BY SUMMER 2012 I’D BEEN WORKING on the third-person exercise for two years, and it had become a novel, or part of one, but it somehow wasn’t getting longer or better. With the exception of yoga earnings and freelance assignments, I mostly lived on money I borrowed from my boyfriend, Keith. (We’d moved in together in fall 2010, in part because we liked each other and in larger part because I couldn’t afford to pay rent.) We kept track of what I owed him at first, but at some point we stopped writing down the amounts; it was clear the total was greater than I could hope to repay anytime soon. He paid off one credit card so that I wouldn’t have to keep paying the monthly penalty. When I wanted to cancel my health insurance he insisted I keep it, and paid for it. He was patient when my attempts to get a job more remunerative than teaching yoga failed; he didn’t call me out on how much harder I could have tried. Without questioning my choices, he supported me, emotionally, creatively, and financially. I hated that he had to. At times he was stretched thin financially himself and I knew that our precarious money situation weighed heavily on his mind, even though he never complained. “You’ll sell your book for a million dollars,” he said, over and over again.
But there was one thing he wouldn’t tolerate, and that was all the time I spent clicking and scrolling. He didn’t buy the line about it being a form of creativity. He called it an addiction. I said, “It soothes me.” He said, “It agitates you.” Being a blogger was a part of my identity I couldn’t relinquish, but I knew I would have to quit dispersing my energies if I hoped to finish my book and pay him back. I hatched a plan. Keith was going to the Arctic to report for an article, and before he left we made a deal: if I did the work of cleaning our apartment, finding a subletter for August, and finding a cheaper housing arrangement, I could keep the money we saved. I ended up renting a cottage upstate from an easygoing touring musician named Heather. Heather sent two blurry photos and I said yes, even though all I could tell from the photos was that the house had wood floors and a piano. I don’t play piano but it seemed like a nice thing to have. Keith wouldn’t be back till mid-August, so I would have two weeks there completely alone; my friend Bennett agreed to help me move in. I planned to stay off the internet, except email. This seemed terrifying but perfect, the exact kind of bored loneliness that could force me to finish a draft of the book.
The house was located, as Bennett and I discovered, on a campground, whose—owner? manager?—Heather warned me about. She said he watched TV all day and night and was “a real character.” This detail came back to me as he waved a flashlight at us and glowered, his long, scraggly white beard flashing in the moonlight. He looked like a very specific character, the one who appears fifteen minutes into every horror movie about dumb city kids who drive into the country to party in an isolated cabin.
“Who ARE YOU?” he shouted.
“We’re . . . I’m staying in Heather’s house?” I said. “For August?”
“It’s over there,” the bad omen said, pointing to a saggy, vinyl-sided structure about twenty feet from the parking lot, facing the road. He shrugged and went back inside, trailing his stale-cig aroma. In my memory it was raining but it may not actually have been raining. We dragged what we needed for the night toward the door of what was apparently Heather’s house, and then I fumbled with the lock and we were inside.
When I look at my bank and credit card statements from 2010 it’s easy to see what happened, but at the time it was so hard to know which decisions were good and which were stupid. And even had I known, when I received the last quarter of my book advance, that it would be my last substantial paycheck for the next few years, I don’t think I would have spent it more slowly. I wouldn’t have been able to. So much of the money we spend—or I spend, anyway—is predicated on decisions made once and then forgotten, payments that are automated or habits so ingrained they may as well be automated. You think you’ll tackle the habits first—“I’ll stop buying bottled water and fancy cups of coffee”—but actually the habits are the last to go. I only stopped buying bottled water when I literally did not have any cash in my wallet at any time. In the meantime, I canceled my recurring charitable donations (all two of them), my cable, my Netflix, all my subscriptions. I moved in with Keith. I stopped seeing my doesn’t-take-anybody’s-insurance therapist, but only after I owed her $1,760.
I regret the bottled water, I regret the cappuccinos, but mostly I regret not realizing that I needed to stop therapy sooner.
