It was Melinda who came up with the idea; she’d seen something like it on TV. Women who can’t have orgasms meet in groups to practise. Sometimes they sit facing each other in pairs with their legs parted and their feet touching – linking hands, they rock back and forth and groan and yell.
I said it reminded me of an article I’d read somewhere about a tribe in Uganda. When girls hit puberty they’re taught how to spray the wall. They work on the muscles that make the vagina ejaculate until they can stand beside a wall and splat it with their fluid.
And Kim, who teaches pilates, said the most important muscle for achieving orgasm is the clitoralis erectoralis, the muscle that makes the clitoris erect. It’s the tiniest muscle in the human body, male or female.
‘It’s changed my life,’ she said.
‘Have you had an orgasm yet?’
‘No, but I’m close.’
We decided to meet at Melinda’s because she has the good carpet. This is important if you’re going to be sitting on the floor rocking. Melinda’s carpet is pure wool, no friction-sparking acrylic. I was going to mention the poor insulation in my apartment, the fact that my neighbours already tolerate my students’ rosin-smeared bows squawking away most afternoons, but I didn’t have to. Melinda wanted to host and that was that.
All we needed then was another member, to keep the pairs of legs even. I didn’t know any women who couldn’t have orgasms, and how do you ask? It just doesn’t show. If anyone asked you what Melinda, Kim and I have in common, you might say we’re young professionals of adequate means. We have artistic aspirations or we once did. We have nice hair and buy our clothes from local designers. You wouldn’t say, ‘None of them has ever had an orgasm.’
A few days later Kim emailed us to say it was all sorted and she was bringing her friend Lea, who taught yoga at Kim’s studio. After that Melinda set everything in motion. She sent us all an email with the date and time of our first session. We’d call it an orgasm club, we decided in the end, rather than a group, which was clinical and suggested emotional damage.
I replied saying it reminded me of pony club, which I used to go to as a little girl, and Kim added that the Orgasm Club sounded like a good name for a vibrator. Melinda said could we please accept the invitation so she could finalise her schedule.
Kim offered me a ride out to Melinda’s but I wanted to bike instead. I took the long way, by the creek paths, and practised the rocking motion we needed to do. I hoped Melinda’s husband Dylan wouldn’t be there.
Melinda answered the door in yoga pants and a reinforced sports singlet, with freshly applied make-up on.
‘Come in, honey,’ she said. ‘Kim’s here already. No Lea yet.’ I followed her bouncing ponytail down the hall. Vlad, her yappy little terrier, twined around her feet.
Kim was sitting at the kitchen counter, wearing a leotard under a tracksuit.
‘You both look so athletic.’
‘Oh no,’ said Kim. ‘I just don’t want to wear pants I can split from unaccustomed grinding.’
Melinda’s smile was tight. She scooped items out of the fridge and onto a platter, fussing about with chopped herbs.
I felt a prickle of irritation. ‘Oh Mel, really. You shouldn’t have done anything elaborate. I just ate anyway.’
‘I wanted it to be special, you know. For the first time.’
The plate was loaded with figs, pomegranate seeds and asparagus.
‘And these. Kim brought them.’ She rattled a plastic bag in the sink.
‘Oysters,’ said Kim. ‘Market fresh. And this weed extract I got at the health store there.’
‘But aren’t these things … ? They’re aphrodisiacs. We’d not meant to be getting off on each other, are we?’
Kim’s lips twitched and she let out a quick bark.
Melinda looked between us for a beat and then she dropped the tray on the bench. ‘I don’t know,’ she screeched. ‘There’s no manual for this.’
Kim and I drooped over the bench and howled. The doorbell gave its elegant three-note chime.
‘It’s Lea!’ Melinda darted to the door. Kim picked up a fig and lapped at it sensuously. I snorted into my hands as Lea stepped into the room. She looked beautifully put together, in a silk scarf, loose filmy t-shirt and sloppily elegant boots over leggings. I looked down and plucked at the pleats in my slacks.
‘Ladies,’ said Lea.
‘Lady,’ said Kim. ‘Lea, Rona.’
‘Would you like a fig?’ I asked.
We picked at the snacks for a while, but you can’t do that forever.
‘Kim told me about you,’ Lea said to me. ‘You were in the Symphony Orchestra, weren’t you?’
I shrugged and swung my hair forward. ‘I’m just teaching now. The money’s better and … yeah.’
