Liz Faraim © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Paso Robles, California
Elevation: 14,000 feet AGL
Scott shouted into my ear over the deafening roar of wild, whipping wind and prop engines.
“Okay, Vivian. On the count of three, I want you to take a big step forward and jump!”
Sucking in my breath, I held it as churning wind buffeted my body. Scott’s goatee tickled my ear as he leaned into me again and shouted, “One! Two! Three!”
Just as I began to step forward, Scott’s full body weight pushed against my back and together we teetered on the edge before tipping out of the side door of the tiny Cessna.
In the moment I stepped out of the plane, my vision and hearing stopped. And just as quickly, it all came rushing back. I took in the reality that I was plummeting toward Earth. My training kicking in, I briskly checked the altimeter strapped to my wrist before folding my arms across my chest.
Even in the shade of an enormous maple tree, I had a film of grimy sweat on my forehead, arms, and neck. I lay on my belly in the crunchy dead grass of Mom’s backyard. Sweat pooled on my lower back. I rolled over and peered up at the broad canopy of the tree. Branches crisscrossed; the leaves hanging perfectly still in the hot summer air, the blue sky visible though the gaps.
I concentrated on the speckled sunlight as it danced on the backs of my eyelids and then flopped my arm across my eyes, listening to trucks rumbling in the distance on Highway 113. Dishes clinked in a sink. The back door of the house opened and closed with a rattle, followed by my brother’s familiar tread.
I tensed and moved my forearm slightly down, so it covered the bridge of my nose. My other arm covered my abdomen. Otherwise I kept my eyes closed and stayed still.
His footsteps stopped near my head. I waited. Sweat dripped from my armpit and was wicked away by my well-worn T-shirt. The seconds drew out as he stood over me, likely considering his options. Another big rig rolled by on the freeway, its trailers rattling loudly. Grass tickled my ear.
“Vivi, where’s Mom?”
My tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. The heat was too much, and I was incredibly thirsty.
“Just running errands. Should be back soon.” I turned my head toward him and opened my eyes. His brown hair was tousled, the bangs hanging past his eyebrows. He scuffed the toe of his shoe in the scrubby grass. Joey was bored, and Mom wasn’t home, which meant trouble wasn’t far behind.
Closing my eyes, I turned my face back toward the sky. Sweat gathered between the crease inside my elbow and the spot where it rested on my nose. Cautiously, I took my arm away from my face and let it flop into the grass.
“Hey, give me the comics,” Joey demanded. The newspaper I had been reading rustled as he snatched it up. His footsteps crunched away, and I heard wood creak as he climbed up the ladder that was leaning against the house.
Thirsty, I stood up. Stars dazzled in front of my eyes and my head and hands tingled. Once the dizziness had passed, I trotted across the small yard toward the back door. My worn-out sneaker slapped onto the concrete of the shady back porch when Joey called out. I froze, one foot on the porch, the other on the old brick walkway. Standing there in silence, I waited.
“Viv, come up here.” Joey’s voice was syrupy, traveling down to me from the roof.
“No, thanks. I got stuff to do,” I said, still not moving.
“Viiiiivv, up here. Now.” His voice took on a sharp edge.
I clenched my jaw as my temper started to rise.
“Joey! I got stuff to do. I’m goin’ inside.” I stepped up onto the porch and strode resolutely to the sliding glass door.
“Vivian,” Joey said, taunting. “Come up here now, or I’ll tell Mom it was you who broke the piano bench.”
Joey had hit the nail on the head. He knew I would do anything not to get into trouble with Mom. My hand slipped off the cool metal handle of the sliding glass door. I spun on my heel and marched to the ladder. It was huge and weathered, the white paint peeling to reveal graying wood below. I nimbly climbed up and made the scary transition from the ladder to the roof, swinging my leg over the top rung.
The sun was brighter up there, and I squinted as I walked to Joey.
“What!” I balled my hands up into little fists, my mouth set.
Joey pointed to the tops of some trees growing over the far side of the house.
“Go over there and pick me some loquats.” He fanned himself with the comics and fixed his muddy-brown eyes on mine.
I didn’t move and didn’t respond, glaring at him. Joey stood up, walked straight up to me, and punched my upper arm as hard as he could. I staggered, trying to keep my balance on the steeply pitched roof. Tears instantly welled up, and I bit back a yelp of pain. My arm throbbed deeply, but I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of making me cry.
The heat from the roof radiated through the soles of my sneakers as I willed the tears not to fall. Breaking eye contact with him, I walked carefully up and over the peak of the roof. The trees were planted close to the house, so the branches hung low over the gutters, heavy with ripe fruit. Holding the hem of my T-shirt out, I created a pouch and began picking loquats until I had gotten the closest ones. Inching closer to the edge, the toe of my shoe over the gutter, I stretched my short arms up to pick a few more.
