books and falling from the sky

We are at Airlie Beach, on the northern coast of Queensland in Australia.

We’re staying at Backpackers by the Bay, a small, laid-back hostel that seems perfectly fitted for this breezy, tropical weather. It sits on a hilltop that overlooks Boathaven Bay, a curved shore that hugs the blue and green water which is dotted with dozens of sailboats.

There are stencils of tiny blue fish and sharks sponged around the room. Our sliding glass door is open to bring in the afternoon breeze and I can see a clothesline from the top of my bunk bed. Shirts dancing in the wind.

Walter is reading the English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. I bought this book for Jeanne for her 28th birthday while we were in Adelaide. First she read it, then I read it, now Walt’s reading it. The first book of this trip that MJW is reading.

We attempted to watch the film. Jeanne, formerly excited about the movie, was utterly disappointed with the film, calling it a “bastardization of the novel.”

That book was like a fine meal that lasted over the course of several days. The words by themselves were compelling to read. Michael Ondaatje has taught me to slow my pace in reading, to allow my mind to slow to the speed of the author’s pen. Difficult in my Instant Message, blog-skimming, web-surfing mind, but it’s well worth the extra time.

The English Patient is a feast for the senses. So many beautiful passages. There is a stark eloquence to it and I love all the main characters.

On the lower bunk, Jeanne is reading Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I hear a gasp below me and an barely imperceptible “Oh my God” escape from the bunk below me. I lean over the bunk and look at her quizzically.

“He just had sex with her!” she said incredulously.

“Are you doing okay down there?” I’ve not read Lolita but I know the intensity of the subject matter.

“Yeah.”

I return to my book. I am reading Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis. Barely 12 pages in but I already love Oscar more than I did when I read all of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

With the breeze, the quiet, and the sudden realization that I can once again use my eyes. And I am grateful.

I remember last week’s stay in Cairns.

Cairns initially was not kind to me, but that was mostly my contact lens’ fault. I strongly advise against sleeping with your contact lens in your eye, should you ever find yourself on an overnight Greyhound bus trip from the middle of the Outback to the northern coast of Australia…

Just sayin.’

Cairns–originally MJW’s El Dorado–was this gleaming haven of our deepest Aussie longings come true: it housed our lofty dreams of skydiving, scuba diving, snorkeling, beaches galore, whitewater rafting.

Unfortunately, that was before bacteria attacked my eye, rendering me incapacitated for a few days. This infection necessitated daily trips to the hospital–I became very closely acquainted with the resident ophthalmologist in Cairns Base Hospital.

Finally though, after Walt and Jeanne’s endless patience with my perpetual state of waiting in hotel rooms, hospital waiting rooms, and everything else, Cairns began to unfold to us in all its glory.

Exhibit A: MJW go skydiving. We opted–almost spontaneously–to go skydiving over the city on Wednesday afternoon. I had an 11 a.m. appointment at the hospital, I explained to our tourism booking agent downstairs at the hospital. She told us that we could go that afternoon immediately, or we could wait until Friday morning for a jump over the beach, which was a good 2 hours away.

While jumping over the beach sounded fantastically cool, I was certain I would lose my nerve if we didn’t decide to go immediately. The three of us were watching the video overhead that showed happy, crazy people jumping out of airplanes left and right.

Jeanne and I trade information, trying to make a decision about plans.
“We should book the 4:30.” “But what about going on Friday? That way we can wait and not rush. Plus doing it over the beach rather than the city sounds way cooler” “But the weather’s supposed to be rainy.” “Oh good point.” “Let’s do the 4:30.” “How about we do the 3:00 in case you get out of your appointment early enough.” “That sounds good.”

We ramble on, then make an executive decision. Meanwhile, Walt is sitting in his chair, suddenly very (and uncharacteristically) quiet.

I ask him about this later. He told me he was silently hoping we’d go on Friday instead of today. I laugh at him. I’m just as scared as he is.

An appointment and lunch and phone call later, a dingy white bus pulls up in front of our hostel and a bright eyed, toothy Aussie greets us. “Going skydiving today?”

“Yep, that’s us!”

They whirl us just a block down the street to the skydiving office. They pair us up with our skydiving guides and we begin to get suited up. My partner is Jason, a slightly hyper dude with a long braid. All three of us opted for the DVD/handicam option, so our guides are documenting every step of our skydiving adventure.

Suddenly, we’re in a plane and we take off and I realize: there’s only one way off of this plane. And it’s an open door on the side of the plane that says “EXIT.”

Walt and Jeanne and I freak out, squeal, smile, laugh nervously and wholeheartedly soak up every second of our ascent.

Jeanne goes first. She’s got her arms crossed and her head braced back. She and GJ suddenly just roll and fall out of the plane. Jeanne disappeared. My best friend just fell out of a freakin’ airplane, I realize. I look at out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse, but she’s long gone.

Before I know it, it’s Walt’s turn. He’s already slid up to the edge of the plane. One, two, he’s gone.

I am the last one. Suddenly, I’m sliding to the edge. Jason asks me if I’m ready. He counts, and suddenly we just roll out of the plane, easily and lightly. As we’re falling, I’m trying to scream, but I quickly realize when I do that I can’t breathe. So I stick with trying to smile and keep my mouth closed at the same time and fully wrap my mind around the reality that I am freefalling through the sky.

Falling is not quite what I imagined it to be. Nothing like a roller coaster.

I’m pretty sure I gulped down part of a cloud on the way down.

Jason taps my arm about a half a dozen times before I realize it’s okay to stop clutching my own shoulders and let my arms out, Superman style. I can’t believe how much fun this is. Not scary at all once you’re falling.

The chute opens and we are jerked back and suddenly we’re spinning and I can see all of Cairns, blue and green and shining in the sun.

I smile and I think, this is the city I’ve been missing, holed up in a hotel room all week. I give a shout out to Chris Slankard in my handi-cam (“Yes, Chris, Mel is in the sky,” a tribute to our endless Scattergories debating. Jason lets me grab a hold of chute and lets me steer for a bit. And he tricks me into violently spinning.

“Well, hopefully we don’t crash into that powerline.”

WHAT? I see Jeanne and Walter below me, turning lazily in the wind with their parachutes. I see the field where they descend. I glide into the field, nice and easy.

I remember one of the guides asking an exuberant Walter (he picks up Jeanne, then me, spins us each around in his excitement) if he would do this ever again.

“I’d do it again right NOW,” he says gleefully.

All three of us are glad we got DVDs of our trips, because the moment of freefalling was over too quickly.

I realize, after a week of simply eating, waiting in a hospital room, not sure if I would see out of my right eye again, and being generally frustrated and homesick, that I’m happy to be alive again.

And I like this Cairns.

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