The lion of love is getting his highlights touched up at a salon in the West Village when his manager calls about spring tour dates. The hairdresser, a woman named Carla who he would trust with his life, is rubbing a soothing blend of rosemary-neroli oil into his temples while someone else tends to his cuticles.
“We’re locking in the Paris and London stadium shows,” says John. “May as well add in an Edinburgh stop. Your name recognition is still high there—”
“But of course,” says Lemtov, eyes closed. “I can stop by my small modest property, say hello to friends.”
“—but CD sales are down across the board. No one buys music when they can stream. More dates means more merch.”
He is in need of rejuvenation. Friends convinced him to stay out all night, last night; they went to a few parties, skipping from one high-rise apartment to the next bearing bottles of wine, air kisses, coiled cashmere scarves, maybe having a little caviar or some crudités while looking down on Central Park, listening to what new painting has been bought, before ending up at a Brooklyn club so remote the Uber took eleven minutes to arrive as the sun was rising.
Fun, yes, but too many 3am cigarettes can damage the voice. On the way back to his brownstone he’ll pick up a kale-honey-carrot drink that his favorite café knows how to prepare. Vitamin A is hydrating to the vocal cords, his people tell him.
“Hmm?” he purrs.
“After the Edinburgh date, would you consider adding a club show in Reykjavik? The tour company is trying to promote a new mid-size venue. They want a big name.”
“Ah yes,” he says, settling back into the salon chair. “That would be fine. Something more intimate.”
“No need, you can do the same programming as London. I’ll have the crew adjust for scale. And the company can pick a local opening act.”
“Wait a moment.” Carla and the nail attendant are waved off. “The Icelanders from last year. Sigrit and that huge strange man, the one who ruins everything. Lars. Call them to see if they are available.”
“The runaway hamster wheel people?”
“She has very remarkable voice. The man not so much, but Sigrit, yes.”
“They’re still hometown heroes, I guess,” John says. “Good for tickets.”
“Tell them we will have dinner. The best restaurant, book a table. Book two different tables. We will sit at the better table.”
Carla comes back with a special salon conditioner that will protect the full range of his new blond-caramel tones. Ah, this woman. He adds two bottles of the rosemary-neroli oil and leaves her a luxurious tip.
He won Eurovision, of course.
It had been important to practice looking surprised. Me? Alexander Lemtov, but a humble singer from a small town outside Moscow, for my song about the amorous king of the savannah? Moi? He had pivoted toward the three-panel mirror of the Edinburgh house and raised his eyebrows, smiled, did it again with a bigger smile, then again with a smaller one. His diamond earring sparkled in the light, just as his whitened teeth shone against his tan. A hand moving to his heart in shock.
The usual politicking took place behind closed doors. Once the amusement of Iceland’s performance wore off, the Eastern Bloc solidified behind him for the final vote, as did some of the Mediterraneans. They would be paid back next year. Lemtov’s run was a long time in the making—building up goodwill among the countries’ committees, trading favors, a team of Swedish pop-music writers hired to burnish every note.
Even being selected as the Russian performer had required endless tapes, new studio mixes, knowing the right people, two previous competition years to some but not enough acclaim, and finally sweet-talking a bureaucrat’s lonely great-aunt.
No obstacle. He was classically trained, he could dance, spoke English and French fluently, could sing with an orchestra or headline a summer festival, was popular in Brazil. His team told him that older Russian women were his most reliable fan base; they wanted him for their daughters, or themselves, and bought the tickets to show it. Red roses thrown onstage.
This had been his third and final Eurovision, a triumph by design.
In the interviews after the show, though, journalists kept asking about the Icelanders.
“We cannot discuss this year without talking about the double trouble of Fire Saga,” said a Finn in pink frame glasses, giggling. “Everyone knows they are an ultimate underdog story.”
“I suppose so,” said Lemtov.
“What did you think of their disqualifying song? Did it give you chills? When she sang about the whales, I got chills.”
“What a lovely little surprise,” he said, recrossing his legs and clasping his hands. “These small countries who send nobodies, it is so nice to have them here, no matter how impossible it is for them to win. Very impossible. Like a charity for orphan children.”
The journalist gave a fake laugh. “Would you ever consider singing a Eurovision song in your native language?”
Lemtov laughed too. “You make funny jokes. I like that. But let me tell you more about my new world tour. Big show, more dancers, lasers, holgram of Cher or Napoleon, money falling from sky. You know Mita, from Greece? She will come. World historic.”
The same with the next five. They had all been so charmed by this pair of bumbling ingenues who lost control of a stage prop and nearly killed twenty people before disqualifying themselves. On the biggest night of Lemtov’s life, no one could resist talking about a giant middle-aged man in rubber fishing pants, and the woman who would rather stay with that man in their rural hometown than make art with a world famous star.
“Everyone deserves their five minutes of fame,” he had said on the last of the press circuit interviews. His smiles were growing brittle. “Make it ten. But those of us who take this competition seriously, we will make that time last. We work hard to make our season of the spotlight count.”
“Were you surprised by your win?”
“Of course,” he said.
Lemtov is returning from a three-day meditation retreat at an upstate resort, where a Michelin-star chef had prepared tofu and vegetables for each day’s detoxifying five-course dinner, when his manager calls again.
“Johnny,” he says, “perfect time. I am new man. My ego has dissolved. Gone. I have an idea for a new song, it is about nirvana but also elephants, like a cool dance track.”
They talk through the legalities of sampling a speech by the Dalai Lama. His manager adds, “The Iceland hamster people can’t open for you but we got someone else.”
“Can’t?” His newfound mindful state does not process the sound. “You said can’t?”
“Yeah, they have a conflict.”
He sputters on a freshly-opened Pellegrino pulled from the mini-fridge of the town car.
“Impossible. What is the number? Maybe they did not understand. Their brains are uneducated, very smooth.”
A few texts later, he is calling a phone that rings for a long time. The gnarled winter branches of Hudson Valley trees blur past his window. An answering machine kicks in, and he hears the sound of a nasal voice over a synth.
“What volcano, what man?” Lemtov asks aloud, before Sigrit’s voice chimes in on the recording, “we are away from our home phone” in time with the beat. It is a pop song from a different universe.
There is the sound of a crash, and then what might be a phone handset slamming to the ground, then Lars.
“Olaf! It does not matter how long you have lived here, you parked for twenty-five minutes! The sign says fifteen! You have to pay the ticket! I cannot tell you this every week! It is driving me crazy!”
Lemtov hears only Icelandic, so he says, “My friend. It is I, Alexander Lemtov, winner of Eurovision.”
Lars gasps. “You are not Olaf at all!”
They talk for a few minutes, with Lars asking questions about “the castles” and “the tunes.” When he inquires about whether Lemtov has stolen any girlfriends lately—“you know, with the smooth moves, like, oh, I am a cool rich guy, come on my jet plane”—Lemtov holds his breath. He remembers to say something grandiose, but also realizes that he assumed Sigrit would have told Lars. Somehow he thought they would have laughed about it together, laughed at him, after everything. Not that it would matter.
“My friend,” Lemtov says, “I am calling about the tour date.”
“What tour date?”
“Ah, I expected it was this simple. You see,” he says, stretching out across the car’s backseat, “I will be performing in your small city of Reykjavik. Big tour. We need an act to open the concert, and I remember—”
“No! No dear God!” There was the sound of barking and pottery smashing. “What a disaster. Alexander Lemtov, I am sorry, the baby and our dog have a sort of rivalry, it is hard to explain, so emotional, and the whole thing has come to a head. Talk to my beautiful wife.”
“Alexander!” he hears her say, warmly, despite the sound of yelling. “It has been so long! How are you? Are you happy?”
“Well, I am still rich and handsome and successful, so yes.” He clears his throat. “Sigrit. In the spring I will be coming to Iceland for concert.”
“Fantastic!” she cries out. “A whole concert just for you!”
