Societal pressure and the corrosive effect of ambition are at the heart of this short story by Fríða Ísberg.
We shell time from the nuts and teach it to walk:
time returns to the shell.
–– Paul Celan, “Corona” (Trans. Pierre Joris)
She’s in the middle of moving the first time she sees him. Or notices him is maybe a more accurate way to put it, you never know in Reykjavik, she’s probably seen him dozens of times over the years. Crossed paths with him in the mall. Sat across from him in the hot pot at the neighborhood pool.
It’s mid-September and the days are all a faded blue. She and Indriði have just broken up. The leaves crunch when she steps on them. Everything smells like a beginning, even though it’s actually an ending. Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends. This line keeps running through her head. It’s from a Paul Celan poem, “Corona.” She’s tried translating it, but the more she reads it, the more cryptic it becomes.
She’s relieved more than anything. But she feels guilty, too. They’re still engaged on Facebook. When they were together, she’d used all the big words—soulmates, love of my life—she’d talked at length, and openly, about their future children. “No one knows where their life is going until it’s gotten there,” someone had said—who now? Grandma? Aunt Lára?—but she’d waved away such words of warning like a bad smell. She knew what she wanted. She and Indriði would have a good, long life together: pancakes on Sundays, sheet cake mid-week, knitting needles and a pipe (he’d do the knitting, she the pipe smoking), and when they saw the end was nigh, they’d walk up a mountain or into the sea. Meet death holding hands. Or something like that.
She inches her car into the lot at Sorpa, the dump and recycling center on the western edge of town. He’s in a pair of coveralls made from some kind of reflective material. He’s wearing two company-issued neck warmers, both pink—one around his throat and pulled up over his chin, the other around his head and over his ears. He’s got an honest air about him. His Icelandic is delicate. Almost fragile, breakable.
Stubble, a few days’ worth. Melancholy eyes. Eyebrows like humped caterpillars. He, too, is searching her face as he instructs her on what goes into which dumpsters. There’s a big broken mirror in her trunk that she needs to throw out.
“Nice nose,” he says before she drives over to the right container.
She pulls shards from the mirror one by one. The slivers shatter into smaller fragments when she tosses them into the dumpster like they’ve done something to her. The dumpster’s almost empty, and she likes making such a racket. She pauses for a moment with the last shard and examines her nose.
It’s a bit sharp. Like a teacher’s pointer.
She flings the shard into the dumpster with unnecessary force, like some sort of unruly teenager. Looks around. Just as well that this only counts as one mirror. Otherwise, she’d be looking at decades of bad luck. At least five times seven. Thirty-five years.
Indriði calls her every night, says he’s having trouble sleeping. “I haven’t slept alone since I was fifteen,” he says. She hears him pacing the floor as he talks to her. He’s stressed. Can’t stand change. Sometimes, he shows up late at night and tries to kiss her on the mouth. Hugs her tight and long and strokes her hair.
“You and I are sponges,” she tells him. “There’s an indentation in you that’s shaped like me. There’s an indentation in me that’s shaped like you. It takes time to re-expand.”
The next time she sees him is a week later, in the car. It’s around five—he must be on his way home from the dump. The weather’s come full circle. A low-pressure system has passed over and the sky’s turned a beautiful blue once again, like a new beginning, except now the leaves aren’t crackly but wet. She’s on her way to dinner at her parents’ house. She’s got both windows rolled down and is inching along in first gear. Somewhere behind her, she hears the opening bars of “Girl from the North Country”—another car must have its windows open, too. It’s the Nashville Skyline version, the one Dylan did with Johnny Cash. She switches off her radio to listen.
At the next light, a car in the next lane runs the yellow and the music gets louder. It’s coming from an old Jeep Cherokee with faux wood siding that stops next to her at the light. She used to think faux wood was tacky, but now she thinks it’s cool. It takes a moment for her to recognize him. He’s not wearing his garbage uniform; his left arm is resting on the driver’s-side door. He’s humming along with the song. They’re both at the front of their lanes. She hurries to look ahead again before he notices her.
Why is it that your subconscious can tell when another living being is looking at you? Like some sort of built-in security system. Homo securitas.
He looks at her right as she’s looking away. She can feel his gaze. Does he recognize her? The song ends and the next one on the album begins—the one that’s just guitar picking.
She turns at the next intersection, heads west though she needs to go east. Takes the long way along the coastal road.
