The fairgrounds in Battle Creek were soft from an overnight shower. Tires left impressions where trucks had driven over the field. Nora could see where a vehicle had gotten stuck in a ditch, spinning its wheels and opening a gash in the earth. Her shoes were little more than slippers. She walked carefully, leaping over puddles. On more than one occasion, though, she misjudged the terrain and landed in a soft spot, sinking into a pool of dirty water. More than likely, her shoes would be ruined.
Nora was meeting her stepdaughter, Chelsea, at the Ferris wheel. Chelsea was a rising junior at Michigan State. She was staying in East Lansing for the summer. She had landed an internship working for a political campaign, and it was an all-consuming job. Except for one weekend in June, she hadn’t had the opportunity to visit her home in suburban Detroit, even though it was only an hour’s drive. Chelsea didn’t know that Nora and David, her father, separated two weeks ago.
Originally, Nora bought the tickets for her and David. Things had been rough for a while, but she hadn’t expected that it would have disintegrated to this extent, where they couldn’t spend fifteen minutes together without arguing. There was no way she was going to go on a hot air balloon ride with him, stuck together in a basket thousands of feet in the air. When Nora invited Chelsea, she made an excuse for her father, claiming he had to work. Probably he would work. Still, when she and David decided not to tell Chelsea about the separation (the first thing they had agreed about in weeks), it had felt like the right decision. It was wise, waiting to see if they’re able to work things out. But the omission was turning into a lie.
Chelsea hadn’t exactly jumped at the opportunity. When she agreed, it felt like a concession to the parent who sent extra money for work clothes and going out with friends. Nora wasn’t Chelsea’s mother, but she had been married to David for over a decade and had known Chelsea since she was seven. She could tell when something was wrong. There was a timbre in her stepdaughter’s voice, high pitched with the slightest quiver, that betrayed her when she wasn’t telling the truth.
“Are you sure?” Nora had asked.
“Yes. Definitely. It sounds fun.”
The festivities included an air show and a small carnival. It was early evening, and the carnival had yet to pick up. Rides were running, but most of the seats were unoccupied, the benches swinging and swaying without passengers. A biplane flew overhead, dipping and diving, spouting trails of smoke. The sun floated between clouds. It was impossible to look into the sky. She tried, but even with sunglasses, her vision blurred with tears. Although it had rained, the humidity hadn’t broken, and she was sweating.
Several balloon teams were already in the field, pick-up trucks and covered trailers spaced out on the muddy lawn. Balloons and baskets waited in the stifling heat of the metal trailers.
Nora had obsessed over balloons for the past few months, starting with a friend’s videos and pictures on Facebook. She must have watched dozens of launch videos on YouTube. She found the whole thing fascinating.
It starts with a basket lying prone on its side with the material of the balloon stretched out over the grass like a dead man. But when the pilot starts the fan, the thing stirs to life. When the balloon is filled, the cold air fan is replaced with the burner. The burner roars, shooting flame, and the temperature rises inside the balloon. Until, finally, it happens. The balloon pivots, the balloon and basket standing upright. Full of energy, the balloon tugs at its tethers, eager to fly. And this was all before the launch even took place, which might be the greatest moment of all—the big, beautiful apparatus released from the ground and forging its way into the sky.
It was such a marvelous contradiction, this thing that was machine and not machine, playful and also serious, majestic and at the same time, incredibly fragile. If you thought about it, the whole thing was crazy, traveling thousands of feet into the air in a basket, which hangs from a balloon that is powered by an open flame. And yet the flight is serene.
Nora had a tendency to obsess. A couple of years before, it was speech recognition software. A friend at work mentioned how far the technology had come, how she used it for journal entries and voice memos. Immediately, Nora started researching the latest products, buying a premium package within a couple of days. She installed the software on her laptop and spent hours talking into the microphone, watching her thoughts appear as words on the screen. After the speech recognition software, it was the hybrid mattress, which did help them sleep better until David moved to the guest bedroom and then to a hotel.
Now it was hot air balloons.
Chelsea was leaning against a picnic table when Nora found her. Chelsea was little, barely five feet and cute as a button. Nora was five-ten. And, of course, that was tall, but most of the time, she felt normal-tall. Around Chelsea, she felt like a giant. When they embraced, Chelsea’s head tucked into Nora’s shoulder, a maneuver that kept Chelsea’s face from landing in her stepmom’s breasts.