Lea asked Melinda what she did and Melinda answered in the measured, brightly earnest manner of someone at a job interview.
‘I’m in real estate at the moment, Lea. Look, it’s pretty far removed from theatre design – my original career path – but, you know, these days I find that it’s the best way for me to express myself artistically, while engaging with a diverse array of people, and obviously the income allows me a lot more creative freedom in my personal life.’
I felt myself blushing in sympathy. Kim meditatively stroked the glistening pulp of an overripe fig. Asparagus spears aggressively crosshatched the plate, and weren’t they meant for male virility anyway?
‘Well, my … interior design,’ Melinda was saying. ‘I’ve done a lot of, uh, the painting on this place.’
‘Of course,’ said Lea. ‘I could never have picked colours like that.’
‘And with Dylan also working in real estate – although he’s in management so he doesn’t actually get as much work done as I do, ha ha! – I’ve had such a unique learning curve into the nuances of the industry.’
Kim shifted her buttocks on the barstool. ‘Shall we get down to it?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ I piped. ‘Unless we want to talk first about …’ I trailed off into silence when no one else picked up the conversational thread.
‘Yes,’ said Melinda. ‘If no one wants the bathroom, or tea – Lea? – or some oysters.’
‘No thank you. Um. Oysters?’
‘We’ll bring the food with us.’ I picked up the platter and a water jug in a slippery, knuckle-cramping grip. I wondered too late if we were even allowed to eat in Melinda’s living room but there was no protocol and we were just going to have to do this thing. I put the platter on the coffee table and sat down on the good carpet.
Lea lowered herself down first, in an elegant leggy sway like a camel. I hoped I wouldn’t have to hold hands and bump feet with her. I wondered why we weren’t drunk for this, or in a class.
‘Do we need music?’ said Melinda.
‘Mood music?’ said Kim. ‘Whale song?’
Melinda clapped her hands together – ‘How’s everyone feeling?’ – and Kim and I echoed her tense jollity. ‘Fine, fine.’
Lea sat very still with a straight back. ‘Why don’t you sit down,’ she said, and Kim and Melinda sat. ‘Now. I think we should start with a breathing exercise. Would anyone like to lead? Or would you like me to take this one?’
Melinda nodded with palpable relief. Lea held our eyes in turn. ‘Please form a circle,’ she said, and Kim and Melinda shuffled into place. ‘Now. If all we achieve today is a sense of our bodies being present in this physical space, of creating the parameters of a safe space, then that is a gift. Breathing in … and out … and in … and out. Engaging the diaphragm with each breath … and out. Engaging each chakra: the third eye chakra, the throat chakra, the heart chakra.’
Melinda and I snuck looks at her to see what the chakras were, but at root chakra Lea merely pushed the word out with her breath and I understood. There it was. Each spot bloomed with the flickering glow of a small flame.
The air seemed softer when I opened my eyes. Lea asked who else wanted to take the floor and Kim said she could take us through the clitoralis erectoralis exercises. We lay down on our bellies and she told us how to get that little hinge-like muscle – the tiniest muscle in the human anatomy – to lift and flex, and by the end we all said we could feel the blood pumping with every little pulse. Kim even gave us homework – fifty pulses throughout the day, while waiting in traffic, or brushing our teeth. Ideally, she said, we should be exerting such control that we don’t clench our buttocks at all, but I wasn’t quite there yet, and Melinda didn’t seem to be able to do it without making an effortful squinty face each time.
Afterwards we were hungry, so we went to the kitchen to start on the oysters. I rummaged around for Worcestershire and bacon so I could make some Kilpatrick style – the raw, snotty ones have always repulsed me. We got a little hilarious and rude by that point, although Lea said she was vegan anyway. Any dead flesh repulsed her.
But isn’t this the best part of any club, the unstructured merriment that floats around the main agenda? I felt like a strong drink – strong in flavour not just in alcohol, like a good peaty single malt – but no-one else seemed to so I stayed quiet, and instead slurped the viscous liquid out of each oyster shell cup, each salty little bowl.
For the next few days I held that meeting in my mind as a sweet little cushion to fall back on. I did my clitoralis erectoralis exercises on my bike, in line at the bank, to the spasmodic rhythm of a new student’s Vivaldi Summer movement.
It has a lean, shrieky quality, the violin. Would I be more sensual if I played the cello, had a big muscular instrument between my legs? The idea made me want to giggle, and I decided to mention it at Orgasm Club.
