The Balloon Sessions

Wendell Mangibin

Wendell Mangibin

Seconds before the accident Ashley told Ben she was leaving him.

Later, after the police came and the ambulance rushed Ashley away to North Shore General, Ben sat on the curb trying his best to not make eye contact with anyone in the crowd. Slowly, people crept out of their houses with dinner plates in their hands and converged around the yellow CAUTION tape, greeting and asking each other ”What happened?” Lanky skate rats with their skinny jeans and knit beanies took selfies with Ben’s mangled Nissan Sentra in the background, taking turns until one called out and pointed to a plus-sized woman in zebra print tights walking her Labradoodle. She was shaking her head at the wreck while giving the play-by-play of the scene on her illuminated Bluetooth, clueless to the group of giggling kids taking action shots of her wobbly gait. For a moment, Ben considered it a blessing, in some way, that she had eclipsed his obvious calamity.

The ice pack the paramedic gave him was now blood warm, yet Ben held it on his forehead to keep from looking up at the officer, who was now talking to his partner about this bar on Long Beach Road and the Latina waitress who called him Niño. His partner said he knew her and claimed she looked just like Salma Hayek, and as expected, both officers began to list all the movies Salma Hayek starred in until the tow truck came.

Ben also knew the bar, and in fact, knew the waitress; however, she looked nothing like Salma Hayek, but another actress whose name escaped him. Heather from Sales made this point after their fifth or sixth round that night a group of coworkers had invited Ben, who was prepared to spend an evening alone dining on leftover Chicken Tikka and watching equal parts compelling documentaries on Netflix and internet porn. It was Heather’s birthday and both the Sales and Marketing team accosted him in the parking lot—pretty much guilted him into going—and chanted with as much vigor and menace as his former frat brothers had goaded him into funneling a tube full of Jagermeister, urine and Pabst Blue Ribbon ten years prior.

To his surprise, Ashley had given him a surprisingly enthusiastic verbal okay over the phone, even though she was out with her friends from Book Club, a group Ben knew to consist of older widows and opinionated lesbians. He felt tinged with sadness having heard her say,”What a great idea! Have fun,” without so much as  a change in intonation or pitch that was even close to the sound of disappointment he was hoping for, but rather reminded him of several phone calls as of late where he heard such joy in her voice and laughing to the point where she held her stomach and started snorting. Later, when asked to whom she was speaking with that was so funny, Ashley said it was her sister. The same sister, Ben recalled, Ashley blew off numerous times because of how avid she was in producing marketing materials for several non-profit organizations that involved rectal cancer awareness.

This and several other cues had irked him, as he began recalling each one: the sudden interest in fitness and diet; the abrupt involvement in a weekly Book Club; spontaneous after-work drinks with girlfriends; the surge of fascination in a coworker named Todd; phone calls and texts that ended abruptly once he entered the room; weeping at the end of My Cousin Vinny when Marisa Tomei’s Mona Lisa Vito started talking about wedding plans. He had written them all on a napkin, all of which he regrettably dismissed as Ashley’s idiosyncrasies, and later revealed these concerns at the bar to Heather, who had checked up on him throughout the night between several rounds of drinks, slices of red velvet cake, and the sales department’s  painful and relentless performances  on the karaoke stage. She sat next to him and listened in earnest, speaking in soft responses of “Wow” or “Really” and “I’m so sorry.” She nodded like a priest, her blonde hair falling from behind her ear, not saying a word as she tucked it back and then took his hand in hers.

“There are rules…There are rules,” Ben said out loud, on the curb, to nobody in particular, and threw the icepack to the ground before abruptly standing up. The two officers heard him and noticed Ben starting to sway. It had rained an hour before and the road had that hot tarry smell it usually does when it pours after a drought. It was the first one of a sequence of thoughts that appeared right before he collapsed.

