Marika called and said she wanted to take us skydiving as a wedding present. “How perfectly delightful,” I said, but I was immediately and secretly panic-stricken. Delighted was the opposite of what I felt. Skydiving is something I always acted like I was fearlessly fully committed to one day doing, I never let on that just thinking about skydiving was terrible and alarming.
Dylan went skydiving years ago at the crack of dawn in Australia after raging an all night party and he adored it. He couldn’t get enough. “It’s life-changing,” Dylan said. I responded, “I’m certain it is.” “It’s like a religious experience,” Dylan said. I conjectured, “I don’t doubt it.” “There’s nothing like it,” Dylan said. “I’m sure there isn’t,” I commented.
But I always put off the skydiving every time Dylan suggested we do it. “You’re gonna love it,” said Dylan. “I know I will,” I asserted. “You’ve got to face your fears,” Dylan said. “I’ll face them,” I alleged. But I always meant to face my fears later. Some vague, faraway, and hopefully never actually happens sort of later. “I just want to be ready,” I imparted. “Sometimes you’re never ready,” Dylan said. “Some things it’s do or die.” “Or do and die,” I muttered. “It’s the safest activity in the world,” Dylan proclaimed. “Well let’s not go overboard,” I said.
Marika called again later and said, “Skydiving!” “About fucking time!” I shouted, though I had been scheming for days to get out of it. Marika vivaciously made all arrangements. She got a whole big group together and began discussions and plans. I hoped problems would arise, that we wouldn’t be able to settle on a date that would work for everyone, that there’d be no nearby places that could accommodate us all, I was hopeful that at least one of any number of problems would permanently mess the plan and make it so skydiving would never have to happen.
But there were no problems. A date mere days away was chosen that suited everybody fine, and there was a nearby location that could accommodate our group pretty much any time. I thought to myself, “Jesus H. Christ,” followed by, “Shit, shit, shit.” Outwardly I acted tough and fired up. Every night as the big day approached, Dylan went to bed grinning with jolly thoughts of skydiving while those very same thoughts had me shitting metaphorical bricks. Or metaphorically shitting bricks. You get me, so I won’t belabour the metaphor or the bricks.
The day for skydiving was one of the most beautiful on record.
Dylan awoke bright in the eyes and bouncing with adventure. Marika too, she was even early to pick us up, and arrived smiling enormously. Marika brought coffees for everyone and the whole trip was on track. En route I made the offhand comment that despite my dauntlessness and delight, I was probably going to faint and puke and shit myself. Everyone snickered like I was telling a joke but I was absolutely serious. I slumped in the car in a daze, subdued by thoughts that probably today I would die. I kept the true depth of my disquiet private. I felt certain I was right to be thoroughly anxious but I didn’t want to be right. All I saw in my mind was my lifeless mangled body being fetched in pieces at the end of the jump covered in the maximum amount of vomit, poo, guts and blood. Everyone would shake their heads and gather around and I’d be too dead to feel any satisfaction at having correctly predicted the gruesome outcome.
On the drive down, we got stuck on a lonely road waiting for a train to pass. I found myself hoping the train would never pass, that we’d just sit there forever, blocked by a train, and so never end up going skydiving. The train passed by fine and far quicker than I wanted it to, so I was forced to maintain my front of robust anticipation. The closer we got, the more my mind and my body began to get hectic. “They’re going to find me at the end,” I said, “Dead and drenched in poo and vomit.” “No they won’t,” said Dylan. “Yes they will,” I thought, and I for once wasn’t looking forward to being right.
Upon arrival, we observed a cluster of tents in a big group on the grounds beneath trees just outside of the skydiving center. The tents appeared to be in a state of temporary permanence. This seemed to be a young persons hippie solution to finding affordable accommodations near enough to the hanger in order to skydive or work at the center daily in some cost-effective capacity. This unexpected little tent city was jarring on the eyes and did not inspire confidence. “What is this hippie nonsense,” I thought. Somehow, despite the wide blue sky, freshness of the air and great beauty of the day, things seemed sordid and grim. What was with those tents. I wondered if anyone else felt concerned.
