Raymond and Julia arrive from Los Angeles to Reykjavik on a Monday. By Friday, because they've perfected the art of traveling on a budget, they've figured out how to save money in an expensive country.
"If we buy the sandwiches at the petrol stations and fill our bottles with water from the loo faucets, then we can save at least $50 a day on meals," Raymond says.
He had just returned from a three-week business trip to London. He couldn't stop using British words. petrol, loo, bollocks. And even though the trip had been a successful one for their bank accounts and his career, Julia noticed that with each passing year, his obsession with frugality grew. When she told Raymond she wanted a lopi sweater, he saw the price tag (over $300) and he just laughed and gave her a look.
"Julia, really? We are here to enjoy the experience of this place, not to be American consumers."
"I was just kidding," she said. Though she hadn't been. She'd failed to anticipate how cold the wind was, how dreary the rain could be. But she didn't complain. She'd traveled enough to know that any voyage anywhere was often uncomfortable.
As they drove along the highway, Raymond suggested that they could save the toll on the tunnel on their way to the Gullfoss waterfall by driving around the fjord. He pulled the map out of his backpack from the back seat, swerving a little.
"Here," he said handing it over. "Look at it."
She put her camera down—she'd been gazing through the viewfinder out the window—and now looked at the map. She noticed that the road around the tunnel was long. The tunnel itself might have been three miles long or thereabouts. She studied the map. If they went around the fjord, it would likely take hours because it veered them off the well-tended road onto a lesser road, though their destination was clearly marked on the map. "Gullfoss" it read.
"We could save money," she said. "But what about time? This could be hours. And the tunnel might take, at most, five minutes. It's only, what…seven dollars?" She did a quick calculation from Krona to dollars. She was the one with the math.
He shrugged and gave her his adventure smile. "We came to see the countryside. To get a taste of the local flava," he said.
"Raymond, can't you just say 'flavor'?"
He laughed. They'd been together 17 years and sometimes there was tedium. But they were good together, good companions. They gave each other "room to breathe" and the sex was still reliably pleasant. He'd been, from the start, a kind and gentle lover and for the first time in her life, she didn't feel the need to fake it just to get things over with. Yes, she'd wanted children, but he didn't, and when the urge finally left her at the end of her 30s, she was mostly glad she'd given in to his one "non-negotiable".
In exchange, he paid for everything and took good care of some of the small but significant errands around the house, even going so far as to clean out the gutters every fall and replacing the filter—which wasn't easy—on the tap. He never lied to her—not that she could tell. He told her that she could develop her skills as a photographer, and he said she should only seek out a job if she wanted to. He generally liked to cook and make her coffee in the morning. He loved so many of the things she loved; sitting with a good book and a hot coffee, a hearty breakfast on cold days, long, contemplative walks. But there were days like this when every little thing he did got on her nerves.
"What do you think?" he said, looking over at her. Beyond him a swath of green, and hay barrels wrapped in white.
"I dunno," she said. "I'm thinking about time."
"You're in too much of a hurry. For someone who doesn't work, you sure are always rushing."
"Raymond, my photography makes money. I don't know why you always have to say that."
"Well, it's not real work."
"Okay," she said. She decided not to pursue this same line of conversation they'd had over the last many years. He liked to make his little digs sometimes and she gave him a break—it seemed to occur when he was feeling insecure.
She studied the map. It was very detailed, but as she looked, something troubled her. Gullfoss. It just didn't seem like it was in the right place. But she hadn't reviewed the maps the way he had before they left. He was the one who did the planning, she was the one who approved it. And he did have an uncanny sense of direction. Outside, the bright sunny day—their first—was punctuated by gusty winds. She shivered and thought that maybe there would a local craft store along the way where she could purchase one of those beautiful, warm sweaters for less money.
"Let's do it," she said.
"Here's to saving 1500 ISK."
"Yay," she said but a strange feeling of exhaustion fell over her. Lately she'd experienced her life as plodding and monotonous. It was a lot like walking into the wind. She thought it had to do with nearing forty, perimenopause maybe. The sameness that came with every day, the feelings of irritation and sadness. The grim political horizon, the tyranny of the minority. Nothing seemed to end. She thought of her mother often and missed her more now than when she'd died three years before. Not long before they left for their trip, she tried to explain to Raymond the sense of dread and sadness she'd been feeling.
He nodded and he said he understood. "I've got a case of it, too," he said which made Julia feel even worse.
They began the drive. The roads were nicely paved. No shoulder to speak of. Some of those curvy downhill sections had no barriers so she held on, believing, really believing, that at any moment they would fly over the hill and into the water.
"You okay?" he asked.
Julia knew that look, concern plus irritability.
She smiled. Nodded. "Just feeling a little tippy."
