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Freefall

by Darla Jasmine



Defying her earthbound destiny, chin uplifted, back arched, arms splayed, hands instinctively grasping for solidity, but catching only a gust of wind between her fingers, Sarah Taylor fell through the sky.

"The chute opens automatically after two or three seconds," Sarah's brother, Eric, had reassured her an instant ago as she had crouched in the open door of the small Cessna, poised to leap into the sky, helmeted and harnessed, heart thumping, fingers trembling.

Certainly three seconds must have elapsed by now, and yet she still tumbled helplessly through the roaring wind. Time did not budge, nor did her parachute unfurl. Her skydiving instructor had assured the fretful beginners that if the static line failed, you could always pull the rip cord to release the reserve canopy, but he had not mentioned how to prepare for a bonecrushing slam against the earth at over 100 miles per hour if the back-up chute happened to fail as well. Sarah clutched the parachute harness with two hands, beginning to wonder if it really contained the rectangular canopy wing displayed in class earlier this morning.

How she craved the earth just now, remembering the sticky beach tar that used to catch between her toes as a child, longing to re-taste the red dirt coating her husband's lips during their Australian outback honeymoon, imagining the tactile joy of mashing her backyard mud into pies with her son. An image flashed through her mind of Jordan, her 10-year-old, sleeping on his side, baseball cap resting on the pillow beside his head, one hand curled under his chin, the other hand draped across Leroy, the beagle, his dog pal, who slept obligingly under the covers with him. Sarah, a 40-year-old mother dressed childishly in blue jeans, windbreaker and tennis shoes, her long auburn hair pulled back into a ponytail, had bent down to pull a blanket up to her boy's chin and a soccer ball had rolled out of the bed.

Had this been her last glimpse of her son?

Her skydiving announcement had meant only one thing to Jordan: "But Mom, who's going to drive me to soccer practice if you jump out of an airplane tomorrow?" Buoyentless rocked and tossed by the jarring wind, Sarah wondered if Jordan would forgive her if she died foolishly in the sky, chasing a whim. Her own mother, a Unitarian minister had relished challenge, driven to champion unpopular political and social causes to the consternation of her flock who had eventually fired her, had been like a woman in the act of leaping out of a plane her entire life.

In the end, Sarah had sat beside a bald, frail woman no longer capable of leaping, who refused pain medication and Sarah's handholding. "It doesn't hurt Sarah, because I'm in the world, but not of it," her mother had whispered, comforting herself before she had inhaled her last cancer-ridden breath while Sarah stood by silently, faithlessly, uselessly. Despite the tumultuous wind in Sarah's ears as she continued to fall, she thought she heard a man's voice whisper, "I thought only men suffered a mid-life crisis."

Her husband Will had muttered that sentiment in bed earlier this morning. In response, she had abruptly disentangled herself from his arms, repulsed by his stale breath, wondering why she had ever allowed her soul to become trapped in his monotonous suburban lair for the last 20 years?

Where was the awkward boy who had asked her to dance without knowing her name? Shyly, he had clasped her hand, encircling her waist with his arm, and her fingers had alighted upon his shoulders tentatively. He had spun her around, balancing her perfectly, allowing her a heady, whirling freedom, without releasing her. When the dance ceased, their future together had begun.

And yet, this morning she had left him apathetically urged forward by an unfamiliar, rhythmless beat which Will could neither lead her through, nor follow.

At dawn, she had rendezvoused with her brother 100 miles out of the city at a tiny airfield used mainly by skydivers. Using a pay phone at the airfield, she had explained to her partner that she could not be at the art gallery, which they co-owned. "Are you sick?" her partner had inquired. Perhaps, she had thought. "No," she had answered, turning to meet her brother's aquamarine eyes and mischievous grin, which had accused her of playing hooky.

During childhood, their eyes had been the same translucent blue, but hers had turned a muddy green as a disparity between them surfaced during the summer Eric had built the tree house; a dwelling out of reach to her because she could not bring herself to climb. The gap between them widened as Eric spent his teen-age years zooming across finish lines in motorcycle races, while Sarah had sketched him from the bleachers. Even yesterday, as he strode out of the Los Angeles airport baggage claim, 44, a gypsy, childless, wifeless, mortgage-free, carrying only a duffel bag and the camera he needed for his freelance photography work, she had felt the gulf between as she had sat armored in her minivan, drinking her Starbucks Mocha Java, wondering if she would make it home in time to ferry Jordan to his dentist appointment. Slipping into the seat beside her, Eric had forgotten to kiss his sister whom he saw only when he was in town on business every few years, nor did not he inquire about his nephew or Will. Instead, he had insisted Sarah immediately examine the photographs he had taken of the vanishing Bengal Tiger, heedless of the dense airport traffic and the endangerment of their own lives as Sarah's glance shifted between the road and her brother's tigers.

