Sleepless in the Kitchen

From her perch on the landing at the top of the stairs, she listened to the grown ups enjoying their dinner. Between the three couples, several courses, and many bottles of wine, there was a lot to listen to. With the nubby orange-brown carpet beneath her and her pink flannel nightgown pulled tight over her knees, she reveled in every minute of her eavesdropping.

They talked about small town news: “Did you hear that Jim is drinking again? I don’t think Susan will put up with that anymore.”

About the upcoming election: “Will you be at Kathy and Bob's election night party?” “Of course! We wouldn’t miss it–can’t wait to see Reagan lose!”

About their kids: “Yeah, we tried telling him not to go out, but what can we do? He’s a teenage boy, and he’s just not listening to us! Little bastard!”

Sometimes they laughed so hard the walls shook, their voices building off of each other and blending in raucous shouts that filled the whole house. She loved listening to them like that: happy parents, enjoying their friends, in a warm house. Spying on the dinner party gave her hope for her life and future.

After they left, all six of them spilling out into the night for a late cocktail, she tip-toed downstairs in the suddenly quiet house. Dishes and serving platters filled the table. Used cloth napkins, empty wine glasses, and mismatched silverware splayed everywhere. The adjacent kitchen looked as if it had fed an army, with dirty pots and pans, used measuring cups and ingredients occupying every surface.

She didn’t want to go to sleep, as her siblings had done hours ago. She wanted to inhabit the space where all those noisy, happy grownups had been until a few moments ago. She trailed her finger on the table, glanced at the sink full of dishes. And then she started to clean. It took her a long time and she did it with care. She wasn’t normally one to volunteer for extra chores, but cleaning up on this night seemed like the best way to say thank you to her mom and dad for hosting the happy dinner party, for creating a soundtrack of friendship for her to grow up with. She put away all the food, scraped the leftovers off of the plates and stacked them in the dishwasher, and gathered the table linens and started a load of laundry. She wiped down the dining room table and all the kitchen counters. Saving the best for last, she finished up by polishing the chrome on the old Wedgewood until it gleamed.

When the kitchen was finally clean, it was very late. Her parents would be home soon, she knew. Flicking off the downstairs lights, she climbed back up the stairs to the landing and sat down in her usual spot. Pulling her nightgown back over her knees, she smiled in anticipation and waited for them to walk in and find her thank you gift.

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