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Potential difference, opposite charges

The Tantalus Letters: Part III, Chapter 4

Laura Otis 1 April 2007

Maybe this is your scientific guilt nightmare – you get to the gates, and God is a cat, and St. Peter is a lab rat, and you are in serious trouble

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 4

19:29 - 18 June 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Call Me Bigfoot

Gee, your collection of epithets seems rather limited. What do you call the guys you write to – do they get cyberbutter too? You do write to guys, right? Just think of me as one of them.

You have asked THE question, the one we all want to know the answer to and the one I’ll probably spend most of my life trying to find out: how do neurons know what to connect to? Nobody knows. There’s nerve growth factor, which can make the little guys grow in a particular direction. Then there’s Gerry Edelman’s stuff, which you should take a look at: “neural darwinism,” about neurons competing to form connections. He thinks it’s not completely planned out – a whole bunch could hook up with and try to hook up with a particular cell, and in the end only some do. He says the molecule on the surface that gets recognized is a ganglioside, this big, hairy brush of sugar. This molecule binds to itself, on the surface of other neurons – no opposites attracting in synapse formation. Well, time to stick another cell. Think about it – a great big, hairy sugar brush, like cotton candy.

10:52 - 19 June 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Rebecca Fass
Subject: Gender in Cyberspace

Love the brush. But what’s this I’m hearin, here, think you’re a guy?

They lied in that commercial: there are genders in cyberspace. You don’t write like a guy, bigfoot, got that twinkle in your touch. You are a female somethin, don’ know what.

Now, what’s all this about Liebeskummer, your guy let you down? We do that. You go find a better one, one you can stroke till he purrs with your big ol’ sugar brush.

I’d volunteer, but I’m taken, boy, am I taken. Just don’t stick ‘im, bigfoot, no intracellular recording.

Now, tell me all ‘bout it, – Need an alternate epithet – what do you suggest?

By the way, how would you describe the human neural communications network? Give me your top ten words for it – science-speak would be best.

20:32 - 19 June 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Words

The human neural communications network: only a humanities type could come up with something like that.












Not too scientific, is it, but the best I can do tonight. The best word is German, I’m afraid, Beziehung, which is connection and relationship at once.

You really want to hear about this? I should never be telling you. My guy is the greatest in the universe, perfect for me, kind, caring, loving, brilliant, and gorgeous. Met him four years ago when we were both spending a semester in Germany. Instant affinity. Bigtime bonding. Just one problem. Yeah, you got it, the usual one: his wife and daughter would not approve. So I’ve sort of been in limbo here, wanting the synapse but with no right to it. It would hurt if I didn’t work 80 hours a week. That’s the whole story, really, potential difference, opposite charges, with some intervening space. I can’t believe you got me talking about this. What’s your story, anyway, how have you stayed this happy for this long?

11:11 - 20 June 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Rebecca Fass
Subject: Staying Happy

This sounds bad, beautiful. (Like your new cyberbutter?)

Get yourself another guy, don’t waste energy pining for one who’s taken. Save your brush for an unconnected cell.

No perfect guy or gal for anyone, just a good number of workable possibilities if you’re willing to do the work. Kids, companionship, teamwork, that’s what it’s all about, giving up what you think you want, getting a surprise that’s better than what you thought you wanted.

Keep your wanting dynamic, that’s how to stay happy. Never want too much, always be ready to receive.

Bend your knees when you catch the ball, and never look too hard at what you’ve caught.

Like my paternal advice? Why do I hear you laughing in cyberspace?

11:31 - 20 June 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Basta

Gumdrops? Don’t think I’ve ever seen one. Sounds like something out of Little House on the Prairie.

Jujyfruits, I like, gummybears, but you don’t suck ‘em, you chew ‘em, scrunge ‘em around in your mouth, then spend the rest of the day pickin ‘em outa your teeth.

Flawed metaphor.

We gotta stop this, Leo, it’s gettin outa hand. Almost got caught a couple of nights ago, cyber-interruptus.

Yeah, I know, I asked for it, an’ now I’m askin you to stifle it.

