I read Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying at 19 during my first year of college, around the time my then-boyfriend and I were working together to give me my first orgasm. In the most iconic riff of the novel, protagonist Isadora Wing describes a one-hour trip from Heidelberg to Frankfurt, which she would take four times a week to see her analyst. On the train, she would see beautiful German men and have elaborate sexual fantasies, including one involving an Italian widow and a soldier in a train compartment. She famously called this a “zipless fuck….not because the participants are so devastatingly attractive, but because the incident has all the swift compression of a dream and is seemingly free of all remorse and guilt.”
When I set off on a study abroad program in Europe myself a few years later in 1994, I did so with Jong’s zipless fuck in my mind. I would get a Eurail pass, travel alone, and have hot, anonymous sex with a chain-smoking French intellectual.
But unfortunately for my scheme, I had chosen to study in Sweden, and from a Jongian perspective this was unintelligent. The Swedish men I met in my first few months had little interest in a zaftig, Jewish (they pronounced it “You-ish”) girl with unruly hair and a five-foot-four-inch frame. Why would they, when they could sleep with towering goddesses who looked like background extras from The Sound of Music? My dark New York humor was not a romantic asset, whether because of the language barrier or the fact that irony is socially unacceptable in Sweden except when accompanied by blackout-drunkenness and anger.
So when a New York friend invited me to visit her in Bologna, I was thrilled. .I arranged to take the train partway and packed a bag full of Charles Bukowski, Kathy Acker, and Knut Hamsun.
The first leg of my trip was from Stockholm to Copenhagen, and then I had a two-hour wait before my next train to Aachen, Germany. As I headed down the platform in Copenhagen, a hot young man passed. He had dark brown skin, shoulder-length hair and he wore a tattered T-shirt. From his stature and complexion, he had to be Italian or French.
I sat on a bench to wait for my train and noticed the muscular hottie on the other side of the bench reading a book. I glanced over to try to see what language it was in so I could get an idea of how to rank his sex appeal, but I couldn’t get close enough to see the author or language.
I pulled an apple out of my backpack and tried to munch it seductively. He looked at me and said in English tinged with an indeterminable accent, “Is this the track for the Aachen train?” I said yes. When the train came, I looked right at him and got on. I found an empty compartment and peeked out the door. He was coming my way.Our dialogue contained no Jongian-quality ripostes, but it didn’t matter. He was my zipless fuck, and he didn’t need to be well read.
“Can I sit here?” he asked.
It turned out he was Swedish. His name was Peder Mota (or Pete Moat in English). He was on his way to Fontaine Bleu to go mountain climbing with some friends. He was from a suburb of Stockholm, which he hated because everyone there was rich and boring. I thought he was a little boring, but I didn’t say that because he was going to be my zipless fuck and the whole idea was not to judge. I asked him what he did for a living. He said, “I’m a painter.”
“Really? What do you paint?”
“Houses. Walls, floors, ceilings.”
“So is mountain-climbing your passion?”
“No, it’s fun, but my ultimate fantasy is to become a policeman.”
I asked him what book he had been reading on the platform. He said something by Robert Ludlum. He was slowly evolving from my fantasy of a sexy French intellectual into my nightmare of a boring, dumb Swede.
I told him I was into Charles Bukowski, and he said he’d read some of his books. I sat up straighter in my seat. “I have a tape of Bukowski and his wife being interviewed by Barbet Schroeder, the director of Barfly,” I said. “Bukowski gets really angry with Linda, and you can hear him flip over a chair. Do you want to hear it?” He said yes, and I put the headphones on him and watched him a long time while he listened.
The door to our compartment opened and a short guy with headphones came in, sat down and opened a textbook. Pete and I kept talking until it was dark outside. I suggested that maybe we should turn out the light and pull out the beds soon. The headphones guy looked up and said in English that he had to study for an exam. “If you want to sleep, you can find another compartment,” he said.
Pete and I got up, picked up our bags, and moved a couple doors down. We pulled out one of the beds and lay on it side by side. I said I didn’t think I would get any sleep because I can never sleep on trains.
He said, “I might get some sleep. That depends on you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing. That was yust a yoke.”
He put his hand on my side and started moving his arm up and down my side. I turned around to kiss him, and we rolled around for a while in silence as the train rattled along. “I noticed you in Copenhagen,” he said, “when you were eating that apple. I thought, ‘That girl is pretty.’”
Our dialogue contained no Jongian-quality ripostes, but it didn’t matter. He was my zipless fuck, and he didn’t need to be well read.
We kept making out. The train bumped. I admired his dexterity. He said he had a girlfriend. I was nervous to have sex because I was AIDS-phobic and didn’t have a condom, so we fooled around, groping, sucking, clutching. Then I felt the need to look at his body (for posterity), so I could tell my friend in Bologna about him after I arrived.
I asked to look at him, and he stood up in the moonlight. He was skinnier than he felt but toned nonetheless. I panned down his torso like the camera in Thelma and Louise during the Brad Pitt shot. When I got below his belly button, I saw that spread out evenly and nonchalantly below his pubic hair were what appeared to be two uncircumcised penises.
My first thought was that it was just my luck to find a zipper containing two penises. I looked from one to the other and back again. “It looks like you have two penises,” I said.
“Stereo sound,” he said and smiled.
I leaned forward and held them in my hands. Upon closer inspection, I could see that one of them was actually a very big ball. I reached behind the penis to pull out the other ball and held them in my hand, marveling at the difference in their stature. “One is so big, and one is so small,” I said. “Why?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes one of them yust grows.” He started stroking my side again, but I turned my back and pretended to be asleep.
I was angry with him for not being my perfect fantasy. For being Northern European and not Southern, for reading Robert Ludlum, for wanting to be a cop instead of an artist. And on top of everything, or should I say, next to everything, was that one big ball.
As the train chugged away and I could hear Pete Moat begin to snore, I wondered if he’d been sent to me as a reminder that the Z.F. is only an idea—real strangers come with quirks and disappointments. And he hadn’t been completely disappointing. He was a good kisser, he restored my confidence in my body, and he’d even read a little Bukowski. He made me realize my own ridiculous shallowness.
Later on in her riff on Z.F., Isadora Wing says, “A sure way to exorcise an infatuation was to write about someone, to observe his tics and twitches, to anatomize his personality in type. After that he was an insect on a pin, a newspaper clipping laminated in plastic. I might enjoy his company, even admire him at moments, but he no longer had the power to make me wake up trembling in the middle of the night. I no longer dreamed about him. He had a face.”
In the morning, the train stopped in Aachen and Pete and I got off. We sat on a bench outside and shared cookies and juice. He said he wondered if we would ever see each other again. I said, “I think our night would be the most perfect if we didn’t.