Several times over the past month, this has been the scene: my girlfriend and I wake up in the middle of the night, and without fail, we proceed to make out, our mouths and tongues and lips and saliva all synchronized to the point that language becomes obsolete, time irrelevant. We rip off our oversized t-shirts and hurl them gloriously onto the floor and wiggle out of our elastic shorts and underwear. In a matter of minutes, we’re having the most ferocious sex one can have at two in the morning on a weeknight, a sex like when you hookup with a neighbor or a friend you’ve had your eye on for a while. It’s sweaty, the stuff of caves, our French art-house Palme d’Or. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out why it happens.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love my girlfriend, and I’d like to believe that our steady relationship of five years has proven our mutual appreciation for each other. I put her laundry in the wash when she’s out drinking Mexican martinis with her co-workers, and she packs me a killer club sandwich when I fall asleep well before late night hosts lampoon the Trump administration. I’ll drive her to work, and she’ll appear at my office with carryout from the Asian diner two blocks away, dropping a sesame chicken spread over brown rice like a care package airmailed to a desert island. In a word, we respect and care for each other very much. But as it goes when you date someone for half a decade, the sex isn’t as frequent or inspired as the early days. What was once hours-long adventures into the pleasure centers of the body transforms into half-clothed quickies in between episodes of Game of Thrones, during which I end up doing things like take a knee on the carpet while balancing my girlfriend on the couch, straining to make it easy to swing back into the blankets and pillows after we climax.
The last thing on my mind most nights is climbing atop my girlfriend and leading the charge into the realm of the senses. After work, I can barely toggle between synopses of TV dramedies and sip my India pale ale. Mirrors and bedroom windows make sex more scandalous, but they can only go so far after a ten-hour day. Usually after we wrap up dinner, a rotating menu of chicken shawarma or chicken fried rice or really anything that involves chicken and carbs, we take a walk through the neighborhood, which consists of modern-style homes and a busy street of shops and restaurants. The whole area is the perfect blend of urban and residential, and our walk glides through both slices of this whole. After the walk, we read articles online and share interesting tidbits that have surfaced throughout the day, learning trivia that will fade into our memories, as do most things discovered on the Internet, just not the Internet itself. At some point in the evening, one of us may put in a request for sex, saying a line like, “We should do it tonight.” The other will agree, and stamped in the Book of Sex is our appointment, written in curlicues and inked with white feathers. Half the time we fall asleep watching It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia before we even get a chance to land the first kiss.
My girlfriend works for the City of Austin, in the elections office. She helps manage the polling stations and recruits hourly workers for elections. I’ve gone with her a few times to receive the ballot machines at the end of a polling day. The whole process consists of meeting at a public school gym with a bunch of people who’d easily line up for a commercial about the tastiness of Kit-Kats and the importance of “taking a break.” Nobody takes breaks during the ballot machine processing, but I usually drive to the closest Jack-in-the-Box and buy everyone a cheeseburger. That is another thing about people who I’ve met during election days: none of them are vegetarians.
Anyway, the point is my girlfriend spends many hours monitoring, planning, and overseeing elections. When she gets home, she’s often tired of speaking to humans and prefers watching videos of bears leaping out of dumpsters and animations of triangles and other geometric shapes spinning in all sorts of directions—somewhat like screensavers addled with Red Bull.
And me? I work in the curriculum development department of a nation-wide standardized testing company. I’m the guy who determines what fits within the multiple choices, the A’s, B’s, C’s, and D’s of the world. My handiwork determines which bubbles the number two pencil fills with lead, which kind of makes me sound like a gangster, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
What I’m trying to get at is that my girlfriend and I aren’t terribly interesting. We even tried to run together—bought white tennis shoes and seven-dollar running shorts from Target—but have yet to complete a mile circuit. (That it’s one-hundred degrees every day during this time of year doesn’t help, and we don’t want to invest in one of those flashing red lights you attach to yourself for night jogs.) Given our schedules, our tired bodies, our predilection for online streaming and early bed times, the question remains: why have we been waking up in the middle of the night to have raucous, mind-bending, blood-torching sex?
