Balloons

            By seven-thirty, a posse of kids had cut loose the helium balloons. They floated up to the high ceilings and hung belly to belly, their tethers dangling just out of reach. One rubbed up against the stove pipe and exploded with a horrendous bang, eliciting shrieks of laughter from the kids and startled smiles from the adults. So far, the children were the life of Raymond’s thirty-fifth birthday party, the only ones who seemed to want to be there at all.

Ironically, when Janet had suggested that children be invited, too, Raymond had shook his head and howled: “No, no, no!”

“It’s a Sunday night,” Janet said, her arms crossed, her voice low and slightly brittle. “We can’t ask all of them to get sitters.”

“I don’t want any of this. It‘s too much. Just cancel the whole thing!” He buried his head in his arms.

She placed a hand on his shoulder. Her voice softened. “Emily and Jordan will keep them entertained. Don’t worry. It’ll be okay, it really will.”

            It turned out the children were easier for Raymond to deal with than the adults, anyway, who stayed huddled in the kitchen and living room in uncomfortable clots, as if they feared more explosions. When Raymond entered one of these rooms, they greeted him with exaggerated, beaming smiles, smiles he was sure turned to frowns of disapproval the minute he turned his back. The party was Janet's idea, and these were all Janet's friends. Raymond had no friends anymore. Somehow, since his deployment to Afghanistan and his return, they had all dropped off the edge of the earth.

            Soon the posse roped Raymond into playing hide and seek. The kids scattered through the house like jubilant thieves. The old post-and-beam was fun to hide in because of its odd, dark corners. But Raymond hid in the bathroom, small and stuffed with the accoutrements of four souls living in the same cramped space, he and Janet and Jordan and Emily. It was located at the end of the hall from the kitchen, beside the spare room, where he mostly slept nights alone now.

            He shut off the light, stepped into the tub and stood behind the half-drawn shower curtain. The perfect hiding place. Too perfect; the kids apparently gave up and forgot about him. From somewhere distant, through the party noise, he could make out the trills of Jordan and Emily's excited laughter, the thumping of kids' feet on the stairs. But he lingered, stood rooted in the darkness, cherishing this thin and precarious sanctuary, the innocent smells of Ivory soap, Janet's apricot hair conditioner. A strange, whimsical feeling overcame him, hiding so successfully in his own home, in the middle of his own birthday party. At the center of things, yet invisible.

            The light went on and two women entered talking, closed the door after them. He froze  behind the curtain, held his breath, not daring to exhale. He recognized their voices, two of Janet's volunteers down at the Newbury library, Mrs. Bliss and Mrs. Foreman, middle-aged, one with hennaed hair, the other gone over to gray, with first names long forgotten by him. A musty scent of perfume tickled past his nose. They were doing some fussing near the sink, he couldn't quite make out what it was.            

            "See? I have to go in every week just to have the roots done. Or do it myself." Mrs. Bliss's despairing voice came to him shockingly intimate.

            "It's not so bad. You can hardly see any gray," Mrs. Foreman said. Her voice was scratchy and slightly irritable.

            "Carol thinks I should try another kind of rinse next time. She says it lasts longer and I won't have to bother so much."

            "I still like the henna. It goes with your eyes. Oh God, look at this!  This piece just won't stay. That's why I'm thinking of getting another perm."

            "You don't need another perm. It looks lovely as it is."

            "The whole thing sort of sags."

            "Nonsense. You just need to pin that one piece up. You have a bobby pin on you?"

            "No, no, of course not. I always forget."

            "I don't either. Maybe Janet does. Let's look in here." The medicine cabinet squealed open.

            One of the women gave a low whistle, the other groaned.

            "No wonder he always looks so zombied out," Mrs. Bliss said at last.

            "That’s why he lost his job, you know. It wasn’t the economy, like she said." She smirked. "It was that PTSM or PTMA or whatever." Mrs. Foreman's voice was low and furtive, but perfectly clear. “Carol told me he tried to bash his brains in with a hammer during one of his so-called panic attacks. She saw the welts. Then he poured gasoline over himself and would’ve set himself on fire if poor Janet hadn’t stopped him. The man’s a loon, he’s plumb out of control.”

"I guess all these pills are to calm him down."

            "They probably make him more crazy. Poor Janet and those poor children, is all I have to say." The medicine cabinet swung shut. "Well, no bobby pins in there. You'll have to stick it behind your ear, I guess."

            The door opened, the light was extinguished. Laughter, dance music, giddy chatter spilled into the bathroom again but he stayed paralyzed behind the curtain. He felt as if he might finally dissolve. He felt as weightless as the helium balloons bumping gently against the ceilings, searching for an opening to the sky. A pink, a violet, a blue one -- the colors of his pills. If it weren't for the ballast, the tether of years, of memory, of obligation, he could float off forever, too. Maybe he still could if he tried: free, alone, a hollow mote ascending, disappearing into the heavens.