99 Red Balloons

By Erika Rae


I had that dream again last night, the one where I’m floating on my back and looking up at the sky. Surrounding me is the weight of saturated white linen. It tickles my arms and the tops of my thighs as I breathe. The border of the halo of water around my face sparkles as it creeps. There are no clouds—only the intensity of an indifferent sun. The sky at the edges is so blue it produces an ache in a place inside of me that I can only describe as my soul.

I am waiting for something.

Once in a zoo in Copenhagen, I stood before a massive elephant locked behind giant iron bars. His trunk and legs were worn from a rhythmic and persistent rubbing against his cage. He was an old elephant, with long wiry hairs poking through his thick gray skin in a pattern that challenged any claim to divine design, or at least to a divine lack of humor. In the cell next to his, a baby elephant had recently been born and shadowed her mother as the crowds of people watched and pointed. The baby nervously looked from face to face, trying to understand this new life of hers as her mother tried to herd her baby back away from the bars. After a while, I turned back to the old elephant, methodically rubbing at his confines, and tried to meet his eye. But he would not see me. He had stopped looking.

Soon after, I returned to Vienna where we were living for a brief period of our lives. My sister-in-law lives there half of the year and took me out one night. In the dark, we walked past the looming Stefansdom and through the JudenPlatz, the old Jewish section of the city before 65,000 of its inhabitants were slaughtered by Nazi soldiers. We ended up in a small pub where we sang karaoke on the bar with a houseful of Austrians. Neunundneunzig Luftballons. Together we sent 99 red balloons into the sky over Jewish Vienna. And then we went home.

In the place between waking and sleeping, there is a separate existence as illusive as it is real. The moon overhead illuminates the mesh network within and pulls at the tide of unformed dreams lapping at the banks of the mind. Memories of a kind.

On my back, weightless in the water, I am aware of an encroaching cloud of red. It billows around me and I cry out as I am forced upright. Looking into the depths, I see it rising then, its bluish skin covered in white patches. I reach for him against the current and lift him to my breast.

Against the blue screen with my newborn pressed to me, I watch the elephant trapped in its corner of the sky as 99 red balloons drift past in the wind.

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ERIKA RAE is the author of Devangelical, a humor memoir about growing up Evangelical (Emergency Press, December, 2012). She is editor-in-chief at Scree Magazine and nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. Erika earned her MA in Lit­er­a­ture and Lin­guis­tics from the Uni­ver­sity of Hong Kong and to this day can ask where the bath­room is in Can­tonese, although it is likely that she will not under­stand the answer. In her dream world, she fan­cies her­self a kung fu mas­ter clev­erly dis­guised as a gen­tle moun­tain dweller, eagerly antic­i­pat­ing dan­ger at the bot­tom of every latte. When she is not whipping one of her 3 children and denying them bread with their broth, she runs an ISP with her husband from their home in the Colorado Rockies.

49 responses to “99 Red Balloons”

  1. Irene Zion (Lenore's Mom) says:

    Erika Rae,

    It is obvious to me that your anus did not need to smile in order to achieve enlightenment.

    • Erika Rae says:

      Hahaha – you heard the podcast! Oh trust me, I’m a long ways from enlightenment, although I did feel a twitching in the region of my gallbladder over the holidays. Could have been the fruitcake, though.

      • Irene Zion (Lenore's Mom) says:

        If you eat meat, it is more likely to be animal fat.
        My gallbladder is pristine and glorious, but Victor’s has been attacking him for eons now.
        He’s a surgeon, therefore, her refuses surgery.
        There you go.
        (I love you voice, on top of everything else.)

  2. Beautiful piece, with a fresh surprise on every paragraph until the gorgeous final sentence. Thanks for posting.

    • Erika Rae says:

      What a sweet thing to say, Nathaniel. Thank you for commenting.

      • Irene Zion (Lenore's Mom) says:

        Erika Rae,

        I have to tell you this, because it’s so horrible.
        (Is that mean?)
        When we were in Vienna, we had a dedicated guide who was certified for guiding in Vienna.
        She said these words to our small group:

        “The Nazi’s told us we would get back our prominence in the world. You can understand why we gave them our Jews.”
        Word. For. Word.
        I’ll never forget it.
        Everyone was so shocked that no one said anything.
        We stood there with our mouths open.
        We did not write up a good review of her, however.
        I don’t understand why I need to think the most obvious things over to phrase them correctly before I speak. It’s a failing. I know. I suck.

        • Erika Rae says:

          Wow, that’s sobering. I don’t think I would have known what to say in the moment, either. And you’re Jewish!

          Vienna is such a strange place to me. While it is undoubtedly one of the most influential places in modern western civilization, I don’t particularly care for it. It’s too grand. The racial and ethnic divisions are obvious to this day – more between the white Viennese and the Turks these days, though. It just doesn’t feel right to me. Give me Copenhagen any day.

  3. Oh, I don’t know whether to be happy or sad now. Damn it, Erika Rae. There must be a word in German to describe how I’m feeling after reading this.

  4. Brin Friesen says:

    Where exactly did this come from?

    How are you by the way?

