Our conversation was short and sweet. It went something like this:
“I am NOT getting in a hang-glider and flying toward the sea to face CERTAIN DOOM.”
“Yes you are.”
“Why. WHY are you making me do this?”
“I’m not making you do anything. You want this. You just need to be encouraged.”
Above Koktebel, the sea air mixes with the steppe air and the mountain air. Kara Dag, a 350-million year old exploded volcano and nature reserve, darkens as the night approaches. Mountains that used to be coral reefs deep below the Black Sea rise up behind Kara Dag, conveniently forming the profile of Alexander Pushkin. On a nearby hill, Voloshin is buried next to a lonely olive tree. In south-eastern Crimea, the sun sets almost directly behind the peninsula, marking the way to the west – though we are never up early enough to see it rise above the water.
“I have a PHOBIA of HEIGHTS! And FLYING! And DEEP WATER! And OTHER FRIGHTENING THINGS!”
“You don’t have any phobias whatsoever. You just got into one particularly idiotic pattern of thinking and experiencing life, and you think you can’t get out, but that’s dumb. Anyway, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life if you don’t do this.”
At the compound we’re at, dogs and children play in the grass, and flying enthusiasts are busy with a new motor for powered parachuting. The man I’m with buys me beer and sauteed eggplant at a small bar run entirely by the flying enthusiasts, and I down the beer in virtually one gulp. A startlingly blond little girl giggles when we kiss inside the doorway. The sound of an approaching engine means that I’m up.
“I am NOT.”
He takes my hand and we walk across the grass toward the strip together, me muttering obscenities the whole way.
“I’m giving you my beloved girl,” he tells the pilot as I get strapped in and outfitted with helmet and goggles.
“She’ll be taken care of,” he replies. He has the looks of an aging accountant – except he’s very tan, and there’s a wildness in his clear blue eyes.
“I HATE you,” I tell the man I’m with.
“You don’t want to do this?” Asks the pilot.
“I do. I’m just scared.” It comes out before I know what it is I’m saying. It’s also the truth. We putter along to the far end of the strip. I’m barefoot, my flip-flops do not make for safe footwear. The sun is in my eyes. I watch the ground fly past, and then I watch it fall away.
The minute that I am up in the air, I know that this is exactly where I have wanted to be – for many years. Ever since beginning to wake up in nightmares and cold sweats before an impeding trip to Germany back in the States, convinced that I am too scared to fly. I don’t know where the fear came from, but once it came, it made a cosy little enclave inside my stomach and ribcage, and then it wouldn’t budge. Until this very precise moment. After nearly 8 years. I am in the air, and being in the air makes sense.
We fly toward the sea, over steep hills and country roads. People wave at us from below and we wave back. My white dress flaps in the wind. We fly out toward Chameleon Cape – named so because it changes colours drastically depending on the time of day and the weather. I see it rising out of the water like a thirsty prehistoric animal, as I see Kara Dag rising on the right, like a bigger prehistoric animal. Somewhere on Kara Dag’s eastern slope is a stone that reminds me of an angel who has turned his back on the sea. The group of stones next to it is commonly referred to as demons who are playing cards. I like to think of the angel watching them.
Looking down at the coastline, I can see the line where the shallow water grows deeper. I’m not afraid. Even as we hit another air current and bounce wildly above the water, I’m not afraid. As we turn back toward land and the pomegranate sunset, I am struck by the fact that in a way, I’m native to Crimea. I was conceived in Yalta, to the west of here – “out of a great love,” as my parents never cease to remind me when they stop squabbling long enough, just in case I have any doubts. But it’s now, up here, with nothing but the wind and the sun and the mountains and Sasha the pilot and the engine, that I know it clearly: I was made from love, which is a building material as solid as blood and tissue. I think I might have forgotten. But Crimea has remembered.
Sasha motions to me with his liver-spotted hand – he wants to have a little fun. I give him a thumbs-up. We drop and rise sharply through the air on our approach back to the hill. I stretch my arms out and imagine they’re wings – not the white fluffy kind, but solid wings of dark feather, as dark as the ones that belong to the angel who sits on top of Kara Dag, keeping his watchful eye on the demons. These are the wings I have. They’re no less pretty, I think.
When we land, I’m laughing, and it takes a while for me to stop. It’s not hysterical laughter – it rises like champagne bubbles inside of me and then it overflows. The man I’m with takes me out to the edge of the hill, and we look down at a dried-out lake like an eye milked over with a cataract, watching us from below, and make our beer bottles sing in the wind. Night is coming and there are crickets in the grass. I press my face against his shoulder.
“Still hate me?” He asks.
“Did I say that? Did you ever hear me say that? Because I don’t think that you did.”