I ask my friend Luigi about it during lunch one day. Luigi has one of those jobs where he chats with people on golf courses and other than that I’m not really sure what he does and maybe he isn’t too sure either but his company seems to like him and it keeps making money off cloud storage, so I guess it doesn’t really matter. He and I meet weekly for lunch at one of several restaurants that are efficient for an hour-long lunch break but also cozy enough for conversations on personal matters. When we meet this time, he sports the stylish hairdo of the month, despite a receding hairline, and fits tightly into a pair of khakis and a gray oxford; as far as I can tell, he has no trace of body fat.
He asks me for a napkin, and I say, “It’s not just that we wake up and start having crazy sex, it’s that we vaguely remember it the next day.”
Luigi wipes his handlebar mustache, which has a splotch of mustard from the veggie burger he’s slowly deconstructing; his methodical bites are like a PowerPoint transition rendered in slow motion. I’m also chowing on a veggie burger, and by now, we’ve gotten over the fact that we’ve come to one of the most popular burger bars in town to eat black bean patties and drink Diet Cokes. (The bread’s superbly oily and thick, if you’re wondering what’s the draw.)
“So you don’t remember having sex?” he asks with a hint of skepticism.
“We do remember, but it’s like when you remember a dream. It’s fuzzy, like maybe it actually didn’t happen.”
“Is it a dream, a collective dream?”
“No, it actually happens. There’s evidence of it.”
“So a collective wet dream?”
I bite into my veggie burger, which I left untouched since I had to explain all the details. The restaurant is at seventy-five percent capacity and there’s no line, meaning we can settle into our booth without worrying that we are taking up space. Luigi doesn’t care either way; he says that we paid for the right to occupy this restaurant and then pantomimes sticking a flag into the table. I don’t like inconveniencing people. It makes me nervous and I lose all concentration.
“I distinctly remember waking up, but then everything gets unclear up until the moment we are making out.”
The veggie burger is delicious as always—not spectacular, like a Gordon Ramsay knockout, but enough to glaze the rest of the afternoon in a post-consumption bliss. Luigi sips his red straw and eyes a buff dude who’s wearing a yellow tank-top and Adidas running shorts. As the man continues to the counter, Luigi holds a steady gaze, up until the moment when the guy turns to our table and Luigi faces me with a slight blush. He starts to speak a few times, fiddling with a fry or two, and finally says, like it’s a revelation, “Why is this a problem again?”
I met Luigi during college, when he studied Russian and nobody in America really cared about Vladimir Putin. It was around the time Russia invaded Georgia, so there was a little concern, but people also had a hard time understanding there are two Georgias in the world. We’ve never been friends enough to hang out at each other’s apartments or watch a movie together, but we’ve maintained this casual friendship and it definitely comes in handy with these matters. He has enough distance to make conversations intimate without being judgmental. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
So is this really a problem? Of all that ails the average person, this probably ranks between having to mail a bill to a leasing company and telling your second cousin that you won’t be going to her wedding. If it had happened once, I wouldn’t have even thought twice of it, because my girlfriend and I were probably riled up by something on television, like the time we had sex for two hours after watching The Handmaid, a Korean drama in which two women scissor each other and stick jingling balls into their vaginas and do a few other amazingly lewd acts during its three-hour run time. But it has happened more than once—several times, in fact—and it’s the same blurry sequence: We wake for reasons unknown to us, and the thought to latch onto each other and begin kissing like the world will end tomorrow fires without an ounce of inhibition, and we are sober as geese, except for the grogginess of waking from deep slumber; we leap from the black web of dreams, their labyrinthine stories forgotten, and kiss each other as though we have become strangers, like we have waited our whole relationship to unmask these people who are tearing the bed sheets off, fumbling like those who try to make up for lost time.
