This is my worst nightmare: heights. I’m terrified of heights.
I know I’m not the only one. Some people are just drawn over the edge of things. Like the old woman I saw in Tepee Tonka Park last Saturday. She couldn't even walk across a high footbridge without lying down to keep from falling off.
I think about that woman clinging to the edge of the bridge as I watch the Cessna climbing its way to thirty-five hundred feet. My husband, Tony, has just taken up skydiving. Today is his second jump. When the jump master asked me why I wasn't jumping too, I joked, "Why would anyone jump out of a perfectly good airplane?" But they'd heard that one before. It was like making a joke about somebody's name and expecting them to laugh. Think how many times they'd already heard it.
Truthfully, I like my feet nearer the ground—say, on a horse. I’m a horse-girl, not a free-falling girl. Now that I have come back to Tony for this trial reuniting, I tease him that I know better than to follow him into thin air like we used to joke, ten years ago. He had talked about skydiving even then when we were first married, but he didn't make his first jump until a month ago, just after I left him. I don't know how to take it. Either the ball and chain lifting made him free as a bird, suddenly, or my loss gave him a death wish. I don't know which.
I admit I came back because of his skydiving. The second I imagined him dead I missed him so much I began packing.
The old woman at Tepee Tonka park was tall. In her old age she had not stooped over; she just turned weak at the knees, a wobbliness that looked more colt-like than anything, a reversion to the adolescent question of what to do with overgrown legs and arms.
I think how the park and the river must have swayed, the heat of the sun on the wooden slats of the bridge suddenly intensifying the distance to the ground—that all-too-familiar moment of seeing from the wrong end of the telescope and the panic setting in. She didn't seem to know which temptation to resist: the one to fall, or the one to hold on.
I told the story to Tony, of course. I described how the two kids had already run across the high curve of the bridge and back again while the parents coaxed the grandmother onto it. Then how about how half way, at the bridge's highest point, suddenly the grandma was lying down and weeping. Now she didn't even have the railing between her and the swirling stream below. How I told it to Tony was that it could have been me up there, and that's why I'm not skydiving with him. He wants stories only for the laughter so I try to make it into a joke. But really, she was terrified. I mean I am terrified.
Now, from the air, Tony can see the same creek with my parents' farm along it—where I've been living for the last month—and farther downstream, Tepee Tonka Park. On the opposite side of the plane's circle he'll see the town with its grain elevator and John Deere place, the small storefront out of which he sells computers for the dairy industry. Computerized feed is the popular thing for dairy herds; all over Rock County, Holsteins are wearing black and yellow magnetic collars. The computer feeder reads the magnet, then rations each cow the precise amount of feed she needs according to her milk production and stage of lactation. Tony used to talk animatedly about it, but lately, this jumping business has taken over.
All his talk is why I first began loving him, I know. Everything for him is noteworthy, requires strong opinions. Can't you just wildly love somebody who gets passionate about things? You see all this energy and love floating around, and you're sure it's coming to you, next.
Since I've been back, Tony has practiced what they taught him at ground school, gearing himself for a malfunction. "COVERS, THUMBS, PULL,” he shouts, "PULL, PUNCH, COVER." He goes through motions upon an imaginary harness with a violence that suggests his life depends on it.
"Pray," I'd say.
It’s hard to practice a free-falling arch on hard ground, but I can easily see him in it: arms flung back, head back, back arched. I imagine him dropping in the sky this way, his belly the lowest point, heavy as the bottom of a child's first drinking cup.
Arch, deploy, jettison, these are new terms to me. Drop zone, relative work, terminal velocity. Terminal velocity, I've learned, for a human stabilized in the arch, is about one hundred and twenty miles per hour. Flying is another word for free falling. The T-10 is the standard round military parachute, and that's what Tony learned on. The square chute is what he wants to go to next.
I like the precise mathematical terms—they flower so quickly into metaphor. I imagine turning them into story problems for my math students: Once a person is at terminal velocity and they are five hundred feet from ground, how many seconds before, well, termination? If one partner is flying at terminal velocity, at three thousand feet, and another has just jumped from four hundred and fifty feet, can the first overtake the second?
Tony's cousin Willy has a square chute. He's the one who got Tony started skydiving in the first place. Willy is about eighty jumps ahead of Tony. Now he wants to set a record for jumping out of the most different things. So far he has jumped from a bi-plane, a float-plane, a hot air balloon, and the second seat of an ultra-lite. He wants to jump out of a blimp, but first he has to find someone who owns one.