He laughs because he knows she is sincere. “Open for my show! Bring Lars if you want. We can sing a duet, maybe, and you have your songs too. It will be nice. You are in the club, technically, the Eurovision finalist club.”
But when he mentions the date she sighs—“ahhh, Alexander! This is what I told that nice man on the phone. We would love to open for your big deal concert. But I have a concert of my own that night. The only possible way I would miss it!”
“Your own concert? In Reykjavik?”
“No, Husavík! It is the annual school musical. We are already hard at work. Lars is building the sets. He promises they will not fall on anyone even a little.”
They keep talking, but Sigrit will not budge on this adorable school musical. Lemtov does his best to explain that opening a big tour will pay good money, it will raise the star of Fire Saga in a way that translates to long-term value. Surely the school musical can be moved to a different night for the, what, ten children who are performing.
But the posters have already been made, Sigrit explains. Lemtov pictures with irritation five hand-drawn posters, misspelled, of a chubby cartoon whale.
“Fine,” he says curtly. “It would have been good to see you, to sing. I suppose I cannot tempt you to dinner. Already I have reservations at the three best restaurants in town, all of them excellent.”
Sigrit gasps. “Even the deluxe hot dog cart by the harbor?” Lars shouts something out of earshot about how Bill Clinton ate one of these famous dogs.
She invites him to dinner at their home the day after the concert instead. He accepts, feeling cornered by the lengths to which he had gone to bring them to his show.
“Oh wow, this is going to be super amazing!” she says. “The best. There is a bus to Husavík you can take from a bus terminal in Reykjavik, requiring a smaller bus to reach of course, and the main bus only takes seven or eight hours, depending on the lava flows, or the wild horses blocking the road. Lately they have been extra frisky.”
Lemtov frowns. “I will take helicopter.”
On the rest of the ride home, his newfound mental clarity works against him, shining light into places where he does not like to spend time. Why go to such lengths to recruit Fire Saga when he can book anyone, any group of competent professional musicians? They are strangers. Going to dinner at their quaint little house will be amusing, maybe, but not worth the time it will take for the detour, no matter his interest in Icelandic folklore. He is supposed to fly to LA soon after the Reykjavik date to work with some very famous music producers on a new Christmas album. A big deal, very lucrative.
But it had been incredible to sing with Sigrit, he remembers, very special, and the key light trained on his own thoughts grows softer, kinder than usual; it brings forth a gleaming memory of the Song Along, the look on Sigrit’s face when she found the words to sing in front of strangers, an apparent joy that extended through her beautiful voice and swept up the crowd and him in the spirit of what it had first meant to sing. For all of them there had been decades of hard technical work that followed, but this was the original spark. To sing was to feel a sense of belonging. In a flash, as though the soul itself were coming alive.
He had been shy when he was younger. Almost impossible to recall, now, but his dark adolescent loneliness had been illuminated by music. Sigrit brought it back, the sweetness of the sound. A glow returning.
“Maybe it can be valuable somehow,” he says aloud.
He texts his plans to John to book the flights. When he messages Mita, she quickly replies «χαχαχαχα!!!!» with a cry-laughing emoji.
“Wow! This sure is a big fast helicopter!” shouts Lars over the noise of the whirring blades. “Just like the blockbuster movies!”
Lemtov shrugs his shoulders and grasps modestly at the lapels of his pine-green-and-gold brocade suit. It is tailored to perfection.
They are meeting in a field outside of Husavík, not an airport or a helipad so much as a great barren stretch of shorn grass and snow. It is barely different from all the other barren stretches of black rock they flew over on their way to the northern coast. In Edinburgh there had been some signs of springtime, a few flowers poking through the soil, but Iceland is still frozen over, with only the edges of the land freed from the drifts.
Someone from the helicopter is unloading a matching set of leather Louis Vuitton suitcases. An icy sea wind whips through Lemtov’s suit. His thin-knit gold turtleneck, very expensive, from SoHo, does little to stop it.
“I thought I was used to the cold,” he shouts back to Lars, “but this wind has teeth, yes?”
“Aha! It is a nice warm day today! Not even freezing! So much better than last week. That was brutal.” Lars gestures at a tiny little car. “We will try to fit these bags in here, I guess.”
They drive a little ways to town, past the harbor and a small museum of historical whaling. The buildings are neatly painted in primary colors. Lemtov sees that the afternoon light is thin and blue, filtered through clouds that hang overhead like the blurred image of glaciers.
“So this is the big town, yeah!” says Lars. He swerves a little when he points out local sights. “Here is the main street. There is the other street. Those fishing boats, one of them belongs to my very handsome father. There is the bar where we all go. Sigrit and I perform there on Fridays or for the weddings or the funerals.”
Lemtov chuckles, but sees on Lars’ face that it was not a joke. “Ah, okay, what a very broad range of parties you play. Not crazy-sexy, more like, soundtrack-to-life-and-death.”
“Yeah! You get it, guy. And no matter what, always ‘Ja Ja Ding Dong.’ They never tire of this song.” The large man’s expression darkens. “It will haunt me to my grave.”
They pull up to Lars’ childhood home. It is a sturdy woodframe with a garden and a garage where colored christmas lights can be seen through the windows. A minitature house in front of the fence comes up to Lemtov’s knee.
“That is for the elves,” Lars says. More loudly, he shouts, “Elves, here is a visitor! He is a friendly one! A tan smooth Russian with George Michael hair and probably a big, you know! Please be kind to him.”
Lemtov unfurls out of the car with his usual grace, but shivers. “Lars, I thought you do not believe in these things?”
“My mind was changed.”
The front door opens wide. Sigrit emerges; she is wearing a lumpy rainbow cardigan to her calves, hair pulled into two pom poms, and a knit blanket is wrapped around the baby she carries.
“Alexander Lemtov!” she says, throwing up her free hand and beaming from ear to ear. “You are here! I can hardly believe it. You have come such a long way just for us. The king of Eurovision! And you must be so cold in that super outfit, come in, come in.” She squeezes his arm as he passes.
Lars explains that he was able to buy back his family’s house with the money from ad campaigns Fire Saga did for the tourism board, an American brand of skyr, and Cheetos.
“The super lava fire flavor, maybe you have tried? Double trouble for your taste buds! Yeah!” Lars gives two thumbs up.
Lemtov says, “How wonderful for you, even if the amount of money it must have cost to buy this property was very small. Not enough to buy even one room of one of my houses. Like pocket change.”
He adds, with a wave of his hand, “I say this with much respect.”
There are slices of dark bread laid out on the table, cheese, pickles, roast vegetables, fish, glass bottles of mineral water, a bowl of red-pink cheetos, and something foul-smelling Sigrit proudly tells him is fermented shark. A delicacy. There is tea steaming in the light, and a clear unopened bottle of what must be strong alcohol. It isn’t so different from the spread of small plates Lemtov’s family used to put out for company when he was young.
His uncle had done business in France even before 1991 forced an exodus, so Lemtov always had special blue jeans and sheet music sent to him growing up, little Western trinkets that made him popular at school. The other kids would crowd around to see what he had brought; upscale sneakers, a gold chain necklace, the new Queen album. His parents lost a lot of money in the Soviet collapse, though, so that some of the discipline with which he pursued singing came from a need to get out of the country. He won regional competitions with an operatic baritone teachers always said was a gift from god, a rare talent.
Then conservatory in Paris, where his uncle was helping the rest of the family sort out what gas and utility companies to invest in as Russia rebuilt itself, more musical training in London, and a solo career back home. His family rose back into esteem and money. Always the same plates of the same foods offered at the homes of family friends, though, no matter the country. Cold cuts, sliced cheese, pickles, small fried fish, hard-boiled eggs, wine, shots of vodka like water, all placed on a floral-printed or lace tablecloth.
“It is a beautiful home, Lars and Sigrit,” he says, swept up in the details, bringing himself back.
