MELISSA FEBOS

Song of Songs

AN INTREPID CORRESPONDENT EXPLORES THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MUSIC AND THE FEMALE ORGASM

DISCUSSED: Chills, Thrills, Skin Orgasms, Strong Experiences with Music, Darwin’s The Descent of Man, An Artist Residency in the Midwest, Privacy, Rachmaninoff and Adele, The Time Signature of the Mission Impossible Theme Song, Theories on the Origin of Rhythm, Motherese, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Mating Calls, Group Bonding

My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hiding places on the mountainside, show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.

—Song of Solomon 2:14

I call them “the fevers,” the waves that surge up my back and arms, break into electric foam at the jetty of my neck when her fingers move at a certain depth inside of me. A momentary influenza of pleasure.
     The word frisson, from the French meaning “a shiver or thrill,” was used in a 2014 Frontiers in Psychology paper to describe “transcendent, psychophysiological moment[s] of musical experience.” Other studies have employed the terms “chills,” “thrills” and “skin orgasms” to describe such responses to music, which include both physical and emotional sensations.
     In all the studies that I encountered, the element of surprise, or the upset of expectations, seemed integral to a pointed physiological pleasure in music. Notes that stray from the brain’s anticipation, but without disrupting the musicality to become simple noise, reliably produce emotional surges, goose bumps, and electric sensations on the skin—frisson. Common culprits? Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” and Adele’s “Someone Like You.”

I am not a scientist. Nor am I a musician. I am a writer at an artist residency in the Midwest. I simply want to know if the sounds I make during an orgasm mimic those that elicit frisson, with which I have a rich and varied experience. I am also newly in love, my body sparking with desire. For the first time in some time, I feel that thrum in my limbs, the twist in my center when I think of her. It is a kind of ceaseless frisson, and it feels different. Doesn’t it always? a dubious voice in me retorts. Maybe it’s some hunger to know that finds me so eagerly agreeing when an editor suggests I investigate the musical qualities of the female orgasm. Though as a lifelong music obsessive, I have often observed the similarity between my own frisson, chills, and thrills in response to favorite songs and those elicited by lovers. In many ways, my connection to music has been much more sustaining, my passion for it marked by a more complete abandon than that with any lover. In the heat of a new love affair, I decide to chase out the parallels, and I feel the blend of drive and risk that always sends me hurtling into a piece of work: somehow the idea that I can understand sexual music excites me. I can linger in this love as long as I have lingered in the mist of song.
     But what happens if I can learn to measure love’s effect, and this love, which feels so real, doesn’t register?
     Unfortunately, my studio/dorm is adjacent to a shared kitchen, and though I am a person who will record herself masturbating, the idea of a fellow resident overhearing me while reheating their mug of tea makes me blanch. I may be a pervert but I am not an exhibitionist. I run through my options (the soundproof conference room—no, too many windows; the rental car—possible, though it’s raining and I didn’t pack rain boots) and figure if I sit on the studio-adjacent bathroom floor with the door closed, drape the largest blanket over me completely, and turn on the fan, I will be reasonably soundproofed.
     I press record on the Music Memos app I’ve recently downloaded to my phone and hold the microphone in front of my mouth (with my left hand). It is a slower-than-usual start, due to the cold tile floor and my performance anxiety, but I try my best to vocalize naturally, if more freely than I otherwise would out of concern for my New York City neighbors. The cold air when I finally throw off the heavy blanket is a thrill all its own.
     Music Memos translates sounds into approximate pitches and determines a recording’s meter and tempo. It is a stretch to apply the tool to human vocalizations that are not intentional singing and occur less as “notes” than as sliding pitches, but this is a creative exercise, not a scientific one. My first recording reveals an emphasis on F4 for the first seven measures, and if I subject it to A440 (the general tuning standard for musical pitch), my pitch appears somewhat flat overall. No surprise, the pace picks up as I near orgasm, with increasing emphasis on F4, D-flat 4, and G4. I climax at F4.  As for rhythm, the entire forty-six-second “song” plays in a 5/4 meter, with a tempo of 90 bpm. The 5/4 tempo is unusual, its most familiar adoption found in the Mission Impossible theme song. The 90 bpm catalog, however, is vast, and includes such hits as 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” Billy Joel’s “River of Dreams,” and Buju Banton’s “Champion” (my favorite of the three). As I listen to the songs, I can’t help feeling that some combination of Buju’s dancehall classic and the Mission Impossible theme does seem apt. Whether that’s accurate or wishful, the idea pleases me.
     Listening to myself masturbate, I should say, is excruciating. Fortunately, the app will play the recording and show me the pitches “played” even while the volume on my phone is so low that the sound emitted might be a cat trapped under a distant neighbor’s porch. 

