My dad had just gotten done telling a story about a family friend who had accidentally hypnotized herself so that every time she heard the word "pineapple" she unconsciously began doing the robot. We were driving through rural Virginia on our way to go skydiving.
"Every time she hears it she does it automatically?" I asked skeptically.
"Yeah," my dad said. He extended his right arm, bent it at a right angle, then dangled his limp forearm and hand, moving it left to right—the classic robot move. "Brenda," he said heartily, while chortling.
From the backseat, I looked at my mom's face reflected in the side-view mirror, then at Violette, who sat beside me. We hadn't gotten much sleep the night before.
Outside the window, against which I briefly and uncomfortably rested my head, were rolling green hills and farms. I opened the Notes app on my iPhone, angled the screen away from Violette, and typed, "Passing businesses with battlefield-related names, I text Violette that I am 'annoyed by' my parents, who are talking to us from the front seat. I say aloud that when I look out at the rolling hills 'all I see are slaves.' I feel like there is something moving inside my face. 'Second face.' 9:20AM."
"How far are we babe?" my dad said.
"Hold on," my mom said, picking up her phone.
I felt at once annoyed and self-consciously annoyed by my parents, who had come all the way from Cleveland to Maryland to visit me and Violette, and who, the night before, had helped us move a free piano we'd gotten off Craigslist from a strangers apartment into our house.
"Where's the next turn?" my dad asked impatiently, though in a friendly tone.
"Hold on," my mom said, looking at the GPS. "About twenty minutes."
"Nice," my dad said enthusiastically. "You guys excited?" His eyes darted back and forth between me and Violette in the rearview mirror.
"Yeah," I said weakly.
"Yeah," Violette said, grinning at me in a manner I perceived as uncertain.
The skydiving place was in a field with a small runway, and when we walked into the building, which was actually a hangar, there were twelve or so strong-looking people getting dressed in what looked to me like motocross gear. I regretted my clothing choice as I observed how athletic and friendly they all looked. Loud rock music played from the speakers; I couldn't tell if it was that, my tight black sweatpants (which were thick, and already making me sweat), or my moody attitude during the car ride that was making me perceive myself as 'bratty'; I imagined myself through the eyes of the extroverted-seeming skydiving athletes—I was emo and weak.
A woman sat us in a medium-sized room with many tables and handed us thick packets. She told us to watch the two-and-a-half-minute instructional video then fill out the packets. The video began, projected onto a whiteboard; a balding man with an extremely long beard started telling us about the risks. After a minute or so, I took out my iPhone and recorded a video of the video of the man saying "...injury, or death, in exchange for the thrill of making a tandem parachute jump. By signing this document, you also state that if you are injured or killed, neither you, nor your heirs, will ever sue any of the involved parties for any reason whatsoever, and that if you do sue, you promise to pay all legal expenses of, or judgments against any of the sued parties. Because this document will drastically affect your legal rights, you must read it carefully."
I filled out the parts of the form I was supposed to fill out, and initialed and signed many times without reading anything. The video said the instructors would have to touch us in ways that might otherwise be inappropriate. The last page of the packet said, "WARNING: SKYDIVING, PARACHUTING AND ALL ITS RELATED ACTIVITIES ARE DANGEROUS AND THERE ARE LITERALLY THOUSANDS OF VARIOUS RISKS INVOLVED IN YOUR PARTICIPATION. YOU CAN BE SERIOUSLY INJURED OR EVEN KILLED AS A RESULT OF YOUR PARTICIPATION." I wrote the date, signed and printed my name, then took a picture of the page with my iPhone, while exchanging faces and noises with Violette, who also took a picture of hers.
In the hangar, my parents sat on two of four gigantic green plastic chairs. Violette and I sat on a picnic bench. I told her that everyone there looked exactly like what I'd imagined people "around here" would look like, using the words "American," "strong," "blonde," and, hesitantly, "quintessential."
We walked to the green chairs and sat next to my parents. We talked a little about how nice the weather was and how satisfyingly and surprisingly easy it had been to move the piano the night before. My dad asked me if I'd taken a picture of the hangar "yet" and I looked around, confused that he would assume I'd photograph the hangar, which wasn't at all worth photographing in my view, then told him I didn't.
