Secret Lives

Diary of an Awkward Teenage Balloon Artist

Entertaining kids with inflated animals is tough—and when you’re a math-team nerd competing for gigs against your charismatic crush, it can blow up your entire life.

Diary of an Awkward Teenage Balloon Artist

The first animal you’re taught while training as a balloon artist is a dog.

Pull the empty balloon by either end a few times before you inflate it. This stretches the latex, and gives customers the impression you’re about to perform an elaborate magic trick. Smile. Make small talk. We are not clowns; we’re entertainment professionals.

So, where are you folks from?

Using your dominant hand, pump air into the balloon — two or three pumps should do it for your basic four-legged animals. Tie it off.

You go to school around here, boss?

Start at the tied end. Move your hands about one inch down the balloon, pinch either side, and twist toward yourself. This is the dog’s head. Two more two-inch bubbles twisted together form the ears.

Me holding one of my creations at one of my regular restaurant gigs. (Photos courtesy the author)

That’s where I went, too. I was voted Class Clown, but I’ll let them know I’ve found my replacement. [Wink at the parents.]

Twist a one-inch neck and two two-inch legs. You’ve got to be consistent about the direction of your twists, or the whole thing will unravel in five minutes. Twist a body and two more legs; the remaining balloon length sticks up to form a tail.

What grade are you in? I loved fourth grade. Best three years of my life.

Grab a marker and draw a face on this little guy: round eyes, upside-down triangle nose, a smiling open mouth with a big dopey tongue hanging out. Ventriloquize him barking at you. Hand him over.

Here you go, boss. The two of you stay out of trouble!

Thank the customers for their time. Accept the tip with a smile and a sincere thank-you. On to the next table. Keep smiling. Make every family in the restaurant desperate you’ll choose them next.

For the next four hours, you are the most popular person here.

For two years during high school, I reported to work in a white button-down shirt tucked into black dress pants (never jeans), a round pin nudging customers to tip, and a black apron overflowing with long balloons arranged in rainbow order.

During shifts at various chain restaurants, I approached tables during that sacred window after menus have been cleared and before the food has arrived. I schmoozed and smiled and twisted balloons, hoping my customers carried cash.

My first regular gig was at Perkins, a chain brunch restaurant that smelled like bleach. Every Sunday at 8:58 a.m., I strolled in with my arsenal, left some twisted twirly flowers at the hostess table to spark interest, and got to work.

Four hours later, I’d speed away in my parents’ silver station wagon with sore feet and a pocket bulging with dollar bills — proof of the relief and gratitude parents felt when I kept their kids entertained and happy for a few minutes.

I was also an emotional wreck during my balloon years. That’s a common side effect, I believe, of being in love with your best friend.

I met Billy when we were 11, and I’d fallen for him as only a sixth-grader can. He had soft brown hair and dark eyes, he could sing, and he was shorter than me until we were seniors. He went to church and volunteered with the mayor’s office. We joined the same nerdy clubs: chorus, Math League, Spanish. We both got bullied.

After school and extracurriculars, we’d go to the deli across the street for lemonade slushies and Cuban sandwiches. I knew everything about him that mattered: his Cold Stone Creamery order, his favorite movie, what radio station to play in the car. One time, when Billy broke his foot outside the school library, he sent a random kid to come find me for help. I swear I’ve never run faster.

We cared for each other profoundly, but platonically, and most of the time I didn’t mind. I had boyfriends, and he had girlfriends. We gossiped about them and guessed which of us would lose our virginity first. It was our unspoken agreement that I’d always love him a little bit, and he’d never mention it. I managed.

There aren’t a lot of healthy ways to navigate a friendship of this type, especially when you’re a teenager. I loved it anyway.

Two weeks before my 16th birthday, I ended a romantic relationship I was not ready for, a move that left me dateless for my own Sweet Sixteen party. Ever the gentleman, Billy stepped in as my dance partner for the night. When “our” song played — Billy Joel’s “Vienna” — he ran from the other side of the house to meet me on the dance floor. I didn’t even see him coming; I blinked and he was there.

Me at my Sweet Sixteen party.

He would go on to comfort me through more bad breakups, like when a boyfriend left me an enraged, scary voicemail while Billy and I were seeing a play. My parents drove us home while I wept into his lap, both of us unfazed by the intimacy of it. He was loving and kind often enough that I could overlook the times he wasn’t — the moments he chose cooler friends or prettier girls, leaving me to seethe with jealousy. He brushed it off. We moved on.

Naturally, Billy was the first person I texted the night a small, loud man, who was twisting balloons at a restaurant where my family was having dinner, offered me a job five minutes after meeting me. While shaping a flower bracelet I had not asked for, he asked if I liked making money, and handed me a business card.

The following week, a fit, blonde balloon trainer named Lindsay stood in my parents’ living room, teaching me to make dogs and hats and lobsters out of stretchy, colored latex. I knew right away that I wasn’t right for the job: Model balloon artists were attractive and sociable, and I was awkward and introverted. I took it anyway, wondering if I could channel some of Billy’s charisma. How could I draw people to me like that?

