Free Fall | Nathalie Lagerfeld

I wasn’t supposed to be in California that summer.
I’m the kind of person who immediately forgets all plans I don’t write down. By my junior year of college I had come to rely on a day planner to keep track of every important date. Birthdays, travel plans, summer program application deadlines—the little blue booklet organized them all.

The scribbles inside it were especially important to me during my spring semester abroad in Paris. I was thousands of miles away from my college campus, which was plastered with enough reminder fliers to keep you abreast of every deadline whether you’d written it down or not. My plan for that summer—my well-thought-out, responsible plan—had been to attend a language program where I’d sharpen the translation skills I’d need to start my comparative literature thesis that fall. But far away in flier-free Paris I marked the application due date a month late in my planner, and thus missed it entirely.

As a backup I had applied to a resident assistant position at the academic enrichment camp I had attended in elementary school. The camps took place on college campuses across the country and I had picked Loyola Marymount because I had never been to L.A. Now, I bought a ticket.

I wasn’t too unhappy to be returning to the States, particularly a sunny part of the States. (Even next to Chicago, Parisian winters are rough.) But my long-distance boyfriend at the time didn’t feel the same way. Over an unsteady, static-filled Skype connection he excoriated me for my planner mistake. “How can I care about someone who doesn’t even care about themselves?” he said.

My absent-mindedness had always been a sticking point with him. We had the same  argument whenever I forgot another doctor’s appointment or left another set of car keys in the freezer. It didn’t matter how many different ways I tried to explain that it wasn’t a question of caring or not caring. He insisted on seeing my forgetfulness as a character flaw.  It was a position he reiterated when he finally broke up with me, right after my arrival back in the U.S.

I touched down at LAX a few weeks later. The circumstances of my arrival left me with the feeling that my actions while I was there didn’t matter. I had veered from my expected course and dropped into an unforeseen lacuna—a Bermuda Triangle of sorts. One filled with laser-like SoCal sunshine.

While my kids were in class during the day, I would lay out by the pool and let my pale skin scorch. It was all patchy pinks and reds at first, but by three weeks in they had faded into the first—and only—real tan I’ve ever had. When I stretched out a hand for a carton of milk in the camp cafeteria, or to sign a form in the camp nurse’s office, I’d be momentarily shocked by my skin’s nut-brown color—as if it were someone else’s limb, moving in my field of vision.

It was around the time I started getting distracted by my hands that all of us counselors started talking about what to do during the one-day break between camp sessions. A debauched road trip to Tijuana had been traditional in previous years, but this year the idea had no momentum. The former organizer had been promoted to a supervisory position and had good reason to avoid proximity to illegal drugs and underage hookers, even on an official day off.

Luckily, Chris and Katie came up with a replacement idea that seemed appropriately adventurous: skydiving. What better time, what better place to do something exciting but potentially life-threatening? Even dying in California wouldn’t really count.

Thrill-seeking wasn’t usually my thing. I’d never so much as jumped off a high dive before. But that summer I was tired of doing things that were my thing. I was tired of my self—that self so careless and not-together that she’d messed up one of the first serious relationships she’d ever been in. I wanted to leave her behind at the end of the summer, like everything else in L.A. I wanted her to rot away alongside the cheap sunglasses with cracked lenses, the empty sunblock bottles, the enormous Forever 21 hoop earrings that would never touch my lobes east of the Rockies.

After rising to retrieve a rental car at some ungodly hour—made more ungodly by all the drinking we’d done the night before—we arrived at the skydiving site at 7AM on our day off. The wall behind the front desk displayed t-shirts with the name of the skydiving company emblazoned on them in an atrocious, Curlz MT–type font—the kind with twee little curlicues at the end of every stroke. I bought one afterwards, as much to have a souvenir as to annoy my ex, who would see me around campus and whom I knew was deeply sensitive to bad graphic design.

