Where I Write #9: A Cabin on the Lakefront


I stopped counting when I reached eighteen moves. That was a few moves ago. I am very good at packing my life into boxes. I know: a) how to wrap my breakables and that it is worth investing in the thickly padded dish boxes; b) you cannot transport aerosols or fuels and other flammable substances; c) inevitably something will be missing and something will break; d) you will peel those numbered stickers identifying your belongings on a bill of lading for months, if not years; e) the older you get, the harder it is to uproot yourself from the places and people you’ve grown to love; f) eventually you’ll start to feel like you’re somewhere that reminds you of home. Or you won’t.

My mother has a rule. When you arrive in a new home, unpack immediately. When a mover brought a box into the house, she directed him to where to leave that box and she started unpacking, almost as soon as the box hit the ground. We moved so often it was necessary for her to quickly establish a sense of normalcy and home.

Last summer, I moved to the central plains from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In some ways, I am home. I’ve lived nearly half my life in the Central Midwest, off and on. I finished my doctoral program and moved for a job. Students call me professor and I look around wondering whom they’re talking to. I live in the nicest apartment I’ve ever rented. The last place had a carpeted bathroom and kitchen and no windows. When a stain got into that carpet, there was no getting it out. The bar for niceness in an apartment may not be that high.

The evening after the movers finished unloading my belongings, my mother called. She asked, “Are you done unpacking? Are you home?”

There are few traces of me in this apartment. This is not home. I could walk away.

There is more room in my new apartment than I know what to do with so I occupy very little of it. I don’t know many people here so I write and write and write my way out of my loneliness.

I left someone behind. We are handling the break up terribly—always talking on the phone, e-mailing, telling each other too much truth, seeing other inappropriate people, getting jealous, refusing to let go. There’s a history that justifies this absurdity. That’s what we tell ourselves.

I have a home office where I do not write. It sounds more mature to say home office but really we’re talking about a room with a desk and such. My printer sits on the floor. My mother is appalled. There’s a green filing cabinet with an HRC sticker and a leather pride sticker and a gay pride sticker. My twenties were crazy. A computer I rarely use sits on the desk alongside a pencil cup filled with crap. I think of the cup as a tiny trash can. There are no pictures or corkboard hanging above my desk either at home or in my office on campus. There are no books I might use to inspire me. There are no writing implements for notes. There’s a plastic set of drawers filled with nonsense. I love those discount bins in office supply stores. There are also thirty or so decks of playing cards, and the heavy paper I used to send out cover letters and my vita in the hopes I would not have to resort to my back up plan upon graduation—moving in with my parents and working at Barnes & Noble. The paper is really nice.

I don’t like writing at a desk. It feels forced, like I’m performing the part of writer.

I am always writing in my head. This sometimes makes people think I’m aloof.

When I was a kid, I wrote on napkins at the kitchen table. I wrote while lying in bed. I wrote on the playground during recess, especially in the middle of this tire jungle gym where I pretended I was invisible. I wrote in church, sneaking a pen in and writing on collection envelopes. I wrote in my closet, balancing my typewriter on my knees, while holding a flashlight between my thighs. We moved a lot but my writing was always home. At boarding school, I wrote down by the water in town, in this nasty little alcove littered with cigarette butts and beer cans. I wasn’t supposed to be there. I smoked and scribble deranged little stories in notebooks and then I’d go to the library and type them out and make my favorite teacher worry by sharing them. In high school and college, I did theater (behind the scenes) and wrote backstage during shows, using a flashlight with a gel covering to dim the light. I dropped out of college for a while and went out west. I got a job. From midnight to eight, I sat in a cramped booth where the walls were lined with graffiti and petty vandalism from the other girls I worked with. I talked to lonely men while I wrote about who I imagined them to be. I moved again and got another kind of job working midnight to eight and I wrote there too, about who you become and the kinds of people you meet when the rest of the world is asleep.

Once in a while, I try to write in my office on campus, between classes and during office hours but it’s hard to concentrate. I stare at a white wall in an office I haven’t bothered to decorate. I distract myself with G-Chat and Twitter and Google Reader. I grade. My office is off a busy hallway so I listen to the aimless chatter of the students—mostly about drinking and dating. Their lives seem so torrid. They fascinate me. I try not to turn their lives into stories—they have a right to be young.

IKEA does not make a comfortable couch. Last summer, I had just finished five years of graduate school. I was broke but I needed furniture that could be seen by other faculty members because that seemed important, mature. I have wine glasses, you see, and now I use them for drinking wine, at least some of the time. IKEA couches are short, narrow and the leather is cheap, sticks to bare thighs. I’m 6’3”. Stretching comfortably is not an option. I do most of my writing sitting straight up on this narrow, uncomfortable couch.

There is nothing interesting about where I write but I can write anywhere. Everything about my writing, for better or worse, comes from inside me. I have always been this way.

I wrote my novel on this stupid couch, wrote hours at a time, every day for three months, thinking, “If I ever get a nice advance, I’m going to buy a better couch.”

When I moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I went sight unseen. A long relationship had ended so I quit my good, sometimes great job. I moved to the end of the world. I often make big decisions during profound moments of emotional distress. I never know where I’ll end up. The first few years were rough and lonely. The winters were long, seven months long, so much snow, the constant whine of snowmobiles, days of darkness. I didn’t understand the people, venison everywhere. At school, there was lots of reading and pretending to understand de Certeau and Foucault and using big words that aren’t really words and trying to be smart enough. I wrote in my living room, in a comfortable armchair, wondering if I would survive five years. Most of my stories were about exile and escape. Writing was the escape.

