Noodles With Strangers
I don’t know this guy, but I stole his booth. I go to a 24-hour pho spot on Buford Highway late at night when I’m really hungry or I’m really stressed out and I need noodles. There’s something about the slick of the noodles and the hot, savory broth that works like a secret elixir. I go there so often that the servers know me and have sat in my booth and asked me how my day was. Every New Year’s Eve, I slither in there after my shift at the bar.
At this pho restaurant, you find your own seating. That night, I sat in booth 15—okay I usually sit in booth 15. It’s some sort of universe rule that I have to sit there. It’s always open for me. That evening, it was next to a bunch of exhausted looking Asian girls dressed up, but looking slightly withered from whatever club they went to that evening. The servers looked at me from across the tackily decorated room like I did something weird and didn’t immediately come over. Someone walked over after a few minutes.
“You sitting here?” he asked.
Before I could answer, this guy walked over, looked at me, then at the server and said, “I don’t need water. I’ll sit over here now,” and motioned toward the booth in front of me.
I realized my mistake.
“I’m sorry, were you sitting here?” I said about to gather my things.
“Nah, it’s all good,” the guy said. He lingered, for a second, though, hands in the pockets of his hoodie.
The server put my water down and walked away, awkwardly. The guy sat in the other booth, but then got up and came back.
“Actually,” he said, “I don’t want to eat alone tonight so you’re going to have to deal with me. We’re going to have to do this Antico style.”
“That seems fair,” I said. I also didn’t want to eat alone. “But what’s Antico style?”
“Ever been to Antico Pizza? That restaurant in West Midtown? They have communal seating.”
I’d never been there. The stranger had a light accent, that up and down rhythm that is distinctly Indian. There was something vaguely familiar about this messy-haired stranger but I couldn’t put my finger on it. He didn’t set off any of my Personal Danger Alarms so I didn’t see why I couldn’t have noodles with a stranger. And the truth is, I needed someone to talk to that night that didn’t know me. Who wouldn’t ask me how my job search was going or if I was looking into more graduate schools and how did my writing group go and have I done XYZ yet, did you figure that car thing out? Don’t cry, don’t stress out, you’re “strong”, look at how “resilient” you are, why are you “angry”, everything’s going to be “fine” etc, etc, etc.
“So, how do you eat yours?”
He arranged his chopsticks and about three sauces he’d prepared and mixed together. He took the paper napkin dispenser and placed it on his side of the table.
“I like the noodles best,” I said, playing along like this was normal. “And I usually use all of the jalapeños,” I added, to make sure he knew I wanted most of them that were on the plate of basil, bean sprouts, limes and cilantro that comes to the table before the pho arrives.
“I like adding sprouts to mine,” he said.
“I usually get extra noodles, but I didn’t want to be a fatass today.” He smiled at that.
The server came back with a menu. He knew I didn’t need one.
“Everything ok?” The server asked, with caution in his voice. “What can I get you?” I humored him.
“The Pho Chin Nam. Small. And fresh shrimp spring rolls, please.” Fat brisket pho. This girl’s dream.
“Nice,” the stranger chimed in, adjusting the heavy, black rimmed glasses on his nose. I looked at him expectantly. “Oh, I already ordered.”
“I always get the same thing,” I said.
“Me too. Pho Tom every time,” he said, smiling ambitiously at the thought of hot shrimp noodle soup and looking around the restaurant. “It’s like Vietnamese Waffle House here.”
It was true. People from every life stage come to the noodle house, but instead of flipping burgers and making waffles on a flat top stove, they sling noodles.
“But the thing is there’s always brown people here,” he continued. “Indians love pho.” He grabbed a set of wooden chopsticks and separated them. He grinned as if the snap of the wood was satisfying. “So, what do you do? You look interesting.”
“Nothing. I work at a bar,” I said. The words burned because lately, I couldn’t think of any other words to describe myself.
“Ah. You’re an artist, then.”
The server abruptly placed a mountain of bean sprouts, jalapeños, cilantro and basil between the stranger and I.
“Uh oh, that means the soup’s almost on,” he said, perking up.
“And my spring rolls are almost here,” I said. “And yeah, I’m an artist. And a writer. And a bar wench.”
Every time I say that to people, I always feel like I’m missing something.
“Nice,” the stranger rested his head in his left hand and started to pick at the bean sprouts. “Nothing wrong with any of those things. They go hand in hand a lot.”
I couldn’t disagree. So many people who work in the bar and restaurant industry, I’ve found, are students, artists, writers and actors.
“What do you do?” I asked, thinking he was some sort of engineer or something.
“I’m in real estate,” he said. He must have seen the surprise on my face. “I bet you thought I was going to say something super Indian like, ‘I’m an engineer.’ Didn’t you?” He laughed. He said the ‘I’m an engineer’ part with a heavier accent, palms up.
“I totally wasn’t, I swear.”
“Fine. I kind of did,” I said as my spring rolls hit the table. “Hey, you want one?”
“Nah,” he said with a swoop of his hand. “I did go to Georgia Tech though.” He giggled. “So there’s that.”
“You made me feel like such a racist asshole for a minute,” I said.
“Racist? No way. I mean have you been watching the news lately? You’re not going around shooting people and then trying to turn yourself into a victim. You were just stereotyping me. Like a jerk. But not a racist one.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Stereotyping isn’t any better.”
“People stereotype each other. I’m over it. I mean you’ve got hard times right now. You’re black and you’re a woman. America isn’t easy on y’all. How many times this week did someone assume you were angry or complimented on how well spoken you are?”
“Who is this dude,” I thought as we sat in silence for a minute. These are things that happen to me regularly—to Black women in general. Accusations of aggression when we’re just being assertive. Raving about how well spoken and intelligent we are, as if it should be a surprise.
The stranger could just as easily be having a hard time with America because he’s brown with an accent. I’ve encountered so many people who think Indians are “terrorists,” or who say, “Indians with a dot not Indians with a tomahawk.” People using the name “Patel” as a racial slur.
“What are you reading right now? I know you read.”
“Who doesn’t read?” I said.
“C’mon, dude. So many people don’t read,” the stranger rolled his eyes. “We live in a 140 characters or less world.”
“You’re right. It’s kind of a dystopian nightmare,” I said.
I commenced to tell him that I had just re-read The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri and I was beginning to read this new novel by one of my previous professors. He nodded sleepily. The pho came to the table.
“Yes!” The stranger hissed.
He put every sauce that was on the table into his soup and went to work. I never do that.
“What are you doing? You’re just going to eat that with no sriracha even?”
“I like it mostly the way it is,” I said, adding the jalapenos and basil.
“You’re an animal,” he said.
I shrugged. We sat slurping soup in silence, as if we knew each other well enough to eat in such an intimate way. The hot soup started to make me feel sleepy. It was also 2:30am.
“Man, listen,” I said, rather abruptly. “I gotta go home. My dog’s already pissed at me for staying out so late.”
The stranger nodded at the seeming importance of my dog’s emotions.
“I am about to sleep in these noodles,” he said.
I gathered my things so that I could go pay in the front, feeling slightly hesitant. We smiled, high fived. It seemed to cheapen the entire interaction, but it’s not like we exchanged names or numbers.
“Antico style worked out,” I said to him on my way out the door.
I kind of wanted him to stop me or offer a “Maybe I’ll see you there?” My broth-filled stomach sank mildly as I walked out of the noodle house.