Flash Fiction Challenge 100 – Day 69
Uh, oh, I may have made a mistake here.
Okay, okay, breathe, I remind myself, leaning over the railing of the balloon’s basket. Below us, the Taos Valley is so achingly beautiful it wounds me.
It was a gorgeous fall day in central New Mexico. I had been staying (okay, hiding) in a rented stucco house. I had come here to finish my third novel. In one of the most productive periods of my life, I finished it three weeks early.
I wasn’t ready to return to Texas, so I looked for activities I might enjoy with my free time. I planned to still write in the morning and evenings, but that left a lot of free time to fill. So I hiked, went antique shopping, and took tours.
Dawn’s Daring Delights caught my eye during a GOOGLE search of ‘fun things to do in central New Mexico once you’ve finished writing your third novel.’ I’m pretty sure the last bit wasn’t necessary.
Dawn’s Daring Delights was a hot-air balloon tour business that offered daily trips over the Rio Grande Gorge. ‘Come see the unparalleled panoramas of the Taos Valley,’ the website said.
I booked one ticket for the following morning’s tour, then did some laundry in the house I’d rented for the last two months of summer. I needed to be presentable; the package mentioned something about post-flight champagne.
It wasn’t clear how many tourists each trip took, and as a major introvert, I would most likely bail once the trip was over, but one never knows.
When I arrived at the launch site, things seemed perfect. There were only three of us that had booked the tour. The three of us, plus Dawn, the owner and operator of the operation, made four. The couple seemed nice enough and were chatting with Dawn with what I felt was an acceptable level of energy.
Great. The three of them can get all chummy down here, then they can be the best of pals during the flight, and I can be free to enjoy the view and the cool fall air.
The couple, Ken (38) and Marie (37), were celebrating their 15th anniversary. They had been college sweethearts, and he had opened a construction company that built customized decks. “The customized deck business was booming in New Mexico,” Ken told us, grinning.
“Hello,” Ken says into his phone.
I had hoped this might be a phone-free experience. Oh well.
“Uh-huh,” he says.
I don’t know what’s happening, but I’m nervous now. I want to say I don’t know why but I would be lying.
“Okay, we’ll be there in an hour. Tell mom and uncle Keith we are on our way, please,” Ken says and hangs up.
“Bad news?” Dawn says.
The hot-air balloon business might not be doing as well as the custom deck business; she’s about to have two cancellations.
“Unfortunately, yes. My mom just fell and broke her hip. I’m afraid we have to cancel this morning.”
Dawn pulls out her payment box, opens it, and begins extracting their payment.
“No, please. Keep it. It was a joy just meeting you, and we’ll be back as soon as we can,” Marie says.
“I couldn’t. That feels like an act of God thing. What are the insurance carriers call it?” Dawn says.
“No. Keep it, please,” Ken says.
Marie clears her throat. Something passes between the two of them.
“Oh right! I almost forgot. And take this too, please. Do people tip? After the tour, I mean?”
Ken pushes several folded bills into Dawn’s hand, and the thing is done.
No, no, no. Please no. I think.
Our foursome just halved in size.
Dawn smiles broadly, wipes at her eye, composes herself, resigned to this spontaneous act of generosity. She hugs them both fiercely.
“Well, it looks like it’s just the two of us now. Are you okay with that?” Dawn asks me.
No, I have this thing do, and I forgot to do it, the thing earlier, when I had the time to do the thing, and I should probably go do the thing now before, argh.
“Yes, it’ll be fine, I’m sure,” I lie.
But I’m an introvert. Please don’t expect me to talk much?
I sigh as I see Ken and Marie’s BMW turn south out of the launch site while Roberto’s F-150 heads north.
“Roberto will follow us from the ground, taking pictures, and meet us at one of our three potential landing sites,” she says despite having said the same thing earlier when there were three of us.
I want to enjoy the view, lady. I will not attack you. Please don’t be nervous.
Roberto drives away from the launch site as we gently rise into the sharp blue sky.
The views are phenomenal. Dawn proves herself to be not only an excellent pilot but an astute judge of character. She senses my inner nature and contorts herself gracefully to meet me where I am.
“We normally save this stuff for the end of the trip, but I sense you could use a glass now?” Dawn says to me, holding a bottle of champagne in one hand, two glasses in the other, one eyebrow arched comically high.
What’s the worst thing that could happen?
“Sure,” I say after several seconds, during which the eyebrow remains raised.
“Oh, I love this song,” Dawn says.
I do too.
The bluetooth speakers have some serious competition with the sound of the wind up here, but it’s still strangely pleasant. I feel myself falling into nostalgia.
‘It was a pretty picture.
It almost made me cry.
He’s got big imagination.
It’s better than real life’.
David Byrne is a goddamn poet. I feel a tear exit my eye. Probably the wind.
Dawn dances. Whatever attraction I felt for her earlier (and why I was sorry Ken and Marie left) just quadrupled. I studiously ignore her dancing about in the tiny balloon basket.
“Come on,” she says to me, pulling me out, drawing me in. “Dance with me? It’s a gorgeous day, and thanks to Ken’s tip, I now have rent for two months.”
But…, my excuse dies before it’s born.
I step forward, take her in my arms. She wants to lead, so I let her. Then she wordlessly passes control back to me. We move together well.
I wonder how powerful Roberto’s cameras are. What the nature of their relationship might be.
“Let’s dance some more,” she says to me. “It feels good to dance in the air, doesn’t it?”
For a guy who didn’t expect or desire a lot of conversation today, I surprise myself. We talk about everything, about the state of the world, our pasts. I’m not selling anything today. I have no agenda. So I show it all to her. Maybe I want to scare her away. Or maybe I’m tired of slinking around, suffused in shame by my past, by who I am. This is me.
I tell her about attending college in the eighties, about my time in the Air Force. She tells me about her brief stint as a fashion photographer, how she had missed the beauty of New Mexico and left New York to start a hot-air balloon company. She tells me about Roberto, how they are good friends after a failed marriage.
In the end, we show the other all our cards. Neither of us has agenda here today. We are a few years north of 50. We aren’t looking for anything permanent. By this point, we’ve told ourselves that lie so many times we believe it — almost.
I’m always doing this. Two hours with a beautiful woman, and I’m smitten. Honestly, I’ve got some peculiar addiction to love.
‘You know sometime you’re bound to leave her, but for now you’re going to stay – In the year of the cat,’ floats out her wireless speaker.
Despite myself, I want this woman. She’s adjusting the fire thingy, which keeps us afloat high in the sky.
When she turns back to me, I will kiss her, I think. If she slaps me, I will apologize profusely and return to my self-sufficient introvert default setting. I turn to soak up the magnificent view.
I feel her shifting behind me.
I turn away from the railing, but before I can do anything, she kisses me.