Neither Odd nor Even
After Celia tells her fourth-grade students she’ll be gone for the week to a wedding in Iceland, they discuss the country’s latitude and longitude, its placement on the Arctic Circle, its unusual patterns of daylight and darkness. Thankfully they don’t ask about the wedding. Explaining a love for a man who loves men on a different continent is not as easy as shining a lamp on a globe.
Nearly a decade has passed and Sam does not look older. Just distilled over time—more muscular, keener. Standing alone in the arrivals hall he tells Celia, “We’re thrilled to have you here.” On the drive into town he continues speaking to her in the UN diplomatic plural. “We’ve cleaned out the office and borrowed a bed for you. We planned a big dinner for tonight.”
Once Celia unpacks and washes her face Sam wants to climb a mountain with her. She has flown all the way across the continental United States and the Atlantic Ocean to see him marry the Viking (his words), and all he wants to do is drag her up a mountain. He hasn’t even asked her to be his maid of honor. Or best lady. Or however you’re supposed to say it. The entire concept was a foreign language to her.
There had never been talk of marriage on their trips to and from college. Junior year they drove from Texas through the South up to Connecticut with disposable cameras, a carton of cigarettes and not one mention of weddings. In the spirit of mixing with the locals, he coaxed her into buying knee-high moccasins from a roadside teepee while he shoplifted a T‑shirt with ’BAMA printed on it. In a Louisiana swamp they stopped at an alligator farm where they split fried gator nuggets. His he lobbed into the water. “From gator you came, and to gator you shall return,” he chanted and threw the alligator meat back to the alligators. His meanness was not so much a streak, as it was a carrot she chased. It elevated her. It moved her along.
In Atlanta they made friends with street kids and helped them panhandle for a day, which later bankrolled enough malt liquor for them all. Georgia ended with Celia deflowering a 16-year-old boy and Sam sleeping with a man twice his age. They passed the Carolinas in silence, in remorseful togetherness. But in DC they threw out the cigarettes and read aloud from the course catalog. At some point they stopped ticking the miles from Houston and started measuring to New Haven. And at some point they stopped mixing with the locals and started marrying them.
The bus from Reykjavík takes them all the way to the base of the mountain. Sam knows the way because he has lived in the country for seven years. She has not been counting down the days to his homecoming, but she has not been on the lookout for fun people to take road trips with either. Instead she rented the apartment upstairs in her mother’s duplex, failed to apply to graduate school and adopted Chernobyl, a used Russian wolfhound with a leaky bladder. And then there were seven years. On the bus to the mountain she has clocked 25 minutes and noted three traffic rotaries, an idiosyncrasy she has developed since living alone—timing and counting. It’s the larger increments that elude her.
“How far is the hike to the top?” Celia asks.
“You mean how tall is the mountain or how long is the path?” Sam says.
She shrugs, just looking for conversation.
“You’ll see when we get there,” he says.
They pass through what may be a suburb, a cluster of low houses gathered around one stretch of commercial drag with ice cream parlors on both sides of the road. The suburb looks recently constructed, an outpost. It isn’t the buildings themselves that give the appearance, but the areas around them. No trees or bushes, just earth. Like the wait after condos are built and habitable, but before the landscapers have laid out the green. Past the city limits they cross water, a wide surge that runs into a bay. Is this a fjord? Is it an estuary or a catchment? A basin? Is this a sound? She teaches the words every year in her geology unit, but faced with the thing, she can’t name it. At the last stop the old bus driver shuts off the engine and shuffles outside to smoke.
“Should we thank him, Sammy?” Celia asks as they step down.
“If you want, you can call him höfðingi.”
“Are you trying to get me to call him a codger or something?” Celia turns to see if Sam is grinning. “Is this the same as me verbally yanking down his Depends?”
“Not at all. It’s an old word, like chieftain. Old men like it when you call them that. If you won’t, then I will.”
Sam doesn’t wait for her. He calls out to the old man, who nods and waves at them. The language has become his living, translating the local hubbub for the wires. It’s a shame, Celia thinks. He would have made a wonderful American journalist.
“Are you in a funk?” she asks.
“Not at all. We’re just so grateful you were able to take time off from work to make the trip.”
