Our hot air balloon rose over the sculpted hills. You and I inside laughing, high on a bottle of pills we found in the bottom of the basket. “What are these?” You shouted over the whipping wind, and I told you ‘who cares?’ in my best Marlon Brando impression. We swallowed a handful without anything to wash it down.
The ocean was full of little white sailboats. From up there the sea looked like a parade route full of confetti the day after the parade, when the drunks are just waking up, and the cops have already cracked 16 heads and hauled in the hooligans to call their mothers. When lovers wake up to their mistakes.
The sun was was tall in the sky and burning like a heat lamp. The same sun shining on Chile and the mountain where that soccer team crashed and had to eat each other to survive. I took my high school sweetheart to see the movie when we were 16. It was our first date. I didn’t know any better. The sun is the same one your grandfather proposed to your grandmother under. Burning hotter than anyone can conceive. So hot a million miles away you still break a sweat. The same sun feeding the plants and luring rose petals from their stems.
You told me let’s get higher, so I pulled out the bottle. “I meant, release more air.” I opened up the flame and twisted off the child-proof cap anyway. I took two more and started to feel my eyeballs itch.
You were only 19 when we met. What a young age. I had no idea how young that was. I was a weary poet — not really a poet, just weary. I was like a cat that just showed up one day. You were foolish enough to let me inside. You fed me a bowl of milk and I purred in your lap. Love was simple then. We got drunk and laughed about… what? How drunk we were?
I’m almost thirty now, working on my novel and collecting compasses. You’re auditioning for commercials and planting tomato plants by the garage.
We met in passing, transforming shadows. Just little clouds of vapor merging. You said you liked how honest I was. I never met anybody like you, somebody that painted the walls with their smile. Somebody so curious about life and ready to take it on you made me embarrassed to be near you. Somebody strong and fragile at the same time. I wanted to erect monuments to you. Paint over the Mona Lisa with your face.
We found this balloon behind your neighbor’s shed, the one with Alzheimer’s, and laughed as we stole off into the night with it. I didn’t think we’d get it off the ground.
We drifted higher, probably too high for the balloon, but we were not paying attention. Your gaze was somewhere else and I was trying to make sense of the mountains and the desert below and the spot where the city fades into nothing. People are scattered everywhere. I told you happiness is not an address on a map, but a box in our hearts. You told me that we only have one key. “Maybe we each have the same box, and we only need one key to open them both?” A flock of birds flew underneath us and you leaned over the edge to watch them. “Maybe,” you said in a tone that made me think you didn’t really believe it.
We kept floating toward the sun, but the higher we got the colder it was. I couldn’t understand how this could be. There’s so much I don’t understand. I wondered how much propane we had. If it would last where we were going, but then, I didn’t know where we were going. We were like a giant flying jellyfish. Going where the breeze took us. There were sheep down below, roaming over large green pastures, or else little clouds. Puffs of white. I couldn’t tell which. This made me worried. So I took another pill and my lips went numb like after the first time you kissed me, but this time my heart slowed instead of pounding faster.
The higher we went, the larger the basket felt. You were way over on the other side looking at your fingernails, the stitching in the balloon, the little white polka dots on your blue dress. I couldn’t hear anything you were saying anymore. There was ringing in my ears, either from the flame or the wind or from the ghost in between us.
I thought about crossword puzzles and the hospital bracelet around your father’s wrist. About being 19.
“Is it time to go down?” I asked.
You looked startled to hear my voice, your eyes were sad dollops and when you went to speak, nothing came out. Just a hole in your face.
“I didn’t hear you, baby.”
You tried again but this time when you opened your mouth, not only did nothing come out, but the balloon and the basket and the flame were all sucked inside it like a black hole and and you disappeared too, and I was left free-falling backward, my arms and legs splayed out so my body was an X hurtling toward the Earth. The ground was rapidly approaching but all I thought about was that time we both ditched work and drove down the coast to the little town at the end of the peninsula and bought a pizza. We ate it on the beach while surfers in wetsuits caught the rolling waves and rode them to shore. The last thing I remembered was there was pepperoni and green pepper on the pizza.