A dozen hide in his closet. Shiny and taut, pressed to the ceiling the way club girls glom around a velvet rope. Seamus Duncan dreams balloons in the shower, can almost hear their curves shouldering for position as he swabs a Q-tip in his ear. His lobes are plugged with knobs the size of overcoat buttons. There is aftershave. A spit of goop to send up his spikes just right.
At 17 hard edges haven’t yet settled in along his jaw line, making his brow and lip rings seem forced and out of place. He peels the flyer from his bathroom mirror, skin tingly, paper edges curled, and carries it to his room, imagining latex nubs in his mouth, polyurethane necks knotted between thighs, static globes emitting charge along his zipper. His towel drops to the floor.
A day does not go by when I am not involved in some form of balloon activity. This is what Dr. Magill told him to lead with. Seamus cups the hip of a runaway violet as he runs through his closet hangers for a vintage button-down, snaps plated in mother of pearl. It pains him to shut in his lovers with outgrown hockey skates and drum sticks. Forgive me, he tells periwinkle, Kelly green, caressing each and every plump, translucent body before he slides closed the door.
Seamus fastens his shirt. Balloons were balloons. Still, he felt things for them. How could something so large be so light? The party flyer hosted an address of a converted warehouse in Rosemont where he’s never been. Tonight was a chance to meet other poppers and non-poppers, Magill said, assuming Seamus would want that – that is, to fit right in.
First, he must let down his parents. Seamus’ discharge from Livengrin had been conditioned on this meeting. He shimmies the mouse hooked up to his desktop. The screen lights up. Seamus empties his mail. In a looner chat room a heavyset blonde has posted a photo of herself squeezing a twenty-four inch Mylar. She is wearing fishnets but everyone is waiting.
Most families have room for only one fuck-up and Jimmy stole that prize. “You try walking a line reciting the alphabet backward,” he’d say until he trailed some girl out to Eugene and never returned, his mother worrying the rosary over her first born even though he’s fine, Seamus knows it, unreliability followed patterns. The Duncans were lined up downstairs. White leather sofa, tarnished frames – Seamus riding the carousel, Kate on a pony, Jimmy on a big wheel – rose chips from last Christmas in a scalloped bowl in the living room, the room with a cold brick fireplace, unlit and ash-filled unless there was company.
At Livengrin they practiced hugs on linoleum. Visualize the outcome. Balloons were as normal to Seamus as brushing his teeth; they grounded and carried him both, a cheerful bouquet tied to a fence of the home where the whole class was invited, same scene in every city: pity the new kid until there was cake.
Seamus Duncan was not a deviant.
He merely did not wish to share.
Dr. Magill had theories. Maybe fear fed desire but Seamus does not recall fear, only the boys, piñatas, coins tumbling from ears and vanishing ink, foam-nosed clowns twisting pencil balloons into swords and dachshunds and flowers, the hiss of the tank, the squeak of the knot, and then the crack of the bat.
Wasn’t everyone entitled to one true thing?
His jeans smell like a public bus. He has come in them more times than he remembers, rinsing them out in the bathroom sink. In his two months at Livengrin he had only one balloon encounter, a standard 11-inch latex in “white ever-after” stolen from a nurse’s bachelorette send-off. The aides took cover at the blast. Afterward, they ransacked his room, confiscating the four tadpole-sized water balloons he had swallowed and salvaged from the toilet. Magill increased his hours.
His therapist would reach for hands. In a red knit tie Magill would talk progress, his weight shifting along the chaise longue in self-congratulation. As if Seamus were cured. The sound, like smacking a beach ball, would arouse. Would his father look at him? Seamus pictures Kate’s red exercise ball rolling through the living room, the taunt of a Hop-Along-Hopper. Magill rising at the excitement: Now, sir. I assure you it is nothing like that.
It was like this: Seamus loved balloons. No one could take that from him. Not his parents. Not some pervert he’d meet at a party, not Magill, who offered to go everywhere with him. Seamus removes his thick black rims, hipster rims, rims that were meant to accompany the hair and piercings, toughen out his face. They, too, are ineffectual. He wipes his round cheeks, blue eyes receding, light at the end of a line.
Seamus opens the closet and his balloons whoosh into the room. He flops down on his twin bed, Star Wars sheets, and watches. There is nothing more beautiful. A fist of lollipops. A complex molecule. Clustered in a rainbow of desire. Drifting apart like lost souls. He pulls the drawer of his night table and retrieves a 19-inch, tangerine baby, stretches it three times between his fingers before bringing the mouth to his lips.
Seamus Duncan starts to blow.
His mother cried in the hospital and she cried at Livengrin and she wept when Magill called the accident intentional, as if the inhalation of a thirty-six inch helium tank in one sitting could be anything but. His mother would want to know about girls, if he would fall in love and get married, if it were a queer thing. If he would outgrow it. She would twist her claddagh ring around her dry finger. Many people incorporate attachments into tender, healthy relationships, Dr. Magill would say and Seamus would glance at his therapist’s chin and think yes maybe but balloons are enough people for me.
It was a crisp clear day in November.
With everyone else he celebrated balloon day in the first grade. Wove index cards through punched holes and secured ribbons to their nibs, letters threaded with good tidings and return addresses and hopes of connection. It was an event synchronized across Chester County — five schools, four classes per grade, 26 kids to a class. 520 balloons set free together. His sailed fast and got stuck on a branch. Becky Morse’s reached a pen pal on Prince Edward Island. Local parks clogged with dead birds.
Seamus pauses to check the tension and catch his breath. The balloon squishes, soft beneath an elbow. His chest quickens. He pokes his finger into the rubber tip, so it looks like this part of him actually lives inside the globe. He suckles some more. Cheeks pump. He feels once more for the pressure. It was so so close. He inflates to the point of breakage then stops, twisting the end around his knuckle till it turns red and then white. He ties off.
Lightheaded, Seamus hugs the balloon to him as others float along his ceiling stuck with glow-in-the-dark stars.
Once he got lost in a hall of mirrors. When a family moves a lot it clings to some constant; for his it was the smell of peanuts. How long can a child watch a father sweat the bell and hammer? At 5, he wandered. His head swelled like a watermelon. His feet stretched into wings on a plane. Then, his feet shrank to field mice. His head shone like a newly minted nickel. He was not alone in the maze. A man in a mesh jersey with a belly so full he could have smuggled twins carried him out. Grateful, his parents loaded Seamus up on tokens and let him ride the Free Fall until an unknown child walked off in his favorite shoes.
The balloon bursts in his arms.
Seamus Duncan works quickly. Stuffs the broken strips into his pocket. The rest, from Party City, he gathers. Helium was lighter than air. Downstairs he can hear his father holler, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” as he lifts his second story window. An autumn leaf blows in.
Looping strings around his scabby wrist he holds on for dear life so before there’s a knock the kid is already flying.