HomeSouthern VoiceBlack Balloons

Black Balloons

by Evan Retzer 

White balloons today. Because I feel white. Well — really — what I feel is the absence of anything. Like my mouth is a gaping maw and it has just sucked in everything around me. It’s left my world devoid of meaning, black, washed away. My Volvo skitters over turbulent cement, praying for a moment of concrete serenity. The engine curses, and almost gives up, but me and the car, we grit our teeth and continue. We’re the same age and we’ve been through too much.

The way the clouds are stretched across the sky up there — scraped thin, not enough paint to cover the surface — everything is weak and disintegrating on the face of reality. My heart is stretched thin. This could all vanish if I blink. I wonder if this world is even really there.

Telephone poles lurch from the cement at random angles, their crossed lines forming crucifixes to mark those gravesites where she must have buried my dreams. This one by the corner store, charred by fire, would mark the death of our long nights, when we screamed to each other like mad people about love and dreams and everything until the sun shone above the river. The crucifix here in the grass, crosscut with snaking cable lines, is where she buried her tears, which flowed for days and we thought it would flood — until one day, her tears dried up. I imagine her wrapping those tears in a box, carefully decorated with Indian silk. I imagine her taking those tears to the street, to put them to rest. Where this street dead ends down here by the levee, she lives with a friend of mine. I open my car door and blissful and nihilistic white billows out, flooding everything. I take the balloons by the ropes and carry them over to her house, tie them to the wrought iron railing that surrounds her porch.

It’s early still.

The sun’s peaking out above the river again and there’s not a lot of time. So I’m scouring the 24-hour drug store and I’m looking for the color red. I find balloons, and those assorted chocolates in a red box the shape of a heart. I put them in the Volvo and again make the trip down to the river’s edge. Because when I met her, she lived in an abandoned warehouse in an empty part of town. Because I remember how I called her up, that one day, and she had been evicted because nobody was actually supposed to live there save rusted out cars. And I had the keys to an empty apartment, next to mine. I hold her heart in my hand and I remember how I came over to bring her extra dishes, and a radio, and how — plush CD case still hung in my left hand — we crashed into each other, how we fell down onto her mattress and through my broken teeth I whispered her name —

The early sun is an atomic red that screams of war, and of chemical chain reaction. The type of fire which consumes you until you’re reborn. My fingers tracing the outline of a phoenix which arched its wings from her slender ribcage to her thigh, its tail caressing a breast —

It’s a nuclear dawn, and, getting out of the car the mental scene suddenly changes and I’m pushing her across a room. I’m screaming: How can you fucking do this to me?!

I tape a note to the box of chocolates that reads “I’m sorry.”

I want to wait around there, on the corner, until she wakes and comes outside. Just to see her face. But, I can’t risk it. If she saw me it would spoil everything.

I tiptoe back to my Volvo.

Imagine, her coming out onto her porch to greet the morning, to a flurry of red balloons. A smile creeping over her pale face. I wonder, if I tie enough balloons to the side of her home, if she might get the sensation that the whole house is going to up and float away to another place.

Every morning, I wake to an alarm an hour before the rest of the city is alive. I’ve been working until 3 am the night before, but sleeplessness is a small price to pay; because who cares about sleep, who needs anything, when the only thing that matters to you has taken wind and flown away?

Everyone has the same thoughts after someone they love has run into the arms of another. Does she miss me? Is she happy? Is he bigger than me? Is he better?

She can’t really love him. He wasn’t there. When the tears threatened to drown us in their flood, and I coughed up blood onto my hospital gown which fell in the shape of a heart, when the blip-blip beeping of a heart monitor was Morse code meant only for our ears, spelling out I-love-you, I-love-you

And he’s too tall. How could he possibly fit into her favorite sweater?

In fact, she can’t love him. A person cannot fall in love in a week. It’s bullshit. It’s bullshit.

Except. I knew that I loved her from the moment I laid eyes on her. “Who’s that?” I asked my friend who was driving the van.We were unloading our audio equipment at the warehouse.

And then I was inhaling a heart-shaped rail of morphine sulfate from the only table set up in that big, empty space.

“Babe, does it hurt that bad?” she asked.

I looked up, looked into her eyes, and said, “Not anymore.”

In my mind, she was mine from that moment. But, at that time, wasn’t she fucking Phil? And Brandon?

I can feel my face bottled up and growing green.

In the desolate half-light of overhead fluorescents, I take, one at a time, six green balloons. One for each of my friends she’s ever —

I know I can’t have her all to myself. I would be okay just to have her at all. Until I met her, I could never understand how one person could have that kind of hold on someone. Before, I was always the one making people act crazy, the one they were unwilling to just let go. Now … she had grown to become my everything.

