The Dark Balloon

A weblog by Hao Lian.
A terrible secret guarded by golems.
A note that thanks you for being born, all those years ago.

§
The myth and the man.

It was only on our third date that Lois Lane brought me back to her apartment. “Come on,” she said, squeezing my hands as we stood on her doorstep, “don’t go anywhere.” But it seemed impulsive to me, as though she had thought about the idea all day and only now in the soft lens of alcohol and autumn did she decide, and commit.

Her house was an L-shaped living room nestled against a bed- and bathroom. A sofa sat in the L’s bottom near the stairwell into the basement. Across from us was a kitchenette tucked against the opposite wall. We collapsed on the sofa, nervous energy and all.

“I feel like a thirteen-year old again,” Lois said, her crown of hair against my heartbeat, after a long silence of neither of us knowing what to say.

I studied her face for a second, considering the possibility. “Nah, I can’t picture you as a thirteen-year old at all.”

Lois laughed, then pretended to pout. “No no,” I said, looking at her eyes or the beginnings of grin lines on her forehead, “I mean it’s just that I can’t picture someone … thirteen years old … as beautiful—”

“Shut up,” she said, kissing me. Lois kissed like silk. “I bet,” she said with her eyes dancing, “your mind would be blown if you saw high school photos of me.”

“I say I wouldn’t.”

“Well, then.” Lois stood up, leaving behind only the imprint of a warm body on what was now my favorite sofa in the world. She opened a door, pulled a light cord, and went down to the basement. I felt the tide of silence return to the living room until I heard her curse.

She walked back up, faster than she had gone down, her face set in storm. Our eyes met and she looked away, making an exasperated noise and balling her hands into a fist.

“What is it?” I said, hurt.

“It’s just … some stuff in the basement that I can’t move that I thought I got rid of,” Lois said, walking to her faux-fireplace mantle and fidgeting with it.

“Wha—well, don’t worry about it.”

“It’s not supposed to be there,” she snapped.

I stoop up and made a move to the basement. Before I had taken two steps, she interceded.

“What?” I said, laughing at all of this.

“Shut up,” she said. “It’s not funny. It’s not my stuff.”

“So whose is it?”

His stuff.”

I looked at her, wide-eyed and then suspicious. “Who?, you mean your—”

Superman’s you idiot—oh god not again—”

A warm breeze of red and blue swept through the apartment, depositing between us the man of steel himself and knocking me back onto the sofa. Lois’ face, framed by hair askew, was alternately furious and haunted. Superman on the other hand glowed with raw power and grace, with a face of a man not a day over thirty—each of those days spent in a gym, on Hawaii, in a pool of skin moisturizer.

“Couldn’t resist my name, Lois?” Superman flashed her a shit-eating grin and alternatively flexed each pectoral. “I’ve got supersonic hearing, you know.”

“That’s an oxymoron,” I muttered, trying to keep up with my worst nightmare.

“Nobody asked you, Hao,” Superman said without turning around. “Now back to us,” he said as he swung his arms around Lois and pulled her close to him.

For a beat, she didn’t seem to know what to do. But she recovered and she slapped Superman wide across the face. Superman grinned, gave her a sad puppy-dog look, and grinned again.

“You know,” he said as he steered the unwilling pair to a mirror, “we make quite the couple, you and I. I’ve got looks, you’ve got smarts. I’ve got super hands, you’ve got cooking ones. I’ve got a massive erection, you’ve got the wettest vagina X-ray vision can afford to see.”

Lois broke free. “You don’t seem to change, do you? You think you’ll win me back by being an even more obnoxious idiot?”

Superman put one hand over his heart and the other on his forehead; he pretend to swoon. “Look at us,” he said, “bickering like a crippled elderly couple.”

He clapped those sky-blue eyes at me for the first time with a half-smile playing on his firm, fervently beautiful lips. “Ah, maybe the way to your heart is to being an overweight acne-ridden jackass?” he said to Lois, jabbing a thumb at me.

Lois turned to me and looked at her shoes. “Sorry,” she muttered with clenched teeth. She turned back to Superman and poked his chest.

“Go away! Get out of my life! Go fuck up somebody else’s!”

“Stop saying my name, Lois! Stop moaning it in ecstasy. Stop screaming it out loud by accident during your stupid orgasms!”

Lois was so enraged she could only sputter for a second. “That—that happened once! I can’t believe I missed you, you creep. Not that you would know, you started dating the night on the day we broke up. You—you have no right bringing that up. Stop eavesdropping on me with your fucking superhearing and get out of my life, you overgrown insincere piece of shit. Go and drop out of college again because ‘you don’t belong’!”

