The night was cold. Much colder than we had been expecting and as we sat on the ledge, the chilly air blew my hair into my face. I swept it away and looked down at the traffic; the lights cast by the cars made them look as though they were diamonds trickling down a black, silken blanket. The din of the police sirens and car engines reverberated off the buildings, reaching my ears as one distorted blurb. For once I did not feel queasy at this dizzying height; my body was obviously becoming used to it.
"Why do you do this?" I asked Jordan suddenly, not turning to look at him.
"Me?" he replied in a deep voice. "I don't know. Just because I can do whatever the hell I like without being told otherwise I suppose. You?"
I paused, thinking intently before I replied. "To escape," I said simply.
"Yeah?" said Jordan. His tone of voice made me look over at him. I couldn't really see his face in the dim moonlight but his piercing blue eyes shone brightly at me like sapphires nonetheless. There was something in his gaze that made me look away again.
"From what? There's nowhere you can go to get away from yourself."
Ignoring his last statement, I stood up abruptly before he had a chance to say any more and stepped swiftly off the roof of the high building, the night air rippling my clothes around me.
School was a mission. I knew it was like that for everybody, but not having any friends to call your own made the journey particularly arduous. I was not one to fare well on my own. I desperately sought constant approval from somebody but it was constantly being denied to me. After a while of trying and failing dismally to socialise with other groups, I came across Jordan McKenzie. He fitted the stereotypical description of a good-looking young man: tall, handsome, talented and athletic. But he was white. All my life I'd been struggling with the same problem: I'd never really fitted in with all the other black kids at school, no matter how much I twisted to try and fit in the mould. It wasn't something I chose to happen, it just did. People would talk, humiliate me and call me names until I could only ever really function on my own. It was the one day when the abuse got particularly physical when Jordan's path crossed with mine. I was walking down the corridor after school, rushing to get to work at the restaurant when I was roughly shoved against the lockers. There was some malicious laughter and a girl I only knew from sight had me pinned against the cold metal.
"Aah," she said in a mocking baby voice, "little Miss White Girl scared of me?"
She was substantially larger than I was so obviously fighting back wouldn't have been a very good idea.
"Look, please. I don't want any trouble. I just want to go home."
She pushed me harder against the lockers and I was afraid she was going to hit me. Her hand drifted to the dog tag around my neck and she ran a thick thumb over its surface. The metal chain cut into my neck as she yanked it off.
"What's this? A little present from one of your snot nosed buddies?"
"Hey!" came a voice from the end of the corridor. "What're doing?"
It was Jordan. Great, I thought to myself.
"So is he your little aristocrat bodyguard now?" she continued to mock, yet at the same time loosening her grip slightly.
"Come on, really?" said Jordan angrily, "Stop trying to pick a fight and let her go. She didn't do anything to you."
She stopped to consider the situation. She was now outnumbered and she knew full well that Jordan wouldn't go away until she let me go. With one last threatening bang against the lockers, she threw my dog tag at me and walked slowly away without a backward glance.
"You alright?" he asked, coming closer to hand my tag back while I picked up my fallen books. I instinctively backed away.
"Yeah I'm fine. Nothing I'm not used to. Listen, thanks for saving my ass just now but I really need to go. I'm already late for work," I said, trying to force the door for conversation shut.
"Oh?" he asked conversationally. "I could give you a ride you know. I really don't mind."
"No it's fine," I said a little too hastily. "It's not that far away. Thanks again."
With that, I briskly walked away while I saw him shrug his shoulders out of the corner of my eye.
Fridays at Zo's were generally noisy, busy and annoying. That day, however, was different in that there were only about ten people there. Not that I cared. The less work I had to do, the better. I was sneaking in some learning time for my science test the next day when I heard the bell ring. It was Jordan and his friends. Surprise surprise, I thought. He was beginning to get a knack for popping up everywhere now. Since (oddly), everybody else was occupied, I had no choice but to serve them. Not being the prettiest flower in the bunch and being painfully untalented in anything except my schoolwork, serving people like him and his supremely self-confident friends always made me feel particularly self-conscious. Like being back at school actually. I didn't even know why I worked at a restaurant because I hated being around people so much. I closed my books, straightened my uniform and walked over to their table. When he recognised me, a look a pleasant surprise flashed across his face and I tried and failed to smile back. He, gratefully, made no mention of us ever having met before and pretended as though he didn't know me. Somehow I knew he wasn't being rude, just thoughtful. After they'd eaten, he took an unnecessarily long time to pay for their food and gave me a huge tip. I couldn't concentrate on my science that night and those magnificently blue eyes kept pleasantly interrupting my sleep.
