This weekend, I went skydiving for the first time. After last week's sickness, I was still a little out of it, doped up on Mucinex and little sleep, but when would the chance arise again? A group of six drove from LA to Santa Barbara--about two and a half hours--through mountains shrouded in yellow wildflowers from last season's consistent rain. It was, for lack of a better word, majestic, in those hills.
At the hanger, we signed waivers agreeing to not sue Skydive Santa Barbara if we were to plummet to our death. Highly unlikely, they say, but the forms are necessary. A room of us watched a monotone man in a long gray beard tell us the protocol--how we were to be harnessed, how we were to bend our head back once fallen and how to land in order to not cause injury to our legs.
The day was a blur of presence. Driving meditatively and listening to the group squabble in the backseat, choosing what music to listen to. No one seemed to have the same taste. I rested on the futon in the hanger and then talked off and on with Jeremy, Peter, Tim, Scott, Jenni, and Cody. The fuel pumps were down and so the plane had to be driven to a nearby airport to be refueled and then flown back again. This set us all back a few hours. So, we waited while playing a very large Jenga set and foosball. Lingering in our anticipation, watching that of others suiting up, exiting, and returning opened wide.
Paul, who looked like Matthew McConaughey, was my tandem partner and, like the rest of the instructors, riled us up with enthusiasm and infectiousness--as if it were their first time, too--holding the cameras to our faces and interviewing us before take off and landing.
I was the first to enter the small, yellow plane and sat in the front next to the pilot who was eating pasta and strawberries from Tupperware, having been in the plane since 8am--by now it was after 4pm. Paul introduced the young pilot--a Scandinavian who hails from the land of reindeer eaters. At first I thought he was joking and realized he was serious. "Oh, well I'm a vegetarian," I told Paul.
Paul said, "Oh, so you like wine?"
Which I thought was a weird transition--"Yeah, I do."
"You know that wine, when fermented, has a lot of animals in it? Rodents, insects, anything that is swept up during the harvesting and fermenting process."
"Eww, yeah? I didn't know that."
"Yeah, there's a vegan wine you can get without all that stuff."
"How would they guarantee that?"
--By now we had risen to 6,000 feet, read the altitude instrument.--
"I don't know--controlled environment, I guess."
This entire time we were strapped together, my body like a baby in a front pouch, his chest expanding and mine, too--when at the same time, made the equipment press tightly against us.
I looked out at the landscape. By now we could see the ocean, all those green mountains, and dots of buildings where Lompoc lie below. I watched, admiring it, strangely not thinking about the fact that I was about to fall out of the plane toward it. Not sure if it was the illness, Mucinex, or the fact that I'm on Celexa, but I was strangely Zen about the whole experience. Even while I watched bodies ahead of me disappearing from the plane’s interior once we reached 18,000 feet, I was ready to go. My mind and body were separating, and I was watching myself get scooted by Paul toward the open plane door. Below, everything was so incredibly far away. He leaned back, then forward, and we were off.
At 120 MPH, the air is freezing and pushes against you hard. I, at first, had a hard time taking in air. My mouth was continuously blasted with the sky, filling up with dry. I tried licking my lips but it didn't matter. The sky was going to keep its air full. Paul told me to hold my arms out. I didn't understand what was happening to me. I saw the landscape, the sky, but could think of nothing but keeping my mouth moist, closed, and chest full of oxygen.
It doesn't feel like a fall from a roller coaster. It feels like wind hitting you hard from underneath. So hard that you're suspended. We fell for 90 seconds before he unleashed the parachute, and we were drifting more gracefully above the earth, turning to and fro with each pull of his hand on the cords. He reached down and put my hands in the loops of the cords and allowed me to steer, but each time we turned, my stomach lurched, organs still attempting to find their places again. I asked him to keep it steady, that I liked floating, instead. It was then that I could really look. Stare at the earth getting closer, watch the ocean. It was that part I could have enjoyed for longer. We were alone together up there, away from the daily grind, away from the cars and traffic and text messages.
My stomach was in my throat, and I looked forward to landing when we'd spotted the landing patch. Most of the others had already finished. My legs collapsed beneath me. Paul unstrapped himself and asked me to smile. I waved, unsure of what to think or do. I wanted to sit and breathe. I hadn't thought about anything but surviving. When our bodies are put in such unnatural positions, it becomes natural for the mind to be cleared.
I felt this way anytime a disaster could have happened. The car losing control, bicycle headed toward an obstacle with not enough time to stop, watching a glass fall from a counter. I'm strong and level in these spaces. I can get through them. I've seen enough disaster--was taught to not freak out. Or is it just instinct?
After, we swapped stories. Cody said he saw us die--our expressions, our bodies, readying for the fall. He was changed, too.