If you want to experience the element, get out of the vehicle.” Those words were racing through my head on my first skydive. I was about to strap myself to a stranger and slide from the safety of a plane some two miles above ground.
I arrived at the D.C. Skydiving Center (which is not actually in DC but on the rural outskirts), surprised to see laughing faces and high-fives and twirling parachutes floating softly to the ground. I looked over at my boyfriend, who would also be jumping, and we silently nodded: this is it.
My first stop was the bathroom trailer parked on the side of a barn. My biggest fear was not jetting toward the ground at 120 miles per hour, but expelling some form of bodily excrement in the process. I had watched countless YouTube videos during the past few months; I knew what could happen.
When I came out of the shoulder-width stall, a girl in skinny jeans, a tank top, and knee-high, lace-up boots was waiting.
“Are you jumping?” I asked her.
“Yeaaahh!” she said, squealing excitedly.
I looked in the mirror, letting my eyes drift to my matching gray shirt, shorts, and sneakers— quite a fashionable choice for a “last outfit.”
After signing in and signing away my life, a man from the Ukraine gave me and the other 19 jumpers a quick rundown of the process. I mimicked his positions, but my mind was elsewhere. I scanned the circle of jumpers, sizing myself up against them; my odds of survival looked decent at best.
The first group of instructors and their clients left shortly after the safety talk. I sat with my mother and boyfriend in the flimsy plastic chairs by the runway, our necks craned toward the sky, squinting to see any sign of a jumper. In the distance, first one, then two, then six tiny white specks appeared amid the airy clouds. We watched their shapes curve left and right, growing larger as they glided back to Earth. Their landings were as peaceful as the flights had seemed, and I could feel the anxiety melt away from my pounding heart.
As the second group went up, I received my harness and a rough cinching down from one of the employees. The full-body contraption was so snug I could hardly stand up straight.
“My last meal was IHOP,” said one of the guys who would be on the final flight of the day.
I considered the leftover Chinese food I’d crammed down a few hours ago, praying it didn’t make another appearance. The sounds of cheering from the runway announced the safe arrival of the second group. I gulped hard. This was really it.
My instructor-guide-savior, Chris Whittey, slapped me on the back with a cheerful grin.
“Let me pack up this chute and we’ll get to it!” he said. My group was already loading onto the plane. I could see the back of my boyfriend’s head as he disappeared into the cockpit. A knot that felt strangely like a wadded up ball of rice and General Tso’s tofu made its way to my chest.
“Guess where you get to sit?” Chris said.
“In your lap?” I responded, nervously laughing.
“Right by the door! You’re jumping first.”
Joy, I thought. We hopped on board. I looked back to give my boyfriend one last half-hysterical, half-excited smile. The roar of the plane’s engine drowned out any last-minute doubting. The trees shrank away, miniaturizing with each foot we gained in elevation.
I stared ahead at the wall in front of me. Alongside the mandatory safety reminders taped to the aluminum siding was a sticker that said NO FARTING.
“You don’t want to know what happens when someone farts in a closed cockpit,” Chris said. He glanced at his watch. 8,000 feet. Almost there.
I started getting anxious. I must have asked Chris at least 10 times if I could put my goggles on.
“Not yet,” he kept telling me. “We’ll do it 30 seconds before we jump.”
When he finally nudged me to put those ridiculous triangular prisms on, I began to lose any sense of who or what or where I was. Chris double-checked all of our attachment points and locking mechanisms.
“Ready?” he said.
Do I have a choice? I thought.
Chris slid open the airplane door and scooted us to the edge. I looked down at my feet as they dangled above the clouds.
“Lean back,” he reminded me and I dipped my head back, eyes wide.
Holy crap, I thought as we fell from the plane.
I’m not sure why they call it jumping or even skydiving for that matter. It was more like a belly flop, like a beached whale sliding into thin air. When we rolled over I could see just how quickly we were falling; the plane had diminished to a mere dot in the sky. My mouth was open wide as I laughed and woo-hooed, all of which was silent in the roaring wind. Within seconds, I experienced the worst case of cottonmouth you could ever imagine, but I didn’t care. I was flying.
With no reference point above or below, it felt like it was only the two of us in that endless expanse of white. It didn’t take long to shed any inhibitions and feel at one with the sky, but I was just as quickly brought back to reality as Chris pulled the chute and my legs swung out in front of me.
“THAWAZAWTHUM,” I sputtered.
Translation. That. Was. Awesome.