She is standing at the edge of the exit point on Mount Brento when I first see her. What little wind there is gently licks strands of brown-blonde hair around her ears. For some reason, my stomach lurches at the sight of her. I don’t know if it’s the instant attraction, or a rush of fear for her safety, but it’s an intense sensation. She doesn’t turn, though I’m sure I’m clearly visible to her, with my bright orange pack, and my six foot three stature. She seems deep in contemplation, staring down at the landing site intently, one hand raised slightly, slender fingers caressing the air.
She must be a girlfriend, I realise. There are few female base jumpers involved in the sport, but plenty of girlfriends. Some men are lucky enough to have one who is willing to accompany them on jumps, drive the car back down treacherous mountain roads, help pack equipment, celebrate their triumphs and encourage their madness. And madness it is, surely. My ex, Barbara, was fascinated when we met. It certainly amplified her attraction to me, I have no doubt – I remember how her eyes used to sparkle when I told her about near-misses, accidents my friends had had, and the thrill of a perfect jump – particularly an illegal one. But over the course of our three year relationship, her attitude changed. She became scared, angry, critical. She said it was because she loved me so much, but towards the end, the love was eroded by fear and resentment. She wanted children – as did I – but she screamed as she packed her bags, after an unsuccessful attempt at an ultimatum, that she could never let a suicidal maniac father her babies, and she had waited long enough. She has twins now, born eleven months after we split, to a man who wears suits and works fifty hour weeks. I think I would have been a better father, and the hurt still creeps under my skin occasionally when I think of Barbara.
I feel a stab of jealousy as I watch this beautiful woman gaze down the vast drop, and I follow her eyeline to spot her lucky partner as he flies through the air. But there is nobody there. I see no brightly coloured wingsuit, and I have a sharp eye for such things after so many years in the field. My curiosity piqued, I shrug my pack off my shoulders and join her where she stands. God, she is close to the edge. I’ve dived off this cliff countless times, and even I don’t curl my toes over the side as she’s doing now.
I can’t imagine she hasn’t noticed me approach, but I still keep my voice soft, so as not to startle her. It’s a good plan; she turns with wide eyes, registering my presence for the first time. Close up, she’s breathtaking. Her skin is the pale brown of a faded tan. Her lips are full, her eyes are deep and gold, rimmed by black lashes and framed by heavy brows. Wow. My mouth goes dry. Wow.
Her reply is snatched by an errant gust of wind, but I see her lips move. I smile and turn my attention to the vista before me. If I’m going to get a jump in this evening, it had better be soon. I can tell that the wind will be picking up over the next half hour and that would scupper my chances of a safe flight.
Part of me wants to bundle this fragile looking woman into my jeep and drive her back down the mountain at warp speed, sit with her over a coffee and ask her countless questions about her life, her self, her soul. It’s most unlike me. I’ve barely registered women since Barbara left; I felt crushed, smashed, worn down to a nub of the man I used to see myself as. I have had some flings, some pointless sexual encounters which scratched an itch that very occasionally makes itself felt, but nothing like this. This makes me remember the good stuff. The lightness, the hope, the adrenaline of recognising a kindred spirit.
I’m a sap.
The sudden self-deprecating thought makes me laugh, giddy as my proximity to this exotic beauty is making me, and I catch her eyeing me with a spark of interest.
“Sorry, I tend to get excited when I’m about to jump.”
I explain, meeting her gaze, and trying to restrain the almost hysterical laughter that bubbles beneath the surface. Boy, I have it bad. And it feels good!
“That’s Ok. Me too.”
Her voice is low, mellifluous, with the hint of an accent.
Too late, I realise I sound far too incredulous. One thing that really pisses off female base jumpers is the attitude that what they’re doing is such an anomaly. They tend to be pretty powerful women, and I certainly don’t want to offend this one.
“I mean, sorry… I just thought… I didn’t see any equipment…”
She smiles and I notice one of her front teeth is slightly crooked. It makes me want to lean in and kiss her, run my tongue over the unfamiliar terrain and taste this immensely personal quirk for myself. I can’t believe a crooked tooth is arousing me. I focus on her eyes as she responds, trying to quell the attraction that just keeps growing inside me.
