Two hundred people milled about the conference room, holding strings attached to coloured balloons. Some sat in the rows of chairs facing an empty stage. They shot looks at the back corner, an area reserved for the Station, which resembled an oversized voting booth draped in black gabardine. Those with gold balloons thronged the water table and flashed their teeth at the clear balloons, who had come to the Trip for the first time.
Becky Talbot sat in a front-row seat, the string of her blue balloon knotted to the top button of her beige acrylic cardigan. The balloon bobbed each time she took a breath. She smiled at nearby clear balloons, proud of them for risking primo seats. When she was a clear balloon, she’d huddled at the back, her purse between her ankles, self-conscious about taking up too much space or brushing against someone. Back then, though her body did take up space, Becky herself did not. Now all of Becky took up space. She didn’t mind if her hip grazed the arm of the small woman with the long chocolate curls to her left or the track pants of the blobby man to her right. We are all one! There was no better position in the room to experience the Trip. Becky had made a point of arriving forty-five minutes early and hustling straight to front-row centre when the doors opened. Chocolate Curls and Blobby Man had done the same. She loved them for it because We are all one! Sometimes, for strength, she mouthed the rhyme I have won!
Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” played on speakers wired into the ceiling corners. Becky jived in her seat. Balloons bounced as people got comfy. Next, several gold balloons filed onto the stage, rolling a blackboard on wheels. Some, like Becky, had tied the balloons to a button or a zipper slider. The rest of the gold balloons followed, carrying long mirrors. They stood in a line, the mirrors at arm’s length like offerings or shields. Behind them strode Jerry, a tall, white-haired Texan in a tan suit. Jerry paused on the steps until the song reached its crescendo. Then he roared, “CHANGE!” in unison with the gospel choir on the track. Becky shivered and resisted jumping to her feet in case Jerry demoted her to a clear balloon, a consequence for those who disrespected the Trip. Two gold balloons flipped the blackboard to reveal CHANGE! written on the other side. The rest parted for Jerry, then receded to the back of the stage. Jerry beamed smiles at the room as he positioned himself by the left microphone.
He welcomed the clear balloons (Baggage) and marched them through the Stages of the Station in short order. Blue balloons (Kiosks) waited outside the Station door. Red balloons (Platforms) had entered the Station. Silver balloons (Passengers) had survived one Trip. Gold balloons (Conductors) had taken multiple Trips. When Jerry asked for a volunteer, Becky shot up her arm. Launching yourself onto the Trip was the fastest way to get your gold balloon. Though Becky grinned and made eye contact, Jerry chose Blobby Man, who smirked as he bounded up the stairs to the right of the stage. Taking the mic firmly in hand, he said, “Hi, Jerry!” Blobby Man clutched a red balloon. Becky sighed and arranged her face to reflect tolerance.
“What is your question?” Jerry said, his own face a crinkle of wily concern.
“I want to meet someone to love me. I have a lot of love to give and nobody to give it to. It’s my co-worker Linda. She has the cubicle next to mine. I can hear her through the walls talking to her husband on the phone, arguing with him and crying. I want to come around the wall and offer her a hug, so why wouldn’t that be okay? But we’re not allowed to do that, are we? We’re not allowed to touch anybody unless they say okay, unless we ask and they say okay, so we ask, we suck it up and we ask, and they don’t say okay, of course, they think we’re cuckoo bananas.”
He raised an eyebrow at Becky, whose thigh had transcended the boundaries of their chairs moments earlier and bumped his. Jerry placed the chairs so close together for a reason! Jerry designed the floor plan. He set up the room the best way to bring the truth to everyone who took the Trip. Becky didn’t dare wink, wouldn’t give Blobby Man the idea she was easy. Instead, she brightened her smile a few watts and awaited Jerry’s coaching.
“What’s your name?” Jerry said.
“Ronald.” The man sniffed hard.
“Ronald, what love are you giving to you, to Ronald? I don’t hear any love coming from Ronald to Ronald.” Jerry said I like Aaah. “Who will love Ronald if Ronald doesn’t love Ronald? Who?” Jerry turned to the crowd. Hands pumped the air, several holding balloons. Becky threw her arm up. Jerry pointed at her.
“Nobody!” she said.
“Stand!” said Jerry.
“Nobody!” said Becky. She stepped to the right, in front of Ronald’s old chair.
“Speak up!” Jerry said. “Come to the microphone.”
Becky obeyed, opening and closing her fists as she trotted up the stairs. She resisted the urge to flick a superior glance at Ronald, who had crossed his arms and taken a step backwards.
“Nobody will love Ronald,” she said into the microphone.
“Unless . . . ?” Jerry said.
