Monday, December 31, 2012

ENTRY 251: LAZARUS BEEKMAN


"Yes," she said, rummaging through my pubic hair with latex-covered fingers. "You definitely have crabs."


"Oh, good God," I said, sighing audibly and tilting my head back in frustration, thereby blinding myself with a direct stare into the overhead fluorescent lights. Frank's first STI.


My doctor explained what to do: shave the unmentionables, use a nit comb, apply a nasty poison to the most delicate parts of my body, wash all the clothes I'd worn recently. My face colored involuntarily.


"Perfect timing," I said. "My flight to Paris leaves tomorrow."


"Uh oh," she said. "Well, I hope you have a great time."


"Me, too," I said. "Thank you."


What the hell would I tell Eugene, with whom I would be sharing a bed in the City of Light a little more than 24 hours from now?


Outside my doctor's Midtown building, I buttoned my peacoat against the January wind, then thrust my hand into my pocket for my cell phone as I started toward the subway.


"I am so fucked," I said.


"Do tell," said Hamilton.


"I went to see my doctor about a nasty bout of food poisoning, and I left with a diagnosis of crabs," I said, trailing into a mutter at the end. "It was a minor itch. I thought it was my new laundry detergent or something."


"Aren't you going to Paris with Eugene tomorrow?"


"Yes, that would be correct."


"What are you going to do?"


"Well, of course I have to tell him," I said. "I'm freaking out. I still have so much to do, and now on top of that I have to shave everything and treat myself. Fucking perfect start to 2010."


"So did he give them to you?"


"I don't know," I said. "Probably not." I stepped off the curb to circumnavigate four people walking annoyingly abreast.


"Uh-oh. Then who did?"


"I'm thinking my fuckbuddy."


"Would you mind explaining that again?"


I sighed. "I don't know if I really explained it before. We've been hooking up for about a month and a half. I met him not long after I met Eugene. I mean, Eugene and I haven't really had sex to speak of."


"Why not?"


"He told me at the very beginning that he was only a few months out of a three-year relationship, so he wasn't all that available." I paused to look both ways before jaywalking. "Which was fine with me, really. And then it turned out that he wanted to do all this kinky stuff."


"Like what?"


"Oh, he likes to be whipped, have candle wax dripped on him, nipple torture. I mean extreme nipple torture. Like I was twisting and clawing with my nails as hard as I could and he wanted harder. And that was about it. So to my mind that isn't really sex. And it doesn't titillate me, and in fact it bores me."


"Yeah, that doesn't sound too interesting to me."


"Right. So I've been fucking the fuckbuddy and having dates with Eugene. My emotional and physical needs split between two different people. Very New York."


Hamilton chuckled.


"So now I have to tell both of them. Can't wait."


"They're gay men," he said. "They'll understand."


"Even if not," I said, "I don't think the thing with Eugene and me is really going to go anywhere anyway. This trip is basically an opportunity for me to confirm that."


"I see."


I growled. "This suuuucks, dammit."


"I know," he said. "But I've had crabs any number of times, and they're easy to get rid of. Completely curable. At least it's not something worse."


"True," I said. "Thanks."


"Of course," he replied.


"I'm sorry," I said. "I have to go."


"Hang in there."


I made an embarrassing trip to the drugstore for disposable razors and Nix. Then I went home, stripped, and put on an old T-shirt and ragged jeans. I wadded up my sheets and all my dirty clothes and hauled everything downstairs and around the corner to the laundromat, trying in vain not to hold the heavy load against me. Cramming everything into three washers, I set the temperature on hot and held my palm against the glass washer doors until I was almost scalded, just to make sure there was enough heat to kill the things.


Returning to the apartment, I closed my bedroom door and waited for Eugene's call. Via email I'd scheduled a time to talk with him. He'd be phoning me through his computer from Paris, where he'd been studying French in an intensive month-long program for the past two weeks.


My phone rang as I sat there not wanting it to.


"I have some bad news," I said. And I told Eugene everything and he was calm about it, and offered reassuring words in his Ukrainian accent. The same thing had happened to him once, he said, and it had been unpleasant but fairly easy to treat.


"I just feel kind of overwhelmed right now," I said, tears of stress and shame starting to well up.


"You just do what you have to do," he replied.


"I know," I said, "and I will. I have to take care of this now. I can't take it over there with me. I won't."


Hanging up, I sat still for a moment before saying to myself, "I will stay calm. I will do what I have to do. I will get everything done."


I had to act now, while the clothes were being deloused. I shut myself in the restroom. After extracting the hateful lice wherever I found them burrowed into my skin, after hacking away at hair where I had never shaved before, after the sting of applying the poison to my nether regions, I exited the bathroom again.


Not 10 seconds after I closed my bedroom door behind me, I heard Bertha tromping down the hall and slamming the bathroom door behind her. For the past hour I'd heard her stomping down the hallway every few minutes to check if I was still in the lavatory. Lately I'd made up a game stemming from the annoyance of hearing her use the bathroom at least once an hour (my bedroom was right next to it). On a recent Sunday morning I'd created a Word document keeping track of all the times she went to the restroom: 10:27, 10:58, 11:20, 12:34.... Some sort of UTI, I'd guessed. God, I hated her more and more every day.


Running downstairs again to the laundromat, I retrieved my clothes from the dryer. The rest of the day would be spent packing, and that night I would toss and turn, unnerved by each itch, never sure if it was a lingering bite or a surviving crab or razor burn or the abrasive poison I'd had to put on myself.


###


I reached Paris four hours late, after sundown, vowing never again to book a flight with a layover in Madrid. (The dubious silver lining being that I had plenty of time to duck into a restroom after the overnight flight to check for stowaways in my underwear. Thankfully, the only one I found was dead.)


Eugene had rented an apartment in Le Marais. It was in an old crumbling palais near the Jewish history museum, with an elevator-for-barely-two that ascended to the fourth floor and left one to climb steep stairs to the fifth, since the elevator shaft narrowed closer to the top and prevented further mechanical lifting.


"How was your trip to Texas?" he asked me after a peck on the lips.


"Yes," I said, "I do need a glass of wine."


Gene took the hint and poured me one, and I nibbled at a slice from a baguette (stomach still recovering) in the cluttered little kitchen while I sketched out the main points.


"Nobody told me until I got there that my mother's severe depression had returned," I said, choking down a chunk of hard bread. "So there I was, in their house in the middle of nowhere where I don't even get a cell signal. My dad would be off at the edge of the property mending a fence and I'd sit in the living room with my mother while she stared off into space for literally an hour at a time. Then she'd ask if I were unhappy, or apologize 15 years late for how they abandoned me when I came out to them. It was pretty excruciating, really."


"Perhaps you should not have gone," said Gene, never much of a softie.


"They're my parents," I said, "and I see them only once a year most years. Anyway, how was I even supposed to know if they were keeping it from me before I arrived?"


"I don't think you should go next year," he said, pouring me another half glass.


I swigged with a grimace. "I'm not going to think eleven months ahead right now. But I will say it was particularly charming when I told my parents I was going to Paris and all they said was how rude the French are. Nothing about oh, how exciting or nice that I'm going or anything."


"Shall we go out to dinner?" said Gene, glancing at his watch. "In a few minutes? You must be hungry."


"Cautiously hungry," I said, as my tender stomach gurgled discreetly. "But yes." I stood up from the kitchen table and followed him into the living room/bedroom, taking in the student-chic shabbiness and feeling a draft on my back that carried all the way through from the warped front door. Out the window I could see the softly lit rooftops of Paris, and wished I felt more romantic with the other person in the room, but it was all right.


###


"So exactly how long will you be in London?" I asked, swiveling my barstool to an angle more conducive to conversation.


"Let's see--I think three hours?" said Phillip, after a moment of scrunched-up thought. "I land late tomorrow morning, then the car is taking me straight to the London School of Economics for a couple of meetings, and my flight back to New York leaves tomorrow afternoon. I'll be at JFK in the evening."


"Great," I said. "So we can do this again tomorrow night."


He laughed, all white teeth. "I wish."


We'd met at a networking event three days before, introduced by a passing acquaintance of mine who worked with Phillip in the financial industry. While Phillip was quite handsome and I felt an immediate electricity, I'd played it cool, chatting with him for a little while before politely excusing myself to chat with some other people I knew. When I returned I was pleased to see he turned his attention back to me immediately. As I sipped my drink I could feel that his eyes never left me. I would periodically turn my glance in his direction, creating a series of pleasurable ocular zings. He emailed me early the next morning, and we agreed to meet for a drink three days later.


"It's okay," I said. "I figure you might be tired. Just bring me back some knee breeches. I can really rock a pair of knee breeches." He laughed again. I liked making that happen.


"Sorry about the suit," he said. His overnight bag sat at the base of his stool, ready to accompany him straight from the bar to the airport. "I'd much rather be wearing jeans like you are."


"It's fine," I said. "You look handsome." When he hailed his cab to the airport he gave me a quick peck on the lips but nothing more, and I did not mind the delayed gratification.


He texted me the next day from London on the way to his meeting. We joked and flirted intercontinentally. I wanted to reach for his hand across the Atlantic, but used my thumbs instead.


###


I took his hand when he reached for mine across the table, and tried to calculate how long it had been since I had held someone's hand. 2006? 2007? The waiter came back with our drinks and my ears burned slightly and I loathed my own self-consciousness, but I betrayed not a hint of it to Phillip. Fuck it, we were in Chelsea. The feelings were glorious and immediate, two things I hadn't experienced in so long.


"What kind of vacations do you like to go on?" he asked. My practical side brayed, "Too soon, too soon," but the rest of me answered awkwardly, with secret joy and its attendant, even more secret trepidation.


"I haven't gone on so many vacations, honestly," I said. "For years I either didn't have much money or couldn't take much time off, or both. But last year I decided I'm not getting any younger, so I need to get out and go places."


"Good," he said. "Like where?"


"Last year I went to Iceland," I said. "That was really great. And three months ago I went to Paris."


"Who did you go with?" he asked.


"I went to Iceland by myself," I said. "And to Paris with a friend."


"Just a friend?" he asked, cocking an eyebrow as his thumb traced the vein on the back of my hand.


"Well, we were kind of dating," I said. "But I wasn't sure about it. Then he invited me to visit him for a few days in Paris while he was over there for a month studying French. I thought what the hell, it would be a good way to figure out if I wanted the dating thing to continue."


"And?"


"And I didn't." I paused. "This may sound awful, but I would pretend to be asleep to avoid having sex with him."


He laughed in a particularly glad sort of way. "That old trick."


