Title: Kitchen—A Memoir
By: Elisabeth Boekhoven
Song: Kiss Me in the Kitchen
Artist: Good Lovelies
Album: Let the Rain Fall
(Picture taken from http://paylesskitchens.ca/html/kitchen_photo_gallery_14.html)
The hard hat was a definite neon shade of orange. It seemed to glow in the muted light of the overcast day.
“Guys! We need you inside for a second!” Rosalie always thought that the hat combined with Nick’s almost permanently ruddy cheeks gave him a very strange cast to his face. She giggled at the thought of him, a paragon of engineering and renovating, cast in bronze and left for the perusal of the masses; like The Thinker.
Her soufflé of thought quickly sank as the four other contractors clumped their way into what was barely recognizable as the bare skeleton of her kitchen.
“Yeah Nick, what is it this time man?” Rosalie cut in before he could answer.
“I was just wondering if you guys would mind standing in that corner where I want the breakfast nook to go? I want to make sure that it will actually be big enough for my family if they come visiting. “
She could sense the reluctance in the group of men. While they had been initially accepting of her exacting demands on the layout of the space, they had quickly run out of patience with her desire to stage scenes. Despite this she held on to the knowledge that the perfect measurements would create the perfect haven. And the only way to achieve that perfection was to have someone physically present the space.
She knew that this was lost on the men that she had finally come to accept in her home - what remained of it anyway. She liked the excuse that having five men around gave her to clean almost obsessively and constantly. She had missed the little exasperated sighs that she was so good at delivering to the room at large, confident in the knowledge that each person around her would feel its impact as fatally as a poisoned war spear. She had longed for the personal triumphs that arose from an inflexible refusal over some moral stance - that sense of utter validation. The coffee can that stood outside as an ashtray on a rock at the bottom of the garden was a monument to her latest crusade.
Even now sensing their reticence Rosalie felt a strange sense of elation that came only when she got to call on the greatest of her personal arsenal – passive aggressive manipulation.
“I just thought that as you had been using the table and what’s left of the appliances to produce your lunches that you might as well have input on how the table is finally placed. After all, you’ll probably be eating on the table itself before I do – or anyone else I might want to invite over….”
She noticed the slower and deeper breathing, the eyes glazing over and the slumping of their shoulders. A palpable hit. As if they were a battalion simultaneously laying their arms down in surrender, the men gathered around the card table that exactly matched the dimensions of what she would be putting into the nook in due course. She bustled around them as best she could, repositioning them according to the best of her cursory knowledge of the habits and mannerisms of her friends and family.
“Now I’ll ask you to move to you right at least till you reach the edge of the border pattern of the table there – Cousin Cecily insists that the condition is glandular and she can’t do anything about it, but I think we all know that she was as svelte as any of those horrid plastic actresses until that lovely man Archie broke up with her. And you need to put your elbows on the table and make sure that they are splayed just beyond your shoulder width. That’s for dear Andrew – bless him, he’s just not capable of carrying himself like a man… or keeping himself from slurping his soup… You dear are sitting in for Emery, so you will just have to move in closer to your friends there because she’s as thin as the board that’s her namesake. That and she refuses to be anywhere on her own. Always has to be touching someone and that can get quite awkward when you want to take her out to meet new people as you might do with friends not so selfish as to let their eccentricities dictate your own interactions.” On and on the small considerations went on, the tweaking of the stage, players and setting. It was more than what those strange Asian people believed in – fung shway she thought it was. It was harmony, establishing a tenuous balance that only she could establish and maintain. It was like a delicate bonsai tree that needed her careful comments to prune it, to ensure that its picture perfect presentation was not perverted by the intrusion of the outside world. She loved her small circle, and she knew exactly what would bring out the traits that she most enjoyed.
Something broke into her reverie and she looked around with new focus and purpose. It had been Nick clearing his throat and the rest of the men were pointedly not looking at either of them, though they held to their arranged tableau with a rigidity that had become habitual from many hours of berating. She cast back in her mind, trying to remember what it was that she might have said that could have ruined this, the first sketch of her masterpiece of humanity. Thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking…
She lost herself in thought and was surprised to realise that her hand had found its way to Nick’s shoulder, in a familiar way that disturbed her. The strength of its grip made her take a step back both physically and mentally. What could she have been talking about?
Her eyes refocused on the spot in the distance that she had been focusing on and her heart stood still.
There on the remains of her old stove – original she was sure to when the house was first constructed in the 60s – was a damaged photograph of a man. Stan. It was an old picture of Stan. She realised now what she had done, she had started to describe him, started to set a place for him at the table and had used Nick to place him. She couldn’t believe that she had been so… absent minded. The engagement had been officially dissolved at least 6 months ago. Stan hadn’t been in the house that they had purchased together for at least 7 maybe 8. Why now of all times did she have to bring him into her perfect new space? When the whole point of the renovation had been to make everything into what she wanted, what she needed, what she deserved?
