Kitchen Table: A History
by Jill Talbot
I thought the refrigerator was a stove. From the pictures the landlady e-mailed of the apartment we’d be renting in Chicago, we figured out there was one room, a bathroom with a shower, a kitchen area with what was clearly a microwave on the counter, and somewhere, a couple of shelves. My eleven-year-old daughter, Indie, and I began packing the house we had rented for two years from the small university where I taught in northern New York—the house with a front porch, a kitchen with a top shelf of cabinets I couldn’t reach, a garage door opener, two stories, and a backyard extending into woods that Indie liked to disappear into with a backpack and our big dog, Blue. On weekend afternoons, I’d stand at the kitchen sink and watch the two of them from the window. Would it give too much away to tell you now I wish I were still standing there? Seeing Indie and Blue duck behind the pine tree that shouldered the snow in the winter? I’d wait until I couldn’t see the straps from Indie’s backpack, the jagged stick she’d picked for walking, and the white tip of Blue’s tail. Then I’d turn and sit back down at the kitchen table. There, during the writing hours, I kept my laptop next to a folded blue napkin with a cup of coffee or a fountain drink from the gas station on the corner. The table set, as it were. For writing, nothing more.
Three years before, I bought the table in 2010 at an Antique Mall in Stillwater, Oklahoma when I was a Visiting Assistant Professor at Oklahoma State University teaching four sections of composition every semester. The price tag on the table—a 1940s white mottled Formica and chrome with two blue chairs—read one hundred and fifty dollars. It is still the most I have ever spent on a piece of furniture. In our duplex, it set against the wall in the cramped living room because there was nowhere else for it to go. The kitchen already overcrowded with a narrow counter, a refrigerator, a gas stove, and a stacked washer and dryer. Indie and I joked that only one of us could be in the kitchen at a time, especially if the refrigerator was open. And I couldn’t use the oven except in the winter, because anything over three hundred degrees lit up all the rooms like a furnace. Maybe the worst thing was the dryer—when it ran the walls sweat, and our apartment disintegrated into swells of humidity. When a neighbor, a former Marine who’d fix anything for a six pack of Heineken, hauled the unit from the wall and found at least two years worth of lint in the vent tunnel, he told me we were lucky it hadn’t caught fire. Maybe that wasn’t the worst thing. I know it wasn’t the worst thing we had coming.
When I started graduate school in my twenties, I gathered furnishings for an apartment from friends and family. One friend contributed a wooden kitchen table she found in an abandoned house in Texas. It was a narrow drop leaf with carved legs, and I paired it with two Target chairs and moved it to three different cities until I had two Masters and a PhD. During those years, I met a man in Colorado, and after a bunch of back and forth, mostly from me, I gave myself over to loving him. Kenny and I moved into a basement apartment in Fort Collins, and in the kitchen, he made us chai tea and we split a grapefruit, an English muffin, and conversation every morning. In the evenings when the window above our kitchen table darkened, we’d laugh over bottles of red and marinated chicken or spinach-stuffed pasta shells. Once at that table, he tried to get me to try sushi, but after one bite, I pushed the plate over to his side and got up to make myself a turkey sandwich.
I have always been adventurous in my life—too much so. Too impulsively, I have risked too much for not enough. I have made many, many people shake their heads, but in the kitchen, I am a different woman.
Men who have loved me have told me my restlessness exhausts them, that I’m not “safe,” that they can’t be sure I’ll stick around. Yet more than any other, they (we?) struggle against their inability to unloosen my melancholy (how would I write without it?). And they’ve all left. Kenny was no different. After four years together, he pulled away (or had I already began my slow pull away from us?), and when he walked out the door for the last time, he left both me and Indie, who was then only four months old. That was July, and one night months later, when the evenings cooled enough for sweatshirts, I lit candles on the wooden table and spooned sweet potatoes and bananas to Indie in her high chair. A Bread CD (or was it Simon and Garfunkel?) played on the portable stereo. It was the first time I realized I could make the kitchen table whatever I wanted it to be. This paragraph has parentheses because I’m not sure. Of so much.
