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art by Ron Sanders

Love is a component of this story

This is Liz's fourth story in Daily Science Fiction. Her poetry and prose gets published in other places as well! Three times a week she creates the webcomic Things Without Arms and Without Legs. Her previous incarnations include circus manager, refuge worker, artists' model, research officer for the Order of Australia Awards, and extensive work in the not-for-profit sector. Her roller derby name is Betsy Nails. She has a website lizargall.com.

***Editor's Note: Adult Story, not for Minors***
Love is a component of this story. Specifically the love that develops between a man, Ernest, and a woman, Bruce. Ernest identifies himself as definitely straight, but his physiological responses could be classified as 73% straight. Bruce identifies herself as mostly straight but curious, yet her physiological responses could be classified as 87% straight. This is unusual, as, in studies thus far, women tend to be physiologically more fluid in their sexual responses. A sexual increase in vasocongestion can differ substantially from a person's sexual identity without diminishing the significance of that sexual identity. The narrator is 29 years old, describes herself as situationally heterosexual and a bit queer. The narrator is flawed, 78% omniscient, and skims over the sex scenes in fiction.
Sexuality is socially constructed and so is its close cousin, gender. Gerai people in a Dayak community in Northern Borneo, for example, see gender in the shapeliness of knees, the ability to sort rice or felling trees--genitalia are just a happy coincidence and are the same organs anyway, simply stored differently. The ability to procreate comes from the sameness of men and women's organs and fluids--as they say, coconut milk can only mix with coconut milk, it cannot mingle with water. The Gerai believe that men can have babies--it is just foolish to do the work when women are so much better at it (and while having babies is specifically a woman's job it is not the work that defines femaleness. Sorting and storing rice is what makes a woman).
Men are said to participate equally with women in all things, except in giving birth. Equality is considered crucial for the safety and well being of the community. The Sabat ritual and giving of Buis is used to correct the imbalances created by men not giving birth--restoring harmony and protecting the tribe from bad luck. The severed head of an enemy is no longer given at the conclusion of the Sabat, and some hypothesize they never were.
Since anthropologists observed this fascinating culture, Gerai people have sent their children to religious boarding schools, and these statements may no longer be accurate. Culture is resilient however, so it may be that Gerai children, looking upon the serene and stretched out figure of Jesus might wonder if that little pot belly of his is a baby in development, and if that is where cherubs come from. As far as it can be determined, Gerai children have not been asked this question, and so it remains a mystery. Regardless of the construction of gender as a socio-cultural-formation, gender still plays an important role in love-story narratives, as they are normally constructed within, or in response to, heterosexual narratives. The gender and sexuality of the narrator is less important, although not without significance.
And thus we return to Ernest and Bruce, whose genders and sexual preferences have been defined and articulated intrinsically and extrinsically within dominant accepted paradigms and will soon have an opportunity to interact. Love is, after all, a component of this story.
Ernest and Bruce were both part of a longitudinal study examining sexuality and identity conducted by the University of Albury-Wodonga. The precise measurement and categorization of their shifts in sexuality was conducted by scientifically measuring their responses to pornography. This was done with a variety of devices measuring brain activity, skin conductance response, affect-modulated eye blink startle reaction, genital and thigh temperatures and, of course, genital vasocongestion.
Ernest was attached to machines on Thursdays at 10.30am for 45 minutes. The machines were then wiped down and some were swapped out in preparation for the next subject, Bruce, at 12:30. The 75-minute gap between the two participants allowed sufficient time for machinery to dry out and meant that the test subjects would never have the embarrassment of meeting... although in the course of this narrative they will.
Ernest and Bruce both preferred the non-intrusive forms of measurement, sticky patches on thighs or carefully placed laser thermometers, but invariably something would be inserted into Bruce's vagina and something would be placed around the shaft or inserted into the head of Ernest's penis. Both of them found this degree of intimacy with a lab technician disconcerting. Neither had been in a sexual relationship for some time and this added to their discomfort. Ernest's heart had been broken by a sharp-witted IT tech support girl, and Bruce had ended her last relationship by setting fire to her boyfriend's bed and declaring that all men were bastards (or at least that's what she said she did, there is evidence to suggest she ate ice-cream and weepily rang her little sister). As Ernest once said to a friend on his Ultimate Frisbee Team while substantially intoxicated, "The only thing worse than not getting any, is not getting any and having sexy post-docs shove things on you and measure you not getting any."
Once hooked up to the various devices (be it labial thermistors, heated oxygen electrodes, penile plethysmographs or any new device to be tested) Ernest and Bruce, Ernest at 10:30 and Bruce at 12:30, watched a series of videos depicting copulation. Bruce and Ernest saw men copulating with men; men copulating with women; women copulating with women; and bonobos copulating with bonobos. Bonobos had been chosen over chimpanzees, because bonobos engage in paired intercourse face to face, are interested in more than a 'quickie' and engage in sexual intercourse all year round. Chimpanzees are perceived to engage in a more aggressive, results-oriented form of copulation that focuses on inseminating female chimpanzees during estrus.
Humans are unusual amongst mammals, because females do not have clear sensory markers to show when they are ovulating. It is often assumed that women cannot tell when they are ovulating, although some women are able to pick up subtle (and at times not so subtle) clues that they are. Some people believe these women are fictional and that it is impossible to have this kind of deep knowledge. These people are wrong.