In order, his thoughts before fading to black: the smell of soot and tar; the smell of Heather’s hair the night of her birthday when she nearly kissed him; his ex-girlfriend in college claiming how the smell of clove cigarettes is the same smell one smells when one has a stroke; smoking a cigarette while typing an email to his friend after his father died just days after his mother and saying how he, himself, would never, ever, survive Ashley’s death.

Two weeks later, Ashley asked Ben to pick her up from the eye specialist.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “Their car service is booked up and they won’t let me take a cab, so…”

The passenger side airbag that had saved Ashley had also given her the equivalent of a heavyweight boxer’s stiff jab to her eyes, partially tearing her corneas. She would be able to see in another week, provided she keep the patches on. When Ben came to pick her up and walked to the automatic glass doors by reception, he saw Ashley sitting there with her eyes covered and wrapped in gauze, her head turning and pointing to the sound of the sliding doors opening and closing.

He knew what he was going to say to her. An hour before, in the parking garage, he rehearsed his speech, yelling and pointing at his steering wheel with authority. He would say that he followed her that night during “Book Club” and saw her drive up to the Red Roof Inn off I-495 and rent a room with Todd. And although his claims were based on pure conjecture, he prepared for the look: her furrowed brow, her witty retort and denial. As a coup de grace he would say that he would drop her off at her mother’s where she’d find her things neatly packed and labeled. Suddenly he caught himself missing Ashley’s mother even more now, who was unfailingly sweet to him throughout their relationship, giving him advice about Ashley and telling him in confidence, “It’s not all about love, sweetheart. It’s about endurance and courage. Simple courage.”

So he stood there, revising his spiel in his head, ready to launch the loud and dramatic denouement while the doors whooshed open and closed. Then it came to him. Seeing Ashley’s head turn to the likely sound of him coming to her aid. He thought maybe, just this once, to abort the discussion altogether and see how things pan out. Finally entering the reception area, he took a seat across from Ashley, picking up a magazine and spreading it in front of his face, peering out the side and worried that someone on the staff would recognize him. Feigning interest in the cooking magazine, he wondered who had helped Ashley get to the bathroom or pick out her clothes this morning. Immediately, he had visions of her bumping into the bedrail, knocking over the food tray, finally collapsing in pain. He thought of her weeping on the floor and calling out his name repeatedly.

The day of the accident, about an hour before, Ben and Ashley sat blindfolded with scarves, at the request of Dr. Nolan. Halfway through their biweekly counseling session, they conceded to wear the blindfolds, both aware of how ridiculous they looked and that only half an hour remained. Dr. Nolan, smelling of both cigar smoke and Tiger Balm, was Ashley’s mother’s answer to their problems, was a local celebrity who’d been seen on several talk shows and booked solid until next winter. He affected an English accent but admitted he was born and raised in Queens, New York. He circled around them arms folded and asked them to repeat the same words over and over for the next thirty minutes while holding the other’s hands.

“This is my husband,” Ashley said.

“This is my wife,” Ben said.

“This is my husband.”

“This is my wife.”

After ten minutes, Dr. Nolan suddenly came up behind Ashley and touched her shoulder, making her jump in her seat. “Now Ashley, I want you to volley this balloon with Ben. Hold out your hands. I’m going to drop it right in front of you. Try keep it in the air…Now!”

“Wait…What?”

“Don’t think Ashley. Just volley the balloon to Ben. And Ben, do the same,” Dr. Nolan whispered.

“How the hell do you expect us to do this?” Ben asked. “Use the Force?”

“Just anticipate the other’s move.”

“Yeah, right.” Ben shook his head and reached for his blindfold, only to tap the floating balloon to Ashley.

“Whoa, heads up, Ash. It’s coming,” Ben said. After a few hits to each other, they found a rhythm.

“This is happening, huh?” Ashley smiled and tipped the balloon back to Ben as best she could and the balloon, amazingly, found his fingertip.

