In an effort to save their marriage, the Swede allowed the girl to inflate him in the park where they had been discussing the unfortunate circumstances of their faltering marriage.
"Is this our big crunch?" the Swede had asked the girl.
Big crunch, big bang, she thought. Who knows what he's talking about?
"What do you want me to be?" the Swede pleaded. "I'll be anything for you."
The girl thought for a time, considered all the possibilities, then decided she would inflate her husband with her love. She fancied the idea of him being tethered to her by a thin cord, of being indispensable to him. He, in turn, would be buoyed by her love, quite literally.
So the girl inflated him, placing her mouth on his in a pose that looked something like a kiss, or resuscitation. He flailed his arms and halfheartedly batted her away. Once he gave in to it, though, he rather liked the feeling of being inflated. First his ears, then his neck, grew hot and full. His wrists went weak. His stomach swooned. Finally, his knees and toes tingled.
The girl loosened his tie as he expanded, and the buttons on his shirt popped off one by one. She slid his belt from his pant loops, and loosened his trouser button. As soon as she untied his shoes they shot into the distance.
Across the way, some children were flying kites, and the girl hollered at them to ask if she might borrow a spool of string.
"I've inflated my husband, and now I'd like to fly him!" she explained. Eager to see such a funny looking man high up in the sky, the children helped the girl tie fancy knots with the kite string. Then the girl set him adrift, and the rotund Swede rose above the park, floating above the girl and the children, a bit lopsided from the string tugging at his ankle. His pants were fastened around his enlarged waist with a length of string, and his shirt—buttonless, fluttering against the wind—exposed his bulbous torso sprinkled with curly, graying chest hair.
"He reminds me of those balloons at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade," one of the kids said.
"Yeah," another kid agreed. "He sure beats the giant inflated Garfield."
"You look marvelous!" she shouted to the Swede. She loved the way he rolled to and fro, the tug of his string in her hand, his awkward bounce when she yanked him up and down. She was very pleased with this arrangement. "That's love!" she yelled, dancing in a little circle and nearly letting him go.
"Be careful!" he screamed. He was, frankly, very scared being up so high. At this height, the wind gusted, and he worried that the kite string might snap. He dodged the park birds that were unafraid of him, emboldened even, it seemed, by his unusual state.
To be honest, he did not feel altogether comfortable depending on the girl to keep him tied to earth. Furthermore, the fact that she had turned him into a human balloon seemed a bit immature on her part. A balloon? A thing that children fancied.
"How is it up there?" the girl yelled.
"Absolutely wonderful!" he hollered even though he felt quite terrified, but the Swede had said he was willing to be anything to make her happy, as she now seemed; he hoped that the resuscitation of their marriage would soon follow.
The Swede, before his inflation, had been trying to solve the problems that arose in their marriage through his research regarding the physics of love. A professor of physics, he believed that science held the answers to all of the problems of the universe, including their marriage.
The Swede was determined to do right with the girl in all the areas in which he had failed with his previous wife, Penelope. Penelope had left him eight years earlier, saying in rather general terms that he was too distant and unengaged in the marriage. The Swede, however, had tried to explain to her that his research—exploring the physics of cooking, Penelope's favorite activity—had been an overture to connect with her, had been an act of love.
"Why don't you come and cook with me instead of studying the physics of cooking?" she asked. "That would make a lot more sense."
"But I'm a physicist, not a cook," the Swede had said.
"You just do not get it," Penelope said. "For a physicist, you can be pretty dumb." Suitcase in hand, she gazed at him sadly, then slammed the front door.
So with this marriage, with the girl—so seemingly unscathed, so fresh and childlike—the Swede was determined to do make her happy, to really "get it" even though he was unsure of what that meant.
The problem that served as impetus for the Swede's research was common enough: the girl, by their one-year wedding anniversary, had lost virtually all sexual interest in the Swede. He assumed this had something to do with his age. He was, after all, twenty-five years the girl's senior, not at all like the boys her age, neither in temperament nor body. The truth of the matter, however, was that the girl did not feel connected to the Swede; he spent so much time teaching, researching, doing whatever he did in his stuffy university office. He often left home before she woke and at times missed dinner. When he was home, he enjoyed reading physics journals and scribbling calculations; by bedtime, he was tired and the girl was forlorn. When the Swede did make romantic overtures, the girl did not feel that there was much of anything attracting her to the Swede and his exposed, sagging chest. It was all she could do to give him a dry kiss.