A group of skydivers loaded onto the plane and took off. The whole scene looked familiar, like I'd seen it in an army movie. I realized roughly half of the men had been wearing camouflage pants. I felt happy to be sitting in the gigantic green chairs with my parents and Violette, occasionally looking at my phone.
Once the plane was in the air, the employees from the office gathered on the paved area near the runway, where there were also metal bleachers facing the grassy area where the skydivers would land, and stood in a circle smoking cigarettes. My dad said something about how "cool" it was that everyone went out there together to watch the jump; I pessimistically viewed them as feeding their nicotine addictions: they were probably present for tens of jumps per day, multiple times per week, so probably weren't concerned with the jump. "They're smoking," I offered meekly.
I got up to get water from an orange water jug on the picnic table. While I was filling my cup, a man emerged in the distance with a dog. He walked past me, as I walked back toward my parents and Violette, and joined the smoking employees. I suddenly remembered a porn video I'd seen years ago of a blonde woman being abused in a hangar by a man dressed as a pilot, and immediately felt agonizingly aware of the proximity of my girlfriend and parents, the sunny day, and my distinctly un-athletic demeanor. From somewhere inside my face, I felt deranged. I handed Violette her water, sat down, and watched the dog play in the grassy field.
"Are you excited?" I said, grinning.
"Are you?" Violette asked.
"Yeah," I said, still grinning. I worried that her deflecting the question back to me was a diversion from the fact that she wasn't excited. Was this fun for her? Or stressful? I focused on conveying assertive excitement with my face, then verbally reiterated my excitement and said what I'd said many times before, whenever anyone asked me if I was scared or excited: that, because it seemed so unlike anything I'd ever done, I had no frame of reference to compare it to; when I thought of it, I didn't know what to think about, so had no emotional response. Violette grinned uneasily. She said that was what she'd said the first time I asked her if she was afraid to skydive.
"Really?" I said, trying to suppress feeling suddenly defensive. "Damn..." I reached out and touched her hand. I told her it was "nice to be doing something like this" with her and that it "seems good to do stuff like this."
It became clear that we were not the next group to go up. There was another group—who I'd initially incorrectly perceived as employees—gearing up to go on the plane, along with two small black children who seemed to be there by themselves. The presence of the black children surprised me: until then I'd been interpreting almost everything, on some level, as having a vaguely racist undertone. I did this almost any time I was in a new situation with my parents: I projected structural racism and violence onto everything around me.
Part of it was that I felt my privilege in a way I wasn't used to; part of it was a grossly caricatured view I had about race relations due to media consumption; and part of it was that I needed to justify my felt inadequacy in the presence of well-adjusted people—I needed to make them wrong for being happy and healthy and strong, and to make myself justified, even superior, in my shrunkenly disgruntled, miserable state. Of course, privilege and racism were real, but it was curious to me that my anxieties about them emerged almost exclusively when I felt uncomfortable for other reasons first. Too, the presence of black children didn't mean anything. I recognized this projection as "old thinking" and dismissed it as self-centered and ignorant.
My dad stood, wondering aloud about how long it would take until our turn.
"The site said to prepare to wait 2 to 4 hours," I said, reminding him of something he had told me the night before. "It's only been like two hours."
"I'll go ask," my dad said looking around.
"No," I said. "It's fine." I wanted, inexplicably, to disappear. His request seemed, somehow, violent.
"I'm just gonna go ask," he said, then walked toward the office.
I looked out at the sun-filled field, at the people standing smoking cigarettes, at the empty street in the distance. The man with the dog was moving in my direction. The dog was on a long leash and was moving more toward me than the man, who seemed to be meandering indiscriminately in flip flops, short shorts, a mostly unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt, sunglasses and a safari hat.
I inquired about petting the dog, who appeared to be a German Shepherd, and began tentatively, then vigorously, rubbing its greasy torso. It lay at my feet.
"Ooh," I said. "Who's a good dog?"
"She's a sweet girl," the man said. "But I have to give her back in a few days."
"Good girl," I said to the dog.
"I'm watching her, but I have to give her back in a few days. She loves it at my place. She's got a whole farm. Lots of bunnies, squirrels, chipmunks, you name it. Where she's from she's got a yard." He looked off into the distance. "They've got a little suburban yard over there with a fence, but, you know, she's happy on the farm. I mean," he said, as though about to express something obvious, "it's a whole farm."
