Warning: This text includes descriptions of intimate partner abuse and may be disturbing to readers.
In this excerpt from Thora Hjörleifsdóttir’s debut novel, Magma, a woman narrates the evolution of an abusive relationship.
Listen to Thora Hjórleifsdóttir read “Chlamydia” in the original Icelandic.
I didn’t know it would be such a big deal; it’s not like it’s incurable. Nobody’s going to die. We’ll take antibiotics and then, ten days later, it’ll be gone. But now he thinks I’m a total slut. And I must be, since I’ve infected people. But I think he’s being unfair. It shouldn’t matter this much. He acts like I’ve rejected him because I’ve been with other men. We weren’t together when I went to Central America; we’d gone on one date and I hadn’t even slept with him. I was traveling alone, so I slept around because I had nothing better to do and I needed to fill in the gaps. I didn’t know that something would grow between us; in fact, I thought it’d never happen, but I became more and more taken with him as I traveled. He sent me near-constant emails and he was always ready to talk when I went to internet cafés. We just started to connect. When I came home, we clicked; I fell head over heels. He’s beautiful and smart—I don’t know how many books he owns, at least a few hundred, and he has this crazy DVD collection.
But the chlamydia kept eating at him. He wouldn’t stop interrogating me about the other boys. I held back at first. I only told him about one guy, a Norwegian in Cuba, and then I added the next one to the list—followed by the third, the fourth, the fifth, fuck, I can’t be expected to remember everything. I tried to explain that my memory isn’t really that great, but he thinks I’m lying. We were gliding on a smooth current, and now he wants nothing to do with me.
Listen to Thora Hjórleifsdóttir read “The Ex I” in the original Icelandic.
The Ex I
He still loves his ex-girlfriend, and they’re still close friends. She’s elegant and clever. She was at the top of her class in classics in school, they both know Latin, and they’re both well-read; they toss Derrida quotes around like it’s nothing. The other day, he asked me to meet him at a coffeehouse, so it was more than a little strange that he was sitting with her when I arrived. I felt humiliated, and I wanted to leave, to turn around and walk straight out, to disappear, but they’d already spotted me and I had to sit with them. It was one of the most uncomfortable afternoons of my life. I was stressed, sweating like a pig, and I got this weird tremor. They were so relaxed together, and so much smarter than me. They talked about movies I hadn’t seen, and they went on and on about things I hadn’t ever thought about. The Ex tried to bring me into the conversation by explaining, among other things, what a strawberry milkshake was—it’s when a man cums on a woman’s face and punches her in the nose, giving her a nosebleed. Snowballing, she went on, is when a man cums in a woman’s mouth and she spits it into his mouth. He’s told me about sex with her—how nice it was, how talented she is at blow jobs. I’m pretty bad at them; I just gag.
Listen to Thora Hjórleifsdóttir read “The Bike” in the original Icelandic.
He asked me to meet him at the bar one night, but I was home in the suburbs in Grafarvogur with my mom and dad, and I didn’t feel like it. I didn’t say it like that; I just said I was going to be with my little sister, but he got moody and weird. We were pretty much always together, so it felt like we’d become dependent on each other. That night, I noticed I couldn’t stand to sleep alone anymore; I was cold and I missed him. It was hard to fall asleep, I felt off, and I regretted not going out to meet him, but I felt a little guilty, too, for how little I’d seen my parents in the past few weeks. I tossed and turned because I couldn’t stop replaying the phone call in my head. I wanted to meet him, to check on him. Since I couldn’t sleep, I decided that I’d hop into my mom’s car and head to Vesturbær—I was going to surprise him, sneak into his bed, and wake up with him.
The front door to his place is always unlocked, so I showed myself in. In the entryway, I saw his shoes, alongside a pair of expensive heels from Kron. Sexy heels. I knew his roommate wouldn’t have brought home the type of girl who’d own these shoes. I figured that she’d be in the bed I’d gone there to slip into, and I didn’t need to go into the room to confirm it. I knew it. I knew in my gut that I hadn’t been enough. It’s obvious. I really thought we were going to be together—I’m a fucking idiot. Another woman always comes along.
I tiptoed into the bathroom and grabbed my toothbrush, my toiletries, my birth control. He’d wake up with this new girl and it’d be as if I’d never been there. My bike was outside the apartment, and I wheeled it over to the car. I was going to disappear from his life with all my stuff, and he wouldn’t even notice. The bike was really heavy, and it took me a while to figure out how to angle the wheel so that it fit into the trunk. I could never lift that bike by myself, but that night, I hardly felt a thing as I flung it over my shoulder and forced it into the car in a rush of adrenaline. I drove for a few minutes, parked the car by the ocean at a stretch of shore called Ægissíða, and howled with tears until there were no tears left, and then, and only then, did I trust myself to drive back to Grafarvogur. Everybody was still asleep. I snuck into my room and never let on that I’d gone out during the night.
