“You tell the real estate guy it’ll be your weekend place. You tell yourself you’re going to get a lot of writing done here.”
It isn’t divorce yet. When you move to the cabin, it’s a break.
The place is small, old. Cheaply built and unmaintained. The carpet never saw a good day. Now it knows terrible things, carries the scars. A tapestry of worn fibers and untold events. Maybe the previous occupant had a dog. Maybe they had pyromania. If you were being kind you’d say the place is weathered. If you weren’t you’d say derelict. Leaving valuables inside is an act of faith, but you tell the insurance company the place is airtight. You tell the real estate guy it’ll be your weekend place. You tell yourself you’re going to get a lot of writing done here.
When you came up to the mountains in search of a place to stay during the break, your wife tagged along. There were other options. Cabins less ruined, less quaint. Cabins she preferred. But you find something like charm in the neglect of this place, in its bare-naked unloveliness. You ask for the paperwork. You’re the only applicant. This is the one, you say. This is where New You will live. The better you. The more productive, happier you. Your wife asks if you’re sure, but you’ll never admit you aren’t. You drop off the paperwork on your way back to the city.
What really sold it to you was the back deck. If you were being fancy, you’d call it a veranda. You’re rarely fancy. It has a couple of broken chairs and a tin roof that will make cinema of rainstorms. You fall a little bit in love with it. A few days later, you find out it’s yours. As you pack your things you reassure each other that it isn’t divorce yet.
There’s data, something your relationship counselor said, about breaks not really being breaks.
Just rehearsals for break-ups, she said. It didn’t worry you. That’s not us, you said. You assured the counselor you just need some space. Maybe it didn’t worry you because you genuinely believed it. Maybe it didn’t worry you because that’s what you wanted.
You’ve never been divorced before, and this isn’t divorce, not yet, but moving boxes of shit from your car kind of feels like it. Asking to borrow a car that isn’t yours anymore, that feels like divorce too. The cheap toaster, kettle, and microwave you bought, well those just about scream divorce. It was written on the face of the cashier as she rung them up. You bring the Nespresso machine with you (hey, it was yours) but break it with cheap capsules. You were warned not to use them, but ignoring warnings is your thing. There’s nowhere to buy the expensive kind in the mountains. You buy a cheap replacement machine. The cheap capsules work fine.
If it’s not divorce, then the wine you’re drinking isn’t consolatory. You can have as much as you want. You open another bottle, pour yourself a glass, drink until you pass out on the blow-up mattress. It’s low on air and you’re too drunk to inflate it. It’s fine. This is only temporary. It might feel like it, but it isn’t divorce. Not yet.
The first night you freeze half to death. You tape the windows to stop the drafts, buy thermals, a sleeping bag. You buy an axe to chop firewood, the way you thought you would when you dreamt up New You (that’s what this is, fantasy fulfilment). You do it once, then realize you can buy the wood pre-chopped. You keep the axe by the stove to support the narrative.
Two weeks in you admit that the temporary cabin is slightly more permanent than a half-inflated air bed. You order a cheap double mattress, and since your wife has all the furniture, you build a base out of milk crates. You drive to local coffee shops after dark, take them, two or three at a time, until you have enough to sit under a double mattress. It’s illegal to take the crates, but you’re only borrowing them (it’s not divorce). It takes twenty-four to support the mattress. This will be a funny story one day, you tell yourself. You consider putting a tutorial on Pinterest. It’s two months before you realize the unreasonably sharp springs are poking you because the mattress is upside down. You flip it over, sleep about the same.
You make the master bedroom your study, take the second bedroom as your own (it’s not like you’re going to have guests). At a local antique place you buy an old pattern maker’s table for a writing desk, install it in front of the French windows looking out onto the deck. The way the house is oriented you’ll get some spectacular sunsets from there, looking out across the treetops into a forest you’ll never explore.
Later that summer, fires will ravage the forest and come within a couple of hundred meters of where you’re sitting, but you won’t be there to see it. You’ll head for the city, for relative safety. This is only temporary, and the cabin isn’t your home. But then neither is the apartment in the city (kicker: turns out it is divorce).
The past year hasn’t been great for productivity, but now that you’re finally distraction free, you go looking for some. You find them. You were only married fifteen months before the break (the divorce), but technology moves fast. There are apps now. You download one, crop your ex-wife out of a picture to get a profile shot. It only takes a couple of swipes to realize it sucks. The mountains are sparsely populated and shy of singles. Nobody moves here on their own. (Well you did, but you’re frequently misguided.) The city is too far to go for a date, and you can’t invite people back to the cabin, because “Let’s go back to my cabin in the woods” is about the worst pick-up line you could use. (Besides, this isn’t that kind of horror movie.)
You swipe around a while, but that whole divorce thing is still a bit raw, and all your opening lines are terrible. You realize it’s been three and a half years since your last date. You realize you quite liked being married. You opt for Netflix instead. Not that Netflix is available in the mountains. You use a trick you learned from Google to pretend you’re a US resident. You use a trick you learned from years of self-delusion to pretend you’re okay. You’re fairly convincing.
To help write the novel, you cut down to three days a week at work. When you use those extra days off to watch all nine seasons of The X-Files, you tell yourself it’s research. When you watch nine seasons of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, you don’t even try to pretend it’s productive. The wine drinks itself. The novel you promised you’d write exists only in a few rudimentary whiteboard notes and the vague things you mumble when people ask how it’s going.
The cabin has gremlins. The hot water goes first, then your electricity. In the kitchen, you pull a cabinet door from its hinges. The French windows won’t close properly. The fridge is leaking gas, and the neighbors are complaining about the leaves in your gutters. You brush it off as teething troubles, tell everyone who asks that you’re living the dream. You casually invite coworkers to visit, safe in the knowledge they won’t. Then your car (the one you bought as a divorce present) gets an engine fault and is stuck in the shop for a week. There’s something about a two-hour train journey into the city that makes you want to call in sick and stay in bed forever.