It’s all clichés anyway, last message was a jumble of recycled erotic bubbles. You can do better.

Funny, clichés do the job anyway, pleasure center is not discriminating, no taste. Almost exploded at the terminal.

Can’t take it any more. Let’s take a break.

Be home on August 7, then we can talk. Be good.

16:56 - 23 June 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

Hey, what are the neurons saying? Is Josh still writing to you? I’m mad because he’s just tried to turn me off again. I’m sort of his own private cable channel that he can turn on and off with a remote. I either wrote too well, or not well enough. What’s he writing to you?

I’m making almost frightening progress with the book, now that I can work as much as I want. I leave the film books, VCR, and computer only to eat some yogurt or cereal, and I rarely leave my apartment.

I’m just wildly excited about this idea: women go on the rampage when men tell them they have no right to feel desire. Generally we’re only allowed to react to male desire, or at most, to channel it. For each chapter I’m doing a book and a movie – the way female rage looks on the page and on the screen. I’m calling it R(amp)age: Reflections of Female Desire.

Josh is motivating me to write it in ways he’s never even imagined. When he writes to you, what does he ask? What does he say? How does his “forcefulness” manifest itself?

7:45 - 24 June 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

Sounds like we’re on the same work schedule. Every minute counts here, and I really have to try to get the most out of my time. But, yeah, I am still writing to Josh. He’s really smart, asks great questions. It’s like you said – he’s doing the paternal thing, very free with the advice. And major chutzpah, as you also said. It’s impossible not to like him; I just don’t think I’d want him in my lab. Marcia reports a disturbance. Has she told you anything about what’s been going on?

18:00 - 24 June 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: No More Gumdrops?

No more candy till you’re back, you mean it? Not a Reece’s Piece, not a Tictac, not a Rolo, not a Lifesaver, not a Raisinet, not an M&M, not a Gummybear, sweet and firm in my mouth? For real? No more sugar to the Holy Land?

10:16 25 June 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: No More Gumdrops

I mean it, Leo, no more candy, not a snicker(s), not a jellybean, not a jujyfruit, not a truffle, not a bonbon, no more cyber-licking, -sucking, -chewing of any kind, no sweet little particles of female desire accelerated in this direction – collisions too disruptive.

You don’t get it, Leo. Kids – they’re the greatest, depend on you, have to come first. You screw around, you screw them.

Wanting and doing, two different things. River Jordan, deep and wide, can’t cross over.

Voice says warning, warning, danger, Will Robinson.

Love candy, you know, Leo, could lick it, suck it, crunch it till I die, just don’t want the sugar rush now. Got a book to write, two kids to keep outa trouble.

Trouble is you, darlin, you are trouble, you are tref, très fine, trop fine, your fine little particles bounce all over my brain.

I demand a chapter, a full chapter of female desire, to be delivered on August 7 when I get home. Will be satisfied only with that. Now do us both a favor and go write your book.

21:20 - 27 June 1997
From: Marcia Pinto
To: Lee Ann Downing

There’s some Murphy’s Law that says that crises only happen when there’s no one around who can handle them. Becky’s getting daily phone updates on this one, but I thought you might also be interested for your book.

Dawn’s ex-husband has turned up, this Salvadoreño guy. She’s never wanted to talk about it, but she used to be married until the guy went nuts and turned paranoid on her. She’s always been very politically active, and she was trying to get word out about what was really going on there, how the CIA was training the death squads. She also used to try to help Salvadoreño refugees get started here. I think that’s how she met him. It wasn’t a green card marriage, at least not on her side. She really loved him. He might have been using her – I don’t know. But it doesn’t look like it, not the way he’s acting now.

Oh, yeah, you don’t know – he’s found her again, and he’s been stalking her. If he comes into the lab, we can call security, but since this is also a hospital, it’s a public building, and he has a right to be here. He seems to know just how much he can get away with. He’s actually very smart for a caveman.

She finally told us about it yesterday, because he’d followed her through the lobby telling her what a bitch she was. She was totally shaken, just rattled – I’ve never seen her like that. Usually she’s so controlled and quiet. She had to explain so that we’d know to watch out for him – little guy, black hair, nice-looking, Central American. His name is Pablo.

