At the very beginning of the year, on one of my last trips out of Texas, I landed in New York from Houston for the second time in a week. I was there on business. And I met colleagues for an early dinner, and we hugged and then sat in a cramped, delicious Szechuan restaurant where I sneezed, once, into the crook of my arm, sipping loosely from both a milk tea and a Tsingtao. Afterward, we went to a ceremony, where we shook many hands and gave many hugs and talked in one another’s faces and put our cups and bags and coats on tables, on the floor, squeezing past one another to step into a crowded amphitheatre. At one point, a joke about impending illness was made onstage, and many people sitting in the audience laughed—whether from nervousness or ignorance or fear, or some ridiculous presumption of imperviousness, or maybe all of that, I don’t know. After the ceremony, I turned down an invitation to a gay bar and walked back to my hotel, passing through Times Square. It was a weekday, and it was late, but people were out. Everything glowed. I bought some sweets from a food truck, and I ate them on a stoop beside a stranger. He sipped from a cup of noodles. We met eyes, and grinned, because weren’t we so lucky, to be here in the middle of everything?
On a mostly traffic-less morning that felt crisp in the way Houston sometimes can, I ate out at a restaurant for just about the last time. It was at Bò Né Houston, on Beechnut, maybe ten minutes from where I live. My dude behind the cashier brought out the little skillet, sizzling with steak and eggs, surrounded by pâté, meatballs, veggies, and a pair of baguettes. It was the coda of a tiny weekly ritual: this was the place I’d brought nearly anyone I felt strongly for, but once a week I made a point to pass through by myself. I’d always arrive just after they’d opened. There were usually only a handful of other patrons there—a mother with her kids, some elderly men, pairs of guys grabbing a bite before the workday—and we’d nod one another’s way. This morning, the matron had just finished wiping down a mural on the wall commemorating the year of the rat, and she asked me how it looked and I said it was fucking beautiful.
In March, when the pandemic and its attendant hell reached Houston’s general consciousness, and the city—whose residents eat out more than most anyone else in the country—had all but sworn off indoor dining, I coped with takeout kimchi—topped with cheese, and slathered over pork, and pancaked and slipped into a styrofoam container. A trip to my usual place, Korean Noodle House, was the only nonessential venture I took outside my home: I was privileged to be able to work mostly remotely. For weeks, the restaurant’s owners were the only folks I saw repeatedly, aside from my boyfriend. We’d say hello, mime a wave, ask how the other was doing. Sometimes, I’d sneak a bite on my way to the car, and this was the thing that catapulted me through the middle of the week and into the next.
In April, the news only grew bleaker, and I fell into a hole along with everyone else: the days rejected any attempt I made to mold them into a routine. Cases continued to rise in Houston. Legislation for widespread, lasting, tangible help felt unlikely. I picked up bánh mì in the afternoons—in strip malls across Bellaire, and from tiny buildings beside Hong Kong City Mall—and the owners sighed at the news. One said this would pass, because everything passes, as he counted the change I’d handed him. Another, from the food truck Bánh Mì Hội An, said he couldn’t see it ever passing. The news played from his window as he assembled sandwich after sandwich. This is where we live now, he said, slathering butter across the bread.
My boyfriend and I called in a few orders of biryani and butter chicken from an Indian spot in a strip mall down the road. A warm voice on the phone told us thirty minutes, so we arrived in twenty-five. Five minutes passed, then fifteen, then forty-five. The lobby pooled with other folks waiting, donning masks on their faces or bandanas around their necks, and one group of friends chewed silently in the back of the restaurant, suddenly squirming and eyeing the rest of us, peeking at the crowd. Nearly two hours after arriving, my guy and I got our orders—which we drove back home, under a cloud of doom and annoyance that, predictably, immediately, evaporated after our first bites.
Over the summer, in the evenings, I ate roti—from Banana Leaf, from Singapore Café—dipped in sauce and wrapped around meat grilled to a subtle char. During the days, I’d drive to stand-ins and vigils and protests across the city, as thousands of Houstonians joined the nationwide movement against the state murders of Black folks. After months of living with what felt like entirely too much personal space, it felt as if there wasn’t very much at all, but it was a warm feeling. Everyone wore masks, and everyone made room for everyone else. I took my takeout home, wrapped in aluminum foil, and it was delicious but bittersweet, a little like a dismal premonition.
One day, I was back at the register of Korean Noodle House. (If the pandemic put them out of business, I would simply explode the sun.) On my way back toward the entrance I heard something, distinctly, fall. Whatever it was landed directly next to a table of folks who were eating, their masks hanging from their chins. It was a split-second decision, but without checking to see what had fallen I walked as quickly as I could out of the restaurant. A few hours later, back at home, I reached for my wallet, and the realization clicked. When I checked my phone, there was a missed call. It was the restaurant owner. He confirmed that I’d dropped my shit on the way out. When I drove back there, a little later that evening, the owner and his son stood by the register, smiling. The owner asked what had happened, handing my wallet over, nodding at whatever I was saying and then waving away my excuses, laughing. O.K., O.K., he said, but you have to be careful. We all have to be careful, especially now. And then he laughed, again. And I did, too, really, from the bottom of my feet, for what might have been the first time in months.
One day, I ate a chicken sandwich from a strip-mall enclave called Krisp, huddled on the corner of Blalock Square Center, beside a Latinx grocery store and several auto-body shops. I’d been driving when I saw the sign and turned around. I can’t remember why now, but it felt like the worst day—sunny without the promise of anything on the other side of it, enough to make you nauseated. This felt like a break in the routine. After I ordered, I popped back out of the restaurant—dimly lit, spacious, with “Itaewon Class” playing from a screen above—and opened the sandwich in my car, and it was so excellent it brought me to the point of tears. The pile of kimchi cheese fries beside it made me want to melt into the carport.