Ah, Orgasm Club – the thought sent a reliable little flicker of joy into my belly.
I picked up my violin and joined in at the summer storm, pulsing my clitoralis erectoralis with every second beat.
On Saturday I bought some of the new-season peaches to take to Melinda’s. Any stone fruit was sensual when you thought about it. Sliced in two, the fruit has the veined cleft on one side, and then the gently thrusting stone on the other. I poached the peach halves in white wine, vanilla beans and honey. I planned to serve them glopped with yoghurt (how we’d make good fun of that) and sprinkled with cinnamon.
Melinda scoffed at the peaches – ‘Oh and now you’re bringing food’ – but she preheated her spotless oven so we could warm them before the others arrived.
When everyone was there, I scooped yoghurt onto the peach halves – except Lea’s, which was vegan and naked – and brought the tray out to them on the deck.
‘Mmmm,’ went Kim and Melinda.
Lea had just a brief taste, nipping with her front teeth. ‘Is this honey?’
‘Yup. With Riesling and vanilla. From the organic stall at the market.’ I waited to bask in her praise.
‘But I’m vegan.’
Melinda and I stared blankly until Kim said, ‘Vegans don’t eat honey, Rona.’
‘And is the wine vegan?’ Lea dropped her spoon in the bowl with a clatter.
‘Um.’ I darted a look at their faces: Lea’s pruned in disgust, Melinda’s still blank. Kim was looking down, inscrutable.
‘Oh of course,’ said Melinda in her fulsome hostess voice. ‘I didn’t realise. Sorry, Lea. I should have asked Rona first.’
‘Mel. For god’s sake. It’s my fault. Clearly. A vegan awareness deficit.’
There was a tense, brittle silence. I walked back into the kitchen and washed my hands in a gush of water. My abandoned peach half sat in a congealing puddle of honeyed ooze, the blob of yogurt bleeding sadly onto the plate.
While I bustled around putting the dishes away, I could hear the others keep up solicitous chatter about the garden, the new tomatoes coming up. I kept my face averted when they came back through. My head felt sullen and clotted.
‘Ready?’ said Melinda, in the bright tone of someone wrangling a small child. I put my plate on the floor for Vlad, but he merely sniffed it delicately and trotted away.
‘This time,’ said Lea, when we were seated on the floor of the living room, ‘we’re going to explore the full holistic parameters of the cunt. First we do so physically –’
‘I know you can all say it,’ said Melinda, ‘but I just can’t. It’s a vicious word.’
‘I think is sounds delicious,’ said Lea ‘Cunt. Like a delectable piece of fruit.’
Is the cunt vegan? I wished I was brave enough to say it out loud.
‘This is a place for bravery, Melinda,’ said Lea. I jerked my head up and Lea met my eyes smoothly. She leaned over and took Melinda’s hands in her own. ‘Trust and bravery.’ Still holding Melinda’s hands, she flicked up her legs and pivoted on her bum so they were facing each other. ‘Kim, if you could take Rona’s hands,’ she murmured.
Kim and I shot each other a quick look because oh god it was happening now, all of it happening suddenly. Kim opened her limber Lycra legs out wide and I jerked mine into a skinny coltish right angle.
‘And breathing in … and out … engaging the clitoralis erectoralis with each breath … and out … and in … and pulse … and pulse … ‘
Kim had her mouth shut and was breathing sharply though her nose, pinching and flaring her tiny nostrils.
‘Now we vocalise our breathing,’ Lea’s voice rang out. She must be a singer, too. A stage actor perhaps. I knew nothing about her. I knew less about her than I did about any of the men who had failed to bring me to orgasm. ‘Ah haaaaah,’ her breath sang. ‘Ah haaaaah.’
On the next breath Melinda joined in on a discord. ‘Ah haaaaah,’ their voices jangled.
I shut my eyes and tried to hit a harmonising third.
‘Are you over-intellectualising, you two?’ called Lea.
I shook my head jerkily. This time I heard myself bray like a goat.
‘You look like you are. Keep going, Mel,’ she said, and sprang to a crouch. ‘Kim! You join Melinda. Rona, stay there. Take my hands. Now.’ She pulled me back in one smooth tug and we were off. I counted the leadlight windowpanes, a childhood habit.
‘Rona!’ Her eyes bore into me. ‘Look at me.’
My gaze skittered across her face.
