I woke up Saturday morning a little after 8AM. My mobile phone went off on the floor. I was sleeping on a futon at Lana's, one of the packer girls from down at the drop zone at Cross Keys. I had driven down late Friday night, after work. Her roommate had asked for a ride down to the DZ where he worked in the gear shop. I peered out my window at the blue skies, realizing why this is such a saying amongst jumpers. "Blue skies," and it's the same as hello or goodbye or peace. It's not that we (and I think this is the first time I've used the word "we" when writing about the skydiving community, but I'm beginning to feel a part of it) say it all the time; far from it. It's just something that's said. Like a tiny prayer or wish or someone wishing you well. Blue skies.
Lana was heading to her parents house for her father's birthday, and I was going to jump for the day before we all went to a party in the north east area of Philadelphia. All I knew about the gig was that this group put these things together on a regular basis, and as people boogied all over the dance floor to whatever the DJ was spinning the organizers would enter the room in ornate costumes and masks. This was all I knew.
The drop zone was empty when I arrived, so I went off to grab some coffee and an egg sandwich. A sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich. When I got back it had begun to crawl. Today was Freeze Fest, held during the cold, its name denoting exactly what it is. A bunch of joyfully crazy mother fuckers (to the outside world, at least) getting bundled up in layers, strapping on their gear, and jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. If there is such a thing.
Up at altitude it can be 15 to 30 degrees colder than it is on the ground. And until you've jumped from a plane into that kind of temperature my words will do you know good. Like skydiving itself, it's just something you have to experience for yourself.
I hadn't been up in 40 days. The weather hadn't been agreeable on weekends, and that's the only time I can get down to the drop zone. And when the weather had been good-for the 1 or 2 days it hadn't been too windy or too cloudy or too snowy or too shitty-I hadn't been able to make it down. Fucking figures. But today was brilliant and blue and clear and calm. A table set with all it's finery as we stepped into our rigs and tied up all lose ends, checked our cypress and clamps, touched our handles and looked at the six points of connection that every parachute has to the human body.
Since it had been over 30 days since I'd last taken an air bath I had to take a refresher course. There was a guy in there with me who had logged well over 60 jumps, and even with his 45 more than me he still managed to nearly burn himself into the ground. For some reason I couldn't fathom as I watched it, nor could PJ or any of the other people on the deck near the landing area, he tried to turn his canopy at around 30 feet from the ground. He picked up speed as anyone does in a turn, and crashed hard into the ground, tearing a terrible divot out of the snow and dirt, bouncing and landing 5 feet or more from his new whole. Somehow he stood up and walked away and I still can't figure out what the hell he was thinking. No one else could either. Just goes to show how few jumps 60 really is. But for now, he was in the refresher with me, just going over things that may or may not have slipped our minds. And even if they hadn't gone away, it's still good to remind yourself, especially when you're new as I am.
I went up on my first jump. The guy I was jumping with was Italian, for the life of me I can't remember his name. It was exotic, started with an M. That's all I remember. My nerves jangled like forks in a glass jar. Whatever. I love that feeling.
I was out the door after him, chasing him down. I barrel rolled twice and then did a back flip. After that he came up along side of me, I peeled my hands back along my sides, stretching them down and extended my legs. I started tracking along the ground, watching it move beneath me. I was flying. At 5,000 I waved off and pulled.
And that's when the cold hit. I hadn't noticed the temperature in the plane, and it didn't register a thing in the air. Now all of a sudden it was slapping me in the face and sitting on my chest. I was wearing long underwear, heavy socks, a long sleeve shirt, a light sweater, pants, shoes, a neck warmer and I was absolutely frozen. Freeze fest.
The only thing I wanted to do was get on the ground.
Back in the hanger people started exchanging stories, talking about their rides. Red faced and snot nosed and smiling. A community of random people who really had in common one thing and one thing only: they loved hurtling their bodies out of moving airplanes.
My second jump was going to be with Pancake. The first time I met him I thought that was a nickname, something experienced jumpers gave each other. Maybe a talisman against burning into the ground. "Hi, my name is Pancake." "Hello, I'm Splat." "What's going on? My name is Bounce."
But that's actually his real name. His name is Pancake. I'm not making this up. He's the Jump Instructor at Cross Keys and his name is Pancake. Someone knew he was born for the air, because that is just too perfect.
Pancake and I sat in the back of the hanger going over our jump. I was going to try a new exit with him, hanging outside the plan and hanging to a bar inside the door. Standing up with the metal in the wrong place. I was going to be standing outside the door.
I left the plane solid and fluid. I turned into the wind and slid down onto my belly. As I jumped I looked up at the bottom of the plane, something I've taught myself to do because it helps get stable quicker and the view is unreal, and watched as Pancake jumped after me. I was already 300 feet below him, and had jumped out mere seconds before.
He leveled off in front of my and then backed away. When he stopped I flew forward, opening my palms and docking onto his arms. We stood there stable in the air, and he backed away again. Again I few too him and docked to his arms. He sunk below me, falling fast, coming to a rest about 30 feet down. I arched harder, watching him come as I fell down to him, then flew forward and docked again.
