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Pulling the trigger

The Tantalus Letters: Part I, Chapter 7

Laura Otis 22 April 2007

We shoot people to make them remember us and to make them go away

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 7

9:21 - 7 August 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Back?

Are you home, back in the Garden State, Garden of My Earthly Delights? Have you strung your net, spun your web, mapped your neurons, tapped out your book, a million little insectivorous impressions?

I have had my fingers all over female desire all summer, thinking of you, waiting to be read by your eyes.

Desire awaits you, Mirror Prince. Just tell me how to transmit it.

11:15 - 9 August 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Show Me

Leo, you cyberslut.

Good to hear your voice, good to feel your lips, your langue on my screen.

Yeah, I’m back, myopic, aging gazelle at the water hole, all atremble to sense my favorite feline lying in wait.

Your desire inspires, had just hoped that in three sultry months it would have found a worthier object.

Fingers all over, hmm.

OK, let’s trade, let’s mingle: my web for your desire, your lust for my links.

I’ll show you mine, and you show me yours,

love to feel my language on those luscious, lustful lion lips.

19:16 - 9 August 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

He’s back! At last the moment I’ve lusted after for three months is here in my hands, and I don’t know what to do. He wants to see what I’ve been writing, and I have to send him something. These are the choices: the Fatal Attraction chapter or the introduction, my theory of female desire and female rage. The movie chapter is better, because there from the beginning I had no doubt what I wanted to say.

Female rage, desire, and madness have to be shown as inseparable in popular culture because female desire alone, odorless, colorless, without the dye-stain of destructive wrath, would be just too terrifying. Not only do women go on the rampage because men deny that they can want; they do it because they can never get what they want the way society is structured. We have to identify what they want as something that’s impossible to have, because to preserve our culture as it is, they have to appear unreasonable for wanting. Hence Alex, who desires with her great big knife.

Of course I’m deferring the real question, the Freud question: what does a woman want? Honestly? I’d say the same as men: pleasure without slavery, connections without bondage. We’re not really different. I don’t think Alex knew what she wanted (that’s part of the representation: women never know what they want). What drove her crazy was not so much being denied what she wanted as being blown off, not being taken seriously.

In the theory chapter I really go for it, actually try to answer the questions. The big one is what desire IS. It’s negative energy that exists only when there’s an absence. It thrives on absence, depends on absence, yet seeks to end that absence. That means it seeks to destroy itself, since its goal is to eliminate its food supply.

Language, of course, does exactly the same thing: it comes into being because of what’s not there, and it tries to summon what’s not there. If it succeeded, it would render itself obsolete. They’re both the same self-defeating, negative energy, yet oddly persistent, so often better than what’s not there. I guess what’s there always has an advantage over what isn’t.

The other question that really matters is whether female desire is inherently different from male desire. I say no. I don’t think there is male desire and female desire, only desire that’s listened to and taken seriously, and desire that’s told to shut up because it has no right to exist – or worse than that, treated as if it didn’t exist.

It’s all in how and why they tell you to go away. “OK, I’m done, you can go now”: any guy who heard that enough times would turn into Alex. It’s just that the guys never hear it. It took Marcia to make me see it, Killington articulated it so beautifully – what was it? “Don’t hold onto this.” They think if we want them, we’re holding onto their cocks.

When is a connection bondage? For some people always. Josh suffers from bigtime ligophobia, and I know I do except with him. Women, men – we’re not fundamentally different in the way we want, just in the way we’re treated. The rage is born, like the desire, out of absence: desire out of refusal to exist; rage out of refusal to respond.

How is Josh going to read this book? I fear he’ll look into my mirror and see a gingerbread castle of guilt, an Egyptian tomb booby-trapped with threats all hand-carved for his benefit. And he could be right. Who can separate what she is from what she writes? It’s his absence that tortured the silkworm here to spin out this language-lust. Now I have my silk, and I want it to whisper against his skin. What do I send him?

19:03 - 14 August 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Owen Bauer

I purposely didn’t write to my friend Lee Ann this time before writing to you. Last time she told me to get some sleep, and when I woke up, I found that the message I had wanted to send had been deleted from my brain. This time I won’t lose it. I have been wanting to write this for hours and hours, but there have been about a hundred people in here, the police report – I’ll explain soon. What happened today is catalyzing this, though, not creating it. It is a message that has been waiting to be sent for years, glowing silently somewhere on my hard drive.

Well, enough suspense. This is it: if you want to, I want you to come and live with me. Today I realized how fragile my life is and how short it’s going to be. I’ve wasted so much time with guilt, with convincing myself I have no right to enjoy anything. When I think back on everything I’ve ever done in my life, the worst and the best thing has been to turn around and reach out and hug you back, breaking every rule about how people are supposed to hook up with each other.

I want you to stay connected to your daughter, because she’s you, and for both of your sakes you mustn’t be torn apart. But I want to be with you. If you would live with me, I would pay for you to fly out and see her. I’m in the lab so much I never know what to do with my money anyway. This is a very high tech city – I’m sure you could find a job here in one of your capacities, maybe even as your real self.

