The Ascent (6 page)

I rode now on the snaking, single-lane roadway that wound up the mountainous terrain. The moon was fat and blue, so close I could nearly count the individual craters on its surface. My heart rate rose, and I could feel the sweat breaking out on my forehead and across my back. One mile, two miles, three—straight to the top of the world.

From this vantage, I could see one full side of the city, including the lights of the cruise ships docked at the harbor. I hopped off the bike and set it down in the reeds. It was impossible to gauge my height, what with the darkness fooling with my perception, but I knew I was high. Even my breathing, which I’d maintained at a regular pace while riding, was a bit labored at this altitude, although I wondered if that was only in my head. I could faintly hear calypso music and beyond that the squawking of phantom chickens.

Through a line of dense trees, I spotted dim lights issuing from the windows of clapboard houses along the cusp of the cliff face. Still somewhat unsure of myself, I stepped through the trees into a clearing. The closest house—a hovel, really, like something you’d see in one of those commercials where they ask for money while showing kids with no shoes muddle through sewage—was fronted by a screened-in porch. Large flaps of screen had been torn away and hung down like triangular wedges of pizza, and small birds darted in and out of the openings. Tallow light spilled from a single lamp beside the doorway. I heard the sizzle-pop of an electric bug-zapper firing somewhere nearby.

I sat on the porch steps and wiped the sweat from my brow. In front of me, my shadow stretched out along the brown grass, framed in a glow of dancing yellow light. Around me, the stalks of candles flickered. Many unlit candles littered the ground. Some even protruded from the mouths of discarded liquor bottles, and others were clustered together in clay pots. I retrieved a waxy yellow candle from one of the pots and held it above the flame of another until it grew malleable and dripped melted wax onto the grass. I proceeded to mold it into a sphere and elongate the sphere into a slight oval. My thumbs created the impression of eye sockets. With one fingernail, I carved out a mouth, then formed the fullness of a pair of lips around it. I don’t know how long I sat there sculpting before I heard the door open behind me.

“Well,” said Andrew, “you showed up after all.”

I really didn’t know why I’d come. I wasn’t interested in getting whacked out on drugs, and I had even less interest in spending any more time with Hannah’s college friend. Still, I’d come to the very spot Andrew had told me to, and not knowing why bothered me more than actually being here.

“I feel like you summoned me,” I said, tossing the ball of wax aside and standing. The second the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them. It sounded like an admission of sorts, like I was granting him power over me.

Andrew smiled his queer smile. He was wearing a loose-fitting cotton shirt, and the hem of his floral-patterned shorts hung below his knees. He stood barefoot at the top of the steps, looking at me. “I’m glad you came. Are you ready to go?”

“Go where?”

“To fly.”

I nodded toward his ramshackle house. “I just assumed we’d … you know …”

“Come on,” he said, bounding down the porch steps and brushing by me.

I followed him through the trees, the leaves so dense above my head that they completely blotted out the moonlight. When we broke out onto the reedy precipice that overlooked the city, just a few yards from where I’d dropped the bike, Andrew turned away from me, placed both hands on his hips, and leaned back at a curious angle. I heard his spine pop.

“You live in that house?” I said.

“I’ve been here for about eight months. I’ve got a place in New York, too. My old man was filthy rich. He owned an oil company. When he died, he left it to me. Then I smashed it to pieces and sold it to the Japanese.”

“So what do you do?”

“Whatever I want,” he said, shrugging. He didn’t have to look at me for me to realize he was smiling.

“Where are we going?” I said after a while. The urge to hop on my bike and pedal the hell back to the grotto was suddenly overwhelming.

Andrew extended one arm and pointed off to the right.

I followed his arm but could see nothing except for the edge of the cliff. “Yeah. Funny. Flying, huh? Is that what you meant?”

“It’s what I
said
, wasn’t it?” He turned, grinning at me from beneath a partially down-turned brow. His eyes seemed to glitter in the moonlight. As I watched, he stripped off his shirt and tossed it in the reeds.

“I thought you meant something else.”

“Like what?”

I shook my head. “Forget it.”

Andrew began unbuttoning his shorts.

