In this story,
1. I save the girl.
2. To get the girl.
In this story,
1. I lose the girl.
2. I find the girl.
I am racing to the field where they will launch so I can save her one more time. She is on a vessel and will pull a trigger and fire will shoot out, and she will cease to be what she is. She will become, instead, herself in flight. This is similar to the difference between batter and cake—with wet, clumpy batter being life and the risen, sugary cake being afterlife. Once in flight, she becomes approximate, not exact, and that much farther from me, and that much closer to death.
Before she goes: she would want me to use her name. Aarti.
When she was a girl, Aarti chased a hot air balloon through Newark. It coasted above a line of cherry blossoms in Branch Brook Park, the woven-wicker gondola scraping branches. If Aarti had been above, the hot air balloon might have looked like the bobber on the end of a line taunting a fish, but she was below it, and from below, it looked like a traveling carnival. Of all her friends, Aarti was the only one to make it to the landing. Three point four miles later, a wheel on her roller skates cracked, blue scratches on her cheeks, she pushed through a branch and discovered: her special relationship to crashing.
I have not been to a hot air balloon before, but I have seen it in the distance and marveled at how monstrous it must be up close. Something you feel you should be able to hang on to—‘til you realize it has the power to carry you away.
In this story,
1. I save the girl.
2. The girls saves me.
3. I save the girl.
I get out of our car, which still has a nub of rope tied to its bumper from the time she scaled a mountain, and I get right into the woven-wicker gondola. This is not easy to do, because the balloon is already five feet off the ground. One of the men who helped with the launching is trying to pull me down and the other, confused, is trying to help me up. The rope, which Aarti has just released, is the only thing anchoring us. Now, we are rising at a slow, elderly pace—but rising. I am hanging on. My legs kick as if underwater.
Aarti is yelling at me to jump off. Her hand is on the trigger. A flame the sound of a lion’s roar shoots into the balloon. I am frightened and almost lose my grip, but my feet find security in the knot at the base of the gondola.
Aarti says, “This is a table for one.”
In my head I say, Two can fit. I swing my leg up so that it catches the lip of the gondola. For a moment, we both think I am going to fall. Aarti, last minute, decides to use her hand for something other than shooting flames. She yanks me on board. The slate roofs of the houses below are close enough to jump to, but not for long.
“You’re going to drag us down,” she says.
“You’re the one that pulled me in,” I answer.
The gondola is large enough to fit four—Aarti as she is now (annoyed), Aarti as she was even a week ago (blissful), me as I am now (desperate) and me as I was then (desperate). Or four other people. Her mouth, a loose string, often takes the shape of giving orders (it does now) or of laughing at herself, and me (not just at this moment). Her face has been carved from solid, limestone ruins. There are the exquisite bones of her clavicle. She dresses in a long white shirt and capris. She wears glasses and a ring. The high brown boots are unfamiliar to me and look like they’ve been worn by someone else, an actual captain. Eyelets and metal plates all the way up, side zipper, leather steel toe. She looks like she’s working very hard at looking like she’s exploring.
Aarti has packed a cooler, an extra tank of fuel, a fire extinguisher, a coloring book with crayons, a bottle of champagne and two glasses, a large sack of wheat, and a plastic bag of white cotton candy. I’d like to know who the second glass is for.
“Let’s go down,” I suggest.
“The whole point,” she says, “is to go up.” Her eyes flash, then the trigger, then the flame. We do.
My plan is to save us from power lines or brambles of forests, whatever comes next.
In this story,
1. I get the girl.
2. The girl gets sick of me.
3. I never get sick of the girl.
Instructions called “Danger: Unmarked Holes” hang on a plastic plate inside the basket for safety. The plate says, “Don’t Run, Beware Deep Shafts, and No Walking Backwards.” This is illustrated by three black stick figures, each with ungainly, unrecommended heads, and each falling to her own long death. I think of the second as me, the first, second, and third as Aarti.
I ask where we’re going. “Let me steer, Aarti.”
She throws out her arms, a tiny gesture in the expanse of the sky. She says, “You can’t choose where you want to go in a balloon, you just try to find the winds to get you there. There’s no steering.”
