Suspiciously Obedient

Page 17

Standing up for herself was an acquired skill. She knew how to do it with her brothers; that was no problem. But going out into the world, dealing with slights and stares and glances and touches, sometimes grabs, and the occasional outright overt come-on like this…there weren’t any classes for it. At least, none she’d found yet. And she and her friends might gripe and groan and swap stories about being eyed, the wolf whistles, the ass-grabs on the subway, the occasional frottage, being rubbed up against on a very crowded subway or bus car…they narrated their truths but no one had a concrete answer for what to do.

Her masters degree had helped. She knew to confront it face on, but that was easy to write about in an academic treatise and much harder to do on a plane, heading, nervously, for a promotion and a job that she got because she slept with the boss. Ouch.

Piecing it all together like that hit her like being struck between the eyes by a stone, and as the man stood to move she didn’t feel a sense of victory. Not even a sense of righteous indignation. What she felt was her own humanity connecting with his. As he stood next to her, both of them slumped uncomfortably under the overhead compartments and the flight attendant looking at them curiously, she didn’t touch him, she wasn’t ready to connect with him on that level, but she simply said, “Then let’s declare a truce.”

He swallowed hard, his face relaxing, and he nodded slowly. “Thank you, miss. And I really am sorry. I…well, I could give you a thousand explanations and excuses, but none of them really boil down to anything other than I’ve had a few too many and a little too little of something else in my life.”

Still on guard, she settled back in place and so did he. The flight attendant came over, a woman about her own age with reverse coloring, bright blue eyes and pale creamy skin and hair so fine and white it was almost the color of snow.

“Cards,” she said, handing out official forms. Lydia and the man took theirs; completing the immigration and customs paperwork seemed like a relief. The flight attendant went off to help someone else and the man next to her went quiet, lost in his own thoughts. Her victory felt hollow, but nowadays she’d take what she could get.

Regret seeped in as they drove past the Blue Lagoon and she realized that, perhaps, she should have signed up for the tour that was part of the package deal when she took Icelandair. She hadn’t dared do it, considering she was billing everything to her company. The relocation allowance of $8000 was more than enough. Grandma had accepted the fact that she was losing her roommate, for now at least, and Madge had told her, “Go find yourself a hot Viking.”

That was the last thing Lydia was thinking about as the bus rumbled past this amazing resort that seemed to have grown, organically, out of the ground into a steaming pool of beauty and luxury. And in many respects, that was exactly what had happened. The Blue Lagoon was a hot spring filled with minerals that supposedly helped to alleviate pain, and maybe not cure your illnesses but certainly make you feel better from them for a while.

From where she sat on the bus she got a good, long look of the spa, the pools, the parking lot filled with buses just like hers as tourists climbed off, eager to go and soak. She figured she was going to be living here, so she’d have plenty of time for that. Right now, what she needed most was to recover from the flight and figure out the terrain of her new life. A direct flight, five hours out of Boston, who would have thought it? And suddenly she was in Europe. Not quite, but part of the European Union at least.

As the bus brought them closer to the edge of the city, it was as if she had been dropped in a Scandinavian country, or at least the way she imagined it. Sandy and Pete loved to watch travel shows, so over the years she had her fill of one-hour specials on Finland, on Sweden, and Norway and Denmark. Yet, when she thought about it, it was funny they had never watched anything on Iceland or Greenland. She knew from the lines of the houses that the architecture was designed not only to be aesthetically pleasing, but to be quite practical in heavy snow climates, and cold in particular. The long, sloping roofs, the sharp lines, the muted pastels, and then here and there brighter colors, deeper, richer reds and intense turquoise blues made the entire landscape and the planned city so appealing, so smart and rational and well thought out that it was as if she had been dropped into another world. Some sort of utopia out of an Ursula Le Guin novel, one that on the surface looked damn close to perfect, but as you lived it longer and longer it started to unravel.

They pulled into the main bus station and she realized how little she actually had: one big suitcase, one carry-on, her laptop, and that was it. Her entire life crammed into this. She’d been fortunate, she didn’t have an apartment to get rid of, her grandma kept her car in place. She just…was able to uproot, just like that. And change perspective, change countries, change everything, and yet she felt miserably immutable inside. Because what didn’t change, what didn’t go away, was the fact that she couldn’t stop thinking about him.

Hailing a cab was easy, paying for it was not a problem with a simple card reader, and though the price tag made her choke, she was deposited quite simply at the guest house that she had found online through the same travel social media site that had led her to Matt’s—no, Michael’s—Detroit adventure. She smiled at the memory of what she had plotted out for him, and the fact that it had unwound with even more delicious, malicious consequences for him.

In some strange way, was he doing the same thing to her? Was he following all the rules to give her an end that she didn’t see coming? Had he given her the promotion and the transfer just to get rid of her, to make her go away? That didn’t make sense. She didn’t think that that was really why. In her heart she knew he did it to protect her, or to try to protect her. But, the world was so small and the Internet made it so much smaller. Who here had seen the video?