When they got married, she was still a grad student, and the trouble started when he wanted to have a baby right away. She wanted to finish her degree first and get a job, and it was a culture thing – there you plan your work around the baby, not the baby around the work. I think he was also under a lot of pressure from his friends and family, like you’re a loser if you don’t have a baby right away just to prove you can. He really turned on her when she wouldn’t do it, first kept throwing her pills away, then started trying to keep her from working, sabotaging her work, and finally hitting her. He kept telling her over and over that her work was meaningless, that she was a selfish bitch, and that her values were totally fucked up. He knew how to control her, and he played the political guilt card a lot – she valued work more than family because she’d been brainwashed by social institutions promoting capitalist egotism so as to maintain a world full of artificially – motivated worker-slaves.

So she did a Lysistrata, a sex strike, and that’s when he lost it totally because he was sure if she wasn’t doing it with him, she must be doing it with someone else. All she wanted to do was take EM pictures of synapses, and she had to go home every night to this hell. She could never work past six, a terrible disadvantage in this business, because he would scream at her either that she was allowing herself to be exploited, or she didn’t love him, or she was fucking every guy here, or all three. Once when she went to a party and came home at eight, he beat her up.

After that she went to a women’s center to get help. I don’t know why she waited so long. I bet it was that he kept pushing the guilt button – she was promoting third world oppression by not doing everything his way. They somehow brought her back to reality, and they got her a lawyer, and she divorced him.

Well, except it wasn’t that easy. He was furious because he stood to lose his green card, and he did everything he could to slow it down, plus harass and demoralize her as much as the law permitted. She got an order of protection, but even then he still hung around and called her up and stole her mail, determined to see what guy had replaced him. There was no guy, of course – she just kept slicing, fixing, and taking pictures – nerves like nobody’s business, that woman.

This was still going on when she got her degree, but she thought she’d finally ditched him when she got the postdoc down here three years ago. She’s totally devastated, because if he’s after her again now, he may well keep it up her entire life. She’s afraid for the lab because he once came in and tried to trash all her work. I always wondered why she was so paranoid, making copies of everything, locking everything up. She lost six months of work that time. They couldn’t do anything, because they could never prove it was him.

Becky told us to notify security right away, and we have. It’s so hard, though – people work here all night, and anybody can walk in and out. Tony or some guy always walks her to her car, but I imagine how she must feel, getting out at her apartment, running for the door with her key out, wondering if he’s going to be there waiting. I always wished I could be like her, so organized, so much in control – and then this.

I wrote to you because I’m feeling female rage and immediately thought of your book. This seems to be the other side – either they fuck you and dump you, or they “love” you so hard they turn into mondo-sado-control freaks. You get screwed either way. I don’t know if I’m more scared or angry. I wish Becky were here, she’d know what to do.

17:32 - 29 June 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

You’ll have to be my satellite now. He’s declaring a blackout until he comes home – apparently I distract him from his book, and he wants me to write mine so I can be famous like he is. I actually write much better when I’m writing to him – get all kinds of ideas. It’s depressing – I’d like to think I give him ideas, too, but I guess they’re the wrong kind. Is he still writing to you? Please tell me what he says. I’m generally self-entertaining, but sometimes I feel as if the whole world has gone off to some exotic place and left me here alone on Long Island.

For comfort I went and got another one of his books. This one he wrote before he ever saw or heard of me, so no mirroring, just some river-rafting though his fabulous, sexy mind. I actually like this one best, his first one, the one based on his thesis. It’s called Learning Letters. It took him a long time to turn it into a book. It’s a play on the word “letter,” comparing what letters (like A, B, C, D) and letters (the kind we send to each other) do. It’s very theoretical, all about how meaning is created.

He says that letters are never self-sufficient, that both kinds are meaningless out of context and make sense only in relation to other letters. If you read a letter that’s addressed to someone else, you never know exactly what’s going on, because it’s more a cue than a packet of information. Letters don’t carry meaning; they invite it. He claims a letter is always a false contract that’s never fulfilled, promising to deliver meaning that’s supplied only by the reader. A letter is the soul’s portrait – but of whose soul?