I think about the money I owe AmEx a lot, but I think about the ruined relationship with Dr. Susan (who was a great therapist) and the money I owe Keith every day.
I don’t regret spending thousands of dollars on my cat Raffles, though he has been a pricey liability for years now. He has been threatening to die on a regular basis since the summer of my twenty-second year, when my parents brought him to New York because he’d been getting beaten up all over their neighborhood by cats, dogs, and maybe raccoons, coming home with infected wounds, which became abscesses, which required surgery. It was clear how he got into these situations: he approaches everyone and everything with an open-hearted friendliness, head-butting legs and outstretched palms and furniture in ecstasies of delirious affection. It’s easy to imagine this not going over well with raccoons.
Raffles contracted feline immunodeficiency virus from the fights, but that latent condition would turn out to be the least of his woes. In 2007 he became diabetic, requiring insulin shots at precise twelve-hour intervals and expensive, foul-smelling prescription cat food. He recovered from the diabetes, but soon developed a host of other expensive conditions: dental problems to rival Martin Amis’s, thyroid and gastric disorders, mysterious and terrible fits of projectile vomiting. He became so finicky that after trying all the healthy cat food brands with their cutesy flavor names (“Thanksgiving Dinner”) I gave up and started feeding him Fancy Feast, feeling the way I imagine parents feel when they give in to their toddlers’ desires to eat mac and cheese for every meal—guilty and slightly relieved, because at least it’s cheap.
The most costly of Raff’s medical misfortunes wasn’t related to any of these chronic conditions. I’d been babysitting my friend’s dog, an elderly lab-mix mutt who took daily doses of arthritis medication, when I noticed Raffles wasn’t his usual needy, sociable self. Instead, he was sitting stockstill and open-eyed with pinned pupils. The vet confirmed my suspicion. “He’s stoned out of his little cat mind,” she said. “Could he have accidentally eaten any medication that was lying around?”
The dog must have spat out her dose. Raffles had his stomach pumped and stayed overnight in the veterinary ER, to the tune of $1,500 or so. They’d given me an estimate along these lines before they pumped his stomach, and I wondered if anyone ever said no. “Let my cat die. I can’t afford this.” Probably a lot of people did. Possibly I should have. Of course, I didn’t. This was when I was still living alone and paying $1,700 in rent every month, still thinking that because I had once been able to use writing to make the kind of money you can live on in New York, I would inevitably do so again.
Right before we went upstate, Raffles got an abdominal ultrasound ($380, charged to a nearly maxed-out credit card) that revealed he has lymphoma. I thought he wouldn’t survive the trip, but a year later it seems to be killing him very slowly; he’s thin but not in obvious pain, holding steady on $40-a month steroid pills.
“I’m AFRAID TO LEAVE YOU HERE,” Bennett told me Sunday night. He’d stayed for the weekend, settling me in, chauffeuring me to neighboring towns to stockpile food and supplies. Another friend would arrive on Friday, and Keith the Friday after that, so I wouldn’t be completely alone. But I would be alone a lot. I don’t know how to drive. There was a clunky old bike in the basement that could take me to Rosendale’s main street, but not the ten miles to Kingston or New Paltz. I would mostly be trapped in Heather’s small, slightly decrepit house, with no one around for miles but the campground-guarding troll and whatever vacationing serial killers were attracted to his campground.
For a certain kind of highly disciplined, possibly Swedish person, the day comes naturally segmented into task-length periods of productivity the way citrus fruit comes segmented into slices: waking, making breakfast, eating, working, exercising, making lunch, eating, working, reading, making dinner, eating, sleeping, all of these activities taking place at their assigned times, for their allotted increments. I decided to become this kind of person. I would rise at eight, eat, work for two hours, practice yoga, eat lunch, check email or work for another hour (okay, check email), go outside, eat dinner, go to bed. And mostly that is what I did. “I’ve been drinking a lot, but I think that’s actually okay,” I wrote in my notebook. I also wrote that I had been spending a lot of time petting Raffles, crying, and quietly saying “Don’t die,” and that it was nice to be able to do this unobserved.