“That’s ok. I didn’t bring anything with me. I only arrived today and I’ve never been here before, so I hiked up to get a feel for the place. It’s perfect, isn’t it?”
It’s a world renowned spot, in fact. One of my favourites.
This woman is a base jumper. Like me. I want to spend more time with her.
I impulsively reach into my pocket and pull out the keys to my jeep.
“If you hiked up, would you mind terribly driving my motor back down to the landing? It would save me hiking all the way back up for it after my jump…”
It’s a white lie, of course. No harm in it. Mario would gladly give me a lift back up to collect my wheels, but this way, I have a reason to meet her at the bottom.
She hesitates, looking across the vast expanse of rock-face, woodlands, rolling countryside, to the road, and The Landing – a small, busy cafe/ restaurant full of climbers and jumpers near which we aim to touch down.
“I’ll buy you dinner?”
I may have overstepped the mark here, but I don’t care, I have nothing to lose and in my life I’ve learned that a missed opportunity is infinitely more regretful than a failed attempt.
When she turns those golden eyes on me they seem infinitely sad, but only for a moment. Then they crinkle at the side as she graces me with another small smile – there’s that tooth again (Lord, she’s beautiful) and says simply,
It’s a great jump. The wind roars past my ears as I soar, free, with nothing keeping me up except my webbed wingsuit. The ‘chute on my back will softly deposit me where I need to go. And Maya-Belle will be there, waiting. Meeting her adds to the thrill of this jump. I think it is one of my best. I always feel so safe when I’m afloat on the air, one of the reasons I found it so hard to understand Barbara’s fear. But, I suppose to fly, Icarus-like, this close to the sun, to confront one’s mortality in such a way, means letting go of the fear of death. And that’s something one can only do for oneself. I could never have convinced her to stop fearing my death.
Maya-belle. I asked her name just before I stepped off into freefall. I will learn all I possibly can about her before the night is through. I have a feeling; a not entirely pleasant, stomach clenching, deliciously anticipatory feeling that this is the start of something life-changing for me, and hopefully for her too. I’m feeling ridiculously, helplessly romantic and foolhardy as I begin the arduous task of carefully packing my ‘chute and suit away.
I’m a sap. And it feels great!
I’m laughing to myself again when she pulls up in my moss green jeep. Long, curvaceous, denim-clad legs swing out of the door, and my breath catches in my throat. Desire. Desire like I haven’t felt in what feels like forever. Thank God I have a task at hand, I can’t even look at her for a few minutes, aside from a quick “Thank you!” when she throws the keys on top of one of my bags. She stoops to help, and expertly assists me in packing up my equipment.
When we are done, she speaks, a playful tilt to her head as she gestures towards The Landing.
“I hope you’re not planning on buying me dinner in there?”
I had been, but suddenly it seems ridiculous. Burgers and Paninis and Pizza. My only thought had been to enjoy her company, but I know most of the clientele in that place, and knowing my peers I’d spend the entire evening battling horny, predatory alpha males for a moment of her time.
“Not a chance.” I grin, throwing the last of my bags into the back of the jeep. “Hop in.”
Maya-Belle was born in Hawaii, and grew up travelling all around North America, with her US Army officer dad and her quiet, introverted Hawaiian mother. She has no siblings, a fact that she always felt was a selfish act on the part of her parents, as they moved around so much. She found it hard to make friends and she would have given anything to have somebody to come home to; a brother or sister who was always there when she returned from another difficult day at a new school. She was a lonely child, who turned into a ferociously independent teenager and took off travelling on her own at the age of sixteen. She has had little formal education, but everywhere she goes, she tries to learn a new skill, and in the process has become fluent in several languages and competent at a number of trades.
All this, I learn on the short drive to Arco, a small town by the north bank of Lake Garda. It’s coming into off season, and all the towns in the area are quiet, though there is a small Christmas Market setting up by the car park when we arrive. We wander along, stopping at a few stalls to admire the pretty, festive lights and gifts, and find ourselves seduced into buying an extortionately priced cup of mulled wine from a charming old man who delights in flirting with Maya-Belle in Italian. My own grasp of the language is limited, and marred by my Irish accent, but I never have any trouble communicating as the locals just break through my clumsy attempts at their tongue with often flawless English. I note the difference in how this weathered old fellow interacts with Maya-Belle as she curls her lips effortlessly around the romantic sounding words. He is far more animated, open, witty, than they ever are with me. Then again, I’m certainly not as pretty as my date, which could be more to the point.
