Ed Bull goes skydiving and lives to tell the tale.
The pilot turns around from the cockpit, he leans back toward the cabin, and he shouts: “We’re steady at eleventy two-hundred. Nice long jump. Everybody ready to rock?” Someone whoops. You stand up. You are shaking. You strap in to your instructor, Jenny, this short athletic blonde woman, no older than you, twenty-five at most, and much too energetic for what you are certain will be the death of you both. Her waist doesn’t match up with yours, and her legs only just reach the ground. She makes you top-heavy. This is what she called a tandem jump, the safest thing for a newbie.
This is not you. You skipped breakfast, because you didn’t want to throw up. You didn’t drink anything since yesterday; you were afraid you might wet yourself. You are afraid of moving fast, high, turning. All that. You are just afraid of moving.
Your girlfriend, too. She worries. She would kill you if she knew you were here. You were ready to propose to her—your girlfriend who worries—a few months ago. You had a ring picked out, nothing special but you still couldn’t afford it, and you had a plan too. You were going on a trip with her to Peru to see Macchu Picchu, an ancient Incan city in the sky, as high as this plane right now, grey stone terraces and walls and pillars, and temples which grow out of the Andes Mountains so natural they’re like teeth out of gums. You would have waited until the two of you had hiked all day and reached the ruins at the top and looked down through the misty clouds and she was out of breath and you would point at something to make her look away and when she did you’d pull the ring out of your pocket and when she turned back you’d lean in forehead to forehead and tell her through the rush of mountain wind that you loved her and she’d be breathless and lightheaded and it would have been perfect.
Someone further down the line opens the door. It makes a sucking sound and the cabin brightens—you have to shield your eyes. The sun is white at this altitude. A rush of cool air, not even or smooth like what would come from a fan but rough and pulsating, you can only describe it as reminding you of an immensely large insect buzzing its wings. Your sweat evaporates, drains the heat from your body and swirls it around the cabin. There are five people ahead of you. Two solo jumpers, blonde guys who like to stick out their tongues and make devil horns with their fingers. A solo instructor, this one a man. And one other tandem jump—a solo jumper’s girlfriend, she hasn’t jumped before either. She smiles a lot but she doesn’t seem afraid.
You had to take a class first. This Jenny, the instructor strapped to your back, she taught it. She said things like, “Don’t panic,” and “It’s like floating, not falling,” and just in case the instructor, you now realize she meant herself, becomes incapacitated she told you which cords to pull and when—which, she said, was probably not probably necessary, that’s how she said it, because everyone has these little computers attached—AAD’s—which automatically release the reserve chute if you fall too fast and too far. They call the one they gave you a Vigil, for “vigilance.” You saw a story on the news once, about a first-time tandem skydiver whose instructor had a heart attack on the way down. The man had to pull the cords himself, you guess he didn’t have a Vigil, and steer down safely despite the corpse tied to his back, the instructor’s head lolling against his shoulder in the wind, weighing him down. Now that Jenny is strapped to your back, and you can feel her breathing against your spine, her ribs expanding and contracting like wings, and her hair brushing your neck, you regret the thought.
This is not you. You do not take risks. But you know people who do. A friend of yours, a soldier, a month ago he took his girlfriend to France while he was on leave and he proposed to her at breakfast under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. He had pointed at the tower and said look at that, and when she turned around, he had pulled a ring out, one he had picked out long ago on credit even though he couldn’t afford it, and he said, “I love you, be my wife.” They told you all about it on a double-date after your trip to Macchu Picchu with your girlfriend, and the whole time you couldn’t stop watching your girlfriend watching the diamond and you felt like an insect. Not long after, he became a picture on Facebook. He was in the desert, Afghanistan. There, he shot and was shot at. And his wife, she waited for him. You helped her set up a webcam so that they could exchange I love you’s in real time.
Your soldier friend was wounded once. About a dozen pieces of shrapnel, little flakes of steel slightly larger than grains of rice, a couple the size of a silver dollar, mostly in his legs and lower buttocks. Missed his femoral arteries—and, not insignificantly, most of his reproductive equipment also—and so he lived. He has an uneven gait now, and when he talks, people really listen because he has faced the threat of death and been wizened by it. And that was when it occurred to you that when your soldier friend says “I love you,” it means more than when you say “I love you.”
You could live with that. You are fine with being one of the unimportant masses, the ones who live out their lives comfortably and uninterestingly and serve as chaff for the ones who serve and fight and invent. You want to live a long life with this girl that you love, the one who worries, and grow old with her and get a house in the suburbs with an orange tree in the back, and work some throwaway job during the week and eat oranges straight from the branch and have sex and lie in bed with her for hours and hours on the weekends. You were going to propose at Macchu Picchu, but school cost too much, and the trip cost too much, and the ring cost too much. You still went to Macchu Picchu, without the ring, and it was beautiful, but there was this moment that you knew could have been perfect, when this girl was looking out over this terrace and the whole of Macchu Picchu and the Andes Mountains and the clouds and the rivers and the towns thousands of feet below, and her hair was flipping around in the wind, and she was smiling, and you had to kiss her and know that it wasn’t perfect.
That was the same month that you found Skydive Orlando. There was a waiting list, and so you quietly waited. You didn’t tell anyone. Not your family, not your girlfriend. She’d say you were being stupid, a man. Like when you grew out your facial hair because you thought it was masculine—you said rugged, she said prickly.
