from bisexuality, which involves regular attraction to both sexes,
sexual fluidity might happen only once in a lifetime, or only a
few times, or not at all. The likely catalyst is oxytocin, a hormone
that facilitates not only bonding between infants and caregivers
(or close friends), but also sexual arousability. Simply hanging out
with someone for whom you care deeply can—sometimes and
for some women—produce desires that conflict with a person’s
primary sexual orientation. In other words, the body’s chemistry can temporarily change its own seemingly fixed tendencies.
When this happens, the world may call you something di=erent.
But you are still you.
If you search Elizabeth Mavor’s biography of the Ladies of
Llangollen, or the diaries of the ladies themselves, you won’t find
a single hint of anything sexual. And neither will you here. All I
can say is this: there is no field guide for love, or friendship, or
the great variety of people one will encounter in a lifetime. And:
this is not a coming out piece. It is about going inward.
One Christmas, we go with our husbands to Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, France. I want to see the engravings of early man,
something inconceivably old. I arrange a visit to the Grotte de
Bara-Bahau—an onomatopoeic name, given for the sound the
large rocks that have fallen inside the cave must have made. We
listen to a woman give a brief tour to just the four of us, in broken English. We strain to see in the rock the living things she
traces with her laser pointer: a reindeer, a horse without legs and
a horse without a head, and aurochs — an early ancestor of cattle.
The bear is a bit easier: natural convexities in the cave wall itself
form its head and shoulders, a large flint pebble acts as eye, and
from its mouth is etched a long line, representing the animal’s
breath. Easier still is the phallus, which my friend points out privately to her husband before the guide even gets to it, not sure if it
is an actual engraving or an instance of pareidolia — the imagined
perception of a pattern or meaning where it does not actually exist,
like seeing a picture in the clouds. “Oh, yes,” the guide chimes
in, overhearing. “There is a phallus.” This is rather rare; more
common are depictions of female genitalia, I later read.
We leave the cave, joking like teenagers about my friend’s
singlehanded ability to identify the phallus in a cave of other-
wise obscure engravings, but also about the strange question
our guide repeated over and over during the tour, singling out
each one of us, multiple times, as its recipient. “Do you know?”
she would ask, the intonation and pronunciation of her mother
tongue adding mystique to her inquiry. Then she would turn to
the next one of us, making direct eye contact: “Do you know?”
“I do not know,” she would respond to her own question. She
seemed to want to preserve, in addition to the engravings, some
other element of the cave’s mystery.
on the shore of Lake Superior, among those wave-carved potholes filled with stones, I looked in, chose the ones I liked, and
held them close. But just as the page on beach junk in my field
guide suggested, I also found something in one of those potholes
that I didn’t expect. When my husband accidentally dropped a
coveted quartz pebble into the largest and deepest of the holes, I
rolled up my shirt sleeve as far as it would go and leaned over to
recover the stone. Suddenly, I saw myself.
It must have been similar to what Narcissus experienced in
that silvery-surfaced forest pond. Never before had I seen a
clearer picture than what I saw that day in the pothole. I couldn’t
move. Like Narcissus, all I could do was gaze. Perhaps what kept
Narcissus at the pool, in admiration over what was before him,
was not self-love but a fascination with the image of himself as
reflected by the earth. What I saw in that pothole, now a portal,
was not made of skin and bone — the usual “junk” — brown hair,
brown eyes, small ears, my father’s nose. I was made of water
and stone. Though we may label ourselves heterosexual, bisexual,
homosexual, lovers, or just friends, we should not be surprised to
find that we are as dynamic as the earth that holds us up. We are
simultaneously solid and fluid, inherently uncategorizable. We are
always in the process of transformation.
Originally, life on earth was divided into two kingdoms:
plants and animals. Then there were three; then four; then five;
now six. Perhaps two categories— whatever they may be—are
not su;cient for humans either. Names that come from without
are destined to be inaccurate. It is not what we are called that we
must answer to, but what calls us from within. A
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Just where the grass
meets the woods
an old rabbit hutch
has fallen over.
nothing inside it now
but the whistle
of the southbound train.