Another person had emerged in my peripheral vision, and was sitting near me on a chair I hadn't noticed, grinning and nodding at me and the dog. I returned his grin then looked away. My first interaction with one of the athletic people; it went well. I noticed then that my anxiety was gone.
We were in "Group 3" and would "be in the air" in around 40 minutes, my dad said before leaving to get gas and a snack, because he couldn't eat anything in the office: he wasn't eating foods that, according to a certain blood test, inflamed him. He gave me a $20 bill in case I wanted to get anything from the office.
"I think I kind of want a Red Bull," I told Violette, downplaying how badly I actually wanted one.
"Really?" she asked. I interpreted her tone as predictably disapproving, perhaps slightly disappointed.
"Yeah," I said in a tone meant to acknowledge that I knew it was a stupid. "It's just like...it's just like, because of the zone. It just seems appropriate. I don't actually want one." My desire for a Red Bull intensified.
I walked back toward the office, ostensibly to check my charging phone. Standing outside the office, I grinned at a text message I received, then looked up through the office window at the Red Bull in a refrigerator. The cold, carbonated, citric acid taste seemed refreshing; plus, whatever rush I'd feel would add to the intensity of skydiving. I put my phone on the table and quickly walked back to the gigantic green chairs and sat down.
"I kind of want a Red Bull," I said to both my mom and Violette, ready to get one at the slightest encouragement. I looked at my mom more specifically. "It's just like, the zone," I paraphrased myself. "I don't really drink them anymore. But something about being here..." I had a feeling she would go for it.
I noticed Violette's face do something, and I knew I had a short time to capitalize on it. "Would you drink some if I bought one?" I asked, sensing she would.
"I'd have a sip," she said.
"Sweet," I said sheepishly, then quickly walked toward the office.
Inside, I nodded at the cashier and walked straight toward the fridge. There were 16-ounce cans of Red Bull, but only 8.4-ounce cans of the sugar free Red Bull, which I preferred. When the cashier told me they only cost $2, I impulsively bought two, and immediately began thinking about whether or not I could "hide" one—maybe I would just throw it away?—due to embarrassment.
"You got two?" Violette said as I sat on the gigantic green plastic chair.
"Yeah," I said grinning. "I thought you could have one. They didn't have the bigger ones in sugar free."
"I don't want a whole one. I said just like, a sip or two."
"That's fine," I said, feigning surprise. "I'll just save one for later."
I knew I was not going to save one for later. The can would get hot and disgusting, and I didn't want to bleakly plan on drinking another Red Bull in the future. I opened and sipped the first can. It evoked vague memories of my Red Bull-containing past—a bench in the backyard of an old friend's house—but was less refreshing and tasted more like chemicals than I remembered. I passed it to Violette, who sipped it twice then passed it back.
I drank the rest of it, then half of the second, while watching Group 2 land and walk toward the hangar.
"Is this your guys' first time?" the instructor asked after we'd all shaken his hand.
We told him it was.
"Mine too," the instructor said, smiling. He was blonde and strong and had a chiseled jawline.
We laughed and the instructor asked us if we wanted to wear pants for our landing: we may have to slide on our butts. I immediately said "No," then changed my mind when Violette and my dad began putting their pants on. Violette looked cool.
"You look cool," I told her.
The instructor, who would be jumping with me, introduced my dad and Violette to their instructors, both of whom made similar jokes about it being their first time. Violette's instructor was tall and gangly and had an accent. My dad's instructor was the same height as my dad, and bald, like my dad.
We reviewed with our instructors what we were going to do in the plane, in the air, and during the landing. I immediately forgot what my instructor told me. Before I could ask him to explain it again, he introduced me to another skydiver, who was going to film my skydive. He asked me to walk with him toward where I'd seen him interviewing skydivers before their jump for their video.
"Can we not..." I said, motioning toward the interview area. "I just..."
He seemed put off by my disinterest, then forced a smiled and said that he could "figure something out."
I felt bad and told him that it was actually fine to interview me. He said that he would "take it easy" on me, and I thanked him.
