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Danger outside the door

The Tantalus Letters: Part III, Chapter 6

Laura Otis 15 April 2007

I’ve got a new postdoc who needs help and an angry stalker who needs The Terminator – I couldn’t listen to my own desires

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 6

6:37 - 2 August 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Owen Bauer

Oh, Owen! I am so, so sorry! It’s my fault, isn’t it – it was my idea. It just never occurred to me that they could shut down O’Hare. I mean, that’s like canceling life – how could they do that?

For a long time they held us prisoner in New York, while they waited to hear what the weather was doing and decided whether to risk taking off. In the end, they did, after holding us for about two hours, but just as the juice and peanuts were going around, they announced we were being re-routed to St. Louis, the nearest airport with no tornado watch.

There was nothing I could do. I tried calling you, first from the in-flight phone and then from St. Louis to page you, to get you on the phone, but they told me they could only do it in an emergency. I thought of lying – I mean, I could have said I was having your baby or something, but it just seemed too sleazy.

I fought a screaming mob to get to the counter – apparently everyone who’d been headed anywhere in the Midwest had been kidnapped and taken to St. Louis – and when I finally made it to the front, a harried, frantic woman told me she could either put me on a flight to San Diego right then or a flight to Chicago tomorrow morning. It was the Captain Kirk thing, the split-second decision. You know what I had to do. I’ve got a new postdoc who needs help and an angry stalker who needs The Terminator – I couldn’t listen to my own desires. Well, OK, so both flights expressed my desires, let’s be honest here, but different kinds, and I took the flight back to the lab.

Inside I was dying, and this morning I feel dead. This nine-hour time difference does a number on your body and mind. All through that flight I was tormented by visions of you doing exactly what you said you were doing – that terrible circuit of pain and futility, with nobody working the controls. Even half dead, though, I retain my hope. You’re alive. I’m alive. We couldn’t come together yesterday, but maybe we can in a month, in a year. I have to get to work now. I didn’t go to bed. I want to check the rest of my mail before they all get here.

7:44 - 2 August 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

I’m back, and alarmed. No rest for the jet-lagged. In my semi-conscious state, I’d forgotten that Owen had asked me to delete the messages he’d sent when I was away, and I just fell through everything that had accumulated, like a skydiver through clouds. I scanned the junk and the good stuff with the same attention – selectivity shuts down when your body doesn’t know what time it is.

When I hit the ground, all the way at the bottom, there was Owen, the day I took off. He was going to kill himself, and he’d sent the word out to nobody, into nothingness, into an account with nobody to read it. Why? I am devastated. Guilt and horror work just fine, maybe better, when time is disrupted.

I almost lost him. I still can’t believe anyone could do that, not see anything to live for – but then I never had a daughter, never had a wife, never lost my kid and my career at once. And I can’t help thinking that it was me, that he lost his kid because of me. He almost lost his life because of me. I am overwhelmed.

I have to do something. I have to help him get his life back. Did he want me to find this this way, the day I came back? Was he trying to torture me? In one sweep of the keyboard he tells me how wonderful I am and that he’s going to kill himself – I’d be better off without him, like everyone else. How could he think that? He’s the reason I want to stay alive. What happened to make him change his mind – whom or what do I have to thank? I missed him at O’Hare – had I told you we were going to meet? I can’t remember.

How can I ever face the parade? That’s what today is going to be, a parade of people into this office, sort of like my e-mail actually, an endless array of outdated bulletins, descriptions of crises solved and unsolved, polite requests, pleas for help, deferred complaints, wants, needs, questions, proposals. I’ll hear them all – what else can I do? – but all I have room for in my brain right now is this one message: I’m going to kill myself, I just wanted to let you know.

12:16 - 2 August 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

Welcome back! I’m writing to you right away, and I hope you get this in time. You’ve helped me a lot in my various states of mental impairment, and I have to do the same for you. I know what you want to do right now, and hopefully the parade is passing between you and the phone. DO NOT do it! Do not pick up that phone in this guilt-logged, jet-lagged state and invite your poor, forlorn, love-starved, suicidal physicist to move in with you. I know you’re reaching for that phone right now. STOP! Stay in level two until your brain decompresses! I saw the tornados on TV – I think you lucked out there actually, bypassing that level-three exposure. You might have bought him a ticket right then and there. A guilt-motivated adoption isn’t likely to be good for either him or you. Just wait, chill, think, unfold, become yourself again.

He pulled out of it on his own that day, for whatever reason, so he can probably rescue himself now, and this is likely to make him feel best in the long run. He changed his mind so much that he asked you to delete the message – I would just tell him you did, will it out of existence, declare it was never read. He wrote it in a mental state that’s gone, and the Him that exists now doesn’t want you to see that state. I would sit back, relax, enjoy the parade, then sleep 18 hours or so and write him and tell him you deleted it.

Now a sample of my own impairment: how is my Lusty Language God in the Holy Land? Has he written you anything in the past week? He won’t send me anything, and I’m writing a lot but suffering more. Only 5 days until he comes back!

20:11 - 4 August 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

Well, I didn’t put it off for very long, the mother of all problems. I just wanted to feel like a human being again before I faced it – faced him, I should say. That seems to be the whole issue, whether a person can be a problem.