At 6,000 feet I turned 180 degrees away and started tracking, creating space between the two of us so I could safely pull. I arched and waved and pulled. And it was still fucking freezing.
I cannot account for the feeling of diving in the cold. Take the coldest shower you've ever had, multiply it by the most frigid lake you've ever jumped into, times that by that time you were drunk and thought naked snow angels might be a good idea, and you are no where near. It is freezing at altitude.
Back in the hanger everyone had started ordering pizza. It gets dark early in the evening now, so everyone was packing up and getting ready for the night's festivities. Most would be staying in the hanger to drink and hang out. Many of us would be splitting off and heading into Philly. Jen, a friend of Lana's who I had never met, came up to me.
"You're Jarret, huh? I'm Lana's friend. You coming with us tonight?"
"I am indeed."
"Sweet. It's going to be a good time."
"I hope so. I haven't had a boogie in a long time."
Jen and I left the hanger at 7 to head back to Lana's and shower, try to take a nap, and get ready, which essentially meant putting on the same clothes we had been wearing, with different T-shirts over cleaner bodies.
The party was held in an eroding part of town, as many parties like this are. We exited off 95 and at the sugar cubes we had with us, mixing them with Red Bull. Just stealing sugar and energy and caffeine and whatever else is in that drink to jack us up for the night ahead. Chad the dad and some of his friends were already there. In fact, as the night went on, it seemed that all of Chad's friends were there. He's a mellow vibed African with mad dreds and a chill accent who walked around talking to everyone when he wasn't dancing or sipping whiskey or just grinning.
The building looked abandoned, but it's actually a full residence. We took the elevator up to the 3rd floor, which opened up into this huge gallery loft space. Tapestries lined the walls with black light overhead to pull out the translucence. Someone had taken packing bubbles and bent them into the shapes of flowers and leaves. Someone sold shirts, couches and chairs intermittently lined the walls, and at the far end, 150 yards away, was a DJ spinning in front of a screen that oscillated patterns and pictures.
We walked around, had a few drinks, and talked, just chatting and laughing. Suddenly Lana's eyes went big. "WOAH!" Jen and I turned around.
Costumed performers (kind of like an ornate Cirque du Soliel) came out onto the dance floor. They were dressed in beautifully makeshift dresses and suits. They twirled ribbons after them and wore precise and intricate masks. They didn't say anything, but interacted amongst each other, responding to each other's movements, almost sniffing at the other, communicating, keeping character. They performed silent dance vignettes while the DJs spun insane sets.
After 2 or 3 hours on the floor my tires went flat. I was exhausted. You hate to admit that there are subtle signs you aren't as young as you once were, but there was a time I would have hit the floor and not walked away till the Sun came up. Just dancing and moving and flowing. But the air went low and I was riding on flat tires. I walked over the wall and sat there.
Jen came and set next to me, propping herself against the stone. We just chatted and talked, laughing. Every now and then, on nights like this, you can set aside all the bullshit that comes with meeting someone new and just drop the façade. You can just be friends because they seem cool and mellow and you get on with them brilliantly. And that's what we did. Jen, my new buddy, we sat back and talked about everything and everyone. She cracked me up.
There was a girl there dancing. I couldn't take my eyes off her. She looked like Mel. She looked so much like Mel, and even danced as she danced, but a little more languidly, a little more flawlessly. She was wearing loose pants and a red print dress with a white hat on; it's an outfit I could easily see Mel wearing. She was Mel with short hair; a little longer than the length when we first met. I kept staring over at her all night; couldn't take my eyes off. I was completely in love. From that short distance it may as well have been her, the girl I haven't seen since Christmas 2002. And as I sat there all the feelings washed over me, taking me, tumbling me. I watched Mel dance.
I had to fight the urge to go up and talk to her. You don't fall in love with ghosts, it's not fair to the real people they are, and besides the moment I got there it wouldn't be Mel. She would be whoever she was, as she should be. I stayed away.
But for the whole night, the rest of the night till dawn when we walked out at 8AM, I was completely in love again. Overwhelmingly so. I just wanted to talk to her and hug her and dance with her. I wanted the illusion to last.
I drove back to New York at 10AM, tired, but with a huge coffee and a peaceful mind. It's possible, you know, and it sucks to admit this to be meant to be with someone and not have it ever work out. It has to happen from time to time. There is such a thing. Because in the back of my mind, where I don't admit the things I'd rather not, when I let my guard down, I have to admit I believe we were meant to be together. It's just that it didn't happen.
Maybe as I get older I'll adjust that theory. Maybe someone will come along to prove me wrong. Maybe meant to be is just meant to be important. So important. Maybe meant to be feels even stronger than that. It should break you in the best way. I don't know the answer. But for one night, as I stared at that beautiful girl with her beautiful dance, it felt like being back together. It was a feeling so good and whole. It was the best feeling. It was such a wonderful day and night.