The Red Balloon

By Gabe San Agustin

The day he left I woke with a balloon tied to my wrist. Obnoxiously red. The string soft like boiled muscle. Climbing from the bed, I took a nail filer from the drawer and politely stabbed at the balloon until my face quaked in exhaustion. In the bathroom, I used a tweezer, going at the string, then the balloon. No luck. Finally, in the cold kitchen, with a cup of coffee, I became bitter, and irrational, distraught, even, and found a steak knife—one, I might add, I never would use again—and pretended the balloon was his face. Nada.

Later that morning, I left the house with the balloon, red-pink like infected gums, trailing behind me, a shadow. People around me: stared, pointed, said cruel things. In the middle of a snow-bleached park, a man with no teeth languidly hugged me from behind, infatuated. While passing a school, a child came to the fence, her eyes tender and awash with something sad. She smiled, asked if she could touch the balloon. I said “sure,” and let the girl, beautiful and quiet, hold the balloon in her tiny hands. Then, later, after work, at a bar, and drunk, a man sat beside me, liquored up, and rash. He smelled like wet tar. Ears shaped unevenly around the curve of his face. Lips as ugly as the underside of a corpse. That said, I was alone—or, lonely, was it?—and for a while we talked about nondescript things the other knew nothing about. For him, it was the history of silkworms, the birthing process. For me, baseball, and the influence of Japanese pitching.

Slowly, I forgot about the balloon, relieved. The next day I woke hungry and wet, hurting. The man smoked outside on the balcony talking on the phone in a language that didn’t make sense to me. Eventually, he came in, apologizing. It was his wife. She was far away. Her name was Mabel. I said, “Go,” running to the door and closing it behind me, realizing afterwards that I had left—in my bathrobe and slippers, in pain. Fortunately, my sister lived nearby. I told her everything. She cried in my arms in her own bathrobe and slippers and said something about being sorry.

Days after, the man showed up at my door with flowers. His face bruised. The string tethered to my wrist was becoming irritable. I itched at it as the man talked. In the reflection of his eyes I could see myself: glowing and giving. I told him love was like a light you wished you saw before it got dark out. He said, “Write a book,” embracing me with his coarse lips. And I did. One sentence at a time, pages spilling out of me. It became published and I was invited on talk shows. Oprah said my name, raising her hands above her head, gleaming. Eventually, the man who’d told me to write started to call again. Asking for forgiveness, for love. He said, once, over voicemail, “She’s gone,” and for a while I thought maybe he was referring to me.

Then my publishers asked for a second book. A sequel. I told them I had nothing. I said, “I am nothing,” staring up at the balloon. They laughed. The phone line buzzing. Maybe they were outside somewhere far and exotic in the rain with sublime people sat around them. Maybe they weren’t. By the end of it, I’d promised a second book. A sequel. This was a year after the balloon appeared. A year after I was left. After the man I’d loved—was it really past tense, already?—decided he’d had enough. It had been snowing. I remember watching the snow through the window. How it had glowed. Like glitter, or sea salt under a flashlight. He’d said, holding me by the shoulders, “I can’t do this anymore,” turning away, and beginning to fade. The sound of his leaving—heavy.

Halfway through writing my second book—the sequel—I ran into him outside a once-haunted bagel shop. He had on a wedding ring. His eyes, somber and wet, shimmered elastically. He said, “What’s with the balloon,” reaching to touch it. I said, “Don’t,” leaving in a hurry. Stomping my feet. Watching as the balloon changed colors below the sky. Back at home I called my sister and confessed. Breaking down. While talking, the balloon rose higher towards the ceiling. I felt a pull. Like something on your insides shifting. I was unbearably alone again, and terrified, trembling, and so I left, wandering out to find a bar.

A woman, young and fierce, wailed on stage. Afterwards she came to my corner table and sat, offering a drink, a hand to hold—smiling with feverish, vague eyes. She told me her name. Her story. She said, “I don’t belong here. In this place. Or in this city, even. But I can see I’m not alone.” She lived close by. She showed me her keys. We dated for three months, in which time I finished the second book—the dreadful sequel. It was given equal praise. The woman—my girlfriend, I mean —hated it, but supported what she called closure. By the spring of that year I’d left her.

I next saw her in winter and snow fell in her hair. A balloon the color of bone sulked over her, tied to her wrist, writhing. She called me names. Becoming animalistic. Weeks later I woke with something horrible in my heart floating above the bed. The red balloon bobbing against the ceiling, trying to escape. I thought This is what it must feel like and tried to let it go, using scissors to cut at the string, failing. A feeling I remember even today—the trickle of hope tugging at my tethered heart, a poem: something to think about when the lights go out at night.


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