The speed cannot be captured. I can’t do it justice. There’s absolutely no way to put it down into words what this felt like, but I’m going to try anyway.
It was Sunday. I had been up till well past 3, drunk of wine and conversation and the ruddy glow of some of my closest friends. I’d had a greasy sausage and egg sandwich (to calm my stomach), two Tylenol (to kill my cerebellum), and a huge, gigantic, super stocked Vanilla-Hazelnut coffee from Duncan Donuts (to wake me up).
Normally, I think I would have been frustrated by the wind conditions at the Drop Zone. I had picked up Lucia, George and Shai at their hotel sometime around 10 and Francis had left wind gusts in our area. Still, I wanted to jump, I was hoping to jump; I really fucking needed to jump.
And not just because Lucia was in town, though that was a huge part of my impatience, why I was up at 6:45 at drive 3 hours to pick her and her boys up for the day. She’s the one who introduced me to skydiving in the first place, she took me for my first tandem out in California a few months ago, and I don’t jump without thinking of her. It’s a unique bond to have with someone, something like the first time you have sex. There can be thousands after; there can be love and passion and mind blowing multi-hour, sweat drenched, earthquake power finishes, but there is, and always will be, one first. Lucia took my skydive cherry, and because of what this sport has come to mean to me in such a short time, I couldn’t wait to get back in the air with her again. It’s an odd bond to explain, but something you just know is there.
I’ve been pissed off a lot of late. Sorry for the abrupt transition, but that was the other reason I was itching to get back into the air again. There isn’t one thing I can point to, just a heightened sense of agitation, and an overwhelming sense of exhaustion. I just didn’t want to fight myself anymore, at least for a little bit. I didn’t want to think about Mel and her crazy, fucked up little head trip she has me on. I didn’t want to wonder if I loved her enough to not resent her. I didn’t want Jennifer to pass my head. I didn’t want to deal with all the bullshit that comes my way on a daily basis. I wanted to stop working until 11, 12, or 1. I just wanted to stop, full stop.
And I have to remember not to bitch. I think pity parties are best kept to a short guest list. I am invited, but with no plus one, and the guests will arrive later on. And took some of the punch out of many of my posts the past two weeks. I would say all of the punch, but I’m a natural born fighter, hitting back is in my nature, so there’s always one to unload in there, left in reserve if I need it. Being as sick as I was may have taken a lot out of me, but I’m never punchless. I may draw back, withhold, but it’s always there. Maybe the way I was raised, or perhaps it’s just a part of who I am.
I read an article today forecasting a return to optimistic fiction. It seems there are these stories floating around in the ether built on optimistic, diligent, energetic, forward moving people. The era of pessimism is over, it cried. How absolutely fucking boring, I thought. If that’s true it’s a loss for people who love to read. Life is complicated, not to be trifled with, though certainly not to be taken too seriously. But I read books by writers who’ve sifted through the detritus of life. I’d rather know about the struggle, even if it’s internal and tinted.
But Francis was fucking with my air bath. The wind had created multi-tiered jet streams that were ripping across the sky, and the wind socks on the ground told of awkward landings and pushed off headings. Because of regulations, and my relative inexperience in the sport, I wasn’t allowed to hit the skies. I sat on the ground while Lucia and George kept going up and down, up and down.
I finally decided if I couldn’t jump alone, I was going to get airborne any way I could. I walked up to the Manifest office and explained that I was an AFP student, working towards my license, that I’ve been jumping under my own canopy for a little bit, and while I understood that I couldn’t up there alone, I still wanted to jump.
The pretty blonde girl behind the counter just smiled at me. “I’m going to put you with Brent, then, for a tandem. It’ll count as air time for your license, and he’ll give you a hell of a ride.”
I met Brent out on the concrete and handed him my jumpers log book. Every skydiver has one of these. It tracks each individual jump in intricate detail—the time and place and conditions and aircraft and the maneuvers you performed and altitude you pulled at and your landing. He read mine over.
He smiled. “Looks like you’ve done some shit! Don’t worry, I’ll make this a good one.”
And just like that we were in the plane, an Otter, I think they’re called, with a side door exit on the left of the craft. And Lucia and George were there, towards the back, near the door. Because they had each logged hundreds of jumps, they’d be the first ones out the door. We couldn’t sit together, which was a shame, but just sitting there, knowing I was about to head out the door, share the same air with Lucia, I started to smile. And George and I caught eyes, exchanged peace signs. Here’s this man, I thought, with this huge afro and the easiest most mellow demeanor about him. He just seems to float through it all, not too high, not too low, though I’m sure I’m casting about more than forming an accurate picture.
Still, he smiled at me, we’d just met for the first time, and I thought, she’s lucky. She is. He gets her, in the best way. And he’s good for her, a fit, and a balance. And I know that Shai, her son, loves him very much. You can see it. He’s good for them both. And I looked at her, and her huge, giddy, Cheshire grin as she flashed me a peace sign that I returned and I hoped, because you can think these things but you never really know for sure, I hoped that he knew how amazing she was. Because they seem to get each other in the best possible way, but there was no time to finish the thought, they were out the door, probably freeflying and twisting over mother earth somewhere below me.
There were 10 people to go before I got out the door.
“Listen,” Brent said, “since you’re so comfortable, I’m not going to throw the drogue out the door.” A drogue is a mini parachute used on tandem chutes. Because of the weight of two bodies, it serves to slow the rate of decent. “It will take a couple of seconds, but when you’ll realize it’s not there right quick. You cool with that?”
“I’m up for anything!” I yelled, “But will we stay stable?”
“Not really!” And he smiled.
At the door we turned diagonal, toward the propeller. I threw my head back hard, arched my body into a spoon, and fell out the door. My legs when back, and it only took a second or two for us to get stable. And we were falling.
Three seconds in I took stock of how I felt. This didn’t feel all that fast. Had he pulled the drogue anyway, thought better of the idea? Or was this just the way speed felt, like driving 100 on the highway, straight, so fast that the telephone poles blur into distinguishable sticks, the illusion that what you were seeing was singular.
And then the bottom fell out. The column of air that normally supports your body through freefall collapsed beneath me. More like it crumbled, and the speed increased in exponential form. Like a nitrous hit, we shot towards the ground. Each time I checked my altimeter we had dropped another 1,000 feet, in a snap. It must have looked like tiny meteorites were landing on my skin, causing ripples and dimples and putty-like movement. I’ve never felt speed like this in my life, and for a bit it all washed away, and I was a man with a goddamned rocket strapped to my back.
We stuttered and skipped across the sky, losing stability one second, and I think both our hands would work to right the hitch before being thrown off. I felt like a rock skipping across the water. All I could think was, “Holy Shit.” A big, hallelujah, inner shout of a holy shit.
When he threw the drogue it jerked us both back, felt like a hand had cast down and yanked us up again, and we were falling like normal, which is not normal at all, because, well, we were falling. I checked my altitude, 9,000ft.
The rest of the way down we made turns, adjusted headings, spun in the air. Half-way, then full around. At 5,500ft I waved off and reached behind me to pull, grabbing where my pilot chute would have been had I been jumping my own, then remembering that this was a tandem, making a grab for the handle, and the canopy came out.
I will never experience anything like that again, even if I jump tandem again without a drogue. The acceleration was so delayed and so utterly unexpected. And so gorgeous.
On the ground I gave George and Lucia a huge hug, holding on for seconds before letting go. The smile probably stretched to my ears.
“I’ve never felt anything like that in my life,” I said.
And they smiled back.