Jewish Journal

Free Fallin’

by Keren Engelberg

Posted on Apr. 1, 2004 at 7:00 pm

I'm riding shotgun in Hawthorne's truck, and we're on our way to jump out of a plane together. As the truck bumps along to Perris Valley, I'm having one of those moments where the same word keeps repeating itself in my head: "requiem." Requiem, requiem, requiem. My brain has been saying it all day.

Hawthorne is a writer and the object of my affection. Riding out to the sky-diving school, we discuss the word "requiem." I joke that "Free Fallin'" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers will be my requiem, should my skydiving video survive me. Granted, I'm nervous about the jump. But I'm nervous about the day as well. It feels like a possible turning point in our relationship. "Requiem," while dramatic, is feeling like a particularly appropriate theme.

We discuss other good words too, like "effuse" and "equinox." We discuss lots of things. That's what we do. Hawthorne's a good talker, and more rare, a good questioner. I'm not one for personal confessions, but he draws me out. Even while he's driving, he's figured out a system for watching the road and me at the same time, of looking into my eyes with his -- which are bright blue, by the way.

Forget the skydiving, this guy could kill me. I haven't jumped yet, but it's all over for me, anyway. I'm too scared to confront him with my feelings, and too scared to find out the depths of his. Taking the leap out of a perfectly good airplane somehow seems far less scary.

I realize it all sounds very fifth grade, but this guy is so beautiful that my usually healthy self-image fails me. We're so unlikely even as friends. He, a 6-foot-1 Irish Catholic farm boy from Ohio, with blond curls and a rough past, and me, a nice Jewish girl from a good home in the Valley. But somehow our relationship evolves: He teaches me fighting stances; I teach him bits of Hebrew. He's taken to calling me Yofi, a Hebrew word that means great. I particularly love the nickname because of its other meaning: beauty, which Hawthorne doesn't know.

It's my birthday today. Taking stock, life's pretty good, if maybe a little on the dull side. Am I where I want to be? Do I have success, wealth, love? I'm forced to settle for a small amount of the first two, and a healthy, albeit platonic, dose of the third for right now. Life holds no drama, so I might as well jump out of a plane -- especially if Hawthorne's going with me.

I'm secretly hoping the day will bring us closer together. Doesn't it mean something that he chose to go skydiving with me? Perhaps facing death will make him confront his true feelings. We'll reach the ground so caught up in the moment that we'll just have to kiss, or, at the very least, maybe I'll feel emboldened enough to tell him how I feel. I've anticipated 100 scenarios, with the kissing one a clear favorite, but up in that plane, that's suddenly the last thing on my mind.

We're both given a tandem partner -- a professional sky diver to whom we're strapped for safety. I'm going first with my partner, Mike. My mouth's gone dry and my top lip sticks to my teeth as I smile goodbye at Hawthorne. Then Mike and I move to the opening on the side of the plane and perch at the edge. I'm prepared to jump, but turns out it's more of a fall. Or a little-kid dive, actually. Like how 5-year-olds will stand at the side of the swimming pool, and point their hands out in front of them in the best mimic of diving form they can muster, but then just kind of fall in, hands and feet first. That's me. At the edge of the plane, down on one knee, I lean forward, taking Mike with me, and suddenly, it's just us and gravity.

Back arched now, arms and legs splayed out, all I feel is wind, so much wind I'm breathless. I'm taking in gulps of air, swallowing hard, eyes wide open at the sky around me -- the beautiful orange sunset and wink of crescent moon. And I guess Hawthorne jumps after me, but I don't look. I am consumed. The earth may swallow me up.

One solid minute, then a sudden jerk and I'm vertical. Mike pulled the chute and we're floating back down to earth, laughing uncontrollably, beyond euphoric.

We touch down safely and I'm immediately swept up in Hawthorne's enormous bear hug, which is wonderful, even without the kiss I'd wished for.

For a while, we just sit in the diving school's bar, sipping beers, grinning stupidly and talking the way we always do -- about everything real, except how I really feel about him. And I guess I feel I've conquered enough fear for one day. There's always next year for emotional bravery.  

Keren Engelberg is the calendar editor for The Journal

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