by Maggie Goss
Ruth drove for hours to the mountains. Her headache, eight days old, moved behind her left eye. She was out of Advil and instead swallowed a tablet of veterinary Tramadol that her dog, recovered from a toothache, no longer needed. She snowshoed in the tree-lined peaks by the mountain pass. “If a bookish Jew falls in the forest, does she make a sound?” she typed on Facebook beforehand, then deleted it. “This is how it begins. A quiet woodland creature (but with vestibular problems and a great love of the indoors) heads into the mountains. Remember me.” At the steepest part of the trail, she couldn’t get enough traction with the snowshoes to start downhill without sliding. Finally, imagining herself as a cartoon character, elastic and resilient, she pitched herself down the hill and rolled quietly to the edge of an embankment, an arm sprained and pulsing beneath her. “Visibility terrible. There were no views, but the pratfalls were top-notch,” she typed on Facebook later, then deleted it.
She imagined what it would feel like to drive her car into the ocean. The next day, she booked a photography tour in Iceland.
“That’s a bit far for a quick vacation,” her boyfriend David said at the cafe. “They’ll write a human-interest story about you in the Gazette: ‘Local Woman Goes to Lengths.’”
She shrugged. “Maybe I’ll never come back.” She gripped her utensils, the butter knife pointing back at her own throat.
“That’s a different sort of story,” he said.
“Closer to the front page.”
Outside, rain fell as if in slow motion, as gently as snowflakes, visible only in a shaft of light between two dark pines; and somewhere a person was playing the same three notes on the piano over and over, three fatal syllables that said, “All there is. All there is.” The usual blonde barista moved behind the pastry case, counting out sweet rolls and Pfeffernüss. “There’s probably a cafe just like this one in Iceland,” Ruth said. “But there, it will be charming.”
“Why isn’t this one charming?” David said.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Why isn’t it?”
David was a good man, a good feminist. He was the kind of feminist who rebuked other male feminists for using that word to describe themselves. “Just another example of men appropriating a female discourse,” he would say. Once during an argument, he had punched her suddenly in the orbital bone beneath her eye, in a way that made it impossible for a while to look in an upward direction. “Corporal punishment has been abolished,” she’d said nonsensically from the floor. Then David had cried and said, “You have to understand, Ruth. Women aren’t the only ones who aren’t allowed to have any dignity. We also want a way out of the trap; we also want a world where you don’t have to be either the wound or the knife.” Sometimes when she couldn’t sleep, she repeated those words in her head, like a mantra, enjoying the quality of his language, the prosody.
The piano sounds had stopped, and a woman sang something slow over the cafe’s speakers. Her voice had a scratch in it. Ruth and David paused to listen to the voice with a scratch in it, the singer crying from the effort of the song.
An overcast sky had settled upon Reykjavik like an indifferent mood, the opposite of hope. Ruth collected her key card and let herself into a small, furiously overheated hotel room. There was a soft, narrow white pallet that was either a mattress or a blanket. She experimented, lying on top of it and then underneath it. Later in the evening, her roommate for the photography tour arrived. Her name was Betsy. She was older than Ruth, in her early sixties.
Betsy told Ruth that her family members began to die when she was in her fifties, a complete wipeout. Then her husband died, and her son vanished hiking in Mexico. She’d been diagnosed with breast cancer last year and still had residual side effects from the chemotherapy. Her yellow hair had returned sparsely around the crown of her head, giving the impression of an abused sunflower. Her demeanor was obtusely cheerful, as if it were insisting upon something in spite of contradictory evidence. Ruth listened to her gentle breathing at night as they lay in their parallel cots.
Ruth liked the sky in Iceland. She liked the view from the windows of the tour bus as they drove to scenic destinations. There was a lot of foreground with nothing in it. There was a towering dull sky that rained and snowed. She sat and thought about it as the empty fields rolled past, looking for shapes. Sometimes she saw a little thing, a square hole punched in the clouds, and it was the only shape to look at for a long time. “There’s a lot of negative space in Iceland,” she said to their photo tour guide, Brynjar. “Where do you put it all?” She liked his blank looks when she spoke to him, relieved he did not understand her.
Each night, Ruth and Betsy unpacked in a new hostel and settled in their beds. One night, Betsy told Ruth, “When I got sick, I realized I didn’t know anyone anymore; they were all dead, so hardly anyone knew me. It was like I barely existed. I had this terrible awareness of my own vulnerability. I was embarrassed…and frightened for myself, at every moment.”
“How did you get past it? The feelings?”
“Oh, I haven’t,” she said. “But there are good days, too. I was sitting in the kitchen last week and saw a blue jay through the window. That part was good.”
Ruth supposed that living was an ugly, personal act of courage, witnessed by no one and repeated daily until you died. It was grotesque for its ordinariness and inadequacy but touching because it was everything there is. Your love blew around and attached itself to nothing, and it returned to you changed. You weren’t supposed to feel this way. Once in a while, there was a bird outside the window, and for a moment the world seemed enough. A thousand moments, a thousand homely joys, birds scolding and sad that turned into other birds, other beauties, each irreducible and factual as a rock to the head. In these moments, you would see and feel everything, alone.
The next morning, the ten of them piled back into the tour bus and headed to an ice beach. Parked at the beach, Brynjar stood with hands on hips and glared authoritatively at the landscape outside the bus, making a survey of the available sunshine, the tonal range between shadow and highlight. Then he told them what lens to attach, what the shutter speed should be, what to include or exclude in the composition. People, power lines, graffiti, and cars never belonged in the shot. People were the hardest to avoid and the most ruinous. “You will have the picture like in the travel magazine,” Brynjar said. But Ruth was not so adept with her camera. It was too much camera, a semi-professional affair that weighed more than the human head. Betsy had good instincts but too little camera. The maladroit children of the group, they waved to each other across the beach, gesturing with their cameras, wincing as if to say, “Any luck? Me neither.”
The beach curled out, coarse and almost black like pumpernickel bread. On top of the sand, great chunks of ice lay scattered. Inside a single honeycomb of ice, there were cubbyholes with ceilings and walls, a secret pool of water trapped under a thin lens of ice, a furious explosion of silver papules webbing one surface.
Brynjar came by and tapped on Ruth’s camera. “This is the wrong lens. It is the portrait lens, bad for landscapes.”
“I’m taking a portrait of the landscape,” Ruth said. She sensed that she was starting to tax him.
“That’s okay. You will fix it later. Photoshop,” he said grimly.
Ruth counted silently: 1. The sky; 2. The rain; 3. Brown bread with butter. She took pictures of Betsy in front of the waves, Betsy posing beside a chunk of ice. Brynjar reminded her twice not to include people in the photographs. Ruth photographed Betsy’s glove on the sand, the thumb sticking up like it was hitchhiking. “Photoshop!” said Brynjar.
The ice, the beach, didn’t look like anything Ruth had seen before. There was no frame of reference; it was reminiscent of nothing. Here, she too was reminiscent of nothing and reminisced nothing. The sky was white and flat; the ocean was white and flat; there was no horizon. Her self bowed and disappeared. She stood there breathing: filling, emptying. When she finally turned from the ocean, she saw Betsy up the beach, her face animated by a private smile, dancing from foot to foot like a child on the dark gray sand. Ruth decided then to stay in Iceland. She would work in a bar as a singer, and everyone would stop to listen to her because her voice had a scratch in it. “Sing one about love,” they would say.
“What about it?” she would respond, uncaring. “What about love?” she’d say.
Maggie Goss is a clinical social worker who currently resides and works in the Pacific Northwest. She is originally from New York.