"Yeah. But Paris itself was great. He would be in class all day, so I wandered the city and saw all the stuff you're supposed to see your first time there, and then we'd have dinner and drinks and all that at night."


"So are you still friends?"


"We are," I said. "But the dating thing just wasn't in the cards. He's...Ukrainian, if that means anything to you."


"Mmm," he said. "It does."


"I don't mean to stereotype," I said, "but...I've met warmer people. I like him, though. He's loyal and smart. Just sometimes a little bleak-minded and politically strident."


"Sounds like my kind of guy," said Phillip, flashing a grin. I grinned back.


"So where would you like to go next?" he asked.


"I don't know," I said. "I mean, Australia's on my list, which isn't very original or anything."


"I lived in Sydney for three years," he said. "Great city. Really great."


"Nice," I said. "I want to ride in a kangaroo pouch."


"You might fit," he said, and we both laughed.


Outside after dinner, we leaned against a wall and kissed easily.


"Do you want to come over?" he said. "I live a couple blocks away. Not that you should read anything into the invitation."


"Mmm," I said. "Very tempting. But I have an early day tomorrow. Next time?"


###


He pressed the PH button in the elevator and my mind froze.


Stepping out of the car before me, Phillip said, "Welcome to the Snow Globe in the Sky."


I willed myself into an appearance of nonchalance as I took in the penthouse's sleek modern furniture, the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Chrysler Building and the Empire State and the twinkling constellation of a thousand bedroom lamps and flickering televisions. Most emphatically I am not a materialist, but nevertheless the trappings of money intimidate me on a visceral level. I'd had no idea. I mean, I'd known he did pretty well, but not like this. At that moment I decided he could never see the shithole I shared with Bertha.


He poured a couple of glasses of wine. I sat on the couch. He turned on the fireplace with a remote control. I suppressed something between a laugh and a hiccup.


"Your place is really lovely," I said, as he fiddled with the sound system and music filled the moonlit room and a low-level terror filled me.


"Thank you," he said.


"So do you play?" I asked, indicating the piano in the opposite corner of the room.


"I used to," he said. "I was training to be a concert pianist."


"And what happened?"


"It didn't work out."


"I'd love to hear you play sometime," I said.


"I'm very shy about playing for people," he said. "It's something I do to relax sometimes when I come home from work and can sit there alone."


"I see," I said, slowly draining my wine glass.


"Would you like a tour?" he asked, standing and reaching for my hand. I gave it and he pulled me up and led me past the spare bedroom and bath, through the sleek metallic kitchen, down the far hallway with its transparent left wall open to the world, past a cavernous walk-in closet with probably more shoes than I'd owned in the past ten years and the master bathroom and into his bedroom.


"Wow," I said, leaning my forehead against the wall-to-wall window and gazing down at the car headlights sidling by far below. The glass was slightly cool to the touch.


"I enjoy the view," said Phillip. "And these are from Africa," he said, pointing to some elongated ebony statuary mounted on the wall.


"Very nice," I said, nodding dumbly and taking another sip of wine to bridge whatever I was trying to bridge.


"Do you want to spend the night?" he said.


"Yes," I said. "But I have to tell you something." He nodded and I hesitated.


"There's been a lot of stress in my life the past few months," I began.


"I know," he said. "The problems with your boss, and all your grad school work, and the six weeks of grand jury duty that you just got stuck with."


"Right," I said. "I spend half my time lately running around not knowing where I'm going."


"I know something about what that's like," he said reassuringly.


Sighing, I sat down on a kind of built-in-bench that ran along one wall and looked at the lone candle flickering next to his giant bed. "There's something else I have to tell you."


"Okay," he said, sitting on the edge of the bed and facing me calmly.


"I had a friend with benefits the end of last year," I said, "and he gave me crabs. I broke it off after that--he'd kept from me that he had a boyfriend--and I treated myself immediately. Shaved off all the hair and rubbed poison all over myself, washed everything in hot water--but then I found more crabs. So I did everything all over again, and it was fine for two weeks, and then I found another one on me. And it kind of turned into this long, slow nightmare that took over my life. The laundromat right downstairs from my apartment had a busted boiler just at that period, so there was no hot water to wash my clothes in and so every single Monday night I had to rush home from work and lug all my laundry five blocks down to the next closest laundromat. The washers and dryers were smaller so everything took longer than at my old laundromat and I had to use more of the machines and sometimes they were all taken and I always had to stay until everything was washed and dried on high heat because I couldn't risk any of the crabs surviving. And the whole thing was so depressing, there was always this guy sitting there drinking out of a paper bag. Then I came home and shaved my body hair again and applied all the pesticide again, and it always stung. And I began to have phantom crabs, like I would wake up and imagine that they were crawling on me but when I turned on the light there was nothing. And finally I thought they were really gone but at work one day a few weeks ago when I was in the bathroom I found another live one and it really drove me to despair. So I went back to my doctor for like the fourth time and she was also at her wit's end and prescribed me this drug that they use for when you contract internal parasites in Africa or something. She asked me for my accurate body weight so she could calculate the precise dosage because basically you're swallowing poison that will go into your blood and thus kill any parasite that's feeding off you. The point was to kill any hidden ones that I wasn't finding. So anyway, I'm supposed to take two doses a week apart, and the second one is in two days." I took a breath.


"So far I haven't seen evidence of any crabs still left, but this has dragged on for months and I don't want to put anyone else at risk. Especially you. Because I really, really like you. And I hate having to tell you this, but at this point I think you need to know. I haven't really been able to tell anyone. It's been this huge horrible secret all these months from everyone except my Ukrainian friend, who avoids touching me now every time he sees me. He won't even hug me anymore. I feel like a leper. I feel dirty and ashamed and alone," and by this time the tears were falling.


Phillip reached out and pulled me onto the bed with him and enfolded me in his arms, and I sobbed into his chest with feral force. Part of me wanted to break away and avoid contaminating him, but I had been in such desperate need of physical affection that I could not bring myself to pull back.


"It's okay," he said softly.


"I'm worried about putting you at risk," I said.


"I don't care," he said. "You're beautiful and I want to touch you." At that I sobbed even harder.


Finally it was out of my system. I sighed and gently extricated myself from his embrace to wipe my eyes. "Sorry for being such a mess."


"You are not a mess," he said, stroking my hair.


"I'm glad one of us doesn't think so," I said, eliciting a small chuckle from him.


"Lay down with me," he said, and hesitantly I did so, imagining invisible pests crawling off me and onto his sheets.


Phillip started his weekdays at 4:30 in the morning with a trip to the gym before jumping into his work, so within minutes he was breathing heavily. Before slipping out to go home I lay there for a long time, staring out of the glass walls of the giant terrarium at the scattered dimly lit windows across the street, feeling both alone and not.


###


The pestilence had not abated. In the following days I began to experience new, strange symptoms: tiny alarming bites around my ankles that led me to shave not just my unmentionables but also my naturally hairy legs, which I'd never in my life done and had a horrible knicked-up time doing. My doctor was out of town but she'd been at her wit's end anyway, so I sealed two of the awful little things in a plastic bag and went to my dermatologist and recounted the entire litany.


"I captured a couple of them in a bag," I said, "if you'd be good enough to take a look and tell me what they are."


He looked at me stolidly for a long moment before saying, "You have to decide that you're ready to get beyond this."


"That's what I'm trying to do," I said slowly.


"I realize it's difficult psychologically to have had crabs," he said, "but they're gone now and you have to get over it."


"What. The. Actual. Fuck," I wanted to say.


"I am very interested in getting over it," I said. "But something is still biting me. Would you please take a look and tell me what it is?"


"I have housewives come in all the time and tell me the same thing," he said evenly. "And they show me plastic bags full of dander and carpet fluff."


In my mind I was strangling my dermatologist, banging his fat head against the wall until his fancy Ivy League degree fell onto the floor and its frame shattered all over his expensive preppy shoes as he kicked for air.


"I did not imagine this," I said. "I am not a housewife. It wouldn't matter a damn if I were. I am telling you that something was crawling on me and biting me and it is not a dust bunny because it was alive and I put it in the bag and it was still moving around and I am not leaving this office until you take this bag and look at what is inside it."


I stared at him. He stared at me. I handed him the bag. While I sat there with my arms folded across my gently heaving ribs, he looked at the contents under magnification, then handed the bag back to me.


"I don't know what it is, but it's not a louse," he said. "Or a bedbug, or a mite, or a tick."


"Thank you," I said, and walked out the door.


I went to see my regular doctor upon her return, and when I told her I had the bag she expressed great interest in looking at the contents.


"They're so tiny," she said, frowning at them as she held the bag before her nose. "I'll send them to the lab. It might take a week or more."


"It's okay," I said, sighing. "At least the crabs may finally be gone. It's all been so confusing that I can't even say when they really did disappear. Thank you for actually listening to me."


"Of course," she said, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.


###


It was a beautiful Sunday in early May and Phillip and I were sitting on his private roof deck sharing a bottle of a lovely white. He was a serious oenophile with a collection stored partially out in Jersey, and I didn't even pretend to know much of anything about the subject, but I was enjoying whatever we were drinking.


We happened to be talking about skiing; I'd gone on my last trip of the season just after we'd met in March. "Where have you gone?" he asked.


"Only in the East," I said. "The farthest I've been is Vermont."


"You really need to try the Alps," he said. "I get so bored on all my business trips to Geneva; you should come with me sometime."


"That sounds amazing, but I should warn you I'm really not very good," I said, swirling my glass nervously.


"We'll get you an instructor," he said. "That's what they're for."


These sorts of comments always made me a little uneasy for their socioeconomic implications and the inevitable power imbalance they laid bare to me, but I knew he meant no harm in them, so I always let them pass without remark.


Instead I looked down for a long moment at the cheese plate sitting between us. "Why did you decide to become a vegetarian?" I asked. "Was it more political or dietary?"


"I think it's become more dietary," he said, patting his nonexistent gut. "But it did start off more political. It was mostly because of my wife." He said more after that, but I didn't really hear it.


When he paused, I was careful to use what I could only guess to be the correct tense. "So you were married?"


"Oh, you mean I hadn't told you?" he said. "I'm sorry. I forget who I've told and who I haven't. Yes, it was a long time ago, for a few years. We're still in touch every once in a while. She's remarried and still living in California."


"Oh, okay," I said, spreading Brie on a cracker with clipped strokes. "No, I didn't know."


"It's actually something that could get me in trouble at work," he said, reaching for the bottle to refill first my glass and then his. "On all my documents I say 'single' instead of 'divorced.' I don't think it's anybody's business whether I've been married or not."


I nodded slowly, wondering to myself how he could lose track of whom he had told if it was such a closely guarded secret.


