Ali Shapiro on post-breakup jealousy, disconnection, and very large snakes.
The day I learned that my ex had started dating again, flamingo No. 492 was spotted in Texas. At first, it was mistaken for a Roseate Spoonbill, another lanky, pink bird who actually belonged in that area. But it was in fact No. 492, who had fled 17 years earlier from the Sedgewick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, before the zookeepers had the chance to perform the supposedly painless wing-clipping that would’ve prevented this great escape.
I had a soft spot for rogue fowl. Closest to my heart was the deranged penguin I’d seen in a Werner Herzog documentary about Antarctica. That penguin—a tiny black dot in a vast white snowscape—is supposed go in one of two directions: towards food at the edge of the ice, or back towards its colony. Instead, over a swell of operatic music, the penguin waddles with surprising speed, wings akimbo, in a third direction: straight for the mountains in the distance. “With 5000 killometers ahead of him,” Herzog intones, “he is heading towards a certain death.” I had that penguin tattooed over my ribs. I briefly considered adding the flamingo, but flamingos were too pretty.
And besides, it wasn’t just birds. I also loved Jeremy, the snail whose shell spiraled left instead of right—a rare mutation that made it hard for him to find a mate, the swirl of the shell being somehow indicative of how the relevant body parts would line up. In fact, I loved all the lonely animals: the mountain lion attempting to enter a casino in Reno, the blue whale whose song was pitched in a key no other whale could hear, and Laika, of course, doomed Soviet space dog, though her case was different, and almost too sad to think about.
I didn’t like thinking about my ex dating, either. So instead I watched a video of a group of flamingos enacting an elaborate mating ritual in the shallows of a Tanzanian lake. They moved en masse with near-military precision, swiveling their little heads on their long pink necks, doing a delicate high-step with their stick legs, looking a bit cheesy, I thought, so pink and so much like Riverdance. Then again, I wasn’t their target audience. Their collective noun was flamboyance. I wondered if No. 492 would join or scoff or swoon.
My ex, I learned from our mutual friend Claud, was now dating a woman she’d met on an app. Claud used this same app, and had seen this same woman my ex was now dating. But while my ex had swiped right, Claud had swiped left.
Why? I asked.
Too pretty, Claud said. I nodded. Beauty was boring. Then she added: Well, but there was also another thing.
What? I asked eagerly. I hoped it was better than too pretty, which had, upon further reflection, started to sting.
It was better. This was the dating app where users chose questions to answer in their profiles, and this woman had chosen:
What’s your most irrational fear?
And she had answered:
That a snake will crawl up and bite my coochie
Claud and I stared at each other. In my head I performed an impromptu exegesis: was this an earnest overshare, a dirty joke? Both? Either way, the word crawl was all wrong for a snake. And crawl up from where? And then there was coochie: more prudish than pussy, too close to the childish cootie, altogether squeamishly unsexy.
Aloud, I said: Huh.
Claud said: Yeah, huh.
Later that night when I couldn’t sleep, I wondered if my ex had thrilled at the innuendo, or, worse, laughed at the joke. There was no one to ask. Whatever was happening between my ex and this woman was available only to the two of them, because my ex had her own experiences now, separate from mine, and even if she shared the information afterwards with Claud or another mutual friend, it would still be filtered by the time it got to me, if it got to me at all.
Did I like the challenge, the flavor of unrequited love? Was I tantalized by the promise of some mystery still left to uncover? Did I like being lonely?
Then again, alone in our bed, I no longer had to worry about waking her up. I reached for my phone and downloaded the dating app on which Claud and my ex and the coochie woman had all seen each other. I didn’t really want to join the dating app, but I did want to see the other people who had. For the required profile picture, I uploaded a shot of No. 492, mid-flight over a body of water. What was its greatest fear?
I switched out of the dating app to Google flamingo predators, many of whom were other birds: lappet-faced and white-headed vultures, the tawny eagle, the black kite. The Marabou stork, which was definitely not too pretty, its face mottled black and red, its long waddle hanging down like a single testicle, pink and wrinkled and fringed with coarse black hair. As for snakes, the larger ones, like pythons, had been known to eat flamingos, though flamingos had also been known to eat snakes. I fell asleep imagining an ourobouros of pink feather and green-gold scale.
My ex’s family had a house on a lake in Northern Michigan. There, I saw her doing the thing that made her look most at home: driving a speedboat. She looked powerful, in control, fearless, competent. The lake house was a small part of our lives; I only saw her drive the boat a handful of times in the decade we were together. But I could have watched her do it all day.
Which was lucky, because watching was all that was available to me. My ex was a solitary driver, of boats and also cars. “What are you thinking about?” I would ask from the passenger seat, sometimes out of boredom but more often out of a deeper desperation that I couldn’t quite shake or name. “Oh, I don’t know,” she would reply. “Nothing, really.”