"When we get there, let's go to that natural hot bath and drink a few glasses of champagne and get tippy for real. Maybe we can splurge on a nicer hotel. Would you like that?"
"I would," she said. She liked that idea very much. For the first time since they'd left L.A. she began to let her guard down, to relax. The day was beautiful and though she did notice some black, looming clouds on the horizon, she decided to pretend they weren't there. She had heard that the weather changed rapidly sometimes in Iceland. If it changed for the worse, she reasoned, it would change back. Right now, she was loving the feel of the sun warming her through the glass of the car, making her sleepy.
They spoke little during the drive and after about an hour, Raymond said, "Check the map, wouldya? I think the turn is coming up."
"Another...let's see...maybe 10 miles."
"Oh wow. That seems odd," he said. "Is the turn going south and west?"
"Well," she said, studying it. "Which way is north? This map doesn't have the thingy..."
"A compass rose?" he said.
"It's the symbol on a map that shows the cardinal directions."
"That thing that looks like a shaded cross?"
"Exactly," he said.
"There isn't one on this map."
She could tell by his tone that she was about to get a lesson. Sometimes she didn't mind it. Raymond had sailed halfway around the world before they met, and the experience had been seminal for him. Once he told her that since then nothing else had ever measured up. She would tease him about her being the runner-up. But after years of it, she stopped saying anything.
Now he said, "On a map you've got your cardinal directions. These are just the four directions, north, east, west and south. And then, the ordinal directions are the ones that are equally between each cardinal direction. Like northeast, southwest, etcetera."
The words took her back to a classroom, childhood, learning. The smell of chalk, the squeak of blackboards.
A long silence passed between them and then he said, again, "So when we make the turn, which way is the road heading?"
She studied the map. A pain, sharp and pointed, kept jabbing her in the ribs. She had no idea which way they would be heading once they made the turn. She could calculate things—her head for math impressed even Raymond. But without a compass rose pointing north, she was lost. So, she said, "I am going to say southwest."
"Are you sure?"
She looked at the map again and thought, no, not really. But she said, "Yes, I'm sure, Raymond."
She leaned back and drank the last of her water, but it didn't worry her. She figured they'd find a gas station on the way where she could fill up. She'd been so thirsty the past few days. And they were going to Gullfoss so there'd be a gas station, a market, those same sandwiches. She knew there was a fancy hotel there too. She wasn't sure if Gullfoss was the biggest waterfall in the country, or whether it was bigger than Niagara Falls or on a list of the largest falls in the world. Raymond would know, but she didn't want to ask him. She hadn't read much about it, or the other places they were going to visit. Raymond did most of the reading and mapping for their trips. With the sun out, she enjoyed the sights and at the same time felt a little anxious, wanting to go home.
Finally, they made their turn. It was off the main highway on what looked like a moderately maintained and traveled road. There was no gas station or store in sight. Sometimes, she noticed, a single pump would be at the sides of the road, and you could use your credit card with a pin number to get gas and yet there would be no one around for miles. She thought that was cool. It evoked in her a sense of independence and know-how. Yet as she looked around she saw nothing like that. Just the long black road dividing hills, steam rising up from the thermal waters, clouds growing darker and thicker.
"Do you think the waterfall place is even open?" she asked.
"Yeah why? How could they close a waterfall anyway?"
"Well, look. There's hardly any traffic. Where are all the tourists?"
"If you had read the book before we left," Raymond said, staring straight ahead, "Then you would know that most of the tourists have gone home. It's shoulder season."
"Shoulder season. The place between summer and winter. So, the summer people have left, and the winter people haven't arrived yet."
"Oh, so like a tourist ordinal season."
"Ha ha, very clever."
"It does still look a little deserted for being the road..."
"Secondary road..." he corrected.
"...to one of the biggest tourist destinations in this country."
"Don't worry so much," he said gently. "We will be okay."
She nodded quietly. The road was totally empty, and to make matters worse, the rain had just begun. She'd been watching the temperature readout on the dashboard, and it had fallen to 2 degrees Celsius. The tall, brown grasses that surrounded the sheep farms blew fiercely. It looked anything but hospitable. Why couldn't they go to Hawaii or the Bahamas, rent a house and sit on the beach? Just for a change. Why was it always adventure or "off the beaten track".
They didn't speak, long silences being a hallmark of their marriage, and something she'd grown accustomed to. She recalled how good it felt to be able to sit in silence with someone you loved and when she told her mom about that, her mom had cried. Before her death, Julia's mom had begun to cry at the slightest things, which had marked a huge change in her personality. Julia thought about her mom, and remembered a dream she'd had the night before, where her mom, her dad and her brother had all come back to life and wanted her to join them for a luncheon. But she had to be somewhere, and she walked away from them. She woke feeling terrible, but also amused by the sometimes-pointed symbolism of dreams. After about half an hour, the sky had grown completely dark, and the temperature had fallen to a bit below freezing. The clouds looked magnetic; strange, glowing. It began to lightly snow.