It’s odd,” says a friend on the phone later, “that you can write so explicitly about sex, your sex, but can’t listen to it.”
     “I mean, it’s not sex.”
      “Do you think you could listen to a recording of yourself having sex, then?”
      “Oh no, definitely not.”

The volume at which I must play Rachmaninoff to hear it under my fort is easily detectable by my musical app, so I forgo the recording and try to assess empirically if my orgasms are influenced by the music or accompanied by any “skin orgasms.”
      While I don’t have “better” orgasms, or any definitive epidermal corollaries, I do feel that my Rachmaninoff climax is a dramatic one. The Adele song reminds me of a harrowed time concurrent with the song’s release, so I disqualify as relevant evidence my difficulty climaxing to it.
      I record a quick series of six more orgasms. In all of them I maintain one or two pitches per measure until near orgasm, or, by the famous Masters and Johnson model of arousal stages (Excitment, Plateau, Orgasm, Resolution), the later Plateau stage, when I vary more. The pitches of these six, however, differ greatly from my first round, though are all very similar to one another. I have a strong, and I mean strong, tendency for the pitch G4. That is, in one sequence the app estimates me at G twenty-seven times out of forty notes total. In another, twelve out of seventeen. My meter remains steadily at the rare 5/4 Mission Impossible time signature, though my tempo increases with each orgasm. In consecutive orgasms, I transition from “In Da Club” to the pace (95 bpm) of David Banner’s “Play” (a guilty, filthy favorite of mine) to that of Alice in Chains’ “Over Now” (111 bpm).
      I do not reach the end of my orgasmic capacity at this point, only the end of my interest in masturbating under a heavy blanket on the bathroom floor, though it seems important to say that I have often masturbated the same way I listen to favorite songs: repetitively, until I meet a dead end of sorts, unable to continue.
Scientists have monitored subjects experiencing frisson while lying in an fMRI scanner and found that “the anticipation, violation, and resolution of our expectations triggers the release of dopamine in two key regions—the caudate and the nucleus accumbens, shortly before and just after the frisson.” That is, frisson-inducing music stimulates the same neural reward pathways as other addictive behaviors, including, of course, orgasms. And when a pharmacologist blocked the brain’s opiate signaling, he found that the study subjects experienced significantly fewer musically provoked skin orgasms.
     As an adolescent in the ’90s, I used to record a single song over and over for one entire side of a blank cassette tape, and repeat the process with another song on the other side. When I exhausted a song, I felt the way I did after I finished a box of Good & Plenty, or, later, after I finished a cigarette, the way I sometimes do after a series of self-stimulated orgasms: satisfied and a little sad. 
     In 2003, two Israeli doctors, at the request of their subject, conducted a non-clinical case-report study, “A Woman with a High Capacity for Multi-Orgasms.” “Anonymous,” the multiorgasmic woman studied, was capable of more than two hundred sequential orgasms at a time. Of her postorgasmic feeling, she reported that “the orgasmic capability always makes me feel ‘superior’ and special and gives me a kind of ‘well, I always have that to rely on’ feeling. It is comforting to know that I have this to give to myself.” I relate, and concur.
     My lover and I are also multi-orgasmic women. Though neither of us fully realized this potential with partners before meeting each other. We both feared being seen as “oversexual,” which is no surprise considering that in the nineteenth century, as treatments for the supposed affliction, “leeches were applied to the vulva and anus, the clitoris was cauterized, and the first known therapeutic function of X-rays was to irradiate and destroy the clitoris in these women.” I did not know this until I encountered accounts in my research, though obviously I have lived with the legacy of such beliefs all my life.
     And so finding each other has also been a discovery of what my lover calls “the infinite feedback loop of pleasure,” wherein her orgasm, and the according sounds, spurs mine and then mine hers and so forth, until we are simply tired or decide to stop. And the vocalizations are an integral part of this momentum. We each attest to the other’s volume, but have little self-consciousness about our own. Maybe this is what a great jam session feels like.
     I can confirm that her sounds have a definitive frisson-like effect on me, not unlike “the fevers,” or the feeling I get from the final movements of the Rachmaninoff, to which I have been listening on repeat while writing this.
     Though different in quality, I feel an equal pleasure when I hear the interest in her voice as I tell her about my bathroom experiments. Thus far, she has reacted to my work, and this assignment, with a curiosity that rivals my own. When she laughs at my fort, I join her, though my laughter is tinged with relief.

