2. ICELANDIC (AND FINNISH) GIRLS ARE EASY

“Omigod, trees. I’m so happy to see big fat trees.”

Aria Montgomery’s fifteen-year-old brother, Michelangelo, wagged his head out of the family’s Outback window like a golden retriever. Aria; her parents, Ella and Byron—they wanted their kids to call them by their first names—and Mike were all driving back from Philadelphia International Airport. They’d just gotten off a flight from Reykjav?k, Iceland. Aria’s dad was an art history professor, and the family had spent the last two years in Iceland while he helped do research for a TV documentary on Scandinavian art. Now that they were back, Mike was marveling at the Pennsylvania cow-country scenery. And that meant…Every. Single. Thing. The 1700s-era stone inn that sold ornate ceramic vases; the black cows staring dumbly at their car from behind a wooden roadside fence; the New England village–style mall that had sprung up since they’d been gone. Even the dingy twenty-five-year-old Dunkin’ Donuts.

“Man, I can’t wait to get a Coolata!” Mike gushed.

Aria groaned. Mike had spent a lonely couple of years in Iceland—he claimed that all Icelandic boys were “pussies who rode small, gay horses”—but Aria had blossomed. A new start had been just what she needed at the time, so she was happy when her dad made the announcement that her family was moving. It was the fall after Alison went missing, and her girls had grown far apart, leaving her with no real friends, just a school full of people she’d known forever.

Before she left for Europe, Aria would sometimes see boys look at her from afar, intrigued, but then look away. With her coltish, ballet-dancer frame, straight black hair, and pouty lips, Aria knew she was pretty. People were always saying so, but why didn’t she have a date to the seventh-grade spring social, then? One of the last times she and Spencer had hung out—one of the awkward get-togethers that summer after Ali disappeared—Spencer told Aria she’d probably get a lot of dates if she just tried to fit in a little bit more.

But Aria didn’t know how to fit in. Her parents had drilled it into her head that she was an individual, not a follower of the herd, and should be herself. Trouble was Aria wasn’t sure who Aria was. Since turning eleven, she’d tried out punk Aria, artsy Aria, documentary film Aria, and, right before they moved, she’d even tried ideal Rosewood girl Aria, the horse-riding, polo-shirt-wearing, Coach-satchel-toting girl who was everything Rosewood boys loved but everything Aria wasn’t. Thankfully, they moved to Iceland two weeks into that disaster, and in Iceland, everything, everything, everything changed.

Her father got the job offer in Iceland just after Aria had started eighth grade, and the family packed up. She suspected they’d left so quickly because of a secret about her dad that only she—and Alison DiLaurentis—knew about. She’d vowed not to think about that again the minute the Icelandair plane took off, and after living in Reykjav?k for a few months, Rosewood became a distant memory. Her parents seemed to fall back in love and even her totally provincial brother learned both Icelandic and French. And Aria fell in love…a few times, actually.

So what if Rosewood boys didn’t get kooky Aria? Icelandic boys—rich, worldly, fascinating Icelandic boys—sure did. As soon as they moved there, she met a boy named Hallbjorn. He was seventeen, a DJ, and had three ponies and the most beautiful bone structure she’d ever seen. He offered to take her to Iceland’s geysers, and then, when they saw one burble up and leave a big cloud of steam, he kissed her. After Hallbjorn was Lars, who liked to play with her old pig puppet, Pigtunia—the one who advised Aria on her love life—and took her to the best all-night dance parties by the harbor. She felt adorable and sexy in Iceland. There, she became Icelandic Aria, the best Aria yet. She found her style—a sort of bohemian-hipster-girl thing, with lots of layers, lace-up boots, and APC jeans, which she bought on a trip to Paris—read French philosophers, and traveled on the Eurail with just an outdated map and a change of underwear.

But now, every Rosewood sight outside the car window reminded her of the past she wanted to forget. There was Ferra’s Cheesesteaks, where she spent hours with her friends in middle school. There was the stone-gated country club—her parents didn’t belong, but she’d gone with Spencer, and once, feeling bold, Aria had walked up to her crush, Noel Kahn, and asked him if he wanted to share an ice-cream sandwich with her. He turned her down cold, of course.

And there was the sunny, tree-lined road where Alison DiLaurentis used to live. As the car paused at the four-way stop sign, Aria stared; she could see it, second house from the corner. There was a bunch of trash on the curb, but otherwise, the house was quiet and still. She could look for only so long before covering her eyes. In Iceland, days could go by when she could almost forget about Ali, their secrets, and what had happened. She’d been back in Rosewood for less than ten minutes, and Aria could practically hear Ali’s voice at every bend in the road and see her reflection in every house’s oversize bay window. She slumped down in her seat, trying not to cry.

