"Hey, look at this!"
We had just arrived at our favourite bar in Montreal. After a long drive a drink seemed in order. The bar was preparing for it's 10th anniversary party the next night and people were scurrying about with decorations. The guy using the helium tank to blow up balloons had been passing hellium bongs to everyone and the bar was filled with Minnie Mouse voices and drunken laughter.
Exactly the atmosphere we were looking for. I took a hit off a balloon and sounded like my privates had been caught in a vice. It struck me very very funny.
"No, really look at this." The balloon guy was awestruck and was gingerly taking off a balloon that didn't look quite right. He tied it and then showed it to the bartender who was clearly impressed. There was sudden interest in the balloon, I knew it would make it's way over to me so I just waited. Smiling, primarly because my privates hadn't been caught in a vice.
When the balloon was shown me I could immediately see what the fuss was about. A rhinestone kind of paste gem had become imbedded in the fabric of the balloon. It clearly wasn't supposed to be there and yet there it was. For the first time I considered balloon making as a trade and pictured a big factory where fun was manufactured and balloon makers jockeyed for space alongside rhinestone tiara makers. A simple slip of hand would have an errant stone marrying a newly minted balloon. And it was indeed beautiful.
Everyone thought so.
"Oh, pulleeease!" Columba never much thought me funny. At least she pretended not to with that kind of teenage indulgence for those so very much older. Even though I was barely out of my teens, one year out of university, I felt the adult she pretended I was. I took to her right away. I had been hired as a classroom assistant for students with physical disabilities. They were a fun group. I felt so much more aligned with them in the classroom politics than I ever did with the teacher. We were closer in age and closer in temperment and I had little understanding of the boundaries of my role.
Columba used a manual chair most of the time but on occasion would use one of the electric ones in the classroom when she needed to go very long distances. I would transfer her and as she trusted me more, and when the teacher was out of the room, I would toss her up into the air and then catch her and set her in the chair. She laughed. So did I.
What was remarkable about Columba was how beautiful she was. She had eyes that flashed, a laugh that tinkled and a killer fashion sense. Her physical disability kept her quite small but there was no question that she was a young woman. Emphasis on woman.
Once I had Columba and Wendy and a few others over for dinner and Columba brought a pasta maker and made home made pasta. We laughed until we cried. The food was incredible and Columba was a shrewish Italian woman ordering us all about the kitchen doing her bidding. She relished in the role.
But school was cruel to her. You could see her longing to just be one of the girls and do girlish things. But you could see the distance that the other kids kept from her. I never understood why. They were all just kids. And Columba had a personality that sparkled, genuinely sparkled. She was a diamond lost in a sea of plastic faces and made up personalities. No one saw her.
Years later I was told that she had died. I never knew the circumstances of her death but I had hoped that she had found at least a little of what she was looking for.
"Give it to me," the bartender said, asserting the right of 'behind the counter personnelle' and took the balloon. He found a bit of ribbon, tied one end to the balloon and the other end to the bar rail beside the register. Even from where I sat I could see the gem glinting in the dim bar light.
And I thought of Columba.