Iceland was Phong’s idea. He’d been there like a million times. Whenever we had a long weekend, that’s where Phong wanted to go. He always said, “Mickey, come on up to Iceland with me, the chicks are easy in Iceland. These wenches in the Bay all just want our credit cards.”
I nodded up from my workstation like Phong and I were in the same league when it came to chicks or whatever he wanted to call them—like there were any women in the Bay or even the greater Sacramento area who were interested in me, with or without a credit card. Like, Yeah, man. Who hasn’t had enougha these Bay wenches?
“Icceelaaaand.” Phong said it slow, like it was some kind of slippery paradise. “Icelandic chicks don’t even wanna get paid.”
It’s almost June when Phong starts laying it on thick, like, Whaddaya got to lose, Mickey? He says, “The tickets on WOW Air are practically free, Mickey. Ninety-nine dollars each way, Mickey. It’s like we can’t afford not to go to Iceland and ride all the chicks for free. It’ll still be freezing, but they’re gonna have daylight practically all night long, like some never-ending coke binge. Whaddaya say, Mickey?”
I didn’t know what to say. Honestly, I’d always filed Phong’s Iceland under “too good to be true.” I’d never been on a coke binge. Maybe Phong could get chicks for free up there, but I wasn’t like Phong. Things didn’t come easily to me the way they did Phong. Which explained why Phong was my boss and not the other way around, for one thing. But then I realized Phong was staring at me, waiting for an answer, and I was just sitting there nodding and shaking my head at the same time, which probably looked completely lame, so I excused myself to the all-gender bathroom and I stood in front of the sink and I looked at myself in the mirror and I squinted my eyes just a little to blur out the acne on my forehead and I said, “He’s right, Mickey. What the hell do you have to lose? You’ve got a big coat. You’re not getting laid in the Bay. What’s the worst thing that could happen? You don’t get laid in Iceland? Not a big deal, man.” I took a deep breath and I gave myself a bravery nod and I marched myself out of that bathroom and back into our startup warehouse and I said, “All right, Phong. I’m with you. We’re going to Iceland.”
Phong smiled wide, which made the scar in his eyebrow do this little eyebrow-scar dance and he lifted his large hand to high-five me and I felt like, Yeah, Imma get me some free chicks just like Phong does.
I always liked taking off out of SFO at twilight, the way it sparkled, this microcosm without so much as an inferiority complex. The way you couldn’t help but notice as you ascended how small the city was. The way “San Francisco” used to mean something different in songs than it meant now. But as our pink WOW airplane descended toward Reykjavik, I wasn’t so sure about my little pep-talk-to-self. Below us was just a bunch of black, desolate lava-earth. Like we were landing on Mars or something. Like we were landing on the moon. Like, Where the hell were we?
I frowned at Phong in the middle seat next to me, but he didn’t seem to notice, so I said to myself, I said, Mickey, you just go along with it all. You’ve got your big coat. What’ve you got to lose?
“You drive,” Phong said, and he held the rental car keys out to me like a gift, like a dare.
I took a deep breath and grabbed them. “Okay. But you deal with the GPS.” I would let Phong tell me when to turn right and left; I’d ignore this desolate lava until it morphed into something else.
And check it out: My denial worked like the best hologram. Rolling into Reykjavik, Of Monsters and Men interrupted by directions on Phong’s device, all the rows of little square houses in just about every color like some kind of Castro Street Monopoly board made me giggle. I could see myself having dinner parties in one of the little purple boxes with its perfectly pointed rooftop. I’d serve fish stew and good wine. “I could like it here,” I whispered, and Phong puckered his lips at me and I guess I couldn’t fault how easily things came to him. There was something about his plum smile that made you want to give him things and not tell him what they cost.
We checked into this sleek black-and-gray-décor hotel with Phong’s business credit card that had all our names on it, and this place was more expensive than the plane tickets here but what did we care? I told myself it’s like Phong always said: “Rich people stay rich by not paying for what we don’t have to pay for, but we’re never afraid to drop some cash on our own comfort.”