There is a cabin on a lake in a place the world has forgotten. I often imagine myself at that cabin, lying with a man on an open sleeping bag in the dead night heat of summer, staring at the stars in the sky so clear it’s hard to make sense of just how beautiful the night can be. It’s where the man I left behind took me to make me feel better when I was feeling too much of everything and desperately wanting to feel nothing at all. We lost something, but we had each other and we had that place. It felt like a home.

When we started going to the cabin, I wasn’t writing. I didn’t care about telling stories. Writing was the most useless thing in the world. He told me he was taking me to his cabin, didn’t ask my opinion. He Tarzan, me Jane. He joked he was stealing me away from my imaginary friends in the computer and my dissertation. He was trying to help me find a little peace. I’m not a fan of the woods. Bad things happen in the woods. I’ve read fairy tales. I’ve been in the woods.

The first time he took me to the cabin, we were driving back from the casino, which is how we met in a roundabout way, or when he first saw me. I didn’t really notice him because, frankly, all you see at the poker table are white boys. They blend.

We got off the two-lane highway and took a road and then another road, each one getting progressively narrower, less paved. I tried not to panic. We finally stopped by a mailbox bearing his last name written in white lettering, literally written. We drove down a long driveway that felt like it had been recently gutted by wagon wheels.  Finally, I saw the outline of a cabin and I exhaled slowly.

He jumped out of his truck and I slid out after him. He grabbed a flashlight from the toolbox in the truck bed. He shined the light on the cabin and said, “This is mine.” I didn’t need to look at his face to know he was smiling. I didn’t care what the cabin looked like because it was his and it mattered to him.

The cabin has three rooms, indoor plumbing, electricity. The floors are made of those wide, eight-inch wooden planks, the kind you rarely see anymore. The walls are rough hewn, pine. After a brief tour, he said, “Come with me,” and we went back outside. We walked along a narrow path toward the water. The trees were dark and thick above us. In the most remote place in the world, at the most unexpected and complicated time in my life, he made my world bigger.

The moon, when it’s high and bright, casts long beams of light across the lake. It’s a sight that makes you believe in something. We sat, quietly, looking out at the water. The long beams of light looked like they were showing the way to somewhere important. He held my hand, so tightly, and I buried my face in his shoulder. It was a little easier to breathe.

The cabin became a place where we could forget about the terrible months we were trying to move past. It was a place where I could write. I need to write so the cabin became a place where I could feel a little bit alive, a little bit home, more like myself. We spent many weekends there, stealing away late Friday night, our stuff rattling around in the back of his truck as we sped down country highways. During the day, he fished or cleaned his guns or walked around in the woods doing man things, I suppose. I spent most of my time on a lawn chair in front of the cabin, writing, my laptop warm on my thighs. I would stop every now and then to stare out at the lake, watching him fish, marveling at how he could sit so perfectly still, so patiently, waiting for the promise of something.

As I wrote, on the lakefront, I wondered how I ever became the kind of woman who sits outside, writing and staring at a man fishing while she writes. I lost count of how many stories I wrote out there—the same story really, told in different ways, me trying to rewrite an ending that couldn’t be rewritten. But I was writing. It was a step.

Back in town, I had nothing to say to other people. I didn’t want to write or talk or think. I wanted to be left alone. I went through the motions, pretended to be fine, did what needed doing. On the lake though, that hollow, half-life fell away. I was happy to be with him, tried to talk, wrote and wrote and wrote. He didn’t mind how on the lake I got so absorbed in my writing that everything and anyone around me disappeared. In the evenings, I read aloud what I was working on. He embraced my writing unconditionally. He embraced me unconditionally, waited patiently for the promise of me.

To the left of my shitty, uncomfortable couch in my new apartment is a wall that is mostly floor to ceiling glass, doors onto a balcony, and beyond that, a green, grassy field. I haven’t gotten curtains yet so my view is always unobstructed. The developer who built these apartments ran out of money so the untamed beauty of that field remains. Sometimes, I see a buck galloping across the field, his muscles straining and wild, followed by a small pack of deer. I think of the home I left behind, on the lakefront, the place where I started to find my voice again after I lost it. Along the edges of this field are trees. When he helped me move in, we stood on the balcony while he smoked. He pointed out to the tree line, told me what kinds of trees we were looking at. He works with trees for a living and knows such things. He said, “You’ll have a small piece of home here. You can look out at those trees and imagine that just beyond those trees, there’s water. You can write.”

There’s a guy I see casually—our interactions are utterly meaningless, but I’m human. It’s something to do. He doesn’t get the writing thing. That’s what he calls it, the writing thing. He complains if I can’t hang out because I’m writing. He complains about the couch and its discomforts as if I manufactured the couch myself. He asks, “When are you going to get curtains for these windows?” as if I’m seeking his input on interior decoration. I’ve grown fond of my uncomfortable couch and the bare windows with a view. This is where I write. This is the home I have made for myself in a place that is not home.

I stare at those trees on the edge of the field behind my apartment all the time. I look right through those trees so I can see the water’s edge. At dusk, the sky on the wide, open prairie is gorgeous—deep reds and pinks and blues. I take pictures, trying to hold on to a piece of that wonder. I love thinking about how a beautiful sky stretches from where I am to where the man from the deep woods is. He’s sitting on the dock with his fishing pole, squinting as he studies a ripple on the water, waving to me and raising his thumb high in the air as I wave back. That’s where I write, too.

Roxane Gay’s writing appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. She is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She is the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, the New York Times bestselling Bad Feminist, Difficult Women, and Hunger forthcoming in 2017. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel. Roxane was the founding Essays Editor and is a current Advisory Board member for The Rumpus. You can find her at roxanegay.com. More from this author →