Luigi looks at his reflection with his phone. He likes doing so with the camera, which means he has to stretch his arm out to get the right angle. He never takes a photo, however, so I’ve deemed this movement the phantom selfie.
“It’s not a problem,” I say. “It’s a mystery. And people like solving mysteries.”
“White people like solving mysteries. Everyone else likes living peaceful lives.”
“I’m trying to live a peaceful life!”
Luigi rolls his eyes. I’ve lost him.
We veer from the discussion and talk about his weekend in New Orleans and how a man approached him and tried to guess the value of his shoes. Luigi found the proposition mildly entertaining and now wants people in Austin to adopt a fun script like the man’s. Luigi then connects the plight of the homeless to our previous conversation, laughing at how ridiculous I’m being.
“Some people even pay to have mediocre sex,” he says loud enough for other people to hear. A woman in an athletic top and running shoes stops wiping her infant’s mouth and looks over to us, the phrase “What the fuck?” transmitted with elegant clarity via her hazel eyes and razor-sharp eyebrows. I try to shush Luigi, but the woman inspires a thought: What kind of sex did she have to produce that toddler? I’m not saying it’s a great thought, but there you have it.
Luigi reads my body language and offers a thought of his own: “Are you worried that you’re gonna get your girlfriend pregnant?” I turn back to him and see his empty plate, how our hour must almost be over.
“She’s on the pill.”
“Then what’s the issue?”
“What if it’s a symptom of a larger problem? Maybe we don’t have enough sex, or maybe the sex is too clinical.”
Luigi swirls his index finger three hundred and sixty-five degrees, as if he were a cartoon wizard casting a spell to vanquish an evil presence. “It’s your diet,” he says.
“Everything you consume. It’s affecting you. You are eating poorly, fucking poorly, watching TV poorly.”
“Why is this happening now?”
“Why anytime? All that matters is that you’re finally seeing the symptoms.”
The chart you see in drug commercials flashes in my head. Luigi’s wardrobe is a white lab coat and a green sweater vest. He points to the word “symptoms,” which is written in chalk, and next to the word is a bullet-point list of the following: “memory loss, lack of inhibition, feral sex.”
“I’m going to have to call bullshit on this one.”
“What do I know? I just came back from the bachelor party capital of the world.”
I jam the remainder of my burger into my mouth and wash it down with Diet Coke. Our allotted time expires, and we walk into the sweltering June heat. Not even the weather is as hot as the sex during those late nights…
At this point you probably think I’m humble-bragging, but remember what I said to Luigi? This whole thing is not a problem; it’s a mystery. Mysteries are like light problems, unless of course they involve physical harm or death. There are uncertainties, like “Did I lock my car?” or “How many beers has grandpa had?” and then there are mysteries, usually related to occurrences that happen more than once and every time offer no clear explanation. Mysteries address the tacit world that floats around us and even through us, whereas uncertainties fall within definitions hammered into the architecture of knowledge. When the mystery appears before us, its avatar, which resembles a gnome completely blotched in black ink, waves to us to walk into the trenches of earth, into a soggy avenue that slowly disrobes us, and we squeeze under rocks and through mud to reach some inner sanctum of the world. It’s nasty, no doubt, because everything is nasty after you spend forty hours sitting beneath stale fluorescent lights, but these mysteries are our succors, our gigantic red evac buttons in the crashing spaceship of a civilization that has invented things like paid time off.
Francis, another friend of mine, listens as I explain the situation while we kayak after work one day. But it’s only after she asks about my girlfriend several times, implying that there is nothing remotely romantic about our shared time together. We dip our oars into the Colorado River and make small talk about our jobs before I get to the matter at hand. Her blonde hair falls loosely behind her head, which I see clearly since I’ve taken the back seat.
“What if it’s a parasite?” I ask. The sun is like a parent who lingers at your bedroom door when you have a certain “friend” over.