This sounds like Aarti’s fortune-cookie logic and may be the inspiration responsible for this newest reckless activity. I say, “Well, anyway, I think we’re sinking.”
Aarti taps the “variometer” and says, “Actually, no.” At a thousand feet or more, people are terrible judges of basic facts like what is rising and what is sinking. The “variometer” also measures our vertical speed in feet per minute. I guess that we’re moving at twelve miles an hour or so. Aarti throws a skeptical look, and it turns into flames. She doesn’t want to hear me talk anymore. She arms the trigger in bursts, fire follows.
The people below are small to us, and we are small to them. Every now and then, a bird flies too close to the balloon. It skims the surface and makes a line in the nylon as if it were skimming a lake. Against all probability, the balloon returns to its shape, and the bird returns to its, and something is shared but nothing is damaged.
The balloon finds a citrus-scented wind and takes it. We move in a line across the landscape. The sky is clear, the wind is calm because we are inside of it, and the evening summer air is peaking. I open the cooler and discover two sandwiches. I take a bite and am delighted to find it’s peanut butter and banana. I lean over the edge of the gondola and believe that Aarti packed it because she loves me like I love her and was secretly waiting for me to make it on board.
Aarti snorts. “I was saving that.”
In this story,
1. Two planes fall in love and drift into unfamiliar airways.
2. Two planes collide.
I see them before Aarti does, but she understands what’s happening before I do. They are miles ahead, but we have caught up enough to realize that the two airplanes are part of the horizon. From her finger, Aarti takes the copper ring, which is finished in bronze and a rubbed black patina. It retracts into a telescope—one small lens for her to look through, one large lens to bring the love affair into focus. She cups the telescope in her curled hand. Her tongue makes an appearance, as this is how she concentrates. It’s a pink creature, missing a shell. It lingers at the bottom of her lip before navigating to the corner.
Aarti mutters, “They’re entering the same airway.”
“Two planes in love never touch,” I say. “That would be disastrous.” I see the planes stacking up like shelves and consult the manual hanging in the basket. “You mean they’re in the same corridor.”
She uses her hands to make parallel lines. “Air corridors are designated regions where compliance is mandatory. These planes are civilian, they can deviate when circumstances warrant.” One hand chops the other. “That’s what they’re doing now, that’s why they’re in the same airway.”
She does not glance back to confirm I understand. I wonder if the planes don’t realize they’re flying dangerously. They must smell a clue in the wind, vinegar or something. Or can’t one just look down and see it’s in the other’s way?
“They look very close,” I say. “What are they?”
“That’s a Piper PA-31 Navajo,” she says.
“What’s that other one? A boat plane?”
“Floatplane. Also known as pontoon plane.”
Aarti narrates: The smaller plane passes right over the larger one, and because it’s so close, the pilot can’t see it. The rudder of the Piper clips the belly of the floatplane. She says, “We’re in unregulated airspace. There are no rules except keep alert, keep 180 degrees alert. Mind your boundaries.”
I narrate in my head: The smaller plane is pulled to the larger plane in a way it cannot explain to itself. The rudder of me clips the belly of you.
Then Aarti says that the pilots must not realize the trouble they’re in, or that the small plane’s landing gear is caught—must be caught. Wouldn’t it pull away, otherwise? We witness them collide and descend, tangle like souls, their shadows growing larger as they plummet, then smaller. A plume of smoke bursts out of the small plane like a vow.
“What’s happening?” I ask.
Aarti snaps the telescope shut, smiles. “They’re going down.”
In this story,
1. There is danger.
Aarti leans over the edge and her long, dark hair hangs like moody streamers. She studies her watch, which I realize is not a watch but a compass. We have been moving east, her compass confirms. Then it dawns on me that of course we have been moving east: the sun has been moving west. We have dropped, this much I can tell from studying the variablemeter. We trace a river towards a large body of water. I start to worry. The sky is still clear, but the water looms like a heavy and dark cloud. I think that lightning will shoot out and up and zap us into a gravitational collapse, and I start to dismantle, in my mind, all of the useful metal on the vessel. That is, pretty much all of the technology that makes us float.