Quite abruptly, but completely Eric-like, he had suddenly urged her to join him for a skydive the next morning. Her brother had met a skydiving instructor on the plane who had explained that only one morning of indoctrination was necessary before making an afternoon jump. Sarah had considered the ecstasy of tossing herself out of an airplane, trusting the canopy to open and flouting God himself who had created a wingless man in his image.

"But I'm driving carpool tomorrow, I have a PTA meeting, and I'm supposed to meet with a new artist at the gallery."

Eric had stared at his sister as if trying to decipher which foreign language she had spoken. "I thought you'd like the idea because of your flying women. What ever happened to those paintings, anyway?"

After Jordan was born, her art studio had become transformed into a nursery, and she had consigned her paints, smocks, easels and paintings of flying women to the garage. She had planned to add on another room to the house as an art studio, but instead, she had invested her time and money in co-ownership of an art gallery.

Still plunging timelessly through the sky, Sarah prepared to pull the rip cord, convinced the back-up parachute would not support her either, and that her body would soon be smashed against the earth or impaled upon a tree. She expected her life to pass before her eyes, but instead, the sky became splattered with the flying women she had once contrived with paint smudged fingers. Gliding gracefully, they mocked her clumsy fall. A gray-haired crone sprouting chin hair and decked out in unflattering spandex pants and a tube top; a frumpy brunette having a bad hair day, attired in a business suit, clunky high heels and horn-rimmed glasses; a voluptuous redhead arrayed in army gear; and a ponytailed, blue-jeaned blonde teen-ager with buck teeth and pimples comprised the wingless, capeless corps of homely women made lovely by virtue of flight. Arms outstretched, they soared above glittering cities, forlorn deserts, cloudy beaches, desolate valleys, and craggy mountain peaks.

A sudden uplifting tug at Sarah's shoulders signaled the release of her parachute at last, abruptly transforming her plummet into a serene downward float upon a gentle air current. Time returned, although it seemed slower and dreamier, as she drifted down to the earth. The rushing wind had ceased and she breathed deeply, enjoying the silence and the vast emptiness she surveyed, which neither bird, cloud, or fellow diver disrupted. The flock of women vanished, leaving Sarah alone to fill the sky.

Below her, she noticed telephone poles, tops of trees, a shimmering lake, the empty highway which led to the airfield, and an overgrown meadow which she steered her parachute toward, recognizing it as the designated landing area. The canopy slowed her descent, and she luxuriated in the sweet, wafting ride courtesy of manmade wing.

Her identity faded in the vast, stillness of the all-pervading, cerulean sky, and all labels and roles with which she normally identified herself no longer fit. Gallery owner? Carpool mom? PTA president? Homeowner? These tasks she performed could never fill the largess of her soul. Not even her love for husband and son defined or encompassed her as her immensity surpassed the love she had for her family, and was even more colossal still than the horror of watching Cancer clip her mother's wings for good. Neither her forsaken flying women nor her ancient brother-envy could encapsulate or classify her either. While a myriad of loves, regrets, dreams, jealousies, grief, and responsibilities alternately waltzed and sparred within her, still, neither her human ingredients or their awkward blending could accurately tally up Sarah Taylor's sum. The complex equation that was Sarah fell pi-like and incalculable from the sky.

As the earth neared, Sarah bent her knees slightly, expecting an awkward landing, allowing her body to fall forward as her feet brushed the earth, collapsing upon the ground. She embraced the earth with the uncovered skin of her forearms, tilting her face sideways so she could rub her cheek against the grass and dirt. After slipping out of her harness, Sarah lay back, supported by the earth, smiling up at the calm, cloudless, unfettered sky, as if greeting an old friend. She watched the spectacle of her fellow skydivers descending from heaven to earth.

"Sarah!" Eric called from across the field.

Sarah lay still, hushed, and baptized anew, by wind rather than water. A soft breeze rustled through the meadow, murmuring, "in the world, not of it." Rising on wobbly legs, a bird woman disguised as soccer mom, wife, motherless child, businesswoman, would-be artist, Sarah Taylor called out, "I'm here."

Darla Jasmine is the mother of a 9-year-old boy and lives in Northridge, California. She has completed her first novel, "Cornerstone," about a New Age Elmer Gantry, and is currently seeking a publisher. Contact the author at: DarlaJas@aol.com.

   
 
   
 

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