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While you were renting a movie at Blockbuster last Saturday night, straight couples well into middle age were having public sex at a rented-out restaurant not far from Union Station.

More than two decades after its heyday, “swinging” is back in the Washington area. Actually, swinging never really disappeared—like most scenes driven underground by public contempt, you simply had to know where to find it.

Back in 1972, swinging had penetrated D.C.’s social life enough that it even splashed across the cover of Washingtonian magazine. At the time, a vortex of social forces—the pill, relaxed abortion laws, the women’s movement, penicillin—made sexual experimentation seem possible, safe, desirable. According to the lengthy Washingtonian article, an estimated 3,000 area couples were swinging.

Then came Pat Robertson, Nancy Reagan, HIV, and other spoilsports. By the mid-’80s, fear of disease and an increasingly conservative public attitude had combined to squeeze the fun out of both organized and random promiscuity, seemingly forever.

But one D.C. club, hardy as a post-nuclear cockroach, survived the fallout: Capitol Couples, where frisky fortysomething members dance and hump the night away, every other Saturday.

When I learned about Capitol Couples several weeks ago, I instinctively knew my duty: As a writer and as an amateur pervert, I was obliged to attend one of the club’s parties. My friend Karyn, an essayist—also, evidently, stricken with perversion—eagerly offered to come as my date. I contact a friend who is a member, ask him the club’s address and next meeting date, and ready myself for action.

Second thoughts show up just about the time the taxi arrives to take us to the club. What if they ask for ID and find out we’re using assumed names (perhaps “Ben and Jeri” is a bit too coy)? What if someone propositions us? What if Karyn’s wig—worn to conceal her identity—falls off?

The cab careens through town and halts in front of a warehouselike restaurant—which will remain nameless. Except for the two security men by the door, the D.C. street is desolate. Into the building, up a carpeted stairwell, through a cloud of music and cigarette smoke. Scantily clad lovelies await me, I dream, with robe, slippers, a lit pipe.

Past the swinging doors is a registration desk, the last refuge of order for the evening. Only male-female and female-female pairs are permitted (otherwise men would overrun the place). I pluck $55 from my pocket—$25 for a six-month membership, plus $30 for the evening. The gray-bearded club president issues a membership card under our assumed noms de swing and waves us in.

Upon entering, our eyes meet the gigantic video screen, where a female porn actress is performing oral sex on a male actor. To the left, a bar snakes an “L” along the wall. To the right, tables extend end-to-end, cafeteria-style. To the rear are a dance floor and a DJ booth on risers. The light is low, the music pure ’70s glitter-ball, the mood not unlike a junior-high dance: nervous, expectant, aroused.

I approach the bar, squeezing between two soft-bodied women in tight red dresses. “Spandex should not come in sizes that have an “X’ after it,” Karyn whispers cattily in my ear. She orders a rum and coke. I order a glass of white wine, hoping to convince the members, and myself, of my innocence and breeding. “Darling,” Karyn says, “that’s not the kind of breeding these folks are interested in.”

The crowd is mostly lumpy, middle-aged, white: drab men with har-har laughs wearing country-club sweaters, painted women with Jell-O breasts in plus-size garb à la Frederick’s of Hollywood. I try in vain not to think of my parents.

African-Americans crowd several tables near the dance floor. With the exception of a few interracial couples mingling with the majority white crowd, little mixing between the races occurs. A younger black woman dances uncomfortably with a dapper, fiftysomething white man. When the song ends, the woman darts back to the safety of her friends. Hurt, bewilderment, and then disappointment register on the man’s face.

The first big challenge of the evening for us is deciding where to sit. How about one of the African-American tables? No, says Karyn, who is black. She’s afraid she’ll recognize someone. What about those empty seats over there? “Oh god,” I think, “we’ll have to make nice with the people there.” What do I say to them: “Hi Biff, I’m Ben, and this is my friend Jeri. Chilly out there, eh? Oh, I’m sorry, I’d love to hump your wife tonight, but I can’t—groin pull, you know.”

After circling the room, we finally mark a spot, grin fleetingly at the neighboring couples, and sit. It’s 20 minutes before Karyn, realizing that her white companion is riven with performance anxiety, bolts from her seat and introduces herself to a woman whose outfit she admires. Minutes later, she waves at me to come join her and Ariel, who is exquisitely squeezed into a black dress about six inches short of her circumference.