Our “training,” which took place in another trailer, was pretty perfunctory. We strapped on our harnesses and practiced scooting on our butts out of a model plane. Before I had a chance to really master the butt-scooting motion we were introduced to our guides: the more experienced divers we’d be strapped to for our tandem jump. Mine was a man with a vaguely Latin American accent who may have been from Argentina. My continuing silence seemed to make him nervous. I wondered if he’d had a first-timer freak out on him before. As we walked to the (real) plane and slipped into its belly, he kept asking if I was okay.

“Yes, fine,” I told him. “Just a little tired from the drive.” The truth was, I wasn’t really tired, or preoccupied with fear of the upcoming jump. As the plane gained altitude, my mind drifted instead, as it did over and over that summer, to how my ex had talked about me when we were breaking up. He’d painted a picture of someone who was worse than just flaky. A person isolated from other people by her own carelessness and lack of regard. A person too hollow to feel real love for anyone else.

I couldn’t be sure then I wasn’t that hollow person. My time in France had been long enough to make me feel distant from even my closest friends. I hadn’t made any new ones worth keeping while abroad. And now here I was with Chris and Katie. I could sense already I would barely speak to them after I left L.A. Three weeks together and we still shared little beyond a deep tan. When the plane’s side door inched open I felt like the wind might whistle right through me.

I sat in my tandem partner’s lap as he tightened the straps that held us together. He bounced me on his knee a bit as he did it, as if I were a small child playing pony or an adult having sex with him. It was probably the closest physical contact I’d had with anyone since the breakup, this snug spooning with a man whose name I didn’t know.

But there wasn’t time now to dwell on that. Emptiness stretched out before us, big and cloudless and blue. We scooted up to its lip. A red desert plain spread out below us, ringed by hills, like a bowl ready to scoop us up. I was ready, too. The violence of the free fall, the jerk of the ripcord—somehow skydiving would knock me free of my old self, and I would touch down to Earth a new person. I had placed my faith in the transformative power of adrenaline.

“Ready?” he asked. I nodded. And then we were over the edge.

Maybe it was panic or the thinness of the air or how fast the atmosphere was whizzing past us. But for the first few seconds, I couldn’t quite figure out how to breathe. My lungs didn’t seem to be filling, so I was gasping for air. But my body wasn’t screaming for oxygen, either. It was as if I’d spontaneously grown a new respiratory system that made old-fashioned lungs obsolete. It was how I imagine it might feel to be underwater and suddenly sprout gills.

This wasn’t accompanied by the mental transformation I’d been hoping for. I didn’t feel ripped apart or jolted or changed. Once I got used to life as an air-fish, free-fall even felt sort of soothing. The ground was so far away it was hard to really see it getting closer. If it weren’t for the savage, whipping wind, I would have sworn that, instead of falling, we were floating. After what felt like way less than 30 seconds, my partner yanked the ripcord, and the ride was over.

Earlier that day, the idea that a half-minute free-fall would make me a new person had seemed logical. The course of my summer had been changed by a note in my planner—why wouldn’t this more dramatic experience change my whole life? But I’d underestimated the depth of my hurt and my travel-weariness.

It would take the whole fall semester before I really felt okay again. By then, I was back on my familiar college campus, surrounded by old friends and helpful reminder flyers. I’d also made new friends, close ones—people I still talk to years after leaving campus. I’d started to feel a little more together, a little less frantic and empty. I’d learned to use Google Calendar.

But for now, there was just the present. Lofted by our parachute, the maybe-Argentinian and I glided slowly down to the earth’s surface. I reunited with Chris and Katie and hopped up and down in triumph on the hard-packed desert dirt. I wasn’t a new person, not by far. But I was a person who had been skydiving. Maybe, for now, that was transformation enough.

Nathalie Lagerfeld is a writer and editor in Chicago, IL who has read her work at shows including Essay Fiesta and Mortified. In her spare time, she pickles radishes, practices guitar, and edits a food blog for an unnamed coupon company.
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