“Blue Skies. This sport glows brightly, and burns incomparably beautiful images into our memories. That brightness comes at a very high cost. It’s the lives of our friends, the blood and the bones of our sky family. That’s the dark side, the Black Death. There is no one without the other.” -Eric “tonto” Stephenson
The air inside the small plane is hot, but not for long. Ten bodies, most of them much bigger and hairier than mine, are crammed in with their gear. On the tiny bench, my hips are squeezed on either side and the guy on the floor is leaning on my legs. I put my head on Eric’s shoulder, feeling the rough cordura of his rig on my face and breathing the familiar smell of his wingsuit: nylon washed in atmosphere. He takes my hand. The Porter climbs at 800 feet per minute and I’m woken up by the two-minute call. We’re at 10,000 feet and it’s almost time to get out.
I look at Eric and we breathe together, link fingers, then clasp and let go. This is our ritual. The door opens at 11,000 feet and a rush of cool air floods into the steamy can of jumpers. Outside, canyons of cloud make the sky look like a soft, intricate mountain range. I look at him, red goggles, no helmet on his number-two shaved hair, grinning. He has the most adorable teeth I’ve ever seen.
He squeezes my hand again and leans in – sharing consciousness for that moment before exit. His lips, his cool tongue sliding into my mouth, and the adrenaline charges into my bloodstream. We step over the edge, leaving the plane behind.
Freedom. The whole world looks soft from this far up. We’re over the Carletonville mine dumps. From the air, they look like zen gardens, their arsenic-laced sand combed methodically. Even the one shaped like a coffin has somewhat rounded edges from altitude. The township shacks, the dumps, the roads, the railroad tracks, the grassy fields with cows, are draped today in fluffy white distractions.
Wings open, catching air, I glide for the edge of the nearest white canyon with the sun on my face. We dip our wings into the cloud, and it tickles my right hand with cold moisture. Eric flies up alongside me: “Hey!” I hear his voice on the rush of the relative wind. He’s laughing, face full of joy: “I LOVE YOU!”
The kisses on the ground are better than the ones in the plane. They affirm that we have chosen to fly and survived, yet again. When he leans in to kiss me on that hard ground, I am grateful for the red earth under my feet: for his closeness, acceptance, shared need to fly. At sunset we crack open a cold beer, eat a home-cooked meal, and disappear to one of the wooden huts nearby. When I think of love, I see his smile in the door and I see him blowing kisses at me as he flies off my wingtip, and I see his red shorts hanging off a bare white bulb as we make love at the end of a day like this.