She fit in physically better than she thought, although she was definitely one of the heaviest women on the street as she dragged her suitcase down a block. The cabbie had gotten it wrong just by a smidge. People walked with purpose here, and she realized she was quite close to the Hallgrímskirkja, the tallest structure in Reykjavik. A giant church, it rose up like the Washington Monument, only made of stone with rough edges like something handmade, unpolished, abiding by nature.

Now she faced the check-in clerk and had to scrub her mind of all these insecurities and questions, because finally she was going to have time to sit alone in the room that she had rented for the next two weeks, ready to jump into work. She’d given herself no time to think, no time to pause. Neither had Bournham Industries—the transfer was so quick she barely had time to change her underwear.

The guest house was clean. That was about the best she could say of it. There was no lounge, but there was a small breakfast nook with an enormous wooden table that took up the fifteen by twenty room. She was told when breakfast would be, that there was hot coffee available on demand, that the room closed at 9 p.m. and would open at 6:30, and then she was shown the shower. She had never seen a bathroom that was tiled from top to bottom like this—every square inch, except for the ceiling. They showed her a squeegee and a shower attachment and explained that after she showered she would need to spray everything down and then squeegee it into the drain in the floor. It made so much sense to have a bathroom with a drain in the center of the floor so that you could clean it. The smell of bleach assured her that this was sanitary, that this was neat and orderly, and was designed to protect everyone who used it as long as everyone followed the rules.

Her room was extraordinarily simple: white curtains with blackout lining, two twin beds shoved at an L in one corner, a wardrobe, a small dresser with two drawers, and a little mini kitchen with a sink, a refrigerator, and two burners. It was all she needed, really. And it was all being covered by Bournham Industries, so she could just settle in and relax, not worry about owning things, managing things, but instead worry about herself settling in to a new country, a new job, new responsibilities.

Shedding her old skin would take some time. Her mother’s frantic worry she could handle through electronics with frequent Facebook messages, lots of YouTube videos (of a wholesome kind) and good, old-fashioned telephone calls. She’d changed her cell phone plan so that she had nearly unlimited roaming, and planned to do lots of texting, lots of emails, to hopefully keep Sandy from going crazy that the one stray lamb had now wandered across an ocean to live among the Vikings.

They’d all been teasing her in the spare day before she’d gone back to Boston, and Miles had said that maybe she would come home with a husband taller even than he was, but he’d said it with a look that said he knew that it was obvious that what she felt for Matt. Mike! Mike—she had to keep thinking of him as who he was and not as the person she thought he had been. But Miles had seen deeper into her than she thought he was capable of, and it meant something to her. This gave her pause, because these shells that we look at walking around, moving, breathing, eating, making love, fixing things, breaking things—these shells cover layers and layers of us that only get revealed under some sort of duress.

The silence of the little room felt like a giant cloud of cotton covering her head. It took her half an hour to unpack her things, and the room seemed to determine her actions as if she were shaped by the environment. It was neat and tidy, so she was neat and tidy, tucking her suitcases away carefully, nesting them and sliding them under one of the beds. There was no real sign that she had even moved in, a handful of personal items attesting to her presence. She felt erased. She felt alone, but not lonely.

Feeling lonely was something that Lydia didn’t understand. Her life of the mind was so active and her curiosity was so great that she couldn’t fathom being lonely. Maybe it came from living in a family with so many brothers and with parents who were so social and inclusive and welcoming. But alone? Alone was fairly new to her, and right now, as tired as she was, when her stomach rumbled she was grateful, for it gave her an excuse to go out into the streets of Reykjavik and explore this new aloneness.

She was glad that she had listened to her mother’s gentle admonishment that she make sure she wear comfortable shoes when she went to Iceland and not American sneakers. “You’ll out yourself,” she said. And Mom was right. Her comfortable Merrells fit in far better with the fashion aesthetics in Iceland. Her weight crept up on her slowly as she started to compare herself, feeling like an alien on a new planet. The streets were narrow and the cars were tiny, but what struck her as she walked toward the city center, her map in hand, was how many people there were. And that they walked with purpose, but there was no rushed, frantic energy the way there was in Boston. The lack of impatience hit her hard and fast, and she was so stunned that she paused and just took a good look around. These were people that were going places, but doing so without feeling anxious or overwhelmed.

And then she noticed the fathers. So many children in strollers or being carried in slings or Baby Bjorn-type carriers—and the men were doing it. It caught her so off guard that she began to walk slowly and really looked around. At least every other person pushing a stroller or carrying a baby was a man. How odd. It was in stark contrast to Boston, though a bit more common in Cambridge. In fact, in most cases, she’d say at least three quarters, if you saw a woman pushing a stroller in downtown Boston chances were it was the nanny. She marveled at all these fathers.

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