Standing in front of the mountain she still cannot make out how large it is. There is no visual yardstick: no trees along the slopes and switchbacks leading up to a flat summit. Its treelessness gives it an almost infallible symmetry. Simply up one side, straight across the top, and down the other. She has been told it’s a mountain. But it looks more like a mound of dirt, she tells herself, quite possibly a molehill.
Celia packed heels and a rayon shawl for the wedding, so they have to wait for the Viking’s sister, Björg, to meet them with mountain-appropriate clothes. With the name Björg, Celia conjures up a woman in a muumuu, perhaps playing a kettledrum, perhaps with a turkey leg. She foresees tent-like clothing, nylon and billowy. But the woman who pulls up is slender and gracious, younger than Celia. Her hair is pulled into a ballerina bun, which accentuates her apple cheeks. She nods and smiles as she hands over dark wool clothes knitted with bright, Scandinavian patterns.
“How do you like Iceland?” Björg asks.
“It’s very nice,” Celia says. “But no trees.”
“Yes, but it means we don’t have to buy leaf brooms.”
Celia deciphers it too late to laugh. Rakes, she thinks, are nothing if not essentially leaf brooms. She thanks Björg who glances sweetly to Sam and gets back in her car.
“Rakes in Iceland,” Celia says as the woman drives off. “I guess that’s like ocean liners in Nebraska.”
“She’s shy about her English,” Sam says, “but she’s trying. She has been practicing for the wedding so she can talk to some of the guests.”
“Who else is coming?”
“Dad couldn’t make it,” Sam says. “But I have a cousin in Phoenix who was planning a summer vacation here anyway, so that worked out well. It’s just a long way to ask people to come.”
Celia almost says something about how short the trip felt, how little trouble it had been, but stops herself. “Only two days now,” she says instead. “Aren’t you nervous?”
“I’m relieved. Björg and her mom have taken care of everything. The cake. The priest. We’re going to have the reception in Björg’s backyard.”
Celia changes into Björg’s clothes behind a rock away from the highway. She never imagined a poncho could fit so tight, but this one clings to her midriff. With borrowed long johns and a yellow pom-pom stocking cap she completes her transformation into a Nordic sausage ready to roll up the mountainside. Sam stands at the trailhead in a green rain suit and red cap. He looks traveled, like Nature Boy, a strange enchanted boy, who wandered very far.
After graduation they had planned to get an apartment together in New York, but then there were terrorist attacks and neither of them could find a job in the city. Celia went back home to California, and Sam flew off to Iceland on a Fulbright. It did not feel like a fundamental divergence at the time. Just a detour. During his first year he sent her typewritten letters in red and white airmail envelopes, discussing everything that was exotic to him: babies left in their strollers outside grocery stores, a phonebook listed by first names, lamb cold cuts, no word for please but dozens of words for sheep and their various parts. The letters were replaced by infrequent emails. About his job. About her dog. Three years ago when she was named vice-president of the Teachers’ Local 5095 he had gag campaign materials printed up and sent to her house—buttons, stickers and a coffee mug with her dog’s face, Chernobyl McElroy for President. He didn’t know it, but Chernobyl is anything but a leader. He follows Celia from room to room, a lumbering, melancholy shadow. The former owners called him Lionheart but weren’t themselves brave enough to deal with his incontinence, the drips and pools he leaves behind in his many resting spots. But he came to Celia as a boon, a confidant who would never break her trust. Her mother has crashed in on her heart-to-hearts more than once and scoffs at Celia’s cockamamie notion that dogs can talk, that they want to hear about your problems.
“That thing doesn’t even know its own name, Celia.” Her mother likes to call the dog by the wrong name to drive her point home. “Come here, Dr. Shit-for-brains.” Her mother pats her thigh, and Chernobyl, loyal and ungainly, comes bounding. “Get over here and let me tell you about my childhood and my oppressive mother.”
So what, Celia thinks, he doesn’t know his name. That which we call Chernobyl by any other name would smell just as stinky, would sit just as quietly, would listen just as faithfully. She sometimes brings him to her classroom. More than afternoon snacks or writing on the overhead, her kids like to stand around Chernobyl and love on him. She makes him their reward. They never notice the wet newsprint or the smell of dog pee. Or if they do they never say anything. She admires their discretion.