Superman seemed, finally, as shocked as I was. He muttered something about a learning disability and ESL.

Lois punched him in the chest. “And get all your trophies out of the basement. I told you to do it last month, I told you again two weeks ago, and I told you again last week. Now do it.” She looked at him defiantly. “There’s nothing extraordinary in a person blessed with superpowers, Superman. You’re just a bastard with more luck than you deserve.”

Superman just stared at her, genuinely angry for the first time since he broke into Lois’ apartment. Then he gave a tremendous superhero laugh. He grabbed Lois by the waist and affectionately kissed her hair. “Always the kidder, this one,” he said, winking at me. “Now how about we fly to the nearest skyscraper’s roof and do it like we did in Paris … and Marseille … and Toulouse …”

Superman looked wistful as Lois tried to wriggle free without any luck. Breaking his reverie, he noticed her and let go.

“Get out! GET OUT!” Lois screamed, furious, grabbing her jacket around her.

Superman shrugged and flew out the door in a blur.

Lois and I looked at each other and then looked away.

“And Nantes!” Superman yelled through the window as he flew past the house.

The house was a mess of paper, dust, and overturned garbage cans. Lois looked small and sad in the middle of it all. I sat there, watching her, for too long. And as I stood and pulled her close to me until she stopped shaking, I felt nothing I could say or do would be appropriate, as if there was no configuration of limbs and words that would make me belong to this space and time.

Lois sniffled and pushed me away.

“Hao,” she said, “I have to clean this up. Can—can we just say good night?” She stared at me. “And end tonight on normal?”

She pulled me by my shirt and kissed me. She pulled my head closer with her hand. We broke away quickly anyway, thinking the same thing. I think. I thought of how dates with Lois tended be small talk and snuggling. I thought of how dates with Lois were enjoyable evenings, but nothing special. I thought of how Lois’ eyes lit up when she talked to Superman. I thought of how Lois kept a necklace with an S on the fireplace mantle. I thought of how they fought, which had its own language and rhythm. I thought of how every relationship is different with its own diction and syntax, but how some relationships form prettier, more interesting, longer sentences than other. I thought of Lois before tonight and after. I thought of how little I knew about this girl I loved, how little I’d ever know. I thought of the difference between “alone” and “lonely”.

Her eyes, dim once more, searched my face.

“Good night,” I said, staring. I turned and walked out the door, creating hardly any breeze at all.

[(3y, 2mo, 2w, & 1d ago) .]

§
2011 Sep 13.

You’re so angry. It’s hard to read this because you’re so angry. You’re angry at the world, you’re angry at yourself, you’re angry at the people whom you’ve asked for help.

[(3y, 3mo, 1w, & 27min ago) .]

§
Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike.

Kreacher is what he has been made by wizards, Harry.

heartbreakingly beautiful writing

[(3y, 3mo, 4w, & 1d ago) .]

§
Failing beautifully.

Wallace’s work will be seen as a huge failure, not in the pejorative sense, but in the special sense Faulkner used when he said about American novelists, “I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible.” Wallace failed beautifully. There is no mystery whatsoever about why he found this novel so hard to finish. The glimpse we get of what he wanted it to be—a vast model of something bland and crushing, inside of which a constellation of individual souls would shine in their luminosity, and the connections holding all of us together in this world would light up, too, like filaments—this was to be a novel on the highest order of accomplishment, and we see that the writer at his strongest would have been strong enough. He wasn’t always that strong.

John Jeremiah Sullivan writing for GQ.

[(3y, 3mo, 4w, & 2d ago) .]

§
Shameless.

I started shivering uncontrollably on the subway as I read this.

Shameless

The Prince lies back languorously on the rumpled bed, watching Rapunzel move about the chamber in her night-dress of unbound, shimmering hair, and reflects again on her absence of shame. He knows many court ladies who are without shame in matters of love, but their shamelessness is aggressive and defiant.… Rapunzel is without shame and without an overcoming of shame. She walks in her nakedness as if nakedness were a form of clothing. The innocence of her wantonness disarms the Prince. There is nothing she won’t do, nothing she feels she should resist. Sometimes the Prince wishes that she would tease him with a sly look, that she would cover her breasts with an outspread fan of peacock feathers, that she would lie on her stomach and look at him mischievously over her shoulder, as if to say: Do you dare? The Prince is a fearless lover, but there are times when he feels shy before her. At such moments he longs for her to resist him violently, so that he might force her into submission. Instead he bends down, far down, and kisses, very slowly, each of her toes.

From “Rapunzel” by Steven Millhauser in McSweeney’s 38.

Be right back, going to read everything Steven Millhauser has ever written.

[(3y, 4mo, 3d, & 10h ago) .]

