he Hungarian Anesthesiologist is having trouble focusing. His eyes strain to settle somewhere between my apparently impressive breasts and the Great Beyond.
But he’s focused, all right.
“I’d like to have sexual relations with you,” he slurs, eyelids bobbing up and down like a drowning man in rapids.
I raise my eyebrows. I haven’t been within 5,000 miles of my husband, Steve, in three months. The last three weeks in Turkey have been particularly rough, the sexual pressure increasingly, ahem, mounting. Despite my noncheating ways, or perhaps because of them, there is a supernova of TAKE ME NOW! radiating out between my thighs. I am confusing men (and some women) with it. Still, I’m not going to shtup this guy on the Istanbul-Budapest train clink-clunk-clinking through the foggy Bulgarian night.
But I wish this anesthesiologist would try a little harder. I’m worth it, even if I’m not going to put out. His come-on lacks all art. It’s comical and clinicalâ€”a fatal combo. Maybe this approach works with the unconscious. (“Don’t move if you want to have sexual relations. Okay, I will do as you ask.”)
We are six hours into a two-day train ride from Istanbul to Budapest and three hours into the screw-top red wine I brought with me. Earlier, the Hungarian Anesthesiologistâ€”let’s call him HAâ€”and his travelmate, the impressively overweight Trauma Bone Surgeon (never has there been a more grievous collision of three words), invited me to hang out in their compartment, which is right next to mine. We three are the only passengers in this car. TBS disappeared a while ago with beer and a CD player. I am sitting cross-legged across from HA. I took off my shoes hours ago, a pair of black mules I bought in Istanbul that are the first really feminine thing I’ve worn in months.
HA leans forward and puts his hands on my knees. I raise my eyebrows so high they’re climbing into my scalp, but I don’t remove his hands. Not just yet. It has been three months since I’ve had hands on my thighs that weren’t my own. I feel like one of those mangy guard dogs at Coney Island that used to be locked in all winter with the rides. They would lean into the fence when you passed by, staring at you with needy eyes, hoping you’d touch them just a little, just for a moment of warmth, just for a merciful reprieve from their soul-hollowing lack of pack.
HA is monumentally drunk, existentially drunk, in-outer-orbit drunk. He slides his paws up my thighs. His face attempts a wolfish leer, achieves sleepy puppy. He is quite cute. When he nears the fun zone, I shove them off.
Leaning back, he switches tactics. “I’d like to fuck you.”
Now that’s better! A little enthusiasm!
“But you are so beautiful,” he protests.
“You’re so drunk,” I correct him. “And I told you. I’m married.”
“Yes,” he says with a charmingly insouciant shrug. “But your husband is very far away.”
“That is true,” I agree.
There is a silence as I realize this full weight of this. My husband is really very far away. So far away this one-night stand could happen and he would never, ever know. Hey! Maybe it would even be his fault that I cheated. Sex is a natural and healthy part of mental and physical hygiene. Where the hell is he when I need him? It’s not fair, dammit. So what if I’m the one traveling around the world for months and he’s the one holding down the fort back in Brooklyn? That’s just a technical difference. He’s not here, and I am so horny I might swoon.
Or maybeâ€”and here comes the second realizationâ€”it’s the combination of Xanax and wine that’s making me all romance-novel-cover. Anticipating sleeping in a crowded couchette car for six, I had taken the anti-anxiety pill just before getting on the train. Turns out the car was mine alone. Now reality is coated with a thick gel. It’s like maneuvering through a languid underwater version of a classic scene. Woman Flees Overly Persistent Suitor in Slo-Mo.
“I think it’s time for me to go,” I say, twisting closed the cap on the bottle of wine.
And that’s when HA grabs my foot and shoves in his mouth.
As he moans around my toes, I start to laugh. It’s absurd and unreal. It’s like being attacked by an enthusiastic labrador. Woman Flees Foot Fetishist. But he is sincerely transported, groaning and whimpering at once, revealing such a deep need that even as I laugh at the bizarreness of the situationâ€”is a Hungarian anesthesiologist really huffing my feet on a crappy train through Eastern Europe?â€”I feel a sort of tender pity. I don’t know if there’s anything in this world that makes me as ecstatic as my toes are making him. Kicking him off would be like kicking a puppy.
I wait until HA pauses to breathe and gently extract my foot from his grasp. I slide it, damp, into my shoe. His shoulders sag. He seems vulnerable and defeated, and suddenly far more sober.
“Well, good night,” I say lightly.
“Yes, good night.”
The next day at 4 pm, we pull into Videle, Romania, to wait for our car to get hitched to a train to Budapest, where HA and TBS are returning after three weeks backpacking in eastern Turkey (they smell like it), and I have to catch yet another train to Warsaw. It’s roughly 18 hours after we left Istanbul, and Videle is, honestly, nofuckingwhere. It’s so quiet that it takes me an hour to realize we’ve even stopped. Even my book, which is pretty lousy read, is more engaging. We have three hours to wait for the Budapest train.
There is no food or water for sale on the train, and the only amenities are sheets and a pillow, which are surprisingly clean, and a bathroom, which is unsurprisingly not. In Videle, you can restock for the overnight trip to Budapest if you have Romanian currency, known as lei. I do not. Coming back from the station shop, HA loans me some. I promise to pay him back when we arrive in Budapest the next morning. “Oh no no, this is no problem,” he says, avoiding my eyes to take in the stray dogs lounging between the train tracks. He looks queasy and embarrassed.
I buy sausage and feta cheese and some deep-fried snack that is the unholy union of a potato chip and a peanut. I’m almost out of wine, so I also buy beer.
