A couple years ago, I went to Iceland, and I want to tell you all about it. Wait, where’s everyone going? Listen, this isn’t another travelogue about the waterfalls or the hot dogs or the overpriced, overcrowded Blue Lagoon. It’s not about the church with panoramic views of the city, the Big Lebowski-themed bar, or the penis museum—though, to be fair, I did thoroughly enjoy all of these important landmarks.
Realistically, this story could’ve happened anywhere at any time, but we start in Reykjavik over Thanksgiving in 2015.
I’d reinstalled Tinder before departing for Iceland, but for something much more nefarious than casual sex: I intended to match with local men so I could ask them for suggestions on places to go and things to see, before unmatching the men and visiting those places alone. Part of what I sought was solitude. I planned to spend a single day in Reykjavik before taking my rental car out to the countryside. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have the tiniest fantasy of being whisked off my feet by the brawny descendent of a Viking explorer, or at least making out with a dude named Thor.
I was the first of my close friends to Do It. I hadn’t expected it to play out that way, because the boys at my school had been calling me “pizza face” since puberty. But freshman year I met a new boy, a fellow chorus member in a community theatre production of Little Shop of Horrors, and, well... It. Was. On. We pushed our fully-clothed bodies together everywhere, in that gross, urgent, hormonal way, until one day we couldn’t take it anymore and we lost our virginities in my childhood bedroom while a DVD of the movie-musical Chicago played on my family’s desktop computer in the background.
(We broke up a few months later when he slept with another girl on my softball team. A guy I dated in college is married to that girl’s sister. This is what being from a small town is like: all situations inextricably linked.)
Shortly afterwards, a boy I’d had a crush on since junior high asked if he could come over when my parents weren’t home. Naively, I thought his improved opinion of me had to be related to my Retin-A prescription or my new haircut or maybe a little bit of the weight I lost after I made the junior varsity softball team. But the moment I shut and locked the front door behind us, he tried to shove his tongue down my throat and his hand down my pants.
“I heard you like this,” he told me. “I’ve never done it before but I can try.”
Nothing on his 15-year-old face registered anything close to shame. I didn’t ask him where he heard it. I just knew I needed him out of my house.
“Actually, I’m not feeling very well,” I told him as I sent him on his way with a promise to call.
I felt, not for the first time, that all the facets of myself might be incompatible with one another. Because I did get excited when his hand reached for my pants, but I also wanted boys to care about my thoughts, my feelings, my dreams. I was smart and funny and wrote poetry and cared about animals, and also I really liked sex. Could all of these things live inside the same person, or would I have to give something up to become the person I wanted to be? It seemed as though there were two paths to womanhood stretched out before me. If I took one, I could be an interesting, well-rounded person. Down the other path, I could be a sex-haver.
Here’s the thing about Iceland in November: there’s five hours of daylight. If you’re thinking, “Oh, hmm, that’s a very handy thing to have researched,” you’d be right! But I discovered this the hard way, when I woke up in darkness at 9 a.m. and didn’t see the sun for another two hours.
When the sun started setting and I’d already visited everything I wanted to see in Reykjavik, I started to get antsy. I had the rest of my evenings planned, but unwisely assumed there would be better suggestions to fill up my first night, as though relying on Tinder Dudes has ever been a good idea.
And so that’s how I ended up on a date with Seth, another American tourist who suggested meeting at Mikkeller & Friends, which was walking distance from both of us. Though one of my friends would later chide me, “You would go to a foreign country just to hang out with a dude from Texas,” let it be known that the locals kept suggesting we meet at an American-themed sports bar. American dude or a place literally named American Bar: pick your poison.
From our brief chat, I already knew the basics. Seth was a sommelier, a cicerone, an East-coast native wandering aimlessly abroad and delaying his return to the States. I also knew that meeting a certified beer nerd for a drink at a craft beer bar had the potential to be agonizing. I like drinking a good beer, but nothing sends my mind on a vacation quicker than a dude waxing poetic about hops. So you can imagine my relief when he grabbed the first round of drinks without comment on my selection, a Danish Saison.
We stayed at the bar for the rest of the evening, nursing our beers (two for me, three for him) and laughing at the corner table. I was having fun and, after five hours, I realized I was attracted to him. It was something intangible; his presence made me feel relaxed and warm. I didn’t have to size him up, pick apart his flaws, question if he’d make a good boyfriend. None of that mattered.
And then suddenly, the bar was closing and we were back on the dark street, trudging three and a half blocks through the snow toward my hotel. At the corner of Laugavegur, we said our goodbyes. “I had a lovely time,” Seth said into my scarf as we embraced underneath the streetlight. “I hope you have enough time to visit the Westfjords.” Then, just as he turned to walk back toward his hostel, I grabbed his gloved hand in mine and invited him in.
