How High?

by Will Ejzak

1.

      When I was a kid, I always let go of balloons. At first, it was by accident: I was a spacey kid with shitty motor skills, and holding on tight to a balloon string was too much to ask of my fat little hands. But it wasn’t long before I started doing it on purpose. If the party was outdoors, I’d dash around with a tiny pair of scissors, freeing balloons from chairs. If the party was indoors, I’d run outside and liberate them as soon as Mom’s back was turned.
      For a few consecutive birthdays, she would chase me down and pin me to the ground like a lioness felling a zebra. Eventually, though, she just stopped buying so many.
      I think she assumed I was trolling her or somehow disrespecting the concept of balloons.  But it was actually the opposite. I wasn’t able to articulate this at the time, but there was something profound about the idea that a balloon could just keep going up. Within seconds, a swarm of balloons could rise hundreds of feet, exquisite specks lost in a fluff of clouds. It gave me chills to imagine how high they could go in an hour, a day, a week, a year.
      I never really imagined my balloons would pop. I wasn’t naive: I could accept that there would be some casualties—poked by some douchebag bird, maybe, or shredded by a lightning bolt—but these were the exceptions. The rest would drift solemnly and grandly into a bottomless sky. 

2.

      By the time my eighth birthday rolled around, Mom had learned her lesson. That year, she got me only one balloon.
      Whether she knew it or not, her understanding of my psychology was spot-on. It was one thing to release a herd of balloons into the great beyond. There was safety in numbers. If a few met grisly ends, that was just life. Not every baby sea turtle makes it to the ocean. But it was another thing to release a single balloon. Beyond the wrenching loneliness of being a single balloon in an endless sky, there was also a traumatizing vulnerability: in the event of a thunderstorm, a single balloon would be subject to a carnival of horrors. I decided to keep the balloon in my room, like a pet.
      But for whatever reason, no one had ever spoken to me about the balloon life cycle. I had never imagined a balloon could die, so the next morning, when mine did—contracting and sinking with agonizing slowness—I felt an intangible despair such as I had never known. When its tail finally began to coil on the floor, I decided enough was enough. I took it into the alley and stomped on it.
      It was not a humane euthanasia. I botched the stomp the first two times. The third time, I fell over and skinned my palm on the concrete. The fourth, I attacked it with righteous fury. When it finally popped, the sound was less a gunshot than a gentle fart in a nursing home, the flatulence of a life extinguished.

3. 

      I met Lily at a birthday screening of The Notebook at a mutual friend’s apartment in college. I think we were both primed for a meet-cute. By the time the credits rolled, we were thoroughly drunk and slumped over one another on the couch.
      “If you’re bird, you’re bird,” Lily slurred softly, running her hand up and down my arm. 
      She had tied one of the birthday balloons around her wrist like a bracelet, which felt symbolically significant.
      Afterward, we went up to the roof. It was ill-advised, but no one stopped us. The air was sticky and sweet, and a thunderstorm was brewing. We went right up to the edge of the rooftop and looked down. A fall from this height might not kill us, but permanent paralysis wasn’t out of the question.
      Lily began to flap her arms experimentally. 
      “Jesus,” I said, grabbing her around the waist and dragging her away from the ledge.
      We cracked up, and she kissed me.
      When it finally did rain, she jumped into my arms and clamped her legs around my torso, and I fell over. In the morning, I discovered I’d scraped my shoulder pretty bad, but at the time I didn’t notice. We made out in a wet clump while the rain pulverized us. By the time she started undressing me, the shower had become a deluge. As she moved on top of me, I watched the balloon over her shoulder, lunging toward the heavens, whipping manically in the wind.

4. 

