The damn phone won't stop ringing. Ordinarily I would know who's calling, but I'm still half asleep, and drunk, and the psychic thing isn't kicking in. I light a cigarette on my way to the living room, where I grope for the phone and croak something into it.
A female voice says, "Sophie?"
The voice sounds familiar, but not quite right.
"Sophie, this is Karen, from work."
"What time is it? Am I late?"
"I'm looking for Kevin."
"Kevin?" I expect her to tell me she's dialed my number by mistake, but then I realize what's wrong with her voice: she's been crying. I'm not the first person she's called, looking for Kevin.
"Hold on." I put the phone down and go back into the bedroom. The bed is just a mattress on the floor, but it serves its purpose. Right now, for instance, there's a great looking guy in it, dark curls and blue eyes. He sees me standing there naked and he gives me a crooked grin, and this grin triggers a full-body memory of last night, and I find myself wondering why I got out of bed, and then I remember Karen on the phone, and I ask, "Is your name Kevin?"
"You have a phone call."
I go into the bathroom to avoid hearing his end of the conversation, and while I'm there I brush my teeth. There's nothing to be done about my hair, it's too tangled to even get a brush through it, so I don't bother. I really need a shower, but I can't deal with that, either, so I go back to bed and smoke another cigarette.
I hear Kevin murmuring on the phone, and then he comes back to the bedroom, and now he's standing naked at the foot of the bed, and he looks good.
"I'm busted," he says, and he gives a little oh-well shrug.
"I didn't know you were Karen's boyfriend." I say this in a small-world kind of way—I don't mean to imply that it would have made any difference.
"I guess I should have mentioned that."
"So, what are you going to do now?"
His eyes move down my body and the grin returns to his face. He drops onto the mattress and hooks his hands behind my knees, dragging me towards him.
"I'm already in trouble," he says. "I might as well make the most of it."
~ ~ ~
It turns out he and Karen have been together off and on since high school, and they've been talking about getting married. They moved in together about six months ago.
"How come I've never seen you at the bar?" I ask him.
"I get enough of her at home."
I wouldn't have to be psychic to know that Karen's not going to take this well. She works hard at staying calm and centered—yoga classes, meditation, herbal teas—but it doesn't take much to throw her off. She cries when drunks at the bar are rude to her. She takes things personally.
And here's the part I don't get: they probably will get married.
~ ~ ~
A few days later, I'm behind the bar slicing limes and bopping along to The Pretenders. The regulars are preaching their patriotic macho bullshit imperialism, but I tuned them out some time ago; I'm listening to Chrissie Hynde. Baby, oooooooh, sweetheart.
"I suppose you voted for him," Dan says to me.
"And I'll vote for him again." I don't know who we're talking about, but whoever it is, I didn't vote for him. Four years ago I was only sixteen, but I can't tell Dan that, because I used a fake id to get this job, and no one knows my real age. I forget sometimes, myself.
Karen comes in. This is the first time I've seen her since the Kevin incident. She took a few days off, but it doesn't seem to have done her any good. She looks all strung out.
"I didn't know," I tell her.
"He knew," she says, and she storms into the kitchen.
Dan asks what's wrong with her.
"I accidentally slept with her boyfriend."
"There are no accidents," says Eliot. Eliot's a psychology professor, and he gets Freudian around his fourth or fifth beer. At least once a week he tells me that the bottle is a substitute for the nipple, except when you're pouring it into a glass, and then it's a phallic symbol. There may be something to this—Eliot always drinks from the bottle, and I notice he spends a lot of time looking at my tits.
"You wanted to sleep with Karen's boyfriend," he says. "Probably some unresolved issue with your mother."
He doesn't know a thing about my mother.
"I didn't know," I say again. "He was just a guy I met at a party."
Dan wags his finger at me. "You're a naughty girl."
"Was I supposed to ask? You're the big-shot attorney, you tell me: who's liable if he fails to disclose his nonsingular status? How was I supposed to know?"
"Promise me something," he says. "If you ever need representation—and I have no doubt that someday you will—promise you'll call me. That big-blue-eyed babe-in-the-woods thing plays great on the witness stand."