“A parasite?” Francis never asks questions with a hint of judgment. I know earlier I said Luigi isn’t judgmental, but that was more like he isn’t as judgmental with me as he is with other people; for example, he went on a tirade for an entire lunch about one of his co-workers refusing to wear deodorant, Luigi himself refusing to accept the guy’s organic lifestyle.
Francis is an intellectual. She’s read Barthes. She cooks all her meals at home. She marches at the Capitol at least five times a year. And she hates online think pieces. Really, the only reason I know that I can talk with her about this subject and not come off as an oaf is that one time after we watched Rashomon we got on the subject of sex, not that we did anything, and she told me that it’s important to have multiple partners before settling down. The conversation lasted several minutes, which seems appropriate for a conversation about sex. We also talked about “butt stuff,” which now that I think about it, is probably what makes this conversation in the kayak a piece of cake.
“I’ve read that there are bed bugs or amoebas or something like that that can burrow into your brain and make you act weird, and ultimately, you die.”
Francis cranes her head to face me, the pitch black of her sunshades reinforcing just how cool she is, how I’m not worthy. “Bed bugs?”
“Or something like that,” I repeat to emphasize I’m not crazy. Of course, I only do the opposite.
“I heard you the first time.”
The river water is cold yet refreshing each time it splashes my face, so I make it a point to paddle awkwardly, taking long, loping swings down into the water like I’m shoveling a grave that will never hollow out. I wonder if it’s moments like these that make me susceptible to the very bugs that rewire two humans to do it like they do on the Discovery Channel. I know that there’s nothing going on between Francis and me, not even in idle daydreams where you imagine people you know naked while seated on kitchen counters. She’s entirely squared off in the friend café of my mind, and we’re both donning perennial t-shirts and jeans and sipping pink lemonades there. But the parasites or insects don’t know that. Maybe it’s a sign from nature that I’ve crossed a line, that I need to give more attention to my girlfriend. Still, it’s not like these critters really influence mammalian intrigue. They’re just pests, stuff to keep repellent companies in business. They aren’t Morality’s secret police. Not yet at least.
“Are you two having sex outside of these late-night trysts?” Francis asks. I love that she uses the word “trysts,” as though my girlfriend and I have sex in hedge mazes underneath creamy moonlight.
“We do. One time we even had sex that same night.”
Francis goes quiet and lets her paddle do the talking, swishing water into whirlpools, and I watch pedestrians gather on the South Congress bridge. Several balloons float on strings, punctuating a rather pleasant Wednesday evening, and the sun dips below the hills. I watch the red lights of distant radio towers blink.
Francis doesn’t waste a single word on errant thoughts. She runs through several possibilities that I’ve already discussed with Luigi and then finally says, “How about you enjoy it and focus all your energy on something else, like volunteering. They could use more people at Planned Parenthood.”
I donate ten dollars a month to the ACLU, is what I think in response. I say, “I’ve been meaning to go with you.”
All the conversations I have with my friends mimic these ones with Luigi and Francis. I explain the issue and offer my theories. Then my friends offer theirs. Then we disagree and ultimately determine that the problem isn’t really an actual problem. Yet it is.
It’s not a problem that is going to put me down for a seat at the table with Greek heroes or grant me a shout-out in a nutty hip-hop verse that rhymes something like “Wimbledon” with “Win again.” But it’s a problem that offers me a glimpse at some deep pool of being, where I can slip off whatever husk has deformed the bursting energy of my self and stare boldly at the person I truly am. That’s what I’d like to believe anyway. And that’s why I’m pressing the issue, even if nobody I know wants to hear about it.
My girlfriend finds it all amusing. I guess most times you barely remember doing something you feel a touch of humor, and alarm. I wonder why she’s not as concerned as I am. Then I recall the political climate, the mobs of voters, the angry signs to ward off electioneering. Her job is just one long caps-lock message. Me on the other hand—I determine if A, B, C, or D is the correct answer through an algorithm that spits out a correct-answers-to-letters ratio. Snooze.