      When Lily gave birth to a balloon half a dozen years later, I wasn’t surprised, per se. The ultrasounds had been muddy, so we hadn’t known what to expect. Obviously, we’d expected something human-shaped—Lily hadn’t been intimate with a balloon, so there was no reason to anticipate a balloon child—but when the ob-gyn grabbed hold of the string and handed the yellow balloon to my wife, I wasn’t distraught. On the contrary, it felt like something had clicked into place. While Lily wept, I took the balloon into the waiting room and tied the string to a chair.
      Our parents wouldn’t have understood, so we called it a miscarriage, held a funeral, and put it behind us. But for Lily, it may as well have been a miscarriage. She was inconsolable, particularly during the service. When she discovered I’d tied the balloon to a folding chair in the vestibule of the church, she broke down; her sister and I had to carry her into the bathroom.
      I’ll admit in retrospect that this was insensitive of me. 
      At the time, though, it felt important that she be able to attend her own funeral. Without any supporting evidence, I’d come to think of our balloon as a she. Actually, I’d begun to call her Clara. Lily objected to naming the balloon, of course, and even brought up popping Clara several times in her first few weeks—one night, in a fit of despair, she brought out the scissors, and I spent the evening gently wrestling them from her trembling fingers—but within a few months, Clara had become a mainstay of the living room, tied securely to one of the rungs of the bookshelf, grazing the ceiling a safe distance from the overhead fan.
      Lily learned to ignore her, but I looked forward to seeing her each morning, watching her out of the corner of my eye while I dumped spoonfuls of coffee into the French press, twining her string mindlessly around my forefinger while I checked my email. 

5. 

       You’ll scoff, but there are some advantages to having a balloon daughter:
       1)  Low maintenance. Balloons don’t eat, shit, misbehave, or go to school.
       2)  Double income, no kids. The years after Clara was born were the happiest Lily and I ever had.
      In a way, we were relieved, I think, to have skirted the staggering responsibility of children in our late twenties. While Clara bobbed in the living room, Lily and I saw movies in theaters, drank too much in bars, spent lethargic afternoons reading at the beach, and took week-long road trips to nowhere in particular.
      And did I feel guilty for leaving Clara at home? No. At the end of the day, Clara was a balloon. Balloons take no special pleasure in bed-and-breakfasts on the coast of Maine. I’d looked for hints of balloon sentience during her first few months and found none. Clara was, against all odds, just a balloon, albeit an eternally inflated one. She need not be entertained.

6. 

      By the time we had our second child, Lily had been ignoring Clara for more than two years.
      I’m not a psychologist, but there was something sinister about the way Lily was able to deny her existence. I think I would’ve had an easier time understanding if she’d untied Clara from the bookshelf while I was sleeping and released her into the cool night air. At least it would’ve registered as an authentic human response. Instead, it was as if a corner of the living room had become inaccessible to Lily, a species of blindness.
      In a way, though, I was impressed. It was such a clean coping mechanism: to chop off a peninsula of consciousness, to purge a memory and leave nothing in its place. I’d never experienced trauma firsthand. Now that I had a front row seat to Lily’s mental contortions, my instinct was to stand aside in admiration. And to emulate her, if possible. But for me, ignoring Clara took conscious effort. It felt like a song I hadn’t quite memorized. I kept glancing at the lyric sheet.
      I sometimes wondered if Lily and I would get divorced. Couples had separated over lesser calamities. But the truth is, it didn’t come up. With time, we just adapted, the way a guy with a peg leg figures out how to walk again: hobbling along, a barely perceptible arrhythmia in our stride.

7.

      Obviously, Owen was a hell of a lot more difficult than Clara from a parenting perspective. He was human, for one. He was also a boy, which may have had something to do with it. In any case, he was not a happy baby, and he was committed to making his displeasures known. Lily and I had our hands full.
      They say having a child doesn’t save marriages, but in Owen’s case, it basically did—for a little while, at least. It’s impossible to think about a balloon child when a real one is bellowing in the next room. Clara still hung in the corner of the living room, but she existed purely as a prop, an extra.
      I stopped noticing her until Owen did, pointing up at her with his pudgy index finger a few days after his first birthday.
      Thankfully, Lily was out grocery shopping.
      “Balloon,” I said.
      “Loon,” said Owen.
      “Close enough.”
      We stared at the balloon together. I felt ashamed, reckless.
      And was she a little bigger than she had been, a little more inflated?
      All this time we’d been ignoring her, had she been growing up?
      “Clara,” I said finally, pointing at the balloon again.
      “Loon,” said Owen.
      Fair enough. “Clara” was probably one syllable too many.
      But saying her name had a strange effect on me. I choked up. Within a few minutes, big, sloppy tears were streaming down my cheeks. This was how Lily found me when she burst through the door a few minutes later, grocery bags under her arms.
      “What’s wrong?” said Lily, her face a mirror of empathy. She’d always been sensitive to my feelings.
      I shook my head and wiped my eyes.
      “Loon!” said Owen, pointing.
      Lily followed his finger and regarded Clara. Then she turned back to Owen.
      “Balloon!” she said. “That’s right!”
      She kissed him on the forehead and went into the kitchen to put the groceries away.

