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The crash

The Tantalus Letters: Part III, Chapter 9

Laura Otis 6 May 2007

Life is excess and collisions and bonding and releasing

Editor's note: With this episode, we conclude 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 9

20:03 - 25 August 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Synapses

Hi, how are you? I haven’t heard from you in awhile. I figured you were working through Edelman and our thoughts about neuronal connections and you’d form your own connections best if left undisturbed.

I had to tell you this, though: my student Tony just got this amazing result. He’s been collaborating with this postdoc in Killington’s lab who studies the gene for the serotonin receptor, and they’re finding that a kitten blindfolded for just ten days almost stops making one subunit of the receptor. They’re really excited. It looks as though the connections are physically still there, but they lose the ability to do anything with no signals coming in. The gene itself seems to be affected, at least temporarily. Shut down the flow of information, and you shut down the ability to hear it. It’s logical, just sad.

How is the book going? I’d like to read it when you get done.

7:12 - 26 August 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

This has been the strangest day of my life. First this new Swiss postdoc called up unexpectedly. He said Rhonda had told him I had furniture to sell, and could he please come over and see it. When he got here, he looked appalled at the condition of the place – stacks of books and papers along the walls (the grad students bought the bookcases first thing), piles of clothes, only a sleeping bag, no bed. Then he bought everything that was left: the TV stand, the table and chairs, my desk, two beat-up armchairs, and most of the dishes. He said he’d come over later with some of the grad students in his group to pick it all up. They had a van.

His appearance was a kind of jolt, and I felt ashamed of the place. So I gathered up all the garbage (interesting concept, distinguishing the garbage from the good stuff – I hear dirt has been defined as matter out of place) and took it out, and I went to buy boxes. When I got back there was a message from Trish: United had kicked off a fare war, and I could get a ticket at a great price if I bought it by midnight tonight. This was what I needed, I think. She’s always been so great at that, giving me what I needed: this time a deadline. God knows I have to conserve what little money I have left.

I packed things into boxes – book boxes, paper boxes, clothes boxes. It felt good, finally packing up for real. For about five hours, until the Swiss postdoc came back, I didn’t think about anything, except what to put with what and what would fit into where. The grad students carried everything out in minutes. They laughed and joked, filling the Swiss guy in on Rhonda, and they all asked me what I was going to do now. I told them I didn’t know, and they laughed some more to cover their uneasiness. When they left I could hear them in the stairway, filling the Swiss guy in on me. “Poor guy,” I heard. “Wife…Rhonda…not renewed.” I was their example of the worst that could happen, of what not to become. They would go to bed tonight and swear never to end up like me.

The travel agencies were closing at seven. I went back to my boxes. As it got later, I was tempted to classify more and more as matter out of place. I let the agencies close, deciding to call United myself. All these articles, other people’s articles. Did I need them? The iron. I can’t remember the last time I ironed anything. Trish did that, I think, but I never saw her do it. Maybe the Swiss postdoc could use it.

I thought of New Jersey, of Jeannie playing in the snow. Once she lost all her blue marbles playing polar bear. And I thought of you, walking with you and letting the Pacific wash over our feet. That California smell – eucalyptus, dust, crazy Star Trek flowers that never stop blooming.

At 11:30 I saw all my possessions arranged in brown caramel cubes distributed randomly around the apartment. Then I killed 20 minutes throwing away the last few things that hadn’t made it into a box. I would have to seal them, I realized, and address them – to Trish, to hold for me until I found a place there, or to you.

At 11:54 when I called, I still hadn’t decided. Would you believe it, they still put me on hold for three minutes, even then? Maybe a whole bunch of people just like me were bifurcating at the last minute. Then the music broke, and a human voice cut in. I told the voice I’d like to buy a ticket. She asked me when I’d be traveling before she asked me where I’d be traveling luckily, and I said in a week – the deal is a seven-day advance purchase. “And where will you be traveling, sir?” In my head the coin was spinning, the Janus face – Newark or San Diego? – Newark or San Diego? I was waiting for it to fall. “Where will you be traveling, sir?” Newark. San Diego.

In the end my mouth made the call. I honestly can’t say I decided, just spoke. I’m not surprised really. It talks. It eats. It kisses. It must know what I want. But there was no “I” speaking, deciding. I just heard the words: San Diego. San Diego and warmth and water and your voice and arms in the night. San Diego, the future, real time, time that’s yet to come.