We piled out of the car and entered the building. Inside was a myriad collection of instructors, thrillseekers, street kids, riff raff and hippies. Everyone was smiling, friendly and relaxed, no one seemed frayed and coming apart at the seams like me. People were gathered in small groups engaged in calm conversations, some were talking to men behind a counter and others were suiting up. Stray dogs meandered and milled about. I pet a few of the dogs and smiled at them. “These might be the last dogs I ever smile at and pet,” I thought. I made one last rueful lunge at a passing animal just to make sure I got all the pets in there, but the dog skedaddled away from my too much ardour and the too keenness of my feelings. That’s always been my problem with love and my expression of it, I overdo it, I don’t know how to reel it in.
Some points of contention occurred at the front desk. The old man behind the counter lectured Marika about having gone through a third party middleman, apparently our jumps would have cost half what they did if she had booked with the center directly. Marika was bummed to learn the news, but I think the girl did well, since this was her first time arranging and organizing something like this. The old man behind the counter went on and on with his lecture about how Marika shouldn’t have purchased the jumps through a third party middleman until everyone was blue in the face, except for the old man behind the counter who, when last I checked, was still lecturing. Seven months after the fact, I bet the old guy is still expounding upon the point to whoever else made the middleman mistake and is there now facing him across that counter to hear all about it. God rest all their souls I guess.
While the old man repeated himself and droned on with his lecture and remarks, I ran off to the bathroom a couple times with hopes to cut down the chances of puking and shitting everywhere the second I tumbled from the airplane. In the bathroom I couldn’t go, I simply didn’t have to go, and couldn’t make myself in accordance with Murphy’s Law, but I kept rushing off to the stalls repeatedly regardless to try.
There was some heartening graffiti from past jumpers who scrawled proud messages on the bathroom stall wall. “My daughter took me skydiving for the first time and I loved it. I had the time of my life!” read one message. “And I’m 55,” the message writer added. I sighed. “Bitch,” I said to myself, “if a 55 year old woman can do this shit, you also can. You got this.” But there was a palpable hollowness to my words, a forced attempt at strength. I believed in nothing. In my mind I saw myself a mashed and mangled mess on the ground at the end of the jump, covered in vomit and poo and dead. “I guess she was right,” Dylan would reluctantly say, and I would be too dead to shake my fist at him. Being denied that final “I told you so” seemed fruitless and wasteful. If you can’t glory in being right, what’s the point. I left the bathroom at last and dolefully rejoined the group at the counter still listening to the lecturing old man.
I tuned out the old guy and looked around. The hanger was immense and spacious, homey and fun. It was quite an arresting environment. The place looked like a film set for skydiving, and also as though 1982 was still happening, like 1982 would never leave, like 1982 never left. The equipment, artwork, skydiving paraphernalia strung up huge and high everywhere or nailed to all visible parts of all the walls, everything looked profoundly personal and dated and poignant. There were old TV monitors all around playing a video that showcased a man discussing the business of skydiving, the history of the hanger, and other such buoyant details. The man in the video was the same man who endlessly lectured us for having booked through a middleman. On the tapes we got to see him move through time from being a speech-giving youth to the geriatric outspoken broken record individual we saw that morning. There was an eeriness, a strange kind of beauty, about those tapes.
Finally we were done with all the counter stuff. A young lady showed up and gave us forms to sign. We had to state our names and ages, describe our skydiving experience, sign and date the document, and confirm that the center was not liable for anything, should something happen. “Like me falling to my death,” I thought, but I signed with jaunty confidence, same as anybody. I made one last lunge at attempting to pet a skedaddling dog.
We were then herded to the next room and rounded a final corner. Some brief words were stated about holding yourself in a banana shape. There was a picture diagram on the wall with instructions that seemed important. I became a bit agitated to gaze at the picture and learn the diagram’s contents but solemn young men who worked at the hanger were corralling us hither and thither, so I didn’t completely get the chance to comfortably learn or study anything. I’m a slow reader and a sluggish learner so the situation was less than ideal. I felt clueless and stupid and vague. There was no time to do anything about anything however, everything was simply very quickly happening.