As I tie the green balloons to the porch rail, I risk a minute to peer inside her window through a sliver gap in the plastic blinds. I see her feet, still. She’s sleeping. I don’t see another pair of feet. I breathe a sigh.

Every morning, when I come, the balloons and things have been brought inside. I hope they bring her a smile when she sees them. I hope she isn’t concerned about what her neighbors might think. Maybe one day she will forgive me and call. Even if that is many days in coming — I am prepared to continue this, if I must, every day for a year. Use all of the various tones and shades of the color scale. At this point, I am running on next to no sleep for over a week. All of my days blur into one.

I’ll sleep when she forgives me.

It’s a quiet 5 AM at the end of her street. The sky is one of her favorite Monet’s, set in blotches of yellow, orange, and red. A little bird pecks at some scrap of nothing amongst the sea shells that bleed into grass by the sidewalk. Life finds a way. One of the balloons pops, loudly, as I open the Volvo’s passenger door. I startle and am still as death for a moment; my heart beating wildly against my ribcage.

But she doesn’t wake up.

I arrange a small army of little plush bears on the railings of her porch. I tie off the orange balloons. I’ve opened up the cardboard case, removed an orange soda, and placed one into the arms of each of the bears.

It’s Crush soda.

I leave a little note tied to the balloons. The note says “I have a Crush on you.”

The drugs fucked up more than just our relationship. They’ve fucked my memory. But I remember her embrace — maybe because, when she was holding me, I felt the most perfect sensation I can ever recall. The world was aglow with possibility, the future bright. In her arms, I no longer felt disconnected. I was complete.

In her arms, all of the things people write about in bad romance novels came true.

I drive home to my apartment. It still feels littered with her presence. Because, maybe, her things — those things she didn’t want to keep anymore and so left strewn about on my floor, or hanging in my closet — were still everywhere. I can’t bear to touch them, or to move them. If I don’t get rid of her things, well, maybe she’s still coming home.

I sit down at my table, and watch the coffee percolate in our French press.

My phone rings. It’s her number.

“Hey,” she says. I haven’t spoken to her in weeks.

I can feel her voice radiating out to me, through the little microphone on her cell, sent upwards from her bedroom to a satellite which is drawn to the Earth and orbits it the way I am to her and can’t quit, and back, down to Earth, to my phone’s speaker in the kitchen of a house which used to be ours.

“Hello,” I say. And I want to say so much more. I want to reach my frail arms our through this digital space and grab her, hold her, and whisper things to her in this sweet bliss of morning about how I am sorry and please forgive me and come back to me because I’ll never never do anything to push her away again —

“This has to stop,” she says.

The angels, the stars, the satellites all come crashing down.

“Um … what?” And now, I am playing dumb.

“The balloons. The candy. It’s over, Blue — and no amount of I’m sorry could ever make this right. You have to get this through your head and accept it — you can’t fix us. And, Toni’s starting to give me weird looks.”

I’m stammering. I’ve always had a way with words — but now, when I really need them, nothing’s coming.

“Just stop, okay?” she says.

“Wait. I — I …” My world is becoming a vicious collision of all the colors at once, blurring my vision to a muddy darkness, obscuring all meaning and hope and light and everything.

I can barely hear her when she says, “We did eat all of the chocolate, though.”

I’m still holding the phone to my ear long after she’s hung up and the only reminder of her presence is the solid, monotone disconnect of BEEP—BEEP—BEEP

Eventually, I let the phone drop to the table, and leave my house without bothering to shut the door. My legs have given up any sense of purpose, and I don’t even care where they’re taking me.

My legs and I, we go to the 24-hour store. I buy thirty one black balloons. One for each year of my life. I float with them to the register, and out the door. On the sidewalk corner, outside, I slip out of my boots. The black balloons carry me up, into the humid sky. Everything below me is alive, pressing on through trials and adversity because it feels it must. I’m leaving it all behind. I close my eyes.

One by one, the black balloons pull me until I’m too far away to ever return. I’m lost beneath them. They twirl overhead, their laughter synthetic and chemical, blotting out the last ray of sun.

Evan Retzer is a longtime resident of New Orleans, whose works can’t help but be naturally informed by the grit and tenor of his hometown. Retzer’s short fiction has appeared in Fawlt, Avatar and Tulane Review, among other venues. His novel The Daydream Society was released in the fall by Civil Coping Mechanisms.

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