I won’t speak to him again. I should’ve known that I’d never be good enough for him. If I’d just gone to the bar when he asked me, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. The girl with the great shoes is probably a vegetarian, I don’t want to know who she is, fucking slut.
Listen to Thora Hjórleifsdóttir read “Willpower I-II” in the original Icelandic.
He called, left a message, but I was a Teflon woman—everything slid off me.
For about fifteen minutes.
He invited me to his cousin’s graduation party. I was more than a little excited. This definitely meant that he wanted to be my boyfriend soon. You don’t just take your fuckbuddy to your cousin’s grad party. His younger cousin had passed all her exams, which took everyone by surprise; her mother sprang into action, planning the entire gathering in less than a day. The party was in Selfoss, an hour's drive for us, but it’s where his family lives. I borrowed my mom’s car, and as we drove past the lava fields at Hellisheiði, he told me that all his cousins on his mother’s side had competed in the Miss Southern Iceland pageant—it’d practically become a sport in his family. He’s good-looking, too, but he isn’t into these girls who cake on makeup for the county fair. I’m probably the first girl his cousin will meet who still has hair on her pussy.
I felt like a weed among the roses at the party; he didn’t introduce me to anyone, and he didn’t speak to anyone. He’d brought a book, which he read in a bedroom while his aunts and his mom sized me up in the living room. He hates chitchatting at these gatherings, it’s pointless, he says, so he always packs something to read. He says that parties give him time to enrich his internal life, to learn in the midst of mediocrity. He’s had enough of talking about the weather and how school is going.
After a while, his mom settled on introducing me as “a friend of her son.” Then his grandmother, who had sunk into a deep recliner in the living room, called out, “You know he has kids?” as she nibbled creamy cake from a tiny fork.
The aunts waited for the penny to drop. “Yes, I know about that,” I answered, holding my voice steady.
His grandmother continued: “I don’t think he’ll ever finish university. He really loves to read.” She let out a raspy laugh as she bent forward in the recliner, her plate seeming to refill itself with her daughter’s endless pastries.
In Cuba, I smoked filterless cigarettes called Flor de Aroma. They’re the best cigarettes I think I’ve ever smoked, hand-rolled in the region. They smell of tobacco flowers. They aren't as strong as cigars, but they are still intense. I smoked up all of them right after I left the tropics.
He thinks smoking is ridiculous. Only idiots smoke, he says. I’ve really cut down on my smoking, and now I only do it when I’m out or if I’m at a café. But after I’ve smoked, he sniffs me, frowns, refuses to kiss me. He says that I stink. The other day, he took it to the next level—he wants me to quit smoking, and for every cigarette I smoke from now on, he’s going to fuck eight women. I don’t want him to sleep with more girls. He should only be with me. I’ll never smoke again.
I’ve been working on my blow jobs. It’s not going very well. I always gag, sometimes loudly, and throw up in my mouth. But now I’ve started to swallow the puke and the bile and keep going instead of giving up right away, like I always did before. When I blow him, tears run down my cheeks, but I’m not crying, it’s just a reflex. I’m always surprised by how long it takes—I’m at it for half an hour or something before he cums, but in porn, it only takes about two minutes. Maybe I’m doing something wrong. But sometimes I can’t keep going, and it’s always right before he ejaculates, and then he gets pissed off and looks at my face, which is usually covered in tears, and says, “Wow, is being with me really that good?”
Plato’s Moon Child
It’s incredible to me that this big, strong man can also seem just like a fragile little boy. When we sleep together at night, he wraps himself around me, so peaceful and beautiful. We lie heavily against each other the entire night. Our bodies are two pieces of a puzzle. When we lie together, I feel like I’m finally complete. There’s neither too much nor too little; only a simple precision, just as it should be. Some mornings, when I wake up, he’s so hungry for me that he’s already pushed himself inside me. It’s almost automatic how he just slips in. Then he’s so gentle that I feel a sting of gratitude.
I really don’t own cosmetics; I’ve never been very good at dressing myself up. My makeup bag is so empty that when I unzip it, I expect moths to fly out. But instead, old mascara, half-empty powder, lipstick, and a Swiss Army knife clink around inside the bag. I bought the knife right before I traveled to Central America. I mainly used it to open beer, but I once used it to slice a mango on a beach on the way south, in Mexico.
It’s so wonderful how he likes me exactly as I am. He gets irritated, even seems hurt, if I put on makeup, and he asks accusingly, “Who are you doing that for?” I don’t understand why he gets so jealous; I would never want to be with anyone else. He’s so ethical, unlike anyone I’ve ever met. He just doesn’t want me to poison him with additives and preservatives. I don’t need to wear lipstick for him; he thinks my bare lips are perfectly kissable.
He keeps asking me about anal sex. I just say that I don’t understand why he wants it so much. Then he gets this dreamy look on his face and says he can’t even describe how good it feels. So tight and unique—something totally different. In the end, I give in.
