illustration of person chasing balloon
Tim Lahan

There are balloons, and then there are balloons.

There’s the domestic balloon, over which we shall quickly pass—the sad little sphere that you blow up at home, with your own laborious, why-am-I-doing-this carbon dioxide. A lot of pathos, for whatever reason, attaches to this balloon.

Then there is the irrepressible balloon, the balloon pumped taut with cartoon levity. A balloon of this sort is essentially an arrested impulse. A trapped prayer, if you like. Each balloon represents a thwarted attempt by that noble and high-spirited gas, helium, to fly joyfully up to heaven.

But the balloon doesn’t care. Brainless and glorious, it bobs about. Its urge to transcend is perfectly contained. Life is heavy, heavy, heavy. Since we crawled up onto dry land, gravity has been patiently dismantling us—we sag, we stoop, our lower backs hurt. Experience accumulates, and it has its own weight. Bring on the balloons.

I love the balloons that float like deities above the aisles in CVS, the balloons made of Mylar and ancient symbolism. These balloons are magic. These balloons, out in the world, will activate gratuitous nonmalignant forces. They’ll get you smiles, fist bumps, kisses, drinks. I once walked several blocks with a large balloon in the likeness of SpongeBob SquarePants surging and tugging over my head. People cried out, reflexively—they were glad to see him. (That balloon later escaped, and I watched SpongeBob recede, grinning, into the blue-eyed void of the sky.)

I’ve been hauling balloons into my apartment recently, great gaggles of them, in the interest of general mood elevation. There have been occasions, too, moments to mark: birthdays, graduations, whatever. They’re over. But the balloons remain—glimmering, immaterial. A flamingo; a sunflower; a gigantic golden replica of the thumbs-up emoji. The balloon I bought myself on Father’s Day: best dad ever. My wife says they satisfy my “need for cheese”—which is to say, my vulgar consumerist attraction to garishness and buoyancy.

But to me the balloons are like Yeats’s wild swans at Coole: “mysterious, beautiful.” Or like Jeeves at his most silvery and wafting. They travel unaccountably from room to room, trailing their strings. They nudge me at my desk. They drift together, and nod, and seem to confer—a symposium of balloons. They touch one another so gently.

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