Something in the Air
Bring a red balloon, he had said, and I’ll find you. It seems to me like a bad practical joke by now. Here we are, in the busy Saturday shopping crowds, and the sky is brimming with the damned things. He had said that it’d probably be the only two. At best, there’d be five of us.
Now there are at least fifty people clutching heavenward strings. Other people look at us warily. Grown men are not supposed to hold balloons, their eyebrows are telling me. Their curled upper lips denounce me, make me uncomfortable. What I understood to be a convenient way to meet up with a stranger has turned into a statement, part of a rebellious movement. I get all fidgety and flee into a side street.
In the evening he contacts me again. Tomorrow, he says, bring two red balloons. Naturally, I query after that blood-red sky of the afternoon. He says he doesn’t know what happened. Perhaps just bad luck. It’s a ridiculous explanation, and I know he knows it too. I decide not to press the matter. The next day I do as asked and show up with two red balloons and, again, the sky is charred with paired balloons, tangoing fire-hot around each other, never quite touching, in eternal dance. We are all in sync, somehow: when I pull the two strings apart, stretching out, one left, one right, all the other balloonists mirror this move. Or is that just a megalomane vision of mine? Again, I ponder letting go of the strings, or just one of them, but can’t. It would somehow feel like betrayal. Threads both visible and invisible link all of our faiths together. It is as if we are a puppet show conducted by the balloons, instead of the other way around.
Again, at the end of the day, I ask him what happened. Someone must be tapping our phone, he says. As a manner of speaking of course, he adds (we don’t even use a phone to communicate). He suggests adding another balloon for tomorrow. I linger, weary of the process, and try to come up with another method to meet up. He tells me three’s a charm, all things come in threes, etc. Fine, then. But at night I come up with another plan. I’ll add a few more, go for broke. If the pattern continues, if they are tapping our phone, I will at least stand out. I stroll into the streets with seven balloons. The city is painted red. The warning effect of the color, it’s murderous connotations, frightens me now. I can’t even trace the balloons back to their sources anymore. They are all huddled together, each belonging to everyone. I trace the strings back down, look at people’s hands. They all seem to be holding on to seven lines. Incredible.
I walk around for a bit, dazed. I feel like I’m in this perpetual nightmare I can’t get out of. When I try to think it all through, I can’t even remember anymore what or why we’re supposed to meet for. With whom for that matter. I can’t remember there being anything else in this world but a sky of red balloons. Somewhere far, far away this strikes me as insanity. Meanwhile, I keep scanning people’s hands. Seven, seven, zero, seven, zero, seven, seven. It’s all or nothing. People not belonging to the balloon brigade, not caring for whatever symbolism, whatever protest we are into here, seem oblivious to the crimson-clouded ceiling we create. Are they used to it, already? They were still eyeing me with some concern two days ago. Zero, zero, seven, seven, three. Three! I stop. People glide around me all robotic. My free hand searches for Mr. Three’s free hand. It’s you, he says. He’s not surprised. You disobeyed my orders, he says.
I ask him what is going on. I explain how, completely on my own, I came up with the number seven. I ask him how they do it. Don’t you think they’d wonder the same thing, he says. I didn’t.
Triggered, I look around, try to look these other people in the eye. They do seem bewildered, they do seem to be searching for something, too. Let go of one balloon, he finally says. The penny might just drop. I do as he says. My eyes follow the balloon in the air, slowly, certainly. My eyes follow many more balloons in the air, slowly, certainly. Many eyes are following many balloons in the air, slowly, certainly. I stare waiting for them to fade away, but they never do. They just keep getting smaller, infinitely, yet somehow my eyes keep discerning them. I marvel at the polka-dotted veil we’ve drawn over the sky. Somewhere far, far away this strikes me as insanity.
It’s just something in the air, he says.