Chelsea was smart enough to wear boots and was unconcerned with the mud. She led the way as they searched for their launch site, Nora following along in her silly flats. The company was called Magical Adventures™ with a logo of a balloon falling over a horizon like a setting sun. Nora was a graphic artist by trade. She worked for a large credit union, designing publications and web content, and she was fussy about logos. This one was amateurish. It was too busy, and the name was all wrong. It made her think of Disney World, and she didn’t want fantasy. She wanted something real. She wanted to hear the flame burn, that crash of sound. She wanted to feel the sway of the basket as it jumped away from the ground, a pit opening up in her stomach.
The pilot, Eric, was sitting in his truck, doors hanging open. The trailer was open, too, and they could see the basket, and the balloon fabric, overflowing its bag. Seeing it in-person, she was struck by the fact that it was, in fact, a giant woven basket—that someone had woven these huge reeds, an inch in diameter, through spokes the size of saplings, making a basket that was big enough and strong enough to carry three full-grown adults into the sky.
“I’m glad you were able to come,” Nora said. “Did you skip out early?”
“Well, when they aren’t paying you . . .”
They were paying Chelsea for data entry and social media stuff, but canvassing and stuffing envelopes was voluntary. She was more worn out than Nora’d anticipated and seemed irritated. The mismatched women, Nora a full head taller, leaned back against the trailer and watched the biplane complete its routine. It turned a reverse somersault, a loop-de-loop worthy of a roller coaster.
Soon Eric and his two-man crew were preparing to fly. They lifted the basket out of the trailer and removed the balloon from its bag. Nora and Chelsea jumped in to help, each grabbing an edge of the heavy nylon, working to unfurl the balloon. Eric, Nora noticed, was keeping an eye on Chelsea. It happened all the time—men looking at her stepdaughter. At least Eric was discreet.
As it filled with air, Nora circled the balloon. It was so strange seeing the giant balloon up close, hearing the blast of the burner, watching the balloon slowly rise. She was lost in the moment, taking video with her phone, when she heard Eric calling.
Chelsea was climbing into the basket when Nora arrived. Eric gave Chelsea a hand, although she didn’t need it. He turned his attention to the balloon when Nora approached, assuming she could manage on her own.
Finally, they were standing in the basket, she and Chelsea and Eric, the balloon a giant cavern above them. The colors were crisp: linen white, pollen orange, crab-apple red. The balloon was never completely still. It was a boat in the harbor, rocking in place.
A crowd had grown. Groups of people were walking through the field, looking at the balloons and chatting with the pilots. A few spectators gathered when Eric started the fan, and more came when he lit the burner. By the time they were ready to launch—the first balloon of the evening!—a crowd of about thirty stood around them on the matted grass. The huge balloon cast a shadow over the onlookers.
Chelsea had this particular look on her face, the look she got when she discovered some new aspect of the world. When they walked to the edge of the Grand Canyon and saw the unbelievable distances, down to the Colorado River at the bottom of the gorge, to the rim on the opposite side. When, on the same trip, Old Faithful erupted, right on schedule, and then when a herd of buffalo crossed the road in front of them, just a few feet from their car. And then there were the cultural experiences, when she discovered the Beatles and Michael Jackson; and the movies: Shawshank, Caddyshack, Star Wars. It was that same look: This exists? This is possible?
It took Nora a moment before she realized that they were moving. The basket quaked. She grabbed onto the rim and saw that the ground was retreating. She looked all around, taking it in—the launch team leaning against the big truck, watching; the inside of the balloon, giant above her head; and then, finally, the group of spectators in an unkempt semi-circle, which was when she thought she saw David in the back of the crowd. She was just about to tell Chelsea when she realized that it wasn’t him, after all, just a man of a similar height and build, wearing a Tigers hat like the one David often wore.
She had invited him over the day before, hoping they could have lunch, spend time together, and not argue. She hid the divorce papers in the bottom drawer of her dresser, underneath her folded jeans.