Our suite had separate bedrooms and a kitchenette, a view of all the little red and white boats bobbing in the marina. As I gazed out across the water, I told myself I should be more like Phong—that the distance between me and him was the distance between me and happiness and what better time to start inching closer to happiness than when we’re in a foreign country where I have almost no social media connections. I mean, Phong could always show my ass anywhere he wanted to show my ass, but then who’s he gonna get to come to Iceland with him next time? Knowing it’s like two degrees outside?
Yes, maybe I could learn to be more like Phong.
I took a shower in the sleet-gray bathroom and piled on clean layers of long johns and jeans, shirts and sweaters, and I followed Phong out to Laugavegur, which he said was basically the main drag in Reykjavik even though it didn’t look like any kind of main drag of anyplace to me, and after we grabbed fish and chips for dinner because I guess it was dinnertime even though the sunlight had been holding steady like icy dawn since we got here, we headed into a half-dark bar. Electronica pulsed. I breathed in my jet lag and the foreignness of this place—the way I felt holographically completely different from myself and exactly the same. I was maybe two moss beers in and already saying Icceelaaaand to myself like Phong did, slow and slippery like, Icceelaaaand. Phong was breakdancing under the strobe lights, I’m not kidding with this guy, and I was just kind of tapping my foot to the electronica thinking, Be cool, Mickey, this is no worse than not getting laid at home, and right then, like some kind of a psychic lifeline, this mousy-faced blonde just walks up to me and says, “My apartment’s up the street. Wanna get it on?”
I had this frozen hot feeling in my chest. Like, This is something that happens to other guys. I nodded real quick before she changed her mind and I sort of waved over to Phong who didn’t seem to notice me and the blonde pretty much rolled her eyes and said, “Don’t worry about him,” so I decided not to. I said to myself, Mickey, you’re in Iceland and there’s a hot chick right in front of you. Just follow her home. So, that’s what I did.
The girl lead me fast through the cold dawn-like night and she told me her name was Helga and I thought, I can get into that. All this cold light and Helga.
Her apartment was tiny, but warm. She had a poster of an old woman wearing a driftwood crown. She stripped off her wool dress like it had been weighing on her for a long time and she stood there in these little white cotton panties and my whole body felt shaky, like Helga could devour me. Like I might like that.
She smiled as she gestured toward her single bed, a cloud of white comforters.
I nodded fast. And this chick just let me ride her and ride her and ride her all night, like she was enjoying it, like she was the one riding me. She kept saying, “Mick, Mick,” like she forgot the end of my name or maybe she was thinking of Jagger but I didn’t care.
All the way back through the cold, down that main drag that didn’t seem like any kind of a main drag and into the sleek, gray hotel, I just kept thinking, What kind of place is this Iceland? Where have I been all my life if not Iceland?
The next night Phong and I walked into the same bar and there’s Helga again and I said, “Hey,” feeling all suave, but she just flicked her chin at me and said “Hey,” and got up and started dancing by herself under the strobe lights.
Like, what the hell did I do wrong?
I said, “Phong? Did you see that?”
Phong just shook his head and placed his hand in the middle of my back. “You’ve got it all wrong, man. We’re not here to get into some kind of relationship with these chicks. You hook up with a new piece of ass every night. That’s how they play it in Iceland.”
It’s not like I was looking for a relationship. Phong made that sound so lame. I wasn’t lame. But I liked the idea of riding the same chick all weekend. Seeing if the same buttons worked twice. But what was I gonna do? I had to get used to it the way I got used to a lot of things.
In the Bay at our startup, we made these wild, slick 3D audio-visual presentations for newer startups. The more impossible the new startup, the more amazing our production had to be—animated cars crashing out of screens, robot women who could pass for real women morphing two and three sizes smaller than themselves, hail storms in conference centers that could get the audience pelted and wet without doing any real damage to the carpet. We raised hard cash and soft cash for apps that could record your dreams in high definition while you slept, could make you skinny just by downloading them onto your wearable devices, could control micro-weather patterns for your micro-farm or even rain out wildfires—that kind of thing. The companies we hyped were never really meant to become things. Not in our lifetimes, anyway. It was all about the image, about getting investors hooked on the image, about the possibility of the impossible. I mean, you’d be stunned how much money a high-def dream with a pink and turquoise animated background can bring in some years. My job was to help people suspend disbelief.
