piece meal

“Molly, you know your awful right” I told her through the broken screen of my cell phone. I could imagine her now, thousands of miles away, her lips pursed, the Miami sun making her already tan skin tinge with the cancer I told her she would get if she didn’t wear sunscreen. “Don’t judge me, he’s cute,” she tried defending her promiscuous behavior “and he’s not a white guy, isn’t that nice?”. I rolled my eyes, since I relocated to what she thought was the whitest possible state, she was perpetually making fun of me. “Are you okay though?” I asked, my voice hesitant, I hoped the extra sun exposure and city life would be enough for her. The line went quiet for a moment, and I could only think about all the things that have already changed in such a short amount of time.

“There can only be one” she told me, her small eyes slanted at me behind rectangular shaped glasses. She was petit, with long flowing black hair, and beauty mark right underneath her right eye. I stammered in response, I looked around our peers, afraid I did something wrong. “The token Asian friend, you know” she jokingly laughed, her eyes still fixed on me. She always had that ability on me, to instill fear and make me doubt myself amongst our friends. Molly had a competitive streak that translated in every aspect of her life, including our friendship. She was bubbly and witty, and I was awkward and timid. We were sitting clustered in our school’s cafeteria, surrounded by dingy blue walls, and squished pieces of Smuckers stuck on the floor. My uncomfortable ninth grade body shifted even more so uncomfortably under her gaze. “We going to practice today?” She asked, both of us knowing full well were going to show up to track practice. Joining the team was a decision largely influenced by Molly, another one of her ventures she taught would be fun.

“When we can take a break” I huffed, the warmth of the spring afternoon permeated my skin, and we both dripped with weariness. Our swinging ponytails collectively swung to a null. We stopped in the middle of the strip mall pavement, as the suburbs did not treat us to picturesque running trails. “What if we just went to Carvel” she pointed to the dingy grey storefront, the Carvel sign was colored in muted pinks and blues, and the door was left ajar as if to say they didn’t care if people came in or not. Our running group separated, we were the slow-mos, the ones who didn’t necessarily care about the sport, just another afternoon to kill time. “What if coach finds out? What if the other girls found out?” My nervousness rattled out through my voice, her eyes squinted in reply, “who cares” she stated simply. Many runs with Molly consisted of running for approximately twenty minutes then spending the rest goofing around and talking shit about everything we felt entitled to. Those were the basis of our conversations, a mutual hatred for all things high school and life. We’d wallow in our self pity, laying atop her bed on after practice, her record player she bought to seem cool would play some sort of obscure band I pretended I knew. We both awaited the days of escape, spoke our dreams aloud to each, in hopes of one day reaching them.

We grew up, sort of. We both ended up working at the only Vietnamese restaurant in town. The atmosphere of the restaurant was solidified by walls painted with chubby monks slurping soup, seat coverings ripped and held by duct tape, and fake bamboo plants placed in every corner. Yet, every Thursday evening the crowds would begin to appear, and wait the long lines for the Pho. The crowds varied from the locals who donned boat shoes and sweatshirts, the hip New Yorkers who’d cite Yelp like it was their Bible, and lastly actually Vietnamese families that thought tipping was optional. I was an awful hostess, my first job at the age of fifteen, I regularly stuttered my questions, constantly avoided eye contact, and just general clumsiness plagued me. I begged Molly to work with me, though I only met her a year ago in my godforsaken ninth grade English class, we understood each other, to a degree of inseparability.

“Do you miss home” she changed the topic after her long pause, I didn’t, but I missed her. I started to ramble off all the different people I was meeting, all the college parties that were so much fun and how stupid I thought my Biology class was, all the mundane things that I thought were important. “You know what I kinda of miss though? Pho” we both laughed, remembering long Saturday night shifts we specifically asked to work together, just so we could share a meal together at the end of a busy dinner rush. “You know what I kinda of miss though? Carvel” she laughed, I cringed at the one practice we ditched to grab ice cream. We both held sugar cones topped with mint chocolate chip flavor, the cones were so hard I thought they were fake, and first taste of the freezer burned toothpaste, we both understood this was the punishment for going to get ice cream in disguise of running.