Eliot's not done analyzing my family dynamics. "I figure you either didn't get enough attention from your father, or you got too much."
"Last night I dreamed I was an astronaut," I say. "What do you think that means?"
Dan chuckles. He knows I make up these dreams for Eliot's benefit.
Eliot leans across the bar. "Were you in a cigar-shaped rocket ship?"
"I don't know, but I remember seeing all the craters on the moon."
"Latent lesbianism," he declares, and Dan concurs.
Karen has come out of the kitchen and is busying herself at the wait station. The adulterous couple at the corner table gets up to leave.
"Don't worry, Karen," Eliot calls out to her. "Sophie's a lesbian."
"It's not Sophie I'm worried about," she says, and she continues to rattle around in the silverware.
I say, "Karen, how about a drink?"
She usually has tomato juice, but when she turns and looks at me, I know before she opens her mouth that she's going to ask for a vodka and tonic, and she does.
She comes and sits at the bar and addresses the regulars. "Why do you do it? A woman does everything to make you happy, and you cheat on her. Why?"
"Issues with our mothers," Eliot says. After a thoughtful pause, he adds, "Or our fathers."
Karen is shaking her head, looking bewildered. "I thought he was happy."
He seemed happy enough to me, but I don't say so.
Dan asks her what she's going to do.
"I don't know. He swears he's never done anything like this before." She looks at me like she expects me to confirm or deny this.
"I wouldn't know," I tell her. "I just met him that night."
She sucks down her drink, and in a low voice she says to me, "Well, maybe you shouldn't fuck every guy you meet."
"Karen, it was nothing. A year from now it won't even matter. You'll be marrying him."
Her face crumples up and she wails, "How can I marry him now?" She's turning all red, she's crying and her nose is running. If this is what she's been doing at home for the past few days, her boyfriend might be showing up at my door again soon.
Dan gives her his handkerchief and pats her on the back.
Eliot asks her, "Do you think you can forgive him?"
"I don't know," she says, and she looks at me again, as if I would know anything about it.
~ ~ ~
It's a busy night. I hear a guy ask for a couple of drafts, and he has a beautiful voice, but I'm busy, and I draw his beers without looking up. I set them on the bar, and I go to take the bills he's holding out, but he hangs on, tugging them back, and I look up at him and he's smiling at me. He's cute, a college boy with perfect teeth, sun-bleached hair falling over his eyes.
He says, "Would you like to go skydiving sometime?"
It doesn't quite register. "Is that a euphemism?"
"No, I'm talking about jumping out of a plane. Freefalling. It's the greatest rush in the world."
I like the sound of it. "I'm always looking for a new rush."
His smile broadens. He points his finger at me and says, "You. You're a new rush." He picks up his two beers, and as he backs away into the crowd, he says, "I'll be seeing you again."
Oh, yes. He's going to be fun.
~ ~ ~
His name is Chris, and he works part-time teaching skydiving at a place in New Hampshire. He's majoring in communications at the university, and he has his own radio show on the campus station, which makes sense because he has that fabulous voice and he loves to talk. Every time we go to bed, afterwards he talks, about skydiving, and about his family and friends and the girls he used to date in high school. I like to curl up against him and listen, especially when he talks about his family. It's like a bedtime story, a fairy tale. Sometimes I forget that he isn't making it up.
His parents are about to celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary—there's a big party in the works—and they still have romantic dinner dates and stuff. They like to travel—last year they took a cruise around the Greek islands, and I seem to remember a Halloween story involving a kimono they brought home from Japan for Chris's sister. They alternate their romantic vacations with family trips to various national parks and monuments.
Chris is the First and Honored Son, and he has two brothers and a sister. They're all tennis champions and football heroes and most valuable players of one kind or another. They play musical instruments and write poetry and win scholarships. They excel at everything they do, and nothing bad ever happens to them, except his sister had mono when she was a freshman in high school, and one of his brothers broke his leg skiing one time, and once they thought their father was having a heart attack, but it was just indigestion and now he can't eat onion rings any more. The worst thing that ever happened to Chris was when he was twelve and his dog died. I know it was a terrible thing—I'm not saying it wasn't—but mostly his life has been pretty easy.