Much has been made of the male mating calls of many species. In Descent of Man, Darwin expounded his theory of sexual selection by describing the mating songs of birds and the way the most sexually appealing traits spread among populations. Then he applied this model to a theory of the origin of human music: “It appears probably that the progenitors of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm.” A romantic idea, if also a scientific one—that all music is born of seduction and sexual appeal.
     It has been suggested by other scientists that all humans are born with perfect pitch and that as the only primates who do not (any longer) communicate through song, all our melodic communication has been relegated to the realm of “music.” As a music lover, this theory is attractive to me, though as a human lover, I am hesitant to believe it. Very early in our relationship, my lover and I spent five weeks apart and nurtured our new bond exclusively over the telephone, on nightly calls. That is, our courtship happened aurally. I fell for her while listening to her murmuring voice, which became familiar—in its tones and rhythms, the faint drawl from her years in the South, her high and low laughs—long before I came to memorize the contours of her body. How can I not describe that communication as melodic? To say that our mutual seduction depended solely on the meaning of our murmured words, to divorce it from the music of our sounds, seems akin to separating the sound of a poem from the meaning of its words. Impossible.

Birdsong has long been studied for its communicative properties and been found to signify sexual attraction, social bonding, territorial signaling, and sometimes multiple uses simultaneously. For instance, the coordinated behavior of plain-tailed wrens may combine sexual advertising and group territorial dynamics. Less familiar are the rhythms of the Southeast Asian firefly, who signal in perfect phase with one another for hours on end; or the songs of some cicadas; or the synchronous claw waving of male fiddler crabs.
      Humans depend on rhythm, too. A University of Vienna study asked paired participants to articulate nonsense phrases and “match” their voices, without any further instruction. Eighteen of twenty pairs synchronized with relative ease, and in repetitions quickly found a shared rhythm. Reading this, I can’t help but think of those late-night phone calls, the easy seesaw of our conversation, our shared laughter. Also, the ways our bodies move together like practiced dancers, improvising to the same song. We, too, find shared rhythms easily.

Does recording our sex occur to me? Of course it does. My urge is to clamp a hand over the mouth of that thought, much as, for many years, I used to clamp my hand over my own mouth at orgasm to stifle the sound. If I can hardly bear my own autoerotic sounds, how will it feel to hear those made in the company of my lover? Consider the mild discomfort of hearing a recording of your voice on, say, a voicemail. Multiply that discomfort infinitely. My lover has told me that I am noisy at orgasm (which she relishes), and though I suspect she is right, I have never heard myself. I am happy for this deafness. Some things I don’t want to notice, to reflect on, to consider.
      Because the lack of inhibition is dear to me. So much of my early sexual interactions were governed by performance, and, partly as a result, devoid of pleasure. As are those, I suspect, of many adolescent girls. Such is the conditioning of heterosexual hegemony. A fundamental reason why my sex with women is so much better than with men is the freedom it grants from performative scripts. With her, more so than with any lover before, I follow my pleasure without fear of shame. My attachment to that freedom is greater than my curiosity about the music of our sex. The intimacy of our sex feels profound; it is unprecedented, and precious. I fear testing its resilience, the degree to which it might be disrupted by the more scrutinizing aspects of my mind.
      And what would she think of the suggestion?

