BalloonacyA Story by Tracy Fletcher Shea
“who knows if the moon’s
a balloon, coming out of a keen city
in the sky-filled with pretty people”
-e. e. cummings
The question of my sanity was not a consideration but I knew that this particular experience should be kept secret, for the time being. On that day I stopped at an intersection. The red traffic light pulsated commanding me to stop. At first I thought I might be seeing double. I was alone in the car on a near-deserted street, no other cars crossing my path. Another round red object floated in front of my windshield, blocking my vision. Pausing, floating. A balloon. Our gazes locked. It bobbed for a moment, giggling and I giggled back. We were instant friends and then it flew away.
The first appearance was a surprise to me. I dismissed the experience as nothing, a coincidence. Since the first balloon was red, it made me feel very French and continental. I was transported and I liked it. But then I wondered what message a solitary balloon could bring. Once I began to consider that a balloon could even carry a message, I began to see balloons everywhere. Usually I was alone, my thoughts elsewhere and one would appear, peeking at me, jarring me from my reveries. They’d come in all colors, sizes and then sometimes in bouquet formation, each occurrence a mystery to be unlocked.
Perhaps the answer lay in the color of the balloons. Red might mean passion, blue, serenity, white, purity and with any luck, green, money. My colorful heralds were never obvious with their meanings. Maybe it was only necessary to question.
As a sign painter I was accustomed to the use of colors to influence feelings, mostly to buy something. I painted truckloads of bus benches for realtors and I used mostly red, white and blue to inspire a good patriotic sell. My signs pointed the way for the lost, directing them by placing messages into their subconscious as they whizzed by the blur of color and words. The balloons weren’t as obvious as that. They didn’t tell. They suggested. It was up to me to discover their meanings.
For a while we had a good thing going. They would appear out of nowhere, showing up in front of my wind shield or whenever I was out and about, expose themselves to me, full frontal, pausing for a moment to bounce, letting me know that yes, there was no mistake. They were there for me. Their presence made me feel better. At first.
Harassed may be too strong a word. Maybe followed is a better way to describe how the balloon activity evolved. I tried to keep the whole ordeal a secret but after a few months of covert balloon operations, I began to fear I could become a tin-foil-hat-wearing balloonatic, convinced that they were linked to a government conspiracy (like everything else). I scoured the Internet for others who shared in my experiences. To my disappointment there were no support groups for me. I was alone. So I began to talk to them. The balloons. Themselves.
“What is it today?”
“How’s it hanging?”
“Yes, I see you. Now get lost.”
Or a dismissive, “Thank you for your interest.”
Or even, “Send me a text, would ya?” (It kept me current.)
Like always they’d offer a passive-aggressive bob up and down, taunting me, and then fly away.
It was necessary to establish some criterion regarding the validity of each visitation. I wasn’t foolish enough to think that every balloon held a personal message for me and only me. And I couldn’t count on the Vatican for a ruling on their authenticity. Automatically I’d reject the ones that appeared near party supply stores, car dealerships, circuses and quinciñeras. Such locations were logical dwellings for balloons. Their missions were obvious. Celebration or sales. Plain and simple. They didn’t serve a higher purpose.
Once I knew that the balloon was not involved in typical balloon activities I’d study its color, position and take note of movement. Charts were drawn. Maps were plotted. I’d then apply my own powers of intuition and determine if, indeed, it was meant for me or perhaps, someone else. I knew better than to interfere with their transmissions.
“Balloons are following me.”
“Do they come in peace?”
“As far as I can tell.”
Coming out was as easy as that. It’s pretty much how we got married.
“Tax season’s coming up.”
“Maybe we should get married.”
Yeah. I was thinking the same thing.”
I was never the flowers-and-candy kind of girl. Lots of women get hung up on that sort of thing, needing grandiose expressions of love from someone who already was freaking out about being attached. Romance always seemed like play-acting and it made me uncomfortable. I preferred plain talk and didn’t care for elaborations. Simplicity was a balm, soothing any scabs of insecurity I might be having. It grounded me. With relationships, Cave Man talk seemed the best way to go.
“Me like you.”
“Me like you, too.”
“Let’s stay in cave together, forever.”
So that’s what we did. Frank understood my need for clear communication. After what we came to call “the poetry incident,” he learned that lofty expressions of love only confused and embarrassed me. Too much was left open for interpretation. Misunderstandings erupted.
That’s how I became a sign painter, too. It seemed a waste to use all of those supplies on mere expression. It was impractical to think that anyone would care. Besides, I could paint in the lines. I could start a business.
