Jocelyn Paige Kelly
Up, up, and away, Lena rises into the sky. Her eyes gaze down at the city below. She’d never seen it from this view before, at least not from the inside of a gondola. The wind caresses her hair, creating tangles she’d have to worry about later, but in this moment she is carefree—an unfamiliar feeling for Lena, a woman who had let go of the career opportunities of the unknown and embraced the security of domestic life. After awhile, she fell into the pursuit of winning radio contests, where she had received prizes that she ended up handing over to her children and husband; iPods, designer clothing, and concert tickets, oh my! But today, as she takes a good look at the view from where she floats, she begins to realize how the need to have something for herself isn’t just a fantasy, but a valid need.
Lena had risen earlier today, earlier than usual, showered, changed, and put out bowls of cereal for her family with spoons and glasses for OJ without waking a soul. She had not told any of them about her good fortune—even her husband Joe didn’t know she’d won this ride, this chance to fly the morning skies with the morning DJ of some insipid 80s radio station, a guy who calls himself “The Whiz,” a man with a patchy gray beard and owl-shaped glasses who reminds Lena of her Uncle Ole, hardy and acerbic.
Before she left, in the middle of the kitchen table for all eyes to see, she wrote on a piece of white paper in green crayon—Gone to Oz.
She had imagined Joe not supporting her need to go, and neither did she think her children would, having imagined them wanting the balloon ride all to themselves. She could hear the conversation falling on deaf ears, how Joe’s problems at work, Alex’s karate lessons, and Ariel’s auditions for the school talent show approaching factored into her not being able to take time for herself, and she had grown tired of being caught up in everyone else’s stuff without realizing how much all of it was weighing her down. Her family wouldn’t have understood what this meant to her, and neither could she explain it even as she now stares out at the horizon, a V of birds heading toward her.
“We’re high in the morning skies, and I’m here with Lena—Lena, what’s your last name again?” he asks, speaking into a small mike plugged into his cell phone. Lena looks around at him and the pilot at the far end of the gondola. It’s just them; no radio equipment to be found.
“Just Lena,” she says. “Like Madonna.”
“Okay, I’m here with Lena Like Madonna, and we’re up, up, and away!” He smiles and faces the horizon, the cell phone now in a resting position, waiting. His momentary animation turns to solitude, and Lena stares at him, wondering how he does it. She could never switch so fast. Every transition always feels like an eternity for her.
“Beautiful. I should do this contest every week,” he says.
“Can I win every week?”
“That depends, Lena Like Madonna.”
It hangs on the air between them, thicker than the cotton balls Alex used when he made clouds during art time at preschool, and just as playful.
“On?” she asks, and his face lights up again as he waves his cell phone in front of her.
“We’re back on the air. I’m The Whiz and with me is our winner of our Daytripper contest, Lena Like Madonna. Lena, can you tell the folks what the view up here is like?”
“It’s like heaven, only smaller.”
“I’m glad we’re flying on a clear day, Lena. Hate to hear what you would have said on a smoggy day.”
“I would have said it’s just like heaven, except with smog.”
“And there you have it, folks. I’m The Whiz,” he says and points the mike at her.
Lena hesitates until he rolls his left hand in a circular motion. “And I’m Lena Like Madonna.”
“And we’ll be right back after Fluke,” he says, and the smile fades.
“I used to love them when I was a teenager,” Lena says.
“Is there a story in there?” he asks.
“Just a crush on a boy, unrequited love with anonymous poems.”
“Oh, Lena Like Madonna, now that’s a story.”
“It’s nothing worth listening to. Who wants to hear someone’s old high school crush story on the radio?”
He points down to the traffic on the freeway, miles of cars that remind Lena of ants crawling in and out of minute pathways, like a children’s science project.
“Those people,” he says and sighs. “All those people in cars listening to tunes from the 80s. They want to remember what it was like being a teenager, even if it’s only for a twenty-minute car ride on their way to work at some humdrum job. It makes them feel—how do I put this? Uplifted.”
“Like up, up, and away?” Lena says and twirls her index finger in circles from her waist to past her head.
The Whiz smiles at her, and the smile lingers between them like the feeling of being a child fascinated while watching clouds roll across the sky. “What lifts you up?”
