The upstairs neighbors are at it again. The steady rocking that could at first have been mistaken for footsteps on the floor above has grown louder and more insistent, though even still it takes a while to penetrate my thoughts as I stand folding laundry in the bedroom, my mind on other things. With a trilling bird-like call, the sounds from upstairs finally register — I fold one last shirt and quietly excuse myself from my accidental voyeurism, retreating to the kitchen where you’re sloshing and clanging around the sink washing dishes.
“I thought you were doing laundry,” you say as I settle onto the stool at the counter to watch.
“I was… but the neighbors are enjoying themselves, and I didn’t want to intrude.”
“Don’t those guys have anything else to do on a Saturday afternoon?” You tease, and we share a smile.
“They’ll probably be done soon, at the rate they’re going…” The cat comes over and languidly begs for food, though there’s still plenty of kibbles in his dish. He paces the counter in front of me, rubbing his back along my forearms. I bury my face in his soft black fur that always seems to smell vaguely of sun-baked linen and maple syrup.
“I kind of feel like, if you have to work that hard, you’re probably doing it wrong.”
You and I, we must be getting lazy in our old age. The neighbors put us to shame — tall, athletic, young urban professional twenty-something types who get everywhere by bike and have, more than once, passed us on the stairwell carrying snowboards or rock-climbing equipment. When I was little, I used to dream of growing up to be so hip.
Of course, when I was actually in my twenties (lo those many years ago — which is to say, until last June), I could never have afforded even a modest apartment like ours, let alone ski gear. The hipness of my mid-twenties, if I had any at all, was mostly a boney, slightly-malnourished kind, carved from twelve-hour days on my feet waiting tables and walking home over uneven sidewalks while dimly lit buses roared past in the dark city streets. It was the kind of hipness to which the smell of grease fire and other people’s cigarette smoke always seemed to be clinging.
Mostly, what I remember was the persistent rough and ragged feeling, all my edges tattered from barely scraping by.
Love back then was very much the same. I wasn’t exactly having any raging hot sex that kept the neighbors awake. But what intimacy there was to be snatched between caffeine-addled swing shifts was difficult and desperate, and always over too soon. There would be a boy — maybe he would have bad teeth, or skinny tattooed wrists, or an ex he still wasn’t over — and we would rub up against each other’s raw edges like two rough stones grinding each other down. Or, more often, there was only me, feeling the sting of absence like salt water in an old wound that broke open again with each new longing and began to bleed.
Why should love be so hard? The world seemed full of impervious surfaces — concrete, steel and glass — against which there was nothing to do but rip myself ruthlessly open to the possibility of contact. To make the foolhardy choice to stay soft and tattered; to refuse to be ground smooth into something polished, invulnerable, inhuman. To choose, each time, to throw myself once more into the harsh, cold waters where the restless waves broke against the rocks.
Which might be why, these days, I am still so often surprised by the utter heart-wrenching gentleness of our quiet, boring sex.
It is a blessing I am still getting used to: to be at home in my own body, at home with the body of another. To know the freedom of being soft without always feeling threadbare. To experience intimacy as an invitation rather than a suicide.
After a while of watching you wash dishes, I make my way back to the bedroom to resume folding the laundry. All is quiet now. The cat trots after me, his tail held high in that curious question-mark curl, and while I sort socks and shirts and place them in neat piles on the bed, he stalks imaginary rumples in the bedspread, overturning each new pile in turn. I laugh and pretend to myself that he thinks he’s helping.
Outside, the autumn afternoon wanes towards evening. Tonight there will be time enough to watch the sky fade gently from wind-blown gray to blushing shades of lavender, and then to an even deeper blue. Without speaking, or perhaps speaking only a little, we will undress one another as the wind undresses the maple trees, leaf by leaf. You will run your fingers over my skin in tender spirals while desire begins to rise in me like mist from a still lake, or steam from a cup of chamomile tea. For a while it will be enough to watch it rise.
We are studying the long lessons of grace that only patience can teach. We open to each other breath by breath, cell by cell, releasing our desire to be carried on the winds. At long last, we will slip free completely as the landscape shifts beneath us, and all that will be left of you and me will be a single, quiet gasp.
Afterwards, nestled in a tangle of sheets that smell like clean laundry, we will giggle to each other about the strangeness of sex. With not much to say, our talk will soon drift to other things — politics, work, art, television. The cat will wander in from the living room where he has been perched on the windowsill, and he will complain to us about this messy state of affairs as he kneads a soft place to curl up at our feet. We will fall asleep in each other’s arms to the soft sound of his grumpy purring.