In the reception area, the flat screen television had a daytime talk show droning on about a couple whose marriage was circling the drain because of their dog. The dog, a schnauzer named Casey, was the wife’s pride and joy, and apparently took over the role of the husband. Casey had full run of the house, ate filet mignon at the dinner table, rode shotgun in the Volvo and slept by the wife’s left side, leaving the husband distraught enough to attempt to drown the dog. Ben’s attention quickly moved from Ashley to the television as coming up next was Dr. Nolan himself and his unorthodox methods to try and mend the marriage.

As much as the waiting area crowd was rapt with attention to the show, the volume from the television wasn’t high enough to drown the snickering sound coming from the two teenagers a few seats away from Ashley. Two boys, wearing black and awful haircuts, kept giggling and whispering to each other, and then looked around to see if anyone noticed, especially their mother, who was busy chatting with the receptionist. Ben didn’t like the way the two kept pointing to Ashley, hands over their mouths as if to muffle their evil plans from the others in the waiting area, especially from Ashley’s heightened sense of hearing, or assumed heightened sense of hearing.  Whether or not Ashley’s hearing was heightened, her head pointed to the television, waiting for Dr. Nolan’s special appearance after the break.

The teens were on the move now, slinking to the seats next to Ashley’s, one on each side. The larger of the two, who had hair that seemed to be a hybrid of both a mohawk and a mullet, had one eye on his mother while the other teen, wearing a crew cut with a biohazard design buzzed on the back, inched closer to Ashley’s left, by her handbag. Ben put down the magazine and weighed the options: should the boy snatch her bag and run for the exit, he would cut him off before he got out and try to subdue him, recruiting any remaining muscle memory from junior varsity football; if the larger one came to his friend’s aid, Ben’s answer to that would be Ashley’s leather Coach bag, which weighed at least twenty pounds on a good day, and swing it like a mace to the boy’s head.

However, when the smaller teen knocked over Ashley’s bag, Ben had no Plan C to prepare himself for what unfolded. Ashley bent over to pick up the bag and as her arms reached out and circled to find it, the boy with the mohawk placed his open hand in the direct path of Ashley’s right breast. Ben threw himself at the boy, with surprising power, explosive power. Unfortunately, it was a bit too much power, and his body didn’t even consider a safe landing pattern, which made him tuck and roll to avoid crashing through the chairs behind Ashley. He ended up somehow reversed, underneath the mohawk boy, who now sat atop his chest.

Ben knew to cover up, something his father taught him when he was six and repeatedly bullied. Several staff members as well as security came in to the scene, first whisking away Ashley, who was holding her bag to her chest and screaming in horror, and then to Ben’s aid, desperately tearing away both boys, especially the wiry, smaller one who was obviously more upset than anyone, firing shots at Ben’s face in rapid succession. Despite the punching, cursing and spitting from the boy, Ben had a clear view of the television. Dr. Nolan had the couple with the schnauzer watch themselves on the studio monitor volley a balloon, the same type of exercise Ashley and Ben had endured. The couple impossibly volleyed the balloon for a full ten minutes, until the camera pulled back to show Dr. Nolan controlling the balloon. And as the audience in studio gasped, he asked the couple how they felt, knowing that it was all a ruse, saying that their relationship—in its current state—is a misapprehension, a dream, and that knowing this is the first step of many.

Ben let out a laugh. He laughed and coughed up blood, remembering how Dr. Nolan applied the same device, the same old gag, and asked them to remove their blindfolds and watch the tape of their own session. He jumped out of his seat and pointed at the screen saying he knew it. Ashley’s smile slowly faded as she watched while Ben kept repeating over and over that he knew it, he knew all along, that there was no way they kept it going on their own—there was no way. On screen stood Dr. Nolan, on a stepstool above the two, holding a vintage wood putter with a string tied to it, jerking it like a veteran angler, and at the end of the string was the balloon, dancing from one spouse’s fingers to the next.

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