing, and so very proud that I didn’t cry until after you were gone.

What do you think? Can I send him this?

9:41 - 12 February 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

Are you out of your MIND? You can’t send this. Josh’s reaction aside, you could lose your job. Didn’t you say people can read this stuff? If you want to live dangerously, do it, but don’t risk your job. I mean, come on.

Then there’s him. I don’t know how else to put this, but this is girls’ stuff. I don’t think guys get turned on by this kind of stuff. As a matter of fact, I know guys don’t get turned on by this stuff. They throw up on the keyboard after they’ve hit the delete button fifteen times.

I’m not saying it’s insincere. It really reads like life as you wish you could live it for a day, but it’s female passion. I spend all my time with guys, and as far as I can tell, they hate these kinds of romantic chocolate fantasies because they make them feel like objects. I think it’s sort of like why we hate James Bond fantasies. Also, from what you tell me about him, he’ll get really alarmed. He’ll think you’re in love with him and pull the plug not just to save himself but to save you from getting hurt – I can almost hear him thinking, the self-preservation current merging with his affection for you and his basic decent desire to see you happy.

I wouldn’t send this. The parts of him I think you want to reach, the intelligence that loves a challenge, the aggression that loves a good fight, and the libido that loves a good – you know – won’t respond to this. I would go for this code you’re always talking about, mysterious, so subtle that he wonders whether he’s reading things into it even as he starts to heat up, and so subtle that if somebody else reads it you can claim it’s not about sex at all, it’s really about your research. Do that, Leo. For God’s sake, no roses or red satin. How about sending me a valentine? I accept roses, red satin scrunchies, and chocolate.

20:22 12 February 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

I want to stay in touch, because I realize you must be anxious. We are holding on, here, and I have hopes we can overcome this. Work is going much better than I deserve. We may have it now, my top quark I mean, and we’re scheduled for another run tomorrow. If we can confirm, we can try and publish, which would greatly strengthen my chances for another three years here.

Trish is now with her mother under what sound like hideous circumstances. She’s used up all her sick time and has had to apply for leave from work. I knew her mother before the disease, so I can feel how excruciating this must be for her. She was always so clean and organized and efficient, gracious and generous, and her home was lovely. Now she’s a monster, a hideous distortion of her former self – Mr. Hyde, almost. Her hair is a greasy mat, unless Trish physically forces her to wash it, and she puts her clothes on backwards. You’d think that just out of sheer odds she’d get some of them on the right way, but somehow she never does unless you dress her yourself. Technically she’s still continent, but she defecates around the house and smears her feces out of spite or anger. Trish told me sometimes she tries to kick her or claw her with her fingernails. She thinks Trish is trying to hold her prisoner, like the last nurse.

I feel so sorry for Trish in all of this. Her mother is going to have to go into a nursing home, and the house will have to be sold, all these legal hassles, and meanwhile her sister Wendy is doing nothing herself but criticizing Trish’s every move, saying she’s mistreating the mother, trying to steal all her money, etc., etc. I talk to her for hours every day, trying to put things right again.

The biggest problem is just so insane, considering all the real ones we need to solve. Trish is overweight. She has been as long as I’ve known her, even though she eats pretty well and is fairly active. Well, she does eat a lot of ice cream. Her whole family is, so I think it’s genetic. She’s always been very sensitive about it, and she’s always had this almost obsession that I’m not really attracted to her and that someday I’ll get involved with a woman who looks like Claudia Schiffer because that’s what I really want. It’s not true, but this isn’t the sort of thought you can overcome with reason and reassurances. And now it’s happened. It’s such a shame. She’s such an intelligent woman, I can’t believe that she thinks this way.

Being with her mother isn’t helping, and so for at least an hour every night I get, what did it feel like to have your hands around a 24-inch waist and cute little breasts, huh, did it feel good? If I tell her about you candidly, I feel as though I betray you. I tell her you’re not Claudia Schiffer, you’re not conventionally beautiful, you’re just a normal woman like her for whom I have very strong feelings. She doesn’t buy it, of course. She wants to know where the feelings come from. Do women really give us so little credit? Or is it maybe even worse for them to think the feelings come from respect for intelligence and a deep love of someone’s way of seeing things? I want to help Trish, and I don’t know how. Most of all I’m concerned about Jeannie out there. Under these circumstances I think she’d be better off with me, but Trish is holding onto her with a ferocity that’s really disturbing. She wants to keep her away from me, I think.

The images of you haunt me, and the memories of being with you are so strong that I even wonder whether this obsession of hers could be right. It would be a terrible thing to have to admit. No matter what happens, please know that I will never lose my admiration and respect and fondness for you. How are you? I wish I could – hold you tonight.

20:27 12 February 1997
To: Rebecca Fass
From: Lee Ann Downing

How about this?

Une Flèche

“Les filles publiques en écrivant font du style et de beaux sentiments, eh bien! les grandes dames qui font du style et de grands sentiments toute la journée, écrivent comme les filles agissent....La femme est un être inférieur, elle obéit trop à ses organes.” – Honoré de Balzac, Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes.

C’est presque carnaval, et au carnaval, on parle une nouvelle langue. Avec toi, j’ai découvert un nouvel espace, le cyberspace. Je suis Alice in Wonderland, je t’ai suivi dans le trou. Voilà deux niveaux de liberté, un nouvel espace, une nouvelle langue.

On dit que le cyberspace est une utopie. Je l’ai lu hier soir – c’est drôle, cette idée. On dit que dans le cyberspace, on peut satisfaire tous les désirs de la chair sans pécher. Mais c’est une blague d’utopie, c’est une merde d’utopie. C’est une utopie où on peut tout faire sauf toucher. Imaginer, pas avoir. Jouer. C’est l’espace de Tantalus, toujours la même histoire. On jou, mais y a-t-il de la jouissance?

