Saturday, 16 November 2013

Let Go

I remember a slender finger - Sasha's - pressed against the balcony rails, her upper body curved over the edge, arms outstretched as she laughingly tossed me the picnic basket. After that - the faint trail of a rope burn streaking across the flesh of my fingers. And then: looking upwards, squinting at a black pinprick disappearing into the sky. This ended with the smell of an old, burning engine.

The beginning is hard to mark. When was it, exactly? Sasha was always more impetuous, more adventurous than me. During the throes of our early college romancing, it was her hand that first slipped underneath my boxers. I recall she looked triumphant at her bravery, rather than aroused. You know how Dr. Phils' of the world call sex the most instinctual, truest part of you? I am not sure about that. For Sasha, it felt equally present in the more mundane things she did. She set the pace when I walked along side her, she piped up first with her order when a waiter approached our table. Talking about Sasha means I revert to a lot of 'she was more [insert adjective here]' or 'she was first to [insert verb here]'. It is bitterly funny, I guess, when someone's always one step ahead of you, and you're thinking of all the ways you need to catch up - the first to love, the first to travel all the continents, the first to eat monkey intestines or whatever - and then they end up being the first to go.

Why did I say that was the start? I see it as the blueprint of the rest of this story. By that point, I understood our familiar balance and quietly habituated the thought that Sasha would, more often than not, outstrip me in some way. I was quite happy for her to do so. I personally likened my behaviour to martyrdom, although explaining that to others often falls flat: 'Sasha needs me to give way to her' or 'Sasha derives joy from exerting her will on her partner' comes off as little pretentious, if nothing else.

For the newspapers vying to assert a hard-hitting account of the event, the 'cause' occured a week ago on a clement summer day, the 12th of June. Sasha suggested a picnic and we were packing the essentials - fruit, blanket, a bottle of cheap champagne - in the trunk of the car. I had forgotten sunscreen lotion and turned toward her to inquire, but by then she was already jogging back into the house.
"Can you grab the sunscreen, babe?," I called after her.
 She never heard me - or at least I never heard her reply. A few minutes later she leaned her head out of the first floor window: "The picnic basket is a bit unwieldy for the hallway stairs. Catch it from here please?"

She propped the picnic basket on the balcony and I held out my arms, unsure about absorbing the weight of a falling object. You might be wondering why I would mention this of all things - but I am telling you this because this is a moment I remember, clearly etched in my mind. I see this the most vividly: Sasha's face angled toward mine from the balcony above, hair sweeping with the light wind, her posture poised and ready to drop the basket. I suppose it makes sense I am emphasizing this now, but it struck me back then, too, that she had the absolute power to let go of the basket - allow gravity to veer its course for a few brief seconds - only when she felt inclined to. I would have stood there for some unidentifiable time, waiting for it to plummet toward me.


It was, in the end, Sasha's idea that we venture on the hot air balloons, encouraged by the fact that she had never ridden in one before. The picnic was cut short to make time for what she enthusiastically referred to as 'traversing the sky'. Sasha thought them romantic, I saw them as garish, swathed with bright neon blocks of colour. To me, all they did was float according to the whims of the weather and then meander back down again. I remember thinking they seemed so frail against the winds and the unforgiving sun, blow across the great expanse like dandelion seeds whenever God, the willful guy, decided it so. I am sure that is not how hot air balloons really work, but that is what it felt like.

When you think about it a little more, the idea of hot air balloons seems wholly ridiculous. Whoever thought this was a good idea? It is difficult to imagine something such as a balloon of all things - the flimsy kinds you see given to children in those family-friendly restaurants - can hold a fuel tank, a burner and a basket with people. I had wondered if it is easy for things like this to unravel. It only takes a loose seam, or a length of frayed rope. Did Sasha ever stop and consider this possibility? I have since concluded that perhaps she did, but would have promptly discarded the thought. After all, it was customary that I played the role of the cautious one. It was my job to hold her back when she threw herself too far.

I always used to imagine tragedies as caused by some cataclysmic, deeply dramatic act - the panicked swerve in a speeding car, the breathless dive off a skyscraper. In this case, it happened when Sasha lightly hoisted herself on the basket. it steadily hovered about twenty inches off the floor, only tethered by coils of tight rope. The papers would later say that something had managed to wrap itself around the gas cylinder. It amazes me still how little we seemed to know at that time, how much we presumed these things would simple function as they were intended. We failed to notice the slow, gradual untangling rope on the hook. It would have only taken a cursory glance in that direction to work it out. A split-second time to process the issue, even. In my mind, I vehemently tell myself I would have reached over and tied several more knots over it. I would have called for help. I would have taken Sasha off the balloon. But who would not think those things, if you were in my position? The fact is, I did not.

It all felt like slow motion in some ways, except that I was slowed down a further two fold than everything else. It was excruciating as I could see it all without having the capacity to act on it: the rope slithering across the grass as the basket rose higher and higher; Sasha's voice urging me to jump on as quick as I could; and gas-like, burning smell smouldering in the air. I fumbled to hold the rope between my hands and felt my body slowly stretching out as I attempted, without much success, to pin the rope back down to the hook. My arms were continuously pulled, painfully extended upwards; my shoulder joints screeched. And then - the panicked, heart-stopping, lurching lift off the ground. I felt the soft ground falling away from my feet. I remember looking down at the steadily minimising faces and places, every second lifting me higher and higher. Each moment throbbed and urged: let go, just let go, for fuck's sake. I do not know how long I held on for, I could only guess.

Don't you think this is the stuff of Calvin and Hobbes? For them, there is something life-enhancing about hanging by a rope and being whisked off by a large balloon to explore the world or as Sasha put it, 'traversing the sky'. And this is the kind of pop psychology question that they ask in class, I think: What is the most 'moral' act in this case? What would you do? Is this all actually as easy as catching a picnic basket? In my mind's eye, I can see Sasha leaned over the rails, laughing, tossing it to me. There was an implicit message to this scene: you did what you could, you stood and waited. There was nothing more you could do. And, in the next, Sasha with her eyes wide, staring at me from her basket above, this time not laughing but yelling something indecipherable - maybe something about the gas leak, I later postulate - wind pulling her hopelessly up, up, up. Her arms not gently outstretched but scrabbling towards me desperately; for the first time not wanting to be two steps ahead instead with me, wanting to cling to me. But really, nobody wants to know that, do they? They question you are all just aching to ask - I can just hear it leaping from your lips: as Sasha's long-time boyfriend, how long did you hold on for until you sent her to her death?