Happy Birthday, Honey

by Kathy Coogan

Author's Note: Writing fiction releases the writer from inhibitions. Unlike memoir, fiction lets you use experiences but not claim them. They might be yours or they might have been overheard in the Hallmark Store. James Frey found this out when he allowed his book "A Million Tiny Pieces" to be published as memoir. A good story does not suffer because it is not real. An author has succeeded if the reader looks up from the pages and wonders, "Did this really happen?"

And now the story...
Happy Birthday, Honey

Sally walks through the Hallmark Card Store, hopeful but not optimistic. She needs a birthday card that will set the exact right tone for her husband’s sixtieth birthday. She wants the card to look toward a bright future without applying too much pressure. The right card will celebrate the pleasures of the past without implying that we’re too damn old to ever experience those pleasures again.

She would ordinarily look for something romantic and sexy in a subtle middle-aged way, suggestive of a black slip and patent leather pumps, not hot chicks in leather bustiers. But not so pathetic as those blue-pill ads of couples in bathtubs that Sally can’t figure out.

What was sexy about a man and a woman sitting outside in two separate tubs clinking wineglasses and nothing else? A practical woman, Sally always wonders how they got those tubs outside. How did they fill them since there is no plumbing to speak of?

And wouldn’t everything be shrively and chilled by the time the wine kicked in and the couple climbed out? And what about towels and bathrobes? And where would the couple go to, um, connect? Blankets on the hard bumpy ground weren’t very comfy even in the good old pre-arthritis days.

Those ads had to have been written by a clueless Gen X’er who still thinks skinny-dipping is a good idea. A thirty-something doofus who doesn’t yet suck it in and groan a little when passing a full length mirror on the way from the shower to the big old bathrobe hanging on the back of the door.

Sally sidesteps up the aisles of cards, flipping through dozens. There are general sections labeled Birthday that narrow down to Love, Humor, Friendship. The Lovey-Dovey ones are full of kittens, butterflies, landscapes and hand-holding children.

The humorous ones range from goofy to moronic to down-right raunchy, which she might have giggled at if things were different. The ones suggesting friendship are mostly cartoons or photographs of blue-haired women who support one another by shopping or eating chocolate or quaffing large amounts of wine.

Her selection is also limited by her circumstances. Tomorrow is Frank’s birthday and he has forbidden her to plan any celebration. He has drifted into one of his depressions during which interpersonal relationships seem absurd and impossible.

Living in a head filled with doom and gloom precludes listening to the Happy Birthday song. Depression is a lonely place, where people, even wives, are made invisible or unbearable, which only adds to the loneliness.

Buying the right birthday card or, God help her, a gift for a depressed husband turning the dreaded sixty, is like buying a Harley for a quadriplegic or peanut brittle for someone with the allergy. To the recipient, it would seem like a nasty trick, like rubbing it in. Frank, in this state of mind, might feel that way about a simple birthday card. Like she was rubbing it in, whatever “it” is.

Frank’s depression is tricky for Sally to assess. His usual balanced world-view gets so skewed and out of whack that the teensiest approach by well-meaning interlopers, like wives, is suspect.

A birthday cake with six candles (the formula she has used every decade since they hit thirty: age/10) would illuminate a sad face not a smiling one; a face that looks up at her and says, can’t you just leave me alone?

But sometimes the depression clears spontaneously, after weeks of tweaking meds, like clearing your throat returns your voice to normal after a bout of laryngitis. What if he wakes up tomorrow and he feels okay again, loves his life again, loves her again? She will not go home empty-handed just in case a miracle happens.

Sally squints her eyes which have filled up with tears, a common occurrence when she grieves her husband. Grief is not an excessive term for these times when she loses him to himself. Loss is loss and she fears that she will lose forever the man she loves, and have instead this sad, quiet, cold shadow. The primary colors of all the cards form a hazy puddle. Home movies appear in her head, as if projected there.

She sees Kelly in her orange snowsuit thrown high in the air, her Daddy catching her as she giggles and squirms, knowing she will be caught. She sees Tommy in his bright yellow trunks leaping off the dock side by side with Frank in madras, who yells, “Geronimo," in delight. She sees herself minimally clad in the Valentine red teddy, as she falls into Frank’s arms knowing that the kids are safe with Gramma. Primary colors now tinged gray.

She continues her search, walking toward a rotating display at the back of the store. This rack is set apart as if it will contaminate the other cards by its bleakness.

The titles are Sympathy, Get Well and the odd descriptive, Cope. The graphics are black line drawings, some softened by curves as if to delineate gender. The artist seems to understand that the recipients of these cards can take only minimal visual stimulation.

The first card pulled is remarkable in its accuracy. On the front, a stickman hangs from a cliff dangling into forever, one hand caught by a stickwoman, who lies full-length at the top, one leg looped around a deeply rooted but leafless tree. Droplets of sweat or tears fly around them both. Sally opens the card. In gentle swooping font are the words, “I will never let go.”

She marvels at the truth of that. She will write above the words: “On your Birthday and Ever After.” It’s all in her ball park now. No pressure for Frank to pretend a Happy Birthday. No challenge for him to rise to the occasion and blow out the six candles. No matter what, or when, Happy Birthday or Sad, she will never let go.

Sally walks to the cash register, satisfied, thinking she’ll stop to buy two cupcakes on the way home. Depression is a tough cookie but a sweet tooth trumps it every single time.

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