Envying the anglerfish

Illustration by Nolan Loh
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Published December 5, 2012

When I was 16, I had a panic attack in my high school’s cafeteria because I got the urge to push a beautiful ballerina against the menu-plastered bulletin board, grope her ass and feel her pulse under my tongue.

I shook my gaze from her tight body and stared at the linoleum floor. Blood slipped quickly past my ears; white-hot adrenaline seized my carotid artery and blasted my optical nerves. Holy shit. Holy. Shit. I thought, stumbling over to the soup station for a handful of oyster crackers. What if I’m gay? My life would be so totally over.

This wasn’t the first time I looked at a woman this way. When I was little, I worried that I was in love with an older neighbor girl named Hope. She was a Scandinavian variety of beautiful: storm-blue eyes, billowing blonde hair, thin but a little chesty. She might be a dance major now, at Duke or Bard, but at the time she lived down the street and I’d go out of my way to see her riding a bicycle into downtown Beulah, the little town in northern Michigan where we lived. At the time, I chalked this longing up to jealousy. Hope was gorgeous and I probably just wanted to be her, not be on top of her.

My feelings during the Ballerina Incident of 2009, I told myself, were no different. After tossing back a few packs of oyster crackers and a waxy granny smith apple, I felt better. In fact, in no time at all, I had convinced myself that my desire for the girl was pure envy. After all, I’d had sex with a bunch of men, and I was great at it. I really like dick, I told myself. Dick is great, the greatest. Everything is going to be OK.

So I continued to screw men. And yes, I really did love it. That following summer, I had my first orgasm while on top of a hairy jazz pianist with hands the size of Frisbees. However, the desire to bury my face between a woman’s legs continued to permeate my sexual consciousness, and it only became stronger as I became more confident as a sexual being.

I gave once-overs to women who slowly rose, glistening and bikini-clad, from lakes in Northern Michigan. Tipsy nights of mixed gender Spin-the-Bottle left me inventing complex fantasies of woman-heavy three ways. I developed a crush on “Mad Men” star January Jones.

By the time I got to college I was left wondering: Was I ambisextris? Heteroflexible? One of those attention-hungry chicks who arrive at college deciding to give girls a try? Was I a cry for help?

Admittedly, part of my confusion was based on my lack of experience with women. With men it was easy: If they hold eye contact, assume they’re interested unless obviously gay. With women, I felt like I was starting all over again.

I’d go to house parties in dingy basements with black lighting and rickety beer pong tables, and search for girls with figurative “WSW” stamps on their foreheads. How did I know if a passing graze was intentional or accidental? Even if a girl grinded with me on a drunken, half-lit dance floor, she could still be straight and trying to get a man’s attention. I needed there to be a designated girl-on-girl make-out corner, or the God of Gay Sex to cast my sights in the right direction.

More than that, I had to prepare myself for actually getting a girl into bed. The age old question — What do lesbians really do in the bedroom? — was hitting me hard. When my friend, a playwright from New York with the nape of her neck shaved, described her only lesbian experience, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “It was nice, like a full body massage.” This wasn’t enough information. I imagined purchasing suction cup dildos and strap-ons from Amazon.com, or wandering into the Safe Sex Store on South University Avenue only to leave with nothing a few minutes later.

Of course, I wasn’t just worrying about the sex. What if I found a lady soul mate on pride night at Necto, or in an empty café reading Bob Hicok and playing with her hair? Was I gay enough to fall in love with a woman? To come out of the closet? I thought about joining a bisexual support group or going to mixed-gender speed dating, but I was paralyzed by my own complication. Instead I stayed home and watched “The L Word,” trying to analyze the love scenes.

When that didn’t satisfy my inquisitive appetites, I took courses in sexuality, thinking academia could help me figure it all out. However, while my first sex professor, a 70-year-old lesbian with a smoke-lowered voice, flicked her laser pointer over unimpressive penises on ancient Greek statues and lectured about the Molly House Raids, I only learned more about the complex divides between hetero and homo. As PowerPoint slides about Oscar Wilde and Lady Chatterley flickered before me, the existence of bridges between the two sexualities seemed less and less possible.

When I read the “Symposium” a year later, I was only more confused. Plato’s theory on the creation of love seemed to cast out bisexuality altogether. Aristophanes spoke of ancient creatures that scurried about the earth with four legs, four arms and two sets of genitalia. These hybrids could have been two fused women, two fused men or a fused man and woman. However, when the gods decided these beings were becoming too powerful, Zeus split them down the middle and they became what we are today: male or female bodies. These divided pairs then spent their lives searching for their other halves.

The hiccupping Aristophanes went on to say, “Those men who are halves of a being of the common sex(es) … are lovers of women, and most adulterers come from this class, as also do women who are mad about men and sexually promiscuous. Women who are halves of a female whole direct their affections towards women and pay little attention to men; ‘Lesbians’ belong to this category.” In other words, if someone came from a same-sex hybrid, they were attracted to their own sex; if they came from opposite-sex hybrids, they were what we would now call “heterosexual.”