I worked at the school library purely because I had no friends and enjoyed the quiet. With access to computers, nobody seemed to need it much anymore. While I was packing some books away, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
"Hi," he said. Excellent, I thought.
"Hey," I replied. "Fancy seeing you here."
He laughed quietly. "Yeah, not exactly my usual hang-out but I was hoping you could help me with something."
The hope building up in my chest abruptly collapsed and I felt my face fall. This was how it always went. People only ever had something to say to me when they needed help or wanted something and being the person I am, I could never say no.
"Okay, I could try," I said, my voice noticeably cooler than it was before.
"You don't happen to have any books on extreme sports, do you? And something on parachutes as well."
"Well we've got some magazines that could help you out. Don't know about books. Parachutes you'd have to check the encyclopaedia for that. You plan on going skydiving or something?"
"Yeah something like that I suppose."
I gave him his magazines and made him his photocopies, resenting every male on the face of the earth as I did. I hated being academic, I loathed it. It's all I was ever good for and it frustrated me to pieces. I'd always said to myself that I'd rather be stupid and happy rather than an intellectual living in constant doubt of myself and my abilities. And of course, teenage males wanted nothing to do with you if you had brains, a body that was in near or perfect proportion and enough sense to keep your legs shut. No man is an island? Yeah right. I'd perfected the art of being an island throughout my high school career just fine.
Until our after hours encounter, I hadn't actually noticed how many classes I had with Jordan and I sometimes saw him glancing at me as though he wanted to say something. More than once I caught myself looking more often than I should, wanting to hit myself over the head with something heavy every time I did. I avoided becoming ensnared in the crush' trap because God knows no sane boy my age would ever have a crush on me. Feeling something for somebody without having the feeling reciprocated was an unnecessary pain that I wanted to spare myself. It'd been that way my whole life and I would've been nave and unrealistically hopeful to think otherwise. Hating myself to the extreme one PE lesson after I'd been lapped by some of the laziest people in my class, somebody fell into a walk beside me and I didn't even need to look over to know who it was.
"If you're trying to make me feel better, it's not working. Yes, being kept company by the most athletic person I know is exactly what I need right now."
"Well it's my only chance to talk to you so I decided to make the most of it."
"What, do you need help finding the fourth angle of a triangle or something?" I asked breathlessly, the sarcasm in my voice slicing through the bridge he was trying to build.
"Oh come on. Are you always this hostile or is it just me?"
"Do you always pick the ruddiest times to show up or is it just me?" I asked back, finally looking at him.
Generally, sweat is meant to make good-looking guys even better looking; he was just plain revolting.
"You look disgusting," I said.
He rolled his eyes at me and smiled. I honestly just wanted him to get away from me because huffing and puffing my way five times around the athletics track seemed stressful enough to me.
"Look, really? What do you want? Do I comply with the criteria to be your next victim? You need help with schoolwork? Just spit it out because I'm in a shit mood as it is."
He stopped and looked at me in disbelief.
"I just wanted to talk to you. Why is that so hard to believe?" he exclaimed.
I could've given him a whole laundry list of reasons but I was too tired and annoyed to say anything so I waited for him to fill the awkward silence that followed with something.
"So do you want to meet?"
I held up my hand to interrupt him. "Let's start with lunch at the cafeteria and work from there, alright?"
I didn't want him to get under my skin. It's why I was so hostile towards him. My mind had a mind of its own and bringing a boy into the equation just upsets operations even more. Being around a good-looking guy my age was just a bad idea because I would involuntarily put him under the potential boyfriend' category. Not good. Mainly because a boyfriend is something I didn't really want (I thought) and I wasn't capable of getting one even if was the wizard of blooming Oz. I could almost feel the gears in my head overheating from all the insane thought when Jordan plonked himself down at my table.