Willy has a thick long beard down to his belt and a bald head. He looks like an artist—one of those salt-of-the-earth characters who could play Vincent Van Gogh or maybe a redneck version of Macbeth.
At Tony's ground school, training him to steer the chute, to land and to fall, what they said was, you don't want to bounce. Do it like this, because you don't want to bounce. They say a body bounces about six feet.
I told Tony, "I'd be so scared, I'd die."
I added. "I'd be so scared, I'd pee my pants."
Tony said, "You can't mess up. There's only one direction to fall, and that's down." Even the old woman at Tepee Tonka park could do it, he implied. That was her tendency anyhow.
"The only thing about jumping," Tony told me, “Is that you've got to keep your head together." Then he told me a story about skydiving in the military. Soldiers were taught to walk out of the plane into thin air, he explained, their arms crossed left over right. The trick was that with their arms crossed, the right hand was positioned on the rip-cord. One kid, though, left-handed, reached with the wrong hand. They found his body with the right side clawed away down to the slippery bone. On the opposite side his rip-cord hung undisturbed.
Now, flat on the dry August grass at the airport, I look through the binoculars at the Cessna. The droning buzz has gotten more distant, yet the higher the plane goes, the more I feel its vibrations in my own diaphragm.
Finally a speck separates from the wing. Tony. He hurtles downward, and so does my stomach.
I am in one of those nightmares where I jerk awake because I just landed on the bed but I can’t seem to land, and it isn't the bed I imagine Tony landing on. I'm thinking about the bounce.
When his chute bursts open, green against the blue sky, I breathe again.
Floating in the sky, he looks beautiful—so beautiful, I want to stop time and keep him centered there, his feet dangling into a cloud and the canopy luminescent and glorious above him.
His landing is perfect, the others say. He lands on his feet and falls sideways, absorbing the impact over the greatest possible surface area, as he had explained to me. I run out to meet him, too excited to keep the reunion low key, even though I wanted to pretend I had known all along he would float down like that and land on his feet.
His face is flushed, in fact glowing, as he gathers the canopy in a figure eight over both arms. He smiles at me.
"You were perfect; that was great," I tell him. I take his helmet from him and put it on my own head. "You were fabulous."
"Skydiving is hard on your fingers," Tony says as we walk toward the buildings.
"From where they have to beat on them to make you let go."
We both laugh. I am more in love with him this second than I ever was at any moment of our honeymoon. "It probably took you the whole way down to think of that," I say. I wonder how I could have ever left him. How could I have packed and actually walked away? I can't remember what I was feeling then. The light in his red beard, his freckles, his faded jeans and slight sunburn all seem infinitely precious to me.
Then, just when he seems most precious, I want to tackle him and slam him into the ground. Doesn't he know what's at stake, jumping out of an airplane? Does he HAVE to have the near-death experience to prove he’s alive? I feel as though I am either going to sob or laugh hysterically. But I get it together and we go on.
In the car on the way home, I hold Tony's jump certificate on my lap.
"Total sensory overload," he says. "I can see why skydivers don't do drugs. They don't need to."
"You don't do drugs anyway," I point out.
"Well now I know what it feels like. The worst part, the absolutely most terrifying part, wasn't actually jumping." He looks at me. "It's when the jump master opens the door and you see out. When you know you're going to jump. It goes against every subconscious rule of survival to jump out of that crazy door."
"Every conscious rule too," I add.
"After that I was fine. I guess my subconscious gave me one last warning and gave up."
"What did it feel like? The actual falling."
"Like, you know the feeling you get when a car goes fast over the top of a hill? That, only more. The ultimate of that. And then your chute opens and all you hear is a little wind." He makes a whistling sound, as if it were a winter storm, and turns into our driveway.
I stare at the certificate in my lap, wondering if life will ever be the same again for him. I can't think of anything I have to offer now. Still, no one has ever smelled so perfect to me as him. It's either his shampoo or he's the right one after all.
After his eighth, and then ninth jump, I begin to compensate for his time in the air with time of my own working in the garden. A balance has to be struck, I feel. The higher in the sky he goes, the more I want to hoe and dig, rooting around as near the ground as possible.
After my first day of teaching in the fall, I come home to a note from Tony—he's making another jump. At our desk, I open and close the drawers. Even though I've been back half the summer, my things are still gone from when I left; these are all his—his hunting knife, his matchbooks, his favorite flavor of gum.
