City Paper is not for tourists
In praise of the sound of fucking
Illustration by Robert Meganck
I’m just working. Trying to work, or embrace the idea of working, on a Saturday night.
It’s not that late, and my Mount Pleasant bedroom is starting to feel like a sweatbox. I keep the same old-timey tunes playing on my stereo over and over. I’m stuck drinking from a stale Coke, the same one that’s been eating away at my teeth and tongue for the past three hours. I need a Camel Light and some fresh air to smoke it in. There might even be a breeze outside.
As soon as I start to open my big glass front door, I hear the sound. It comes at me as I swing the door wide: a rising shriek. It whines and groans, like an engine way in the red. It screeches. It gasps.
This is an open-mouthed scream. I’m not looking to get involved with anything here. But I’m hearing it, and I’m not even out of my house yet. I kick open the screen door. What is this?
I sit on the stoop and face the sound full on.
Auuuuuuuh! And then: Auuuuuuuh!
And then nothing. And then I think I hear a slap.
My first thought—God forbid—is rape. Some woman is getting raped. Near me. She is being molested right across the street in the alley. Right up the street, out of the reach of the street lamp. I think I detect real pain in that scream.
I’ve heard variations on this sound before. I like to get into people’s business, or at least observe their business, from my stoop or third-floor window. I know when neighbors come home drunk, when they’ve fought with their significant others, how they treat their kids. Sometimes, you hear something you can’t ignore. Once, I heard slaps and screams and a woman’s muffled cries. I heard the slaps, maybe two, from just beyond my window. A man was yelling at his girlfriend. I came out of my house and found a red-faced boyfriend, fists clenched, hovering over his bleary-eyed girlfriend. “What’s going on?” I asked meekly. “I heard a slap.” The man’s attention turned to me. He grabbed a rock and threw it on the ground: “That’s what you heard,” he said, and walked away.
A few moments later, the woman came to my door in tears with an apology. The boy is the asshole, I muttered. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. Like an idiot.
This new sound I deduce seems much, much worse. Just because of its volume.
I cup my hands above my eyes and scan toward the sound’s direction, doing the calculations in my head: height-weight differentials, assortment of possible weapons, blood-alcohol levels, distances to the nearest telephones to dial 911. I keep trying to focus on the alley across the street, and that sound.
The woman’s shriek had to come from that alley. No other place. But just as
I’m ready to jitter over there, I hear the cries again.
Aaahhhhh! And then: Aaaahhh! And then a lot more: Aaaaahhhh!
And then: “Yes!” And then Aaaahhhh!
The noise is loud, yes. But now it’s gone rhythmic. This isn’t rape—this is really, really, really consensual sex. These are gut sounds, from-the-diaphragm sounds. Not the sound of soft-lit lovemaking but big-guy-on-big-girl-in-un-air-conditioned-space fucking. There is no pretense to what they’re doing. No foreplay, no lingerie, no Al Green tune on the stereo. Just physical volume and letting go.
It’s really loud.
I light that cigarette. And train my ears toward the sound. It keeps coming at me, and I keep tracking it. Most of my block looks as if it’s gone to sleep, but there’s a light on in the white apartment building directly across the street. I always figured that building was filled with squares, grad-school types. The light’s in the first-floor apartment in the middle of the building, the one with the bay window, the one not obscured by trees.
The window is open. Through it, I can see a light coming off a ceiling fan. I see white walls and nothing else.
Who is the woman making this noise? I figure that she’s beautiful in all the great ways: comfortable with her body, doesn’t wear makeup, likes her music loud, isn’t afraid to swear, thinks Nabokov is funny. She’s beautiful enough to turn sex into performance art.
I keep smoking and listening. It’s 1:30 a.m. I have work to do, writing to get done. My girlfriend is back at her place, with her mother and aunt staying over. She’s probably asleep by now.
Nobody else seems to be catching on. A tall, lanky dude in grease-stained jeans and an undershirt comes up the middle of the street, hauling a 25-inch television on a hand truck. He keeps his head down, looking nowhere in particular, and just rolls it on past that window and that woman. Another guy stumbles out of the alley across the street from me. He wanders off, too. Both must have been in earshot.
Three alternaboys, drunk and without dates, dressed in baggy shorts and blank T’s, pass with not so much as a curious stare. Don’t they hear those growls, yelps, cries? The Aaaahhh! There is relief, religious relief in those cries. Real thresholds crossed. They keep on walking.
A neatly dressed couple with a dog and an empty plastic Safeway bag walks by. They have to be hearing the sex noises. Yet they’re keeping an eye on their dog, waiting for it to take a shit so they can pick up after it. And there are still more couples, and lonely bike riders, and tube-toppers, and wobbly women in high heels stumbling out of cabs. They are all within range of the full stereophonic sound of local sex in progress.
No neighbors exchange knowing head nods. No one giggles. No one so much as stares in the happy apartment’s direction. The sounds carry up at least half a block. And everyone ignores it. They all pretend as if the woman and her grunts and moans don’t exist.
People seem more comfortable with noise born of confrontation—fights, relationship breakups, kids screaming, babies crying. For some reason, it’s OK to break up in the middle of Dupont Circle. It’s OK to burst into tears. There’s safety in an audience, people think. There’s something valiant in letting the world know that your boyfriend got too drunk and has turned into a raving, grabby asshole.
In D.C., we expect violence and violent noises. Why not contribute to it, add to the chorus? But sex noises—noises of pure joy—freak people out. The sound is intimate, it’s raw, and it’s jarring. It makes you feel even more alone.
“Oh my God!”
But I don’t feel alone. I stub my cigarette out. I listen and listen more. I can’t tell if there’s ever a climax. It’s just a series of yelps, grunts, and peaks. More long, guttural vowels. I feel guilty standing out here listening. But I’m also incredibly happy. The sound, that hushed oh-my-god, is wonderful. I stay on the stoop ’til it’s over, ’til I hear the patter of water in the shower. It’s over; nothing left but the cleanup. And I walk up to the 7-Eleven for more smokes and orange-flavored Gatorade.
I may be stuck working, but at least someone else is fucking. Someone else is making a terrific noise. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Robert Meganck.