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The Tantalus Letters: Part III, Chapter 8

Laura Otis 29 April 2007

I don’t see any way you can judge intelligently whether it’s worth doing something without having access to
the pain and the pleasure at once

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.

Advisory: this chapter contains explicit sexual references

Chapter 8

21:18 - 14 August 1997
From: Marcia Pinto
To: Lee Ann Downing

Long live female rage! After all this time, I finally did something with mine. I always knew the little creep was going to do something, but nobody believed me. Today I walk in, and he’s pointing this gun at Dawn and Becky. Actually I never saw the gun, just their faces. They were scared to death – Dawn angry, Becky pleading – you know that earnest look she gets when she’s really reaching out to you trying to make contact – but scared shitless.

I just couldn’t take it any more. They abandon you or they terrorize you, nothing in between. Either way they end up wanting you dead. McDonalds, I thought, the lady with the coffee. I wonder how hot this is. Let’s find out. I knew I could take him if I got him by surprise.

I hope it wasn’t my fault that the gun went off. Everyone tells me it wasn’t, that he probably would have killed her if I hadn’t done it. I’ll never know. When I brought the mug down on his head, that organic crunch was the best feeling in the world – until I jumped on him and threw him on the floor and heard his head hit, which was better. They tell me I kept hitting him even though he was out cold. I don’t remember that, only Becky grabbing my arms and trying to drag me off of him – I never knew how strong she was.

Jacobsen, the new postdoc, was great, grabbed the gun, called the cops, even helped us clean up the place. All these people came running in – Killington, even Killington came. I’ve never seen him like that. Maybe he really cares about me in spite of everything. Maybe somebody has to point a gun at you for you to find out who gives a shit whether you live or die.

They tell me I won the contest, and already there are all kinds of caffeine jokes going around: “Honey, now THAT’S great coffee!” Pablo has been wasted. The Caffeine Queen has made him go away permanently. Can you put that in your book?

8:48 - 15 August 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

You can yell at me now, but it’s too late. I’ve done it. This time I wrote to him first. You know what yesterday was like. I know you’ll tell me I should have waited, but the urge was just too strong. I invited him to come live with me. With maybe one second to live, I knew the life I wanted to live. He was in it. I want to keep doing what I’m doing, but our reasons for being apart now are just so insignificant. If he doesn’t want to, if he chooses to be with his daughter, that’s a real reason. But to stay apart because of money or time – what is money worth, what is time worth? I want to be with him at any price, and so I made the offer. God, I sound like a university recruiting some professor or something. OK, you can yell at me now.

18:10 - 15 August 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

Yeah, I think you’re crazy. You’ve kind of deflated me here, through, with all the anticipation. I just know if it were me, I’d start to resent it, the drain on my time and my money. Have you ever lived with anybody before? This is a high-maintenance animal you’ve picked, and you’re a cat person. You won’t be able to just put the food out and go back to the lab. Suppose you did it on a trial basis like those magazines, free trial offer, your money back in full if you’re not fully satisfied after 30 days. I mean, I want mine as badly as you want yours, but it’s a whole ‘nother thing if he’s in your living room. And if he’s there, what about e-mail? You’ll never be online, only on Owen – sorry, couldn’t resist. Well, it’s done. I hope it works out. What is he saying? Does he want to do it?

19:27 - 15 August 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

I am overwhelmed. I have always known what I felt for you and known that you cared for me somewhat. I have tried not to think about it actually, because then I would have had to think about how I don’t deserve it. Flattered isn’t the word. That’s what you say when you want someone to go away: “I’m flattered, but...“ And I don’t ever want you to go away. I don’t deserve these feelings – but I want them anyway. And I return them a hundred times over.

I am very, very grateful for what you’re offering to do but still have to think for awhile here. I’m not sure it’s good to be that far from Jeannie, whatever the circumstances. And you – I don’t want to be a burden to you, and I could be, at least at first. I also know you too well ever to try to come between you and your work.

My impulse is to buy the ticket right now. Let’s see: I could be there in four hours, I bet, if I got on a flight right away. But I really have to think. I don’t know if it will help – just look at my performance in the past six months, and I’ve been thinking out of control. But I have to try. I have to catch my breath here. I’m just so afraid of hurting you, the person I respect most in the world. I’m not sure if I’m good enough to do this.