"Do you want to head out to dinner?" I asked, swallowing the rest of my wine in a series of generous gulps. "The sun is starting to hurt my eyes."


###


"The test results are back," I said.


Bertha's head whipped around. "And what was biting you?"


"An indeterminate mite." So much for dermatology.


"What kind of mite?"


"They didn't know."


"Can I see the paper they gave you?"


"Literally all it says is 'unknown mite.'"


"Please show me the paper, Frank."


I came perilously close to rolling my eyes, then walked down the hallway to my room, retrieved the paper, returned with it, and handed it to my reviled roommate. She peered through her overlarge glasses at the paper, on which was printed UNKNOWN MITE. Nothing else.


"Well," she said with a huff, "you're going to have to pay to have your room exterminated at your own expense."


I out-and-out bit my tongue for a moment. My eyes wandered over the kitchen walls on which I quickly counted half a dozen crawling roaches, alighting on the drainer with Bertha's poorly washed dishes drying next to my gleaming ones. I thought about how I'd clung to this shitty apartment despite everything because it was the devil that I knew even as I'd lost so much else. Then I thought about the time Bertha had stumbled drunk into my room in the middle of the night, the constant loud bickering between Bertha and her constantly-around weirdo boyfriend, the repeatedly leaking/collapsing bathroom ceiling, the fact that she had been gouging me on the rent since I moved in eight years ago, her gall in telling me I couldn't have an air conditioner during the summers even as both she and her freeloading boyfriend each used two separate ones in our apartment, her refusal to let the exterminator in because as a Buddhist she "didn't believe in killing things" YET THE IDIOT ATE MEAT. And now, in continuing defiance of logic, she was blaming me for the presence of the mites.


Something inside me snapped. After eight long years of her utter bullshit I finally fucking snapped.


Lunging forward, I slammed her into the cabinet, knocking the door off its hinges and sending an entire shelf of canned goods crashing onto her head.


I blinked. She was still standing there, lips pursed, waiting for me to speak.


"Okay, Bertha," I said slowly. "I'll have my room exterminated. But what about the rest of the apartment? You've never been willing to exterminate that and I've always considered that to be a huge, huge problem. My doctor says you get a mite problem like this from unsanitary conditions."


I had struck right at the heart of perhaps the biggest issue that existed between us, at the thing that had once destroyed an otherwise good date and affected my life so profoundly in so many ways. She glared at me. I glared back. Silence.


Finally, I said it all, and I didn't know which of us I was really saying it to. "People just do not live like this."


"If that's the way you feel, then maybe you should move out," she said coldly.


"Yes," I said. "I believe you're right." And, shaking, I walked down the long hallway to my room again.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

ENTRY 250: THE LONG GOODBYE
Part Three: The Final Accident Report


It's little I care what path I take,

And where it leads it's little I care;

But out of this house, lest my heart break,


I must go, and off somewhere.



--Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Departure"




Why don't you exercise your right to shut the fuck up?

--Will Smith, Bad Boys II


This final post is dedicated to all who are patient and understanding.

###


"We still have a little time. What would you like to talk about?"


For a minute I stared into the near distance, over his shoulder, before answering.


"I feel like I'm in a holding pattern," I said, and then the words started pouring forth. "I--my identity has been so intertwined with being a writer for so long, and now I'm working full-time as a writer and getting paid decently for it, which is pretty rare, and it's good, it's an accomplishment, even though my boss makes things difficult. But then for the second year in a row I've been denied the chance to get an MFA, to grow in that sort of mutually supportive, serious creative environment in terms of my own writing, and I can't keep holding out for that. I'm almost 31 now, and you can only apply three times anyway. And then there's the other part of it, the way I feel like I can never get my personal life on the right track, that I keep butting my head against the same walls, dealing with the same problems that I can never seem to fix adequately, wondering if I should still be in New York. The other day at the laundromat, I found a shit-clod in my washer. A shit-clod, man! What the fuck? Sometimes I look at myself and say, 'I have no idea what the fuck I'm doing.'"


"Yes, I've seen some of that frustration," said my therapist.


I found myself in a moment when I felt a particularly stubborn resolve, and at the same time my mind seemed as clear and pointed as a diamond.


"Am I really making any progress?" I said. "Am I getting anywhere at all?"


"I think you're getting better at figuring out patterns," he said, "and navigating life more consciously is good. There are ways in which you keep bumping up against certain things, like issues with relationships. That could be worth exploring in more depth."


"Okay," I said. "Let's do that. But in a more general sense, I need to establish some more coherent direction. The MFA thing is gone. It's dead. I have to let go of it and move on. But I need to figure out what comes next in order to do that."


"That sounds like a good plan," he said.


"I'm serious about this," I said. "I'm going to make something happen."


###


"So have you been seeing anyone?" asked Abra as I shoved the lime slice down the neck of my Corona, shielding myself from the spray with one hand. We were sitting at the nearly deserted bar of our favorite watering hole on a drizzly weeknight, catching up. It had been a while. She'd been busy with her new job, and I'd had all I could handle with mine.


"Mmm, sort of," I said, hooking my toes on the lower rung of my bar stool. "I went out with this designer a few times, and a lawyer who works for the U.N., but it was just kind of the same old same old. Nobody's all that compelling, you know? It's the same old shit over and over--'I like to go out to eat and to the movies and to the gym.'"


"Yeah, there are a lot of boring people out there," she said. "I went through a lot of that before I met John."


"They aren't passionate about anything," I said. "And then they think I'm bizarre for having hobbies. As though I were in a cult or something because there's a subject about which I have deep knowledge, something I actually give a shit about. There's something wrong with me because I care about something." I paused to take a drink. "So you pretty much knew with John at the beginning?"


"Yeah," said Abra. "We were both into theater, and we had similar senses of humor. I mean, he was living with someone else at the time, so, you know, oops."


"But you knew," I said. "And it worked out eventually."


"Right. It was just really natural."


"I honestly don't dwell on the relationship thing that much these days," I said. "I guess I'd like to see how I would do in a reasonably functional one. I think I could do it pretty well."


"I'm sure you could," said Abra. "With the right guy."


"Maybe it's just not going to happen in New York," I said. "It might just be the nature of the city. People come here to focus on themselves and their careers, and that doesn't necessarily translate into particularly generous souls who take the time to look beneath the surface. I know I haven't always been the most enlightened person myself, but I really feel I try to see people for who they are and connect with them on that level, and to accept their little quirks. People can be so unforgiving, so all or nothing, and I do try to remember that in my own interactions. To accept the differences of others."


"The right person will appreciate that," she said.


"Blah blah blah." I waved my hand. "So how's John?"


"He's fine," said Abra. "We're going up to Massachusetts this weekend."


"Nice," I said. "You seem about due to get out of the city for a few days."


"Definitely," she said. "I don't know, I think he might propose."


"Wow," I said. "Really? What makes you suspect that?"


"Just a sense I have," she said. "He was talking about wanting to stop off and see his parents at some point. It was kind of weird the way he said it."


"Well, that's great!" I said. "As a confirmed bachelor, I totally approve."


"Thanks," said Abra. "I thought you would. So what else is going on?"


"Other than work? Still plugging away at the research for my historical article, and doing a lot of reading, and working on my last blog entry whenever I have the time, which is not too often. It keeps dragging out, and I really need to end it, not that there are any readers left to end it for."


"I'm sure there are still people reading it."


"Yeah, a few, but it isn't about that, and really, it never was. I know I talked for a brief period about trying to make some kind of book project out of it, but that ultimately seemed conceited to me. It was something I started as a kind of therapy. I've always used writing as a way to kind of process things, and I wanted to be better at writing about my own life, and it's been good for that. But life is so messy, you know, and I'm such a perfectionist in certain ways, so that doesn't make it easy to try to create an 'ending' for a story about my world." I paused. "You know what's kind of fucked-up about it? I feel like maybe I've been dragging my feet a little because I keep wanting to give people this total happy ending, you know, where I've figured everything out and I've met the right guy and I'm utterly fulfilled or whatever. But I know that's never going to happen."


"Happy endings are overrated," she said. "I always preferred honest ones."


"Yeah," I said. "Me, too." I took another swig, then a new thought made my lips twist around the neck of the bottle in a smile. "Unless, of course, I'm living it myself." I snickered, then shook my head. "No, I'm kidding. What would I do if there were nothing left to strive for? It's being uncomfortable that always prompted me to rise to the occasion. I may not be the happiest guy around, but at least I'm not complacent."


###


"So what's been going on?" asked my therapist, settling easily into his chair.


"I'm applying to grad school, and I'm looking for a new place to live," I said. "I told you last week that I was serious."


"Great," he said. "Tell me more."


"It looks like my company will pretty much cover grad school for me," I said. "So I'm applying for my master's in business communications. It's something I've been thinking about, something that I think would be an interesting challenge and that I'd be good at. And it's a versatile skill, something I could use in the nonprofit sector as easily as at a corporation. The deadline already passed, but I called the admissions office and they told me that I could still try to apply for the fall. I already have one recommendation letter, and my boss will have one for me this week. I'm writing my application essay, and I've ordered my transcripts. And I already took the GRE for my MFA applications."


"That's fantastic," he said. "And what about moving?"


"I sent out word that I'm looking for a new place," I said, "and I've gotten some leads already. As much as I don't love living with Bertha, I don't need to just rush into something, and the good thing is I have the luxury of looking at my leisure. My rent is cheap and I can leave with a month's notice, since I'm not on the lease. It won't happen immediately, but I've put it out there, and we'll see how the universe responds."


My therapist nodded, smiling.


"It's weird," I said. "I have a senior position now, and I'm putting money into my 401K every month, and I might be going to grad school in three months. It's almost like I'm growing up. I might almost miss the roaches and Bertha and Humbert's drunken fights and getting woken up by roosters. What will I write about when all of that is gone?"


"I think you'll figure something out," he said.


###


Another recent topic of discussion between my therapist and me had been my friendship with Peter, which had not been the same since my ill-fated trip to Los Angeles several years ago. Sadly enough, I had come to basically accept that Lawrence had succeeded in what I perceived to have been his aim: to drive a wedge between Peter and me.


I was vividly aware that it had been over a year since Peter and I had even had a phone conversation. Several times over the holidays I'd attempted to call him, but he never answered his cell or returned my voicemails. In a broader sense I'd long ago given up any expectation that we would be in regular communication. The barely-there silver lining of my horrific L.A. visit had been that the nasty shock of it had prepared me somewhat for the further deterioration of our friendship. And yes, that does sound even worse when I read back over it.


