Patti’s ex-husband, Brad, hired a balloon artist for the eighth birthday party of their son, Mason, knowing full well that Patti considered balloons a horrible choking hazard. Whenever they came into her house she deflated them at the first opportunity. Brad had seen her do this many times back when he still lived with her — grabbing the ribbons, cutting. It’s safe to say her displacement of parental fears onto inanimate objects had unsettled him.
By the time Mason was about to turn eight, Patti had killed so many balloons that she had developed a certain technique. She knew from experience that if you slice areas where the surface is still taut, the screech or pop might give you away; you must cut into the flaccid part, just above the knot where the neck is tied off. When Patti punctured the membrane, pulling the balloon close to her, air would rush from a hole that, she always noted, looked like a screaming mouth. Yet she felt nothing, no guilt. She liked to consider this a rehearsal; if it were a matter of protecting Mason, perhaps she could execute someone for real.
Her personal record was fourteen in one night. She had snuck through the house with a laundry basket, rounding them up. She then systematically slit each one so nobody heard. At times, Patti wondered whose breath was escaping, but latex balloons were usually full of helium. They often tried to hide from her on the ceiling, but unless they were non-allergenic Mylar—far less insidious than latex—they would have to come down in a day or so. They were often gifts from strangers: waiters, clowns, salespeople, supermarket managers—people who wanted to trick children into quiet compliance. Patti had rolled up the punctured New Year’s balloons in a newspaper and thrown them into the trash barrel in the garage. Two days later, she stood at the kitchen window drinking coffee until she saw them disappear into the maw of the garbage truck.
Balloon animals posed a particular difficulty for Patti. Their disappearance always caused Mason much more emotional distress than the loss of a faceless orb. He granted them the same status as a beloved stuffed animal or action figure. Patti assumed the child’s wondrous experience of watching them blown up and twisted into existence caused such attachment. She dreaded the prospect of Mason’s friends receiving balloon animals at the party celebrating his eighth year of life. They would be fashioned from long tubular balloons the exact dimensions of a windpipe.
Patti guessed Brad had hired the same balloon artist who had given Mason a mermaid one month earlier. The party was at the home of Brad’s friend—his college roommate, who’d naturally sided with Brad after the divorce—to which Brad had brought his girlfriend, Christina. Patti had suspected the existence of a Christina or a Britney or a Kaitlyn, but wasn’t sure until Mason arrived home after the party, high on sugar, clutching his prize.
“That’s cute,” Patti had said when Mason ran into the house to show her the mermaid. She’d known something was off because Brad had expressly forbidden dolls since Mason’s birth. Patti could never bring herself to ask Brad whether he thought playing with a doll could turn a boy gay, because if he had answered yes, that would have meant she had married such a person. Back then, it was easier to comply with the doll ban and not question the reasoning. She took solace in an assumption: as much as Brad must have relished sending Mason home with a balloon, knowing the effect it would have on Patti, he must have suffered in the moment when Mason had asked for a mermaid.
“She looks just like Dad’s friend Christina, only not as pretty, and she has such a beautiful tail!” Mason had said. The mermaid was roughly the same size as an American Girl doll, and its Sharpied-on face featured a mouth that looked like a squished heart, plus long, dark eyelashes over dead eyes. “I named her Tina.”
In that moment Patti had imagined Brad cutting a side deal with the twister to create an adult-sized version of the mermaid—Mylar, for durability—that he could have fun humping when Christina was off at her retail job or with her other sugar daddies.
“Please let me keep her for longer than just one day,” Mason had pleaded. Patti never deflated balloons in front of her son, but he had to know. “See, she doesn’t even float around. She won’t sneak up on you.”
“Sweetie, you know I’m not actually afraid of a balloon sneaking up on me,” Patti had said. “I just think they’re dangerous for children to have.” It was true. Patti was not a clinical globophobe, one who could not even be around balloons; she simply nursed a healthy hatred of anything that might harm Mason, including trampolines, windowless vans, unvaccinated children, hot dogs, pit bulls, and the front passenger seat.
“But I promise I won’t bite her,” Mason had said. Patti had gazed at his pupils dilating with the effort of persuasion. She’d remembered how the similarity between his face and Brad’s used to evoke warm feelings deep within her, but now that feeling had become tinged with something else. She still loved Mason with all of her being, of course, but she couldn’t help thinking that someday he might develop his dad’s capability of breaking her heart. She’d known taking away his mermaid would not stave off this potential change. If anything, it might hasten it.
Mason and Patti had come to an agreement. The mermaid was not allowed to sleep in Mason’s room but could perch atop the television in the living room. This meant it was there with them every night while they ate and watched Jeopardy!. Patti endured its presence because, contrary to what she’d told Mason, she felt a need to keep an eye on Tina.
