I can’t blow up a balloon by myself. Not all the way.
So far I have sixteen grey and yellow balloons sprouting like some tumours from each kitchen wall at odd angles. A few of the diseased bubbles dangle from the ceiling, shrivelling as the minutes pass. Yellow and gray. She picked the colours. Technically, she wrote silver and gold on the list. I grabbed the closest thing at the dollar store where everyone speaks garbled Russian.
I find notes in her purse from him, each written on the company letterhead and buried in a secret pocket I shouldn’t know about. Still, we are buying new chairs for the breakfast nook. Double checking the credit card bills in case the cashier with the bile stain on her jeans charged us twice. Trading in our incandescent bulbs for fluorescents. Attending dinner with the brother in-law where I ladle on the gravy so I can swallow without choking. Putting up facades to impress visiting dignitaries only to tear them down once they have passed. Old rituals.
I stick another yellow balloon to the wall just above my head. Seventeen.
The notes aren’t the part that gets me. After seven years, I sort of expected this. If anything, I might wish I’d thought of it first. She was always faster than me. But it’s not the notes. It’s the jokes. The jokes that burrow their roots under the skin to mock me, to fester alongside commercial jingles and the cadence of a newscaster’s voice from the lunch hour weather update.
“Ninety-nine percent of lawyers give the rest a bad name.”
He closes each love note with one. A light laugh for her to take after he’s detailed the variety of rather routine, vanilla sexual encounters they’ll indulge in upon his desk later that day.
“Always go to other people’s funerals, or they won’t go to yours.”
They get so much worse.
I stick another balloon to the chandelier we bought last week. Eighteen. Her present sits on the kitchen table with bright red candles still stuck in their packaging. She asked for fuchsia.
“I didn’t fight my way to the top of the food chain to become a vegetarian.”
Like some grey distended organ, nineteen bounces from my hand to shudder in the corner with the dust and hair I haven’t swept up yet. He wouldn’t keep writing the jokes if she didn’t like them. Bad t-shirt slogans and coffee mug mantras. These are his mentors, his muses.
“I don’t suffer from insanity; I enjoy every minute of it.”
She must know, yet we keep the thin walls up, repaint them biannually. Wallpaper is for the plebes, she says. So I spray on another coat and sponge away the excess. There is always excess.
I squeeze yellow number twenty in my hands.
She and I have learned a lot from history. Not just our history. A Russian general once fooled Katherine the Great into valuing his pointless conquests. As she floated down the rivers, his men hurried ahead to prop up false fronts for villages he supposedly conquered amongst the swamps, as if he had added great value to her empire. She believed. She wanted to believe. So we order matching sweaters from the catalogue while debating which coffee table will suit the burnished silver candlesticks on their way in the mail. I don’t blame her. Things fall apart. Walls crumple.
Balloon twenty pops in my hand. I wait for puss to leak out. I’m putting up the facades slowly this time. The paint is chipped and the wind might blow it all over before the guests arrive.
I hope she likes her present. I bought all those T-shirts with his jokes on the back.
“Few women admit their age; fewer men act it.”
Maybe she’ll find that funny too. Balloons are so much easier to pop.