The backyard gate clicked shut, and I followed a vision of my youth. The small feet of my friends and I plodded against the soil path leading up to the patio. But I wasn’t at that patio anymore; my daughter was.
I traced my eyes upward, and the quick footsteps from my memory faded. Twelve girls sat at the table in the patio far adjacent from me. Below the birthday message glinting against the wall was Monica. And tied to her chair, balloons. A bundle of what looked like twenty.
That many? One could pop at any moment. They might all pop at once. Oh, God! Where did they come from?
A set of frizzy brown curls was some distance behind the table, in front of a helium tank. Rowan, obviously. But where did he get that tank? We didn’t have one. Bella knew I hated balloons.
Averting my attention back to the balloons increased their size. Blue, yellow, red, green. Their friendly colors almost distracted me from the fact they were destined to pop.
So I stood. And continued to stand, Monica’s custom made cake in one hand. She and her friends didn’t notice me. Their loud jabber brewed together, incomprehensible. If I struggled, I could make out pieces.
"Gimme the yellow paint."
"I'm using it!"
"—was the biggest ass in my homeroom."
"He thinks he’s so cool, being an asshole to everyone.”
“Can I have the red paint?”
"The hottest from my classes is definitely Anthony Higgins."
I decided it wasn’t worth the struggle. The gate behind me clicked, and I whirled around, almost dropping the cake.
“Oh, Ian. I didn’t mean to scare you,” Owen shut the gate and stepped beside me. “What’s wrong?”
I turned back to face the balloons, heart rattling my rib cage. They hadn’t popped; good.
Owen chuckled, nudging my arm with his elbow. “They grow up so fast, huh? I know the feeling. It’s scary.”
I didn’t respond, eyeing the balloons tied to Monica’s chair.
“Monica’s twelve now, right?” Owen said. “I couldn’t believe when Rowan turned thirteen. His entering kindergarten feels like yesterday.”
“Owen,” I said slowly, eyes not averting. “I’ve got something to confess.”
His black brows raised. “What?”
“You’ve been my friend since we were kids.”
“Promise you won’t make a big deal out of this.”
“Is this about Rowan?”
I glanced to Rowan’s curly head as he filled another balloon. “Sort of.”
“So he finally asked Monica to the dance?”
I again nearly dropped the cake. I snatched it closer to me, clutching tight with both hands, but my eyes didn’t avert from the balloons. “Uh, he asked her out?”
A few moments silence ensued.
“He told me he wanted to,” Owen said through an awkward smirk. “He asked me to buy two dance tickets instead of one.”
More silence. Owen scratched the back of his head. “I take it he didn’t ask her yet. Guess the cat’s out of the bag.”
From my peripheral view, I saw Owen take a glance to the table, then to me; table, me, table, me.
“So what’s this about?” He said.
“Promise you won’t laugh.”
He chuckled. “I can’t promise that.”
“I’m afraid of balloons.”
Another pause. A snicker. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Every time one pops, something bad happens.”
He laughed heartily and his big hand pounded my back. “That’s just a coincidence, isn’t it? I didn’t know you were superstitious. Anxious, sure. But superstitious?”
“Did you bring that helium tank?”
“Yeah. Your wife told mine that she wanted more decorations. I figured balloons’d be good.”
“I think I’m going to puke.”
“Want me to take them down?” Owen said through a smile. “I can tell Rowan to stop filling them.”
“No,” my tone rose, as if matching the fast flutter of my heart. “They might pop if you touch them. And Monica...”
My voice trailed off, but the thought continued in my mind: Monica might wonder why we’re removing them. What could I say? I’d have to tell her I’m afraid of them.
Owen must have been able to read my expression, which I felt had contorted.
“Let’s just relax near the grill,” he nodded to his wife, Allison, flipping a beef patty at the grill. “Have a burger?”
Owen guided me, hand to my shoulder. He flung back in the chair closest to the grill, and I sat to his left.
“Thanks for grilling, Ali,” Owen said to Allison, holding up the plastic bag he’d walked in with. “I grabbed some drinks. Want one?”
“Definitely,” Allison wiped sweat from her forehead with her free arm, then took a beer from Owen. “The girls had their fill, so I’m making our burgers now.”
“Great,” Owen cracked open a beer. “Want one, Ian?”
“I’m good.” I said firmly, eyes on the balloons above Monica’s chair.