As I gave her my credit card number, I was wondering how soon I could buy enough tape to seal the boxes. I could have walked down to the 24-hour Walgreens, but I didn’t want to get killed, not how. For some reason I couldn’t call you either. I wanted to imagine you reading this on the screen. You have no idea what happens to your face when you smile. I wanted to picture you there in your office one last time reading me, but smiling for once instead of groaning. So I crashed amidst the caramels and waited in the dark.

This is the earliest I’ve ever gotten to the lab without pulling an all-nighter. It’s tomorrow now, isn’t it? I can go buy my tape. Call me when you get this. Now I’m ready to talk to you in real time. Want to meet a little girl who likes bears?

9:16 - 26 August 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Rebecca Fass
Subject: By a Thread

Bigfoot, beauty, good to hear your voice.

I crashed, every sense.

Big smash-up, car totaled, broke my back, bodycast, cord still transmitting, don’t know who to thank.

I screwed up bad.

Talk to me, Neuro-Queen.

Tell me ‘bout my cells, plastic, dynamic, encourage me.

Have accepted MIT – used injuries to win sympathy in negotiating process.

Wouldn’t you?

19:07 - 26 August 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Josh Golden

I am so sorry! What can I do? Good for you – you always seemed like you had a tough cord. Just DON’T MOVE. Your bones will grow back together, and your neurons seem to have escaped the worst of it anyway. Tracts can take a surprising amount of abuse. I would guess your hardest job is going to be lying still for three months while you mesh. I bet you hooked up the computer the first day and extended the reach of your nervous system to compensate for the immobility of (I know you read this book) the meat.

Can I e- you any articles to read? Can I put you in touch with any neurologists, anybody who could answer more questions for your book? That’s terrific about MIT. I know a whole bunch of Neuro people there – I can send you their addresses. How many people know about this? Can I tell Lee Ann? Or would you rather tell people yourself?

9:22 - 27 August 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Rebecca Fass

Send anything, send everything. Edelman, give me mondo-Edelman, love Edelman.

I’ll tell her, don’t worry.

You don’t tell, do you, bigfoot? Like that about you, a semi-permeable membrane.

9:38 - 27 August 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Over

Wiped out on Belt Parkway, endorphin-drunk, adrenalin-buzzed. Car totaled.

Broke 1 wrist, 2 ribs, 3 vertebrae – spinal cord, life-line, mercifully, miraculously intact.

Beth hysterical. Am trapped home, body cast, please don’t write.

Somebody’s trying to tell me something.

No more, Leo. It’s over. This has been one big long mistake.

Find a nice guy – I’m staying with my nice wife and kids.

17:25 - 27 August 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden

Oh, God, Josh! I’m so sorry! I’m so happy you’re all right! I had no idea. I’m so, so glad you’re OK, Josh, I love you so much. I love your web book. Please, can I still write? If God were trying to send a personal message to everyone who wiped out on the Belt Parkway, we’d be overrun with latter-day saints. I love you, Josh. All that matters is that you’re still alive.

11:09 - 28 August 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Intelligence

Lee Ann, I am appealing to you as intelligent woman. I do not want to continue this correspondence. You are bright, beautiful, powerful, irresistible. You can have any guy you want, not me. I do not love you. I have never loved you. Be fair. When have I ever said or done anything to make you think that? I love my kids, my home, my job, my life. For the sake of all concerned, I do not want any further contact with you. Surely you must see the logic behind this request. Please do not write to me again.

17:16 - 28 August 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Rebecca Fass

I am so furious. I am so sick. He’s telling me he never wants to hear from me again. I know he’s in a body cast, I know he almost died, and I know he was on his way home from my place. But to blame me – to use this as an excuse – as if this all happened because of me. It’s like he thinks if he just gets rid of me, everything in his life will be all right. He’s going to load me up with every thought he’s ever been ashamed of and shoot me into deep space. He is so full of shit. You can’t smite the hand that offends you without smiting your own hand. We did it together. I am completely devastated. If only I could see him. Can’t he see how I feel about him? He almost died! She can see him whenever she wants, and me he tells to go away – permanently. I just can’t believe he feels nothing for me. I really want to tell him the truth.

9:27 - 29 August 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Logos

Well, there’s an interesting version of the truth. Who the hell started this, anyway? I was minding my own business, giving a talk, when you came to ME and stuck your tongue in my mouth. Do you actually believe this shit you’re typing: “never said or done anything”? Every look, every word, every move you’ve ever made in my direction has been a thread in the text you claim you never wove. I don’t care if you are in a fucking body cast, I know bullshit when I hear it.

