Slouching Towards Reykjavik

Frederic and I have been talking more, in a manner reminiscent of how we spoke when we were Just Friends.  Can men and women ever be friends?  Does the sex part always get in the way, as Billy Crystal once suggested?  I don’t know.  I know nothing about men – not the American ones, not the European ones.  And the thing that truly escapes me is why they inevitably move on from me to someone more Nordic.

Maybe I attract it.  I too love all things North Atlantic.

I think it began in March 2005.  It was the day after my birthday, and the Washington Post published a travel article about one writer’s quest to explore Iceland.  He had driven the Ring Road; visited many of the country’s public swimming pools.  I read the article three times that night on the paper’s website.

Darling, I said to Andrew, Let’s go to Iceland.  You know how I love to swim.

Iceland is cold. You don’t like the cold, he reminded me.

I let it drop.  But I never forgot about Iceland. It was a private obsession; a fantasy land where there were no cats, and the streets were paved with cheese.

Fast forward to the Autumn of 2007, and the world was ending while Frederic sort-of propped me up.  I would say to him, Let’s go to Reykjavik. I’ve never been.

We’re married to other people, he’d remind me.  We’d sit in our offices – on the 41st and 42nd floors of the MetLife Building, respectively – and dream.  In those days, I had an unobstructed view all the way up Park Avenue.  On a clear day, I’d swear I could see to Westchester.

We’re friends.  I just want to go swimming.

Iceland became one of the many things we were going to do: run the New York City marathon; travel to the Caribbean; buy a house in New Jersey where we could both write; take that trip to Iceland.  It was all an escapist fantasy

But things couldn’t hold; the center fell apart – our marriages failed; I travelled and moved away; time passed; the best parts of us lacked all conviction and the worst parts of us were full of passionate, furious intensity.  Perhaps we should’ve been angry at ourselves; our former spouses; liquor; food.  Instead, we acted it all out on each other.

We angrily kept in touch as I made my way through China where I prayed in Buddhist temples and made wishes on Tibetan bells; through Africa where I held the hands of kids thin and bloated with the things that would soon kill them.  We sent hateful messages as I travelled around California and drove canyons, rode horses, tried to write and feel relevant again before I finally gave up and stopped smoking.  I remember one of my last cigarettes, with my arm slung out the window of the car of my college roommate, Legs.  We’d gone to dinner in Cole Valley, maybe?  Clad in skinny jeans and fleeces, we looked like California girls – she was, I wasn’t.  And on the way back to her apartment, I leaned out the window of her car and puffed, while Meatloaf sang “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” and Frederic ignored my messages for the first time in years.  So Legs and I changed plans and drove around Pacific Heights instead, smelling salt air and trying to forget.

Frederic and I sort-of talked when I moved to Washington and I resolved to run a marathon, facts of which I don’t think he was ever fully aware.  At some point during my adventure, he took up with our Danish ex-colleague, a fact of which I wasn’t ever fully aware either, at least, not until it was too late.

By the Autumn of 2009, I was back in California on a deal when I messaged Frederic (in typical, antagonistic fashion): I’m running the New York City Marathon.

He replied: I thought we were going to do that together.


The exchange smacked of loss – what had I expected!  I crumpled against the support of the awning covering the path leading to the lobby of the hotel in which I was staying.  What was done was done.

I needed a shock to the system.  I needed a swim.  I had a run instead; it was my first marathon – New York City.  I crossed the finish line, and for 20 minutes, I knew the meaning of life.  But I still craved the water.  A week post-marathon, I was back in California; back on the deal.  My roadwarrior friend (the one who always meets me in airports) and I drove down to Big Sur and we walked along the shores of the cold Pacific.  We strode barefoot along the beach as the strong current sucked the sand out from underfoot.  It was dizzying; my head spun; I needed to be steadied.

The deal ended.  At the end of that trip, my friend and I drove up the coast and had dinner in San Francisco before our respective flights out of SFO.  I could still feel the sand sucking out from under my feet, even as we sat on Market Street eating sweetbreads.

Go back to New York.  Sort things at home, my friend advised.

I went back to New York.  Time passed.  There were airports and hotels; lounges and lobby bars.  Frederic became a ghost, a shadow.

I never forgot Iceland, though, and one day I saw an advertisement for an Iceland Air deal.

By then I was dating Bill, and I convinced him to join me on the adventure.  We arrived in Reykjavik on a cold December morning, under cover of the Northern Lights.  Have you ever seen the green in the sky, or borne witness to the barren volcanic landscape?  Have you ever experienced the short, short days, or the dim daylight?  Iceland in real-time was better than what it had been in my head.

And the pools!

It had taken years to get there, but I was swimming in Iceland.  I wanted to drink the water; I wanted to suck up the steam.  I wanted to stand naked in the shower for the rest of my days, being born again with each pulse of the faucet.  I never wanted to leave.  I wanted to stand with one foot on either side of the continental divide – North America and Europe – and remain forever.  (Though I didn’t know at the time how prophetic that longing would be.)

Bill and I flew home to New York, and within a few months, Frederic called out of the blue to say he was getting married.  I was promptly hit by a car, and within so few days they could be counted in hours, I found out about Bill’s indiscretions.  Then I flew out to San Francisco for Legs’ wedding, where my roadwarrior friend met me at SFO for an hour or two before I drove back down to the place where we’d once walked along the cold Pacific together, and I tried to steady myself.

It was a second coming of the things that had happened before; two years in a circle; turning and turning in the widening gyre…

At some point, between then and now, the world began to right itself.  Bill, for his part, is apparently dating a woman who used to live in Reykjavik.

The other day I said to Frederic, Do you remember that time we thought it was a good idea to go to Iceland? While we were both still very married?

We wanted to run away, he replied.  From all that, and together. 

I mused: I spent the last few years, in fits of rage, doing many of the things we said we’d do together.  Iceland was…breathtaking…

I was there last May, he said.  Thought of you.  It ruined things a little bit.  Ruined things “a little bit.”  Funny, but I mean them both, both the “ruined” part and the “little bit” part.

It took me a few days, but it finally occurred to me that he was married last May.  He must’ve been married in Iceland.  But his wedding day was the day I’d taken a train from Edinburgh to London.  So that had been a beginning, not an end.  And for me, Iceland was still unspoiled.


Leave a Comment

  1. Thank you for sharing your story. You’re a very strong person, with determination. I’m not sure what would be appropriate to say, but your story made me think a lot, and particularly on things I’ve said I would do it together with someone from my past. We both also thought it would be great to visit Iceland together, and I hope to visit Iceland one day very soon, even if it was just a solo trip.

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