‘You’re not looking. Look at me.’ She jerked me harder and I felt the length of my inner quad muscle. I should have stretched for this – why didn’t we stretch?
‘That’s it. We fear eye contact, you know. But you do know what fear echoes? What awkwardness, what disgust, echoes? Orgasm, that’s what. Grasp your fucking fear, Rona. Grasp it. Don’t stop, Mel!’
Kim and Melinda were surging back and forth. Kim had her eyes wide open now; she had a teacher’s steely focus as she guided Melinda in one fluid motion. Melinda flung her head from side to side, she jerked her hips and slid against the carpet.
‘Rona! Back here.’
Lea undulated as she rocked, like kelp in the tide. ‘Use it,’ she hissed. ‘Use the neurosis. You can never look anyone in the face, can you. Fucking look at me. You simpering bitch. You dreary, cringing suck.’
A pressure was mounting, from the same squirrelly place that makes you run when you’re afraid. The base of the spine or the bowels.
‘Everyone sees through you, you know. You’re scared they’re onto you and you’re right to be. Everyone knows you’re not quirky – you’re fucking boring. Your neurosis is boring and that’s all you have. Your piddling spinster job, your stunted life and your insipid little mind.’
Self-detonating eruptions of thought flared and shimmered. My blood beat a deep bass. Lea rocked me harder and I tipped forward; my legs opened to an obtuse angle and my cunt pressed against the floor. And she said one more thing, a terse muttered phrase that fell through me like a depth charge.
‘I’d like to tie you up with catgut and whip you with horsehair.’
At first the ripples merely welled up inside, then they spread out and my limbs flailed. Deep pulsing shudders rocked through me, three of them, and with each I lifted off the floor. A few juddering tremolos, aftershocks. The room was a little misty at first, but my focus swarmed back soon enough. Melinda had risen through a vocal crescendo already and was working her way back down. She sounded like the last lonely, resolute singer in a round. Kim rocked her with the assured rhythm of someone on a rowing machine, her breath deep and athletically even. Lea tucked her legs in tidily. Hanging onto the couch, I scrambled to my feet, feeling my quads twinge.
Melinda prepared her face with a comically rueful look. ‘Well!’ she said brightly. ‘That was fun.’
‘Did you have fun, Rona?’ Lea’s smile was sweet.
‘I did.’ I felt sanguine. Sanguine. My mind moved loosely over the smooth, blood-warm word. Relaxed. A spikier word, but I felt that too. Melinda was chattering away, trying to defuse the focus, I realised, that she was convinced was on her. ‘Oh that was something. I felt something, you know. Not … that, but like after a workout, you know? Like after a dance or a spew!’
‘Hey Ron,’ she added.
‘Delicious peaches, babe.’
The peaches! I hauled back this memory from before. I wondered if I’d need a whole new system of dating now, like the Christian calendar. Before. After.
After. When I went to the bathroom I found a puddle of syrupy goo in my undies. Urinating took an effort and I felt bruised and swollen when I wiped myself. I washed each hand tenderly, and dried them on one of Melinda’s big luxurious towels. Sensual. Another soft word, a purr even.
When I got back to the living room they were seated in chairs. We’d been sitting on the floor for so long that I thought they looked stiff now, almost ceremonial.
Lea inclined her head graciously as I sat down. I could tell they’d been waiting for me, but I didn’t apologise. Melinda leaned over and poured me a cup of peppermint tea.
After a moment, Lea said, ‘I believe we’re ready to go deeper into the cunt now.’ She gave a prepared smile. ‘Deeper intellectually, that is. I’d like to talk about PEA. The key to orgasm is the chemical Phenethylamine, better known as PEA. It’s illegal in chemical form, although a small amount occurs naturally in chocolate.’
‘I have some –’ said Melinda. I watched her stop before admitting her chocolate was the illicit animal-fat derived kind.
‘PEA,’ Lea continued, ‘is produced by the brain and associated with feelings of love. It can also be produced by the brain under stress, and associated with feelings of fear. Something that frightens us as a child can trigger our PEA – this is the basis of adult fetishes. Otherwise innocuous things like feet or soft toys. A fear of being watched, say, or spanked, or out of control.
‘When you’re in love, you’re triggered by the PEA your body produced when you first fell for your partner. That’s why they bring you to orgasm. In theory.’