"Do you have any brothers or sisters?" he asks, and when I tell him I don't, he says, "That must have been hard on you, to have all your parents' attention focused on you."
I tell him it was never really a problem. I try to change the subject back to his family, but he's got it in his head that he wants to know about my parents, so I just say we're not close.
"I mostly grew up at my friend Janet's house," I say, and he develops a vague notion about my parents being alcoholics or something, and he lets it go for now.
~ ~ ~
He wants to work for the National Park Service, educating people about the wonders of nature. He used to be a Boy Scout—pardon me, an Eagle Scout—and he takes this stuff seriously. Ordinarily the Boy Scout thing would be a turn-off, what with the uniforms and the oath-taking and all, but this is no ordinary boy. Loyal, trustworthy, cheerful—he's all those things, but mostly he's useful. I feel safe with him, knowing that whatever misfortune might befall me, he can fix it. If I should fall into quicksand, sever an artery, or fracture my femur, he will save me. Snakebites, frostbite, third degree burns, Chris is prepared. He can navigate by the stars, transmit Morse code, forecast the weather. He can track a moose. He can build a campfire and cook pancakes over it. I love pancakes.
He tells me about the summer he spent in the Carlsbad Caverns as part of a Boy Scout cave restoration team. He talks about gypsum and troglodytes, and cave pearls. He tells me about cave grass and cave clouds.
"It's like a whole other world," he says.
"Did you ever want to stay and live there?"
"In a cave? No, I like the sunlight."
He starts talking about people living in caves—the siege of Vicksburg and all—and I'm afraid if I don't stop him he's going to start talking about the Vietcong and their tunnels, so I interrupt to ask if he's ever found any moonmilk.
"Sure." He traces circles around my belly button with his finger. "How do you know about moonmilk?"
"It's medicinal." It's also used in enchantments, but I don't tell him that. "A poultice of moonmilk can stop bleeding and draw out infections. You should know that. It's like a first aid thing, right?"
"Yeah, I think I've heard that, but it would take a pretty serious emergency for us to disturb a speleothem."
It kills me when he says stuff like this.
"What if a troglodyte was bleeding?" I ask. "What would you do then?"
"Well, a troglodyte is a living thing, so I guess I would sacrifice some moonmilk to save it, if I couldn't find any other way to stop the bleeding."
I climb on top of him and kiss him. I love the way he smells.
"We should go camping sometime," he says. "I'd love to get you alone in the wilderness. Although it's kind of risky, taking a woman into bear territory."
"I hardly ever have periods," I tell him. "I'm very safe."
~ ~ ~
I can't get enough of him. It fascinates me, how normal he is, how healthy and well-adjusted, and yet he's not boring or conventional. His parents raised him to believe that the world is his oyster, and so it is. Nothing he wants is unattainable.
He's the happiest person I've ever met. Well, why shouldn't he be, what does he have to be unhappy about? Life's been good to him, but then I start to understand that it's the other way around—life is good to him because he's happy. His happiness is such a pure and beautiful thing that the people around him feel protective of it, they don't want to damage it in any way, and so the whole world conspires to keep him happy. The ladies in the registrar's office sweep aside the red tape to get him into the classes he wants, waitresses bring him extra-large portions of everything, with extra butter and sour cream, the people he wants as guests on his radio show never refuse, no matter how busy and important they are. Women who are terrified of heights have jumped out of planes with him just because they didn't want to say no, and I understand this because he has the same effect on me. I find myself hiding the truth from him, unable to break the news that I'm not, and never will be, the sweet, loving girlfriend he thinks I am.
When he persists in asking about my childhood, I tell him about Janet, about how we used to take our library books up to her treehouse and stay there all day. I tell him about Janet's uncle, Bill, who built the treehouse. I tell him that Janet's mother used to play the piano, and give us tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. I tell him about Janet's father—John—not everything, no, of course not, but about how he used to take us to the library, and to the duck pond to feed the ducks, and to the orphanage to deliver toys at Christmas, when we were little.
I tell him all the normal things I can think of.