Her parents mourn the relationship like they would an only son. Her mom makes a point of telling her that there aren’t necessarily more fish in the sea—the best ones are always the first to go. “Stop it, all right—I’m twenty-four,” she says. In a huff, her mother purses her lips, sets plates on the table, and clatters three sets of silverware down in the middle. Her dad sighs deeply a few times. It’s the lack of reasons they can’t accept. They paw at her answers like dogs at a closed door. Doesn’t she love him anymore? What happened? Only a few weeks ago, they’d been so happy together.
Yes, she still loves him.
“Then what?” her mother asks impatiently.
“I don’t know,” she answers. “I just want to be alone.”
After dinner, she takes the long way back to her apartment. Drives out to the lighthouse and then back home from there. On the way, she tries to imagine what his name might be. Sævar. Or Stefán. Something ordinary. But not Kristján. Or Markús. She has a hard time shaking off the look he gave her. Feels almost self-conscious sitting there in the car, as if he were about to barrel up next to her at any moment. Does he have children? A wife? How many gray hairs has he had? No more than forty-two—forty-three at most.
Indriði calls her that night. He’s three sheets and a thousand ideas, rattling on about some trip he wants to take around the world. She mm-hmms, encourages him, Mongolia would be something, sure. Vietnam, yeah. But then he stops speaking in the singular and shifts into the plural. “Maybe I’ll” turns into “We could,” and she can’t find any opening to interrupt and gently turn down the invitation. Scrolls through her feed while he blathers on. One of her former classmates is pregnant. She likes her aunt’s new profile picture.
“So, there’s this girl on Facebook who’s been talking to me.”
“Oh, yeah?” she says. “Talking to you? You’re not talking back?”
“I don’t know how to do this stuff.”
“Well, try asking her out.” She has trouble with the idea as soon as she says it. “Take her to a movie.”
“Maybe I will then,” he says and hangs up.
She thinks about him often—Sævar or Stefán or whatever his name is. He pops up at night, when she’s driving alone and listening to music or taking a walk around the neighborhood. She realizes that she’s romanticized this man out of all proportion, turned him into a relic of a bygone era who puts milk and two sugars in his coffee and listens to AM radio every morning. She has no idea if he takes milk and sugar in his coffee or ever listens to the radio, and even if he does, that doesn’t mean he’s some rare species on the verge of extinction. But the bottom line remains the same: working at the dump doesn’t define him. His coveralled modesty. His beautiful Icelandic. She knows this, and yet she still thinks of him as the garbageman.
That same month, she realizes that she’s never going to stop striving as long as she’s in Reykjavik. She can’t figure out how to shrug out of her ambition. It doesn’t make any difference if she slows down, refuses to run. She’s still on the track. It doesn’t matter how often she reminds herself that she’s not falling behind, not losing to anyone: “Life isn’t a competition. Life is living. Life is drinking coffee and enjoying your day.” Sometimes, little showers of terror rain over her and she feels like she should quit her job at the nursing home and figure out what she really wants to do with her life. Whenever she runs into her former high school classmates out at bars or in coffeehouses, they ask what she’s doing and then she feels like she should be doing something more than reading books, baking cakes, and wiping old people’s bottoms. “And then what?” is always the question that comes next. No one expects that this might be enough for her.
She can’t seem to shake Indriði, either. He comes by on Saturdays after the bars close, three or four in the morning, scruffy and desperate.
“It’s abusive,” her friends say. “Accosting you like that.”
“He’s in a bad place.”
“That’s not your problem. Do you know how many people are in a bad place?”
“Why have we all absolved ourselves of the responsibility we have to one another? There’s a difference between being codependent and empathetic.”
She lets Indriði in and lets him sleep in her bed. Holds him and lets him hold her.
“And then what?” her friends ask.
“And then nothing,” she says. “He knows how I feel.”
Uncertainty begets anxiety. Wanting to ease off the clutch, but only knowing how to go up or down a gear. She wants tranquility, but she also wants to be something. You can have your cake and eat it, too, Dylan sings in “Lay Lady Lay.” She thinks about the garbageman and how calm he was. Comfortable in his own skin. She doesn’t see him again until long after New Year’s, on a Sunday at the start of April. During what she thinks of as the waking week, that stretch in April during which the whole nation keeps leaping out of bed far too early—tricked by the premature sunlight, confused when the clock shows it’s only five, five-thirty—only to sigh and fall back onto their pillows, skin clammy and eyes clenched tight against the brightness for two more hours.