He began filming and said, "Alright Jordan, welcome to Skydive Orange dude, how are you?"
"Good, how are you?
He panned the camera down to my pants and said, "I'm doing good. You're looking cool, you got these sweet-looking pants."
"Yeah," I confirmed.
"What are we doing today?"
"Uh, jumping out of a plane," I said. I felt myself grinning uncontrollably.
"That's right dude, we're gonna go jump out of that airplane sitting right over there." He panned the camera to the airplane. "How are you feeling about that? Are you excited?"
"Good, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah," I said quickly.
"Is this your first time?"
"Yeah," I said.
"Okay. You look, you look like you know what you're doing."
"Looking forward to it," I said.
"Except that you're missing a parachute which is why we got Mr. Alfredo over there."
"Yeah," I said.
"We're off to a good start. How you feeling? You ready to go?"
"Yeah, ready to go." I sensed the interview was over and felt immensely relieved.
"Alright. We'll see you outside."
A group of sixteen or so of us filed onto the plane and slid backward in two rows, straddling a cushioned bench, crammed tightly together. I'd learned while we were filing in that my instructor had been in the military, and so had my dad's instructor, and so had, it seemed, many others. "Now I don't mean to assume your personal life," my instructor said as we settled into our spot in the back of the plane, "but you're likely about to be closer to another man than you've ever been in your life." He pushed his body up against mine from behind and clipped my harness onto his. I looked at Violette and her instructor.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around.
"You from Indiana?" my dad's instructor half-yelled at me. I looked at him inquiringly. "Indiana!" he yelled. He pointed at his neck to indicate my neck tattoo—an outline of the state of Ohio.
"Oh," I said. "Ohio."
"I know," he said, laughing. My dad laughed too.
The plane took off and I tapped Violette then pursed my lips into a kiss when she looked at me. The sky was blue and the clouds were voluptuous and as I looked out the window I felt nervous about jumping. The sky looked exactly as it had from windows of commercial flights, which surprised me. I realized I'd imagined the plane would be windowless.
The cameraman turned around and started filming me. "Woooo," he said. He motioned with the camera, trying to bring it to my attention, as though maybe the reason I wasn't reacting was because I hadn't seen it. He motioned with his hand to indicate that he wanted me to wave at the camera. I did a lazy peace sign over my face then looked out the window.
After he put the camera away, I felt safe to look away from the window. I looked at Violette and tried to get her attention.
"I'm nervous," I mouthed to her when she turned around.
There was a contraption on my hand that showed how high up in the air we were: 11,000 feet. Suddenly, I felt a gust of wind, and everyone in the plane began giving each other high fives.
It looked less like Violette had jumped and more like she'd been taken by the sky. She flung herself toward the ground, gangly instructor on her back, then disappeared. Before I had time to process what was going on, my instructor and I were at the edge of the plane.
"Right knee! Right knee!" more than one voice yelled behind me. I was supposed to crouch down, but my body wouldn't let me. My instructor pushed my knee; it buckled. "Ready?" he yelled. "One, two."
I was falling through the sky but it didn't feel like I was moving. My lips and cheeks felt rubbery, they flapped and ballooned. I couldn't hear anything. I was supposed to hold onto my harness for the first few seconds then let go when my instructor tapped me, but I forgot, so my instructor kept tapping me. I let go and moved my arms out in front of me. I thought variations of "What?" and "Fuck" and other things; but mostly just the first half of words: "Wh," "Ffff." I noticed my instructor tapping my head. I looked up in front of me and saw the cameraman, who seemed to be motioning at me. I thought that something might be wrong; then it occurred to me that maybe he was trying to get me to wave at the camera. I tried to move my hands as though saying "Yo, yo, yo" to the camera, but couldn't, and flailed them around a bit then allowed them to resume their position out in front of me. I looked down and my instructor tapped my head again and I looked up, annoyed. We were hurtling toward the ground. The cameraman pointed at his right with his left hand, and I realized he wanted us to grab hands. We locked hands and began spinning in what I vaguely knew from pictures to be a classic skydiving move. The cameraman flung me away and I continued spinning through the sky toward the ground. We stopped spinning and my instructor tapped my right arm. He tapped me again, then grabbed my hand and moved it toward the string I was supposed to pull. He wrapped his fingers around mine, and together we pulled.