Lemtov tells stories of long nights and concerts in New York, Tokyo, Mexico City, Capetown, as well as some of his trips to hotels in various paradises. He spent eight weeks in Bali learning gamelan and Javanese dance, a very valuable project, he tells them, so extremely interesting as a musical tradition, but he says nothing of the handsome Australian with whom he stayed for a brief, happy time. Ibiza had been disappointing that past summer, it was getting horribly busy with Americans, but he visited Mykonos with Mita, where they borrowed a friend’s yacht and sailed to a super unbelievable festival in Split. You must visit the Croatian coast, he says, it is full divine. This month he would go to Banff with friends to ski after his LA recording sessions, and then stay with members of the extended royal family of Monaco in a villa in Tuscany.
Sigrit and Lars nod eagerly.
They tell the story from last fall of when a whale beached itself near Þórshöfn, but no one had the equipment with which to help the poor creature return to the sea, so the townsfolk helped bail water onto its skin to calm it and sang lullabies until an animal rescue team arrived. The school musical yesterday had been a big hit, maybe the best anyone can remember; the fourth-graders did a much-abridged “Jesus Christ, Superstar” and they really hit the high notes. Their choreography was garbage, admittedly. Lars was building a little doghouse to match the elf house for their new favorite canine buddy, a sweet sheepdog who they had named Madonna. They were sure the baby would grow to love her in time, it was just slow going because both of them had very strong personalities. The baby, of course, the greatest news of all. She was a beautiful girl born plump and strong, now taking some uncertain steps with hands held. Not full walking, but maybe any day now.
He congratulates them on their domestic bliss. And the rings on their fingers; gold! Like his.
Dinner moves into drinks and dessert, which moves into sitting by the fireplace in the fading evening light. Lars pretends to remain calm while starting a fire.
“Ha ha, just another moment, my sweet love and also my kinda friend! The newpaper is really not catching at all. It is like barely flammable somehow,” Lars says.
“But somehow your sweater still catches on fire, honey dearest.” Sigrit, feeding a bottle to the little babe, motions at his waist.
“Ah! Ha, again it happens, so fun. I love this task,” grits Lars through his teeth. “A roaring hearth. So worthwhile!”
Erick and Helka knock on the door. They bring a loaf of fruitbread to slice and serve with glasses of brennivín, which Erick cheerfully tells Lemtov is a taste of the black death.
“So delicious,” says Lemtov. The drink scalds his insides but also somehow turns them into smoking dry ice. He passes his glass to Sigrit, who is always happier with two.
“Lars, why have you not brought out your guitar? What is wrong with you?” says Erick. “You must treat your guest with some respect. You are a shameful host.”
“Papa, I know now that you love me, but sometimes it really is not so cool the way you show it,” Lars says. He rises, chastened, and brings down the instrument case. He and Erick are bickering over its tuning when Sigrit comes to sit next to Lemtov on the couch.
“Alexander,” she says, leaning in, “is that what your friends call you? Or is there something shorter?”
After a long moment he tilts his head. “Sasha, if you please.”
He does not need to love women in the traditional sense to see how she is glowing with new motherhood, this singer whose voice bewitched him, who had returned to her sleepy village without a thought. Sigrit coos as she brushes her thumb over the baby’s cheek, meeting young eyes with affection or concern as a kindly mirror would, and the laugh lines at the corners of Sigrit’s eyes crinkle over and over. She seems more certain to him, somehow. There is a quiet rootedness to her that has become more prominent, more beautiful, and it is only occasionally when everyone is talking and laughing that she looks shy, tongue-tied, with nothing to say while wanting the words.
“Sasha,” she says to him now, “would you like to hold little Freyja?”
“Oh no, I really could never—”
“Here she is! Wow, say hello to Mr. Lemtov of Eurovision, Freyja my love!”
He is trapped. There is no way out. She is handing over the baby. He grimaces and holds his arms stiffly in a circle, as though she is a little bomb set to detonate at the slightest movement. Her weight comes to rest on Lemtov’s lap, and Freyja looks back at him with suspicion, but continues to suck at the bottle.
“I see you are a natural with children,” says Helka.
“While I have never felt that way,” Lemtov says, squirming, “I suppose it is not surprising that they take to me so easily. You see—”
“She is pulling your leg, my friend,” says Lars. “My mother-in-law is known in Huskavík for her wit. Sometimes you do not know for days there was a joke, but there it is, staring at you.”
“He’s doing great,” says Sigrit. She does not sound convincing.
Children are not something Lemtov thinks about. He sees the offspring of his friends being shepherded around by nannies, or on their way to a tennis lesson in Paris. Maybe in the distance they are riding a beautiful showhorse whose pedigree is immaculate, with many Triple Crown winners. This one is so tiny. She has barely begun to be a person. She has no wealth. He wonders for a moment how his parents looked holding him, way back when, since he no longer talks to them much, just pays for a perfect apartment in Moscow and another on Nevsky Prospect for staying over in Petersburg. Had they held him with such tenderness, such rapt attention?
While he indulges in the thought, Freyja pulls the bottle from her mouth, looks deep into his eyes, and vomits all over his suit.
“Oh Lemtov! I am so sorry, I had no idea,” Sigrit says. She is hoisting the rascal out of his lap. “Your beautful clothing that looks so expensive!”
“Everything can be replaced,” he says with difficulty. “They are just objects, yes? Maybe this was handmade for me by master couturier in Rome who has since died, traded for Fabergé egg, but, no problem. I am so relaxed about it.”
Helka smiles while she strums the guitar.
Lars drags him to a bedroom upstairs that must be his and Sigrit’s, even if it is so small. He is grumbling and apologizing while fishing through a bureau. Lemtov takes off his beautiful maybe-ruined jacket, then the maybe-ruined turtleneck.
“Hey guy, I am again so sorry, I figure you can put on this sweater of mine that went through the dryer twice, it has a pretty cool pattern actually.” Lars turns around, and his face crumples into sadness.
“What is wrong?”
The tall Icelander shakes his head so that blond locks of hair fall into his eyes. He looks deeply pained, on the verge of crying. He finally speaks.
“Lemtov, I mean Sasha, have you come to destroy me?”
The winner of Eurovision does not know how to respond.
“I mean, look at your beautiful body! It is so tan and excellent, like a super sexy dolphin. I bet that Sigrit will take one look at you and she will remember how I do not deserve her. She will remember all the things you told her at night in Edinburgh and she will leave me here to die alone by the sea. You two will have the most passionate lovemaking, it will be crazy hot, like acrobats—”
“Lars, what you are saying is not true,” says a shirtless Lemtov, gently.
“I mean, it is true that you do not deserve her. Of course. Very obvious.” He gestures at Lars’ large, strangely-shaped physique. “But this the case for many men with beautiful wives. If she wants you for some reason, you must believe her. Is mystery.”
“So,” Lars replies, brow furrowed, “you do not intend to steal my bride? That was not the point of this visit?”
“No! How could you think such a thing? You are so nice to me on my driving tour.”
“I wanted to be on good terms, maybe we could share custody of Freyja on school holidays.” Lars breathes an enormous sigh of relief. “Man, are you for real? I am so happy but also so confused. You two were hitting it off! You have a real something, like when you sang together in the Song Along! It was the highest possible form of her checking you out, and you checking her out too.”
Lemtov sits down on the bed. He is tired. He takes the shrunken sweater from Lars and pulls it over his head. His hair is rumpled and freed of styling mousse. It must look like a mushroom.
“Listen to me,” he finally says. “I am no danger to you. Your life here that you think is perfect, it is safe from me forever.”
“Ehh, I don’t know, my kinda friend. Because I am pretty good at picking up on the energy of romantic situations. It is my greatest talent, after the songwriting.”
“She is not for me,” Lemtov snaps. “She is a she.”
