Birds fly not into our mouths ready roasted.
An aisle between us, Todd reaches across it to hold my hand as the plane jostles us like eggs in a cart with one bad wheel. I close my eyes and press my head, hard, against the back of the seat, willing this to stop. “What was your first dog like?” he asks, rubbing his thumb in little circles on the surface of my hand.
“Quiet,” I answer.
I am afraid of flying, in part, because I don’t understand it. My younger sister, Amy, explained it to me once, something about thrust, the wind kicking and knowing what to do, but I can’t help feeling there is magic involved. If we can propel a jet through the air, when will we do the same with a sperm whale? I keep a grip on Todd’s hand, knowing everything will be fine because it always is. This argument with the sky will resolve itself and eventually we will come to land on the tarmac as smoothly as a dish being placed in the center of a dinner table.
But for now our 737 continues to shiver high above the North Atlantic. We are flying home from Iceland, an island that is splitting down the middle, literally tearing itself apart as the two continental plates that compose it drift their separate ways.
I was that girl who said I’m never getting married. I was bridesmaid after bridesmaid, helping my friends slip into their white dresses and out of their last names, never able to see myself doing the same. It felt like something other people did, like mailing graduation announcements and posing for senior pictures. I distanced myself from the institution of marriage not because of feminism but because I couldn’t see myself taking part in something so normal, so cherished. I didn’t know how to get married.
At times, however, I longed to be the kind of woman who could plan a wedding. Someone who could call through a list of caterers and compare prices. I tried to picture myself slinging a Coach purse over my shoulder, driving to Macy’s to buy tea candles, but I grew up in a family of minimalism, utility. If it wasn’t a necessity, we didn’t have it. I didn’t use conditioner in my hair until junior high, and I still can’t bring myself to buy napkins.
“You better be careful,” my mother said to me over the phone after I had been engaged to Todd for two weeks. “You’re going to end up in a white dress, walking down an aisle.”
I shook my head, pursed my lips, like this was a bad thing. “I know,” I said. “I know.”
My mother has one pair of earrings. She doesn’t wear make-up and I cut her hair, whenever she summons me, while she sits upright in one of her kitchen chairs. I don’t know if she owns a dress. Two of her daughters are married and she didn’t go to either wedding. My older sister, Carrie, got married by an Elvis impersonator in Vegas. Todd and I made a date at a courthouse when he had a day off and were wed by a judge whose name I don’t remember. Our ceremony started late because the maintenance workers insisted on taking out the ladders they were using to remodel the courtroom. I told them I didn’t care, but they did it anyway. “You two look nice,” one of them said. Even this felt like too much of a spectacle for me, but it was as minimal as I could legally go. I longed for a number to call, a site to visit, an app to download: Make Me Married.
My mom didn’t come to Carrie’s wedding because it was early February, lambing season on the farm, a time when she barely sleeps, eats McDonald’s standing at the sink. She didn’t come to mine because I didn’t invite her, but I didn’t invite anyone except two friends, as required by the law, to be witnesses. I wore an old sundress from Target. We paid 51 dollars for the certificate and went out afterwards for Bloody Marys and oysters. When we kissed, Todd placed one of his hands on my ass like he was palming a basketball.
But in the weeks leading up to our wedding, I was torn trying to please Kathy, Todd’s mother, a normal, kindhearted woman, who owns multiple pairs of dress shoes, a working cell phone, likes Sally Field and The Phantom of the Opera. Todd was her first child to marry, and she wanted to be a part of it, but I let her down, along with the bulk of my friends and my sisters. I couldn’t walk down an aisle, couldn’t imagine Todd’s family on one side, staring at me, and mine on the other. Whenever I thought that maybe I could, maybe I could send invitations, force myself to do so for my family and friends, choose a handful of bridesmaids, I just ended up staring at my hands, not knowing where the beginning was.
I cried our first night in Reykjavik.
“I feel unrooted,” I whispered to Todd as he held me in our tiny hotel room, an earthly trace of sulphur in the air.
