Best of 2021: Sex in trees

Even with the blinds shut, sex in the city is always on display. Then I moved upstate, with its privacy and silence

Published December 29, 2021 4:00PM (EST)

Sun Shining Through Oak Tree Branches (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/bruev)
Sun Shining Through Oak Tree Branches (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/bruev)

This essay was originally published in Salon on October 23, 2021. We're revisiting Salon's Best Life Stories of 2021 now through the end of the year. Read more Best of 2021 here.

I've always had sex in cities. That my sexual preferences were entangled with the sounds of traffic, midnight sirens, the mad ravings of lovers' disputes outside my window, the too joyful soundtrack of an ice cream truck approaching, I took for granted. Cities had been a constant witness to when I wanted to make love, and when I wanted to fuck. My own windows at night, glowing and golden, were the unblinking gaze to 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 shut, sex in the city is always on display.

* * *

As my husband and I prepared our move from Brooklyn to the countryside in upstate, New York, I told him that I was going to miss the seven coffee shops within a few blocks of our apartment, the ability to walk anywhere, my group of friends that I rarely see but felt they were around, within reach, and all the other abundance, riches, conveniences that a city offers. The day before we left, we laid in bed, held each other and cried. It seemed artificial to mourn a city, but moving always involves a kind of loss.

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What I didn't anticipate was the difference in how I experience sex without the anxiety of being overheard, the sense of being simultaneously voyeur and voyee, looking and unlooking. Outside the window of our cabin — trees and their shadows. The first time we made love in the country, I was distracted by the silence. Against this thick muteness, my ears strained to listen for something, anything.

"It's just us here," my husband said, smiling. "So private."

Anechoic chambers are rooms designed to eliminate reflection and noises caused by electromagnetic waves. There is no echo, no feedback. Visitors have reported hearing their own heartbeat, the rushing sound of their blood flowing, their bones crunching as they turn their head. In short, you are the only source of sound you'll 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 in order to give us something to react to. Across from the Whole Foods in my old neighborhood in Brooklyn is a business offering float tanks, a kind of sensory deprivation chamber. I'd walked past it hundreds of times, but never gone in despite my curiosity. After all, I'd always had the country.

* * *

Sex is assumed to be an intensely private experience, but like much else, we experience one thing in relation to another. In that sense, sex is advertisement, 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, overwhelmingly so. How many times must we do it daily? Sex is competition. Sex is public.

For over seven years in the city, my husband and I were conscious that we must protect our sex lives, lest it get swallowed up in a smog of unrequited dreams, organized orgies, replacement therapy. We were overstimulated, perhaps oversexed, saturated with it not only via our bodies, but our minds. We wanted sex, but was it because we truly did so, or because the city wanted us to want sex? All day long, our libidos are saturated with messages from billboards, the lyrics to a song, other attractive people. By the time we approach each other in the bedroom, despite our best intentions, our desires are not our own. And yet, I asked myself if all desires must inherently involve the other, external to the self. Can desire ever be authentic?

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On the roof of my apartment building, I looked into the window of a building opposite — a couple is engaging in foreplay. They are not thinking about me, of course, a stranger to them. They are engulfed by one another. An unconscious part of them must know that they're on stage, in full view to anybody who might be looking intentionally or unintentionally. I myself have stepped out of the shower, changed, vacuumed, washed the dishes, in little to no clothes. I hope nobody is looking, the thought tugged at me every time, but closing the blinds only for a few minutes also seemed like a waste of effort. Fuck it, was another thought. I oscillated between modesty and indifference.

* * *

Sex in cities can sometimes be painful. Disembodied. My friends and I laughed about just getting it over with. We've all read "Cat Person." We all agreed that despite the fear, the humiliation, the regret of having stepped foot inside a stranger's apartment, it was still easier to get it over with, easier than confronting our own weakness, than saying no, feeling guilty, an infinite of unknowns. As women who live in cities, we are not precious, not fragile, not afraid of bad sex — how often was it good, anyway? We could have watched another episode of "Chef's Table." Sex is but another way to pass the time.

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We can take off our own bras because in a few minutes, 30 tops, and often much less than that, we would be out on the street again, on our way to the subway, home to the comfort of our own bed, our familiar tea mug with a chipped rim we got at the farmers market. Soon after this dull exchange we'd engaged in with mechanic expertise, we would suddenly be empowered.

"Staying over?" asks Anonymous.

"No, thank you," we say. This part is easy. Just like that, our underwear back on, we are back out in the city streets.