This is how sky-time moves: that body of water is only getting bigger. At first, it gives me the sense of alarm that a crack at the edge of Aarti’s lip gives me, a taut discomfort at the thought of the splitting of her tender flesh. Then, because the blot of water does not go away, it gives me the same sense of panic as, say, a streak of blood on Aarti’s wrist. The streak gets wider, bluer, and multiplies infinitely the way only liquid can.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
Her tongue reappears. “The Atlantic.”
In this story,
1. The Atlantic is the setting.
2. The Atlantic is the villain.
In this story,
1. I battle the Atlantic.
“Pull the trigger,” I say.
Pull it.— No.—With multiple taps of my index finger, I explain the velocimeter, or whatever the hell she calls it. Aarti, we are going to sink. See?
Aarti says, “No one asked you.”
She will not let me at the burner. She is adamant. She will let me roam the basket, but she will not let me lead. She will let me eat another sandwich while we go down, or open the champagne, or handle any of the other travel gear, but I am not to go near the important, primitive controls. Even in my panic I cannot bring myself to handle her roughly. We are slow to plummet, with the Atlantic opening its glassy, patient jaws. Our descent is cold and quiet. I pick up the heaviest metal thing, and I throw it overboard, and after a few seconds it makes a splash, and I believe and hope that it has given us a few minutes of preservation. I want to die with her, but in our sleep, years from now, holding hands, me saying Aarti as my last word and her saying Aarti, too, if she won’t say my name.
“Hey,” she says, “That’s the spare fuel.”
I throw the fire extinguisher next. “Take us up.”
She doesn’t. She won’t.
I lunge for the coloring book. I hold it over the Atlantic and its pages flap; it’s as flimsy as us and weighs next to nothing. She cries out, and her cry travels the spare miles around us. She pulls the trigger. The flame drives us up. I drop the coloring book in the gondola. Then I am on my knees kissing her knee, which is cold, exposed. My chin catches on the top of her boot, and it is hard and ungiving. I am relentless. I’m slipping my hand behind her knee so that I can cup this part of her fully. It’s my hand that’s the envelope and my mouth that’s the burner. I kiss the knee, lick it, my mouth unable to stop me. To carry her away from this Atlantic.
I think she will push me away but, incredibly, she is touching my head with the chewed tips of her fingers. Her hand is stiff as it glides through my hair. I look up. She says, “We’re the heaviest thing on board now.” She corrects herself. “I am.”
But she is not correct, because there is the sack of wheat, which, if you ask the verisimilitudometer, is the same weight as my coursing, accumulating gratitude.
In this story,
1. We make a miraculous journey across the Atlantic on a single tank.
2. We drift over Ireland.
Aarti brings us in. It is morning, perfect landing time with cooperative winds that smell like copper and then like creamy, boiling rice with cardamom—two of Aarti’s favorite smells. The balloon deflates and our basket tips, and my knees are wobbling. I drag myself out with fistfuls of emerald grass. Aarti walks out on those big buckled boots. She drops her hands to her hips, sniffs the air and says, Bread. I do not smell bread. From the cooler, she takes up the champagne bottle and glasses and places them in her satchel. She says, “It’s tradition to toast your host upon landing.” So the second champagne glass is for any kind stranger, I realize.
If someone wants wheat, they can take wheat. If someone wants a balloon, here is a balloon. If someone wants a stowaway, I am standing right here while Aarti begins for the coast, the coloring book rolled under her arm, and I am calling her back so we can come up with a plan together. She calls, “We might as well scavenge up some breakfast.”
I trail her, my legs gummy. I have never been more hungry.
We find a hill and then another hill. The cottage Aarti has her sights on is a quarter-mile down, just beyond a stone wall and on a curl of beach that we passed during our descent. It is white with a thatched roof and a red half-door, a crinkle of smoke coming from the chimney. After that is the bay and other cottages and a cluster of smooth rock formations that resemble giant fingerling potatoes. A woman leans out of the half-door and, seeing us, heads our way, something cloth in her hand.