We each were assigned someone with whom to do the tandem jump and also our own cameraman who would jump alongside to document the process. My tandem instructor was a stoic Korean, he was dexterous and deliberate, despondent and downbeat. The cameraman was much more personable and engaging than the Korean. The cameraman joshed and joked around while the Korean was stiff and unresponsive. There was a mismatch of energies. I tried not to worry too much.
The Korean through half-hearted pointing and minimal words told me what to do and how I should behave during the dive. He got me strapped to his suit while I tried to remember the banana thing. The Korean’s suit was of sturdy pleasing design but I wondered if the straps for me would be sufficient. I also wondered why I didn’t have my own suit. There were no answers. Apparently we were suddenly ready and fit to fly. “What about my helmet?” I said. “What do you need a helmet for?” said my Korean. I gazed at him in his suit and helmet. All the tandem jump instructors had goggles, suits, chutes and helmets. “To break my fall and maybe save my life when I am plummeting alone to my death,” I thought, but I didn’t say this.
I felt a twinge of grievance over the fact that the Korean had all of the things. I’d only be fine so long as we didn’t get separated. If during free fall my body serenely slipped from those slim straps, I would literally fall to my death with zero protections. There I was thinly strapped to a taciturn stranger I had just entrusted with my life. Again I imagined myself immediately slipping out of those slender straps the second the two of us tumbled out of the aircraft. If that happened, I’d fall to my death with literally no hope of being salvaged. If something happened to the Korean, he’d probably be fine, because he was the one who had skydived many times, and he came fully equipped with the goggles, the helmet, the suit, and the chute. If something happened to me separately, I’d motherfucking die, plain and simple as all that.
The monosyllabic rebuffs to my legitimate concerns did not calm or reassure. I kept trying to remember the whole hold yourself like a banana rule. I forgot all other comments, recommendations and advice. Our group was then abruptly ushered out and along toward the plane by our tandem jump instructors and all our attending cameramen. Outside I blinked in the sunlight and had no time to think seriously about how fucking crazy all this shit was, and about how I was actually about to jump from a plane at 13,500 feet with a stoic Korean who would doubtless live while I slipped from my slender straps and plummeted stupidly down to earth to my death defenseless and unprotected.
Each jumper paused before boarding the plane to conduct a short interview to the camera and say a few things. Marika was totally sweet and cute, Dylan was gay and gregarious, I was as dazed and confused as a human can get. We boarded the plane and got strapped in.
The aircraft held about 25 people, our group, our tandem instructors, and all the cameramen. There were a couple random guys who were students of the craft and getting their practice solo jumps in. Marika and Dylan sat in the front which meant they were going to be the first to jump. Marika, whose bright idea it was to go skydiving, was beginning to show signs of horror and dread. Dylan was his usual happy-go-lucky self, he was a hundred percent at ease and in a state of total enjoyment. Dylan wanted us to go skydiving for ages, so he was stoked that we were finally doing it. He’d gone once before and was enlivened. Dylan is one of those aggravating individuals who is afraid of zero things. Nothing scares him. All Dylan felt was exuberance and joy. I looked at him and I loved him, but I wanted to kill him.
As we flew up to the designated altitude, my Korean mumbled a few pointers and reminders. Everyone was laughing, singing and cheering so I heard and understood little. Even if there was dead silence and I could have heard every word, it wouldn’t have mattered, because I was too petrified and psychologically distant to register details. I just smiled and nodded and felt diminished. Somebody at the front opened the door. Marika’s tandem instructor started lurching her forward. Marika looked desperately back at the rest of us. “OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD,” she yelled. The look of pure terror on her face and the overriding dread evident in her whole body was so strongly on display, we couldn’t help but chuckle and grin. “Thank fucking Christ I don’t have to go first,” I thought. And then Marika and her tandem man just tumbled out of the open door. It all happened so quickly and with no fanfare. All you could see was clear blue sky, the ground seemed a million miles down…
As the plane was packed with first-time jumpers, tandem instructors, video photographers and solo student skydivers, there wasn’t really space or time for me to back out. If I had been in Marika’s position, I probably would have somehow figured a way to get out of it. As it was, I nebulously enjoyed her terror display along with the others, and watched all subsequent jump teams take their tumbles as if in a dream. Then suddenly it was down to my Korean and me. The Korean made impassive movements toward the door, and as I was tightly strapped to him, I had no choice but to follow. I went limp and occupied the mental psychological space of a severely handicapped braindead child. I was pretty much all but dead already. There we were at an open airplane door above the world at 13,500 feet. I was as flaccid and feeble as a soggy bowl of cereal. The two of us tumbled out.
