I wrote this little vignette last summer in Iceland, and promptly forgot about it. It seems too simple to submit for publication now, eight months later, but I'm kind of fond of it. And makes some perverse sense to share it now, in January - To misquote Mark Twain, I've never met a colder winter than summer in Ísafjörður.
So much of our lives exists in the margins outside the frames of our Instagram feeds. Take, for example, a strange little piece of French ephemera tagged to a bakery in Ísafjörður, Iceland on someone’s—for example my own—feed. The framed piece, or rather its digitized presentation, evokes perhaps the Alps in the background and a strange, vaguely disturbing scene in the foreground. Two women seem to have been in some sort of skiing accident. A man is either attending to them or accosting them (the only words of the piece, “Le Médecin,” imply the latter, but the subtleties of their mannerisms hint, to my wife and me at least, at the former, but this could simply be due to the overblown, grotesque representations of mid-Twentieth Century kitsch). And, most notably, a boy in the background in skis, hangs from a tree over either a fence or a ledge and seems to be spying on the other three. They are all smiling—that posed, fakey smile we give when we know our picture is being taken, when we’re conscious of our surveillance.
At least that’s the way my wife and I see it as it looks over both of us eating crepes at a small table in this Icelandic bakery and talking about Brooklyn in the margins of the shot she takes on her iPhone.
“It reminds me,” she says, “of that new coffee shop in North Slope, the one that took over Gorilla Coffee. Did you hear about the sign they posted over their bathroom? This piece just reminded me of it. Apparently the new owners put it up as a joke, but it depicts someone peeping in on the women’s bathroom. I heard about it on the Park Slope Parents listserv.”
“Ah,” I sigh. “I can already guess how that conversation went.”
“Yeah, and the Comments sections on the blogs posting about it. I think the last thing I heard was a dad accusing them of promoting rape culture, and the owners saying people should stop being so sensitive.”
“The ever-present Brooklyn hipster-vs.-parent debate.”
“There aren’t any hipsters left in Park Slope,” my wife says. “I think they might want to at least try to appeal to their customer base.”
“I think some of our fellow Park Slope parents might try easing up on the hypersensitivity.”
“Better to be hypersensitive than insensitive,” she says.
“I disagree,” I say.
“We come from a generation that told us not to take these things—the male gaze, imposition on women’s bodies—seriously,” she replies. “We have two girls I don’t want to subject to that. Or at least I want them to stand up against it when they see it.”
“I want our girls to be able to identify oppression when they see it, and laugh at it,” I say, then add, “That’s power.”
“I just want you to be aware,” my wife says, “that you are speaking from a white male perspective, with the privilege that entails.”
I stop looking at her, fixating on Le Médecin. “I guess I should just stop talking then.” I continue talking. “I wasn’t speaking from privilege. The opposite, actually: I was speaking as someone who has overcome plenty of class-based, systemic adversity, mostly because I learned to laugh at it. That’s what satire is—undermining oppression by laughing at it.”
My wife has stopped talking, but I can’t.
“You just took my position, which I’ve thought about at length, and made it into a stereotype. You say I’m speaking from a position of privilege, but I think it’s a position of maturity.”
My wife has stopped looking at me. She’s looking out the window, whatever argument she might make tucked away for another time. It’s probably right at this moment that I realize I’m mansplaining. I want to continue with this argument, to see it through to its conclusion, but I see in her icy gaze that I’ve already proven her right.
“Right now,” she says, “I don’t feel safe in your company.”
We sit, both of us looking out the window at the hotel across the street, or the fjord this hamlet is situated within, or the cloud-capped cliffs looming over both sides that block out the sun for two entire months of the winter—both of us shrouded from each other. Her hands are in her lap, one of my legs is crossed over the other, and the French doctor, the women, and the peeping-tom skier gaze over us into the online ether, smiling.