§
Don’t know what sadness is anymore, like the fishes don’t know water.

Maybe sadness isn’t a curse. Maybe sadness is a signal that life isn’t perfect, that everybody suffers. Maybe sadness is a lesson to you to be kind. Maybe sadness is the idea that the world is not innocent, but humans are. Maybe sadness is a reminder that you chose knowledge over ignorance, doubt over faith—that you tried something and you failed, that one day you’ll have the strength to try again.

[(3y, 4mo, 5d, & 14h ago) .]

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The Dark Balloon’s official stance on Plato.

Ever since I was taught what and why "platonic" in "platonic love" meant, I have harbored a long-standing suspicion that Plato is full of shit.

[(3y, 4mo, 5d, & 15h ago) .]

§
Scenes from a life from a distance from a time from a place.

You are standing in a narrow hallway of your railway apartment watching two people play the delicate game of putting shoes on while wearing a backpack and managing luggage in three square feet of space. You love one platonically, the other unrequitedly. It has taken you a surprisingly long time to realize this, and it has never struck you more true than now. Today is a day where facts seem malleable. You realize it is raining outside all of a sudden, yanking the soft pit-paps into the foreground. It is gray outside and the hallway is dark and these two people who were your family for one night are tying their shoes in shadow. You will come back much later, alone, and identify the pain in your chest as terrible heartache. You will know that people are not meant to live alone, that this loneliness too is a price you paid for life's choices. You will do more drugs than you should, sit by the internet, and try to cry. You will realize that there is a type of sadness that is so heavy and ill-formed that it prevents you from enjoying even the catharsis of tears. You will fall asleep too early and wake up too late. You will avoid mirrors. You will use the second person. You will be alive.

[(3y, 4mo, 5d, & 15h ago) .]

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Other commands the man, who told his excited dog to “Mind your business” as they walked past me on my way home today, has taught his dog.

  • Do unto others as you would unto them.

  • Measure once, cut twice.

  • Don’t judge a man by how he treats his equals but by how he treats his inferiors.

  • Fortune favors the bold.

  • Pick up tickets to the campus movie theater’s free Friday night showing ahead of time instead of waiting the line thirty minutes beforehand like everybody else.

[(3y, 4mo, 5d, & 15h ago) .]

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Hogwarts.

With Dumbledore there, Hogwarts is the safest place to be. They’ve only managed to have two teachers who turned out to be Voldemort’s servants, a basilisk that kills students, dementors that kill students, a teacher who tortures students, and a teacher who kills Dumbledore.

[(3y, 4mo, 1w, & 1d ago) .]

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People come and some children leave.

The boy at last came upon a wizened man sitting on the oak stump, head resting against his fists in contemplation.

“Who are you, strange traveler?” the man asked.

“Bartholomew of the Glenwood Village,” he replied. “And who are you?”

“Why, I,” said the man as he flourished his hat and bowed deeply, “am the great Professor of Science in these woods.”

The boy stood at a loss for words with his eyes wide in shock.

The professor?” he asked.

“Yes, m’boy, I’m afraid my scholarly reputation precedes before me.”

The boy nodded. “Every boy my age knows how you helped Badger build his house—”

“—a trifle,” the professor said.

“Or how you helped Beaver sharpen his teeth—”

“—a mere dentist’s appointment.”

“Or how you taught Bee to fight Bear—”

“—a self-esteem issue more than anything,” the professor said. “Look, Bartholomew, science is my job. Don’t let those lurid tales cloud your opinion of me; there is nothing noble in simply doing your job, whereas there is something truly noble in building a house, dental hygiene, and learning self-defense for the first time.”

Bartholomew nodded fervently, hardly hearing anything over the thumpity-thump of his heartbeat.

“Now,” the man said kindly, “what did you seek in these dangerous woods?”

“The hand of a fair maiden, sir,” the boy said. “I am off to slay the dragon of Ragnathorne, to save the the fiefdom, win the gold, and ride back victorious.”

“Does this fair maiden have a name?” the man said, after a long pause.

“Her name is Belle of Glenwood Village.”

“Does Belle know your true feelings?” the man asked, gently.

“N—no,” the boy whispered to his feet.

“Young lad, science possesses not the answers to questions of the heart.” The professor rose from the stump, walked over, squatted, and placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“If you love someone, you chase that person down. Nothing’s worth the regret you could have years later. Rejection, a bad relationship, a divorce — those are things you can live down, turn to friends for, commiserate in, and regrow from. There’s nothing for the fermenting weight of regret aging in the casket of your soul.”

The boy nodded and turned to run back home, dinky sword and shield in hand. The boy paused and looked back at the professor, who was already halfway to the stump to sit down once again to listen to the woes of Buck. The boy turned back and ran.