One night, after putting Mason to bed, Patti tried to watch a movie, but realized she was unable to do anything but stare at the mermaid’s belly button. She wondered whether mermaids were born like mammals. Where were their vaginas, anyway? Understandably, the twister had not made Mason’s version anatomically correct. Patti imagined herself stealing into Brad’s studio apartment, tiptoeing up behind his giant custom-made balloon mermaid, pulling the skin taut round her neck, and slicing, cradling her close as the air released. She knew this would not bring Brad back, or even make her feel any better, but she would do it anyway, given the chance.
As the weeks passed, the peach and green flesh of Mason’s balloon mermaid deflated, withering, crinkling. Her perky little bikini top sagged, too: a reminder of the impermanence of youthful beauty.
By the time the eighth birthday party rolled around, Tina’s shriveled carcass still sat atop the TV, just a few feet away from the balloon artist, whom Patti noted was mercifully not also a clown. When the twister handed Mason’s friends their frogs, dinosaurs, and butterflies, they all licked them, hoping they’d taste like giant jelly beans. Children also love to chew on the knots. Patti shuddered and reminded herself to point out to Brad that the balloon guy had inflated most of them by mouth. Brad was sitting right there on the couch while this was going on, but Patti knew he’d never notice such a thing. He fiddled with his phone, half-heartedly pretending to help her supervise the mayhem.
Brad got up when Patti, a plate of cake in each hand, pointed out that it was finally Mason’s turn. Patti assumed Mason went last because she had trained him to be such a little gentleman. She hadn’t considered that he waited as long as possible because of how uncomfortable his mother would become once he had his balloon in hand.
As Brad watched Mason approach the balloon artist, he saw the desiccated mermaid on the TV and said “Hey Mason, that one’s gonna melt onto your set.”
“I named her Tina,” Mason said.
“You what?” Brad said.
“Help me hand these out,” Patti said, giving Brad the two plates and hoping he had noticed how no amount of Botox could help the pretty little mermaid now.
“What shape do you want?” the balloon artist asked Mason. The boy paused before responding, looking at his mother.
“Go ahead, sweetie, it’s your big day,” Patti said. She meant it, although it came out sounding sarcastic. She blamed Brad’s presence for souring her encouragement and squeezed Mason’s shoulders to make herself seem more sincere. He seemed to relax.
“What’s black and white and red all over?” the boy asked the twister.
“A newspaper?” the guy guessed. “A penguin in a blender? I can’t...”
“The leg of a zebra that my lion is eating for breakfast!” Mason said, with a gleam in his eye.
Even Patti had to admit, this balloon artist was a master of his medium. He gave the lion a glorious latex mane, then twisted a white tube between its front paws, drawing a single hoof and black zebra stripes on it. He finished it off by scribbling red ink onto the supposedly severed end.
After Patti gave the twister some cake and Brad gave him a check, he pulled away in his sparkly windowless van. She retreated to the kitchen to clean up. Joyous shrieks in the living room confirmed the party’s success, as did Mason’s delight with his zebra-eating lion. Brad walked into the kitchen, holding the lion gently and marveling at its complexity. For a split second Patti’s view of him as a deceitful manipulative asshole almost softened.
“You need to be out there in case their parents come. I don’t want them to think I’d leave the kids unsupervised,” Patti said.
“Look, Patti, I’m sorry,” Brad said. This was the worst case scenario of all — the warm and humble Brad appearing, the Brad who would never hurt her, who had maybe even changed for the better. “Mason said I should hold this for him, and I just now remembered you can’t stand…”
Just then, the zebra leg deflated with a soft psssssss. Brad froze.
Patti gasped. She couldn’t even look at Brad as she snatched the twisted mess from him.
Exhaling all her breath, she felt like crumpling into a pile, mourning that little white balloon, which she had hated just moments before —which she had hated almost as much as the mermaid—which she had hated almost as much as Christina, and Brad, and herself for yet again failing to protect Mason from the heartbreak of loss.
Then the doorbell rang. The first parent arriving gave Patti a jolt and she decided she could not have one of the other mothers find her in a deflated heap on the kitchen floor.
She could not reinflate the lion’s leg, but she realized she could fix it. She went straight to Mason in the living room, handed him the lion, and said, “It might look like the white balloon popped, but really, the lion bit it with his sharp teeth.”
Mason paused for a moment, then nodded. He lifted his balloon high up in front of him. “The lion really ate it!” he proclaimed. He was truly king of his friends for the day.
When the guests had all departed, Mason placed his new sculpture next to the dried-up mermaid. He glanced at his mother for approval, and she forced a smile and nod. She had regretted not negotiating an exit strategy for Tina the mermaid, and vowed to come up with a safer substitute for the lion as soon as possible.
That night, Patti peeled Tina off the TV. She folded the mermaid into a paper plate with a half-eaten slice of cake. Green globs of frosting oozed out.