“Yer sisters, are ye?” she says from earshot.
No, Aarti says.
I say, “No, we’re closer than that.”
Aarti pours them each a glass of champagne, and the woman, a Molly, drinks it down and listens, without interruption, to the travels of the hot air balloon.
“Ye crossed the Atlantic,” Molly confirms, “just to cross it back?” and then, “Well, come on.” Instead of giving us the biscuits wrapped in the handkerchief, she takes us back to her cottage in Trá Dhearg. Her young son, in white suspenders, clears newspapers off of the wooden chairs on the patio.
Molly is blue-eyed and blonde, exactly Irish. She explains to Aarti, over another glass, that she likes to bring lunch out to hitchhikers, that she makes extra just so she can share with travelers. Exactly Irish. She never does invite us in, so we balance bowls on our laps. Aarti asks the woman what she does and what the town is like, so they talk about that. The sun changes its shapes on the wall—two airplanes colliding, then Ireland, then something that looks like jellyfish. Also on the wall is the building’s street address, and next to it a painted sign that reads, “The Kindness o’ Strangers Makes Ye Friends.” I see what she means, but I don’t agree, because Molly still doesn’t know the first thing about us. She’s only serving us like she does.
The little boy is studying me studying the sign, which tells me that this is how he’s been raised: to gawk. He says, “You don’t like chowder?”
I say, “Usually.”
He looks to his mother as if I’ve made an impolite request, and when she nods, he serves us bread that looks like it came off a tree. I take a spoonful of the chowder and dribble it back into my bowl. It’s when I’m eating that the boy says, “Eat,” and his mother repeats, “Eat.” Aarti has started her second bowl with a clear indication that she’ll be going for a third. I begin to wonder what’s Molly’s ploy. How she knew to come get us, understood we were hungry, agreed to feed us. I begin to question motives, because, in my experience, my hunger—Aarti’s hunger—can lead to uncontrollable things.
I look to the garden, where there is a rake, an axe.
In this story,
1. A strange, toothless mother tries to kill and bury us.
2. We run, fast as we can, from Trá Dhearg and get the balloon up high enough to avoid her long, rake-y reach.
My face must reveal me, because Molly says, “Is he pinching soda off you?”
“He’s not pinching anything off of me,” I say, without knowing what she means. I stand too quickly and the whole soup splatters onto the patio.
Aarti, scowling, uses her cloth napkin. She is kneeling, her large eyes taking up half her face. I want to close the lids with my hands so that the crease disappears from her forehead and her mouth ripens. She cleans the spill in one swoop, and I miss my chance to fix this.
Molly pulls her son from the table by the suspenders, says to him, “If yer hungry, you get your own good piece, then. Not takin’ from the company.”
The boy begins to cry. Molly is rubbing the embarrassment out of the back of his head, running her fingers through his hair, but it doesn’t work, and she clucks beneath her breath at him. The words are chiding—I think—but the tone is of apology. If she licked his head I would not be surprised, so intent is she to soothe him. Aarti pulls out the coloring book—a dragon on the cover, the fire taking up almost as much space as its wing. It is brand new, the book, and light glides over the glossy surface. Molly’s son rubs an eye. He takes the book by the corner, away from his lambish body. I mean that his mouth and nose are a neat triangle, like a lamb’s.
“There’s a whole other world here. Let me show you,” Aarti says, and she and the boy lay out on the grass. Out of her pocket, she brings some crayon bits. They begin with purple, then orange, then blue. I sit in the wooden chair and watch them make up colors.
Molly spreads dirt on the soup spot, then rinses it with water; it smears the concrete like brown finger-paint. She wipes her hand on her covering, props her fist on her hip. Like me, she continues to watch Aarti and the boy. She leans in as if what he’s doing is reading to Aarti, and what Aarti’s doing is helping him to sound out challenging words. She looks grateful for Aarti.
“Yer friend often come prepared?” Molly asks.
“Always,” I say.
“No one’s always,” she says, “ye might take courage in that.”
At the end of the visit, Molly gives us a canister of propane: to thank us for the coloring book, the company.
“May the strength of three be in ye journey,” she’s calling.
