By Isaac Marion
I jumped out of an
airplane, so I should have died, but I didn't. Apparently people do this
all the time.
People jumping, just
running and jumping out into space, thousands of attempted suicides every
day. People do this for fun. They do it for bachelor parties and
What was I thinking?
People do this all
People do this all
So I jumped, and then I
thought, Oh shit.
Watching your parachute
float away from you like a lazy kite, limp, useless, drifting in the wind.
Feeling gravity wrap its arms around you and pull hard. A sudden change in
perspective. A sudden lack of concern for groceries and taxes.
Greg in the car on the
"Trust me, man, you're
gonna love it."
I look at him
suspiciously. It's my birthday, I am the man of the hour, the star of the
show. My friends are hell-bent on entertaining me, but I am not getting
into the spirit of things. I'm tired. I look out the window, and slowly
exhale. "God you guys…"
My friends are driving
me to Canada, and I don't know why. A surprise gift. The suspense churns
in my stomach, anticipation and fear and bile. I want to make them tell
me, force it out of them, but I wait.
I stare at the sign on
the building we are approaching. I have been sabotaged. This is not my
idea of a good time, and they know this. They know me. I say it
Me in my apartment back
in Seattle. My tornado-aftermath apartment, my one-room flea-market. Home
to a man who is completely, utterly single. A path cleared through the
dishes and debris leads to my desk. I am slumped over it, resting my head
on a pile of documents topped with a 1040 EZ tax form. Somewhere in the
back of my mind, I am aware that my fridge is empty. I'm hungry. I lift my
head a quarter inch off the paper pile, then drop it again.
The phone rings. I pick
it up and lay it across the back of my head, with the receiver vaguely
near my mouth. "Hello."
"Hey this is Greg. Are
you using speakerphone or something? I can barely hear you."
I speak louder.
"A little. Hey, happy
"Thanks." It's a little
before noon. I have spent the day so far wrestling with the 1040. I had
forgotten all about my birthday. "Thanks, Greg."
"Ok, so me and Brian
have a birthday surprise for you."
"Oh, great," I mumble
into the desk.
"We'll be by to pick you
up in about an hour, then we're off to Canada."
"That's right. See you
in an hour."
The skydiving place is
located on some kind of small, privately owned airfield. The sign in front
is made of unpainted two-by-fours bleached grey from years of rain. The
single hangar is rusty corrugated steel. "Guys," I mutter, looking out at
the runway. Pot-holed asphalt like a country road. "I appreciate the
gesture but I'm not sure this is…"
"Come on," Greg says.
"It's gonna be the thrill of your life."
"Seriously," Brian adds,
"a few of my friends have done it and they said it was the most incredible
rush they've ever had."
I am silent as Greg
finds a parking space. The registration office is a tiny sheet-metal shack
raised on cinder blocks. The skydiving gear is housed in an old trailer
near the office, a mossy relic with "Road Wanderer" printed on the side.
It is propped up with a log under its hitch.
"I just don't know if I
want to do this."
"Of course you do," Greg
says as he opens his door. "Skydiving is on everyone's list of things to
do before they die."
The registration guy
tells me I have two options. I can jump solo, with the ripcord attached to
the plane. My chute will open automatically after a freefall of about
thirty feet, then I float the rest of the way down leisurely, like a
tourist. Or I can jump with a certified instructor strapped to my ass,
with his hand on the ripcord, his hot breath in my ear. We can freefall
the whole quarter mile, spooning.
I choose the first
option. This is safer anyway. I'm really only falling thirty feet. I start
wriggling into my flight suit. Maybe this will actually be fun. A good
experience. One of those things you can mention at parties to get
attention. A conversation-piece photo on your fridge door.
I am terrified.
We are in the air. We
are ten thousand feet up and climbing. Brian and Greg are sitting across
from me, grinning. I am going to piss myself. I am back in third grade,
being dared to eat worms. Seventh grade, being dared to jump off the cliff
at Whistle Lake, friends yelling and cheering, everyone having a great
time. Come on pussaaay, jump!
I'm twenty-four now. I
thought I was done with peer pressure.
I look out the window at
the wide open spaces below. From here, trees look like grass and grass
looks like velvet.
"Almost there, folks,"
the pilot yells. "You ready?"
"Will you just try it
once? You've never tried it before, how do you know you hate it?"
"It's just too awkward,
I feel ridiculous."
"Who cares? It is
ridiculous, it's supposed to be ridiculous!"
Terry is sitting in the
passenger seat of my Civic, looking at me in pissed-off disbelief. We're
on our way to Seattle to see some friends, and she's trying to convince me
to go out to a club with them. She wants to go dancing.
"I'm just...I'm six foot
three, I've got these big gangly limbs, it's just not natural for me."
"But you've never even
done it before, how do you even know?"
"I can just tell."
"It's not even about
that, though, is it? You just have some kind of weird hangup."
"It's just...it just
really...isn't me." I look over at her and smile tentatively. "I
mean...isn't that ok? Can't you just go dance with the girls and have fun?