"Hey!" he almost shouted in an annoyingly cheerful way. I couldn't help it. Being disdainful was just one of the many strange fibres of my being.
"Hey," I said flatly.
He smiled at me. Why is that he was in a perpetually good mood? Why? Was it just to annoy me? Heaven knows that it definitely wasn't rubbing off. I felt some invisible force compelling me to admire the insanely attractive features of his face and how he tilted hid head slightly as he looked at me. Looked at me? What the hell for? There wasn't exactly much to look at and there he was treating me as though I was as fascinating as a tenth planet. It was insane, wrong, and impossible to believe. I couldn't believe it. Or maybe I just felt I shouldn't. Evidently my multitude of emotions was showing because his smile faded slightly and he asked me what he matter was. I brushed it off and began to eat my pizza.
"Mel, I want you to come away with me."
Silence. I didn't know if I'd heard right and I choked on my pizza.
"What?" I managed to splutter.
Jordan looked confused, and then seemed to understand my reaction because he said: "No! Not like that! I meant like for the weekend. I'm going camping and I was hoping you could come with me."
Silence again. This was getting to be a bit much. This boy wanted to go camping. With me. As if things couldn't get more ridiculous. I regained my composure so I could give my usual cool reply.
"You go camping on your own?"
"Well I won't be alone if you come with me now will I?"
I was very suddenly feeling completely disarmed and blank.
"I don't knowit's just I've got so much work". I stopped abruptly because he'd just grabbed my free hand, holding it gently in his. I cringed at the contact. His hand was softer than I had expected and it was slightly sweaty. It all seemed horribly clichd; like a scene from one of those unbelievably boring romantic comedies. I wondered vaguely if this wasn't some highly elaborate daydream my over-active imagination had fabricated. When he spoke again, still holding my hand, I realised it wasn't.
"Work! That's always your excuse! It's all you ever do. I'm sure you get sick of it sometimes. You keep saying it's all you're good for but you never take the time to try anything else." Then he changed tack completely and looked at me as though he were seeing me for the first time.
"What is it that you're so afraid of?" he asked me quietly. I automatically tried to pull my hand away but he held it fast. I didn't want to answer; it was something I preferred not to think about.
"Please? Just this once. I just want to show you something."
We looked at each other for a long time. So much for not letting him get under my skin.
That weekend was extremely cold. Thankfully, we drove most of the way so the air conditioning made the journey much more comfortable. His parents had lent him their van for the weekend; a reliable, navy Toyota Hilux. Considering the way he was acting, Jordan seemed to be under the impression that we were now good friends. From my point of view, he was just chucking his friendliness at me and I was placidly absorbing it. I had to admit, I did enjoy his company, or rather how he never kept quiet long enough for the silences to become awkward. We were still laughing about all the crazy things I'd see people do in the library when they thought nobody was looking when we set up camp. I made a point of pitching my tent as far away from his as possible. There'd be no snuggling tonight. Somehow, he'd managed to concoct the most delicious toasted sandwich I'd ever had and a steaming cup of strong coffee. I felt slightly more at ease as we ate our way through the sandwiches.
"So why me?" I asked. "There are like hundreds of way more interesting, loquacious, and physically fit (he laughed at this) people at school you could've taken. Why me? Do you suddenly want to become everybody's best friend because their choosing prefects soon?"
"Yeah that's really funny. I don't know. You just never say anything. You're the only person I know who manages to keep dead quiet when the teacher's not in class. Not just then, most of the time when I see you, you're just sitting in complete silence."
"And that's a good thing?" I asked doubtfully.
"It's just a bit weird."
"Isn't weird scary and repulsive? Generally that's why I'm always by myself. I don't have much to say."
"See I don't believe that. I reckon you've got a lot to say about a lot of things, just nothing any normal teenager would find interesting."
I put my coffee down. "You're calling me abnormal? I don't get it. Have you been building up a profile of me or something?"
