San Jose in July is a sprawling geography of white heat, browning mountains, and yellow grass. We pull into the lot beside our squat, cinderblocky destination and my stomach shnargles. For lunch, I’d prepared myself a hybrid of an “I’m Too Cheap To Buy Real Food” meal and a “Potential Impending Projectile Vomit” meal, i.e. old miso soup and a hard-boiled egg I’m pretty sure was harvested from Mars.
It’s me, Jason, Albert, and Daniel. Once we check in, we’re led to a back room, where we squeeze onto a couch and each receive a fat packet. Said fat packet is a comprehensive list of ways one can die whilst skydiving. Beside each bullet is a place to sign.
The static-riddled tube telly in the corner provides some calm, soothing background noise: an ancient, Gandolf-looking hippie—supposedly the “father of skydiving”—shares his experience, then goes, “Remember, this is an EXTREME sport. There is a HIGH risk. A HUGE risk.”
Me: “They couldn’t have emailed this to us a week ago?”
Albert: “I’m scared of heights.”
This is fine, Albert. Everything is fine.
Packets submitted, we wait in hellish anticipation for fifteen minutes before getting the go-ahead to drive out to the field. This is the official skydiving center. On the right: a plain of cropped (dead?) brown grass. On the left: what appears to be a parking lot without lines, feat. a dinky lil white-and-orange plane.
During more hellish anticipation, we chat with the present company, some hobby skydivers who—get this—SPEND ENTIRE DAYS REPEATEDLY JUMPING OUT OF PLANES FOR FUN, REPEATEDLY, THE ENTIRE DAY, JUMPING OUT OF PLANES.
We also pet a convenient dog:
Finally, the sky’s clear, and it’s time for the first pair, Daniel and me, to fly. Our instructors help us into gear, at which point I realize my shorts were a mistake. They have been ingested by my harness. I leave the fate of my dignity to the people on land who may happen to look up and see a twig of a girl, flailing, potentially vomiting, falling from the sky completely and utterly pantless.
As I hoist my pantsless butt into the plane, my tandem buddy Roy nudges me with an elbow. “HEY.” He has to yell over the metallic shriek of the engine. “NICE TATTOO.”
“THANKS,” I say. “I LIKE YOURS TOO.” Upon closer inspection, it’s a faded heart with some curlicue script inside.
“OH,” says Roy. “THAT’S ANGELA. MY EX-GIRLFRIEND. YOUR NAME TOO, HUH?”
I pray the breakup was clean and harmonious. I mean, I am about to fall from the sky attached to this guy.
Aforementioned plane is so tiny, the instructors’ legs overlap when they sit across each other, and Daniel and I have to get cozy in their laps. I’m barely in place, wondering whether it’s situationally appropriate to feel awkward, when my teeth and eyeballs start rattling. We lift off, and immediately, I get the feeling we’re riding the air like a paper boat on the ocean. I can practically feel the invisible currents beneath us. Especially in my belly. My hard-boiled egg from Mars is having a real ball in there.
The grimy, bug-slicked windows are eye-level, despite the fact we’re sitting. I look from the rapidly disappearing airstrip to the front windshield. It is a grand total of three feet away. Outside, three tiny propellor blades whiz away.
Below, the landscapes fade to geometry, and I’m left admiring swatches of yellow and brown. The air’s a lot cooler; probably 70 compared to the ground-level 100. My heart skips once or twice during the ascent, but otherwise, I devote my entire attention to the views.
“Five thousand feet,” says Roy, and starts securing our harnesses.
When he’s done, we’re connected by approximately two (two) (two!!) carabiners. He yanks on my belt and says in my ear, “TIGHT ENOUGH?”
I’m staring at these two measly carabiners like, “WHAT ARE YOU KIDDING TIGHTER TIGHTER.”
He yanks again.
“TIGHTER,” I screech.
He pretends not to hear me and starts paraphrasing the instructions from earlier. Tuck the legs, grab the harness, open arms in fifteen seconds. If need to vomit, turn left. Actually, if need to vomit, don’t vomit. Brace, then jump.
I tear my gaze away from the two—TWO??—carabiners and nod.
The plane drifts to a stop and we’re wavering along the currents. Roy scoots us towards the door, then kicks it open.
The wind is deafening. Imagine the full, throbbing snap of a sail unfurling. Now play it in a loop, and picture enormous mountains reduced to flat, colorless polygons beneath your dangling feet.
I detach myself from my situation and wait for the notorious “on the count of three.” Oh, what beautiful weather, I marvel. Gee, I wonder how Michael’s doing. Why does thunder come after lightning? What are taxes? Why am I an econ major? We’re sitting in the doorway, feet propped on the steps, wind roaring, plane feeling like paper, and behind me Roy is fixing up the SWEET JESUS I’M IN FREE FALL AT 120 MILES PER GODDAMNED HOUR WHEN DID THIS HAPPEN?!?!?!?!
Roy’s screaming something in my ear. I stuff my flapping tongue back into my mouth, shut it, and tuck my legs. After the instinctive shock of falling off a plane, I’m feeling calm. My ears aren’t bleeding; my stomach’s not flopping. This is, I think, the closest I’ll ever get to pure flight. With my arms spread wide, I can’t help but grin ferociously, even though my tongue’s probably flapping again. My mouth’s dry within a second.
After awhile, Roy deploys the parachute, which feels like being shot out of an upward-facing cannon. The descent is slow and peaceful from here. Sometimes, Roy messes with me and twirls us in dizzying circles. The land, the sky, the world literally spins around me.
By the time I hit the grass (read: make contact briefly, am blown backwards several feet, Roy tries to get footing, am blown backwards another several feet), all I’m thinking about is getting back up there. It’s not just exhilarating; it’s also beautiful. Serene.
I wait for Daniel’s landing, then stagger to where Jason and Albert are waiting with the convenient petting dog.
Jason: “How was it?”
Albert: “I’m afraid of heights.”
Me: “Everything is fine, Albert.”
Everything is fine.