And it was on one of these nights—after the girl blandly kissed him, then turned and curled toward the bed stand—that the Swede considered their situation. Sex, or lack thereof, was not the real problem, the Swede conjectured, nor was it his disappearing hair and saggy chest; their faltering sex life was purely a symptom of some anomaly in their underlying love. He wondered if physics could provide a solution to their situation: study himself and the girl, define the constants and variables of love, describe its properties with mathematical equations. This is brilliant! he thought. It all makes so much sense. And with that, he fell into a deep, satisfied sleep.
The next morning the Swede rushed to his office and began his exploration of love. At first, after the Swede began his convoluted research, the love notes that he left each morning for the girl—once a hallmark of their relationship—became increasingly enigmatic, eventually devolving to such things as, "My dearest g.— EPOT = GMm⁄r! Love, S."
And after the notes, his sweet nothings, which he still whispered so earnestly to the girl, turned to incoherent decrees which she found, quite frankly, a little creepy.
"Darling, space-time is defined with bodies, and bodies are defined by space-time," he would breathe to her in the morning hours after becoming aroused by considering friction. "Don't you see the mystery in this circular logic? I want to show you the modern extension of string theory."
"You are totally grossing me out," she would say, pushing him away. "Keep your string theory in your pants."
All this led to what was possibly the Swede's most insanely brilliant creation. He called it the love dynasphere, a perpetual motion machine powered by love. It would be glorious: copper pipe, tapered ball bearings, various cylinders and cogs, struts to hold the golden sphere at the center of the machine. Its function: to run on the energy produced by the love generated by the pair of operators.
It took him months to complete. He was a man possessed, rarely seeing the girl who had, meanwhile, taken up drinking with a passion. When finished, the machine was phenomenal—a golden monument to his love for the girl, the ultimate of gestures. The thing that would prove how much they loved each other.
He rushed it home to his wife. By this time, the Swede had grown a spotty little beard and smelled of body odor. The girl nursed a bottle of white zin at the kitchen table. He entered and breathlessly sat the machine between them; it looked like something out of a 1950s science fiction movie.
The Swede took one of the handholds, and motioned for the girl to take the other.
"Ritual suicide by electrocution?" she asked, slurring her words.
"It's a love dynasphere!" the Swede proclaimed. "Don't you see, it's really a motor powered by our love, how we feel towards one another. I hold here, you there, and then the sphere spins, purely powered by the energy between us."
She grabbed a hold unenthusiastically. Nothing happened.
"Feel loving," the Swede commanded. "Maybe we should try saying 'I love you.' "
"You know what? This stupid machine isn't the problem," the girl said, letting go of the dynasphere. "This—us—isn't working. Your physics—it's driving us apart. You're...insane," she said waving her hands around. "And I'm a complete mess—lonely, drunk. If you keep up, this is going to be the end of us. I need you to be interested in me, not some love machine."
The Swede, startled by her statement, suddenly saw that he was all backwards; what he thought was helping was really hurting. He was crestfallen, willing to do, again, whatever the girl wanted in order to make her happy. Willing to try again. And so, the next day, they planned a "talk" in the park, and that is where and the Swede, a bit apprehensively, allowed himself to be inflated. And the girl—she said she would go to AA.
As the days and weeks progressed after the Swede's inflation, he found many simple tasks that he had taken for granted now challenging to perform. For instance, commuting. He was, obviously, in no state to walk, bike, or drive, and instead the girl floated him to the university each day on his string, escorting him first to his office, then to collect his on-campus mail, and finally to his lectures. When he lectured the Swede often came untethered from the podium. In his passionate lectures on his remarkable findings regarding the physics of love, he often became unmoored because of his zealous bobbing and would slowly ascend to the heights of the lecture hall, eventually lodging in any number of acoustical recesses. He found it embarrassing to have to ask his students—sometimes multiple times, so awestruck were they—to retrieve his string and pull him down.
He also found that he could no longer fit in his office. The door was too narrow, and no matter how much the girl pushed on his bloated behind, he could not squeeze in. He requested that his door be widened, or that he be provided with another office, but as the administration could not find language regarding his condition anywhere in the AHA guidelines, and as it was also a particularly tight budget year, they instead suggested that he might work from home.
So the Swede took up his calculations at home in the living room which had French doors and allowed him to enter and leave without obstruction. He attached himself to the couch—much in the same way that a hot air balloon is rigged to the ground—and began work after dinner.