He scrunched up his forehead in frustration.
"Why is this so hard with you? Why is it so hard to believe that somebody in your class whom you'd never normally talk to just wants to be your friend? If we were ten years old you wouldn't be giving me this much grief."
"See that's the thing. We aren't ten years old anymore. Besides, I know from experience that no normal' person would put so much work into befriending me. This isn't pre-school anymore. High school students always have hidden agendas. I may not be popular but I sure as hell am observant."
Again, there was silence as we stared each other down. He looked down at his now empty coffee mug and began to fiddle.
"Is it normal to feel confused?" he asked.
I frowned. "Well, I'm confused now and you just called me abnormal so I suppose no, it's not." I smiled weakly at my own lame joke. "To be honest, you're weirding me out here Jordan. Since when do guys talk about their feelings? You dragged me all the way out here to ask me about feeling confused?"
"No it's just" He trailed off as though he were losing his nerve. He stood up suddenly and put his backpack on.
"Jay?" I asked, suddenly concerned that I'd upset him, "Where're you going?" He didn't reply. He just kept walking away. The cliff overlooking the valley below wasn't far from where we were sitting. "Jordan!" I shouted anxiously, standing up to follow him. He suddenly sped up as he neared the edge and turned for a split second to wink at me before he gracefully jumped off of it. "Jordan!" I screamed, running to the edge. I was in a complete panic. Was that why he brought me all the way up here? To witness his suicide? How could I not have seen it coming! All those strange questions. It was making no sense at all and I was on the verge of tears. I looked over the edge of the dizzyingly high cliff and saw the red dot that was his jacket get smaller and smaller until unexpectedly, with the sound of a dozen sheets rippling in a strong wind, a yellow dome popped up against the background of green pine trees.
"Okay that wasn't cool. I'm sorry. How many times do I need to say it?" He was still flushed from his hike back to our camp site and I was still breathing erratically from all the crying. I hadn't cried in three years but I was crying because some guy I didn't even really get along with decided to play a sick joke on me. I refused to say anything, mainly because I didn't know what to say and feared anything I did say would come out wrong. I ignored him for the rest of the afternoon as I recovered from the shock and sat quietly on one side of the fire that night. Jordan was looking shameful and repentant.
"Mel?" he asked tentatively. I continued to sit quietly in silence. He approached from a different angle.
"Would you believe me if I told you that I had a problem?"
"I don't know. Tell me what you want because you've got me as confused as hell. I don't know what you makes you think that I've got all the answers to your questions."
"It's justI don't know. I suppose one year away from leaving high school behind you'd start feeling normal."
"Normal?" I asked. This was merely a reflexive question because I knew exactly what he was talking about. He said it in a way only somebody who knew what it felt like could've. The being there but not really being there, having so much but never feeling quite enough, looking at yourself everyday, or rather not wanting to because all your shortcomings would just outshine everything else, wondering how people completely content with themselves could just expect you to be the same. The dark side of life was the side you lived on, the only one that existed. No amount of self-righteous advice' could convince you otherwise. He didn't need to explain, I'd got his point a long time ago. What I still didn't understand was how he'd been able to tell that we were both in the same state of mind at that point in time. Life is strange, but I sure as hell didn't believe in fate, nor could people tell exactly who you were from a distance. What I did believe in though was Jordan and that he felt just as out of place as I did. Who you were on the outside, how you looked, what you achieved', who you were recognised and liked by had no real effect on how you felt inside. I'd just been nave enough to believe I was the only one, stereotyping him the same way everybody else did. I felt kind of stupid because of it but when you're seventeen and confused, it takes some pretty drastic measures to help you see past your own nose. For once, just that one time, I decided to loosen my screws just a little. It felt strange, like walking around naked or thinking backwards, but I ignored it and dropped my front a little.
"It's just I mean drugs, depression, hurting yourself I can understand, but base jumping? Why this?" Then a thought occurred to me. "You aren't hoping to get yourself killed are you?" I didn't need to know the details about why Jordan felt he way he did, I don't think I wanted to, but I was worried if he was on some suicide mission.
