The Saturday Rumpus Essay: Ideal Lover


I didn’t understand my gender or sexuality until I got to see pufferfish mate. That one makes art for the other—talk about desire, talk about potential—meticulously creating a mandala installation and moving grains of sand with his mouth, making sure he finishes it before her arrival. She sees it, swims over, examines it, and if the art is tight, it’s on. The part that gets me hot is that they fuck in it. That each time they sail through the center of the sculpture he bites her cheek. That she’s left with a little bruise on her cheek.

He cares for the eggs afterwards, and that’s fine. I’m not really interested in his afterwards, but in hers. What is it to float through the sea after that?

I don’t mind being left with a bruise if it reminds me that someone imagined something for me, that art can be part of the experience.

When a potential lover and I sat down to meet, I told them that we would have to be careful because of the sores on my body, and they nodded compassionately and said they imagined we would have to use a very soft rope, and that they could avoid my joints. When I told them that it might be best not to use implements for impact just yet, I saw them flinch—I’d hit one of their greatest desires. They asked if they could wear a glove. I hadn’t experienced that yet and didn’t know the appeal, but if it gave them pleasure I imagined that would be fine. This was the most positive imagining I did in the conversation. Mostly I felt only the boundaries: the table, the noise in the coffee shop, the potential lover’s desire for a neutral space, my newness in discussing kink beforehand, my shame, the Seattle man typing on his computer, facing us. I was convinced I was doing this wrong: I don’t feel comfortable talking about this in a coffee shop and I should; I am wishing that we could be sitting close and flirting and I shouldn’t.

I wanted to tell them that sometimes I don’t know how something is going to feel until I’m in the moment, but I don’t think I’m supposed to feel that way.

Boundaries create possibility, but the moment the potential lover asserted their boundaries I lost sight of mine. I became convinced that if I expressed my true desire all the potential would disappear. In a way, it did when I mentioned that I disassociate, and how to get me back: “Look me in the eye, keep going, tell me you’re having a good time.” They are concerned and remind me of the vulnerability of being a top—an issue that bottoms often take for granted. I don’t. They ask me what might happen, and I make the mistake of saying that my body might go limp and, when they frown, I try to clarify, speaking quickly, clumsily, that I will verbalize what’s happening before that. That it won’t be because of something they are doing to me—shame and the depth of my need trigger it.

“It’s happening right now,” I tell them and try to comfort them by laughing but they offer no response. I touch the table to feel it and myself. I’ve never had to talk about this in a coffee shop, only ever in bed, bodies pressed together.

I don’t like feeling new and I especially don’t like for someone to know that I’m new at something. When I was a baby I got my own diaper and figured out how to change myself, my mom too absorbed in her own pain.

“It’s really hard for me to talk about this here,” I whisper. And they reiterate, calmly and insistently, that they need these conversations to take place in a neutral space. I don’t have the clarity to express that this space isn’t neutral for me. “I just need you to look me in the eye, keep going, tell me you’re having a good time.” I kind of want them to do that now. They don’t offer that. It is 8:15, the time they said the conversation would end.

I wouldn’t need to worry about any of this if I were a pufferfish; the art and the fact of it would keep me there.

I can’t bear the bus home after this so I get a cab and the driver sees that I’m about to cry and turns the radio up. We check on each other through the rearview mirror. I won’t cry until I step out of his car and only one quick sob because I find a new question: When do I get to feel desire as happening and not as possibility? I want to feel the thing, not just dream it.

This is tricky when possibility is continually snuffed out, when imagination takes a back seat to illusion.

I think that my inability to imagine in a Trump presidency is the response that scared me the most, that I can’t stare into and beyond the row of lights in front of me.

If I refuse to fall into longing for quick, illusory fixes—Clinton, the Electoral College, Obama and his velvet glove—but am unable to imagine, to feel potential, to experience desire, what is that feeling? My disappointment when a conversation that could turn into resistance devolves into how to kill that frumpy orange man, as if the pain could end with your abuser, as if systems of oppression could undo by erasing just one of the many beings white supremacy sculpted.