Finally he goes into all these examples of letters from Victorian literature, and on to his favorite topic, misreading. The best are from Great Expectations, where Pip’s letters to Joe really ARE letters, badly arranged. And of course the whole title, Great Expectations, tells about what we bring to letters. Hey, he wrote about this book twice. Are you allowed to do that?

As far as I can tell, all of his books are about misreading. I’m waiting to see how this new web book is going to be about misreading. If it’s really about communications, I see major potential. I am so in love with his writing that I get turned on just moving through his sentences – simple, clear, direct, funny, no matter how deep he goes. I’m about to go back now and do another chapter – level 3 rapids, this one on Hardy (“The Letter Killeth”).

Hey, what’s happening with the lab? Marcia told me some pretty scary stuff.

11:10 - 11 July 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Rebecca Fass
Subject: Whew

Thanks for Edelman. Library here had him. Am deep into sugar and loving it.

Other pressures slacking off for now, no more explosions, thank G-d.

Hey, listen, are there many vestigial connections in the brain? Are there a lot of connections sitting there not being used, that could be used, or if they’re not used, do they just go away? I really want to know this.

Hey, guess what? MIT wants this writer to anchor its new interdisciplinary humanities and communications program. They’ve been courting me for awhile now but have just come through with an offer. What do you think?

16:30 - 15 July 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

This sentence belongs only on TV shows, but her lawyer has called my lawyer. My lawyer says it’s a good offer. She’s surprised how good – every other weekend, plus every other Thanksgiving and birthday. She wants to keep Christmas but says I can have Easter. She’s asking for child support only as a percentage of what I make, which is good of her. For awhile it may be nothing.

I had no idea it could get this detailed. I asked, does it say what I’m supposed to feed her for breakfast? She told me that I hadn’t seen anything, that I’d be amazed – anything not clearly written into the contract generally becomes the object of power games later on.

Should I fight for Christmas? This is just so incredibly absurd. Some guy is born and dies two thousand years ago, and this becomes a way of defining the times when I can see my daughter. Easter! Pagan eggs and rabbits rewritten as Christian resurrection – pure insanity. Sanity is the spark of intelligence in her little eyes when she spots an egg, and her squeal as she runs to grab it. I love Easter.

But how can you slice up a year, write a contract about when two people can be together? I guess that’s what time is, though, the boundaries, not the intervals between them. The whole idea of time is bizarre in itself, just our way of naming, controlling, marking, splitting – it’s a kind of violence we commit against experience, the revenge of culture against nature.

Space is the real concern here. Trish has found a good job in New Jersey, the mother is there, and Jeannie will be starting school this fall. The colony of women, three generations of them, is anchored in the East, and if I want to see my daughter, I should probably go there, too. But you’re way the hell over down there on the other side. What a graceless way to say this. What do you see in me anyway?

What I’m trying to say is, I want to see you. And be with you, if I can. But Jeannie is too little to shuttle back and forth on a plane, even if we could afford it. I don’t know what to do. I guess if I want to be with Jeannie, I’m going to have to look for something in the East for awhile. And if I want to be with you – do you want me to be with you? There’s too much at stake here to be making presumptions.

I seem to be battling space and time now, and the conclusion is foregone. How can we fight the parameters we invented ourselves to bind and squeeze our lives until they make sense? Maybe this is the physics version of your scientific guilt nightmare – you always talked about the biology version: you get to the gates, and God is a cat, and St. Peter is a lab rat, and you are in serious trouble. This is the physicist in hell, tormented for all eternity by the time and space he invented. Looks like the only weapon against these Goliaths (look at me, making myself the good guy) is telecommunications, but that only makes it worse, reminding you of limitless possibilities in a world where your actions are all too limited. You and your words are always flying over my head, still possible to perceive but always out of reach.