Still, the internet works. You throw a few logs on the fire. Wrap yourself in a faux-fur blanket. It’s not romantic. Neither is the near-constant masturbation. It generates heat, gives you some of the good chemicals. In search of conversation you turn to apps. You make it clear you’re available. You make it clear you’re down for whatever (anything but silence). Desperate and lonely doesn’t really pull in many offers. But you persevere, if only to stave off boredom.
And you drink. Mostly wine. You buy the expensive stuff to justify having it. It’s been two years since you started drinking again, and you’re a shadow of a lightweight putting away a bottle a night. You were never great at good judgement, but it doesn’t happen four glasses deep, sitting alone with a broadband connection and nothing to lose. It’s a good way to lose friends.
When you drop the expensive stuff (you decide you’re more of a two-for-ten-bucks kinda guy) you realize you’re only drinking to stay numb. Rock bottom is drunk-wanking yourself to sleep on a pile of milk crates in an unsound cabin in the woods, half a world away from home. You came here to isolate yourself, to make art. Like Thoreau, they said. Like Bon Iver, you said. What you made was a fool of yourself and a mess of everything. No novel, no money, no friends. New You is a paper revolution you forgot to write, another unseen gremlin in a building full of them.
The cabin didn’t make you lonely. Familiar and seductive, loneliness clings like an old sweater. The difference here is there is nothing to unsettle the disquiet in your own mind. Nobody to pull your head out from your arse. Nobody to unravel your inclinations before you drown in them. The cabin didn’t make you lonely; it turned loneliness against you.
Spring springs. The days get longer, the cabin warmer. The place starts to feel like home. You start to cook again, if heating up beans counts. You fix the French window, the kitchen cabinet. Clear the gutters. (It’s a fire hazard, they say, but then the whole mountain is a fire hazard.) You’re still not writing, not physically, but you’re getting closer. And you’re exercising. The mountains have some of the best hiking routes in the hemisphere. You find a few favorite trails, hit them every weekend. After a month you’re still carrying too much pizza weight, but you aren’t wheezing your way around the tracks any more.
You decide to call the number your couples counselor gave you (back when it wasn’t divorce). A therapist. You might be depressed, the couples counselor said. No might about it, said the doctor who diagnosed you a major depressive. You should have called her sooner, says your ex. Your new therapist just says she’s happy to talk. You get an hour. What’s on your mind?
You see your therapist once a week. She teaches you about dopamine, how your brain struggles to keep it level, how the porn and the pizza and the speeding are about getting high. Recognizing the signals, and giving yourself a steady chemical release—rather than short, frequent spikes—will make for a happier, healthier you. She draws a diagram on a whiteboard, one line for everyone else, another for you a few inches below. Your normal is a bad day for other people. Your good days barely scratch their baseline. Your bad days, well. You know all about those.
You realize most of your life decisions have been in service to dopamine. The reckless, impulsive ones. The self-destructive ones. You think about the car, the cabin. The texts. The writing desk. Marriage. Divorce. The desperate failings of a broken brain.
It’s in therapy you admit for the first time that you can’t save your marriage. It’s in therapy that you first admit that what you really want to do is go home. Home home. It’s in therapy that you admit that you’ve tried, but you can’t be happy here. You’re a tin man, ten thousand miles from your heart, and it’s killing you.
Summer brings spiders and crippling heat. When the fires arrive you abandon everything but your laptop and flee to the city for a week, checking the news to see if you still have a cabin. You catch yourself hoping you don’t. In your displacement, you look up flights home, borrow money from your parents, book a ticket. It’s what you should have done in the first place. The ticket conjures a feeling of relief the cabin never could.
Fires doused, for a while at least—you return to a cabin that is once again temporary. In a few weeks you’ll be saying goodbye, leaving for good. For all the romanticizing of seclusion and cabins and woods, the reality, for you at least, was closer to ruin. Your therapist points out your instinct to run when things get difficult. The trick is to fight the right battles, she says. Some dreams are better left alone, she says. You have learned this, at least.
You take a last walk on your favorite trail. There’s no phone signal out here, no way of being disturbed. Your phone can’t remind you what your ex is up to, or tempt you into careless flirting. You wonder if maybe the cabin would have been fine without the connection. You also wonder if, without any connection, you’d have left alive. (It’s that kind of horror movie.) You fill your lungs with mountain air, hoping to take some with you.
Eight months after you moved in, you open the door to Gumtree leechers who strip the cabin of the divorce appliances, the coffee table, and the mattress. A middle-aged couple high on meth clear out everything electric and decline to leave a donation. (You read that the mountains are meth central; you didn’t believe it till now.) You sell the desk. The car. Your vintage typewriters. You return the milk crates, after dark and to the wrong cafés. You give away half your clothes, pack the rest. You ship your books in freight boxes. They’ll arrive three months after your plane lands.
When the guy buying the desk arrives he tells you he thought the place was derelict. He stands with you on the back deck and tells you it’s paradise. You’d think so, you say. Perspective is everything. He throws the desk in a flatbed truck and drives it to a new home. It clatters around as he reverses out of the driveway. You try not to wince. It doesn’t belong to you anymore. None of this does.
Broke and belonging-free, you borrow your ex-wife’s car to drive your suitcase to her apartment, your former home, where she lets you crash in her bed and you both pretend everything is fine.
When you leave the country a week later, it isn’t a break.
Dan Dalton is a writer and journalist. He lives in North London. His debut novel Johnny Ruin is out in April 2018. You can follow him on Twitter @wordsbydan.