9:32 - 18 August 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Hot Stuff

Leo, this is hot.

You’ve done it this time, babe, oh, it aches, this is so good.

Love your rage, love your desire, love to read you on the ram-page.

You write like a goddess, just needed direction, proud to have put you up to it, could always feel it in you, so hot it hurts.

Will tell Harvard to look at it when it’s done if you want, they are publishing my web book.

Whatchuh think?

9:33 - 18 August 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: I Think

You online? Gotcha, at the water hole! You wanna know what I think, you get your ectomorphic ass up here, I’ll give you thoughts, all the langue you can handle. Come on, I dare ya!

9:34 - 18 August 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Truth or Dare

OK you vixen, you temptress, I’ll play with you. Truth or Dare?

9:35 - 18 August 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden

Dare. You lose, you’re here. I lose?

9:36 - 18 August 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing

You lose, you place a cyber-personal ad, I write the text. Look out your window, babe. Next plane outa LaGuardia, blue tail fins, I win, red fins, you win. I’ll trust ya.

9:40 - 18 August 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: TWA

Red, cyberlover, red, read, ready, ready-whip, Red Baron, Redball, Redbird, Redwing, Masque of the Red Death, red, red, red!

9:42 - 18 August 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Please

Oh babe, don’t know if I can do this. This isn’t a game. Kids, please, Leo, my kids.

9:44 - 18 August 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Chicken, Liar, Cheater, Wimp!

You lost, lover, c’mon, darling, you can do it, in and out, who will know, dontcha want it, hot, wet, deep, lips, langue, limbo? C’mon, Josh, I dare ya. You want directions?

9:45 - 18 August 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: No Directions

No need, babe. Have had the way to 29 Blackwell, to your black-hole bed, memorized for four years. Fuck everything. I’ll be there in an hour.

17:32 - 18 August 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

Level three. Mainlining, the hard stuff. I am shorted out, don’t know how I’m even writing you this. But I have to. If I don’t tell it to someone, it’s like it didn’t happen. I have to baptize it, legitimize it. Hopefully you’ll have an interest. You’ve recorded from him, after all.

He actually made it here in an hour. Even with no traffic at ten in the morning, that’s incredible. I can picture him streaking over the Verrazano, dodging the potholes on the Belt Parkway. During that hour I flitted between the window and the phone, unwilling to believe he was really coming, waiting for the call saying he’d changed his mind. I couldn’t believe it when I saw him on my front steps.

This was a new dose – it’s one thing when you come together in a plushy hotel somewhere, a non-locus, all soft lights and mirrors with reality suspended, but it’s very different when he comes to you where you live. And there he was, the brown frizz, the sinewy arms, the silly sunglasses, the cocky grin, laughing at himself.

The grin faded when the door swung shut. He grabbed me with force that frightened me and slammed me back against it. “Leo,” he said, “damn it, Leo, you’re fuckin up my life,” and then he kissed me so hard it hurt. I just clung to him any way I could, like a baby opossum to its mother, a reflex, and he kept repeating my name, not quite so angry now, Leo, Leo, Leo, Leo.

I don’t know how we released each other, but I know the first time was on the stairs – you have to go up a long, steep staircase to get into my apartment, and I’d gone up maybe three or four steps, my silk miniskirt flapping in his face, when he grabbed me from behind. I’ve never known anything like it, and I don’t think he has either, the way he cried out. It hurt, and I didn’t care. Somebody could have heard us, and I didn’t care. My cheek was mashed down against the edge of a stair, my nose and mouth were nuzzling the carpet, one of those whiplash arms had me around the waist hard, and all I cared about was that he was back inside of me at last, as far as he could go. It was violent, rough, ugly. He cursed me, called me every name he could think of, Leo you bitch, Leo you witch, Leo you vixen. Why do all the bad words for women have “itch” in them, like we’re an itch they have to scratch? Well, he scratched me good this time, the curses blurring at last into sobs and finally into that long red streak of human voice.

We did make it to the top of the stairs eventually – to the bedroom, the first room you come to. He was tearing at his shirt and at my skirt, whipped off my panties one-handed with one expert motion. “Leo,” he was saying, “you asked for it, oh, you asked for this, and now you’re gonna get it.” I dove into the bed before he could throw me there, and I tensed on my back, waiting for him to spring.