Again she heard Nick clear his throat, seeking reassurance that the situation was not his fault; that her sudden distraction, so uncharacteristic, didn’t stem from some deep-seated, internal disturbance. She reassured him the only way she knew how.
“Your measurements work, if I plan on having an extra spot for a different guest. Let me think about this layout for tonight. I can confirm with you tomorrow.” Just like that the emotional obligation she had managed to construct to hold them was broken and the four crew members who had been her puppets all but fled the scene with relief so obvious it left a taste of desperation in her mouth. Nick could not find the words that would help to push the atmosphere out of the pit it was wallowing in no matter how much he delayed the extraction of his tools and accoutrements from the kitchen. When he finally left, there was no trace of him or the other men in the room. And yet the awkwardness remained, the air did not clear and the emptiness and half-completeness of the kitchen chilled her; too much promise with no guarantees.
She looked around her, barely recognizing her surroundings from how they had looked when she and Stan had first bought the house. Of course all of the surface decoration was gone. But her renovation was more than skin deep. This had been an attempt to reclaim her space, make herself a home that met her needs, not the compromises that she had had to allow when Stan was part of the picture. She had always done better when she had been comfortable – when she hadn’t had to make allowances for others, but had been able to let herself fully realise potential.
The question of the table that had been preoccupying her lately for instance. Stan had loved the original arrangement of the table in the middle of the extended portion of the kitchen. He claimed that it encouraged people to gather there, to interact and to become more involved in each other’s lives. Rosalie looked where the new nook now lay in front of the window that the old sink had stood before. This was a much better use of space. Now there was no danger of people getting in the way and underfoot while she was moving around the kitchen. The nook was slightly removed, so there was no danger of anyone else interfering in her cooking. The careful creation of her famed cookies, for example, made according to a recipe so exacting that even she admitted – if in a humorous mood - that it was borderline ritualized OCD.
Her mother had loved the saying, ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’. Rosalie found peace in such definitive and easily applicable life goals. She had planned out where everything and everyone would be most effective in the kitchen, sitting and otherwise. Stan hadn’t wanted to be a part of that. Stan had made it a point to make her uncomfortable. To make her feel like she was wrong, like she forced others into following only her life, when she did the exact opposite. Ensuring that everything would be set perfectly for who she knew they were.
Looking around the kitchen she felt like she could finally see herself in every corner. Before they had decided that they couldn’t be together anymore he had convinced her that he knew her, that she enjoyed his differences, that together they could help each other be stronger and better. That had been proven wrong so definitively that she had fought to erase his trace and she thought that she had. And then she saw the old picture that must have fallen from the now scrapped fridge. It must have sat there by the oven for these past months, until one of the crew found it and thought that she would want it. She couldn’t even bring herself to make out what the image was of, all she knew was that it was of Stan and that she would never allow herself to be drawn in by it or him again. She knew what was best and that was what would be her touchstone.
Quickly she picked up the now damaged image and walked out of the house, crumpling it in her hand. She walked quickly and determinedly down to the bottom of the garden and there she took a stick and poked the image deeply into the coffee can ashtray. It was over flowing with rainwater and the added volume made a large volume of water spill out onto her flowerbed. So like Stan, to dirty everything around her.
It wasn’t until the contractors had finished all of their work when Rosalie began to feel like she might have made a mistake. The kitchen was perfect. Everything was where it should be for her to function optimally, there was room for all of the people who might want to visit, and she had been right in her estimations of their physical and emotional dimensions. Nothing interfered with her judgements of their character. Nothing changed. And she at last felt safe.
Not until they had all left, the thrill of a new top of the line kitchen faded, did Rosalie begin to feel uneasy. She couldn’t see the rest of the room from the nook with the table. It cut her off from the rest of the room as effectively as if it was a separate building. There was never anything out of sorts, never anything for her to busy herself with fixing, never a problem to bring up with someone. While she revelled in her own perfection, it disturbed her deeply that there was no way for her to prove that her way was right, that her ideas were the way to go.
There was nothing to make her unhappy. And in that instant she realised that she couldn’t really realise what happiness felt like.
Elisabeth Boekhoven is a 25-year-old who is in denial over her new found ‘grown-up’ status. She works in a historical village encouraging children to run around, hit things with sticks and generally act like the animals she cares for in the Agriculture section. When in doubt she seeks clarity by asking ‘What would Attila do?’, which just so happens to be her email address: firstname.lastname@example.org