Of Noodles and Affection
I’m halfway somewhere between the bus stop and the out-of-town road. I’m wading through a small crowd on a half-lit sidewalk. As we walk past each other, our half-lit faces straddle between half-smiles and uncertain emotions. We’re like a group of half-sketched silhouettes made by half-skilled artists.
The streetlights are slowly dying off, and the faint glows from stalls and bars are spilling into the streets like partly remembered dreams. I’m watching shadows dissolve, and then reemerge as the vehicles drive past Birom Street. I’m thinking of dreams and how the ones we have in this city always seem to be on the run from us. And as they run, they leave behind trails of smoke and dust that hang low like stalactites. It’s a lesson, a caution not to dream too much.
And we adapt. We learn to walk with our heads low, so that we don’t fall casualties of our own imagination.
The other day, on this same sidewalk, I met a woman. She was small and calm and sat alone by a small table shop.
“No, no…wait, make I explain,” She was saying to herself, “make I explain, make I explain.”
Her hair brown and curly. Nails broken and stained with patches of red that looked like maps of small countries. On the fourth finger of her left hand was an old, washed-up silver ring.
And as she spoke, I wondered. I wondered if the words she spoke were just the meaningless thoughts of a sick woman. Or if they hinted at stories of a past that was forever crawling its way into the present.
It’s a little past one in the morning. And with every stranger I walk past, I’m wondering what their stories might be. Somewhere underneath the pile of tired shoes and over stressed coat jackets are stories of ordinary people with the same ancient themes. Regrets and missed opportunities. Love. Heartbreak. Yearnings for second chances.
It’s past one in the morning, and we’re all united by either of two truths: that no one’s up late somewhere, wondering where we might be, or that we don’t care that they are.
There’s a certain sense of kinship in that.
It’s three minutes past two in the morning. I’m far from home, in a place I don’t recognize. It’s a small chain of kiosks, bars, and shayi spots. One mai suya is curled on his bench as his stove emits last sparks of the day’s work. Small groups of men are scattered about, sipping tea and talking quietly. An old couple come out a small building where a bowl of noodles sits on an electronic signboard. They’re holding hands and nearly gliding on the gentle breeze as it carries faint snatches of shrieks and meows.
“You’re not from around here,” the woman says, as she chops a large white onion bulb on a wooden counter.
I nod, then shake my head in confusion. She smiles. I look around. Three pairs of customers, each pair to a table. They’re eating noodles and conversing in quiet voices. On the far right table, one man is speaking while the woman opposite him nods from time to time. The loudest thing in the room is the ceiling fan.
“You’re safe. We have enough noodles for everyone,” the woman at the counter says.
She heads off to a small stove on a large table. A small pot is fuming with steam from boiling noodles. A group of plastic bowls are seated on the table. She opens them one after the other and empties their contents into the steaming pot.
Garlic. Peas. Carrots…
“The garlic will awaken your spirit,” she says, “and this,” pointing to a plate of sliced cucumbers, “this will dissolve your worries.”
I smile and nod, wondering if I’d walked into some type of shrine.
“No date? No friend?” The woman asks as she sets down a bowl of hot noodles.
I shake my head.
“It’s past three in the morning,” I say, “it can’t be a date if it’s past three in the morning.”
She stares blankly for a while.
“But says who? Who makes the rules about when to have dates and when not to?”
“It’s just a social convention, like not riding two bikes at the same time,” I say.
“Hold on, you’re saying the only thing stopping me from riding two bikes at once, is social convention. Like, if I wanted to, I could ignore what people might think and just, ride two bikes?”
“That’s pretty much it,” I say.
“I’ve been living a lie, all the missed childhood opportunities…”
“It’s not too late for you,” I say.
“You too,” she says, “it’s not too late for friendship. That’s why everyone comes here.”
“What do you mean?”
“None of the people you see eating together came in together,” she says. “They all met each other here, today.”
“That’s nice,” I say, between mouthfuls of boiled egg and cucumbers.
“Noodles and affection, that’s how we fight the loneliness in this city,” she says.
“Ah loneliness, right.”
“Yes, loneliness,” she says, “it seems to be the ultimate equalizer of us all.”
I’m having trouble scooping the last bits of soup. It finally occurs to me to drink directly from the bowl. The woman laughs.
“There’s more,” she says, “I could spare half a plate.”
“No, thanks, I’m good.”
“Next time you come, I’ll find you a friend,” she says.
The place is as before. Strangers sharing quiet tales over noodles and vague memories of homes. The ceiling fan is still the loudest thing in the room. The cook emerges from behind a grey, wooden door.
“You came back!” she says, “I thought you wouldn’t.”
