At the Chinese noodle house

 Art courtesy of  Renuka Chalk .

Art courtesy of Renuka Chalk.

Laney was on her way into town. Sylvia had called the previous night, informing Laney of another spontaneous trip up from Melbourne to visit her family – “For stability,” she said – and insisted that they meet up first – “But I don’t want theirs to be the first faces I see when I get here.”

“Can we do dinner then?” Laney asked. “At nine o’clock?”

“Nine! Jesus, Lane. Have you been staying up late again?”

“Eight, really. But I know you’ll be late.”

Sylvia arrived at the Chinese noodle house fifteen minutes past nine. Something to do with a less-than-polite Uber driver. There were already two empty bamboo containers stacked on top of each other. Laney was sucking up the last sips of her cold soy milk when Sylvia ambled in and dumped her carry-on bag by the umbrella holder at the entrance. The two friends held each other for a long silent minute. Within moments

of Sylvia sitting down, the withered Asian waitress ambled over to take her order.

“Why didn’t you get any tea, Lane? Jesus. Could we have some tea please? Jasmine. And some salt and pepper tofu. God, it has been a while.” Sylvia translated the order into Cantonese. The waitress’ face broke out into a smile. Then she left with the empty bamboo containers.

“She was laughing at my accent,” Sylvia said, grinning.

“I like how this place serves har gow in those bamboo things,” Laney said. “It’s like yum cha but at night.”

Sylvia shrugged. “I guess people just get a kick out of them. Like you!”

“Yeah,” Laney said. “Who cares, right?”

“Oh, she’s coming back. I know what I’m having. Lane, do you know what you’re having?”

Laney smiled. Of course she had. That’s what she did in the fifteen minutes that Sylvia was late. She listened to her translate their order for the waitress. An incorrect inflection of a syllable invoked an entirely different meaning, and the waitress giggled delightedly as Sylvia worked through the other five tones to find the right one.

“Leng jie, m goi sai,” Sylvia said to the waitress, who huffed in mock annoyance of Sylvia’s flattery. She left with a smile on her face.

“I’m thinking of moving to Hong Kong,” Laney said. “For a working holiday. A year. I mean, I’ve graduated already. The job front isn’t looking too promising. Plus, I can work on my Cantonese.”

“Do it.”

Laney sighed. It was typical for Sylvia to be so casual about this stuff. She wished Sylvia would ask her something to hold her accountable. Something like, ‘What happened to au pairing in Italy?’ or ‘What about that volunteering gig in Costa Rica’ or whatever? What was that about building schools and teaching English, eh? But she knew she had other friends for that.

The waitress arrived with the tea, bowed, and shuffled off. Sylvia reached for the handle and Laney brushed it away. “Let it sit first. Let the leaves infuse.”

“You’d be great for it,” Sylvia said. “Then you can come back and finally get my Canto up to scratch.”

“Hong Kong... will just be a bit more expensive.”

“It’s a working holiday.”
“Yeah.”
“Lane, what’s wrong?”
“I just feel... you know. Privileged.”

Laney lifted the lid of the teapot and peered inside. Just a little bit longer to go before its ready. She replaced the lid. “I mean, I’m from south-west Sydney, and I went from that shithole in Leichhardt that could’ve passed for a meth lab —”

“Hey, rent was cheap, and it was homey.”

“—to Manly. It’s nuts.” Laney shook her head and checked the tea again. “Maybe I should just not go anywhere.”

“Maybe you and your parents should trade places.”

“Sylv.”

“We are privileged. There’s no denying it.”

Sylvia squinted at the waitress counting cash behind the counter, looking for a sign of the when the food was to arrive. Getting nothing, she turned back to Laney.

“Do you want to come outside? I’m going to have a smoke before the food arrives. And to let the leaves infuse.” She grinned.

Outside, Laney relayed the plainness of the days prior. She talked about the day she went back to visit her parents’ bistro, about how her mum dyed her hair black to hide the grey hairs, about how her dad bought himself new sneakers as a rare treat. Sylvia said nothing, only nodded, blew rings of smoke here and there, and smiled as men who were smaller than her furtively dodged her imposing posture on the narrow path. Eventually Laney said nothing too. The two women found comfort in each other’s quiet delight in near-arctic silence. They had been friends for little over two years now.

By the end of the night, when the plates were swept clean by their forks and the remaining tea was a deep, bitter brown, Laney watched as her friend boarded the late night bus, wondering when they were going to see each other again.

This article appeared in The Comma’s 2018 Annual Edition. Read more here.

Natasha Hau likes grammar a lot, which explains why she's still studying German.