While hominid estrus does not have the clarity of, for example, the lustrous red buttocks of a baboon, the narrator would like to posit that messy knowledge that has blurry edges should not be arbitrarily discarded and assumed false, especially when body temperature, cervix positioning and fluid discharge provide physiological markers, not to mention the hormonal influence of increasing progesterone levels immediately after ovulation.
Human bodies vary substantially and have diverse, adaptive ways of speaking to their squishy consciousness. Each human body has a different voice that needs to be learned; some are sopranos, some are baritones; some sing like Alvin and the Chipmunks. The squishy consciousness has many ways of misinterpreting, not hearing, or freaking out over attempts at communication from its own squishy body. The narrator, for example, has determined that she is more likely to twitch her eyebrows when her left ovary is depositing an egg. The eyebrow twitch generally precedes the narrator acquiring a random injury or bubble wrap being placed around the sharp corners of chairs and tables.
For most of her life, Bruce did not have a strong sense of her menstrual cycle. She resented the intrusion on her day-to-day living and wanted to think about menstruation, the rag, George coming to visit or having a Bloody Mary as little as possible. Menstruation often came as a surprise, and she was notorious for getting "caught out" and improvising temporary solutions with wedges of toilet paper and funny ways of walking. She did a small happy dance when she was in a workplace that casually kept menstrual products under the sink; this was a degree of female friendliness she had never experienced before or since. The sense of a safety net, acceptance and workplace understanding of female biological messiness increased her overall productivity by 22.17%.
Amongst the Gerai menstrual blood was not seen as profane or dirty, simply something that drips on the ground or in the long house from time to time and is cleaned up with cloth and water--like any other spill. Male and female Gerai believe that men sometimes menstruate. Ernest, as far as he was aware, has never menstruated, and would seek immediate medical attention if he did.
When Bruce became a test subject she was required to keep the University of Albury-Wodonga appraised of her menstrual cycle, as menstruation could influence scheduling and test results, and increase the number of wet wipes required to clean the machinery. Now energized by a higher sense of purpose, she bought a lunar calendar and stuck it to her bathroom door. She charted her cycle with a thick red marker and started to notice other physical and mental variations that occurred throughout the month. Her awareness of hormonally affected moods gave her greater insight into her behavior patterns and at times gave her greater control over her moods, or at least the ability to articulate them. As part of the study Bruce was also required to provide regular urine samples to determine if she was pregnant or abusing drugs, as this would influence test results. Ernest was not required to provide urine samples.
One pleasantly cool but slightly windy morning in December, Ernest left his hat at the University of Albury-Wodonga. The hat was a gift from a former sexual partner he had been involved with during his formative years. They had separated amicably and continued to correspond via e-mail and telephone on a semi-regular basis. The hat had been a gift to celebrate their three-month anniversary and completion of Diablo II on Nightmare level, and he had worn it on many pleasurable occasions since.
Ernest was distracted by the thought of losing an item that held so many memories and was saddened by the empty place on his head and coat-rack that would arise, should it remain lost. He walked at speed in this disturbed mental state, and was not paying close attention to his surroundings when he returned to the University of Albury-Wodonga.
Thus, caught in memory, he collided abruptly with Bruce, who was also striding down the corridor in a brisk and somewhat agitated manner. Startled by the sudden emergence of Ernest in her close personal space and the manner in which he bounced off her left shoulder, Bruce addressed him thus:
"I have just watched 45 minutes of pornography, I am ovulating, and although I do not wish to conceive children I am deeply desirous of a root."
Ernest was from the United States of America and was not familiar with this colloquial term for sexual intercourse, however he was able to infer, by inflection and context, that "root" was a term for fucking. His eyes widened as he sought a cogent reply.
"Are you sure?"
Bruce paused to appraise Ernest, as if seeing him for the first time, and indeed it was the first time she had given him her full attention.
"Of course I'm bloody well sure, but that doesn't mean I want to bonk you," said Bruce.
"Oh," said Ernest.
"But who knows, I could be."
"Ohhh..." said Ernest, suddenly nervous.
Bruce arched one eyebrow, sexually stimulated by Ernest's nervousness and her own cavalier attitude. Bruce had never tried such a bold approach and was curious to see if it would work. She had no idea whether Ernest was a desirable bedmate. Her words had been generated out of the desire to say something witty and daring... as well as acute randiness induced by the hormonal surges of ovulation or a placebo-like randiness caused by the delicious marks she made on her calendar in thick red marker. Bruce paused to reflect and decided she was prepared to spend an hour or so finding out if Ernest was worth shagging.
"No pressure. There's a park nearby, we can have lunch and see what happens," said Bruce.
Ernest and Bruce had a sufficiently nice time at lunch, and after some playful fondling on the grass, went back to Bruce's place. While she was in the bathroom Ernest secretly examined Bruce's bookshelf and music collection, and then they rooted until they were both pleasantly sore. They had taken the first risk, plunged over the precipice and had found joy there.
Wrapped in the warm glow of each other they contemplated what other risks they would take with this person. A small anecdote from childhood? A secret laugh with a small snort at the end? Secretly, Ernest contemplated falling in love with Bruce.
Secretly, Bruce contemplated falling in love with Ernest, but only after she had examined his book collection. They both decided to have more sex first and at no point were decapitated human heads exchanged.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Author Comments

