Chelsey Johnson: “Between Ship and Ice” from One Story #181, 7/17/13

He was thirty-six and he still felt as lost and awkward as a child sometimes, gawky when he leaned an elbow on a bar and tried to look like he belonged. He had narrowed himself for so many years that coming out was like emerging from one of those miles-long fjordside tunnels – out of the mountain and into the daylight, blinded. He did not know where to look. How to look. Before last year, she had hardly considered her body, just lived in it.… Something had begun to tighten around the middle of her, forcing her perfectly fine, straight body to bulge from the pressure. It cinched and tugged her down harshly-lit corridor of constant scrutiny: her mother remarking on her darkening hair, warning her about an extra potato chip; the boys giggling in art class; the girls clustered into tight buzzing molecules along the hallways.
Nowhere felt safe anymore.

Remember adolescence? It’s that time when we run away from our parents as fast as we can while looking over our shoulders to make sure they’re still there keeping us safe. A time of conflicting feelings: fear and eagerness, independence and neediness, joy and despair. A time for learning when to rein in your desires, and when to dive in headfirst, while mistakes are still something you learn from and not something that destroys you. It’s a wonder anyone survives it.

Imagine going through that years later – with your teenage daughter next to you on a trip to Arctic Norway. The title of this story captures the in-betweenness both Synneva and her father, together for their first visit since the divorce, are experiencing.

It’s a story full of in-betweens: extremes of temperature, threat and safety, confidence and insecurity, secrecy and revelation. I think it’s a story about finding a comfort zone in the middle of those extremes, in the middle ground of transition, and in the middle ground between two people.

Erlend felt a shameful relief that he’d swept his daughter immediately northward so he could spend time with her without being truly alone. He had no idea what was going on in Synneva’s head – what she knew, what she didn’t know.

“Quality Time” loomed, time set aside from regular time, which meant that it had a start and an end. “Quality Time” was an empty room you walk into and were expected to fill.… She missed regular time.

So many observations here feel pitch-perfect; when Dad mentions to their dinner table companions his daughter’s collection of plush polar bears and posters, she reacts with all due teenage disdain: “That was when I was little“; but she later rebukes his offer of coffee and has cocoa instead. Dad keeps touching his cell phone; we know why, but Synneva doesn’t. Until, aboard the icebreaker (how perfect, a story in which an icebreaker makes sense), Dad in his lower bunk talks in his sleep.

And there is one of the trickiest things in fiction: how does one character accidentally discover another’s secret? Do people really talk in their sleep? I’ve been told I do, but of course I don’t quite believe it; in any case, no one’s ever heard anything interesting (or for that matter, even intelligible, and trust me, there’s a lot I might’ve revealed). The overheard conversation or phone call is another method of revelation, expanded by today’s technology into caller id and email lists. If not handled correctly, an unexpected revelation can feel downright hokey.

The solution used here rises above that because it’s an incomplete revelation; that incompleteness leads right into the transition from the innocence of youth to the wisdom of adulthood: “To know or not know, for once, was her choice.” Adolescence: that time when we learn how to choose. It’s an interesting rehabilitation of what could have been a tired trope into a thematic element. I should have expected no less from a One Story writer.

The setting of the story also brings with it some interesting material; when was the last time you read a Norwegian fairy tale? I was heretofore unaware of “Kvitebjørn Kong Valemon” (The White Bear King Valemon); it’s kind of odd that I read my second Norwegian novel ever just a few months ago, and now here’s a story about Norway; does this mean something? Johnson’s a Minnesota native, but her One Story Q&A outlines her ties to Norway and the influence of Skogfjorden (Norwegian camp) on her writing. And, by the way, the roots of her fascination with alternating points of view, used so effectively here to put the reader between Erlend and Synneva.

It took me a second read to fully appreciate the craft of this story; time well spent.