I could see Steven in the distance as he walked briskly through the exit gate of the airport terminal. His eyes scanned the crowd, quickly passing over the college kids in shorts and straw hats, glancing briefly at the Indian men in turbans and business suits, and pausing for a while upon sighting the Japanese tourists covering their faces with flashing cameras. When his eyes finally found me, his face lit up just as I tried to control my face from showing too much excitement. Steven ran toward me, dodging luggage carts and baby carriages. He dropped his bags and swept me into his arms. Just like in the movies. Just like half a dozen other couples around us. The only difference was that only I had my uncle, my grandfather, three nieces, a nephew, and Bulak, a pet poodle, watching Steven's unabashed display of affection with unblinking attention. Steven finally looked up after my Tito Manuel and Lolo Gadong coughed conspicuously for the length of his embrace.
"Steven," I said as casually as possible as I tried to put my stray locks back into place under my pronged hairband, "I'd like you to meet my family." Steven proceeded to pump everyone's hand enthusiastically. My three teenage nieces twittered behind their fingers. Thinking Steven was one of his buddies from the battle of Bataan, Lolo Gadong saluted with a flourish.
There was so much I wanted to tell Steven, yet I knew we would hardly be able to speak to each other in private during the coming weekend.
"Welcome to Virginia, Mr. Spalding," Tito Manuel solemnly intoned. He enunciated each word very carefully, weighing each syllable just as he would inspect imported mangoes for ripeness at the store.
At this point, Bulak broke loose from my nephew's grasp. Tito Manuel and all his children chased the fleet-footed dog racing between the legs of startled passengers. My uncle's tirade of curses drowned out the roar of arriving planes. Meanwhile, Lolo Gadong was asking Steven for the third time if he knew Sergeant Steven Golding whom he had saved from a burning plane in World War II.
Bulak was finally caught before he could jump onto the luggage carousel. We all piled into Tito Manuel's van. I maneuvered myself, Steven in hand, towards the very back row. It would be a long ride to Fairfax. There was so much I wanted to tell Steven, yet I knew we would hardly be able to speak to each other in private during the coming weekend.
Back at the university, Steven and I often engaged our hands in a most enjoyable, but discreet, pastime. As we sat together in the library or in a class with eyes fixed fast upon our books or the teacher's darting glances, we would write messages on each other's open palms. The message I was dying to write now on Steven's hand would have given Lolo Gadong a horrible coughing fit. But before I could unfold Steven's fingers, Tom-Tom, my nephew, and Bulak managed to squeeze themselves, too, at the back of the van. Seeing what a tight fit it was, Steven gallantly offered his lap to my chubby nephew and the fidgety dog. Tom-Tom squealed as I pinched his cheek with more fervor than usual.
"Mr. Spalding," Tito Manuel raised his voice over the din of my nieces' incessant chattering and Bulak's barking, "now tell us a little about yourself." I could hardly muffle a groan. Tito Manuel had interrogated me about Steven months before. He knew very well the details of Steven's life, from how he chose to have his steaks cooked to what dressing he preferred on his salad. In good humor, Steven informed Tito Manuel that he was originally from Texas, had met me in graduate school in New York, visited Virginia only once before, and was looking forward to getting to know my family.
"Iho," Lolo Gadong turned to Steven with his teary eyes, "how far is Texas from Mississippi?" Lolo Gadong, ever since he arrived in the United States more than thirty years ago, still believed that one day, very soon, he would be reunited with his good friend, Sergeant Golding, formerly of Biloxi, Mississippi, whose present whereabouts were unknown.
He had been shocked by Steven's outburst of affection in public earlier at the airport, but he now showed us that he forgave our momentary lapse by dropping all formalities and his solemn timbre.
My uncle must have been pleased with Steven's responses to him and to my nostalgic grandfather. He had been shocked by Steven's outburst of affection in public earlier at the airport, but he now showed us that he forgave our momentary lapse by dropping all formalities and his solemn timbre.
"Steven, iho, how would you like to see Washington, D.C., by night?" Tito Manuel suddenly swerved the van toward another highway ramp. I protested to no avail. Steven, to my surprise, agreed as he reassured me that he wasn't tired at all from his flight. My nieces screamed in delight as their father nearly collided with an eighteen-wheeler truck. My knuckles turned white as I clutched the van's swinging handstrap. D.C. by night, admittedly, was a lovely sight.