My upper body was pulled backward and my legs flung out in front of me. The parachute had opened. For a moment, everything felt peaceful and surreal, like I was being cradled in soft, gigantic hands. Because of the way the harness was attached to my body, I was in a kind of sitting position. I looked down at the trees, just specks below me, and calmly experienced my place in the sky through the repeated thoughts "Fuck" and "Damn." I was mesmerized and overcome with the unarticulated feeling that I was safe and protected. Then I began to feel alarmingly nauseated.
I asked my instructor if anyone had ever thrown up on him during a jump. He said no, but that people had thrown up, pooped, peed, "you name it," on Violette's instructor. He tapped my shoulder and told me to "look over there."
I looked but didn't see anything.
"That's the storm coming in," he said. "Good thing we beat it."
I focused my eyes and realized I could see it; it just looked like a darker-colored sky. I closed my eyes and clenched and unclenched my jaw. I opened my eyes and practiced slow, controlled breaths. I thought of my friend Richard, a poet, who had told me about going skydiving, and had described the feeling of floating as one of the most peaceful experiences he'd had. I tried to focus on feeling serene.
The nausea came and went in waves. The moments in between were filled with intense gratitude and feelings of oneness that quickly became once removed as I became too self-aware, which usually preceded the nausea. Floating high above the earth, my perspective zoomed out accordingly. The world was awe-inspiring and beautiful; so many intricate systems were working together perfectly. The grass and the trees—increasingly larger but still so small I couldn't see them in detail—were full of insects; for some reason this thought stimulated and amazed me.
Looking at the vast expanse of greens and blues around me, I appreciated the imagination of the individual psyche, from which all of human history stemmed; it was amazing that we were able to build planes, create parachutes, systematize it such that anyone with $250 could jump out into the sky and fall then float to earth. We were slowly approaching a voluptuous cumulus cloud. My instructor steered us through. I expected it to feel like something on my body, but it didn't feel like anything. For a moment everything was foggy. I felt unselfconsciously poetic. "Sometimes you just gotta walk on a cloud brah," my instructor said.
The instant I heard his voice I became self-aware, then nauseated. He patted my shoulder and all at once I felt the crushing alienation of our different experiences. It still seemed awe-inspiring that the human imagination had allowed us to float down through a cloud, but now it felt decidedly stupid as well. Everything began to spin around me and I closed my eyes.
I opened my eyes and steered the parachute for a while, then the instructor took the ropes back to prepare us for our landing. He reminded me how to land; we practiced once in the air. Soon, I could see the other skydivers on the ground with their parachutes behind them. At first I thought we were going to have to land by sliding on our butts—the method we'd practiced—but we were able to land on our feet.
The cameraman ran up to me immediately. "What did you think of that, dude?"
"It was good," I said, feeling nauseated and annoyed.
"That was a beautiful jump. Did you have fun or a favorite part?"
I exasperatedly moved my hands in the air and said "I don't know" while feeling more than anything—more than gratitude for a safe landing, more than exhilaration or awe—that I wished that he would go away.
"Would you do it again?" he asked.
"Uh," I said, looking away from him. "Yeah, I'd do it again."
"Cool," he said. "Fantastic."
I gave him a thumbs up. I watched Violette land then ran to her. I surprised her and wrapped my arms around her from behind while kissing her face; later, after watching the video multiple times, we would agree that this had been the most cinematic moment of our relationship so far.
The first exit we saw after deciding that eating would help with our nausea had a Chic-fil-A sign. When we got off the exit, my mom struggled to discern various turns the GPS was telling us to make. We drove through a plaza, which contained a Chipotle, then made a right turn, a u-turn, then another right turn very quickly, into the Chic-fil-A parking lot.
I didn't feel like I had just gone skydiving. The ride home so far had felt like a continuation of the ride there, like we had left home on a long car ride to our true destination: home. My dad and I were incredibly nauseated.
I intuited that Chic-fil-A was so crowded because of skydiving, that everything there had just come from, or was going to, where I had been. A dad standing with his family nodded at me and I nodded back. Everyone seemed slightly deformed and I projected various bad personalities and health problems onto them, silently blaming Chic-fil-A, a symbol of American culture, for all of it.
