Dear Valerie

     His fingers, rough and twice the size of hers, gently cupped her eyes from the bridge of her nose to her cheeks. A mere minute ago he had knocked and she slid the stationary and bottle into her vanity drawer. Upon entering, he smiled the sweetest smile, one that showed more in his admiring eyes than his mouth.
     “May I come in?” he almost whispered.
     “Of course, John,” she replied with surprise, looking over her image’s shoulder at his reflection in the vanity’s mirror.
     “I have something for you,” he exuded, but again in a soft tone.
     “What is it?” she asked while turning around, eyes hinging on confused inquisitiveness.
     “I can’t tell you. I’ve gotta show you.” He held out his hand and lifted her to her feet. She felt a mild guilt, the same that used to plague her but had, for the last two to three years, just subsisted as level and involuntary as the blood the pushed through her body. Without a word he stood behind her and covered her scope of vision. It was a bit unsettling. At first impulse, her hands went to his, but not to pry him from the cinema of charcoal with red-pink bars of light through flesh, only to steady herself. In a beat or two her internal vision focused. Much like waking to use the restroom, flicking off the light, and feeling twice as blind from the gleam snapped to darkness.
     She felt him leading her forward with his arms. It steadied them both to hold his forearms. She felt a familiar path...bedroom door, right turn, hallway passed the baby’s room on the left, and soon would be at their son’s, Leo’s, room on the right above the stairs. They stumbled a little between the children’s rooms. It was an opportunity to laugh and relax their braced arms.
     “Just a little further,” he promised. At the top of the staircase he told her it might be best to hold the handrail. She did and he lumbered behind her, trying not to remove her blindfold though it was awkward, him being hunched down one stair above her.
     “Ok...right here,” he estimated. “Ready?” he called out with much more volume than needed for just her.
     “Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday...” rang out a chorus of voices. Before her eyes refocused, she could make out the tones of young and mature in the cheerful medley. As they continued the song, she felt a depth bulging in her chest and around the time the notes rose and momentarily dipped and paused at four syllables to say, “Dear,Valerie” that very same contradiction of crushing expansion released itself in the form of sobbing. She looked from face to face, to clapping hands, to shaking hips, to her friends’ smiles, to her parents’ raised eyebrows that spelled out love and concern, to the contented squeezed eyes of her son and baby girl.
     She even caught what she interpreted as her devious nephew, Carl, mouthing the birthday song variation of the birthday celebrator living in a zoo and looking like a monkey.
     She was overcome with joy. She wondered how long it would last, wounded by the known truth that this would be one blissful blip in a radar of flat lines. It took quite a while to make her way around the room, hugging and thanking co-workers, in-laws, parents, friends from long ago and recent motherhood Meet-Up groups, and her children and husband.
     She was astonished that not once did she hear a sound that would have alerted her into knowing almost twenty people were in the house. They were so quiet, in fact, that she thought she had a full forty-five minutes alone before her husband would be home with the kids.
     All this she marveled as she looked at a table holding an asymmetrical pyramid of gifts in the sitting room and the living room table topped with appetizers, entrees, and a sheet cake larger than any birthday cake she had ever gotten.
     It was all so wonderful. Each person she conversed with showed genuine interest in how she was, Leo’s participation in baseball, John’s job promotion, and how the baby was gaining significant weight and length.
     “Heeellooo, sweetheart!!” her Uncle Freddie oozed. He had always been her favorite uncle. He was kind, funny, and showed all his nieces and nephews love and attention despite being busy with six kids of his own. One eccentricity she would always reflect back on, was him teaching her to chew bubble gum to just the right consistency so blowing a bubble within a bubble was possible. After a few poor losings and many close calls she got it to a perfect baby green bubble inside and sizable outer bubble. Taking it out to inspect it, she ran to the kitchen to show her mother, who simply stated, “That’s nice, Val,” shooting her brother a critical look.
     “How long did it take you to get here, Freddie?”
     “Ahh, don’t worry about that.” He was always balanced and kind. One who would rather suffer inside and hide it than say, “Well, it took me four hours of driving through the stinkin’ desert to get here in my jalopy.”
     Slyly, he looked side to side as if to tell a secret. “Of course I would be here for my favorite niece!!” he erupted into laughter and reached out to give her a hug that lifted her off her feet and swung her side to side. “Want some food, kiddo? You look starved!”
     “Yeah, yes, very much,” she trilled as he lowered her back onto her toes.
     Uncle Freddie made his way with class and 1970s flair toward the birthday buffet, as she once again surveyed the scene. Everyone was merry-making: drinking, smiling, nibbling, feasting, laughing, playing. For a flickering, celluloid-like slow-motion moment, she looked back over her left shoulder toward the room where her husband retrieved her. As though slowly through the door. Slowly to the vanity topped with bottles and jars. Slowly passed the lotions, powders, tubes of lipstick, her bamboo brushes, her perfumes. Slowly to her dark sleeping drawer. Slowly to where her 4” x 8” slip of stationary waited: the paper framed in vines with a plump robin alighting from its nest, wherein nestled four perfect turquoise eggs. The body reading:

Next to that folded sentence, a collection yielding a full bottle of lethal Dosulepin.
     “Here you are, darlin’!” Freddie snapped her from the film in her mind and handed her an appetizer-size plate piled comically high with food.
     Laughing during the hand-off, she impressed, “Thank you, Uncle Freddie!” To this, he bowed, winked, and walked off to mingle.
     Next, a co-worker asked, “How old are you today?” followed by a series of questions, memories, and hopes from everyone who might never suspect the pills, and the unconquerable sadness, and the robin & vine-fringed stationary.