By third grade, the other kids had started to notice how easily academic achievement came to me, and they resented me for it. So I started screwing up on purpose. Not enough to impact my grades, of course—just enough that they’d stop ignoring me on the playground. It worked pretty well until the day I overplayed my hand while reading out loud in class. The word was “Sioux.” I hesitated, weighed my options, and pronounced it “sigh-UCKS”. When class ended, the teacher asked me to stay behind.
“I’m going to tell you something very important,” she said to me, her voice shaking. She’d crouched down so that her eyes were level with mine. “Don’t ever pretend to know less than you actually do.” She stared at me, unblinking. “Promise me, okay?” I said I promised, she hugged me, and I was on my way.
I thought of that moment in the principal’s office two years later, and what bad advice it had been. My English teacher had misspelled “canoe” on the chalkboard in front of the class. I figured he’d want to know, so I raised my hand and told him. This was in the dark ages, pre-smartphone, and he was reluctant to dig out the monstrous classroom dictionary to resolve the argument. But when he finally discovered I was right, he kicked me out of class for causing a disturbance.
Since then, I’ve often weighed the lessons of these English teachers. Because what my third grade teacher forgot to mention is that it wouldn’t always be easy to follow through on my promise to her. I wouldn’t always be rewarded for revealing the true depths of my knowledge.
The night manager at the hotel stopped us on our way up the stairs to my second floor room to enforce a policy nobody had mentioned at check-in: no overnight guests. I’m not sure what made him stop us, how he guessed we weren’t staying at the hotel together. Perhaps it was our giddiness, something in the air between us. Could he tell we were retreating upstairs to finally remove a few layers of clothing and press our long-johned bodies together? Did the sexual tension in the air offend him?
“Oh really?” I replied with a friendly smile. “That wasn’t on the list of policies I signed at check-in earlier.” The night manager did not smile back. “It’s very common policy,” he told me. “Most hotels in your country have one just like it.”
Perhaps he was genuinely mistaken, or maybe he just looked at me and assumed I hadn’t stayed in very many American hotels. But while I’ve seen a lot (a dog wandering the halls alone in Denver, a marriage proposal in Kansas City, a naked man in an elevator in Hollywood), I’ve never had anyone stop me from taking a dude back to my room.
“We could just stay down here and chat,” Seth suggested from behind me, gesturing to the couches in the lobby, but the hotel manager shook his head. “You’ll disturb the guests staying on the second floor,” he replied.
Then the manager leaned across the counter and motioned for me to come closer. Conspiratorially, he whispered: “I’m trying to help you.”
“Excuse me?” I said, half to the night manager and half involuntarily, to the universe.
“You don’t want to do this,” he replied.
I’ve flown from Ohio to the West Coast more than a dozen times in the past five years, mostly during my four-year stint in corporate marketing. On one of these trips, I got stuck in a window seat next to two chatty middle-aged men in matching Ohio State shirts. I’ve found from experience that many Midwesterners don’t understand headphones as the universal signal for “Please do not speak to me,” and so I found myself stuck in some small talk.
When I told the men I was headed to California on business, they laughed at me. I recognized the response immediately—it was the same kind of laugh my mother employed when I’d whip out my plastic stethoscope as a child and play Barbie doctor. My claim that I was on a business trip, to them, was cute. Precocious.
“Have a good time, honey,” said the man in the aisle seat. They immediately lost interest and turned back to their own conversation.
The night manager was wrong, of course—I did want to do this. I wanted to go upstairs and, at the very least, put my face on Seth’s face and kiss him until we both fell asleep. The only thing standing in my way was this stranger, a man who had deemed himself the protector of my virtue.
I wondered what the hotel manager saw when he looked at me. He was old enough to be my father, and perhaps that was the problem. Did he see me as an adult and an equal, empowered to make my own decisions and mistakes? Or did he, like so many other men, need to pigeonhole me into a familial role to relate to me? Imagine if this were your wife, your daughter, the familiar rhetoric goes.
Imagine if I were a complex human being with thoughts and feelings you’ll never understand, I wanted to scream, imagine if I were your equal.
“You don’t know anything about me,” I told the night manager, coldly. “My guest and I are going up to my room now.”
“If I get any noise complaints, you will no longer be welcome at this establishment!” the manager called up the stairs behind us.
Up on the second floor, Seth and I collapsed in near-silent giggles as I gently shut and locked the door behind us. “Where did you learn to do that?” he asked, as he took off his gloves and began to unlace one of my boots. I wasn’t sure how to explain to him what he had seen.
“I don’t...I’m not...I’m sorry that happened,” I told him, my face burning red in the dark. He’d taken off both of my boots and had moved on to his own now. “You have nothing to be sorry for,” he said. “It was amazing.”
As we climbed into my twin bed, he pressed his face right up against mine. “We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. I’m just happy to be here.” I thought of all the times I felt like I had to choose: strong or sexy, smart or hot, funny or fuckable. For once, it seemed like I could be all those things in tandem. I kissed him hard, as the light outside my window illuminated the falling snow.