There had been an awkward Facebook exchange a few days before I went to Reykjavík; Peter had brought up the fact that I never really asked about Lawrence. I cannot tell you how sorely tempted I was to respond, "And just how often does Lawrence inquire about my health and well-being?" But that would have been grotesquely catty. In fact, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, the deeper issue was that Peter was basically asking me to relive a trauma.


I'd been afraid that the issue would come to a head, but it seemed to vanish.


And then, in July, Peter texted me that he really needed to talk to me.


I said that I'd be happy to, and gave him a very specific idea of my schedule, but still didn't hear from him, until finally we were able to connect. It happened to be the same day as Abra's impromptu engagement party (yes, John made good), but as soon as I felt the telltale buzzing in my hip pocket I stepped out into the sultry hallway and crouched there, sweat beading my body, listening to everything.


It had been incredibly difficult lately for Peter, who had lost his job earlier in the year. To make a long story short, Lawrence apparently had trouble dealing with the fact that Peter was having life challenges, and had ended the relationship after three and a half years.


Peter was hurt and angry, he said. He had found it hard not to wonder whether he could have done anything differently.


"That's not something you need to put yourself through," I said. "The fact that you have challenges stemming from circumstances beyond your control is totally understandable. You've been patient with him while he was going through things. You have nothing to feel guilty about. You did nothing wrong."


He expressed a certain wistfulness, wondering whether things might have worked out had Lawrence not been as young as he was, in a different stage of his life. And he talked about Lawrence's good qualities. This was hard to listen to, of course, but I wanted to respect what he was saying even if I couldn't relate to it based on my own particular experience of the situation.


"Lawrence and I weren't exactly best friends," I said, "but I'm very sorry that this happened and that you're going through this. I'm sorry it didn't work out. But--and I hope this doesn't make you feel worse--I'm still here. Always."


"I know," he said. "Thank you." And he apologized for the absence, and I did not say anything remotely resembling "I told you so," because I've never derived any enjoyment from such things. We talked for more than an hour, and as I pressed "END" and stood up, the backs of my aching knees sweaty, it felt good to be leaned on, to sense a new possibility of moving forward after all the strained and uncertain days.


###


Despite my grueling work schedule, I managed to escape to San Francisco later that month to visit Hamilton. He was still working as a hospital clerk, still plugging away at his novel in his spare time, still living with his boyfriend on a steep quiet street in Bernal Heights.


We were sitting on the couch, watching Rachel Maddow and sipping wine with some double-entendre name. Earlier in the day I'd sprawled on my stomach on the guest-room bed upstairs, watching the sun set near the Twin Peaks as it scorched away some feeble wisps of fog.


"So you're happy?" I said, thinking of his depression, of my mother's.


"I am," he said. "I'm happy that I'm writing, and my relationship is easy and comfortable, and I have Henry"--with his foot he nudged the quiet dog curled up next to the sofa--"and I feel good."


"Do you miss New York?" I said.


"A little bit," he said.


"Really? You couldn't wait to leave."


"Well, that's because it's changed so much," he replied.


"As it is wont to do," I said, drumming my fingers lightly on my glass.


"We're going to be in Connecticut next month," he said. "I'll come to the city for a few days and we can visit. You won't have started grad school yet, will you?"


"No, not until September," I said. "Hey! You should get married while you're in Connecticut."


"We were talking about it."


"Really?" I said. "Wow, everybody's getting married now."


"It would just be a little thing with a justice of the peace," he said. "If we have time."


"Am I invited?"


"Sure," he said, "if you want to come."


"Of course I do," I said. "I'll throw rice and cry because I'm still secretly in love with you."


###


It was the last day of July and I was staring uncomprehendingly at the little message attached to a new Facebook friend request.


"Frank! Been ages. Admired you from afar when we both worked at Big Publisher. Hope life is treating you well and your summer, especially, is going gangbusters."



I remembered Thomas well--surprisingly so, considering that we had rarely spoken in the tumultuous year and a half I'd worked for Hamlet. Thomas had been quite chummy with Hamlet, who had occasionally dispatched me to Thomas's office on another floor in order to pass manuscripts and books back and forth between them. While Thomas had always been friendly with me, usually chatting me up in his office when I dropped by, I'd never had a particular suspicion that he was treating me differently than anyone else, or even that he was necessarily gay. I couldn't so much as recall whether I'd made a point of telling him goodbye. When I left the company I had done so quietly, with minimal fuss.


Yet five years later here he was, somehow remembering me.


Over the next couple of weeks Thomas and I indulged in a charming epistolary conversation that proceeded in fits and starts, our missives separated sometimes by a few hours and sometimes by a few days. We discussed his dog, the fact that we had the same favorite Looney Tunes character, Hitchcock, and foot fungus. We kept each other busy inventing nicknames. I was utterly swamped at work, but I still found myself anticipating each new response, the bold "1" next to "Inbox," whenever I paused a moment to take a breather.


"When is our inevitable meeting of the minds?" I asked one day, and it turned out that it was, indeed, inevitable.


It was 12 minutes past the hour, and I was beginning to fear the possibility of a no-show, which is not an atypical anxiety for a mind like mine. I was just glancing at my phone when I saw Thomas dashing across the street and into the bar. He made a beeline for me and enveloped me in a generous hug.


"I'm so sorry," he said, and continued with something about a conference call and having to walk his dog. His smooth forehead was beaded with perspiration, which I had an intense urge to wipe off his adorable earnest face. Perhaps wisely, I suppressed the impulse.


We settled down at a small table, and he said, "So remind me, when did you leave Big Publisher?"


"In 2004," I said.


"Wow," he said. "You have been gone a while. And what have you been doing since then?"


The first thing that popped into my head was, "Well, if you can spare a few weeks, there's this blog I've been writing...." Perhaps wisely, I suppressed the impulse.


His clear dark eyes stayed with me as I began to sketch out the general trajectory of the past half-decade. Occasionally I stopped to cool my tongue with the dry white he'd ordered.


"Is this boring you?" I asked after a momentary pause.


"No, no, go on," he said, with perfect authenticity.


I already wanted to hold his hand. Perhaps wisely, I suppressed the impulse.


"So then I was promoted last year," I said, as the waiter passed by again and drained the last of the bottle into both our glasses. "That was really when I felt I'd finally come into my own career-wise. It's been good for me. My parents are visiting in September. The last time they were here, I was down to my last thousand bucks, on the verge of leaving New York, and my mom slipped me a check to buy me the time I needed. I want to take them out to dinner. I want them to know I'll be okay now."


As we started a second bottle and dusk faded into night, Thomas told me his own story, although I still was a bit fuzzy as to how he'd managed to become the head of his own publishing imprint at the age of--well, I wasn't quite sure, but it was well before he'd turned 30. In fact, after all the wine I was fuzzy in general, but I knew that he was hard-working and smart and talented and nice and fucking adorable. I wanted to lean across the table and kiss him. Perhaps unwisely, I suppressed the impulse.


"It sounds like you've done well since striking out on your own," I said.


"I've enjoyed it," said Thomas, "and it's so much better than working in that office."


"Yeah, the esprit de corps at Big Publisher was pretty much in the shitter, wasn't it?" I said, tilting my head back to drain another glass.


We both turned as, just outside the windows, the heavens opened and a deluge washed the streets clean.


"I love rainstorms," he said. "So much."


"Me, too," I said.


"So tell me the name of your first boyfriend," he said. My buzz, just a second ago so alive, prepared to flatline.


"Dale," I said.


"First and last," he said.


"Dale Anderson." I poured myself another glass.


"And what happened?" prompted Thomas after a beat.


I hesitated a second. "It didn't turn out very well."


"Where is he now?"


"I don't know." I tossed another sip into my mouth. "He might be dead."


Thomas laughed for a second and I didn't.


"So is this a date?" he asked.


"I don't know," I said. "Is it?" I cocked my head playfully at him for a second. "I need to use the restroom. Be right back."


I shook my head in an attempt to clear it as I stood pissing into the toilet.


"Do not fuck this up do not fuck this up do not fuck this up," I said into the mirror, washing the lather from my unsteady hands.


I strode back to the table with an outward demonstration of confidence I did not exactly feel.


"You have some walls around you, don't you?" Thomas said, without an accusatory tone, but the very words made tears collect behind my eyes, where they were not quite detectable to anyone else.


"It's nothing personal," I said. "It's just that some things aren't entirely easy for me to discuss." We looked at each other for a long moment.


"I..." There was something I started to say.
Perhaps unwisely, I suppressed the impulse.


"What is it?" he asked gently.


"I..." Christ, fuck it. I was already half-drunk. "I was a little bit afraid to meet you tonight."


"Why?"


I sighed, looking sideways for a moment before meeting his steady gaze again. "I was afraid that I'd disappoint you."


"That's the first really genuine thing you've said tonight."


I snorted. "Thanks?"


"No," Thomas said. "No, it's a good thing."


He reached across the table for my hand, and I wanted to give it to him.
Wisely, I did not suppress the impulse.


"By the way," I said, "yes. This is a date. Or at least I really hope so."


We'd finished the second bottle. I glanced at my watch.


"Damn!" I said. "It's almost midnight."


"What now?" he asked.


"I don't know," I said. "Did you have something in mind?"


"Will you have another drink with me?"


"Ay," I said. "I don't know if I can handle another one." I looked at him again. "Okay, but just one."


By employing a moderate level of concentration I managed to exit the bar without quite stumbling, but Thomas did not follow for a minute or two; he'd stopped to ask a question about one of the cheeses on the plate we'd ordered.
The rain had stopped and the air outside was not clean, but sharp. I leaned against a lamppost, half-convinced I'd dreamed it all until he emerged from the bar and looked for me in the opposite direction. I looked at him looking for me for a few seconds, then, as I was about to say something, he turned and saw me and walked toward me. We stood inches apart.


"Hi, there," I said, jerking my head eastward to indicate where we should go. He started to cross, but then he paused because I was waiting until a bicyclist passed through the intersection.


"There's no rush," I said. "We have time." I glanced at my watch and saw it was past twelve. "Welcome to tomorrow."


As we crossed the wet street glowing green under the traffic light I put my arm around his shoulders, and he leaned into me just slightly.



###


This has been the story of the past six and a half years in my life, the story of how I have resisted growth and pursued it and found it in accidental and surprising ways. I am not the same person I was when I was 24, yet I am more myself than I’ve ever been. I created this blog, with my accompanying Frank Beekman alter ego, as a kind of self-therapy, but I don't need him anymore. And there is and will be a bittersweet comfort in the knowledge that, wherever I find myself and despite self-doubt and floundering, I have always had a vivid sense of who I am.


