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TRUE LOVE

Great Books Foundation Short Story Omnibus
Flash Fiction WW Norton
Kansas Quarterly 22.3

     They met at a national entomology conference. To his eye, she was a woman of extraordinary physical grace and beauty, the last thing he expected to find at a professional gathering.
     He was struck by her slender, hairless forearms, the delicate curve of her neck, the proud way she carried her rather small head.
     His tall thin frame and slightly bulging eyes reminded her of the subjects of her first highly successful entomological research project. It was a strong and fond memory. The project had established her reputation for creative insectology.
     He approached her during the cocktail hour after the first day's papers.
     "Hello," he said, "I'm Lloyd Gaynor."
     "Gaynor? Oh, yes. Termites."
     He was pleased.
     Her name was Phyllis Turner and he knew and admired her work on fire ants. Fortuitously, he was seated next to her at the dinner. Their mutual attraction was very strong, so strong that their exchanges took on a quality of escalation, advancing their intimacy in a series of minute but rapid steps, a breathless spiral like a ritual dance.
     An attraction strong enough to evoke real fear.
     A revelation occurred over the mocha bombe and espresso that excited her more than she cared to show. She realized that as part of the research he was describing in termite neurobiology he had developed a computer model that could save her six months in her statistical analysis of fire ant brain function. She expressed her interest in a low-key, oblique way. He was encouraging but noncommittal.
     Shortly after dinner, by unspoken agreement, they ascended in the hotel elevator to her floor and entered her room. They undressed without speaking, he in the bathroom, she in the bedroom.
     He entered the bedroom and paused. She stood naked across the bed from him. They examined each other's pale, slender, almost hairless bodies.
     He spoke first.
     "The female praying mantis is near sighted and dangerous. When the male is impelled to mate, he approaches her slowly and with great caution, sometimes waiting motionless for up to 20 minutes before the next short advance. When he finally summons the courage to dash forward and mount her from the rear, she typically responds by twisting her upper body around and biting off his head. This act quite literally removes his innate fear of her, since it removes the neurons and ganglia in which that fear resides. He then copulates to a successful conclusion and dies, presumably as happily as any creature can be without its head. After he dies, she eats the rest of him."
     He paused and looked at her expectantly. His long thin penis extended out and upward with mute pink urgency.
     When she finally spoke, she used the same light didactic tone as he.
     "The female empid fly also has a nasty habit of eating the male when he approaches her during mating season. To divert her from this purpose, the male typically finds a morsel of food and wraps it elaborately in a silk balloon formed by his glandular secretions. The time it takes the female to unwrap his gift is often long enough for him to copulate successfully and escape unscathed. But in one empid species, whether through cleverness, laziness, or just bad faith, the male sometimes fails to put any food inside the balloon. The female is hoodwinked into copulation with an empty promise."
     These things they said to each other were well known to both, as indeed they were to any graduate student of entomology.
     There was a pause after she spoke. They continued to stare at each other. It could have gone either way.
     Then they fell upon each other.

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