The Big Brick Review 2016 Essay Contest: Honorable Mention ($50)
Building on the narrative of our lives...one brick at a time.
by Holly Hinson
MY TWO-YEAR OLD son Ian has suddenly become obsessed with playing with this one red balloon. He doesn’t understand that like most things, it has a limited shelf life – soon it will begin to wrinkle and shrivel into a windsock, or it will just pop. But toddlers are innocent of life’s tenuousness. He watches intently as it lofts slowly into the air. His face lights up when he tries to capture it. He changes the game, now pin the tail on the donkey. He closes his eyes and arms outstretched, he giggles when he misses. He peers wide-eyed and follows the balloon as it gently ricochets around the room.
Ian knows something is amiss. He knows mommy and daddy don’t live together anymore. He has started to recognize mommy’s boyfriend and daddy’s girlfriend, and he is not selective. In his baby earnestness, he is full of love for everyone who gives good hugs and big smiles to his world. But he doesn’t really understand what’s going on. That’s Ok, Ian. Neither do I.
The towering oak trees in the backyard seemed exceptionally green that year. When you’re 16 years old, everything seems more lush, more dramatic, simply more.
My best friend Sandra and I had walked to the park, wading through subdivision yards and using the well-worn path that cut through to the gravelly church parking lot. We used to laugh whenever we cut through on Thursday nights – that was revival night. You could hear the singing and wailing and salvation sermons echoing through the walls of the crumbling gray stone chapel. We could hear how, we too, could be saved. We were too young. We didn’t want to be saved.
I saw him at the entrance of the park, perched casually atop one of the Pepto-Bismol pink, paint-chipped picnic tables. His head was bent, his long blond hair covering one cheek as he strummed something melancholy and familiar on his acoustic. He looked up at us, his arresting green eyes kind and curious. He gifted us with a small, knowing smile as we passed but he didn’t stop playing. I thought he looked like Jesus.
I would see him every now and then at a party or the park or a friend’s house. After a particularly drunken New Year’s Party, I thrust a matchbook scribbled with my phone number into his hand, smiled and reeled past him to the exit. After a time, I gave up hope that he would call, but then surprisingly, more than a year later, he did. He wasn’t sure I would remember him, he said, but he needn’t have worried. I had thought of him many, many nights – he had become my teenaged fantasy man – object of the imaginary passionate life of romance I read about in books.
Once John made that nervous first call, we were never apart. Our friends said we were the perfect couple - a couple of crazy people, they joked. I quit college after one semester to move overseas and be his wife. I found my satiny pink knee-length dress at K-Mart, and my girlfriend Linda wore a blue matching one. I was 19. We were married on an unusually warm December day. I thought it was a good omen.
I had only lived in Kentucky and for a short while in Oklahoma as a child. So I was unprepared for the frigid cold and frequent snows of Germany. But I loved the pastoral village on the hill where we began to make our way in the world together.
“Come on, baby, you can make it, just a little more,” John pleaded to the car, its back end embedded in a snowdrift that had blown across the main road to our hilltop home. His face red with sweat and exasperation, he began to chuckle, the way you do when you are so punchy you want to cry, but you laugh instead. The car had valiantly chugged nearly to the top of the one-kilometer climb to our apartment, but refused to make the final steep jot. Mad, errant snowflakes stuck in John’s moustache, like the milk ring on a little kid’s mouth.
I was standing waist-high in snow, a month’s worth of groceries from the Commissary waiting patiently in the stranded car. The tips of my ears and my nose were numb with cold when John started laughing. Furious, I said, “What the hell is so funny? What are we going to do about these fucking groceries?”John just looked at me and said well, they are already in the refrigerator. His humor broke the spine of my anger and suddenly we were hysterical. Then, wiping our eyes, we began to trudge up our “hill from hell,” spilling the bags as we plucked them one by one from the car. Cheetos in the snow.
The smiling German midwife knew one word of English – PUSH. With her accent it came out sounding like POOSCH! But a few POOSCHES later, I was holding my son.
Our little baby boy Ian, with an amazingly full head of dark hair, was rosy-skinned and beautiful. We couldn’t stop smiling at him. John filled the hospital room with red roses and red balloons
“Don’t pinch the balloon, honey, it’ll pop,” I warn Ian.
“Pop,” he mimics.
“Yes, sweetie, you’ll bust it if you keep pinching it.”
“Ok,” he sings cheerily, and trots off to find something to get into.
I stand a moment on the apartment balcony landing. The Louisville sun at dusk is bright enough for sunglasses. It lingers lazily in the sky, not quite ready to surrender to the night’s chill.
I pick up the phone.
“When are you coming home from practice?” I ask him.
“Well, we’re working on keyboards for this original, and they’re just not clicking. I’ll be a few more hours, probably. I’ll call you back,” said John.
“I have class tonight, remember?”
Oh, that’s right; well just take him to the babysitter’s.”
“Damn it, John, you said you would be here for Ian when you got out. You knew I was going back to school.”
For a moment he doesn’t reply.
