My Husband's Jump
Artwork by Cesar Fermin
My husband was an Olympic ski jumper. (Is an Olympic ski jumper?) But in the last Olympics, he never landed.
It was a wondrous sight.
Then he was gone, and they came after me. Desperate to make sense of it. And what could I tell them? He’d always warned me ski jumping was his life. I’d assumed he meant metaphorically. I didn’t know he meant to spend (suspend) his life mid-jump.
How did I feel? Honestly, and I swear this is true, at first I felt only wonder. It was pure, even as I watched him disappear. I wasn’t worried about him, not then. I didn’t begrudge him, not then. I didn’t feel jealous, suspicious, forsaken.
I was pure as that sky.
But through a crack in the blue, in slithered Iago and Cassius and every troublemaker, doubt-planter, and doomsayer there ever was. In slithered the faithless.
Family, friends, teammates, the bloody IOC—they had “thoughts” they wanted to share with me.
The first, from the IOC, was drugs. What did I think about drugs? Of course he must have been taking something, they said. Something their tests had overlooked? They were charming, disarming.
It was not a proud moment for me, shaking my head in public, saying no, no, no in my heart, and secretly checking every pocket, shoe, ski boot, cabinet, canister, and drawer in the house. I found nothing. Neither did the IOC. They tested and retested his blood, his urine, his hair. (They still had these pieces of him? Could I have them, I wondered, when they were done?)
The drug theory fizzled, for lack of evidence. Besides, the experts said (and why had they not spoken earlier?) such a drug did not, could not, exist. Yet. Though no doubt somebody somewhere was working on it.
A Swiss ski jumper, exhausted and slippery-looking, a rival of my husband’s, took me to dinner.
Ah. So my husband’s skis had caught a similarly rare and determined air current? He had been carried off, against his will, into the stratosphere?
The Swiss ski jumper nodded enthusiastically.
You believe, then that my husband is dead?
He nodded again, but with less gusto. He was not heartless–just nervous and desperate to persuade me of something he didn’t believe himself. I watched him fumble helplessly with his fork.
Have you slept recently? I asked. You seem jumpy–excuse the pun.
He frowned. You don’t believe it was the wind?
I shook my head. I’d been doing that a lot lately.
His fist hit the table. Then how? He looked around, as if he expected my husband to step out from behind the coat rack. Ta Da!
I invited him to check under the table.
Was it jealousy? Had my husband achieved what every ski jumper ultimately longs for, but dares not articulate? A dream that lies dormant, the sleeping back of a ski hill, beneath every jump. A silent, monstrous wish.
Yes, it was jealousy—and I pitied the Swiss ski jumper. I pitied them all. For any jump to follow my husband’s, any jump with a landing, was now pointless. A hundred meters, a hundred and ten, twenty, thirty meters. Who cared? I had heard the IOC was planning to scrap ski jumping from the next Olympics. How could they hold a new event when the last one had never officially ended?
They needed closure, they said. Until they had it, they couldn’t move on.
Neither, apparently, could my Swiss friend. He continued to take me to dinner, to lecture me about winds and aerodynamics. He produced weather maps. He insisted, he impressed upon me … couldn’t I see the veracity, the validity of … look here … put your finger here on this line and follow it to its logical end. Don’t you see how it might have happened?
I shook my head–no. But I did. After the fifth dinner, how could I help but see, even if I couldn’t believe?
I caught sleeplessness like an air current. It coiled and uncoiled beneath my blankets, a tiny tornado of worry, fraying the edges of sleep. I would wake, gasping–the enormity of what had happened: My husband had never landed. Where was he, now, at this instant? Was he dead? Pinned to the side of some unskiable mountain? Had he been carried out to sea and dropped like Icarus, with no witnesses, no one to congratulate him, no one to grieve?
I had an undersea image of him: A slow-motion landing through a fish-suspended world–his skis still in perfect V formation.
Meanwhile the media was attributing my husband’s incredible jump to an extramarital affair. They failed to elaborate, or offer proof, or to draw any logical connection between the affair and the feat itself. But this, I understand, is what the media do: They attribute the inexplicable to extramarital affairs. So I tried not to take it personally.