When can I see you, Becky? I have a little bit of money saved. I think I’ll use it to get myself established in the East – New York, probably, I have some friends there – and look for a job, any kind of job. Any chance of your stopping here on your way back before I go? I’ll have to stay until the lease runs out at the end of August – more time and space contracts. I’d be happy just to see you at the airport – like in Casablanca. I know you have to get back to the lab.

18:56 - 15 July 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Marcia Pinto

I say you put this Pablo guy under, spread him out on a table, and stick needles in his brain. Then his life might have some value. Can’t you have this guy arrested?

You’re really right about the polarization. This is the Sleeping with the Enemy side. Either they think you’re after them, or they’re after you. Maybe when they think you’re after them, the ravenous obsession they’re sure you’re feeling is what they’d be feeling if they were after you. You’re the satellite, reflecting their controlling lust back in their faces, and they try to shoot down the satellite. It makes sense. Maybe paranoia is possessive rage turned inside out, and Fatal Attraction is the lining of Sleeping with the Enemy.

It’s amazing to think of what women could accomplish if they weren’t with guys like that, considering what they accomplish when they are. All power to Dawn! I have to write this new theory into my book somehow. Someone has ordered a copy and will be disappointed if it isn’t ready by the end of this summer. Keep me posted. This is exciting.

9:33 - 16 July 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

How are you? I think of you all the time now, inside of your cells. What are they saying? You should really go out and take a look at the city. I’d like to hear what it’s like these days, our Fußgängerzone.

Well, I’ve decided to accept Trish’s offer. Mainly it’s impatience. If I can’t hear Jeannie’s voice again soon, I think I’m going to die, and the only way to reopen the line of communications seems to be to flush out the parasites. Lawyer time costs two hundred bucks an hour, and to have to go through two of them – But more than the cost, with two of them, how do you know they’re conveying your message right? I just want to know what my daughter’s been saying this week, and I don’t trust them. The fastest way to get back in touch seems to be a quick surrender. I wouldn’t know how to fight anyway. What would I do, claim innocence, claim Trish is a lousy mother? She’s completely in the right here. I just wish she wouldn’t take my daughter away. I wouldn’t even know what to demand if I did fight it. More time, I guess. How can you claim time, though? How can you own time? I just want to sign whatever I have to sign so I can be with Jeannie again.

I’d also like to see you if I could. How much longer do you have there before you come home?

19:07 - 16 July 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Owen Bauer

I’ve been thinking about your Casablanca idea, and I had an inspiration. I’m going to have to fly right back to the lab when I get done here, because as usual there’s a crisis underway – this one a human crisis, one I couldn’t possibly have prevented. Life is like this. I’m dying to see you, too, and your choice of the East Coast is motivating me to do something, anything, to see you before you’re even further away.

So I have a plan. I can change my flight so that I have a layover in Chicago. Since the German government paid for it, it’s actually the kind of flight you can change without paying hundreds of dollars, so I can do this. On the way over they really did fly me over the pole, a twelve hour flight – any ideas you got of my presence in the air over your head were just figments of your imagination, I’m afraid. But this time we could see each other for real, no imagination needed. Do you like to hang around airports? I hope so. I have to see you, and I think this could work.

I have two weeks left here, and I’m working nonstop. I can’t stand to go out any more, even though I love it here, because of what my own neurons do when they see everything. Every sensory input labeled “Germany” is routed through the Owen associative pathway, and I can’t stand your absence.

Only in the lab am I free. I have it down now, just ease the ‘trode in, and I’m there – can listen as long as I want, and the cell doesn’t die. I feel strangely guilty about it, as though I’m getting away with something without paying the price – except that it was only the cells that ever paid, anyway.

Yes, I want to be with you. But this I think we need to talk about face to face – e-mail doesn’t cut it for something like this. I don’t think even the phone would. This is level three stuff, as my friend Lee Ann would say. (One is physical presence, public; two is e-mail, private but remote; three is physical presence, private – she calls it bed.) I think you can only talk about being together when you are together – otherwise, how do you know what you’re talking about?

This would be August 1, about three in the afternoon. I’ve looked into it already, of course. You could meet me at the gate. No one ever meets me at the gate. What do you think?