The Emotional Revolution
by Audur Jonsdottir
Translated by Larissa Kyzer
The Bull and the Girl
She’d gotten into a trivial argument with her ex-husband. Over a photo of a sculpture of a little girl in a small plaza on Wall Street, her head thrown back and dress flapping. The girl was facing down a snorting bull, a symbol of the business mecca’s masculine, entrepreneurial energy. Their son had posed with her, swinging around in the brassy American sunshine. The photo was inherently symbolic: a little boy, hanging onto the girl as she defied the powerful.
She’d read about the statue, this fearless girl, in the German media, as at the time, she’d been living in an old neighborhood in old West Berlin, in a weathered apartment so organic that mice would sometimes skitter over the armrests of the sofa while she sat there with a folded newspaper.
The bull’s creator was unhappy about the placement of the little girl, a latter-day work by a woman artist that had been installed there as if specifically on account of the bull and changed the way that people understood his work. A vigorous discussion had ensued about the way in which the two works interacted, the kind of debate that really appealed to her. When there was talk of her going to New York to give a reading, she’d decided she’d take a photo of their son with the fearless girl. And so, their little family—mother, father, and son—had gone to see the statue shortly after their arrival and she’d steered their son toward her, prepared to take a picture. But her husband was ready first, took out his phone and clicked a few times while their son danced around with the girl.
She also snapped a few, but he was both a better photographer and quicker off the mark. He managed to capture the moment.
Eighteen months later, when they were divorced, she posted the picture on Facebook and made it her cover photo. He responded by sending her a message asking if she intended to credit the photographer—it was one of the best photos he’d ever taken.
It was understandable he’d ask; he’d taken the photo, was an author and illustrator—it was only natural he’d be protective of his intellectual property. And yet, she’d said: “No, the idea was mine. I want to have her on my page without having any connection to you.”
“But I took the picture!” he protested in irritation. “And it’s an artistic work.”
“This artistic work was based on my idea,” she said, and knew she was being unreasonable, but it was as if there was still some stubbornness left over from him stepping on her idea, snatching away a work of art that was asking to be captured. A typical quarrel for two divorced artists to have, perhaps. But her life in recent months had revolved around her being her without him. Wresting back her self, a self that had been grafted onto his for eighteen years.
She longed for what was theirs to be hers.
In the end, she posted a comment crediting him on the thread below the post. It quickly vanished in the sea of comments praising the photo, as she’d expected. She didn’t tell him that.
The Broken Glass Era
They went to the Whitney to see the biennial. He was excited—the day before, they’d fulfilled an old dream of his and gone to the MoMA. While there, she’d come across a self-portrait of Frida Kahlo beside a mirror and taken a selfie with her. They were both grave, with dark hair above dark eyes, her with a crooked nose after someone had punched her when she was a teenager and Frida with a shapely nose under a unibrow. She stood and looked at the painting for a long time, as if she’d stumbled into a long-awaited companionship. She was so alone somehow, she thought, alone in a long, colorful dream. When would she awaken?
When they’d first gotten together, she’d gone weak in the knees when they’d go to art museums abroad together and he’d dissect ideas, eras, and artists. He drummed into her that she should think about her life in eras, like Picasso, and that’s how they lived—moving from country to country, chasing after the ambiance of the projects they were working on, set up house. If she’d never met him, it would have never occurred to her to take a picture of their son with the little girl. She would have never taught herself to think in terms of the inner manifestations of the countenance of things, she thought long after, getting tangled up in her own hackneyed wording.
What belongs to who and how much do they owe to one another? Whose was what? She didn’t know, but they each owned an equal share in their son, who was sipping fruit juice in a café in the tall building that housed the Whitney Museum. They sat outside—high, so high up— and looked out over the world at the skyscrapers and the Playmo-sized people wending their way along the streets. Bathed in sunshine.
This was a sort of high point of their life and yet…and yet, they started fighting the moment they stepped back out of the building. They’d never be able to go back, she thought. But back to where?