“Whoa,” I said, holding up my hands. I may have even taken a reactive step backward. “Hey, man, you’re barking up the wrong tree …”

Andrew chuckled. “I’m not a fag, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“So you only get naked with straight guys?”

Andrew dropped his shorts and stood there stark naked. His paleness was severe and nearly translucent. I thought I could make out his heart strumming through the wall of his chest. There was a small tattoo etched across his upper left thigh.

He winked at me, perhaps playing up to the homosexual undertones of the situation. “Look at that city down there,” he marveled, glancing over the ridge to the cluster of huts below. “Look at those lights.” He exhaled with enthusiasm. “Beautiful.”

He pivoted and tromped through the reeds to the farthest side of the cliff. Beyond, the moonlight dazzled on the surface of the water.

Closing my eyes, I could still see the enormous face of the moon floating like an afterimage behind my eyelids.

“Such is the way to immortality,” Andrew said. In an instant,he was gone, having flung himself over the edge of the cliff. For a moment, he seemed to hover in defiance of gravity, his legs pressed together and his feet pointed, his arms outstretched like the wings of some great bird. Then he disappeared, carried below the face of the cliff and out of my line of sight.

My breath caught in my throat as I ran to the edge of the cliff. I braced myself for a gruesome sight—Andrew’s pale, reed-thin body tumbling down the rocky mountainside—but what I saw was his ghostly white form sailing out across the darkness as if flying. He grew smaller and smaller until he struck the water in a perfect dive, slipping beneath the dark surface with hardly a splash. As the ripples spread and faded, I counted several seconds beneath my breath until the white orb of his face broke through the surface. Even from this distance, I could tell he was grinning.

“How was that?” he shouted, his voice borne on echoes rising through the valley.

I felt like a fool. I’d come here under the pretense that we were going to smoke some pot or maybe do a few lines of coke, failing to take Andrew’s comment about flying in its literal sense.

Andrew pulled himself from the water and scampered up a winding, sandy roadway that trailed to the top of the mountain. It took him nearly two minutes to reach the summit, and by that time, I was yanking my rented bicycle out of the reeds by its handlebars.

“Where are you going?” he asked innocently enough.

“Back to the grotto.”

“But it’s your turn.”

I laughed. “I don’t want a turn.”

“You’re not afraid of a little midnight cliff diving, are you?” Had the question been proposed by anyone else, it would have sounded derisory; with Andrew, however, it sounded oddly sympathetic, as if he felt some deep, inexplicable sorrow for me.

“You’re out of your mind,” I said.

“The sad thing is that you’re passing up what might prove to be the most exhilarating ten seconds of your life because you’re scared to try.”

“They could prove to be the
last
ten seconds of my life.”

Andrew ran his hands through his hair. His body, oily and slick, glistened in the moonlight. Several times I found myself staring at his genitalia and had to force myself to look away.

“Don’t lie to me,” he said. “You came here tonight because you thought you’d be getting high, right?”

I shrugged. “So?”

“So you have no problem shoving shit up your nose, losing all control of your senses, and burning the fucking septum out of your face, but you won’t dive off a cliff.” He snorted. “Fuck you, Tim.”

“Hey.” I held up one hand—a traffic cop stopping a line of cars. “Listen, man, I—”

“This is your one chance not to fail yourself,” Andrew said.

And for whatever reason, that resonated with me.
Don’t fail yourself
, I thought, stripping out of my clothes.
Don’t walk away from this chance
.

It was stupid. Perched birdlike on the crest of the cliff, the cool night breeze stimulating my naked flesh, I took a deep breath, and as one single thought blazed like a neon sign outside a speakeasy—
You’re going to make your wife a widow on her honeymoon
—I pushed off the ground and let the air cradle me and carry me swiftly to the sea.

Hours later, just before the sun rose, I snuck inside our small rented grotto and slipped beneath the sheets next to Hannah. She sighed and rolled over, draping a warm arm across my chest.

I stared at the ceiling, mottled with incoming daylight, listening to my heart throb in my chest. Wired, I could not close my eyes.

“Where’ve you been?” Hannah whispered, still half asleep. Her voice startled me.

“I met up with your friend Andrew.” I couldn’t help but grin. “He took me flying.”

I felt her smile as she pressed her lips against my ear. “Oh, the cliff-diving thing.”

