It’s Mike’s birthday today, which thankfully I remembered one fuzzy minute after I woke up.
“Happy birthday,” I said, as he placed ginger tea and a plate full of mango and dragon fruit by the bed at 7am. (Sidenote: Ginger tea from Laos could be successfully marketed internationally as a morning sickness remedy, I do believe. So if any of you out there are looking to fund a social enterprise project, there’s a thought).
“So,” I said, as Mike got dressed for work. “Do you want your birthday present now, or tonight?”
“Tonight,” he said, his mind already mostly in the office. Then he paused and smiled like a cherub – the sort of smile that lets me know he’s about to say something sickeningly sweet. “Besides, you’re the only birthday present I could ever want.”
“Awww,” I said dryly, only just managing to stop myself from saying, “Well, you’re not the only birthday present I could ever want so you better remember that three weeks from today when it’s my birthday.”
Mike paused again.
“Well,” he said thoughtfully. “Maybe a version of you that picks up her clothes off the floor,”
“I think that’s a very expensive software upgrade,” I said. “I’ll check for you, but I doubt we can afford it.”
“Oh I don’t know,” Mike said. “I’m paying fifty dollars a month at the moment and it’s working pretty well, but I know it’s only a temporary systems fix.”
“Yeah,” I said. “And the price is likely to jump precipitously the minute we leave Laos unless we take Oun [our maebaan] with us.”
Mike and I have a long-standing debate, starting last year, about birthday presents. He holds that we should not be expected to give them (and also not expect to receive them). I hold that birthdays are the perfect occasion to expend a bit of love and creativity in celebrating someone, and that the celebrating should include at least one birthday present.
I’m not at all sure that either of us clings to our positions on this nearly as tightly as we pretend to, but we certainly hold firm whenever the topic comes up while we’re walking through the night market. We have even polled perfect strangers unlucky enough to be walking nearby on the subject. So far they have all agreed with me. Perhaps that’s because the wives have always answered first and then looked at the husbands as if to say, “it’s your turn now, and you can say whatever you want about whether people should give their spouse a birthday present… as long as you say what I said.”
The only real problem with holding my position in this great debate is that when Mike’s birthday rolls around I need to have a present on hand, and the real irony of the whole thing is that I’m not naturally a gift giver. Occasionally on my travels I see something that I know someone will love and splash out extravagantly – lugging home stone statues from South Africa or crystal carvings from Norway. But often I’m pretty hopeless. It takes inordinate effort to remember to send birthday cards even to my immediate family, and Mike’s generally much more thoughtful than I am about the small, everyday, gift-giving niceties like taking drinks when we’ve been invited to someone’s house. Or, uh, food to a potluck.
This year, however, I do have a present for him. It cost me all of ten bucks, but I’ve carried it across oceans since I found it eleven months ago and I’ve been hoarding it with anticipatory glee.
But late yesterday afternoon I decided that wasn’t enough birthday fanfare, so I hopped on my bicycle and rode down to the little grocery store that stocks imported cream, fresh milk, and other such goodies.
“What are you doing?” Mike asked when he got home last night.
“I’m making birthday French vanilla ice cream with some of those the vanilla beans you bought back from PNG that we keep saying we should use for something more than flavoring sugar,” I said, trying to judge when the eight egg yolks two and a half cups of cream I was stirring were just about to simmer so that I could yank them off the stove.
“Ah!” I yelped. “It’s boiling! Quick! Get me the milk!! Quick!”
“You know what I really want for my birthday?” Mike teased me a couple of minutes later, kissing the back of my neck as I stood at the kitchen bench. “For you to get me that information I need for our taxes. Forget presents, baby, I want your bank details.”
“What?” I said, a trifle crossly, staring at the creamy, eggy, vanilla-flavoured, clumps left in the strainer and wondering whether I’d ruined two hours work and enough calories to keep half a dozen people alive for a week. “French vanilla ice cream and toaster oven brownies aren’t enough?”
“French vanilla ice cream is you speaking your love language to me,” Mike said. “I can see it and appreciate it for what it is, but bank details and tax information so that we can finish a task… that’s my love language.”
And then we both laughed. Because laughing is perhaps the best way to bridge the gulf that lies between French vanilla ice cream and taxes.