She remembered when they’d gotten engaged in Naples. They’d been together for a month and a half when he swept her off on a reading tour around Italy, all the way down to Naples. They bought a ring from a street vendor and toasted their engagement all day long with this and that restaurant owner, all of whom offered them grappa to celebrate this newly engaged couple who surged like the sea. They drank so much grappa that in the end, she’d danced herself into a stupor in an old harborside joint, recalling an old jazz ballet beat, and had every intention of breaking up with her new fiancé.
But they didn’t break up.
In Naples, she found him so beautiful that she secretly worshipped him. In her mind’s eye, she stored an image of the run-down train station where he, an old hand at bumming around Southern Europe, spoke Italian with the toothless, talky woman selling tickets, his brilliant brown eyes the same color as his tattered leather jacket. She loved him down to his very bones.
“How long will we be together?” she asked, drunk on grappa and prosecco and love in the seaside sunshine by the harbor in Naples.
“Twelve years,” he said with a tender smile—his beautiful smile—filling her with sadness at the thought: just twelve years!
Those words dogged her like a malediction from then on. When they finally separated, he said: “I had it right in Naples. We were a couple for twelve years. Then we had a kid and from that point on, we became something other than what we’d been. We stopped being a couple. But he was worth it.”
“Yes,” she said, giving him a maudlin look. “It’s like one of our chromosomes got stronger than the rest. We grew apart.”
“We grew apart,” he, who’d been closer to her than anyone else, repeated and then smiled warmly at her. “Until we didn’t know each other at all.”
The Fortune Teller in New York
Their little family had spent the day racing through New York’s wide streets and they were hungry. Her husband was fixated on the idea of trying street food, so they were looking around for a good food cart. She would have preferred a restaurant, but he wanted a shot of the city straight to the veins, he said, so vehement in his resolve that it was almost too much for her.
Their son was still excited by their exotic surroundings, wriggled playfully about and was constantly trying to drag them this way or that. But his parents were worn out from the long day. Short with one another. It might not have even had anything to do with hunger and their day-long ramble—they were at it more often than not these days.
They’d listened to jazz in Washington Square and paid tribute to the memory of their son’s paternal grandfather, who’d hung out there for hours at a time when he was in a music program in the city. A child-friendly street artist had let their son play with a hula hoop while they listened and the whole thing had been as much fun as could have been hoped. And yet, they were on such a short fuse with one another that it took all their energy to keep it together in front of their son.
Then she set eyes on a storefront fortune teller among all restaurants. Beneath a striped awning there was a sign with faded lettering that read: Do you want to know your destiny?
“If you’re going to get street food, I’m going to have my fortune told,” she announced defiantly.
“Knock yourself out!” he said dismissively, zeroing in on a sign promising Mexican antojitos across the street and heading toward it. There was a time he would have laughed. There was a time she would have said how funny it was for her to act like a character in a Woody Allen movie, going to a fortune teller in New York. But now, Woody Allen was a known pervert and they’d stopped laughing at one another’s quirks.
A moment later, she and her six-year-old son were sitting in a narrow recess behind a gold and turquoise beaded curtain with a husky-voiced old woman, surrounded by dusty books about spiritualism. Her son looked around curiously until his attention trained itself undividedly on a sprightly lizard in a grimy, glass tank. It was fortunate when the woman started talking that English was an unintelligible gibberish in his ears because there were only fifteen minutes allotted for going over the highlights of her fortune—the exact same amount of time, incidentally, that it took to wait for, and consume, a chicken burrito across the street.
“I see a man who is going to impact your life,” the fortune teller said. “You’re going to meet him soon. He’s connected to changes in your life. He from a different world than you. I see a strong, financial energy around him, but he’s no bigwig himself. He’ll enter your life amidst these great changes and lead you to a new place. It won’t be long now.”