“Should we get chicken or beef tonight?” Molly asked me. We were an hour away from close, I was wiping down wet drinking glasses, as she was pouring water for customers. The kitchen was crammed with harsh sounds of Vietnamese and Spanish, the stress of a full house slowly wearing everybody down. Our bodies bumped and jostled with lose proximity, our manager eyed us, reminding us to keep working. The end of the night, counting our tips, our favorite chef, her greying frizzy hair bound in a cap and her apron smudge with oil, pushed the steaming noodle soup onto our table. “Eat, eat” she gestured with her hands, a woman with few English words but much to say. A massive bowl, the collective sizes of our heads, brimmed with steaming beef broth. Rice noodles, long rectangular shaped, almost translucent, almost al dente, with a chew when we picked them up with our chop sticks. Thin slices of steak meat were stacked atop our bowls, ever so slightly pink, the hot broth was enough to cook them through. Flecks and pieces of spring onions gave the bowl a sweet hue. On the side, always, a plate of fresh bean sprouts, just for crunch, and a slice of lime and sprig of Thai basil just to elevate the beefy broth. The broth was everything, so essential, even on hot summer days you could find yourself craving this soup. The stock took the entire morning to make, rendered from the beef carcasses, charred ginger and onions, the star anise and cloves giving a sweet aroma of warmth and comfort. The pot used to make the broth was nearly the size of the small old Vietnamese woman making it, the soup was constantly simmering, enveloping the kitchen. I sipped the salty broth, and tore bits of the basil, releasing their intense licorice like perfume, watched as the hot broth swallowed the herbs making them wilt and swirl in circles with the array of fixings. I passed her the hot sauce, knowing how much she liked it spicy and she passed the hoisin, knowing how much I liked it sweet.

“I haven’t seen Molly in days, do you know where she is?” I rolled my eyes inwardly in response to my coworker. It was the end of summer, going into my last year of high school, I spent the last months avoiding her. I was busy. There were other temptations that strung me away from her, I didn’t need her anymore as a crutch, and it was an implication we both understood. She quit track, I grew to love it, she dropped our friends, while I found new ones, she stopped trying, while I seemed to prosper. We continued to work at the Pho restaurant together, the only time we saw each other, the only time everything seemed to be okay with us. Always a different split meal because we were both too cheap, always a constant laugh because she was the funniest person I knew, and always a goodbye, see you next shift. “Heard from her mom she was in the hospital” my manager piped, my eyes grew wide, asking questions my manager didn’t know the answers too. I called, I sent messages, I reached out to her only other close friend. Nothing. I reassured myself, we both signed up for a class together, both of us secretly hoping this would bridge our gap, and I knew by the start of school she would be there. She wasn’t. A week, I hoped to see her in the faces of the crowded hallways.

It was Sunday, our usually shift, a whole week avoiding questions from my friends and teachers alike, trying to keep any semblance of normalcy. A simply message lit from my screen, “do you wanna come over?”, I held my anger, two weeks of silence from her, I felt slighted and unjustified. I drove over, and was greeted with an eerie silence rather than the usual business and crooning of her mother. I held in my hands a packed Chicken Pho, because I knew that this was her favorite. Her demure was soft, a sheepish smile on her face when I hugged her, she tried to ask me about school, but I wanted answers. She told me about the pills, so many she didn’t remember the amount, swallowed one night with a bottle of vodka. “Why?” I could only respond, and she told me she couldn’t see herself in the world anymore. I layed in bed with her all day, talking in circles to understand who she became, and what she wanted to become.

She didn’t need to tell me if she was happy or not over the phone. She was talking, she was laughing, she was living. I was watching her tether herself back to world, falling back in love with herself. I was so sure of the world, sure of myself, I suppose I forgot how vast life was, how lost one could become. “Are you? You know happy?” Molly asked finally. Even from hundreds of miles away, she was still looking out for me. “Do they even have Pho over there?” She laughed.

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