Somewhere along the line—perhaps it was when I was baptized in the Catholic church—I became convinced that it is at best uncouth and at worst hubristic to share with others compliments one has received. Even when the compliments are crucial, uttered in dire circumstances, the sort of thrillingly throwaway comment that suddenly validates everything you have ever been and everything you will ever be. Even those, I feel unable to share, for fear that they would make me seem too self-absorbed and needy and, dare I say, desperate. I always hear, of all people, Gwyneth Paltrow as Margot Tenenbaum’s voice in my head, skeptically asking Eli Cash, “Do you send my mother your clippings?” But this is all just a roundabout way of saying I just got a good one. Enough to reward myself with macaroni-and-cheese and chocolate and Henry James and two hours of fiction-writing and then an evening of watching the Phillies start to win the World Series.
“I guess one of the things that interests me the most is the small pieces of the world; the small pieces of our lives that are significant yet mysterious and unexplainable. I’ve never been particularly comfortable with the Big Picture, the idea that you can summarize and encapsulate someone’s life, the idea that we’re all living a larger narrative. I don’t even really believe that we are basically the same person our whole lives. It seems to me that there are moments throughout our lives when the Big Picture collapses.”—Dan Chaon
Do you guys want to know what true love looks like? True love looks like this. True love is me sitting by myself at my computer watching this creepy sorta-animated live coverage of a Phillies game, shoveling french fries out of a greasy paper bag and into my mouth, possibly with some nerdy fist-pumping action here and there, because my boyfriend loves the Phillies and is in a meeting and the TV’s in his apartment.
A six-year-old named Falcon disappears. His older brothers think he’s gone up the family helium balloon, so they cry and cry, and tell their parents, who cry and cry, and their parents tell Wolf Blitzer, who gets pretty choked up. When the balloon hits cold air, it drifts softly towards the ground below, and there’s no little boy inside, because Falcon has been hiding in the attic all day. Falcon’s family hugs him and continues their life of stimulating scientific adventure. Eventually they all die, one by one, in their sleep. Falcon is the last to go. This is the end of the story.
Falcon is instructed to hide in a box in the attic by his father, who claims it is for the show. Since Falcon has already, by the tender age of six, appeared twice on the ABC reality program “Wife Swap,” he readily agrees and brings all his toys with him. Falcon’s father untethers the helium balloon and calls the local news to report that his son is inside it. Wolf Blitzer gets choked up, and the viewers at home get choked up. Then at the appointed time, Falcon reappears and his family hugs him on camera. Wolf asks Falcon why he didn’t come out and Falcon tells Wolf it is because his parents told him it was “for the show.” After the cameras leave, Falcon’s dad screams at Falcon and calls him stupid. The next day, when the cameras show up again, Falcon throws up into a Tupperware container. ABC tells Falcon’s dad, sorry, but nobody wants to watch a little kid throw up on TV. Falcon’s dad becomes depressed. One day he takes his three children on a storm-chasing expedition, intending to leave them in the path of the tornado, but unexpectedly, he’s sucked up into the eye of the storm instead.
Falcon’s mother and brothers hug Falcon, and everything continues as in A.
Falcon is told to hide himself in a box in the attic by his father, but instead he actually gets into the helium balloon and promptly suffocates. Years go by. Falcon’s parents have another son, whom they name Hawkeye. Hawkeye is not as adventurous as the rest of the family. He enjoys books about wizards and solitary play in the backyard, watching a line of ants move steadily across a stick. His family starts to leave him behind on storm-expeditions, because the last time they drove into a hurricane, Hawkeye threw up into a Tupperware container. One day Hawkeye’s parents and two surviving brothers are sucked up into the eye of a tornado. Hawkeye is adopted by a nice librarian couple in Denver. They gladly never venture much farther than city limits, appreciating together the majestic beauty in the way the sun hits the kitchen windowpane, in how each day flows quietly into the next, and everything continues as in A.
Maybe at some point the librarian couple discovers they are not infertile, as they had previously believed, and they have a daughter they name Georgia, whose birth produces in Hawkeye deep feelings of inferiority, with which he eventually comes to terms, only shortly before the end of A. Or it could be “a son named Roger” and “paranoid suspicion,” if you prefer.
If you think this is all too fantastical, name Falcon “Timmy” and make his father an accountant and see how far that gets you. Remember, this is America. You’ll still end up with A, and the story in between will take a lot longer to tell and not include any reality show contestants, which will prevent it from becoming a chronicle of our times, sort of.
You’ll have to face it, the endings are the same however you slice it. Whether or not Falcon gets into the balloon. The only authentic ending is the one provided here:
They all die. They all die. They all die.
