Juan David Cruz Duarte : Superstitious (February 2019)
Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born in Bogotá, Colombia. I have been living in South Carolina since 2010. I currently work at Presbyterian College, in Clinton. Before that, I lived in Columbia for eight years. I received a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of South Carolina (the original USC). I prefer not to travel North of Virginia, unless it is absolutely necessary.
I was never superstitious, and I have always been proud of myself for that. I tend to make fun of those who won’t get near a black cat, or those who won’t walk under a ladder. Actually, I always get upset when, while eating at a restaurant, someone asks me to pass the salt and then
tells me to put it on the table instead of just grabbing the freaking thing. I am a simple man: I believe in what I can see, I believe in the scientific method, I believe in reason. Nevertheless, I
also believe in reasonable doubt.
Back in Spring 2012, I was writing a Master’s thesis on the representation of women in 19th century British, American, and Latin American popular art and literature. I was using texts and engravings from the whole century, but I was particularly interested in the second half of it. It was fun to look at all those old magazines and gift books that I found, but it was also quite stressful. I was running late with my writing, and I knew that I had to have the text ready by June. On the other hand, I was also taking a class called Poetry of the Romantic Era, and I really messed things up with my first paper. But what was really killing me was the fact that I had broken up with my girlfriend; I had decided to break up with her because I believed that we were not going to be able to endure the hardships of a long-distance relationship for very long. The breakup was driving me crazy, though, and I was truly heartbroken. We eventually worked it all out, and you could say that we are doing fine now, all things considered. We love each other, and that must count for something, right? But that year in which we were not together was particularly rough for me (for both of us).
This was all happening around the same time in which I finally distanced myself from my Christian upbringing. I felt freed from a lifetime of intellectual contradictions and conflicting worldviews. I also felt utterly alone, and this feeling only increased as my convictions regarding the universe’s lack of purpose or meaning settled in my mind.
This is how my life was going when my good friend Cristián asked me to go skydiving with him. “Sure!” I said. “If we don’t do it now we will never do it, right?” My routine was making me somehow dull and sad, and I wanted to see things from a different point of view (which is a big part of skydiving, I guess). And anyway, if things went wrong with the parachute or something, chances were that I would never have to finish that freaking thesis after all.
The night before the big day I couldn’t sleep. I have always been extremely afraid of heights, also, I have always been a deeply pessimistic and anxious person. I felt like a prisoner in death row awaiting for his execution. I remembered this poem by Borges called “Milonga de Manuel Flores.” The poetic voice is that of a prisoner in a cell, thinking about his upcoming death. Some verses of the poem came to me like lighting. The verses were simple, beautiful and concise. And so, I found myself mumbling Borges’ words, while the cold moonlight kept coming in through the window like an unforgiving silver dagger.
Manuel Flores va a morir,
eso es moneda corriente;
morir es una costumbre
que sabe tener la gente.
Y sin embargo me duele
decirle adiós a la vida,
esa cosa tan de siempre,
tan dulce y tan conocida.
I went to the bathroom and washed my face with cold water. I was nervous, but I was not afraid. I sat down on my bed and tried to finish reading Lord Byron’s Don Juan; I had to write a paper on Byron for Monday, and it was already 3:40 AM on Sunday. I tried hard to keep reading that infinite sequence of stanzas, but Borges’ verses just kept coming back to me. Morir es haber nacido. I’m not sure these words provided me with any comfort in my time of despair; they were all I had, though, and so I held tight to them.
Cristián picked me up early that morning. I hadn’t slept at all. I was utterly tired. I just wanted to jump from that plane, be home by 2:00 PM, and finish writing my paper on Don Juan. But, of course, that was just too much to ask for. Cristián and I were not the only students trying to get a rush of adrenaline from a completely unnecessary free-fall scenario; actually, a few of his friends were riding with us that morning. Carolina Skydiving, the company that provided the service, charged good money for the extreme experience. They also charged you an extra hundred dollars if you wanted to get a video and pictures to document your brief adventure. Cristián and I decided that our investment had been quite substantial already, and we declined their offer. We all had to sign a waiver in which we stated that the members of the company would not be blamed—or sued—in the case of a client’s untimely death. The waiver also shielded the company from any adverse legal action, even if one of us ended up death or badly hurt due to a hypothetical case of negligence. Long story short, we all signed some sort of death contract. After signing the document, I felt like Dostoyevsky might have felt on that snowy afternoon when he was waiting in line for the Czar’s fire squad to blow his brains out. But then again, if something went awful wrong, I wouldn’t have to finish that freaking thesis, and I wouldn’t have to feel so lonely and miserable anymore, right?
