Marie was my noodle lady. It was love in its own way. The first time I saw her in the sweaty dirt bustle of the Russian Market, she smiled perfect white teeth and said, “Hello. You want eat noodle?”
I froze. Did I want to eat noodle? “Yes,” I decided, “Very much.”
She put a hand on her grease-splattered hip, pursed her pretty brown lips. “You want beef noodle? Chicken noodle?” Her singsong voice was as light as a bird’s
“No,” I said. “Only vegetables.”
“You want egg?”
“Okay,” Marie grinned. “You sit. You sit here.” She gestured to one of five plastic stools arranged around her small L-shaped table.
The wok was fired, noodles fried. In two minutes, a steaming plate, simple and delicious: thick rice noodles tossed in some salty-sweet brown sauce with sprigs of greens, bean sprouts, diced crispy garlic and a fried egg on top. Yum!
“Have spicy,” Marie said, passing me a crusty jar brimming with red chilli paste. I had spicy. I sweated my shirt wet. Marie laughed and pointed her small fan at me. It was love in its own way.
For three weeks, I visited Marie’s noodle stall nearly every other day. I tried her rice, tried her soup, but love is best with the first bite: I kept to Marie’s noodles. I would eat, she would smile. When I finished, I’d rub my belly and say, “Oh, that was good.” Marie would giggle, “Five thousand riel.” 5000 riel = $1.25. Love was cheap and noodles were plentiful and delicious Marie was always there behind her wok near the north entrance of the rickety market, two lanes over from the nauseating fly-infested strip where slabs of meat rot in the close heat.
We exhausted conversation on that first meeting. “Were you born in Phnom Penh?” and “Do you work here every day?” and “How many people are in your family?” only got me cocked heads, giggles, and “I no speak English.” But Marie, you spoke, your voice, the music: your noodle talk was impeccable. “What’s your name?” repeated six times got me “Marie,” and “How old are you?” meant nothing until I scribbled my own age—26—on a piece of paper. Marie nodded, “Same same me. Same same me.” Same same hunger, same same souls, Marie.
Seven days a week, she worked flipping and frying, always cheerful, always beautiful in spite of the layer of cooking oil that covered her clothes and smooth skin. In spite of? Perhaps because of… What’s your secret, Marie? When the weather was clear, she’d pull a little string and a panel would flip back from the aluminum roof, illuminating sweet Marie with a halo of Cambodia’s blinding sun. When it rained, the floor flooded—I always wore sandals—and over the deafening roar of water pounding sheet metal, Marie would smile and shout, “Hello. You want eat noodle?”
This could have gone on forever. And really, I hoped that it would. I told my friends: “There’s this noodle lady. She’s beautiful. Her cooking: wow!” Replies: “You should go for it, man. Ask her out.” “No,” I’d say, “you don’t understand. I have all my love here,” tapping my belly, “And besides, it’s better this way.” That’s how I wanted it: me smiling over my plate and Marie over her wok, giggle tee-hee. But all things must pass. I keep telling myself that: all things must pass, Marie.
Another day, another smile. I had been visiting Marie so frequently that the “You want eat noodle?” had been dropped from the “Hello.” Now, Marie would just greet me and start cooking. She knew what I wanted; she tasted my need.
Noodles fried, grease went splatter plop pop. A steaming plate, I began to eat. Like all vendors in the market, Marie keeps her ingredients in plastic bags inside a small glass case. I was sitting in front of that glass case. I was sitting and slurping my noodles when something moved. I looked back at Marie. She waved.
“It good?” she said.
Giggle giggle. Noodle yum. Slurp, suck, chew. I look back at the case. Something moved—no mistake.
I leaned in close, put my nose to the glass, and… heaving, pulsing, squirming black mass, an orgy, cockroaches dance.
“Ugh.” I said, but what could I do? It’s a hungry land, was I going to throw away food? I finished the noodles and paid.
“See you, see you,” Marie sang—her last song—as I walked away. I never felt sick (thank god), but I never came back.
Oh Marie. Both noodle ladies and foreigners come and go, I know. I’ve found another. I avoid you. I skirt your part of the market. I am a coward. Do you think me long goodbye-less gone? No noodle lady has your beauty, and few possess your charm, but curt homely Lin sells the same dish for 3000 riel, and while I’d still pay a little more for your smile Marie, Lin’s noodles (so far) have been cockroach free.