Lars’ eyes widen. He leans in, as if entrusted with a multi-million dollar secret, which is true. The bedroom with its plaid wool bedspread and its clunky furniture feels impossibly small. Silent.
“So you like… the ding dongs,” says Lars.
Lemtov stares back at him askance. “Never has it been described this way, but yes.”
Lars falls to the floor and clutches his head. “Oh my god! The elves have given me yet another gift that is not even murder. On the life of my daughter, Freyja Waterloo Larsson, I will work to pay back this debt. It is too crazy good for me. Wow.”
The sound of a guitar and Sigrit’s voice drifts up from the living room. To no one’s surprise, it is ethereal.
When Lemtov tries to beg off to his hotel for the night, downstairs again, everyone laughs.
“What hotel?” says Lars. “What is this, the high season of summer, and you are some sailor on a passing freighter who needs to visit port for a telegram, as they say? You are staying here, in the guest room!”
Lars is holding Freyja and sitting next to Sigrit. Looking more calm, now, he puts an arm around the woman he loves.
“When do you leave town, Alexander Lemtov?” asks Helka.
“Are you sure you cannot stay?” says Sigrit in a whisper. The baby has fallen asleep. “We have not even gotten to sing together! You must come to the bar with us. We have started a karaoke night.”
“I want that so much. I say this sincerely, without trying to trick you in any way,” says Lemtov. The castoff wool sweater is making every inch of his torso itch. “But I have first-class flight to LA after helicopter. Big studio session for Christmas album. Or else I would stay for such long time.”
Erick’s phone chimes, and he pulls it out. He has been quiet all night. Now he gives a little hoot, and looks up.
“The gods have heard you.”
All the other cells chime as well. Lemtov pulls his newest model iPhone out of his brocade pant pocket.
“A volcanic explosion!” cries Sigrit. “Eyjafjallajökull has grown angry again! Why, all the planes here and in Western Europe will be grounded by the ash for at least a week!”
“Just as we were talking about you staying longer!” says Lars. “Ha ha, what are the chances?”
“Infintesimal,” enunciates Lemtov.
His Louis Vuitton suitcases are waiting for him when he flops onto the crocheted guestroom bedspread.
In the morning, Lemtov wakes to the sound of Lars and Sigrit harmonizing in a higher key than is advisable. They are downstairs in the kitchen, sounding as though their whole lives have not been disturbed by a million pounds of hot molten rock.
Sunlight streams in through his room’s window. When he sits up to peer at the harbor and its cold, endless ocean, a seagull brushes against the glass.
“Ahh!” he says, with resonant timbre, as the gull screams and taps on the pane.
He centers himself, using the last thread of calmness imparted to him by many famous gurus, and begins to plan.
“Good morning my hosts,” Lemtov says, striding down the stairs. He has taken a long shower with his own sumptuous bath products. His hair has returned to form. He wears an embroidered leisure suit, this time with svelte long underwear in artful color contrast.
“Alexander-Sasha,” Sigrit says, holding two coffees. “We have made pancakes! We know you must be sad about the change in plans.”
Lars, who is cooking, shouts something in Icelandic over his shoulder. Sigrit hurriedly fetches a small fire extinguisher from under the sink. They avert disaster while Lemtov puts his hands on his hips and takes a deep, confident breath.
“On the contrary,” he says, “I will make the best of this. It is such an interesting version of vacation that was supposed to last, what, six hours? But now I am still here. Lars, step aside, I am always eating at wonderful expensive restaurants, but I am actually great chef. Did I tell you about my time studying at Noma, and after that Nobu, with my close personal chef friends?”
While whipping up a hollandaise sauce to go with poached eggs, buckwheat pancakes and repurposed leftover vegetables that Sigrit swears now taste like her dearest childhood memories, Lemtov explains.
“I know a very cool composer in Reykjavik, longtime pal. He took me on a walk through historic part of town right after I arrived from the hot springs where I went after plane. Mud mask so cleansing,” he says. Food appears on the table. “This same composer is driving here to Husavík with his sensible car and some very chic sweaters. He will leave car here, advise me for few hours on structure of new music on which I will work here in the wilderness, and then he will take bus back.”
“What a good friend to loan you his car!” says Sigrit.
“Oh, he gives it to me. I trade him Aston Martin.” Lemtov chuckles and leans in. “That model was never my favorite.”
“You can make your music in my garage,” says Lars. “It is where I dreamed for several decades of winning the very competition which you yourself won instead of me.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I have found on my other friend’s small website, Airbnb, a beautiful scenic farmhouse only twenty minutes away. It has a lighthouse, and somehow also professional music equipment. I am so lucky,” he says. “And here is a fresh spiced beet purée for little Freyja. Nutritious.”
Lemtov places a small glass container with a tiny matching spoon in front of the baby. The container rests on a dish that has orange and green sauces expertly splashed in a gourmet plating pattern.
“I think you have spilled some things,” says Lars. “And Freyja does not like beets.”
“Oh my goodness, she is in love with it,” says Sigrit. She feeds the baby a pink dollop that has been dipped in the orange sauce. “I think this is the most she has ever liked any food.”
“Ha ha, maybe children enjoy me after all!” Lemtov says while spreading his arms in triumph. “Tell your mother, please.”
While eating pancakes, he explains that he and his manager have discussed how he will work on a few songs for the Christmas album while stranded in Husavík. In a way, it is the best outcome. The story of the volcanic explosion will be the perfect anchor for a press release. He is already picturing the album cover; he is posing in front of a glacier with a smoldering gaze, a polar bear is standing up on its back legs, and a nearby pine tree is decked in lights and tinsel.
The rental house is elaborate for the area. His manager thinks it might have been built as a hideout for someone on the run from Interpol for tax evasion, but it has beautiful views and powerful wi-fi. Lemtov is able to stream an advanced Equinox yoga class while downloading some of the new songs to go over.
“’Panther on the Prowl’? ‘Heat of the Jungle’? Johnny,” he says on speakerphone. “Come now. These are tired. And is this not winter holiday album?”
“You have a brand. We stick to it. This isn’t rocket science,” says John. “We’ll put ‘Silent Night’ in the first few tracks. And then you can do your normal stuff.”
“’I Want Your Sexy Body, Woman.’ So subtle.”
“Well, after you were photographed holding hands with that actor in Chelsea, we can’t really afford to be subtle.”
Lemtov rolls his shoulders with a grimace, as if shaking out a pain from his vinyasa poses. He has made a halfway decent latté with the house’s espresso machine. A welcome change after the coffee offered by Lars and Sigrit that morning, which had been an abomination.
“I get that it’s tough, man. I’m not trying to be a villain,” says John. He is a savvy talent manager who engineered Celine Dion’s comeback. “You say the word, we can go public or we can get creative about your private life. But Eastern Europe is a tough market. My job is to help you hold on to what you have, and get you more.”
“Yes, I understand.”
“Hey, you got invited to host Tel Aviv Pride. I forgot to mention. It would be a big pivot, but we can do it. You can be the Ricky Martin of the Soviet Union.”
Lemtov strokes his chin while looking through the plate glass windows. The light of the sky has shifted away from whites and blues, just for a moment, to show the sea in shades of green lapping on dark beaches. Salt spray blows off a rock formation.
He had been eight when he first saw the ocean, if the Black Sea counts as an ocean. The sight of it had swallowed him up. His parents, laughing, had to bribe him with a soda to get him off the beach. They promised him it would still be there when he returned.
“Ricky Martin of Mother Russia. Like how I am currently stuck in Hawaii of Arctic Circle.”
John laughs. “We’ll talk. If you have songs you want on the album, add them in. No big deal. All up to you.”
When they hang up, Lemtov cannot shake off the moodiness of an Icelandic spring.
He had understood, all those years ago, what he was signing up for. In fact he had not felt as though he were denying any part of himself. There had been no version of public love between men to which he could aspire, growing up. Only as a joke, or an example of Western decadence. Music was his romance. Passion. To throw yourself into a performance was a way of being seen, and to get paid handsomely for it, a greater miracle still. Asking for anything more had always seemed naïve. A child’s dream.