After a steep climb Sam and Celia stop near a suspension bridge, the halfway mark. From the bridge she stretches her hand out to a narrow waterfall dropping from a height too high to see. It is captivating in that it is unlike anything she has seen in America.
“Falling water, Sam.” The water is icy cold and makes her hand go numb to the bone. “Nature calls.”
“Let me get to the other side before you pee,” he says.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter.”
Sam turns his back as she squats on the ground. He asked to see her pee once. They were drunk at a naked party in college where too many Ivy Leaguers thought it avant-garde to put their lumpy bodies on display. For him she dumped out her drink, hoisted her leg up on the counter and filled the cup with urine while he looked on like a scientist, an Arctic explorer. In her mind it was a moment of definition, a moment of truth. This is a truth that she now senses has been redefined not by her or him but by four thousand miles of land and sea. One-time questions of earnest exploration have been displaced by questions of equivocation and detachment. He is cold. She is cold. This is a cold place.
The women she works with have accused her of unfriendliness, citing the professional distance she maintains even in the break room. They used to pimp their men friends to her, pictures of cousins and ex-boyfriends, asking her to come to dinner and meet them. She would tell them she is content on her own, that she’s not looking for a man. The consensus has become that she is a lesbian. A bitter one. And as long as it keeps the pimps at bay, she wears a loose button-down and slacks once a month. However, her libido is strong and has only grown stronger in recent years. She sometimes imagines anonymous encounters with men. They don’t have faces, but they have wonderfully deep voices. Only recently has she found a forum to play out her dalliance.
“Am I speaking to Celia McElroy?”
“This is she.”
“My name is Jeremiah and I’m calling from Physicians’ Care Group. Your request—”
“I already have health insurance.”
“But does your plan offer you dental and vision?”
“I’m not sure but do you have a big cock, Jeremiah? Is it large and in charge?”
The moment has only ever deteriorated into one of them hanging up, but there is a lightening strike when she talks this way with a man on the phone. The electric instant is enjoyment enough. No one knows, not that it would matter. The only ones she cares about are too young to have night jobs as phone solicitors.
Panting and clammy with sweat in the chill air, Sam and Celia come to a straightaway on the path where they can walk side by side. “What are you doing with yourself these days?” Sam asks.
“I never thought a degree in chemistry would lead back to fourth grade, but I like it. I like the tiny chairs and the posters and how much excitement they still have.”
“I have to admit, it’s not what I expected from you,” Sam says. She finds it hurtful.
“I suppose neither of us have taken the prescribed course.”
“Well are you seeing anyone?”
“Only casually, Sam.” Her breath is heavy from climbing and a reluctance to answer such thoughtless questions.
Her casual dates begin with red wine and sometimes pot. Then Nat King Cole LPs on the floor with Chernobyl. The crooning voice and the heaviness of her dog’s head leave her with a wonderfully poignant nostalgia for a period of life that has never happened. But intoxication pries open the bulkhead between memory and desire so they can slosh around together for an evening. And Chernobyl is so full of love. He loves her for coming home, for putting food down, for turning left instead of right, for going to sleep and for waking up. With him Celia always feels in good company. She read that the Russian wolfhound ranks 75 out of the 78 breeds included in Stanley Coren’s The Intelligence of Dogs. It takes Russian wolfhounds 80 to 100 repetitions to comprehend a new command, and they obey the first command less than 25 percent of the time. Celia listens to the universe, but she is not convinced it is a matter of comprehension as much as a matter of willingness to comprehend.
At the top of the mountain they write their names in a large book that means their names will remain at the top of the mountain forever. A type of matrimony, she thinks. There is snowfall at the top and bright evening sunshine, and she can see the entire peninsula the city sits on, all at once. Just a spit of land that juts out into the sea. Under chunky, summer snowflakes Sam says he wanted to bring her up here to see what he’s gaining.
“You won’t come back?” she asks.
“Not after we’re married. We can’t. Not together.”
She understands why he has chosen this spot. With the snow it looks like Christmas, but it is actually the place where Sam departs.
