What If We Kissed Beneath the Crashing Spy Balloon?

We’ll have to hurry if we’re going to make it. If we leave now and push the speed limit, we can be at the South Carolina coast just as the flashing lights start to peek out of the clouds.

We’ll dash down the damp beach and leap into the frigid waves, clothes and all, swimming with joyous abandon beyond their crest. We pause briefly to make sure we are headed in the right direction, squinting into the dull sun, making sure we haven’t lost the plummeting downward dot.

There it is. A flash of light punctuating the gray American sky as it slowly creeps toward the horizon. They grounded flights so that they could shoot this down. But even hearing about all the grave concern and panic on the part of Very Serious Men with their fingers always a little too close to the Big Red Buttons, all we heard was “balloon.”

The balloon your grandfather gave to you at the carnival, the way its bobbing light blue hung in the evening summer air. The mylar balloon you kept for a week after your sixth birthday party. You gave it a personality and an ability to feel love, everything but a name. When the last bit of air had finally leaked out and your parents tried to throw it out you cried so hard that they agreed to let you keep it taped to your wall.

Or the balloon I got when my parents took me to the circus, with elephants and clowns and flying trapeze artists circling its surface. After the performance ended and we walked to the car, I let go of the string and watched wide-eyed as it floated up and up and up, bobbing through the breeze and into an atmosphere I had never known existed. Between childish fun and childlike wonder, I started to ask what infinity meant. Before infinity was traded for oblivion.

At first, it was crushing to hear that there were some people in the world – presidents and generals and congressmen with unhinged social media – who wanted the balloon destroyed. It was terrifying and confusing, but not surprising. Sitting with the realization, it just became pitiful. If they see a threat in a balloon, it is because they see a threat everywhere, the paranoia of the warrior-bureaucrat sensing danger in anything that makes children laugh. In everything beautiful, they see the potential for destruction. So why shouldn’t we dive toward beauty, even in their weapons?

The current carries us out. Then we look in each other’s eyes, just a few yards away from each other over the choppy crests. And we smile. And we know. We won’t be coming back to shore. We can put every ounce of energy our muscles can muster into meeting this balloon where it finally hits the water. Glancing back at the drizzly, cheap plastic cityscape of Myrtle Beach, the cycle of hot and cold wars behind it, and the many worlds we’ll never get the chance to see, we know there is nothing for us back on land.

And so we swim. We stretch our arms in front of us and pull against the salt water until our biceps burn and our shoulders ache and then we keep pulling. There is no saving our energy for the swim back. There will be no swim back. This will be the last and purest thing we ever do.

We are miles out to sea, and we can hear the scrap as it flaps in the wind. Parts of the balloon are already splashing into the ocean. So much detritus. Space grade sheet metal, wires and circuitry that moments before had electricity coursing through them. The brilliance of a human who, once, in their own childhood, also saw a balloon climbing the clouds and discovered shades of wonder they had never known. Now bound to drift aimlessly into growing rafts of rubbish.

Amid the roar of the salty winter wind and water, amid the splashes and gleeful laughter, our lips meet. Beneath a freezing, unbreathable sky. Beneath whole histories waiting to dissolve in the atmosphere. Beneath the ghosts of Nixon and Khrushchev and Mao, of John Glenn and Vladimir Komarov, of countless nameless inspired by Verne and Roddenberry and Le Guin.

In the middle of the Atlantic, as far from the nearest garbage vortex as we are from nations of drowning islands. A simple act of love in a final moment, when the apocalypse briefly showed us its whimsy.

Best Valentine’s Day ever.

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