Close your eyes. What is the shape of your sadness, the color? How does it feel in your palm- can you trace it with your fingertips or is it invisible?
Look up. Imagine a heart-shaped balloon floating just beyond your outstretched fingertips. The balloon is the reddest of reds, the color of love and also blood. Imagine this red balloon tattooed on my 24-year-old bicep, smooth. Imagine this red balloon deflated, shriveled. This piece of red-latex was once a balloon, now is taped to the ductwork of my church-basement office. I keep this wilted thing in memory of Alex, the man who gave it to me last spring when everything was in bloom.
The red balloon has become a motif woven throughout my life: the shape, the weight, the color of my sadness and also my joy.
In the 1956 short film The Red Balloon, a little boy joyfully discovers a balloon, which becomes his best friend and his shadow. The balloon is the protagonist, the only splash of color across the minimalistic black-and-white scene, the post-World War II ravaged streets of Paris. When the boy realizes he cannot bring the balloon to school, he asks an old man: “Will you hold my balloon while I’m in school? Don’t let it go!”
Not letting go is another way of saying hold on.
I was barely holding on, already checking into my first rehab for alcoholism at only 24-years-old. After a failed attempt at outpatient rehab, I was referred to an inpatient center where they had me fill out a giant stack of paperwork and drew my blood. A phlebotomist pointed to the white bandage around my bicep and asked what happened.
What happened was my first tattoo of the Banksy piece, “Girl with a Red Balloon.” You know the one: it is a silhouette of a little girl letting go of a bright red, heart shaped balloon. This image has transcended from indie to iconic, plastered across mugs, motivational posters on the walls of suburban teens and therapists, t-shirts, Pinterest boards, and much to my dismay, Justin Bieber’s forearm.
My mom asked me if I thought about how it would sag and morph into a questionable shape when I became an old lady someday. “It will get wrinkled and it won’t look like a balloon anymore,” she said.
I took this into consideration. And as a former self-harmer, my arm was already a canvas of scars. I figured if I was going to be stared at, I may as well make it artistic.
Since I got the tattoo, strangers touch my bicep at the store, coffee shop, on campus. Sometimes they ask and other times they don’t. They ask how much it hurt, how much it cost, who did the tattoo. I tell them it didn’t hurt, I don’t remember how much it cost, or the name of the artist, and I got it at a tattoo shop called No Coast in Fargo, ND. I tell the no it’s not the Morton salt girl. Then, they ask, “If it’s not too personal, can you tell me what does the tattoo really mean to you?”
If I don’t feel like talking, I say: “I just liked the art.”
That is a half-truth, but I do mean it. I’m not sure why everything has to mean something. Originally graffiti in South London, the stencil next to the little girl said: “THERE IS ALWAYS HOPE.”. Although locals originally demanded that it be taken down, the original piece was framed and sold for 37,200 pounds at a Sotheby’s Auction in 2007.
This is the easiest answer.
But the truth is that sometimes I end up telling the stranger or the phlebotomist or cashier part of my life story I got the tattoo to commemorate my first 30 days of sobriety. I was one of those annoyingly chipper, 12-Step disciples who wanted my sobriety to mean something and I wanted everybody in the world to know about it. Not getting high or drunk and bragging about it was a high of its own, floating amidst what they call the “pink cloud” in drug and alcohol treatment. The pink cloud is when you finally begin feeling hopeful after the hell of withdrawals, losing your job, depleting your bank account, wrecking your car, and your life. The pink cloud is rebuilding from rubble and it is insert pretty metaphor here, here, and here.
Four years later, I moved to Portland, Oregon along with droves of other hopeful young creatives. In 2014, Portland became the most moved-to city in the entire country. We flocked to the city for its gorgeous vistas and hikes, a famous bookstore that spanned an entire city block, progressive politics, and farmer’s markets. Unfortunately, housing costs soared and so did homelessness.
I got a job at a drop-in center for people who were struggling with health issues and didn’t have housing. Housed in a church basement with a cracking foundation, we were a daytime sanctuary that offered hot made-to-order breakfasts, showers, cable, Wi-Fi, nap, socialization, and peer support.
Instead of the informal and clinical term, “clients,” we called the people who hung out at our drop-in center “guests.”
Alex was one of the first guests I met. I quickly learned that Alex was a fixture to the center, a light in the dim church basement, a fiery supernova who burned at 5 feet 4 inches tall.
