I was doing laundry the other night when a song came on I hadn’t heard in ages. It was as if a seam had ripped in the universe, and I was no longer a middle-aged woman folding underwear on the dining room table…
I am 25, kissing a stranger in my first apartment: the electricity of his knee pressed against mine, the spice of his shampoo, the warm beer on his lips. My heart, the one he will break, is buzzing like a box of bees. And this song, Cherry-Coloured Funk by the Cocteau Twins, is playing from a boom box on a thrift-store chair.
You might not know the Cocteau Twins, but if you wore slip dresses with Doc Martens in the ’90s, you probably fooled around to them, too. Their sound is spun sugar, with indecipherable lyrics as if sung by elves.
Have you ever heard a song from your past that made you pull over your car or grocery cart to catch your breath? I’m not talking about the aphrodisiac of songs you play to set a mood, I mean the ones you carry with you in your bones, like rings on trees.
Cherry-Coloured Funk sparked a feverish reverie in me that night, and as I mused on the discography of all my conquests, a sex mixtape began to compile itself in my mind. Each song produces a shiver of pleasure; the thrill, I realize, comes not from the guys themselves but for the memories I keep in a shoebox in my brain. My triumphs, my thrills, my humiliations, my firsts: They are mine! They belong to me! I can take them out whenever I want and explore them from different angles. All the girls I once was, held up to the light like paper dolls, examined from my present day lens.
Here’s my sex mixtape. I’m excited to hear yours.
In Your Eyes By Peter Gabriel
I’m 15 and having my first kiss with a junior whose class schedule I memorized months before. Out of nowhere, my teeth start chattering, like one of those plastic wind-up toys.
Crush: Are you cold?
Me: I guess so?
Crush: But it’s, like, August.
Me: Oh…is it?
He tells my friend, who reports back to me, that he prefers wilder girls. I have braces, a perm, skin pale as paper, and bony arms that are too long for my body. I may lack boobs and moves, but on the inside, I smolder like a teenaged Beyoncé.
Just Like Honey by The Jesus and Mary Chain
I am lying with my first real live boyfriend on the floor of his parents’ family room in the dark. We kiss until we both have red, raw make-out beards. We go through the entire Smiths catalogue, a little Depeche Mode, some Sugar Cubes and most of Joy Division. There is a moment, on our virginal cusp, where he abruptly pulls his lips from mine, takes my face in his hands, looks me sternly in the eye, and hoarsely whispers, ‘I want you.’ To this day, when I think of it, it’s like my stomach has arrived at a carnival, is poised at the top of a plunge ride and — wheeeee! — drops into free fall.
And I Love Her by The Beatles
I’m a sophomore in college studying in my room on Valentine’s Eve. When my roommate is out, I mouth I LOVE YOU repeatedly in the mirror to my unrequited crush. There is a knock at the door. Two straggly-haired dudes in matching red sweaters are holding guitars. They ask if my name is Lisa. I step into the fluorescent hallway and they harmonize a Beatles love song. My dorm-mates spill out of their rooms to listen, erupting in applause when I’m presented with a small bouquet of roses and told my crush likes me back.
Glory Box by Portishead
I am 28 and I pride myself on not needing a partner, so why do my eyes prick with tears when my dental hygienist asks why I am still single? At weddings, there always seems to be that guy at my table who shoots double finger guns at me and says, ‘I think I got what you need.’ My girlfriends and I are a coven in black dresses. We sip red wine from jam jars and belt Stevie Nicks songs. We are ambitious, hungry, fierce. It feels like this is lasting three thousand years and maybe forever. Of course it cannot last and does not. But the most important thing happens: I learn how to love myself.
Suzanne by Leonard Cohen
I am 29 and on my last date with a cute guy with big brains. I am planning to tell him I just want to be friends but the flirtatious banter over cucumber Aquavits is so strong, I postpone telling him until after we order. He is making me laugh so hard I’m snorting; I push telling him until dessert. There just doesn’t seem to be the right moment to say it. I go into the bathroom and look at myself in the mirror. Cheeks aflame, I notice a curious expression on my face. Oh my gosh, I say to myself. You are in love. You are going to marry him!
During sex with my husband, I don’t worry that my boobs are too small, my hips too wide, or my moves too tame. Desire keeps unspooling like one of those crepe paper balls revealing tiny gifts.
Lest you think I’m saying that sex with the same person after a quarter century is a nightly power ballad of Stroke Me, Stroke Me or even I Will Always Love You, okay, you’re right, it is not. Some nights, you’re tired, you’re mad, you’re stressed, you’re hurt, you just want to read your book, you ate too much…
But sex in middle-age, to my surprise, feels somehow deeper, more naked, satisfying and real. Why, I wonder, out of all the tracks ever written, do certain songs call to us specifically and make us feel so lustful and alive? Why do certain people?
As I lie here in my husband’s arms after all these years, I don’t question it. I just revel in the tender old tune my soul and bones hum today: You are safe. You are home. You are loved.
Lisa Rubisch started her career at MTV and now directs commercials and music videos for major brands at Park Pictures in New York. She has written many great essays for Cup of Jo, including how walking changed her life and a small kindness she’ll never forget.
P.S. 12 great reader comments on sex, and “I didn’t have sex for the first two years of marriage.”
(Photo by Olga Murzaeva/Stocksy.)