One night, just as the Swede was really getting into his research, the girl wanted to watch Will and Grace in the living room, and she very much wanted that the Swede watch it with her.
"We never watch TV together anymore," she said. "Remember when we used to watch American Idol when we were dating and have those silly fights about who should win? You thought it should be Clay. I wanted Reuben. Remember?" The Swede remembered, and smiled wanly, trying to disguise his chagrin. He despised the television, and had only pretended to like it to woo the girl. But, as he saw how happy it would make the girl now, again, he agreed to watch Will and Grace and eat popcorn.
And with the Swede's new attentiveness, however inadvertent, not to mention their new connection via his string, her escorting him around town, the dinners together and nights of television, the girl began to feel that connection to him, which she had been longing for.
Weeks later, after the Will and Grace season finale, the girl was overcome with passion for her husband, a passion that had been long dormant. In bed that night, the girl began kissing the Swede who was anchored beside her.
However, they soon found that, with the Swede's inflation, certain complications arose regarding the logistics of the marital act. The Swede, after all, was now quite rotund, and this held true for all his appendages. Upon seeing his member for the first time after the inflation in its aroused, manly state, the girl was aghast.
"I have not idea what I'm supposed to do with that," she said, pointing. You see, it was enormous, but not in a good way; it was enormous in the way an oversized deli sandwich is enormous. While the Swede was rather pleased with himself, he soon saw from the look on the girl's face just what a problem this was. And the girl, intimidated by his member's girth and thwarted in her amorous overture, saw how disappointed the Swede was; she realized that she—by means of her inflation of the Swede—had created this new problem.
In the weeks that followed—after the failed lovemaking attempt, as the Swede spent more and more time at home with the girl, away from his work—the girl began to notice that, when they were together, the string between them became rather taut. Always, it seemed, she was playing out the line, but always it seemed that, eventually, he needed more. This worried the girl; perhaps she could cheer the sulky Swede by revisiting the haunts of their courtship. And so she made this her mission in coming months—this revisiting of happier times, this making the Swede happy.
After revisiting the bistro where they had met, after going sailing on the Potomac to no avail, the girl became desperate for an event that would enliven the Swede, so she purchased tickets for the French trapeze, an act staged in ad odd, sprawling tent. While she wanted him to be happy and felt like she was trying very hard to please him, she was also beginning to feel, frankly, a bit resentful. What was his problem, after all? She bought the tickets, but she noticed that she did so grudgingly.
During the opening trapeze act, the Swede got loose from the girl who was distracted by the flying Frenchmen's tight pants and egregious crotches. The crowd clapped as he floated up to the quartet playing in the eaves. He lodged in the ropes beside the cellist.
"Hello, balloon man," the cellist said to him with a French accent, as if a balloon man were the most ordinary thing ever. The Swede remembered her from an earlier performance, remembered admiring her pert French bob and the music that she coaxed from her cello. He was immediately very taken with this older, husky-voiced Frenchwoman despite the fact that she called him "balloon man"; sure, he had been annoyed with the girl for turning him into such an infantile object, but the Frenchwoman—simply by calling him "balloon man" in her swaying French accent—made being a balloon man seem altogether edgy and mysterious.
"Why hello," the Swede said.
"You seem to be in quite a state," the Frenchwoman said.
"I suppose I am," the Swede responded. He looked down at the crowd—the flock of sinister looking chairs, the girl jumping around to try and grab hold of his string—and felt very at peace up there with the musicians. The arrangement by Debussy was soothing to the Swede, and the Frenchwoman—close to his age with dark lipstick and confident hands—seemed to be someone in whom he could confide. She seemed, he thought, to understand him: his peculiar condition, his cultivated sensibilities which engendered a deep appreciation of things like a well-cut hair bob, Debussy, and accents. "Do you think I could join your circus?" he asked on a whim.
"No, no, balloon man. You do not want to come with us," she said. "Life up here, it is very precarious. It does not suit your practical constitution, I fear. Up here—it is for us musicians, for the trapeze people. You seem more—how do you Americans say?—'down to earth.' "
The Frenchwoman was right; what was he doing, acting like a balloon for the girl? This was not who he wanted to be, this balloon man, this over-inflated parody of himself. He was happy that the girl was happy, but was sad that he was sad. And while he would have liked to think that the girl's needs came first, and that her happiness predetermined his, he was seeing that this was not the case.
As the quartet started in on a new song, the Swede felt himself spring a leak and began to deflate ever so slightly, just enough to dislodge him from the ropes and enable the girl to pull him down.
