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This tiny plane is climbing and circling higher and higher.
When I say tiny, I mean tiny. There are no seats. Just room for four people to sit on the ground, shoulder to shoulder. Two first-time skydivers practically on the laps of two instructors, crammed on the floor of the airplane.
Outside the windows of the cramped canister, we’re gaining altitude. Big, flat Florida is getting smaller and smaller. It’s an overcast day. We feel every lurch, every tilt, every time the plane tips its wings to turn.
“I know you’re the pilot but do you jump sometimes, too?” Dalina asks the pilot.
“He does, and he’s working now,” her instructor says.
She giggles and claps a hand over her mouth. A confirmed adrenaline junky, she’s practically bouncing off the cabin walls. She and I met when I was surfing, recently. And shockingly, this skydiving trip is the first time we’re hanging out.
And when the plane tips, the vast view of Earth itself rises up the windows, like when you tilt a glass of OJ and the juice runs up the side. Criss-crossing runways, a double baseball diamond, pine-green grassy fields, all rapidly shrinking.
Spiky heads of palm trees. Squiggly, slithering rivers. Roads, quiet, with few cars at this early weekend hour. The beach is misty. You can see the lapping shoreline, but you can’t pick out where the water stops and the sky begins on the horizon. It’s all one grey, foggy, shimmering sheet.
The beach hotels look like dollhouses. The propeller whirs & roars.
Man. Can’t believe I’m going to jump out of this tiny airplane. I have dedicated the past week to not thinking about it.
Now the moment is here. Back on the ground, when the pilot asked who wanted to jump first, Dalina and I both said, “me!” at the same time.
She tried to let me go first, but a, “ladies first” settled the matter. She’s sitting by the window now. It was actually open when we were starting to take off, but they rolled it down.
She and I kill time with some getting to know you chit chat, because after all, we just met by chance on the beach a couple of weeks ago when I was finishing up surfing. She sent me a message in the middle of the night making if I wanted to skydive. I answered yes, and woke up to a screenshot of skydiving ticket receipts.
The plane climbs in higher and higher circles.
Her jump instructor grabs the door handle and lifts it upward. The door rattles open, and there’s a great gaping hole in the airplane cabin, showing a view of wispy clouds & a forever of grey sky out there under the wing. The cabin is drowning in roaring wind, propeller whir, and shivering cold air.
Dalina puts a sneaker out on the metal step over the wheel with all 14,000 feet of air racing away underneath this Campbell soup can of an airplane.
“You’ve got this, you’ve got this,” I yell.
Dalina closes her eyes, and arches back like the instructor told her to do. And then her instructor grabs the doorframe and dives. And they’re gone. Vanished, so fast, and so far. It’s like witnessing an execution.
Scoot! Slide! My jump instructor is sidling on his bum over to the door. Fast. My hands grip my harness.
“Head arched back, feet together pointing back when we go!” the guy yells in Camel cigarette breath.
The wind speed makes putting my boot out onto the metal plate over the wheel like moving underwater. I fight the wind to shove my boot onto that rusty metal step.
Earth curvature, water bodies, moving mist, whipping clouds. Ocean below. System buzzing and clammy like it’s time to die.
View out the airplane: the thin body, and tail of the plane. The wing of the plane above me. Metal ridges, a coffee-color rust stain on the underside of the wing. A red stripe and a yellow stripe on the white wing. A row of white bolts.
Stomach drops. Air roaring in ears. Whole body in free fall. Fighting air pressure to inhale thin air. Arms out like wings now. Giddy, terrified. Rushing at the misty morning ground. Like dropping from the top of the world’s tallest rollercoaster, but without the rollercoaster.
A flapping, unfurling snap of fabric overhead. A great jolt. And then silence. No more rush of air. Gentle, downward motion. I look up, and there’s the parachute, spreading overhead like a bodega awning.
“Don’t get scared, I’m going to make your harness a little more comfortable.”
He doesn’t even need to raise his voice anymore. It’s the type of sound quality like when you’re on a ski lift, chatting with somebody.
He unbuckles something on my harness and I drop down on one side. This feeling, I hate. I’m gripping my shoulder straps again. About to tell him not to worry about the harness. Imagine, he unbuckles the wrong thing, and I plunge away from him. There’d be nothing anyone could do. Then he unbuckles something on the other side and I drop-lurch down a little more. He’s done. The worst is over.
I’m swinging in this harness, thousands of feet in the air, with the purest, most unblocked, un-windowed view of a Florida field, town, and beach you could ever have.
We tilt way to the left. Glide in circles. Over a river. Over a highway. Back around towards the jump office.
Now lower, probably even with the height of a skyscraper’s top. Dropping down story after story towards the blown-around long grass in pine & grey colored fields. We swing out hundreds of feet over two big water towers. Then keep dropping.
“Point your feet straight out,” says the instructor. I do.
We circle down, fast now. Green ground skim-skipping away. And ground starts skidding under my calves, under my legs, bootheels skimming and skidding until I stop, watery & high-eyed, every nerve singing.
Stand & stretch. Can’t stop laughing. Glad I did it. Glad it’s over. Glad to be alive. Where am I? Turn, and there’s the one little trailer that serves as the office. I can hear soccer moms cheering their kids in the field on the other side of a chainlink fence. It is all very normal, but I am very different.
They ask me to go to the trailer and return my harness. I do. Weightless Dalina is slower to fall, she’s still gliding hundreds of feet above us.
“How was it?” the next two jumpers beg to know.
“You’ll love it, you’ll love it,” I tell them.
Dalina soon lands. We meet in the trailer with a hug & giddy, garbled recap. Then walk out on the sweet, solid, ground to find breakfast.