"Good night, sweetie." My nose burrowed through her silken hair and I kissed her head.
I slept like a rock.
# # #
I awoke in the middle of the night. 2:20. Hours to go.
Closing my eyes, I tried to sleep but could not. There in the dark, as the minutes stretched into hours, my mind began projecting all of the scenarios that could go wrong. Dozens of them. It would not stop. My memory replayed one of the videos I'd seen, of a grandmother who almost fell out of her harness at several thousand feet and nearly plummeted to her death. Replayed it time and again, and again, and again...
5:13. For crying out loud. Maybe I should cancel this, but I can't. I planned it specially for her.
Then, music to my ears. Deep thunder, that seemed to shake the very floor. Followed by rain, glorious rain, making its hushing sound outside the window, whispering that everything was all right.
Grinning, I passed into a sound sleep.
"Wake up, you sleepyhead! It's the big day." Kiki was shaking my shoulders. She had pulled up the shades, and the window behind her blinded me with cursed sunshine.
I was Dracula, shading my eyes with the back of my hand. "But it was raining this morning. Pouring! Didn't you hear?"
"All gone." Kiki bounced on the bed a couple times like a kid on Christmas, and spun on her way. "Let's get it!"
At the window, I craned my head up. There were clouds up there, but that was indeed the sun. Bastard.
I could not pee. I dropped things. I burned the eggs. Then,
"Ow!" I smashed into Kiki's nemesis, the armchair. She stopped what she was doing and poked her head out of the bathroom.
"I hate that thing." She pointed her toothbrush at the guilty armchair, like picking a perp out of a lineup. Her mouth was full of toothpaste. "Wherever I move it, it gets me." She returned to the bathroom to finish brushing.
I hopped around like a peevish flamingo, fuming to myself: Of course it doesn't "get" you, you daft cluck. You crash into everything. And now, apparently, so do I.
She walked up and planted a kiss on me, minty fresh. "I feel wonderful."
"You were so reassuring to me last night." She stood on tiptoes and ground herself against me, purring hot on my throat. "That's what a real man does."
"I have to go to the bathroom." I was not only nervous but more than a little ashamed of my inner temper tantrum. But I still couldn't pee.
A few minutes later in the car, I checked in my pocket for my wallet and everything I'd need, and we headed out. Kiki screwed up her face when I put on news radio, but soon she was off telling me about last night's dream where she was in the Himalayas chased by abominable snowmen and monks with throwing stars. Every day, her dreams made me laugh, but that morning I lost myself in statistics after I heard the weatherman say there was a 10 percent chance of rain. Ten percent was not good odds. It would be easier to draw an inside straight. But on the bright side, it was better odds than Russian roulette. How nice. I looked again at the sky.
I almost turned the wrong way on a one-way street. People honking, glaring through their windshields from the moment I put on my turn signal, plus Kiki warning me--yet I didn't notice.
"Honey, that's Ontario." Kiki sounded puzzled, because we drove that area all the time. "Want me to drive?"
"I got it. I got it."
"I know you do. So anyway, there was this white Pekingese like I want us to get, named Pao Pao, what a cutie, and he pops up at the direst moments, with words of wisdom or a clue written on a fortune cookie and..."
On the freeway west, my renegade mind ticked down the list of our misfortunes in the preceding months. Lost in Kiki's narrative, I pictured the snow-covered dumpster. Listening for a weather update, I daydreamed about Kiki underneath my car. Even my usual interior game of calculating our minute of arrival using our speed and mileage markers proved too complicated next to the image of Kiki in the dense stand of Wisconsin pines. Where we tempting fate here?
Maybe I needed to say something. Plus I needed to whiz.
If there was Phantom of the Opera organ music playing in my head, Kiki wasn't hearing it. "We're here!" She rocked in her seat. "I can't believe you're doing this with me."
I guess not with the saying something.
We checked in at the front desk, and Gary, the owner of the drop zone, was right there. "We've been waiting for you guys all week." Young muscular guy, stood solid and straight, used hand gestures. "You won't believe this, but our on-site radar has a storm coming in. We'll get you up there though, don't worry. You'll be our only load of the morning."
"That's OK, we understand." I smiled magnanimously, and used hand gestures too. "We don't want to ruin your perfect student safety record, do we?"
"Bro, we'll take care of you." He nudged me with a conspiratorial elbow. "Let's get you right to orientation. Follow me."
The jump instructor, an athletic blonde man using the same hand gestures, sped through a lecture on what to expect, when to arch your back, how to read the altimeter on your wrist. My mind flipped through our carousel of calamities. I started feeling sweaty and looked toward the door. At just the right moment, Kiki squeezed my hand and winked at me.
The lecturer turned out to be Kiki's assigned jump instructor. He nodded to the corner and said, "You're going with Mad Dog."
Slumped in the corner desk was a guy with wild unkempt hair and sunglasses, who hadn't shaved in about five days. He pushed up his shades, revealing bloodshot eyes. "You ready to rock this thing, mate?"
I held out my hand. "Sure."
He held out his fist, so I bumped it.