We’d get the first investors, and then there was another startup that Phong also started and the boys there would get the buzz going, and then we’d make this huge public offering and—shazam—everybody got rich. All the early investors made millions. Phong made millions. Me and the other back-end coding boys working in our warehouses, we all made tens of thousands. Nothing to buy a villa over but enough to make you feel like poor people were just idiots. The question of whether the technology existed to make any of the startups grow past the hype-and-sell phase bothered me a little bit at first. I mean, these were all ideas destined for idea graveyards. Or, ideas so far ahead of their time they needed their own special futuristic section of the idea graveyard. We all knew that. But I never saw anyone we were hurting. Maybe a few housewives and dumb-asses who heard the hype late and bought stock right after the company sold for a hundred million and right before it went bankrupt.
I put that part of it out of my mind.
Went on to the next unicorn.
Phong left me at the bar with a confidence-pat on the shoulder, like I had this. Like the distance between me and Phong wasn’t so far after all, and next thing this black-haired girl sidled up to me saying, “My tits aren’t as big as this bra makes them look but they give me a lot of pleasure.” And I thought, Surely I am having an auditory hallucination right now. How long had it been since I slept? She had five or six studs pierced in each ear. When she smiled, I noticed a little dimple not at all in the middle of her cheek. Her front tooth was chipped. “You’re cute,” she said. And that’s when the beauty of it hit me: A different piece of ass every night. Like, This is civilization.
The black-haired chick called herself Freyja and she wanted to get it on in the rental car which was awkward because it was still light outside, but I closed my eyes and willed a personal darkness all around us. Then she wanted me to drive her home to her apartment near the university and she wanted to jerk me off in the entryway, and when we got inside she wanted me to eat her on her kitchen counter, and I kept thinking, Hell yes, but also kind of panicking, like there was a secret camera someplace and some startup was live-streaming me in all my awkwardness in the strangely lit night.
I heard a key in the door, the lock turn. Did she have a roommate?
I looked up at her from her crotch. “Do you have a bedroom?”
Freyja jumped down from the counter and tugged me by my belt loop and I followed her into a little box of a room hardly bigger than her double bed and the white dresser wedged between it and the wall and she closed the door and pulled her sweater over her head and took off her padded bra and she said, “suck my nipples until I absolutely beg you to fuck me.” She was so matter-of-fact, like she wanted me to write the code for some impossible audio-visual, but I understood that I only had this one night with Freyja, so I took a deep breath and I told myself, You’ve got this, man. Focus. Make the most of this night, Mickey.
I was so turned on I had to think of lava fields covered in thick sheets of ice to contain myself and I imagined packaging all that lava and ice into an app that could direct the will of a user’s mind to control the all compulsions of their body, but when Freyja started to beg I shut all those thoughts down. I fumbled with the condom, terrified I was going to mess this up but I just kept doing all the things Freyja told me to do pretty much all night like there was no tomorrow which I guess there wasn’t because that cool Icelandic sun just never set.
I woke up in Freyja’s bed alone.
The stack of books on her dresser were mostly in Icelandic, but there were a few big ones in English: Atlas of the Human Body, Pathology 101. Med student books.
I could hear foreign voices in the kitchen, pitching up and down.
I pulled on my long johns and long-sleeved T-shirt and crept out, found Freyja and her roommate eating yogurt and granola at a pale wooden table and Freyja pushed a bowl in front of me and said, “Have you tried skyr?”
Back at the black and grey hotel, Phong had his travel jeans on.
I said, “Man, we just got here. It’s a waste of the jet lag to go home now.” Not that I ever knew what time it was. I said, “Phong, how about you let me work remotely this week. I’ll get some awesome 3D footage of some insane Icelandic geyser or something.”
Phong shook his head. “You know what your problem is, man?”
I was pretty sure since I got to Iceland I didn’t have any problems, but I said, “What’s my problem, Phong?”