It’s been rocky. God, yes. I’ve raged, I’ve cried, I’ve doubted myself through and through. But then there were also the connections, the shocks of sudden joy, the serendipitous jounces, the hard-won victories.


I’ll miss my Greek chorus of commenters, who, more often than I’d ever have expected, held up a helpful kind of mirror and forced me to take an honest look, or laid a hand lightly on my shoulder in bleak moments. I’ll miss far less the sometimes exasperating judgments of total strangers, or the strange and arbitrary emotional demands of people who thought setting up a blog somehow meant I should be infallible and something to be owned and anything more--or less--than human. With all that on me, was being the Accidental New Yorker even worth it?


What the fuck kind of question is that? Of course it was.


I’ve never ceased to be astounded by the emails from numerous people who tell me of the intensity with which they relate to my experiences and worldview. It’s hard to say how many times I’ve choked up at these messages from people. But perhaps the one that resonated the most came from a straight Muslim woman in her 30s who lives in Saudi Arabia. From 6,000 miles away she wrote to tell me that she printed out my entire blog, hundreds of pages, and read it from the beginning. She was not, astonishingly, the first person to tell me that she’d done that--I had, after all, thought of the blog as an ongoing autobiographical “novel” of sorts, though I hardly expected anyone to be interested in the task of reading it in its entirety--but hers was the most poignant and surprising voice I’d heard. She wanted, she said, “to show that we are the same, and most important to show you how you helped a complete stranger to seek her life and that it’s not and will never be over.... It’s amazing how we all are looking for the same thing, ourselves, love, success, and the rest is similar sometimes and other times it’s different.” What more could I add to that?


Endings are always losses, but they are necessary ones. They are also opportunities for processing, catharsis, something new. In the past half-a-dozen years I have created hundreds of thousands of words here, rendering superfluous any pat summation I might attempt, so I won't gild the lily now. You have accompanied me on as much of my personal journey as you cared to, and for that I am honored and grateful. And you have been a part of this whole experience, along with Peter and Jane and Hamilton and everyone else who has appeared in the blog.


I don't know where I'll be when you read these words, or whether it will be minutes or years from now. But wherever and whoever you are, and wherever and whoever I am, know that, through words alone, via black abstractions transmitted in a series of zeros and ones and glowing ephemerally on a screen, we have connected as human beings. I may not ever know your face or your name, any more than you may ever know mine, but in my joyous moments and on lonely nights and when I'm idling at the kitchen table on Sunday mornings, sometimes I will think of you, and I will always wish you well. How could I not?


THE END


###


While the window into my personal life has now closed, I am glad to say that I have started a very different kind of blog. It can be found here.

Monday, August 24, 2009

ENTRY 250: THE LONG GOODBYE
Part Two: The Accidental Reykjavíkur



It was on the early-morning bus from Keflavik to Reykjavík that I saw my first Icelandic sunrise--the sky an almost unearthly mass of indigo cloud striated with mother-of-pearl at the horizon.


I was grateful for the weary silence of the other passengers; on the five-hour flight, a group of rowdy fratboys and two screaming babies had made sleep impossible, even with earplugs. On top of that, I'd crossed four time zones. My body might as well have been back in New York.


The main bus terminal was smaller than the average VFW hall. I crossed the frigid parking lot in the gray half-light to board a minibus. As it navigated the narrow streets of Reykjavík, a few early risers bustled through the chill, but it seemed most of the city was still huddled indoors. Looking down the street toward the North Atlantic, I saw the snowy peaks of Esja looming cold and clear across the harbor. I squinted at unintelligible words everywhere.


The driver dropped me off at the door of my hotel (blue building in photo below) on Laugavegur, the main street for shopping and nightlife in Reykjavík. Somebody was already checking in with the extremely slow front-desk clerk. I stood there, heavy-lidded, hoping against hope that they would let me check in four hours early.


"Hello," I said, handing over my reservation confirmation. "My room's probably not ready yet, but just in case...."


He typed into his computer while I glanced listlessly at brochures.


"Yes," he said. "It is ready."


The room had been so cheap--less than $300 for six nights, breakfast included--that I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but I was relieved to find a decently sized single with hardwood floors; a generous kitchenette with a table, sink, stovetop, microwave, and refrigerator; and a sleekly attractive bathroom with nice tiling and a good adjustable showerhead.







































Dumping my luggage, I went straight back downstairs to get some breakfast--banana, cereal, bread with meats and cheese, and a tasty something resembling creamy yogurt. Then I returned to my room, closed my blinds to the faint Reykjavík sun, put on the sleeping mask I'd stashed away from my British Airways flight five years ago, tumbled into bed, and, at last, slept.


The alarm clock radio crackled on at 12:30, emitting faint, unintelligible Icelandic murmurs. I switched it off and padded into the bathroom, leaving a trail of clothing in my wake. As I shook my underwear off one foot and turned the shower on, I smelled rotten eggs. It was unpleasant, but, fortunately, I had done enough research to know that the hot water taps in Iceland naturally produce a sulfurous smell because it is sourced from hot geothermal springs, which satisfy the vast majority--eightysomething percent--of Iceland's energy needs. (The extensive geothermal activity stems from the fact that Iceland sits on a highly active fault line and is itself a volcanic formation.)


The sky was slate and the wind gusty when I emerged from the hotel. Laugavegur was a narrow street and, in Reykjavík terms, well trafficked. It took me 10 minutes to walk down to the harbor for a better look at Esja across the choppy waters.


Now I was hungry, so I set out in search of the most famous hot dog stand in a country known for its hot dogs, or what they call pylsur.


The stand, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (which translates as "the best hot dog in town"), was so unassuming and small (roughly equal in size to the Dumpster standing behind it) that I literally stumbled onto it as I rounded a sharp corner. I joined the line (apparently there's always one), folding my arms against the cold. When Bill Clinton paid a visit in 2004, he'd asked only for mustard (which is what you get, I heard, if you order a "Clinton"), but I requested "eina með öllu," or "one with everything"--everything being mustard, ketchup, rémoulade, and raw and fried onions.















I retreated behind the nearest building to escape the wind coming off the water, and to snap a photo of my pylsa without being gawked at by the locals.


Then I bit into the pylsa, and it was tasty. The rémoulade gave it some richness, cut by the mustard, and the crunch of the fried onions, combined with the firm snap of hot dog skin, created an intriguing texture.


As I stood on the street eating, a man who seemed to be a vagrant staggered up to within a few feet of me, sat down, rolled onto his back and gently flailed his legs, as though he were an upside-down turtle. He did this so exaggeratedly and for such a long time that, as I chewed, I wondered whether this might be some sort of street theater or candid-camera stunt. Eventually he regained his footing and shuffled on.


I wandered a bit longer, stopping to examine an imposing statue of Ingólfur Arnarson, the Norwegian Viking who founded Reykjavík (translation: Smoky Bay, thus named because of the steam from the hot springs) in the ninth century. Then the windchill got to me, and I decided to return to my room.


































There are three television stations in Iceland, one of which seems to be a PBS equivalent; earlier that day I'd spent a few minutes watching the live proceedings of Alþingi (þ is pronounced "th"), the national parliament. But the channel I ended up watching the most was one that played music videos, many of them American (Britney, the Killers, Beyoncé), and that showed tons of American programs subtitled in Icelandic. Even in Reykjavík, you cannot escape Rachael Ray or Martha Stewart or The Biggest Loser, a fact more chilling than the wind. In between commercials for Law & Order, Heroes, Californication, and (to my delight) Veronica Mars, I saw a spot for a local current-affairs program, and wished I knew what they were saying.


In the weeks before my trip I had struck up an online acquaintance in a gay chat room with a local guy about my age. It was time to meet Stefan in the lobby, but I was a couple of minutes late; on the way out, my attention was arrested by a local gay-themed program showing an odd segment in which a bunch of guys in leather were dancing and singing together, complete with loving closeups of a chubby fellow in a leather thong.




Stefan was waiting on one of the black leather couches in the lobby.


"Halló!" I said, and then, carefully, "Gaman aþ hitta þig."


"Gaman aþ hitta þig," he said brightly, and much more correctly.


It so happened that Boston, one of the smartest bars in Reykjavík, was a few doors down. When we walked in, several of the patrons hailed Stefan, which, in a country where everyone kind of knows everyone else (total population: 300,000), should not have surprised me.


Looking over the small but interesting dinner menu, I settled on plokkfiskur, a traditional Icelandic mashed fish stew served with black rye bread.


"My friend Daði loves the plokkfiskur here," said Stefan. "He doesn't even want to try anything else. It's what he orders every time."


This statement, coupled with my knowledge that Björk's tour cook was the chef, rendered me optimistic. When the dish came, looking like a bowl of chartreuse mashed potatoes, I lost no time taking a bite. It was hearty and tasty, not at all fishy--the kind of thing I might make at home for dinner some night. (Later, when I asked the sous-chef--who also happened to be múm's tour manager--about the recipe, he said it was made with cod, potatoes, milk, butter, and spices, all beaten with a whisk.) The bread, called rúgbrauð, merits its own mention. I hadn't been so excited about it, not being a fan of rye, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Icelandic version was sweet and almost cakelike, something like corn bread. (I later learned that rúgbrauð is sometimes baked underground using geothermal heat.) Spreading thick Icelandic butter on it, I gorged.


"How is it?" asked Stefan, who had ordered chicken tikka masala (not the sort of thing I'd order in Reykjavík, but when I tried a bite it was actually not bad.)


"Excellent," I said. "Have you had it?"


"No," he said. "I don't really eat seafood."


"Seriously?" I said. "In Iceland? Wow."


He shrugged. "I eat lamb and chicken and pork, all those other things."


"Well, I think you're missing out," I said, dipping my spoon back in the plokkfiskur.


"Probably," he said, and smiled. "Especially since my dad is a fisherman."


I laughed. "Which is why you're studying international relations."


"Exactly," he said, drawing out the word for emphasis. Stefan had a certain dramatic flair, but was extremely affable. I liked him.


"Do you have some kind of part-time job while you're in school?" I asked.


"Sure, I've had lots of jobs," he said. "I was a lifeguard during two summers. Right now I work in a porn shop."


"Oh, really?" I said. "That must be interesting."


"Yeah," he said. "I used to do these parties, like, you know, where the women get together and buy...." He was searching for the right word.


"Tupperware?" I suggested.


"Yes, that's it," he said. "I would go to people's houses and sell sex toys to people and their friends. I made a dramatic entrance. I would walk in carrying a big black dildo with a suction cup on the end, attach the dildo to the wall, and hang my coat on it."