Lolo Gadong pointed out to Steven the hotel where, as a head waiter, he had served Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson at formal dinners. Uncle Manuel drove past the well-lit monuments and the cherry trees whose blossoms glowed white in the darkness. Steven politely asked questions which Tito Manuel answered as eagerly as a schoolboy out on a field trip. I couldn't help but think of how different a ride this would have been if Steven and I were alone, his one hand on the wheel, the other scribbling leisurely across my hand...
"Jasmine," Tito Manuel called out to me excitedly, "it's only 9:00. Your Tita Isabella will still be at the store. Don't you think Steven would be interested in seeing the Guevarras' Nipa Hut?" Tito Manuel made his living selling light fixtures, but he devoted much of his time and energies to the fledgling enterprise he had set up with my widowed aunt. Although 60-watt bulbs and extension sockets bought the van and sent the children to private schools, it was the tiny shop in the Chinatown district of Washington that lit up my uncle's life.
Even as I pointed out to my uncle that Tita Corina and her five-course dinner would be waiting for us, I knew it was useless to protest since Tito Manuel had already taken the road to the store. While many of the establishments in the area had closed hours earlier, the Nipa Hut was garishly lit and full of customers. The throbbing life of the Nipa Hut was deceptive. Hardly anyone bought anything. Although he knew his profits from the sale of fluorescent lights were quickly disappearing, Tito Manuel was already thinking of expanding the store.
Tito Manuel, who considered everyone in the crowded room part of his family, did not think at all of lowering his voice. At the word, "boyfriend," everyone in the shop stopped talking.
"Ising!" my uncle greeted my aunt after he had gone the rounds of the clientele who were busy catching up on the latest political or movie scandal from home. "Here's Steve, Jasmine's boyfriend from Texas." Tito Manuel, who considered everyone in the crowded room part of his family, did not think at all of lowering his voice. At the word, "boyfriend," everyone in the shop stopped talking. They all stared curiously at Steven who smiled back. Meanwhile, I kept myself busy on my knees as I toyed with Bulak's leash, my eyes fixed on the brightly colored letters of the word "Welcome" woven on an abaca mat.
Tita Isabella shook hands with Steven and proceeded to ply him with the bright orange noodles of pancit luglog, a dish of ube ice cream topped with toasted peanuts, and a tall, cool glass of guyabano juice. My protests were dismissed by a wave of Tita Isabella's hand. "Nonsense, iha," my aunt watched with delight as Steven gamely dug into the spicy noodle mixture. "I'm sure Steven's digestive system can handle my specialties." I thought with a sinking feeling of Tita Corina's own array of culinary expertise cooling on the dining table. I fervently hoped Steven had a light meal on the plane.
As Steven discovered the wonders of Filipino cooking, my uncle's extended family members welcomed me, too. They all exclaimed how thin I had become and how I, even at the age of twenty-two, seemed to have gotten taller in the three months I'd been away at school.
Feliza Gomez pressed my wrist to check my pulse, her glued-on fingernails leaving crescents in my skin. "Jasmine, don't study too hard. I can feel the current of your blood. It is rushing, rushing...whoosh! whoosh!...almost exploding in your veins. Be careful, iha, or else your blood will not reach your womb, and you may not be able to bear any children." Miss Gomez, who claimed to read the future in facial moles and receding hairlines, regularly dropped by the store to scrutinize newcomers' faces in the hope of catching criminals.
My three nieces meanwhile were overcome with giddiness as Dr. Melchor flattered them no end. An avowed bachelor, the handsome chiropractor was an expert in coining the most flowery phrases in mixed Tagalog, English, and Spanish with a few, indecipherable Latin phrases thrown in. Not even the women's reassurances that his shiny head was an asset could comfort him. He came regularly to the store to purchase Mang Elmo's Macho Man's Magic Salve, a concoction made in the province of Quezon from a secret blending of young coconut, pulverized snail shells, and chicken feathers. He wiped his shiny pate furtively with a silk handkerchief as he winked at my nieces who did not try very hard to smother their giggles.
Lolo Gadong joined the circle of elders who were shaking their heads as they argued about the latest political move of Cory Aquino and her beleaguered cabinet. Lolo Gadong would soon be caught in another coughing fit since his insistence on the legitimacy of the late Ferdinand Marcos' reign would rack his throat dry.
Tom-Tom, followed by twin boys twice his size, dashed past me, exciting Bulak and knocking tins of barquillos off the shelves. My nieces, followed by the ardent doctor, chattered in high-pitched voices with the other adolescents standing by the video corner of the store. A knot of people gathered around a television set which was showing a blockbuster movie from home starring Desiree Rodriguez as a laundrywoman's daughter, who was actually a mermaid, who would marry a millionaire who was actually a merman.
