Three weeks into our relationship Owen and I were coming from the beach when he suggested we go bridge jumping.
“What?” I said. He suggested jumping off a bridge the way someone suggests going to grab a bite to eat.
“Yeah, the Matanzas Inlet bridge. It’s right down the road. We’re already dressed for the occasion.” Calm radiated from his body as we threw our sandy beach towels in the bed of his truck.
“I know where it is. I’ve just never done that before.” I already felt myself coming around to the idea. I had considered myself a fearless kid, my legs covered in bruises and band aids, always trying to keep up with the boys. The gravel street that I lived on, my playground. I was a curious child, which often led to adventure, but jumping off a twenty foot tall structure into a body of water that led into the ocean, with tides that constantly changed in depth, seemed foolish.
He drove toward the bridge and I let him. When we parked and walked toward the metal railings I peered over the edge. Hell no. Places of great height somehow extend themselves when you’re actually doing the looking down. Owen grabbed onto the railings, pulling himself over the other side, one leg at a time. I understood he was doing this with or without me.
“C’mon,” he waved, grinning. “It’s not that bad. I’ll even go first.” I followed him, my hands beginning to sweat as they gripped the metal rail.
“Wait,” I said, prolonging the jump, making everything worse. “This is the Intracoastal.”
“Yeah, so?” He shrugged his shoulders, telling me he’d done this several times before.
“It leads into the ocean...I don’t know what’s in that water!” He waited as I reasonedwith myself. “What if I jump on top of a shark?” I laughed.
“Then just start riding it!” Owen said, in both a serious and joking tone. That was trademark for him throughout high school, but now that we were more than friends, I saw it differently, appreciating it. Strange how that happens. You start to like someone and realize they’ve been this way the entire time. You’re the one who hasn’t been looking. Owen could handle almost anything; he was so easygoing. He had this invincibility that I wanted to understand and an impressive ability to add humor to everything. I thought about his playfully, volatile mouth, the way he joked with teachers and disrupted lessons, but was never actually reprimanded for any of it. Because they were looking for a break in their day too, and somehow he just knew. I looked at Owen and felt safe.
Without counting down he released and fell into the choppy, murky water, arms billowing at his sides before disappearing beneath the surface, creating a large splash in his path. Seconds later he surfaced, jerking his head to one side to sweep the hair out of his face, water droplets springing from his hair in every direction. “Your turn,” he shouted.
“I don’t know if I can do it!” I yelled, laughing at how I found myself here with him, bouncing lightly on my toes in nervousness. I really wanted to jump, to meet him down there and share in this moment. But I wasn’t sure if my want was enough. In some ways this was just a jump, nothing more. At least that’s what it was above the surface. Below, however, when that surface was broken, I knew would be an entrance into something much bigger. Different atmosphere, different creatures lurking, different rules to abide by. I knew that this was just a jump, but I also knew it was an opening into a world I’d never been to, had heard of, had seen all my life in the movies I watched, the books I read, the household I lived in. I always felt that I overanalyze everything to a dangerous degree. Analysis to the point of doubt and self-destruction. But for me, there is no other mode of going through life. That chaotic and frenetic over-thinking is where I thrive. It’s how I get things done.
For the first time, I noticed a little below and to the left of the bridge was a small seafood restaurant with seating overlooking the water. We had an audience of about ten people seated at dinner tables looking up, awaiting my departure. They collectively chanted, “Jump, jump, jump!”
I looked at him in the water, his head bobbing, bright white teeth smiling, eager for our union. I hit the cold water in less than a second, and though I wasn’t at the point where I could comfortably open my eyes to see what I’d jumped into, it felt good. When I resurfaced the first thing I found was his lips. I felt so alive. That feeling of a pulse, of being actively aware and absolutely present would define what it was like every second with Owen. Even the quieter moments.
It became our thing, jumping off whatever we could find—ledges, cliffs, speed signs stuck awkwardly out of the water for boaters—into muddy waters, and I loved it. Not because of the adrenaline rush or because it made me feel adventurous and nervy, or so I thought at the time. I loved it because it was ours. An experience and a feeling I could only ever attribute to him.