Frank saw it the other way around. He thought it was a waste of paint to make a sign and that painting out of the lines was exactly what I needed. He never said it but he felt responsible for my leaving art school. Pregnancy was my out. I was out of my element there and I knew it. Frank had this idealized version of some me that never surfaced. From time to time that version bubbled up a bit and then, took its rightful place amongst the settling sediment. Now, with the balloons, I felt that inner gurgling and thought Frank should know.
Frank made coming out easy, remained calm and made no judgment. He may not have believed me but he had no problem with my belief.
“So you’re being followed by balloons?”
“Followed is a strong word I know. It’s more like they are appearing to me.”
“Yes. Just thought you should know.”
“I’m all for it if it makes you happy. You know that?”
With my daughter it was even easier. Despite Sam’s teen cynicism she delighted in the whimsy of balloon visitations and wished for one herself. She hoped it was genetic.
Now that I was open about the balloon issue, I felt vindicated when I was able to share a balloon experience with someone. Frank had played along with it and was a good sport. He never came out and said I was crazy per se, but it wasn’t until he brought one in with the mail that the smirk left his face. A slightly deflated yellow balloon had survived some unusual ordeal in order to reach me. It was found attached to the wrought iron gate in front of my house, hanging only by the grip of its distraught skin. He delivered it me with the Penny Saver (which he knew to discard) and handed the balloon to me saying,
“This came for you.”
It was the first time one had come to my home. Part of me struggled to feel violated but I knew better. It was such a happy yellow. It brought good tidings not only to me but also to my family who shared in its sunny demeanor. For the brief days that it survived, it was displayed in a place of honor, stuck to the refrigerator by a piece of Scotch Tape. Whether I reached for salad or a soda, it didn’t judge. If I made a bad food choice it always seemed to say,
“Sure it’s bad for you, but don’t you deserve a break?”
It was like that with Yellow Balloon. It got me. When all of the air had drained and it was time to “put it down,” I passed the responsibility to Frank who discarded it. I had to turn away, much like I did when Elroyd, our guinea pig, died. We didn’t bother saying a few words because what can you say about a deflated balloon? We did, however, bury it in the back yard and observe a moment of silence.
“Hang in there. You can make it,” I heard Sam say, which directed my attention to a silver inflated disc decorated with the words “Happy Birthday.”
This time it was a Mylar Balloon, hovering over the pavement of the Walgreen’s parking lot, supported only by a gentle breeze that had pressed its flaccid body against the door of a dirty mini van. It was a pathetic sight watching as it struggled to stay alive, cowering, gasping for a fresh huff of helium that was nowhere to be found. For a moment I considered attempting resuscitation but it was hopeless since I lacked the type of air it needed and there was nary a party store in sight. All we could do was stand there like objective observers in a wildlife documentary. But then a miracle happened.
Coming from the direction of Jamba Juice, a breeze rounded the corner. The balloon shuffled and as the wind strengthened, it was lifted into the air, flew above the electrical wires, and then out of sight over the roof of Quizno’s. As it flew away it seemed to say, “ Look at me. I can fly!” It was a Happy Birthday after all for the little Mylar balloon that could. Both Sam and I were moved by its rebirth from the dirty pavement of the parking lot and we waved goodbye as it left on its voyage to far away places.
The resurrection of the Mylar Balloon seemed to signal the end of the visitations. It was as if their mission was complete but I still didn’t have a clue what it all was supposed to mean. Was it something as lame as: pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again? I wasn’t satisfied with that ending! I was expecting something of a galactic nature, some signal of the coming of 2012 or even a message of how to invest. I waited and I watched the skies, knowing that my expectations would shun their visits.
Our tête a têtes were something I had cherished. Our inconspicuous meetings had brightened my day. I thought we had an understanding and that they’d always be there. They were as constant as my allergies and dependable as taxes. Then they up and flew out on me. Left me in the lurch. I felt as if the wind had been knocked out of me.
Subconsciously I began to look for other mystical signs outside of the balloon realm, as a kind of replacement therapy. I started seeing bleach bottles in the most unusual places. First I had to swerve to avoid one in the middle of the road. Then I saw one in a piece of modern art, depicted cubically. My fixation turned to bleach after my belief in the balloons had blanched. After a week of considering the implications of bleach, they stopped appearing. I was on the rebound and I knew it. It’s not unusual for that sort of relationship to fizzle. It was only a fling.