* * *

We are city people, we function within the market exchange of sex. We have sex while never having sex at all. Despite our liberal approach, we feel shame. Many of us do our best to repress our fantasies, key elements of who we are. In the many volumes of literature on various addictions, shame is the underlying common denominator. We feel shame, I believe, only in relation to other people or other entities, like God, but always we're ashamed to be discovered.  A city is perhaps a breeding ground for shame, layering one on top of another, substituting one for the next. Cities offer corners in which we can hide, and yet as we know from our childhood games, hiding is only worthwhile when somebody is looking for you. There is always the chance of being found, found out. We've woven shame with pleasure to make it more bearable. We do not know how to extract ourselves from this pattern. For me, sex in cities has been circuitous, an intricate labyrinth of self-realization, discovery, punitive, wonderful, debilitating.

* * *

From this vantage point, only about a hundred miles from New York City, a short distance in the scheme of things, I am undergoing a transformation, perhaps a nicer word for utter confusion. Among the trees, I am lost to the world and to myself. I cannot be seen and I cannot see. At night, I walk my dog on the dirt road by our cabin — no street lamp to illuminate our path, only the stars obscured by dense gray clouds. Perhaps it will rain tomorrow. Unlike in the city, here my dog rarely pulls on the leash to sniff at a fire hydrant or an electric pole. She just walks, occasionally stopping to chew on a blade of grass. I wonder if she misses the scents of the city, indications of other dogs in the neighborhood, the ongoing refrain of life. I also wonder if she might feel freed from such compulsion, the urge to lunge from temptation toward another, never being quite satiated, never enough, choking herself on the leash.

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I am learning to attune my senses to subtleties. Upstate New York has served as the inspiration to the backdrop to my novel "Constellations of Eve," three incarnations of one love story, except I'm a few steps behind my characters. In one version, Eve moves to the country with her husband. In another, they do not and neither are they married. We do what we think best holds our relationship together, even if it doesn't make sense to anyone else. An intentional life, one we must design, redesign, edit, rewrite, demolish, reconstruct, rarely makes sense from the outside in.

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"I'm isolated from everything," I said to our couple-therapist. "This morning I panicked because I thought we lost our duvet cover. We've been doing laundry at laundromats and at various people's houses, so it could be anywhere. I don't normally care about things, but here — it's what I have of my old life." I rambled, resisting the impulse to describe in minutiae my unexceptional, white duvet cover.

"You chose this," our therapist said matter-of-factly.

I understand he'd not meant it unkindly. I'd chosen this.

"Something will turn up," he said, sounding a bit like an oracle. I believe he meant more than just the blanket 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 since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhabit this desire and be content....your labor which gives form to desire takes from desire its form, and you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave." Out the car window, I watch hills of greenery roll past. I do not know, I do not know, are thoughts that flash across my mind. The weekend ends, cars are rushing back to the city, but not ours. I can no longer use pleasures to distract myself from pain.

I'm outside the city, external to a vacuum of speed, urgency, drive. Tonight, I stare into the fireplace and occupy myself with swatting mosquitoes.

An absence of desire. An absence of anxiety. Absence.

I'm afraid of what I do not know. I'd never been without ruthless wanting. I feel like crying at the suspicion that the construction of the self I'd labored over had perhaps been only reactions to circumstance. Which thoughts of mine are actually my own? I'm mourning for my city self, its booming energy, its ceaseless striving, its deafening cacophony of sounds, mutterings, that I've grown fond of, that I've integrated into my personal identity.

* * *

What has silence to teach me? I strain my ears — but wait, was that — the wind? And — were those chirps from crickets or frogs? It is terrifying when there is nowhere left to hide. In a bush of hundreds of species of plants, in stillness, my husband points out a sole leaf swinging to and fro like the pendulum of a clock. How bizarre, we both marvel over it. Perhaps a bug is climbing over it on the other side, hidden from our view. There are mysteries in the trees, slow secrets, waiting to be found. We are invited to look, leave damp footprints on a bed of fallen leaves, inhale the exquisite emptiness of nature.  

Read more of Salon's Best of 2021 Life Stories.

By Abbigail Nguyen Rosewood

Abbigail Nguyen Rosewood is a Vietnamese American author. Her debut novel If I Had Two Lives is out from Europa Editions. Her second novel Constellations of Eve is forthcoming from DVAN/TTUP, a publishing series founded by Isabella Thuy Pelaud and Pulitzer winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen. Her short fiction and essays can be found at Lit Hub, Electric Lit, Catapult, BOMB, among others. She is the founder of the upcoming immersive art exhibit Neon Door.

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