Do we both have to be into this?"
She is looking at me
hard, unblinking. She says, "Jeff...what is you? Is there anything
that is you? This is just… I mean, dancing, snowboarding, going to
shows, you just don't…"
I don't like the way her
eyes roam from point to point on my face, inspecting, examining. Something
unknown. A foreign object. "What is wrong with you?" She shakes her head
slightly, still studying me. "Are you alive?"
Greg and Brian are lined
up to my right, elbowing each other and laughing nervously. They'll be
jumping right behind me, with instructors strapped to their asses because
they want the freefall. How did I meet these people? Why do they know my
birthday and have my phone number? Why am I twelve thousand feet above the
surface of Canada with them?
The instructor strapped
to Greg is suddenly counting. "Five, four, three..."
I'm not ready, oh shit
I'm not ready. My suit isn't adjusted right. My underwear are bunched up.
The straps are squeezing my testicles. Why am I doing this? Why would
anyone do this?
I'm going to die.
There's still so much I haven't done. I haven't been to Italy. I haven't
swam in the tropics or hiked in Nepal. Goddammit, Terry, I haven't…
I'm falling. My guts are
squished against my spine, oh God I'm falling. Every natural instinct is
screaming that it's over, system error, I'm dead, they're screaming
what the fuck did you just do?
There is a split second
where I manage to contain myself, where I think, You'll be ok. People
do this all the time. Then I feel an impact like being kicked in the
chest, I hear a snap, drowned out by the wind roaring past me, a sharp
sting in my shoulder, then...
Everything is quiet.
Time has frozen. The wind is a gentle rustle in my ears. The sun is
warming the side of my face. I look up, and see the plane getting smaller
and smaller. Disappearing. From somewhere in the warm blue expanse, I hear
my voice mumbling, Thirty feet? Thirty feet, right?
I look up again.
I see my parachute
drifting away. The backpack hangs from it, straps dangling like arms and
legs, like a tiny person.
Something is wrong.
This tiny person has
taken my place in the parachute. Given me the old switch. He is waving as
I drop out of sight, plummeting toward the grasslands below. My eyes are
wide. My hands grasp at the air.
There is an obscene
amount of time to realize what is happening, but it never really
solidifies in my mind. Agonizing minutes pass in this weightless void, but
I just hang there, vaguely aware that something long and difficult is
coming to an end. I don't see my life flashing before my eyes, I don't
think, I'm going to die! I'm going to die! I just lie there in the
Slowly, I twist around
to face the sun, putting my back to the approaching ground. I should be
waking up any second now.
I close my eyes. A
quick, breathless laugh, and then—
My eyes open for two
seconds. I hear no sound, but I see faces hovering over me, anxious faces,
crowding in around me. I ignore them. I stare up at the open blue sky. I
see something. There's something up there…something I can't quite…what
"What was that?" I
whisper, and then I shut my eyes, and die.
I am staring across the
room at a girl in a Bellingham pub. I've seen her before, either on campus
at Western or in one of the local businesses. Brown hair, bent slightly
upwards at the ends, sharp blue eyes, red scarf, antique jacket. Gorgeous.
"What?" I don't know how
long Greg has been trying to get my attention. He and Brian are sitting
across from me at the table, grinning.
"Go talk to her."
"Dude, what has it been?
"Go fucking talk to that
I shake my head, and
stare at my beer.
Outside the bar, a few
feet from the exit doors, I see her standing on the sidewalk, looking up
at the night sky. It's cold out and I can see her breath in the streetlamp
I told myself I wasn't
following her out, that I was just going to my car to go home and it was
just coincidence that she left right before I stood up. As proof, I
already have my keys in my hand, though my car is still four blocks away.
I'm standing about four sidewalk-squares away from her. She notices me.
"It's snowing," she
says. I look up and see a few dry bits of ice sprinkling down, nothing
that will last more than five minutes.
"I heard we're supposed
to get a few inches over the weekend," I say.
"I hope so," she says.
"I love snow."
"Me too," I say,
although I have no opinion about snow anymore. "I was a big sledder as a
She nods and smiles, and
slowly starts to walk. I hesitate, then follow her, jingling my keys
self-consciously. I take a shot in the dark. "You work somewhere I go to a
lot, I think. Office Max? On Sunset?"
"That's right. The print
"About two years."
"Ok. I've been shopping
there about three."
She has come to her car.
She stops in front of the door and turns to me. She is smiling faintly. I
am not really smiling at all. I hear myself ask, "What's your name?"
She unlocks her car and
opens the door, then looks back at me. "Terry. We have nametags, you
"Ok. So…" I hesitate. I
am so tired right now. I need a nap. I need another beer. "Next time I'm
at the print department, I'll say, 'Hi, Terry.' "
"Should I just keep
calling you 'sir'?"
I notice a snowboard
case on the roof of her car. My heart sinks a little. Above me, the ice
dust has fattened into flakes. I see it sticking to the pavement.
I haven't owned a sled in fifteen
years. Snow fucks up the roadways.