I was riding shotgun through North Carolina backwoods, leaning my head out the window of Owen’s dark green Chevy Silverado, chin resting on both of my arms. Up and up we drove, winding so many times it seemed like we’d been going nowhere for hours. I wouldn’t have minded if we were lost, not with him, not there. There was so much green. Green mountains, green grass, green leaves, green weeds; somehow, they too were nice to look at. We’d escaped the Florida humidity. We were on our way to stay at his grandparent’s home in the mountains for a few days, a mini vacation before starting our first semesters at separate colleges. I wasn’t worried. He was driving. I was co-piloting, changing radio stations, sneaking kisses, not saying a single word. There was grace in that silence, a magnetism that reverberated between the small space in his truck separating us.
He sat to my right in Spanish when we were freshman in high school and though he was a goofball, he was the guy that everyone liked and possibly had a tiny crush on. The kind of crush that never amounts to anything, but makes class just a little less boring. I started letting him cheat off my vocabulary quizzes every Friday. Owen never said or did anything to sway me into this cheating. That’s just the kind of guy he was. I would see his half blank sheet of paper and angle mine in a way that only he could see. I don’t know what compelled me to do this. Still, it started to feel like a game, filled with smirks, quickly averted eyes, and in a very strange, obviously dorky way, a flirting. I was certain Owen felt it too.
Sometimes I wonder if at that moment I’d unknowingly created a pattern. I encouraged the cheating on quizzes. Did I let him cheat on me? I left the door open when I told him, “I would never want to get married when I grew up” though of course it wasn’t what I meant. I was seventeen when I said that; I didn’t know anything about marriage. Now I realize that this desire to aid him when in need was not me simply being nice, or an act of kindness; it wasn’t even the flirtatious game I remember it as. It was a weakness.
There’s this common condition that occurs when divers go below depths of more than 100 feet called nitrogen narcosis. The further you dive, the more the partial pressure of nitrogen increases, causing a high nitrogen concentration in the blood. The effect is similar to the mental state that occurs from alcohol intoxication, giving the condition its pseudo, “The Martini Effect.” As depth increases, the mental impairment may become hazardous. At 300 feet, it can incapacitate causing stupor, blindness, unconsciousness, and even death. It’s an easily reversible alteration; swim higher and the pressure felt in your head decreases. But it doesn’t seem that easy to me. When your mind is altered, your thinking is altered; how do you make a conscious decision? The condition goes by many names, but the one that strikes me the most is “Rapture of the Deep,” which implies a feeling of intense pleasure. Why would anyone want to subvert from that?
Divers can learn to cope with some of the effects of narcosis, but it is impossible to develop a tolerance. Scientists say there are no long term effects, but that’s the thing about science. We’re not always positive it’s completely accurate. It’s a highly researched, best educated guess, and besides, it’s always changing.
Owen is in the car when I’m driving, listening to Sweet Honey by Slightly Stoopid, the song he loves so much he hits repeat. He’s in the same damn sentence of my book that I re-read countless times because I can’t focus, the idea of him rocking the skull in my head. He’s in my phone, in the ping! that lets me know I have a text message, wondering, hoping that maybe it’s him. He’s in the apartment, where he put up that dark window shade that blacks out my entire room, the dark cave we took comfort it. He’s in my bed where we played Candy Crush for an entire day, not once peeling out from under the covers, comparing scores and racing each other through levels. He’s in my drawers, where he absentmindedly left some of his old t-shirts the day he left me. And he’s in the bed again, always the bed, the squeaks it makes every time I roll over at night to find the other side cold and untouched without his long build, the arms and legs that would accidently kick me in the night. He’s even there when another guy will slip in under my covers from time to time. He’s in my morning cup of coffee, oozing through my brain like the last bit of grounds poured into my cup, as I stare at the Keurig he got me on our one year anniversary. How does one bleach their mind? Why is there no option to remove memories at will? There’s too much wrapped up in here and I need to make space for others to move in. I need a disinfectant for him.