I’m at my wit’s end, and we’re still turning into Scylla-and-Charybdis sex maniacs a few hours after setting our phone alarms, let’s not forget that. In fact, in between my conversations with Luigi and Francis, it happens again.
Other than wondering where this libido has been my entire life, I also think of all the other times I’ve slept with someone, in other relationships, in crammed cars, in living rooms after asking if we can take off our clothes. The list goes on (well, not that much more), but you get the idea. Anyone can recall their past sexual encounters and look at them with a condescending nostalgia, like a respected adult who chuckles at all the keg stands he breezed through during his final year of college. Wisdom of age affords us a modicum of superiority when it comes to our past selves. The question really is, have I unlocked something hidden within me as a result of growing older and becoming wiser, or am I on red alert and moving towards the path of atrophy, of schlepping around town as a meat bag of ideas that simply determines which rich kids get into the Ivy League?
I sit on my balcony and ponder such questions, sipping a beer and gazing out to the road where cars wisp past and neon signs glow magnanimously, even though the sun’s still creeping through the trees that line the neighborhood streets. I’m lost in this pool of thought that gets shallower each time I dive back into it after I spy on people walking from the bougie French diner right below my apartment. It’s all cozy until I hear the distinct sound of flapping, and instantly I remember that for the past few weeks I’ve been monitoring a bird, which looks like a pigeon but I haven’t been able to match it with pictures on the Internet or in the bird guide at the grocery store. All this time it’s been sitting on an egg. Heat waves. Thunderstorms. Saturday nights. The bird hasn’t moved from the tree, at least not during all the hours I’ve spent on the balcony. I even Googled “how do birds survive thunderstorms” and learned a whole lot about micro environments and how nests are built in trees that provide ample cover from wind and rain. It was the first time in my life I shrunk my worldview to that of a bird, and everything made sense.
Now I’m turning my head to not one bird but two—the mother and the child—and there’s this funny thing about seeing birds so close and they’re not eating leftover tortilla chips that some kid has flung at them. Honestly it’s like I’m doing something wrong, like the bird didn’t realize when crafting its nest that there is an enormous apartment building a couple feet away, where people like me gawk and drink beer and are probably really boring to watch. They’re not grackles, so they’re aren’t hideous and menacing, and they’re not blue jays or cardinals, so I’m not staring at birds that get baseball teams named after them. They’re just brown birds with white lines on their under-wings. I’ve seen so many birds in my life. Real, fake, animated, puppet—every iteration of bird possible, and still, I can’t stop staring.
The little guy is poking its beak at the mom, flapping its wings awkwardly, and the mom keeps turning away, annoyed as parents always are, asking why the hell did they go through with this. The mom finally opens her beak and puts the whole baby bird’s head into her mouth. There’s nothing that can enshrine this moment, no Instagram post, no Facebook status, no group text. It’s pure love, pure animal bliss. And they probably have no idea what they’re doing. So it’s pure instinct.
I wonder where the dad’s hanging out, if he has another family elsewhere, if he stays in the picture just for insemination. I give them names and it feels like I’ve betrayed the implicit agreement between us, even though I know the birds couldn’t care less that I’m twisting my head to get the best view, palms firmly locked on the metal that separates me from a twenty-foot drop. Since their lives cycle through an unfiltered loop, they’re completely oblivious—and free.
“It’s a bird,” I say to Luigi. “The bird is what’s causing the wild late-night sex.” We’re eating shrimp tacos on East Sixth Street, in a gravel yard mobbed with food trucks.
Luigi dips a crispy tortilla chip into our shared bowl of queso and crunches it as though he could end my thought right there. “How does a bird cause you to wake up in the middle of the night and have sex? Does it tweet too loudly?” The word “tweet,” presumably, triggers Luigi to type rapidly on his phone.
“The bird doesn’t wake us up. It’s more like nature vs. nurture. Something that the bird is doing is making it into our subconscious thoughts. It’s sending us some molecular or chemical message. That’s why we’re having this dreamy sex.”