Sounds fade in and out
of my awareness. Distant voices. Footsteps on tile. The steady beep of a
heart monitor. A hospital.
Why a hospital? Aren't
hospitals for people who are hurt, yes, but alive? I jumped out of an
airplane. I'm dead.
Long ago, before I died:
Green grass lit by
yellow spring sun, underneath the gnarled hawthorn tree with its pink
blossoms. I'm six years old and I'm convinced I can fly. Or at least
float. I'm six years old and the world is vast. Smaller than when I was
five, but still vast. I can float. If I try hard enough I can float.
I crouch down to the
grass and wrap my arms around my shins. I close my eyes, and squeeze, I
clench everything, I strain everything. I don't know what I'm doing, but
it feels right. I'm going to float, and someday I'm going to fly. And
while I'm having this thought, something happens.
Eighteen years ago, in
those ancients mists of time, in a world now long gone, I float. I tremble
a bit, and then my clenched body rises. It hovers three inches above the
I hear the heart monitor
again. It sounds much too slow. I can smell medicine and stale flesh.
Probably mine, paling and graying under the damp sheets.
"What?" I croak, and
open my eyes. Greg is crouched at the bedside, looking at me. A doctor is
standing over me, watching me closely. Why is he watching me closely? What
is there to see? "I'm dead."
Don't you know I'm
"No, man," Greg says,
wide-eyed and incredulous. "You're not."
A week later, I am
sitting at my desk in my apartment in Seattle, staring at the 1040 EZ
again. The desk is just as cluttered as it was on my birthday. The floors
are still buried. Everything is exactly as I left it, except the milk is
I'm not dead.
I should be, but I'm
not. I jumped out of an airplane, I fell from clouds to ground, twelve
thousand feet, but I'm not dead.
I'm not even hurt.
No broken bones. No
internal injuries. Not even any open cuts. Just a bruised tailbone, some
dark purple splotches on my back, and a sore neck. No blood. No foul. It's
ridiculous. It's absolutely cartoonish, Wile E. Coyote, and three weeks
later I still can't make myself believe it. I know deep inside that this
is a dream, some kind of pre-death hallucination, and Jeff Marcus is
really still lying embedded six inches in the earth, every bone now
crunchy paste, his organs strewn through the grass, his blood forming a
huge, star-shaped pool in that good Canadian soil.
And did he see
something? As he lay embedded in the earth, did he see something in the
sky? Was it a two-story house with wings? Was it a brilliant red hot-air
balloon printed with the names of everyone he had ever loved?
I shove the tax form
under some books and stand up. I don't really know why I'm bothering with
it. There is no IRS in the afterlife. I move slowly through my apartment,
my feet trailing through clutter like piles of autumn leaves.
I arrived home from the
hospital today at 12:00 noon. I remember opening the door and looking at
the empty rooms beyond, listening to the profound lack of footsteps
running to meet me. The grim silence. I should get a dog or something.
I step out onto my
apartment's metal balcony. Its rusty frame creaks under my weight, and I
wonder yet again if this is the day it gives way and drops me to my death.
I look down at the
pavement below and smile. What is that, maybe a hundred feet? Shit. That's
like falling out of bed. You hit your head, you wake up, you get back in
bed and sleep. Right?
It's the very end of
twilight now. The air is bitterly cold. I stare up at the stars and feel
lost. They look different tonight. I can't seem to find the Big Dipper. I
see one that looks like a turtle, one like a Spanish galleon, but nothing
familiar. I flop onto the couch and pick up the phone. Feeling drunk, eyes
barely focusing, I dial Terry's number. It rings several times, and then I
hear her voice for the first time in six months.
Hello, this is Terry.
I can't get to the phone right now, so leave a message and I'll call you
back as soon as I can. Thanks.
I hang up, and slip into
bed fully clothed. The rivets on my jeans dig painfully into my bruises,
so I lay on my side. I sleep through my alarm, dreaming strange, feverish
dreams of burning buildings and skies full of flying bears.
It's our five-month
anniversary, and I take Terry to see a film starring Bernie Mac. I don't
know why I do this, but I do. Afterward I take her to my apartment
promising an Italian dinner, and end up serving multi-colored wagon-wheel
pasta with Prego. I assume the grimace on her face is for the food, and I
am ten percent correct.
I have been incredibly
busy with finals. I barely remembered our anniversary moments before going
to bed the night before. I have been up late studying Physics and
Statistics. I'm swamped.
Now we sit next to each
other on the left side of the couch, watching TV. Terry leans away into
the couch arm. I flip through a few channels.
"I'm going to go for a
walk," Terry says. I notice she isn't even paying attention to the TV show
I've landed on. She's looking out the balcony window. The Big Dipper
gleams dead-center, framed in the window like a painting.
"It's pretty cold out."
I flip the channels again, looking for something Terry would like.
"The stars are out and
there's a full moon. I'm going for a walk." She stands up and looks at me.
I mumble something about
lows of twenty degrees, and flip a few more channels, looking for the
weather. Terry puts on her coat and walks out.
