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…