The most annoying narrator, ever.

Rebecca Daphne du Maurier

A couple of years ago, I read a Japanese horror novel entitled Now You’re One of Us. Critics compared it to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. At the time, my only experience with Du Maurier was My Cousin Rachel, but I could still see the resemblance.

Now, after completing Rebecca, I am somewhat puzzled by the comparison, and why it would be dubbed “romantic suspense” in the first place. It is neither romantic, nor suspenseful. It took me several days, over three weeks, to read this 380-page paperback. The supposed suspense felt flimsy and anti-climactic and, on several occasions, I thoroughly considered abandoning it entirely. The nameless narrator is really difficult to care about; she’s nauseatingly paranoid and neurotic. I’m not sure why she bothered me so, but she did, which made it difficult to invest in her character. However, because I’d committed to reading Rebecca for a bookclub-ish meeting, I was determined to get through the story until I reached the finish line.

The first 100 pages were captivating enough. I can’t deny that. Indeed, I was curious, and the writing is undeniably good. Unfortunately, once our nameless narrator married the boorish Maxim de Winter, and moved into his grand estate, Manderley, it was like the narrator’s brain, the new Mrs. de Winter, started to run amok. My problem? Being the reader of all her internal monologues, of which there are many, I have to go along for the ride, which is unbearably tedious and painful. She’d have full, imaginary conversations in her head, what she thought people were saying about her, what she thought people were thinking about her, what people may have been thinking about her. It’s a whole lotta blah blah blah. She’s constantly in a state of “Oh, I’m such a stupid, stupid girl. I do everything wrong.” Eventually, the reader can’t help but think, “Yeah, you are a stupid, stupid girl. Is this over yet? Let’s move on, shall we?” Geez, and I thought I was a an over thinker.

So my ranting has some context, here’s the publisher’s plot blurb:

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” So the second Mrs. Maxim de Winter remembered the chilling events that led her down the turning drive past the beeches, white and naked, to the isolated gray stone manse on the windswept Cornish coast. With a husband she barely knew, the young bride arrived at this immense estate, only to be inexorably drawn into the life of the first Mrs. de Winter, the beautiful Rebecca, dead but never forgotten…her suite of rooms never touched, her clothes ready to be worn, her servant – the sinister Mrs. Danvers – still loyal. And as an eerie presentiment of evil tightened around her heart, the second Mrs. de Winter began her search for the real fate of Rebecca… for the secrets of Manderley.

This book reminded me of Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman. I simply could not take the narrator seriously. However, where Black Swan manages to create the necessary psychological tension to move the story forward, Rebecca did not. The narrator is too neurotic, too shy, too submissive, too jealous, too unreliable, and too melodramatic. The plot dragged until it was in tatters. When I finally reached the mysterious “Big Reveal,” I just couldn’t care an ounce for either Maxim, his new, young bride, or his shady dead wife. Sure, Mrs. Danvers was creepy and icky, but the narrator has no instinctual filter, and allows the woman to get under her skin easily and quickly. Sigh.

Well, I only have myself to blame. This was my book-club pick.

At least I’ll know better for next time.

 

Notes from France and Spain

Toulouse2

Ever since I returned from Europe, I’ve been working non-stop. I hit the ground running, so to speak, so there was very little time to write or read for several weeks on end. [On a completely unrelated note, being busy is not enjoyable, especially when there is no time to catch your breath. No one can maintain life at this speed, least of all me, so my fingers are crossed for a less stressful November and December.] Anyhoo, I never had a chance to share a few thoughts from the trip, which was my first visit to both France and Spain (and, if connecting flights count, Germany).

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First stop was Toulouse, where the food, I was told before leaving, is beyond amazing. Happy to report that the rumors are true! In Toulouse, and France in general, the cheese just about knocked me over from the decadence and flavour. Every meal was like a religious experience. Even the capers were delicious… and I don’t usually like capers. What I loved most about this city, was that we didn’t have to contend with huge crowds of tourists, because it wasn’t a mecca like Paris, but also because the atmosphere was wonderfully laid back. People were helpful, happy to share information about local produce and cuisine, and super friendly. Our hotel, which was situated next to a gorgeous carousel and music festival, was within walking distance of just about every restaurant and shop worth perusing.

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Later, we explored the medieval village at Carcassonne, which was positively stunning. Not to mention, the food, yet again, was a knock out. We stopped for crepes and I couldn’t stop gushing about the flavour of the chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream, which tasted as though it had been freshly churned by hand only moments before my first bite. I simply could not get over the food. Heck, the pizza was like nothing I’d ever tasted before. I could’ve done nothing but eat during the entire vacation and be perfectly happy. By necessity, we had to walk everywhere, so thankfully we had a chance to shed a few of those amazing, decadent calories.

Barcelona2

After Carcassonne, we ventured by train to Barcelona, where we quickly realized that great crowds of tourists would indeed be an issue. Countless people told us to guard our bags and purses. The traffic was beyond busy and surreal. However, even though it took some time to get used to, we found our rhythm once again, and sought to visit more off-the-beaten track locations. Everything was beautiful; there was no shortage of picture-worthy landscape and architecture. We wandered the Gothic quarter until our feet were sore, and stopped for burgers at the beach. [And, yes, we kept a very close eye on our purses, but I think all those warnings made us paranoid. We did not get robbed.]

Barcelona1

Whenever we felt brave enough to enter high-tourist territory, we were vastly rewarded with rows and rows of Gaudi-designed and Gothic-inspired buildings. As you can see, our eyes were never bored; they always had something with which to be occupied. Not to mention, we got lost or sidetracked at least ten times a day; lost because the streets are winding and intricate, and sidetracked because there’s always something to explore and interrupt the itinerary. But was the spontaneity of accidentally stumbling across open doors and quiet corners that I truly loved. [And the wine was darn good, too!]

Unlike Iceland and Victoria, there was no time to read, so the one novel I brought [Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier] remained unopened, even during the nine hour flight home. Being exhausted, I opted for the easy entertainment of on-board movies, and reruns of Big Bang Theory.

 

Blackout (Part 4)

The World Turned Off

A short story by Lydia

According to the CNN Twitter feed, there were 29 plane crashes worldwide. Hashtags #Blackout and #TheWorldTurnedOff were trending. The “Blackout,” as the media began to call it, lasted a total of eight minutes, twenty-nine seconds. The strange occurrence had affected battery operated vehicles, appliances and other technologies, caused air craft to lose altitude, electricity to short-circuit and, in some rare cases, a few sensitive people to experience intense migraine headaches, one of whom actually died of an eventual brain aneurism. Engineers and science experts populated every television screen Emma encountered. Some were in English, some Icelandic, and some Dutch. Either way, the overall message, despite the language barrier, was mass cluelessness. That much she could understand.

Emma’s phone was full of messages from dad, Stacey, Stewart, Mr. Weiss (her boss), and Grandma Fuller, who put aside her keen dislike for computers to make sure she was safe. Are you okay? What happened? Did that thing affect Iceland, too? Her fingers zipped over the keyboard: Yes, I’m okay; I don’t have a clue; and, yes, I think the blackout was worldwide.