In this story,
1. The second we are in flight, we are in flight.
2. Molly and her son use their faces to say goodbye while we wave.
3. The wind takes us east, even when we attempt west.
It’s our job, Aarti says, to leave behind something lasting and costless and without wrappers or other waste—to leave our mark anonymously. I agree; this is what I have been trying to do, secretly, with her. We sow the fields of Europe. I dig into the bag for more wheat. She nods each time I cast my hand out and the seeds land, or so it looks to us. We do this for many winds—a wind that smells like camping, then one that smells like a summer insect rubbed between our fingers. Dig deeper, she says, so I do. Dig deeper, she says, there’s so much to cover, so I do. The sack slackens, it is half empty. I cast the seeds with the knowledge that they will mostly grow to their full potential, even if that means trauma, which it must if they are to break through their casing and then break through the fertile earth and then break into the trauma of day. But the sack is emptying, it is not forever, and I come up with barely a scattering. I come up empty. Dig, Aarti says, and I find the kernels tucked into the folds at the bottom. Dig, Aarti says. I make my fingers do pretend work, as if the gesture will matter with an empty hand. She looks at me out of her pinched corner, and I see disappointment crack over her face. I tell her finally, We’re out, I can’t. She turns from me to roofs and farms. I ask if we can stop, can we stop, we can get a new grain and sow other fields with other crops. We can feed farmers in Russia. We can fly to Japan and whatever comes after Japan. We can fly home and feed ourselves. Wouldn’t that be nice, Aarti? Wouldn’t that be an entirely new adventure?
Aarti rolls the last grain between thumb and forefinger, back and forth, back and forth. She is a massive formation. She can’t decide. She says, “Anything is tethering.”
I take up the empty sack, the burlap soft and scratchy all at once, and I push at the material until my fingers rip through. I throw it from the basket. A wind catches, and for a moment it seems as if the empty sack will be our traveling companion, until it drifts down. Maybe to a person’s house or a field.
“Drop me, then,” I say. “Take me home.”
“I don’t know where that is,” she says. “Neither do you.”
Here, I want to say, This is home, but you can’t tell because it keeps moving.
Though she looks sorry, I lick two fingers and test the wind. “Sure I do,” I say. “Whatever way Aarti doesn’t want to go, that’s the way home.”
I slump down in the basket and understand that she’s been right all along, there actually is only room for one if one wants to be comfortable and stretch out and take in the whole world. I have to sit on Aarti’s boots. I have to make myself as small as I have ever been. You make yourself big. You want to fly alone, you want to crash alone, you want to soar alone, you want to circle the world alone, alone, alone, alone. Me, I can be alone, too.
In this story,
1. We are sad on the ground.
2. We are sad in the air.
Night comes. Aarti pulls the last sandwich apart with her hands and gives me the larger half. We share it in silence, plus the pint that Molly gave us.
From a distance, we see a war or two.
In this story,
1. What can you buy?
We eat grilled fish in the city of Hania and drink Crete’s version of moonshine, which is served with watermelon. We’re hungry for real food, that’s why we stop. The balloon sits on a dock where it landed, tied to a post. The very end of the envelope dips into the water, and fish nip at it but do no harm. Now that we are on the ground, we sound like ourselves again, if only a little.
“Welcome to Ellas, post economic-collapse,” says the waiter. “We want nothing more than your laughings and sympathetic money.” He waters down the moonshine—something pronounced like rake-y—and serves us the bill. This includes a tax on toilet paper, which is customary whether or not (not) we have used the facilities.
Aarti takes my hand, and we walk. Beneath an awning of the neighboring restaurant, six octopi hang. Their tentacles and heads are suspended by clothespins. They look like six queasy smiles. Though we’ve just eaten and the host knows this—he watched from his own empty restaurant with displeasure—he coaxes us inside. He says, “You Americans, still hungry?” From him, Aarti and I buy doughnuts the size of buoys, covered in grains of sugar as large as small ants. She flicks pieces of her doughnut to pigeons, who trail us with graceless earnest.