The adrenaline was wearing off. It was 9:30 AM; we were scheduled to jump around 11:30, but the sky was way too cloudy, and the planes were not allowed to take off. When the planes finally started flying I was sleeping on a chair. Around 2:45 PM someone finally called us in. They got us all dressed up in cool uniforms, they also gave us a leather helmet and plastic safety goggles. They showed us a safety video, gave us some general instructions, and we were ready to go. Cristián and I were flying in different airplanes. I was already sitting there in the plane, but I was hardly excited. I was extremely tired, and I was trying hard to stay awake. Also, I was nervous about that final paper for my Poetry of the Romantic Era class. A guy called my last name, I walked towards him, he held me from the back and strapped my uniform to his parachute—and to himself, naturally. He was the instructor; some sort of expert in the field of skydiving. In other words, he had the right credentials and I was supposed to trust him. We walked clumsily to the edge of an open door. Oh boy, I was really going to jump from a goddamn airplane. “If I die” I remember thinking, “this would be one of the most stupid ways of depriving Colombia of a fine young writer… Actually, dying in such an absurd way would be very Colombian of me…” The instructor’s strong voice interrupted my thoughts: “You ready?” “Sure, let’s do this thing and be done with it,” I thought. They guy told me that he was going to count to three before jumping. Suddenly I realized how easy it would be for him to unstrap my uniform from his if something went wrong. He just had to press a couple of buttons, pull one or two straps, and then I would become human pâté in the middle of a forest, while the expert landed safely in the company’s backyard. I started to think that perhaps I had made a terrible mistake. But the guy was jumping already, and I was a dead mass, falling like a rock, accelerating at a rate of 9.8 meters per square second in the open sky. When discussing this experience with some of my friends, they said that they very much enjoyed the free fall. The free fall as such took around 50 seconds—which, trust me, feels like a freaking long time—and I believe I only enjoyed the last 30 seconds of it or so. During the first 20 seconds, all I could think about were the many ways in which the whole thing could go wrong: perhaps the ropes of the parachute would tangle up, and we would fall like a freaking apple. Or maybe the guy would pass out, or have a heart attack… maybe one of us would be strangled by the ropes, or maybe I would be too heavy for the instructor’s parachute and he would have to let me go… But no, I am quite short and somehow skinny. I realized that I was just being paranoid. I decided to relax and enjoy the moment; then I began to scream, not because I wanted to, but because I noticed that I had stopped breathing since the moment I left the plane. Just a few seconds after I had said to myself, “alright, man, open the freaking parachute already,” did the expert pull the string that released our synthetic wings. I felt like I was being pushed upwards by a magnificent force, but it was a pleasant feeling nonetheless; it made me feel safe. Sure, we were still miles away from the ground, but now we were not falling; we were flying.
—Ever surfed a cloud?—the skydiving expert asked.
—Let’s see if you like it.
We got into a cloud and we kind of sailed through it. That was very cool. When we were finally reaching the ground, the guy asked me to lift my feet; perhaps I didn’t lift them high enough, and he asked me to “run! run! run!” And I sure did. The landing was smooth, though. I shook the expert’s hand and I thanked him for everything. On my way out, I stepped on someone’s parachute, making another instructor really angry. I was full of adrenaline, but I was also half asleep; I could barely see where I was going.
I finally made it home, and I went back to washing my dirty dishes and to writing my unfinished paper. Back in the apartment I realized that the salt shaker was lying on the table; there was salt everywhere. Then it all came back to me: before leaving my place—tired as a freaking zombie and with my body set in autopilot mode—I stumbled with the table and dropped the salt. For a minute there, I freaked out; I had interpreted this incident as a sign, an omen, a dark prophecy of unnamed tragedies to come. I was going to jump from an airplane, for God’s sake! I took the saltshaker and I threw some salt over my left shoulder—I had seen my best friend doing this to break the course of the fallen saltshaker. But then I remembered that I am not a superstitious man. I had even stopped believing in God. And so, just to make a point, I let the saltshaker fall on the table once again, making a mess between my dirty plates and my copy of Don Juan. Then, I walked out of my apartment and jumped from an airplane. I smiled, looking through the window, and I began to wonder just what in the world was wrong with me.
My paper on Don Juan was rather mediocre, but I still managed to pass the class somehow. In this way, I held on to my scholarship, and kept working in that Master’s thesis, while my sad and heavy heart oscillated like a lead pendulum inside my chest.