I awake from a momentary dream in which I was falling from my childhood treehouse in a giant elm tree, to find that here, in real life, I am plummeting from the Palisades on the Jersey side of the Hudson.
Apparently, the plunge – the real one, from the top of the sheer rock cliff, the one that was sure to kill me – has sucked the air from me, causing me to black out for a moment.
But damn. How long does it take to fall that 500 feet to the strip of rocks and woods by the water below? And how many thoughts can a person have in that fleeting moment? Enough, it seems, for me to have my little insta-dream, and to consider how, in calmer circumstances, I loved the scenery of which I was now about to become a permanent part.
Why? Why had I even allowed Hannah to convince me to spend a day on the Palisades? I’d told her many times that I hate heights. Yet, to prove that I could do the things that scared me, to prove her wrong with her constant complaining about how I never even nudged the boundaries of my fears, I toed my way to the edge of the cliff, viewing a wide swath of the Hudson Valley, with Manhattan to the south.
It takes no time at all for a static moment to become sheer terror. Hannah’s hand was on me and I swear she was shoving me, and down I went. Plunging.
Yet, it really is taking a long time to fall.
I mean, how can I not be there yet? Shouldn’t I have been broken, squashed and splattered all over the rocks? I’ve put on a few pounds lately. That’s sure to add to the wet splat aspect of my reconnection with solid matter.
Any moment now.
Like most people, I imagine, my greatest dreams have always been about flying. Falling was for nightmares. Up or down. It’s amazing how many dreams of mine involved one or the other. The symbolism was pretty obvious, but maybe if I’d ever stopped to consider it, I would have found hidden meaning in it all.
Well it looks like I am going to have some time to sift through it all now, because at this point, I have stopped completely. I’m roughly halfway down, hanging alongside the cliff, the striated rock just out of reach. Just hanging there, suspended. Maybe bobbing lightly.
This should feel grand and majestic. It’s a friggin miracle. And yet all I want to do is puke. I hope there are no hikers below who will be spattered with my semi-digested lunch of ham, cheese and white bread. (Funny, I wasn’t worried about landing on hikers when I was falling.)
So this is a predicament.
Is Hannah watching? I can’t tell; I’m facing downward. How could she have done this? Was she breaking up with me? A simple “I don’t love you anymore” would have done the trick. Hurtful, but nothing I couldn’t recover from.
But be honest: Do I love her? She’s nice. She has a decent job -- she’s in marketing. We always have stuff to talk about; I listen to her stories about her sweet-but-incompetent boss and the struggles her nephew is having with leukemia and so on. But I must admit, I really only pretend to care. I make myself care because that’s what boyfriend’s do. To be clear: I’m not indifferent to her nephew’s plight. It’s just that I’ve never met the guy. It’s Hannah that I’m indifferent to.
There. I said it. I’m indifferent to her. I’ve been going out with her to save myself the chore of breaking up with her and looking for someone else. It’s inertia. An object in motion, stays in motion.
Unless it’s me, falling.
But look. Indifference is one thing. Did I really deserve to be murdered?
Night will be here before long. In a couple of hours it will be completely dark, and I don’t seem to be going anywhere. If nothing changes, I will still be here when the stars wink on. Hell, there’s no reason that I won’t still be here tomorrow, and the next day. I’ll become a tourist attraction all on my own. People will take photos from tour boats edging close to short, or peek over the edge of the cliff to look down at me, 200 feet below. Maybe they’ll make a game out of dropping soda cans or rocks to see who can hit me.
I hear a voice above me, which, from this angle, is also behind me. It’s Hannah. She’s yelling. “Doug! Hang on!”
I want to yell back, “To what?” But that doesn’t seem helpful. “Hurry!” I shout.
Strange. She sounds genuinely frightened. Could I have been wrong? Maybe she didn’t push me. Could she have been reaching for me as I slipped on my own? It’s hard to remember. I was leaning out a little farther than was comfortable.
Could it have been me? Could I have been so bored with Hannah, with everything, with life, that I placed myself in peril intentionally?
What happened to me?
I remember a time I danced at the wedding of my friends Ted and Liz. God, how long ago was that? Their older kid, Vance, is about to graduate from Columbia. So their wedding at the Bellaqua Club overlooking Long Island Sound had to be 20 or so years ago.
Chrissie DeAngelo, was a maid of honor and my was my best friend that summer. We’d driven to the wedding in my Chevy Cavalier. Still, I was nervous when I asked her for a slow dance, and filled with fresh oxygen when she shrugged and said, “Sure.”
We were in our early 20s. She was a close friend and a quickly rising professional in her field -- landscape architecture. She was the one I turned to for support when my mother died and my brother was fighting me over the inheritance. She had light brown hair, a heart-shaped face and eyelashes so long and lush you could rest a pencil on them. (Seriously. We proved that one night at her place while playing Scrabble and splitting a bottle of Herradura.)
Still, I want badly to utter this old-fashioned sentence:
When “In Your Eyes” came on, I slow-danced with a pretty girl.
And she smiled at me. Laughed, even, when I held her firm by the waist and took her for a bit of a whirl. She was embarrassed of the bridesmaid’s dress, a baby blue frock with gauze and lace like a fairy dress, so ridiculously girlish that I had brought her a giant, rainbow-colored lollipop to go with it.
As we danced, I registered a shock of emotion when she caught my eye and I saw a glimpse of what I thought was possibility (though it would turn out to be genuine-but-Platonic affection.)
I sometimes believe that that was the last time I felt an emotion. A real, full-blown emotion, other than the anger I now feel at motorists who cut me off or supermarket customers ahead of me who finger-sift through a palmful of change saying, “Wait. I have the pennies.”
Remembering it now, I drop from the air like an invisible hand just let me go. I plunge the final few stories to the ground below, feeling doomed but at least liberated from should-bes, would-have-beens and if-onlys.
I plummet the remaining distance, smiling, not really caring what will happen when I strike bottom.