Voilà un nouveau poème scientifique. Prends. C’est le tien, c’est un cadeau.


Desire, the force that drives all,
seeks its own end.
We live as a capacitor,
two plates aglow with charge,
forever split by that purposeful,
maddening sliver of space.

No distance, no energy;
no wanting, no being.
And the flash-flow
for which nature screams
is the death of the circuit.

Oh, for that end,
the leap of charges, the collapse of fields,
the touch that blasts potential
into nothingness!

But being, we bear the charge of the world,
and as with the mortal
forever straining toward the round, sweet fruit,
our sin is wanting.

“Nous,” j’ai dit. Mais je ne parle que pour moi. Alors, bien, je voulais écrire de “la condition humaine.” Mais je ne suppose rien. Je ne peux parler que pour moi.

Mon rêve virtuel, c’est simple. On danse, doucement. On porte une robe de velours bleu, bleu comme minuit. On caresse le velours bleu, partout, au-dessous enfin. Ce rêve est né il y a quatre ans.

N’aies pas peur que je suis folle. Un rêve est un rêve, et la vérité est la vérité. Le rêve: on danse, on touche. La vérité: on est pris, on est content, on est loin; on était déjà pris, et content, et loin, il y a quatre ans. Je suis professeur, je respecte la vérité. Ce soir je déclare carnaval, mais je n’écrirai plus comme ça.

Entre le rêve et la vérité, le nouvel espace, la nouvelle langue. Il reste un espace ou on danse, ou on porte une robe de velours bleu. Il reste un espace où on dort, dans une paix absolue, entre des bras forts.

De mes neurones, à mes lèvres (non – c’est un autre circuit, ça, un circuit parallèlle) de mes neurones, à mes doigts, à tes yeux. Je t’embrasse.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

7:57 - 13 February 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

No Leo. You are not getting the concept. French is not a code, it’s a mode. This is level-three stuff – this you can only tell him when you’re lying next to him. You send this over the net, you will alienate the man.

God, I wish somebody would send me stuff like this. Maybe I should send Owen a valentine. What do you think? I’m still completely immersed in this grant proposal, and my neurons really, really want to write something different.

10:13 - 13 February 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing

Hey, what’s goin on?

How’s Sex and Death?

Was it somethin I said?

Like Fatal Attraction? Don’t be shy, Leo. Now there’s a female who wants.

How about putting her in your book? What did you think of it?

12:07 - 13 February 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Marcia Pinto

OK, let’s start with Fatal Attraction. What did you think of Fatal Attraction?

21:47 - 13 February 1997
From: Marcia Pinto
To: Lee Ann Downing

Wow. What a way to start. Well, basically, it made me so angry I was ready to take up where Alex left off. It’s just so RIGGED. It’s set up so that the woman is 100% in the wrong, and any woman who’s ever been upset about getting fucked and dumped becomes associated with this psychopath. In real life the guy screws you until he gets tired of it, then throws you away like a piece of garbage and gets a new one. But they have to find a way to justify it and make themselves look good. So since they have all the money and the power, they make a propaganda film, sort of like Hitler’s guy – who was it, Goebbels? – so that it looks as though the woman who wants it to be more than casual fucking is a sadistic psycho.

They make him married. Poor guy, one little mistake, and look what happens to him. Even the women start rooting for him. I mean, anybody can make a little mistake. It’s all the woman’s fault. She’s completely in the wrong. She knows he’s married, and she wants him anyway. “You knew the rules,” he says. Rules? What rules? Who made the rules? The rules say they tell you whatever it takes to be able to stick themselves into you, and then they tell you whatever it takes to get you the fuck away from them. They tell you you’re beautiful, that you’re intelligent, that your work is great. Then when they’ve had enough, it’s “I don’t want to get involved here – I don’t want to get your expectations up.” Can’t imagine what they could have done to raise your expectations – like being inside of your body eight hours ago? When she says, “I won’t just be IGNORED like this,” I wanted to jump up and say “Yeah! Yeah!” The script is brilliant even if the plot is warped.

In that scene where he fights with her in the white kitchen, you know, everything seems to be white, and it’s really sloppy and ugly and brutal, you can see the murderous hatred in his face. He fucked her, and she just won’t go away, and so now she’s a threat to his life, and he wants her dead. I think every man has that in him, the desire to fuck a woman and then kill her when he’s done so she can’t ever bother him any more.

As you can probably tell, I just got dumped, and I honestly think that’s what he would like to do to me. We’re sort of like garbage, the rotting remnants of a meal you’ve finished eating that are starting to smell bad and are a sure breeding place for infectious germs. I think he’d like to go at me with a can of Lysol. You know he won’t even look at me? As if I were evil or something, as though he’d catch the little particles of evil I emit if he gets one in his eye.

So they make this movie where the woman they think is a psychopath for being angry about getting dumped really IS a psychopath, and everyone feels better all around. Wives get into it too, of course, everyone cheering for Michael Douglas with his hands around her neck, screaming, “Kill the bitch!”

That’s what I think of Fatal Attraction. Next Question.

17:23 - 14 February 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

This is your cyber-valentine. Female scientists are beautiful. Female scientists are gorgeous. Female scientists are sexy. Female scientists are wonderful. Female scientists look great in red satin.

By the way, I sent it. I sent both of them. I didn’t change a word. Want to hear about Sex and Death? I asked. You got it. I just keep thinking I could die tomorrow, and he would never have seen them. I wrote them for him. I could see him as I picked every word, so that if I throw them away, it’s like throwing him away. I want to make love to him with my words. It’s the only way I can touch him, and I can’t live any more without touching him some way.