He made a serious face, more serious than I could remember seeing him make before, and he shoved both hands into his Polar-tech hoodie pockets and looked down, almost introspective, like maybe my problem was his problem, too, and he said, “Mickey, your problem is that you never want anything to end.” He looked out the window of our grey suite, out over the cold water, and I wonder now if Phong knew something I didn’t right then, but he composed himself pretty quick and he looked up at me and he winked and he shook his head and he smiled that sweet little smile that made you want to give him things, and he said, “All right, Mickey. You do that. You work remotely for a week and you get us the most incredible 3D geyser footage anybody in the Bay ever dared dream up, you got me? Keep the rental car. I’ll get a shuttle to the airport.”
Phong was a good boss.
That night I was back at the bar just off Laugavegur and guess who rubs up against me? Freyja, the same black-haired chick with all the studs in her ears from last night, and I said, “I thought we were supposed to hook up with a new piece of ass every day in Iceland,” and she rolled her eyes at me, said, “Yes, Mickey, all Icelandic girls are exactly the same and we conduct our friendships in exactly the same manner.”
I felt like a cad when she said it like that, but how was I supposed to know?
“Have you tried our Icelandic Brennivin liquor?” she asked, and she waved to the bartender, not waiting for my answer.
I tapped my foot fast to the music. The Brennivin tasted like vodka and rye bread, but I noticed I was the only one drinking it.
Freyja sipped ice water. “Have you been outside of Reykjavik?”
I didn’t want her to think I was lame, but I wasn’t going to lie. “This is my first time in Iceland.” Maybe I blushed a little.
I shook my head.
“Let me drive the car, Mickey.”
I felt excited as we drove through the cold, thinking about how we’d get to her apartment and she’d want to jerk me off in the entryway and maybe I’d eat her on her kitchen counter again and she’d want me to make her beg for it, but when we parked in front of her apartment and I reached for the seatbelt buckle, she put her hand over mine and she said, “Wait here.” I shivered in the car, humming along with imagined music, and next thing Freyja’s shoving sleeping bags and a box of protein bars into the back seat and the two of us are driving through the icy light.
I wanted everything.
I said, “Freyja?” I counted the studs in her ear. Seven.
She said, “Yes, Mickey?”
And I don’t know if it was the Brennivin or what but my heart felt all bagged-up in my chest. I said, “Do you think my problem is that I never want anything to end?”
She said, “Whaddaya mean, Mickey?”
Whaddaya mean, Mickey? It echoed in my mind. Like, Whaddaya mean, Mickey?
Freyja said, “Maybe I don’t know you well enough to answer this question?”
There was field, and then solitary black structure, and then mountain, and then sky, and then nothing.
Freyja said, “I’m sorry I can’t answer your question, Mickey, but from where I stand all of America is that kind of greed you’re speaking about.”
We kept driving.
The word echoed in my mind: Greed.
My phone buzzed with a message from Phong and I glanced down at it, but it just said, Sorry, man. I watched out the front window, the endless damp green. What was he sorry for? A second text came through, this one from another coder back at the warehouse. It said, Shit, I just read it in the Chronicle. I texted Phong back then, Sorry for what, man? And to the coder, Read what?
But my phone beeped “undeliverable” twice and then I didn’t have any service.
I looked up, and landscape hadn’t changed.
I noticed that my heart felt less bagged up in my chest and I liked that. But the feeling could have been any number of factors. Maybe I was just hungry. I took a protein bar from the box.
Past a closed gas station and a solitary sheep, Freyja turned onto a dirt road and we followed the dark line of it up a gentle incline and over a small bridge. She pulled over onto the field and pointed higher up the hill to a thin, white waterfall. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
It wasn’t particularly impressive, just a trickle between two rocks, really, but I didn’t want to be a cad so I kept watching it and I willed my perception to open up and open up until I could see something like a loveliness in that small waterfall and I said, “It is. It’s beautiful.”
Freyja smiled, showing off her chipped tooth and misplaced dimple. She said, “We camp.”