She wasn’t the only one glued to her phone. The people around her were hunched over their tiny devices, feverishly emailing and texting their loved ones.

Emma returned to her Twitter feed, hungry for information. A famous pop star pledged a million dollars to the clean-up in Los Angeles, which had experienced an earthquake following the Blackout. A movie star promised to donate the proceeds from his most recent film to the city of Boston, where one of the 29 plane crashes occurred. Both messages were retweeted and favourited millions of times. Emma’s heart lurched at the mention of Boston, felt tears well up and spill.

In the distance, flames danced and licked the heavy clouds. Locals and tourists gathered in clumps, staring at the wreckage, struck dumb by the sight. Fingers pointed, throats gasped, eyes cried. Emma, though, felt very separate. She couldn’t absorb reality of the heat, the orange and red. Even the helicopters, the whipping of their blades that seemed to slow down as it flew above her head, blurred into a mute horror show. It was better to stare at the screen in her hand. It was easier to stare at the screen in her hand. And so she returned her gaze to the feed, the hashtags, the endless conversations.

She wondered about Ben, thought of how he might’ve reacted to the Blackout, and hoped he was still in one piece. Her heart didn’t reach out to him like it used to, but old habits die hard; the memory of Ben had some strength yet. An image of his face came to mind, the familiar eyebrows she wished he’d trim more often, the earlobe with a remnant piercing from a rebellious streak. This time, however, his eyes looked different; a whiff of something new and unattractive had attached itself to the picture in her head. Then she realized that it had been put there that evening in the grocery store parking lot, by the unnerving way he’d admitted to the affair, as if it were Groundhog Day and he’d apologized many times before. Up until then, she might’ve believed it were her fault (she had accused herself of being boring and mediocre before), but that expression, as benign as it seemed at the time, changed everything.

Police cars were beginning to collect by the marina. Tall, impressive men walked sternly through the streets in their dark uniforms, muttering to one another in a dialect incomprehensible to Emma. Their walkie-talkies buzzed and beeped for their attention, but they were too busy answering countless questions, until they were surrounded and could no longer take a step forward.

Emma watched the stream of tourists in hiking gear migrating toward representatives of authority. The few who spoke in English mentioned something about locating one’s embassy, which sounded like a good and proper idea, but instead, Emma found herself drifting in the opposite direction. She walked alone along the central park, outfitted with sculptures and a pond spouting cool, misty water. The ducks, however, which had been gathered in tufts of waddling families an hour before, were completely absent. The proud mermaid statue had, unbelievably, a crack threading down one arm. Whatever happened must’ve been monstrously powerful to cause all the damage it did. And yet, everything felt so still and quiet.

She circled the pond, unsure where to go, and found herself drawn to a red, wooden box. From afar, it had looked like a really big birdhouse. Up close, it appeared to be a free, take-one-leave-one library. Despite the calamity of her situation, she found herself reaching for the books inside. In a bizarre twist of irony, alongside two French novels and an English paperback by Carl Hiaasen, there was a copy of Song of Solomon by Toni Morison, the exact book she’d attempted years before, and the subject of her and Ben’s doomed literary experiment. She remembered with irritation how he grew frustrated at her inability to see the “underlying symbolism” and the “juxtaposition of love and hate,” whatever the hell that meant.

The memory caught her by the heart and sailed away, distracted her enough to forget her situation. That is, until a mechanical humming noise started to pierce her thoughts. She braced against the pain of it, and looked up just in time to see the sky swirling with surreal, murky, oily clouds. The humming thinned out into a high pitched buzz and culminated until a horrifically simple pop echoed throughout her head. Soon after, all she could hear was her own breath, amplified as though she were underwater. Emma pressed her ears shut, attempted to restore her hearing to normal, but couldn’t. Fifteen minutes later, she was nauseous and remained in severe pain.

Emma sat on a cold bench and stared at her hands, and noticed with confusion that they were shaking uncontrollably, vibrating, as if her body recognized something her mind couldn’t. She pressed her palms flat against her thighs, focused on the rough texture of her jeans, forced them to stay still, but they continued to tremble.

Then, a drop of red landed on her right hand, by her pinky. Red against white. (“Porcelain,” as Ben used to call her particular shade of skin. “Pasty and pale is more like it,” she would retort.)

Another drop alerted Emma to the blood’s source: her right ear. She lifted a tentative finger to her jaw line and it came away with more red, which she quickly wiped against her thigh, a gasp caught in her throat.

Hands still trembling, she reached into her purse for some tissue, but found broken glass instead. Blindly searching the bottom of her handbag, Emma felt around for the source of the glass, and discovered her SmartPhone. The screen appeared to be shattered.

Brow furrowed, she retrieved the little device, encased in a plain black skin, and stared at it, confused; the screen was not only shattered, but the plastic body had completely split in half.

A slow, warm breeze, smelling of diesel fuel, blew across her face. Her vision blurred, then locked. The fumes agitated the throbbing in her head, and articulated the dense ache deep within her ear drums. She struggled to stay conscious.

Emma’s center of gravity seemed to lurch forward, causing her to vomit, and collapse on the bench for support – stomach heaving with nothing left to expel. She wiped her mouth, stared at a patch of gloriously green grass, and fought the urge to fall asleep until the sky turned black.

Stay tuned for part 5…

The Misleading Mind by Karuna Cayton

the misleading mind

You know that noise your brain makes when it starts to click in all the right places? Yes, well, I credit The Misleading Mind with all of my eureka moments this week. Next to Suzuki’s Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, Cayton’s wonderful 200-page book is one of the best, most helpful and insightful on mind training. Although one is based on Japanese traditions and the other on Buddhist psychology, I loved both for their utter accessibility and usability. I cannot rave enough about the truth and wonder of The Misleading Mind.

As is usually the case, October and November are the most stressful times of year and, as a result, are optimal months for meditative reading. It doesn’t require great lengths of attention plot and character development might, and is easy enough to put a book of this kind down, upon interruption, and be able to dive back into the material without too much trouble. After returning from my last adventure overseas, I had absolutely no energy to read, because the amount of work waiting for me was so much that evenings were either spent sleeping or at the gym, trying to energize myself in any way that I could, bracing myself for the season ahead. In a moment of providential happenstance, I found Cayton’s book and read the first chapter. At first, it wasn’t captivating, but the philosophy slowly gained momentum and built upon itself. By the time I reached the third chapter, I was riveted. This passage was one of the many turning points:

When His Holiness the Dalai Lama was still a teenager and isolated within his palace in his Himalayan kingdom of Tibet, he was kept from venturing out freely into the city; thus, he began working on some old cars that had been given to his predecessor. In those days there were virtually no automobiles in Tibet. The Dalai Lama, through curiosity and trial and error, carefully tinkering for hours, learned how an engine worked until he was able to make the cars drivable. Prior to restoring the automobiles, not only did he know nothing about cars or engines, there was almost no one in the country he could ask for advice aside from the occasional foreign diplomat.

