By Anita Lekic, USA (Published in Issue 4)
Approaching the cashier with my groceries, I noticed the balloons. Large and cheerful, they were irresistible, and on impulse I bought one with Big Bird grinning goofily. The balloon was expensive and not intended for a two-year-old child. It would just float up to the ceiling of our apartment and stay there, beyond Lena’s reach. And now it was gone.
We’d driven the two miles past the cornfields to Jewel, a supermarket on the periphery of Aurora where we lived. We rented an apartment in a complex catering to tenants on a limited budget, with three-story brick buildings huddled in a circle and a small pool and communal center in the middle. They were a pretty addition to the buildings but had an abandoned look and were never used. The expressway to Chicago stretched out behind our apartment. Dan’s lab was eight miles away and Chicago thirty-five, but to me the city was so far away that it might as well have been in a foreign country. The rental complex was deserted by day. Nothing was within walking distance and, anyway, Aurora, about three miles away, was no place of light; it was a rundown town of dingy, crumbling buildings and boarded-up storefronts, the kind of place you want to forget when you’re young and still believe there’s a future ahead of you.
This was way back in 1988 when Dan was just beginning his career as a postdoc at Fermilab. We were happy and his pay was okay, although there was never too much money to throw around. Still, neither of us paid too much attention to how much we spent – that’s just how we were. I had some money saved, a gift from my father, and every now and then we dipped into the savings to make it to the end of the month.
I push Lena’s uncomfortable red stroller out of the supermarket and head towards the car across the deserted parking lot. Lena is holding her new balloon. Suddenly, she lets it go. I try to catch it but it’s too late as it rapidly floats up, out of my reach. Lena begins to cry as I stand by helplessly and watch it making its escape, a tiny speck vanishing in the flat Aurora skyline.
Fifteen years have passed and Lena is flying into The Hague, where I now live, to celebrate her seventeenth birthday with me at this, her second home, now that Dan and I are divorced. I leave work early to beat the rush hour traffic and get to Schipol airport on time. When Lena was just a kid in elementary school back in the States, I’d been late coming home a couple of times before she got back from school. I would drive back from my shopping expeditions to thrift stores at breakneck speed, arriving minutes late to find her waiting outside the door with a worried look, as if I would never return. I have also been late picking her up at Schipol, even though I always made it to the airport on time. But somehow I always got the gates mixed up. Alertness to detail is not one of my strengths.
This time I am sure I will be on time. I cannot contain my excitement. I am dead set on buying a big helium balloon to welcome her. As I enter the airport terminal, it is six p.m. and there’s still plenty of time before she lands. And then, suddenly, I notice that all the shops are closed. I see a security officer. “Where’s the balloon shop?” I ask hurriedly, certain I still have time. “They’ve closed,” he says. “It’s over there, around the corner. If you hurry, maybe you can still get in.” I make a dash for the shop. It’s closed and the lights are off, but I know there’s another one at the airport, and I’m running again. I reach the shop and, although it, too, is closed, the lights are still on and I can see two saleswomen inside. I knock frantically. They wave me away. I keep knocking and make a pleading sign with my hands. One of the women, a tired-looking middle-aged blonde, walks to the door with an irritated expression on her face. “We zijn gesloten!” [We’re closed!], she yells, waving her hands and shooing me away. I keep knocking on the glass door. I hadn’t counted on the stores closing at six. Rap, rap, rap – I keep knocking. The two women look at each other and the older saleswoman who turned me away walks slowly, ever so slowly, towards the door, key in hand. Everything is evolving in slow motion for me now. She opens the door: “We’re closed!!!” “My daughter’s coming!” I exclaim. “It’s her birthday! I need a balloon!”
Moved by this plea or maybe just eager to get rid of me, she unlocks the door. “Hurry up!” she says, less angry now. I look around fast. There are so many helium balloons to choose from. I quickly pick one I know Lena will like, a large pink balloon with the three Powerpuff Girls poised to save the world. Their images still adorn the margins of Lena’s old British School notebooks. I choose another one, a colorful picture of Winnie the Pooh, with the caption: “I love you!” I know she will like it less, but that’s exactly how I feel. “Thank you, thank you,” I say as I pay. The two women smile.
I walk through the brightly lit, sterile airport I know so well to arrival hall 3. This time I know I am in the right place, in the correct arrival hall. A glass partition separates the incoming passengers from those waiting outside so you can see the passengers as they come into the baggage hall to pick up their luggage. I stand next to the glass partition and try to pick out Lena among the many passengers coming down the steps. I have released the balloons, letting them float up to the ceiling but they are safe because the strings are still within my reach. A Dutch woman stands next to me, peering through the glass. She, too, is waiting for someone. She smiles at the balloons. “Who are they for?” she asks. “My daughter,” I say, “I haven’t seen her in nine months.” And as we stand there together, companions in waiting, I blurt out the story of the balloon lost in Aurora so long ago. “But this time,” I tell her, revealing my little stratagem for mending loss, “When my daughter comes, I will let the balloon go.” She glimpses the person she has been waiting for. She smiles and says, as she goes off to greet him, “I will be thinking of you with your daughter, letting the balloon go free.”
And then I see her, long blond hair, petite, in jeans, waiting for her bags. I rap on the glass and she sees me and waves. I am literally hopping up and down, clutching the balloons which bounce along in merriment, echoing my joy. Luckily, there aren’t many people waiting around but even if there were, it wouldn’t matter one single bit. I am so, so happy that Lena has come home. And as she comes out of the doors, I am awash in love as she walks to me, in her childlike, dainty way and greets me by my nickname: “Hi, Bob.” “Hi, kid,” I say as I hug her hard for an instant, before she squirms out of my embrace. “How was the flight? Did you sleep at all?” “No,” Lena says, “I watched all the movies.” “Do you like the balloons?” “Yeah,” Len says, “I really like this one.” It’s the Powerpuff Girls.
It’s late as we head back to The Hague. We drive back through the night in my old, beat up Micra, the balloons in the back, and as we try to catch up on so many things, I tell Lena the story of the runaway balloon, never retrieved, that she has long forgotten. “So Len, this time, I want to set one of the balloons free.” “It’s going to have to be that one, Mom” she responds, dismissing Winnie the Pooh, “I want to keep the Powerpuff Girls.”
We drive down the Fred to our apartment building. The windows on the surrounding buildings are dark. I park on the pavement in front of the house and open the door for Lena, lugging her heavy Samsonite up the stairs to our first-floor apartment. I turn on the lights. “I’ll be right back,” I say, “I’m just going to repark the car.” I run down the stairs and as I open the door to the Nissan, Winnie the Pooh escapes and floats up, almost languidly, as if daring me to catch him, towards the tree across the street. I make a dash for the balloon and realize that it will get stuck in the tree. “Lena, Lena,” I yell in the silent street. All the lights are on in our apartment. I hear her voice from the apartment: “What is it?” “Look, look,” I yell, oblivious of my sleeping Dutch neighbors, “Look, Lena, it’s set itself free!” And as Lena approaches the window, the balloon floats up, up, up, past the tree and vanishes out of sight in the dark blues of the tranquil Dutch night.
Anita Lekic was born in the US while her father was a diplomat there; subsequently his work took her family to several other countries in which she grew up and completed her education, including Egypt, Brasil and the former Yugoslavia. Anita returned to the US in her twenties and got her MA in English and PhD in Slavic Languages and Literature and taught at the State University of New York at Stony Brook as an adjunct professor for several years. In 1998, she began working for the UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, and remained there for ten years, taking early retirement and settling in Portugal at the age of 55.