Now, I’m not one for camping even back in California, but Freyja was already busy zipping two sleeping bags together and I remembered how she told me to make her beg for it; the way she directed me to do exactly what she wanted but still made me feel somehow in-charge and I wanted to suck on her nipples in the warmth of that double sleeping bag very badly right then and I wanted her cold hands on my thigh, so I said to myself, I said, Mickey, camp.
I liked the way the air pierced the cocoon of our double sleeping bag in quick blasts, making her pleasure an urgent thing, and I wanted to count how many times I could make this girl come until I lost count. I wanted to be that waterfall, unimpressive and appreciated.
When I opened my eyes, Freyja was scrolling through her phone.
“I think we’re out of range,” I whispered.
She shook her head. “We shouldn’t be.”
I fished out my own phone from the pocket of my big coat and showed it to her. It had power, but no service.
Freyja shook her head. “Did you pay the bill?”
I thought about the last texts from Phong and the coder, asked Freyja to bring the Chronicle up her phone, search our company name.
She pressed letters and links, bit her lip. “Phong Smith?”
She read aloud, “Longtime startup darling Phong Smith voluntarily surrendered to Federal authorities in San Francisco this morning after being indicted Monday on multiple counts of fraud, insider trading, and money laundering.” Freyja looked up. The cold wind made her cheeks plum. “This is your friend?”
I thought about all the ways I was connected to Phong Smith. “He’s actually… my boss.” I’d been working for Phong since I dropped out of UC Berkeley three years earlier. My credit card was the company credit card Phong gave me. My phone was a company phone. Even my bank account was part of one of Phong’s financial startups.
“Do you want me to keep reading?” Freyja asked.
I shook my head. I had a strange, cold feeling that my whole life had already ended.
She kept scrolling on her phone, reading to herself. “It sounds like your friend has been committing this fraud out in the open for many years.”
I’d never thought of it that way.
“What’s a unicorn?” Freyja asked, her breath making a white puff in the cold blue air. “I mean I know what a unicorn is, but in this context?”
I shrugged. “I guess just a company that raises a ridiculous amount of money.”
I stared up at the tiny waterfall. Who was I without Phong? Who was I, really, without San Francisco? I probably didn’t even have a bank account anymore. I didn’t want to tell Freyja about everything coursing through me right then, but the look on her face said she could see. She said, “Don’t worry, Mickey. I don’t know how deep you’re in this story back where you come from, but look around you now.”
I looked around, taking in the cold green in every direction. “We’re in the middle of nowhere.” My nose felt like ice.
Freyja shook her head and reached for me. “No.” Her palms felt warm against my wrists. “This, too, is somewhere.”
A half dozen sheep sauntered over the hill’s silhouette, stopped to graze on nothing I could see.
Freyja smiled, distracting me with her dimple. “Do you know we have real unicorns in Iceland?”
I laughed. “Seriously?”
She scooted her body behind mine and pressed into my back and placed her small hands over my eyes.
I exhaled into the darkness.
She said, “Picture a sheep,” and that was easy enough. She said, “Picture a sheep, but with a sweet, surprised look on its face—like a sheep who’s had a facelift!”
I laughed, but I could almost picture it.
“Do you see it?”
“Yes.” I willed myself to see it.
She said, “Imagine this sheep has a single, beautiful curved horn—like a ram’s horn, but just one, right in the middle of its forehead.”
I nodded. I could see the unicorn.
Freyja took her hands off my eyes and said, “look!” and right there in front of us stood the most elegant sheep-unicorn I could have ever dreamed up. I took a quick breath in, as surprised as the strange creature looked, but just then the image morphed into a normal sheep in the morning light in the field in front of us. “It’s not real?”
Freyja snuggled into my back. “Well, we do have them in Iceland. And I made you see one. Does it matter if this particular one was the real thing?”
Did it matter? Did greed make me want to see what wasn’t there? Did fraud help me see it?
When we climbed back into the rental car, Freyja pointed to the gas gauge.
I felt a deep kind of cold in my bones that made me oddly aware of the contours of my own skeleton.
She said, “We won’t make it back to the last station. Let’s just keep going.”
I liked that sound of that. Let’s just keep going.