Melinda made a dainty steeple out of her hands. ‘Lea, do you mean we have to transfer our PEA onto our husbands – I mean, our sexual partners? And this will take … examining childhood memories? Like, playing doctors and … watching each other pee? With brothers and sisters and … cousins?’
‘You’ve read up on this,’ said Lea. ‘Well done.’
‘Which cousin?’ murmured Kim.
‘Mel. Which cousin.’
Melinda flushed. ‘Jasper.’
‘Ah! That spunk. I danced with him at your wedding.’
Lea looked at Melinda gently. ‘Have you tried masturbating to your cousin?’
‘This seems formative. Have you explored this experience physically – holistically – or just shallowly?’
Melinda squared her shoulders. ‘No, Lea,’ she said. ‘I haven’t masturbated to the memory of my eight-year-old cousin. And nor do I intend to.’
‘Do you mind if I do?’ said Kim. Lea sneered and Kim gave a mutinous flounce like a schoolgirl. The clock in the corner, a Danish modern reproduction with a stylised cuckoo, chipped away the silent seconds.
I heard the front door open. Melinda raised her head as if catching her husband’s scent.
‘Can anyone else offer PEA triggers?’ Lea asked. ‘Melinda, have you tried watching your husband piss? Getting him to piss on you?’
Melinda flapped her hands. ‘Shh. And no!’
‘Kim, have you ever been spanked?’
‘Get fucked, Lea. Seriously.’
‘No then. You have no intellectual bravery.’ Her voice sang out with sturdy conviction. Melinda scampered across the room and closed the door.
‘So what about you then?’ Kim asked Lea. ‘What does it for you? I’m guessing you’ve already mustered up the intellectual bravery to recognise your own triggers – is that right?’
I could hear Dylan talking on the phone in the other room. Dense grumbles that became clearer as he passed through the hall. ‘Mate, the reserve was one twenty. Boney hooked ‘em up to three seven four thou – and three hundred and fifty.’ It was a pleasure to hear his low male voice, his coded banalities.
When I get home tonight, I thought, I’ll play properly. Liszt and all my old friends. The tricky slippery Beethoven concertos.
‘They’re embryonic at this point,’ said Lea. ‘But yes, they’re there. A formative experience for me involved my great-grandmother’s fox stole.’
Melinda blinked. ‘What did it steal?’
‘I’m sorry, what? Her stole. Made of fox. She wore a fox stole.’
Kim leaned forward in a rictus of silent laughter.
‘With glass eyes and little clicky paws,’ said Lea, ignoring Kim. ‘When I was seven I had a dream that – well, it fucked me.’
My old rosewood Cremona, lying in sky blue velvet at the back of the wardrobe. I hadn’t played it for years, not since the Baroque recital. It needed two new strings, from memory. I wouldn’t play anything Baroque this time though – something ornate and Romantic.
‘Therefore a trigger for me is animals,’ said Lea.
‘Animals?’ said Melinda.
‘Animals. All through the spectrum of life and post-life.’
‘As in by-products.’
Bent over still, Kim let out a squeak. Her bare shoulders shuddered. I wanted to run my hand down the finely wrought knobs of her back. I imagined a tinkling sound like a xylophone.
‘Ho ho!’ shouted Dylan. ‘They crept up in increments of fifty at a time. Fifty! That man’s a skilful tease, I tell you what.’
‘I was hoping,’ said Lea, ‘to investigate this more fully in what I assumed to be a safe and mature space. But you’re unable to take any intelligent steps to remove or even acknowledge psychological obstacles. Either of you.’
Either. They didn’t seem to notice. Lea stood up, laid her teacup down with precision and walked primly to the door.
Kim raised her crumpled face, teary with laughter. ‘See you at work,’ she said. She turned to me and twisted her mouth into a quick humorous grimace.
‘You’ve left us a lot to think about, Lea,’ Melinda said carefully. ‘I’m sorry we didn’t create the, uh, space you wanted.’
Lea looked back at each of us in turn. I held her gaze, feeling it zinging straight into my third eye chakra. Then she swept out with a swish of her elegant scarf.
Rachmaninoff, that was it. Études-Tableaux Opus 33. The taut strings sending up great shivering vibratos.
We heard Lea pass Dylan in the hall. We turned in our chairs and prepared our faces to greet him, to offer him tea and breezy conversation. My thoughts drifted, idle and gauzy, as I moved my fingers in my lap. Sitting in chairs still felt fraudulent. The Matisse reproduction on the wall looked like a deconstructed paper doll.