I don't tell him about the things that happened at my house. I don't tell him that when I was eight, my mother put a loaded gun to my head and pulled the trigger. The gun didn't go off, and so I'm still alive, obviously, but despite this happy ending, it's not a story I want to tell. What would be the point? We're having such a good time, and he's so happy, and it's just so much nicer to talk about the ducks.
~ ~ ~
I've taken the weekend off to go skydiving, but it's raining. Chris's housemates are both away, and we end up spending the entire weekend nested in his bed. He's a fantastic lover, spontaneous and imaginative, always in the moment. He's not thinking of some other girl, he's not thinking about how he's going to describe this to his friends. He's right there with me, and the pleasure flows back and forth between us like we're on two shores of the same ocean, and it sweeps us away, and sometimes the waves break gently, and sometimes they come crashing down, but always we're in it together.
We're lounging in bed on Sunday morning, and he's resting his head on my belly. He touches my scar, and he plants a row of kisses along the length of it.
He says, "That's a long scar for an appendix."
I don't want to talk about it—it had nothing to do with my appendix. I tell him I had peritonitis.
"Really? That's serious. What happened?"
"I had to go to the hospital." I shrug, as if it was nothing, as if I wasn't dying from the pain when John carried me down from the treehouse, as if I've forgotten. John thought it was my appendix, too. I hadn't told him I was pregnant.
"How old were you?" Chris asks.
"Sixteen," I say. "I was sixteen."
"Poor baby." He takes me in his arms. "Was it traumatic?"
"I don't know. Do I seem damaged?"
He takes a little too long to answer. "Not damaged, no, Wounded, maybe."
"I'm fine," I say.
~ ~ ~
He keeps asking about my parents, though, and I'm running out of pleasant memories. Finally I tell him that my mother's been gone since I was eight. He takes this to mean that she's dead, and since this has long been a fantasy of mine, I go along with it. He hasn't pushed me for a cause of death, so I have some time to weigh the pros and cons of various scenarios. My personal favorites won't fly—he'll never believe that she was burnt at the stake, or eaten alive by wild animals, and I'm afraid if I go with the slow, painful illness, I'll sound too gleeful and give myself away—so I'm leaning towards a car accident, possibly a drunk driver. It's been a while since I played the Kill Mama game, but I find I still enjoy it. John would be disappointed in me; he wanted me to be forgiving.
"What do you remember about her?" Chris asks.
For a long time, the memory of her trying to kill me has eclipsed all others, but since he's been asking, I've started to remember other things, too.
I remember that she used to wake me up in the middle of the night, wanting me to sing songs or play games with her, but these visits usually deteriorated into sob sessions about how Daddy didn't love her any more.
"He doesn't love you, either," she would say, and I believed her, but, having never had Daddy's love to begin with, I didn't miss it as much as she did.
"Why do you want to know about my family?" I ask. "Does it really matter?"
"It doesn't matter at all," says Chris. "I'm just curious."
But more and more I sense that it's not idle curiosity. He's looking for pieces to the Sophie puzzle, he wants to know why I'm not as enthusiastic as he is about falling in love. He wants to know what's wrong with me.
So I tell him my mother died in a car crash. In a last-minute burst of inspiration, I make Mama the drunk driver, the perpetrator as well as the victim, and thank God, I say, at least she didn't take anyone else with her. Not only does this seem fitting, but it reinforces his idea that the root of my problems is my parents' alcoholism, and now he has all the explanation he'll ever need. A dead mother would be merely sad, but a dead alcoholic mother seems like more of a mixed blessing, more likely to cause the kind of complex emotional problems that I appear to have.
This way he'll never have to know the truth, which is that I'm still in love with John.
~ ~ ~
The alarm goes off at 5:30, and Chris bounces out of bed.
"Get up, baby, today's the day!" He pulls the covers off me and smacks me on the ass. "Let's go!"
He follows me into the bathroom and talks to me the whole time I'm in the shower, reviewing the procedures, reminiscing about his first jump, describing the people who will be there today. As I'm toweling off, he's talking about a one-legged lesbian named Stella.
This gets my attention.
"She's one of the instructors?" I ask.
He nods. "And the photographer."
"What happened to her leg?"
"I don't know. Some kind of accident."
He follows me back into the bedroom so he can continue to talk to me while I'm getting dressed.