I sit at the kitchen table with my mom and she mentions the name Chris Lamb. When this happens, something in her eyes glints and her voice changes and now she’s suddenly seventeen and meek. Instantly transported back thirty years, she smiles, remembering his touch, his tenderness, and laughs, remembering the way he used to tease her, back when she was only the best friend of his little sister. She can only ever recall him in these vague details and the thing I’ve never been able to figure out is if it’s her memory or her discretion. I always know we’re nearing the end of her reminiscence when tears start to puddle and her voice becomes softer, slower, and sometimes hoarse, like she’s still—though years removed—consumed by this aged love. Wondering what went wrong and if there was something she could have done to save it. This is the point in the story when she summarizes how Chris met someone in the army, wrote to my mom, and broke it off. They never saw each other again. In these moments I’m reminded that heartaches have always—for as long as people have been on this spinning rock—preceded mine and will always follow it. I’m reminded mine doesn’t have to be so heavy.
And just like that, a phone call, a kitchen or washing machine timer returns her to the present. She walks over to my stepdad, John, the love of her life, and gives him a smooch. Then I know. It’s okay to remove ourselves every so often. I always wonder though if one day her story will be mine, if I’ve adopted this sentimentality too. I wonder if years in the future I’ll stand in my kitchen, kiss my husband hard on the mouth and mean it, but at unpredictable moments, still cry for Owen.
The first time Owen and I were alone together—I wouldn’t have called it a “date” then, but now I can say it’s the moment I was sure I liked him more than a friend—was in Daytona Beach, in the center of a tourist and Spring Break clad locale, the streets lined with bars, souvenir shops, and mini golf courses. Classmates were throwing end of senior year parties in hotel rooms, but we walked off by ourselves. We came to an attraction called the “Daytona Slingshot”: a 120 foot tall structure made of two large beams forming the shape of a Y and a large, metal ball containing two rollercoaster seats in the center, creating what looked like a giant toy slingshot. The ball clicked into the tops of the beams in a bungee cord contraption. The ride attendant propelled the ball into the air, the ball spinning chaotically as it gained momentum. Gravity and physics took over and the ball rotated up over the beams and back down close to the ground, over and over until it finally ran out of force. From the ground, it looked utterly terrifying.
Our heads craned straight up, listening to faint screams, our eyes trained on the tiny dot falling toward us, and quickly zooming out again, a jumbo-sized yo-yo.
“You wanna do it?” Owen looked at me, a devilish but contagious grin stretched across his face.
“I don’t have money!” I was thankful to have left my wallet back in my room.
“I got us,” he said, without hesitation. The ride was $20 per person.
The line diffused and we were next. The attendant motioned for us to step inside. We sat down and he strapped us in, walking back toward the silver box that’s cogs and buttons controlled the ride. “You guys ready?” he yelled from his station.
“We’re ready!” Owen shouted back.
“Alright, I’m gonna give you a countdown. One...” The man released us after one and we instantly launched into the dark sky, a scream and a laugh involuntarily escaping my body. I laughed because of the purposeful failure of a full countdown, the surprise in our catapult. I laughed because I was nervous and it was the only logical response I could muster in the moment. But mainly I laughed because the entire time in the air—two minutes maybe—Owen cackled and screamed like a ten-year-old girl and it was the most infectious, liberating noise I’d ever heard.
From inside the ball it was mania in the most euphoric way. It was hard to tell how fast we were going, but it felt close to flying. It was an adrenaline I’d never experienced before. Unforgettable. Halfway through the ride I noticed a GoPro camera fixed on an apparatus inside the ball. The camera faced inward, the entire reaction caught on tape. After the ride, a man behind a booth showed us the video and we got to watch, maybe our happiest moment, over again. He tried selling it to us for $40, but neither Owen nor I budged. I never regretted not buying that video. It’s one of those memories whose durability I have no control over.
Sometimes I feel like Owen and I never got off that ride, as if the night never ended. The whole relationship felt like I was up in the air, the slingshot suspended there. I remained at the top of the beams, happy to be stuck. But the slingshot was always going to fall. I hung up there alone, as Owen found himself caught up in temporary pleasures. I thought we seemed so strong, indestructible because of a solid foundation that we spent years as friends building, but the invisible support keeping us up was my cluelessness to what was actually going on, the only thing preventing us from a loud, hard, fall.
