The perfect gift was a personal one, Aldís believed, but not too personal. A gift that showed the giver knew something about the receiver’s tastes while at the same time providing an unexpected addition; something that would expand his world. A luxury item, but in a price range that would not betray any ulterior motive.
Aldís strolled up Bankastræti and Laugavegur in the pleasant fall weather, treading by clothing racks, clearance sales and food stands. The colourful crowd of people was shaded in certain places by yellowing tree crowns, some of which towered over the houses.
Excuse me, she said as she bumped into a black-haired woman who pulled a cart of handmade candies. She paused and watched the cart as it delicately wobbled with the woman’s every step and she considered how she usually wanted things that perished. Soaps, cheeses, coffee, candles, oils and spices. But that sort of gift was not suitable now. In this case, she did have an ulterior motive, something beyond that pure warmth of friendship which in her mind characterized the perfect gift. Aldís wanted to give something that would serve as a reminder of her own existence. She wanted to occupy a space in the recipient’s mind.
The gift was intended for a man named Ben who worked with her in the sorting facility. Along with a few others, they oversaw an army of youngsters that sorted recyclable consumer plastics into seven different categories based on the small embossed markings they bore.
Ben was talkative and boisterous, short, portly, with big hands and a quick laugh. Aldís had been in love with him ever since he began working at the plant. He had a girlfriend at the time. He had broken up with her and started seeing another, and now he was newly started on the third.
It was Ben’s birthday next week. The new girlfriend would probably give him something well thought out and perfect. Aldís shook her head and tried to divert her thoughts by focusing on something neutral. The sidewalk. But the kerbstone indirectly reminded her of Ben. Because of a news story that he had read out loud for her on a coffee break, about how city officials had been criticised for leaving stacks of loose kerbstones beside a freshly laid sidewalk. They were said to be inviting danger by leaving ‘potential blunt instruments’ lying around for anyone to pick up and use, and what’s more, so close to the city’s watering holes, whence intoxicated crowds flowed after nights of heavy drinking.
Ben thought that mentioning this was an embarrassing affront to humanity’s unspoken agreement to pretend civilization was more deeply rooted than it actually is.
Have they gone mad? he had laughingly exclaimed. You can’t say that sort of thing out loud! We need to keep on pretending if we are to keep our faith in democracy!
Aldís couldn’t speak, she was laughing so hard. Ben’s news commentary always made her laugh. She even laughed now, as she remembered it. At the same time, she felt a familiar jab of nervous fear, something she had inherited from her conservative parents. The inheritance she was continually trying to exorcise away. She wanted to believe that all the exotic people who surrounded her were trustworthy, but she could never get rid of the feeling that people in general were merely a rabble, and even if they temporarily toed the line, that didn’t mean everything was safe.
Still, she could never envision turning back the developments of the last twenty years or so. She shuddered at thought of how her life would be if three million “new” Icelanders suddenly moved away and left her in the bland, inbred homogeneity. She remembered it as worse than boring. It was a watery soup of over-used genes and paranoid politics. It was not just dull and grey, but positively unhealthy. Nothing came out of it other than narrow-minded bullying disguised as “common sense”.
Twenty years ago, her weekends had consisted of endless drives cruising down Laugavegur with her girlfriends. All of them sporting fresh driver’s licenses, all of them referred to as “ham”, because they were pink and they glistened. Laugavegur had long since been turned into a pedestrianonly street, and the ham-look had transformed into a fringe culture mostly connected with prostitution and drug abuse. Reykjavík’s main shopping street, which used to be quiet except for special occasions, was now teeming with life every day of the week, and the merchandise on offer crowded the sidewalks and flowed into the side streets.
The thought of which made Aldís aware that she had been wandering around for half an hour without entering a single shop. She was mesmerised by the vibrant atmosphere. And the omnipresent smell of food, which nowadays brought to mind actual big cities. It made her feel almost happy. A little girl, holding her mother’s hand, smiled to Aldís and Aldís smiled back.
A freestanding sign pointed to a lamp store on the second floor, above a small but popular falafel hut. She squeezed past a roomful of patrons waiting to be served and climbed up a narrow staircase in the back.
The shop was roomy, but the space appeared cramped because the selection of lamps was so overwhelming. There were lava lamps surrounded by crystal chandeliers. Antiques mixed with new items. Lampshades of silk, leather, vinyl and glass. At the back of the store a woman sat behind a small counter.
Can I help you? she called out in French-accented English. I don’t know, Aldís shouted back. I’m just looking for the perfect gift, she added and gave out an embarrassed laugh.
Who for? asked the woman?
A friend, Aldís replied and approached the counter, where the woman sat with a cup of coffee and a tablet computer. The woman, who had appeared quite plain from afar, was wearing a tight, low-cut one piece and was heavily made up, as if she had just stepped off some stage. She wore fake, glittery eyelashes.
Aldís became unnerved. She pointed to a lamp at random and asked: How much?
7900 Euros, the woman replied.
That’s too much, Aldís responded. The lamp was made of glass, shaped like a mushroom, the amber hat covered in coloured gemstones like cake sprinkles.
The stones are semi-precious, from China, the woman remarked as she nodded to Aldís. Carefully, as if she were worried about her eyelashes or lip-gloss. A lamp makes a beautiful gift for a friend. Symbolic.
Exactly, Aldís replied and feigned an interest in the lamps surrounding her as she made her way towards the exit.
This one is only 1500, the woman said and pointed to a lamp of white, sandblasted glass.
Aldís thought her voice sounded curt and angry, but maybe the woman had only raised her voice because Aldís was now further away.
She hurried down the stairs and was glad to be under the open sky again. She felt as if she had been exposed. She saw herself all too clearly now; a petit-bourgeois wannabe cosmopolitan. A pathetic and scared little person looking for the perfect birthday present for a man who was almost certainly at this very moment doting on his girlfriend – without ever considering that Aldís might have a life outside of the workplace. She went limp, she couldn’t move or decide whether to soldier on and keep searching or give up and go home.
A Thai ladyboy gently grabbed her arm and to her abject horror offered his services. Hi sexy mama, he quietly said. Want a date?