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Someone Else's Hot Night in Lisbon

That night, always the night. That night in Lisbon, you were sick, remember? It was such an embarrassing finger pointing night and we thought it was sad just because you couldn't eat.

We had an intimate relationship with that bed. It was hard and unsympathetic but the space was enchanting. You could walk into the fireplace, animal skins lay ruefully on the slab floor and the walls, so many layers of stone. It was dark, even in the day. There was a door leading somewhere but it was locked and the room felt private. Not a bad place to have a raging temperature, eschew the outdoors and snub the whole of Lisbon.

The room breathed history so it was a good place to be trapped for a long blistering, feverish night. What stories it must have to tell. The walls made us think we were alone, and we were, just you and I and the damp face cloth, the writhing, tossing and turning. I turned a light on. It was a work of art, like the discarded fender you leave outside for a couple of generations and then discover again and add a light bulb.

All of this, beds, writhing, and animal skins, they should have given us an inkling or at least pause. They did none of those. I had been out and joined a protest down the main street with thousands chanting, “give us our money back", or something like that. I hadn’t planned it, wandered off, wondering what I was going to do with Lisbon without you.

For a while I couldn't even find it. Just quiet streets with nobody in them, there was a clothesline strung across the narrow street. The pale bleached cotton snapped in the breeze. I turned a corner aimlessly and voices blew in, one voice, a roar, a loud drum, the whole city. The sound bounced off the ceramic tiled walls around me, still no people. I started running, following my ears, which was not really a choice. I zigzagged across the outskirts of the city and round a corner. I saw them a block away, streaming past the top of the road where it met the main street. Waves and waves of people, coming in from side streets, all meeting down the long boulevard, thirty abreast, as far as I could see from my now elevated position half way up a lamp post. It was easy to be swept up in the indignance of it all.

After marching all the way up to the open square below the castle and standing around in the sun listening to a circle of drummers I went for a flame grilled fish and chips and a chilled Alvarinho on the boulevard. That was the day, a surprising one, the only thing predictable was the fish and chips, even the city itself had been hard to find.

And then the sun got low and it was time to try and find home again, and you. This took awhile, retracing my marching footsteps and trying to censor out my previous lost wanderings. Eventually I was back on the deep stone threshold staring into the dark, sorry to see you still there where I left you, a sad mound under the thin cotton covers.

We spent hours trying to cool you down and finally at around 10pm you quietened and someone kicked a chair against the wall.

We hadn’t heard anyone come into the room next door so we sat quietly in the dark waiting for them to settle down. But they didn't. Another piece of furniture ground against the stone floor. Someone sighed, a little theatrically I thought. Something slammed against the wall that wasn't a chair. A sort of soft thud times a hundred, that just kept repeating, faster and faster. Someone was calling something in German, no yelling, in this high string of a thin voice.

Should I call someone? Michel was awake now, alert. Was someone dying in there? More furniture grinding against the floor, an impossible amount of furniture. Huffing and puffing, thud, the loud cries, mewling, a sort of patent rhythm to it all, starting to develop. Oh my god. So this was sex. In German. At first we were a little too embarrassed to look at each other. It felt like the thick stone wall had melted away and we were somehow implicated in something so naked and so loud, it made Nine and a Half Weeks seem like Downton Abbey.

There were obvious, screamingly obvious, sounds of coming, then of going and then round two. We couldn't believe it. That velocity. It was so dwarfing. I mean obviously it wasn't a competition but not in my wildest imagination could sex approximate anything as thorough as this. It seemed to include all the furniture, continuously, not just the chandeliers. It appeared to be taking place in all four corners of the room simultaneously. How is that possible? The room shuddered there next to us like a cry for help. It seemed undignified to do this to a room this old and solid. It went on for hours, tirelessly, garishly, they must have been titans, dinosaurs. The sounds that were happening were not even human.

Then, in the early hours, the furniture grew still and the screaming reduced to a whimper and then to a sigh.

In the sudden silence the stark contrast between our common or garden selves and these athletic giants did not go unfelt. Our room did not feel cozy, did not feel gentle, did not feel secure. I wondered if you could somehow be violated by association.

But they were having much too much consistent, single-minded fun for it to be one-sided. Although I hesitate to use that word fun. In fact, scratch that. This didn't sound like fun, really, no sour grapes but it was too deliberate, almost mechanical, to be fun. A wild, pragmatic kind of sex? Scratch wild too, I’m very comfortable with wild and fun and sex, they sound good together in a sentence but wild fights with pragmatic in a phrase, and words matter.

What about playful? Lets add that. I’m okay with all four of those together. But this, this wasn’t playful, this was serious, like an eight hour work day with no break for lunch. It sounded like a marathon I’d want to run away from. There you are, there it is. I would have started laughing somewhere in there, protected the walls from the furniture, or the other way round. I might have put on some music, definitely played music, or read a book, a whole book.

I definitely wasn't envious and I know I sound defensive but in truth I felt traumatized, a survivor of something oddly calamitous. At the same time we simply can’t pretend we didn't feel a little naive, babes in this evolutionary jungle -- not English wood. Somehow the commotion next door held a sly accusation.

Decades ago, we bought a recreational vehicle in Yonkers, New York and traveled across the country with our children, following the mountains and ending in San Francisco. One day on this long road trip our nine year old son swaggered up to us in the driver’s cab. You can do this in an RV.

You two must have such a boring sex life. He sort of crowed, like we were sharing an in joke.

Yes, he was only nine, but I turned around to protest, not exactly sure how I was going to illustrate my defense.

Why do you say that? Michel asked casually.

Well, you only did it twice he said, like a punchline, triumphantly pointing to himself and his sister.

Well, the next morning looked like this.

Last night felt delightfully once removed, a ribald episode we'd unwittingly stumbled into that would not let us go. The awkward juxtaposition fell away and normal fell on us like the gold and blue of a glorious Lisbon day. My sex life sheepishly curled itself into the armchair next to the lamp. The eclipse was over, we were back.


If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. 

George Eliot



I live in hazard and infinity. The cosmos stretches around me, meadow on meadow of galaxies, reach on reach of dark space, steppes of stars, oceanic darkness and light. There is no amenable god in it, no particular concern or particular mercy. Yet everywhere I see a living balance, a rippling of tension, an enormous yet mysterious simplicity, an endless breathing of light. And I comprehend that being is understanding that I must exist in hazard but that the whole is not in hazard. Seeing and knowing this is being conscious; accepting it is being human.

John Fowles, Aristos


“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”

Arundhati Roy

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