I was attracted to her in these moments when she shut me out completely. That was my problem, I guessed. Did I like the challenge, the flavor of unrequited love? Was I tantalized by the promise of some mystery still left to uncover? Did I like being lonely?
The next night, when I couldn’t sleep, I Googled:
snake bite coochie
The first few results were the same article, reposted on Ghanaian news sites and forums, about a woman who had died after being bitten by a snake while squatting to pee in the bushes. I skipped over the next few results—porn—to click on a story about a juvenile yellow anaconda found in a toilet in Virgina. This story contained a link to another story: RATTLESNAKE FOUND IN TOILET LEADS TO 23 MORE SNAKES. Its subtitle: Everything is bigger in Texas, including the frightening number of venomous snakes hiding out underneath a house. I thought of No. 492, also in Texas. I worried about pythons.
Eventually I clicked through to Reddit, where quite a few threads discussed the very fear my ex’s new date had identified. But no one else used the word coochie. So I Googled coochie origin phrase and almost immediately discovered that hoochie-coochie was “a catch-all term to describe several sexually provocative belly dance-like dances” and was “often associated with ‘the snake charmer song.’” It was beginning to seem like the woman my ex was dating was not only justified in her fear but also some kind of etymological genius.
The snake charmer song, it turned out, was familiar to me from childhood:
There’s a place in France
Where the naked ladies dance
There’s a hole in the wall
Where the boys can see them all
Of course, some Redditors thought the snake/coochie fear was Freudian: essentially a phallic threat. I wondered if my ex had thought of that. I checked the drawer under our bed. One strap-on dildo—medium-sized, aquamarine, from a company with the punny name Spare Parts—was still there. But there had been more dildos, I was pretty sure, which meant she must have taken them with her when she moved out, which meant perhaps she was helping the coochie woman to overcome her fear of snakes (I Googled: ophidophobia) by confronting it directly, via a kind of kinky exposure therapy. I was starting to panic. I couldn’t even remember the other dildos, what they looked like, whether they were realistic (flesh-colored, veiny?) or fantastical (double-ended, swirly purple, ridged for our pleasure?), whether they had been gathered in a bag or loose in the drawer, or maybe we had lined them up neatly, like a serial killer’s trophies, like elongated spice jars on a spice rack, like xylophone keys, like gumless teeth. The dildos were multiplying in my mind as I tried to remember, which is to say as I tried to block out the image of what my ex might be doing with them now.
To calm down, I rewatched the video of the flamingo mating dance. I learned that the lake in which it occurred was highly caustic, full of toxic algae and so hypersalinic that it could “strip away human skin.” But this was good news for the flamingos: it kept predators away. I watched the video again with this new information in mind, and the flamboyance looked even more bizarre, like the birds were demonic, possessed. I learned that flamingos, like most birds, don’t have penises—both males and females have cloacas, which they press together when they mate in a “cloaca kiss.” I learned that male flamingos have erectile tissue in their mouths, to help them hoover up shrimp more forcefully.
I wanted to fill my empty heart with knowledge until I understood how it all fit together, how everything connected to everything else, and for those things that didn’t connect, I wanted to understand why.
I had not finished joining the dating app. There were too many questions to answer: what was I looking for? What was my body like? What was my gender, my orientation? Every possible answer seemed weird or wrong. I felt like a tree falling in the forest, kind of. An animal somewhere it shouldn’t be, such that when you first see it, you’re not sure it’s that kind of animal at all.
Once, up north, my ex drove us out to the middle of the lake where we dropped anchor to bask in the warm July sun. I jumped into the water, and goaded her to follow. She eased herself gingerly onto an inner tube. I submerged, then popped up next to her. Playful, I pulled her into the water.
It’s not that she got angry. She just got very, very cold—so cold her lips instantly turned blue. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I repeated, frantically helping her back onto the tube, then the boat. I wasn’t even shivering. My ex was thinner than me, true. But it was like we were two different species. I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I kept saying. It’s OK, she said, through chattering teeth. Gone was any trace of the commanding adult who had driven the boat. She was like a child, wrapped in a towel, a little bruised and betrayed by the world. I felt a tenderness that also felt like drowning. I rubbed her terry-clothed shoulder lamely.
In the shallows of that lake, a certain type of duck was transmitting a parasite to a certain type of snail, which was in turn shedding larva that caused swimmers’ itch. It was complicated, the way things converged, the way an ecosystem developed. An angry rash lingered on my thighs and arms for weeks after we’d left the lake.
I think you might want to put some boundaries around information, Claud suggested gently, after I asked her, again, for an update on my ex and the coochie woman.
Aha! So it’s going well, I said.
I didn’t say that, Claud said, calmly and slowly, as though speaking to an agitated animal. I just—how much do you really want to know?