Like the Dalai Lama learning how an engine worked, we should take a beginner’s approach to learning about our mind. Thus, we become both the scientist and the test subject, while our life experiences become our inner laboratory. This chapter address the most basic and essential question: What is the true nature of mind? (57-8)

Not only did I begin to picture this slow tedious work, I could imagine the metaphor, literally and figuratively. I felt like I could see the path of Cayton’s argument. Not fully and completely understand the strategy or implementation, mind you, but at least wrap my head around the concept and question.

One of my most stubborn qualities of personality is ambition; for some reason, I always feel like I need a target and a goal. Unfortunately, there are moments when goals have been achieved, and guess what? I want more. It’s only natural, but the presence of the elusive itch that forever needs to be scratched is frustrating and exhausting to carry around. So, I was all ears when I arrived at the following passage:

In our everyday lives, just about everyone desires to raise their income. In the United States, this is a central aspect of the “American Dream.” We aspire to achieve a more comfortable existence than the one we were born into, and there is certainly nothing wrong with pursuing a better life, particularly for those who live in truly impoverished circumstances. As a society, we should endeavor to build a world in which everyone has “enough” to live a healthy existence. Yet it is important to be honest with ourselves. Do we ever really feel we have enough? Can you say honestly right now that you have “enough,” that what you possess is adequate and sufficient? There is no objective standard for “enough.” It is purely an emotional judgment, a label, an evaluation of our own condition, and a function of our desires and personal values. As such, we have to be vigilant. It is extremely easy to get caught up in emotional distractions related to our desires for abundance and fears of scarcity. So when we notice disturbing emotions of anxiety, fear, envy, greed, and more arising when we think about wealth, we must practice looking squarely at both the emotion and the subject, the one experiencing the disturbing emotion, and investigate how they exist merely through the misleading mind’s creation of them. The misleading mind, remember, sees the wealth to be achieved as really existing, truly. The misleading mind also is adhering to a belief system that is saying, “More will make you happier.” We forget that this very wealth is like an illusion… …By applying these and other methods we are able to let these feelings go and regard what we have in the present moment as “enough.” (164-5)

Honestly, this scares me. The idea of being happy with what I already have is logical, practical, but what is life without ambition? Aren’t we supposed to strive for something? I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is both yes and no, if that could possibly make any sense… a warped sort-of sense. Because, when I asked myself “Do I have enough?” the answer was “yes.” How could it be anything else? Although I don’t have everything I want, I do indeed have enough. In some cases, more than enough. When I came to that realization, I took a deep breath and, momentarily, felt rested and relaxed. Have I read all the books I want? No. Have I read enough for the present moment? Yes. Do I have the physique I want and envision? No. Do I have enough for the present moment? Okay, yes. Have I traveled to every place I wanted to? No. Have I experienced enough of the world for the present moment? Yes. As much as it pains me to admit it, because the ambitious part of me likes to make lists and check off the items one by one, yes. Yes.

If you’re new to Buddhism, a newbie student like me, The Misleading Mind is a really fantastic introduction to the key concepts. Karuna Cayton’s experiences and perspectives are stupendously insightful and truly helpful to those of us trying to calm down our thoughts, and the speed at which we live.

The Desire Map (and revisiting The Fire Starter Sessions)

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I had a weird reaction to all the summer travel these past few months. As excited as I felt to be experiencing new culture, seeing new countries, trying new and wonderful food, there was a strange little bug of discontent in my brain. For some reason, I felt like it would’ve been nice, instead, to stay put, and sit quietly at home. Hard to imagine, especially for me, someone who enjoys ticking things off her bucket list, someone who has been complaining lately that life isn’t exciting enough. What could be more exciting than Europe?! Seriously.

And yet, there I was, a week before takeoff, feeling unsettled. After making a trip to the grocery store for dog food, and learning that the brand was no longer in stock anywhere in the entire city (!!), I heaved a sigh and tried to do some quick problem solving. Eventually, as I often do, I found myself at Chapters, having a moment of introspection, looking at books. They both relax and distract me. A perfect combination.

In a moment of happenstance, I found a copy of Danielle LaPorte’s The Desire Map. Her last book, The Fire Starter Sessions, was an awesome breath of fresh, zesty air, so I enthusiastically picked up this new and unique offering. Normally, I don’t dig these personal development “workbooks” but I refrained from getting judgmental and gave it a chance. I read the introduction in the store, purchased it, and continued to read on the bus home.

I positively decimated the pages of this book. I used a pencil and eraser to really tackle each question, thinking through each one with as much honesty as I could muster. I went back to look at my original bucket list. Granted, it has changed over the years, but I had a tendency to be BIG and BOLD. On purpose, of course. I couldn’t really tell you why I wanted the things I wanted, but I wanted them. I originally listed my bucket list in an earlier post but, for easy reference, here it is in entirety:

• Collaborate on a script/project with Stephen King
• See and explore Portugal
• Write a bestselling novel
• See and explore Croatia
Travel to Iceland June 2014
See the Grand Canyon August 2013
Go camping in the American South West August 2013
• Conquer my fear and go on Disney’s Tower of Terror
• Get my driver’s license
• Walk down the colourful streets of Nashville, TN (Learn to love a little country)
• Live in Miami for an entire Canadian winter
• Take a sabbatical from work
• Start a business
• Enjoy a leisurely visit to New York in the summertime
• Eat the sweet treats at Voodoo doughnuts (and other food trucks) in Portland, OR
Visit Spain September 2014
• Visit Scotland (again)
• Try living overseas for a few months
• Attend Book EXPO in New York
• Work with Tosca Reno
• Train with Dana Lynn Bailey
• See Australia & New Zealand
• Learn Croatian
• Meet Lt. Romeo Dallaire
• Read every book I own
• Regularly take courses in International and North American cuisine, and baking.
• Bike tour through Provence
• Collaborate with Disney on a creative project
• Lounge on the beach in Hawaii with some fresh pineapple
• Write and produce a play
Learn to Row Took a class in the summer, 2012!
• Do a strict pull up
• Perfect my French (Classes in September 2013)
• Go to a luxurious spa in Santa Fe, NM
• Live by (or in a view of) a body of water, preferably the Ocean
Take a pottery class (September 2013)
• Learn book binding
• Write a successful film script
• Knit a full, adult-sized blanket
• Have the guts (& finances) to move to Victoria, BC

As you can see, I slowly pecked away at the grocery list of accomplishments to-do. Looking back, I wondered how I came to establish this list. There are many items that I feel passionate about, no doubt, but others… I can’t remember where they originated. It’s like I was aiming for fireworks, but it didn’t really matter what colour they turned out to be, so long as they were big and impactful.

When I finished the workbook, my “goals” changed quite drastically. It started to look more like this:

• Buy an unfinished bookshelf and paint it funky colours
• Laugh more. Be silly.
• Practice patience and self-discipline.
• Eat well.
• Have more heartfelt conversations.
• Get my fitness mojo back.

Doesn’t look the same does it? Well, first of all, my two weeks in Victoria taught me that, as much as I loved the city, I probably wouldn’t do well as a resident. I functioned better in Victoria as a tourist. Ottawa feels more my style.
Then, I realized that international travel is actually quite exhausting. (Fun but exhausting.) As much as I love exploring new territory, I don’t think I’d want to live overseas, or in Miami. And I adore Miami! To be completely honest, some of the travel was me wanting to run away. Sort of. As they say: wherever you go, there you are.