After Kenny left, I finished graduate school writing about nothing but him—about us— in an attempt to write him home. I sent him every essay, and I waited. Longer than I should have. I sent words and words and got none in return. It was a tough lesson: to learn the difference between writing my life and the art of writing. I still write about Kenny (see?), but I don’t write him as much as the ghost he’s become.
The next summer, Indie and I left for Utah, where I began teaching at a university in the southern part of the state. We took few belongings—her nursery furniture, my writing desk I’d had since my second graduate degree, a night stand, some end tables, and twenty-seven boxes of books. On the day I unpacked, Indie stacked blocks in the living room, and I set the wooden drop leaf table in the kitchen. Then I picked it up and carried it out the back door to the edge of the yard for the trash collector. To me, the kitchen table was Kenny.
I bought a faux-vintage white table with blue chairs, but for the three years we lived in that house with the large kitchen and its seafoam counter and glass-cabinet doors, I couldn’t sit us down to the table for any meal. In my mind, a kitchen table was memory.
A kitchen table was missing.
A kitchen table was being abandoned.
A kitchen table was a ghost.
For three years, Indie and I ate on the couch or even the living room floor and sometimes dinner was no more than popcorn. I walked around the kitchen table innumerable times to the pantry, where I’d pass Frank Sinatra in his studio, smoking a cigarette. Hat on head. The blue frame around the large photograph of Frank pulled the kitchen together—the blue of the chairs, the blue of the frame, the blue of Frank’s eyes (even though the photograph was black and white). The kitchen was pulled together. I was not.
And so, what I kept pulling, night after night and eventually some mornings, from the refrigerator in that kitchen was Chardonnay. We moved from Utah for reasons not important to what you’re reading here, and I gave away all the furniture in the house: Indie’s crib, which she had outgrown, a green couch from a thrift store, a futon someone had given me. My writing desk, like me, had finally fallen apart there. And the kitchen table? A man slid it onto a blanket in the back of his truck. I was glad to see it go. I wanted nothing of what had held me in that house. Nothing of the middle of the night me, staring out the window, wine glass in hand, afraid to sit at a kitchen table.
I’m aware that most who are reading this know more about food, about cooking, than I do. (My mother never let me into “her” kitchen while I was growing up—and still doesn’t.) So in preparation for writing this essay, I looked up some common cooking errors and found that in my kitchen(s), I have committed most of them: I boil pasta in a small pan. I have one knife I use for everything. I have a very small plastic cutting board. When I buy tomatoes, I put them in the refrigerator. I overcrowd the pan (I have one, so it’s all or nothing). I mix cookie batter (by hand, I don’t have a mixer) until even the brown sugar crystals have dissolved. I don’t wait for the oil to get warm enough, and I had no idea that there was a “right” time to add garlic.
The first time I spoke with our landlady in Chicago, I stood in our kitchen in New York, watching Indie and Blue in the backyard. Indie throwing a tennis ball. Blue running after it. It was difficult to watch while the landlady told me she didn’t accept dogs, even though I had already realized that a studio apartment, Chicago—the compression of its streets—was no place for a Blue Bear who loved to run. But there were other factors to consider, such as the rent, the neighborhood, if Indie would be able to walk to school, and whether the apartment would be furnished. It would, the landlady told me. Was there a private entrance to our apartment? There was not. We could enter through the front door of the house and go through the living room or we could come in through the back door through the kitchen. And you can use the kitchen anytime you want, she told me. We never did. Not once during the conversation did I think to ask if she rented other rooms of her house.
On an afternoon in July, the landlady led us down the narrow stairs to the basement and opened the door. One twin bed sat lonely in the room. (Indie would end up sleeping on the mattress on the floor, and I would sleep on an air mattress atop the box spring.) In our kitchen, the stove turned out to be a mini-fridge. The pictures the landlady sent had hidden what was between the fridge and the microwave: a hot plate.
