A man with the right scruffed-up beard and breadth of chest swaggered into the S and M dungeon that was my place of business, and twenty minutes and one grand later had my chin — still soft with the downy fluff of teen-girl skin — held steady in one paw while the other one flew at my face so hard and fast that I ceased to exist as the same collection of matter I had been the previous instant.
When Sarah’s mother, Penny, got sick four years into our marriage, we decided to move back to Mississippi, considering it penance for the sins of our youth. We signed a lease on a house, a white one-story on the historical register with a wraparound porch and angels, stars, and the moon painted on the transom above the front door.
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Your very own cabin in the woods, he said, showing me a picture on his phone. Happy birthday, he said, kissing me on the head.
You bought me a cabin in the woods? I asked. Are you trying to get me murdered?
We’d watched all the movies where people go to cabins in the woods and get murdered.
Only if you want to be, he said with a wink.
Oh, I want to be, I said, not having felt anything this exciting — or anything, really — in a long time. A looming birthday will do that. The world on fire will do that.
I’d been struggling to find time and space to write. If I had time, I didn’t have space, and if I had space, I didn’t have time. It was all excuses, but I blamed the universe, because how was anyone supposed to understand both space and time? One, maybe, but not both.
I couldn’t go to a writing retreat because then I’d have to bond with people, or else stay in my room and watch Netflix, and I could do that at home. If I went, I would immediately want to leave. I wondered what it would be like to want to stay somewhere.
The cabin was picture-perfect, meaning there was a picture, and it was perfect, but I wasn’t so foolish as to trust it, because it was on the Internet. I was wrong to be cynical, though. When we arrived, it was exactly like it had looked on the phone — only bigger, obviously. It was just far enough away for me to forget the world if I wanted, but close enough that if I desperately needed the world, or snacks, I could Uber to them and say, Hey, you didn’t think I’d forgotten you completely, did you? and buy a Twix, which I knew I would, because who wanted to spend a week in the woods with no Twix like a goddamn wild woman that children whisper about? She must be a witch if she lives without Twix, they’d say.
He hadn’t actually bought me the cabin. We weren’t those type of people, people with mad money who bought cabins when they already had perfectly good apartments that were the size of a cabin, or smaller even; apartments that barely fit the two of them, let alone any children. Had there been children, they would surely have died from lack of oxygen. But there were no children, so it was fine. If we had guests, we could crack a window.
He had rented me this cabin in the woods for one week. One whole week alone with my book that wasn’t a book yet, merely something that wanted to be a book when it grew up. And for that to happen, I had to do the work. There was no way around it. At least there would be no distractions in the woods, because the woods didn’t want me to sign up for their service. The woods didn’t have to wow me with their speed or content or perks. They were woods. They would just be there, and I would be there, too. The best sort of relationship.
One whole week of just me and my book. When he came back, I was sure one of us would be dead.
Is there a fireplace? I asked, still standing and looking at the cabin, not sure whether I wanted there to be a fireplace or not. Could I be trusted with a fire? Writers in the old days would burn their writing if they wanted to truly delete it; scrunching it up into a ball wasn’t enough.
Yes, why? he asked.
I might need to throw my laptop in it, I said.
Please don’t, he said.
He valued electronics in a way I didn’t.
I’d brought one small bag. A squirrel looked at me and my bag and then ran off, I was sure, to tell the rest of the woodland creatures that a woman had just arrived who had no idea how to pack, let alone survive in the woods: Quick, tell the local serial killer. All that from one squirrel side-eye.
Did you see that squirrel? I asked.
No, he said, but there will be squirrels, I’m sure.
There will be squirrels, I repeated, like it was the title of that movie There Will Be Blood.
I watched the boyfriend drive off and thought how wonderful he was to do this for me, to give me this week, this cabin. Someone else might have thought, This man is having an affair. Or, This man wants to get you murdered. But he only wanted me to think I might be murdered. That was the second part of the gift: at some point he might come back, sneak into the cabin, and “murder” me.
The idea was to scare me just enough to get my creative juices flowing. If any other bodily fluids began flowing — blood, tears, urine — the game would be over. To avoid this, there were rules and safe words. Mine was Agh!
I was sure he wouldn’t go through with it. It was quite a drive. He would have to park the car far away so I wouldn’t hear him approach. But he was heavy footed, and I was sure I would hear him. He would be like Oh, hey, and I would be like Do you want a glass of water? and he would be like Yes, please. It’s really hot out, and he would come in, and I wouldn’t get any writing done at all.
As soon as he’d driven off, I went inside and looked around: Wooden floors, check. Wooden walls, check. Sofa with Ralph Lauren–approved throw pillows, check. Fireplace for throwing things into and staring at longingly, check. Bed with more tasteful but unnecessary pillows, check. I called him.
