On the Ta­ble

Look­ing back on my Mon­treal kitchens

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Heather O’neill

Seven years old, Wil­son Av­enue

I had been sent to live with my dad. The tiles on the kitchen floor were red. There was a blue melamine ta­ble whose sur­face was covered with small gold stars.

My dad told me he’d learned how to cook in a prison kitchen. He had a won­der­ful recipe for but­ter cook­ies. He got me to help him make the round bits of dough and drop them on the bak­ing sheet. He cursed at me the whole time, say­ing I was do­ing it wrong. Then he pressed each one down with a fork. That re­quired artistry.

The next morn­ing, I put the cook­ies in a Tup­per­ware con­tainer and hur­ried off to school. I placed them on the ta­ble with all the other sweets at the bake sale. And even if you looked hard, you would not be able to de­ter­mine which be­longed to a child with­out a mother.

Four­teen years old, Wil­son Av­enue

I was stand­ing bare­foot, talk­ing on the phone with a girl from school. The red tele­phone was screwed onto a wall in the kitchen and was covered in stick­ers with im­por­tant num­bers: the hospi­tal, the high school, the fire depart­ment, the taxi ser­vice, the pizza par­lour. That was when tele­phone cords were re­ally long, and I wrapped it all the way around my body as I was talk­ing. It was as though it were a climb­ing vine that had sprung up from the ground and was cir­cling me. It was as if I were Sleep­ing Beauty, and I might fall into a trance and go to sleep and not wit­ness my whole life pass by. Any girl can miss her whole youth, wait­ing to be kissed. Like Sleep­ing Beauty, she is in dan­ger of go­ing through life with her eyes closed.

Seven­teen years old, Clark Street

The apart­ment was a dive. There was no way to de­frost the freezer. It was just asolid block of ice. When you opened the door, it was like look­ing out a small win­dow after an avalanche.

I couldn’t find a room­mate be­cause there were so many cock­roaches in that kitchen. I would find them in­side my teacups in the morn­ing. Cock­roaches were un­der­neath the wall­pa­per. They would crawl into the drain and then come out of the faucet. I drew a line with spe­cial chalk on the floor in the kitchen door­way to keep them con­tained.

Still, I was happy liv­ing on my own. Next to the door, there was a bronze light-switch cover that had a pat­tern of climb­ing roses on it. One day, at a garage sale, I bought a match­ing paint­ing of a rose to hang above my ta­ble. I de­cided then that there would be more and more roses in my life.

Eigh­teen years old, St. Do­minique Street

I lived in a room­ing house and didn’t have a kitchen. In­stead, I had a small ket­tle with red pe­onies on it and a hot plate that I kept on the counter by the door. I thought that hot plate was so prac­ti­cal. You could carry it in a box when you moved. You could put it in a suit­case and bring it on the sub­way. My cook­ing prob­lems were solved for life. My hot plate made me feel like a poet from the 1930s. There was some­thing about it that negated do­mes­tic­ity. It made me the type of wo­man Henry Miller would fall in love with.

My boyfriend would come over al­most ev­ery night, and he would ex­plain to me why I wasn’t the type of wo­man he would marry. He said he never saw him­self spend­ing his life with a girl who had a hot plate. He wanted me to want things like couches. He wanted me to recre­ate his child­hood home.

I also thought he wasn’t the type of guy that I would marry, but I kept let­ting him come over. I thought we had some okay times, but he dis­agreed. We broke up.

Nine­teen years old, de Bul­lion Street

There were pretty teacups with green and yel­low roses, long-necked swans, and smil­ing, dainty ladies in the cup­board when I moved in. When I washed Heather O’neill · them, they floated in the sink like water lilies. Some­one had placed an old an­thol­ogy of fem­i­nist writ­ings from the likes of Ger­maine Greer, An­gela Davis, and An­drea Dworkin un­der the sink to ab­sorb the drip from a leak­ing pipe. It got larger and larger with each drop as though it were about to ex­plode.

There was a post­card of a half-naked girl in stock­ings painted by Egon Schiele on the fridge. She looked like she wanted to be loved so badly. She wanted you to pull her stock­ings off by the big toe. She wanted to be told she was the one. But there was some­thing about her face that sig­ni­fied that she would al­ways be re­jected. You could tell that she gave her love too eas­ily.

Twenty years old, St. De­nis Street

I moved in with my new boyfriend. There was a large crack in the ceil­ing above the cup­boards. The faucet made too much noise, like a gi­raffe with a hair­ball. I didn’t call the land­lord, though. I hated re­pairs. They made things ugly and char­ac­ter­less.

My boyfriend had a white cat that was al­ways on top of things. He would be on top of the fridge. He would be on top of the ta­ble. He didn’t re­ally have any in­ter­est in the floor. In­stead, he hopped on from sur­face to sur­face, touch­ing ev­ery­thing with his paws as though he were of­fer­ing bene­dic­tion.

After I got preg­nant, I thought we would be okay to­gether.

Twenty- one years old, Park Av­enue

We moved to a smaller apart­ment closer to down­town. My daugh­ter sat on her high chair in the mid­dle of the kitchen for most meals. There was al­ways a group of plas­tic fig­urines on the tray. They would have to per­form a small the­atri­cal re­vue be­fore she took a bite.

The fig­urines were a mot­ley troupe of trav­el­ling ac­tors per­form­ing in a city square. The leader was a ze­bra whose stripes had be­gun to wear off and who was now al­most en­tirely white. A small black chim­panzee, whose face was painted pink, sat cross­legged, hap­pily hold­ing a ba­nana in his hand. There was a boy with blond hair who, for rea­sons I could not say, had a pot on his head. A pink tur­tle, whose shell was painted green and brown and had marks of a dog’s bite on it, added grav­i­tas to the com­pany. And a Smurf in striped clothes who had just got­ten out of jail gave it edge.

