The Laugavegur trail in Iceland is a 35-mile trek that winds through snow-streaked mountains and lava fields, black sand desert and lush green forest. My friend Max and I finished it in two days. He was an experienced and ambitious outdoorsman who was guiding classmates on camping trips since his boarding school years in the Swiss Alps. I wanted to experience nature and then shower.
That's how long it took for Max to convince me that while a relationship was out of the question, sleeping with him would be a great idea.
I see, now, that he was right on both fronts, but it took nearly as many years as I'd known him for the sting to fade.
I met Max my freshman year of college. Then a sophomore and the residential advisor for my hall, Max led an activity during orientation where we had to shape our souls using pipe cleaners and share them in groups. I don't remember what I'd made. Max, I can quote.
"This red heart represents love," he said. "This white circle represents honesty."
Then he held up the spiral that connected the two. "And this represents all the wonderful and wicked things in between."
My heart—it was obsessed.
The girl who would become my best friend joked, "I bet he kicks puppies when no one's watching." Because how could anyone be so delightful all the time?
Max held three passports and spoke four languages. He noticed that I was running for a seat on the student assembly and sent kind, encouraging notes. When he designed and committed himself to completing an Ironman course using our college's pool, gym, and track, I stopped by to cheer him on for the last few laps. He had deft fingers for a repertoire of card tricks. The summer I worked on campus in Connecticut and he interned in New York, he showed up unexpectedly one evening to the computer lab where I'd been halfheartedly coding and made a card with my name written on appear in his mouth.
Once, feeling bold, I texted him saying I was thinking of him during breakfast. Hours later, he wrote back that he hoped I'd ate more breakfast. So we became good friends.
It was Max who suggested we travel together after my college graduation. Iceland was my choice. We Skyped regularly for planning purposes, though after booking our plane tickets and Airbnb, "planning" felt like an excuse to chat about books that touched us (him: Thinking Fast and Slow; me: Middlemarch), movie recommendations (him: a Michael Moore documentary; me: none that he hadn't seen), the upcoming election (Hillary, we agreed).
A card arrived in the mail for my birthday that ended with the valediction, "With much love from Switzerland." And it was as though, in all the years of our friendship, the feelings I thought I'd pushed away had instead been mounting within me like water behind a dam, and they came rushing back.
My best friend and I played a game of "into you or European?" My heart saw what it wanted to see.
Iceland in July is illuminated in sunlight for around twenty hours each day. Under this illusion of time, no conversation topic seemed too frivolous.
Max's Kindle library was dominated by social psychology books. He told me about Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. How it changed his life when he picked it up as a teenager. I didn't quite get it. Then again, I read exclusively fiction.
One time, getting off a puffin watching boat, Max thanked our guide and told him it was one of the best tours he'd ever experienced. Later, out of earshot, I asked him if what he said was true. Max thought about it. Probably not. But he saw no harm in making people feel encouraged.
At Silfra, the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, our snorkel instructor looked from him to me and commented, "You live in Switzerland, but you don't."
"No," I said.
"Not yet." Max grinned.
"My wife is in the Philippines," our snorkel instructor offered.
I knew by then Max meant only that Switzerland topped many standard-of-living indices. The day before, he told me that he was at a stage of his life where dating would only court heartbreak.
Religion came up. Along with his Christian ex-girlfriend. In the four years I'd known him, he had never previously spoken about his romantic life, though I became vaguely aware of an ex from mutual friends. He didn't tell me everything at once, but I recognized immediately the aching tenor of his voice. It was how I sounded when I spoke about him.
Over the course of a few days he would say that he was grateful to know how it felt to love and be loved in return. He would tell me that if he were older and she hadn't pressed him to join a church, his relationship might have lasted for a long time. Maybe for the rest of their lives.
The curiosity wasn't one-sided. One night, when we were lying in bed, Max asked, "Don't take this the wrong way, but you weren't intimate with many people in college, were you?"
Before Max, two other male friends had asked me about my sex life, once at work, and once while we were watching standup in his room. Each conversation turned into a proposition.
"Are you trying to be 'intimate' with me?" I asked, certain he was. The wall on my side of the bed was covered with portraits of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, and I stared at them while rehearsing my next words in my head so that they would sound firm out loud. I can't be your confidant and sleep with you too.
"With you? No. There's a giant puddle between us. It'll never work out."
"I thought—" Max misunderstood what I meant in that moment, but he answered the question I had wondered for months, and so readily. I was crushed with unexpected hurt. "I thought we were talking about something temporary."
"Oh." While Max paused, I regretted my choice of words. "Yeah, I'd be interested."
I could have explained my confusion. But it was the fifth consecutive day of being alone with him every hour of every day. Even after listening to the dulcet tones with which he spoke about his ex-girlfriend, after learning of a book he loved whose title sounded -to me- mildly ominous, I wanted him.
"Do you want to cuddle?" Max asked.
"No," I said, sad and obvious.
We started the Laugavegur the following morning. At the first river crossing, Max offered to carry me. I refused.
"Suit yourself," he said cheerfully. "It's pretty cold."
It was frigid. When he offered again, I justified letting him.
We got to our camp site past midnight, the first time in days I'd seen the sky truly dark. We had one sleeping bag between the two of us, because at the gear rental store, Max couldn't fit a second while keeping my backpack light. He'd let me choose a sleeping bag, and told me he would go without.
It was summertime, but it was also the Arctic Circle. Whereas I was snug and drowsy, Max shivered beside me on a sleeping pad.
"Are you falling asleep already?" he asked.
"Yes," I said. And then, because anyone would feel bad and especially because he carried me across several rivers, I asked, "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Do you have room in your sleeping bag?"
"Yes," I said.
He climbed in and wrapped his arms around me.
"Can we have an extended cuddle session when we get back?"
Our bodies fit together so easily.
"Yes," I said.
"I really didn't plan this," he said. After our trip, I would run through in my head everything we'd said and done and question exactly what had been planned, and by whom. But I never doubted that Max was telling the truth that he thought he could sleep in the cold. It made sense the hubris was genuine.
Upon returning from our hike, we bought condoms from a twenty-four-hour grocery store by the bus station near our Airbnb. Before we used them, I told Max, "I like you a lot, and if we do this, I'd want more."
I think he chuckled. "I like you too. You can interpret that however you wish. But like I said, there's a giant puddle between us. After this trip ends, we can still be friends, but this can't continue."
He was reasonable. Perfectly so. Logistics had no role in my romantic fantasies.
The last time Max performed card tricks for me was at Keflavik airport. He tried to teach me how to do a basic one, but I was unravelling too quickly to follow.
For weeks afterwards, my waking hours were divided among working, crying, and poring over How to Win Friends and Influence People like it was an answer key, sometimes all together. Max wasn't the first person I'd slept with, but he was the first that I'd slept with and loved. I wished I knew how it would have felt if he loved me back.
I couldn't fault him. Max was honest where he needed to be. He was a magician happy to share the mechanics behind his acts.
But time and perspective carry magic, too. A few years later, two people, one sleeping bag, and the mountains of Iceland made for a funny story. I don't regret knowing what physical intimacy with him feels like; neither do I miss often our friendship in its absence.
Max still reaches out when he notices little milestones. A birthday. A minor life update buried in the class notes section of our alumni newsletter. When I thank him, say I'm happy, and wish him well, I mean every word.
Hello! In reflecting on a trip I took a few years ago, I caught the writing bug again. I'd really appreciate feedback on pacing and structure, as well as anything that's potentially confusing. New fiction coming out soon, hopefully.