I have always had sex in the cities. That my sexual preferences intertwined with the sounds of traffic, the midnight sirens, the mad delirium of romantic arguments outside my window, the overly happy soundtrack of an approaching ice cream truck, I took for granted. The cities had been a constant witness of when I wanted to have sex and when I wanted to fuck. My own windows at night, glowing and golden, were gazing at my neighbors’ fantasies as much as they offered these strangers glimpses of my body twisted under cotton sheets, my muffled moans, my pleasure and humiliation. Even with the blinds closed, sex in the city is still in the spotlight.
* * *
As my husband and I prepared for our move from Brooklyn to the countryside of upstate New York, I told him I was going to miss the seven cafes a few blocks from our apartment, the ability to walk n wherever, my group of friends whom I rarely see but felt were around, close at hand, and all the other bounties, riches, amenities a city has to offer. The day before we left, we went to bed, hugged and cried. Grieving for a city seemed artificial, but moving always involves a kind of loss.
What I hadn’t anticipated was the difference in the way I experience sex without the anxiety of being heard, the feeling of being voyeur and voyee simultaneously, looking and not looking. In front of our cabin window – the trees and their shadows. The first time we made love in the country, I was distracted by the silence. Against this thick silence, my ears strained to listen to something, anything.
“It’s just us here,” my husband said with a smile. “So private.”
Anechoic chambers are parts designed to eliminate reflections and noise caused by electromagnetic waves. There is no echo, no return. Visitors have reported hearing their own heartbeats, the rushing sound of their blood flowing, their bones cracking when they turn their heads. In short, you are the only source of sound you will hear. Forty-five minutes is the record time that a person has been able to stay in this state. The body craves feedback, so much so that it hallucinates to give us something to react. Across from Whole Foods in my old Brooklyn neighborhood is a company that offers floating tanks, a sort of sensory deprivation chamber. I had walked past it hundreds of times, but never entered it despite my curiosity. After all, I had always had the country.
* * *
Sex is supposed to be an intensely private experience, but like many other things, we experience one thing in relation to another. In this sense, sex is advertising, sex is food, sex is car insurance, and mothers in Alo Yoga uniforms; sex is expensive, baby strollers and Seamless, a rat coming out of a garbage bag with a chicken bone in its mouth. Sex is subliminal. In the city, sex is ambitious, massively so. How many times should we do it daily? Sex is a competition. Sex is public.
For over seven years in the city, my husband and I were aware that we had to protect our sex life, lest it be engulfed in a haze of unrequited dreams, organized orgies, replacement therapy. We were over-stimulated, maybe over-sexed, saturated not only with our bodies, but also with our minds. We wanted sex, but was it because we really wanted it, or because the city wanted us to want it? All day long our libidos are saturated with billboard messages, song lyrics, other attractive people. As we approach each other in the bedroom, despite our best intentions, our desires are not ours. And yet, I wondered if all desires should intrinsically involve the other, external to oneself. Can desire ever be genuine?
On the roof of my building, I looked out of a window of a building opposite – a couple are engaged in foreplay. They don’t think of me, of course, a stranger to them. They are swallowed up by each other. An unconscious part of them must know that they are on stage, in plain view of anyone who may or may not be looking at them. I myself got out of the shower, changed, vacuumed, washed the dishes, with little or no clothing. Hope no one is watching, the thought pulled me over every time, but closing the blinds only for a few minutes also seemed like a waste of effort. Whore, was another thought. I oscillated between modesty and indifference.
* * *
Sex in cities can sometimes be painful. Disembodied. My friends and I laughed about it being over. We’ve all read “Cat Person”. We all agreed that despite the fear, the humiliation, the regret of having set foot in a stranger’s apartment, it was still easier to end it, easier than to face his own weakness, to say no, to feel guilty, an infinity of unknowns. As women who live in cities, we are not precious, not fragile, we are not afraid of bad sex – how many times was that good, anyway? We could have watched another episode of “Chef’s Table”. Sex is just another way to pass the time.
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We can take our own bras off because in a few minutes, 30 tops, and often much less than that, we would be back on the streets, on our way to the subway, at home in the comfort of our own bed, our familiar. teacup with a chipped edge we got at the farmers market. Shortly after that boring exchange we had engaged in with mechanical expertise, we would suddenly be empowered.
” Stay home ? Anonymous asks.
