SINCE 2010

Phở Score and Seven Years Ago

In Food Writing on May 18, 2012 at 9:38 pm

DC’s Virginia suburbs purportedly proffer phở real Vietnamese food, but I have a personal embargo (embargphở?) on spending money in former Confederate states. (I also don’t sleep with Republicans, so as to neither aid nor comfort the enemy.) It is good phởrtune, then, that I need not travel a phởrtnight to procure passable phở.

Among Columbia Heights’ pupuserías, public housing, pricey penthouses, and Panda Express, Phở 14 is a landmark — but I’m not there. I’m a few blocks away at Phở Viet, a tidy English basement (n.b., what exactly is English about living underground?) on a sleepy, yet stabby-chic stretch of 14th St. NW that’s quickly becoming less ¿cuando? and more condo, skipping the Rent phase that usually comes between.

Even Washington’s hole-in-the-wall restaurants inexplicably trend toward immaculately clean, freshly tiled, and sparsely decorated — a Panera-laundromat-rustic aesthetic. Phở Viet is no exception, sitting on a block that captures the vague noir and menacing lushness of leafy uptown DC. Amidst a streetscape of modest craftsman rowhouses and tired art deco liquor stores, an uptown trolley could pass with Roger Rabbit in tow. A mugger could also pass with a tire iron in tow and crack your jaw — making slurpable phở entirely a propos.

The c.w. is that Phở 14 has better bánh mì and Phở Viet has better phở. Frankly, I like everything at both, and I can’t tell the difference. Both are great spots to enjoy a leisurely meal with friends, but go to Phở Viet to brood on the breathtaking rapidity of gentrification, the racial tension that hangs as thick in the air as Washington’s humidity, the perpetual question of to whom the federal city belongs. Or to grab a bite en route to Red Derby.

Phở Viet
3513 14th St. NW (corner Parkwood Pl.)
Washington, DC 20010
Phởne: (202) 629-2839
Metro: Columbia Heights (Green/Yellow)
Buses: 52, 53, 54

Rating: ****/*****
Price: $/$$$$


Her Shining Splendor

In Merache on February 7, 2011 at 8:03 pm

Melanie found the romance novel her mother wrote in a filing cabinet when she was 11 years old. She was looking for a piece of paper on which to take notes about Davy Crockett and instead saw the ream of dot-matrix paper closely marked with phrases that would never leave her. His rough hands pulling her close. His hot breath on her neck. Their impossible embrace. Her silken folds. Shudder and collapse. She understood enough about those vowels and those consonants, which read so raw together, to know she shouldn’t look at it. Her cheeks were flushed. Just like the heroine.

She started devouring romance novels, 600-page bodice-rippers with heroines coyly validating she-was-asking-for-it. There were thousands in the house, chronologically hidden away in plastic bins — too silly to give away, too useless to sell, and too wasteful to toss. The Christmas when she was 12, Melanie dug out every single one of them and made a spreadsheet, organized by nom de plume. Trisha Alexander, Jennifer Ashley, Penny Leigh, Amanda Chance. Her mother was awed by her daughter’s effort and by her assumptions. She waited a year to sell them in lots on eBay. Melanie burned with resolve to better empathize. Acts of love denied are maddening catalysts.

Melanie was 13 when she menstruated for the first time. She had lived the charmed and bloodless lives of concubines and orphans of the Ottoman Empire and Plains Indian tribes and the British Regency and knew exactly nothing about how to really feel about what was happening to her. The school nurse let her nap and read in the clinic for the next few days, and Melanie took the time to journal. For her, this was a time of reflection and empowerment and Simone de Beauvoir. Blooming buzzing confusion. Great and small born of woman. More in a sigh than a sermon. Soon enough she’d moved on to writing romances starring herself and a quarterback, one letter of his named changed. The tell-tale heart on college rule beat inside her locker until it was swiped one day and read aloud in gym class.

It was less than six months later when the quarterback’s next-door neighbor slid his hand down her pants while Homeward Bound 2 played across a screen in a dark basement. The water heater flipped on and the dogs were unintelligible and she stayed as stiff as she could. It was not a Spanish galleon lit by the dying rays of summer sun, and the three-time spelling-bee champion with too-long fingernails and too-apologetic smiles was no brigand. The next time he came over Melanie left the light on and found a way to sit on the far side of the couch. Shame and fear sat in her stomach when she should have felt mastery and power. Her fertility was a dark force poised to consume her. Her life had no place on the page.

She was 15 when he spent 45 completely unmemorable seconds inside her that she would never be able to forget.