8.  

      And just like that, she was back in my life. Clara, I mean. I began tying her to Owen’s stroller and taking them for long walks around the neighborhood, listening to ’90s hip hop albums and contemplating philosophical questions:
      What does a meaningful balloon life entail?
      Is a ceiling a comfort to a balloon? Or an infuriating barricade?
      Does a sedentary lifestyle weigh on a balloon’s soul?
      In my earbuds, Nas was saying, “Life’s a bitch and then you die—
      Did Clara possess a form of consciousness? Did she feel fear and pain? Did she loathe her mother, who refused to recognize her existence? Or her father, who had recognized her existence and ignored her anyway?
      And which was worse?
      “That’s why we get high—
      Should I have released her years ago? Was I her protector or her jailer?
      “—cause you never know when you’re gonna go.
      When I was younger, we’d had a tiny pet rabbit, Marty. Marty lived in a cage. Some days he would hop from one side of the cage to the other, a grand total of about three feet. Some days he wouldn’t even do that. Even as I kid, I’d often been wracked with guilt thinking about Marty’s lifestyle.
      “He doesn’t know what he’s missing,” Dad explained when I asked about it. “That cage is all he’s ever known.”
      “But I know what he’s missing,” I said.
      “But you’re a person. Marty’s just a rabbit. He doesn’t care one way or another.”
      “But he’d be happier if he lived in the wild, right?”
      “Maybe until he got run over by a car.”
      When I got home and took off my headphones, Lily would scoop Owen out of his stroller and deposit him in the crib. Nearly every time, he was fast asleep. I think the perpetual motion calmed him.
      I made a habit of waiting until they were safely in Owen’s room before untying Clara and refastening her to the bookshelf. She was definitely growing larger. I hadn’t been measuring her circumference or anything, but I didn’t think it could be chalked up to my imagination any longer. There were always a few moments, transporting her across the room, when I could feel the quiet exuberance that buoyed her, tugging on my closed fist, dragging us upward toward the ceiling, the sky.

9.

      “What are you doing?” said Lily one morning as I tied Clara to the stroller.
      “Um,” I said. “Taking Owen for a walk?”
      “He’s already asleep.”
      “I don’t know. Some fresh air might do him some good.”
      “You’re taking the balloon?”
      I felt blindsided. It was unusual for her to acknowledge Clara, let alone bring her up in conversation. I opened my mouth to respond; something caught in my throat like a fishhook.
      “You always take that thing with you,” said Lily.
      “I do.”
      “It’s bizarre.”
      “I don’t think so.”
      Lily stared me down, and for a moment, I was reminded of my mother and her predatory instincts during my balloon liberation phase: the way she would pursue me around the yard, grasping at my shoulders with her clawlike fingernails, hoisting me around the waist, flailing, or pegging me to the ground with her knee. Half the time, it was hilarious, and we would wrestle on the grass and giggle like maniacs while the party guests watched with horror or delight. The other half—if I accidentally tripped and took a nasty fall, or if I’d eluded her for a few seconds too long—she would whisper malevolently in my ear while I screamed bloody murder, and the neighbors would retreat to admire the flowers.
      This charade has gone on too goddamn long, Mom would seethe. I’m gonna give you five seconds to act like a civilized member of society.
      “Owen’s been asking about it,” said Lily.
      “What did he say?”
      “The other night, he asked, ‘Why does Daddy talk to the balloon?’”
      “What did you say?”
      “What did I say? What have you been saying on these walks of yours?”
      I tried to remember. “I don’t know. I think I mostly just have my headphones in.”
      Lily scoffed. “Well, maybe I should be taking him on walks.”
      “I can’t take my own children on a walk?”
      Lily cringed, as if I’d told a dirty joke. I didn’t realize my mistake until she’d retreated into the bedroom.

10.

