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Intellectual theft

The Tantalus Letters: Part III, Chapter 3

Laura Otis 25 March 2007

I barely ever leave the lab. They tell me it’s raining
a lot

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 3

19:50 - 15 June 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Owen Bauer

I’m so glad you’re OK! You’re right, I was really worried. I’m going to have to find better ways to stay in touch. You must have been expecting the divorce, I guess, but this thing with Dave is outrageous! Isn’t there anybody above Rhonda you could go to? I know they don’t like it when you do that, but this seems like an extreme case.

Being here is bringing back so many memories of things I’d forgotten that my time here with you is real and alive again. Do you remember the zoo? That’s how it all started, didn’t it? We were at this party, and some guy said that the zoo here was great, and I said I’d been dying to go, and the others all started shaking their heads, animals trapped in cages, screaming kids all over the place, and then you said you’d go with me, you loved zoos, and I looked up and saw you for the first time.

I remember I noticed how big you were, how broad in the shoulders, and how your eyes shone with sympathy, reaching out. We’d been here two months, and neither of us had ever gone anywhere. I worked nonstop, and you didn’t like to go out alone because you didn’t speak the language.

So one day, some holiday we’d never heard of when everything was closed, we went to the zoo. I’ve always loved zoos – living things – I love to watch living things. The animals are great in themselves: a big black dog barking nonstop at a donkey, outraged that such a creature could even exist; a leopard asleep in the sun, ignoring the cries of the children trying to wake him up; a red parrot upside down, plucking leaves outside his cage; a mother orangutan with the breasts of a woman, gazing at you intelligently; the snuffing of seals; an ostrich plucking at its tail feathers. A giraffe glides in circles while a crowd of children gaze up at it in awe.

Looking down at the kids, who came up to my hips, I felt exactly like the giraffe. I loved the lions, tigers, panthers, anything that’s a cat, but they just lay there, a real disappointment. You liked the bears the best, and we watched them for almost an hour, with their rolling walk and round, fuzzy faces.

I remember how we talked. If you were trying to woo me, it has to have been the weirdest wooing strategy of all time (maybe that’s why it worked). You were telling me all about how you met Trish and how things were with her and how you were expecting a baby and were sure it would be a girl. You seemed lonely, and I never dreamed – not at first. Some guys complain about their wives, the old my-wife-doesn’t-understand-me schtick, but you had only praises: you’d been down, really depressed in grad school, didn’t want to live any more, and you’d met her, and everything just fell into place. She was a dynamo, all action, kept you going – you just felt bad about being in the lab all the time. She’d even insisted on your coming here, her home pregnant, because it was such a great opportunity. You called her every night – that night was the first one you skipped.

I remember how much I loved talking to you that day, how every thought I had just came naturally to my lips, and you seemed to read them all even before I spoke them. You finished my sentences for me.

We both loved kids, and at the zoo it’s even better to watch the kids watching the animals than to watch the animals themselves. There was that little American girl with the ponytail who kept calling to the owl and finally got it to answer her back, and there was the little boy with the green backpack who kept roaring at the lion, trying to make it get up. Kids were everywhere, swarming, squealing, making more noise than the flamingos, who made a pretty unholy racket themselves. We watched them and laughed, and you told me you were made to be a father, you were looking forward to that baby so much.

I got a kick out of teaching you the German words for everything, and you thought it was great how a polar bear was an ice-bear and a raccoon was a wash-bear, because it washes its food. I could see how brilliant you were from the way you questioned everything, questions I’d never even thought of, yet it was odd how the German just rolled right off your brain as if it were teflon. Here we were both German, and I just took to the language, and you rejected it – different neuronal connections, I guess.

I think we were there the whole day, walking around and around, talking about particle physics and neuronal development and animal behavior and babies, always the same circle: animals, neurons, synapse formation, intelligence, babies, around and around. At some point we stopped and had a beer, and you thought that was funny, beer at the zoo.

Then I took you into the city, and we wandered through the Altstadt, the narrow streets along the river. You marveled at it, the fairytale houses, the cobblestone streets that you’d never known were there. We ate at a touristy restaurant with white plastic tables and chairs, and we just kept talking for hours, because at some point our pathetic past love lives had come into the circle, somewhere between animal behavior and neurons. We talked about what attracted us: honesty, you said, kindness; I said intelligence and empathy, a rare combination. It got dark, and the white ships on the river, full of happy people, began to twinkle with little lights.

