IT’S MY JOB to open the jump door. I love the look on the first-timers’ faces when the door slides open like a gaping mouth. Wind shoves its way into the cabin, elbowing through the rows of people sitting on the floor of the plane, their jaws so strained with nerves, they look like they could bite through a steel pipe. It’s go time and they know it. The air slapping their faces makes it real.
When I open the door, it’s crazy loud. To me, the blasting wind, the unending bowl of blue sky, screams freedom. But I think some of them hear a different voice than I do. Judging from their expressions, Death herself rides on the wind, whispering in their ears.
And yet they jump.
That’s so sick. I know how they’re gonna feel when they touch ground. Badass. Superhuman. Nothing makes you feel more alive than giving Death the finger and having fun while you’re doing it.
I kneel in the doorway and hang my head out into the wind to spot the drop zone, then signal the pilot. The engine immediately powers down from a roar to a satisfied purr. I smile at the petrified faces of the new jumpers as they lumber through the hollow cabin to the opening, take a beat to register the insanity of what they’re about to do, and leap into their own fear. The air snatches them, pulling them away from the aircraft and from who they were before this moment.
The plane is nearly empty now, except for this one guy. He shuffles toward me and the open door with the distinct resistance of a man who’s clearly not having fun. I remember him coming in this morning, all bravado and balls, to skydive for his twenty-first birthday. But now he looks like he might barf.
Our best jumpmaster, Paco, does the last-minute safety check of his equipment and gives the guy another quick run-through of the hand signals he’ll need to follow if he doesn’t want to die on his birthday.
“You forgot one!” I yell through the roar of wind.
Paco looks at me quizzically while the guy looks at Paco in this terrified How could you forget a hand signal? What in the hell am I doing trusting you with my life? kind of way.
I raise my fist and shake it menacingly in the birthday boy’s face. “Did he tell you what this means?” He swallows a wad of spit and terror but doesn’t answer.
“It means, ‘Do what he says or he’ll beat you!’”
Paco laughs and shakes his head, but the scared guy just blinks as small beads of sweat form on his upper lip. I smile. Birthday Boy will jump. He can’t be out-balled by a seventeen-year-old girl with Red Baron Snoopy on her jump helmet.
I blow them a kiss and fall backward out of the plane.
It’s my favorite way to exit. Surrender into gravity. Baptism by air. It’s cobalt summer sky, rushing wind, the scrubby expanse of the Mojave Desert, and . . . survival. It’s pure. When I’m out here, nothing else exists.
I watch the guys leap from the jump door together before I tuck one arm under me to flip over and face the ground. Land is rushing at me, yes, but I don’t feel the sensation of falling. I’m cradled, like I’m balancing on my stomach on a ball of air, flying.
I check my altimeter. Just dropped through seven thousand. There’s still time to enjoy the ride before I have to pull my ripcord. The view never gets old. The desert stretches on forever, a big open palm with roads grooved across it like lifelines. The tail end of the Sierra Nevada is on my right, and a few pimply hills dot the flat land to the east. An occasional wisp of cloud rises past, reminding me how fast I’m falling.
Since I have no one out here with me, I play with my body, experimenting with the effects of small movements. The air is the opposite of land. Reach in front of me, and I move backward; pull my arms in, extend my legs, and I move forward. Relax my arch, and my body buffets a bit. People don’t realize that skydivers aren’t just falling. We’re dancing with the current. Our movements are even more crucial when we jump with other people. A formation dive is like doing the tango . . . with twenty people at once . . . at 170 miles per hour.
I pull when I’m high enough to still enjoy some canopy time. My legs dangle from the harness like I’m a kid in a swing; then I press them together as I make my final turn into the wind and run out my landing in the large, flat circle of cleared sagebrush. There’s enough of a light, heated breeze that I have to spin around and drop one toggle so my canopy won’t fill with air, become a sail, and try to drag me across the desert.
The distinctive putt-putt sound of my parents’ drop-zone golf cart bounces toward me, my cousin Avery behind the wheel. Her approach reminds me of when Dom and I were on his motorcycle and we had to totally alter course because we spotted a swarm of Mormon crickets advancing like a low red cloud.
I sigh with disappointment. My dad never comes out to get me. He does it for his “boys”?—?all the military guys with their faded Army Ranger caps with their Army “blood wings” pinned on the front who make the drop zone their second home. If you can’t be in a combat zone, you might as well be skydiving, right? I think they’re addicted to risk.
So what’s my excuse? People always want to know why I nonchalantly do something that to them is inconceivable.
I’m addicted to the rush.
Avery doesn’t jump, but she recently discovered she likes to hang out here. For a boy-crazy girl, a skydiving center is a very target-rich environment. She skids to a halt in the packed dirt, casting billowing clouds of copper dust around the tires and my feet. “I thought you had to work today,” I say, a little breathless from my landing and the afternoon heat.
“Oh, I worked . . . until I didn’t want to anymore. Then I claimed ‘female issues.’ My boss let me go faster than you can say ‘superabsorbent.’ He can’t stand it when a woman brings up that she is, in fact, a woman.”
“Most men can’t,” I answer. “My dad would give his remaining testicle to have had a boy instead of me.”
“How many does that jump make?” she asks, quickly deflecting the topic of my dad’s post-IED balls and saving me from how I sounded nine years old for a second there.
“Two sixty-eight.” I’ve racked up a good number of jumps since I convinced my parents to sign for me when I reached legal jumping age last year. I argued for it on the grounds that it’s not good business if you’re not confident enough to let your own offspring jump. My dad shrugged indifferently and signed. My