When he did I was ready, and we wrestled. We have the same strength, the same impulses, the same reflexes, and we were evenly matched. Sometimes I was on top, sometimes he was, and I wriggled out. I fought dirty, and he alternated between laughter and real anger. I butted and dug and kicked and jerked, and he grappled and grabbed and dodged and swore until at last he had me pinned. “Now I’ve got you Leo, you little cat,” he said, “This is gonna be the last time, but oh God, I needed this.” He came inside me again, I didn’t know a person could go that deep inside another person, seemed like he was somewhere near my kidneys, maybe near my ribcage, but I’d lost all sense of direction, he kept flipping me so, trying to see what would let him go deepest. In the end he had me standing up, and he found the hall mirror where I’ve stood and looked at myself for four years, fantasizing about doing what we did today. This time my back was plastered against my own mirror, the world came and went in thumps and gasps, I closed my eyes, he made me open them. He wanted to see them, he said, when it happened, watch them go black. I don’t know how he talked, I couldn’t, just cry.

I lost count after the second time. There weren’t times, really, just one long bout, one long embrace and one long interruption. When I used my lips a little, his rage that had scared me softened into despair, he could never resist that, his favorite. I gave him a real licking, and he went incoherent, loved me, hated me, Leo, Oh God, you’re killin me, Leo, more, Leo, more . . . .

He was finally inside, really inside, seeing me where I lived, how I lived. I heard him pee in my toilet in a bountiful gush, turn on my faucet so hard that the water sprayed all over. He tossed my stuffed animals into the air and fingered the perfume bottles on my dresser. But mostly we clung together in my bed, and he told me jokes, talked about work, people, books, politics.

I couldn’t tell him about desire or rage. They were gone, foreign, alien. I just wanted to be as hard as I could, concentrate on every word and every sensation, store it all up because I knew I was going to need it. He was letting out, and I was drinking in. Probably we broke some kind of record. Who knows? People never tell the truth about this kind of thing.

It ended badly, with a thud, when he saw the pulsing blue figures on my clock radio. Stupid – why didn’t I put it away? “Oh, SHIT!” he yelled and jumped up, really panicked. The traffic. Life here is shaped by traffic: 6-9 AM you’d better not go west, and 3-7 PM you’d better not go east – or over any bridge in either direction. As far as his wife knew, he’d been at school working all day. Now it was 4:16, he’d never make it home for dinner, and he had no cover story.

I’ve never seen anyone get dressed so fast. He was fully clothed in the time it took me to get most of my hair going in the same direction. His goodbye kiss was a quick slam on the mouth, and I heard his car starting below my front window before I’d realized he was gone.

I never got to say anything. I never got to tell him how I feel. I don’t know how I feel. I’ve been wandering, dazed, around my apartment. There are crusty little splotches of his pee on my toilet, and my bed is full of his smell and his hairs, long wiry ones and little curly ones – he sheds like a dog. I walk from the window to the mirror to the bed to the stairs and back again, not believing, like the people you see on the news whose homes have been trashed by a tornado.

So I sat down to write to you, a chronicle, a tale, to prove it happened. I think it did. My poor, stinging, battered vagina knows it did. If I were a cartoon, I’d be lying with my tongue hanging out, x’s for eyes, and a little halo of stars spinning over my head. I hope he’s not feeling like this – he must be on the New Jersey Turnpike by now. I can’t think about anything really. It happened. I think it happened. I just had to tell someone.

20:42 - 18 August 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

I heard Jeannie’s voice today! I can’t tell you what it means. It’s like hearing your own voice, but filtered, purified, all the bad stuff taken out and only the good stuff left, intelligence, perceptiveness, honesty, wonder. “Daddy!” she said. “When are you coming? It’s no fun here without you. I want to play bear.” I wish you could see that sometime – I’m the bear, and she tames me in various ways. She hides blueberries (blue marbles) for me to find, and I crawl all around the living room, poking things with my nose and snuffing loudly.

