Man in the Kitchen: Table for One in the Empty Nest

Man in the Kitchen: Table for One in the Empty Nest

empty nest
© Kipras Streimikis/Unsplash

We said goodbye over a slice and a Coke. Two years living together, my son Matthew and I – as roommates and friends in a small Brooklyn flat. This odd circumstance came to be when my wife and I divorced fifteen years ago, leaving me to raise two boys on my own, every other week. For the bulk of their childhood, my kids and I grew accustomed to the uncustomary. Divorce has no rules, so we made them up. It was good, sometimes awful, definitely sloppy, but we were always a team.

Man in the Kitchen
The author and his sons. Photo Courtesy of author

The KMB Club. That’s what we called ourselves. Then Matty’s big brother Ben went off to college. Just when we were getting good at playing house, our household of three became a table for two. And now, this.

empty nest
Kids off to college; table for one in the empty nest. Photo courtesy of author

You spend the latter half of your kids’ teens preparing for the empty nest, but there’s nothing to gird you for that first night. You walk in from a day at the office, shed your coat and drop your briefcase on the chair. You look around the place. No book bags dumped indiscriminately in the middle of the floor, no congealing plates of late-day Ramen stacked on the table. The desktop screen is dark, the TV off. The silence is deafening. You walk down the hall to explore.

I slide the door open to Matty’s room and peek inside. A mountain of summer laundry is scattered across the unmade bed. Smelly sneakers and discarded Gap bags and the detritus of the final week lay in heaps across the floor. Matty’s graduation gown hangs from a hook next to the dresser. A picture of the two of us is partially obscured in a heap of school play programs. I pick it up slowly and rub the dust from its frame. The memories are palpable, like I’m staring back into his childhood. I set the picture gently back in its place and slide the door closed.

empty nest
Matty’s bookshelf. © Ken Carlton

Three weeks have gone by now and I hear he’s doing well. We “like” each other’s pictures on Instagram and he’s called once or twice. I know it’s all the craze for departed kids and helicopter parents to stay in constant touch, but that’s not us and I think that’s okay. They’re supposed to grow up. We’re supposed to move on.

Food was always the lingua franca of the KMB Club and those first nights and weeks I found myself challenged to boil so much as a pot of water. It was all whiskey and slices and CNN, washed down with a Devil Dog and a heavy sigh as I plodded to bed. And then one evening as I sat in my green chair, TV droning its sad refrain, my phone dinged. I never get texts. I popped up to see who it was.

“Dad, I can hear a train from my dorm at night. I can’t see it. But I hear the sound.”

I set the phone down and sat heavily back in the green chair. Trains were our thing. For his 10th birthday, the two of us rolled all the way from Seattle to Chicago in a Pullman sleeper car. I remember the swaying of our bunks like it was yesterday.

empty nest
10-year old Matty on an unforgettable train trip. Photo courtesy of author

I thought about Matty up there in Vermont, all 6’ 1” of my little boy, sprawled out in a skinny college dorm bed. I could picture his window open, the clacking of the freight cars over a ribbon of tracks cutting a path through the clear night sky. I got up and meandered into the kitchen and poked around. I found some pasta and cannellini beans. I set some water to boil and splashed a little olive oil in my favorite fry pan. When the garlic was sizzling, I added the beans and a good pinch of salt. I found a can of tomatoes and tossed them in, too. In no time at all the scent of sautéed garlic was wafting through the apartment.

child's sexual identity
Father and son. Photo courtesy of author

I carried my steaming bowl of impromptu pasta Fagioli out into the dining area and set a table for one. Bowl, plate, napkin, one spoon, and my favorite wine glass topped with a gentle Pinot Noir. I turned off the TV and put on some jazz. I sat there in the shadows of the streetlight eating my dinner alone. I could almost hear that train plodding on its inexorable journey through the deep Vermont woods. Matty’s bed, just down the hall was empty, but my heart was full. Thanksgiving is just a few months away. The boys are with me this year. Maybe some chopped shallots and jalapeno snuck into the stuffing? Just a little zing? They always liked that. I smiled at the thought. They’d be home again soon.

Ken Carlton is founder and editor-in-chief of Beyondish, a food review and storytelling website. He is the author or ghostwriter of eight books, including the award-winning memoir, THE HUNGER, the story behind Greenwich Village’s celebrity hotspot, The Waverly Inn. Ken wrote the "His Point of View" column for Cosmopolitan and appeared as a dating expert on OPRAH. He still muses about food, relationships and parenting at his website, Food for Marriage. A New Yorker and Parisian at heart, he has scripted conferences in Paris for CNN and Fortune magazine. Ken and his wife, a professor, split their time between Brooklyn, NY and Chicago. You can follow him on Instagram @foodformarriage



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