We meander down the length of the market, and take a turn into a side street which is so narrow we can only just fit walking shoulder to shoulder. The closeness makes my skin burn with heat under my layered clothes. I enjoy the sensation. I feel like a teenager bubbling over with helpless lust. The restaurant I have chosen is open, thank god. Most places close for the month of November, and even though the market is on right now, when we exit the restaurant later I can guarantee this place will be like a ghost town. But it’s open and busy, and the smells wafting out as I open the door for my spectacular date reassure me that I have made a good choice. The owner, a beautifully rounded, smiling Italian woman in her fifties, named Dominica, double-takes and then bustles over, halfway through taking an order at a rowdy table of Italians. They pass no heed to her sudden abandonment, and I’m swept up in a great big embrace.
“Gerry! I thought you would never return!” She bellows in heavily accented English. I hear Maya-Belle laugh delightedly behind me at the unexpected display of affection. Good, I want to impress her. I would set myself on fire and dance the tango on one of these tables right here if it would make her smile.
“My goodness, you are with a woman! Such a lovely woman! Bellissima!”
Dominica sweeps Maya-Belle into a similar embrace – I think her feet actually lift off the floor – and her laughter makes my heart race. There is such melancholy in her golden eyes a lot of the time, I haven’t missed it (in fact it may be part of her appeal) but in this moment she glows with pleasure, and I feel a huge surge of achievement.
I want to make this woman happy.
Dominica tucks us away at a tiny table in an alcove, where we can see the action of the restaurant floor, while still retaining a modicum of privacy. I want to immediately resume my interrogation of Maya-Belle, but she stops me in my tracks.
“Do you know, I didn’t even know your name until that lady greeted you? I think I would like for you to tell me a little about yourself now.”
I oblige, telling her about my large family, seven children in total, of very typical Irish heritage (she sighs wistfully at the idea of so many siblings, I laugh and tell her it was damn close to hell at times growing up with those animals). I explain how I’m the black sheep of the family, the prodigal son, who declined to get involved in the family business, and instead studied graphic design. I have my own company now, which is reasonably successful, and being my own boss has proved invaluable in terms of accommodating my passion for base jumping. I can work from anywhere, anytime, though I do love my cottage by the sea in north-west Ireland, several counties away from the family farm.
Maya-Belle begins to speak, “Tell me…”
But she’s cut off by the arrival of a small, slight young Italian boy who cannot be more than thirteen years old. He stands, pen poised to take our order, regarding us expectantly.
“Ciao, Alessandro,” I greet the youngest of Dominica’s children. He is a very serious young man and gives me only the shadow of a smile as he nods at the menus we’re holding. Maya-Belle reaches out and touches his hand, and his cheeks instantly flame red. They exchange a few rapid sentences in Italian and he moves off, giving her an awkward semi-bow as he leaves the table.
“You have some effect on men, Maya-Belle.”
The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them, and my inner critic is shouting at my brain Stupid! Could you be more pathetic? I silence the torrent of abuse by drowning it out with words.
“I didn’t understand a word of what you just said, what have we ordered?”
She narrows her eyes at me, tilting her head, so that the tips of her tawny hair brush against the flesh at her neckline. I swallow hard, and focus again on those eyes.
“Is it ok that I ordered for us? Some men don’t like a woman to take charge in such situations…”
“Of course! Absolutely!”
“Well, good. I didn’t actually order anything, I just asked Alessandro to bring the choice of the chef to us, and his own personal wine recommendation.”
I laugh. In Ireland, to ask a thirteen year old boy for a wine recommendation would be a joke, but here in Italy, he probably knows all there is to know about the regional wines and their food pairings.
“That’s perfect. Although, they’re going to send an unbelievable amount of food – I hope you ‘re hungry!”
“I’m not on a diet.”
“You certainly don’t need to be.”
