Never Too Late
Robbie waves at me from the far wall of the hangar, his smile tentative, seeming both familiar and strange. Same dishwater-blonde waves, blue eyes bright against the backdrop of his cobalt flight suit. Am I welcome? Or merely tolerated? An invader on foreign soil to which I have no rightful claim? I think of all that my mother never knew of me and wonder at the secrets Robbie keeps.
A man strides toward me, hand extended, blocking my view of Robbie. “I’m Dog,” he says. I fear I will slip up and call him Moose instead. He’s barrel-chested, bearded and ponytailed, with gingery tufts peeking from the top of his white V-necked T‑shirt.
I only half-listen to Dog’s instructions as he fits me with a jumpsuit, goggles, and a contraption of straps and buckles, craning instead to watch Robbie with his skydiving friends. He looks like he belongs here, in this drafty hangar outfitted with cast-off furnishings, sofas and rugs and coffee tables, none quite interesting enough to be considered retro or hip. Framed pictures of tandem dives line the walls like a gallery of family photos.
My other son, Matt, is here too, standing at the edge of the hangar, a Starbucks coffee in his hand, watching us walk toward the airplane. Matt sometimes rides his bike to work in city traffic.
“That’s far riskier, statistically speaking,” I said to him at breakfast.
Matt nodded, half-smiled: “But my feet reach the ground.”
The airplane is like a winged can of Campbell’s tomato soup, with two padded benches that run parallel to one another, from behind the pilot’s seat, to midway along the airplane’s body. Robbie boards first, followed by other flight-suited men and women, all joking and high-fiving, double-checking their gear.
Dog and I are the last to climb in. He sits behind me, his legs parted over the pommel-horse bench, and pulls me tight against him. I wonder if this is gratuitous, a little extra for the 250 dollars I paid to jump out of a perfectly good airplane.
That’s our joke, Robbie and me, that he jumps out of perfectly good airplanes. This is not one of them, however. It takes off with a shudder, its single engine strained and whining in a game of tug of war, a foot of every three we gain wrested away by gravity.
One thousand feet.
Two thousand. A vein pulses at my throat, the flutter of a sparrow’s wings.
Three thousand feet. The tight proximity isn’t just for fun, and Dog gets busy hooking my straps to his, his fingers scrabbling at the harness on my back.
His mouth is at my ear. “This strap is going right over your tits,” he yells. “Line it up with your nipples. It’s gonna hurt when I pull it tight.”
Four thousand feet. My breath goes shallow, but I still feel the om-ness of flight, that inhale-exhale of joy along the climb, the gradual slipping away, as though I’ve left an older, lesser version of me behind, forever, on the ground.
Five thousand feet. Dog checks everything twice more.
I twist to see Robbie behind us, smiling, laughing, chatting with the others—all older than he, some older even than I—who have taken him under their wings. He has jumped several hundred times by now. You get a pie in the face after your hundredth, and the lingering tang of soured cream in your nostrils lasts for days, he said. Robbie takes after my mother and my brother, both adventurers, so different from his father, brother, and me.
* * *
Robbie was an exuberant toddler, always hungry, a perpetual motion machine, with Shirley Temple curls and an athlete’s build, even at four. But there was preschool, where his well-intentioned teacher repeatedly jammed the crayon into his right hand, although he wanted it in his left. And then second grade and the mid-semester performance review: Robbie’s shoes are always untied. Half a year and this was the only thing remarkable she saw in my son. It never occurred to me that school could be an ongoing agony. That I would be a parent who expected too much. That the universe would send me a child from whom there was much to learn, if only I knew how to pay attention.
Seven thousand feet.
“Pretty down there, isn’t it?” Dog’s breath is warm against my cheek. Below us are green and tan hills, silver streams threaded among clustered trees, mirrored lakes, the fleeting shadow of a winged predator.
I ask Dog how many times he’s jumped.
“More than eight thousand.”
“Do you ever have tandems that scare you?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Guys who lie and say they’re not over the weight limit.”
My brother is on the next flight. He’d gained a few pounds last winter.
“Guys who think they’re hot shit,” Dog continues.
I spent some time in the wind tunnel yesterday, buffing up my free-fall technique.
Nine thousand feet.
“We’ll be second out of the airplane.”
Once upon a time I had practiced law and was happy when my case fell in the middle of the docket. A few minutes to acclimate to the courtroom. To steady my hands. Second is way too early.
Eleven thousand feet. Dog winches me into him another centimeter or two. Can he feel my heart clamoring against my ribs and spine?
“Twelve thousand feet,” the pilot announces.
Dog’s beard makes my neck itch. I’m certain he hears the rush of blood in my ears, but faintly, like the sound of the ocean in a shell.
“Ready?” he shouts.