“Well, you know — never mind. Grab a seat.”
I grab a seat. She walks over.
“I have someone to introduce you to,” she begins. “We’ve been expecting you for days now. She showed up twice.”
“Yes, she. A woman. Journalist.”
“Journalist…talks too much?”
“Uh, not really, just an average talker…like me,” she says.
I stare into space.
“Shut up,” she says, “noodles?”
“Let’s hope she shows up tomorrow,” the woman says.
“You don’t have her number?” I ask.
“No, I don’t. I’m not a matchmaker.”
It’s two-thirty in the morning. I showed up three days ago, two days ago, and yesterday. The noodles woman believes I’m being punished by the journalist lady and need to make some type of atonement.
Earlier today, five pairs of strangers sat opposite each other and shared noodles and stories. From time to time they’d glance at the sad man who was sitting alone. One woman, as she was leaving with a new-found friend tapped me on the shoulder.
“I wish you luck,” she said.
Three empty bowls of noodles sit in front of me. It’s one of those times when one eats out of boredom.
My eyes are starting to get heavy. The room is gently floating in front of me and my body feels like it’s slowly dissolving and slipping through the tiny pores of the seat. My vision gradually loses focus, until everything fades into a quiet blur.
“Hey, wake up, she’s here.”
My eyes open slowly and my vision gradually adjusts itself. The blur melts away until the room is brought to focus.
“The journalist,” the noodles woman whispers, “she’s here.”
“I see you’ve been busy,” the journalist says.
“Let’s see, three empty bowls of noodles, two cans of soda. You’ve been busy.”
“They were only half full,” I say.
“I’m an optimist when it comes to noodles,” I say.
The cook comes along and sets down a bowl of steaming noodles. The journalist brings the bowl closer to her face and inhales.
“So, did she give you the whole ‘noodles and affection’ speech?”
“She sure did,” I say.
“It’s strange though,” she says, “I never thought there was a wave of loneliness sweeping through the city.”
“I think it makes sense,” I say. “We’re too lonely to realise everyone else feels the same way.”
She nods, slurps a long strand of noodle.
“Like a bunch of silhouettes in a dark room,” she says.
“We’re too lonely to realise everyone else feels the same way. It’s like we’re all a bunch of silhouettes in a dark room.”
“But what’s wrong with that though? What’s wrong with being lonely?”
“‘Being lonely’,” she says, “if you were alone and happy with it, it wouldn’t be called loneliness. It’d be called ‘being alone and happy with it’”
“Exactly!” she says, “you really are a writer. Oh and I heard what you said about journalists.”
She’s struggling to scoop the last bits of soup. She finally decides to drink directly from the bowl.
“You do that too?” I ask.
“So, Mr. Writer, what do you write about?”
“Well, I write short stories — “
“I know they’re short stories,” she says, “the cook mentioned. What are they about?”
“Well, people. Ordinary people doing ordinary things, like eating noodles.”
“There’s nothing ordinary about eating noodles,” she says.
“What about you? What type of stories do you cover?”
“Well, stories about people. Ordinary people doing ordinary things.”
“I like that,” I say.
“That’s why I became a journalist, for the ordinary stories. We don’t get enough of that.”
I nod. She continues.
“These little stories matter, you know?”
I nod again.
“So let’s say in the future the whole earth is vaporized or something.”
“And then aliens show up and decide to reconstruct the whole of human history on earth, from start to end, because it’s important to them, or they’re just plain bored.”
I nod again.
“Are you pitching me a sci-fi story?”
“No, I’m not…”
“Okay, go on…”
“So they try to recreate human history on earth. They try and try but their computers keep saying ‘cannot compute, some stories missing’ and then they later discover they missed out on a bunch of stories. They logged major events like the world wars and Trump’s tweets, but left out the ordinary ones. They missed the exact trajectory of a smile in Aleppo or Bornu, the touch of raindrops on a child’s face for the first time, they left out depressions, anxiety, heartbreaks and stories of second chances. They can’t reconstruct human history because they left out the ordinary stories. And then the story ends with them accepting that they can’t in fact do what they’ve set out to do, unless of course they dig up the missing ones.”
“So it’s a pitch, then?” I say.
She smiles. My heart warms. I wonder what trajectory in space her smiles trace. I think of us making our own stories. Stories that remain ordinary to everyone else but us.
It’s five in the morning now. As we leave the noodle shop, the journalist and I make a pact: no matter what happens, we’d eat noodles together again in a small and quiet restaurant, where the ceiling fan’s the loudest thing. We’d talk about our ordinary lives with each other, and share stories of ordinary people doing ordinary things.