When the pouch of my shirt was full, I squatted down in the shade of the tree and chose a fat, golden loquat. Biting into it, I was thrilled with how sweet and juicy it was. Carefully, I ate around the large seeds and then tossed them into the side yard. I wiped my sticky fingers on my shorts.
Standing up, ready to face Joey again, I heard a heavy wooden thunk. Walking back up and over the peak of the roof, I didn’t see Joey. I scurried over to where the ladder had been. Joey stood in the yard, looking up at me. He barked out a malicious laugh that instantly piqued my anger. With my sore right arm tucked into my side, still holding the hem of my shirt, I grabbed a ripe loquat and threw it at Joey as hard as I could. I missed. The loquat bounced across the dead grass. Joey’s laughter immediately stopped. I threw another, this time hitting him in the gut. The overripe fruit left a smear of juice on his raggedy, striped, hand-me-down polo shirt. I threw two more. Both fell short.
Recalibrating, I continued angrily throwing until all of the fruit was gone. I dropped my hands to my sides, the sun beating down. Joey gaped at me. A long pause followed while he decided what to do. He finally blinked and spoke.
“Look at you up there. Stuck like a stupid stray cat. With your stupid black hair and stupid blue eyes. You don’t even look like anybody in the family. You’re not a real Chastain.”
My bottom lip trembled, but I held in the tears. “Good! Maybe I don’t wanna be a Chastain. You’re all terrible people!”
His eyes narrowed as he turned and walked toward the back door. “Good luck getting off the roof, Vivi,” he said over his shoulder.
“Joey! Joey! Joey! Bring back the ladder!” I screamed as hard and loud as I could. “Joey! Joey! Come onnnn!”
Trying to stay calm, I looked around the backyard. The wooden ladder lay useless in the dirt, surrounded by smears of loquat. I peered over the edge, trying to judge how high up I was. It was a straight drop to hard packed dirt. I walked back over to the loquat trees.
“Joey! Come onnn!” I shouted again, as I tested the branches. I was too heavy to shimmy down the branches to the trunk. Dishes clinked at the neighbor’s house, and I looked across the side yard. Old Mrs. Hadler was standing at her sink looking out of the window at me. She shook her head with a disapproving glare and then went back to washing her dishes. Embarrassed, I stopped shouting and walked around to the front of the house. It was still high up, but there was nice green grass below. Mom always watered the front yard and made sure the planters on the porch had flowers in them; meanwhile, she let the backyard die.
Sweat dripped down my face and neck. It was the hottest point of the day, and the street hummed with the sound of air conditioners working hard. Nobody was out except for Gail, who lived half a block away. She pedaled by on her bicycle, dressed in her usual hospital scrubs, and looked at me with concern.
Anger coursed through me and frustrated tears started to well up again. I let a few silently roll down my grimy cheeks. The salty tears hung on my jaw before dripping down onto the roof, where they evaporated. I wiped my face with the front of my shirt, clenched my jaw, and stepped off the roof.
The wind blasted past my ears like a freight train. Behind goggles, I looked at the vineyards and ag land below, and then out toward the coastal mountains on the horizon. The beauty of it all brought a smile to my face. I opened my mouth to give a shout of victory, but the wind immediately sucked away all the moisture from my lips and tongue. I didn’t even need to breathe because the air forced itself into my nose and mouth, inflating my lungs.
Scott hooted with excitement behind me and extended his arm around me as he checked his altimeter. Grabbing my forehead, he pulled my head back against his shoulder, and yanked the ripcord. My whole body racked hard against the harness straps as the parachute deployed and stopped our freefall. Instantly the roaring wind was gone, and we were surrounded by a serene silence as we floated over the valley, descending slowly.
I licked my impossibly dry lips and scanned the flat ground below, taking in the lay of the land and the sheer, raw, unapologetic realness of it. Green grasses, dark-brown tilled earth, narrow country roads.
I let out a whoop. Scott took that as his cue and began narrating to me what his next steps would be as he prepared to land us on the airfield.
I could see my best friend Jared standing in the landing zone far below, head tilted back, hand across his brow shielding his eyes from the sun. He tugged at the collar of his jumpsuit.
As we got closer Jared walked off the landing zone and stood by the jump school’s van. Scott pulled down hard on both toggles just before we landed. My feet hit the ground, and I tried to gauge how fast I needed to run. It was similar to getting on a treadmill that had already started.
My feet skimmed and skipped along before a gust of wind caught our parachute and yanked us abruptly backward. Scott steadied us and quickly began unbuckling all the clasps that secured the back of my harness to the front of his.