Without warning, they arrived at a crossroads.
"Which way," he said.
"I'm not sure."
"Give it to me," he said.
She handed him the map. She could tell he was irritated with her. She remembered the way her mother had seemed so sad that there would be no grandchildren. But the brave face, because she was a mother. She had said, "I just want you to be happy." One thing her mother always wanted was for Julia to be happy. To "spread your wings" she'd said.
Sometimes she gently teased Julia about her shyness and urged her to find freedom from social constraints. Julia wondered if she'd ever be outgoing, if she'd ever master her reserve. Her mother had not liked Raymond, not that she ever said so. No one would ever be able to tell that she didn't care for him, except Julia. She missed her mom now and tried not to think of her too much or of the long road that Alzheimer's forced her to walk. She tried to forget that she was relieved when her mother finally died. When her ordeal was over. It seemed only now was she grieving.
"We go right," he said.
"But the road. It runs out. It's not paved."
"Do you see this here, on the map?" he pointed under the dash light. His fingers tapped the map. Tap, tap, tap.
"Look, Raymond. Let's not argue, okay? I am just pointing out that I doubt a road to one of Iceland's most popular tourist spots would be unpaved."
"Ah yes," he said. "Brilliant deduction. But as you will note, we are coming in the back way. We went around the fjord, not through it. So, we will very likely meet up with the paved road again over there, where it says, 'Gullfoss'."
Tap tap tap.
"You're right," she said. She sighed. But the cold outside, the snow. The dirt road. It worried her.
"Cheer up, love. We will go see the waterfall, then let's go find a place to soak and drink champagne and make love all night."
"That does sound nice."
"So shall we?"
"I guess so."
"Be sure now. We can still back out."
He frequently did this, put it on her so that later, if it didn't work out, he could take himself out of the equation, blame her. At the same time, she knew that if she said she didn't want to go or voiced her fear that they probably shouldn't be on a dirt road as night was falling and the temperature was dropping (precipitously, she noticed) then he would never let her forget it. He would say, years from now, something like, "Remember that time in Iceland how you squashed our sense of adventure?"
"Well, do you feel confident?" she asked him.
"As the falcon's flight."
She looked at him and they both started laughing. He could be so goofy, so weird sometimes.
"Okay," she said, caught up in the moment. "Let's go."
They kissed and laughed some more. The moment charmed her and she relaxed for a breath or two. But the road was very dark and even with the brights on, they could barely see. Soon the road became rougher as it rose above the fjord. The snow began to fall wildly. The cliff was sharp, so high that Julia was gripped by fear. She checked her phone and the cell service had dropped completely. Her body froze. A warm feeling swept through her, and yet every nerve felt cold and electrical. They'd made a terrible mistake. All of a sudden, she knew that they were not on the right road, that they had blundered.
"I think we should turn back," she said.
"Are you nuts? Look, I think it's over there. We've gone more than halfway so it would take longer to turn back and go from the main road, than to get to Gullfoss from here. I say we sally on."
"Raymond, I'm scared."
He stopped the car. They had reached the summit of a huge hill that hugged the rugged mountainside and she felt like she was barely clinging to life. Like the wind, howling now, would easily push them over the edge and into the black water below.
"What are you afraid of, love?"
"I have this feeling like we're going to die."
"Well, silly, we are going to die. But not tonight. I promise."
She felt a moment of sheer fury. "How do you know? This is insane what we're doing. I don't know why I trusted you, why I've ever trusted you."
He looked shocked.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I don't mean that."
"I think you do," he said.
The snowed swirled around them.
"I'm just scared," she said softly.
Raymond had insisted on the smallest car available. Rentals were not cheap, and though she knew that Raymond...that they...had the money, he didn't want to spend it on something as expensive as a four-wheel drive.
"We have to move forward," he said. "There is nowhere to turn around. And I honestly do think we are almost there."
Once again he tapped his finger on the map.
She began to cry. Soon the snow was falling so hard, they could barely see the road. If they'd had children, she would probably feel worse. This was always what she thought about when under duress. It calmed her. There was no one to hurt if you didn't have children. Her parents and brother were gone. It was just her and Raymond now. So, if she died, only he would feel it. And Raymond would recover. Easily. She was certain of it. What struck her as odd was that she always had it in her mind that she would die and leave him behind, never the other way around.
He continued driving, moving slowly.
"Raymond," she said.
"Shhh," he said. "Not now."
She had the sickening urge to grab the wheel and turn it toward the sea. Get it over with.