According to TBS, who has periodically joined me in the hall of the car to lean his forearms on the open windows and breathe in the sometimes green, sometimes mechanical air of the relentlessly November-gray Romanian countryside, HA has spent the day yakking out the window and sleeping it off. When HA loans me money, it’s the first time I’ve see him since the border crossing the night before. Border police had banged on our compartment doors at 4:30 am. For 30 minutes or eternity, dozens of people zombified by interrupted sleep had wandered around on the tracks as if waiting for a cue from George Romero. As we looked out the train window, HA pleaded with me not to leave the train with my passport, as if the undead really were out there waiting to eat our brains.
“You cannot go,” he said, nearly in tears, weakly holding my arm. “You cannot. You must not. No. You are too beautifulâ€””
“I’m too beautiful to get my passport stamped?” I snarled, yanking my arm out of his grasp. I do not wake from a wine-Xanax coma in a good mood. I promptly went outside and did my own undead shuffle until herded into a cruelly bright office where after filling out a tourism questionnaire about my visit to Turkey (why? at 4:30 am? on the Bulgaria-Romania border? is this a dream?) my passport was stamped. Eventually we got back on the train. I slept well. I had a pleasant day in my compartment listening to music, writing, and watching the green fields flutter by.
Now, as nightfall nominally darkens the already bleak landscape, we pull out of Videle. The train chugs along. I read. The window is open to the cool and damp air. I am cocooned in the warmth of my sleeping bag. It’s a delicious combination.
A couple of hours later, HA and TBS invite me next door. HA seems to want to pretend nothing happened as much as I do. I bring the rest of the wine, as well as the feta cheese and sausage and beer from Videle.
We talk about Hungarian music for a while, about which I know exactly nothing, and then about Goethe and Kerouac, about whom I know only a bit more, having never read Goethe (one of those Somedays) and having hated On the Road. (As far as I’m concerned, the Beats can suck it.) TBS stays long enough to bum a Xanax and then disappears, as he had the night before, into an empty car with beer and his CD player. I wonder if he thinks HA is going to get into my pants. I get the feeling this isn’t the first time this has happened. TBS has the long-practiced resignation of the sidekick who gets out of the way while his good-looking friend gets the girl.
And the fact is: HA is awfully attractive. He is lean and fit with pale blue eyes. He is unassuming. He’s intelligent, well traveled, and well read.
But, as I dutifully recall, I’m married, and there’s only wine in me tonight, so I’m horny but not swooning. I relax into our conversation. We are on the not-so-cheery topic of anti-Semitism in Hungary when I stretch my feet across the aisle, cramped from sitting cross-legged for so long. They are perhaps 24 inches from him. My toenails are painted a slutty purple exactly the color of my mom’s favorite boots in 1981, which was applied six weeks ago during a friendly but half-assed pedicure in Kerala, India. My feet also have a less appealing film of sleeping-bag sweat and Istanbul street dust.
As we talk, HA keeps glancing down at my feet. Just to see what will happen, I begin to use my right foot as a tool of emphasis, pointing it around the car as I describe how when I was 13, my best friend, who was Hungarian, was suddenly not allowed to be friends with me anymore. “Her father told my father that he didn’t want his daughter to be friends with a Polish Jew,” I say, aiming my foot toward the compartment door. His head swoops to the left. “My father only told me this about five years ago.” My foot wags from side to side, and his eyes follow it as if watching a tennis match. “I don’t know what my dad was more stunned by: the guy’s anti-Semitism,” I continue, my foot briefly alighting on my opposite knee, “or that the guy thought he was Jewish,” I finish, bringing my foot to rest on the red velour next to him. I casually cross my ankles.
“But what about your feet?” he abruptly asks.
“My feet?” I say innocently.
“Yes, how are they feeling? Would you like a foot massage?”
I’d take a free foot massage from a crackhead outside the Port Authority. I promptly rest my heels on his kneecaps. He begins to rub the ball of my foot. His neck is tense; his mouth wants to strain toward them, but he resists.
“So you like feet, doncha?” I say conversationally.
“Yes, very much,” he says, not meeting my eyes. We’re silent as he rubs my feet, roaming from the heel to the pad, rolling the knuckles between his fingers like money, squeezing and kneading as if working bread dough. He tries to keep his mouth away.
The thing is, he isn’t very good at massage. Perhaps this foot fetish is new territory for him, an urge he’s only beginning to explore. Perhaps this train ride through interchangeable countrysideâ€”connected to nothing in his real life, where he puts people to sleep for a living, where perhaps his girlfriend (does he have one? I don’t even know) freaked out when he rolled his tongue around her pinky toe one brave nightâ€”has opened up to him the possibility of doing something he has long desired, something he may have been told isn’t right but feels oh so right, something that only he and I would ever know about.
Suddenly I am cringing with guilt. I had thought this was an equal exchange. He gets to touch my grubby feet, and I get a free foot massage. But it seems clear that I’m taking advantage of him. What would my husband say about abusing this guy’s kink just to get a foot rub? Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. That’s what. I try not to think about what he would say about letting HA touch me at all.
I lift my feet out of HA’s palms.
“Thank you very much,” I say lightly.
There is a silence.
“I should probably go.”
“Yes, good night.”
We pull into the Budapest central station about 8 am. HA and TBS figure out their respective trains, say goodbye, and then HA helps me to find the line to Warsaw. With a wave, he quickly takes off.
It’s only a week later as I am boarding a flight from Warsaw to London that I realize I never repaid him for the lei.