Olivia Durif

In the Kitchen


ISSUE 31 | STRATEGIES OF TOGETHERNESS | AUG 2013

Nothing turns me on like feminine domesticity—a woman working with a combination of skill and comfort in her own kitchen. If the food-savvy lady in question is working in her own kitchen, I am quickly filled with fantasies about the kitchen being mine one day too, of moving into this space she is so comfortable in, that she has provided, not necessarily for me, but that has room for me in it, and in which I would, I imagine, have room to move around myself. If the kitchen is already my own, the situation is a sure recipe for my falling hopelessly in love. I’ve already mentioned part of what makes a woman in the kitchen so sexy—a woman wielding a gracefully honed skill, a knowledge of some tool (a cleaver, a blender), a skill that gives her a pleasure both solitary and generous, that I will partake in (because she’s cooking for or with me) and also one that I’ll never know fully but can see, nonetheless, brimming from her. The second sexy thing is a sense of being matched and often one-upped in skill and grace. Of a capable and experienced cook challenging my own culinary prowess.

* * *

I’ve entered a time—not only in my life, when people my age have started getting married, but also in culture, where this fact of “friends getting married” has become a locus of creative interest and anxiety. I’m thinking specifically of Girls and Noah Baumbach’s new Frances Ha—two projects which are both primarily interested in the relationship between close female friends and their “other” relationships, i.e. romantic and familial. I’ve got the word other in scare quotes here, because while I find myself easily criticizing how both Lena Dunham’s show and Baumbach’s new movie deal with issues of gender and sexuality (wouldn’t Frances and Hannah just be happier as lesbians?), it’s simply true that both works play with the binary between friends and lovers and challenge the hierarchy of “romance” over “friendship,” asking important questions about love and home that I hadn’t yet seen so aptly and gracefully expressed. While domesticity is commonly considered the telos of heteronormative relationships, my experience has shown it to be already present in a special kind of familiarity between roommates / close friends / “Girls.” But the givenness of domesticity in this breed of intimacy is linked to a sense, at least in culture, of its predetermined ephemerality: the home space created between roommates is meant to be broken; girls who live with girls are expected to grow up into women who live with husbands.

* * *

Having just graduated from college myself, I’m currently recovering from a four-year maelstrom of packing and repacking—not quite unpacking completely until halfway through the year when spring break is already in the foreseeable future, settling in just as it’s time to start preparing for the emotional detachment necessary to survive an auto-piloted finals week and the emotional fuckshow of family-time duly avoided, not to mention the craggy and constipated resurfacing of last summer’s feelings repressed and back to haunt the uncanny category space of “this time last year.” You can imagine that with my penchant for falling for my friends, this kind of moving around is complicated because it’s simultaneously so different from and uncannily similar to a traditional “break up.” The devastation of packing up a home you’ve created with one or two close friends isn’t a socially ordained one. There aren’t ready-made excuses for wallowing in suffering experienced after this kind of rupture.

* * *

A few days ago, my best friend and former roommate came to visit me at my new house in Portland. I asked her why she thought we both went so nuts when we moved out of the house we lived in together for a year. I said when I thought about how lonely and lost I was after we packed up our apartment, the only word that came to mind was heartbreak. But it’s different from heartbreak, bigger almost. She looked at me hard. “Homesickness,” she said.

* * *

My mother likes to repeat to me this wisdom about the hard facts of growing up. It’s one that’s always particularly haunted me. She says that what’s true about growing up is you just stop “hanging out” with your “girlfriends.” The luxurious space of nondescript, un-teleological hangout time gets traded in for scheduled brunch dates, dinner parties, and occasional visits to someone’s country house. She says it like a warning. Relish this, Olivia, because it’s going to disappear, and soon. This is an instantiation of exactly what Girls seeks to deal with, if not satisfactorily problematize. The fact of the domestic space inevitably gets separated from the space of “girlfriends” when a girl comes of age, matures, grows up. We’re always trying to not be like our parents, vowing that we won’t repeat their mistakes, that we’ll be cooler when we’re old, or at least more relaxed. But this statement about “hanging out” has always given me an allergic reaction different in kind from other irksome things my parents have said. It has always just seemed wrong to me, something I don’t relate to and not because it hasn’t happened yet. It’s because the ambiguity between girlfriends and Girlfriends is different for me than it is for my straight mother. It’s because what if I keep falling in love with my friends, who are women, and at the crux of that in-love is the thought of a sustainable future, a family, a space created in which we will coexist and our love will flourish, as well a space for other people to enter, to feel for us (as a unit) something like what I feel when I watch a woman cook. What rubs me the wrong way is that my mother’s statement relegates what same-sex friends do together to a sphere of relatively less domestic importance. Obviously, my indignation came, at least originally, from an insecurity with my own erotic/romantic desires. But it’s important to me that I don’t fall in love with my friends because of some latent or manifest fear in/of the domestic, but rather because romance and eros exist, for me, precisely in a kind of domestic sphere. It’s a homosocial one, romantic both on the level of a long-term, sustainable lifestyle (creating a home, thoughts of forever) and immediate romance (sex).