It isn't good or bad, just uncomfortable, and I am so stressed the entire time. I worry that his penis might be like a plunger and when he takes it out of me, shit will just empty all over the bed. But that doesn't happen. When he is finished, he is so euphoric that I can't do anything other than feel happy along with him. I want him to believe I’m the best in bed.
He’s started to do it regularly—ride me in the ass. Once, he went from there straight into my pussy. I asked him to stop, asked him if I could just get a washcloth. I pictured his penis, the little clots of fecal matter that clung to it as it slid into my vagina. It was like an extreme version of wiping in the wrong direction. But he was so horny and so hungry for me that he couldn’t stop before he got off.
One of his childhood friends is going to get married in Selfoss, and he invited me to come with him. It’s the first time that I’ll meet any of his friends, apart from his roommate and his hopeless pickup artist pal. The ceremony was beautiful, everyone at the reception drunk on love. His friends thought I was really great, and one even said to him in astonishment, “Where have you been hiding this one?” We drank and danced, he twirled me in a circle on the dance floor and kissed me in front of everyone. He’s usually so private; he never does anything like that.
As night approached, we took a bus with his friends back to Reykjavik. On the way, he kissed me and, for the first time, said that he loved me. He said it again and again, I love you, I love you. When we arrived in town, I was pretty tired and much too drunk, so I went straight to his place. He went to Kaffibarinn with his friends. I woke up alone the next morning. He came home around noon and jumped straight into the shower.
He’s peeled me like an onion. Surrounded by the leavings of my own sallow skin, I’ve dwindled to nothing, and my eyes smart.
“What’s this? Do you still have a fever?” Mom asked when I climbed into the passenger seat.
“No, no. I think I’m coming around,” I answered, flipping on the radio. It was just past four in the afternoon, but the sun was on its way down. As we inched forward in the traffic, Mom told me about some friend drama with my sister, Gunna. One of the girls had had sex for the first time, and she showed Gunna and the other girls a pair of bloody underpants to prove it.
“They’re only twelve—should they be having sex already?” Mom asked, launching back into her story before I had a chance to respond. “Gunna’s lost all interest in the piano. We really have to push her to practice at home.” My mother talked and talked as we slowly made our way toward the shopping center at Skeifan. I leaned against the cold window, watching a drizzle of sleet fall to the sidewalk, melt into the grayness of the pavement.
Mom parked in front of a pricey furniture store and unstrapped her seat belt. I felt like I couldn’t move. I had no way to muster energy for this snob store.
“Come on,” Mom said, urging me to unhook my seat belt. I had such a lump in my throat, I couldn’t speak. As soon as we made eye contact, I broke into tears. She was completely taken aback. By sheer force of will, I was able to stutter, between deep sobs, “I’m . . . not . . . doing so . . . well . . .”
Mom leaned over the armrest, wrapped her arms around me, tried to comfort me. I felt I didn’t deserve how good she was with me, not with how self-centered I’d been. In a calm, almost sedative voice, she asked, “What’s wrong, love?”
I couldn’t tell her what happened, couldn’t talk about it. I had promised to keep the secret, but only halfheartedly. I lifted my arms, turned my wrists toward her.
Mom gasped. And said sadly, “My girl.” She tightened her arms around my shaking frame, and we cried together to the murmur of traffic in the parking lot.
Night after night, I have the same nightmare: I’m having cocktails, and I’m surrounded by attractive, well-to-do people. The scene glitters with light refracting off crystal champagne flutes and necklaces clasped around women’s necks. Frivolous laughter. The clinking of glasses. In the middle of the room, under an enormous crystal chandelier, there’s an elegant buffet set with exotic fruits, berries, and colorful canapés. In the middle of the table lies a thin girl, stripped of her clothes. She’s awake, staring straight ahead, sublimely detached. Before her, a row of carefully laid knives, sharpened to a sure point, not unlike the sterile scalpels of surgical carts. A grand middle-aged woman in an emerald dress that drags on the floor taps a spoon on her glass, announcing that it’s time to dig in. They line up one after another, slicing into the wafer-thin skin, binging on the pale morsels of her body. I go up to the girl, prod her with a knife, but she doesn’t react. I slice strip loin from her skinny frame, relishing the cold, salty meat.
As the room empties out, the woman in the green gown is beside herself because there’s so much food left over. She asks me to take the remains of the meal home.
I follow the woman into the kitchen. The girl is standing there, ghostly pale, wrapped in plastic. I throw her over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes, carry her to my car. But it feels too cruel to put her in the trunk, so I place her in the passenger seat. When I put the car in gear, she begins to tremble violently, as if she’s just come alive, and she begins to breathe quickly, erratically. I take her home, wrap a blanket around her, and talk to her. She doesn’t seem to comprehend anything. She shakes, consumed by choked breaths. I can’t save her. I can’t ease her suffering. I am complicit. I know she won’t linger much longer. I try to offer her food. I try to do something good for her, but I know the time for salvation has passed.