When he arrived, she handed him a beer. He used a bottle opener that he kept stuck to the fridge and set the cap on the counter. There was already a patch of sweat in the middle of his shirt, and he started right in on his latest talking-point: counseling. With David, everything was a negotiation. He was a high school debate champion turned lawyer, and she knew all of his tactics. Raising the ask and negotiating back down, clouding the primary issue with side-issues, and, most relevant to their separation, persisting in making the same point, over and over and over.
She threw away the cap and leaned back against the countertop. On the one hand, she felt as if they should go to counseling. She wanted to be able to say that she tried everything. And who knew? Maybe a counselor would be able to somehow, magically, heal the rift that had opened up between them—between the wife who wanted to have a baby and the husband who didn’t. At this point, though, reconciliation was hard to imagine. She was forty-two years old, and even if David changed his mind, it was probably too late—too late to get pregnant and too late to forgive him for dragging his feet. For that matter, she didn’t think she could forgive herself for letting it happen, for failing to draw the line when she was in her thirties and there was still time.
She placed her palms against the counter and felt the cool in the granite, obstinate against the humidity. David was saying that the problem with their marriage was a lack of effort.
“You always make me out to be the problem,” she said.
“I didn’t say you were the problem. I said that we aren’t trying hard enough.”
“That’s hilarious,” she said.
David kept going. He finished his speech and then cocked his head. He was waiting for her gambit, in order to properly measure his counterattack.
“You think everything can be solved by negotiation,” she said, “but this isn’t a debate, David. This isn’t something you can talk your way around.”
“I want to work on things. I’m talking about engaging in a process, Nora.”
“This is why we can’t go on the balloon ride together, because we’ll just argue the whole time.”
David went to mow the lawn, and she advanced the laundry. When she returned to the kitchen, she could see him working outside. He had taken off his shirt, revealing his white skin and shallow chest. She had touched that body so many times, and yet, at the moment, it felt like a distant memory.
She rinsed out an insulated water bottle and filled it with ice water. Then she walked out to the deck and put the water bottle in the slatted shade of the balusters, pointing it out to David with a wave. He kept mowing, circling the backyard, turning right again and again and again. His skin looked slippery, his jeans soaked.
When she and David first started dating, Chelsea was seven. They would sit on the deck with glasses of wine and Chelsea would play in the water, yelling “Look at me!” And they would yell, “We see you!”
One time, in a moment of inspiration, David ran down the steps and vaulted into the spray. He grabbed Chelsea and hung her upside down over the sprinkler, the girl laughing hysterically. Then, as he set her down, he slipped and fell into a puddle. Grass clippings stuck to his face and hair. His jeans and shirt clung to his skin. Nora laughed so hard. He was a single father who never seemed overwhelmed by the difficulty of his situation. David rarely talked about Elizabeth, his ex, and whenever Nora questioned him, wondering how he could be so tolerant, he would say: “It’s worse for her. Believe me.”
The balloon rose, and they could soon see the whole fairground. There were another half-dozen balloons, their crews in various stages of preparation, readying to fly. There were people on the Ferris wheel, the top of which they were about to eclipse. Across the street, strip malls and big box stores flattened into two-dimensional squares and rectangles. Things on the ground, its people and trees and buildings, were shrinking, even as the earth stretched out before her, the horizon growing wider and wider. The breeze was light, and the only way to tell they were moving was the balloon’s shadow skipping across the ground below.
“God,” she said.
“Holy shit,” Chelsea said.
They were riding an invisible current.
“Three thousand feet,” Eric said. “A good height.”
She was thinking about David. From this height, even her anger felt small and distant. For months now, she had been thinking about her marriage as if it had been a mistake, as if David was nothing but a wrong turn. But now, with her arm around Chelsea, she admitted to herself that, given the choice, she would do it all over again.
For fifteen minutes they drifted along, looking down at the world: towns, rivers, highways. Eric explained how he could control the path of the balloon by rising or sinking into different currents.
“It’s nothing like steering,” he said, “but we have our tricks.”
When Eric stopped talking, though, she noticed that Chelsea was quiet. Her eyes were red.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
Chelsea didn’t respond right away. Eric fired the torch, and, for a moment, there was nothing but the sound of gas exploding into flame. There was a burst of heat. She felt it in her eyes and neck. When the burn was over, it was still.