Becky seized her moment. “Unless Ronald loves Ronald. Unless Ronald gets that we are all one! Ronald has to love Ronald, and Linda has to love Linda, because Linda doesn’t! Linda doesn’t love Linda. Ronald and Linda are all one anyway, so if Ronald loves Ronald, and Linda loves Linda, then they will naturally love each other because they are loving themselves.” Annoyance flashed across Jerry’s face. Becky’s face burned with effort. She pushed her thinning hair behind her ears. She shouldn’t have revealed the Motto to the clear balloons. The gold balloons straightened, noses raised, as if anticipating her punishment, sniffing out her demotion. Jerry had doled out penalties for lesser offences than hers. She went concave with shame.
But Jerry turned his back to her and extolled the crowd: “And who are y’all? Y’all are one!”
Becky sighed with relief. She stepped back beside Ronald.
This pattern continued until nine volunteers huddled behind a tenth, a slight man named Ivan with bunched-up blackened teeth and skin like a sun-deprived lizard. Jerry had them assemble before the mirrors and punch-punch the air with each fist. The room joined together for a chanted rendition of Jackson’s lyrics: “Take a look at yourself and then make a CHANGE!” Then the volunteers turned to exit the stage. On their way down, a gold balloon popped each of their balloons with an oversized push-pin.
Becky stumbled on the last step and grabbed at the sleeve of Ronald’s khaki shirt. He turned with a snarl, then his face lifted as the people nearby watched, rapt. Was Ronald boyfriend material? Becky had asked the same question about every male she’d met since grade two. Usually she answered no. Yet a man like Ronald could firm up his blobs at the gym. And he had shown up for the Trip, hadn’t he? He had volunteered for the stage. He raised his eyebrow at her even after her thigh had transgressed against his sweatpants.
At times Becky felt like a Linda, oblivious to the Ronalds who might love her but were too afraid to ask for a hug. But Ronald said Linda had refused his hug. Becky could also relate to that. More often, Becky felt like a Ronald. She spread her arms wide.
“Ronald,” she said. “May I give you a hug?”
Though Jerry prohibited side-talk, many participants carried on whispered conversations with their neighbours regardless. Conversations about Becky. About Ronald. The whispers intensified. Becky was about to create a moment. Maybe she would go up two balloon colours!
Ronald opened his arms too, leaning back. They embraced, soft body meeting soft body, as tightly as they could for a long moment. The room caught its breath. Then Ronald turned away. Was he her boyfriend now? Becky thought so. Like Ronald, she had come here to find out why nobody loved her. And look! She had helped Ronald act better than Linda!
The volunteers continued down the centre aisle, toward the Station at the back of the auditorium, where several more gold balloons waited. As the line progressed, Becky’s eyes went all half-lidded. She pictured herself standing on stage with Ronald, their pressed-together limbs festooned with gold balloons, holding up — as one — a round mirror to Jerry, who knelt at their feet, begging them to lead the Trip in singing the “Man in the Mirror” chorus.
A grinning woman filled a silver balloon with helium and gave it to Ronald. He thanked her with a hand on his chest. Becky studied the texture of his khaki shirt, the cotton blend nubby with overwashing. As Ivan inched up behind her, Becky grew cocky with power. She could hug Ivan now, grab herself two boyfriends, wouldn’t that be a gas? Or a problem. One heartfelt hug a day, no more. But why? Why couldn’t Becky’s love overflow into more than one receptacle? Ronald was chatting up the woman who’d passed him his silver balloon. Becky turned to Ivan, arms spread.
“Whaddaya say, Ivan?” she said. “We are all one! Right?”
“Truly?” Ivan said.
“Truly,” said Becky with the wisdom of a woman about to get handed a red balloon.
“I’m here for the wife,” he said. “Though I like it pretty fine.”
Becky dropped her arms, smile in place. Ivan had a wife. Ronald didn’t have a wife. Ronald had a woman he worshipped through a cubicle wall. A woman with a husband! Ronald couldn’t close the deal. Couldn’t start the negotiation. Ivan had met someone, fallen in love, proposed, married. Ivan might have kids! Bad Becky. Inappropriate Becky. Mustn’t want what isn’t yours. Becky huffed. She turned back to the Station, subdued by the taste of her own power, at how easily it could lead her astray. Ronald was still talking to the woman, holding up the line now. She should break up with Ronald. Linda deserved him. Maybe after today, after the hurt of the breakup had subsided, Becky might help Ronald see the error of his attraction to Linda. Becky mustn’t hope, though. As Jerry might say, she needed more time on the Trip before she could manage the armful of boyfriend material that was Ronald.
Becky entered the Station as Ronald walked away without a glance.
She marvelled at her new red balloon, how it had lifted out her need for love.