The remainder of our honeymoon was punctuated by intervals spent with Andrew. He took us to various hole-in-the-wall bars, the best places for drinks on the whole island. The drinks were all heavy with rum and decorated with slices of rubbery fruit.

“Do you think they call these drinks cocktails because all the fruit hanging over the lip of the glass looks like the feathered tail of a rooster?” Hannah said at one point.

We dream-waltzed through lush lands, past fenced-in yards populated by suicidal-looking chickens and land crabs captive in pens, which ate nothing but grain in order to cleanse the badness from their noncomplex systems before becoming meals. In parts, it was a city of somnambulists: the shambling, drunken-eyed swivel of puppet necks outside every whitewashed tavern with pictures of naked young girls pinned above the bar showing gap-toothed smiles. Saw-toothed, spade-shaped flora waved at us at every turn. The skeletons of rusted automobiles snared in mountainous ruts, the green veiling of trees, fences of fronds, and all the wet and dark places that smelled of some indeterminate amphibious odor.

On our last full night in San Juan, after a bout of acrobatic love-making, I left Hannah curled up in bed and met Andrew at one of his favorite bars by the bay. A number of empty glasses stood before him on the bar, and when he turned to look at me, his eyes were like the headlamps of an eighteen-wheeler.

“It’s your last night, Overleigh.” A tannin-hued hand clamped down on my shoulder. The glow of the gas lamps prompted shadows to caper across his face. “Tonight will be the flight of all flights.”

We’d spent every evening jumping blindly from cliffs along the bay. This night, however, we taxied across the island, the looming silhouette of the Sierra de Luquillo now at our backs, and were dropped off at a slope of beach covered in dark, reflective stones. To our left,a sheer cliff, black as a thousand midnights and like the rampart of a
castillo
, rose into the night sky.

As the taxi lumbered away through the brush, I gazed at the wall of rock. “Where’s the path to get up there?”

“There is no path. We climb.”

“Are you kidding me? That’s impossible.”

“Nothing,” Andrew said, removing his sneakers, “is impossible.”

I took several steps backward, still staring at the vertical face of the cliff, until my feet were lapped by the surf.

“Take your shoes off,” Andrew said. “It’ll be easier to dig into the rock. Besides, there’s too much moss on these stones. The soles of your sneakers would slip right off.”

“You’re out of your mind—do you know that?” But I was already following Andrew’s lead, pulling off my shoes and tossing them farther up the beach and out of reach of the surf. “We’re both gonna die here tonight.”

“No.” Andrew stood beside the face of the cliff, his hands planted on his hips, looking straight up. His white linen shirt was unbuttoned and billowed in the cool breeze. “Not tonight.”

The climb began slow and arduous. There was little talk, as much of our concentration was limited to the climb. Finding hand-and footholds was tough at first—the niches were either too small or the protruding fingers of stone too thick—but I soon got the hang of it. Halfway up the face of the cliff, I could feel the muscles straining at the back of my legs, my heart galloping at a steady pace, and the ebb and flow of my breath coming in syncopated rhythm.

Only once did I pause to glance over my shoulder, and that was when I nearly lost it. The world tilted to one side, and the tremendous expanse of water, black like velvet covered in glittering jewels, seemed to rush up and claim me. My muscles tensed.

An instant later, Andrew’s fingers wrapped around my wrist. “Don’t look down.”

“Yeah.” I directed my eyes back against the wall of rock. Closed them briefly to recalibrate. Opened them.

“Never look down. Come on.”

He ascended steadily and I followed, shinnying ratlike up the vertical face. Still, the top seemed very far away.

“She’s a good girl,” Andrew said as I came up beside him. “You’re a lucky guy.”

“Thank you. And, yes, I am.”

“Would it be …?” He paused, swinging out to grasp an overhanging finger of stone. He pulled himself up, his toned legs following. “Would it be too much of a cliché if I were to threaten you with her well-being? You know, the jaded male friend locking horns with the new guy?”

“It would be a cliché,” I said, “but I appreciate the sentiment. I love Hannah very much.”

“I would hope so.” He climbed faster now, his arms working like machinery, the tendons in his ankles popping with each pivot of the joints.

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