"Goodbye, balloon man," the cellist said to him as he floated away from her. He waved to her slowly, descending to the girl's hands as if sinking down into the depths of dark, turbulent sea.
"You know, it's getting really tiresome trying to keep track of you," the girl said, reeling him in. "You really ought to be more careful."
"This was all your idea," the Swede reminded her, listening as the almost indecipherable hiss of escaping air became a bit more pronounced.
"Yeah, well, I need you to pitch in a little here, too. Maybe think about getting some portable ballast so you aren't always so dependent on me. I need my independence, you know," the girl said.
The Swede discovered later that week that by "independence" the girl had meant "time to bowl" as she had signed up to participate in an AA bowling league which she promptly began attending with vigor. She used the Her bowling ball from the His and Her bowling ball set which they had received as a wedding gift in her league play, and was always either coming or going, oblivious to his deflation. He used the His bowling ball as his portable ballast. It was actually quite useful; he could now go places unattended, bouncing down the sidewalk aided by the weight of the ball, which he carried in a handsome, tan leather bowling ball bag. He bounced through Georgetown, along the Potomac, past the upscale waterfront restaurants, and found himself in the parking lot of the performing arts center, bobbing at the doorway of the French trapeze tent.
He wanted to see the Frenchwoman and hover beside her as she played. He liked that she was older, close to his age. She was French; he was the child of Swedish immigrants. You could say they both had European sensibilities. He loved the music she played on her cello, lovely classical pieces that the girl could never see the charm of. He felt drawn to her for all these reasons. The thought of being around her eased his mind.
The Swede entered the tent and heard her wavering cello music above him. He dropped the bowling ball and barely rose above the vast net set up to catch the trapeze artists. He tried flapping and jumping, but he simply was too deflated by his perpetual leak.
"Bon jour?" the Frenchwoman hollered from above.
"Hello!" the Swede hollered cheerily. "Remember me?"
"Oh, my lovely balloon man. Of course. What has happened to you?" she asked.
"It seems I've gone and deflated," the Swede explained. "But I wanted to see you. Perhaps you could come down here?" the Swede suggested. "We could sit in these odd chairs. I'll hold my bowling ball."
"Oh no, balloon man," the Frenchwoman said, climbing down the tall ladder that led up to her platform. "I have a much better idea," she said, approaching him, waving her finger back and forth slowly. "Why do you not let me inflate you more? It is so much more lovely up there," she said, pointing. "You could join me and my cello again. I have been thinking about you and, while floating may not be your most desired state, I have to say I find you to be an absolutely lovely balloon." The Swede paused, somewhat horrified by the idea, somewhat aroused. Why not? he thought. It's just inflation. It wasn't like the girl had some sort of exclusive corner on inflating him. And besides, he needed it. He was nearly walking on the ground again. What would it hurt?
"Ok," the Swede said. "Just enough to get me back up there, though. I don't want the girl getting suspicious." And so the Frenchwoman tied the Swede down with crisscrossing ropes and gently tilted his head to create a clear passageway. "Hey, have you done this before?" the Swede asked.
But the Frenchwoman did not answer; instead she placed her mouth to his and breathed her smoky, wine-stained air into him. It was a heavier, muskier air, different than the girl's. Vintage, the Swede kept thinking. This air is vintage. The Frenchwoman inflated the Swede, and, as he floated up to her after she had cleared the ropes away, he felt somehow heavier despite his buoyancy. He was only able to bob by her and her cello for a matter of minutes before the vintage air in him began to seep out of him far more quickly than the girl's air ever had. Before long he was back down near the ground, much lower than he had been when he arrived.
"I don't think this is going to work," the Swede said to the Frenchwoman.
"Perhaps not," the Frenchwoman said wisely. "Perhaps it is not I who is meant to inflate you. It has been lovely talking with you, deflated balloon man." The Swede picked up his bowling ball, which now firmly anchored him to the ground, and slowly walked back to his home in Georgetown where the girl, no doubt, waited for him. He felt horrible. The Frenchwoman's air—while it had made him lightheaded, filled with something akin to velvet—had also felt all wrong. What had he come to that he was letting other women inflate him?
Arriving home, the Swede placed the bowling ball on the front porch where the girl sat on the porch swing drinking lemonade. He rose barely a yard off the ground without the ball's weight.
The girl, surprised, asked, "When did you go and deflate?"