Now he has all of the decadence of the West, gilt houses and jewels and bank accounts, in cities where you are allowed to walk down the street with your lover. He sees them as he travels the world. These gay couples look happy, and it is a happiness he had never dared imagine for himself; in bed, yes, but not in public. There is a simplicity to how men look into each other’s eyes at a Park Slope café or how they lay beside each other on a blanket in Central Park that, even now, seems to him more lurid than any of his backup dancers’ routines.
Maybe he had always thought his life would be like the great cement high-rises of Moscow. When Americans see them they recoil because the exterior appears so lifeless, so identical to all the others. But that is only another dimension of their beauty, because as you walk up the stairwells you grow warmer, you hear the voices of people carry past double steel doors, you wait for the right one to open, and when you arrive at your destination it feels as though you have found a hidden heaven, full of shining fabrics and kisses on the cheek and plush carpets and plates of food, meant for your eyes, and your eyes only. Of course, it is fun to show off sometimes; it always will be, and requires a certain zeal. Yet he assumed the most important things in life remain secret.
Now nothing has changed, but it gets more difficult every year to believe that he does not care, or else it does not get easier each time he is reminded. He assumed it would get easier, eventually.
His family is proud of him in their own way. He does not relish the idea of the Russian Patriarch pasting up his posters as an example of a damned soul, being used as a prop. Not being able to return. He cannot think of what he does not have that he really needs. And yet there remains this ache.
Some of us cannot hit the speorg note, he thinks. We must content ourselves with winning, and brush away our tears with furs and diamonds.
The Captain’s Galley, sturdily built, has a pair of crossed oars over the entrance. There is a broad mudroom where everyone sheds their outer layers. On the way into karaoke night, peeling off his new Canada Goose jacket, freshly delivered from Reykyavik, he spots Fire Saga’s coats. A huge neon-multicolor ski jacket next to a cranberry wool peacoat whose tucked-in hat is flush with polka dots.
Lars and Sigrit each wave both their arms to him from a table in the front. “Sasha! Look at us! This is where we are sitting!”
“It is obvious,” he says, “you are only ones here.”
“Not true,” says Lars. “Old Inge is knitting at the bar.”
“Her song is ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’” says Sigrit.
“Really?” Lemtov asks, eyes wide.
“No!” she says. “Ha ha, I really got you with that one!”
“Great joke, my love,” says Lars. Freyja is wearing soundproof headphones in a marsupial carrier on his chest. “No, for real, Inge loves Barry Manilow.”
They have a round of beers. A few more people trickle in. Lemtov is introduced to a few teachers from Sigrit's school, two fishermen who smell of their profession, a sputtering man named Olaf, a couple of teens, an old couple whose names he does not catch because they are talking in fast Icelandic to his hosts without a glance at the pop star sitting in their midst.
Lemtov had dressed down a little for the evening—black Valentino sweater, dark jeans, gold chain, his rings—but he is not used to being overlooked. He does not understand a word of what is happening. Sigrit glances over and pats his hand while she says something lilting to the old man, whose beard ends in a small braid.
“Here are two of our local policemen, who can sometimes be pretty cool guys,” says Lars. “Arnar and Björn.”
The blond man narrows his eyes at Lars, but nods to Sigrit and Lemtov. “Yes, we have been working on something.”
“Oh boy, this will be a crazy night, I can just feel it,” says Lars.
It starts slow. One of the teachers from Sigrit’s school does “…Baby One More Time” in a squeaky voice, bouncing. The teens sing a Justin Bieber song together in a trio. There are a few Icelandic songs he does not recognize, some ballads. Olaf steps forward, shoulders squared, and amps things up with what sounds like a heavy metal-inflected version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” that is almost moving in its whacky intensity.
“Wow,” says Sigrit at the end. She claps and leans in to whisper to Lemtov, “We think this is a good way for him to blow off steam.”
The bottom panes of the bar’s windows have begun to collect condensation. Erick and Helka walk in. Lars strides up to the microphone.
“Hello Husavík! How are you doing! Are you ready to rock!” he yells. Erick shakes his head. A couple people whistle. “Hit it!”
The large spirited man launches into “Wannabee” by the Spice Girls. His range is woefully insufficient. He is trying to indicate which given girl is singing through an odd mix of expressions and gestures. Still, his energy is infectious. Lemtov finds himself laughing, not in scorn but with true affection. He wishes he had a lighter to wave.
It is terrible.
“Thank you Iceland!” shouts a sweaty Lars when he is done. “And if you will permit me, a duet with my wonderful Sigrit! The woman you all know so well! Not the winner of Eurovision due to some stupid rules or whatever, but a national hero and a beauty too!”
Sigrit tries to laugh him off, but Lemtov bats her shoulder. She cannot get out of this one. There is no one here she does not know. Sigrit raises her eyebrows at him and motions to Freyja. Gamely, Lemtov gestures at himself. This dark fabric should not stain. Time to face fears for both of them. He is draped in the baby carrier, and she jogs up to the monitor.
“Which one?” Lemtov can hear her whisper. Lars points, and she nods eagerly.
It is ABBA’s “Chiquitita.” A slow-burn banger. Lars harmonizes underneath as Sigrit sings the opening verses.
Even in this humble setting he sighs to hear her voice. Why is it so special, among all others? There is the clarity of the tone, of course, the strength it carries to high registers, the lack of bravado that he begrudgingly admits sails her from note to note—but also a profound emotion that sounds lived-in, so suffused into each line there is a sliver of sadness too. It is hard to name. Sometimes he does not mind leaving some mystery, in music. And yet he needs to solve this.
Once the ragtime chorus breaks out a few people in the bar bang their beer glasses in time against the table. Sigrit and Lars throw in a few fancy folk steps and circle each others hands while spinning, as they did onstage in Edinburgh.
“Bravissimo!” cheers Lemtov once it ends. Freyja has not squirmed. Perhaps she can feel some of the rhythm in her chest, even if her tiny ears have been protected.
“And now, what you’ve all been waiting for—” Lars scans the audience, and Lemtov thinks this is his moment to step up, but instead Lars points to the back of the room and says, “—come on you crazy maniacs! Arnar, Björn! Lögreglan reporting for duty!”
Everyone cheers as the policemen walk stiffly up to the microphones. Arnar nods, takes a deep breath in and out. They look at each other with a serious gaze. A familiar opening riff comes in.
It is “Under Pressure,” by Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. Lemtov smiles.
The crowd goes wild. They nail it. Enough, anyway, for a small town.
He is coming back from the bathroom when Sigrit scoops him up by the elbow. She walks him up to the front, explaining that he must have known this would happen. They really could not deprive Husavík of such a voice.
“Come now,” he says. “I have no Cirque de Soleil cast, no pyrotechnics. It is poor imitation of real thing.”
She rolls her eyes. “The only question is, what will you sing, hot stuff?” She gives him a shove.
He stands on the patch of floor they call a stage, looks for a mark that is not there, and scrolls through the computer they have connected to a couple speakers.
Lemtov has the strange feeling that he does not know how to impress these people, or what it would accomplish to do so. This is a little part of the earth untouched by all the forces by which he operates. He chooses something simple, in the end, that suits his style.
A brisk horn section comes in, and then he is launching into Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual.” He has to hold the mic farther away so as not to fill such a small room with too much sound. The melody climbs up and down, settling into the bass and then surging in a rush. He thinks it is a hit, a few people are dancing, though Helka appears stern as ever.
“Bravo!” screams Lars, toward the end. “You are a sex machine! You are on fire with the flames of success!”
Lemtov takes a mock bow. The silliest little performance.
“But it was too short,” Sigrit says loudly. “One more, please! In fact, we are used to no one caring about our Eurovision song, they only want another certain one—but we must hear yours! Please!”