She looked at the fortune teller skeptically. Her words didn’t seem to make any sense, but then, what had she expected from a storefront psychic? Her son had started fidgeting; he was hungry, and she’d promised they’d try the KFC next to the fortune teller’s. Moments later, her husband was watching them eat breaded, deep fried chicken with she didn’t know what all kinds of additives. He smiled blandly over the proceedings, an indulgent smile, and then asked: “What did the fortune teller say?”
“She said I’d meet some guy who had something to do with the business world and that he’d be instrumental in something that would change my life. It could be the film rights I sold, remember? I think that’s it,” she said, and thought back to the director who recently secured the film rights to a book she’d written. He was connected to investors and she felt a kind of joy as she bit into the forbidden chicken and daydreamed about the fabulous movie that was going to change her life.
“Are you going to have an affair with a capitalist?” her husband asked, pushing the greasy KFC bucket away from himself with a touch of disgust. He’d said earlier that capitalism had conquered this city and now it appeared it was going to conquer his wife as well.
“Why would you say that?” she asked, irked. She’d never had an affair. She felt a stirring in her stomach. She didn’t do well with gluten or additives and the stirring was fast becoming more insistent, so powerful it reminded her of labor pains. She grabbed her stomach and gasped.
“Knock yourself out,” he said again, but she wasn’t sure if he was talking about the KFC or the capitalist.
“I knew I shouldn’t eat that, but I did anyway,” she said then, and he chuckled, well acquainted with how perverse she could be.
“This has nothing to do with film rights—it’s about some guy,” he said with a subtle emphasis on the word guy. Oddly sure of himself. This man who didn’t believe in anything supernatural was all of a sudden making it sound like the fortune teller was an infallible authority on the future.
She narrowed her eyes to remind him that their son could be listening, but he was just as absorbed in the surroundings as he had been earlier that day, dangling his feet and drinking everything in. She breathed more easily; during the past few months, he’d had a tendency to draw attention to himself with various antics and dramatic gestures whenever he perceived a gradually escalating tension in his parents’ conversations.
“There’s no man,” she snorted, quickly standing up with a groan. “I’ve got to get home.”
Father and son wasted no time following her out, but the trip back to their little Airbnb apartment seemed to take an eternity. As soon as they got there, she stumbled into the bathroom and, doubled over, her bowels turning to liquid. She breathed through the contractions like she’d done in the maternity ward and vowed never to eat KFC in America again.
When she came out of the bathroom, they were sitting in front of the TV and American accents were blaring through the apartment. She opened her computer and read an email from a woman editor at an investigative news outlet in Reykjavík. The editor was soliciting an op-ed column from her, not for the first time, but in this instance, she got butterflies in her stomach. She fired off a message to an editor at the news site she’d been writing for during the last year, saying that it was time for her to move on. Then she resolved that she’d strike a new tone in her writing. Something new. At this new outlet. Maybe it was the scent of America or maybe there was something else there—this hunch about changes.
If There Were Angels
They were still a couple when they flew from New York to Berlin a few days later and soon after that, they moved to a new neighborhood—from the old west over to the east—because of issues with their son’s school. She listened to her husband wheel and deal with the movers, but she didn’t look at him like she had in the Italian train station anymore. She constantly directed her attention toward her son so as not to have to think. Or feel.
It was a blistering summer day and yet she felt frozen to the bone as she wandered through shops buying cleaning supplies to tidy up the old apartment and incidentals that they needed in the new one. The chill had gotten worse over the last few years. She tended to their son and her writing while her husband darted around the city on a black bicycle, boxed, wrote a book at the city library, went jogging in Tiergarten, and thoroughly enjoyed himself yakking it up with strangers in various languages at Turkish grills, Italian restaurants, and German libraries. And then they fought because they no longer understood one another’s language.
A few days after they moved into their new apartment, Bella arrived. Seventeen years earlier, they’d been classmates at Akureyri Junior College, shared a dorm room, and merged into a single, unruly being. Her friend still looked like Marilyn Monroe, so feminine and quick to laugh that if anything, she’d gotten more beautiful over the years.