In retrospect I knew that I shouldn’t have let that Mylar balloon escape. Perhaps I should have taken it home, flattened it out and stuck it in a book for eternity to ponder its shiny Happy Birthday message. It wasn’t like me to take the Born Free route, releasing it back into the wild to subsist on the folly of the wind, only to be stuck in a tree left to die, asphyxiated by the air of smothering leaves. If they saw fit to desert me with no further word, I was not going to just sit there and take it. I was a woman of action. I was practical.
Shock and awe.
Words like that are meant for war. I, too, had a message and it was high time they knew it. I knew I was behaving like a scorned woman, set out on revenge, but I was not one to take abandonment lightly. I would seek them out and destroy them. My standard balloon criteria were discarded and every balloon was at risk. I was no longer picky. Armed with pins, I hunted balloons of all sizes, colors and denominations. I began to stalk them as they had stalked me, searched for opportunities to prick their tender skins, applauded their screaming wheeze, deflated them and kept them from inflicting any more harm on others. Crying children didn’t stop me on my quest. Nor did clowns deter me from annihilating their party sculptures. The party store, the veritable maternity ward of balloons, was not safe from my onslaught of my piercing revenge.
And then they made the news.
In an effort to raise money to build spiritual outposts for truckers, a Brazilian priest had strapped himself to a lawn chair with one thousand balloons and was now lost at sea. A storm system had carried him away and he couldn’t find his way out of the clouds, despite the GPS system he had on board.
Not since the original lawn chair flyer, Larry Walters, had such a stir been made over lawn chair flying (or to use more accurate terminology- cluster ballooning). Larry Walters had survived the flight but years later, unable to cope with the realities of life, killed himself. His preflight words, “A man can’t just sit around,” carried deeper significance with his death. Evidently lying around in his grave was fine. As to the Brazilian priest, his balloons were eventually found floating in the ocean. The priest was no longer attached. My initial thought was that the balloons themselves had eaten him. I could only speculate.
What I did know was that the balloons were back and I wasn’t sure it was a good thing. These balloons meant serious business and if I didn’t know better, I might have thought this was no idle threat. My days of bursting balloons were over. I wasn’t going to mess with them anymore. I was downright scared, ashamed of my fascist raid, my cleansing of the sky. They now seemed like the Ouiji Board that knew a little too much. It was time to lay low.
I minded my business and stayed close to home, dismissing any balloon appearance with a variety of explanations: a sick lady next door received a balloon bouquet, no doubt, and naturally, one escaped her feeble grasp, then made its way to my door. The circus was in town. Again, the circus.
On a routine trip to the grocery store I drove with Sam through a residential area that for some reason was lined with empty dumpsters. I thought nothing of it until I saw a spot of color hovering over one the dumpsters.
“You see that!”
“Oh my God, no!” was all she could say.
The balloon said, “Congratulations!”
With Sam screaming in the car, I pulled over.
“Lock the door, Sam. This is between me and it.”
“Don’t do it, Mom.”
“I need to put an end to this once and for all. Call your Dad. Tell him to meet us here.
I stepped out of the car and approached the dumpster. An odor force field provided a protective wall for the Mylar balloon, keeping me at a distance. I had not come armed with pins, nor did I have my keys, cell phone, or anything else to throw at it. The air was still and the balloon taut and it stood its ground. I gathered my inner chi and as I did, a sense of calm came over me. The giant “C” in “Congratulations!” and I locked gazes. No sound from the street, nor the screaming from the car, reached me. I was saturated in serenity. Then I heard it.
“It’s time to fly.”
Then of its own volition, it flew away. I watched it rise beyond the smell, above the trees. I stood and watched it fly until it was no longer in sight. Once it vanished inside a cloud, disappointment encased me. I wished I could float inside a cloud, feel its mist upon my face.
Time to fly? WTF?
Then I thought of Larry Walters. A man can’t just sit around, is what he said. Neither could I. He had overcome practicality and took to the skies, only with a lawn chair and some fruit snacks. The Brazilian priest, too, had given his life for his idealistic adventure. He had strapped romance to his backside and lifted it into the air with one thousand balloons, never to be seen again. I felt a kinship with these men. An invitation. A calling.
The rest was just details: Gathering balloons, watching the weather, buying a lawn chair, straps and helium.
I can hardly explain what it’s like flying 200 miles supported by balloons, to feel as if my heart might burst with excitement in the lift. You can observe many things above the trees in the quiet of detachment. You can feel insignificant and significant at the same time. The clouds kiss your cheeks and the wind hums poetry. But also, at 15,000 feet, you can still hear dogs bark.
© 2012 Tracy Fletcher Shea
Added on November 13, 2012
Last Updated on November 14, 2012
Tracy Fletcher Shea
Los Angeles, CA