The Cost of Living

Claire Polders

Our six phones flatline before we arrive. The world that wears us down is out of reach. We alight from the car feeling airy and free. It's not our baggage that keeps us from floating; it's the weight of our steps on the flagstone path. We're heavy with resolve. 


In the cabin we celebrate our joined solitude with root vegetables and bloody steaks—we're not innocent and don't pretend to be. We are brand strategists, personal finance consultants, media influencers, property lawyers, spin doctors, and market predictors. Still, our bubbly toast rings full of hope: Isolation plus focus equals victory. We will restore ourselves in peace and come home healthier, happier, more authentic. We say it's all about balance. The consumer economy cannot be to blame. 


The closest village is over an hour drive down a rutted road. None of us want to leave the cabin and make the trip, so we postpone shopping for groceries. We're fine anyway. When we drove up the mountain, we brought a week's supply of produce and dried goods, and previous guests had left reserves in the cupboards. We invent dishes featuring canned tuna, falafel-mix, peanuts, and black-eyed peas. We wolf down jars of preserves. High from our bath salts, we sleep so deeply that we accuse one another of lacing the water with sedatives.

We think we know the cost of living.


When the snow begins to fall, we gaze in awe, as if delivered into a realm of myth. We go out and play, leaving our footprints on the white blanket, building elves with our bare hands. Snow is baby powder. Snow is cotton fluff. We devour all the butter as energy against the cold.

Much later, we will dig tunnels, though not for fun. 

Our rental is not a jeep.


The snow doesn't stop by day, doesn't stop by night. It keeps falling, dwindling, swirling, boasting, disrupting. The blizzard turns the dark nights white and the afternoons gray. Peaches in syrup help, but not much. What do animals do when it snows? We are not survival savvy. None of us know how to trap or hunt. 

We curse when the electricity goes out. While better for our detox, it's awful to watch our laptops die.


The mountain looks like an indifferent giant, carved in silence. Or like a cruel monster mocking our collapse: We're falling out of time, going from three meals a day to one light lunch. 

We don't cheat. We don't sneak out at night to steal a snack. Believing that we're decent human beings makes us feel sated, we say. Besides, we can stand to lose some weight. Fasting is healthy and wasn't health one of our goals?

We sing at times, because six voices in harmony means we're in this together. 

Our songs, however, sound like falling down a well in slow motion.

None of us understand how we've ended up on this side of the equation, where drinking instant coffee means having a feast. 

Cold chews our bones in the dark.


Pizza, we say. Apple pancakes. Roast beef with mustard sauce. Smoked salmon on potato latkes. Grandmother's braised endives. The chocolate dessert the French make that's still liquid inside. 

We disagree on whether it shows more strength to accept our situation as blind fate or to own up to our miscalculations and accept we're idiots. 

We joke about burning the cookbooks once we run out of wood.

Our hunger mounts like a bill that we will have to pay. 


While the blizzard rages, our muscles weaken. We calculate: how long the walk, how impossible the frozen, invisible route. 

We turn to art for comfort, browse books, discuss subtitled films, take to drawing, pretend-recite poems, hit the piano keys. It's legal, we say, to cry in the face of art.

Our clothes grow and fear wraps itself around us like a robe. We're heading for that moment when despair finds a listener and is understood.


We drain our last crackers in sunflower oil and condensed milk. There's talk of walking out, walking away, speeding things up. Nightmares follow us around like ghosts. But we stay together, melting snow in the kettle on the iron stove. We lack the kind of courage we need to see ourselves as nothing.


When the dreaded day arrives, we gather in the kitchen and place our leftover edibles on the counter. Horseradish, dried onions, cloves, salt—a pointless army. With the reverence worthy of a ritual, we prepare the soup. 

It's the first time for all of us to eat a last meal, and we eat it slowly, thinking that if we eat it slowly enough, we may never face the bottom of our bowls.

Then we lick our bowls, their bottoms. We lick the pan thinking of grease. 

Defeated, we watch the stove consume our air, the fuming flames still hungry. If the sky had been clear, the smoke rising from our chimney could have been a signal for help. We hallucinate the arrival of a miraculous stranger bringing oven-hot bread and hunks of moist cheese. Enough for everyone. Enough to feed the whole wide world.