In the hangar, while the airplane taxied onto the tarmac outside, they strapped us in harnesses: over the shoulders, through the legs and tight. It looked like I was wearing a codpiece. Shit, that reminded me--
"I've got to use the restroom!"
"Are you off your nutter?" Mad Dog lifted his hand at the others filing to the plane. "Do you know how much fuel is nowadays? Go! Run!"
Having a flashback to beginners swim class, I trotted off to the duddy, as Mad Dog would call it. Standing at the urinal, the airplane angrily buzzing in the background, I scrunched my eyes. "Come on, come on." My misgivings had boiled themselves down to creepy flashcards:
I shook Mr. Dickens, but he wasn't playing. Oh, please, please, please.
Then I thought about what worked before. In the classroom, Kiki winked and took my hand. That settled me down, instantly.
So, I pictured Kiki winking at me once more. Then reaching over and taking my...
"Ahhh." I laughed over the sound of splashing. Wait until I tell her about this, I thought. If we survive.
Knocking at the door. "Circus is waiting!"
A few moments later, I sprang from the door. "Let's do this." At least I would die with a happy bladder.
The winds had picked up by the time we ran outside. The plane was loaded with jumpers, shrugging inside of their gear. We hopped inside and took our seats beside the door. The Plexiglas door came down, and the plane started bumping its way down the runway.
In a small plane like that one, bumping is just the right word. From the moment we lifted off, we felt every jive and juke as the aircraft struggled to climb through the gusts. Or at least I felt every jostle: The rest of the merry passengers seemed to have already started the party, psyching each other up with war whoops and high fives. Kiki was right in there with them.
"That your girlfriend?" Mad Dog leaned over my shoulder as he fastened our harnesses together. "Damn!" He shook my harness either in congratulation or to test our connection, I don't know which.
All the way up, he kept tightening and tightening our connection points, as we climbed past scattered clouds, as the air grew colder and thinner, and as our connection became so tight that I felt I could no longer draw a full breath.
At last, Mad Dog finished. "The cloud deck is firming up. We're barely going to get out on time."
The plane continued swaying its hips in the wind. In the back of my mind, my flashcards were cycling. Unfortunately, Kiki sat too far away to reach either my hand or Mr. Dickens.
The pilot spoke a garbled message on the intercom, prompting one of the jumpers to roll away the Plexiglas door, the only thing separating us from a 2 1/2 mile drop. Mad Dog patted my side, signaling me to rise.
We were the first ones. We walked to the gaping doorway, where I saw sporadic clouds, one of the propeller engines nearby, and far, far below, the squares and lines of civilization scraped into the earth. The plane seemed to bob through the air.
I decided I had to warn him. "Listen to me, you're in danger! We have incredibly bad luck. She's a klutz, and I may be too!"
With the rushing of wind in our faces, I couldn't tell if I made my point. Mad Dog said, "Good idea!" We tumbled out of the aircraft, into space.
I didn't have time to tell Kiki I loved her, only to meet her eyes as I disappeared.
Spinning, somersaulting, the world turned into a kaleidoscope. In a few seconds we settled into our freefall. It was like lying down in a 180 mile per hour hurricane. It went on and on. They said that the freefall was only supposed to last a minute. I was certain now that it lasted for several. Any time now he's going to pull the shoot, I told myself. We sped past fuzzy cloud after fuzzy cloud. Any time now, any time now. Or maybe not.
Finally, the jerk of the parachute deploying.
Now I caught my breath. For the first time I felt safe, like we were under some semblance of control. Under the canopy, all was peaceful and colorful. Now I was really sightseeing, eyeing the great green squares of Illinois farms stretching in every direction to the horizon. It was so serene that we could have a conversation, Mad Dog and I.
"There she is." Mad Dog banked sharply, making my stomach lurch. "Your sign. How you like it?"
Then I saw it below, stretched across a corner of the grass landing field:
KIKI, WILL YOU MARRY ME? MARTIN
On the whole, I was pleased. Pleased by the way sign was spread, and pleased that the message was so visible. Pleased to have reached that point in my scheme, still alive. I did notice from here, however, that there was extra room on the bottom right corner beside my name, where I could have told the print shop to add a long-stemmed rose, something nice. That's the way my mind works.
But I was not allowed to stew on it. A chilling gust of wind blew us back. Our legs swung. By the minute, the menacing sky was bearing down on us. The heavy steel-colored clouds joined shoulder-to-shoulder and descended.
Suddenly we whipped around on a dime, then we whipped around again. Tight turns, violent turns. Turns that flopped my body like a rag doll, wrenching my stomach away from the grip of gravity. My mind raced. My lungs gasped the clammy air. Were we out of control?
"Legs out, mate. Here we go!"
And there, suddenly, was the green field snapping into frame. We swooped in, grass coming into focus and flying past us on all sides. Oh boy.
Like that, we were down, on the mark, right beside my oversized banner sprawled on the grass. We were a huffing, four-legged, two-headed beast--half of which needed a shave and half of which was glad to be alive--standing over a deflated nylon parachute.
"Well, that was some fun, eh? My instructions were to bring you down, pronto." Mad Dog patted my shoulder. "Good on ya, skydiver! Now let's get you unhooked. You have company coming in."