There’s no TV, I said.
You’re supposed to be writing, he said.
When are you coming back? I asked.
I can’t tell you that, can I, or you won’t be surprised, he said.
Scared, you mean. Remember? I said.
I remember. Now go, do your thing, he said, and he hung up.
That first night I did my thing: I watched a movie on my phone and then slept for eleven hours. I felt surprisingly safe in the cabin. I’d never had a problem with nature, just people. Well, there had been that incident with a squirrel once, but I blamed myself for that.
On my first day I got an Uber back to the world and bought a lot of crud I didn’t need. When I returned to the cabin, I sat in various positions, inside and outside, with my laptop open in front of me, blank page glaring at me like the demon it was, and I thought like hell about my book but didn’t actually write anything. If the boyfriend did show up to scare me, I didn’t notice.
On the second day I put an avocado on the kitchen counter, and it rolled off onto the floor, and the thud made my heart leap a little. I had scared myself. I left the avocado on the floor so I would know where it was.
I wrote a page, deleted it, wrote it again word for word, deleted it again, wrote it again in a different font, then decided to treat myself to a bottle of wine. So I got an Uber back to the store. Uber drivers are usually very murdery. This one was a woman who had skin like leather, who looked like she was addicted to tanning, who looked like maybe she was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mother. She scared me; the whites of her eyes were so white. I wanted to ask how she survived way out there, but mostly I wanted to buy my wine and get back to my writing, which was almost happening.
I fell asleep on the couch, and the leather lady gave me nightmares. I woke up with a jolt and wrote them all down, even though my book wasn’t a horror novel. It might have to become one. If I killed all the characters off, it could be. That was always an option.
Still no sign of the boyfriend. I went outside and sat on the porch with my wine and watched the sun set and hoped he hadn’t been murdered in our apartment in the city.
I texted him: Hope you’re alive, ghost emoji.
He texted me back straightaway: You too, smiley face.
It rained the next day and night. I sat on the porch and watched it fall, and after I’d seen enough, I watched another movie on my phone. No one was coming to murder me or even pretend to murder me in this weather. Not even a damp squirrel dropped by to see how I was doing. I was impressed that my phone was getting a signal. It restored my faith in both technology and humanity, but mostly technology.
I went back inside and got in bed, but the rain was so loud on the roof that I felt bad for the shingles, getting battered like that. I wrote a passage about the rain and then deleted it because everything you can say about rain has already been said. It’s wet; get over it.
The next few days I fell into a rhythm and thought I was getting the hang of writing again but also that I should have been better at it by now. Maybe I didn’t know enough words. There was still no sign of the boyfriend. I was starting to think his heart wasn’t truly in it, and I didn’t like what that said about our relationship. He’d said he would murder me nicely, but maybe that was just something people who pretend to be in love say to each other.
I took scaring myself into my own hands. I started to leave things on the edge of the counter where they might fall. The suspense was thrilling. I left a tomato on the kitchen table and willed it to roll off. I left a towel barely on a hook. I left the door ajar when the wind might blow it shut. It was up to the universe. I asked shadows to entertain me. When I was a kid, I liked to scare my sister by wrapping a towel around my head and under my chin, then turning off the light, making a scary face, and flicking the light back on. I did this to myself now, in the bathroom mirror. It was pretty disturbing — that a grown woman would do that to herself. I had regressed considerably in the cabin, an adult making faces at herself in the mirror with a towel around her head.
Still no boyfriend. All he had to do was tap a branch on a window, and he couldn’t even be bothered to do that.
I texted him: I’m scaring myself.
He texted back: As long as that’s all you’re doing to yourself, winky face.
You’re gross, I texted.
I knew then he wasn’t coming. He never had been. But if I accused him of never actually planning on coming, he would say, How do you know? And if I took him to court to prove it, that would be weird. He had gotten me the cabin. What more did I want: Someone who knew what else I needed? Someone who was true to his word? To be able to write anywhere instead of nowhere? I had written something, a horror story about the dangers of tanning beds. So it hadn’t been a complete waste of time.
Were you scared? he asked when he came to get me.
Yes, I said.
But I hadn’t been scared the way he meant. I’d been scared to realize I didn’t need anyone else. My own autonomy scared me. Because I hadn’t died in the cabin, like we’d both thought I might.
I should do this for other people, I said on the drive home. For other writers, I said, so he would know I meant for my species, the ones who relied on their imaginations to make a living and also to live.
OK, he said, not noticing that I’d said I, not we.
I dreamed of selling the movie rights to my story and buying that cabin. I would rent it out to writers and scare them a little, but mostly I’d let them scare themselves. Because there’s nothing scarier than time and space and the blank page.