When my plane touched down in Reykjavik, Iceland, I was both very much in love and very much alone. At the start of spring, I had fled the torture of my affection for the unavailable by purchasing a solo ticket to the geographical equivalent of the moon. I may as well have walked into a travel agency and asked, “Where can a 20-year-old woman go to forget herself?”
The moment I stepped onto the tarmac, a sharp, violent gust knocked the wind out of me. The air felt like it was swarming with hard rocks. Yet it was strangely purifying — as though the moment my feet touched the soil, I was somehow cleansed.
A bus took me to the center of the city, and my face warmed with awe at the white plank buildings with orange and cobalt roofs, the children bundled in two or three lopapeysa each (though it was April), the strange colorless sky that made everything feel like you were sleepwalking.
The city was overwhelming, and yet it could hold the entirety of the place in the palm of my hand. I found my lodgings in minutes, despite my sole guidance being an abbreviated map in the back of a tattered guidebook. My hostel was located in an old biscuit factory. An all-female jazz trio was performing in the lobby when I arrived. I settled into the snug quarters, took a soapless shower, and returned to the common area so I could crack into Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood — an attempt at romantic detox.
I was mere pages in when a French woman, dressed in red, ensnared me in conversation. She was convinced that the bartender was interested in her, and would walk over and romance her at any moment. She stared over at him while whispering these things to me out of the side of her mouth. I didn’t see him look up once.
I excused myself and went for a walk. Grotta Lighthouse stood across the fjord, illuminated by a glowing purple sky and the outline of an angular volcano across the water. I headed in its direction, stopping only to buy mittens — a much needed item I had somehow forgotten. My hands, now cloaked in unmilled wool, were warmer than any other part of my synthetic-clad body.
The walk took more than an hour. The entire way, I was consumed with the deep-set paranoia of being a woman alone at night. Each rustle of grass screamed in my ear. But every strange shadow turned out only to be a dog or a child. By the time I got to the lighthouse, the sun had fully set, and Reykjavik behind me was hundreds of tiny lights pressed against a mountainside, looking like a dream of the North Pole.
In the days that followed, I stood on cliff sides and beaches of black sand. I heard the roar of Gulfoss and the prismatic rise and fall of Geysir. I sipped water off the face of a glacier and snorkeled in a frigid grotto.
“You’re here by yourself?” asked one of the tour guides. He was young and blonde. He said he had learned to speak English from watching Pulp Fiction.
“Yes,” I said coyly. The constant wind kept my cheeks speckled red, hiding my blush.
“Oh,” he said, surprised. “That’s too bad.” He wasn’t interested, he pitied me. I wasn’t among the omnipresent couples in matching North Face jackets, one of them posing before a miracle of nature while the other snapped an over-complicated DSLR. At the rest stops, while they warmed each other’s ears, I licked butter straight from the packet.
By the end of the week, I was certain I was spiraling into delirium. The solitude, even in the company of others, was so overwhelming I felt I reeked of it. I was becoming more and more like the narrator of Norwegian Wood, alone, fixated. Spending my nights sitting in bookstores or cafes, reading, unbothered. Walking down empty streets eating ice cream sprinkled with black licorice. By the time I fell into my twin bunk, I was too exhausted to think and fell, almost immediately, into a dreamless sleep. On group outings, I felt alien. I would sit in the back of the bus and remain invisible, the only dialogue being between me and the mountains roaring up outside my window.
In the milky water of the Blue Lagoon, I lumbered around, my feet bouncing off the creamy bottom of the pool. I aimed to give the appearance that I was looking for someone, that my constant movement was merely a quest that would soon be completed. I watched Americans order $20 cocktails delivered to them poolside and cringed with self-loathing. I gave in to appearing alone.
I am certain I left some other skin in Iceland. The morning of my flight, I packed my backpack hastily, as though time was counting down — not to takeoff, but to who I would become if I continued on, my head buzzing this way. It felt like my heart was turning inside out, cleansing itself with cool glacier water, shedding everything rough and mean. If I stayed any longer, the ritual might complete itself and then I could never leave.
I checked out of the hostel and left my copy of Norwegian Wood on the sticker-covered bookshelf that said “Library.” I thought it might be of use to someone else who had ended up in this place because their mind was tangled in knots and their stomach was sick with love.
But I wasn’t anymore. I was cured, all right.