"Oh, wait," he says. "I got you a present."
He gives me a t-shirt. On it is a cartoon picture of a skydiver who's crashed—he's all crumpled up and mangled on the ground, but he has a blissful smile on his face. In blue letters above him, it says, "It's better to have jumped and bounced than never to have jumped at all."
"Thanks, Chris, this is nice." I put it on.
I get ten minutes of peace while he's in the shower, and I curl up on his couch and smoke a cigarette, wondering about the one-legged lesbian skydiving photographer. Then Chris is back, talking about getting ice for the cooler, about the case of beer that I'm supposed to bring because it's my first time, about the party tonight and how great it's going to be, and he continues to talk as we pack the car, and he talks all the way to New Hampshire.
He lets me drive—he doesn't know my license is a fake—and we get to the drop zone at quarter to seven. There are a few clusters of people standing around, and Chris takes my hand and leads me to a group of three guys who are standing outside the hangar.
"STELLA!" He bellows like he's Stanley Kowalski, and I see that one of the guys is a woman. She's short—only a couple inches taller than I am—and she outweighs me by about fifty pounds. Her hair is spiked like a porcupine; she has a peace sign tattooed on her left arm.
Chris introduces us, and she shakes my hand, and in that moment I know what happened to her leg—gunfire, an explosion, a fall. Blood everywhere, and oily smoke. Fire, screaming, people burning alive. She was taking pictures, and the helicopter she was in was shot down. She went through several different hospitals, endured endless hours of pain before she learned to walk again.
This is one ballsy woman, for sure.
The two guys are Zeke and Jamie. Jamie's going to be my jumpmaster, although I suspect he's more into the mastering part. We're not going to get along.
I have time for a cigarette before the class starts, and as I'm lighting up, Jamie says, "If you're going to be jumping with me, I'd prefer it if you didn't smoke. You need a clear head up there, and a clean respiratory system."
I say, "We're not jumping for six or seven hours, right? My head will be clear by then." I continue to smoke, despite Jamie's preference.
"You better take this seriously," he says. "It's not as easy as you think."
I know it's not easy, but I have a feeling that irritating Jamie is going to be my primary source of amusement for the next few hours, so I say, "It's falling out of a plane, how hard can it be?"
~ ~ ~
There are eight other students, half a dozen guys and two girls. Both the girls and two of the guys are doing tandem jumps, so there's five of us for the freefall class, but for the first few hours we'll all be together. The first thing we do is sign about a million papers saying that we're aware of the risks, that no one associated with the school is responsible in any way if we end up dead or brain damaged. The last few pages certify that we've been given skydiving instructions, and a few people refuse to sign them, arguing that we haven't, as yet, been given any instructions, but I figure nobody needs these papers until I jump, and I'm not jumping until I've had the lessons, so I go ahead and sign them.
We sit in a classroom and watch an instructional video, a lawyerly-looking man who talks very seriously about the RISKS and HAZARDS of skydiving, and all the possible injuries we could sustain if anything goes wrong, including DEATH. Chris told me about this—it's meant to be informative, but it's also meant to scare off anyone who might be having second thoughts.
The instructors have gone out for coffee or something, so when the movie's over the nine of us sit there waiting, and someone suggests that we go around the room and say why we're here, why we want to jump. Everyone talks about challenging themselves and taking risks, confronting their fears, whatever. When it's my turn, I say I think it will be fun.
Chris comes in with a rig and does a little demonstration showing all the parts and how they work. He's been drilling me on this for the past two weeks, to the point where I think I could teach this part of the class myself—pilot chute, canopy, yeah, yeah, yeah—so I let my mind wander, and I'm thinking about the sex we had last night when I see Jamie standing in the doorway looking at me with narrowed eyes. He's caught me not paying attention, and I can tell he's thinking that I'm going to fuck up, that he's going to have to take heroic measures, at great personal risk to himself, to save my worthless life.
Then he and Stella come into the room, and Jamie has us practice the motions of checking our altimeters, pulling the rip cord, cutting away, accessing the reserve chute. He talks about the importance of maintaining a proper arch during freefall. He makes one more attempt to intimidate the faint-hearted by going around the room getting in our faces and asking if we can handle it. Most people respond to him by standing at military attention and shouting their answers, doing everything but saluting him.