Iceland’s landscape is a terrifying beauty. Flying low above it as our plane descended into Keflavik International Airport, the sun setting on the Arctic at 4:15 in the afternoon, we gazed at the barren land, black with volcanic rock and ash, plumes of steam rising through its cracks. The Polish teenager in the aisle seat leaned across us and clicked pictures with an iPhone.
Todd and I had just finished a year teaching English in South Korea and were traveling before returning home to the States. Before Iceland, we spent a week in Berlin. Iceland being a quick decision randomly made when we found out how cheap the flights were, we just looked at each other and smiled in our studio apartment in Seoul.
“Want to go?” I asked, cross-legged in front of my Mac.
“Let’s do it,” Todd said, and I entered my credit card number.
Normally I am mesmerized by unfamiliar if slightly unwelcoming terrain, and borderline repulsed by the tropics. My hair being the color of a blood orange, I’ve had one too many brushes with skin cancer, so I like autumn, and love when it seeps into winter. I would rather cross Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Railway than wilt on a beach in Thailand or Hawaii. I might have the opposite of Seasonal Affective Disorder as I often get excited when I wake up to rain. Sunshine makes me uneasy, in addition to scaring me into drenching my body with sunscreen when I run out for the mail. I put pressure on myself to be happy and enjoy warm weather, end up spouting trite bursts of climate-related dialogue: I am so glad to be done with winter! Can’t get enough of this sun! It feels like a performance, and my jaw starts to ache from smiling. During the summer months Todd often has to pull me from a chair in the corner of a cool, dark basement where I am prone to coil and hibernate.
But there was something about Iceland, something even more unnerving than four hours of daylight and the way its own land seemed to roast and smoke, like an empty cast iron skillet someone forgot on the stovetop. We were closer to America than we had been in a year, would be there in six days, but I had never felt more alone.
Kathy insisted on throwing me a bridal shower, even though I said I didn’t want one. She must have thought I was just trying to be nice because there was no way I could convince her. I begged Todd to put a stop to it, but he told me to calm down. What sort of bride doesn’t want a shower? “It’ll just be my mom and grandma eating cookies on the porch,” he said.
When I told my mom about it, she asked, “Do I have to come?”
I wore jeans and a tank top I bought at a garage sale for a quarter. When I walked in, Todd’s entire extended family was there, smiling at me. I tried to take comfort in the fact that this was a joint shower—my future sister-in-law, Misty, being celebrated as well.
A pile of gifts sat on the floor. It grew, steadily, like Everest, as people added to it, and I watched with my own growing horror, noting the chairs placed strategically behind the mountain. One of those chairs was for me to sit in and unwrap my gifts.
Todd was only across the room, but I couldn’t get to him. People were splintering into factions, a sure sign that we were going to open gifts soon. Every time I tried to cross the divide someone grabbed me and pulled me back, whispered in my ear how lucky of a girl I was. I needed to be next to him, hold his hand, have him remind me that I could do this, calm down, accept my juice glasses and steak knives. I knew he didn’t want to stay there, that he felt uncomfortable, especially being the only man, but I had given him no choice.
“I’ll feel uncomfortable, too,” I had said in the car. “I don’t know how to do these things.”
“You’re a girl,” he argued, as if that meant something. As if my genitalia rev up when I attend bridal showers, guiding me when I need it most. One of my fallopian tubes punches and breaks a small glass case hidden in my gut, setting free a special hormone. My nails paint themselves and I hug people willy-nilly. My sports bra transforms into one with lace and hinges while innocuous chit-chat pours out of me, like blood from your knee when you knick it with a razor. Once, when my youngest sister, Rachel, and my mom went shopping, Rachel stopped to admire a trench coat, classic and beige. “You wear a scarf with that,” our mother said. “That’s all I know.”