I wake up from more
feverish dreams and throw my clothes on. I splash water on my face and eat
a bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats. As I pull into the warehouse parking lot
where I work, I happen to glance at my dash clock and see that I am three
hours early. It's 4:00 in the morning. It occurs to me that there was no
alarm this morning—my eyes simply opened and I got up.
The sky is still mostly
black. The parking lot is empty, the warehouse windows are dark. I slip
out of my car and shut the door gently, as if trying not to wake someone.
What am I doing here?
At the edge of the lot
there is a chain link fence, beyond which is Boeing Field. I lean against
the fence and stare at the absurdly large hangar buildings, like a giant's
city. I notice a group of people standing under a 747 parked in an
otherwise deserted airfield. There are about fifty of them, all in white
jumpsuits, and they stand linked hand in hand in a wide circle, looking up
at the underside of the plane. For a moment I think a few of them have
torches, actual wood and pitch torches…but it must be flashlights.
I watch this for just a
few seconds—What are they…?—then I turn back to the warehouse. The
main door is locked, so I search the perimeter hoping to find a side-door
left open. On the far side of the building where no one ever goes I find a
curious line of graffiti. It is sprayed on the concrete wall in wide,
swooping letters like calligraphy, at a height of about twenty feet.
IS IT BIGGER NOW?
By the look of the
paint, it has been there a very long time, but I've never noticed it
before, and none of my co-workers has ever mentioned it. Except for this
line, there are no taggings anywhere on the building.
That night I find myself
at a rock show at the Crocodile Café, downtown. It's been a long time
since I've been to a show, longer still since I've just gone to one on my
own, by myself, without anyone nagging and dragging me. Domestic beer
sloshes in my plastic cup. The band is loud and excellent. I've never even
heard of them before tonight. Why am I here?
A few rows in front of
me, near the front of the stage, there's a girl dancing. Her hair is short
and platinum-bleached, tied back in an amputated ponytail. She wears black
tights under a short skirt. A flimsy sweater hangs off her pale shoulders
like it wants to be on someone's floor. She's short, but sparkly gold
heels compensate. She dances in wide, swaying arcs, eyes closed, smiling
I take little sips of my
Miller and watch her. She catches me watching, and my eyes dart away, but
too late. A slight smile curves her thin lips. She eyes me sideways.
For a minute I swear the
band is singing about skydiving. A lyric here and there, something about a
parachute. I hear my name in a raw scream. Jeff! Jeeeeeeeff!
"What?" I scream back
unexpectedly, spilling my beer a little. My voice is lost in the noise.
The blonde girl has been
dancing in my direction. She spins around and stops, looking straight up
at me. My God she's short. I am six-foot-three, she can't be an inch over
five-two. She is far, far away.
"Hi," she says. Shouts,
actually, to be heard over the music.
"Hi," I shout back. I
feel like a gangling giant standing next to her, Frankenstein and his
bleached blonde bride.
She grabs my hand and
pulls me toward the front of the stage. I can't just pull away, so I go.
She starts to dance in front of me, and I stand there, bobbing my head
slightly, squirming in my skin.
She doesn't seem to mind
my lack of participation. In fact she seems to forget about me as soon as
we reach the stage, and just closes her eyes and resumes her strange,
swaying movements. A few songs later, I slip away back to the dark corners
of the room.
At 11:30 that night, I
call Terry again. I am sitting on my green velour couch staring at a TV
that is not on. Without any premeditation, I pick up the phone and dial
her number, 503, that alien Portland area code. As it rings I look at
myself in my mind's eye, I see my blankly staring face and my hunched,
hunted posture. That starry galleon gleams through the balcony window.
Hello, this is Terry.
I can't get to the phone right now…
"Hi Terry." Silence for
about twenty seconds. "I'm not sure why I'm calling…" Fifteen seconds.
"How've you been? How's Portland treating you…" I let out a deep breath.
"I'm really not sure why I'm calling. I haven't…It just…seems like it's
been a long time since we've talked." I am mumbling, my lips are barely
moving. I rub my face and run my free hand through my hair. "I've been
having a weird month, and I feel like we…well I fell out of an airplane
and my parachute came off but I survived, and that was…It really…I don't
know, I feel like we should talk again." A long pause. "Anyway I'm not
really sure why I'm calling, but…"
I hang up. I fall asleep
on the couch, staring at that starry galleon, which is either all in my
mind or is a brand new constellation. I wake briefly at 4 am to the sound
of many heavy wings flapping by some distance above my apartment roof, and
a solitary flute somewhere out in the streets. I press my face into my
pillow, and go back to sleep, thinking:
Is it bigger now?
And what is "it"?, I ask
my sleeping, shadowy mind. What is "it", graffiti man? Your dick?
Something as simple as that?
I want to find this
person and force the truth out of them. I would resort to violence without
hesitation. I know I have it in me.
"Are you getting enough
"I doubt it. Why?"
"Well, you're tired just
about all the time."
"Sometimes I don't go to
bed when I should, yeah."
"Are you stressed?"