No more living room now. It’s disappeared in gulps as I’ve sold it to grad students – Trish told me to. She wanted to keep only what would fit into her car and one of those U-haul trailer things. I can’t tell you how weird it is to live in an 80% dissembled apartment, especially when you have no idea where you’ll be in a month. It’s rented, the landlord tells me, to the couple that came through with the measuring tape. I’ll be glad to get out of here. Every shadow reminds me of my daughter.

I avoid home, and I avoid the lab too now, although I was there yesterday because Rhonda asked me to come in and read the article. It’s so good, it’s unrecognizable. Dave always did write much better than I did. I’m actually honored to be second author.

I spend a lot of time these days just thinking, walking around. Funny how wonderful it was to talk to Trish, in spite of everything. She’s accepted my acceptance, and the deal is cut, so we can talk. She actually called me. She’s already back on autopilot, which for her means trying to help. I think it’s guilt, retro-guilt over her easy victory. She keeps urging me to get out of here, move East. She doesn’t want me back, but she still wants to take care of me – that’s Trish.

I don’t know what I want, except to see Jeannie and to see you again. I am thinking as hard as I can about your offer. I am truly moved by it. I want to come, I do. But I have a responsibility to Jeannie. I am trying to decide what to do.

20:03 - 21 August 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are

Still sleeping it off?

Want a little bit more?

Say something, darling.

Me, I am stretching, writhing, twisting, turning, all sleek in the sun, waking up, ready for more, ooh, ah, a little bit more.

How about it?

17:59 - 22 August 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

Have you heard from Josh? It’s been five days. Has he said anything to you? I am losing it here. The worst thing is the wondering – what is he thinking? Is he thinking about the mirror, is he about to go into another renunciation cycle, or what?

Then there’s my body. This one guy once told me, “you women, you have all these plumbing problems,” and although I wanted to kill him, he had it right. I have the most searing, stinging, burning, excruciating vagino-urinary tract infection ever known to humankind. It’s reached the point where you don’t care about anything at all, the only thing you want in the world is for the pain to stop. I mean, it feels like there’s a blowtorch in there, and it’s cauterizing my memory of Josh.

Right now, feeling the bubble, bubble, toil and trouble between my legs, I can’t recall ever having had any good association with anything being in there. My mother would call this a punishment from God. She was always kind of gleeful when we hurt ourselves, especially if it were linked in any way to enjoying something. She never punished us, but she loved seeing us get punished. I can still hear her laughing at me: “it’s a punishment from God.” The hangover principle seems almost omnipresent in the universe – is there any sort of delight you can enjoy without paying in pain a hundredfold? And how can you judge the scale, since the pain always comes afterward?

It’s an unfair match, a memory of joy against agony in real time. With your back plastered against the mirror you laugh at pain, you’re sure it’s worth anything. And slumped on the toilet, staring down at your feet, gasping from the burn that comes with each little spurt, you curse your lover, curse life, curse yourself, curse the principle of conservation of pleasure whose sum must always be less than zero. I don’t see any way you can judge intelligently whether it’s worth doing something without having access to the pain and the pleasure at once. My cyberlover and his virtual self in my memory are now equally inaccessible. Where, oh where is my imaginary friend?

19:30 - 23 August 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

It’s starting to look like a renunciation cycle. I must have blown something, shorted him out. Shit. If only he would say SOMETHING, anything at all. If he just said hi, I need some time to recover, don’t write for awhile, it would be so much better. If he said Leo, ecsta-, looking forward to further interactions, that would be heaven. But nothing could mean anything. Maybe he’s floating in an enkephalin bubblebath, and maybe he’s saying Nevuh Again. This is torture.

I finally gave up trying to tough it out and saw my gynecologist today. I had to tell him the truth: “it burns,” I said. He smiled. “OK, let’s take a look in there and see what you did,” he laughed. I lay down and spread my legs, feeling like a smashed-up Chevy. The hangover principle can be so humiliating. Do guys go through this? If sex is smash-up derby, how come we’re the ones who always end up at the body shop?

Listen, could you help me out here? Could you prod him with a stick to see if he’s still alive? Tell him you have some big discovery about neuronal connections that you have to tell him about. Please, I’m dying here.

8:32 - 25 August 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

Well, OK. It’s against my better judgment, but watching Marcia get treated like the invisible woman for months has shown me what you’re going through. I’ll think of something.