"I've been deflating for weeks," the Swede said. "You've been bowling so much, you didn't notice."
"Well, get on over here so I can inflate you again," the girl said with forced playfulness. "You need more of my love in you, for when I'm not around."
The Swede fiddled nervously with the pencil in his pocket. The inside of his head itched with the particular problem of this situation: his deflation, the girl's offer to fill him up, the added considerations of his unlocated leak, the recent introduction of the French woman's air. No, the girl's air would not solve anything; this had already been proven. What he needed was some white paper and a pencil sharpener. What he needed was to puzzle over this new problem, undertake new calculations. He expected that the thought of scribbling in his office late into the night would soothe the itch inside of his skull as it usually did but, on this particular evening, his racing thoughts only exacerbated his condition.
"I love you," the girl said quietly, interrupting his thoughts. "You don't need to solve anything with that pencil, with your physics."
You just don't get it, his first wife's words echoed in his head as he looked at the girl's face, the slightly down-turned corners of her mouth, her big, faraway eyes. What was it that he didn't get, that he needed to study? If not love, then what? The mechanics of a porch swing? The equation for a perfect glass of lemonade? Or was it that he should undertake an exploration of the conditions that made an evening like this possible—the particular humidity created by the wind blowing across the river? The sweet undertones in the air caused by newly exploded cherry blossoms? The prevailing conditions that colored the horizon the most breathtaking shade of tangerine the Swede had ever seen?
The color—a deep, hazy tangerine—that lingered above the horizon seeped into the Swede as he bobbed in the front lawn. That color he had only ever seen once before during his boyhood in Sweden, on an evening when all he knew was the ache in his legs from a long day of play, the touch of his mother's hand as she rubbed salve into his knees. This memory caused a deep nostalgia in the Swede as only warm, summer evenings can do. He wondered when the exact moment had been that he had stopped aching. He could not recall the sensation past the point that he took up physics, beyond his first win at the science fair in the fifth grad, his subsequent curtailment of outdoor play, and swift infatuation with his large brain and its capacity to intellectualize and explain everything.
The girl looked up at him, took a sip of lemonade, and smiled as she patted the space beside her on the porch swing. How could he go to her now, as he was, containing within him the hot breath of another woman? He felt guilty. He wanted to be rid of it.
In one decisive, swift movement, the Swede withdrew his pencil from his breast pocket and jabbed the finely sharpened point deep into his chest. He could feel his whole self shrinking, even his head it seemed, after he pulled out the pencil and let the air seep from him. By the time the Swede had lowered to the ground he felt small and vulnerable, swimming in his too-big trousers. The ends of his shirt arms hung below his hands. He stood at the bottom of the porch stairs holding his pants up, his whole body strange and weak, and looked at the girl who considered him calmly, this girl who—he saw at once—was easing into an exquisite womanhood, her hair trimmed in a practical cut just above her shoulders, lines beginning to show around her eyes, a calmness settled about her that only lingers around those who have come to some sort of understanding with themselves, or with life.
"I can't be your balloon anymore," the Swede said, his body tired and sore. "I can only be what I am—a deflated man with a painful, pencil-sized hole in his chest."
"I know," she said. "I do. It was wrong of me to ever ask you to be a balloon. This is all I ever wanted anyway," she added, sweeping her arm from the horizon to the Swede to the porch, to the space on the porch swing beside her, which she patted again, before holding out her hand to him. She began humming something, a familiar tune that the Swede could not place.
Here was this woman now, waiting for him on the porch swing who, when he ascended the stairs and sat beside her, handed him a glass of lemonade and gently placed her hand on his chest, nudging the wound closed, murmuring, "There, there, Gustaf. All better now."
And all he could think to say then was, "It hurts. It hurts more than I ever imagined."
*Ideas about and certain verbiage pertaining to the physics of love in this piece were taken from the document "The Physics of Love – A Summary of the First Two and a Half Parts" found online at http://www.motionmountain.net/C15-SEXP.pdf. Information on dynaspheres was taken from http://www.svpvril.com/svpvril.html#What.
About the author:
Rachel Yoder's writing has been published in The New York Times, Cimarron Review, juked, and Mennonite Life. Her short fiction has been nominated for inclusion in Best New American Voices 2009 , for an AWP Award, and has twice been a finalist in Glimmer Train's Short-Story Contest for New Writers. She is the managing editor of the national literary journal Alligator Juniper, published by Prescott College, where she also teaches writing. Her journal reviews can be found online at Newpages.com
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