Her love for him is not complicated. But when she forces herself to explain, it stupefies her and she suddenly knows nothing. The same way her students shy away when she asks them if zero is odd or if it’s even. They look at her and smile coyly and they cannot say. It wasn’t that he’d ruined their big plans for a strawberry farm in Maine where they would take in stray dogs and horses and kids. It wasn’t that she missed being at home—if anything she was glad to escape her mother, who only chastised her for having long confessionals with the dog. It wasn’t the time away from her classroom with its multiplication tables and model solar system and other tables and models and systems to explain everything in the world. It was simply that Sam would no longer be a part of her America.
The apartment the men share in downtown Reykjavík is small. For dinner the table is expanded with both its leaves, which blocks the door to the room where Celia is staying. So she sits at the table and cuts potatoes and carrots for their roast while Sam readies the oven in the kitchen. She sees the Viking for the first time as he comes through the front door.
“You must be Celia.” He is not as blocky or bearded as she had expected. He is tall with broad shoulders and a kind, plain face. As guileless as a turnip. He seems lost for words. “Sam tells me you have a dog.”
“It’s so nice to meet you.” She can still only call him the Viking. “It’s embarrassing, but you’re going to have to teach me your name.”
“How do I say?” He contorts his face with over enunciation. “You say it hreggviðurþórgnýr.” He does not repeat it, only stares at her as if she should have internalized it after his one demonstration. A horrible teacher.
“Well it’s so nice to meet you,” she says again. Sam will marry this man and she will still have no idea what his name is.
“I hope you like lamb,” the Viking says.
She doesn’t. The slaughter horrifies her. The bleating. The tiny faces. “Sure.”
“Sæll, elskan,” Sam says as he walks to the Viking.
“Sæll sjálfur,” says the Viking. “Hvernig var upp á Esjunni? Var ekki notalegt?”
“Jú. Það var ágætt.” He leans in to kiss the Viking. It’s not their talk that seems most unfamiliar to her but their kiss: perfunctory and domestic.
“You’ve met?” Sam asks and they both nod cordially. Sam pulls him into the kitchen, though Celia can still see them.
“Ég get ekki hengt þessar hillur upp einn,” Sam says to the Viking. He’s complaining about something. “Það er tveggja manna verk” He’s pointing to the wall. To a blank space. “Hjónaband hvað? Ha?” Sam shakes his head in disbelief. “Þetta er bara orðið eitthvað svindl, sko, elsku hjartað mitt.”
“Svo sannarlega.” The Viking speaks solemnly, slowly. “Svikult er hjartað framar öllu öðru, ástin mín.”
The men give each other knowing looks. It might be contempt. It might be sarcasm. Celia can’t follow. Sam has become unintelligible. She looks down to her chopped potato and is glad she knows anything at all, even if it’s just how to chop a potato.
The phone in her dorm room rang. It never rang unless it was Sam so she knew who it was before answering. She found the name of the restaurant unappealing: The Rusty Scupper. It sounded like a joke between two proctologists. But it had a reputation for serving New Haven’s most expensive seafood. Sam asked her to come with him and his voice was cracking with dread. From the bits and pieces he let slip over the years she had gathered that his father lorded over large amounts of money in Texas. Ate expensive meat. Ravaged women. Knew little about his son.
“I need you to be affectionate with me,” Sam said brusquely. “Hold my hand. Rest your head on my shoulder.”
“You need me to be your beard?”
“We have to kill him with the chemistry between us.”
At dinner Sam sat frozen with apprehension. She ordered scallops, but hardly touched them, too busy playing the twittering bird. With an impeccably starched shirt and wolflike salt-and-pepper hair, Sam’s father laughed deep belly laughs as Celia sang her song of praise for the man’s son. Their romantic road trip through the South. The clever postcards he sends over summer. How he lifts her up and grounds her with definitive purpose at the same time. All this she could say because the evening was a sham. Nonetheless she was fluent in the language she was speaking. Alone in her bed that night she allowed herself to extrapolate. How easily the thought of their marriage, someday their children, slid off her tongue and reverberated in that uncharted place in her mind.
The Viking dominates dinner conversation with the surprising ingredients in all the dishes. Sugar in the mash. Coffee in the brown sauce. Beet juice on the lamb. Relish in the mayonnaise. The endless eccentricity in every facet of the meal exhausts her. While the men do the dishes Celia sits with a cup of coffee. It’s all she can do to keep herself from falling asleep. Jetlag and stodgy food have depleted her patience. If she has another moment with Sam tonight she will ask him outright if he wants her to stand up for him at the wedding.