Suddenly Lena feels a strange electric charge shimmering through her body while his words rattle inside her mind as if they’ve awoken a sleeping lion. Her stomach roars as she begins to giggle with discomfort, and a choking of tears bubble up from deep inside. She grabs tightly onto the sides of the gondola, her legs quivering, tears falling. Thoughts come and go inside her like tiny thought balloons carrying all the worries of yesterday and tomorrow until she’s overloaded, and then a sinking feeling as if each one of them has popped. She sways like a tree in the wind and feels the strength of her legs like the roots of a tree. All of a sudden it’s as if she reboots to nothingness from numbness. The Whiz and the pilot stare and keep to their side of the gondola, frozen or at a loss of what to do next. Lena continues to wipe tears away, noticing just now how rich and blue the sky is beyond them, the wispy arc of the clouds shading the sun, and how cool the air feels against her skin. She realizes just then how she’s here. Here. In the sky. Floating. How wonderful is that?
The Whiz comes over and puts a hand on her shoulder, giving her a sidewise hug. The birds, once on the distant horizon, move in closer and turn, making a sharp right as the three of them watch in awe and horror as each one of them forms a link in a chain, circling around the balloon and sounding off before breaking away and choosing an entirely new direction. “Never seen that before,” the pilot says.
The Whiz whispers over to Lena, “Doesn’t comfort me knowing that.”
Lena giggles as the pilot shifts from staring to glaring.
“That was Fluke, in case you didn’t know, and I’m The Whiz, in case you wanted to forget. I’m here with Lena Like Madonna, and we’re reminiscing about unrequited love and high school crushes.”
Lena shakes her head. Laughs. Blushes. Her hands gesture no as if people can see through radio waves. But maybe, Lena wonders for a moment, the people can see her in the balloon. Maybe they see her resistance, her reluctance to share. It’s not because she doesn’t want to. It’s that somewhere along the way, she’s forgotten how.
“Do you remember any of those poems you wrote way back when?”
“They were lame variations on ‘Roses are red.'”
The Whiz begins in a high-pitched voice, “Roses are red, my eyes are blue, this poem is lame, but I still love you.”
“Something like that, I’m so sure,” Lena says like a teenager from the 80s.
“Was the phrase ‘gag me with a spoon’ ever in one of those poems?”
Lena suppresses her laughter. “If my daughter’s listening to this right now, she’s probably mortified.”
“If your daughter’s listening to this, then she needs to get better taste in music. I’m The Whiz and…”
“I’m Lena Like Madonna.”
“And we’ll be back after a word from our advertisers.”
He puts his hand on her shoulder. “Having fun?”
Lena nods. “Loads.”
During the rest of the commercials, The Whiz is on the phone with his producer whispering about how much he adores Lena, which will later lead to many more conversations and an opportunity for Lena she’ll seriously consider. What Lena hears now is laughing, the mysterious voice on the other end of the call carrying on the wind that has now picked up the speed, shifting the balloon further west. She looks over at the pilot, who looks panicked as he pulls at strings, hot air hissing and blowing above their heads. It worries her for a moment, like the way she worries about her family, even though she can’t think of a single concrete thing to worry about for them right now. And she feels the worry rising within her as the balloon begins descending. Her ride, Lena fears more than anything, is almost over.
The Whiz grabs her hand, shakes her out of her avalanche of negative thoughts. “Stay with me here. We’ve still got about ten minutes to go.”
The Whiz tilts his head and sighs. “Everything is fleeting, Lena. Like this moment, this balloon. Nothing is forever.”
She sees him now, the bluest eyes behind the owl-shaped glasses, bluer than the sky itself. A certain sadness leaves her; tears remain as the only evidence. Something unrequited settles in like teenage poetry, the weight of it reminding her of the hopes of a child hoping to fly away with a helium balloon.
“But the 80s are gone,” she says.
“But we’re still here, Lena. And if no one gets our pop culture references, that’s okay because that alone is the real joke.”
Lena pauses, freezing the smile on her face. Zen in midair. She feels alive, suddenly more awake then she’s ever felt, like a woman diving into the cold ocean with all her clothes on, semiconscious and frightfully aware. She embraces it, follows his lead, laughs wholeheartedly, not worrying about what Joe and her kids will think, if she’ll embarrass them forever because forever isn’t really forever. Forever is really just a feeling, hanging on and never letting go.
The pilot shifts further east, and they begin their descent a bit faster, but still steady. The Whiz waves the cell phone up and says, “Honk if you can see us.” Lena listens. It comes at them in waves, carried by the wind, discordant and beautiful.