In a conversation with white queers about aspects of white culture, we get confused. Surprise! Is that white supremacy or is that patriarchy? We discern where class comes into play. I feel excited by these intersections, full of desire as these boundaries blur and then distinguish themselves.

Whiteness believes itself to be homogenous, to shield the textures of other oppressions. In The Revolution Starts at Home, Andrea Smith writes:

Heteropatriarchy is the logic by which all other forms of social hierarchy become naturalized… The same logic underlying the belief that men should dominate women on the basis of biology underlies the belief that the elites of a society naturally dominate everyone else[…]we must develop strategies that address state violence and interpersonal violence simultaneously.

I look around my group and see our differences in class, in gender expression, in health and ability and the complexity of those experiences. I share my desire to include this form of intersection in our discussions—I am feeling hot for how this can clarify our work towards justice, and help us recognize one another’s humanity. This idea is temporarily shut down. The group doesn’t want to lose focus.

There is wisdom in that, but I feel discouraged. I don’t believe there is only one way to figure something out, one method to it—white supremacist culture does. I start imagining the meeting where our group breaks apart because we are all aggressing each other but don’t have the language to state what hurts, to name the oppression at play, no method to hold one another accountable and still hold one another close. Instead of clarifying this, I experience a moment of lost potential and tell myself not to speak for a while.

How do I keep my desire going without other people?

TFW your boundaries no longer intersect with anyone else’s boundaries.

When you establish boundaries and then have a conversation about altering a relationship but her boundaries are more important than your boundaries oh wait

When boundaries make room for deeper questions and you catch yourself deconstructing the necessity of boundaries oh wait

If I make my boundaries look this way maybe their boundary will meet me in my boundary oh wait

When childhood abuse response strategies sneak into resistance analysis, I start again.

How does a bottom become their own top? How do I create for myself the conditions to let go and imagine? I want the opportunity to come without having to work so hard for it.

If I present a boundary I’m prepared for the other fish to swim away. It might be too much to ask for the fish to meet me with their boundary, for us to create a new one together.

I want the fish that can take the risk of creation. I am imagining myself as a pufferfish that isn’t frantically searching for methods to stay present. I am loving on this creature because in the nature video I don’t see pufferfish experience a narrative of longing like other animals—the cuckoo and its trick on the prinia—killing that bird’s true offspring so she must raise the cuckoo as her own. It gobbles up everything, its need so big and the mother’s ability to satisfy it impossible. The pufferfish are presented under the circumstance of mutual desire.

Yes this pleases.

Yes this cheek.

Yes this is over.

I would be a fish who wouldn’t worry about finding the next lover. A momentary experience—oh what’s this!—and necessity—so fucking hot!—and now let’s continue our work, the other things we will create.

I don’t mean to creep into binary—I’m not interested in reverse gender roles or even for gender to exist—but I like that the male fish has to prepare the ideal space, whose art is held to rigorous standards to excite because it satisfies some basic notions of undoing the patriarchy. Whose curving sculpture outlines our consent and what his tiny puffer teeth feel like, that he is aware of my body, that he is aware of what I went through to find my way here.

It’s too easy to simplify this story. I’m not interested in being a muse, or part of a sculpture unless the “we” is part of the sculpture, the act of our bodies and the friction and the teeth and the bruise and the trembling are part of the sculpture.

I just want a creature who is making art to fuck in, and I want to be a creature who can see this art and know whether it is right for me without compromising my fish politics, that my lover keeps me in my fish body by holding me with their mouth—the mouth that moved the sand—making sure I feel the sharpness of bone, knowing that they are feeling the pulse of my skin maybe tasting my blood. And that we are real to one another. Our imaginations intact.


Photographs provided courtesy of author.

Corinne Manning manages the distinction between desire and longing by wearing wigs while chopping wood on a farm in the PNW. An essayist and fiction writer, Corinne's work has appeared in Story Quarterly, Calyx, Vol 1 Brooklyn, Moss, The Bellingham Review, Southern Humanities Review, Literary Hub, The Oxford American, and Arts & Letters. Corinne was the Founding Editor of The James Franco Review. More from this author →