"Very practical," I said, smiling.


"Right," he said. "It was fun."


"So they only play American music here, I've noticed," I said, as Doris Day segued into the Davy Crockett theme song.


"Oh, really?" he said. "I never noticed that."


"Are you in a band or anything?" I asked.


"No, but a lot of my friends are."


"I read that a lot of Icelanders are musically inclined."


He nodded. "That's true."


A girl came over and sat in Stefan's lap. "Hello," she said, reaching out a hand to me. I didn't understand her name, but tried to repeat it, so we did a couple of back-and-forths in that regard; this would become common in my loud-bar encounters throughout the trip.


Eventually we were joined by Daði, the aforementioned plokkfiskur fan. He had recently returned from a year in Paris with his boyfriend, he was telling me when a group of women from Copenhagen asked if they could join us at our large table. I would learn that there is a lot of travel between Iceland and Denmark, and that, apart from English, Danish is also compulsory in Icelandic schools. Two of the women were teachers and the third was a photographer. I was asking the latter one what kind of photographs she took when Stefan asked me if I wanted to join him for a smoke. Though not a smoker, I shrugged and said why not.


We trekked upstairs to an odd little balcony, and shivering, my coat still on the back of my chair downstairs, I smoked with my arms crossed.


By now I had a couple of pints of Víking, a local beer, in me, and I launched into a conversation with Stefan about the recent Icelandic economic collapse (which, incidentally, devalued the currency by nearly half, making my trip much less expensive than it would have been only a year before).


"Everybody hates that Vanity Fair article," he said. "It's a very distorted picture."


"I could see signs that the writer had some kind of ax to grind," I said, "but I still don't understand how the krona could have been so high in comparison to other currencies before the bust. I mean, until recently it was hugely expensive to visit, and I can understand that the need to import so much of what you sell makes things cost more. But did Icelanders themselves find it expensive to live in Iceland?"


"No," said Stefan, "because everybody was paid well."


"Yes," I said, "but where did the money for the high salaries come from?"


"I don't really know how to answer that," he said.


"You had the fishing industries and all the geothermal energy," I said, "but really, how does that generate vast amounts of wealth?"


Probably fortunately, we were interrupted by Daði, who said it was time to move on to the opening night of a bar called Karamba, just a few doors down from my hotel in the opposite direction.


A "nightlife guide" for tourists that I'd idly examined in the hotel lobby had said, in a section titled DO'S, DONT'S [sic] AND DID YOU KNOW, "We Icelanders push and shove. Don't be offended but the places are usually so crowded that to get where we want to go we have to use initiative." This factoid was borne out within 30 seconds of my entering Karamba. A short, forceful young woman used my lower leg as a kind of makeshift stile as I stood, pinioned.


The bar was loud and raucous, with most of the attention focused on a stage in one corner where perhaps half a dozen people were singing and executing some endearingly junior-high-musical choreography.


"Who is this?" I bellowed in Stefan's ear. He finally managed to convey that it was an up-and-coming local band called FM Belfast. I had no idea what lyrics they might be singing, but I thought the music wasn't bad.


Eventually we made our way upstairs to a much more sedate setting, a gay bar called Barbara (after the romance novelist Barbara Cartland, Stefan explained). By this time a couple of females had joined Stefan, Daði, and me. Sitting in a chair that had blonde hair and wore a dress, I pretended to understand the conversation, and half-listened to a mix of cheesy American and British pop sprinkled with a few old Icelandic standards.


Perhaps sensing my uncertainty, Stefan beckoned at me to follow him to the bar and asked me what I wanted.


"I guess I might as well try some Brennivín," I said, referring to the "national liquor," an Icelandic schnapps flavored with caraway. Brennivín has traditionally borne a black label, allegedly meant to warn off unsuspecting drinkers. It's probably the equivalent of some vile substance such as Jägermeister.


"Will I need a chaser?" I asked, as the bartender poured two sloshing shots.


"You might," he said. I ordered a Gull (another major local beer; Iceland didn't legalize beer until 1989, and Beer Day is still celebrated every March 1), and placed it neatly next to my shot glass.


Clink drink burn chase.


I cleared my throat roughly. "Well, that's over with."


Since I was spending the whole next day on a tour that began at 9 AM, I decided I should duck out after finishing my beer. But then a tall, striking blond guy with sharp blue eyes, a friend of one of the girls with an unintelligible name that I'd repeated twice but still hadn't understood, sat down across from me.


I struck up a conversation with him. He was a musician, he said (his sound was a mixture of techno and folk), but worked as a seafood chef. Just as we were starting to delve into the subject of early techno ("I refuse to call it electronica," I said), the group stood up and began to move toward the door. Drat. But at least the Seafood Singer was accompanying us.


We ended up at Q-Bar, which seemed to be the primary gay bar in Reykjavík (as far as I could tell, there were no more than two or three at any given time--bars apparently come and go in the city on a fairly regular basis). As we were trudging down Laugavegur in the cold, Stefan slipped his hand into mine, and I, fuzzy-headed and jet-lagged, found myself in an uncomfortable situation. I couldn't tell if the Seafood Singer had noticed the hand-holding, and I also didn't want to be rude to Stefan, who had, after all, welcomed me into his circle of friends in a city where I knew no one.


Also, he was clearly wasted, as was the case with pretty much everyone else. I had never seen people drink so much, and it was amusing to watch people slipping on the ice, falling down on their asses, nonchalantly if unwieldily scrambling up, and promptly falling down again.


Q-Bar was very crowded, though less so than Karamba, and I quickly extracted my hand from Stefan's as I excused myself to the bathroom.


When I returned, the group had splintered into I didn't know how many pieces. Stefan and one of the girls were sitting in a corner, and I joined them. He tried to take my hand again and I allowed it, though my hand was clenched into an unresponsive fist.


"Let's dance," he said, and though it was rather dreary house music, which I've never liked, I joined them. An attractive guy was suddenly in my face, seemingly inviting me to dance with him, but after quite literally 10 seconds he seemed to reassess something about me and moved on to other quarry. I laughed for a second, then scanned the crowd for the Seafood Singer, but he had disappeared.


After suffering through a song or two, I excused myself and walked down Laugavegur toward bed, turning up the collar of my new peacoat against the cold. It was past 3:00, but the rúntur (pub crawl) was still very much in full swing. Looking down a side street, I saw a tall, skinny girl sliding resignedly downhill like an ungainly gazelle.


###


The next morning I overslept, Lord knows why, and rushed into the downstairs lobby just as the minibus arrived to pick up hotel guests for the Golden Circle tour.


Less than an hour later, I was on a large tour bus speeding out of Reykjavík. We would be visiting the triangle of locales known as the Golden Circle: Gullfoss, possibly the most famous of the country's numerous waterfalls; Þingvellir, a national park and the site of the country's first parliamentary gathering--in 870--as well as a rift valley; and Geysir (take a guess).


Before hitting the waterfall, however, we would be visiting Hellisheidi, a geothermal power plant not far from the city. As we approached the plant, the bus was filled with the smell of rotten eggs, and I started to turn around to look at the German tourists sitting behind me before realizing that the plant was the source of the odor.


The building was not very large, and after one of the plant personnel gave a short talk and video presentation to a roomful of very bored-looking Europeans, I wandered around, peering through a large window at a mass of turbines and such, before it was time to go. As the ebullient tour guide droned on and on into the microphone about something-or-other, I gazed out the window at the landscape skimming by. Iceland's black lava-rock terrain had made a deep impression on me.















Our first real stop was Gullfoss. Reaching it was a not entirely safe ordeal that involved slipping and sliding down a crude, narrow, ice-covered path with an inadequate cable fence on the dangerous side of the cliff. The tourists coming uphill were trying to cling to the cable even more desperately than those heading down to the falls, which necessitated awkward maneuvering whenever I had to pass someone. But I was compelled onward by the sight of Gullfoss, rushing and roaring.





























At last I reached the falls, managing one spectacular fall onto my behind as I clambered up the rocks to gain a good vantage point. I could tell that I'd picked the right time of year to see Gullfoss; the contrast of deep blue and icy white was beautiful, and I couldn't stop taking photos even as the wind whipped all around me. A long-haired L.A. native and I took photos of each other in front of the falls; looking at it now, it's still hard to believe I was there.





On the way back I took one last spectacular tumble, this time nearly slipping neatly under the cable fence in front of two aghast Scandinavians. Hugging the cable, I regained my footing and trudged grimly upward.


It was a short drive from there to Geysir, which was fairly anticlimactic, given that it is basically dormant these days. Nearby, however, is a smaller geyser, Strokkur (do grow up), which erupts so regularly that I found I could use my watch to predict its activity with a fairly high degree of accuracy. Still, I had the distinct impression that Geysir's eruptions had been more spectacular than its neighbor's.





It had been a long day already, but there was still Þingvellir to visit. I wasn't exactly salivating with anticipation, although I did have some interest in seeing the rift valley, in which is manifested the slow continental drift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Like much of the countryside I'd seen that day, Þingvellir's terrain had a stark beauty. But it was cold and rainy, and I was not the only one ready to go back to Reykjavík.



###


I had a reservation that evening at Sjávarkjallarinn (Seafood Cellar), which was supposed to be one of the trendiest places in town. And definitely not cheap. But since the accommodations and airfare had been so inexpensive, I'd decided to splurge a bit on dining out.


I'd expected a bustling crowd at seven o'clock on a Saturday night, despite the cold and steady rain, but instead there were only a couple of other occupied tables in the entire place. I found the decor a bit chilly--and not very impressive, either--and that, coupled with the fact that almost nothing makes me feel more uncomfortable than dining out alone, dampened my spirits some. But this whole trip was about striking out on my own and trying things, so I sucked it up and followed the less-than-enthusiastic hostess to my table.


I ordered what was apparently their most well-known appetizer, the lobster pick-me-up. Before long the waiter delivered a jar with a lid held in place by a sturdy metal clasp. I undid the clasp and opened the jar to find it full of a rich broth in which had been layered truffles, foie gras, cauliflower, and tender chunks of lobster. Despite the cumbersomely silly nature of its presentation, the dish itself was delicious, with the cauliflower adding the right contrast of texture to the mix, and I used bread to make sure I got all of the broth.


Interested in sampling as widely as possible, I ordered an entrée of four different kinds of fish: salmon, salted cod (my favorite, bar none--a superb Icelandic specialty), blue ling, and flounder. The presentation was beautiful, much more pleasing than the lobster pick-me-up's had been, and each piece of fish was expertly prepared. Really outstanding, some of the best seafood I'd ever eaten.


