The cop pulls me over on I-89. He wants to know why I’m driving 80 miles per hour. Behind him, trucks rip through the darkness. It’s almost three a.m., and I’m late. I don’t tell him I have only seven hours to spend in Vermont. I don’t tell him I’ve been on the road since midnight, with only two bottles of iced tea to keep me awake. He lets me go with a warning, but as soon as he’s gone I’m doing 70, then 75, then 80 again… I can feel the phone vibrating in my pocket. It’s Mom, probably, calling for the third time. When I get there, I’ll tell her this was a stupid idea. Who cares about hot air balloons anyway?
I’m a real person now. I’m nineteen, and I’m working at a summer theater, my first real acting job. I have eight hours of rehearsal tomorrow. I have a paycheck. I should be catching up on sleep or running lines. This isn’t summer vacation. I don’t have any time.
I get off at Exit One and turn left for Quechee. I open the windows to feel the breeze. The roads are empty — not even the farmers are awake. But a few porch lights are on, and I can see cars crammed in to the driveways. They’ve come from Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and even Florida for the balloon festival. In this touristy town, it’s always fun to read the license plates.
The landscape changes from golf course to cornfields. The pavement turns to gravel, and my ears pop as I speed all the way up our hill. A pheasant-shaped signpost announces our house. Orange light from the kitchen spills onto the trees. Jazz blares from the stereo. Dad must be awake. I brace myself for interrogations about my future and even worse, the guilt thing: Why are you so late? I park. I pee in the grass. The frogs are screaming. A mosquito whines in my ear.
My parents don’t hear me come in. They’re dancing by the fireplace, Mom’s face nestled against Dad’s shoulder, Dad making funny faces and strumming her back like she’s a guitar. I feel like I’ve stumbled in to somebody else’s life. There’s a steak and cheese sub in the oven. There’s a bottle of red wine with three glasses. I turn on the kitchen faucet and let the water run over my hands. I feel the warm glow of candles flushing my face. I splash myself. I yawn. Dad kisses the back of my neck, and Mom squeezes my waist. “Hi, Puchi,” she says. We eat and drink and dance. I don’t tell them about the cop. I’m too tired to explain.
Dawn waters the sky, and the grey light startles me awake. On the horizon, hills turn into mountains. We’re in the car, and then we’re in a field. The earth is soft, and water seeps into my sneakers. The balloonists are firing up, one after another. Multicolored orbs rise to greet the light. We’ve always wanted to do this. We step up to one of the baskets. The balloonist shakes my hand and shows me where to stand. He unrolls the cloth and lights the burner. A checkered pattern swells above our heads as the balloon inflates and we start to float. The chase crew unties us and we rise above the fried dough vendors and the balloons all around. From the birds eye view they look like Easter eggs, checkered or speckled or swirled. “Look up,” Dad says, and then I can see it, all of it, more than I have ever seen before. It’s like being in an airplane, except that the world is all around me and I don’t have to cram my face against an oval-shaped window. I can hear it, too. Despite the roar of the flame, I can hear the rushing waters and the birdcalls and the whoosh of the wind. Our balloon-shaped shadow passes over the Quechee Inn. There’s Main Street, and the glassware shop by the waterfall. The river winds its way to the Quechee gorge, the antique mall, the covered bridge… I trace the road towards Woodstock with my finger. I trace the road to I-89.
Our balloon is headed for the highway. I watch the cars speeding towards Maine in one direction and Massachusetts in the other. I remember that I have to go. But we’re moving as slowly as a cloud. What if the ride takes longer than planned? What if I don’t make it back in time? But the balloon man has tightened the gas valve, we’re descending towards an empty parking lot, and the ride is almost over, even though we’ve only just begun. How much did they pay for this? I wonder. Probably $200, $300, or something crazy. I feel cheated. I don’t know why we did this. Was it worth the money, the long drive, the loss of sleep?
“That’s us,” Dad says. He points to our hill, and I can just make out the edge of our green roof among the trees. That’s us, he says, but we’re here, we’re in the basket. I imagine the three of us down there, dancing in that house in the woods. I imagine someone opening the front door at this very instant and finding us as we were last night, half-drunk and wholly happy. What if it were true? What if we could be here and there at the same time? The landscape is a map of my life. At the gas station down below, I’m ten years old, buying a Hershey’s Bar. On the slope by the river, I’m kissing my wife. I turn in place to see everything. The whole world is laid flat before me, but then I blink, we’ve descended, it’s over, we’re getting out, I’m getting in the car, and I’m waving goodbye.
But every time I see a hot air balloon, I imagine the three of us still in the sky.