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Two Essays

How to Fall

My thanks to Third Coast who published this in their Spring 2011 issue.

by Rebecca Balcarcel

How to Fall


I lift a hand to my goggles more than once, triple-checking, nudging their snug resistance. Fitting over my glasses, the plastic edges press hard against my cheekbones. These polycarbonate lenses will show me plane wing, wrist altimeter, ground far below, and hopefully my parachute with untangled lines unfurling, full canopy, above me. At over 120 mph, air currents can whip off glasses and sting up blinding tears. The goggles' tight fit reassures me. Ten square inches of security promise to do their part. The skydive is a yin-yang of submission to physics--letting the Earth pull my body towards itself--and defiance of it--hoping to land safely from twelve thousand feet. For success, ripcord, pilot chute, jumpsuit, main chute, toggles, risers must work. Nylon and stitching must hold. I put myself in the hands of the Law, believing each electron's orbit stable. Plans in motion stay in motion. Fears at rest stay at rest. Chute packer, pilot, trainer pat me on the back. Trusting, I jump into the arms of Newton.


When I pull the ripcord in practice, it flips over my arm rather than flinging free. The instructor turns the incident into a lesson on emergency procedures. A tremor moves through my confidence. The second practice try works. Later, as I am rigging up for the jump, I find the ripcord hard to reach. Instead of hitting me at hip level, the backpack holding the precisely-folded parachute hangs below my thigh. Two instructors talk over my head, discussing a smaller rig. I didn't feel short until now, nor in need of male protection, but I find the fatherly tone a comfort rather than an insult. A new rig is brought, and I am strapped in. Now the pull is an easy reach, and when I grab for it in free fall, it sails out to the side just as it should. The pilot chute follows, the instructors let go, and in the four beats before the full chute opens, I am savoring the last moment of flight. Though I am falling two miles per second, solid ground is far away. It is fantasy, a myth that prophesies a far future, irrelevant. Dive flow tasks finished and chute inspection yet to start, my mind turns to a fresh page and lifts off of it. I am a vast Now. My ears go silent and the page of this moment stays below, clean and blank, without shout, curse, or praise. My body, little package of atoms in sky, means almost nothing. It is not me.


I climb into its long sleeves and pants, and though it is June in Texas, I know I will be cool soon. Falling through blue air. These suits are for trainees like me, so the outer arms and legs have a plump strip of fabric running along the seams. Two instructors, one on each side, will hold these during the jump. One will grab on as I stand sideways in the plane doorway. The other will catch hold as my left foot steps out and we arch into free fall position. They will stabilize me as we fall together, and when my altimeter reads 5000 feet, I will give them a signal, a two-handed salute that means, “Opening chute now.” This is how it, in fact, happens. Four minutes without floor or ceiling, without walls, my body stretching into open space. Then I give the signal and reach behind to find the pull, a thick strip of nylon that will save my life. The instructor's hand plants my fingers right on it. His touch sparks a surprise, a surge of intimacy; a channel opens between me and this man I do not know. In the squeeze of his hand, we complete a circuit whose current says, Live. I care that you live. That we live. Right here is the ripcord. Through my body, a familiar gratitude spreads. This moment of thank you deepens the color I knew as thank you, adding another coat to the thankfulness I had for my midwife, holding my hand through twin births. For colleagues who vouched for me, opening the door to my first job. For the coach who helped me penny drop off the uneven bars. This stranger gives a split-second gift. Like my father running along beside my bicycle, giving a strong push that sails me down the sidewalk. The last thing he can do for me.


Once the chute flares open, I am pulled upright and slowed to a hundred feet per second. I hang above the planet and feel for the steering toggles just above my head, one on each side. Two yellow loops of webbed nylon receive my fingers. A radio crackles in my ear, and a voice says, “OK, Rebecca. Give me a right turn.” I pull the right toggle firmly down toward my waist. “Left turn.” I steer left. Alone again, I look down. I try to spot the landing zone. We have seen it in aerial maps and walked it on the ground. I pointed at it from the airplane window, noting a white rooftop. I must find that white rooftop. Only grassy miles divided by lines of trees stretch to the horizon. Through them threads a gray road. No rooftop. It could be behind me. I pull the left toggle hard, the canopy leans, and I float to face the opposite direction. The parking lot, with cars the size of fingernails, and the white roof come into view. I steer toward them, breathing easily again, looking out, taking in the panorama. If a praying person comes to this moment, she will give praise and resolve to live well. I let my hands go limp in the toggles. Wind and gravity, like good parents, take care of things. Later, I will slow down using the toggles as brakes, flaring hard when I'm eight feet above the ground, but for now I don't need to steer.

I sit hard when I land, but the only swelling is a lump of embarrassment. Gathering up the chute, I walk towards the hanger and my life back on the ground. I am touched that it waited for me. That it welcomes me back. I lay my chute on a mat where packers will prepare it for the next jumper. The jumpsuit goes on a hanger, the goggles to a hook, and my own clothes feel light. My head is light too, and I talk little, though I am smiling warmly to every person I pass. My instructor reviews the jump with me and makes suggestions. I am still surprised to feel, under both feet, ground. Its willingness to hold me, a gift. As he talks, I wiggle my toes in my shoes, thankful for dirt and bedrock. I walk outside, ready to head home. But appreciation for solidity gives way to another feeling. I pass a picnic table that pretends to be permanent. I look at the cars in neat rows, at asphalt smooth as soles of junior high penny loafers. A picture of safety. Under my shoes, the earth says, You will not fall. A promise it cannot keep. Not to worry; I'm learning how.