Back where the dirt road met the narrow, paved highway, Freyja turned north. Through hills and fields, past flocks of sheep and driftwood shorelines, she kept driving.
I said, “Where are we?”
Freyja hummed. “Westfjords.”
I wondered what a fjord was and what was west of one. I wondered who I was if not a shy coder who could make holographic hail and robots look like the real thing; if not a loser who couldn’t get laid in the Bay; if not a person who had gas in his rental car.
We wound down and up the edges of rocky and green hills until the pavement gave way to a pot-holed dirt road. A giant cement building rose up from the edge of the earth, its once-white paint peeling and crumbling into gray.
The car bounced, then slowed.
“I think this is it.” Freyja said as she rolled to a stop next to the rusted skeleton of an abandoned car and the music went quiet. “We’re here,” she said.
“We’re where?” Out past the crumbling cement building, just cold blue.
“We’re the place your rental car ran out of gas.”
That was very much where we were.
“C’mon,” Freyja said and I could see that I did like someone to follow. She pulled me by my hand and then by my belt loop into a giant, abandoned factory where bright yarn sculptures webbed out from walls and ceiling hooks and I said, “What is this?”
“It’s the old herring factory. It’s a gallery now.”
Freyja wandered through the bright woven and knitted conceptual herring nets. She said, “In my grandparents’ day, it was the greatest herring factory in all of Iceland. But they overfished the area. There’s nothing here anymore. A few years ago someone bought the old boardinghouse and made a hotel. She gestured out a glassless window to a red building not far away. She paused. “Do you want to get it on?” She grabbed my hand and pulled me further into the factory, down damp stairs, into the ghost of a hallway.
I said, “It’s actually kind of cold for me down here.”
Freyja smiled, didn’t seem to mind. “Yes, I suppose I’m used to it.”
We sat down in an empty doorway instead.
I rested my head on Freyja’s shoulder. “Did you always want to be a doctor?”
She shook her head. “Not always. It just popped into my head once when I was a teenager and I could see it. The coursework kept my interest, so I pressed on. I don’t mind if things are challenging as long as they hold my interest. How do you make your plans?”
I tried to imagine what it would feel like to just let something pop into my mind, independent of anyone else’s plans or suggestions. I closed my eyes but the only image that appeared was me, puttering around warm rooms in the Hotel Djúpavík up the street. I said, “I can sort of picture getting a job at the Hotel Djúpavík for a little while.”
Freyja laughed politely, like that was kind of quaint and pathetic at the same time. She said, “Mickey, you can do whatever you want.” Like, Whaddayagot to lose? “You can go home whenever you like. WOW Airlines will always be there.”
I figured she was right.
“Come,” Freyja said, and she led me out of the old factory and toward the shore, along a rocky bank and to the edge of a pale-blue, steaming pool the size of her little box of a bedroom back in Reykjavik and she said, “Take off your clothes,” and we both took off our clothes and slipped into the warmth. The steam rising up off the water danced in the gray light.
A short, muscular guy wearing a turquoise Speedo appeared from the other side of the pool, dropped a large towel on a bench, and climbed in.
I glanced at Freyja to give her a look I hoped would say, How lame is that Speedo? but Freyja didn’t seem to notice me.
The Speedo guy sat down a few feet down us and hugged his knees into his body. “Hello,” he said with an accent I couldn’t place. His eyebrows danced, just a little.
Freyja scooted closer to him, glancing at me as if to gauge how hurt I’d be if she wanted to get it on with this guy.
I gave her a shrug that I hoped said, You’re a free person, too.
Freyja asked, as she and the Speedo climbed out of the tub and he wrapped his towel around her.
I looked down at my naked chest under the water, at my narrow waist and the way little bubbles collected around my belly button. I watched my knees beneath the blue, rippling like reflections of themselves, and I said, “Yeah, I’m sure.”
I tucked my fingers under my thighs and took a deep breath, looked up and out over the arctic blue herring-less waters. The fullest moon hung in the gray morning-like air. And I said to myself, I said, Mickey, that means it’s already on the wane. I exhaled, and pushed myself up out of the water.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.