Dylan always said the most terrifying moment was the tumbling out. After that, everything that followed would be ecstasy. He said thenceforth all it would be was pure experience, an overwhelming sensation of total reverence, magnificence, serenity and beauty. I’ll just tell you right now that Dylan had been lying his goddamned head off. The tumble out of the plane wasn’t the only part that was terrifying, the entire goddamned experience was motherfucking Jesus Christ kill me now what the fuck am I Goddamned doing this is fucking crazy I am falling to my death this is all his fault I’m going to kill him terrifying. Like I regret everything terrifying. Like if I survive this crazy motherfucking shit I’m going to beat Dylan to death with a stick terrifying. There are probably no words to express the level of terror I felt throughout this entire experience. There are probably no words, but because I am feeling journalistic, and because I’ve always meant to set down this tale of the tape, I am trying now to find the words. This might be one of those times though, when vomit, blood, death and poo could far better tell the story instead of something so limited and traditional as words.
The moment of free fall from the airplane was utterly chilling, but I was too stupefied to fully register the fear. I was preoccupied as well with trying not to get in the way or fuck anything up, I didn’t want it to be my fault if I died, which is a curious thing to be concerned about at any time. It’s not like afterward you can stand around making passionate claims arguing points insisting to everyone that your death is not your fault.
Tumbling from the aircraft was one of the most drastic and insane moments of my life. We descended head first and the craziness of jumping out of a plane at 13,500 feet is difficult to convey. We tumbled very fast and haphazardly, crazily, randomly, I had no idea which way was up or down, I was so powerless and overwhelmed that I was basically disabled. From within the midst of all this madness was a deafening cacophony. It sounded like skysized swathes of cascading cloth being vigorously voluminously violently shaken. I succumbed utterly to the accelerating randomness of tumultuous motion and was drowned in sound. The world was reduced to sky and noise and the speed of our descent was astounding. I worried that my body would at any point slip from the binds and I’d fall helplessly toward earth and be destroyed. All I could think about was how fucked I’d be if I slipped out of those goddamned straps. If I slipped, I’d surely die, and such a death had to be the most hideous and painful, the worst of the worst.
Suddenly somebody jabbed at me aggressively. It was my cameraman. I gazed at him dazed and sluggish and struggled to focus. I had completely forgotten about him. The cameraman used a hand to mime on his face an exaggerated smile and pointed to his camera. With these deft gestures, the guy was reminding me that he was taking pictures and shooting the dive, so I should at least try to look like I was enjoying myself a little, if not having the time of my goddamned life. I was stiff and panic-stricken and took time to manage a grin. My Korean too was looking at me strange and tried to get me to chill. He motioned that I could stop clutching for dear life on the cloth handles attached to his suit, but it took ages for me to get my hands unclenched. The Korean sternly maneuvered my legs inward so that they’d flow up and back between his legs and I’d be in the recommended banana shape I tried so desperately to remember and understand before we boarded the plane. The cameraman grinned and snapped shots and encouraged me to smile wider. He also implied I should flap my arms out like wings so that me and the Korean could synchronize our actions in this fun way and look relaxed and cool in the photographs, as though we were having just about the greatest time. The cacophony of motion and noise persisted as I pantomimed.