Well, great, I thought, more exclusive categories.

Later that week, my professor spoke candidly of our doom. He said that as descendants of these creatures who rolled around on eight limbs, we are cursed with a desperate need for unity. But our only means for serious connection is sex. And sex, according to him, is a total letdown. The act is insufficient because, even if we go through the motions of wining, dining, eye-fucking and foreplay, the resultant sexual encounter is short-lived — for a college kid, probably 15 minutes at best. Then, once the condom is lying impotent on the rim of a wastebasket, the desperation for connection begins again.

Wow, I thought, that is some poetic shit.

I completely bought into the turmoil of it all. Human existence was chiseled down to walking the Earth in search of our counterparts, and on top of that, even if we found our other halves, we could only unite with them in a series of brief and entirely unsatisfying sexual experiences. My little identity problem seemed microscopic in the face of all this eternal loneliness.

A few days later, in a cafeteria not unlike the spot of my ballerina-induced panic attack, a boy taking Biology of Sex mentioned the truth about the anglerfish. He said that during the mating process, a male angler literally melts into a female’s body, making them one organism.

“What?” I gasped, throwing a curly fry down on my plate. “Are you for real?”

“Yeah,” said the boy. “So?”

“So? So? Don’t you realize this means an anglerfish, a big ugly fish at the bottom of the ocean with a light on its head, can achieve the one thing that we crave more than anything else?”

Of course, no one realized. Half the table looked at me blankly. The other half continued to discuss an upcoming Econ test and lap at soft-serve ice cream cones.

“True connection! Like in Plato’s ‘Symposium,’ ” I said.

“Isn’t the anglerfish that scary one in ‘Finding Nemo?’” asked a girl.

I left a couple minutes later, huffy and masochistically wrapped up in the poetics of it all. Basically, it was official: We are alone forever, lower on the romantic totem pole than a fish dwelling in the ocean’s deepest caverns.

During my oceanography lectures, I doodled anglers in my notebook with a black felt-tipped pen; I considered tattooing one on my hip as homage to the fish’s superiority. But, like a lot of trite ideas I’ve had — a surface piercing above my eyebrow, a commune called The Roach Hotel — this impulse faded with a little time.

The magic of my professor’s lecture on Plato also dwindled, and I was left with my original question: Where does this leave me? Plato spoke through Aristophanes about the history of what we now call “straight” and “gay” people. However, there were no six-armed, six-legged beings with two vaginas and a penis that could have represented me in the distant past. My love of both sexes left me ancestor-less; I wasn’t recognized in the contemporary or ancient world. I was just as lost as before.

It took a guy who was both my ex-boyfriend and best friend to shake me out of the hopeless place where I found myself. He was a product of science, concocted from the donated sperm of a gay man in California and the egg of his lesbian mother. His mom raised him with the support of many gay women, and this upbringing made him a sort of secondary authority on the subject of lesbian lifestyles.

“It’s not penis envy,” I said as I sprawled across his dorm room futon with my head in his lap.

He played aimlessly with the hair I briefly considered hacking off as a neon sign of my sexuality. “OK, then what is it?” he asked.

“Or maybe it is … I just don’t know how to find her, you know?”

“It’ll happen when it happens, Em,” he sighed.

His intonation was plain. He was gently telling me to calm my ass down, and he was right. I fell into a light sleep as he rolled through reruns of “How I Met Your Mother.”

My struggle seemed a bit silly after our talk, and I wondered why I felt the need to nail down my sexuality. I recalled the facts of ancient Greece, where everyone was doing everyone. My imagination recreated an ancient text in which two women happily go to the cobbler to buy dildos made of sheepskin and then return home to their husbands. Back then no one was gay or straight, but everyone was screwing. Maybe they had the right idea.

Sexual preference gradually became overrated in my eyes. As my friend intuited, I was obsessing over labeling myself because I wanted my attraction authenticated by experience. I thought that if I joined queer culture’s exclusive club, I’d feel like I belonged to a group. But why did everything have to come down to my “interested in” section on Facebook? If I defined myself by who I slept with, I might let my sex life eclipse some of my other, equally important parts.

Instead, I decided that I wouldn’t broadcast my urges, but I wouldn’t ignore them either. I’d figure it all out when the time came—perhaps if I met the right girl. And with the right girl I might not be able to merge with penetration, but so what? The g-spot is only an extension of the clit anyway, and the male anglerfish literally becomes just a pair of gonads when he painfully melts into the female’s body.

I didn’t want to lose myself while seeking a soul mate. I could be satisfied with whoever I was with, man or woman, as long as we could make each other come, tasting those sunbursts that expand through the skin before rolling onto our backs to rediscover the sky.

Emily Pittinos is an Art & Design and LSA junior.

Correction Appended: A previous version of this article misspelled carotid artery