I pulled off my goggles, wiped my eyes, and tried to find some words. Scott patted me on the back. I turned around and hugged him. Although a total stranger, I had just entrusted my life to him.
Jared was nervously bouncing from one foot to the other.
“How was it?” he asked, grinning, his chipped front tooth gleaming.
“Ahhh, pffft, I can’t even describe it. Nothing like the static line jumps we did in the Army. Jared. Get up there!” I pointed skyward.
Jared stepped in close and hugged me, his bristly jaw scraping against my cheek before he marched off toward the tarmac. I stood in the landing zone amid short cropped brown grass and ground squirrel holes. In that moment I was totally at peace. My mind was blissfully quiet inside the cloud of adrenaline pumping through my veins. I focused on the sound of a flag flapping sharply in the distance.
Rather than riding in the van back to the hanger, I decided to stay out on the field to watch Jared’s jump. To absorb the sun on my skin and enjoy the absence of the sounds of the city. Eyes closed, I took it all in, through every pore, relishing the moment, telling myself to hold fast. To save that feeling for the dark days.
Once Jared had landed, full of hoots and hollers and frantic leftover energy, I refocused and joined him in his celebratory jumping around. After returning the rental gear and saying our goodbyes, the two of us piled into his ancient Audi. The seats were well-worn leather, the old springs in them nearly flattened. The car smelled of mildewed floor mats, Jared’s gym bag, and something else I couldn’t quite pinpoint.
Jared expertly navigated the twists of Highway 46 and Old Creek Road, heading back to Morro Bay. He shifted between gears smoothly and handled the steering wheel like it was an extension of his body. He played Van Morrison and Kenny Rogers cassettes while speaking in his low, baritone voice.
That jump was different than the static line jumps I had done while in the Army. I hadn’t been jumping into the unknown, armed to protect, but also to kill. On that day I was jumping for the thrill of it, no goal or mission after I hit the ground. My mind flitted around memories of past jumps, and I started to tense up.
I rolled the window down, hung my hand outside, and focused on the sensation of the cool breeze flowing across my fingertips. The adrenaline from the freefall began to recede but those old thoughts persisted, leaving behind a fatigue that threatened to consume me. I interrupted Jared midsentence.
“Hey. I’m super hungry all of a sudden. Can we grab something on the way back to your house?”
Suddenly screaming for calories, my entire body began shaking uncontrollably. Muscles in my thighs and lower back thrummed and my hands shook. I grabbed my water bottle off the floorboard and downed every last drop.
Jared cut over to Highway 1 and the Pacific Ocean burst into view.
I looked at Jared and saw a sparkle in his eyes. I knew how incredulous he was about living so close to the ocean.
“I never get over the fact that I live here! Pinch me!” There was a touch of awe in his voice. I punched his upper arm. He yelped in mock pain, and we both laughed.
“Damn, Viv. I need to remember not to tempt you.”
“I think we’re both punchy from those free falls. Fucking feed me already!”
Jared cruised the car down Highway 1, sandwiched between the coastal mountains and the ocean. I watched Morro Rock get larger and larger as we approached town.
Soon enough, we were drinking beers and scarfing down black beans, rice, tacos, and tamales. I didn’t taste any of it. I was more concerned with getting calories into my body as quickly as possible before I passed out. The shakes and muscle spasms finally subsided as I sat back from the empty plates.
The patio of the restaurant was mostly deserted as I drained my water glass. Jared slid his water toward me.
“Wow, I’ve never seen such a performance,” he said, looking at my empty plate, water glasses, and beer bottles.
“That jump totally depleted me. It’s the weirdest thing. I feel like I could sleep for a week.” I stifled a burp.
Jared drove us the three final blocks to his house. As soon as we arrived, I meticulously brushed and flossed my teeth, peed, and changed into boxers and a tank top. Laying down on the futon in Jared’s spare room, I pulled a blanket up to my chin and finally allowed the tidal wave of fatigue to take over.
Sleep was intermittent as I wrestled my demons and ground my teeth mercilessly. At one point, I woke and saw Jared standing in the doorway, checking on me. The dying light of the day cast an orange and red light over him. Later, I woke to hear Jared washing dishes, Pink Floyd on the record player. At another point, a full-body flinch jerked me to the surface. My hands were clenched into fists, protecting my face. My arms and legs tangled up in the light blanket. Jared poked his head around the corner of the doorframe, concern on his face. He took a deep breath, his barrel chest and broad shoulders expanding as he did so. He let out the breath, rubbing his palm along the top of his high and tight haircut. I closed my eyes and heard Jared step out, gently closing the door. That was followed by the sound of Jared flipping light switches, closing windows, and locking the front door. I knew from when I had been his roommate before that he couldn’t sleep until he knew the house was secure. I drifted off knowing that, as always, Jared had my back.