Leap

· 2nd Place Prose Winner, Madison Beckstead Bowman ·

April 11, 2017

In the beginning, it was only the music. That first day, I stretched my legs out on the cool tile floor of the empty chapel and watched his right hand’s fingers flit over nylon strings while his left hand curled into shifting claws, tickling and scratching and stroking at the neck of his cheap Portuguese guitar. Thin fingers and long—alabaster, elegant. He touched me only once in the first year and a half I knew him; it was a handshake, firm and brief and introductory.

Once, when making a curry, I spent minutes mincing the chilled flesh of a hot pepper, and for hours afterward, when I scratched my nose or brushed back hair with those pepper-soaked fingers, any skin I touched turned fiery and produced a heat of its own. The second time David and I touched, we were snowed in at my apartment on a January night in Utah and the heater gave out. As ice crystals formed on the inside of the windows and our breath appeared as clouds, we hunched together under my only blanket; he threaded one arm around my shoulder and kept me there, ignited, gripped.

* * *

According to Genesis, the first human touch outside the Garden was also the first act of creation by man: “Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain.”

Adam knew Eve. After eating of the fruit, after expulsion from the Garden, after God said, “The man is become as one of us,” finally Adam knew. And whatever he understood before of pulse and purity and exaltation, in that moment with Eve he knew it empirically, bodily.

* * *

The Bible doesn’t tell us how long Adam and Eve lived in paradise before the fateful fruit tasting. What we do know: in Eden, the pair didn’t know good from evil, didn’t have children, and didn’t have sorrow. But were Adam and Eve happy in the garden? Did they experience states of rapture, excitement, profound satisfaction? Or did the absence of misery keep them from achieving joy?

The law of opposites states that we define each thing in existence by its juxtaposition to some other entity. We mortals define bitterness by its absence of sweetness, darkness by its dearth of light. Hegel tells us that without opposition, there is no progress: “Contradiction in nature is the root of all motion and of all life.” No good except as it struggles against evil. No life without the possibility of death. No reward unless first we take the risk, unless first we make the leap.

* * *

We married at an altar between mirrored walls, our reflections stretched out from our clasped hands into a coupled oblivion. I rested in that pre-vow moment, and the room rested around me, everything in thick silence as if my body were stuffed with cotton.

I watched our fractured faces in the mirror over David’s shoulder, and another moment returned to me: Years earlier, I followed a whim to a skydiving center, signed up for a jump, and found myself, almost as though I had just woken up there, crouching parallel to the open door of a light aircraft. I was not alone; an instructor was strapped onto my back, holding me in position. “Do we jump?” I yelled over the whoosh of the wind.

“We let ourselves fall,” he responded—and tipped our bodies over the threshold, headlong into the rush.

In the mirrored wedding room, the question was asked of me. “Yes,” I said, my voice cracking like a beaten bell. And again. “Yes.”

* * *

The Christian tradition often characterizes Eve as lustful and her tasting of the fruit as a metaphor for sexual transgression. I don’t think of her this way. I think instead about her state in that garden, the state of her mind, the state of her maternal urges—did she understand that without precipitating the fall of man, she was eternally fixed? Sorrowless, joyless, deathless, lifeless—a woman who could not produce or progress.

I don’t think Eve was deceived; I think she was determined. And I believe we cripple women when we characterize our first female forebear as a licentious temptress rather than a woman who valued wisdom and struggle and work and motherhood more than a life of paradisiacal ease.

So readily Eve fell, and Adam with her, and what is a willing fall but a jump?

* * *

We married young, with faith-filled confidence and perhaps a dash of optimistic naiveté; then quickly we lost our nerve. We argued and second-guessed and wondered if we were a poor match, if hearts should be steadier. On a family holiday in Paris, city of lovers, we fought on the Pont Notre-Dame. I rolled my eyes, and he flicked his leftover chicken at pigeons and finally agreed to forgo thrift shopping in Montmartre to chase Hemingway with me on the Left Bank. We walked, with me five feet in front, to places I’d read about in A Moveable Feast, and when it began to rain, we ducked into a corner cafe for overpriced Cokes and a shot at reparation.