But now Bella had come to Berlin and they were eating tikka masala and drinking a nice red wine in an Indian place in the middle of a thunder and lightning storm. Not long after they’d gotten back from New York, Bella had gotten in touch and asked if her daughter could visit for a couple weeks because she was having some problems in her personal life that she needed some space to sort out.
The girl had played with her son while they were getting their new apartment set up in a trendy neighborhood. With her light blond curls, childlike smile, and infectious laughter, the girl was so like her mom that it sometimes felt like they’d stepped twenty-eight years back in time; she’d look at the girl laughing and remember that she’d had another life before she met her husband.
“Are you two still just as happy?” Bella had asked at the restaurant with an arched, defiant look as she sipped on her rich, red wine, her blond curls still soaked from the downpour they’d gotten caught in.
The question caught her off-guard, since she wasn’t accustomed to talking about her marriage with anyone but her husband; it was no one else’s business. She’d grown apart from her old girlfriends all these years they’d lived abroad and wasn’t used to be being asked directly about her and her husband’s relationship. How was she supposed to answer, when the answer—the answer that was ever more aggressively staring her right in the face—was still eluding even her?
“Yeah,” she’d said in some confusion. “We’ve grown so intertwined. Of course, there are good phases and not so good ones, but yes—we’re happy. Just writing like always and just…being.”
Her friend looked at her, a bit maudlin, but smiled all the same. “We’re also intertwined, just like you two,” she said easily. “But it is hard right now.”
“Yeah, it’s definitely hard sometimes,” she said then, but she was uncomfortable with the conversation and quickly changed the subject. She told Bella all the ins and outs of her time with her daughter—the things that had happened to them that she wanted to write about now that she was casting about for a fresh tone for the new publication.
The days that the girl had been there had been vexing. The intoxicating greenery had been overwhelming, her nose tickled by pollen from tall, leaf-laden trees and the heat was so repressive the whole time that she’d made a special point of carving out some time to take her son and the girl swimming in a lake in a forested nature reserve on the other side of the city. They’d found seats apart from one another on the crowded train, the teenage girl next to a boy who she’d guessed was a street kid bumming around Europe, possibly from Algeria or Morocco. Normally, she would have smiled at him, as if to pep up the forlorn soul, but something about him gave her the creeps. The teenage girl was wearing a short, yellow dress, bare-legged, her long, luminous curls hanging loosely against her pale skin. The boy looked at the girl stiffly, molesting her with his eyes and inching closer and closer to her. Her heat-weary son in her arms, she’d tried to send him sharp, maternal reprimands from a distance, but to no avail, and the girl became increasingly uncomfortable. When they got off the train, he sent an unbearably meaning-laden look after her. The teenage girl was shaken. She laughed nervously, on edge and suppressing her distress with light-hearted jokes, preoccupied when they transferred to the next train.
In the end, they entered the cool water, surrounded by trees, cute little rodents, and birds swimming alongside naked people out to the middle of the lake. She sipped coffee from a thermos and watched the kids splashing about. The teenager became a carefree child as they played, laughing in the water, in spite of her makeup and bikini. Her thoughts turned to the boy on the train.
“Can we have schnitzel and pommes later?” yelled her son, drunk with happiness.
“Sure,” she said, and they both cheered, swooshing water into the blue sky as incidents began to collect in her mind—flashes of disrespectful men who’d looked at her or used sexual humor to belittle her—and it came as a surprise to even herself when they began to arrange themselves into a single, fractured image and she was filled with an unpleasant feeling of emptiness. In the same moment, she felt an unfamiliar tone resonating inside of her, felt queasy with the need to write as she stepped out into the lake and swam straight ahead with the docile birds. Something stirred within her, a deep weight pulsing rapidly, a natural disaster underway. Out in the middle of the lake, she swam into a bottomless emptiness as two words consumed her thoughts like a mantra: emotional revolution.