Ghosts in the Kitchen
creative nonfiction by Sarah Burk
Ghosts in the Kitchen
There’s a window in my kitchen. Only half a pane, really, so high that my chin rests perfectly on the ledge. My folded arms can fit, too, if I stand on my toes. I must look like a child.
At 4 years old I would wait by my front window for the precisely three and a half hours it took my grandfather to drive from his house to mine. The purple backpack stuffed with dollies and books immediately dropped to the ground with the crunching of truck tires on unraked leaves.
I must look like that child.
We keep the window open, in my kitchen. The flat is musty and damp, overly hot even in the midst of the London winter. Cold days bring the chill rushing in to my thin-stockinged feet, slowly skittering between kitchen benches in an attempt to put the kettle on. Still, I stand by the window as the water boils and the tea steeps and cools and I breathe in the outside air as if drinking from a hose of pure cold water on a summer’s day. From the third floor all I see are the surrounding buildings. The university building directly beside lights up sporadically, groups and pairs jaunting to seminars, dinners, parties.
But the sky is grey and lovely. Old brick from the Waterstones round the corner peeks through modern facades and disembodied voices get lost among the ductwork before they break the silence at our breakfast table.
There’s a window in my kitchen. It’s small and not quite airtight, but it’s my port in the submarine, and vitality flows through me with my chin on the sill, looking out at a corner of the world only visible from this one window, this tiny crack in the decades-old concrete and plaster.
That child waiting at the window, backpack in hand, is only barely with me now, scenting the air for the market opening at 9 and listening to the rushing of my flatmate showering in the next room over.
My grandfather hasn’t showered in a month. He stopped caring about hygiene two years into the diagnosis, and gets violent if anyone tries to force him.
Frontotemporal lobe dementia, behavioral variant. It’s not Alzheimer’s. It’s not gray hair and gray cardigans or misplaced glasses and misrecognized family members.
It’s nonstop country music at full volume in every room of the house and the thermostat set to 50 in the middle of winter. It’s anger and confusion and insomnia and apathy. It’s the pistol hidden in an attic and involuntary commitment signed by my uncle. It’s not my grandfather.
I’ve been abroad for two months, but I’m not sure he knows what country I’m in, and there’s certainly no way he could drive to pick me up now.
The people I meet want to know where I’m from. They want my origin story, to know who I am and how I’ve come here, to Carolina, to London. I tell them I’m from Virginia, but I live with my grandparents in eastern North Carolina now. They don’t ask why, and I don’t offer an explanation.
In London I am not my family’s struggles. I am not the unsold house and the history of addiction. I am not genetic blindness and bowed backs from hours spent in a garden. It is because of them I am here, but here I am just a girl looking out of a window imagining herself a different life.
The tea’s gone cold now, but the mug still scalds my wind-chilled hands as I pop it in the microwave. I nearly burn myself as I juggle the overfilled mug and hefty kitchen door. The ghosts of my past can’t force it open again.