After I'd eaten every morsel I sat there for some minutes until, finally, an uninterested fellow collected my plate. There were now perhaps four parties other than myself in the restaurant. I shifted uneasily. It was all very European, the service, and I'd never particularly liked that style. Finally, the server showed up and asked if I wanted some coffee or dessert. I requested the bill, which finally came and was large, but I gladly paid it, both because the food had been that good and because the ambience was that bad. As soon as I had my credit card back, I made a beeline for my coat.


After a damp walk back to the hotel I tried to phone Stefan, but there was no answer. I left a voicemail and turned on some bad American television. The hour stretched toward midnight, and I dozed off.


The braying of the bedside phone jolted me awake.


"Halló!" said Stefan. "How was Sjávarkjallarinn?"


"Delicious," I said, "but I can't say I liked the place."


"Yes," he said, "it is rather ugly in there."


"A little. So what are you doing?"


"I'm at Daði and his boyfriend's house," he replied. "Do you want to come over to have some drinks?"


This was what I'd been wanting: to see an actual Icelandic home. "Sure," I said, scrambling across the bed to grab a city map. "Where am I going?"


He gave me directions. It was a bit of a walk, perhaps 20 minutes or so, but it wasn't so terribly cold out, and the rain had stopped. I threw on a sweater over my shirt, put on my peacoat, and headed out.


The night air cleared the grogginess from my head. As I stepped purposefully along Laugavegur, I passed by a door with a striking diamond-patterned window of yellow and pink and green. While the overall palette of Reykjavík, a winterswept town huddled low to the ground, was pronouncedly drab, the cityscape had quirky patches of color that already appealed to me. My favorite examples of this were the fluttering sequin artworks I'd seen displayed on the sides of several buildings. But more about those later.


There was hardly anyone out at this hour in the residential neighborhood I'd entered. It was hard to shake the New York mentality--the innate sense of danger one experienced whenever a street grew hushed and still; the expectation of other people in close proximity, whether they were visible or not. But I let myself exhale most of that as uneventful minutes passed.


When I reached the sprawling house in which Daði and his boyfriend occupied an entire floor, Stefan met me at the door and kissed me halló.


"You can hang up your coat here," he said, opening the hall closet.


"What, no dildo?" I asked. He laughed.


I turned from the closet and confronted a huge stuffed raven, sitting on a table in the hallway along with a cell phone and an iPod.


"Is that a real raven?" I asked, having noticed similar ones in several of the bars I'd visited.


"Of course," he said. "Why wouldn't it be?"


We entered the living room, where Daði was just placing a new record (ABBA) on a turntable. He turned his head for a second to greet me.


"This is Bjarni," said Stefan, introducing Daði's boyfriend, who greeted me cordially. I took in the room. It was simply but nicely appointed, the most noticeable features being the large picture windows overlooking a museum across the street, and the cowhide rug covering a generous portion of the floor.


Bjarni was a teacher, and we soon became engrossed in a conversation about the differences between American and Icelandic schooling; as in many European countries (Iceland is arguably European), people are in school longer than they are in the U.S., and are not expected to foot the bill for higher education.


"I've been wanting to ask an Icelander," I said, "whether you notice the sulfur smell from the hot-water tap or are basically inured to it."


"We don't really notice it," he said, "except maybe if we're out of the country for months and just coming back. And we don't use hot water when we're boiling something; we start with cold water."


He showed me around the kitchen, which was fascinating to me because it had been built in the 1950s and had not been remodeled since. There was even a vintage Frigidaire.


I poured myself a stiff drink comprised of grapefruit juice and gin, rotating my wrist with the glass in my hand to stir it. Multiple sources had told me that the cost of liquor was so high that Icelanders tended to get drunk at home before going out. It was past 1:00 in the morning, but the night was just getting started.


Eventually we piled into a cab (the only time I rode in one during the entire trip) and set off toward downtown. Clambering out of the cramped car onto Laugavegur again, I saw the Saturday night rúntur in full swing.


Stefan was in a huddle with Daði, who seemed quite tipsy, as Bjarni and I stood quietly exchanging remarks.


"Let's go to Jacobson," said Stefan at last, and I followed Bjarni's lead down the street just as painfully pelting snow flurries descended on us in a swirl of bitter wind. Bjarni made a disgruntled-sounding remark in Icelandic.


The other two were lagging behind, so Bjarni and I burst into Jacobson a few minutes before they did. We were each sipping a Víking by the time Stefan and Daði appeared.


Inevitably, a stream of people came up to Stefan, waving and hugging. Soon we were seated in a corner with two girls, one of whom wore a sailor outfit.


There was some chatter, but after the previous night's drinking and the exertions of my daylong tour, I was half-asleep. After some dancing we were off to the next bar, Kaffibarinn, which I understood to be the most popular bar in town.


When we arrived, there was a crowd on the street waiting to get in but barred by a stolid doorman. Stefan went up to greet him, and they had a friendly conversation while I cinched my scarf more tightly around my neck.


In a few minutes the doorman beckoned, and as the door swung open I found myself wondering how we would possibly squeeze inside. Then I remembered that brochure.


Being a Manhattanite of seven years' standing, I've seen crowded bars, but this one beat them all. After somehow stumbling into a small pocket of oxygen next to the coat rack right by the entrance, we designated Daði as the drink-orderer, and he proceeded to painstakingly rearrange matter in the process of reaching the bar. Already feeling my liquor most vividly, I had declined to order anything. Sandwiched between Bjarni and a dancing moron whose continual treading on my toes was annoying me to no end, I found myself jostled quite literally every 10 seconds by anyone attempting to move toward the bar or retrieve their coat.


Suddenly there was a loud commotion behind me--and for me to have heard distinct noise above the general roar meant that whatever was transpiring was dramatic. I turned my head to see a spectacularly drunk young lady scrabbling on all fours on the floor between people's legs, like Gregor Samsa in an overcoat. The doorman picked her up bodily around the waist, carried her through the door, and flung her onto the icy street. He returned to his post. A mere 15 seconds later, the door flew open and she careened forcefully into the crowd again, resembling one of the battering rams of her ancestors. This was repeated three times before the bouncer prevailed.


"Just another quiet night in Reykjavík," I said to Bjarni.


"I'm sorry, what did you say?" he asked loudly.


"Never mind," I replied. Glancing again at the door, I watched for the next Viking raid.


###


Waking came slowly on Sunday, and it was unequivocally lunchtime by the time I ventured out. My destination was Kolaportið, the local flea market, which was open only on weekends. Since Bæjarins was right across the street, I stopped by for a couple of pylsur to help myself refuel after the night before.















Kolaportið was charming, its decor decidedly 1960s. As with most flea markets, a significant portion of the merchandise was disappointingly banal--band T-shirts, humdrum used clothing, large plastic bags of socks. But I stopped at one booth to flip through boxes and boxes of old LPs, some of which had delightfully cheesy covers. Combing through a stall of books, I found an Icelandic translation of a Hardy Boys novel.


In the last aisle, I encountered a booth teeming with vintage postcards and coins and stamps. I immediately began to look through the postcards, pulling out three choice specimens to take home with me.


I'd also contemplated seeking out hákarl, which was an Icelandic specialty of fermented shark meat that I'd heard was sold in cubes at Kolaportið. But since I'd heard it characterized as everything from "vile" to "not as terrible as you might expect," and since I knew one had to chase hákarl with Brennivín, the stuff I'd already had to chase with beer, it struck me as too unwieldy an undertaking, with no real enjoyment to be derived other than some sort of macho pride from having survived the experience. Besides, I had much more pleasurable-sounding Icelandic culinary experiences to anticipate later in the week.


Outside again, I decided to stop by the biggest souvenir shop in the city to pick up some tchotchkes for the folks back home. Most of it, unsurprisingly, was tacky and expensive, but I did find a really adorable puffin sippy-cup for the Niece, and a terribly ugly troll wearing a horned helmet and an Icelandic flag on his chest. Some cute puffin magnets for my parents, and I was all set. On the way to the cashier, however, I found my attention arrested by the most peculiar figurine, which I present here without further comment.


That night I made a trek down to the harbor in search of what some sources have billed as the best humarsupa (lobster soup) in Reykjavík, served at a humble shack of a place called Sægreifinn (Sea Baron), right on the water. It was a still, cold evening, and the area was almost entirely deserted. I had been feeling twinges of what I sometimes experience on solitary Sunday nights--the faint depressive ache of something like my own mortality--especially after the friendly drunken company I'd enjoyed the last two evenings.


Safely inside the warmth of the small restaurant, I ordered the humarsupa as well as a pre-prepared haddock entrée that I took from a refrigerated case and handed to the woman at the cash register, who sent the fish to the back to be heated in their oven.


I waited patiently at a long wooden table next to a handful of my fellow diners. As I sat there, I noticed a picture of the Sea Baron himself, the restaurant's owner, on the wall. The photo was taken in the restaurant and, apparently, used in a VISA ad.


In a little while an elderly woman appeared with a basket of bread and my soup, which was served unceremoniously with a plastic spoon.


A bit skeptical, I stirred the golden concoction and poked around in it, finding generous chunks of lobster in a rich broth. I took a taste, and my misgivings vanished. It. Was. Amazing. I used the bread to make sure I got every last drop. As far as I was concerned, the humarsupa had won the best lobster soup title hands-down.


The haddock I was less excited about, but the portion was exceedingly generous, and it turned out to have a strong spicy/salty flavor--an acquired taste, but I acquired it. All in all, an excellent, if humbly executed, seafood dinner for the equivalent of about $16.00. The fish at Sjávarkjallarinn, it must be said, was both cooked and presented in an exemplary manner (and had cost five times as much), but in terms of heartiness and ambience, my simple dinner at Sægreifinn was far more satisfying.


My stomach warm and full, I did not mind the solitary walk back to the hotel. I stopped to admire a curious revolving door full of portholes, one of the whimsical touches that, along with the aforementioned dashes of color, I appreciated about the city.


This would be an apt time, perhaps, to take a break from my travelogue to show a few other bits of local color that I noted. I think on some level it's what makes Iceland special--a certain creative spark just beneath the drab physical exterior.
















Perhaps because Iceland is, by nature of its very geography, an isolated society, there seems to be a disproportionate number of musicians and artists. A number of people I met played music or did music promotion or something of the sort. Icelanders also have a reputation for being particularly artisanal.

By far my favorite example of local cleverness was a series of artworks that I stumbled across quite by accident while exploring the area around my hotel on the first day that I arrived in Reykjavík. They were so simple in concept yet clever in execution that I asked Stefan if he knew anything about them. He told me that he was acquainted with the artist, whose name is Theresa Himmer, but he was surprised when I showed him the video footage of the art that I had shot, because one of the pieces was actually unfamiliar to him.