There are black fabric rungs on each side of the cabin. Nylon, you think. You grab one on each side. Someone jumps out; the sound of the wind snapping against their clothes is like the pull of a zipper—loud and tearing and then gone. Jenny pats you to move forward. Your knees feel like they’re made of gelatin, so you grab the next rung. First on the left then on the right, like monkey bars when you were a kid. You make your way forward. Your heart speeds up. You realize now that you should have drunk something in the morning. You are dehydrated. You can feel your heartbeat in the veins in your forehead and behind your eyes and what little saliva is in your mouth is thick and mucousy and tastes like chalk.
Three million jumps in a year, less than two dozen deaths, Jenny tells you. Her breath is a prickle on the back of your ears. Only a couple were students, and none on a first time dive, she says. This is safe, she says. You feel only a little better. But then you think, if this is safe, then it’s worthless. It’s posturing.
Another zipper pulls out the door and into the wind. “Yeah!” one of the blond guys shouts, and then he’s out the door too, another zipper. You close your eyes. Left, right, forward. Left, right, forward. You think it’s not too late. You could stop, un-strap from Jenny, put your head between your knees, maybe make yourself throw up.
Jenny pats you on your side. “We’re up,” she says. You open your eyes and blink away the white brightness of the sun and the clouds and you’re staring eleven thousand feet straight down, through a roaring threshold of moving, gnashing air. Clouds, at this altitude loose collections of mist, float by. And on the ground, mostly flat squares of green and other geometric shapes, made up of trees, houses, schools, blue water. It all looks very neat and orderly from very high up, carved into distinct segments by rivers, roads, power lines.
This has to be some kind of mistake, the pilot must have missed an extra zero on his altimeter or something; it’s impossibly far. You’d be in the air for hours, you’d suffocate in the thinness of the atmosphere. The other jumpers must already be dead by now. Frozen, asphyxiated corpses plummeting toward some unexpecting farmer’s wife’s backyard garden. Or already driven into the ground like a stake, head-first, two stiff jump-suited legs sticking up from the zucchini patch, farm dog sniffing ice-frosted crotch quizzically, tail wagging. Your will catch on a power line and be cooked, sizzled midair. Your girlfriend will be so upset with you if you die like this. You feel nauseated and lightheaded. And then you feel Jenny’s slim hands curve under your jaw and fit around your scalp. She tilts your head upward, level to the horizon, which is bright and blue and definitely, definitely better. It’s a strange feeling to have another woman’s hands on your scalp. You are instantly calmed.
You are afraid, though it’s a detached fear. Like you’re watching a home movie of yourself doing something very stupid. And at the root of this fear is the fact that you like yourself, you really like yourself, that in spite of you not being brave enough or smart enough or loving enough when you get right down to it you even love yourself. You love your girl, the one who worries. You love your mother, your father, your sister, the taste of oranges. An awareness that you will die, maybe today. And rising to meet that: bone-deep, crushing love. This must be why people become adrenaline junkies, shark-feeding, white-water rafting, drag racing, maybe cocaine though you’ve never tried it. Jumping out of airplanes at eleventy-two-hundred feet. All to love in this, this crushing wholehearted way. What people mean when they say they feel alive. Love. All of these thoughts compressed into a microsecond, though it feels nothing like just a microsecond. Jenny says something, carried by the wind, something like “Go go!” or “Let’s get going!” Something with two G’s.
And now you stop again. You don’t know how to continue. The air shears past the door like a wall, twisting and roiling with eddies. It boils, it bites. You can’t imagine going forward. You’d just bounce back, or be ripped apart. You realize that you don’t have the will to do this. Jenny begins to pull away, like she knows that you can’t, and you become top-heavy, you think you’ll fall backward. You panic. You grasp the sides of the door for balance, to steady yourself, and the aluminum edges press into your fingers, the air tears over your knuckles, and you get an idea. You tighten your grip until it hurts, and lean back, until your biceps stretch and burn with lactic acid, and the tendons in your arms go taut like wires. You lean back until you feel like your arms will snap. You bend your knees into a runner’s starting position. Jenny, she gets it, she leans back with you, puts an arm around your shoulder, another on your waist. She counts:
You are not brave.
You don’t want to do this.
This is what gravity is for.
Forget will. Forget courage. You have momentum.
This is not you. You can’t claim responsibility. You are a projectile. A missile. You breach through the wall of boiling air, and it’s like diving into a pool, crashing into something so much thicker. Spinning and tumbling, not knowing which way is up or down. You hold your breath.
Jenny, she evens you out. She spreads out her arms and legs and catches the air and flips you around and over, until you’re underneath her facing down, and the Earth fills your vision. The shadows of clouds mottle the segmented landscape. And it grows, which almost doesn’t register, but it is. Growing. Inflating. Organs you didn’t know you could feel you can feel now as they become weightless in your body. Now you know exactly where your kidneys are. And your heart, Jesus, your heart. Jenny was right when she said it wasn’t like falling. It’s like, at speed, the air has become something other than air, more substantial, and it’s like you’re swimming in it, cushioned by it. It holds you. Jenny grabs your shoulders, gives them a shake. You can feel her smile into the back of your head. You are not afraid. You thought you would be, but you are not. You finally let go of your breath, suck in the rushing air-that-is-not-air. You whoop. You stretch out your arms and open yourself to this expanding vision of the Earth beneath you.
* This essay originally appeared on The Good Men Project on 12/26/11