They slipped and slid down the hill and came to a flat valley, but the snow had fallen with some energy and power, and already several inches covered the dirt road so that you couldn't tell where the road ended, and the fields started. Then, as he drove the car, fingers gripping the wheel, Raymond slid, over-corrected and then went off the road, into a snowy ditch.
"This is bollocks," he said.
"Jesus Christ Raymond. Stop with the English words. It's not bollocks, it's fucking stupid and misguided. We made a stupid choice."
"You sanctioned it."
"But see, you can't do that. I didn't sanction it. I was pushed into it."
He looked at her appalled. "Pushed into it? Did I put a gun to your head?"
"You might as well have."
"Are you serious? All I've ever done is for you."
"I'm not blaming you, it's just..."
"I'm scared. There's always so much pressure. You do all these nice things for me, for us, and yet I feel constantly beholden."
"Is this where the conversation about babies comes in? Again."
"What are you talking about?"
"You know what I'm talking about."
"Raymond, that was ten years ago. I'm over it now."
"I never lied to you. I was always straight with you."
"I know," she said. Her throat tightened. "I know. I know. I know."
Raymond started the car and tried to coax it out of the wet snow but to no avail.
He softened his voice, but he pointedly did not touch her. "It's okay. We are going to be okay. We are very close. If I have to I will walk back to the crossroads and get help."
"We are gonna die here," she said.
"Don't be ridiculous."
"Already it's freezing in the car."
"We have enough gas to keep us warm for a few hours. I can keep the car running."
She couldn't believe what she was hearing. At least he hadn't said "petrol."
"Raymond, no one is coming for us. There is no one here. A few hours and then what?"
"Quiet, Julia. Let me think for God's sake."
She fell quiet. The silence was so sharp, so keen that her ears rang.
"Raymond, what are we going to do?"
"Do you know what? I am so sick of having to be the one with the solutions. And it doesn't even matter. You still blame me. Like with your mom's death."
"I didn't blame you for her death. She had Alzheimer's."
"No, you're right. But you took every moment of her illness to harass me for not visiting her. And I paid for all of it; her care, her doctors."
"You paid for it? So it's your money now?"
"Yeah, actually it is."
"Are you serious? You're the one who told me that a job was voluntary."
"I didn't think you'd seriously never work."
"What are you talking about, Raymond? I've fucking won prizes for my photography. I'm a professional photojournalist."
"That's not work."
"So what's work then? Sitting in a high-pressure office, hating life for the ten hours you overwork there. Spending more time with people you hate, than those you love? I work, just like you. I just never signed up for torture."
"You're unbelievable sometimes."
She looked outside. The wind, the blizzarding snow, the darkness and the emptiness.
"We won't survive."
"Well let's just call someone."
She could hear it in his voice. He was scared too.
"We can't," she said. She held up her phone. "No bars."
"We haven't had any service for over an hour now."
"And you were going to tell me that when?"
"What difference would it have made? You wanted to do this, to save a lousy seven fucking dollars."
"That's not fair."
"But it's true."
"I just wanted some adventure."
"No Raymond. You're cheap."
He looked, in the sallow, gloomy darkness, like he wanted to smack her across the face.
She smiled. "Go ahead."
"I don't know what you're talking about," he said.
They fell silent. If they made it out of there, she would leave him. The decision felt absolutely right. She hadn't been the problem. Even Raymond hadn't been the problem. They, together, were the problem. She looked up and Raymond had his flashlight out, he was shining it on a road sign that she hadn't noticed. The sign read, "Gullfoss".
"It's over there. Look."
She looked over her shoulder and in the white sky she saw a glorious waterfall, cascading down. But it was too small, not nearly wide enough. It wasn't the Gullfoss, it was just a Gullfoss. She thought about the map they'd used to get there and how Raymond had somehow pinpointed the wrong Gullfoss. She had to now face the possibility that they would die there in the snow, with no way to get help, no way to get out, very little gas left, not even any water, that they would never see the Gullfoss.
She blamed it on the map. There had been no compass rose on it. There had been no direction to help them out. Not just no cardinal direction, but no ordinal direction either. Nothing. She thought about her mom for a moment, a person who'd always seemed to know what direction to take in life. Yet she had always known to never say a word, never give advice. She used to say, you could never tell anyone the truth, you could never point out the mistakes of others.
"Your life has to be discovered on your own, blunders and all," she said.
Julia just wished that for once in her life, she'd studied the maps before the trip, that she knew more than she needed to know before they'd left, because if she had, maybe they wouldn't be in this predicament.
She looked over at Raymond. He was staring out the window. His expression was one of shock and disappointment. She began to shiver and held herself against the cold. She was so tired, so incredibly tired all the time. She closed her eyes and saw her mother's face, that warm, complicated expression she had. The darkness and the fear slipped away. Raymond drew closer to her. He put his arms around her.
"Someone will come. We will be all right."