“I love your scarf,” Alex said, pointing to the argyle royal purple and black patterned scarf on my head. “Purple’s my favorite color. You know, it’s the color of royalty.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’m Tessa, I don’t think we’ve met?”
“Alex. You must be the new staff?”
“Yep, I just started a few days ago.”
“Well, welcome Tessa!” He said, looking into my eyes. He said, “You look like an angel sprinkled you with beauty dust, your eyes are like gems.”
I know his dialogue may sound manufactured, but it is true. I recorded it in my little black-and-white spiral-bound notebook: received a truly kind compliment from one of my guests. It pierced through my pharmaceutical haze. Each morning I took a fistful of pills with my coffee. The big blue football-shaped one woke me up, the little green one calmed me down, and the white octagon one did something too, I’m not sure what.
The next day, karaoke was the activity of choice. Some guests scoffed as though it was airwave pollution. Karaoke was meant for dive bars and dim lights, not a church basement with fluorescent lighting. It was supposed to be for after dinner, not after breakfast. Alex helped my coworker Summer and I find the monstrosity of a karaoke machine buried under a pile of lilac-colored choir robes in the storage room, which doubled as a healing room, group room, and office. Together we lugged the machine around the maze of the couches and pool tables out to the fold-up dining tables in the main space. I flipped through the stacks of karaoke CDs and the only Spanish song I found was “La Bamba.” Alex said it would do for now.
My coworker Summer and I sang TLC’s “Waterfalls.” We did hand gestures of waterfalls and laughed so I hard I forgot that I couldn’t carry a tune. The 1990s-revival continued with a Marky Mark impersonator who bumped and grinded his way through “Good Vibrations,” with gray chest hair pouring out of his half-buttoned Hawaii shirt. When this middle-aged Marky Mark grinded on Summer, she turned the color of a fire engine.
For the finale of “La Bamba,” Alex jokingly wrapped his body around the reinforcement beams as though they were stripper poles, “like the good old days in Detroit when I had to sneak into the clubs.” Then he cleared his throat and focused intently on the screen. He gripped the mic, shook his hips, tussled his brown hair, and gazed at the room.
When he was done singing, Alex said, “Thank you, thank you everyone for coming. You are all my family! I love you all!” He set the microphone down on the table and asked his friend Jorge, “How did I do?”
“You know, you can’t carry a tune. But kinda like a Mexican Freddy Mercury with your dancing,” Jorge joked.
“This was a lot of fun girls, I needed that laugh.’ He hugged us.
One day when I was in my office, I heard yelling and sobbing coming from the main room. Alex was hurtled in the fetal position, with rivulets of mascara running down his face.
“What’s wrong Alex?” I asked.
“This woman, Sophia. She’s such a bitch.”
I looked for Kleenex, then realized we were out of them, so I grabbed a roll of toilet paper and tore off a few squares for him instead.
Through sobs, Alex said, “Sophia told me that I’d never have a home. She said that I will always be homeless.”
“I don’t think you’ll always be homeless, Alex. I know that you’ll get an apartment.”
“Thank you. I just know… I don’t want to live in a tent under the Hawthorne Bridge forever. It’s just you know, things got real hard. I made some bad choices, I know, but I’m trying.”
He handed me a bright candy red, heart-shaped balloon and said, “Keep it safe over the weekend, will you?”
I woke up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat and went outside for a cigarette. Sitting on the curb, I heard the roar of Sunset Highway traffic and downpour of rain against the gutters. I put up my hood to keep my head dry and thought of Alex sleeping under the Hawthorne Bridge in his tent with only thin mesh separating him from the rain and the thieves who robbed his sleeping bag and clothes.
A week later, Summer and I took a few clients on a field trip to a spring tulip festival half an hour east of town. Five of us piled in the giant white cargo van that evoked stranger-danger ads of the late 80s. I couldn’t believe that I was getting paid for this. It didn’t even feel like a job.
“Ah! You guys are kidnapping me!” Alex laughed, then asked Summer, “Can you put on the mix CD we listened to when we went to the ocean last year? You know the one you made with Taylor Swift and ABBA?”
They sang as the Portland skyline of buildings faded in the rearview, replaced by a new skyline of trees and snow-capped mountains.
One client sat on his smart-phone, too absorbed in his game of Candy Crush to notice we had arrived at the festival until Alex shrieked with excitement.
“We are here!”
“Looks pretty muddy. We missed the peak of the season,” another client shrugged. “They were brighter last year.”
Being from the flat prairie lands of the Midwest, I was impressed with the rainbow seas of tulips juxtaposed by the backdrop of mountains.