* * *

What’s the cure for homesickness? The tricky thing is that most methods teeter along the line between symptom and remedy. One of my editors said, “the symptom/remedy thing [is crucial] because it seems to me that missing happens right in that ambiguity: wearing a sweater that smells like an absent lover doesn’t bring them any closer, it brings the missing of them closer; you get to nestle into their not-there.” This points to a phenomenon I like to think of as “eating for” a person. It is an experience that easily lapses into its opposite: not eating because of a person’s lack. The thing and its absence both come from and point to the same longing. Either outcome is about a lack—either there is straight lack (eating Nothing) or there is a lack inscribed in the act of eating itself. Eating a Thing that recalls, sometimes masochistically, the big Nothing in your life that is not so glaring as a bed too big or a frying pan too wide (because roommates don’t Share in the same way lovers do) and whose subtlety makes the lack that much worse. You wish the lack would glare like Joni Mitchell’s frying pan, then you could write a song about it and bleed. Instead, the frying pan makes you uncomfortable and you don’t know why. This returns to the problem of not being able to define the experienced loss because there’s no cultural precedent for it, because you haven’t undergone a “breakup,” per se. It’s not because the owner of the other half of the frying pan is gone, but more like the owner of your half is gone. How can you use this frying pan to cook for yourself in this situation? Starving is obviously a simpler route, denying a pleasure that reinscribes the lack of communion.

But this first potential cure for homesickness—“eating for”—is more interesting and less fully explored than its ascetic counterpart. There are two instances I can think of in which I eat a thing for a person that I wouldn’t necessarily eat of my own volition, without the thought of the other as my primary reason for eating it. The feeling of choosing something “for” someone you miss is a sweet mix of sad and comforting, solitary and united. Taking “selfies” involving the food I’m about to consume—or in the midst of consuming—shoots back the solitary act—it communicates instantly the act of missing, bringing the missing to the forefront and simultaneously seeking to cure it. Flirtation (courtship) is another familiar instance in which “eating for” takes place. Her macchiato instead of my black drip to ease the tension between text messages. It works the same way as the phenomenon utilized during missing but is predicated on a “not yet” rather than a “not anymore.” It builds towards an anticipated presence rather than reaches back for a past and longed for one. “Eating for,” then, either seeks to recreate a routine that you developed with a loved one now gone, or seeks to disrupt your “normal” routine with a taste of the future.

* * *

A lot of my communicants, both intimate and otherwise, have iPhones these days. I have one, too. They’re phones, of course, but more importantly they’re maps and cameras and little time capsules of textual conversations restored perfectly in the medium in which they were originally fabricated. That’s really the most interesting thing for me about iPhone message feeds, how they simultaneously communicate and keep record. They render unnecessary and ineffective the art of transcription, because what is so compelling, and often so hilarious, about text messaging on the iPhone is what the message looks like, right there as it’s received, the way whole conversations are recorded and truncated and how when a new conversation is picked up after an unrelated one is dropped off (sometimes days or months later) the juxtaposition of the new against the previous conversation suddenly and irreparably comes to mean something in relation to the old conversation. Ditto faultily autocorrected words. The word “thigh” gets sent to my interlocutor instead of the word “though,” which is funny in itself but takes on meaning like a Freudian slip: somehow autocorrect convinces me that “thigh” was what I really meant to type. The faculty of instantly archiving is especially interesting when used in order to close the gap between two people in space, as in a long distance relationship or a flirtation with a new person. The iPhone has enabled two kinds of communication particularly, shamefully, relevant to me: sending selfies to people who remember my body but can’t have it and food porn pics to people whose cooking I remember, whose cooking I can’t have.

What exactly am I doing when I send someone I love and miss a picture I’ve taken of myself, or of food that I’m about to eat? Both gestures simultaneously manifest my presence where it is lacking (wherever my loved one is that I’m not) and reminds them of my absence itself. There is something cruel and compulsive about these gestures. I tend to try to make my selfies look good and, almost always, suggestive. Ditto, I take photos of objectively beautiful food that I’ve luxuriously purchased or created myself, seeking to recreate, in mutual absence, a thing we made or indulged in together. Certainly, it’s a way of seeking recognition: look at me out here, doing so well without you! We all know that the insistence on “doing well” or “being okay” or “so happy” is a surefire sign someone’s doing badly. But the selfie’s bitter undertaste is entirely lifted when the gesture is directed towards a prospective loved object (in the case of flirtation), rather than back towards an intimacy from the (however recent) past. Images of the self looking good and of beautiful food the self is using to nourish it act as an amuse-bouche—a tease, rather than an elegy.

* * *

I realize that what I’m writing about here is a kind of being-together-in-homesickness: sharing it in mutual absence. This gets at how maybe the reason symptoms and causes are so close and the line between them so blurry is that people don’t want to be cured of homesickness at all. Homesickness might, then, be already present in domesticity, just as domesticity can be already present in familiarity between women. I’m already homesick for the woman I’m watching cook, even though she’s right there in front of me. What if there’s not so much of a difference, then, between “here” and “gone,” between the tease and the elegy. Or if there is, what if the difference isn’t necessarily spatial or even temporal. Maybe we can think of homesickness as a kind of fusion between the present and the absent, that seeks to bridge the gap by inserting presence into absence and absence into presence. If that’s true, homesickness works like a selfie, paradoxically manifesting a lack by pointing to the irreparable hole where the presence (I, You) used to be. “You are not I and therein lies the irreparable calamity.” A Nabokov line that’s always stuck to my guts. Subjectivity is certainly a calamity, but luckily, it’s a sexy one. While the impossibility of total assimilation between loved ones and the travesty of moving away and breaking up are both more or less inevitable, I take comfort in how the same machinery (of homesickness and domesticity) is at work in the generation of intimacies unborn—ones just getting warm under the surface, a selfie away from sprouting up.