“You okay, Ian?” Allison flipped another patty. “You’re stiff as a board.”
“Uh...” I didn’t know what to say.
“He found out about Rowan and Monica,” Owen interjected between sips. “Gave him quite a shock.”
“Oh, that,” Allison nodded. “I noticed he’s always texting her. I figured something was up.”
I noticed too, I thought. But I never imagined it meant anything more.
I cranked my neck to Rowan, who was knotting a terrorizing yellow balloon. Owen elbowed my side, and my posture loosened to face him. His thin lips half frowned, creating a seemingly crooked smile, and his eyelids drooped to follow the trace of his brow. I read his expressions as, “Are you sure you don’t want Rowan to stop filling those things?”
I stood from my seat, and without thinking, began toward Rowan. I got as close as I felt I could and stopped. He sat under the shade of the porch. Only as he saw me, did I realize the cake was still in my hands.
“Hi, Mr. Perez,” Rowan said calmly. “Nice cake. Looks tasty.”
“Yeah. Can we talk?”
“Okay. But why are you all the way over there?”
With ten feet between us, I felt more awkward than earlier.
“That’s sort of what I wanted to talk to you about,” I said after some silence. “Can you stop filling those?”
“Oh,” he scratched the back of his curly headed scalp. “Sure. Sorry, I didn’t mean to fill so many. Monica said she wanted balloons, and I was bored.”
He lowered his voice. “I felt weird sitting at that table. They’re talking about super girly crap.”
He shut off the tank and stood to stretch. The string to the yellow balloon was spun around his wrist.
“Want the last one?” He stepped my way and reached out to offer the balloon.
I recoiled, and he stopped.
“Errrr,” He said blankly. “You allergic?”
“Worse,” I managed through pursed lips. “Afraid.”
He laughed similarly to Owen, but softer. “Seriously? But why? They’re for little kids.”
When I didn’t respond, he released his balloon. Startled, I took a few steps back, sheltering my view of the sky with the overhead of the patio. Rowan peered up as it floated higher and higher away. I refused to look; if I saw it pop, something bad would happen. It always turned out that way.
“It’s gone now,” Rowan turned his head toward me. “It floated off near the neighbor’s. I think the wind took it.”
I tried to speak sternly, “Thanks.”
“Want me to get rid of the rest?”
“Actually, it’s not just the–“
He dashed to Monica. I watched, unable to approach. The sliding door behind me clicked and opened, its glass teetering slightly; we needed to replace that door.
“Ian?” Bella peeked her head out. “I’m almost finished with these files. Did you get the cake?”
I presented it to her with sweaty palms.
She smiled onto it, admiring the intricacies in the icing. “It’s exactly like Monica wanted. God, I could never do something like this.”
“Can you give it to her?” I attempted to hand Bella the cake. “I’m going inside.”
She didn’t take the cake. A dark eyebrow corked upward. “I thought you wanted to light the candles for her? What’s wrong?”
I signaled toward Monica’s chair, where Rowan stood, struggling to untie each balloon. Monica seemed to be protesting. I guess she wasn’t used to balloons at her party and wanted them there.
“Those two?” Bella didn’t seem to catch what I meant. “You found out about them going to the dance?”
“I did find out,” I said slowly. “But I don’t care. Why does everyone think I care?”
“Honestly, I wasn’t sure you thought she was mature enough for that. You tend to treat her like she’s still little.”
I glanced around at the decorations I set up; flashy and colorful. I had thought they were perfect, yet now....
“It’ll take some getting used to,” I said. “But I’m okay with them together if they’re happy. Rowan’s a good kid.”
“Then what’s wrong?” Bella looked back to the two, and after some seconds, she must have noticed the balloons. “Oh, those?”
“One might pop,” I said. “Don’t you remember the last time one popped?”
She frowned, watching Rowan untie balloons one by one. “What are the chances of one popping, though?”
I tilted my neck toward the bundle. I hadn’t considered it. What were the chances, anyway?
“Rowan doesn’t seem to have overfilled them,” Bella continued. “And even if one does pop, hasn’t the worst already happened? Our girl’s growing up. I think it’ll be fine.”
Yes, she’s growing up, I thought. And that’s scary. But it’ll be fine, right?
It’ll be fine.
I faced Monica’s table, puffed out my chest, and stepped forward.