Finally we got up, but we didn’t want the day to end, and we kept walking in circles around the pedestrian zone. We were looking at this huge display window full of stuffed animals, a mountain, an arkful of animals: bears, hedgehogs, pigs, frogs, raccoons, camels, owls, cats, parrots, mice, all fuzzy and plushy with glinting little brown eyes, and suddenly I felt as if the rays of all those eyes had given me a gentle push, the way the photoelectric effect can make leaves of metal spin around. I found myself falling back against you, and you wrapped your arms around me, big bear arms, and asked me not to leave you that night. Slowly, slowly, I turned around . . .

I haven’t been the same person since that moment, now over four years ago. We formed a Beziehung as they say in German, a connection that can never be broken. No matter where you are, what you do, I’ll always be connected to you.

Did you know that they laughed at us? They called me Dial-a-Deutsch because you called the lab all the time asking how to say things in German, and when I got here yesterday morning two people remembered us and asked me how you were. As I walk through the Altstadt now, past the black, lacy towers of the Dom that make you gasp as you spill out of the Fußgängerzone, the streets seem to be full of ghosts – I can see us everywhere, watch us talking, watch you slide your arm so naturally around my waist. You know, the same windowful of animals is still there, looking out? Should I buy you one, a nice, big bear? I wish I could give it to you personally, place it right in your loving, reaching arms.

I want whatever is best for you: Trish and Jeannie, freedom, or more days at the zoo with me. I have to get to work now, but take care, and I know I’ll see you again soon.

Alles Liebe,

deine Rebecca

20:10 - 15 June 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Josh Golden

Sorry to be praising Germans to you now that I get your life a little better, but you did ask for my honest impression. I truly believe there are more good people than Nazis here – I mean, somebody’s got to be painting all the graffiti that says “Nazis ‘raus.” But then again I’m always Anne Frank, swearing people are really good inside even as the Nazis are tramping up the stairs.

That’s scary, the near-miss with your kids. I love kids. Tell me about your family. Is your wife a professor, too? How old are your children, and what are they like?

What more can I tell you about neurons?

11:20 - 16 June 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Rebecca Fass
Subject: Kids

How does one neuron recognize another? That’s the main thing I need to know right now. How do they all find the guys they’re supposed to be connected to?

That’s what I’m looking at in these novels, how people signal each other, how the signalling works on a social level, and what they think about the ways they’re all interconnected.

Speaking of biology, kids: David is ten, Jeremy is eight. Wife is Beth, wonderful gal, been together ‘bout fifteen years. No professor, she: runs a cosmetics business, makes you all more beautiful. We’re a good match, same background, complementary neuroses, understand each other perfectly. Couldn’t live with someone who doesn’t know what’s kosher and what’s tref.

Kids are #1 with me, can’t explain having kids to someone who has none, like trying to explain vision to the blind – it’s just a whole ‘nother realm, a whole ‘nother way of navigating.

David is into sports and bad at all of ‘em – gotta love him for his persistence, though. Someday he’ll find one he can do and win a gold medal in it. Jeremy is a computer freak. I ask him stuff all the time, same as I’m asking you now.

Kids: you do less, you do more, and if you survive, you have a better sense of humor.

Now tell me ‘bout those neurons, ba – Hey, what do I call you? I need an epithet to help my phrases slide through cyberspace, a little butter on the cyberbread. If you ain no darlin, and you ain no babe, what are ya?

17:12 - 16 June 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

I think about you in Germany all the time, what you’re doing, what you’re saying, what you’re thinking. I wish so much that I could be with you there again. I know I can never get that back, though, because of the way time works – not linear, not progressive, but flitting, buzzing, settling, zooming like a fly. You can’t recapture moments, not because they’re behind you but because you can never predict what time will do next. Right now I’m reliving my first days with Trish, which were ecstatic – watching Tender Mercies and eating frozen pizza under a blanket, on a night when it was ten below.

I faced the inevitable today: I finally met with a lawyer, and I talked to Dave. It’s so hard fighting when you don’t want to fight – I wanted a woman, and probably should have gone for a female version of Rhonda, but in the end I just used the yellow pages. I said I wanted no money, nothing but the right to see Jeannie, and she nodded and took notes with a client-is-always-right, disapproving air. They like a real battle, I guess, and I must have struck her as too wimpy. I have no idea how I’m going to pay for this.