Her father continued a few streets down and pulled up to their old house, a postmodern angry brown box with only one square window, right in the center—a huge letdown after their waterfront faded-blue Icelandic row house. Aria followed her parents inside and they bustled off into separate rooms. She heard Mike answer his cell phone outside and she swished her hands through the sparkly floating dust in the air.

“Mom!” Mike ran through the front door. “I just talked to Chad, and he said the first lacrosse tryouts are today.”

“Lacrosse?” Ella emerged from the dining room. “Right now?”

“Yeah,” Mike said. “I’m going!” He tore up the wrought-iron staircase to his old bedroom.

“Aria, honey?” Her mother’s voice made her turn. “Can you drive him to practice?”

Aria let out a small laugh. “Um, Mom? I don’t have my license.”

“So? You drove all the time in Reykjav?k. The lacrosse field’s only a couple of miles away, isn’t it? Worst thing, you’ll hit a cow. Just wait for him until he’s done.”

Aria paused. Her mother already sounded frazzled. She heard her dad in the kitchen opening and closing cabinets and muttering under his breath. Would her parents love each other here like they had in Iceland? Or would things go back to the way they used to be?

“All right,” she mumbled. She plopped her bags on the landing, grabbed the car keys, and slid into the wagon’s front seat.

Her brother climbed in next to her, amazingly already dressed in his gear. He punched the netting on his stick enthusiastically and gave her an evil, knowing smile. “Happy to be back?”

Aria only sighed in response. The entire drive, Mike had his hands pressed up against the car’s window, shouting things like, “There’s Caleb’s house! They tore down the skate ramp!” and “Cow poop still smells the same!” At the vast, well-mown practice field, she’d barely stopped the car when Mike opened the door and immediately bolted.

She slid back into the seat, stared up through the sunroof, and sighed. “Thrilled to be back,” she murmured. A hot air balloon floated serenely through the clouds. It used to be such a delight to see them, but today she focused in on it, closed one eye, and pretended to crush the balloon between her thumb and pointer finger.

A bunch of boys in white Nike T-shirts, baggy shorts, and backward white baseball caps walked slowly past her car toward the field house. See? Every Rosewood boy was a carbon copy. Aria blinked. One of them was even wearing the same Nike University of Pennsylvania T-shirt that Noel Kahn, the ice-cream sandwich boy she loved in eighth grade, used to wear. She squinted at the boy’s black wavy hair. Wait. Was that…him? Oh God. It was. Aria couldn’t believe he was wearing the same T-shirt he wore when he was thirteen. He probably did it for luck or some other queer jock superstition.

Noel looked quizzically at her, then walked toward her car and knocked on her window. She rolled it down.

“You’re that girl that went to the North Pole. Aria, right? You were Ali D’s friend?” Noel continued.

Aria’s stomach plummeted. “Um,” she said.

“No, dude.” James Freed, the second-hottest boy at Rosewood, came up behind Noel. “She didn’t go to the North Pole, she went to Finland. You know, like where that model Svetlana is from. The one who looks like Hanna?”

Aria scratched the back of her head. Hanna? As in, Hanna Marin?

A whistle blew, and Noel reached into the car to touch Aria’s arm. “You’re going to stay and watch practice, aren’t you, Finland?”

“Uh…ja,” Aria said.

“What’s that, a Finnish sex grunt?” James grinned.

Aria rolled her eyes. She was pretty sure ja was Finnish for yes, but of course these guys wouldn’t know that. “Have fun playing with your balls.” She smiled wearily.

The boys nudged each other, then ran off, flicking their lacrosse sticks to and fro even before they hit the field. Aria stared out the window. How ironic. This was the first time she’d ever been flirty with a boy in Rosewood—especially Noel—and she didn’t even care.

Through the trees, she could just make out the spire that belonged to the chapel at Hollis College, the small liberal arts school where her dad taught. On Hollis’s main street there was a bar, Snookers. She sat up straighter and checked her watch. Two-thirty. It might be open. She could go have a beer or two and find her own fun.

And hey, maybe beer goggles could make even Rosewood boys look good.

Where Reykjav?k’s bars smelled like freshly brewed lager, old wood, and French cigarettes, Snookers smelled like a mixture of dead bodies, festering hot dogs, and sweat. And Snookers, like everything else in Rosewood, carried memories: One Friday night, Alison DiLaurentis had dared Aria to go into Snookers and order a screaming orgasm. Aria had waited in line behind a bunch of preppie college boys, and when the bouncer at the door wouldn’t let her in, she cried, “But my screaming orgasm is in there!” Then she realized what she’d said and fled back to her friends, who were crouching behind a car in the parking lot. They all laughed so hard they got the hiccups.