Aarti has us stop at an entrance, inconspicuous. Aarti says, “Here we are,” though this is new to me.
It looks like someone’s home, with other open-air homes stacked above and next to it. None of the roofs are filled in, as if the owners’ plans are to build forever, which they are, since that keeps them in a tax shelter. It’s a loophole in the system and part of what cripples Greece, not to mention corruption and the Greek preference for personal favors. In this building Greeks yell from one balcony to the other, sounding like angry spoons. Other cutlery, too, when children chime in; like baby spoons. The apartment Aarti takes us into has tinted windows and is marked with a very long, gold sign: “Nikos Odysseas Papadakis International Sales and Charters Since 1979 Presents Knacht Yecht Yacht.”
There is a single desk with one large man. There are many, many yachts.
“Nikos Odysseas Papadakis is dedicated to satisfy the most demanding requirements of most yachting people nowadays,” says the large man, a Nikos, with a mustache the size of a ferret.
Aarti says, “I doubt you can satisfy us.”
His shirt is clean, pristine. No sweat marks. His teeth are white, healthy, which, here, is more remarkable than a white shirt. The desk is clear except for a pencil, a sheet of paper, and a tray with shot glasses and watermelon. On his thumb, a scraggle of tied string.
Nikos says, “A long list of satisfied customers, through the years, justifies why Nikos enjoys high reputation in the yachting world and the unique personal service he offers to all customers.” Nikos offers us the rake-y and watermelon, not watered down. I take mine, plus Aarti’s.
“We aren’t shopping for a yacht.”
“She means we are,” Aarti says. “We might be.”
Nikos bows, and just like that there are sweat marks. “I place at your disposal the expertise of Nikos Odysseas Papadakis, International Sales and Charters Since—“
Aarti says, “How about this one?”
“A beautiful. Twin Screw Sailing Schooner Ortona Navi, Rolling Riffing Genova Sail. One million euro. But maybe not for you.”
“Not for us,” I say. “We already have a hot air balloon.” I face Aarti. I want to return to the balloon, which is likely to attract any Greek wanting to strike out for a better life or country.
She shakes her head for me, then, “How about this one?”
“Oraio taste, my friend, for the Swan 75. Also has raised saloon with complimentary raki. Total air-condition. LCD TV. I-Pad compatible. Cockpit speaker. Live-in crew.” The crew, living in the boat, waves at us. They continue to simonize the yacht’s white enamel exterior coat. “But not for you.”
“Who for, then?” Aarti says.
“May be for some spoil diplomat children failing out of private schooling.”
Aarti picks another. The Sun Odyssey 45. “A magnificent ketch. Its sails are grand, like an eagle’s. No to this one.”
“No to that one.”
“Not yet. Or I should say, Knacht Yecht,” and he chuckles at the pun of his own business’ name.
“Excellent taste. Not for you, this one.”
I say, “Aren’t you in the middle of a recession?”
“Depression. Ask every Greek, he has one. My cousin Yianni, my fourteen babies, size feet 3 to 17. The 17 is a good girl, a Greek girl, but depressed. The situation is very bad, the whole country.”
“Then how about this one?” I point to anyone, anything behind me. I resent this Nikos refusing us. He flicks his head and makes a ticking noise with his tongue. I think this means yes, but it means no.
“It is because I desire that the customer gets the yacht she really wants and we are very proud to keep this goal achieved.”
“Which one are we supposed to want?” Aarti demands.
Nikos smiles, reminding me of the octopi. He says, “That is too personal a matter for a seller to decide. It is for the two of you to make together.”
“So you won’t sell?”
Nikos shakes his head, sorry. “I will be happy to make you into happy buyers. When you are together ready.”
He hands over a business card. It lists his phone number and address and includes the inscription, “Congratulations, Knacht Yecht Yacht.”
In this store,
1. You can’t buy nothing.
We are gone again, and Greece is small.
