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Here is how snails mate. It’s violent and beautiful.

They start with a courtship dance, the two writhing together for up to six hours, perhaps the longest foreplay on Earth, exploring each other, stomach-foot to stomach-foot. They caress each other with their tentacles, with their mouths, nipping and biting and rubbing their orifices against each other. The pressure builds and builds inside each snail, until one shoots a sharp, chitinous love-dart into the other. The darts leave puncture wounds, stirring up hormones that make each more receptive to fertilization. Having wounded each other, having sometimes darted so deeply the translucent spears bury themselves in the snails’ internal organs or even protrude out the other side, the snails mate, exchanging sperm. This is known as traumatic insemination.

I’ve just started sleeping with Chris but I like him. It’s a little scary. He comes over with a bottle of red wine and the second Neapolitan novel by Elena Ferrante; I’m touched because I’d only mentioned I wanted it in passing. We sit facing each other on my bed, my feet in his lap. I tell him about the way snails mate; ask him where he’d fire a love dart and he palms my iliac crest, my ass, moves his hand across my navel, settles it there. “Your stomach,” he says. I feel soft. It’d go right through

Sex in the wild is often brutal, bloody, and painful. It can be cruel act, ruthless in its singleness of purpose: to produce, to spread, to propagate, to bear fruit. Snails fuck each other with puncture wounds; the praying mantis devours her lover once she’s had enough. Some birds mate for life; others peck viciously at females’ sex organs to dislodge their competitor’s sperm. How astonishing is it that we have taken the violence and removed its bite, only to replace those wounds with others of a different kind.

I feel the echo of that violence in the way we circle each other, waiting to see who’ll be the first to be vulnerable. It seems impossible that I’ll ever meet someone who hasn’t been hurt. Chris asks me about my ex when we’re tangled up in bed because the sheen of pain is still so bright on me, and I write it off, giving him the short story. I kiss him instead. I tuck my head against his neck and run my fingertips along his new tattoo, where the inked lines under his skin are blistering.

The second night he comes over we fuck until the sun comes up and I lay there, between movements, eyes closed, feeling without seeing the shadow of his face above mine as he leans down—so gently—to kiss me. I am surprised that he bothers. He didn’t need to do that. We are, perhaps, more familiar than we should be. It may not be how animals ought to behave.

 

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