Danielle LaPorte’s book made me think about the things that really make me happy, and it’s amazing how simple the whole process feels. When you ask yourself “Why do I really want this?” the answers are unbelievably unexpected, and a little embarrassing to admit. Stuff like: “Because it will make me look impressive, big, powerful, or smart.” But, in the grand scheme of life, it takes very little effort (and money) to make me feel happy or grateful. Just the other day, I got new pillows. I can’t describe how awesome these pillows are. They’re fluffy and comfortable; I can sit up in bed and read comfortably without the wicker headboard digging into my neck. All is well with the world. A measly $25 investment. And, although I can’t guarantee it will be a best-seller (or published), I had my manuscript printed and bound at Staples, so I can get started on the editing process. Just $5. Simple and easy. It felt good to see my words all in one place, in bookish form, rather than a word doc on screen.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t want to see Portugal or meet Lt. Romeo Dallaire or learn Croatian anymore, but they’re now peripheral wants. Nice to haves. When the answer to “Why do I want this?” is “I don’t know,” or “It makes me look [a certain way],” more thought is required. The goal isn’t extinguished, but more thoroughly investigated. Because if I’m going to put blood, sweat, tears into a specific goal, without understanding the foundation of the goal itself, the accomplishment could end up feeling anti-climactic and empty. Not to mention, it’s nice to leave room for happy accidents.

I’m still learning. We’re all still learning, and The Desire Map is a great tool for helping us stay in tune with our internal motivations. I hope you have the opportunity to read LaPorte’s work. Up next? Learning to be happy with life as is, no alterations necessary.

(Ps. I eventually found a pet store that would order the dog food I needed. 30lbs of it! We aren’t going to run out anytime soon.)

Blackout (Part 3)

The World Turned Off

A short story by Lydia

The guilt was more profound than Ben anticipated. Not that he made a habit of it, but he’d cheated on girlfriends before and had become somewhat desensitized to the shame. He never stopped to wonder, until now, why his relationships always ended in equal parts embarrassment and anger.

With Emma, though, the breakup had been intense, the betrayal more visceral. She’d trusted him and had invested in their future. Her heartbreak had been evident the moment he revealed the truth about Caitlin.
The crux – and, he supposed, the irony – of this whole situation was that he didn’t really like Caitlin that much. Sure, she was attractive and intelligent, like an American, redheaded version of Brigit Bardot, but she was also mean and cold, dismissive and malicious. She routinely fucked around on her husband. Ben was not the only one. He knew that.

Ben leaned back in his squeaky office chair, stared up at the pocked ceiling of his campus office in the basement of the sports facility. With no room left in the regular faculty space, he had been banished to the dungeon, where he now breathed the stale air of acidic sweat, a present from the steel maze of barbells and dumbbells down the hall.

He thought of Emma, wondered what she was doing. What is there to do in Iceland, anyhow? He pictured her walking down the street of an ancient Viking city buying pastries at a bakery. That girl has a sweet tooth that could rival the Cookie Monster, he thought fondly, enjoying the reverie. She’d go straight for the sweets. Even though he had no taste for the stuff, he used to buy Nutella at the grocery store just for her. Emma would spread it on her toast every morning, nice and thick, and suck the knife clean before throwing it into the dish water. She would try to be discrete, but rarely succeeded.

Ben sighed and tried to focus on his lap top, the words on the screen, but couldn’t. He had a meeting with Caitlin in an hour to discuss the next chapter of his dissertation, and the prospect of sitting across from those sharp green eyes put him off. She would be flirtatious, as usual, but tough. It wasn’t uncommon for her to scratch out entire pages and demand they be re-written. Their intimacy hadn’t softened her criticism, but given her free reign, as if Ben were being punished in some sort of sadomasochistic nightmare. He just wanted to be finished. One more chapter to go, then revisions and public defense. Eight months, maybe ten. He would push for eight, even if that meant no sleep. He ached to get out from under Caitlin’s unpredictable thumb.

He shifted in his seat, fished a pack of gum from his jeans pocket, unwrapped a piece and chewed thoughtfully, looking around the beige, windowless room. It truly was a dungeon. Cement slab walls, barely disguised by paint. Although Ben often joked about the inconvenient, subterranean location, the office had been a sore spot; his fellow colleagues, also graduate students, had been assigned space in the lush, renovated third floor of the Humanities building. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, he ended up here, and was now completely disconnected from the goings on of academic life. Everyone made plans without him, discussed their work together, and kept tabs on one another. Ben couldn’t care less about his popularity rating, but he was very aware that networking was an integral part of finding permanent employment. Being banished to the sports facility was the equivalent of professional suicide.

A few emails popped up on Outlook: one from Dennis, his research assistant; one from Abigail, a former student (begging for a reference letter); finally, one from Caitlin, who was cancelling their meeting. I’ll have to cancel our 2 o’clock. I have to go to my daughter’s school. Email me tomorrow to reschedule. Ben sighed with relief. His mood altered almost immediately. With an extra flourish, he wrote a letter for Abigail in under twenty minutes, and sent it off. There was plenty of other work to do, but the urge to be generous and celebrate is free afternoon was distracting.

Then, in the midst of responding to Dennis, the room went black. Ben couldn’t tell what shut down first, the overhead lights or the computer screen, but it was sudden darkness, with no time to prepare. An attempt to use his iPhone as a light was disturbingly unsuccessful. Even if the building lost power, would that affect cell phones, too? Despite his limited knowledge of technology, it seemed unlikely.

Ben touched the desk, to situate himself, then rolled backward in his chair, slowly, until he reached the door. He fumbled to locate the door knob, wrench it open. Frustratingly, it was just as dark in the hallway as it was in his office. “Hey! Anyone there?”

There was a muffled but discernible response: “The lights went out.” Talk about stating the obvious.

“Where are you?” Ben tried again.

“The Recovery Room.” The mysterious person was deep but friendly.

He tried to remember where that was, then turned right, trailing his hand along the wall for direction. The Recovery Room, where student athletes went to stretch out or get treated for injuries, was not far, maybe thirty steps away, but the impenetrable darkness made the distance difficult to navigate.

“Am I getting closer?” Ben called. “Say something so I can follow your voice.”

“Yes, you’re getting close. I’ll meet you in the hallway.” It was a male voice and, indeed, it sounded more tangible than a minute ago.

One step, two step, three. “What’s your name?” Ben asked, just to fill the silence.

“Kyle. I play basketball. My hamstring’s been acting up, so I had to stretch a little.” Then, probably to be polite, he asked, “You?”

Still probing the walls with tentative fingers, Ben tried to sound casual, less afraid. Truth be told, the dead iPhone worried him. “PoliSci grad student. This was the only space left for my office. Name’s Ben.”

“PoliSci’s cool. My sister’s in PoliSci.” Kyle was within reach now.

“Keep talking. I’m almost there.”

“What should I say?”

“It doesn’t matter. Anything. Marco.”

Kyle chuckled, and the empty, silent hallway amplified his vibrato. “Polo.”

“Marco.” Ben was smiling now, too.