“Amstel,” she said to the bartender after crossing through the glass-paneled front doors—apparently there was no need for bouncers at two-thirty on a Saturday. The bartender looked at her questioningly but then set a pint in front of her and turned away. Aria took a big sip. It tasted bland and watery. She spit it back into the glass.

“You all right there?”

Aria turned. Three stools down was a guy with messy, blondish hair and ice-blue, Siberian husky eyes. He was nursing something in a little tumbler.

Aria frowned. “Yeah, I forgot how beer tastes here. I’ve been in Europe for two years. Beer’s better there.”

“Europe?” The guy smiled. He had a very cute smile. “Where?”

Aria smiled back. “Iceland.”

His eyes brightened. “I once spent a few nights in Reykjav?k on my way to Amsterdam. There was this huge, awesome party in the harbor.”

Aria cupped her hands around her pint glass. “Yeah,” she said, smiling, “they have the best parties there.”

“Were you there for the northern lights?”

“Of course,” Aria replied. “And the midnight sun. We had these awesome raves in the summer…with the best music.” She looked at his glass. “What are you drinking?”

“Scotch,” he said, already signaling to the bartender. “Want one?”

She nodded. The guy moved three stools down next to her. He had nice hands with long fingers and slightly ragged fingernails. He wore a small button on his corduroy jacket that said, SMART WOMEN VOTE!

“So you lived in Iceland?” He smiled again. “Like for a junior year abroad?”

“Well, no,” Aria said. The bartender set the Scotch down in front of her. She took a big, beer-size gulp. Her throat and chest immediately sizzled. “I was in Iceland because…”

She stopped herself. “Yeah, it was my, uh, year abroad.” Let him think what he wanted.

“Cool.” He nodded. “Where were you before that?”

She shrugged. “Um…back here in Rosewood.” She smiled and quickly added, “But I liked it over there so much better.”

He nodded. “I was really depressed to come back to the States after Amsterdam.”

“I cried the whole way home,” Aria admitted, feeling like herself—her new, improved Icelandic Aria self—for the first time since she’d been back. Not only was she talking to a cute, smart guy about Europe, but this might be the only guy in Rosewood who didn’t know her as Rosewood Aria—the weirdo friend of the pretty girl who vanished. “So, do you go to school here?” she asked.

“Just graduated.” He wiped his mouth off with a napkin and lit a Camel. He offered her one from the pack, but she shook her head. “I’m gonna do some teaching.”

Aria took another sip of the Scotch and realized she’d finished it. Wow. “I’d like to teach, I think. Once I finish school. Either that or write plays.”

“Yeah? Plays? What’s your major?”

“Um, English?” The bartender set another Scotch in front of her.

“That’s what I’m teaching!” the guy said. As he said it, he put his hand on Aria’s knee. Aria was so surprised she flinched and nearly knocked over her drink. He pulled his hand away. She blushed.

“Sorry,” he said, a little sheepishly. “I’m Ezra, by the way.”

“Aria.” Suddenly her name sounded hilarious. She giggled, off balance.

“Whoa.” Ezra grabbed her arm to steady her.

Three Scotches later, Aria and Ezra had established that they’d both met the same old sailor bartender at the Borg bar in Reykjav?k, loved the way bathing in the mineral-rich blue lagoon hot springs made them feel sleepy, and actually liked the rotten-egg sulfur smell of the geothermal hot spring water. Ezra’s eyes were getting bluer by the second. Aria wanted to ask if he had a girlfriend. She felt warm inside, and she was pretty sure it wasn’t just from the Scotch.

“I kind of have to go to the bathroom,” Aria said woozily.

Ezra smiled. “Can I come?”

Well, that answered the girlfriend question.

“I mean, uh…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Was that too forward of me?” he asked, looking up from under his knitted eyebrows.

Her brain buzzed. Hooking up with strangers wasn’t really her thing, at least not in America. But hadn’t she said she wanted to be Icelandic Aria?

She stood up and took his hand. They stared at each other the whole way to Snookers’ women’s bathroom. There was toilet paper all over the floor and it smelled even worse than the rest of the bar, but Aria didn’t care. As Ezra hoisted her onto the sink and she wrapped her legs around his waist, all she could smell was his scent—a combination of Scotch, cinnamon, and sweat—and nothing had ever smelled sweeter.

As they said in Finland or wherever, ja.

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