Before we packed one box in New York, Indie and I had long talks about the sacrifices we would both be making. We talked about how the large cut in my salary would affect our lives. The friends she’d leave behind. The downsizing from our two story to a studio apartment. Trading the privacy of our home for one we would share with a woman we didn’t know. No cable. I worked to assure us both it was worth it—a Writer-in-Residence position in a prominent nonfiction program in Chicago could catapult me to a tenure-track position. And after that, we wouldn’t ever have to move again. There would be more opportunities for us both. I would only be teaching two classes, so I could be home more. It was Chicago. Finally, as I was putting Indie to bed one night, I told her that in the morning when she got up for school, I would toast a bagel for New York or a waffle for Chicago. When she walked into the kitchen groggy the next morning, there was a waffle on her plate. I’ll never forget that, because I thought, wait.
This is supposed to be an essay about food, and it is. It’s about sustenance. What we live with. What we live without. What we learn to forgo when it suddenly becomes clear we’ve gone too far in what we thought was the right direction, and it turns out to be the wrong one. Like accidentally switching out sugar for salt. It’s about how our tastes change, because our lives do.
When I think back to the kitchen in New York, I see Indie and Blue from the window. I see the kitchen table in the middle of the room and Frank Sinatra in his frame on the wall. I see my laptop. The snow spilling diagonally from the gray sky. And when I let myself, I see eggs in a bowl on an October morning. Turkey bacon in the microwave. The coffee sputtering to drip. And me, falling like a puppet released from its strings.
The dryer in Stillwater had heated our small apartment like a furnace, but in New York, we had a furnace with a split in the chimney, and the exhaust seeped through the rooms of our house for months, leaving us exhausted, nauseous, and sore, until that morning when I woke up on the floor beside the kitchen table, and I knew something was wrong. I poured the eggs into the sink and rinsed the bowl, wrapped up the turkey bacon, and rinsed the coffee pot. (My mother may have never let me into her kitchen, but she taught me to leave the house neat in case something happened and I never came back.) I roused Indie from her deep, sweaty sleep, and we stumbled out the door. Someone found us in the front yard. We spent the day and the night in the ER being treated for carbon monoxide poisoning.
The house in New York shivered for us every day after that. And the kitchen and its table remained little more than my writing space. Indie and I ate side by side on the couch, the one we rented along with our beds and a love seat. On the day we moved out, we placed our pennies. Whenever we move, the last thing we do is place three pennies in spots that have some significance for us: I always have one. Indie has one. And we have one together.
I put mine on the sill of the kitchen window where I had watched Indie so many times, and she put one in her room. When it came time to place our penny, we put the last one on the front window sill, where I had seen her climb up the school bus steps in the mornings and down them in the afternoons, and where she had watched Blue be driven away in the back of a stranger’s car while I stood on the front porch, doubled over in sobs. Before we walked out the back door for the last time, I stood in the spot in the kitchen where I had collapsed. How close we had come, I thought, to not being here. And how much closer, it seemed, Indie and I now held on to one another. On the day we locked the UBox and I gave the wave to haul it away, there was one piece of furniture amidst all the boxes: the kitchen table.
When we unloaded our boxes and carried them down to the basement, I put the kitchen table against a wall, and I hung Frank above it. And every morning, after I had followed Indie down the street and watched her turn into the open gate of her school, I set out my blue napkin and my coffee cup.
There are spaces in our homes we can simply make or re-make, no matter the city, no matter the size. Indie took the tie-dye wall hanging that had covered one of the walls of her room in New York and hung it like a triangle from perpendicular walls to fashion a canopy over her mattress. We called it her “room.”
I can delude myself. I often do, but at no mention of her “room” did I forget that my daughter was sleeping on the floor. And maybe by now you’ve come to know, if you don’t already, that for some (most?) writers, writing is a life of austerity and transience. House to house, city to city. But writers or not, we all make do in this life, one way or another.
At night, I’d sit on the floor next to where she sat on her mattress. We’d eat Lean Cuisines or sandwiches, sometimes something as simple as cheese and crackers with fruit. The hot plate never hot, all of my pots and pans still taped up in the storage room on the other side of the basement stairs.