“I’ll call you,” he says again, a little too much hesitation in his voice, his mind already back on the music..
Lately, Ian has seen his mother crying a lot. The feeling I get from his bewildered face is unbearable. He puts his pudgy little hand on top of my head, consoling. It’s alright, Momma, he says, but he is questioning. With this crazy role reversal, I know I have to figure out how to regain control of my life. I glance at my hand, thinking what an ugly hand. I force myself to smile at Ian to reassure him his world is not falling apart; everything’s Ok. But I am lying.
He is whining, crying. It is grating on my nerves. “What is the major malfunction, child?” I say as we walk into the playroom. He is pointing to the ceiling where the red balloon has drifted, caught behind an old crib mobile I never had the initiative to take down. I stand on the toy box and retrieve his balloon for him.
“If you let go of the balloon, buddy, it’ll float away and you won’t be able to get it back. Hold on to the string real tight.” I demonstrate this for him. He nods in that funny, earnest, serious way as if what I’m telling him is of great import.
Our marriage was struggling that first summer back in our home state of Kentucky. I had a full-time job at a daycare center and, when John couldn’t find work, I took a second job at night at Pizza Hut. One night, business was slow and I was happy when the manager offered to close so I could go home early.
John and I desperately needed to reconnect. I couldn’t remember the last conversation we had that was not an angry one about an overdue bill or something Ian needed from the store. We had a party the week before. I had sat on John’s lap and snuggled up to him. He endured it a moment and then said, straight-faced, ‘Honey could you get up, I can’t reach my beer when you’re sitting there.’
Our apartment had somehow turned into a haven for parties for underage kids I didn’t even know. I could feel myself growing colder every time he told me we couldn’t afford for me to go back to school yet the fridge was filled with beer. Or when he suddenly quit his job because “he didn’t like it and they made him work too many hours.” Or when his dumb stoned friends ate a cheesecake that I had made for my dad’s birthday. Or, “No, I don’t have time to look at that poem, I’ll read it later.” How do you tell someone you just want them to care more?
That one muggy August night I was delighted to be off work early. I pulled into the apartment lot, and noticed John’s car wasn’t there. It’s late to have the baby out, I thought, but then chided myself. At least he’s spending time with Ian for a change instead of his damned “rock band.”
I opened the door and laid my keys on the table. I headed to the bedroom to change out of my smelly pizza uniform. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Ian’s diaper bag hanging on his bedroom door. Why wouldn’t he take the diaper bag? My eyes noted the closed door. That’s odd. It’s never closed unless Ian’s in there asleep. My brain refused to acknowledge what I suddenly suspected. I turned the knob silently and peered inside. Ian lay in the crib, his tiny form rising and falling with every breath. I crept out.
My mouth was bitter with bile. My thoughts flew about my head like trapped birds. I couldn’t breathe. John must be upstairs at the neighbor’s house. No. At my sister’s around the corner. Phone call to her...but No. Surely he wouldn’t … The rage was so thick I couldn’t see. I put on my robe, made some coffee, feeling strangely outside myself, a robot version of Holly was the one controlling the strings. I sat by the window, chain-smoking; my mind churning with everything that could have happened to my baby boy.
Forty minutes later, I saw John pull up.
When he walked in the door, the guilt and surprise played on his face.
“I thought you had to work until elev- …
But I raised my hand and cut him off.
“Where the hell have you been?”
"Well, see, Mike’s car broke down and um, I went to give him a jump, and ...”
“Where?” The word was a bullet.
“Over in Whispering Hills, babe, I was only going to be gone a minute, I swear...” He tried to pacify me. He didn’t know how many minutes I’d already been waiting.
“But I don’t understand,” I croaked out. Why didn’t you just take Ian?” I was shaking, tears of rage spilling from my eyes.
“Oh my God, Holly, it’s not that big a fucking deal, he said defensively.
He had no conception what he had done. He never said he was sorry. I had nothing left to say.
The balloon popped with a firecracker BANG! Ian was shocked into silence then began to cry. I held him in my arms. “Hey, “I said, “Why don’t we go bye-bye and get you a whole bunch of new balloons?”
“Get your socks and shoes for momma and I’ll put them on you, Ok?”
Content with his small task, Ian started off. I spoke very quietly, almost to myself. “This time we’re going to get blue ones, OK? Blue balloons.”
“Blue,” Ian echoed. “Yes, blue,” I repeated. I took his hand in mine, ruffled his soft hair, and we stepped out into the light.
Holly Hinson is a storyteller and communications professional from Louisville, KY. Her poetry has been published in Louisville’s Literary LEO and in the literary anthology Calliope. Her feature articles have appeared in Louisville’s Courier-Journal and Jewish Community newspapers. She looks forward to receiving lots of rejection letters as she works on a memoir collection, Cantaloupe and Cream Gravy. Her blog Holly Ascending charts the sometimes feckless journey of becoming who she is meant to be.
"Red Balloon" photo © 2016 Gregory GerardTweet < back to the Reviewl