I roam the living room, with the altar in the corner holding Buddha and candles and photos of loved ones passed, her daughter's tiny magical room tucked behind an Asian print screen, the emerald bathroom, and her bedroom with the garnet walls. All at once I feel I'm in a garden enclosed, inside an antique painting, or nestled in the kitchen of a neighbor back in the days when neighbors sat together and drank tea and ate pie fresh from the oven.
"Please, sit," she gestures to the high wooden table and chairs, while she puts a pot of water on the stove to boil rice noodles.
"I'd rather stand here and learn," I say, and she smiles gracious and offers me tea, knowing I won't leave her side.
We share small details of our lives as she cooks vermicelli, pulling rice noodles from boiling water as we would taffy. She shaves thin slices of sirloin with a butcher knife, places them in a red heap in a bowl with mushroom powder and flour, sesame oil and teriyaki, salt, sugar and ground black pepper on top. She talks of her mom, still running a successful shop of hand knit clothing in Vietnam, and leans into the knife with ease. And I watch her, like her mama, raising a daughter and working tirelessly through the week sewing exquisite costumes for the ballet company, and coming home to prepare dinner fresh, and here she is, cooking for me.
She heaps noodles on top of a bed of greens, spoons succulent beef and pours broth to cover, garnishes with peanuts I ground in the mortar dish. I insist I can't eat it all, but after one bite, my chopsticks refuse to stop and I savor every morsel to the end.
Her daughter is all giggles, as second grade girls often are, and my friend smiles patiently, her eyes catching mine in a shrug, and I'm all delight here at this table.
They reach for lychee fresh in a bowl, and I peel one open, pop it in my mouth with hesitation. "It's... different," I grin, "Reminds me of a fruit and a nut in a shrimp's body." She laughs in surprise, wondering aloud that anyone could not love lychee. "Maybe it will grow on me," I say, and try another bite with the same affect. "On second thought, I'll stick with mango."
We're stuffed and happy, and we sit on the sofa against pillows, and we speak now of the hard things. Of commitment and marriage and love, and we feel the gentle tension in how our experiences are so far apart in this season, and I see the love in wrinkles of concern above her brow. On that sofa, I'm not planning a graceful escape home, the way I feared I might, and this surprises me. How much time can pass between visits, how different cultures and languages and faith shape our stories, and here we are in sweet friendship. And this, too, is a garden and a painting and a fountain, a cup of tea and cozy socks and sweater wrapped tight on a cold winter evening.
Linking up this week with Heather for Just Write and Emily with Imperfect Prose, where the prompt is "Food."