It’s hard to fight with another guy when you’re both naked in the noonday desert sun. And if it escalates, due to the influence of cheap Mexican beer and endless bong hits, and you come to blows, and the guys watching are naked too, I pity those who don’t immediately grasp the timeless absurdity.
It was hot and bright and the soft desert breeze felt good against my skin. I was glad to have my cheap sunglasses as I stared into the September Arizona sun. The sweat ran down my forehead, and from the deep recesses of my armpits and the middle of my back. I scrambled up the steep hill in the dirt and sand, past the small brown bushes and sparse grass. The dust collected on my sweaty legs and forearms, and my hands stung when I grabbed the hot rocks. It felt good to be free and close to the earth.
Terminal velocity, that’s one of those concepts that pops into your head if you’re drunk and stoned and you’ve been studying it, and you think you might soon become a living example. I remembered the 9.8 meters per second squared part, but the rest of the math was fuzzy and it looked like I was only five meters or so from the water. Then I remembered that the average skydiver’s terminal velocity is about 125 miles per hour, but competitive skydivers could hit over 600. Now that’s a sport I could get into.
So what would my speed be if I landed on someone? Or worse, what if someone landed on me? What’s below the surface? Chris said he’d jumped here before, but he’d been drinking since we got up that morning. He was the dumbest guy in the fraternity anyway, and that was saying a lot.
My brown sunglasses and a pair of old, white Adidas tennis shoes with green stripes, stained red from the iron-rich desert soil, were my only clothing. The sun beat down on areas that usually didn’t get many direct rays, and I remembered that my left forearm and forehead were sunburned and sore. We’d had the top off as we drove through the desert that day in my jeep. I feared the more sensitive areas might fare even worse, and the subsequent peeling could have severe consequences.
I surveyed the rocky cove and blue waters of the lake, the consequence of damming a once mighty river. In the distance I heard laughter and loud music, drifting over from a houseboat, floating lazy on the calm surface.
I was really starting to feel the heat, and I wondered what the water would feel like as I hit. It might hurt at first, but it would be cool and I’d surely find my way back to the surface.
I stepped off the ledge and looked up at the cloudless sky, wondering if I’d remember to hold my breath when I hit. Terminal velocity here I come.
I watched as all 23 of my fellow fraternity pledges splashed below. Everyone but me. I must have wavered, and didn’t step off the ledge like I’d planned. Especially like Rick had planned.
From down below. “Yes! That was awesome!” Twenty-three naked, drunk and stoned freshman college guys, yelling and splashing water and pushing each other under. I was also studying Roman history, and it occurred to me that they would have appreciated these desert lakes. I wondered what kind of sadistic games they would have dreamt up to amuse themselves out here in this stark landscape.
The spell was broken as someone’s voice echoed off the steep rock cliffs. “Look. Green’s still up there.”
Rick looked up at me as he floated. He whined, angry. “Fuck. Green.”
I immediately turned away from the water, and scrambled back down the steep hillside, meeting them at the water’s edge. I reached the bottom just as the jumpers were landing on the sandy shore. I was silent, entranced by the timeless scene.
Rick’s face was frozen in a sour scowl. He worked out a couple of hours a day and had the chiseled chest and abs to prove it. His 15-inch biceps accented his wrestler’s body. He was about five eight, his black hair in a military-style crew cut. Brown Mexican sandals with soles made from car tires were his only protection from the elements.
“What the fuck, Green? Why didn’t you jump?” He swayed a little. I’d had trouble with him before. Some people’s personalities change when they drink. I gravitated towards extreme goofy; Rick toward extreme asshole.
I laughed a little and looked around at the other guys. Most were pale white with tanned faces, legs and forearms, but a few were darker-skinned Latinos and one was black. They were spread across the sandy shore, some still waist deep in the lake, shaking water from their ears and clearing their noses.
I tried to sound funny, disarming, and confident, all at once. Instead, it was just, “Terminal velocity, man. I was thinking about terminal velocity.” I looked him in the eyes, and wondered what I was doing out here in the desert, so far from home.
I conceded, “I just didn’t want to jump.”
It could have been a scene in the Old Testament, or even older. We were 24 unworthy young men on a quest to find a god that would never appear. Only, we were the other tribe, the one who’s story is told as a warning to troubled youth. Ours would be a parable about failures of leadership, and especially, a lack of faith.
Rick was fuming. “That’s bullshit. You just don’t want to be a part of anything we do. We were supposed to do it together—that’s what made it cool.”
“It was still cool. The splash was great from up there.”
Wren, a fellow Pacific Northwest transplant, had ridden with me during our journey through the desert. He said, “He just didn’t want to land on someone. Give him a break.” I wanted to look at him and nod my thanks, but instead stared at the wet sand in front of my feet.
I first gave up on being funny or confident, then lost interest in even being disarming, and finally just gave up on everything. “What’s the big deal? I didn’t’ jump. Who cares?”
That was too much for him. He threw his chest out and tilted his head a bit to the side. “What did you say?”
“Why do you care?”
He screamed and ran at me full speed. I didn’t have time to react. His shoulder hit me in the stomach and he grabbed my skinny thigh and easily dragged me into the water, despite my six-inch height advantage. Still, I barely resisted.
We were suddenly wrestling near the shore. I mostly remember his arms and his fists and his head hitting mine. I don’t remember any of my body parts fighting back very much.
He finally realized I wasn’t a physical threat, and let go. He said, “You’re an idiot.” He pushed me under, and climbed out of the lake. I resurfaced just in time to see him put his T-shirt and shorts back on, and head back to the parking lot.
I coughed and floated on my back in the warm lake, finally refreshed by its soothing waters. I touched the top of my head. My sunglasses were gone.
We camped that night at an abandoned home site on the crest of a small hill, surrounded only by distant shrubs and silent rocks. We arrived just as the pink sun set behind the barren, brown mountains to the west, and the afternoon wind retreated into nameless canyons and barren hollows. We built a bonfire, fuel for yet another night of drunken brotherhood. The more we drank, the higher the fire raged, and soon we were smashing bottles and tossing cans into the flames. I watched as the aluminum cans melted, pooling into silver blobs on the desert floor. I soon found myself dancing beside the fire, screaming and jumping like a berserk warrior. My fellow pledges chanted my name as I ripped my shirt off and tossed it into the flames.
Someone found an old car tire and rolled it in. When the tire finally started to burn, everyone fell silent for a few minutes. We watched as the burning embers and billowing black smoke floated into the dark sky, carrying the events at the lake with it. No one ever mentioned it again.
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Portland Fiction Project
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