Fall 2004

I left my heart in Skaftafell

Victor LaValle

Victor La Valle is the author of the short story collection “Slapboxing with Jesus” (1999), winner of the PEN Open Book Award, and the novel “The Ecstatic” (2002), a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He teaches writing at Mills College.

He was meek, homicidal, wore a long scarf tied once around his neck as must have been the style for trolls that year. I never saw him board the bus, but it may have been in Varmahlid, though I can’t be sure since I slept so much in Iceland.

I was there at summer’s end, meaning August. Most folks in their twenties had already scamped cross-country in July so I found myself with the elderly wanderers. On trails I passed couples catching breath and rubbing each other’s knees through waterproof pants. The Germans regarded me with tacky detachment, snubbing me while wearing bright red boots and brighter orange parkas. I tried not to feel hurt by their disdain, told myself it was like being expelled from clown college, but you can guess how much it really bothered me.

Also, I had the amazing misfortune of sitting behind French people on every plane and bus. Minutes into a ride a pair, woman and man, brazenly checked that yes there was, certifiably, undeniably, someone sitting behind them, then slid their chairs so far back I had a headrest against my gullet. This happened so much. Even when I asked, slapped, tapped, or pushed their seats they only gave that stare the French invented to paralyze the dumb.

Luckily the Icelanders liked me, even with being an American, because I was shy. Firm, polite, and quiet, a perfect personality for these reserved Northern Europeans. Many times I was told so. –Don’t take this the wrong way, one girl in a candy shop said to me, but I explained to my coworker that here, finally, is an American who isn’t boring. Being loud and asking so many boring questions!

Most Icelanders used English skillfully, but it was a quirk of speech that they said boring when they meant frustrating. Like,–This knot in my shoe is so boring! Or,–I can’t reach my girlfriend, this connection is boring!

I heard it like that many times.

So this was me: an American, not boring, black, and alone in Iceland.

Being both a troll and a smoker he had little lousy teeth. When his mouth opened it was hard to distinguish them from his lips. Everything fed into a gen- .  .  .

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