I wanted to know everything. I wanted to fill my empty heart with knowledge until I understood how it all fit together, how everything connected to everything else, and for those things that didn’t connect, I wanted to understand why. I watched a video of two rat snakes fighting, twining and untwining their long bodies like a dance. I learned about vagrant birds, the ones who show up alone in places where they don’t belong, how ornithologists aren’t sure if these birds are brave pilgrims scouting out new environments or if they’re just dumb and lost. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t ever sleep, so I learned that flamingos sleep on one leg, and that it’s difficult to tell if a snake who is staying very, very still is sleeping or hunting. I read a listicle about the 10 most beautiful snakes in the world, who are also the most venomous. I watched the first seven minutes of Snakes on a Plane. I watched a video of two snails mating, their slippery bodies pressed together and undulating like two coochies, and I felt that slick warmth glow in my groin and, simultaneously, tears rise to my eyes, because arousal felt too much like memory. I learned that Jung disagreed with Freud, that he thought the snake was a symbol of transcendence. I learned that Laika had been trained to live in smaller and smaller cages, that she was placed in a centrifuge to simulate the experience of the spacecraft, that she was never expected to survive the flight. That was the boundary, the information I did not want. It was just cruelty, and somehow that cruelty suggested a loneliness that no ornithologist would mistake for a brave pilgrimage, a connection severed irrevocably, a denial that connection had ever even been possible in the first place.
Once, my ex and I went for a walk in a preserve a short drive from our house. It was the summer that the Brood X cicadas were supposedly emerging, but we hadn’t seen or heard any sign of them. This brood had been underground for 17 years, even longer than we’d been together, which, we joked sometimes, was beginning to seem pretty long.
I loved that joke, though I don’t think my ex found it all that funny. For me, it was an expression of awe. No, it was a kind of reclaiming: a signal of trust that our relationship was strong enough, at this point, to take a joke. No, it was camp: we were playing at “old marrieds,” trying on conventions straighter than we were, griping like husband and wife. No, it was awe.
What we had lost was not just each other but a whole ecosystem, a culture, complete with ritual and language and ways of understanding the world.
We parked in the small gravel lot and walked into the preserve along a lightly mowed path. On either side of us the grasses grew up to our shoulders. Ahead the path narrowed under a canopy of trees like something out of a fairytale.
It took us a moment to notice that the branches were dotted with bodies, black and gold and gossamer and beads of red that were their unblinking eyes. And then we heard the thrum, their mating song, unbelievably loud but so droningly consistent that somehow we had missed it before, mistaking it for normal background noise.
The mystery of cicadas is how they calculate time: not season to season, which entomologists guess they can divine from the tree sap they feed on, but the longer span. How do they remember how many years have passed?
I reached instinctively for my ex’s hand. We stood frozen, unsure if we had stepped into something horrifying or beautiful. Then we hurried out from under the canopy and retraced our steps to the car.
When we were together, my ex and I called each other by animal nicknames, as couples often do. I can’t bring myself to type them now, either because I am embarrassed or because I might die of tenderness, which might be the same thing. I have written about both animals already, anyway. The important thing to know is that they were different animals, animals who would never, in real life, be together. One might even have preyed on the other.
And yet we were together, and it wasn’t always lonely. Sometimes we looked at each other across that great distance, smiling anyway, reaching for each other anyway. Sometimes we pushed our bodies together, inventing new ways of connecting part to part. Some mornings she would come to me soft, for a hug, and I would soften in response, to receive her. Some afternoons I would go to her eager, with a joke, and she would turn her full face to me, and laugh.
I thought of my ex’s body which I had known, after all those years, as well as my own, and still we had only said certain words to each other, the names we shared for the parts of each other we touched, and now there would be new words, a whole new taxonomy, shared between new people whose bodies were new to each other. A breakup was a kind of extinction, I thought. What we had lost was not just each other but a whole ecosystem, a culture, complete with ritual and language and ways of understanding the world. Marriage was context. Without it you could run straight for the mountains or be shot into outer space, towards some other great pointless adventure. You could become a serial killer or speedboat captain. You could end up in Texas.
That night when I couldn’t sleep I tried standing on one leg. I tried lying very still, as if in wait. But I didn’t Google anything. I didn’t learn anything new. Another dating app I had half-joined sent me a notification of a “swipe surge,” which I assumed meant a lot of people were online at that time. I could feel their electric presence, the night thrumming with desire that wasn’t mine. Eventually I just lay there, alone, being sad. And there was some solace in that, some animal truth. I was, I guessed, where I was supposed to be.
This essay was guest-edited by Katie Kosma. Previously an editor with Sari at Longreads, she now edits for The Rumpus, The Assembly, and UNC-Chapel Hill.
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