This time, as the words come, I let them. She doesn’t seem to be resistant to my compliments, though she doesn’t flutter her eyelashes and blush either. I can’t help myself. The thoughts in my mind are flowing from my tongue naturally. Though there are some thoughts I am battling to quell – I must be sure not to give them voice. Not yet, anyway.
Assailed momentarily by explicit fantasies involving simple movements of her naked body and mine; nothing outrageous, just enough to make me swell uncontrollably under the safety of the table, I cough and grasp for something to talk about.
“You were going to ask me something…”
She frowns, considering.
“Just before Alessandro arrived at the table, you said ‘Tell me – ’ and then stopped?”
Recognition lights her eyes, as a diminutive young woman pours cherry-red wine into our glasses from a simple decanter.
“Ah, yes. Tell me, how have your girlfriends coped with your hobby?”
I smile. Her directness is a pleasure. And I feel a surge of hope that she is equally attracted to me, as she’s delving into my personal life – a topic I have been actively restraining myself from broaching ever since I first laid eyes on her, for fear of coming on too strong. This is a good thing.
“Not very well.”
She nods, but doesn’t speak.
“My last relationship ended two and a half years ago – mainly because of my jumping.”
“You chose it over her?”
“Not exactly. It’s a part of me. I asked her to let me have both. But she was so afraid it was going to take me away from her permanently, she walked away.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
She seems sincere. I wish she would add something encouraging, like ‘But I’m glad because you are here now.’ But that is all in my own head. I am aware enough that she is a long way behind me in terms of falling head over heels. At least she’s here.
“And you?” I ask, keeping the question open, but hoping for some details.
“It has never been a problem for me. But I have seen it happen over and over again for other people. And my partner – my ex-partner – nearly died once after a ‘chute failure.”
“I suppose it’s easier for you, because you understand the feeling, the passion.”
She regards me with those sad eyes again, gathering her thoughts before responding.
“I do. But truly understanding another person? All their thoughts, intentions, actions, dreams, flaws? That is beyond us all. We all jump, in some way or another. We all make our own choices in order to feel free.”
The food arrives. And it keeps arriving. We talk, and eat, and drink wine. Maya-Belle is open, and honest, and in between lustful thoughts and lurching moments of pure giddy admiration, I start to think that if I let this woman slip away I would never forgive myself. I start to think that losing her would be a tragedy of infinite scale in my life. And I have known her less than twenty four hours. She smiles, and she looks into my eyes, and she laughs – but there is a distance there that I need to bridge.
She’s here with me, though. That’s enough for now.
Over dessert, I enquire about her ex-partner, his accident.
“Did he recover fully? Does he still jump?”
“Oh, yes.” She laughs. “He is Miguel Mirales.”
She nods, amused by my awestruck expression. Mirales is at the top of the game. He is undoubtedly the most famous and skilled jumper on the planet. There’s even been a movie made about him. Suddenly I feel foolish and inferior, sitting here, clumsily trying to chat up this woman.
I shake my head, “Miguel Mirales is one of my heroes.” I mutter, almost under my breath.
“Mine too.” She shrugs, “But he’s only human.”
We spend another half hour sipping coffees and sobering up for the drive home, and though the conversation still flows and I still find her bewitching, my confidence has taken a knock. I don’t know how to compete with her history. Finally I can hold the question burning in my throat back no longer.
“Did it end recently with Mirales?”
She nods. My stomach drops. She’s still heartbroken. That is the distance between us. I’m healed, ready to move forwards, desperate to whisk this beautiful creature up into my arms, my world, my heart, and give her all she desires. But she is broken at the moment, and all she desires is lost to the world for now. It’s like she said earlier; to understand another is almost impossible. But I’ve been where she is now. And I understand that I’ll have to let her go.
My fighting spirit rises within me. There’s nothing to stop me waiting it out. In time, she will heal. And I can be there. I would be foolish to rush her, but equally foolish to give up and let her go.
“Maya-Belle, I think you are a wonderful woman. I would like to be your friend. And someday, maybe more.”
She looks at me, and her eyes fill a little. No tears spill, but I can almost feel them stinging, turning the whites of her eyes a pale pink. She reaches across the table and squeezes my hand. Hers is cold, thin, fragile.
“Thank you, Gerry.”