They some­times pre­tended they were in a bat­tle against one an­other. They had a skit where they were hop­ping along mer­rily and then fell off the edge of the high chair. There was a play where they rode around on a spoon as though it were a jet of sorts. They sang “Dig a Pony” by the Bea­tles. They sang about be­ing lonely.

I had kept these fig­urines with me since I was a child. Once upon a time, they had also per­formed for me. But back then, the na­ture of their reper­toire was quite dif­fer­ent. Their plays were darker, more me­dieval. The ze­bra, who had been so much younger, had had a dev­il­ish smile and liked to talk about the sin­is­ter. He had en­cour­aged me to be­lieve there were mon­sters un­der­neath my bed. Now that he was older, he no longer saw the point in wicked­ness. He would take what­ever work he could get. He had no prob­lem per­form­ing some­thing that could be con­strued as naive.

Twenty-two years old, Bernard Street West

There was a lace cur­tain cov­er­ing the kitchen win­dow, which looked out on the street. Al­though I could see peo­ple

pass­ing by, they could not see me. I stood in front of it in a pais­ley pa­jama top and un­der­wear, my hair like a bird’s nest on top of my head, and won­dered whether this was what ghosts felt like.

A door in the kitchen led to the fire es­cape. There was a clothes­line out there, and I hung all my un­der­wear out on it for the world to see: my del­i­cates shiv­ered in the breeze, self-con­scious.

I had left my daugh­ter’s fa­ther. He had been steal­ing all my money. He would come home when he had blown it on get­ting high. I had noth­ing for the baby or my­self. When­ever I slept with a man, he seemed to think that ev­ery­thing I owned be­longed to him.

There was a gera­nium on the win­dow ledge. The petals fell off one by one as if to say he loves you, he loves you not. Then there were no more petals, so it didn’t mat­ter that much any­ways.

I shut the kitchen win­dow be­cause there was a cat in heat out­side and she was cry­ing. She sounded like she was plead­ing for her life. It was hard to be­lieve that she was just horny. You could al­ways hear women beg­ging not to be left in the sum­mer­time. It had noth­ing what­so­ever to do with love; they were just ter­ri­fied of be­ing alone.

Twenty-five years old, Wil­son Av­enue

My dad got me a cheap apart­ment in the com­plex where he worked as a jan­i­tor. I was fif­teen feet away from my child­hood home, only now with a daugh­ter. When I left the apart­ment, I could see the “PAT BENATAR” I’d scrib­bled on a wall four­teen years be­fore. Nearby, my tiny hand­prints were still idling in the side­walk from the time I wanted to be a movie star. See­ing them made me feel like I’d dis­ap­pointed that lit­tle per­son who had dreamed of go­ing far in the world.

Our front door was right next to the kitchen. The door­bell was too loud; it sounded like a fire alarm. I would star­tle and drop my cup when­ever it rang, which it of­ten did. When you are a young sin­gle mother, neighbours come over un­in­vited bear­ing sec­ond-hand things, such as win­ter clothes and light fix­tures and ro­tary phones. They also brought boxes and boxes of dishes, sets that were miss­ing pieces, ones that a de­spised grand­mother had left be­hind. Within a few weeks, I had an im­pres­sive col­lec­tion, a mad chil­dren’s an­thol­ogy: din­ner­ware scenes of sheep gal­li­vant­ing, small yel­low pe­onies, an abun­dance of snowflakes, cats ly­ing in round cir­cles, screech­ing roost­ers, malev­o­lent bun­nies chas­ing each other with gar­den tools.

I had am­bi­tions of writ­ing sto­ries of my own. As the plates and glasses piled up in the sink, stacks of pa­per grew on all the kitchen chairs. But I still had to work dumb jobs to pay the bills, and there was the chaos of rais­ing a child on my own. I thought I would never be able to fin­ish a novel. I couldn’t even wash the dishes. There were hun­dreds of them.

Thirty- three years old, St. Ur­bain Street

There were post­cards on the fridge door. In one, a wo­man stood on her bal­cony in Paris, her hair in a messy bun, look­ing out at the mar­vel­lous city be­low. There was one of Si­mone de Beau­voir writ­ing in a note­book at Les Deux Magots café and an­other of Mar­garet At­wood typ­ing out the man­u­script for The Hand­maid’s Tale in a large empty room. There was also a photo of Mar­guerite Duras taken when she was a teenage girl, her face a per­fect cir­cle, look­ing like a pol­ished stone. It is a face so strangely pe­tite and vul­ner­a­ble and de­fi­ant that it be­came a mys­tery even to her.

I was work­ing on my sec­ond novel at the ta­ble. Its sur­face was covered with note­books and books and Post-it Notes. There were piles of pa­pers and manuscripts on top of the coun­ters. It was as though I were cre­at­ing a great feast of words. This was the kitchen that I had al­ways wanted to be in.

The kitchen is where women have al­ways been rel­e­gated. It is not con­sid­ered the place from which great ideas and mag­num opuses emerge. But kitchens are where I scrib­bled notes late at night be­tween chores. They are where I sat when women came over and we drank wine and made sense of our dreams and ev­ery­thing that held us back. My kitchens are where I sat for a mo­ment each morn­ing, hold­ing a cup of cof­fee in my hand. The kitchens in my life were al­ways try­ing to tell me some­thing, but I didn’t al­ways know how to hear them. This one said that it was all right to put my­self first, and the dishes would in­deed wash them­selves.

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