I dig my heels into the sides of the bench, but it is as though I’m Dog and Dog is me, and suddenly we’re sitting on the floor at the door of the airplane, legs dangling outside.
How did we get here? It bothers me that I don’t know, that I don’t remember. Had Dog carried me (screaming? kicking? floppy with fear?) the five feet to the gaping doorway in the side of the airplane?
Dog puts his index finger to my chin, pushes up, and jackknifes us forward. We somersault onto our stomachs. Air whooshes from my lungs. I pant, as during childbirth.
The photographer I paid for and now regret free-falls beside us, encouraging me to smile and wave.
My jowls flap in the wind like a basset hound’s. All I want is to enjoy the ride, to take note of every moment. To pay attention.
The airplane reappears in my view. Robbie explodes from the doorway in a blaze of blue.
The photographer is relentless, laughing, waving, making goofy faces, as though I’m a petulant child on portrait day.
I lose sight of Robbie.
The airplane banks and departs, its engine noise trailing along behind.
The photographer points to the sky beside me.
Robbie grabs my hand and grins.
I try to smile back at him, to speak, but I am breathless, without words.
* * *
Robbie’s seasons were measured by soccer and baseball, flag football and wrestling. By high school, though, it was all wrestling, all the time, along with older brother Matt, whose deliberate style was a more reliable contrast to Robbie’s speed and flash.
Their high school coach sat next to me in the stands one afternoon at practice, after cuffing Matt on the ear with a vexed expression and patting Robbie on the ass, giving him an encouraging smile.
“Matt needed that,” he said.
I nodded. I had no doubt. Even so, if I had it to do over again—and oh, there is so much for which I wish for a second chance!—I would clench my jaw and say to that man: Do not ever hit my child again.
“Robbie, though,” the coach continued. “He’s a thoroughbred. Requires special handling.”
I took that coach at his word. It never occurred to me that when Robbie threw his headgear after losing a match, it wasn’t a sign of drive and passion. That being a high school and college all-American wrestler might not be Robbie’s dream. What pains me most is that I never asked.
* * *
When I pictured free fall, I had imagined it quiet. But the wind pummels us, howling as it does across Midwestern plains. Or maybe it isn’t wind at all. Perhaps it is the force of our bodies shoving the air away as we hurtle toward earth.
Dog circles his index finger.
Robbie lets go of my hand, waves, and slips away, smoothing his body into the shape of a missile and shooting ahead of us.
Words stack up in my head, but there is no place for them to go.
* * *
Robbie was a college sophomore when he wrestled his last match. The first big tournament of the year, his first tournament following an injury, a surgery, the struggle to make weight. We sat with him afterward over dinner, his father and I, and I tried not to sob at the bourgeoning bruises on his face. I reached across the table and put my hand over his. “Enough,” I said. That’s the way I imagine it, anyway, because wouldn’t that have been a lovely scene? Surely we weren’t so eloquent. I know we said, Robbie, really, it’s your life, but I don’t know if he believed us.
* * *
Dog mouths into my ear, warning me that he will soon pull the parachute’s cord. Still, it’s a shock, the sudden arrest of descent like a theme park elevator, the straps cutting into my crotch, my armpits, and my enjoyment of the experience.
* * *
And here, suddenly, is silence. I breathe it in great gulps.
* * *
Too soon Dog begins to natter at me, pausing only to glance at his wrist to check the progress of our descent. Did I like the jump? Do I remember the landing instructions? Do I want to turn curlicues or swing like a pendulum?
But I want only one thing.
Open, I whisper, looking down. Robbie is mere silver-and-blue glint, his helmet reflecting the sun. I stretch my hand toward him, as I might have at a busy intersection when he was a child, but the distance between us only widens.
* * *
The universe sent me two sons from whom I have much to learn. How to be grounded. How to fly. Perhaps it is too late to pay them the attention they craved as children, when I let work and life and my own dreams cloud my vision. Perhaps, the next time we’re together, I’ll remember to watch, to listen, to wonder: I see you.
* * *
Dog falls quiet, the only sounds the occasional whirr of winged insects, our breathing. We sway gently under the parachute, ticking the passage of meters and time.
* * *
Robbie’s canopy blooms below us like the opening of a flower in a time-lapsed video: tiny bud unfurling, turquoise and white petals catching the breeze with a final, billowing sough. It traces a slow arc, its stripes shimmering against the darker ground. And, above us, the forever blue of the sky, a single, sheep-shaped cloud.
Several years ago, Shannon Spangler found herself at the San Francisco Writers’ Conference with no intention of becoming a writer, nor of “speed dating” agents (or anyone else), and has been writing ever since. Her work has appeared in The Manifest-Station and Sepia. She lives near Denver, in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, with her husband and their adorable corgi, Sophie.