“Polo.”

The unmistakable scent of Mexican food, maybe some spicy cheese and dirty rice, filled the air. “Are you eating?”

“Got a bag of tacos around here somewhere,” Kyle said. “Didn’t get a chance to have lunch.”

And then they collided, shoulder to shoulder. There was laughter, and some awkward hand holding and blind groping, but Kyle didn’t present himself as the kind of person who got embarrassed easily. At least, not in the dark. Close up, his breath smelled of onions.

“So, where should we go?” Ben asked, trying to make out Kyle’s shadowy silhouette. The utter lack of light, even a minor stream of daylight, made him feel useless. The thought triggered his pulse to quicken.

“Uh, well, I think the stairwell is around here somewhere. We need to get out of the dark. I can’t see a thing. How long do you think the power’s been out so far? I wonder how long it will last.”

“Dunno. Where’s the stairwell?”

“I think it’s by the vending machine. Hold on to the back of my shirt.” Kyle began to walk, a few inches at a time. “Gonna turn left here.”

“How can you tell there’s a turn?”

“Instinct, I guess. I’ve been training here for two years. It’s familiar territory.”

Clutching the hem of Kyle’s jersey between finger and thumb, Ben remembered a Coldplay concert he attended in January with Emma. The tickets had been a Christmas present from her dad. After the final encore, the crowds had been so thick and impenetrable, that the couple had been forced to get creative so they wouldn’t be separated. Emma held on to the back of his jeans, finger hooked into a belt loop, and let him direct her through the labyrinth of drunk hipsters. He weaved, zigged, zagged, and eventually found the exit, the parking lot, and his ancient Toyota Corolla. The whole time, Emma giggled with every sudden turn, like a child without an ounce of self-consciousness, and the challenge of staying attached became more entertainment than necessity.

Kyle suddenly stopped, which caused Ben to crash into the stranger’s sweaty back. “Sorry,” he said. “You okay back there?”

Emma and her infectious giggle faded away, which somehow articulated the silence with a hint of gloom. “Yeah, I’m good.” Then, “At the risk of sounding like a five-year-old on a road trip, are we there yet?”

“Good question. I think-” The basketball player stopped, interrupted. Without warning or signal, lights popped and buzzed, filling the hallway with unexpected brilliance. Not one after the other, but all at once.

Dots and red streaks coloured Ben’s vision for several seconds. They squeezed their eyes shut and moaned with discomfort.

“Shit,” Kyle muttered, “what the hell is going on?”

Now that he could finally see, Ben realized that Kyle looked nothing like he expected. Indeed, the athlete was tall, at least six foot five, but he was quite wide and muscular, like a football player rather than a basketball player. Kyle’s skin was deeply tanned, almost bronze, and he wore an old blue jersey, baggy grey shorts and flip flops.

Ben finally adjusted to the light, looked ahead, and noticed that they were pretty close to the stairwell. He also realized that the atmosphere had weight again, an observation he wouldn’t have been able to articulate without having experienced the blackness to compare. There was an unsettling ringing in his ears, as if an earthquake had just shook the ground beneath his feet. When Ben fished his phone from his pocket, found that it worked again, as it should, his chest grew tight and heavy. The screen was bright and clear, a grid of colourful apps waiting to be tapped open.

“What’s that smell?” Kyle asked, when he finally stopped rubbing his eyes.

Ben sniffed. “Smoke?”

Up above, an ambulance siren blipped, stopped for a moment, as if catching its breath, then screamed to steady life.

Stay tuned for part 4…

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

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When I finished Fahrenheit 451, I felt full, as though I’d just eaten a massive, decadent five course meal. It took some time to sift through after thoughts (and aftershocks) from this wonderfully thought provoking novel. I felt compelled to read paragraphs out loud to myself, until the words properly sunk in. The digestion process was rather lengthy. Like more contemporary novels, such as Dave Eggers’ The Circle, the state of communication, technology – and the inevitable influence these developments will have on human interaction – is a key factor in what could very realistically morph into the dystopia described by Ray Bradbury.

It is the knowledge of the changes in my own culture and my own attitudes over the last ten years that helped me see the danger and plausible elements of Fahrenheit 451. The plot, which predicts a world where books have become outlawed and are burned to save people the misery of feeling unpleasant emotions, is not entirely beyond the realm of truth. It is not a government fueled dissension; it is the people, who only want to be happy, who do not want to rock any political boats, and increase demand for abridged knowledge. Major texts are condensed until they are nothing but a few words, a headline, a burp of information. The evil of Bradbury’s world is the miniturization of meaningful words, stories, history. There is no time or energy to digest anything bigger than a nugget.

For example, let’s take the notion of our collective human attention span, which has shriveled into a speck of nothingness over the last few years. We have become a culture infatuated with sound bites, images, and messages in 140-characters or less. Our patience has evaporated into the ether. Speed and efficiency seems to have won the battle over quality of moment. Pinterest’s popularity is built on the sharing of pictures, with a brief and pithy tag of text. Twitter requires only a surface skimming of quippy quotes and random observations.

Sure, there’s more to it than that, and there are certainly benefits to the globalization of communication, but you have to admit that our world is a lot closer to Bradbury’s vision than we’d like to think. Our first response might be: “But, we’re not that intolerant. We don’t burn books, and we aren’t sadistic. We don’t send a Mechanical Hound to hunt down and kill those who disagree with the majority.” Well, thank goodness. Truly. But, we have to be honest with ourselves. There are a few things that make us uneasy. Media is a big word. It only has five letters but it’s a Big Word. It’s kind of like a Trojan Horse. We need to be have access to information, but we also have to make sure we have the time and leisure of brain to digest said information. Guy Montag, the hero of Fahrenheit 451, had no clue something was missing until he had the time to think about it for a moment, and meditate, enjoy some quiet peacefulness. After he escapes, floating down the river, he has nothing but quietness in which to sort his thoughts, and it’s a blessing for him. He interprets that moment with near reverence.

And it’s the cluelessness that becomes the most dangerous part of Bradbury’s dystopia. When Guy stumbles home that first night to discover that Mildred, his wife, had swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills without even understanding why, the reader can’t help but wonder what on earth could inspire such delusion and unhappiness. The next morning, after Mildred’s stomach has been pumped of the pills, she can’t remember a thing, and when confronted with her actions, thoroughly denies their truth. Even Guy can’t put his finger on the pulse of his melancholy, that disruptive niggling at the back of his neck, that question forever plucking at his brain: “What is missing?”

As Faber, the book’s beacon of wisdom, rightly points out, it’s not necessarily the books that are “missing” but the emotion and texture they might’ve inspired in us. However, when our minds are occupied with a million other things (television, and other “immediate” entertainment, sound bites of random information) we don’t have any room left to think. That literal and figurative elbow room is an important ingredient to our emotional health, and one we sometimes take for granted, myself included.

Fahrenheit 451 is a marvelous book. I don’t use the word “marvelous” very often, but there you have it. Marvelous.