There are dangers that lurk in houses unseen. But some stand right in front of you, a threat. In Chicago, that threat was the man who rented a room on the second floor.
We’d know he was home by the stench of the food he fried on certain nights, when he’d come home after what we assumed was hours, more like a day’s worth, of drinking. He’d stomp across the living room floor, pound up the stairs to his room and back to the kitchen. We could hear our landlady trying to talk to him, talk him down, maybe talk him through. We heard his mumbled “uh-huh”s and the sizzle of the oil in the pan. Sometimes I’d worry about our landlady. She seemed to find him charming (or impossible to escape or an antidote to her loneliness), and on those nights, I’d sneak up the stairs and sit on the top one to listen. On the worst nights, he was incoherent and loud, tossing sentences of slurs. I could make out a word or two, nothing more. She’d tire of him and wander up to her bedroom while he stomped up to his room and back down to the kitchen. So many nights, I’d stay awake until I didn’t hear him anymore—then I’d sneak upstairs to check that the burner was off.
The smells of someone else cooking can be a comfort, but they can also be a discomfort. I think of young Paul in Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case,” who suffered “the loathing of a house penetrated by kitchen odors . . . . inescapable.” This was me and Indie, burrowed down in the basement, forced to discover a stranger’s secret—that a long day of drinking ended with the sizzle of a fry pan and the same foul-smelling dish. But because I understand addiction, because I understand the darkness that can keep a person up at night, I kept quiet. For a while.
Every morning in that basement, I’d sit down at the kitchen table in the blue chair facing the living room so I could look out our two small windows. From them, I could see the bird feeders that hung from the tree branches, the ones I kept filled during the long Chicago winter because I liked to watch the birds flit and feed while I wrote.
In dark times, it’s the writing that holds me back—like someone gripping me by the arms to keep me from the precipice of darker. I pulled my writing chair out so many times in that apartment the blue cushion gave way, and no superglue would hold it together longer than a day or two. I found a rubber band to keep it in place. Indie’s nerves—my nerves—just as fragile. And what had held us together was now tenuous, as we separated from each other as if running and ducking for cover.
One night while we were falling asleep, Indie’s voice came soft from the dark: Can you get us out of here? And my answer went back across the dark to her: I promise.
I had already been trying—I was in the middle of the fall academic job market season, I had application materials at several universities, but nothing came of it. In December, we got on a train to Texas to visit my parents, and I tried not to think about all the interviews I hadn’t been offered. When it came time to board the train to Chicago in January, Indie and I lingered as long as we could beside the tracks. Boarding, we confessed to each other month’s later, was one of the hardest things either of us have ever done.
The remaining winter months in Chicago pulled forward as slow as a starting train, but in late April, I received an e-mail from a university in New Mexico offering me a Visiting position. I would be teaching classes in the essay—creative and academic—which meant I would be returning to the composition classes I promised myself I would never teach again. But some promises we make to ourselves. And some we make to others. I took the job the day after it was offered. When I told Indie, we jumped up and down in the space between our beds, relieved. The relief was interrupted.
There are few meals I remember. Probably because I’m not attuned to food as much as I am to the conversation around it. Memories I struggle with, too. But some tastes linger with us long after the check comes or the dishes are cleared by the host. And some moments run in our minds as if they’ll always be happening.
Like this one.
Not long before midnight, the man upstairs barrels for the third or fourth time through the living room on his way back to the kitchen. I have no business being upstairs at this hour of his drunkenness, but I find myself turning the corner to the kitchen. He teeters before the stove, a spatula in his hand. The oil sizzles like an eerie warning. Until this night, Indie and I have both kept our distance and our eyes down in the house, and now here he is. And here I am.
Every night. Every morning. You stomp down those stairs and across this floor.