"No!" he laughed. "I don't know how to explain it. It's scary as hell but exciting all at once really. Last year I went on holiday with my cousins and we all went skydiving. It's like leaving all the ropes holding you back behind just for a few seconds. When I came back I started to feel all caged up again so I decided to try the next best thing. It's not as though we have a lack of high things to jump off of," he said as he gestured towards the cliff and the rest of the ragged plateau.
"But it's so dangerous. Where'd you learn how to do it so quickly anyways?" He smiled slyly at me.
"I have connections. Besides, the danger's the whole thrill of it!" He got up to sit on my side of the fire. "I'll show you if you like," he said quietly.
Involuntarily, my heart began to race. I'd been programmed to think rationally, never do anything stupid, keep on the straight and narrow and to see things for what they were and not what they seemed to be. So really, I was at a crossroads. I was already pushing it by being here, going against my own grain. The more I thought about it, the more it appealed to me. What difference did it make when I returned to everything else? Three years and I was still feeling the same deficits I felt back then and escape was nudging me gently in the side. The two thoughts were fighting it out inside my head when Jordan interrupted them.
"So what do you say?" he asked, his sapphire eyes glinting with excitement. He was working me like an expert craftsman and he knew it. I couldn't resist. I didn't want to. The urge to be reckless was just screaming at me and I couldn't ignore it any longer.
"Oh my goodness no," I said, suddenly breathless and shaking. I turned away from the nauseating sight and made to walk away when Jordan got me gently around the waist and pulled me back.
"Oh no you don't! You can't tell me you did all that preparation to back out now?"
My rationality had chosen a pretty inconvenient time to come back. All that could go wrong came right to the front of my mind.
"What if the chute doesn't open?" I asked desperately.
"That's what reserves are for, Mel! You've folded and re-folded it a million times! It can't not open. Honestly, you're the most thorough person I know."
I was now very aware of the parachute on my back and it weighed heavily on me like a block of lead. This was insane, I thought. I was about to jump off a cliff. A cliff! The valley below seemed so far away and the spaces between the trees looked like pores of a finely woven linen cloth. I struggled against his grip as I attempted to get away.
"Come now! This is what you wanted! You've worked so hard to get it. Just live a little!"
Reluctantly, I walked towards the edge again and Jordan squeezed my hand in encouragement. I willed myself to think of all the practise sessions and everything I needed to do to make sure I had a successful jump. My heart felt as though it was going to jump off the cliff before I did. I felt vaguely sick but swallowed back the bile.
"Seven seconds," he reminded me. "See you at the bottom," he added with a smile. I nodded and with one last look to Jordan I let my body fall freely off the edge, feeling the ropes of my troubles snap as I left them behind on the cliff.
My first jump had been exhilarating and once I'd had a taste, I couldn't go back. It became our little secret, potentially fatal hobby. We'd jumped off everything from cliffs to some of the buildings in the city (at night of course). There had come a time when Jordan had questioned my newfound enthusiasm for base jumping, asking me whether it was really helping me to deal with my feelings of inadequacy or just finding a way to run away from them. His worries were, however, assuaged when he noticed the subtle changes I'd made in my life. I swapped my gig at the library for one at the computer centre and my job at Zo's for one at the local bowling alley. Small changes to where I spent most of my time meant big changes in the people I found myself now able to talk to and befriend. I talked just a little more than I used to and saw that once you stopped looking for them, all those eyes weren't really looking at you after all. Of course, I wasn't completely changed and I would feel as though I'd be so much more secure if I reverted to the old me. Jordan was the wall standing in the way of that and I was grateful for it. Change was a painful process and you needed somebody there to help you deal with the withdrawal symptoms of your old life. It was he last day of term, our very last day as high school scholars. We were, once again, atop the cliff where all this had started. I couldn't remember a year ever being so short. Usually my days on earth went by agonisingly slowly. We stood together, two changed people, enjoying the sight of the valley below when Jordan asked: "You still scared?" the playful, excited glint back in his sapphire eyes. Replying with just a wink, I gracefully flipped backwards off the edge, whooping all the way to the bottom.