Then the parachute opened and everything changed. Our ferocious free fall went from a loud and disorderly plummeting to a gentle feathery drift and suddenly the world went quiet. We floated slowly and dreamily downward. I became very cold and wished I had worn warmer clothing. I also for some reason felt sad. The world below was far away and beautiful. The silence and the view was majestic. It was all so magical, cold and gorgeous, there was contained in the sensory recognition of the suspended moment a kind of pure religiousness.
I realized I still had that big forced smile plastered to my face. I also realized that I was holding my body unnaturally and stiffly, like a corpse. I was still frozen with fear and I was barely breathing. The Korean looked at me like I was nuts. Maybe I was the scaredest person he ever took skydiving. As we floated languidly down, I tried to become less tense and anxious. “I should fucking relax,” I said to myself. “Religious experience,” I thought. “Enjoy this.” I gazed tentatively downward and wondered at the insanity of it all. I thought about all the dead people who first tried to figure out skydiving and by dying helped to refine the craft. I pushed such thoughts away and breathed slowly and deeply. “Amazing,” I said. “Fucking amazing.” My Korean nodded and made no comment.
As we drifted dreamily downward to where everyone else had landed, my Korean instructed me to hold my legs up straight and out. I obediently did as instructed and held my legs perpendicular to the rest of my body stiffly forward straight and up. As we descended faster and nearer to the ground, Dylan locked excited eyes with mine. His expression was blithe and cheery. As the Korean and I careened downward with my legs stuck out rigidly straight in front of my body, I flipped Dylan the bird with the middle fingers of both my hands and glared. Dylan wasn’t sure what to make of this. Then we landed with fast compact suddenness straight onto my ass. The Korean never mentioned running my feet fast along the ground during landing, so my ass bore the brunt of the arrival. The phrase “hit the ground running” made sudden sense but unfortunately only in hindsight. Hindsight is literally 20/20. As such, this was not a graceful finish. It was as though someone kicked me as hard as possible squarely on my anus, which made me think at once about defecation. I also made a firm mental denunciation condemning anal sex at precisely that moment.
Once I was released from the Korean, Dylan and Marika rushed up to me. “Yay! Wasn’t that amazing!” said Dylan and Marika. I ignored the exclamations and zeroed in on Dylan. “You jerk!” I shouted at him, and weakly pummeled him with my fists. “What?” Dylan asked, perplexed. I think everyone has this mistaken notion that I am at all times athletic and fearless. Dylan was lucky I was still too weak and stunned to do little more than seeth and spasm and flimsily punch. “You said jumping from the plane was the only scary part!” I said. “Lies! All lies! The whole thing, every moment, all of it was terrifying!” Dylan hid a bit behind Marika to spare himself from further flimsy punches. He grinned at me through eager peaks over Marika’s protecting shoulder. My weak fury quickly spent itself. Then we all of us gathered round and got a few final fabulous shots. I thanked my tandem instructor and my cameraman for their terrific work and the amazing experience, even though I was too blinded by terror to really enjoy anything.
Long after the jump, I was still stiff and tense and freaking out. Leah did some touch and mantra therapy on me which didn’t really help but I loved her for caring and trying. Dylan still hid to protect himself from my pummels. We looked at all our pictures and watched our videos and chilled. I willed myself to calm down and breathe. It took me a long time to actually achieve a neutral state.
Skydiving was fucking amazing and unforgettable, but I was too scared the whole time to really enjoy it. Intellectually I felt that was probably one of the coolest most courageous things I had ever done. Biologically, emotionally, mentally and psychologically I was badly shaken. “I’m gonna have to do it again,” I said, “because then next time I’ll know better what to do, and I won’t forget to actually have fun.” “Phew,” I added, still destroyed, jacked up, and upset. We sat around and chilled and got calm. Everyone else was actually fine and laidback the whole time, I was the only one still freaking out. “I’ll definitely have to jump again,” I said. “I’ve got to. To do it properly.”
Marika gazed sympathetically at me. “Well,” she said, “why don’t we go again?” Her expression was hopeful and bright. I returned her gaze with eyes equally bright and brave. The blood of all warriors coursed valorously through my veins. “Nah,” I said.