"I don't know. Probably.
Maybe I just need you to come tuck me in at night."
"Say the word, handsome.
You know I will."
"Well, actually…I mean I
have to work pretty early."
"This job takes more
focus than you would think."
"Maybe next week
The wind is arctic,
clawing at my face and penetrating my thick ski coat. I crash through a
cluster of brush and emerge onto my favorite rock. I am on the peak of
Little Mountain, ten minutes from my home in Mount Vernon, Washington. I
am Sixteen. I am reeling.
The sun explodes through
the clouds on the distant horizon. The colors are not of this world. I
stare at it, and the frigid wind peels tears back from my eyes and dries
them on my cheeks. My God it's beautiful. Everything. Terrible. Beautiful.
"Is it gonna work?"
My friend Mike and I
look back and forth at each other, grinning. We've tried this a few times,
and our moms have told us to stop, but this time, I can feel it.
"One, two, three."
Waving our arms like
birds, we jump off the hood of my dad's truck. I squint my eyes shut. I
believe it will happen, and yes, it will happen. Why shouldn't it?
We halt a few inches
above the grass. We waver, rising and falling a little in the air, then we
drop to the grass and erupt with laughter.
I run into the girl from
the show at a grocery store. She has a six pack of beer in her hand, and
she walks right up to me, thrusting it out. "Will you buy this for me?"
"Oh—hi," I say, somewhat
"Will you buy this?"
"I just realized I don't
have any money, and I really need a drink. I'll pay you back sometime."
"Come on. I'll be your
I let out a bewildered
chuckle. "Ok, sure." I take the beer from her, and buy it. She is waiting
for me outside in the parking lot. She grabs a can from me, some kind of
cheap domestic shit, and takes a long drink.
"Thanks," she says.
I open one myself and we
stand there drinking canned piss in the middle of the dark parking lot. I
have no idea what to say.
She drinks her beer like
she's taking medicine. Tossing it back, swallowing hard. She finishes it
and takes another can, then walks over to the corner of the store and sits
down on the curb. Finally I think of something to say. "So what's your
"Ah. Like the Little
She rests her beer on
her knee, dangling it between two fingers, and sings the tune from the
Disney movie, a rising scale of "ah"s.
I stare at her, feeling
a warm buzz flooding my stomach. Her voice is smooth and smoky, a soft,
lazy, jazz purr.
"Wow," I mumble, and
take a long drink to hide the weird grin on my face.
"Very nice, Ariel."
She smiles and gives me
a bird-like little head-tilt. "Why thank you."
She is looking off down
the street somewhere, taking occasional sips of beer. I am staring at the
side of her face, and I know she can feel it.
this she stands up and throws her empty can into a shopping cart. "Thanks
for the beer," she says, and starts walking toward the street.
Confused, I say, "Hey!"
She looks back and
raises her eyebrows in mock curiosity. "What?" she says, and keeps
I watch her until she
disappears around a corner. Her shiny black heels give her walk the same
wide swagger as her dance. On the street, something small and strange
dashes under the streetlamp, a cat-sized thing with four legs and
feathers. It's there for a second and then gone in the shadows. I stare
after it, feeling a little drunk, and not nearly as surprised as I should
The next day Ariel calls
"Hello sir," she says.
I'm silent for a moment.
"How did you…?"
I'm fairly positive I
never gave her my number, but I don't feel like asking such questions, so
I just say, "Nothing. What's up?"
"So Jeff. I like you. Do
you want to go to a show tonight?"
"It's at the Croc again.
Patient Patient. Heard of them?"
"Yeah, I think so. I've
heard the name."
"Oh my God, Jeff.
They're fucking amazing. Meet me there?"
I meet her at the front
door of the venue. She is standing there with her arms crossed, scowling.
"Hey," she says.
"Hey. What's wrong?"
"I can't get in."
One of the corner's
resident homeless guys approaches us with a paper cup. He is such the
archetypal Homeless Man that it's almost comical, tattered rags, toes
poking through shoes, he's even wearing a ragged brown top-hat like a
nineteenth-century hobo. He says, "Can you spare a dime, brother?"
Ariel ignores him and
scans the corner crowd, still scowling. I stare at him, my eyes narrowed
with interest. I'm fairly certain his beard is taped on. It's so bushy it
completely covers his mouth.
"Hey man," I say,
starting to smile. "Is that a fake beard?"
"I got no choice,
brother," he mumbles. "Ain't nothin' underneath it."
He lowers his eyes to
the ground, and reaches into his pocket, pulls out a five dollar bill, and
stuffs it into my jacket. "God bless you, brother," he mumbles, and walks
I watch him until he
disappears around a corner.
Ariel is looking at me,
"This sucks. I can't get
I blink a few times and
turn to face her. "What do you mean? Why not?"
"It's fucking twenty-one
and up. I thought it was an all-ages show."
"You're not twenty-one?"
"Christ no. I'm
I stare at her. I
"Forget it. Come on,
let's go." She starts walking back the way I came.
"Um, Ariel…" She's
walking, and I follow her.