Blackout (Part 2)

The World Turned Off

A short story by Lydia

Iceland was beautiful but expensive. At least, that was Emma’s first, almost simultaneous, observation. From the moment she deplaned, the alien territory and landscape felt surreal. Keflavik Airport was like an elaborate, glossy version of an IKEA store, and boasted high tech washrooms, the functions of which were more startling than impressive. To be fair to the architects and designers of Keflavik airport, Emma wasn’t in the proper headspace to appreciate the innovation. She knew that was likely the case. The layover in Boston Logan International had been short but frustrating; the search for the correct terminal was practically a cross-country hike.

The flight to Reykjavik, however, had been troublesome. No turbulence to speak of, perfectly smooth actually, but still troublesome. Emma hadn’t been able to concentrate on her book beyond the third chapter, nor had she been able to sleep. Instead, she’d spent much of the six hour flight staring at a mini movie screen with no earphones – the dialogue of Cameron Diaz a mute mystery – and zipping through magazines without reading a single article.

She was now sitting in the air-conditioned airport shuttle bus, staring out the windows at black lava fields covered in pale green moss, dotted by purple flowers in frequent clusters. They passed a string of car dealerships and fast food chains (Taco Bell, Subway and KFC, surprisingly). The bus was quiet. Little conversation percolated, as everyone had their noses pressed to the glass, curiosity piqued in wonderment.

A part of Emma was excited to know she’d orchestrated this trip all on her own, with no help from Ben, and that she’d arrived safely. She booked the hostel on her own, arranged for transportation on her own, and navigated the ludicrously large Boston Logan International on her own. A momentary bubble of pride swelled within her chest, and then popped quietly, not wanting to get cocky; just celebrate small victories. She’d brought American dollars to trade for Icelandic krona (now tucked safely in her wallet) at the currency exchange booth. Another small victory, a task that wasn’t as complicated as she feared. For a girl who rarely traveled, and was never without a boyfriend for longer than a month, this was a feat. (Ben took care of the logistics and airfare for their California trip. All she’d been expected to do was pack and show up.)

About an hour later, the bus eventually rumbled off the highway and down a suburban street. Shortly after, the driver, with a thick accent, called the name of Emma’s hostel. She stood, along with three other passengers who were scheduled for this stop, and licked her lips nervously. The landscape was now one of peaked roofs, church steeples and snow-topped mountains. The entire coast, it seemed, was surrounded by mountains, high and dark and ominous. Well, to Emma they were ominous, and she struggled to disembark without tripping on the steps. The driver, tall and sturdy, noticed her unsteady feet, and smiled as he reached forward to make sure she didn’t fall onto the sidewalk.

“Thank you,” she said, suddenly struck by how many times she’d thanked people in the last twelve hours of travel. Thank you to various airline stewards, customs officers, Starbucks baristas, bookstore and shuttle employees. That’s all she’s been required to say out loud. Solo travel, she thought wearily, would take some getting used to. So she didn’t feel like a broken record, she elaborated: “I got a little distracted by the mountains.”

He turned around and absorbed the view looming in the near distance. “Yes, they have impact, don’t they?” His English was clipped but clear. “Great photo opportunity, yes?”

“Yes, very,” I said, thrilled at having expanded my vocabulary beyond “Thank you” and “Grande café latte, please.”

“Have a pleasant visit in Reykjavik,” he said, a little bashful, then nodded goodbye.

The hostel was clean and organized. Everything was automated with pre-arranged passcodes and, five minutes later, Emma was sitting on a high, single bed, staring out the second floor window of her room. Her suitcase was standing in the middle of the tiled floor, purse still clutched in her hands. Well, what next? After nearly a full day in transit, it was eight o’clock in the evening, Iceland time, and the sun was still bright in the sky. She doubted that museums would still be open, but perhaps a restaurant or a grocery store?

Emma found her phone and immediately Googled: things to do in Iceland. A picture of a church, the distinct steeple of which looked familiar, appeared in the results. It was called Hallgrimskirkja. Emma looked out her window again, and noticed that the steeple looked close enough, maybe fifteen minutes’ walk away. She made the decision to pull on an extra sweater, visit the church and, hopefully, along the way, find something to eat.

There were stacks of brochures and maps in the lobby, so she took one and studied the grid-like document. First, she found the church, then traced her finger along the paper toward the hostel, calculated maybe six or seven blocks. Ben would’ve been impressed by her sense of direction.

Once outside, relieved of the American Tourister, Emma breathed in the cool night air and finally allowed herself to relax. She felt lighter and more willing to look around, curious, excited at the prospect of visiting a foreign country on her own terms. For the first time since she clicked the “Buy” button on Expedia, Emma was starting to see the purpose of this trip: to be separate and away from Ben. Not in a malicious way, but simple necessity, for the sake of her mental health. Why had it taken her so long to realize this?

The street signs were filled with unfamiliar characters and letter combinations; too many consonants to pronounce. Still, her nerves were subsiding somewhat. She liked knowing that Ben was thousands of miles away, that she didn’t care if their relationship could be salvaged or not, that she’d stopped picturing him with Caitlin Field, the thesis supervisor in question. She could barely remember what Caitlin looked like: there were vague recollections of red hair and, Emma could’ve sworn, a wedding band, but the picture was hazy. They had only met once at a Christmas party (isn’t it always a Christmas party?) and spoken no more than five words of introduction to one another.

The church steeple grew closer, but Emma was momentarily distracted by a hot dog stand, and basked in the spontaneity. Perfect timing. She looked at the price list and fished the appropriate bank note from her wallet. When she noticed that chocolate dipped ice cream cones were also on offer, she sat on a nearby bench to eat the hot dog, and went back for desert, all the while listening to the unfamiliar chatter of international tourists. Much of it sounded Scandinavian, but there was some German and Spanish, some French and Japanese as well. A British family with three little boys walked by and it felt like a blessing to recognize their words.

On a whim, she took a picture of her frozen treat and emailed it to her father with a message: First meal in Iceland – ice cream! She checked her watch and made the time zone calculations. Dad was still at work, but he was surgically attached to his phone. Sure enough, a minute later, her pocket vibrated. He responded with another picture (a stylized image of a greasy hamburger with sweet potato fries) and said: Good to see we’re both eating nutritious meals! I’ve tought you well. Have fun, kiddo. Because to end the conversation was to be alone again, she held her phone to the sky, snapped an image of the mountains, applied a cool shadowy filter, and attached it to another email message: You should see the view! It’s incredible. Check out these mountains.

A family of tourists, speaking what sounded like a Slavic language, gathered around the hot dog stand. The husband, whose words went completely over Emma’s head, ushered his wife, who was limping, over to an adjacent bench. Emma assumed he was telling her to sit down and rest, that he would bring the food when it was ready. They all smiled awkwardly at one another, the way strangers do when they want to be polite but remain private.

The woman, with short, chestnut hair, bent over, rolled up her pant leg and rubbed her shin. A purple bruise was appearing on her pale skin. She seemed satisfied, though, that there was no bleeding.

The air shifted and suddenly felt tight. All at once, the man returned with a hot dog in each hand, the children trailing behind, the littlest one’s lips already coated in mustard; then, Emma’s phone buzzed; and, in the distance, a thick cluster of birds flew over the harbor, in an uneven, spastic formation. One lost altitude and accidentally flew into the side of a building, then dropped out of sight. Emma stared at the cement wall where the bird had crashed, and shivered.