He gets to me and he yells, "Are you going to be able to do this?"
"Shit, I know how to arch my back."
He lifts one eyebrow. "I'm sure you do. Maybe you should be posing for Playboy, instead of wasting my time."
"Maybe I should pose in a jumpsuit," I say. "Maybe I should jump naked."
"That's another case of beer," Chris says.
And Stella sighs and says, "I always wanted to be a Playboy photographer."
"You better change your attitude," Jamie says to me. "This training can mean the difference between life and death for you. These regulations are in place to keep sorry-assed little thrillseekers like yourself from bouncing, and if you don't start taking them seriously, you're going to find yourself grounded."
"If I'm grounded, does that mean I can't go to the party?"
He glares at me, his face turning red.
"If you're grounded," he says, "that means you're not jumping with me. Not today, not ever." He looks around the class to make sure everyone's paying attention. "If you think I'm kidding, just keep it up."
He moves on to teach us troubleshooting, how to recognize an improperly functioning canopy and what to do about it. We're tested on this part, which involves looking overhead at a picture of a chute and assessing whether or not we need to take action, and if so, what action to take. If you're too slow or you get it wrong, Jamie says, "You just died." When it's my turn, I get them all right the first time. You might think he'd be pleased by this, but he isn't. He was hoping I would die.
We break for lunch, and then we use a grounded plane to practice our exits. This requires more regulations and procedures, but this is also something Chris has taught me, so I feel pretty well prepared.
We take a written test, and then we hang around. I go out for a cigarette, and I watch Chris do a tandem jump with one of the other students. He loves this.
I watch him gather up his chute and come in, and he stops to ask me how it's going.
"It must be about time to suit up," he says, and I remember that I'm taking all these lessons for a reason: I'm going to jump.
~ ~ ~
We're in the plane for about twenty minutes, and even before it's time to jump, Jamie has a firm grip on me, like he thinks I'll jump without him if he gives me half a chance. Then it's time, and we climb out on the struts and go through all the formalities—check in, check out, whatever—and finally we get to the part I've been waiting for, the ready-set-go part. I'm supposed to just let go of the struts and fall, but in my excitement I can't help jumping, and it throws Chris and Jamie off a little, but not enough to make them let go of me, and now all three of us are in the air.
I know I'm falling, but it doesn't feel like falling. It feels like the wind is holding me up, like I'm flying. I am flying, and I want to laugh but I can't catch my breath. I try to pull away from Chris and Jamie, but they won't let go. It doesn't matter; I'm having an airgasm. I want to tell Chris, but when I open my mouth I only get a blast of air in it, and I know that the wind is roaring in his ears like it is in mine, so he wouldn't hear me anyway. But he knows. I can see it when I look at him, that he knows, and he feels it, too.
Jamie is watching me, waiting for me to check my altimeter and do my practice pulls. I humor him, and he nods, satisfied that I'm not freaking out. At 5,500 feet, as instructed, I signal that I'm going to pull my cord for real, and I do. My chute opens, and we all look up at it—no tangled lines—and only then do Chris and Jamie let go of me.
At first it feels like my chute is pulling me back up, but of course it isn't. I stuff the rip cord into my jumpsuit and reach for my toggles. And now I'm floating, suspended in the sky, swinging in my harness, and it's absolutely quiet except for the flag-like flapping of my chute. I feel like I'm in heaven, like an angel looking down on the world. The adrenaline is rushing through me, and I'm laughing out loud. I start goofing, playing with my toggles, going left and then right, turning around in circles, having a blast. This is the most fun I've ever had in my life.
I see Chris and Jamie floating below me—they fell further than I did, and they're dropping faster—and now Stella's voice is coming through the radio, directing me towards the peas.
I don't want to come down. I want to shut off her voice and float away, I want to fly to Amsterdam. But I can feel gravity pulling me back to earth, and I know if I don't behave myself they won't let me jump again, so I follow Stella's directions, and now I can see her, I can see where she wants me to land, and I'm falling faster—it does feel like falling now—and I can hear the other students cheering me on.
