The ants streamed up and down the wall in a winding line of tiny, moving bodies. They would touch antennas when they would encounter one another, and then hurry on in a frantic, harried manner suggesting that some deeply important task was at hand. I never could figure out what the ants were doing that was so important. Their goal was usually just out of my sight, and I was witness only to the frenzied progress of their spontaneous, winding lines. Occasionally I would see a cluster of ants moving about wildly, holding a disembodied insect wing over their heads. They never seemed to have any idea where they were going, just turned in confused, frenetic circles again and again.
When ants encounter each other on these two-way ant highways, they have a way of quickly touching antennas before they hurry on. It seems to be a ritual of recognition- the touch of another ant’s antennas assures them that they have met a friend, that they are on the right path, and that it is time to hurry on. The meetings are very perfunctory- they meet, touch antennas, and go. Meet, touch antennas, and go. It’s like a line of soccer players giving each other five after a game- Good game, good game, good game. It’s not personal, it’s not intimate, it’s just routine.
On this particular day, as I sat ant-gazing, I watched a strange thing happen. The line of ants had thinned out, presumably having reached their polar destinations, and only a handful remained. I watched the invisible line on the wall where only minutes before, hundreds of ants had been streaming past, busy, bustling, focused. Now the highway was nearly empty. But not entirely.
I watched two ants approach each other, moving at top ant-speed, swerving and winding to stay on the path their comrades had so recently abandoned. As they got closer and closer, I anticipated the mildly satisfying moment when their antennas touched.
The female ant was heading north. (I’m sure she was female, because she just moved that way. She had a sassy, saucy way of swinging her ant hips and an unconcerned, independent air that assured me she was all woman). She allowed a moment of antenna connection, and then hurried on, a sister on a mission. She was halfway up the wall in no time, never looking back, not sparing even a moment of her busy life for the ant she had just passed by.
He, on the other hand, was devastated. His previously all-business attitude evaporated, and he lost all composure. Moments before, if he’d been an ant in a sports jacket, he would have popped the collar and laughed in a cocky way. He would have had his hands in his pockets, and a smirk on his face. But she undid him.
I watched him stumble sideways, and then turn back towards the ceiling, looking longingly up the wall after his love. She was gone. Gone. He stumbled again, and if my imagination didn’t tend to be so overactive, I would swear that he banged his tiny head against the wall in frustration. Then he started after her, running, running, before swinging around, devastated, confused.
He ran east along the wall, totally out of line with the orderly ant highway he was meant to tread upon. He was lost, disoriented. She had done this to him. Then he turned in several wild circles, and began up the wall again. But she was nowhere to be seen. She had disappeared into a crack in the ceiling, and disappeared from his life forever. And he knew it.
He paused, turned right, turned left. Then suddenly reckless, he pulled a dizzy U-turn and began running west, hopelessly seeking something, anything that might take his pain away. It was no use. I watched him turn in several jerky, confused circles, and then finally he resigned himself to his indescribable loss, and turned blindly, far from the long-forgotten ant highway, and stumbled past my bed and out of sight through a crack beneath the window.