Have you ever looked into the dark cylinder of a handgun pointed at your face by a man angry enough to blow your head into a pulpy, throbbing mass? Maybe you have – there’s still a lot I don’t know about you. Me, all I could think was, what a waste. Nights, days, months I might have been with you, and I was too ashamed, too good, too guilty. Keep us both, do it all, hook up with both of us. I’ll make it happen. To be with you, laugh with you, rub you all over, that’s what I most want to do with my life – when I’m not in a cell. But I’ll try to be in them less and in you more, if you will only come live with me.

If I had that gun in my face and my brain was going to explode in ten minutes, I would want to spend them with you, talking about anything at all and looking up into your eyes. Please Owen, come be with me.

20:37 - 14 August 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

You’re never going to believe what happened in here today. I didn’t believe it while it was happening, and I still don’t believe it now. My lab was in the news! Me, Marcia, Killington even, we were all in the news, but unfortunately not for anything we’d discovered. Well, maybe for something Marcia discovered. She walked into the lab this morning and discovered Pablo pointing a gun at me, Dawn, and Jacobsen, the new postdoc who’s been here for two weeks.

He took us completely by surprise. I’d actually gotten used to him sitting down there in the lobby. He’s also been by the lab a couple of times very quickly, they tell me, yelling things in the door, but I was in my office and didn’t see him. I had assumed he’d reached some sort of equilibrium, and I’d moved him down the list as a problem that didn’t need to be solved this week.

When he walked in today, I was in the lab, because Dawn and I were helping Jacobsen get set up. Marcia had gone down to the coffee machine. He pulled out the gun right away and pointed it at Dawn. For a few seconds there was total silence. Jacobsen put his hands up, and his mouth dropped open. I had been extending mine, reaching out to him. I froze.

Then Pablo started yelling at Dawn in Spanish. I was signalling her with my eyes to be quiet, but of course it didn’t work. When has anybody ever read in anyone’s eyes the feelings that are there and not the ones she wanted to see? She screamed right back at him, things that sounded really bad. Either she wasn’t afraid and didn’t think he was for real, or she figured as long as she was going to die anyway, she might as well tell him what she really thought of him.

His hand was shaking as he pointed the gun, and he was aiming it at her face like a hard, accusing metallic finger. It occurred to me that maybe it was a toy gun – you know how you always hear about cops accidentally shooting kids with toy guns – but it sure looked convincing. I was wishing a cop would come in and accidentally shoot him then.

When Marcia walked in behind him, he didn’t hear her. She was wearing sneakers, and Dawn was still telling him, I think, what she thought of his politics. Marcia was carrying her cup of coffee. “Puta!” he yelled. “Puta! NOW you no forget me!” He raised his arm a little, and it stopped trembling. Finally the flicker that ran across our three faces told him of the intruder behind him, and instinctively he turned his head just as Marcia flung the coffee.

She did it in two quick jerks – hurled the coffee against his neck, then slammed the mug down on his head as hard as she could. He fired. The shot caught Dawn on the lower face, the blood spurted, and she fell. Marcia had him down by then and was raising her arm again and again to bring what was left of the cup down on his sticky red and black head.

We moved. Jacobsen grabbed the gun, and I tried to pull Marcia off of Pablo. “Stop it!” I was screaming. “Stop it! It’s not self defense!” How crazy. I was hoping he was dead or at least brain-damaged, but I was scared to death that they’d send Marcia to jail. Jacobsen called security, the gun still in his hand.

Of course people came pounding in from all directions, having heard the noise, and somebody grabbed Jacobsen, thinking he’d shot her. Dawn’s whole desk was red and wet. Somewhere this phrase came into my head from a first aid course long ago, just words about what to do for bleeding: “apply direct pressure.” I grabbed a lab coat hanging next to her desk, wadded it up, and rammed it against the side of her head. It turned purple. I yelled at Marcia to check Pablo, who was also out cold – ”Is he bleeding?” Allan Berg, who’s an MD, took over for me, and then security and the medical team were there, for once ready to take us seriously. The crowd just stayed, clogging the doorways. In one bizarre moment Killington rushed in, throwing people aside, his face really wild. He’d heard it was Marcia who’d been shot. I wondered for a moment whether he really cared or whether it was wishful thinking. We shoot people to make them remember us and to make them go away.

We wanted to run down to the ER with Dawn, but they told us we had to stay and talk to the police. “I’m in charge here,” I kept thinking. “This is my lab.” I held it together all day, telling and retelling the story, doing memory gymnastics as they picked at inconsistencies between our three accounts. The hospital people took Dawn and Pablo, and the police took the gun, but we cleaned up the blood ourselves, me, Marcia, and Jacobsen. I think I’m going to like this guy. I am more in love with Marcia than ever.

Thank God for the phone. We’ve been on the line with the hospital most of the day. Pablo is fine, apart from a concussion and some mondo lacerations and a probable sentence of thirty years to life. Dawn is in critical condition still, but they’re optimistic. She lost a lot of blood, and some of her left jaw was blown away, but her cord and major arteries are intact. How evil we are to design machines that send balls of metal crashing into a beautiful thing like a human head.

Nobody knows where he got the gun, but security is in deep shit for not having made him go away sooner. Everyone is congratulating Marcia. In the end she herself has won the Waste Pablo Sweepstakes. When we were cleaning up, I found the pieces of her coffee cup. It had a fuzzy little beast on it baring its teeth, and it said, “Don’t mess with me before I’ve had my coffee.”