“I know something’s going on with you and Dad,” she said.
Nora stared into the distance. Assuming the wind was heading straight east, they would be heading toward Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti, and beyond that Detroit and Lake St. Claire.
“We’re separated,” she said.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
The idea had been to protect her, but now that she was asked to defend the decision, she realized it was absurd. The real reason, the naked truth, was that she didn’t want to face her own greatest fear: that divorcing David would mean losing Chelsea. David was her father, the one person who had always been, and would always be, in her life. What if Elizabeth finally got her act together? Nora’d heard stories of young adults becoming fascinated with their birth mothers and pushing away the women who had stepped in to raise them, who had cleaned up the spills and the vomit, socked away money into a college savings account, laid down the law when necessary, monitored social media accounts, and warned her away from wrong kinds of friends. The absent mother didn’t have to fight the battles of adolescence, never had to be the enforcer.
“I don’t know,” Nora said, but Chelsea turned away, back to the west, where they had come from. This was when Nora noticed the bank of dark clouds rolling in, quickly overtaking them.
“I don’t like the look of that,” Eric said.
He picked up his C.B. and called the team back on the ground.
“We’re worried about weather up here,” he said. “Dark clouds and it feels like the temperature’s dropping.” He was wearing a baseball hat with the Magical Adventures logo, and he took it off for a moment, combed his hair with his fingers, and slid it back onto his head.
The wind was definitely stronger; goose bumps were spreading across Nora’s arms. There was nothing on the radar, though; the closest visible storm was over eastern Wisconsin, three hundred miles away.
“I’m not taking any chances.” Eric turned his attention to captaining the balloon, but before he did, he again looked at Chelsea, his eyes scrolling over her body. It was getting darker, but Nora could still see his eyes.
He released air through an opening in the top of the balloon and announced that they were descending, though the change wasn’t obvious. They continued their course through the sky, adrift in the heavens.
Eric chose this time to start a conversation. Probably, he was trying to project calm. He asked what they thought about their first balloon ride.
“It’s pretty great,” Nora said. “So far.”
Eric asked Chelsea if she was a college student.
She explained her status: rising junior, summer internship, plans to become a political consultant.
“That’s interesting,” Eric said, and he launched into a story about a friend of his who worked for the former democratic governor and current republican speaker of the house. “It isn’t about ideology. It’s about getting things done,” he added.
“Definitely,” Chelsea agreed.
Nora was annoyed, first of all, that Eric was preaching at Chelsea about politics. But even more so, she felt left out. It was pathetic, but she was jealous. She was about to be a single woman, and this middle-age man was heaping all of his attention on her twenty-year-old daughter. She turned away from the conversation and looked over the edge of the basket. They were, in fact, losing altitude. The tops of the tallest trees were now just a couple hundred feet below them.
“I hate to interrupt,” she said.
Eric checked his altimeter and then fired the burner. He picked up the C.B. and said, “Looking for a landing spot.”
The crew was worried about weather now, too. There still wasn’t anything on the radar, but the barometric pressure was dropping.
“Hey, did you feel that?” Chelsea asked.
A light rain started. First, it was just a few drops. Sporadic raindrops became a sprinkle, and then it was raining, a gentle shower that coated their necks and arms. Nora asked Eric if the rain was a problem.
“It’s not great, but we have an experienced team. We’ll deal with it.” Again, he picked up the radio and gave their position.
Nora wrapped her arm around Chelsea, rubbing her shoulder. They were both shivering.
The team identified a landing spot, a hay field up ahead. But it had turned dark. The setting sun was buried behind a bank of dark clouds, rain was falling, and it was difficult to see what was happening beneath them. They would have to rely on the guidance from the crew driver below and make a nearly blind landing.
“You’ve done this before?” Nora asked. In reply, Eric stoked the burner, a long blast, to check their progress. He was managing their descent, but there was another consequence to the burn: the flame, a giant torch, lit up the world around them. And for just a moment she could see it all—a road at their left, a big open field ahead, but right before the field, a row of trees, their leaves flashing white in the surge of light. She didn’t think they were high enough.
“Look!” she shouted.
