by JL Bogenschneider
I was in a balloon with Jeannie and Miguel when they told me they were in love and planned to marry.
“Each other?” I said, aghast.
“Of course,” said Miguel.
“When did all this happen?”
“After we took off and before we reached the clouds,” he said, then gave Jeannie a look that made me understand what it meant to simper.
Up until then, the worst thing to have happened was that no-one had brought a camera. I thought Jeannie had packed it, who believed Miguel had put it in his bag, who thought I was wearing it round my neck, which I wasn’t. We couldn’t be clear on how the misunderstanding arose. Jeannie kept forming frames with her fingers and thumbs and making a noise like a shutter: tsch-tsch.
“We’re in love,” he repeated. I wondered out loud was it necessary to spoil everything but they didn’t seem to hear. It was news to me the, whole love thing; there was nothing about it in the itinerary I’d produced.
Below was like paint smeared across the earth. Miguel was stroking Jeannie’s hair and she was looking at me like I was meant to be happy.
“Congratulations, I suppose,” I said, but everything was ruined forever. I couldn’t enjoy the balloon ride now; who could?
We floated over an archetype of a river: meandered, ox-bowed and indigo. Alluvials fanned out into fertile grass which became woods and then forest. Walls that no-one built anymore ran into fences that had been there since better times. Some fields were yellow and others were green and the whole landscape took on a geometry that was impossible to imagine from below. I felt sick.
“You’ll be there of course,” said Jeannie.
I told her yes, but who really knew? They hadn’t set a date and I might have made plans. Miguel was talking about suits, Jeannie about dresses, neither of which were subjects they’d cared about before. Far in the distance it looked like rain.
“Of course you will,” decided Miguel. I considered the consequences were I to push them out the gondola, decided it wasn’t worth it and took a mental picture of the two of them falling overboard instead.
When did it really start? We only ever left each other alone to go to the bathroom. Maybe that’s how it was, while I was peeing and checking my nostrils for hairs. Or perhaps it happened while I was in bed. They might have waited for me to fall asleep – feigning it themselves – before creeping around, whispering the sort of things that people who have cause to creep around in the night whisper. I began to regret certain things that had come and were now gone.
Jeannie and Miguel were dancing a choppy parody limited by room and their lack of skill. Miguel was da-da-dumming the tune to a tango off-key. We always used to be in our photos together: squashed up as Jeannie – she had the longest arms – held the camera out, or else reliant on strangers to document our pose. That wouldn’t happen now. Not anymore.
I leaned out further. Far and below it was all quadrated fields, crisscrossed and misaligned, like a flattened Rubik’s cube, but I’d stopped caring. Who knew if any of us would remember what we’d seen? Love spoils everything for everyone.
“I want to go home,” I said, but Miguel was cooing in Jeannie’s ear and she was giggling in a way that made me question her capacity to make rational decisions. I pulled the cord to cut the gas and we descended with antisurgent speed. I wasn’t really sure what I was doing.
“Don’t let’s go yet,” Jeannie said, but her words were muffled under a kiss from Miguel. I was disappointed in her. She was usually the sensible one.
The balloon was falling at a rate of immeasurable knots which was traditionally a way of measuring nautical speed. Our trajectory was a drastic arc, not that Jeannie or Miguel cared. We each tucked ourselves into a corner; they were smiling like drunken loons and only I knew about the knots thing because neither of them had paid attention to the instructor before take-off. Somebody screamed and I didn’t know if it was him or her or me.
We hit the ground hard, bouncing and caroming with decreasing violence, until we stopped a long way from where we’d set off. I cut the gas and the flame went out before the envelope sloughed over us in a heavy, inevitable way.
“Have you really thought this through?” I asked, a huge heft of skein sagging over my face. I couldn’t see anything but heard the thruggashug of balloon as they fumbled toward each other:
“Where are you?”
“Where are you?”
“Tell me where you are.”
“Not until you tell me…”
And so on. I twisted my face in the suffocating dark.
“I think I’m going to be busy that day,” I said. “Whenever it is,” then managed to get free. They were still a jumbled-up bundle beneath the sheets. I heard a giggle, this time from Miguel.
“I’m going now,” I said, dusting myself down and picking grit out of my palms. There were rope burns on my arms that weren’t going anytime soon.
“Wait for us,” said Jeannie, her approximate outline rising and rumpling from the canvas like a carnival ghost. Miguel tried to free himself but he was tangled up in the guide ropes. I stood around for a bit, annoyed, then went over to help.
“You can be my flower girl,” said Jeannie. “If you want. It doesn’t matter so’s long as you’re there.”
“No, you have to be my best man,” came Miguel’s muffled voice. “Maybe both. That’d be nice.”
This would be one of those days they would remember forever. It would be mentioned in toasts and resurrected via anecdotes. They would make balloon jokes and buy each other balloons for anniversaries, keeping them long after they were deflated and wrinkled. There were whole lifetimes to recall and it would always come back to this one day.
The gondola was upside down in a ditch. I couldn’t remember getting out but no-one seemed broken or bruised. I pulled the canvas back with great effort. Jeannie was looking up at the sky as if nothing untoward had happened and Miguel stayed lying down with a grin like all was well. We couldn’t be friends anymore, not after this.
“That was fun,” he said. “We should do it again.”
“Maybe for our honeymoon,” said Jeannie. “You can come along,” and she brought out her phone to take a picture of the two of us: swaddled in canvas, drowning in balloon. And what will we even take photographs with in the future – our heads – our hands – our hearts – ?
JL Bogenschneider is a writer of short fiction, with work published in a number of print and online journals, including Cosmonauts Avenue, Glove Zine, The Aleph, Necessary Fiction, PANK and Ambit.
Photo source: Daniela Cuevas/Unsplash