Our legs dangled over the side of the airplane. Fifteen thousand feet below, the rugged mountains of New Zealand waited to swallow us whole.
Alan tilted my chin toward the exit camera, pressed his chapped lips against my cheek and snapped a photo. Our bodies were strapped together tightly, his familiar heart beating calmly as mine pounded. He leaned forward and we were sucked violently into the atmosphere. I should have been terrified, but the only thing I could comprehend was that Alan had turned my head toward the sun and was kissing me again.
We fell, somewhere around 120 miles per hour. Air filled my lungs. As we raced through the atmosphere, I became acutely aware that being fully alive meant an imminent collision with death.
Alan deployed the parachute and steered us to the landing spot. I adjusted my goggles then clung to his leg, the only thing within my reach. A primal scream escaped from deep within me. As the ground grew closer, it became clear the rush would soon end. The finality seeped into my soul like a poison.
I had never been more certain our intimacy would not last.
Our ancestors used celestial bodies to measure the passage of time. The daytime hours were counted by the shadows cast by the sun, the nights tracked by the Big Dipper and North Star.
I have stood in the Irish countryside as the sun warmed the stones of Newgrange. I have sailed on a yacht under the bright glow of the Southern Cross. I have watched the sunset over Ayres Rock in the Australian Outback. And still, most of my life, I have measured the minutes by the hands of a clock; days by turning the pages of a calendar. But it wasn’t until this freefall that I began to understand time is measured in two ways: Before Alan and After Alan.
When we first met, I thought Alan was strange. A few chance encounters grew to a few organized ones and I discovered that he wasn’t strange at all, just a complex coil of rope that needed to be carefully unraveled. Like a postman delivering the mail, Alan earned his paycheck as a skydiving tandem master, strapping himself to countless people as they checked off their bucket list. It was monotonous work. Apply sunscreen. Grab a rig. Shake hands with the tandem. Fly. Jump. Land. Repeat. On clear days, there were over a dozen jumps by sunset.
On our first official date Alan took me to a small gallery on the edge of Taupo, a tiny New Zealand town I intended to pass through quickly. Brightly colored mosaic tiles and quirky art were displayed on the walls of the adjacent café. We ordered flat whites and eggs on toast. He walked with his hands in his pockets. His eyes were mysterious, melting into a color somewhere between black and gray. His cheeks turned rosy when he laughed.
Before my last sip of coffee, he had grown on me, just like The Walking Dead once I got past the zombies and the real apocalypse started to unfold.
When he drove me home, he slid a UB40 disc into the CD player, skipping to song number five. Higher Ground. This is the song they will play at my funeral, he said casually.
Alan lived in a house nicknamed the Wolf Den with a roommate, Frosty, an IT consultant by day, a co-conspirator of expeditions by night. On the previous census, they had both listed their religion as Jedi and Jehovah’s Witness visited frequently in feeble attempts to convert them. They ate fresh venison and blue cheese for dinner, paired with a red wine if there was a sale at Countdown market. Alan would walk barefoot into the supermarket to buy a case, half merlot and half cabernet. They practiced sheep whistling while a video projector beamed a dancing Michael Jackson on the living room wall.
Sometimes Alan and Frosty would adventure into the early hours of the morning, headlamps illuminating their paths. Sometimes, they would turn in, sober and early, only to dream of the sky. Got to make a living tomorrow, he would text. It’s going to be an early night.
Quickly I learned that it was the extreme of the extreme where Alan found complete freedom. On a small, spiral bound notebook tucked away on a sloping bookshelf, he recorded the details of what made him truly come alive.
A number corresponded with each encounter with mortality.
When I met Alan, that number held at 740 BASE jumps.
I didn’t even know what was BASE jumping was when I met Alan. Now I know it only as an acronym for death.
I once asked Alan if he was scared, even after so many jumps. Fuck yeah, Anna, I’m terrified, he said. But I do it anyway.
It was never a secret that BASE jumping was Alan’s first love. I was only his mistress. My feelings for him were like carrying an umbrella – mostly inconvenient, completely unreliable, a burden at times; but a shelter I could never resist when the rain came.
Once, I woke up well after midnight to a text. I rolled out of my bed and into a cab he had dispatched. Despite the late hour, music blared from inside the Wolf Den and the front door was uncharacteristically locked. I shivered as I shielded a reusable grocery bag packed with a spare T-shirt and toothbrush. I knew the extra key was hidden somewhere underneath the grill, but instead of searching for it, I trudged around to the back of the house, banging on the windows. I rounded the corner and there he was, completely nude, with nothing on but a headlamp. The dull glow revealed an ax that dangled above his head and he grunted heavily, splitting the damp firewood that would keep us warm through the early hours of the morning.