"Where are you parked?"
"Where are we going?"
"I don't know. Let's go
"Gasworks park? Don't
tell me you've never been there."
"Jesus Christ, Jeff.
Where's your car?"
I unlock my car and she
hops in. The remnants of our six-pack from the night before are on the
floor, and she grabs one, starts drinking it in the car.
I sit down and look at
her. "Listen, Ariel… You're really seventeen?"
"As of August."
I shake my head and
chuckle again. "God. Ok. Well, I can't…I can't really hang out with you
"Well, I'm twenty-four."
"So…" I trail off and
just look at her.
She smiles. "What? Are
you planning on fucking me, Mr. Jeff? You don't want to get arrested for
statutory rape, is that it?"
I don't know what to
say. I just laugh awkwardly.
"Forget it. Don't worry
about it. It's not going to happen, and even if it did it's not illegal.
Washington's age of consent is seventeen."
"Yep. I just learned it
in my Human Sexuality class at ECC."
On the street outside
the car, a man in a trenchcoat waves to someone walking by, and for a
moment his face becomes dark green and metallic, like old, weathered
brass. He looks a lot like the statue in the park near my apartment, in
fact the resemblance is uncanny. As soon as he passes the other man, his
face returns to normal flesh. He reaches his hand into the brick wall of
the alley, and disappears behind a cleverly disguised brick door.
"God, Jeff, you think in
such a box, don't you? It's not all about sex and laws and social norms
and all that shit. It's not even about science and physics and
history…grammar, math, geography, whatever. There's room for way more in
this world, right? You of all people should know it's bigger than that."
I stare at her. My mouth
opens a little.
"Come on," she says,
bucking forward in her seat. "Let's go to the park. It's awesome."
So I drive her to
Gasworks Park. We sit on an enclosed bench on a pier that overlooks Lake
Union and the entire Seattle skyline, surrounding us in a glittering
panorama. For the first time in a while, I feel love for this city.
We sit there and drink
the last of the six-pack and smoke Kools. She tells me horrific stories
about her "childhood", still in progress, of course, the usual modern tale
of abuse, divorce, drugs and alcohol. Birds scrape the surface of the
water, diving in and out in dark silhouette. I listen in silence.
Hours later, we stumble
back to my car, mildly drunk. Ariel runs through a sprinkler, screaming. I
start up my car and she turns on my stereo, but doesn't get in yet. She
digs up some Daft Punk on my iPod and stands outside the open car door,
dancing in the parking lot. And, well, I dance with her. She does her
wild, dreamy sway, spinning in dizzy circles on wobbly stilettos, and I
move next to her, a gangly, awkward man doing gangly, awkward dance moves.
But I'm here. I'm smiling, and she's laughing, and I'm here.
"You're quite the
dancer, Mr. Jeff!"
"Fucking right I am," I
say with dead seriousness, and perform moves somewhere between The Robot
A meteorite streaks down
out of the open sky and strikes the water with a tiny splash and burst of
steam. For a moment, in my periphery vision I glimpse the outlines of
buildings deep beneath the lake, glassy skyscrapers and strange arches,
illuminated briefly by the white-hot glow of the meteorite, then the water
Ariel sleeps at my
apartment that night. She doesn't seem to have any ties to anything. She
says she only occasionally stops by her home in Tacoma. She stays out. No
job, no school. She goes out, and she stays out. I offer her my bed while
I crash in the living room, but after an hour, as I'm nearing sleep, I
feel her slide in next to me on my narrow, stiff IKEA futon. Neither of us
says anything. We just go to sleep. I hear the wings above the roof again,
and the distant flute, joined this time by a clarinet in spooky harmony.
I have to work at 7:00
am, so I gingerly slip off the futon and go about my morning activities in
careful silence while Ariel lies tucked under the blanket. I make an
iTunes playlist called "Ariel is Sleeping" and fill it with gentle music.
Sigur Ros. Iron and Wine. It masks the noise of my breakfast and shower,
and makes me feel strangely when I look at the small creature snoring
softly on my couch.
Work passes in a haze.
When I return home, I step in the door to find Ariel sitting at my upright
piano, plinking out some simple tunes. She is wearing my black and white
striped sweater, and on her tiny frame it becomes a tunic, just barely
covering her underwear.
"Hi," she says, and
smiles. She plays a simple D scale.
I sit down next to her
on the piano bench and look at the side of her face. "Who are you?"
She shrugs, and starts
playing something, maybe a Beatles song. She sways slightly from side to
side on the bench.
I start playing the low
end, trying to match her chords. "Ariel. Something crazy happened to me
just before I met you. Did I ever tell you about that?"
She shakes her head,
singing softly under her breath.
"I went skydiving, and
my parachute came off. I fell twelve thousand feet, and hit the ground,
and I barely even got hurt."
She smiles and ruffles
my hair. "That's wonderful, Jeff. Really. Good job." She starts playing
"Does that make any
sense to you?"
"Of course it does."
I stop playing and turn
on the bench to face her. "How?"