Tito Manuel closed his eyes as he held the fruit to his cheek. He then pointed out the thumb-sized bananas, the star-shaped balimbing
, and the clusters of atis
whose combination of lizard-skin and sweet, white pulp was the current fad in the tony cafes of Georgetown.
Meanwhile, Steven, who, to my amazement, had finished his meal to the last peanut, was being shown the fresh produce section by my beaming uncle. "Just look at this, iho, nowhere else in D.C. can you find such luscious mangoes. These were flown in just today on a Philippine Airlines non-stop flight." Tito Manuel closed his eyes as he held the fruit to his cheek. He then pointed out the thumb-sized bananas, the star-shaped balimbing, and the clusters of atis whose combination of lizard-skin and sweet, white pulp was the current fad in the tony cafes of Georgetown.
As Tito Manuel caressed his air-lifted harvest, I remembered how, back home, when I was a child, my uncle visiting Manila would scour the streets and open market for the delicacies he had long missed. He would come home to my grandmother's apartment in Sta. Ana, riding in a taxi full of baskets upon baskets of lanzones swarming with ants, green dalanhitas, and the spiked globes of rambutan which grew only on the island of Mindanao. Since I was his favorite godchild, I was in turn loaded with gifts from America. I recalled my delight and terror as the first fistful of pop candy ricocheted inside my mouth.
I waited months before I opened the small silver packet of freeze-dried ice cream-the official dessert of the Apollo crew-which my uncle purchased from the Air and Space Museum. With each bite, I imagined that I, too, was an astronaut munching on crushed vanilla as I sailed toward the moon.
Many years later, finding myself in America on a graduate scholarship, I would spend vacations with my Tito Manuel, who welcomed each visit with a feast of Filipino fare. He prepared the elaborate meal of pig's blood and stuffed prawns in a splendid kitchen whose state-of-the-art vegetable chopper and microwave oven sparkled from disuse.
, come here," Tito Manuel held out an egg in his hand. "This has got to be the Filipino's greatest culinary secret."
"Iho, come here," Tito Manuel held out an egg in his hand. "This has got to be the Filipino's greatest culinary secret." Tito Manuel knocked the tip of the egg against the counter, licked a few crystals of rock salt, and proceeded to sip the fluid from with the egg noisily. He then peeled the egg professionally as he whistled. Throwing away the hardened albumins, Tito Manuel popped the rest of the egg into his mouth.
I closed my eyes as he chewed ecstatically on the duckling's nascent feathers, beak and webbed feet. I found myself muttering a quick prayer to my hometown's patron saint to spare Steven from having to eat balut.
I winced as I remembered how, back in Sta. Ana, Tito Manuel entreated in vain for his favorite niece to at least try eating balut. "Iha," he implored, "eating balut will add flesh to your bones. Then you can lead the annual parade of Miss Sta. Ana." In my younger days, I did look like a chick left out in the rain. But I had no intentions of wearing a tiara and a tulle gown in the seasonal rain, nor did I relish the thought of chewing a half-formed duckling. Through tears, I would speak on the deceased duckling's behalf. How could my kind uncle and generous godfather eat, without the slightest twinge of guilt, the unborn life within the egg? Tito Manuel would sigh in resignation as he cracked another balut for himself. "Iha," he would remind me gently as he licked his lips in anticipation, "I am sure the dear ducklings will be glad to know they are making someone's digestive system very happy. These little birds are blessed martyrs. Besides, Jasmine, I didn't notice you shedding any tears this morning as you ate your omelet for breakfast."
"Steven, my boy," my uncle intoned after he had wiped his mouth, "balut is not only a taste of paradise, it is the most potent aphrodisiac. Why do you think the Philippines is overpopulated?"
At this last remark, everyone in the store laughed, moving closer to Steven and Tito Manuel. My uncle, aware of his enraptured audience, carried on, his voice booming in the crowded Nipa Hut. "Iho, I'd understand, yes, I'd understand perfectly if you decline to taste this rarest delicacy. But it is here in our humble store where you can find the East Coast's sole supply of fresh balut. You may never have this opportunity again." Tito Manuel smacked his lips.
"But, I tell you, iho, you don't know what you're missing. Just one bite and you'll want to swim across the Potomac, climb the Washington Monument, and..." My uncle winked as he rolled another egg suggestively between his fingers. The onlookers roared with laughter once more, urging Steven with sudden familiarity to go ahead and try the balut.