The last time Aarti and I went traveling, we had to share a mosquito tent. It was hot and airless. The holes were too fine even for a strand of hair, practically. I began wishing Aarti actually had malaria so there would be the need for only one person—me—in the tent. This thought pained me every time it surfaced, which was constantly, because I continued to wish it, even as I knew that with malaria, in addition to the risk of death, Aarti would face the threat of temporary madness. I redoubled my campaign against the mosquitos. I tried to make more room for her, until I resented it and took back the room, which made me apologize in my head and make more room for her. I gave and took back and gave back and took. She slept in her own wedged space of tent with no idea that I was wishing for my own preservation over hers.
In the air Aarti has trouble reigniting the pilot light, which has inadvertently gone out. I flick the sparker, and a little periwinkle flame catches. Aarti nods. “Thanks.”
“Sure,” I say. I say, “I also have a pack of waterproof matches, if it goes out again.” In my pocket, in case of emergencies, picked up in Greece. I am learning about this type of survival, and how to do it with her.
She lets me put my arm around her. I rest my nose below her ear, the softest place above earth. She says, “Would you rather have a balloon or a yacht?”
I say, “I’d rather this.” Whatever keeps us afloat.
Night returns to us now, but instead of dark it feels … like one card in a complete deck.
In this story,
1. There are mistakes.
2. We keep trying.
I study the pyrometer, an electrical sensor installed near the crown that identifies the immediate air temperature. As with RPMs in an automobile, there is a “red line” not to exceed in terms of envelope temperature, beyond which you risk damaging fabric strength (user’s manual hanging in the basket). The pyrometer helps you monitor this important factor. We are not in danger of the red line right now, but because I did not know to pay attention to this earlier, I cannot say how much danger we were in before.
We come over south Asia. We float over the Musi River, Hyderabad. In the darkness, we cannot appreciate that this is a city of minarets and hi-tech, oriental charm and mysticism and wifi, that there is a dinosarium nearby. Something tells me that Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah built this city on a grid plan after his capital city of Golconda began running low on water; that he named it after a local courtesan, Hyder Mahal, whom he must have loved to the great displeasure of his family, including possibly his wife. If it were my city, I would have named it Aartibad. But I know that Aarti would not want to be contained in something so finite as a city: she would prefer a constellation. It’s why my love for her is this big.
The truth is, when the time comes—and I don’t need God to confirm this—she’ll go first, and I won’t be able to follow.
Tonight, we float over a body of water that I do not know the name of.
Below us is the great open-air stadium of Hyderabad. A cantilevered roof partially covers maybe twenty thousand people. Orange corrugated metal sheets wrap around the outer edges of the roof trusses. It is a football game, I think, except there is the sound of music, thin reeds of it. The sounds of festival.
Aarti opens the bag of white cotton candy. She pulls off a feather, eats it. Pulls off another feather, lets the wind take it up into the balloon. If the burner’s flame were lit, the cotton candy would singe and disappear like loose hair. I put my arm around her waist and, with my mouth, take the wooly spun sugar from her fingers.
Aarti peels another frond and feeds herself, then me. “Where should we go next?” she asks.
I try to picture a place—home, Argentina, the very tip of the inhabitable world. She’s in them all. “Up,” I say, but it is cut off by the spectators cheering in many voices and, probably, dialects.
Aarti’s eyes are back on the stadium. She leans against the edge of the gondola. She nudges with her chin. “Watch,” she says. “You’ve never seen anything like it,” but the way she says it, I know she means we’ve never seen anything like it, together or apart.
As if that is the cue, the lights on the stadium dim. Then, there are thousands, thousands of them. They rise like jellyfish with the single, burning desire to break the ocean’s reach. Except for the furious fires burning in their centers, they would be completely dark and unable to leave the ground. They must leave the ground, they do, over and over.
From the hands of people come thousands of sky lanterns. One, two for every person, family. 10,318, that’s the world record, Aarti whispers.
But we see 10,319—sky lanterns
10,320—miniature hot air balloons; wish lanterns
10,343—creations of cotton paper wax
10,380, 81, 82—
10,419— fire retardant, eco-friendly
11,050, still coming, they are not released all at once
11,731—when the moment is right
11,901—they make a new milky way; one much closer, more meaningful
11,998—they recede like stars that people have lit; as if it’s people that are too bright
12,000—the fire burns, so they can rise