I don’t sleep well. It takes all my willpower not to go back to the apartment where I dropped Maya-Belle, declare myself an idiot, and demand her immediate commitment to me. But I know that would be ridiculous and counter-productive and selfish. It would be dream-land, Hollywood style redemption through romance. And that’s not real. Goddamn Miguel Mirales. He’s a fool for hurting her. I would never hurt her.
These pointless, over-dramatic thoughts punctuate my restless tossing and turning until first light at six forty five. I am up, and in my jeep with a flask of coffee in fifteen minutes. Conditions are perfect and I need to jump.
I drive fast up the narrow mountain tracks, hoping that I will be alone at the top. I don’t want to talk about jumping with anyone, I just want to do it. I’m in luck. There isn’t a soul up here.
I change fast, checking and rechecking my gear as always. And then I stand at the edge and breathe. I curl my toes over, as Maya-Belle did yesterday and I feel the adrenaline begin to course through me. I feel intimately connected to the vulnerable, beautiful woman I met yesterday.
Relax. Jump. Fall.
As I exit, I catch a flash of golden brown hair in my peripheral vision. I am certain it is Maya-Belle, come to do her own jump. I smile as I coast through the chilly air, it will be nice to meet her at the bottom. We will drink coffee and discuss our jumps. We will be friends. I have fallen, and if I am lucky, if I can just trust in my heart, the she will fall too, in time.
I always find the best perspective when I am gliding above the world that tethers us.
I am packing up when the commotion starts. I can hear shouting, voices filled with panic. Then the unmistakeable sound of a helicopter.
For some reason, Barbara’s tear-stained face flashes into my mind, begging me not to jump just a few days before we called it quits.
I drop my half-folded ‘chute and move towards The Landing, where I can make out a crowd gathering to look up at the cliff face.
Among all the faces I know, I see one that I have only seen on the covers of magazines, or on screen. He is ashen-white, speaking incessantly in Spanish, while people gather around him and ask him countless questions. I approach him, and push through until I am directly before him.
“Maya-Belle?” I say, quietly, and his glazed eyes suddenly fix on mine and focus.
He registers that I am still half-suited, and grabs me by the upper arms in a vice-like grip.
“Is it her?” He demands, in rasping English.
“I don’t know… I think so.” I respond, the pain in his eyes forcing me to relate to him as a kindred soul. He loves her. Just like I do.
He emits a guttural sound, which turns into a pained keening as he drops to his knees in the dusty gravel. The helicopter passes overhead, drowning out his pain. I can hear snatches of people’s conversation:
“Accident… Just dropped like a stone…”
“Crazy woman… couldn’t possibly survive…”
“He arrived as she jumped…”
I wait. I don’t talk to anyone. There is an ambulance, but it doesn’t need its siren by the time the helicopter returns with the body. I don’t see her, just an impossibly small black bag hefted by two mountain rescue men into the ambulance. Miguel is allowed to travel with her. I am nobody. Just another bystander.
I understand now.
The story comes out inside the cafe as the bystanders all retreat to share the experience, to stave off the shock of seeing somebody die on a Thursday morning in November.
Maya-Belle was not a Base Jumper. I wrack my brains trying to figure out if she lied to me, but all I can find are a few vague responses which I took to mean she was. In fact, they were warnings of what was to come. If only I had seen her instead of seeing the perfect image of a lover for me, I could have stopped this from happening. It was clear as day. She was planning to jump. And fall. She was about to do it yesterday when I found her, but she didn’t want to traumatise me. And then I gave her the task of driving my jeep down, and even in her despair, her kind heart led her back down the tracks safely behind the wheel, and we spent a beautiful evening together. All the while, with her knowing she would be dead in the morning. And me planning to give her the time she needed to recover before we embarked on our perfect life together.
As the barmaid recounts how Miguel arrived, breathless and asking after his partner, just as somebody outside shouted that the second jumper of the morning was in trouble, I feel the vomit rise in my throat. I dash to the bathroom, making it just in time to empty the contents of my stomach into the washbasin.
Last night’s dinner with Maya-Belle.
Her voice, like honey, stuck in my mind forever.
“We all Jump, in some way or another. We all make our own choices in order to feel free.”