Making a mental note that I had to discuss this matter with my favorite and presently distant saint later on, I rushed towards my uncle, but my gallant gesture was ruined as I tripped on the tangle of the dog's leash. Bulak was barking incessantly, his wagging tail seeming to egg Steven on.
"Tito Manuel," I whispered ferociously through my clenched teeth, "please. . .enough is enough. I think you like Steven, so please don't embarrass him in front of all these people." In desperation, I added, "And what if he gets food poisoning? His dad's a lawyer, you know." "Iha, iha," my uncle chuckled as he patted my head, addressing the animated crowd. "These duck eggs were boiled in the purest spring water. After all, I have a reputation to keep as the winner of the U.S. Department of Health's Safety Standard Award, Chinatown District. Besides, just because you never touch balut-which is most strange since your father could eat a dozen of these killers in one sitting-doesn't mean your boyfriend won't try it." At the word "boyfriend," I winced again. I then turned to Steven whose warm hand I grasped, madly scribbling litanies of "No! No! No!" on his palm.
Steven squeezed my hand before releasing it. He reached out his open hand to my uncle. Deftly following Tito Manuel's procedure, he, before my astonished eyes, ate not only one, but two balut
eggs in a matter of seconds.
Steven squeezed my hand before releasing it. He reached out his open hand to my uncle. Deftly following Tito Manuel's procedure, he, before my astonished eyes, ate not only one, but two balut eggs in a matter of seconds.
The crowd roared with approval. Dr. Melchor offered to buy a round of beer for Miss Gomez and all the male customers, and diet soda, of course, for the pretty ladies in honor of Steven's courage.
Miss Gomez pulled me aside and whispered loudly, "Your boyfriend will bring you luck, iha. Do you see the freckles on the mound of his cheek? That only means he will father many, many fine sons." Tito Manuel put his arm around Steven as Lolo Gadong told his buddies that my boyfriend looked just like Sergeant Golding.
The next morning I woke up with a stomachache. Even though we reached Fairfax past midnight, Tita Corina refused to let us sleep until we had tried all her five dishes. I groaned into my pillow just thinking of the mish-mash I had eaten all day yesterday now growling in my belly. At the dining table, I noticed with growing resentment how everyone looked bright-eyed and hungry, including Steven who was relishing his breakfast consisting of fried rice and dried fish. The box of muesli I had purchased just for him remained unopened. I returned his cheerful greeting with a tight-lipped smile.
"Jasmine," my uncle piled Steven's plate with more of the fingerlings doused in vinegar, "I know you had plans for today, but perhaps you both would like to come with us to the Filipino Festival." I stared at the sugar crystals dissolving in my coffee and nodded. To refuse would have been futile. I could see Steven trying to catch my attention, but I gazed into my cup with fierce concentration. Never mind the traveling exhibit of Monet's Waterlilies at the National Gallery of Art. Or our reservation at the Wild Duck, the Scandinavian restaurant tucked away on a Georgetown street which served delicate cakes named after Ibsen's characters. If Steven wanted to spend the last day of our weekend together in the F.F.F.F.F. (Federation of Filipino-Americans' Festival for Family and Friends), that was fine with me. Under the tablecloth, my balled-up fist repelled Steven's insistent finger.
The huge hall of Our Lady of Perpetual Help shook with the strains of "Bayang Magiliw." Lolo Gadong and the three teenage Guevarras glittered in their hand-sewn barong Tagalog and sayas. Even Tom-Tom wore a long-sleeved barong, which he was under threat not to crease. All around us, the other families, similarly dressed in lace or embroidered pineapple fiber outfits, moved in slow measures. Steven would have worn my uncle's barong if it had not been three sizes too small. I wore my over-size shirt and blue jeans with ease.
The program began. I was watching Steven more than I did the endless numbers, skits, and speeches. As I fidgeted restlessly in my seat, Steven tried to catch the meaning of each and every speaker's long-winded spiel sprinkled with untranslatable colloquialisms and jokes. He clapped loudly at the end of each discordant duet, elocution piece, and impersonation of famous Filipinos he had never heard of. He cheered as loudly as Tito Manuel when it was my nieces' turn to dance the Pandanggo sa Ilaw, a number I refused to participate in since I found it demeaning to sway on stage with a candle flickering inside a drinking glass balanced precariously atop my head. Steven seemed to marvel at my nieces' feat, showing no sign he had noticed how I had been ignoring him all day.