She sings a few more
bars of what I can now tell is "Magical Mystery Tour". Her voice is smooth
as skin. "Because look." She gets up and goes over to my window, sweeps
open the blinds. Outside, hovering over Elliot Bay, thirty or forty
hot-air balloons drift lazily in the golden-red evening light.
I stare in amazement.
"Are…those really there?"
"They've been there all
day. It's some kind of festival I think."
"This explains how I
survived that fall?"
"No…wait a sec."
At that moment,
something rises out of the bay. A long snake-like form, dripping water
from its ivory white hide, curling upward toward the sun. It ascends
hundreds of feet into the sky, above the balloons, and snatches two sea
gulls out of the air, then slinks back into the water with barely a
ripple. This all takes place in about three seconds.
I stare at the water for
a moment, then look at Ariel. "Did that really happen?"
She smiles. "I think
"You see this stuff?"
"Does anyone else see
"I don't think so. Not
I point out at the bay.
"How could a hundred people not have seen that?"
She opens my window and
leans out, resting her elbows on the windowsill and watching the people
milling by on Western Ave below. "I think people know when to glance away.
They know when to blink."
"Why do we see
She shrugs, and smiles.
I look out the window
again. An airliner moves silently across the sky, cutting it in half with
a sharp white line. One of the balloons has my dead mother's name printed
on it in white block letters. I swear I can see the pilot waving at me.
Ariel sleeps with me
again that night. We sit in bed for hours beforehand, drinking vodka and
watching a movie. When we shut out the lights, she puts her face right
next to me on the bed, and I kiss her. Her lips are firm, and she bites me
a little. I taste copper in my mouth.
We clutch at each other
there on the futon, and I have
the sense that at seventeen she has done more and been through more than
I have at twenty-four, but I find myself unwilling to take anything more
from her. This is enough, this is plenty. I press her tiny frame against
me, and she's so small she barely exists, she's ephemeral, like a doll,
not a person but an idea of a person. A memory, or a premonition.
Eventually we just stop,
and the night is over. I lie there looking at the ceiling, somehow
satisfied. We lie on our backs and harmonize with the songs on my Sleep
Mix, her warm purr blending with my reedy tenor. Our harmonies are
brilliant. Unexpected scales, tense, gorgeous fifths and sevenths—we put
the original artists to shame.
We sing ourselves to
sleep. I dream of falling, free-falling, twelve-thousand feet and then
miles, and when I strike the ground I pass right through it, like the
surface of water, and continue to fall, deep into the earth, into fire and
magma, into the core, and then into outer space, through stars and planets
and distant, violent galaxies, through vast reaches of empty black, and
into the incomprehensible void beyond everything, the beautiful,
terrifying walls of the universe, and then into other worlds, heaven and
hell and other places far more wondrous.
In the morning, Ariel is
There are no signs or
clues. No notes, no clothes or hair pins or any traces that she was ever
there. Even the glasses we drank from are all cleaned and stacked back in
the cupboard. The vodka, however, is still empty. So is the fifth of
Maker's Mark. My head throbs insistently.
I call the number she
has been calling me from, and an automated voice tells me it has been
disconnected or is no longer in service. I don't know her last name. I
don't know where she lives. I don't know anything.
I realize I haven't gone
to work in at least three days. Maybe more. My voicemail is jammed with
messages. I probably don't have a job anymore. It doesn't matter. Around
noon I get in my car and drive blindly south on I-5. Seattle's awkward
mishmash of a skyline fades behind me. The south end's smell of noxious
burning rubber floods my car, and I breathe deep.
I stop at a Safeway to
get some snacks for the road and to relieve myself. The only restroom is
in the cold concrete back-room warehouse, and as I move towards the door,
I glimpse from the corner of my eye an employee walking into the small
room that must be the manager's office. The room is isolated from the rest
of the building, just a square partitioned area in the center of the
warehouse, but when the employee opens the door, a square of bright golden
sunlight spills out. And I hear the sounds of birds, and running water.
The employee steps inside. I dash for the door, but the employee slams it
shut behind him. I wrench the handle. It's locked, and feels as solid as a
bank safe. I stand there for over an hour, waiting, but no one comes out.
I grit my teeth. I slam my fist against the door. My knuckles bleed.
The magical mystery
tour is coming to take you away, coming to—
I leave the store
without paying for my groceries. I drive south. In one of the more
desolate stretches of freeway, I notice an extraordinarily narrow exit
that I have never seen before. The mildewy sign above it reads "Exit 0".
The street name is "None". From what I can tell, the exit climbs a hill
and fades into a forest, concrete dissolving into undergrowth. An ancient,
rusty pickup in front of me takes this exit, and disappears, vanishes,
among the trees. I flip my blinker and swerve violently across two lanes,
but I'm too late, and I'm cut off by the concrete divider.
Everyone is leaving. All
the doors are opening and then shutting, and they're all leaving me
behind, leaving me here. I grip the steering wheel, and accelerate
The world flies by me in
a smear. Sunlight pierces the freeway's pine tree walls, and the liquid
blue sky above is criss-crossed with gleaming white jet trails. What is
out there? Where are those jets going? How many constellations have yet to
be discovered? Spanish galleons and golden robots and three-headed cats?