I talked to Dawn first to get an idea of why he was hanging around her like this and what she thought he wanted. It just made no sense – what did he think he was going to accomplish this way? What was he after? She told me he wanted her back – home to make dinner at six every night, home making babies, his babies. Somehow this was all supposed to overthrow the establishment and fight Third World oppression.

She laughed a tight, bitter laugh. She told me over and over how sorry she was that something like this was wasting my time, and I told her she took the best pictures of synapses ever, and it was worth my while to keep her safe. I looked at her, this quiet, grim little person trying to save the world one loser at a time. I could imagine why she had married him – a way to make things right, somehow, to compensate for something. As if there were such a thing in the world as equilibrium, a zero balance. Life is owing, and selling yourself into slavery doesn’t pay the debt.

Would it help, I asked, if we went down together to talk to him? She shrugged. Chicken soup approach, we decided, it couldn’t hurt. Kreplach soup approach, actually – it was Josh’s idea.

We found him in one of the big chairs in the hospital lobby, staring out the window at the traffic going by. When he saw us, he smiled – apparently this was the response he’d been trying to stimulate all along. He was short, dark, good-looking, as Marcia had said, and there was a tension to him, this air of barely contained rage. I took comfort in the fact that he was several inches shorter than I was – little Dawn is even smaller.

He started speaking to her in Spanish straight off, an angry beating like heavy rain on a metal roof. She spat something back at him, and suddenly I got mad. I spread my arms and stepped in like a referee. This talk was going to be in English. “All right,” he said, “if you can’t speak Spanish.” You could feel the intelligence of him under the anger. This was a warped but thinking creature. “Who is this woman?” he asked Dawn. “Why you bring her with you? You no have to be afraid of me.” I told him I was her professor, and I wanted to know what he wanted from my postdoc. “I want to talk to my wife,” he said. She answered that she wasn’t his wife, that they were legally divorced, that he’d given up the right to be her husband when he’d started mistreating her.

He looked at me disgustedly, realized I wasn’t going anywhere, and finally decided to talk now that he had the chance. “You believe the lies you tell just like everyone here,” he said. “You are my wife. You will always be my wife. You give yourself to me.” Dawn said she had never given herself to anyone, just made a mistake and corrected it.

I could see the rage rising in him by some little twitches in his fingers. “You think you get married, you use me to make you feel better, you fuck me like your country fucks my country. When you done, you throw me away like garbage. You do an experiment on me like a dog, like in your lab. I know what you do there. You torture animals, you kill them, you throw them away, you call it science. I am a person, not a dog, you can’t just throw me away. I will show you, you will learn, I will never go away.” He was half crying at this point, and I could see he really meant it, really believed he was totally in the right.

Dawn was actually doing better than I was, I guess because she was used to him. I found him so amazing I could barely think of anything to say. She told him the marriage was between two individuals, not two countries. They wanted different things in life, and they should not be together. He should move on with his life and find someone more like him. He looked at her cynically now, smiling at what she was saying. “You think it so easy here,” he jeered. “You find words to escape your obligations, you believe your own shit. You use me, then throw me away. Your country is shit. Your culture of individual is culture of selfishness. Family, husband, children, it is nothing to you. You are selfish just like your country, no morality. Your culture will die because you have no morality. You have no strength, thinking only of yourselves.”

Then I finally thought of something to say. I asked him if our culture was going to die anyway why he had to set things right by chasing Dawn. What good was he doing? Life was short. She obviously didn’t want to be with him any more. Couldn’t he find something better to do with his time? “Because PROFESSOR,” – and he hit that word with provocative scorn that made me angry myself, “I am a man.” I think he meant a moral man rather than a passionate man. He was there more to expose her hypocrisy, as he perceived it, than to reclaim a lost lover.

I tried to make myself as tall and professorial as possible, and I talked down to him. “Dawn does not want to see you or talk to you,” I said. “What you’re doing is a crime here, stalking, harassment. We will have the police make you go away if you don’t have the sense to move on.” He just leered at me. “You are lying, PROFESSOR,” he said. “You can’t make the truth go away. I will make her remember. I am breaking no law. Tell me what law I break here. You wish I break a law just being here, but I break no law.” I told him he was wasting his time, and he was just going to get himself in trouble. Dawn fired the parting shot, but it was in Spanish. Then we just turned and went back up to the lab.

How did she live with that for two years? I’m in awe of her – what must she be made of to have stood up to constant provocation, constant insults, constant guilt and still get up, come into the lab, and run the EM? I wonder how many people go home to that at night and how many survive it. I don’t think we accomplished anything.

20:28 - 4 August 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Josh Golden

Well, I tried the frontal attack (frontal defense?). No luck. He won’t go away. What I really want to do is get on with my work – my student Tony is in the middle of something incredible, and my other student Marcia has an article almost ready to send off that I just need to go over with her one more time. This guy is making me really mad. Any suggestions? Marcia is running a Waste Pablo Sweepstakes for the best suggestion on how to get rid of the guy.

11:26 - 5 August 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Rebecca Fass
Subject: Suggestions

Sounds like an Israeli. You’ve heard about Israeli foreign policy, right? Draw me a line, and I’ll cross it.

No threats or reasons will make him go away – wrong strategy. He’ll dig in.

Instead implant an idea of new territory to invade. Draw him a line, and nuke him when he crosses it.

You can do it, bigfoot.