A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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In 1984, our last year together, there was still a big green open field behind the Mission Valley Shopping Center near our house in Raleigh, North Carolina. One Sunday you saw a man there inflating a hot-air balloon, and you went out to talk to him. He was a professional pilot getting ready for a pleasure ride. He would be flying alone while his wife drove the chase car. His wife always drove the chase car. She never got to go up in the balloon with him.
You offered him a deal: you’d drive the chase car so his wife could come along — if he would take me, too. I didn’t weigh much, you told him.
It was the nicest gift you ever gave me.
The afternoon was clear and mild. We wore jeans and light jackets. The pilot and his wife were happy to be together. They kissed. The basket was a little tippy. The propane burner was turned up high; we needed a lot of heat to get off the ground. Had I expected silence? The noise of the burner was deafening.
Slowly we rose.
I knew this feeling from dreams. In my sleep, flying was easy: I pushed off with my toes, pressed my arms to my sides, and glided, looking down on the world from a safe distance. I would forget from one dream to the next that I had this power. It was always a surprise to fly, and a thrill to remember that I could.
To steer a balloon, you have to read the wind and adjust your altitude to catch the current that will take you where you want to go. You have to be aware of your fuel supply: the more weight in the basket, the more fuel you need. You have to be mindful of hazards — guy-wires, towers, poles, trees, wind shears. You have to know the good landing fields, ones where there’s plenty of room, and where the landowners won’t mind.
But no matter how much you know, there’s always more that you can’t control.
I don’t remember feeling fear, only exhilaration and gratitude, like in my dreams. A feeling of ah. The sky was brilliant blue, cloudless. The balloon was yellow. We rose and rose until the pilot turned off the burner, and then it was quiet except for our voices, the creaking basket, and an occasional whoosh of air against nylon. From five thousand feet, everything on the ground seemed small, forgivable.
We drifted north to Falls Lake. Below us, you drove your bulbous old Saab. You drove without a map, occasionally sticking your head out the window to look up. Sometimes we lost sight of you; sometimes we floated so low we could shout to you.
We drifted over woods and meadows and suburban neighborhoods. In one neighborhood children ran into the street, their faces turned up.
It was nearing dusk when we landed. We were well north of Raleigh: all farmland, a few houses on country roads. We set down in a cow pasture. The basket made a soft thump. Cows huddled along the fence, staring. A woman came out of the farmhouse to greet us. She invited us into her kitchen and served us iced tea. You were there, too, and drank tea with us.
A year later you and I separated. A year after that, we divorced. I spent my thirtieth birthday changing the locks on the doors of the house we’d shared.
Three years after that, the pilot was killed when his balloon got caught in a wind shear and hit a guy-wire for a broadcast tower.
Two years later you called me out of the blue. I had recently remarried. You said you’d just come from the funeral of a friend who had died of breast cancer.
“I’m sorry,” I said, though I didn’t know the woman.
“Her ex-husband gave the eulogy,” you said. “He knew her better than anybody. He knew exactly what to say.”
I had no idea what to say.
“I want us to be like they were,” you said. “Friends.”
I tried to picture us going out to lunch like we never had, talking like we never had: you telling me about your latest girlfriend, asking about my new husband. The two of us rehashing our marriage — how young we’d been, how raw and reckless, how vulnerable and cruel. You would apologize. Again.
“Do you think we could?” you asked. “Be friends?” Your voice was kind, all the anger gone. Which made it no less dangerous.
I was standing at my desk in the attic room my husband and I had converted into an office. I stared at the new gray carpet. The smell of glue made me lightheaded.
“Can I think it over?” I asked.
“Sure,” you said. “Take all the time you need. I’ll be up late.”
I laughed. We both knew I wouldn’t call back.
Seven years later we ran into each other in the grocery store. You told me you were giving up on Raleigh, moving to California. I encouraged you. I wanted you to be happy. I wanted to believe that was still possible.
Two years after that, you were diagnosed with leukemia. Six months later you died. You were forty-six.
Fifteen years later I’m sitting on a porch swing with my friend Koji. It’s spring; a light rain is falling. We’re watching a baby cardinal — “redbud,” Koji calls it — flap around uselessly in a puddle. “Baby redbud have instinct to fly,” Koji says, “but it must practice.”
Koji, with his Japanese accent, is my wisest-sounding friend.
He asks what I’ve been writing lately.
“Something for my late ex-husband,” I say. “I owe him a eulogy.”
Koji frowns. “Don’t pull on legs of spirits. Send good wish” — he closes and opens his fingers — “and let go.”
If I had spoken at your funeral — if I’d gone — this is the story I would have told: how the part of the balloon ride that lingers most isn’t being in the air but landing; how, when the basket set down, making its soft thump, surprising the cows, you were already there.