20:45 - 29 August 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Lee Ann Downing

Leo, BE CAREFUL. I think you’re one of these people who should count to ten when you’re in front of a keyboard. You’re so brilliant, and you’re always just shooting everything out. Can you force yourself not to write to him, maybe just for a week? Even with his cord hanging by a shred, he could still hurt you. He would, too, I can feel it. He’s invincible as long as he’s connected.

We’ve never been in a body cast, and we’ve never been married and had two boys and made a recreational trip to Long Island, and we can’t know what he’s going through. I bet the immobility is driving him nuts. Hyper, isn’t he? I could feel it in cyberspace, his twitchy energy. Maybe it’s just another renunciation cycle. You pulled him out of it last time, and probably you can again. Let him heal. Let him feel clean and righteous while his conscience and his bones knit. He’ll be ready for you again in time. The libido is all the way at the bottom of Scotty’s repair list. Leave him alone at the starbase for awhile.

Hey, big news from the hospital! Dawn is awake and writing! They had to rebuild her whole jaw, so she won’t be able to say anything for weeks, but she’s going to be all right. Her face looks like hell. I didn’t tell her.

14:00 - 30 August 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Grow Up

Lee Ann, you’re being childish. What do you, think sticking a tongue into something is love? Shit, I stick it into mashed potatoes. You were minding your own business – “giving a talk” about lips and female desire, wearing a tight black suit, high heels, your hair loose down to your waist, and black stockings with seams up the back. What does female desire want, what is it there for? We both got what we wanted, now let’s move on. Do not write to me again.

20:22 - 30 August 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Make My Day

You know nothing about female desire and not much about language. You’re pathetic, retreating into formulas when you’re scared. What do you, think I’ll show up, think I’ll send her a letter? Your definition of maturity: get fucked and shut up. That is not what female desire wants. I may not get fucked again, not by you, but I will never shut up, you can never make me. Just try it, I dare you.

9:20 - 1 Sept 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing

If you write to me again, I will inform your director of Academic computing that you are using your university-sponsored account for sexual harassment. That is what this is. You are writing to me against my will, when I have repeatedly asked you not to.

9:26 - 1 Sept 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden

Kiss my ass, you horny, hypocritical, patriarchal, over-aggressive, self-righteous hack.

11:27 - 1 Sept 1997
From: Owen Bauer
To: Rebecca Fass

This is the last message I’ll be sending you (who knows, once we’re together, there may never be a need for e-mail again), and it’s about something you have a right to know, something I was going to do the day you flew to Germany. It’s the day I was going to die. I’ve been so ashamed of it ever since that I tried to cover myself – just asked you to delete it, as I presume you did. If only we could delete memories. This one is ugly, but you have to see it. If you’re going to be with me, you have to see all of me.

Once you’ve changed your mind, it’s hard to explain why you were going to do it. I can tell you the words for it, but I know I can’t convey a feeling I don’t feel any more. I wanted to die because I was superfluous. I had no connection to anyone, wasn’t an integral part of any structure. I was an inert element, forming no bonds. No one needed me, and I did no one any good – only harm, a lot of harm. Free particles are like that – when unconnected, they just crash into things, cause damage. I could see I needed to be gotten rid of for the good of humankind in general, so that I wouldn’t hurt anyone any more, or mooch emotionally off of other people.

How should I do it? Guns occurred to me first – after all, this is Chicago. But I couldn’t imagine myself buying a gun, playing macho, admiring the specimens some guy laid out in front of me. I would have burst out laughing, even though I was suicidally depressed. I considered going for a walk on the South Side, but I had this feeling they never shoot you there on demand, only when you most want to live, when you least expect it.

Drugs. I looked around. Neither Trish nor I ever take any medications to speak of, and I could find nothing I thought would kill me, even if I took the whole bottle. Buy drugs? I wouldn’t know where or how. I doubt if anybody would even sell me any, anyway, I look so innocent.

I decided to take the train into the city. I could jump off of something, I thought, but there are no bridges here high enough, and the skyscrapers are all sealed up at the tops. Not like San Francisco – there they almost dare you to do it. No, I would need to jump in front of something. I could jump off an overpass onto a highway. That could kill innocent people, though, if they swerved to avoid me and crashed into each other.

Then I knew – a train. A train could crush me without derailing, and no one would get hurt. I had only to pick the place, someplace where there weren’t a lot of people, so no little kid could see me do it and get all upset. I walked for hours, thinking, picking my spot.