There are cheers. Ah, this again. He is not exactly tired of it. Muscle memory. Without anywhere to strut or pace, he plants firmly and begins the opening notes to “Lion of Love.” All goes well, there is a lot of cheering; the policemen look thrilled, somehow. Helka still frowns.
“Thank you, thank you.” He searches for what to promote to the crowd, some performance or merch, and finds nothing. “You are all super fantastic.”
Not long after, Lars has to announce they are nearing the end. Karaoke night has grown so successful that there have been noise complaints, or at least a few scowls at the market the next morning, which is the same thing. No one volunteers to take the last slot so Lars hands the microphone to Sigrit once more.
She bites her lip, looking down. Lemtov half-hopes she will sing her song from the finals, the one that made him feel transformed on a night he expected to be all about him. But instead Sigrit raises a finger to her temple and smiles. She clicks and presses play.
Lemtov closes his eyes. She is singing the slow piano version of a song he knows very well. Back when he was first at conservatory in Paris, still a little shy, stumbling over his French and mixing up currencies, a group of older students had convinced him to go clubbing. He cannot brag about where they went. It was cheap, central, unsophisticated; maybe the 3rd arrondissement. Everyone drank out of little plastic cups, and it was the first time Lemtov wore eyeliner. It looked amazing. It also made him so nervous he rubbed off most of it on the subway.
A few hours into dancing, while taking a water break, an echoing English vocal sample had carried over their heads. One of the cutest guys from the choral program grabbed his hand and dragged him out to the middle of the dance floor, pulled him close, touched his hips and his waist before stealing a kiss. “Heaven” by DJ Sammy. That is what Sigrit sings now, a slower version, as though they were in church. A euro dance song that played one of the first times he felt strong, and free in the dark, and in the presence of someone who wanted all of him.
This town is like an arrow to the heart. It is making him too sentimental. There is nothing to do here and nothing to buy, only memories.
He opens his eyes to see Sigrit reaching toward Lars in the audience. Lars has tears in his eyes. Just like in Edinburgh, he can tell they have forgotten anyone else exists.
“A pretty solid karaoke night,” says Olaf, walking out. “Needs more ‘Ja Ja Ding Dong.’”
“We know,” Lars grumbles. He and the bartender are putting away the audio equipment.
Lemtov walks to Sigrit, Erick and Helka, who are all standing by the bar. As a practitioner of hair braiding, he is impressed by the tightness of Helka’s fishtail plait. Very professional.
“Mama,” says Sigrit, “does Sasha not have the most incredible singing voice you have ever heard? So full of power, and, and beauty!”
“Yours is my favorite voice.”
“Ahh, but after that. Really, I just could not believe it when I first heard him. It was like, whoa! There is the sound of some wild, amazing guy who knows exactly what he is doing.”
Helka shrugs. “You have a lot of training,” she tells Lemtov, who frowns.
“Be nice, dear,” says Erick.
“It is true,” says Lemtov. He squares his shoulders and does his best to look non-chalant. “Many years, yes. I hear you are great musician, you taught Sigrit about speorg note and singing from—”
“You are too puffed up,” says Helka. She is looking straight through him. “It is a bigger sound than the heart you are bringing. Nothing of yourself is in the music. I do not care for this. It is popular, but empty.”
“Mama!” gasps Sigrit.
For once, Lemtov is speechless. Erick bids a hasty farewell to them and steers Helka away.
“You cannot take her seriously,” Sigrit says. “I am embarassed. How rude! And so wrong. You know this, you know how people love to hear you.”
“Of course.” Lemtov looks to her, brow furrowed. He says, “She does not speak the truth, then?”
“Nope,” shouts Lars from far away. “My mother-in-law slash step-mother can be a real hellcat.”
Fire Saga departs. Lemtov sits down at the bar for one last drink of water before his drive. He will go home too, eventually. Not just to the rental on the coast but to Manhattan, Paris, LA, Dubai, London, Rio, Hong Kong. This is not a real place. It is barely on any maps, and nothing that happens here can be of any consequence.
“Hey,” says the blond policeman. He is sitting at the the bar too. “You are the famous singer who was trapped here by the volcano, yes?”
“That is what they tell me.”
“Where are you from?”
Lemtov shrugs. “Russia.”
“Now I remember,” says the policeman, leaning back. Björn was his name. “From the Eurovision song contest.”
“You’re a fan?”
“Oh no, I hate that stuff,” says Björn. “Too weird.”
Lemtov laughs bleakly. What a night.
“Don’t get me wrong,” the policeman says, moving to sit next to him, “you are an amazing singer. I am just more of a sports guy. We all watched the show for Lars and Sigrit. I always thought Lars was kind of a kook.”
“All of us are,” says Lemtov. “The ones who end up in Eurovision. A strange thing to do for living.”
“It always seemed pretty gay,” says Björn.
All he can do is swallow, and look relaxed. Finally, he says, “Is very extra, some of the spectacle. But this is convention, not everyone—”
“Which is why I always thought I was supposed to like it. Since I am gay.” Björn the blond policeman shrugs. “Oh well.”
Lemtov’s heart would be racing faster if he were not so tired.
“Oh really? Good, good for you,” he says. “I mean, if you are into that kind of thing.”
“Yeah, it’s working pretty well for me,” Björn says in a tone he would use to talk about the weather. “It can be kind of hard to find other guys on the North Coast. Sometimes I go to a gay club in Reykjavik, I make a weekend of it, you know, for finding the sex. Maybe I will move away later in life, but for now I am staying here.”
“Believe me, for any place, you are super attractive,” Lemtov says. He is looking at his glass. “They must put something special in Huskavík water.”
Björn laughs, lighting up, and thanks him. “You would know, huh. About being handsome. Like a cool Hollywood movie star.”
The more time he spends in this small town the more it assumes a dreamlike quality, giving him beautiful things and taking them away; knocking him off his pedestal one moment, clasping him tightly the next. It is another retreat. When he went to that super expensive, hip mindfulness training in upstate New York with his model friends he thought it was a way to see into his ego, remove it, polish and perfect it, maybe leave it stronger than ever. This had been his own take on the guru talk. What he thought he needed.
The version at work here does not seem to promise any strength to him. If this is a form of mythology, there is another aim. It takes place in the middle of nowhere, where he is not Alexander Lemtov, and there are no cameras.
He places a ringed hand on Björn’s knee and kisses the man on his cheek. Björn takes a quick breath in. He turns and kisses Lemtov on the lips. There is no music playing, and the Icelander’s kiss is kind, straightforward. A fire lights in the pit of Lemtov’s stomach. He keeps kissing him, this beautful stranger, and his hand floats to Björn’s jawline, runs through his hair.
“Closing time, fellas,” says a bartender sweeping up across the room.
“I have a house I am renting,” says Lemtov. “A very big and beautiful house.”
“That could be good. All I have to offer is my small home where I have a traditional Icelandic woodworking shop,” Bjorn replies. “Furniture, folk carvings. It is my hobby.”
Lemtov, as they walk to get their coats, reaches to hold Björn’s hand on a whim. He squeezes it. “You know, traditional woodworking has always been great passion of mine.”
Sigrit picks him up at his rental the next day, in the afternoon. She is taking him to see the elves. In the backseat of her tiny car he can see a basket with a bottle of whiskey, biscuits, a very tiny knit hat, and a CD.
“The elves like CDs?” Lemtov asks. “I have never come across this in my reading.”
“I like to think that they do,” says Sigrit. Her blonde-tinged hair is loose, with some of the front bound into a simple braid. “I have burned for them some of the Bad Bunny music. So they can stay hip with the youth.”
He is still tired, but now in the best way. It had been a very good, sleepless night with Björn. Hauling all that lumber had made the Icelander strong and lean like a Greek statue. Björn had looked pleased when Lemtov said this, and even more pleased soon afterward.