Predicting the responses of our partners, like falling into music, seems a deeply held biological priority—aurally, in the brain, and, I would venture to say, emotionally. Indeed, the conclusion drawn from the Austrian study was that “increased regularity of intervals between words arose specifically to facilitate synchronization, presumably by allowing participants to accurately predict the timing of their partner’s speech and coordinate their behavior accordingly.” In other words, we find shared rhythms to facilitate syncopation.
      And so, a theory of the origin of musical rhythm: it evolved as a method of achieving vocal synchronicity. But why synchronicity (if not urged by the conditions of a study)? One theory says signaling in chorus gives sexual advantage, at least in the case of meadow crickets. When prompted to “choose” between a recording of a single male cricket and a duet of two male crickets, females reliably chose the latter.
      Another idea: the ability to find shared rhythms is attractive because it suggests other, analogous strengths. One theory posits that men’s ability to synchronize together would draw more migrating females to a settlement, simply because they were louder together. I can’t help but wonder if there is an explanation here for the timeless draw of musicians, however deadbeat in other respects: if a man can keep rhythm, if he can sing with other men, perhaps some ancient instinct recognizes a talent for survival, sees the rapt audience as some modern equivalent of a promising early human settlement. Even more convincing, the Austrian study found: “High-quality synchrony may have also indicated something about the capacity of a particular group for cooperation, which may have had additional benefits in resource acquisition and territorial defense.”
      This final theory—that syncopation (and therefore rhythm) evolved as a means of facilitating cooperation—makes the most sense to me. Synchronized singing has been proven to result in increased trust and cooperation among the singers, and many forms of synchronization, from walking to bimanual object manipulation, have been show to increase interpersonal affiliation and one’s inclination to help others. That is, syncopation bonds us.
      I am as avid a dancer as I am a lover; I don’t need a paper in Biology Letters to demonstrate the pleasure of social dance. But finding and syncopating the rhythms of our dance partners’ bodies does prompt the release of endorphins, and MRI scans show that watching others dance activates the same neurons in the observer’s brain as dancing oneself does. That is, dance promotes empathy and helps us to connect—a result of the shared rhythms that govern our movements and lead us to predict our partners’ next moves.
      If you have ever made love to music then you, too, know how bodies syncopate to a rhythm. My lover and I have fucked to Trey Songz, Rihanna, Roberta Flack, and The-Dream, our movements interrupted only by her remarks on the lyrics (“What does he mean, ‘knee-deep?’ Knee-deep in what? And why only to the knees?”).
      Before I met her, I spent six months intentionally celibate. It was the longest period of my adult life that I’ve spent single. I was hoping to gather some new information about the ways that I syncopate with other people. By learning something about my own rhythms, I wanted to learn how to recognize, and to trust, those I found with another person. If our instincts for recognizing partners who might be skilled at cooperation are as primal as this research suggests, then shouldn’t I be able to access some refined perceptive ability? Maybe my motivation for that period of solitude and for writing this essay are the same: to learn to listen more closely.

I have told the kind administrators of the residency that I will be collaborating for a few days with a fellow writer. I don’t tell them that the fellow writer is also my girlfriend. And I haven’t yet decided the degree of the collaboration. The idea of suggesting that we record our sex still terrifies me. I fear her reaction to the suggestion, yes. Also, the self-consciousness that such scrutiny might encourage, and what intimacy might therein be lost. Deeper still simmers a fear of what I might find, or not find, as if the experiment were a test we could fail, a test that could bear proof that our love is not different, not more than an ordinary chorus of hormones that will fade as quickly as it came.

Historically, much less has been made of the female primate’s copulation call than the male’s. Unlike most males’s, it happens during coitus, as well as just before or after. When I subjected a recording of a female rhesus macaque’s copulation calls to my musical app—again, a flimsy approximation, as the rhesus macaque’s copulation calls occur primarily in sliding pitches—she also appeared to repeatedly reach A4 and D5. She climaxed at C5, however—the only place where that note appeared in her short sequence. While her screams did not sound musical to me, the surprise note at the end may well have spurred her partner on in the manner of Rachmaninoff and Adele.  
      Human females, multiple studies have shown, emit more vocal sounds during sex, but largely for the benefit of their male lovers, who overall find sexual vocalizations more exciting than females do. One study showed that 68 percent of women faked orgasm to hurry men’s ejaculation. Expediting male orgasm is, in fact, a much more popular motivation for sexual vocalization during coitus than physical pleasure, across all studies of heterosexual women that I read.
      But a 1994 study by S. Kratochvíl found women’s sexual vocalizations during self-stimulation were not random or performative but appeared “related to the actual contractions of the superficial perivaginal striated muscles that can usually be observed on the skin surface around the vagina. These in turn probably correlate with each wave of erotic pleasure.”
      As my lover and I are both women, I suppose our sexual vocalizations are more tied to pleasure than to performance. Neither do our orgasms signify the end of sex—so vocalization would be a poor method of hurrying things along.