And no, not discovered, discovery implies ownership and use.
Not discovered. Just noticed. How much beautiful madness has yet to
be noticed? I accelerate to 100.
The horns of my fellow
drivers scream in my ears, then fade to a dull hum.
Finally a cop observes
me. His siren joins the chorus, the piercing wail of a mad opera singer.
Despite my rapidly advancing speed, he gains on me. His lights are the
Fourth of July in my rear view mirror.
My car is a 2002 Hyundai
with a gutless 4-cylinder engine, but the digital speedometer continues to
rise inexorably. 130. 140. The car shakes like a shuttle launch.
Clinging tenaciously to
my bumper, the cop screams at me through his loudspeaker.
And at that moment, my
phone rings. My eyes leave the road for several long seconds to stare at
the caller ID.
Area code 503. It's
"Hello?" I shout over
the whining engine and roar of the road.
"Jeff…this is Terry."
"I know…Hi Terry."
There's a pause. "Are
you driving? What's all that noise?"
I muffle the phone with
my hand as the cop rams me lightly from behind. My free hand works the
wheel to dodge cars.
"Yeah, I'm driving.
Traffic's a mess. Terry, hey…it's really good to hear from you."
"Yeah, well…I got your
messages. And you're right. It's been a long time. So…I wanted to see how
"Pull over! This is
your last warning!"
"Terry, I've been…" I
search for the word. A flock of geese flies in a V directly above my car,
seeming to keep speed with me. Their necks crane downwards, as if watching
eagerly. "I've been unbelievable. Amazing."
"Wow," Terry laughs. "I
don't think I've ever heard you answer that question with anything but
"Well…I guess my
vocabulary is bigger now."
The cop rams me hard.
The car shimmies briefly out of control, but I correct it with a twitch of
my wrist. Distantly, I wish I had a hands-free set for my phone.
"You said something
about a skydiving accident…what was that about? You went
I chuckle. "That's a
pretty interesting story that I'd love to tell you about in person."
There's a long pause.
When she speaks again her voice is tentative. "What are you doing today?"
In my rear view mirror I
see the cop pull back for another ram. But as he accelerates, I
accelerate. The gas pedal is long-since pressed to the floor, but I watch
the speedometer climb like a clock in a world where time has come
The car stops shaking.
The hiss of wind and crazed snarl of tires on pavement fades into a
smooth, harmonic tone. A perfect 5th, with tense, gorgeous overtones.
The cop and his
fireworks disappear into the rear distance. The road in front of me is
almost entirely empty.
"Well…I'm not really
doing anything, Terry. Just going for a drive."
Terry says, quietly,
"Um…would you like to meet for coffee somewhere? I know it's a long drive
from Seattle but…"
A road sign flashes by
in my periphery vision.
I say, "It's not that
long of a drive."
"Well, great. So…"
My speedometer has
topped out at 300. I am moving at the speed of a human body falling
through the atmosphere. I am freefalling, horizontally.
I smile. "I can be there
in 5 minutes."
We meet at a small café
at the base of the Wells Fargo
Building, a towering edifice in the center of downtown
Portland. I request this. I say, "Let's
meet at a tall building somewhere. I want a view. I want to be able to see
"Ok," she says, and
there is such a smile in her voice, such pleasant surprise and curiosity,
that I wonder just what kind of person I've been. Have I wasted every
single year. Have I. Have I. And how do I stop. How do I reverse. What the
fuck do I do now.
We meet at the coffee
shop. We reunite. She looks exactly like she did in that bar in
Bellingham, so many hundreds of years ago. We get our coffee to go, and
take the elevator to the top floor of the building. I stare at her while
we ascend, and she stares back. We both wear puzzled grins.
At the top of the
building, forty-one floors above the earth, we stand on the observation
deck and lean against the rail. We sip our scalding hot coffee and look at
each other. Time is curling back on itself. I expect that when we get back
in the elevator and the doors open on the first floor, it will not be the
first floor, it will be somewhere else. But there are so many ways to move
up and down…stairs, ladders, parachutes…
I lean hard against
the rail, and chug the rest of my coffee, feeling it scorch the inside of
my mouth, savoring the feeling. "Terry," I say. "Do you want to see
In the building across
the street, a few stories down from me, I see Ariel standing in a window,
framed dead-center like a portrait. She looks up at me and smiles. She
waves. I wave back.
"Watch this, Terry," I
say, and I jump off the building.
Now the doors are
opening. The locks break and the handles finally turn. The building's
windows fling open as I fall, and people lean out and blow kisses at me,
they shower me with roses like a conquering matador. I am diving through
the stars, and the constellations dive with me, laughing, throwing their
spears and shooting their arrows at the empty dark. Ariel sings the
Beatles, echoing in space, and Terry claps her hands with delight. I am
six, I am sixteen, I am sixty. The world is vast, and I can fly.