We leave the bar near the dropzone with hookah pipe smoke clinging to our clothes, into the darkness, the car, towards the neon signs of gas stations around the lake. He reaches over to hold my hand and I take it. I am his passenger and he has promised me a safe place to sleep tonight.
He says, “I think you’re scared of me because of how I make you feel. Either you’re worried that your feelings won’t be returned, or you’re just scared of the intensity – I’m not sure.”
I meet Jeff when I decide to attempt healing from the biggest loss I’ve ever experienced by trying out for a wingsuit world record. I’m not known in these circles since I’ve just moved back to the US from South Africa, but I can fly my slot. At the end of the weekend he takes me out for sushi and invites me to California. The mission is to organize the wingsuit bigway formation attempt, a 71-way at Lake Elsinore. It’s an exciting offer. Flying feels good but I’m grieving, and won’t get involved with anyone before a year has passed.
He says he understands. He has scheduled the wingsuit event to coincide with his late father’s birthday. His dad died when he was 29 years old, and he still wants to make him proud. His mom passed away, too. We will do a 71-way because he was born in 1971. He doesn’t want anyone to know that’s why he picked the number. I am sworn to secrecy. I trust him because he seems to understand loss and remembrance, so we agree to travel and work together.
Jeff turns left down a side road and I feel my stomach lurch. I recognize something about the neighborhood. Moonlight on the lake. The road dead-ends and the porch of the house still looks exactly as it did five years ago, when my friend Wyat lived there. He had cut away and was jumping full time. We had partied and talked about our dreams.
Wyat is dead now, crashed his motorcycle last year. A man who used to make a living jumping out of airplanes and flying tiny little parachutes down the sides of mountains. The irony of the ground getting him from only a few feet up is never lost on me.
We get out of the car at my dead friend’s house, now occupied by one of Jeff’s friends who is still very much alive and has invited us to stay.
I shouldn’t be here.
I see ghosts drinking Jack Daniels and kicking the rope swing out around the corner of the big porch. They turn to look at me, the dead skydivers. People I’ve held hands with in freefall. Wyat is there, and Elle. And with them is Eric, the love of my life, smiling at me and swilling his drink with a sideways look that says, “You know I hate this stuff but I’m trying to be social.”
“…I give people ladders,” Jeff is saying. “I let them think they’re better than me so they will achieve their dreams. Look at what I’ve done in this sport: for Justin, for Tony – for you.”
“Take me to a hotel.” I’m choking on the fear I don’t want to show.
“Take me to a goddamn hotel.”