“No, thank you,” we say. This part is easy. Just like that, our underwear back on, we are back on the streets of the city.
* * *
We are city dwellers, we operate in the sex exchange market. We have sex without ever having sex. Despite our liberal approach, we feel ashamed. Many of us do our best to suppress our fantasies, which are key parts of who we are. In the many volumes of literature on various addictions, shame is the underlying common denominator. We feel ashamed, I believe, only in relation to other people or other entities, like God, but we are always ashamed of being discovered. A city may be a breeding ground for shame, overlapping one another, substituting one for the other. Cities offer corners we can hide in, and yet, as we know from our childhood games, hiding is only worthwhile when someone is looking for you. There is always a chance to be found, discovered. We have woven shame with pleasure to make it more bearable. We don’t know how to get out of this pattern. For me, sex in the cities has been hijacked, a complex maze of self-realization, discovery, punitive, wonderful, debilitating.
* * *
From this point of view, only a hundred miles from New York, a short distance in the scheme of things, I’m going through a transformation, perhaps a nicer word for utter confusion. Among the trees, I am lost for the world and for myself. I cannot be seen and I cannot see. At night, I walk my dog on the dirt road near our cabin – no lampposts to light our way, only the stars obscured by dense gray clouds. It might rain tomorrow. Unlike in the city, my dog here rarely pulls on the leash to sniff a fire hydrant or utility pole. She just walks, stopping every now and then to chew on a blade of grass. I wonder if she misses the smells of the city, the indications of the other dogs in the neighborhood, the continuous chorus of life. I also wonder if she could feel free from such a compulsion, from the urge to throw herself out of temptation towards another, never being quite full, never enough, choking on a leash.
I am learning to tune my senses to the subtleties. Upstate New York has served as the inspiration for the backdrop for my novel “Constellations of Eve,” Three Embodiments of a Love Story, except that I’m just steps away from my characters. In one version, Eve moves to the countryside with her husband. In another, they don’t and they aren’t married either. We do what we think is best to keep our relationship together, even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else. An intentional life, which we have to design, redesign, edit, rewrite, demolish, rebuild, seldom makes sense from the outside to the inside.
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“I am isolated from everything,” I tell our couple therapist. “This morning I panicked because I thought we lost our duvet cover. We did laundry in laundromats and at various people’s homes so it could be anywhere. Normally I don’t care. not things, but here – that’s what I got from my old life. ” I ramble, resisting the urge to describe in detail my white duvet cover without exception.
“You chose this,” our therapist said in a neutral tone.
I understand he hadn’t wanted it badly. I had chosen that.
“Something is going to happen,” he said, looking a bit like an oracle. I think he meant more than just the cover.
* * *
In “Cities & Desire” Italo Calvino wrote of Anastasia, a fictional city, “the city appears to you as a whole where no desire is lost and of which you are a part, and as it enjoys all that you do not love, you can do nothing other than inhabit this desire and be content … your work which gives shape to desire takes shape from desire, and you believe that you are taking full advantage of Anastasia when you do not are only his slave. ” Through the car window, I watch the green hills roll by. I don’t know I don’t know, are thoughts that cross my mind. The weekend ends, the cars are rushing towards the city, but not ours. I can no longer use pleasures to distract myself from pain.
I’m out of town, out of a vacuum of speed, of urgency, of driving. Tonight, I look in the fireplace and take care of crushing the mosquitoes.
An absence of desire. An absence of anxiety. Absence.
I’m afraid of what I don’t know. I had never been without wanting ruthlessness. I want to cry at the idea that the self-construction I worked on may have been just reactions to circumstances. What are my thoughts that are actually mine? I mourn my own city, its boundless energy, its relentless efforts, its deafening cacophony of sounds, mumblings, which I cherish, which I have integrated into my personal identity.
* * *
What does silence have to teach me? I strain my ears – but wait, was it – the wind? And – were these tweets from crickets or frogs? It’s terrifying when there’s nowhere to hide. In a bush of hundreds of species of plants, in the calm, my husband shows a single leaf which oscillates like the pendulum of a clock. How weird, we both marvel at it. Maybe an insect is climbing on it from the other side, hidden from our sight. There are mysteries in the trees, slow secrets, waiting to be discovered. We are invited to look, to leave wet traces on a bed of dead leaves, to breathe the exquisite emptiness of nature.
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