I make a good landing, and there's lots of hugging and shouting and congratulations, and Chris is saying over and over that I'm a natural, that he's never seen anyone so fearless on their first jump. Even Jamie admits that my arch was perfect, although in my post-dive he says he's still concerned about my over-exuberance, he's afraid I'm not putting safety first.
I was only in the sky for about five minutes, but I feel like I've just returned from a long, eventful trip to someplace far away. I find I can't stop looking up, even after the sun sets and the party starts in earnest. I keep tilting my head back to look up at where I was, and I keep wishing I were there again.
I have a beer, but I don't really feel like drinking. Stella has a bottle of Wild Turkey, and I do a couple shots with her, but that's it for me. Chris is pounding beers, he's having a good time, so I just kick back on my little patch of grass and stare up at the sky. I'm sitting near the coolers, so everyone comes by at one time or another. Some of them stop and talk, and some stand there for a few minutes and stare at the sky in silence with me.
As the party starts to wind down, suddenly Chris is standing in front of me, pointing his finger at me. He's drunk.
"You," he says. "Birdwoman. I knew you had little bird bones, but you must have bird blood in you."
"I've always liked to think I was part penguin."
This confuses him. "Can penguins fly?"
"They can if they have a rig."
He holds his hand out to me. "Come here, baby."
I take his hand, and he pulls me to my feet and leads me back to his tent.
"I don't want to go in," I say. "Can we sleep outside tonight?"
He takes me in his arms and does a little dance step, dipping me so I'm looking over his shoulder at the sky. He kisses my neck.
"Close your eyes," he murmurs.
I don't want to, but the pressure of his lips on my throat causes my eyes to close, like a reflex.
"Picture the sky," he says, and I do, and he carries me into the tent and we lay down. He flicks his tongue in my ear.
"We're going to take a slow ride up to peak altitude," he whispers, "and the freefall is going to be fantastic."
But we never get off the ground. He's had too many beers, and before we even get our clothes off, he's collapsed on top of me, snoring. I climb out from under him and go back outside, where I smoke a cigarette and look up at the sky some more.
I hear some laughter and singing from across the compound, but it sounds like a small group. Almost everyone has crashed by now.
Someone is coming down the path, and even before I see her, I know it's Stella.
"Hey," I say in greeting.
"Hey," she answers, "what's up?"
"I can't stop looking at the sky."
"You're one of us now." She laughs an evil laugh and starts chanting, "One of us, one of us."
We stand and look at the sky together, and then she tells me she has some great weed in her tent if I want to get high, so we go to her tent and she fills up a pipe.
"You're not a one-timer, are you?" she says.
"I can't wait to do it again."
She doesn't say anything for a minute, and when she does, she sounds like she's choosing her words carefully.
"Chris recruits a lot of beginners. He's good for business that way, but most of them are one-timers. They do one tandem jump with Chris and that's it."
She gives me a significant look as she passes me the pipe, and I understand what she's telling me, that she's seen a lot of girls come and go from Chris's tent.
"This might be the best weekend of my life," I say. "Maybe that's not a bad thing, if he can say he gave a lot of women the best weekend of their lives."
"I bet you can make the same claim," I say. "I bet you've given a lot of women the best weekend of their life, haven't you?" I nudge her. "With or without the harness, right? How many tandem jumps have you done?"
She laughs. "I like to think I know how to show a lady a good time."
She looks me over, the way guys do.
"Tell you what," she says. "Why don't you spend a weekend with him, and a weekend with me, and then tell me which was the best?"
"But you'd have an unfair advantage," I point out. "Chris's weekend cost me a case of beer."
"Oh, we'll have our firsts, darlin'. You and me, we'll each bring a case."
"Be careful what you wish for. I might take you up on it."
"I hope you do."
She takes the pipe and wraps her lips around the bowl. She leans in close like she's going to give me a Hollywood movie kiss, and she blows into the pipe, sending a shotgun stream of smoke into my mouth. I close my eyes and suck it all in, holding my breath at the end, and I get a head rush almost like jumping out of the plane.
When I exhale and open my eyes, she wipes her mouth with the back of her hand and gives me a lewd smile.
