‘Vertigo is not the fear of falling. It is the fear that you will be unable to overcome the urge to hurl yourself into the void.’—Milan Kundera
I jumped out of a plane because I’m afraid of heights. I’m afraid of many things, including dogs, poverty, bears, my future, jellyfish, commitment, baseballs, and rollercoasters. Vertigo seemed the easiest to confront.
Like childbirth, skydiving involves hours and hours of waiting around. It was July, and the hangar was unbearably hot. I was there with an uncongenial knot of my husband’s co-workers and their wives, who refused to jump. We five jumpers signed the lurid waiver forms and watched the video, then tried to amuse ourselves for four hours while obsessing over faulty parachutes. The 22-year-old instructors barely disguised their opinion that we were losers who were only dragged along to sponsor their adrenaline rushes. We kept on pressing them on ankle fractures and death rates during the perfunctory ‘training’.
“Harness on…no, tighter, that’s right. Okay, you’ll be strapped to me. On the count of three, we jump, then you throw yourself face down and lift your arms and legs up like this. No feet first! No head first! Got it? Okay, cool. Yeah, nobody dies.”
That was it; they ran back to their dives. We sat around some more. Jason ate a burger and fries and a couple of brownies from the free buffet, and drank a few cans of Coke. I looked on doubtfully and ate an apple. Eventually, they called us up.
“Oh shit, are we up again? Okay, grab more ‘chutes from the back!” yelled one instructor comfortingly, as he staggered in from his jump.
Inside the plane, thirteen victims sat on the floor, interleaved with instructors like slices of ham. Carlo, my instructor, was a huge, handsome Italian with a shaved head.
“Okay, you sit on my lap, okay?” he said as he clipped us together.
We climbed endlessly. It takes a long time to get to thirteen thousand feet. Everyone was quiet except for a few nervous giggles. I stared at my belt buckle and silently recited my sacred skyjumping mantra.
“Oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit. Fuck. Fuck. Fuuuck.”
Eventually, the plane banked sharply to get us over the dropzone. The word ‘dropzone’ suddenly obsessed me as the door opened and the first pair jumped. I felt sick. Jason was next, and he turned around, whitefaced, and said a heartfelt goodbye. Then he and his instructor crawled to the front of the plane, paused, and jumped.
“That’s your hussban’? But we must jump with ‘im!” said Carlo.
“No, no, it’s fine, let him go, I’d rather wait, honestly…” I babbled, but it was too late. With me on his lap, the massive Carlo scuttled to the front of the queue, crabwise. I saw the lip of the plane, the tiny fields of New Jersey, and then he pushed me out.
All the emotional stages bubbled up. Denial, rage, grief, acceptance. This man had just pushed me out of a plane, and now he was yelling at me. I had no idea what he was saying, and the wind was squinching my face like some NASA experiment. Then I realized that I was supposed to kick my legs back in the prescribed posture, which hardly seemed to matter now that I was going to die. A minute is a long time when you use it to fall ten thousand feet. I had no real sense of falling or floating, though, rather, it felt like being in a very fast convertible with no windshield. I could barely open my eyes. I willed Carlo to open the parachute so that I could float gently and absorb this terrible thing that had happened to me. He yelled an offer to let me open the parachute, and I rolled my stinging eyes at the patronising gesture. Then a sharp tug, we jerked upwards violently, and everything was calm.
Floating was peaceful, until Jason’s surfer dude instructor wobbled over to us and bounced on our parachute.
“Whoo-oo! Yeah!!! Whoo-oo!” he yelped, over and over.
“Make him stop that,” I muttered. Jason waved, thrilled.
We steered by pulling left and right. I felt disembodied. The ground was distinct now, and I could see Ana taking photos. Carlo told me to relax, bend my knees, and just run a little as we landed.
We were all quiet again afterwards, except Jason, who was first exhilarated and then completely nauseous. We sat for an hour, Jason with his head on his lap, as he groaned. I wished I were with friends rather than surly quant jocks, so that we could embroider on our jaw-dropping feats of bravery. I felt like a fake because Carlo had pushed me. I’d never taken the deep breath and said ‘I’m ready.’ But slowly, as we absorbed the jump, we grew exhilarated, too. We’d jumped out of a plane! The whole way home, the surly quant jocks and I babbled like six year olds, while the wives humored us. Even Jason joined in, whenever he was able to raise his head from the roiling brownies.
Ever since that day, I look out the window in tall buildings and planes and think, I’ve been out there. It makes me feel light and free. But would I do it again? No way.