Sigrit is telling him how he shouldn’t mind what her mother said the night before. Helka has always preferred folk songs, more traditional singing. Back in her day she won a regional competition with an old poem about ravens while playing the langspil in front of a fjord covered in wildflowers.
“She cannot let go of this,” Sigrit says, rolling her eyes. “It is like, you win the ‘kveðast á’ Golden Horn one time and you are queen of the world or something.”
She pulls the car over to the side of the road in what feels like the middle of nowhere. They walk up a well-worn trail to three tiny wooden houses on a hill. Sigrit places the basket in front of the middle one, and kneels.
“Come, come.” She motions for Lemtov to kneel too. He cringes as he touches his very expensive pants to the ground.
Her hair flutters in the wind as she closes her eyes and holds mittened hands in her lap. There is still snow cover, but also patches of what will be grass in warmer weather. She looks very beautiful.
After a couple minutes, Lemtov coughs loudly.
“Is there something we are supposed to be doing?” he says.
“It is good just to be here with them,” says Sigrit. “We do not want them to get lonely. But we can talk to them now.”
She speaks about tiny Freyja and how she is growing. “Thank you for kicking Lars in the butt a little bit so we can start a nice family,” she says. There is talk of Madonna the dog, and some of the difficult kids at school, as well as the good ones. She tells the elves she hopes this will be a good fishing season for the town. She wants them to stop climate change so that Husavík survives, as a small favor.
“And thank you for stranding our now-friend Sasha-Alexander with your volcano explosion,” she is saying. “I read that the airlines and everyone are going to lose, like, a billion dollars, so it is pretty cool that you made that happen just to let us sing together.”
“Yes, thank you so much,” says Lemtov.
“You cannot be sarcastic with the elves. They do not appreciate this.”
He nods. “I am sorry, little elves. It is nice to meet you. I have read very much about you and your traditions. It is, how you say, fascinating. Super cool cultural subject.”
“Talk with them,” says Sigrit. “And then I have a fun surprise for you.” She wanders down to the car.
“I did not really appreciate your volcano exploding, to be honest,” says Lemtov when she is out of earshot. “But it is not so bad. I am glad there was the house available to rent, I maybe would have lost it staying in their guest room. You have a nice land here. It has lots of cool-looking rocks, and this ocean is beautiful, even if very cold. I hope you will show me whales.”
He glances back to the car, and says, “Thank you for the great sex last night. Not that it was you I was having sex with, or anything, but it was very good fortune to run into Björn. Please be nice to him. His woodworking is actually super cool. And continue to be nice to me, I guess. Even though I am already extremely wealthy, with amazing attractive hair.”
He looks down. “Please let me be happy sometimes,” he says finally, in Russian. “I want to make beautiful music and pursue a higher form of art. I would like to be proud of myself the way I can tell that these people Lars and Sigrit understand and believe in each other. My friends are kind to me, but I would like to feel that more authentically for myself without their assistance. Elves, I hope you stay well and that people believe in you. Cheers.”
There is no movement he can see in the tiny houses. A breeze blowing over the snow brings the smell of saltwater. Footsteps.
“It is nice to hear you speak Russian! We are all of us vikings, you know," says Sigrit, approaching with a folder. She kneels again. "They rowed all the way to Rus, and to this land full of ice.”
He smiles, and says, “I think they probably would have liked to have airplanes working also.”
She hands him a few pages of photocopied sheet music. Sigrit explains that she would like to teach him an old hymn that everyone knows. It is called ‘Heyr Himna Smiður,’ a hymn for the smith of heaven.
“It is like our ‘Don’t Stop Believin,’ but from maybe 900 years ago. The elves are big fans.”
The wind blows away some of the sound of their singing together, but his heart is still lifted as they work their way through the lines. Making music with her is just as wonderful as he remembers from the Song Along. What a voice. It is always something special to sing with just one other person, and especially to sing in a duet without any instruments or audience. The purest form. Both of them can adjust to the other, moment to moment; his lower voice getting more or less round to match the shape of her vowels, and hers soaring above his for the highest, aching notes.
“Wow!” she says, laughing, when they reach the end together for the first time. “Wow. I am starting to think you were onto something, with that whole Sigrit-Lemtov thing! We sound really super amazing together.”
“This is what I tell you,” he says in a rush. “Right? It sounds very good. I was correct.”
She laughs again. “Okay, but why did you have to pretend to seduce me? That was so silly! You are a really handsome guy. It was like, crazy flattering. But I already had a handsome guy I wanted.”
“This is usually what women like,” he says, shrugging. “You know, big romantic gestures. Say smooth things to them at your castle at sunset, hire Lana Del Ray to sing song for proposal. Promise rare, precious and kind of illegal goods. Like saying I would give you tiger.”
She nods mournfully, in acknowledgement of how extremely cool that would have been.
“How else can I get you to travel the world with me, besides sultry-sexy lover vibe?”
“Besides,” he says, “you would have been best beard. Absolutely world class. Showstopper beard.”
She looks puzzled, and he has to explain to her what that means.
“Are you for real?” she says, laughing harder than ever. She laughs so much that tears come to her eyes. “That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”
“Oh come now,” he says, doing a conspiratorial air kiss. “We would have been very beautiful.”
“Yeah, but I cannot pretend to be in love with you! I cannot pretend to be in love with anyone,” she says. “I am not an actor! In fact I am pretty terrible at lying. Lars sees right through me when I have to explain where the last half of a pie has gone.”
Something clicks in his head. “Yes,” he says. “Yes, I see now.”
Sigrit would not have been what he needed after all. Not because of what Mita suggested at Eurovision, that he wouldn’t be able to keep her happy without sex; that was a good and obvious point, but more importantly, she would not have been happy anywhere too far from Husavík, her heart. Sigrit is the rare kind of person who usually never makes it to a world-famous song competition for all of Europe. She is an artist so full of immediate feeling that she always believes what she says when she is saying it; when she is singing a song, it pours out of her as though it is the last one she will ever sing.
“I think you are, how they say, self-realized,” he says. “If one of these people who believes in crystals that heal looked at your aura, it would be clear like diamond.”
“Is it good for an aura to be clear?” says Sigrit, scrunching up her face. “Shouldn’t they have colors?”
“To be honest, I have no idea,” Lemtov admits. “I will ask LA people.” She laughs again, and gathers up the sheet music.
He asks her suddenly, the thought returning from before, “Why did you not tell Lars I am gay?”
“It was not his business." She puts the pages back into their folder. "And you know, he tries a little harder when he is jealous. I do not hate it.”
Lemtov picks himself up from the ground. The knees of his pants will be stained, he knows.
“Goodbye elves,” she says, waving. “Thank you. Have a good week. Get up to lots of elf things.”
“Thank you again for sending me hot Björn,” says Lemtov. He winks at Sigrit, who gasps.
“You absolute sex-player! Nice,” she says, super impressed.
Lemtov lets her hold his arm for balance as they walk back to the car. They are making plans to practice more songs in the few days left before the ash clears. She says he needs to pick a song to teach her, maybe something that is not pop music. And she leans in as if to tell him a secret when they are putting their seatbelts on.
“The whole world knows I love my hometown now, but I am not a saint,” she says. “I really, really liked the club dancing all night. So if we are becoming real friends, maybe we can meet up sometime to sing in a real city, one that has more than a few thousand people who all know me way too well. I can use the Cheetos money for a babysitter.”
Lars and Sigrit have just finished playing ‘Ja Ja Ding Dong’ for the second time at the pub.
“I will not do it anymore. You are torturing me,” says Lars. The crowd laughs. “It is making me really unhappy. I am not joking at all.”
Sigrit is wearing the baby carrier with Freyja onstage. She has her hair in very elaborate, intricate braids that had taken Lemtov five hours, and required him looking up an advanced technique on YouTube. It is Fire Saga’s regular weekly performance. It is also Lemtov’s last night in town. He is finally leaving rural Iceland.