My husband’s family adopted a more distressing theory. While they didn’t believe he was having an affair, they believed he was trying to escape me. To jump ship, so to speak. Evidently the marriage was bad. Look at the lengths he’d gone to. Literally, the lengths.
In my heart of hearts I knew it wasn’t true. I had only to remember the way he proposed, spontaneously, on a chair lift in New Mexico. Or the way he littered our bed with Hershey’s Kisses every Valentine’s Day. Or the way he taught me to snowplow with my beginner’s skis, making an upside-down V in the snow, the reverse of his in the air.
But their suspicions hurt nonetheless and, I confess, sometimes they were my suspicions too. Sometimes my life was a Country and Western song: Had he really loved me? How could he just fly away? Not a word, no goodbye. Couldn’t he have shared his sky … with me?
But these were surface doubts. They came, they went. Like I said, where it counted, in my heart of hearts, I never faltered.
The world was not interested in my theory, however. When I mentioned God, eyes glazed or were quickly averted, the subject politely changed. I tried to explain that my husband’s jump had made a believer out of me. Out of me. That in itself was a miracle.
So where were the religious zealots, now that I’d joined their ranks? I’d spent my life feeling outnumbered by them–how dare they all defect? Now they screamed Stunt, or Affair, or Air current, or Fraud. Only I screamed God. Mine was the lone voice, howling God at the moon, night after night, half expecting to see my husband’s silhouette pass before it like Santa Claus.
God was mine. He belonged to me now. I felt the weight of responsibility. Lost a husband, gained a deity. What did it mean? It was like inheriting a pet, unexpectedly. A very large Saint Bernard. What would I feed him? Where would he sleep? Could he cure me of loneliness, bring me a hot beverage when I was sick?
I went to see Sister Perpetua, my old high school principal. She coughed frequently–and her coughs were bigger that she was. Vast, hungry coughs.
You’ve found your faith, Sister Perpetua said.
I couldn’t help it.
And then she said what I most dreaded to hear: that she had lost hers.
I left the window and went to her. The bed groaned beneath my weight. Beside me, Sister Perpetua scarcely dented the blanket.
She had lost her faith the night she saw my husband’s jump. She and the other sisters had been gathered around the television in the common room. When he failed to land, she said, they felt something yanked from them, something sucked from the room, from the world entire–something irrevocably lost.
She shrugged. What we had thought was God.
His failure to land, she continued, but I didn’t hear the rest. His failure to land. His failure to land.
Why not miracle or flight? Why not leap of faith?
I told her I was sure of God’s existence now, as sure as if he were tied up in my backyard. I could smell of him on my hands. That’s how close he was. How real, how tangible, how furry.
She lifted her hands to her face, inhaled deeply, and coughed. For a good three minutes she coughed, and I crouched beneath the swirling air in the room, afraid.
It was a warm night in July. A plaintive wind sang under my sleep. I woke, went to the window, lifted the screen. In the yard below, the dog was softly whining. It was not the wind after all. When he saw me, he was quiet. He had such great sad eyes they broke the heart, they really did.
I was content, I told him, when everyone else believed and I did not. Why is that?
He shook his great floppy head. Spittle flew like stars around him.
And now all I’m left with is a dog–forgive me, but you are a very silent partner.
I knelt there for a long time, watching him, watching the sky. I thought about the word jump. My husband’s word.
I considered if first as a noun, the lesser of its forms. As a noun, it was already over. A completed thing. A jump. A half-circle you could trace with your finger, follow on the screen, measure against lines on the ground. Here is where you took off, here is where you landed.
But my husband’s jump was a verb, not a noun. Forever unfinished. What must it be like, I wondered, to hang your life on a single word? To jump. A verb ridden into the sunset. A verb to end all others.
To jump. Not to doubt, to pity, to worry, to prove or disprove. Not to remember, to howl, to ask, to answer. Not to love. Not even to be.
And not to land. Never, ever to land.