This story exists because of a pact between Shauna Roberts, Nicholas Stenner, and myself during Clarion Writers Workshop. We all decided we would stretch ourselves and write experimental science fiction romance. I'm terrible at romance. Terrible. The first time I tried to write romance I ended up writing a story about a boy and his chicken, then I wrote a story about a geological intelligence trying to discover the universe and understand that which was not itself. Trying to write romance was brutal. In the end I wrote a love letter to Kurt Vonnegut.

As I tried to deal with romance (which meant gender and sexuality would likely have explicit roles in the narrative) the story also became a love letter to the Gerai people, a real people who I learned about when studying gender in cross-cultural perspective at university. My anthropology lecturer worked on her phd living among the Gerai people. When she first lived among them they did not really believe she was a woman because she could not sort rice. Relative absence of modesty taboos mean that they saw her genitalia with some frequency (the river being the toilet), but given she couldn't sort rice they didn't really believe her when she said she was a woman and they thought Australian men just might be different. I hope I have honored their culture appropriately. Sadly, I have been unable to find more contemporary information about the Gerai. Gratitude must also go to Jess Nevins, reference librarian extraordinaire for his assistance finding papers about the Gerai as I worked on this story in a different country to where my notes were, as well as papers describing how studies measure human sexual responses. Without him there would be no labial thermistors, heated oxygen electrodes or penile plethysmographs in this story. This is one of the most romantic stories I have ever written.

- Liz Argall
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