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"The Kitchen" by Isabel Crabtree

It was the first really cold morning of the season, the sun was bright, the air crisp. When it was time to leave the cocoon of her cozy, varnished kitchen, Elena smelled the new weather and grabbed a wool coat and some gloves before heading to her car. She paused, almost imperceptibly, before opening the driver’s side door and getting in. The full tumbler of coffee she’d brought stayed in the cupholder, untouched, until she pulled into her assigned parking spot at the university. There, after the car was in park and the engine was off, Elena took her first sip. Lukewarm, but still good. 

Wednesdays were her busy day, four classes almost back to back, with only a forty-five minute break for a late lunch. Then, a long weekend of working from home. The lectures passed uneventfully, Elena holding her sighs back when she noticed a student asleep in the last row. She told her second class they’d have their grades back on their most recent assignment early next week. One girl, a student Elena knew and liked from previous years’ seminars, waited for her attention after class to ask for a letter of recommendation for a job application. Checking her watch, Elena decided to forgo a stop at her office and head straight to the café for lunch. 

Suzie chose a damp-looking quinoa and avocado salad with Asian slaw from the refrigerated case near the till, Elena a turkey, brie and arugula sandwich on ciabatta. It was Suzie’s turn to pay, and the cashier plucked the twenty dollar bill from her hand while shouting their coffee orders over his shoulder. He was a student, Elena recognized him from one of her foundational literature classes, but couldn’t remember his name and just smiled politely when he said “Have a nice day Professor Hobbes!” The women took their meals to a table tucked away in the back, near a floor-length window and away from socializing students. There were a few solitary diners, laptops and books open, earbuds in, studying over stale cookies and cooling lattes. 

“And of course next year I have my sabbatical, and I still haven’t submitted my initial research proposal because I can’t narrow down where to go,” Suzie said, before finishing the last of her coffee.

“Does it all have to be for the one project or can you mix and match?” Elena asked thoughtfully. She’d never been on sabbatical. Though she loved teaching, the relentless boredom in some students’ faces year after year certainly made her itch. 

“That’s the beauty of it, I can see what happens. I mean I know the majority of it will have to be spent in London at the British Library, but I’m hoping to do a few smaller trips. I’ve got the entire semester, and it’s a big project of course. Going to Dublin will be easy enough for research, but I’d like to check out some smaller towns, and there’s a poet based at the university in Cork that I’ve been meaning to interview for an article.” 

Elena nodded and finished her coffee, placing the mug heavily on the table in front of her. A muscle in her shoulder seized and she rolled her neck subtly, frontwards, backwards, frontwards, backwards. She started to gather her things, phone, bag, keys, stacking dishes and wiping the table, waiting for Suzie to get the hint. 

“Have you been to Ireland?” 

“Yes,” Elena said, nodding tightly. She calmly plucked her gloves from the right-side pocket of her coat. 

“Where did you go? Dublin?” 

“Mm,” Elena said. Her fingers slowly slid into place against worn suede. “And to the west a bit, Galway. You know, the cliffs and everything. No I didn’t kiss the Blarney Stone,” She laughed a little too loudly and stood up hurriedly. “Spent a night or two in Donegal. Now I’m sorry to rush off but I have to speak to a student before my next seminar, I’ll talk to you later?” 

“Of course, good luck, and have a nice weekend.” 

The women hugged and Suzie settled back down into her chair. Elena left the café and turned sharply back towards the main academic building. She looked down at her feet as she walked, and tried to ignore the prick of sweat at the back of her neck. 

At dinner that evening, Elena’s husband Robert told her about a meeting he’d had with his business partner and the director of a film for which they’d put up a fair amount of money. 

“And this guy, he’s green, and we’re trying to explain to him that he needs to be more organized and he’s just totally ignoring us, he thinks this artiste cliché will get him everywhere he wants to go.” 

Elena nodded and sipped from a glass of chilled wine. The starter hadn’t even arrived, but by the way he gulped his drink and scoffed at his own story, she could tell Robert was growing irritable. She slid her hand across the linen tablecloth and put it on top of his. She listened as he finished his story, then lightly squeezed the fleshy part between his thumb and forefinger, wishing she could kiss him. It was hard for Robert, once a successful actor, now relegated to producing and silent partnerships. A rising star in his twenties and looking like he’d be set for parts for life in his early thirties, his career—and confidence—had crashed to a halt quite suddenly. He still occasionally acted, in quiet, intelligent plays or in small parts of films directed by old friends. But, he wasn’t happy when he talked about work, and she wished he’d just retire altogether. They didn’t need the money, he’d been smart with his finances when he was successful. Plus her modest income from the university, and they owned their house outright. But suggesting this to Robert would only get him thinking about his previous success, and they’d have the same old arguments they always had, round and round on a carousel of resentment. 