“So, I’m thinking that we might actually do some collaborating for this essay I’m working on,” I say into the phone a few days before she arrives in the Midwest.
      “Yeah?”
      “Yeah.”
      “What exactly does that mean?” she asks.
      “I thought maybe I could try to record us.”
     “I thought that’s what you meant.”
     “Would that be okay with you?” My heart is beating at well above a resting heart-rate bpm. (Maybe around 90, that of Big Pun and Ashanti’s duet “How We Roll”?)
     “Yeah,” she says. “That’d be okay with me.” I can hear her smile from six hundred miles away.

The first night, at her nearby hotel, I leave my phone in my purse on the floor. We have not seen one another in two weeks and there is a scrim of shyness between us. While not unpleasant (because I know that it will pass and that we will even savor it as an aspect of the excruciating but pleasurable symptoms of early love), I suspect that the red pulsing screen of the Music Memo app will exacerbate it, and also that it will skew our more “regular” vocalizations. Later, between orgasms, I observe the abandon our vocalizing has quickly reached and regret the decision not to record.
      The next afternoon, on the tautly made hotel bed, a blade of afternoon light slicing through the cracked curtains, I observe my body’s obvious response to her sounds. “Frisson,” yes, “chills,” yes, “thrills,” yes, and considerable lubrication. The only part of me that touches her is my mouth, though the interaction touches every part of me. It is, of course, impossible to separate the effect of any one sensory stimulus. How can I say that it is her vocalizations and not the pulse of her orgasm against my tongue that sends a net of electricity sprawling across my back? I cannot. How can I measure the subtle but definite increase in intimacy from her simple “yes” to this experiment? I cannot, though I feel it when our eyes lock as she comes again.
      What I can say is that she tends to circle around middle C. That her climaxes are often a flurry of pitches and that, as her volume rises, her pitch goes sharp. That she had a minimum of eleven orgasms in thirteen minutes. And that listening to an audio recording of her climaxing produces none of the discomfort that listening to myself masturbate did.
      I listen to all twenty-five minutes and eight seconds of our Music Memo with earbuds in while my lover reads a book of poetry in a nearby chair in my studio. Just before I began listening, she read me a poem about penises that made us both laugh. The poet lists a series of penises she has known, alternately with tenderness, dismissal, chagrin, and nonchalance. “One was a mouse,” she explains in one line, and I yelped with pleasure at the unexpectedness.
      Science confirms that the brain centers stimulated by melodies are also associated with language, and scans show similar phenomena at the reception of unexpected language and of musical notes. Yes, the frisson I feel at the now familiar progressions of Rachmaninoff are easily comparable to the thrill that moves through my body when I read her poems, or the sentences of any favorite writer. And to those I feel in response to the sounds she emits when I move inside her.
      As I listen to her crescendo of moans on the earbuds and watch her scowl with concentration as she reads in the chair, I imagine the smudgy pathways of my brain, the step of its gray expectation, the jog in direction at an unexpected image or sound, and the synapse that fires, sends its invisible lightning bolt through my body, sparking as it scrapes the curb of my hip and flashes down my thigh. 
      I am glad for the natural relay of pleasure that our lovemaking often takes, which spares me the task of parsing our simultaneous sounds, or my own contrasting reactions to them. As the recording transitions into my “turn,” there is a shifting sound as we rearrange our bodies, accompanied by soft laughter. It turns out that I favor G4 as much in my murmuring—One more? I ask her after a series of orgasms, to which she laughs and proceeds—as I do in my self-pleasuring.
      Unsurprisingly, I listen to about twenty bars of G4 before I have to turn down the volume, but by the time my recorded self nears orgasm, she is even louder than before I turned the volume down. I am shocked by how loud she is. My lover looks up from her reading when I cover my face. When my first recorded orgasm finally ends, I uncover my face and sigh with relief. My sigh is mimicked immediately by a sigh from my recorded self, in exactly the same note. I am, it seems, very reliable. And very, very loud.
      “I’m so loud!” I exclaim at around orgasm four or five, pulling one earbud out.
      My lover nods. This is news to only one of us.
      “I guess it’s not out of character,” I say.
      She shakes her head and smiles.
      When she turns back to her reading, I sneak a look at her while feigning interest in my work. I want to memorize this moment—sunlight dappling the floor, her long legs crossed at the ankle, the small rasp as she turns the page of her book—in which I feel utterly at ease, able to share my delight in multiple things with her: my strange study of our lovemaking, the recorded fact of it, her total acceptance and actual pleasure in this obscure corner of reflection. If there is a test, it feels like we have passed it. This moment, alone, is different. It is full of things I had not known before.
      I am surprised—though not very, when I consider the Austrian study—to find that my meter in this recording shifts from the uncommon but reliable 5/4 of my self-pleasure experiments. Like the Austrian study participants, together we maintain a shared tempo, 3/4. I isolate clips of our individual orgasm progressions and confirm this. We also keep a fairly regular bpm of around 59. I measure these numbers against Adele and Rachmaninoff and find no parallels. And though Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” too, is a far cry, k.d. lang’s rendition, while not perfect, is much closer to a match. Hallelujah, indeed.
      The most unpredictable element seems to be the pitch of my orgasms. Though my Masters and Johnson stages of Excitement, Plateau, and Resolution all tend to the familiar G, my penultimate stage of arousal, Orgasm, is sometimes E4, sometimes an alternation between A4 and C5, sometimes ten bars of E4. It is the unexpected pitches that render Adele and Rachmaninoff and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” so pleasurable, and that bring me delight in language. Is it a factor in this pleasure as well? I don’t know, but my lover did have three orgasms of her own while pleasuring (and listening to) me, as she quietly but audibly announces on the recording after my ear-splitting finale. Are there happy accidents in nature’s design? I tend to think not.

