By Bonnie J. Rough
One midnight in late spring, when Dan and I had been married ten years and had grown a bit conscious of our sex life—was it spontaneous enough? Cooling off? Going completely dark?—a harsh yelping woke us up.
Owp, owp, owp.
I shook Dan’s shoulder. “What is that?”
The yelps sounded a little hoarse. I remembered when we had been newlyweds in Iowa and our neighbor had accidentally driven over her own silky white cat. The cat had died under the hostas in our yard, yelping hoarsely.
“Do you think our cat’s okay?” I whispered.
Owp. Owp. Owwwp.
“It’s just a dog,” Dan said, rolling back to sleep.
“That is not a dog,” I said with one ear trained on the sound. “Wait a sec,” I said, listening a little more. “Maybe it is a dog.”
Then a human tone crept in. Dan heard it too.
“Where is that coming from?” he asked, lifting his head from the pillow to echolocate. We live in a friendly and family-packed Seattle neighborhood, full of balance-bikes and front-yard vegetable gardens. Nobody has air conditioning, so we latch open our windows in decent weather and share sounds: dinner dishes clinking in the sink, babies fussing through bath time, the occasional gathering of families with organic juice boxes, growlers of local brew, and cedar-planked salmon. Everyday sounds, all of them.
Owp! Owp! Owwwp!
“It’s definitely not anyone nearby,” Dan finally said, perhaps unwilling to picture any of our docile neighbors in heat.
We listened again for a few minutes as the yelping went on. Finally, Dan shook his head. “Nope. That’s a dog,” he said, and went back to sleep.
But I knew he was wrong—it was sex. And I could not fall asleep so easily while unknown neighbors made noisy bacon, so I lay there listening. Gross! Loud! Impressive. Will it wake up the kids? I could not wipe the adolescent smile off my face.
A few weeks later, the day before my birthday, Dan and I busied ourselves in the backyard, spreading bark mulch, weeding and preparing for my own little party with growlers et cetera. Josie, our six-year-old, and Louisa, our two-year-old, both in brown pigtails, scampered around us in the grass with Ivy and Nora, their preschool-aged playmates from next door.
Owp. Owp. Owp.
Dan and I locked eyes in a stare that said: Definitely human.
OWP! OWP! OWP!
For a moment, the children played on. The yelping took on a familiar hoarse quality, and now we could tell it was coming from the upper floor of the duplex behind our house. A newlywed couple lived there, with the perfect high angle to spot us through our bathroom window. (I opted to slink around like a hunchback rather than deal with window treatments.) Before getting married, the woman had lived in the apartment alone with her cat and a sewing machine in the window. One day, the sewing machine had disappeared and a soccer pennant became visible. I’d never met the woman, but I had spoken to her husband once, briefly, the day we had our backyard cedar cut down. I wanted permission from their landlord to also chop down a sick little birch leaning against our fence. The tenant heartily agreed that the birch was crappy, and passed along his landlord’s number, wishing me a nice afternoon.
OWP owp OWP! Now Dan doubled over and then stood up with his mouth wide open in a silent laugh. That set me off and both of us turned our backs on the playing children, convulsing with laughter. Dan actually slapped his knee.
Owp owp owp owp owp—Josie froze. Louisa looked at her. Ivy and Nora stopped playing. I looked at Josie, who tilted her head and knitted her brow.
“What is that?” she asked.
Since Josie’s toddlerhood, Dan and I had been working together— talking, researching, reading—to shape ourselves into parents who would openly discuss sex and the body with our children at any age. After writing the story of my abortion in my first book and subsequently discovering that audiences always ask me the same question—”What if your daughters find out?”—I had come to see that the real trick was not going to be how to keep secrets from my children, but how to tell them everything in time. I was now at work on a new book, which I knew my girls might someday read, detailing plenty more pivotal moments from my life in a female body: puberty, sex, childbirth, transgressions, and the everyday exchanges which defined my culturally-female American upbringing. Day to day with the girls, Dan and I made sure to welcome body talk in our house. Without judgment, confusion or shame, we looked at books, diagrams, animals, and one another. So, as the yelper bugled across our backyard, we certainly could have told Josie the plain truth. She already had a vocabulary for this.
But we weren’t about to edify the neighbor children.