“Did we jump into this too quickly?” I asked him, solemn, tracing the damp circles where raindrops had fallen on my sleeve.

“No,” he said. “But I think we are too quick to get scared by the weight of it.”

Days earlier, we’d gone paragliding. Harnessed to chutes spread wide behind us, we sprinted to the edge of a sheer peak and jumped. For seconds we dropped, and then the air caught the billowing nylon above us, and the rest of the ride, though peppered with dips, seemed like weightlessness, pure uplift.

* * *

I think of love as breathing—it is vital, yes, but also variable, present as much in the expansion as in the contraction. We release, we empty, we lay our lungs bare, and in faith we take up the air again, expecting that it will transform into something fresh, something life-giving.

* * *

When we returned from Paris, David took an internship with an advertising firm in San Francisco. We packed our possessions into our car and drove 3,000 miles from New York—the length of I-80—to a new ocean, and as we drove, we watched the steadiness of the horizon and felt the pulse of our tires as they thrust and turned, carrying us across that vast landscape.

On our anniversary weeks later, in a muffled morning with the Marina full of fog, we walked straight west from our apartment until we reached sea. Then we looked out on that moving, marbled bay—the shift and the sway, the drift and the drown—and down we sank like anchors into the sand.

“Has it been only a year?” he said.

From our level, we gazed straight out into the waves where, beneath foamed crests, the water turned to green glass pierced with light. We sat in silence, sun on our backs, watching the swell, the crash, the sweep of endless breaking, and endless rising too.

* * *

“To everything there is a season,” writes the author of Ecclesiastes. “A time to be born, and a time to die . . . a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”

Later the same writer tells us, “Two are better than one . . . for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow.”

* * *

One night as we drove home from a wedding, we watched the moon rise over the hills to blanket us in chilled light as we sat heavy in charged silence. Make of me a tabernacle, I wanted to tell David. Roll me up and slide me into a crack in the Western Wall. Rest our limbs between the

horns of that ancient altar and offer us up holy, whole.

He slid to a stop on the pitted farm road and pressed his palm to my forehead, deciphered my breathless longing, my roiling heat. Then underneath the salted sky he led me into sleep, and as we rocked I listened to his beaten breath. “Oh,” he said. “Oh.”

***

Eve was promised sorrow in childbirth, and I too invite the depths in my own act of inexplicable faith. To give birth is to offer up the soul as sacrifice, to slip into shadow and remain, transfixed—to grieve, to sear, to surrender.

The day our son was born, the midwife knelt at my shivering side and pressed her palm to the swell of my belly. “This is the labor,” she said. “This is your work. From this, you emerge a mother.”

I walked circles in the gathering dusk, traced prayers across the floor of a room made holy by the presence of an ancient anguish. We made our descent together, my baby and I; we wound our way down from Eden.

A time to be born—oh, how we long to be born! Bones shift to make way, flesh rips—my body becomes pure yield and I am delivered.

***

Do not fear death, the ancients counsel, and I’d like to heed their advice, but I am terrified. Not of eternity, but of separation—even a moment’s.

My son was born and my body, having worked so diligently at openness, refused to seal. My blood poured out and out. I wept blood, I leaked life, and the nurse pressed our baby into David’s arms and hurried him out into the hall. There, he later told me, he heard them yelling, “We’re losing her!” He watched our son’s blinking, bewildered eyes and steadied himself to make this leap alone.

***

Our boy falls asleep only in our arms, his ear pressed to one of our chests, a pulse as his balm. As he drifts into dreams, we wind slowly around the room, lit by pinstripes of dusk through the blinds’ slats. We sing to soothe and to pass the time until his sleep is deep enough that we can ease him into the bassinet next to our bed without waking him before tiptoeing out of the room.

While he is sleeping, we move gently, silently, speaking in whispers rooms away. We lie on the couch, pressed together, remembering our lives before him and before each other. How easy they were, how alone. We are in awe, of each other, of how existence comes about from a touch, of how we are permitted these acts of creation, these eager leaps.

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