When I return to the Rachmaninoff after listening to our sex, I think again of Darwin’s postulation that all music originated in sexual attraction. It’s not hyperbole to say that it makes sense to me in a new way, the concept that this “universal language” for emotion or physiological phenomena between humans should have originated in the interaction it so superiorly describes.
      I’m not convinced that this origin is particular to sexual attraction, though. Alternate theories of musical origin cite the musicality of vocal-gestural communication between mothers and their children, commonly referred to as “Motherese,” which uses melody, rhythm, and movement patterns to aid in the infant’s acquisition of language. This employment of “musical” elements with intention and meaning makes it easily as viable a potential origin for music as mating calls. As one expert I interviewed, composer Emily Doolittle, states, “Really, I don’t think human music evolved out of any one thing—or even that there is any one thing that music is.” As they do to me, the bonding-related theories make more sense to her than the strictly sexual ones. “Mating calls, group bonding, and parent-infant communication all have to do with intimate interpersonal bonding, in different contexts—which of course sexual communication does, too,” she tells me. The urge to designate a single source for something so linked to fundamental forms of communication and connection among species does seem a particularly human one. One result of my research is that it has reminded me how similar our designs are, and how comforting this is. To my delight, when I played some orgasmic clips of our sex for a gay composer at my residency to verify my musical interpretation, he said in response to my admission of embarrassment, “Oh, it’s nothing to me! Just like listening to animals in a zoo.”
      Have I come to some conclusion about the connection between the music that most inspires our pleasure and the music our pleasure inspires? Tenuous conclusions, at best. I am more confident in this connection between the pleasure art brings us and that of our bodies, the common thrill of surprise. I am more interested in the way that our particular love, musically and experientially, resembles a song in its refrains and surges, its patterns and diversions, its similarity to all art that moves me with its symmetry and brokenness. I am most convinced by the ways that “musical” elements arise out of and facilitate bonding. And I am most interested in love’s inexhaustible ability to surprise me. The unexpected—expressed in music, yes, but also in touch, in a few short words spoken six hundred miles away—strikes me in a tender place, frissons me, and finds me new.
      From a few steps back, the lifelong progression of my intimate relationships resembles that of a frisson-inducing song: it has occurred in patterns, predictable over time, but “ends” with an unexpected shift: her. A shift that moves me physically and emotionally. It has been said of literature that a good ending to a plot must be both inevitable and surprising, and it seems to me that the same is true of both music and love. 

The night after I listen to our recording, the night before she leaves, we make love for hours. I don’t record it. I don’t count our orgasms. I listen only to the sounds of our bodies’ slick movement—her moans; the rush of her breath, muffled as she bites my shoulder; my hand keeping time inside her, regular as a metronome; like no other song I have heard. After, we curl against each other to fall asleep and instead fall into each other one more time. And this time, when I come? I hear myself. Like the dazzling long-held howl of some animal so close by it must be inside. 

Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir Whip Smart: The True Story of a Secret Life (St. Martin’s Press) and the essay collection Abandon Me(Bloomsbury). Her work has appeared in Tin House, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Kenyon Review, Poets & Writers, Prairie Schooner, Granta, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn.

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