Baby prams. Bicycles. Beautiful coats. She sees him in his Jeep and thinks: This is a man who only exists on blue days. She’s just come out of a bakery, is standing at the intersection waiting for the walk signal. He’s ordinary, wearing a black lopapeysa, with that same three-day stubble that he always has. He catches sight of her, lifts a hand. It takes her a minute to realize he’d been waving hello. Then he’s driven past. She sees his eyes appear in the rearview mirror. Goes up to the window of the ice cream shop on the other side of the street and sees herself reflected there. Why does he remember her? She runs her index finger down the bridge of her nose.
Part of her wants to put her arms around him and save him. Such are the thoughts that creep up on her way home. Her pastries long since forgotten in the bag hanging from her wrist. She could invite him over the next time she sees him, for coffee. Buy a little carton of creamer to have on hand.
She briefly looks up at the sky. Svanur. That would suit him.
By the time she opens the door to her apartment, she’s irritated with herself for thinking he needs saving. Ambition is a weed she wants to pull up by the roots, but its roots are like veins inside her. She was raised on ambition. Fed on her parents’ pride. By hearing them say her name to strangers in the shop. “Why don’t you come back home?” they ask. “Save for an apartment, go to university? We’ll help you.”
Her ambition can’t understand how a person can be comfortable in his own skin and work as a garbageman. She herself can’t understand how a person can be comfortable in her own skin with this kind of ambition inside her.
There are more blue days after that, and she always expects him to appear. It doesn’t occur to her to make a trip down to Sorpa. Indriði calls occasionally, and every time, there’s a lull in the conversation and then he asks her if she’s started talking to other guys. No, she isn’t talking to other guys. He says he isn’t going out with other girls, but sometimes she hears that someone saw him downtown, making out with someone she knows—or someone she doesn’t. She’d prepared herself for a physical reaction when she found out that he’d started sleeping with other people again. “It’ll make you gag,” her friend told her. “Like you’re going to throw up. Feelings are everywhere. Not just in your head.” But the first time she hears about her former fiancé’s new love life, she has to search her pockets for any trace of jealousy. She doesn’t find any.
June arrives and the blue days turn a brilliant, sunshine yellow. On cloudless summer days, the sun is too bright. She stops paying attention to who or what is around her, just lies out on the balcony when she’s not working at the nursing home, reads book after book, eats whole liters of homemade ice cream, doesn’t pick up when her parents call. They’re worst at the start of the month, right before the university’s registration deadline. They’re casual—just calling to chat, hear what she’s been up to—but it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to their friends’ kids, who are studying business, nursing, academic counseling, Italian. “Just something,” they say. “You have to use your gifts. You’re so smart.”
Where should she go? East? North? West? She could say she was going backpacking like other kids her age and then find herself somewhere cheap to live where she could just let the minutes hop along like mice across a field of snow.
The last time she sees him, it’s fall again. Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends. She’s going through security, has taken off her shoes and belt. Walks hesitantly through the scanner, sure the alarm will pip. It’s the same feeling she always has whenever she encounters someone in a position of authority. When she sees a police car drive past or walks out of a shop without buying something. This urge to turn out her pockets and hold up her hands.
He walks through the scanner next to hers.
He nods at her like they’re old acquaintances and waits for her by the entrance to Duty Free. He’s dressed in black and carrying an old-fashioned leather satchel.
“Nice to see you,” he says.
“You too,” she answers. They smile.
“You fleeing the country?” he asks, his caterpillar brows arching their backs.
This cracks him up. “Me too.” They walk slowly through Duty Free. He says he’s on his way to Sweden, one way. She’s got a ticket to the Czech Republic, one way. She doesn’t have a job or apartment, but if the exchange rate holds, the money she made over the summer will float her for a few months.
“Can I buy you a coffee?” he asks. Sure, he can, she says. They pick the quietest cafeteria and he orders two cups of coffee. He’s clean-shaven now. She can see more of his face this way, the places where his skin has started to slacken. She notices old craters along his scalp and at the base of his cheekbones.
They’re relaxed, both of them. She’s dressed for vacation, wearing a dress and suede jacket. He adds milk and two sugar cubes to his coffee. Then they make their way to a tall bar table by a window that looks out toward the airplanes. They sit. He introduces himself, looking at her nose as he does.
“Steinar,” she repeats, comparing the name with the man. A good, strong Icelandic name, as her grandmother might say. A sturdy name. Stone.
How did the Celan poem end? It is time that the stone took the trouble to bloom.
Yes, she agrees. It’s time.
From Kláði. © 2018 by Fríða Ísberg. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Larissa Kyzer. All rights reserved.