At the end of Laugavegur, the busy shopping street that runs through the heart of Reykjavik, we took a right and headed toward the wharves. It was 2004, our group’s first trip together, and Esther and I had an extra day to kill in Iceland. The rest of our group had already returned home.
We had spent the week up north on Helga’s farm riding her horses. We were happy and self-satisfied. We had crossed rivers and lakes and miles of sheep trails. We had outdone ourselves.
Esther: “Those horses were fast.”
Me: “And we rode them.”
Esther: “We stayed on.”
Me: “Hung on.”
We chose a bar without giving it a whole lot of thought. It was four in the afternoon and the place was dimly lit, cavernous, and empty, except for the bartender who was drying glasses and stacking them on mirrored shelves. He motioned for us to sit anywhere and we took a tall table with stools at the front window and ordered Thule beer. (In medieval European geographies, Thule signified “borders of the known world” and was meant for the far northern regions hanging off the map: Orkney, Shetland, Iceland, Greenland.)
Reykjavik wasn’t that built up in 2004 and still had more of an edge-of-the-world feel than it does now. The city was more contained then–there were a few streets for tourists and when you stepped out of the main center, you were in a port town on the northern tip of the world, facing Greenland. And a bar at four in the afternoon, no matter where you are, always has a whiff of desolation.
The bartender put on music and I’d like to think he did it for us. I heard a manly baritone voice whisper-singing in my ear:
“The ponies run, the girls are young, the odds are there to beat.”
The voice was so familiar, yet I couldn’t place it. Who is this? I asked Esther. “It’s, it’s…oh, it’s….” But she couldn’t come up with the name either. I got up and asked the bartender, who ducked under the bar to read the CD case. “Leonard Cohen,” he said. “Ten New Songs.”
I didn’t know Leonard Cohen that well, except for his classics, which I mainly knew through my guitar-playing husband and his guitar-playing friends who often banged out their versions of his songs. I didn’t know Esther all that well either, but she had established herself with some classic lines. Helga had nicknamed her “Queenie” soon after our arrival at her farm. On that first day, we all strolled out to the barn in full riding gear– picture us walking nine abreast somewhat like the astronauts in “The Right Stuff.” We chose our horses and tacked up, giddy with excitement, anticipating our first ride. That’s when Esther, with one foot on the mounting block, looked at her horse warily and said, “Alright, let’s get this over with.”
Drinking beer makes people talk. And windows make people stare. The bar had large smoky glass windows where we could view the streets. Esther told me she had taken an early retirement after being a high school English teacher in a blue collar town in Connecticut for twenty years. We talked about books and writers we loved. I probably told her about my oh-so-brief literary career when I was young. Our conversation meandered easily with Leonard Cohen’s intimate voice infiltrating ours. His voice was gravelly, thick, rich and hypnotic, and we’d go silent every now and then to listen to him.
“You win a while and then you’re done, your little winning streak.”
We ordered a second beer and talked kids. Mine were young back then and I was completely absorbed in their lives. Going to Iceland for a week and focusing mainly on the horse I rode and the trail in front of me was liberating. Esther had grandchildren who were exactly the same age as my children. She asked what they were like. I described my son as having a quiet soul and artistic nature; she said her grandson was very similar. I described my daughter as bold and vivacious. She said, her granddaughter was too, “ready to take on the world.” We marveled at how young girls these days were so confident.
I knew from my husband that Leonard Cohen had spent years in a Buddhist monastery and told this to Esther. “That’s deep,” she said. “He’s so deep.” She had traveled to Asia many times– to Bhutan, India, Bali–going with a group that focused on yoga, so she was familiar with ashrams in Asia. She said, “There’s something over there that you can’t get here.”
“And summoned now to deal with your invincible defeat.”
We sat in the bar as long as the Leonard Cohen CD played. We made plans for our next summer in Iceland as we gazed out on the harbor that had two kinds of ships: whale watching boats and “cruise ships” bound for Greenland. Esther said, “This is what I’ll do for now, this is where I want to be, what I’m drawn to do. I don’t know for how long, but this is the place for now.”
“You live your life as if it’s real, a thousand kisses deep.”
I’m not sure I would have remembered the afternoon or the conversation so well if the bartender hadn’t played Leonard Cohen, who doesn’t exactly fit the Icelandic music scene. But it’s often the things that stick out that stick in your head. Music can fill in an empty space and add another conversation with its own notes and lyrics.
I know that Leonard Cohen album by heart now, and that particular song is committed to memory. Even so, when I hear the first beats of the bass and drums, when Cohen’s deep and subversive baritone breaks in–
“The ponies run, the girls are young,”
I’m there, in that Reykjavik bar with Esther, drinking Thule in the late afternoon.
“I’m back on Boogie Street.”
`Weekly Writing Challenge: Moved by Music