Kathy must have seen the fear in my eyes because she hefted another chair over the mountain so Todd could sit beside me. I wonder if she knew then how lovely of a mistake she had made, inviting me into her home, throwing me a shower like I was a good, wholesome woman, the kind who remembered when her period started and knew how to use furniture polish. There was so much food, I remember. That thick, proper Midwestern food that people I barely knew had taken time to prepare: cheeses, meatballs, layered salads. Kathy turned into my Sherpa and guided me to the chair. “I hope this is okay,” she whispered. I must have looked like a wild animal, flinching at pricks of sedation. I perched on my seat like I’d forgotten how to sit.
“I have to go the bathroom,” I said to no one in particular.
I got up and didn’t come back, hoped Todd would still love me. “This is why I love you,” he said when he found me sitting in our car in the driveway. I felt the worst for Kathy. She only wanted me to feel welcome, and I ruined it. I couldn’t just pose and hold up my bounty. A year later, when I find out I have skin cancer, Kathy will provide me with some of my greatest comfort, almost more than Todd. She will print out the Wikipedia page for melanoma before we go see the oncologist, an effort I will see as largely pointless, yet full of love.
It wasn’t until Iceland that we realized how drawn we are to places defined by division. Todd and I lived in South Korea—possibly one of the most divided areas in the world—for a year. And Berlin, though whole now, still lets you see how the city once was split. It’s in the architecture and the air; it’s not a secret. One of Berlin’s great charms is the way they make their history clear: this was east, this was west. They deal with it, they run with it. They make art in it and around it. On the Korean peninsula, however, the only glimpse I got of the North was through a pair of binoculars when I stood at the Demilitarized Zone with all the other curious expats. I couldn’t believe how bare it was, the lifeless hills. If you want to take pictures, you must stand behind a yellow line. Guards are everywhere, watching what you do.
Iceland’s story of divide is about geology. At once subtle and dramatic, the tectonic plates pull away from each other at a rate of about one inch a year. You would never sense, staring out at the country’s still glaciers, all of the tension straining right beneath them. The guidebooks claim that in certain places the Continental Divide is so slight you can straddle it, thus standing in North America and Europe at the same time. This isn’t true, but the idea was enough to make me and Todd feel romantic about who we are and where we come from as we traveled in the Land of Fire and Ice.
Todd and I both come from small Ohio towns, but we have very different backgrounds. Every morning I wake up already worried about money. At 31, I am planning our retirement. Sometimes I feel like a glacier of boredom, slowly covering up Todd’s joy, cringing when he plays video games or listens to music too loudly. I asked him to marry me because I wanted us to join the Peace Corps together. I also loved him so much sometimes I missed him when he went to work. We had been dating for less than a year, and most of that year had been long distance, but I didn’t care. He was nice to me.
I say that like I had been through a string of heartbreaking relationships, but in truth I had barely been through any, heartbreaking or not. Again, relationships seemed like something other people had. How did they work? I understood them as well as I did the aerodynamics of flight.
Todd was the only person who didn’t think I was weird. I know now that I didn’t want to join the Peace Corps and was just using it as a way to enter marriage. I had protected myself for years from tradition because it scared me with all of its unfamiliarity, even though it was all I ever wanted. I said I’m never getting married because I thought it was true. I formed my own rifts in the relationships I had, even when everything was fine. I turned minor fights into explosions, letting the ashes of my mood hover in the air between us for weeks, just to save me from unity, becoming one small mass of ourselves.
Iceland was on to me, right from the beginning. It knew how long I took to tell people I was engaged, that I told my parents in a text message, and only after Todd pleaded with me. Please tell them, he said. You have to start somewhere. It knew I bought the cheapest ring possible, and that I only got one because I wanted to do one thing that was traditional. I do like what a ring represents, however. The shape of it, that is. It connects, whole and smooth, no ending or beginning. No divide. Mine being so small I lose it constantly, Carrie laughed the first time she saw it, resting on my bedside table. “What is that?” she asked. “A keyring?”