Still distracted, she glanced down to read the latest message from her dad: Jealous. Bring me back something pretty. A smile broke her lips momentarily, but then her phone went black, which was strange because it had 73% battery power left. Emma turned the rectangle around in her hand and pressed the ON/OFF button, but nothing happened.

An immense silence fell from the sky, as if the clouds suddenly discovered they were subject to the rules of gravity. But no, they were still up there, white and fluffy. (There’s that word again, “Fluffy, like the marshmallow spread.”)

Cars rolled to a stop, some crashed. The scrape of metal on metal was offensive to her ears. The puzzled drivers climbed out of the motionless hunks of metal and stared at the vehicles with befuddled expressions. Across the street, a few tourists and locals struggled to comprehend their now dead phones. Buttons were pressed to no avail.

There was a steady murmur now. A few people wandered from the dark doorways of restaurants into the unrelenting, pink sun and asked questions in languages Emma couldn’t understand. One American (finally, some English) asked: “Did the city lose power?” The answer came from an unidentifiable person in the growing crowd: “I don’t know.”

A horrific whistling pierced the quiet, and everyone stopped to listen, look up at the sky. First, there was a speck, then a distinct shape in the horizon, diving toward the mountain peak. The Slavic family squinted into the distance, shielded their eyes from the sun’s glare. The husband’s mouth dropped open, transfixed.

“What is that?” Again, the voice leapt from the crowd, mercifully English, but faceless and without origin.

The crowd of concerned locals and tourists need not have posed the question at all, for the answer came soon enough. Emma flinched and gasped when the object, what she realized had been a commercial airplane, exploded upon impact. A ball of fire mushroomed and burst from the mountainside in a billowing stream of black smoke.

Stay tuned for part 3…

An art kick

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One morning earlier this spring, I woke up and decided to sharpen all of my coloured pencils. This might not sound like a big task, but perhaps I should’ve mentioned that I own approximately one thousand coloured pencils, collected during the thirty-one years of my life. A Crayola set here, a PrismaColor set there; it really adds up. Needless to say, I had a blister on my fingers from the twisting.

Whenever an artistic wave hits, it doesn’t last long, but it usually results in two things:
1. The purchasing of more craft and art supplies, none of which I actually need
2. The creation of one or two pieces of actual art (a drawing, painting, or necklace, etc.)

I have a collection of craft and art supplies that include but are not limited to a screen printing kit, beads and findings, multiple sketch books and journals, watercolours, oil pastels, dry pastels, rubber stamping kits, Speedball ink, cardstock, markers and, of course, that mountain of coloured pencils. [I am determined to used it all up, though I realize this is a huge undertaking.] The amount of sketchbooks and journals I’ve collected over the years is almost ridiculous. Slowly, I’ve managed to get through a few, but, like the lure of a new novel, a pretty notebook or diary will easily catch my eye and seduce the credit card right out of my wallet.

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Except from a few favourite pieces, the actual art, however, is rarely kept. Nine times out of ten, it usually ends up in the garbage. I’m not sure why, but eventually it ceases to have any sentimental value or retain its emotional pull. Most of the time, I just don’t know what to do with it. Some are large, clunky cumbersome sheets of pulled canvas, which makes it difficult to move from apartment to apartment, and store. [Note: I have this same problem with books.]

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There are a few drawings, however, that I’ve held onto because the light sketch paper wasn’t a complete inconvenience to file away in a folder. You may recognize the blonde below from a Dior advertisement. To practice the angles of the face, I like to flip through magazines to find a specific image to copy. It was this method that allowed me to get familiar with jaw shape, shadowing the nose, highlighting the eyes and hair. I still have a great deal of difficulty with angle, but the practice helps.

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This brunette also originated from a magazine photograph, but because she wasn’t looking directly at the camera, learning to incorporate the tilt of her head and the curve of the nose took some time. Proportion was also a big problem. The lips would oftentimes end up bigger than the nose or the eyes, mainly because it’s what I’d draw first. (I could never get the nose right. For some reason, it always caused the most trouble for me. It’s always too long, and messes up the symmetry of the face.)

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There is one canvas that I really want to keep; mainly because I liked how it turned out, but also because it was the first time I really tackled anything in oil pastel. The nose even turned out semi-normal, which is a minor miracle because oil pastels, for the longest time, felt like bulky crayons in my hands. Also, I think the hair looks full, real enough, and contrasts nicely with the red background.

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This time around, oddly enough, I’ve been tinkering with drawing fruit and other inanimate objects. It’s nice not to be concerned with proportion (at least, not in the same way). I took this opportunity to experiment with the techniques for reflection and shine.

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The beauty of playing around with coloured pencils, or any other artistic medium, is that expectations usually fade into the background when you play. Of course, we have our own internal expectations to contend with, but it’s nice not being evaluated. I enjoy the simple act of picking up a pen, pencil, or paint brush and just throwing something down on paper. How easy is that? Not to mention, the meditative benefits are more than welcome after a long day in the office.

Do you enjoy puttering in the arts? If so, what medium?

Blackout (Part 1)

The World Turned Off

A short story by Lydia

When Emma’s fiancé called off their engagement, she didn’t cry. Instead, she bought a ticket to Reykjavik.

After a two-hour long, heartbreaking confession in Ben’s black Toyota – in which he revealed that he had sex three times with his dissertation supervisor – she arrived at the apartment they used to share, feeling cold and numb. Potter, their intuitive two-year-old black Labrador, immediately greeted her at the door with a sympathetic whine. When she sat down on the sofa, in a near stupor of disbelief, he curled around her feet and glanced up periodically, as if he were checking to make sure she was still alive. It was a comfort to feel his strong, youthful heart beating against her ankle.

Out of habit, she reached for the remote control, turned on the television and started watching a random documentary. It so happens that the random documentary was about Olympic athletes in Iceland, as they trained for the upcoming summer games. For some reason, her brain latched onto the idea of visiting Iceland and, an hour later, was perusing airfare prices on Expedia. Before she knew it, her wallet was open, the receipt printing on an old laser jet. Within the twenty-four hours that followed the odd purchase, she spoke to her boss and, with some humiliating explanation, obtained approval for the last minute vacation time, arranged for Potter to stay with her dad in Phoenix, bought a new suitcase, and cleaned out the refrigerator of unused dairy products.

Now she stood in line, waiting to board a flight to Boston, where she was scheduled to catch a connecting flight to Reykjavik. In an attempt to distract herself from her bizarre new reality, she flipped through some Facebook posts, but quickly grew bored with images of her coupled friends posing for the camera (in Disney World, at the dinner table, playing tennis, shopping for a boat, buying a boat, and sailing a boat).

Ben and Emma had met three years earlier in an amateur volleyball league. He was a political science PhD candidate, she a lowly project coordinator for a small engineering firm. They had joined the league to blow off some steam, and meet some new people in Flagstaff, where they were both new residents. Eventually, they started dating and, during a very romantic trip to the California coast, became engaged. Ben was a broke academic at the time, but managed to propose with a stunning silver and amber ring. It was exactly Emma’s style, a delight which lead her to interpret as a good sign. They were a good match, or so she thought and, for one really good year, believed wholeheartedly.