That’s as far as I get before he yells and comes after me and I run. I race down the stairs, hands on the wall all the way down as if bracing myself. I slam the door. Indie is awake, standing outside her room. He’s standing at the top of the stairs. Now he’s stomping down and trying to get in the door. He beats on it. Yells threats. He calls me terrible, disturbing names no daughter should ever hear her mother called. I dial 911. I forget to say we’re in the basement, so when we hear the knock on the front door, we also hear the muffled politeness of the man upstairs and the landlady answering them away. In minutes, he’s back at the top of the stairs. Back at the door. More threats, worse names. Indie runs, and I follow. She opens the pantry door at the end of the kitchen. Good, I tell her. Hide. I call 911 again. Four police officers—all male—stand beneath the tree in the front yard and scoff at my plea. One tells me this isn’t a police matter—that I need to talk to my landlady. The next morning we do, but all she does is insist I never talk to the man upstairs after he’s come home late at night because he’s “stressed.” The nights of drunk-food-frying increase.
After that night, Indie had a little over a month of school, and I had two weeks left in my semester. Every time I put the key in the front door lock, I felt the way Paul did every time he turned onto Cordelia Street, “the waters close above [my] head.” I knew we wouldn’t make it unless I did something to put our last days right, to salvage something from the year long struggle.
I knifed the box labeled “Pots and Pans” and pulled out the small skillet, the only one I have. I grabbed the cutting board, the one I had since graduate school. And while Indie hung out in the park after school with a friend for as long as she could, I marinated chicken or seasoned some ground turkey while chopping carrots and slicing apples and pouring green beans into a bowl and adding one packet of Sweet and Low (this, in my cooking, is flair). I moved the oscillating fan onto the kitchen table, poured a glass of wine, and turned the hot plate to 5. I pivoted my laptop and chose an episode of The Office. And every night for the last month we lived in Chicago, I cooked. I made it an event, and when Indie came downstairs and into our apartment, I had one chicken breast or a turkey burger in the skillet and a plate of appetizers (carrots and ranch, cucumbers and Italian) on her side of the table. She’d sit, crunch, ask which episode I was watching, and I’d sip wine, flip whatever was in the skillet, then set a slice of provolone or layer some shredded cheddar jack on top in the final minute before the alarm on the microwave dinged. Then we’d move the fan, the laptop, and the blue napkin from the table. And in their place, we’d set one plate on my side, one on hers, and we’d sit down to dinner.
For the past year, we looked forward to our walks around the block at night to unwind the day, to get away from the man upstairs, and to share the best and worst parts of our day. During these last nights, we didn’t lose the walks, but we exchanged those parts over dinner while we sat across from each other and ate a meal I made or one we made when her friends had other places to be. What we made was never more than three items and five ingredients—we kept it simple and sure. No more mistaking baking power for baking soda. I wanted to get this right.
For so many years after Kenny left, I saw us—Indie and me— as living alone. In Chicago, for the first time, I saw that we lived together. And that what we have is enough. Even with all we don’t have, with all we have lost, and with all we have had to lose along the way, what we have is each other, and where we have it best is at our kitchen table.
The other day, Indie asked what I am most looking forward to when we get to our new rental house, and I could picture it before she finished the question. The kitchen table, once again the only piece of furniture in a UBox somewhere on a highway between Chicago and New Mexico. It’s in there with those two blue chairs and a rubber band. It’s the same kitchen table from Oklahoma, the same one from New York, the same one I’ll set for writing and the one I’ll set for dinner, where Indie and I will share the best and worst parts of our coming days.
On the afternoon we made our final walk through the basement apartment in Chicago, pennies in hand, Indie disappeared while I stood in front of the windows and carefully set my penny on one of the sills where I had looked out all those writing mornings, when I had tried to write my way outside of where I was and beyond that basement. Indie came back in the room to stand beside me. She told me she put hers in the pantry in hopes that no one would ever have to hide there again. When it came time to place our penny, I left it up to Indie, the way I always do, and she didn’t hesitate. Put it where the kitchen table was, she pointed, because we had our best times there.
Sometimes the stove is a refrigerator.
Sometimes the kitchen table is a writing desk.
Sometimes we put in too much salt. And it’s a challenge to put it right. But we try.
Jill Talbot is the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal, 2007), the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together (U of Texas, 2008), and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (Iowa, 2012). Her essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Normal School, Passages North, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, Seneca Review, Zone 3, and more.