Luigi stares up from his phone to the cloud-streaked sky and then looks me straight in the eyes. “You need a dog.”
I raise my eyebrow. “Why?”
“Obviously something is missing from your life if you’re attributing your sex life to birds.”
“It’s more than that. Have you ever looked at a bird?”
“Is this a trick question?”
“I mean it.”
Luigi swings himself to face outside the picnic table, scanning the other tables and a few thin, mostly leafless trees nearby. He points at a grackle eating tortilla chips. “There you go: a bird. Now what does that prove?”
“That’s not the same. That’s a bird desperate to get any scrap so it can survive. And worse yet, it’s spoiled on junk food. It might as well be a bratty kid. When left to their own devices, birds are beautiful, soulful creatures.”
Luigi dips more chips into the bowl of queso, eyeing the greasy stack in the red basket and the grackle. Even though he doesn’t throw any chips its way, I know he thinks about it. And he knows that I know, because my face pleads with him to leave the grackle be.
“Let’s say I buy your story. What do you think actually happens?”
“I haven’t worked out all the details, but essentially, because the bird recently laid an egg and built her nest so close to my apartment, her pheromones, or something like that, have affected us. And if not that, then we’ve simply been altered by the very fact that we’ve been watching this bird for so many days.”
Luigi takes it in, his eyes locked on me for every last syllable of my explanation, as if to parse out the bullshit I am surely delivering. Eventually we decide it’s a draw, but not before Luigi hoots like an owl and caws like a hawk and makes several other bird sounds to inspire my lovemaking, as he puts it.
Francis has a different take: “The scientific explanation is most likely bogus, but maybe you’re on to something with this ‘influence of images’ idea.” She’s invited me to her apartment to drink blonde ales on her porch after work one day. A couple of kids are firing a soccer ball back and forth between short orange cones on the street. It’s nearly one hundred degrees outside, and the blonde ales taste like popsicles.
“Influence of images,” I also say, liking the sound of it, as if I’ve stumbled onto a social phenomenon, and add: “What do you think about the influence of images?”
“Images affect us, that’s pretty common knowledge. People mainly associate images with TV and the Internet, what we see on social media and in ads. But nature is just the same. I wouldn’t doubt that you seeing birds have sex somehow made its way into your subconscious and altered your sex life.”
“Well, I didn’t actually see them have sex. I’ve just watched the mom sit on the egg for a few weeks.”
“I did look up how birds have sex, if that counts. Or could it be that bird sex is so potent that even the sight of a mom on an egg, waiting for it to hatch, is enough to rile up something deep within us?”
Francis gives me a look, one that takes all the momentum out of our conversation, like a silent bomb has been dropped between us. We adjust in our white, rusted chairs, scratching the cement and highlighting the abrupt pause. One of the kids launches the soccer ball between the cones, and I debate if I should applaud his efforts, or maybe my own.
At the office later that week, I tinker with the wording of test questions and answers, determining that there just has to be something causing my girlfriend and me to wake up and have our prehistoric way with each other. Of all the things that can’t be explained, you’d think that this would be pretty easy to pin down. Even the Marfa lights that everyone makes whole books and documentaries and grad school dissertations about—most of which involve flying saucers skimming across the desert in West Texas—can be easily explained with car headlights.
These are the headlights I’m staring into: my girlfriend and I aren’t being manipulated by a mysterious force creeping into our lives; it’s probably just some fluke behavior that coincidentally has repeated a few times in a single month, and I’ve attached some grand meaning to it.
Still, the late-night sex persists. And during the most recent session, the air conditioning blasts, putting the apartment into a deep freeze, maybe as a way to stop my girlfriend and me from dominating each other’s bodies. But nothing can stop us. And since I can’t be bothered to let a few brisk minutes quickly thaw in the heat of our passion, I balance the thick, black comforter on my arms and back.
“You look like a raven,” my girlfriend laughs. And I laugh too, because it’s settled.
We’re fucking birds.