It was as though I had been building up to this point, South Korea to Germany to Iceland, and by the time we got to that milk-white tundra, I was on fire, mad at the world’s politics and the land for trying to rip me from Todd. When we opened the door to our hotel room, there were two twin beds, and not one queen, like I had requested. Todd shrugged it off. “We’ll manage,” he said, weary from the flight, and dropped our bags on the ground, but I demanded a room change. I couldn’t imagine the night with him on the other side of the room. Don’t leave me.
I still don’t know why I couldn’t attend my own bridal shower. Todd persuaded me to leave the car, not listening when I asked if he would bring me my keys. I wanted to drive to the nearest Starbucks, thirty miles away, but we compromised and agreed I would lie on the bed in his childhood room. His walls, the same as when he was in middle school, still hold magazine clippings of basketball stars he worshipped, like Pistol Pete, Jalen Rose, Kerry Kittles. What I love about Todd is his focus, how he works so precisely, pays attention to the finest detail. I could see it in the way he snipped the players from the pages. It must have taken him hours, but there wasn’t one stray cut. I thought about him sitting cross-legged on his carpet, surrounded by copies of Sports Illustrated, tape and scissors. His fear of imprecision makes him so much better at things I’m supposed to be good at, like the Just Dance series of games for Wii. He says I can’t do simple things, which sounds mean, but it isn’t. It’s true. I always think It can’t be this easy, which is how I broke Kathy’s coffeemaker, a Bunn, which requires little to no thought.
I could apply this same thinking to my bridal shower. Why did I complicate it? I had done nothing to help nor prepare, unless you count actively resisting. I didn’t even make a registry, so people just had to guess what to buy me. All I had to do was sit down and intermittently coo.
I don’t think that’s the whole story, though. There are many things I can’t do that don’t cause me to have a panic attack.
I took a class in existential philosophy once, but all I remember is Kierkegaard’s Leap of Faith. I knew I needed to do it, make that leap, bound over the mountain’s ridge and into Todd’s family. It would have been so easy. My in-laws are gracious. They go to Rotary meetings. They send me cards, filled with cash, and buy cakes when I experience milestones. Sometimes I think they love me more than my own parents. I speak to Todd’s grandmother more than mine. And yet, when the time came, I startled, like a bird in a tree when a gun goes off. If I had grabbed my keys before I ran out the door, would I have come back?
I have never said the word divorce to Todd, but I have thought about it. To be fair, I have also thought about seeing how much topsoil I could eat from my garden and what I would use to poison my family. This doesn’t mean I would actually do any of those things—I just don’t lock down my mind when it starts to roam.
When Todd and I had been together for a year, he told me if I broke up with him he would stalk me. When I stared at him after he said that, he put his hands in the air. “I’m just kidding,” he said, and relief washed over me. I knew that was what abusive spouses said to instill guilt in their beloved, hoping to keep them around, but then he continued, “I would just kill myself.”
We laugh about it now. Hahaha! The first time he tried to kiss me, I pulled away. We were in an elevator, so I couldn’t go far. “Maybe we should wait,” I said. Two hours later, he told me he loved me.
One reason Iceland exists is because of a process called rifting. The Mid Atlantic Ridge, which cuts through the island like a warping spine, keeps the landmass together, but also apart. Magma bursts up through the valleys, hardens, and makes new crusts. At the same time, the plates of the earth’s crust slide over and around one another, stressing each other out, causing tension, earthquakes, quivering disagreements that end as quickly as they begin.
Something inside of me is different, now that I am married, hinged to him for the rest of my life. When I fret about mutual funds, stock portfolios, or something else I don’t understand, I just look at him. “It’s going to be fine,” he says, and my fear floats off without me ever saying anything. When I imagine one of us dying, I shake my head. No. That’s never going to happen, I think. Instead, we will just start over. We will all start over. One day, we will do this again, but everything will have shifted, just a little. Maybe we’ll live in a different city and Todd will be an actuary. Our hair will be another color. We’ll have quirky yet harmless medical conditions, like alopecia or hammertoes. This time around, we’ll walk on the beach together, and I won’t be afraid.