The balloon and I

FOR fun my love gave me a red balloon. It is one of those slick and shiny Mylar balloons, heart-shaped and helium filled. I've never seen one so big. Wider than a couch cushion and tall as my arm is long, it decorates my ceiling like a Valentine pinata. Well, not exactly like. Pinatas, after all, dangle. My balloon, I'm proud to say, is mobile. For from simply hanging in place like some gaudy cocoon, it roams my two-bedroom house with the quiet, serendipitous freedom of a cat. THERE'S a bit of trickery involved, sure. To the end of the balloon's red ribbon I've tied for ballast a plastic man, paper clips, old keys - just enough weight to keep the balloon from hugging the ceiling too tightly. Small drafts are enough to spin it on its twin axes, the heart's humps. And whenever the air is noticeably stirred by an opening door or, more frequently, the rush of heat from overhead vents, HMS Valentine ducks, bobs, and sails the whitewashed skies for a distant ``coast,'' finding a new berth against a bookcase here, a curtain there. Sometimes in the dark I hear its gentle bump and scratch as it goes creeping across the ceiling. Not at all a bad night noise. Not for one who lives alone.

At the age of 10 I watched late one night on my parents' television set the lunar module set down on the moon. I built models of biplanes and jets. Like nearly all youngsters, I had a brief infatuation with speed and distance. Nevertheless, I have always been a lover of balloons: the big balloons, the sort one rides around in, hovering silently over the world like some guardian angel, propelled by the unseen engine of nature's breath. (And why not? Lack of gravity in black outer space is by now a given. But to float weightless down here, well, that's something, isn't it?)

I've never actually been in one. My love affair began by proxy, via books and the movies. Jules Verne, in ``The Mysterious Island'' and ``Around the World in 80 Days,'' and William Pene duBois, in a fantastic adventure book called ``The Twenty-one Balloons,'' supplied me with my favorite balloon stories. Movies from the '60s such as ``In Search of the Castaways,'' ``Island at the Top of the World,'' and of course ``Five Weeks in a Balloon,'' brought me Technicolor balloon fantasies, set against backgrounds of Iceland and Africa and big as the drive-in screen.

Should I change ``my'' to ``our'' and ``me'' to ``us''? Do balloons really drift through our popular culture as a leitmotif? Perhaps I shouldn't speak of them so selfishly.

A MORE recent ``ballooning thrill'' occurred one spring afternoon while I crossed the grassy quadrangle of a St. Louis college campus, glancing up to see a whole fleet of hot air balloons dotting the sky like the drifting spores of some enormous, magically colored cottonwood. These, I later learned, were some of the entrants in an annual balloon race held each year in nearby Forest Park, a race which I anticipated the following year by standing on my apartment building's roof so that I could note the balloons' swift ascent through the trees and follow their gradual progress across the St. Louis sky.

They never left the ground that year, courtesy of high Midwestern winds. Yes, I suppose I remember the wind, whipping my hair about and causing me to squint, but not so strong a gale that I couldn't keep impatiently wondering, like some jilted Romeo, Where are they? Where are the balloons?

Did the woman who gave me the buoyant red floater suspect my long-term romance with balloons? I don't think so. And should I tell her? If I don't, whenever she sees me glancing fondly at the big balloon that grazes my ceiling, she's liable to assume more than her fair share of credit. On the other hand, why risk her jealousy? Already the balloon has started to wrinkle and sag, so that I've had to decrease its ballast by two paper clips. In another couple of weeks, I'm afraid, my wandering housemate will lose its buoyancy altogether. At that time I'm likely to get a little lonely and in need of more solid, more grounded companionship.

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