I Have a Confession to Make…
I didn’t learn about cottage culture until I moved to Toronto from Montreal in my 20s and encountered the Cottage, the proper noun. As far as I knew, the Cottage didn’t really exist anywhere else in Canada. I worked in a store and a co-worker would say, “I’m going up to the Cottage this weekend.” Which cottage? I would wonder, quietly. It reminded me of how in the LGBTQ+ community we say “Are you going to the Bar?” even when we live in a city with thousands of bars.
The first thing I noticed about Toronto was the wider disparity between rich and poor. I arrived during the Harris years to house-sit with a friend I’d met at Concordia University. Our class differences weren’t that noticeable in our shared Montreal apartment. But in Toronto, our differences were stark.
In my late 20s, I was finally invited to the Cottage in Muskoka, by a partner’s friend. It was a beautiful log cabin that her great-grandfather had built himself, now surrounded by million dollar houses. Despite the permanent soundtrack of jet skis charging around an otherwise pristine lake, I sat on the dock as the sun set and made it my life’s mission to own a cottage. To be able to say, “Want to come up to the cottage?” to someone. Some people who don’t have money aspire to own a home, a fancy car, or to go on first-class vacations. But my fantasy involved vintage quilts on lumpy beds, deer peering in the bedroom window at dawn, softwood walks, summer salads on an expansive deck, and tan lines from afternoons reading on the dock.
I began to collect things that would look cute in a cottage, like a girl in the 1950s with a hope chest. Of course, as a single writer with no family inheritance, this is an impossible dream. And so I rent cottages and pretend. And whenever a group of my friends get together I inevitably ask, so, what if we pooled our money and bought a cottage?
At the start of the pandemic, I convinced two good friends to try. But it turns out even three people with middle class incomes cannot qualify for a cottage on a lake in Ontario. Mortgage brokers humored us. But we only qualified for lake-adjacent cabins, or “tear downs” on the swampy ends of lakes too far from the city to be worth it. This is simply the plight of my generation. And so it remains a fantasy. But so much of life in the pandemic is fantasy-based— the food we’ll eat at restaurants, the places we’ll travel, the pleasures of life in a state of suspension.
One evening early on in the pandemic, frustrated by the lack of options on Tinder, I changed my settings from Toronto to global. By the end of the night, I was messaging with James, a handsome trans guy from Philly. I don’t normally set out to have long-distance crushes, but with no sense of when travelling might be an option again, it seemed harmless to make a connection this way. Plus, I’m a queer femme, with a penchant for trans men and butches. (I once pointed to a rack of plaid shirts in a store and said, “That’s my sexual orientation.”)
After 20 years in Toronto, I felt as though I’d already met everyone in the community. James was married, but open. I was in an open relationship too, but still so heartbroken from the break-up of a previous long-term relationship that I didn’t want anything serious. Eventually James and I decided that when COVID-19 was over, we’d rent a cottage halfway between our cities. And then we spent months describing what we’d do. Fireplace. Outdoor hot tub. Summer salads. And more specifically, what we’d do to each other.
The Cottage became a repository not just for moneyed aspirations, but a site to escape my small, solo apartment in a city seething with disease and despair, with a lover who worked a frontline job, which meant that we couldn’t see each other. These beautiful little cabins became the settings for a future where I could relax in the arms of someone who also longed for an escape filled with lust, pleasure, and comforts. The Cottage, then, was a repository for all the fantasies of an easier life. I’m still hoping for midnight skinny dipping, and forest fantasies, for a break in the clouds.
Zoe Whittall is an acclaimed novelist, poet, and TV writer. Her newest novel, The Spectacular, was recently published.