The last few months, in all honesty, had been unpleasant. Ben was irritable and grumpy most of the time, stressed by the expectations of his work and the competition amongst colleagues. At least, that’s how he excused his rude, dismissive behavior. Eventually, though, it became evident that something wasn’t right. When she cornered him in the car, just as they were ready to pull out of a Publix parking lot, he caved almost instantly. Yes, there was someone else. No, it wasn’t an affair, just sex. No, he wasn’t in love with the other woman. Yes, he thought it best to cancel the engagement and take a break from the relationship. And so that was that.

Earlier that afternoon, just as her boarding pass spit out of the self-serve check-in airport kiosk, she’d received an email from Ben, asking her if the gossip was true. Are you really going to Iceland? She texted back a simple Yes. Yes, she was, dammit. He asked: What for? Why? That stumped her. She didn’t know how to respond truthfully, so, in anger, said: To get away from you. The conversation ended; no emails for an hour. Then, as she bit into an overpriced ham and cheese sandwich, one last message from Ben: Stay safe. Have fun. Rest. Let someone know when you’ve landed.

She was tempted to remind him that he forfeited the right to care or communicate with her the moment he called off the engagement, the moment he revealed his betrayal, but instead erased the message entirely, without response. Delete. There would be no more of that.

Finally, the line shuffled forward. Passengers presented their passports and boarding passes for inspection, before being ushered through the doorway. Everyone looked half-awake, on account of the red eye departure, and eager to get on board for some much-needed shuteye. A couple of teenaged girls in Harvard gear were the only ones talking with any enthusiasm, and chattered incessantly about someone named “Sparky Parker,” until they disappeared into the mouth of the gate.

Only a few minutes passed before Emma joined the Harvard girls in the tunnel, purse hanging from one elbow, the handle of a rolling suitcase clutched tightly in the other. This was positively surreal. Aside from a graduation trip to the Dominican Republic, and a family vacation to Cardiff, Wales, she had very little experience with travel. Knowing that she would be eating dinner in Reykjavik (alone) after crossing the North Atlantic Ocean was both unnerving and exciting. Flying wasn’t particularly enjoyable – it was impossible to relax completely into deep sleep – but it was easy enough to read a novel or flip through a magazine without too many panic attacks. A fresh, paperback copy of John Grisham’s The Racketeer had been purchased at the airport bookstore for exactly this reason.

Emma didn’t consider herself a sophisticated reader, a fact that Ben liked to point out from time to time. She visibly cringed at the memory of his patronizing smile as he poked her in the ribs after she bought the latest Jodi Picoult. What did he call it? “Fluff, like the marshmallow spread.”

There had been little else that bothered her about the relationship, so Emma had been willing to put up with the jibes. You take the good with the bad, right? Ben spent hours sifting through academic, peer-reviewed journals, and, when some spare time revealed itself, consumed a few chapters of Kafka and Upton Sinclair to cleanse his palette. He encouraged her to try something more difficult, but when she finally attempted some Toni Morrison, he insisted on having a “discussion” afterward to “unpack” the story. It had been such a miserable, demoralizing experience that they decided not to discuss books anymore. Ben promised not to bring it up, and Emma decided to cover her paperbacks in wrapping paper. Problem solved.

A middle-aged, blonde flight attendant greeted Emma with a pleasant, reassuring smile. “Good evening, welcome aboard.”

It was a tight squeeze. First and business class were cloistered at the front of the plane, but coach travelers struggled to shuffle down the aisle without accidentally tripping over a foot or banging their suitcases into arm rests and stray knees. Emma did both before locating her seat.

A male steward stepped forward to help lift her new American Tourister into the overhead compartment. “Here, let me get that.” He picked it up with no trouble at all, easily tucked it into a free corner of the compartment, and smiled kindly. As he reached, Emma noticed a tattoo peeking out from the wrist of his shirt (the red flames of fire, or perhaps the fins of a bright orange koi fish).

“Thank you,” she said, sincerely grateful for the assistance.

“Not a problem, miss. Not a problem.” And then he moved along, down the aisle, to help an elderly man with his duffel bag. “Hi, sir, would you like some help with that?”

Emma’s stomach churned with nerves and butterflies as she shimmied to the window seat and fell into the stiff cushions. For the fourth time, she checked to make sure her passport was still where it should be, then remembered to email her dad to let him know she was leaving for Boston shortly, and when she arrived at her final destination. Being in the technology industry, Emma’s dad was both an early riser and addicted to his smart phone, so it didn’t take long for him to reply. He sent a picture of Potter, with a pair of sunglasses propped on the dog’s nose, with the following message: Have fun and stay cool. Don’t forget us. A much-needed smile brightened Emma’s face. Leave it to dad to come through with a chuckle. She responded: Aw, I could never forget those droopy eyes.

Quickly, before she would have to put her phone on airplane mode, she googled the sunset and sunrise times for Iceland in July. Stewart Waverly, a coworker, after learning of Emma’s vacation destination, had mentioned something called Midnight Sun. “Because Iceland is so far north, the sun rises early,” he’d said, “and it doesn’t really set, either, like a permanent dusk. A friend of mine went hiking there last summer. It’s supposed to be beautiful.”

“Really?” she’d asked, feeling awestruck, slightly delirious.

“Yeah, I think you’ll really like it.” But then he finally realized that Emma’s delirium was not entirely inspired by Iceland, but by something more personal, intangible. “Are you okay? You look worried about something.”

It was no secret that she’d been overworked the past few months – one of the reasons her boss forgave her this one trespass of professional incongruity – so Stewart was rightly under the impression that she was starting to crack under the pressure.

“I’m okay. A little tired, but okay.”

“Is Ben going with you?”

The question had fallen like a rock between them. She had no intention of sharing her personal miseries with Stewart, who, as far as she could tell, was happily married with two daughters, lived in the burbs, drove a Jeep Wrangler, and wore relatively expensive suits to work. In other words: successful. So she smiled pleasantly, and said, “No, he has to teach. He couldn’t get away.” The end. Conversation over.

Google revealed that sunset would occur a little after midnight, sunrise at approximately 2:30 in the morning. It made logistical and geographical sense, but was difficult to envision. Her body clock was very attached to the routine presence of light and dark. There were many pictures of the Midnight Sun phenomenon online, and the promise of spectacular beauty was mesmerizing. And yet, she wasn’t sure. This trip, like the breakup, felt odd.

Shaking the nerves from her neck and shoulders, Emma realized that the plane was moving, rolling along the tarmac into place for take-off. The male steward stood at the first class curtain, pulled a phone from the dividing wall and spoke into the receiver with a wonderfully baritone Jeremy Irons voice. “Welcome aboard flight 5265 en route to Boston” and “make sure your seatbelt is buckled,” and “thank you for choosing US Airlines.” Honestly, she wasn’t really paying attention. She couldn’t. The details of flight, though important, made her nervous. Instead, she took The Racketeer from her purse, and opened it to the first page.

Stay tuned for part 2…