She told me that if it came to a real custody fight, I was at a serious disadvantage, because I was admitting to the adultery charge. She even suggested I deny it, in the absence of proof. But that just seems so stupid when it’s so clearly true, and I certainly don’t want you dragged into it. She also advised me to stay away from you – no visits, no phone calls, until this is over. E-mail is OK because if we delete everything, it’s harder to trace – they’d have to get a court order, plus permission from both facilities to open the accounts. God, who ever thinks that this can happen, when you just reach out and put your arms around someone. Life is so insane.

After this I was ready for anything, so I went to confront Dave. That was actually more insane, if you can imagine it. He told me not only that he’d written the article, but that he’d done most of the work, and, face it, it was only right that he be first author. I always lose arguments because I stop and ask myself whether what the other guy is saying might be true. It is true that he put a lot of work into the article, but he always started with text I’d written myself. But what is writing? I didn’t create it out of nothing any more than he did, just put together a new combination of the formulas we use to communicate in this business. Doing the work, that’s a bit further from reality, although he did let me use his accelerator time, and we did work together some nights. But I always had the impression he was doing it for fun. Was he setting me up from the beginning, or did he just see an opportunity and create a version of the events that would work to his advantage? Now that’s writing, but we all do that, rewrite history to our own advantage.

To settle with his conscience, I guess, he’s so thoroughly convinced himself that he’s in the right that he blew up at me for confronting him and put me on the defensive. How dare I accuse him? I hadn’t been doing my job, and he’d been doing it for me, and now I was trying to take credit for his work? He was so certain that I began to doubt the truth myself. I just told him that he was wrong, that he was taking credit for my work, and he knew it, and that this was unworthy of him – I knew he was a better person than this. I was trying to reach the guy I’d known, who I was sure was there somewhere inside of Mr. Hyde, but to no avail – if he was still alive, he was bound and gagged.

I gave up. I may try going over Rhonda’s head, as you advised me. I’ll ask around about who’s best to talk to. Just a week or two ago I would have asked Dave. How terrible people are to each other. Looking back at my own actions, I’m wondering whether I’ve been as ruthless as the people around me. In my own way I have, I think – the will to love can be just as devastating as the will to power, two tornados with different causes and the same results.

I’d better sign off now before I depress you too much. I keep trying to call Trish and Jeannie, but she won’t return my calls – screens them with a machine that says “we’d be glad to get back to you.”

00:27 - 17 June 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Licked

Please, Leo, more, pleez, pleez, pleeeeeeez, more!

18:52 - 17 June 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: A Licking

Full moon here, could take off all my clothes and howl. But then I’d get cold, and you know what I’m like when I’m cold, hard as gumdrops you have to lick and suck forever before they dissolve. When they do, I do, one great writhing moan clinging to you with a salamander grip.

But you, you don’t frighten, you love a challenge: something grabs you, you wrestle it, you flip it, you pin it, you spread it out, and then you nuzzle it and taste it and push it and poke it to see what will happen. And then you just ram right inside it, and oh, lots of things happen, lots and lots of things, it contracts, it undulates, it clings tighter, and you grab it harder and push harder until it screams, and then it lies quiet and whimpering in your grasp.

So you lick it all over to comfort it, long, wet, masterful licks, over the belly, then back up to the gumdrops that need to be dissolved again. It licks back now, tamed, down and down and down, until it’s you who’s down and helpless and gasping and begging, too big to dissolve, too hard to dissolve, only way out is to explode.

In the end it’s a draw, one round to you, one round to the monster, and exhausted, we sleep, confused and tangled, too tired to know what it means.

19:12 - 18 June 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

How is your summer developing? I am in cells all the time here, barely ever leave the lab. They tell me it’s raining a lot. The technique they have is so fantastic – electrodes that just slide right in there, so you can stay inside for a long time and get a real sense of what’s going on.

I’ve been writing to Josh, and I’m beginning to see what you see in him – a forceful personality, but with a lot of kindness, too. His aggression seems mainly defensive, if that makes any sense.

My own guy is doing a little better. The Germans are on break, and I don’t have too long for e-mail tonight. Gotta write to the guys now. Writing to the guys – sometimes it feels like slopping the pigs. God, I’m bad. I throw ‘em out some mental scraps, and I can just hear ‘em slurping it down, grunting with pleasure, their little tails wriggling with excitement. I’ve been working too hard again. Just don’t slaughter ‘em, Leo. I love fattening ‘em up, and I want them to live long, happy, porcine lives, rolling in the mud and the clover.