Violette expressed interest in the deluxe spicy chicken sandwich meal, and I said that I was also going to get that too, then felt indecision while standing in line before finally settling, again, on the deluxe spicy chicken sandwich meal. "They put pickles on their chicken sandwiches here you know," my mom said. I felt annoyed—I knew. The cashier said that someone would bring the food to our table.
In the booth, we sat silently. I felt some relief due to not being in the car, and some due to the anticipation of the relief I expected to feel after eating. I smiled at my mom and dad. I turned to Violette and smiled. I touched my mom's hand, which was resting on the table, and smiled at her again. I hoped my near-constant, automatic irritation with almost everything they said and did didn't show; they weren't doing anything wrong or annoying, I knew; they were, in fact, doing the opposite. Like most situations in my life, I had to let my initial reaction happen internally, then move on to something better before externalizing it.
"I guess they bring the food out to you here? Hm," my dad said. He looked tired and kind. I felt a deep love and gratitude for both him and my mom, and for Violette too, and I smiled again.
"I'm excited to eat," I said. "I think it will help."
Everyone agreed that they were excited to eat.
Shortly after we ate, my nausea ceased.
At home I took a picture of my dog and sent it to my dad. We'd gotten stuck in traffic after Chic-fil-A for two extra hours and my dad had worried aloud about my dog; he'd been alone for nine hours. "He's fine!!!" I texted. Violette and I lay supine on our bed. We watched our skydiving videos again on my phone.
I screenshotted parts of our videos. I posted one of Violette just after having jumped out of the plane, from my point of view, to my Instagram Story and tagged her; then, after some indecision, posted one of me grabbing hands with the cameraman. With the nausea and my parents gone, and back in a familiar environment, I began to feel calmly energized. I said variations of "Fuck," "I can't believe we did that" and "I don't understand what happened" to Violette. People began liking and commenting on my Instagram photo. I felt suddenly like I'd "loved" skydiving. I felt happy I'd gone. As I often did after returning from a situation or completing a task that I didn't enjoy while doing but which held some mainstream social value, I felt a part of society. I was surprised by the amount of messages and comments and likes I was getting.
My friend James commented "hell ya." Bella, a mutual friend of ours, commented "hell ye." I got a comment from Timothy that said "lol sweet" then one from Shane that said "lol nice". Rebecca commented "oh my ducking god"; Tao commented "Atmospherically succulent."
James replied "amaze" to my post of Violette jumping.
I told him I'd been inspired by Richard, our mutual friend, while feeling self-conscious about the amount of privilege having gone skydiving implied, aware of James' far-left political views; then described the experience as "strange/surreal/energizing." A few messages later, I told him I "still" felt "energetic and surprised."
Timothy messaged that he'd gone skydiving for his 26th birthday, that it'd been "so fun."
I replied "lmao for sure" and "my dad really wanted to do it and so got me and Violette to do it w him". I felt suddenly out-of-control: I'd told James we'd gone because I was inspired by Richard, and Timothy that my dad had wanted to go and so had convinced us, despite neither of them asking me why we'd gone, and neither of those being the whole truth. I'd been feeling embarrassed for having gone skydiving; I wanted to explain that it was not my idea, when in fact, it mostly was.
I put my phone down. I picked it up and looked at my Instagram picture again. I smiled. I tweeted the picture of Violette and a different picture of me grabbing the cameraman's hand—in this one my instructor was making the devil horns expression with his fingers. I put my phone down and walked to Violette in the kitchen.
"I'm really happy we went," I said. "I feel really good about it now."
"Me too," she agreed. "I was surprised I felt calm the whole time."
"I feel like," I said, surprising myself. "I feel like it didn't really feel real until I posted it to social media."
I kissed Violette then walked back to my phone to check Instagram and Twitter. I'd gotten an Instagram message from a young kid with whom I'd sold weed but hadn't talked to in years—who came out to me one night after doing a lot of cocaine and pacing back and forth in my kitchen until 3AM, crying while talking about how he wanted to quit cocaine, then got robbed a week later for $3,000, which he still owed a friend of mine—that said, "I miss the good old days."
I screenshotted the message and texted it to the friend, thinking he'd think it was funny.