I open the bottom drawer and breathe the mixed smells of his cologne and a few antique books. I begin admiring his hunting knife. I draw it smoothly out of the sheath. The edge is razor sharp; I can see that.
The sharp blade attracts me, so I run my fingers over it. I think how it is made for skinning hides, think how quickly and smoothly it would slit a muskrat skin, and then I stare at the skin of my own wrists. How thin. I can see the blue lines. Feeling no malice toward myself, I imagine how easily the knife could cut those blue veins. The skin would pull away, relieved, as the blade separated it. I know that blood spurting out would be a surprising over-reaction to the simplest of acts.
For a heartbeat, it seems that merely to imagine it isn't enough. Possibility is really probability.
I think of Tony circling in the Cessna, my eyes focused on the blade tip, and am struck by the terrible egocentrism of the living. All history tells us we're just a point on a continuum. We're the ones alive right now, some of us more by a hair than others. The hospitals are full. The cemeteries are even more full. The dead outnumber us by how many millions? It's just that they don't have access to the media. The dead don't write articles about how to look ten years younger in just minutes a day. They do nothing to remind us we're next.
I don't know how long I have sat staring at the sharp edge of the blade when the phone rings. Suddenly I can move again.
Tony is exuberant on the line. "I flew!" he exclaims. "They dropped me at seven thousand and I didn't open until three. It's getting better all the time."
"Wow,” I say, breathing again. I slip the knife back quickly into its sheath with a shudder. “I’m sorry I missed it.”
By the time he gets home I wonder if he feels skydiving is the only way to live a full life. "I'm glad you liked flying," I say to him. "Did it really feel like flying?"
"It felt like—" he kisses my cheekbones. "It felt great. You have to get close to the edge sometimes, you know," he says. "To know what it means to be alive."
I glance at my blue wrist veins.
"A friend of Willy's has an X-L Cloud for sale," he mentions.
"I yi yi.” I say.
"I'm not going to kill myself. I promise. Compared to football and hockey, skydiving is a safe sport. Okay? Come on, you'll see."
“I’m just afraid that if you keep sky diving, I’m going to have to too. How can we be together if you’re the one living life fully and I’m the one—.”
“You don’t have to!” he exclaims. “There are a million ways to live life fully. You’re a horse girl and that’s enough.” He doesn’t add, “But let me tell you, you’re missing something.” If I heard that, it was my own imagination.
The new parachute is beautiful, oblong and rainbow colored.
Tony begins to do relative work, falling out of the plane in formation with Willy and two other guys, holding arms and looking like a tiny piece of crochet work in the sky. Then they separate and fly away from each other to open their chutes. I can tell Tony from the others because his new canopy has yellow stripes on each end. The center fans out from blue to red to orange and then to yellow.
In late September, from the air, he says, the view is incredible—all reds and rusts and golds. And it snowed once. Between clouds, at about five thousand feet, it was snowing. On the ground the grass was warm and dry.
My chrysanthemums produce a last glorious burst of color just as my moss roses turn brittle under the threat of winter. I give them all a thick mulch of old wheat straw and composted horse manure, preparing them for the snow that will eventually break through the clouds and come all the way down to earth.
On a Saturday, I go along for Tony's last jump of the season. On a blanket in the drop zone, I turn stone cold watching through the binoculars as his main canopy strings out above him, twisted and un-inflated. A streamer, I know it is called.
He will have to dump it and deploy his reserve chute.
"COVERS, THUMBS, PULL," I imagine him shouting. Pop the covers from in front of two O-rings; with your thumbs, pull the pins loose. The main canopy will fall away. The reserve will open, gloriously.
Then my perspective slips, and I imagine him not shouting it. Falling, not caring to deploy the reserve at all.
I know why they make people practice. Not so much to help them remember what to do, but so that they automatically do it. Stopping to think, they might discover they don't care. They won't feel the bounce.
I think about the Tepee Tonka Park woman who was an expert at survival. At least she knew to cling to life even when gravity was pulling her down.
When I look up, Tony is floating beneath his reserve, the canopy bone-white against the sun. I imagine it's me up there, and as if I am in one of my own story problems, I imagine my fear falling away in that abandoned, streaming chute. It's going to beat me to the ground and crumple, not so much bounce as be its own short-lived tidal wave.
Tony disappears over the tree line, and I hope he has found a hay field, since he missed the drop zone. I can imagine myself landing, feet first, in some far fragrant hay field.