My future sister-in-law was a severely pale kid with dark hair, dark eyes, and nail polish of such a deep purple it was almost black. The key word here is kid. She was only seventeen and hadn’t yet graduated from high school. She’d be legal to buy a pack of cigarettes just weeks before the wedding. She showed an adoring deference toward Dan—a kind of puppyish infatuation in her eyes and in the tilt of her head—that I knew would one day fade, and I hoped it wouldn’t curdle when it did. She was inordinately curious about me, as if every word out of my mouth might contain a clue to certain aspects of Dan’s past and personality about which she knew little, or at least not enough.
Dan wanted to introduce me to his newfound passion, hot-air ballooning, so we woke early one morning and drove toward the mesas north of the city. The dawn sky was turning pink. The air was crisp and cool. We drank coffee from a thermos and rubbed our hands to warm them. With the woven-cane basket out of the truck bed, Dan unrolled the balloon on the mesa and pointed a big fan at the balloon’s mouth. He turned on the propane burner, the balloon began to inflate, and as it did Dan tugged the cloth here and there to keep it from snagging. He walked around with rapt attention, like a sculptor teasing life from stone. Bit by bit the balloon swelled.
Just then a breeze came up. Dan jumped in the basket. I got one leg in while the bottom of the basket scraped and bounced along the ground. He pulled me in just as we lifted off. We rose a thousand feet in the air, then a thousand more. The city spread beneath us like a twinkling arrangement of jewels in the rising light of dawn, the dun-colored earth inscribed by the green valley of the Rio Grande, the city crowned on the east by the rugged bulk of the Sandias. We drifted north and east with the wind. Somewhere off in the distance I heard the bark of a dog.
Dan manned the propane burner with unshowy confidence, his masculine grace accentuated by his first real stab at a mustache—not bad for twenty-one. He pointed out the city’s major landmarks: the university, the airport, the Old Town. I nodded and looked where he told me to, but it was him I watched most intently. I felt as if I were seeing him clearly for the first time in my life—no longer the eternal kid brother but a man in his own right, possessed of talents I was finally able to acknowledge and respect.
Among some hot-air balloonists there was a baptismal tradition that my brother honored: when someone made his virgin flight, the occasion was marked with champagne. Once we were back on solid ground I was instructed to kneel, hands behind my back, and bend toward a small paper cup of champagne nestled in the grass. The idea was to grip the lip of the cup in my teeth and drink the champagne by tilting my head, or so I was told. In reality the whole thing was a setup, meant to place me in a defenseless pose. Standing above me, ostensibly to make sure I didn’t use my hands, Dan waited until I leaned forward and then poured the rest of the bottle over my head. I roared up shaking like a muskrat, wiping the bubbly from my eyes.
Welcome to the club, kiddo, he said.