Over The Side
I have had vertigo for a long time. Perhaps it is actually Acrophobia. I’m not sure when it started. When I was a young boy, I was the one who was fearless about climbing over the side of a roof on a six or seven story apartment building and making my way down the outside fire escapes to retrieve a ball. I actually earned spare change doing that once in a while. But something happened as I grew older.
The most recent catalyst was a documentary about New York City by Ric Burns. As the photography depicted the rise of buildings, I could not help but envision myself going off of them, unwillingly. I find the feeling both recurrent and unpleasant.
I never wished to go to the top of the Empire State Building. There was that scene from Sleepless in Seattle that I enjoyed, but it didn’t display the sense of vulnerable height. I guess that I didn’t feel that when I climbed over rooftops.
I do not enjoy the thought of balconies, but I venture out onto them, always. At first I gaze to the horizon, then I look down. I feel the dizziness, that queasy, weak feeling of collapse and what that might mean. It is at that point that I find a grip on myself. I set about the process of affirming that I will live.
I prefer the window seat on an airplane. I don’t feel vertigo then. I don’t think that some emotion will sweep me over the edge. Or propel me through the skin of the plane. I am at relative peace, considering my circumstances.
I think it is that the wind rails at the walls but does not get in. I think it is the wind that has a sense of fate, sometimes. I can only smile as scientific data organizes itself in my mind about what the wind is. Friction and attraction in orbit. Turning in space.
But then I’m up high and the turning is sending me uncontrollably over the edge. What is that? Why does that happen?
I tend to prefer the upper level crossing when I drive over the George Washington Bridge, but I choose an inside lane. I have always smiled when I crossed the Tappan Zee, even when the wind created chaos. What is waiting over the edge? Haven’t I been there before? Do we mingle with over the edge for all of our lives?
It’s not a welcome acquaintance, but we all felt it necessary sometimes.
I like to dive deep. Under the water, where you need an extreme sense of focus. I passed those tests. I am certified to dive deep.
There is a reef in Grand Cayman. My dive instructor said, “One hundred and twenty feet down and you establish neutral buoyancy, and then sit back and enjoy the ride. Neutral buoyancy is the equivalent of being weightless. One piles on a certain amount of baggage for this dive. It is proportional to the equation of body weight and the differences between salt and fresh water. It is regulated by an air jacket that can be inflated appropriately. The basic idea is to cause you to sink and then have your jacket balance you.
My instructor continued. “Over your shoulder is the most beautiful blue that you have ever seen. It is inviting. It will seduce you. It is six hundred feet deep and then you will die.”
When I dropped down, there was something that he hadn’t mentioned. I could feel the blue and the way that it pulled at me. I focused on my instruments and on the passing panorama of the wall. Was it the absence of wind? Or was current now the wind?
The brain coral has a design symmetry that elicits a kinship. I floated, weightless, neutral buoyancy achieved. Is it a different kind of epiphany when your body resonates in conjunction with your mind?
Floating but not falling over the edge and falling, which is where this began. Swept over the edge. Struggling against it. Knowing it will come. Wanting to step back into some cocoon. Discovering an alternative.
Sometimes I turn my face from the screen. I feel the images whirling. It’s just heady and my body feels it differently, than I did when floating along that wall.
Astrologically, my sun sign is in Gemini. I’m predestined to fall in love with a breeze. Under the water, I am sometimes transformed. But that recurring, helpless feeling of being swept over the edge… The seductive blue so far under the surface… The current is a breeze in a different world.
I am frightened by height and attracted by depth. What we jettison to fly we use to help us submerge when we dive. The saying among divers is that any dive from which you surface alive was a good one. I question that application to height. The wind in my hair and at my back shouldn’t make me need to hold on tighter. I was not born to fly but I seem to have a tendency for diving.
Perhaps I am just afraid to truly fly. Maybe a leap is so different from a dive, maybe they are both the same. I know more about how to surface than I do about how to pull up. Swimming to the light is like flying. But if I am blown over the edge I won’t be able to fly upward because of what holds me here.
I’ve seen the sea turtle and the moray eel up close and wild. The birds have not been as accessible. The frantic nature of captured flight is so different from the powerful smooth strokes of airborne freedom. A bird in a building is never at rest until it has found a way out. But I’d just get pulled over the side. When you cannot fly, the final way out is to collide. I feel that plunging fear, and I fear how it influences my life.
The ride back from a dive is the sweetest of all rides. The sun and the air are like angels at your side. Skimming the waves and balancing a smile. It was a great ride and you’re still alive.
I remember the opening scenes from the film version of West Side Story and how they excited me. That must have been before. I feel vividly queasy when Al Pacino plays the Devil on a rooftop ledge. I try not to go to the ledges any more. But they still find me in my dreams.
Music and poetry can sweep me over this edge. I can ride and fly on those succulent waves. Sometimes it doesn’t feel real. Sometimes it just feels vain. What does it mean to fly when you can’t fly away? The sky is above us. The sea almost moves like a flame.