I take the pipe and prepare to return the favor, but as I move towards her, she grabs the pipe away from me and pulls me in for a long kiss. Electricity shoots through me, I'm practically swooning, and when she cups my breast in her hand and brushes her thumb across my nipple, my whole body trembles and strains towards her. I'm instantly, insanely horny; it's all I can do not to throw myself on her and hump her like an animal.
She moves her hand away from my tit and strokes my back like she's petting a cat. "Easy, baby."
She removes her leg, and without it she seems somehow to be more, not less. More beautiful, more Stella, unique in all the world. As she peels my shorts off, I'm suddenly aware of my own legs, of how boringly ordinary I am, how tediously symmetrical, and so it makes me laugh when she says, "Look at you, you're perfect."
I'm not, and I can see her register this when her eyes catch on my scar.
"Shark attack," I say, and she starts to say something, but I pull her to me and wrap myself around her, and there's no more talk.
I fooled around with some girls at Catholic school, but no woman has ever made love to me like Stella does, and I can't remember when I've been this hot for anyone, male or female, but then she does something with her tongue that reminds me of John, and I can hear him saying, "Sweetheart, promise you won't give yourself to just anyone," but he has no right, and what does it matter anyway, I ask him, if I can't be with you then what does it matter who I'm with, and I push him away and give my full attention to Stella, because she's here, and she wants me. She feels good, and that's all that matters now. And I know, even before it happens, that she's going to make me come till I scream.
~ ~ ~
I'm showered and dressed and sitting outside his tent eating a banana when Chris finally wakes up and stumbles outside, scratching his belly and looking up at the sky.
"Looks like we've got a perfect day." He yawns. "Are you ready to jump?"
Through a mouthful of banana, I say, "Hell, yes."
He peers at me for a minute, as if he's trying to remember something, and then he does remember.
"Shit," he says. "I crashed out on you last night, didn't I?"
"Yeah, you did."
"Oh, baby, I'm sorry." He crouches in back of me and hugs me from behind. He nuzzles my neck. "I'm such an idiot. Can you ever forgive me?"
"I was promised a slow ride to a high altitude. I've been pouting all morning."
"Baby, I'm sorry. I'll make it up to you." He glances at his watch, but there's no time for a slow ride now. "Tonight, Sophie, I promise, I'll make it up to you."
"Okay," I say. "I'll allow that."
"Okay, really? Are we cool?"
"Don't worry about it," I say. "We're totally cool."
~ ~ ~
The second jump is different. The freefall is just as thrilling as before, but when my canopy opens and pulls me upright, I feel calmer, more Zen. The gentle flapping of my chute seems to be the sound of one hand clapping, and I lose myself in the air and the sky, like floating isn't something I'm doing, but something I am.
When I come back to myself, the thing I'm most aware of is the quiet. The sound of my canopy only serves as contrast, it's a tiny sound in a silence as big as the sky. It strikes me that I've heard this silence before, not yesterday when I jumped, but twelve years ago, in my parents' basement, the day my mother tried to kill me.
That silence was preceded by a gunshot—not Mama's gun, as I believed at the time, but a policeman's. I hadn't even known there were cops in the room until I saw them from above. After the gunshot there was silence, and I saw Mama on the floor, with Daddy and a cop bending over her. I saw myself huddled up on top of Daddy's old trunk, trying to be as small a target as possible, and I saw a cop on one knee in front of me, like he was about to propose. His lips moved, but there was no sound—I had left my body and was hovering somewhere near the ceiling, looking down, like now, isolated in soundlessness. It's very similar, except then I thought I was dead, and now I know I'm alive.
And as I'm drifting through the sky at 4,000 feet, I'm thinking that it's not just the landscape that looks different from here. I've never known why Mama wanted to kill me, or what forces prevented her from doing it—John always said it was God, that He was saving me for something special, but I never believed him, not until the first time we made love, and then later, when I was pregnant. But all that's gone, so I don't know what purpose I have. I don't know why I'm alive, but right now it's enough to know that I am. Everything that's happened in my life has brought me here, to this moment of perfect peace, where none of it matters any more.
I wish John were here right now, because I'd like to ask him if this is what forgiveness feels like.