By the time dessert was served, Elena was tipsy and Robert was, in fact, irritable. He’d spent the majority of their meal talking about his own work, and now awkwardly transitioned to talking about hers. He must have realized how self-centered he was being, Elena could give him that. Robert was always aware of his flaws, which Elena appreciated. 

“And how is this semester going?” He asked. “Any shining star students?” 

Elena sighed and picked up her espresso. 

“I doubt it, they just don’t seem interested this year.” 

“Or maybe you’re the one who’s bored?” Robert lifted his eyebrows knowingly and smirked. 

“You may be right.” She set the cup down in its saucer a little too hard and sighed again. “What I really wish I could do is a research trip. Suzie’s going on sabbatical, and I must admit I’m extremely jealous. A whole semester to just learn something new for a change, have something fresh to share with students. And something different to write about, publish. Not just the same old opinions under new titles.” Her dessert spoon rattled on a small plate as she tapped her fingers on the table. 

Robert nodded and sipped his own coffee. Elena waited for him to ask. 

“Where’s Suzie going?” 

“She’s going to Ireland.” 

An awkward pause grew into an anxious silence, but Elena felt calm while the waiter cleared their table. 

“I’m jealous, really,” Elena said. Robert opened his mouth, but didn’t say anything. He looked at his hands. 

Maybe it was the wine, but the customary pricks of sweat didn’t bother her, and she calmly laid her credit card down in the folder and waited for it to be collected. When they arrived at home, Robert went straight to his office, and shut the door quietly. Elena turned the shower on and let the bathroom fill with steam before she undressed. She stepped into the shower and scrubbed her chest and arms until they were red and clean. 

Before applying face cream, she inhaled sharply and rubbed a circle clear in the mirror. Her face looked tired, she thought, her eyes only halfway open. She could glimpse just for a moment a version of herself, twenty-five years younger. This was the face she pictured as her own, but wasn’t sure if it existed anymore, or the woman she’d been then, existed anymore. 

That night she fell asleep quickly and deeply, but woke up when Robert dropped into bed beside her. She tapped her phone on the nightstand, 04:27 lit up the room and bounced off the eggshell ceiling. Robert curled up on the edge of the mattress, his back to her. She knew he was drunk from the slight snore that escaped from his huddled body. Elena woke again before the sun rose, and softly ran her fingers down Robert’s back, he hadn’t moved and his pajama top stretched tight across his shoulder blades, before getting out of bed. 

In the kitchen, she brewed coffee and put two pieces of crusty sourdough into the toaster. The sun started to rise, she saw wisps of orange and pink cloud through the window over the sink. A long rectangle of light slowly made its way across the wooden countertop as Elena drank her coffee, ate her toast and remembered another quiet morning, twenty-five years ago. It was instant coffee in a paper cup then, and a plain croissant she’d picked at over the course of five hours as she sat in a cold, gray room. People came and went, asked her questions, sometimes she was with Robert, sometimes alone. Mostly alone. A woman with a very tight, sleek bun and a scratchy-looking blue Garda uniform told her the other woman and child had passed away in the hospital. An investigation was underway. Photos had been taken, broken glass splashed across wet tarmac, sparkling under a floodlight. Elena had closed her eyes then. 

Just before noon, Elena heard Robert walking down the stairs. The last one creaked, and then he joined her in the kitchen. She was sitting at the table, grading papers with more coffee. He poured himself a mug and stood with his back to the window. Elena reached her hand out and Robert grabbed it, hard. His face was desperate, and Elena kissed his palm, then flipped it over. She knew this hand so well, after so many decades, but she was still shocked by the sight of graying hair and a light brown age spot on his second knuckle. 

The day passed sedately. Robert went out for a long walk in the afternoon, said he was going to the grocery store. He still wouldn’t drive. While he was out, Elena peeked into his office. Splayed on the desk were papers they’d been given, copies of forms they’d had to sign, in that cold, gray room. Underneath them was a newspaper, curled and browning with age, Robert’s youthful, closed-eyed face on the cover under a headline in bold and a foreign city’s weather report. It was funny, to see a prediction for something so far behind them.  

When he returned it was dark. Elena was making a salad and boiling water for pasta. The front door shut and Robert paused in front of her on his way upstairs. 

“I think I’ll retire,” he said. “Now, I think I will.”

Isabel Crabtree is a writer from Rhode Island, currently living in the UK. Her work has been published in Esquire, Level and Honest Ulsterman


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