So much for endings. The beginning, when the helium balloon first takes off, is more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, when it’s floating gently across the Colorado skies. It’s the hardest part to do anything with.
That’s all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one what after another, a boy and a balloon and a box in an attic.
The best sick day ever is the one where you’re sick and watching TV all day, and then suddenly, A SIX-YEAR-OLD IS IN A BALLOON OVER COLORADO AND SHIT IS GETTING REAL. This is the best sick day of your life.
"As far as I’m concerned, the balloon boy is the biggest thing that’s happened since Obama got elected," says Kevin.
“Life, then, will always contain an inevitable surplus, a margin of the gratuitous, a realm in which there is always more than we need: more things, more impressions, more memories, more habits, more words, more happiness, more unhappiness.”—James Wood, How Fiction Works
The hard part about the end of the wedding weekend, in which you were the girlfriend to The Best Man, is the realization that your intake of free food must abruptly end.
To get there, you have to take a plane. You are terrible at take-offs and landings. You dig your nails into The Best Man’s sweater, hiding your face in his arm. THIS IS NOT A NATURAL WAY TO TRAVEL. YOU DO NOT BELONG IN THE AIR. A little girl one row diagonally in front of you has turned her head to watch you suffer. There’s turbulence as the plane descends. “We’re going down,” says The Best Man, reassuringly, but the words themselves are not at all reassuring.
If he is The Best Man, as you have always known him to be, what does that make the groom?
The Bride, bless her, looks right through us as we enter the hotel. There is a nervous twitch in her eyes. It’s 12:30 p.m. and none of her bridesmaids have arrived yet. They are due at 2 p.m. She wants to know where they are.
The girlfriend to The Best Man and the girlfriend to A Groomsman sit through the fittings at Men’s Warehouse. One Groomsman’s pants are too short. Everyone wants bowties, but they’re not getting bowties. “When it’s your wedding, you can have a bowtie,” says the Groom. “When it’s your wedding” becomes something of a mantra.
You nap through the rehearsal in the suite in which the Groom and Groomsmen will spend the night. Shortly before you fall asleep, a hotel employee drops off a tray—wine and crackers and cheese and apples and a note for Mr. and Mrs. He is smiling at you and it’s only after he’s left that the icky thought seizes you: that guy thinks you’re the Mrs.
You wait for the rehearsal dinner and watch Glenn Beck. You throw up in the bathroom. It’s unclear to what degree these acts are related.
After the rehearsal dinner you spend the night with one of your best friends from high school; she accidentally pours a glass of beer onto your left foot. In the morning you watch three episodes of the eighth season of “America’s Next Top Model,” which happens to be the only season you’ve ever watched. You are waiting for the point when Renee and Dionne get visits from their babies, and Natasha, the Russian, weeps.
Approximately forty-five people board a limo-bus with a maximum capacity of twenty-seven. A man you’ve never met before grips your arm as he enters, points to the ceiling. “Look at that ceiling,” he says. There’s nothing particularly notable about the ceiling. The whole ride feels like a headline waiting to happen—“Party Bus Topples Over En Route to Wedding; Dozens of Creepy Uncles and Other Second-Tier Guests (i.e., Girlfriends of Groomsmen) Perish.” But we make it to the church on time. The wedding itself is lovely. It takes three groomsmen to pull the runner down the aisle. You get excited at the part with the rings; this is The Best Man’s big scene. They are married. Everybody claps and goes outside to wait for the party bus and the booze.
The Best Man’s father might accidentally call you by The Best Man’s ex-girlfriend’s name. The Best Man quickly takes a step back at the sound, as if someone has thrown up on the pavement. You thought he was just using a strange pronunciation, but everyone else is laughing nervously and so a light goes on. Ohhhhhh.
Cocktail hour means hovering around the bar, trying to make eye contact with the waiters carrying trays. The tray-food is superior to the table-food. Even though there will be a bar inside the reception itself, you get yourself two drinks to take inside with you. At the table, there is a glass of champagne and a glass of wine. This makes four drinks. And then all sense of chronology leaves you.
There is a lot of dancing and beaming at The Best Man during his excellent toast. And then there is delicious chicken, and more dancing, but no “Party in the U.S.A” as everyone had hoped. More than anything, you are struck by how very accurate a title The Best Man is, also by the strange magic of middle-aged people dancing to “Single Ladies.”
You wake up tired and eat sub-par omelettes and try to sleep until it’s time to check out. And then it begins to dawn on you how much money was spent on this wedding and how little of it was spent by you, and then you begin to consider elopement.
“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”—Dorothy Parker, Esquire. (via meaghano)