We pulled his mattress in front of the fire and he held me under the plaid comforter. Alan whispered fantasies into my ear, proving there was indeed a beckoning world outside of his death. He would marry me. We would leave the Wolf Den and stay in a real house. We would have a daughter named Keyvie and we would teach her Southern slang. He would be a pilot so he could still fly from the safety of a cockpit instead of the uncertainty of a wingsuit.
When he would disappear for days, sometimes weeks at a time, I was alone, left to wonder if I had dreamed these confessions. Alan was a man who accepted he would die before he grew up, giving little consideration that a future existed in the air surrounding him.
This was the air I gasped as I tried to live life around him.
This air was where I waited for my turn for his affection.
This air was my purgatory.
This air that would eventually kill him.
It was immigration that sealed our fate. Six months after I naively sipped coffee at the art gallery, my New Zealand visa was set to expire.
I wanted more, more of everything, but Alan only had room for one lover.
On our last night together I was painfully aware this was goodbye was for now, maybe forever. I tried to secure the fragile validations of his feelings for me.
I love you, he said, as we stood in the Wolf Den’s pantry searching for more wine. He gathered my curls at the base of my neck. I remember the first time I saw you. I asked you if you played the Tennessee Flat Top box. Your hair was like this. He looked away, but pulled me closer. I’ve loved you since then. Since that very moment, Miss Tennessee.
But I am going to die. You should know this.
(These were the words I could not erase.)
His confessions were like glass that would crack before dawn. Within a few days, I would fly back to America and Alan would carry an urn from his dusty hutch to the South Island and BASE jump his friend’s ashes off a cliff.
We loosely planned to meet again stateside. His summer would be spent trying to stay one step ahead of the police as he jumped his way through America’s national parks. I would be on an adventure of my own, traveling across the country with a tent, hiking shoes and a plastic cooler crammed in the back of my CRV.
Our paths would cross somewhere, assuming fate allowed. But once again, immigration intervened. Alan would be going to Switzerland, his traveling companion unable to secure a United States visa for entry. Next summer I am coming to America, he wrote in an email. No matter what.
Secretly, I wondered how could I spread my wings when the air around me was purgatory?
I didn’t ask. I just waited.
I spent five weeks traversing the States and eventually emerged from a short stay in Yosemite Valley. For the first time in days, a spotty cellular connection allowed a flurry of emails to flood my phone.
Suddenly, I am back on that airplane, hovering somewhere in the stillness of time. My legs are dangling over the side, my knuckles are white and my is heart racing. This time there is no smile, no kiss, and no heart beating behind me. I am plummeting again, alone with no parachute. I hear myself scream which is impossible because the air tastes like poison and it chokes me as I fall, the entire earth waiting to swallow me whole.
Alan is dead.
I do not ask questions.
I do not want to know that his wingsuit has collided with a cliff in Switzerland.
While his family makes arrangements for his body to be brought home from Europe, I board a flight from Los Angeles to Auckland. I rent a canary yellow car and go to his hometown, where I attend his funeral.
After it’s over, I drive to the Wolf Den where I am alone. Frosty assures me the key is still under the grill. I use it to open the creaky front door. It is quiet, cold. I don’t see the spiral notebook that records his jumps on the sloping bookshelf, leaving me to wonder what number killed him.
I try not to touch anything in his bedroom except his jumpsuit, sparsely hanging in his small closet. I can’t help myself as I take the cuff into the palm of my hand and beg for Alan to come back. When he doesn’t, I beg for him to take me away. But neither of these things happen.
A week later, I fly back to California, climb into my CRV and leave Los Angeles just after dawn.
The clock and the calendar both read After Alan, a space where I will eventually remember how to recklessly find love again with a man who both grounds me and allows me to fly.
But, for now, I don’t know what to do, so I roll down the windows and slide UB40 into the CD player programming number five to play on repeat. Recklessly I drive toward the Grand Canyon. I think he would have liked it there.
About the Author: I have a journalism degree from Belmont University. My work has appeared in Cold Creek Review and Here Comes Everyone (web edition). I am a member of The Porch, A Writer’s Collective in Nashville, where I currently live. I am working on a memoir.