by Jennifer Anthony
Skydiving is both a stimulating and terrifying little sport. It can also be very heated and sensual and leave one trembling from a combination of exhilaration and excitement that will forever be irrevocably intertwined.
A part of me has always wondered what it would feel like to skydive. A very remote part.
And yet one Tuesday afternoon at work, during an occasional attack of adult-onset Attention-Deficit Disorder, I Googled “skydiving” and found a drop zone in mysterious Byron, California. Investigating the website, I marveled at the pretty-pretty pictures, and imagined how utterly invigorating skydiving would be. I discovered that the dives on weekdays were from lower altitudes—10,000 as opposed to 12,000 or 14,000 feet—and were about twenty dollars cheaper.
The thought of skydiving had been pulled out of the dusty Something Other People Do drawer in my mind and was now on the desktop, staring me in the face. I decided to do it the very next day, on Wednesday. Sure, it made more sense to do it on Saturday when I wouldn’t have had to skip work, but that would have meant three days to dwell on it, obsess, and probably talk myself out of it.
When I woke up on Wednesday morning, I called and made a reservation before I could think about it anymore. I sent an e-mail out to my coworkers with a vague excuse about an “appointment” and hopped into my car. And I drove, drove, drove, trying to press what I was about to do into my subconscious. Any time the thoughts bubbled up to the forefront of my mind, I turned up the music and sang along to thwart further reflection.
Do not think about what you’re about to do.
I drove toward Livermore, past the Don Quixote windmills lolling in sun-drunken circles, and through the dry, rolling hills. I wondered at the eerie coincidence that I spotted not one, but two, hearses on the freeway. Finally, I came upon the not-so-well-known Byron Airport, and parked just outside the hangar. The sun exhibited self-restraint: the temperature was a reasonable ninety-three degrees, cool for mid-July in that area.
When I walked in, a woman with a comforting southern accent sat me down on a soft brown couch and asked me to watch an informational video before signing my life away on a legal-size form. My head began to pound as I turned to the form and, hands trembling, scribbled my initials a dozen or more times. No, I won’t sue. Sure, I could die or be seriously injured.
I was the only customer for that particular time slot. The employee introduced me to my instructor and tandem partner, Emmet, noting that he had jumped more than 1,000 times and I was, therefore, in good hands. And good-looking hands, I discovered, when I turned to face him. Emmet. About five ten; floppy, straight blond hair with long sideburns (bordering on what one might call muttonchops), a wide smile, and the promise of a fantastic body under his pants, which had flames shooting out at the calves.
As Emmet helped me suit up in my Top Gun apparel, he gave me a cursory lesson. Showed me how we would take a step from the airplane together with our right feet and roll into the air. How important it was to arch my back, tilt my head, and curl my feet behind me when we jumped. He asked me to try that position there before him, on the ground. He showed me how to pull my knees up to my chest as we landed so we’d touch down on his feet, not mine.
Five of us trooped to the airplane, which seemed about the same size, if not smaller, than my Honda Civic. The pilot, an employee who was doing a “fun” jump (just for kicks, since business was slow), Emmet, the videographer, and myself. The pilot was the only person who had a seat. The rest of us sat in the back of the airplane on the thinly carpeted floor, facing backward. I straddled Emmet, resting one foot on Fun Jump. Held onto Emmet’s backpack with both hands as if I’d known him for years.
And we took off in our teeny tiny plane, soaring above the land, gaining altitude. Life in the plane was cozy, intimate, with Emmet between my legs and the other three men surrounding me. We gazed out the windows at the spectacular view of the rolling hills, of the reservoirs, of Livermore in the far distance, of Discovery Bay. The pilot pointed out where a fire had charred one of the hills to a crisp the day before.
Up and up we went. I felt absurdly calm. I told myself that it wasn’t me doing it, not really— it was someone else. I was just taking a relaxing little ride.
And then, at about 8,000 feet, Fun Jump, wearing only a harness, a tee shirt, and shorts, started rustling around. They threw the door open, the wind gushed in, and somehow the view was different when there was no falsely reassuring window separating the earth and us. Fun Jump stepped onto the stair, smiled, and waved. And dropped backward and over into the sky, like a scuba diver falling off a boat into the water.
We’d fly for another minute or so, climb to 10,000 feet before getting ready for our jump. Emmet asked me to get on my knees. He knelt behind me and started latching us together at the shoulders and the hips. They threw the door open once again; the videographer scrambled out to resume documenting the event. And Emmet and I, joined together ever so intimately, scooted forward on our knees with the door gaping open at our right and the wind rushing in and the earth thousands of feet below us and me, thinking holy-shit-holy-shit-holy-shit. Emmet put his right foot on the step. I put my right foot on the step. We were joined, pressed together, harnesses and locks and so, so close and we were about to jump out of a plane.
Then Emmet started rocking, left to right, and I realized I was supposed to as well.
This was by far the most frightening part of the whole experience. The part that’s most real, most concrete, the part where one’s body and mind registers that this is how one kills oneself. Plane: stable; air: not.
We tumbled off the step and into the air, the sky. The earth stretching out below us, brown hills and lakes and neat grids of crops and clusters of black specks: the cows I’d seen driving in, transformed into ants. So high that the sky was hazy and the earth was neat, tidy: thick, pronounced borders that a very meticulous child had colored in with various shades of brown and green pastels.
And we fell.
Rocketed toward the earth at speeds of up to 120 miles per hour, with a hot guy strapped to my back whom I’d known for all of twenty minutes, but trusted. And my hair flying straight up like the Heat Miser and legs and arms everywhere—a strange dance—and wind rushing into my tennis shoes (no socks) and this crazy sense of security from the harness that fit my body so snugly.
When Emmet released the parachute, we snapped upright in a jerk and slowed. We were now perpendicular to the earth, standing in the air, falling softly, slowly. Legs and bodies pressed together. The parachute had opened and that was sure a relief. I thought of the myriad of J.A.’s on the legal form, how I’d signed my life away, and smiled.
I had done it.
Emmet maneuvered us toward the drop zone, showing me just how easy and navigable our trusty little rectangular purple and white parachute was. See, he told me, with a jerk to the left, you can completely control where you go. Look, he said, with a twist to the right, we’ll land right down there. Anyone ever thrown up on you? I asked. Just once, he answered. And we shared a chuckle.
Maybe other people think philosophical or poetic thoughts as they float down. Maybe other people say that they did in retrospect, to make themselves look quite deep and introspective. But I can’t lie. I wasn’t reciting iambic pentameter in my head; metaphors weren’t overwhelming me.
This is what I thought: We are flying. FLYING. The earth is below us and it’s ours and it’s beautiful and peaceful and what the hell, let’s just float on down there, dance in the air, the two of us, you and me, Emmet, and check things out.
As instructed, I brought my knees to my chest for the landing. A moment passed before I could stand. Not because I had broken a leg or twisted an ankle. Because I was shaking all over from excitement, and, to be quite honest, pure titillation.
I needed a cigarette. And I don’t even smoke.
* * * *
Jennifer Anthony lives in the Bay Area of California, where she works to support her travel habit at a not-for-profit company. She has traveled extensively in the United States and abroad, and her most recent solo trips include sojourns in Italy and Argentina. In a recent skydiving adventure, she discovered how the exotic, the foreign, and the titillating could be found only ninety minutes from her home—in the skies above Byron, California.
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