Lemtov has dressed up for the occasion, no matter how humble his surroundings. When he had first walked into the Captain’s Galley in a red, leather-trimmed suit with matching satin vest that night, hair fully feathered and the studs on his dress boots shining, Lars’ jaw had dropped.
“Now that is how a guy dresses,” he said.
Fire Saga has played all of their hits, including Sigrit’s song about Husavík. A child is on the drums for some reason. They are into their back catalogue of songs they wrote for Eurovision that never got picked. ‘(Hey Hey Hey) You Are My Northern Lights’ is popular. ‘I May Have Wasted My Life,’ less so.
“That one was written in a very dark time for me!” says Lars, as the audience coughs and one person claps a little. “But now I am doing better, probably.”
Lemtov is finishing a phone call with his manager just outside the bar entrance. It is cold as ever but he has had a couple drinks, so he feels warm. He waves to Björn as the Icelander is walking in. Lemtov summons him over and kisses Björn on the cheek, who looks bashful but happy.
“Johnny, I have two tracks I am adding to the album. The rest are fine, I do whatever.”
“Is it gonna be some weird volcano song?”
Lemtov laughs. “No, folk song I am singing with Sigrit. It will go over very well in Russian market, people love it. Old ladies will love it.”
“Music to my ears,” says John. “And the other?”
“A cover of ‘Everytime We Touch.’”
“Really?” Lemtov can hear his manager coughing, as though he has choked on some food. “Cascada? For a Christmas album.”
“Yes, is very sentimental song for me. Good memories. We can do with orchestra, make it cool and classy. And a remix for summer.”
After some boring talk about flight and schedules, he walks inside. Helka and Eric are standing by the bar.
Erick shakes Lemtov’s hand. “So you are going.” It seems as though he will say something more, but he does not.
“Maybe I will buy summer house here, come to Husavík for the weekends.”
“You are joking,” says Helka.
“One hundred percent, yes.”
Sigrit motions for Lemtov to come onstage. He makes his way through the crowd, nodding and exchanging pleasantries with people Lars and Sigrit introduced to him, or people from whom he has bought fish. He hops up, takes the acoustic guitar out of its case and checks its tuning. One summer in Barcelona he had studied with a Spanish master, in between jetsetting trips with friends. He is very talented.
“We have an extra special song for you tonight,” says Sigrit. “Alexander Lemtov, winner of Eurovision, is going to sing us a song that he learned way before he got famous!”
“And I will be singing it with Sigrit Ericksdottir, Iceland’s Eurovision almost-winner!” The bar crowd cheers.
“It is a song called Ой, то не вечер,” he says while strumming the opening chords. “It is Cossack folk song. It says, an evening wind blows from the East, and a soldier has a dream. In it, the wind blows off his cap, and the dream means—how you say—that wild head of his, it will come off too.”
Lemtov leans into the mic, saying, “We Russians, we very happy people.” There is some chuckling as he starts to sing.
His voice is low and deep over the guitar. This track will sell him a lot of CDs, he already knows, but he is doing his best not to think about that. Instead, he tries to imagine how Sigrit would sing a song she knows in her bones. He remembers learning this one when he was a child on that first summer trip to the Black Sea. Someone was playing it on the accordion while he walked with his parents through a town square with a fountain and palm trees, and the song had sounded so melancholy to him. It sounded like seeing the ocean and having to leave it.
He had waited till the end to toss the singer a few roubles. When he and his parents were walking away he quietly sang the few lines he remembered.
Sasha has a good voice, his mother had said. Very good. His father agreed. They were saying he should sign up for singing lessons, and that it might take him places. The night was warm and he could hear the waves.
When Sigrit joins him for the chorus he does not know that he is in Husavík, not really. He is somewhere else; his voice is sad, traveling from the past, but also warm and full of feeling. She places a hand on his shoulder. They sing the last verse, and he lets the final chords of the guitar echo.
There is what seems like a long, silent moment before the whole bar starts clapping. They clap hard, and many people stand up.
“That was so beautiful,” says a stunned Olaf.
“Alexander Lemtov!” shout Björn and Arnar from the back, as though he had scored a point in some sport. He can hear them whistling through the very loud applause. Even Helka looks pleased. She is smiling, and when they meet eyes, she nods to him.
Lemtov takes a deep bow.
“Best volcano explosion ever!” says Sigrit into the microphone. “Thank you elves!”
He is smoking by the water. They have all had a few more drinks, and the night is winding down. He is looking out at nothing in particular when a humpback whale breaches in a whirling arc. Lemtov almost drops his cigarette.
Sigrit is walking toward him, he can hear her footsteps. She is carrying three beers and hands him one.
“Did you see that? The most beautiful thing!”
She shrugs. “Usually they do this in a pair. Too bad. Maybe later you will see it.”
She makes a little pointing motion at his cigarette while raising her eyebrows, and he gives her one from his pack, lighting it off his own. They both know it is bad for the voice, but they have done all their work for the night. She tucks one of her beers against her chest while she smokes.
“The song sounded really, really good, Sasha,” she says, in a hushed tone. “You were amazing. Thank you so much for teaching it to me.”
“I mean, who else would sing it with me? Lars?” They both begin to laugh much harder than makes sense. “He is good songwriter, I admit this, but it is not going to be Lars-Lemtov on world tour.”
“Hey, he is pretty good. He went to Eurovision, after all,” says Sigrit, elbowing him. “And Lars is a wonderful husband to me. A real one, not a beard.”
“He is not still hungry for his win?” Lemtov says, taking a drag on his cigarette. “I was not trying to be cruel back then, in competition, when I said he would not be happy with you until he got his dream. Or even after if he did. It seemed to me that way.”
“Yes,” says Sigrit. “But I know him.”
She looks out at the water, pursing her lips, and he waits for her to think of what she wants to say.
“Lars is a dreamer,” she says at last. “He is a single-minded man. For so long Eurovision was the way he knew he was going to prove what he was worth. I could always see what a good man he was, it was so clear to me, like a fire at night. But his father could not see it, and he could not see it. So I was waiting for him to understand this for a long time. It would not have been the same if I told him. He had to come to it on his own, and change his own heart.”
“And when he let me sing my song on that stage, and chose not to have a chance of winning, that was him giving up his whole world, his dream for so long. It was so beautiful. And dreams can change. When young people hear this they think it sounds like giving up, but it can be a good thing. A way to come home again, but maybe you have moved into a new house, and it is still your home full of love.”
“You could not have won,” he says, joking. “Not while I was there.”
Lemtov knows she is saying something very serious, but he is still not used to this sincerity of hers.
“Lars told me when we got back from Edinburgh that he has a new dream for his life," she says. "He is going to be the best father of all time. And when I was pregnant, he said to me that he would make sure our Freyja knows every day just how much he loves her. That is what he is doing now. It is his new dream.”
Sigrit, gazing at the ocean, again looks like she does not know what to say. He feels like he is holding his breath, waiting for it. Her true depth of feeling; shared so plainly, unadorned. He nudges her foot with his.
“Sometimes,” she says finally, turning to him, “sometimes I am so full of joy for my life that the happiness leaks out of my eyes.”
She is shedding a tear. He does not know what to say, in this moment, but he knows he will not be able to explain to Mita later how good these people have made him feel. It will sound cheesy. Like a picture book. Mita will say, are you a small-town boy now, are you going to buy a farm and stop going to parties with me? No, never; but Sigrit, and maybe Lars too, are people who don’t want anything from him. They want no money, no jewelry or parrots or big fancy invitations to his mansions. All they want is him. Whoever that is. Their time and their love is a gift, offered for nothing.
Lemtov sees traces of a little color near the stars. Maybe pinks and greens. They might be the northern lights. It could be only his wish to see them, too.
“Thank you,” he says.
Sigrit wipes her eyes, shrugging. “Of course.”
They go inside.