After patiently explaining to Buck that hooves needed just as much maintenance as antlers, even if it doesn’t feel as manly, the professor looked around the opening — his opening — in the forest.

“Slow office hours,” he chuckled.

He reached into his lunch pail, retrieved a sandwich he made — he made enough sandwiches for the work week every Sunday night —, and munched on it. Every now and then, some crumbs would land on his professorship of science diploma, which leaned against the stump and while weathered and worn showed glimpses of a once-beautiful frame.

[(3y, 4mo, 2w, & 6d ago) .]

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If you hide in the horizon, I will row and find you.

It’s true that you will never know what goes on in the heads of others. People are icebergs. Letting someone place his hand against your untouched dome is one of the most brave and beautiful things you can do. It’s, I suppose, all too easy to speed walk down the sidewalk and forget people are more than faces and obstacles. People are the homeless man whose veteran benefits are dwindling, who was the only person to attend his best friend’s funeral last week, which he could only do after desperately convincing the funeral he shouldn’t be thrown out. People are the tired woman carrying groceries who is walking home faster than usual because her husband has returned from abroad after six months, because he does not yet know he is a father, a father whose wife is wondering if she is cut out to be a mother. People are the happy young couple who inwardly both wonder where the relationship is going as the summer draws to an end and their limerence flickers, each torn between enjoying the present and worrying about the future. You will never know these people, and even friends and loved ones will surprise you. It’s easy to shut yourself off from these surprises, to callus your soul from hurt. It’s soothing, it feels right, it is easy. It may be the only option you have. But take care to not block out the light with the hurt. But take care to always harbor a glint of doubt, to wonder whether it might be more painful but worthwhile to explain some small part of yourself to your friend, a small part nobody ever knows. But take care to remember there are many types of loneliness, each of which sucks more than the last, to remember that we are born with a million thin golden strands originating from our souls.

[(3y, 4mo, 3w, & 15h ago) .]

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First date.

Look at me. Look at me. Look at me as I walk around this office hiding a wound that will not heal. Be like everyone else. Hand me a spoonful of time or cheer or distraction, and I’ll knock it away. I need to knock it away because I need to crush any hope you have that I will become better. Better is an adjective we use in middle school. Better is an adjective used by whole people. Better is an adjective that is beaten out of you by all your right decisions. Look at me dripping blood all over your linoleum. Look at me trying to wipe it with my shoes. Oh well. At least all the interesting people are wounded, right? There’s this look you have in your eyes. It’s starry. Can I touch your eyes? Will you look at my wound now? Are you ready? Are you ready? Are you ready are you ready are you

[(3y, 5mo, 1d, & 1h ago) .]

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Lie down and try to talk to me; / sleep now and dream of who you’ll be.

Sometimes it’s all you can do to not take out your anger on the people who care about you the most. Sometimes it’s all you can do to find where you put down your beach towel and grab it and swing it around your neck, to wait until everybody has paired up and gone to bed and sleep while the stars fade in, to find a secluded part of the ship, to climb and sit on the railing and look down into the ship’s wake rippling past you. Sometimes it’s all you can do to not gasp as your chest hits the water and the salt water blinds your eyes as you lose your towel and keys in the dark blue, to paddle at a distance, to bob up for air now and then, to not grow tired, to always swim, to never stop swimming, to never be in one place long enough to be identified. Sometimes it’s all you can do to not close your eyes and imagine your friends drowning, one by one, as you watch from the ship, to cry out and dart forward and save them only to have the crew hold you back, turn you forward, and force you to watch your family disappear, to not stare into the steely, hardened, hunted looks on the crew’s faces. Sometimes it’s all you can do to find land, to spread your toes in the sand, and to watch the water and the time come in.

[(3y, 5mo, 4w, & 1h ago) .]

§
Thought-prophylaxis.

Rebekah Frumkin:

We willingly gave ourselves over to Wallace’s mind and personality—we devoured his output, and we wanted him to write more. We wondered what he had to say about basketball or antiabortion activists or the American Southwest. We felt welcome in his head. And Wallace wasn’t condescending. He bent over backward to help us understand what he was trying to say: he agonized over word choice, tried to explain away ambiguities with footnotes, and packed as much expository detail into every sentence as he possibly could. And ultimately it turned out that what he was trying to say wasn’t that complicated. We read Wallace with the attitude of a meek old man at a peep show, simultaneously marveling and shuddering at what was on display. We would never think of putting ourselves on display in the same way—we don’t even know how. But of course we couldn’t look away.

nods fervently, cries

[(3y, 6mo, 1w, & 1d ago) .]