The male black widow has to endure many injustices. A fellow can't be called a widow, for example, even before his has met his mate. This must tug even at the primitive sensibilities of an arachnid's pride. Worse, he is teeny, especially when compared to his female counterpart. The sexual dimorphism of nature is particularly pronounced in this species, so that while the women-folk widows are dreaded for their shiny red hour-glass warnings of significant neurotoxicity, we humans will scarcely even notice the male unless we are accustomed to looking twice at what first appears to be dust in the dark corners of our basements.
Not that it would matter. His bite, unlike hers, is as harmless as the nibblings of a lady bug. Worst of all however, he must endure a good deal of mythology and lore with regard to his sexual habits. Sexual cannibalism, the process by which females devour the male after mating, is widely and erroneously thought to occur among this species. The male still must approach carefully, but when he manages to mate he almost always escapes to see another day.
You see, it is all about reading cues.
There are varied reports in ethological literature, but in general the male black widow, whose abdomen is less than ½ the size of the female's, but whose legs are long and gangly like those of an awkward adolescent, must approach his beloved with a paradoxical mixture of caution and anticipation. Slowly, twittering at the thought that he might finally complete his designs of transferring his genes, he approaches the sloppily made web of his woman with what looks a bit like a dance. The trick is for him to get close enough to carefully extend one of his 8 legs and to tickle the underbelly of the female as if affectionately calling attention to the metaphor of passing time that her red hour-glass design suggests. If her mood is right, her belly full, her sensing of the sound genetic stock of her suitor sufficient, she will let him approach without eating him, and he will most likely live to see the sunrise with the knowledge that his progeny will be furthered . A wrong move, though, and he is converted to a tidy and probably unsatisfying lunch. There is little wiggle room in the tense sexual life of the black widow spider.
And yet, some might argue, we have more in common with the lowly black widow than we'd at first like to admit. Human sexual rituals are many and complex, but at the end of the day our burgeoning relationships can often seem dangerously tenuous. We have really big brains, but this can at times only muddle our perceptions, and in fact one might argue that the only plausible reason we celebrate romantic love on a day named after a presumed chaste and abstinent priest is that we are ourselves ambivalent and conflicted about how to read the tea leaves of sexual permission. Remember, though, that the urge to be close is powerful and complex, and understanding sexual and pre-sexual human behavior requires equal parts cortex and something more sub-tentorially located. An incorrect interpretation can lead us to believe that we are marching along a very different narrative than reality suggests. This is not always our fault, but the consequence of misinterpretation can be painful, or funny, or painfully funny. Such is the nature of the human condition. Consider the following story:
When I was in my first year of residency training, I escaped on a camping trip to the San Juan Islands near Seattle after suffering a particularly nasty break-up with my girl friend. (She dumped me for a surgeon...) I brought my guitar and rented a cabin which was called, ironically and presciently, "Lower Karma." The island had natural hot springs which were proclaimed "clothing optional," and when I wandered down there the first evening under the growing Northwest mist, the steamy pool was filled with young, frolicking naked people.
I shrugged, removed my bathing trunks, and stepped into the rocky enclosure. Almost immediately a woman approached me and began giving me a back-rub. I smiled at my luck, even congratulated myself on the rapidity of my rebound. However, just as I was getting relaxed, I realized from the conversation among the people in the water that they all knew each other in some way. I perked up and gleaned that they were there for a wedding. Some were friends of the bride, some of the groom, and they had rented a few of the cabins on the island. What to do?
I waited, aware that I really had no choice now but to let the sad story play out its own tragic, unique course.
"So, how do you know Sally?" asked the young woman who had worked her way to my mid-back, kneading my stiffening muscles with increasingly uncomfortable intimacy.
"I don't know Sally." I responded.
"Oh, so you know Jim!" she exclaimed.
"Nope, don't know Jim either," I guiltily admitted.
She pulled her hands away quickly, as if I had leprosy or some kind of oozing lesion.
"I, uh, guess I'll go back to my cabin now," I mumbled, the whole crowd staring at me with that look that we reserve for deviants and miscreants.
"That would be good," said one of the men, taking on his role of alpha male with particular gusto.
I hunched over and used my hands as fig leaves, reaching for my towel and covering myself with it, my still dry swimming suit left behind on a nearby boulder. Back at my cabin, I lit a candle and strummed a bit on my guitar. "How does it feeel," I crooned, imagining Dylan's wrinkled and sympathetic face. "To be on your own...."