“Celia,” Sam calls in from the kitchen, “if you’re not too exhausted we’d love for you to come to choir practice.” Singing in Icelandic. It couldn’t be any more alienating than speaking in Icelandic. “You can see the sanctuary before the wedding and you can sit with Björg.” Sam sweetens the pot. “She’s eager to get to know you.”
Only a block away from the dollhouse apartment is the church: a severe obelisk out of some Stalinist fairytale, concrete and grey, perched on the highest hill in the city. Björg waits for them just inside the narthex across a wide cement square in front of the doors. She smoothes her hair and her skirt, looking anxious.
“It is please to see you.” She extends a hand to Celia.
“Yes. It is please to see you, too,” Celia replies and intuits Sam’s reproach.
The interior of the concrete monster is ribbed with vaulted trusses like a whale capsized. The nave is spare. Unadorned walls and haphazard groupings of wooden chairs in place of pews. In the blank, gaping space it gives the impression of transience. A cave taken over by vagrants.
Björg grabs Celia by the hand and they sit near the front with other women. Facing them is a men’s choir of stern, round faces and dark woolen garments. Their white-haired director can barely lift his arms past the girth of his midsection, and with only a slight movement of his hand he opens the sound. The sanctuary fills with the dark, stout liquid of deep voice. To Celia its heady timbre is as welcome as sleep. There are over a dozen men on the steps, but all she hears is an uncanny unison. As the tone swells and divides into parts, their song becomes eerie and omnipresent within the church’s acoustics. The harmonies are sung in fifths, foreboding like a Gregorian chant or the cadence of the Wicked Witch’s soldiers.
“What are they singing?” Celia whispers to Björg.
“Lullabies.” Björg replies. “What men know about lullabies? I don’t know. But they like to do singing, so here we sit.”
“It’s lovely,” Celia says. She wants to say that it sounds grim, but perhaps so is childhood in Iceland.
Then Björg leans into her and whispers, “They asked me for egg.”
Celia considers whether something could be lost in translation while she watches the woman pat her belly. Celia feels the entire weight of the Viking Age, the burning and plundering, come to bear on her chest.
“They asked you for an egg,” she corrects the young woman and lets the sad song wash over her.
She finds Sam’s face in the choir. Even among Nordic men he’s golden, but she can’t pick out his voice. If she didn’t know she would never have guessed he was once an American, once a kid who went to college with her, once her closest friend. He has become the expectant father of apple cheeks and imperfect English. There had been a plan at one time. Or it might have been an idea, or just a conversation. On another trip, through the middle of the country. Someplace flat and infinite like Kansas or Iowa. To the soundtrack of a Bobby Darin album there had been talk of a baby between Sam and Celia. And they would name it after a Midwestern town wherever the notion was conceived. Olathe. Holdrege. Guthrie. Lenexa. Their Midwestern child stands on golden sands and watches the ships that go sailing.
Sometime after everyone is in bed but before they wake up to the day before the wedding, Celia will take her suitcase outside and pull the door shut soundlessly. She will leave knowing Sam is not a bitter bride; in fact, he may be the most winsome groom she could ever imagine. It was one thing to stand on ceremony, on history, she will tell herself, but it is another to pin it to the ground so it can’t get up and walk out the door.
The bus to the airport will be full of sleeping people. The sun will have dipped down briefly while she sits on the bed and waits for the house to fall asleep, but by the time she’s on the bus the sky will be glowing again. Outside her window the fields of lava and moss will speed by in the morning twilight like the surface of the moon, but she will be blind to it. Over the velocity of the vehicle all she will be able to sense is the slipping of her ghostly wifehood and motherhood towards their certain end. Every day it’s getting closer.
When she goes home she will line up her students and have them grow bean plants on the classroom’s windowsill. They will compete to see who can grow the tallest, largest plant. She will encourage them to do whatever is in their power to make them grow. They can play music for their plants and move them to larger pots. They can drown them in vitamins and fertilizers and they can bring in artificial lights. They can heap their care onto the soil and cultivate the hope that their seeds will burst from the ground and rise over the classroom, towering like sentinels of Giant Sequoia.