Last night, mulling on the possibility of celebrating my birthday penniless, I chanced upon Manang Alice acoss my gate – the balut vendor who has been my peripatetic, source of local gossip through the years. I approached her, said my nightly greeting and was about to sit beside her on the sidewalk when she greeted me chirpily, “Hapi Bertdey!” and handed me what looked like a balut hastily wrapped in colored Christmassy plastic wrap.
I was surprised by her gesture and, hesitatingly at first, accepted her small gift with a hearty ‘thank you.’ I took the small bottle of vinegar, dabbed a bit of the sour liquid with some rock salts on the opened duck egg with a sliver of a chick showing (good thing it was dark and I won’t be able to fully see the massacred embryonic flesh inside), when I had to ask her, “Manang, eh paano ninyo nalaman? At saka sa susunod na araw pa bertdey ko eh.” (Manang, how did you know. My birthday isn't until the next day.)
While giving change to a coughing, emaciated tricycle driver who bought a stick of Champion, she muttered, “Naku, mabuti na yung maaga. Uwi ako ng Cavite sa Sabado. At saka pa-tenk yu na rin yan dun sa binigay mo sa akin na painting mo sa akin nung bertdey ko.” (Better greet you early. I'll be in Cavite on Saturday. It's also my way of saying thank you for the painting you gave me before.)*
“Salamat Manang ha? Pero paano pa rin ninyo naalala?,” (Thank you Manang ha. But still, how did you know?) I asked, and thankful still even if she missed her mark by a day.
“Sa lahat ng taon na nakilala kita eh isang beses lang kitang nakita na umuwi sa apartment mo nang lasing at bertdey mo yun. Kasi bumili ka sa akin ng kendi tapos sabi mo, ‘Hapi bertdey to me Manang’. Kung naaalala mo, nandito nuon yung pamangkin kong bakla at sinabi mo na seksi siya. Eh bertdey din niya nun at sinabi sa iyo. Tapos, sabi mo, ‘Hapi Bertdey Seksi’, tapos hinalikan mo siya. Kaya simula noon, naaalala ko na bertdey mo.” (All these years I've known you, I only saw you get drunk only once while going home to your apartment. You bought candy from me and said, 'Happy birthday to me Manang'. And if you remember, my gay nephew was with me and you told called him sexy. It was also his birthday that time, he told you and you said, 'Happy Birthday sexy' and you kissed him. Since then I remember your birthday.)
Shocked, I asked her, “Ginawa ko yun?” (I did that?)
I was silent for a few minutes while I finished my balut. Then I turned to her and smiled, “Salamat Manang. Hapi bertdey din ulit dun sa pamangkin ninyo.” (Thank you Manang. Tell your nephew happy birthday too.) I stood up and was about to cross the street, when she called me, “Oo nga pala. Hanggang ngayon eh tinatanong pa rin ng pamangkin ko cellphone number mo.” (By the way, until now he's still asking me for your number.)
I just smiled at her and walked on to where my gate is.
*It wasn’t really a painting as she mentioned but a small framed drawing I did of her from memory, with her basket of balut and the box of yosi (cigarettes) she peddles on the sidewalk at night.
Some definitions for non-Filipinos:
- balut - boiled duck's eggs with a day-old chick inside.
- Champion - brand of cheap cigarettes.