I took up balloon swallowing when I was ten, when my brother told me that if we filled my stomach with enough inflated balloons, I would float in the ocean.
Our parents were professional sword swallowers—that’s how they met. My earliest memory is of my mother holding my head back so that she could ease a blunted stick down my throat to the bottom of my stomach. I threw up on her after that.
I never took to sword swallowing the way my brother did, but I was still expected to perform with the family troupe. When we all donned our white and gold spandex unitards and took up our positions on the boardwalk, it was my job to perform acrobatic feats and sleights of hand until the real crowds formed, and my parents and brother could amaze them by swallowing swords or glowing neon tubes or hollow, Plexiglas wands filled with live fish. I’d run amongst the slack-jawed spectators and collect the coins that dripped from their hands.
Most people do not understand that sword swallowing is an art of gravity. Once the sword enters your throat, it’s really just a matter of holding still and slowing the rod’s descent, giving your esophagus time to straighten out and your organs a chance to move out of the way. Though I understood the principle, I could never bring myself to relax my throat around a sword, to encourage the metal to slip through my body, not when one minor miscalculation could mean a punctured lung or heart.
As my failures as a sword swallower compounded, my parents began to say that sword swallowers are born, not made. I never knew whether they actually believed what they said, or whether they meant it as some sort of comfort.
On a slow day in late August, my parents allowed me and my brother to skip the performances so that my brother could take me down to the beach. Even though I couldn’t swim, I enjoyed the feeling of sand, the smell of dead fish and drying kelp and algae.
On the way to the water, my brother said he’d been thinking that maybe I was meant for a different kind of show, that maybe we’d been working with the wrong material. That’s when he introduced the idea of balloon swallowing. He said that a stomach full of inflated balloons would act like a life vest, buoying a person on the waves.
I thought about his proposition, and realized that the idea of balloon swallowing felt right to me; there is flexibility to it, the ability to bend. I agreed to try.
Maybe my brother was right. Maybe I’d even be able to swim.
My brother had brought his bike pump with him in case I agreed to try this new trick. He produced the pump, affixed a balloon to the nozzle, and threaded the hose down my throat. When the balloon made it to my stomach, my brother inflated it, and I sealed the neck by constricting my lower esophageal sphincter. Then my brother extracted the pump, and began again.
For the first time in my swallowing life, I did not gag or panic. I thrilled to the feeling of the balloons expanding in my stomach. I felt calm, complete.
Once I had swallowed fifteen balloons, my brother decided I was ready.
I trusted my brother and the balloons in my stomach enough not to be afraid as I waded out into the shockingly cold water, further than I’d ever gone before.
“Now float,” my brother commanded.
The waves came in, and I lay down in the water.
The waves came in, and I swam.
My brother shrieked and hooted as I paddled back to him, exhilarated.
The whole experience felt only a little less magical when the stomachache began and my parents had to take me to the hospital, where I was given a powerful laxative. I spent the night sweating and clinging to the toilet seat until I expelled all fifteen sodden and remarkably intact balloons.
Yet throughout this ordeal, I remained determined to become a balloon swallower. My brother had been right: I was destined to float, rather than be held in place by the rigidity of the sword.
Once I emerged from the bathroom, I began to refine my art. I invented new tricks, including a method for extracting balloons by weighting the end with a small metal bead, which helped the balloons to naturally traverse my intestines. I experimented, inflating the balloons with different liquids and gasses as I bobbed in air and water and sometimes even tubs of oil.
In short, I flourished.
But it’s difficult to be a balloon swallower in a sword swallower’s world, where there are so many sharp edges. My parents did not mean for it to be this way, but their art was fundamentally at odds with mine. And so, at fifteen, I detached myself from my parents’ troupe.
To this day, my parents and brother still attract a crowd at their spot on the boardwalk. I work a few hundred feet from them, where I gather up the onlookers who cannot get close enough to my parents’ flashier performance. On especially slow days, my brother will leave our parents and come to watch me perform. Sometimes, he is my only spectator.
In front of my meager audience, I swallow a balloon and summon someone to inflate it with a bike pump—the same pump my brother used all those years ago. I invite the audience to gape as my stomach distends unnaturally.
Every once in a while, when my audience is particularly large, I inflate my balloons with helium and stun the crowds with a few minutes of levitation. I float from bystander to bystander, toes scraping along the warped and salty wood.
In the moments before the helium elevates my body, my organs shift and rise, and I think about the time my brother taught me to swim.