At one point in the program, Tito Manuel was given the Buko Award for his "outstanding philanthropic contribution to the propagation of Filipino traditions in the Western Hemisphere." As he clutched his trophy fashioned into a bronze coconut, Tito Manuel spent several minutes thanking his family, his neighbors, Father McMurray and the saints, the officers and committee members of the F.F.F.F.F., Cory Aquino, George Bush, the fruit-growers of Mindanao, the state of Virginia, the cities of Washington, D.C. and Manila, and Steven Spalding of Houston, Texas, whom he asked to stand up to be acknowledged. Tito Manuel added that Steven would soon dethrone him as the world's fastest balut eater. Steven bowed with a flourish before the cheering crowd. I don't know why, but my uncle's failing to refer to Steven as my "boyfriend" suddenly irked me.
It was at the International Fair at the university where I first met Steven. I stood by the Filipino booth, awkward in my abaca slippers and butterfly sleeves. He bought a small bag of pili nuts. He then asked me as I gave him his change if I was not feeling cold in my sheer dress. Perhaps I might like to join him for a cup of coffee later on. We met in a Chinese-run deli after the fair closed. I remember how he almost did not recognize me as I stepped into the restaurant, lost in the bulk of my down coat. I now found myself wondering how I would have looked tonight if I had worn that pale green dress with its delicate sleeves edged with hand-painted flowers. I quickly dismissed the thought as I pulled impatiently at my loose shirt bunching up around my shoulders.
As was the custom every year, the program ended with the tinikling. The bamboo poles were brought in, and two couples wearing matching costumes and garish red scarves danced between the poles to the rhythm of the crowd's clapping and a hesitant guitar. Their bare feet flashed like jumping fish in the split second before the bamboo poles clacked together. Tito Manuel and Tita Corina gave the tinikling a try, and so did Dr. Melchor, whose arms were tightly grasped by the slightly inebriated Miss Gomez. When it was Lolo Gadong's turn, the men holding the ends of the poles kindly slackened their beat. My grandfather danced with the slow, proud strut of a bantam rooster.
Tito Manuel grabbed Steven and led him to the stage. This time, I made no attempt to stop my uncle. Steven removed his shoes and socks to the delight of the audience. A young lady with glistening black hair reaching her waist held Steven's hands as she led him through the intricate steps of the tinikling. Steven tentatively thrust his foot between the poles which immediately closed in on him. He yelped as if scalded, jumping around and rubbing his bruised foot. He didn't give up, however. With the woman's coaxing, Steven soon got into the rhythm. He twirled his partner as he urged the men holding the poles to go even faster. The clapping grew more frenzied; the guitar twanged feebly. The woman's forgotten partner ran down the stage to get me. "No, no, no!" I pleaded, claiming my left leg was shorter than the other. I should have removed my high-heeled shoes.
Instead of staring so ferociously at the long-haired woman, I should have concentrated instead on keeping my feet out of the way of the bamboo poles. Something other than the clacking poles made an ominous cracking sound. Before I knew it, I had crumpled onto the floor, one of my legs bent under me at the oddest angle.
Shame, pain, a queasy stomach, and inexplicable fury darkened my vision. The last thing I remembered was Steven's pale face leaning over me and Miss Gomez calling out as she flailed her limp wrists about: "Her blood vessels must have burst! Hurry, Father McMurray, there may still be time for Extreme Unction!"
When I woke up, it was morning of the next day in a dimly lit bedroom in Fairfax. Tito Manuel waved everyone aside-Tita Corina, my nieces, Tom-Tom, and Bulak-who all formed an anxious circle around my bed. To my surprise, he asked them to leave just as Lolo Gadong brought in Steven. "Steven, my boy," my uncle made a valiant attempt at whispering, "don't take too long. She's still on tranquilizers. And we do have your plane to catch." He patted my head before he left the room, closing the door quietly behind him. It was only then that I became aware that the massive, white cast lying inert on the bed was somehow connected to my body.
The last thing I remembered before I drifted off to unconsciousness was Steven reaching out for my hand. Did I imagine his scribbling "I love balut
" on my feverish palm?
I tried to speak, but the word "sorry" rolled like molasses in my mouth. My lids started to droop again much as I tried to keep Steven in focus. The last thing I remembered before I drifted off to unconsciousness was Steven reaching out for my hand. Did I imagine his scribbling "I love balut" on my feverish palm? I slept for many hours more, lost in a dream where my twisted leg had turned into a throbbing bird knocking, to no avail, against its concrete shell.
© Fatima Lim-Wilson
Reprinted with permission from the author from the anthology Philippine American Short Stories, eds. Noree Briscoe & Anita Merina (Giraffe Books, 1997).