When I first sat down to write this essay, I thought I would spend a lot of time describing the scenic beauty of the Shawangunk valley and the sense of deep stillness and isolation that surrounded me there, as contrasted with my everyday life, which mostly takes place in my apartment above a bar. But everyone has been to the country, everyone knows what that’s about. Trees, screaming cicadas, sweet-smelling air, routine doses of astonishing ordinary loveliness that exhilarate and revive you like a drug. The white spot that resolves into a bald eagle as you focus your binoculars. The precious sense of being just deliciously exhausted enough that your brain can’t create its usual whirl of thoughts. Et cetera.
A week and a half into my Rosendale month, I returned to the city to see the musical Into the Woods in Central Park. (I left my friend Sari with instructions about how to feed Raffles his steroid pills.) I hadn’t been off the bus long when I realized how much ten days away had affected me. The subway contained too many people, too much information: I looked around constantly, trying to figure out everyone’s deal. I stopped at the Strand to buy the fourth Game of Thrones book. Two girls around my age were hovering by the bestsellers table, leafing through Fifty Shades of Grey. “I hear it’s incredibly bad,” one of them said.
“It is. You can’t even imagine how bad. Worse, it’s boring. Bad and boring,” I said, though neither of them had even glanced in my direction. They exchanged bitch-is-crazy looks, but for some reason I continued. “Look, I’m reading these Game of Thrones books—I’m not a snob! But there’s trash and then there’s crap, and that’s crap.” The one who’d spoken said, not really to me, “Well, I want to find out for myself what all the fuss is about,” and picked it up and got in line. “Okay, but don’t say no one warned you!” I called brightly after them. They walked away fast.
I didn’t feel good about how this went down, which might be why, on exiting the Strand, I made eye contact with a sunburned gentleman who was begging for change. “Please, Miss, help me get something to eat,” he said, an entreaty I’ve heard thousands of times and never once responded to. “Okay,” I told him, “But I have to buy it for you so I know you’re getting food.” He eagerly accepted, and we walked to a kebab cart, where he placed a finicky, exacting order. After I’d paid for the kebab and waved away his thanks, he launched into a more complicated sob story, but I was already halfway down the steps into the Union Square subway station.
What, I thought, as I waited for the uptown 6, was that? I began to worry about being normal for my friend who’d landed us the highly coveted tickets. I liked this friend a lot but didn’t know her terribly well, despite which I had sort of invited myself to spend the night at her house. I didn’t want to alienate her by crying or acting strange or giving money to homeless people.
Into the Woods is a clever, appealing show—appealing to me, anyway— because it’s not afraid to be completely obvious. “Going into the woods” is the beginning of everyone’s story, and “the woods” are wherever your story begins. While you’re there, you encounter monsters and beautiful maidens and princes. Then you get what you want, and find out it’s nothing like what you imagined. The monsters turn out to be cool, the maidens to be weird losers, the princes to be dicks.
You lose everything you have that can be lost, and find out who you are when you have to live without it.
In the first act, the characters—standard storybook types like Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Jack of beanstalk fame—go through the motions of the stories we know, overcoming obstacles we know they’ll encounter and accomplishing goals they’d announced at the show’s outset. But in act 2, which reviewers tend to think is a mess, the curtain rises on a post–“ever after” world that no one, especially not the characters, has ever imagined. There’s betrayal and poverty and failure. There’s also plenty of death, because that’s the foremost thing no one imagines will be part of his story.
When the closing song (“No One Is Alone”) came I teared up, as I’d feared, but didn’t humiliate myself by sobbing. We made our way back to my friend’s apartment without incident, and I surprised myself by falling asleep almost instantly. We woke up early and rode the subway together to 42nd and Eighth. My friend headed toward her impressive glass office building and I went down into the bowels of Port Authority, where I boarded a bus for my temporary home.