Alex ran through the fields with his arms out like an airplane. We were the same age and grew up Catholic but that was where our shared qualities diverged. He spent his teenage years in glitter and boas as a stripper and prostitute on Detroit’s South side. Meanwhile I wore pleated khakis while bashfully hiding from customers in the dressing room at my job in the Jenney’s children’s clothing department in a small Midwestern city. He slept in alleyways and fold-out couches at stranger’s houses, while I slept in my super single bed swaddled in my grandma’s powder blue quilt. I watched chick-flicks with my mom on Friday nights, while his mother cried herself to sleep worrying about her only son.
“Can you take a picture of me and help me send it to my mom in Detroit? Oh, she’ll love this! She’d love to be here! I wish I could send her a flower.”
“Are you close with your mom?” I asked.
“Well, she’s really Catholic and so she doesn’t know a lot of things about me. But she’s happy whenever she hears my voice on the phone. I try to call her once a week to let her know I’m okay. She tries, you know what I mean? She loves me. Where does your mom live? Are you close with her?”
“Sometimes. She lives far away in North Dakota.”
“North . . . Dakota? The place with those mountains carved with president’s heads?”
“No! That’s South Dakota! Yeah, sure, make fun of me all you want!” He teased me about my Canadian accent and we walked through the rows of tulips and windmills until we came across little wooden clogs that were fashioned into wagons.
Alex asked, “Oh my god! Will you please push me?”
“Of course,” I traipsed through the mud., pulling Alex We passed a five-year-old with fire-engine hair giggling as his mom pulled him. Alex pointed, “I feel just like him!”
The lines etched in his face softened. The shadows brightened. We floated. On the way home from the trip, Alex tucked little golden Eiffel Tower earring in my palm. “I found it this and kept it for you because it had some of our favorite color purple on it.”
“That’s so nice of you, but I need to ask my supervisor if I can keep gifts,” I said, knowing it was against company policy and not wanting to get fired. “How about I keep it in my drawer, by the balloon?”
“Yes, yes, that’s good sweetheart,” he said.
I checked on the heart balloon every-day, wrapped it in a blanket. Made sure that it wouldn’t get popped.
The next day, the Coroner’s Office called. Alex had been hit by a bus. Alex was dead.
It all happened so fast. I announced Alex’s death and upcoming memorial at lunchtime. The news was surprising to our guests.
One said: “Alex was doing so well. He was finally clean from heroin.”
Another said: “This isn’t right. This can’t be right. I saw him die twice but they always brought him back. He always came back.”
Summer said: “I keep waiting to hear his necklaces and bracelets jingling when he walks in the door.”
I brought the red balloon out and tied it to the black chair where Alex used to sit.
We planned a memorial for the following Thursday to give enough time to spread the word and allow for his mother and sisters to fly-in from Detroit. I let my supervisor do the talking while we all hugged the family, the universal language of grief heavy in the air. She admired the memorial table we had set up with a bouquet of purple tulips and a photo. It was the photo I took of Alex in the giant yellow clog wagon.
Summer, the other staff, and I set up a large circle of 30 best metal folding chairs. The chairs filled up before the memorial started. We kept widening the circle, first five chairs at a time, then 10. We wheeled the chairs out of the office, brought them downstairs from the church. It was standing room only. Now whenever I hear “La Bamba” playing, I think of Alex. I think of red balloons, holding on, and letting go.
About the Contributor
Tessa Torgeson is a Minnesota-based writer and MFA candidate. She been published at bioStories, Oregon Humanities posts, Rkvry Quarterly Literary Journal, Doll Hospital Literary Journal, The Fix, and others. You may find her blogging about mental health and asylums at Off-Her-Rocker and read her other writing at tessatorgeson.com.
Expecting Something Else - AM O'Malley
The book is a brilliant, genre-defying work of art. O'Malley brilliantly blends both prose and poetry, along with erasure poetry. The book is a stunning exploration of the mother-daughter relationship,womanhood, and pays tribute to O'Malley's mother, who died of cancer shortly after the book's publication.
More from Issue Nine:
- The Place That He Can Never Return To
- The Cyclops
- The Girl with Many Names by Kristin LaFollette
- Three by Deb Scudder
- The Mourner by Louise Burgess
- Margot by Marni Appleton
- Pebbles on a Shore by Lynne E Blackwood
- blindfolded minds by Rachel Hawkins
- Phantom habits by Blakeley Bartee
- Dementia’s Mantra by Mike Ferguson
- Pack Animals