It was Memorial Day Weekend, a spectacular day. There was a bicycle race going on, and I found myself in a crowd of people, herded along with the others. Loud whistles would blow when a group of racers approached, and they shot by making this kind of insect grinding noise. I found myself applauding with the rest. One racer caught my attention, a woman I saw just in a split second. She had a fluffy brown ponytail, but other than that every inch of her was taut and hard, sheer force. I just caught a glimpse of her in a kaleidoscope of color, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her – who she was and why she wanted to win that badly. I like women. Maybe I was attracted to her, I don’t know.

Kids were everywhere, yelling “lookit, lookit,” little girls on their fathers’ shoulders who made me think of Jeannie. More whistles, more racers, more applause. Food was everywhere, too: Italian ices, hot dogs, pretzels. I realized I was hungry. A woman thrust a free soda in my hand, icy and dripping, and I looked at her, surprised. Other than that, it was as if I wasn’t there. No one noticed me, and no one spoke to me. It was as if I didn’t exist, and I was reminded, whenever I got this feeling, of what I had set out to do.

I just walked. I didn’t know what else to do. When I saw the El tracks, I followed them south, away from the crowd. In the end I found a spot that was perfect: well between stations, so that the guy would be going too fast to stop, and out of sight from the street because of a long billboard. I walked there from a station platform. I saw a few people look up at me when I jumped off the end onto the tracks, but no one seemed to care. I could still hear the bicycle race in the distance, the whistles, the sirens, the applause.

And then I heard the train. I heard a sort of clatter as it approached the station, a screech as it stopped, and then a pause while it was loading. I looked up at the sky. It was clear, deep blue, and I could see the moon, bleached and uncertain overhead. The tracks smelled of tar and urine. Someone has been here before me, I thought. It bothered me. Then I heard the train starting up. I had to time it right. Spring, or just fall? I saw it, square, silver, ribbed, emerging on the left, growing. Jump or fall? Jump or fall? The urine smell bothered me. The sky was so blue. The train was a hundred yards away, and I bent my knees, ready to throw myself forward.

Then an image hit me. We were at the Christmas market. I was behind you and to the side with my hand on your shoulder. You had stopped, enchanted, at a booth of painted wooden animals, and you had just picked up a tiny rabbit pushing a wheelbarrow full of eggs. The air was damp and icy, and they’d flooded the place with light to make us feel warmer. In that instant you were turning to face me, your hand reaching up to show me the rabbit, your mouth full of laughter, your eyes full of a question you were going to ask. That was all, just a simple living moment, and I wondered, why not Jeannie? Shouldn’t I be seeing Trish and Jeannie at a time like this?

I realized that I was flattening myself against the billboard, straining back as hard as I could, and the train slammed by, the loudest noise I’ve ever heard in my life. I stayed that way, just breathing hard for a long time after it was gone. I knew then that I wasn’t going to do it and that I wanted to live in spite of everything. When I found the strength, I made my way out of there as fast as I could, three, four ties at a time. I hauled myself back up onto the platform, and when the people there gave me the same look of amazed, uncaring disgust, I rejoiced inside.

I didn’t care. I saw only what a fool I had been. Integrated into a structure, what an idea. Life IS superfluous. Life comes into being and persists without anyone ever wanting it. Life doesn’t care. Life is excess and collisions and bonding and releasing. Whatever it is, life is not structure. What could possibly be more stupid than destroying a life when you discover it doesn’t fall into the pattern you thought it did?

I have been so ashamed, Becky. I just felt so alone that day, so cut off. I wouldn’t ever do that again, not if you told me we shouldn’t be together, not even if Trish told me I could never see Jeannie again. The smallest sensation, the humblest thought on the most ordinary day makes it worth being alive. You at the market, your eyes in the night, Jeannie on my shoulders, that blip that showed my top quark was there for the briefest instant – I knew I could ask nothing of life, just be thankful for what I have lived and will live.

I thought again of the woman racer straining in the sun. A blue jersey. I think she was wearing a blue jersey. I realized I had five bucks in my pocket, and I went and bought a hotdog. When I’d finished it, I clapped loudly for the stragglers who were struggling by, and other people joined me.

I am leaving for the airport now, just as soon as I say goodbye to some people here. I think I’ll even say goodbye to Rhonda, what the hell. Five hours, and I’ll have the real you under my fingers, and I’ll be living in real time, no more flickers on the screen.

All my love,


The End