When my boss announced a $50 bonus for referring a new employee, I pitched Billy on the idea — the gigs, the corny jokes, all of it. Soon we were practicing balloons together. My fingers were more delicate than his clunky ones, my shapes more precise, but his banter was more affable and free-flowing. He was a natural.

What had been mine was suddenly ours. I loved him enough to share.

Plenty can go wrong during the course of a gig.

First, balloons pop. For experienced twisters, popping due to shoddy technique is rare. More likely, your balloon has some kind of interior defect, a tear or nick or thinning of the latex you could not possibly have noticed. Sometimes these flaws form when balloons get old or are left in direct sunlight. Other times, you just get a dud.

Once, at a school fund-raiser, I promised a little girl that a balloon wouldn’t pop — three seconds before it exploded, inches from her face. Another time, I approached a couple at a restaurant with a red-and-green balloon rose — a cool trick to get a tip without making small talk. The boyfriend ushered me away. His partner had a mortal fear of balloons.

Men, generally speaking, were a disappointment during my balloon career. At one of my gigs, a filthy sports bar and restaurant with a lucrative kids-eat-free night, sexual harassment was a regular part of the experience.

It felt harmless enough at first. A kid named Allen, who I recognized from school, asked me out repeatedly while his amused family requested more and more balloons, a ploy to keep me at their table longer.

Another night, a woman caught her cowboy-looking husband winking at me as I twisted a teddy bear for their daughter, a toddler in a high chair. He assured her he was only “checking out my balloons” and winked at me again.

The worst was when a man followed me into the women’s bathroom. I didn’t see his face, didn’t confront him. Instead, I stood silently in a dirty stall for five minutes, waiting for someone to come, waiting for him to leave, calculating how long it would take to reach my car in the dark parking lot when my shift was over. After that night, I didn’t go back.

I texted Billy after each of these violations, hoping he would make me feel safe again. My brushes with harassment came as I was beginning to question my sexuality, wondering whether I might be bisexual. I craved his support — the comfort of my best friend, who would tell me everything was OK — but my sexuality was the only secret I kept from him. I thought it might ruin my chances of us ever being more than friends.

I was almost 18 when I decided it was time to tell him.

But before I could get the words out, he found a girlfriend; a skinny blonde thing who joined our circle at the exact wrong time, who told me Brokeback Mountain was “sad and gross.” He kissed her at a summer party we’d gone to together, and something inside me shattered. I picked a fight with him and sped away from the party in my parents’ beat-up station wagon, determined to hurt him as much as I was hurting.

When I finally came out to him, it wasn’t in a tender moment of self-recognition, but in a nasty text message that punctuated the end of our fight that night, a moment that sparked a silence lasting weeks, months, while I waited for him to apologize, for him to come back. And when he didn’t, and when I finally apologized and crawled back to him six months later, it was too late. He laid out our broken friendship like smoking wreckage of a crash I’d caused.

“It’s not worth it anymore,” he told me. What I heard was: You’re not worth it anymore.

And the worst thing about having referred him to my shitty balloon job was how little changed after that fight: We still competed for the same gigs, still entertained our friends with the same weird talent, except only one of us could enjoy it anymore. If our friendship was a marriage, he won ballooning in the divorce.

A balloon at the end of its life shrivels slowly, releasing an imperceptible stream of air from some hidden notch, until there’s nothing left. Sometimes it’s kinder to put it out of its misery, snipping the knot and letting the air out all at once. Sometimes a healthy balloon snags the wrong surface and pops. And sometimes a disgruntled client takes a blade to the delicate surface and kills it, loudly, drawing attention to the act.

Me showing off my balloon creations at home.

I don’t know which dead-balloon metaphor best suits the breakneck demise of the friendship that swallowed my whole world, but I’ve always thought I held the scissors.

The truth is, I wasn’t meant for that friendship any more than I was meant for that job. I wasn’t able to show up as my real self for either one — queer, yes, but also imperfect, messy, and frankly, terrible at talking about pancakes or Bon Jovi when what I really wanted to say was so much bigger. You can’t take up too much space as a balloon artist; the next table’s always waiting.

I never quit the job. I just stopped taking gigs. I had to escape the small talk, creepy dads, and memories of the friend I pushed away because I was so terrified, so sure, that one day he’d leave me instead. I just didn’t want to be the one who popped the balloon this time; I let it shrivel slowly instead.

Instead, I moved on with my life, my once-dazzling job demoted to a cheap party trick. Billy and I both ended up in New York after going to colleges in different time zones. I got a job; he went to law school. We haven’t spoken in a decade. We’re both married to women. I refuse to look up his Facebook.

Most of my closest friends today have no idea who Billy is. I keep our friendship close to my chest because I’m ashamed of how it ended — of my jealous outburst, my inability to share — and of how long it took me to recover. But I don’t keep ballooning a secret; it’s a great icebreaker at a party, or on the first day of a new job. I don’t really twist anymore, but there are a few balloons tucked away in some corner of my apartment in case nostalgia ever strikes. They’re relics of where I came from and reminders of what I can do. I’ve given myself permission for them to belong to me.