    • Erika Rae says:

      I thought I told you I am a Gemini. Have I neglected to introduce my other half to you? She lives a completely different life than the one you may know a bit better. (I keep her in the basement most of the time.)

      And we’re fine, by the way. Stuffed, but fine.

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        Erika, sistah Erykah just keeps sending messages

        Two fish, one swimming upstream
        One swimming down living in a dream
        But when she loves she tends to cling
        When incense burns, smoke unfurls
        Analogue girl in a digital world…

        From “…& on” off _Mama’s Gun_, Erykah’s emotional magnum opus.

        Of course she’s talking Pisces, not Gemini, but where there is soul, there is cosmological constant, seen? After all, I’m Scorpio, and we’re still twins.

  5. Vienna, dreams, red balloons, Sigmund is conspicuously absent (thank goodness, I’ve had enough of that guy)! Obviously the red balloons represent your father and by launching them into the sky, you are accepting your adult role by taking your own path. You are in fact, letting go. Floating represents the anxiety of being on your own. Elephants are memory. Zoos are repression.

    That will be $100.

  6. Judy Prince says:

    This is so beautifully poignant, Erika: “In the place between waking and sleeping, there is a separate existence as illusive as it is real. The moon overhead illuminates the mesh network within and pulls at the tide of unformed dreams. . . “

  7. What a strange, pretty piece of writing. The elephant makes me sad because I’ve seen it so many times – the small cage, the look of depression in its face, the marks from rubbing against its confines. The baby.

  8. What a gorgeous piece of dreamy writing, Erika.

  9. Erika Rae says:

    Of all the animals at the zoo, the elephants break my heart the most. I suppose I should say the same for the big cats, except the last time I was separated by a cage from a leopard, he only looked like he wanted to eat me. I feel nothing for hyenas.

  10. Anon says:

    Listen, if someone just sat there and stared at me for fifteen minutes, I might act out a little, too. Creepy, lady. Just creepy.

  11. jmblaine says:

    Oh Sister
    Gemini lover
    of Jesus
    & the world
    we are the
    baby blue world
    nestled against
    your beating

  12. jmblaine says:

    You are.

  13. Marni Grossman says:

    Oh! I’ve been there! Judenplatz, I mean. Vienna. Cold and forbidding and vaguely stodgy. But not for you. Not on that night.

    The elephant reminds me of the Neko Case song “The Tigers Have Spoken.” Which I love. So I mean this is an absolutely complimentary way.

    You are wonderful.

    • Erika Rae says:

      I don’t know that song, but I shall look it up now.

      I only saw Judenplatz once – that night. It stands out as so strange in my mind. I didn’t even realize we were going there until my sis-in-law pointed out a plaque. And then we sang karaoke. Maybe I dreamed the whole thing.

  14. What a coincidence. Just the other day I had that song 99 Luftballons stuck in my head. And it wasn’t a bad thing either. It was pretty cool, actually. Big and loud. Bright and colorful. And just to think I might’ve been channeling an Erika Rae dream while doing so. Pretty cool, if you ask me.

    It’s kinda like a few words from the song:

    “If I could find a souvenir / Just to prove the world was here.”

    Yep. I think I already did.

    • Erika Rae says:

      Maybe I was channeling YOU!

      And that is a great song. Especially when not sung by a couple of tipsy Americans in a bar in the heart of what was once Nazi Austria. Good Lord.

      That song always takes me back to the MTV of the 80s. Martha Quinn. Loved her.

  15. Hi, Dear!!!!!

    Elephants in cages make me sad. Ashtray Babyhead makes me happy. As does finding any tidbits of your world floating on these pages.

    • Erika Rae says:

      Ashtray Babyhead makes me happy, too. He drooled all over my sleeve at a party I went to tonight and I could only nibble his cheeks in return. Missed you the other night. Look out TNB Denver!

  16. D.R. Haney says:

    Elephants fare poorly in captivity, as you undoubtedly know, particularly those who aren’t born into it.

    If only they could float to freedom. That’s the essence of the symbolism, yes? Or something like it, methinks.

    Meantime, I promise not to participate in any late-night calls tonight, New Year’s Eve. Sleep tight, and have a great 2010.

    • Erika Rae says:

      I think so on the symbolism. Nicely done.

      But no! Kick to the head! I would so love another call. I was so bummed I was out of town when you called on Cmas eve. I didn’t get to call Rich back for a couple of days, but what a sweet message you guys left. I feel lucky to have seen a pic of you guys sitting around the table, too, so I can picture the whole call on your end now. I will be super let down not to get drunk dialed tonight.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        Alas, there’s no TNB gathering planned, as far as I know. Also, we’d need Reno to be on hand, and he’s no longer in town.

      • Anon says:

        In a stellar example of fortuitous timing, I am on my way to being drunk and there appears to be a payphone within staggering distance (though this measurement is relative to the amount of alcohol consumed). What is your number? And do you accept collect long distance drunk-dials?

  17. josie says:

    So lyrical and fluid, the words flowed through me like water. The darkness tugs heavy but the hope soars high. Keep on dreaming sister.

  18. That was absolutely beautiful. Poetic. Other than to say I really enjoyed this, I am at a loss for words.

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