He stood perfectly still. A vein in his upper leg twitched with anticipation. The sweat on his palms felt cold and damp. A mosquito bounced around his face.
“Come on!” yelled one of the swimmers bobbing below him, out of sight from where he stood on the cliff. “Just do it!”
Fifteen or twenty feet back from the edge, he could barely hear their voices, the splashes of their treading.
““You can do it, Stu!” He recognized Christina’s voice through all the others. Lovely, sweet Christina in her pale yellow bikini. Her voice washed over him like molasses and Stu imagined what her slender body would feel like in the water, her bare legs pumping out and down in the scissors kick, knocking into his, strong from running the fifty-yard dash. He imagined his hands on her smooth, tiny waist, untying her top from behind, just under the surface of the water where no one else would see.
But the water looked a mile away. The grass ended ten feet in front of him, and then there was just exposed rock. After that, after the edge of the cliff, was a blank space and then flat blue water, so far away, water further out into the lake than where his friends floated, waiting for him, calling his name.
In diving, there is a moment when the diver must subvert the rational mind. The intellect of a human being cannot agree to the suggestion of hurling the body into thin air, of handing the reins of life so calmly and completely to gravity and chance. The mind will never agree to this suggestion. It tugs at the diver, pulls him away from the idea. It knows better.
In order to achieve a dive, one must go round this intellect. Sidestep it. The diver steps to the side of his rational mind like a stream of spilled water on a kitchen table that bumps into a saltshaker on its way to the edge. The water hesitates for a split second, then changes direction, pivoting left or right or sometimes in both directions to get around its obstacle.
In this split second, Stu Fairchild was trapped.
Sitting in his kitchen in his motorized wheelchair, thirty years since he stood on that cliff (or any cliff for that matter) Stu slipped into that moment again, for the one hundred billionth time, and stared blankly at the side of the refrigerator.
He could feel the grass and the small rocks pressing into the bottom of his feet as he clenched his toes into the earth. The mosquito now hovered just outside his left ear, threatening to invade. He heard his friends splashing in the water below, the sound of the wind in the trees overhead. He felt the roadblock of fear in his mind and realized, clearly, quickly and completely that in order to jump he would need to disobey his own mind.
The stream of water gathered, stood still with all the potential of the future, then burst to the left.
Stu’s feet pounded the already matted grass. He pumped his arms to gain momentum. He inhaled a deep breath to last until he resurfaced from his plunge and flung his body off the side of the cliff.
“Carla!” called Stu, irritably to his nighttime aid, who was probably curled up the armchair in his living room, flipping through one of his AARP magazines and listening to her iPod. He just wanted a soda, but needed Carla to open the refrigerator door, lift the can off the shelf, tug open that silver aluminum tab and place it in the cup-holder welded onto the side of his chair.
Carla didn’t answer.
Stu never thought about what happened next—the moments that followed the moment that all divers experience. He never replayed his head hitting the boulder, so unsuspectingly lurking just under the surface, the blood in the water, or his friends screaming. Christina with red all over her pretty bikini, running in tiny streams down her smooth, wet stomach as they struggled to carry his limp body out of the water.
No, it was the moment that preceded that horrible series of events that lived in his wrecked body like a parasite, dominating him from the inside. The moment lived within him at all times, sometimes dormant, more often rearing its head in the night, larger than life, bigger than the universe.
“Carla?!” Stu rolled his head agitatedly around on top of his neck, the only movement that still came freely to him, the only act any part of his body other than his face could commit to convey his emotions, his personality, his desires.
He felt the grass under his toes. He heard the mosquito just outside his left ear and the whish of the wind in the cottonwood leaves.
He heard the laugh of beautiful Christina, bobbing on the surface, her wet shiny locks floating in circles like seaweed around her shoulders.
But this time, Stu could not escape. The walls of his kitchen gave way to the woods of his youth. Where wallpaper had hung were now trees and the hum of his frig became the ring of late afternoon bugs.
The beige khakis covering Stu’s atrophied legs began to quiver. The mosquito buzzed. His hands, having felt nothing for three decades, began to twitch. His fingers wiggled. The sun began to set over the blue water.
Carla, setting down the AARP magazine, uncurled her legs stiffly and rose out of the chair. She pulled the earphones from her ears as she walked slowly down the hallway towards the kitchen, wondering vaguely if she should make herself a cup of tea while she was up.
Rounding the corner, Carla froze in the doorway. Where Stu had been sitting, now stood an enormous wicked Moment with legs like tree trunks and the hair ribbons of young, innocent girls in its teeth. Its muscles rippling with power, it stood tall, agile and erect.
It smelled like the slow-motion memories of right before a car wreck, and had the gleam of perpetual torture in its eyes as it worked its lips slowly into a smile. The spokes of Stu’s wheelchair formed its gigantic teeth and its head swarmed with mosquitoes. Water dripped off its awful body and spread out across the linoleum floor. It wore only men’s swim trunks, red with a number seven on the side. Like an athlete’s number, thought Carla, like a track runner’s shorts.