There’s a photo our friend took of Owen and me back in the days of harmless cheating in Spanish class. She must have snapped it quickly, neither of us paying attention, too wrapped up in our own repartee—the cheating on quizzes quickly forming a fun kinship. This wasn’t unusual; she took photos of everyone in our class, catching quiet moments, and posting them on our IB Facebook page. The dramatic irony here is that she—our friend— who brought the photograph version of us together, is the one who would tear us apart.
She sat at a desk behind Owen and me, so that the backs of our chairs faced the camera. Owen stared at me with this dumbfounded, askance sort of glare, eyelids heavy with playful scorn. Only our profiles were visible, but the picture is so candid, so abruptly caught in the moment that the angle is wildly revealing. I wore a black soccer t-shirt and my hair was half up, half down in that loose pony tail hanging gently over the bottom half of my hair kind of way, the bottom half splayed across my shoulder blades. Those were the days before hot tools and purposefully styled hair, when things were simple. The days when friends and boyfriends were a separate entity and co-existed without the push and temptation of too many hormones and sexual impulses, the days before betrayal.
My mouth was partly open, in the middle of a comment, something sarcastic, a comeback of sorts. That would explain his defeated, unamused face, the look you give someone when they’ve bested you in a playful battle of sharp words; when your eyelids and eyebrows are more than just close neighbors and feel as though they could be touching, mouth rested in a flat line. But that’s not all the photo depicts. He was always to my right in that class. My right arm is raised to the height of my waist, elbow bent, and right hand extended as if delving into some deep explanation of how I’m right and he’s wrong. I still laugh when I look at this picture. I imagine myself telling him, this is never going to work out between us dude. Or, this little flirtatious cheating is as far as you’re going to get. I imagine this dialogue because I wish that’s what I would’ve said. Then I look at the photo again, the way my open palm faces upward toward the ceiling, fingers splayed like a claw crane in an arcade machine targeting a coveted toy. My palm faces upward, but it also faces Owen, a reaching out for something invisibly felt between the two or three feet separating our desks, that open palm inviting him in. A line or rope, some kind of connection I still feel tied to though he’s no longer to my right.
At one point about two months into our relationship I tell Owen that I wish my father were alive so that he could meet him. I don’t say it because it seems like a nice thing to say or because we’re in love and people who are in love are supposed to say these dramatic, climactic things. I say it because I actually feel it, because I think he would be proud of the gentleman I allowed myself to fall for. My mom and stepdad sure are.
Wakeboarding, snowboarding, skiing, surfing, bridge jumping, roller coaster riding, slingshot, four wheeling, heart-racing, palm sweating, white-knuckled, raptured, consumed, firsts for everything.
I read somewhere that researchers found adrenaline inducing activities done during a date can make a potential partner more attractive to the other. If we meet someone in a dangerous situation are we more likely to fall in love? Perhaps I was in like and in love with the adrenaline, no more. And when those things went away, I wasn’t sure how to do this again without them. Though I still looked for them.
Why is it that we follow the dangerous, possibly threatening accelerations in life? Is it enough to just follow that feeling of a thrill? Does that make it okay or justify the risk? Generally, no. On paper, definitely not. But every time I am faced with this decision I say yes to the danger. I’m so drawn to the thrill the danger doesn’t seem to exist. Not really. I can’t see it or feel it so it must not be there. I think I’ll continue to say yes for the rest of my life.
So much of Owen was different; he’d changed. Yes, he looked older, chubbier in the face, hair longer and darker, the obvious aging that could happen in a year’s time. But he changed in a more colossal and irreversible way. Not like how the weather changes from fall to spring, or how our clothing style, taste in music or food evolves the older we get. We expect that kind of change. It was more like a hurricane that’s blown through town, uprooting everything in its path until nothing remained intact. He changed in a way where the damage, I knew, was irreparable; nothing would ever be the same again. His once yellow, green eyes now resembled a fatigued driveway, a mass of worn, grey concrete. There was something else in them too, or rather, something missing. They weren’t just full of that warm, unique color once; they were full of vitality. A sudden hollowness infiltrated them.
