Life in a Reykjavik Suburb

Adalsteinn Ingólfsson
Adalsteinn Ingólfsson
Adalsteinn Ingólfsson began his literary career as a poet. His first book, Ominnisland (Land of Oblivion), was published when he was 23. His second book contains translations of poems by Italian 20th-century poets. Adalsteinn has written many books and essays on art and artists, among them books about some of the foremost Icelandic artists of the 20th century. When the Icelandic Museum of Design was established in 1998, Adalsteinn was appointed director, a position he still holds. Read his story, Lust, Death and Remorse, below.
I had no clear memories of Sophia when I met her again, after an interval of twenty-seven years. By that time I had been suffering for six years from what I now recognise as an identity crisis which had turned my domestic existence upside down. This is by way of an explanation of my reaction to Sophia, as she came to me one day with a painting she wanted me to identify. She had been a stocky schoolgirl with an almond-shaped face and bright green eyes. Now I took in her well-tended body, slightly flirtatious manner and the flamboyant turban she wore. After a brief hello, she went on at great length about the painting she had produced out of a flat cardboard box, a lacklustre landscape with three cows, all the while watching my face intently. When she realised I wasn´t going to take the first step, she suddenly introduced herself, seemingly a bit peeved at my aloof manner.

'You were always fond of me, weren´t you?' she asked. I was embarassed at the question. But she was right, I had been acutely aware of her, her curves, eyes and the fact that her father was a defrocked minister. Many years before he had apparently gone on a monumental binge with friends on New Year´s Eve, at the end of which he had dragged them into his church early in the morning to hear him chant pornographic verses from the pulpit.

That, and the fact that Sophia had been intensely embarassed by her father, gave her a certain status in my eyes. The curves also helped, of course. At that time of my life I turned into a pillar of salt every time a girl addressed me (which wasn´t very often), but Sophia, although she never addressed me either, smiled sweetly whenever I happened to look her way. Well, that was enough to kindle, if not a passion, a mild infatuation. Then after graduation, Sophia passed out of my life.

This time I was prepared to take Sophia up on her smile. Wasn´t there something coquettish about the way she cocked her turbanned head at me? We retired to a nearby cafe to chat about times past, and the things that we imagined we had in common. The situation seemed promising. Sophia had been living abroad for two decades, had had two children with a Spanish diplomat, divorced said diplomat and returned to Iceland to claim the house of her deceased parents. There was an air of quiet resignation, even contentment, about her. Would I like to drop in for coffee sometime? Of course I would. We agreed to meet the following Sunday. I felt a consensual erotic experience coming on.

On the outside, Sophia´s house looked like a medium sized corrugated two-storey house anywhere in Iceland, but on the inside it had been turned into a hacienda, complete with dark wooden beams, huge cowhide sofas, bright rugs, fake Pre-Columbian pottery and sets of what looked like bullfighter´s swords. This time Sophia looked a little thinner, but the the cap she wore was even more glamorous than her turban, for it seemed to be covered with tiny stars that caught the light every time she moved her head. We drank white wine and talked about her children who seemed to be giving her the usual grief. After two hours we had exhausted whatever conversational topics that we had in common, so it was really by common consent that we decided to meet at an art exhibition the following week. There was warmth there, I thought.

As it turned out, I had to leave town on some art business and couldn´t make it to the exhibition and Sophia in time. We talked on the phone and resolved to meet a couple of days later. This time she called it off. She was very sorry, but she had a bad cold, could we meet at her house in a week?

Sophia´s two children were there when I arrived, blond twins in their early twenties. They were reserved towards me and kept casting worried looks at their mother. They obviously assumed I had designs on her. After a few minutes they left and I resolved to test the waters, as it were. Sophia was never more elegant. Being lusted after seemingly suited her, for as she wrapped herself sinuously around a huge pillow she looked as slender as her daughter. Again I complemented her on her headgear, a white silk headscarf with a silver brooch on the front. She poured some white wine for me, but said she had to take her car to be serviced a little later, so she´d better abstain. But she seemed receptive to my idle chat and compliments, and after an hour or so I even had my hand on the inside of her thigh. Which is when her daughter walked in with the same worried look on her face as before.

We both realised the spell was broken, I made a graceful exit and made Sophia promise to ring me the following week. We did talk on the phone two or three times. Then, a month later, I had an appointment to see a man in Egilstaðir. On my fourth day there I opened Morgunblaðið and saw Sophia´s death announced in one of those grim columns on page thirty one. I felt as if I had been hit with a cosh on the back of my head. I phoned a mutual friend, who had no idea what my real interest in Sophia was. No, it wasn´t suicide, but leukemia. She´d been nursing it for many months. This explained the fatigue, the weight loss and the turbans. And I had imagined Sophia was watching her weight for my sake and wearing turbans to look more interesting to me. My first reaction was anger. Why had she led me on, knowing that we were never going to consummate our 'affair'? Or would she have made love with me, knowing that she had death coursing through her veins? Or did she simply need to know that she was still alluring in the last days of her life?

I was racked by conflicting emotions, by turns appalled, sad at Sophia´s fate, angry with her, with myself and - I must admit it - enthralled at the thought of how close I had come to the kind of experience that the romantic poets had written about.

One night I came out of a dream which involved the lifeless Sophia, her huge leather sofa and myself, naked but for a turban on my head. Drenched in sweat from head to toe and aroused, I wrapped my arms and legs around the sleeping body of my wife, and for the first time in months we made love like we actually meant it.

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