The Clothesline
by Rebecca Balcarcel

Fifteen dollars, a trip to the local hardware store, and I was all set. One retractable clothesline, guaranteed not to break, rust, or raise the electric bill. Since I own a perfectly-running dryer, more than a few folks wondered at my new purchase. At the store, clerks passed my question back and forth like a smelly cloth diaper. ''Clothesline did you say? Let me ask hardware.'' ''A clothesline? Let me check with domestics.'' ''Do you mean a line for hanging clothing? Stay right there; I'll find the manager.'' I finally scooped the single dusty package off the shelf. Back home, the neighbor grabbed my elbow and rolled her eyes, ''My mother hung out clothes for all seven of us - what a headache!'' A friend asked tactfully about my plan for cold weather and rain. I think my mother assumed my dryer had collapsed and considered offering me her Sears card. The truth was, I actually wanted a clothesline.

My kids didn't criticize the clothesline; they thought it might be fun. They even promised to help pin socks, though I didn't hold them to it. What they envisioned more clearly was my presence in the back yard. And that, in fact, was my reason for buying. Over the last year, my three sons has eased into a new stage. Instead of pulling at my wrist with, “Mommy, will you come outside with me?”, they tossed “We're going outside” over their disappearing shoulders. As the back door slammed, I smiled to see their confidence and growing independence. I soaked up that hour of solitude with pleasure, but in time, I wanted to open that door. As my three boys romped through the warm spring afternoons, I found that I wanted to join them.

The boys didn't need me to keep them from eating bugs or referee their play anymore, so I looked for an activity of my own to pull me out the door. My gardening skills fall into the Remedial category, and I didn't need to push the reel mower around every day. In times past, I'd spent outdoor hours in a lawn chair with a book. But this year, the spring air inspired me to move my muscles, to do productive work. I wanted to labor, then walk in the house with something to show for my efforts. Why not hang clothes? I pictured myself in a billowing prairie skirt, sunbonnet hanging by the strings.

This idyll isn't everyone's picture of a clothesline in use. My mother, for instance, would rather sort junk mail than lug a basket of soaked towels onto the lawn. Wedged comfortably in the middle of middle class, my mother owned a dryer all her adult life. She loved her fantastic labor-saving device, and so did I. In my teens, I didn't know anyone who line-dried. Why would they? Afterall, those were the days when other chores still required hand labor -- turning the TV on and off for example. Kidding aside, we appreciated her Kenmore, and I did plan to use my own dryer on rainy days. But I hoped to hear the squeak of clothespin springs as much as possible.

Since Mom and I enjoy a close relationship, I expected her to understand my clothesline. After all, she came to grips with my trip to Europe with a back pack and no hotel reservations, my dropping out of college twice, and marrying an idealist. I was surprised at her frown over my clothesline. As we talked, I realized that under a column titled Recreation, another Chore, I would write hanging clothes under Recreation. She would write paging through mail-order catalogs. Stand in sunshine sounds great to me, but Mom says, ''You mean become mosquito target.'' Watch the kids play we agreed on; hence her ability to eventually understand my clothesline reasoning.

I'd negotiated Mom's blessing, but still I hesitated. The dusty package sat on the dining table through a few meals. I faced a formidable Second Thought because of what I now call the Clothesline Image Problem. During my teens, clotheslines acquired shadows of poverty and low-class life in my mind. Maybe this grew out of the fact that my high school of future lawyers and doctors never added a clothesline to their lists of most-wanted amenities for their gated communities. When spying undershirts strung between inner-city tenements, even on television, I imagined murmers that included the word ''trash.'' For the upwardly mobile in my neighborhood, public display of one's underwear, even clean, designer underwear, meant not just lack of money, but lack of opportunities and what professors in my midst called ''scope.'' The clothesline embodied despair. It equaled Dead End. I shooed away worries that our clothesline might prevent my children from going to college.

Even though my children's future might remain un-jeopardized by my new purchase, putting up a clothesline made me feel a bit self-conscious. No city ordinance prevented it, but until now, I had agreed with some imagined suburban consensus that runs: Clotheslines look ugly, even with nothing on them. Clotheslines tie the unliberated woman (me) to domesticity. Clotheslines belong to the past, a piece of the ''before'' behind a great and glamorous ''after'' of technological wonders. No one in her right mind would want one.

So as I filled a cloth bag with wooden pins, I banished the clothesline baggage. I told myself I could enjoy a clothesline without stigma. I would be bold, going where no highly-educated feminist in the twenty-first century (at least none that I knew) had gone before. And, anyway, I'd bought a low-profile, retractable version of the you-know-what. Just when I started recovering from clothesline guilt, my mother-in-law phoned. Rather than raise her eyebrows, she confided that she felt guilty for not using a clothesline. Whether this came out of ecological concern or respect for her own mother's Law of the Line (Never trust your clothes to a machine?), I could only guess. Perhaps she, too, enjoyed the peace of pinning and the excuse to get out of doors. I think she loved the smell of sunshine in a blouse and the sound of shirts snapping in the wind. 

We strung the line between the wooden swingset and a tree. Now that I use it regularly, I've noticed some changes in my life. I notice weather now, and appraise it for drying potential. I also accept washing as a part of life's rhythm without grumbling. Knowing that a sunny time in the grass awaits, I gather whites with a more of a spring in my step. Best of all, I witness more of my boys' outdoor play. Dragons set fire to the line; fire-fighting knights save the day. I overhear their games and antics, and feel more connected to their world. I've never seen hanging clothes on a list of options for spending ''quality time'' with kids, but for us, that's how it's working. The clothesline has become my rein for slowing down, a thread to follow into my children's lives, a cord that draws us together.