His smile was no longer contagious, but provoking. Hands that once clasped mine, curled around a lighter and a pack of cigarettes, a new habit he once thought distasteful and unattractive. He never was careful with his words, the class clown, the goofy guy who sometimes made no sense, the silly one-liners I fell in love with, but he always had a filter. It went missing with the rest of him. Everything was different, the way he carried himself, the reasons he told me he dated the latest girl—for her family’s money. Judgmental and sometimes entitled, but I never pegged him for shallow. The storm must have been a category five because it did a number on him. He was self-destructive and it drove me insane because I would always be the girl who wanted to fix things. And I couldn’t tell if he’d really changed or if this was who he was all along, if this was just him growing up.
I keep going back to this claw machine idea. What is it about that arcade game that keeps a person playing? That makes you feel like it’s totally acceptable to feed it dollar after dollar? Just one more game you reason. You even forcefully laugh to yourself in the most meager way and think maybe it’s you; maybe it just doesn’t want you. For some reason that makes you try even harder. No that’s absurd—not after everything this game and you have been through. You try and try, maneuvering the joystick in your palm, telling yourself this time will be different than the rest; you understand this game now whereas before it was aloof and complicated. Now you have the thing right where you want it, all that’s left is to drop the claw in the precise spot and it is forever yours. You just need to close the gap, find the link between prongs and prize. There’s this moment of suspension when the claw closes around the object, where everything feels euphoric because the prize is neither yours nor the machine’s. You haven’t won or lost, and there’s a peace in that moment because all you can really feel for a second is the effort you put in, the trying. You gave your best shot. Then the claw pulls for a second, almost teasing, until the object slips between the cracks and falls a little wayside, perhaps in a more awkward and difficult position than before. Worse though, sometimes it’ll unintentionally land in a position that will be easier for the next person who comes along and hopes to make it theirs. If only the claw or your fingers were a little longer, held on for one more second; it could’ve been yours. I kept grabbing and Owen kept slipping.
I was nineteen years old, riding shotgun through the empty streets of our small hometown, staring out the tinted window of Owen’s new, dark brown Chevy Silverado. I was thankful we knew where we were, that there was no chance of being lost. We were just a few minutes from my mom’s house where he was dropping me off. I’m not sure why we thought seeing each other would be a good idea. It’d been a year since we last spoke, but at the time it felt much longer. I was in the truck with someone I’d only just met. He was driving and I was shifting: my legs, my fingers, I couldn’t sit still. I didn’t know where I should put my hands or rest my eyes. They averted up for a second, and I saw a picture of a cute, blonde, bubbly girl, with a big smile, and thin, almond shaped eyes clipped into the visor on the ceiling of his truck. A place I’d never been. She seemed to beam directly at me, teasing almost. Not able to withstand its mockery any longer, I finally broke gaze, defeated in the staring contest. She won her spot up there.
We couldn’t find the words to fill the space between us on that five minute ride. There wasn’t much to say, I guess, because there wasn’t much I felt other than the inescapable silence imploding on us. And perhaps, that said everything.
I grabbed the rope that led to the top of the cliff first, Owen trailing behind. I led us with a natural confidence and zeal for adventure that he introduced me to on the slingshot, and the first bridge we ever jumped off of, four months prior. I loved the person I’d become with him. It wasn’t just who I was around him, it was a person I’d grown into, a characteristic that had always been there, but was waiting for Owen to bring to fruition. The rockslide we were climbing in the backwoods of Banner Elk, North Carolina had no footholds, the jagged edges sharp and startling on my bare feet with every step. Yet we kept climbing, my trust not only in the trunk of a tree, ringed with just a one-inch-thick wool rope whose end I still couldn’t see, but also in him, always in him. Once he met me at the top, he reached out for my hand. “You ready?” he asked, clutching my fingers until they were white knuckles laced in another. “Ready,” I nodded, no longer afraid of what might inhabit the almost black, ambiguous river water calmly rippling twenty five feet below me. He gave my hand a tight squeeze, a quick and comforting pulse, and we jumped.