We’re joined by Ariel’s husband, Jack. Handsome and fit in black leather pants, he scans the room with icy, smileless blue eyes, like a panther on the prowl. The couple live in the District, but they prefer to swing in Southern California or Florida, where body-consciousness and the hot sun make for better-looking couples. Still, they’ve belonged to Capitol Couples for years, including when it was anchored in a restaurant just a garter’s toss from the White House.

Jack points out an attractive young white woman in an impossibly short skirt. “She’s probably slept with every black man here,” he tells me—apparently that’s some kind of problem for him. Separately, Ariel makes a similar comment to Karyn. Later, I spot the same young woman in the dreadlocked DJ’s booth. She slowly lowers herself toward the floor until her head sinks below his waistline, out of our sight. A giant smile breaks over his face.

Ariel’s attention wanders to the video screen, where an actress is parting her rear for the camera. “Well,” she says good-naturedly, gauging the actress’s degree of pucker, “you can tell this woman’s never taken it in the behind.” A moment later, as I watch Ariel watch the video, I have anepiphany: I’ve seen her come-hither photo posted on a local adult electronic bulletin board.

The club slowly loosens up. A breast suckled here, a fanny squeezed there. Women begin dropping to their knees. Men stand around as at a cocktail party, fully clothed, chuckling and drinking distractedly as their thoroughly average members are drained. A two-ton, tattooed motorcycle mama seated at the bar enjoys the below-the-skirt caress of her man’s fingers, her eyes searching the crowd.

A young Hispanic man and woman sit down beside Karyn and me but say nothing. Jittery and beginning to tire of the scene, we ponder protocol. “Are they coming on to us, or are they just cooling their heels? Are we obligated to speak to them? Would we offend them by declining?” We decide to say nothing. The couple eventually drifts away.

Naked foolishness takes hold as members bare their body parts in a makeshift photo studio. Afterward, the photos are shuffled, and people circle the bar, trying to match the fleshy bits with their respective owners. Like many mixers, this one is hokey, but it does the job. Strangers share smiles, dirty jokes, pinches, the occasional blowjob.

Jack introduces Harlan, a smiling, friendly man and congressional lobbyist. Minutes later, Harlan and a female buddy grope on the dance floor while his wife and another woman kiss near the bar.

Up on the video screen, a porn actor relentlessly thrusts into an actress’s backside, pulling her head back by her hair. Meanwhile, the club grows wilder. An older, bearded man strolls thoughtfully around the room, leaving behind a trail of pipe smoke and a view of his naked buttocks. Conga lines begin to form on the dance floor, humping and bumping forward. A woman, ever discreet, sucks gingerly on a friend’s nipple. Near the bar, a foursome forms: Woman No. 1, seated, is ministering to man No. 1 while being tongued by woman No. 2. Man No. 2 kneels behind woman No. 2 and enters her, condomless. This last scene is copied from countless porn films and seems forced, cold. I realize that I have not yet, to my knowledge, witnessed an orgasm.

I excuse myself to get Karyn a ginger ale and Jack Daniels. Scarcely a moment passes before she is approached by a thin, grinning club member from Carroll County. Karyn immediately recognizes him as the man who only minutes earlier was being blown by a high-haired, leather-clad blonde with frightening, pendulous breasts—of course, Karyn is flattered to be the second choice of this highly selective chap. Oblivious, he pats his long, slicked-back hair and begins his pitch: Does she know any black women he might meet? “There aren’t many where I live,” he laments. When I return from the bar, he introduces himself and extends an invitation to his secluded rural home, then offers us his phone number. As he walks away, Karyn sums up her feelings: “Now that,” she says, “is white trash.” Minutes later, the man is receiving his second blowjob of the evening from the same high-haired woman.

The night grows longer and more Roman. Men pull out their penises like hankies, and breasts are freed from their harnesses. On the dance floor, an attractive young interracial couple makes an almost imperceptible transition from suggestive grinding to fully clothed intercourse. Older dancers get it on, then lean against the mirrored wall to catch their breath. The dance floor becomes so clustered with groping hands, unzipped flies, stockinged thighs, and dangling tongues, it is impossible to tell who is doing what to whom.

Around midnight, Jack and Ariel—the uncrowned royalty of the evening—head to a nearby nightclub without having joined in the fun. When they leave, a hundred swingers’ groins contract. We feel ditched, abandoned—which makes us realize that rejection feels the same, whether you’re at a singles bar or a club for swinging couples.