Still photographs do not do these pieces justice, because their impact stems from the way in which they are manipulated by the wind from the sea. I found them absolutely enchanting, the glacier most of all.














These things just made me happy.


The artworks are made out of sequins, and you can read more about Himmer's process here.


###


It is probably an actual law that every tourist who visits Iceland must go to the Blue Lagoon, an outdoor geothermal spa between the airport and Reykjavík. The spa is fed by the runoff from an adjacent geothermal power plant that taps into the underground heat generated by lava. The result: a small outdoor "lagoon" with water averaging 104°F in the midst of a stark field of black lava rock.


The bus from the city deposited me and my (mostly European) fellow tourists in the parking lot a little before noon on Monday. The spa building was spare and modern. A clerk inside the entrance handed me a plastic bracelet that I could press against a scanning mechanism on any unoccupied locker in the locker room in order to key it to my bracelet. No need to worry about carrying around a key all day. Nice.


More than one guidebook had taken pains to advise that nothing makes Icelanders angrier than foreigners who do not bathe properly before entering a public pool--apparently they use sanitizing chemicals sparingly, if at all. Shower naked, I'd been told by numerous texts. But I found I was one of the few doing so--people are so modest these days, although, looking around, I didn't necessarily mind--and there seemed to be no placards telling people to follow my example, so I was inclined to think that to some extent it was the Icelanders' own damn fault for having to swim with dirty tourists.


It was cold and brisk outside, mostly overcast, and I began to shiver as soon as I stepped through the glass doors. But all was well as soon as I stepped into the heat-milky waters and had, for the first time in my life, the surreal experience of swimming through hot liquid.


The bottom of the pool was covered with silica mud, which I felt when I reached a shallower portion of the lagoon. Scooping some up with my toes, I transferred the substance to my hand and found it resembled thick, white...conditioner, to be euphemistic. Apparently it has exfoliating properties or some such, and there were stations throughout the pool with buckets of the stuff that people were putting on their faces until it dried into a white, chalky crust, but...no. I did put some on my hand, holding it above the water until it felt tight and covered with cracks. When I rinsed off the dried silica my hand did feel a bit smoother than it had.


As I swam toward the other end of the pool, where I saw two sauna rooms built into the black rock, I passed an almost scaldingly hot part of the pool and realized that I'd found one of the water intake vents. People passing by screeched at the heat, but I absolutely loved it, lingering there for some time before finally settling onto an underwater bench near the lagoon's edge. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes and let myself physically relax for the first time in ages. As I sat there in the steaming water, tiny snowflakes settled on my upturned face.


Eventually I left the water and hastened to the door of one of the saunas. As I entered, I had to pause so my eyes could adjust to the darkness and the clouds of steam. In a minute I could see a vacant spot on the bench that circled the interior.


As soon as I sat down fresh pillars of steam flew into the air, and I inhaled deeply, my sinuses swelling invigoratingly open. My body was damp with sweat, my cells pulsatingly alive. The sauna cleared out before long, but I remained, relishing the dark heat, until the door opened again and my reverie ended.


###


I spent most of the remainder of my time in Iceland exploring Reykjavík further. On Tuesday morning I made the very manageable crosstown trek on foot to visit Perlan, an odd complex perched on an unpronounceable hill and constructed from hot water storage tanks with a hemisphere on top.


The top floor contains a revolving restaurant, which I did not avail myself of. I did step onto the observation platform for a good view of the city, which, while low and drab, still looked charming from a height.


From there I walked to Kjarvalsstaðir, a museum dedicated to the work of Iceland's most famous painter, Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval. Kjarval had an impressive stylistic range in a career that spanned decades, and the museum also had some interesting contemporary art, including an exhibit devoted entirely to variations on chess sets.


For the most commanding view in town, I ascended to the top of Hallgrímskirkja, a strikingly odd Lutheran church near my hotel. In one direction I could see Tjörnin, the small lake in the middle of the city, and in the other the waters of the harbor, a ship inching across the base of Esja.















In the vicinity of Tjörnin I dropped in at the National Gallery, very modern and very small ("Yes, this is our only building," said the woman at the front desk when I asked); Ráðhús (City Hall), with its strange mossy portholed facade; and a session of Alþingi, the national parliament, where I was allowed to walk right in and sit in the upstairs gallery overlooking the entire hearing chamber, which was painted a cheerful robin's-egg blue and was also not terribly bigger than my hotel room. I also visited the National Museum, where I learned a great deal about the history of Iceland and happened upon a most peculiar image: "Print of a weeping boy: a picture which hung in many Icelandic homes in the 1970s." It made me wonder about the nature of the national psyche.















I'd been anticipating Tuesday night's dinner quite keenly, because I had a reservation at a local restaurant Stefan had recommended to me that had some distinctive Icelandic dishes on the menu. It was in the middle of a nondescript residential neighborhood within walking distance of my hotel, and when I arrived they seated me at an almost comically small table in one corner. There was already a full house, and people kept arriving, which I took as a good sign.


I ordered two appetizers; the first was smoked puffin breast with mustard sauce. When I asked the server, she checked and told me it was smoked with birch. I liked the artful presentation, but when I took a bite I liked the taste even more. Yes, I know puffins are cute, but they are also delicious. The best way to describe the taste is a combination of smoked salmon and beef carpaccio. Truly unique. The other appetizer was reindeer pâté with Cumberland sauce. Also nicely presented and not at all heavy or overly gamey, even though the puffin was still far and away my favorite of the two.















My entrée was something I'd actually checked up on beforehand, because its consumption in Iceland has caused some controversy and I wanted to make sure I wasn't eating an endangered species (I wasn't): whale pepper steak in a pepper sauce.


The steak's preparation and the pepper sauce were both superb, but I was most curious about the taste of the meat itself. It's a little difficult to describe, but basically the meat was very tender, and at first tasted like regular beef. With a bit of chewing it took on a slight liver aspect, and then toward the end it was reminiscent of a meaty and non-fishy fish such as a monkfish. It was cooked medium-rare but looked beet-red on the inside, which is its natural appearance. (When I spoke with the owner's daughter, she told me that they use only the tail meat, which has virtually no fat on it.)
















For dessert I had a very nice skyr brûlée. Skyr is an exclusively Icelandic food product similar to Greek yogurt--equally thick and sour--and virtually fat-free, since it's made from skim milk; the average Icelander consumes something like 10 liters a year, and it is a popular ingredient in things like smoothies. (At the local supermarket, Bónus, I bought several flavors of skyr that I hadn't been able to find at Whole Foods in Manhattan, including banana split, which I found myself wishing I'd bought more of.)


This was definitely the best meal I'd had in Iceland, and among the best I'd had, period. Not a false note in any dish, and I couldn't have asked for nicer service.


I did decide, however, not to tell the Niece that I'd eaten puffin.


###


My last evening in Reykjavík, I had a not entirely satisfactory lamb dinner, then decided to drop in at Q-Bar one last time for a couple of drinks. It was sparsely populated, but just as I was finishing my beer a tall thirtysomething guy wandered in a bit unsteadily, walked up to me, and nodded in slow motion. Unattracted but polite, I nodded back, looked away again, and sipped faster.


"Halló," he said, quickly launching into Icelandic until I shook my head.


"Fyrirgefðu," I said. "I don't speak Icelandic."


"Oh, sorry, sorry," he said, leaning unnervingly close. "Where are you from?"


"New York," I said, tilting my head back rather subtly.


"Cool, cool," he replied. "I'm Guðbrandur. What is your name?"


"I'm Frank," I said, reaching out to shake his hand as I shrugged internally. It was someone to talk to, after all.


"Hi, Frank," said Guðbrandur. "I'm very drunk."


"Are you really?" I said.


"I just broke up with my girlfriend on Monday," he continued. "We have two kids together."


"I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "I mean about the breakup, not the kids."


"Yeah," he said. "So I decided to come out here and have good time."


"I see," I said. "So are you bisexual or what?"


"Kind of," he said. "More straight, but a little bisexual."


"Okay," I said, not really interested in pursuing the matter. I asked him what he did, and he told me that he installed software for businesses and made a pretty good living. He also told me, more pointedly than I would have liked, that he had an apartment nearby. I took the opportunity to ask about local rents.


This went on for a little while, with my asking him practical questions about Icelandic life, things I'd been curious about, and his pretty clearly trying to get in my pants. At one point there was a pause while I drained my pint and contemplated ordering another.


"I like you," said Guðbrandur.


"Thank you," I said.


"I like you," he resumed, lurching into the bar, "but you act like a homo."


"What's that supposed to mean?" I said, leveling a stony expression at him.


He made some kind of waving gesture in my general direction. "That jacket and everything."


I looked down, mystified. I was wearing my father's old wool blazer and an ordinary button-up gray shirt.


"I don't really know what you're talking about," I said.


"You're kind of a homo," he said, "but I do like you."


Barely concealing my rage, I said, "Gee, that's big of you. What can I say? I was born a big old faggot."


Infuriatingly enough, my tone went utterly over his stupid fucking drunk homophobic head. "It's okay," he said. "We're having good time."


"I'm not so sure about that," I said, looking at my watch without noting the hour. "It's getting late. I should probably go."


"Did I fuck up?" asked the Snail of the Uptake.


My blinding anger gathered in my tongue. The accumulation of bigotry and abuse that had been inflicted on me over the years was poised to strike this offensive lumbering drunk jackass who thought he had ever had a fucking prayer of taking me back to his place because I had decided to be polite and talk to him in a bar.


"No wonder your girlfriend left you, you fucking piece of shit."


At least, that's what the voice in my head said. But I had matured just enough, after all that I'd experienced in my life, that I chose the humane path. The big homo decided to be the bigger man.


"I'm sorry about your girlfriend, Guðbrandur," I said, rising to my feet and turning toward the door. "Get home safely." And inwardly, I offered the same words to myself. I'd come to Reykjavík to see new things and figure out if I had the courage to travel to a strange new country alone, not knowing anyone. And I'd done all that, and it felt like something that had expanded me. I'd conquered that fear.


But now it was time to get back to New York. There were loose ends I had to tie up, and decisions I needed to make.


###


I had previously planned to wrap up Entry 250 in two parts, but the second part ended up being so long that the inclusion of a third part seems to make the most sense. The process of writing this final entry has dragged out much longer than I'd ever anticipated--or wanted--due to a number of circumstances beyond my control. Life has not been uneventful. But I will post the third, and absolutely final, portion of the entry before August ends. Even with everything that has preceded it, the third part's scope might surprise you.