Josie gazed expectantly at me, waiting for an explanation. I couldn’t look at Dan. “Oh, Josie,” I said, unable to erase my too-big grin, “I guess somebody is just really excited.”
Owp! Owp! Owp!
“No,” Josie said, listening closely. “I know what that is.”
Now my eyes widened. Dan turned to look at our first-grader.
“That,” Josie said, “is definitely a dog.”
We exhaled as the kids went back to their play, serenaded by wolves. Grocery list in hand, I walked around to the front of the house. The yelping followed me, and I heard a male voice join in as I slid behind the wheel of our family wagon. Driving off with music throbbing a little too loud from my mom-mobile, I laughed again and shook my head. I had to admit that in the midst of our backyard hysterics, I had felt a pulse of excitement in my core.
It happened again the next afternoon, before guests arrived for my birthday party. As Dan and I bustled around arranging patio furniture and flowers and local charcuterie, neither of us could ignore the yelping. We kept accidentally making eye contact. And late that night, as I walked into the kitchen from the backyard with the last pile of dishes, Dan intercepted me by wrapping both hands around my leg—as high as they could go.
“You know what we need to do?” he asked.
He shook his head. “We need to have a war.”
“A sex war,” he clarified. “With the neighbors. Like a battle of the bands.”
I agreed in principle at least, and followed my partner to the bedroom—where, although we enjoyed ourselves, it turned out that people with sleeping children do not yelp.
The next afternoon—as neighbors did yard work, couples walked retrievers, kids rode scooters—the newlyweds went at it once again. Their volume was impossible to miss.
“So,” I asked Gina with mock-casualness as we stood in our shared driveway. “Any thoughts on the new neighborhood soundtrack?” A pause. A blush? “Yeah, Tim told me about that,” she said as her husband slipped out of earshot and fired up the lawn mower. We exchanged grins, then quickly broke eye contact and changed the subject to our children.
Later that evening, after Dan’s basketball game, he stepped from the shower and sidled behind me as I brushed my teeth.
“It’s awful,” he said. “The neighbors are kind of turning me on.”
“Me too!” I said through toothpaste foam.
As much as Dan and I had been willing to talk with our children about sex, it seemed we had unwittingly, over time, begun to neglect our own sensuality. In more ways than I first realized, the yelper had woken us up.
In fact, it seemed possible that the busy couple had been lighting up the whole neighborhood. I wondered about the newlyweds’ downstairs neighbors, another young couple. Had they been triggered too? And it didn’t seem a stretch to suppose their next-door neighbors turned down the TV once or twice to let more interesting sounds stream in. Since my grocery run revealed that the noise carried across the avenue, I had to guess that the web developer who fed the crows after work and took his daughter to see harbor seals and photographed gardens on rainy days might have called his girlfriend in Illinois who wanted to move West but couldn’t quite, not yet. And maybe in the house with the blue door, the Canadian couple expecting their second baby while separated by thousands of miles from family support found themselves relaxing more easily. As for the brown pickup that pulled late into the dog-walker’s driveway two houses down—was it my imagination, or a good old-fashioned booty call? John, our lean and silver-haired next-door neighbor to the south, had peered from his side window during one especially high-pitched twilight session, presumably to investigate whether the sounds were coming from my house. He got his answer when he spotted me crouching at my back fence, eavesdropping with my blue-glowing iPhone allowing my sister and her husband to listen in from across town. I waved weakly, freed from one kind of culpability, pinned with another. John lowered the blinds, but left his window open. Suggestion was everywhere, and through my embarrassment, I surmised that after years of marriage and unkind illness, he and his wife were coming together, too.
I tapped my toothbrush on the sink and turned to look at my beautiful dripping husband, his body sleek and muscled, his beard silver and black, his ochre-flecked eyes asking for me. I loved that our bodies responded to that little primal scream in the air, and that we found each other so agreeably. After years spent ruminating on gender, sex and desire, it made me happiest, just then, to see myself as one simple beast in the big rutting herd: earnest, predictable, and beyond reproach. Climbing under the sheets, I realized that the yelper had generously spread not only her legs, but also a gift. I pictured it then, rippling around the neighborhood like The Wave in a stadium, or like electricity after an outage.
Bonnie J. Rough is the author of the Minnesota Book Award-winning memoir Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA. She lives in Seattle, where she is at work on her next nonfiction book. Her website is www.bonniejrough.com.
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.