The three of them ducked inside the basket, bracing as they crashed through a tree. She heard twigs breaking—scraping and snapping—but the balloon didn’t stop. The basket tipped, leaning, while the balloon surged ahead of them, but then it broke free and, like a pendulum, swung back to center—the weight of the passengers serving as ballast.
“Everyone okay?” Chelsea seemed startled, her palms pressed against the bottom of the basket. Nora, though, wanted to see what was happening. Even while it was still rocking, she grabbed the edge of the basket and pulled herself to her feet. They were fifty feet high, if that, and dropping fast.
She gripped the basket with one hand, held onto Chelsea with the other, and waited.
Eric lit the burner again, another flash of light. They were about to land in the middle of the clearing. The ground was rushing past them like a river. She could sense it, the power of all that momentum.
The impact sent Nora flying. She was tossed backward into the basket, headfirst. She struck the crown of her head, but before she was able to consider her injuries, she was thrown again, utterly compelled by the force of the collision. This time, she landed against Chelsea. They were a tangle of limbs.
The basket was still moving, but now she heard voices. The landing team had caught them. Eventually, the balloon stopped. Eric leapt to his feet, releasing air from the vent, allowing the balloon to settle to the ground.
There was pain in her head and neck, but it was muted by adrenaline. Chelsea was moaning.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
The landing crew repeated Nora’s question. “Are you okay? Is everyone okay?”
“I think . . .” Chelsea said.
Nora climbed out of the basket. With help, Chelsea made it too, falling into the arms of the landing team.
Nora was dizzy, and she sat on the ground next to the basket with Chelsea. The rain had stopped. She heard one of the crew members tell Eric, “You’re one lucky son of a bitch.” It wasn’t a graceful landing by any stretch, but it could have been a lot worse.
Both of the crew’s vehicles were running, their headlights casting a spray of light over the scene, drawing long shadows with sharp edges. For a few minutes, they watched as the crew members forced the remaining air out of the balloon. Nora was exhausted, but she wanted to get Chelsea out of the cold. “Okay, girl,” she said. “Let’s get you someplace warm.”
“I’m okay. For real.”
Nora helped Chelsea to her feet. Hunching down, she put her arm around Chelsea’s middle, the two of them lumbering toward the trucks like an awkward, four-legged animal, coping with the uneven ground as best they could.
“Look at my shoes,” Nora said. She laughed. They were drenched in mud and completely destroyed.
They were ten feet from the truck when Chelsea stopped. “I’m so dizzy,” she said.
Nora was holding her upright, and she could tell that Chelsea was done walking. She knelt down, laced one hand under her knees, one under her back, and picked her up.
As little as Chelsea was, she was still an adult woman, and it was all Nora could do to hold on to her. She leaned back, centering the weight on her hips, moving one step at a time. As she reached the door, her legs trembled, and she practically dropped her as she set her down. In the end, it was Chelsea who climbed into the truck, grabbing hold of a seat belt and dragging herself into the cab.
Nora’s head hurt, and her legs felt weak as she leaned against the door. It was cold and wet. She stuck her hands into her pockets, and for a moment, she watched the men work, watched them feed the fabric into its bag, like a snake crawling into a hole. They were calling out to one another, giving directions. That was when it struck her: it was over. Tears welled up in her eyes, gratitude overflowing.
Nora settled into her seat, and Chelsea lay her head in her lap. There was a kink in her neck. In the morning, she would be sore all over; she could already tell. She would be angry, too. But, at least for the moment, as she stroked Chelsea’s head with the tips of her fingers, she felt something else. Bliss.
She had heard mothers talk about how, after labor and childbirth were over, the newborn laid on their chest, the agony melted away. They had passed through the storm. They were beaten and bruised. But none of that mattered.
“Sweet, sweet girl,” she said. And she leaned over and kissed her bare arm, which was still cool and wet.
“Mom,” Chelsea said, burrowing into her lap.
The first time Chelsea called her Mom was some time after she and David were married. It had taken all of Nora’s restraint just to hope it would come naturally. And then, one day, finally, she said it: “Mom, what is there for breakfast?” The smallest thing, such a little word.
Outside, the men were still working. By now, the sun had fallen low in the sky, but it was pushing through the clouds again, bringing a surge of light. A sort of dawn and day’s last gasp, all at the same time.