      I was caught off guard by Lily’s surprise when I asked for a divorce. She didn’t seem to get it.
      I’d read somewhere that a separation between two mature people should feel effortless, like oil and water. This was more or less how I felt about the whole thing. Lily was of a different mindset. There was a lot of screaming and tears. Owen woke up from his stroller-induced nap, and soon we were all shouting to be heard over the cacophony.
      Lily wanted custody of Owen, which I could accept. I didn’t have to convince her to leave Clara with me, which made things easy.
      I know what you’re thinking: feckless father, can’t be bothered to take care of a bona fide child. Maybe he deserves a goddamn balloon. Fuck off and leave the heavy lifting to mom. But the truth was, Clara had felt more like my child than Owen ever had. I even wondered, in my darker moments, if Lily had had an affair; in an insane way, it felt like all of my children should’ve been balloons, and anything else was an aberration. Owen had skin and bone and guts and limbs. Surely I couldn’t have produced such a thing.

11.

      Without a stroller to push, I began taking Clara on walks around my new neighborhood, tying her securely to my wrist and wandering along the lakeshore, where the wind blew more ferociously.
      No doubt I looked like a kidnapper, or a serial killer, or a retired clown. I could live with these judgments. I’d felt untethered since the separation, cut loose from the mortal world. Clara blew wildly in the breeze, like a puppy unleashed in an open field, purging years of kinetic energy. I followed her whichever way she led, laughing at the spastic unpredictability of her movements. Parents watched us suspiciously. Owen had never been so much fun.
      Maybe it was just me, but Clara felt newly invigorated: bigger, sure—nearly the width of a car tire now—but also more robust, flexing her newfound strength every now and then by yanking me an inch or two into the air—letting me dangle for a breathless instant, tiptoes grazing the top of the grass—before dropping me unceremoniously back to earth, where my knees buckled and I fell over.
      And why, I wondered, did people allow themselves to be tied down in the first place? Obviously, there were a slew of plausible answers: Social pressures. Fear of loneliness. The idealized warmth of a full household. The subconscious goal of dying like the geriatric husks of Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, curled up on a narrow hospital bed, a jump cut away from sexy, unfettered youth.
      The wind yanked Clara breathlessly across the pier, and I followed. If you’re a balloon, I’m a balloon.

12.

      The Notebook had been on my mind for obvious reasons. A few weeks after moving into the new apartment, we ordered a pizza and turned it on. I downed half a bottle of bourbon, watching and weeping in comfortable silence while Clara bobbed gently over my shoulder. Outside, a storm was stirring. Leaves scurried across the street. The sky roiled, blotchy and ready for a fight.
      By the time the movie was over, lightning was stabbing the horizon. Thunder shook the windowpanes. Rain carpeted the sidewalk.
      On a whim, I tied Clara to my wrist and went up to the roof.
      Clara had never experienced a storm firsthand before; she thrashed with joy. I felt similarly. The rain pooled around my bare feet. Together, we stared up at the sky as it bucked and brayed, angry smudges punctuated by bursts of light. I was soaked in seconds. My heart leapt with possibility.
      But it was Clara who made the first move, jerking my wrist upward until my right arm hung over my head like a lazy marionette. I looked up. She was enormous, engorged—a yellow monstrosity—a mighty dirigible. She must have been taller than I was. I squinted in terror, in awe. When had this happened?
      My head swam with pride.
      A tremor of wind swept across the roof, and I could hear Lily slurring in my ear:
      If you’re bird, you’re bird.
      I stumbled to the edge of the rooftop.
      For an insane moment, as I stared down at the sidewalk three stories below, I wondered if I’d accidentally moved into the same apartment Lily and I had met in a decade before. That apartment was in a different city, of course, but it didn’t seem impossible that the building had taken root in a new neighborhood, reconstructing itself in preparation for this moment.
      I flapped my arms experimentally.
      The knot around my right wrist tightened as Clara began to rise.
      I gripped the string firmly in both hands and shuffled tentatively forward. A fall from this height might not kill us, but permanent paralysis wasn’t out of the question.
      I was still looking down when my feet began to lift from the ground—first my ankles, then my toes—and then I hung in the air, several inches off the ground. I curled my toes experimentally. I swung my legs back and forth. I laughed drunkenly. At the rim of the building was a raised ledge. I set one foot on it, then another. I steadied myself, squaring my feet, bending my knees.
      On the horizon, a bolt of lightning snaked through the air. The clouds trembled.
      I pushed off, plunging into the sky.

Will Ejzak is a high school English teacher in Chicago, Illinois. His short story collection, What to Do When You Find Him, was selected by Roxane Gay as a finalist for the 2020 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. His short stories have appeared in Passages North and the minnesota review.

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