Being a woman is being disappointed.

Time, and a Bottle

In Drunkenness on December 30, 2010 at 11:01 pm

Great Aunt Donna was a terror. No. She was a dread. A terror is something you can picture, something that makes you dizzy in a wave and lasts longer than it exists. A dread weighs on you without shape. Dread, you can drown yourself in. In an inch of it.

I had already had a drink when I picked her up from the airport. I was steeling myself with juniper berries and quinine.

She grabbed me from the side. I think she thought it was a hug. Here, she’s a presence defined by silence, and punctuated by sips of decaf, and the old days on her dad’s almond orchard. She suffered so much. My father was a bastard, never forget that. He may seem like he’s grown but she knows his nature. She will ship me that potato ricer she doesn’t use anymore. She’d love to see that concert but her hearing is going. She has osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, whooping cough, lupus, and the flu. But she feels just fine. She had Lyme disease last summer, didn’t she tell you? She thinks it’ll rain. I think I’ll have another glass of wine.

Great Aunt Donna brought a pale hand with a soft pink tissue to her pale face surrounded by hair I could only describe as pale, notwithstanding regard to symmetry, at least 500 times in four days. She blew her nose and almost seemed translucent. If I looked at the tiny expanse of her, I thought, I might lose my mind.

I told the time by what we were drinking, gestating a hangover without ever getting so much as a buzz. Great Aunt Donna, sipping cup after cup of coffee with cream before noon. Me adding bad whiskey to mine in the kitchen, lingering there to stare at the clock and will it forward. Her muted coughs coming from the next room. Each a-hem, a-hem weighing me down with mild hatred. Each sip a stinging reminder of how hard doing nothing really is.

Then it’s noon, and now it’s decaf. I escape to the corner store — each cold drop of rain is precious, something that’s finally not soft and warm and pink and boring — for tissues and chapstick and a 24-pack of something cheap and domestic and drank three in an hour.

At late afternoon, a light dinner at an Italian restaurant with seashell-and-chain-hotel-lobby decor. A waiter with a fake accent and a sickly mustache brings a bottle of wine and I drink it in delicate gulps. Meats generously sauced, vegetables boiled back to canned, three forks each, more coffee, and “should we order dessert? I couldn’t possibly. Oh, what the heck. I can’t watch my weight every day.” I considered Irish coffee.

Every sound of the fork scraping the plate of tiramisu sends a shiver that wraps itself around my heart, beating slower and slower and so slowly that I stop paying attention to the conversation so I can help it do its work. Directing the air into my lungs. Trying to meditate on my body, still young, nothing truly a labor. Letting the feeling of panic suffusing my limbs remind me that I am alive. I am young and I am alive and this is a four-day trip and it is now day three.

The sun-bleached seashell drapes and the chairs on casters and the waiter’s full name on his gold plastic name tag start to obsess me. Giorgio Napolitano. That isn’t his real name. Great Aunt Donna is ordering more coffee and a cab. My head is pounding and more wine seems like the best and only option. I am drinking it too quickly.

The thought of the things she’s been talking about, the things she brought as Christmas gifts and said she wouldn’t be offended if I sold at a garage sale, the things that only do one thing, things that came recommended so highly, things you keep for house guests only and are dismayed when they use, things that you store in the basement and never see again, the children you must have soon who will require more things and more things and will themselves be things, the friends who will trade things with you and require the purchasing of more things for their proper entertainment, a gravy boat and real silver and aprons with Kiss the Cook or If You Knew My In-Laws You’d Understand, the thought of them coming up the stairs after you, gift-wrap ribbons and electrical plugs trailing behind, the thought of them gradually assembling into an extra-wide coffin, the thought of growing paler and quieter and then lying down for an afternoon nap and never, ever waking up, the thought of each of them adding up to the road-trip you never took, will never take, the studying abroad you never did and now and forever will be unseemly at your age, the thought of why did you move here, why do you live in a place you thought was so different from the false-fronted Main Street and Great Aunt Donnas of your hometown, if you’re only going to end up the same and alone and buried in things and old.

Great Aunt Donna wasn’t a terror. She reminded you of the terror, not of death, but of the slowness and distraction of the years where you have nothing left but waiting. To sip decaf coffee and just not understand rap music. To order something easy to digest and gasp at violence in a mattress commercial. To lay in a coffin, eyes wide open, surrounded by symbols piled so deep no elegies can reach you.

Great Aunt Donna’s things were sucking her dry and pale and lifeless. For me, it was only temporary. I was just drunk.