It was only a few seconds before we were free of the rig, and one of the staff who had joined us on the field pointed out Kiki and her instructor circling a couple hundred feet overhead. She was either being attacked or she was ecstatic, because we could hear her shrieking all the way on the ground.
The wind was snapping the flags on the field. The storm was coming. My fingers remained crossed all the way until they touched down, easy as pie, not 100 feet away. Kiki hopped in place almost like she had to go to the bathroom, and in a moment was set free and ran into my arms.
"Yes, yes, yes, you sneaky boy, yes!" Her arms and legs squeezed me. The engagement ring lay forgotten in my pocket.
People crowded around us, congratulating, laughing, snapping pictures. It was the happiest moment of my life.
My banner leapt into the air and twisted downfield. A dark blue storm loomed across the plain.
Gary called out. "Group shot. Hurry!"
As the happy gathering posed on the field, a bolt of lightning flashed behind us.
"I caught it! That's going to be a killer shot."
Before we ran to shelter, Kiki realized she hadn't thanked her instructor, and rushed over to him. The blonde guy was on one knee, gathering his rig. He turned to stand and Kiki smacked into this helmet.
Her mouth squirmed back and forth a few times, then hatched a grin. "I chipped my tooth."
# # #
Being engaged felt like we were playing house.
Kiki was a real trouper. "I'll follow you anywhere. Even to Yablonski." That was my last name. Kiki liked that both her names would end in "i."
I let my apartment go, long overdue. A couple times, I even spoke to the mysterious parents on the phone. Not that any of that mattered much.
Whether choreographing epic karate fights using every room in the apartment, or pumpkin seed spitting contests to see who got to be on top that night, we simply liked being together. We liked being attuned. Sometimes in a private moment I would feel a whiff of suspicion, because I was pretty sure the Garden of Eden wasn't on Diversey. But what could I do? I couldn't control life. I let it happen.
When I received the strange phone call then, half of me collapsed in a yawning, screeching chasm. The other half, I distinctly remember, thought, Of course.
Killed by falling ice, the policeman said, I'm sorry. It was only November, so none of the yellow warning signs were out on the sidewalks, the ones that Chicagoans are used to hurrying past or ignoring completely.
My research showed that authorities keep no official count in the mortality records, except that, of all American cities, Chicago suffers a handful of casualties every year from icicles falling from 1000-foot skyscrapers.
Of course. It wasn't that she was a klutz. It was more fundamental than that. After all, Kiki never technically broke the terms of her Probation. Rule Number 3 was No other shit like that. It was 2 Prudential Tower that broke that rule. But none of the causation mattered because good things simply do not last. Life sees that this is so.
To me, it was a sour joke. I had nothing but contempt for any world that was run like this one. How could so much energy and life and brightness simply vanish? Really, from the Third Law of Thermodynamics I knew that energy never disappears--it transfers or transmutes. Thus, Kiki became a whisper of heat released into a world that barely noticed her, that certainly didn't deserve her. What increases is entropy, chaos, confusion. A world without Kiki was a pile shit.
Life is capricious. Life schemes. Once again, I was alone.
Kiki's family made minimal contact with me. Cold, inscrutable, they got her body, they got her things. (I let them take whatever they wanted. They left the framed photo of us with the purple lightning bolt.) They flew back on a private jet to Minnesota. It was a business transaction. I didn't inquire about the service.
The apartment was barren and quiet. Every day. I filled my waking hours with mechanical things: work, weights, martial arts. My mind could not concentrate on reading or watching. I was back in my cell, in my world of black and white.
Evenings, I would remember the oasis that was my short time with her. Kiki had appeared like a comet: fleeting, beautiful, legendary. Comet Kiki. I slept with my head on her side of the bed.
When I couldn't sleep, I pulled on my coat and boots and I walked the city. To the north, south, west and east, I walked everywhere. Those weekends when I couldn't work were the worst. I could be walking at any time during the day or night. Outside of work, I had become silent. So, it was with a monk's determination and detached eye that I marched for mile after mile after mile. Observing but always going on and onward. I think now that I was haunted. I was driven by my soul to the very end of nowhere.
On one of my mad excursions, I found myself among the kitchy shops of North Broadway, closed for the night. I diverted myself a few blocks west, to the alley behind Roscoe where (it must be more than two years ago, I thought) life took such a strange detour.
It was around the holidays and I was hollow inside. Snow was falling like on that night, and even before I turned the corner I could hear the baboon-like echoes of late-night partygoers from some balcony down the alley.
When I entered the alley, the first thing I saw was the small streetlight between the buildings, still there as it was before, shining down with its bluish-white light illuminating the cone of falling snowflakes. It stopped me in my tracks. I wiped my nose with my wrist and caught my breath. I didn't know why I was getting choked up like in a Christmas movie. I shook myself and got walking.
Hunching my shoulders against the snowfall and the nearby sounds of drunken merriment, I trudged a direct line through the alleyway. The laughter of young women, once one of the most beautiful sounds in the world, now pierced me through the heart and hastened my march. But in spite of my will, my legs slowed on their own.
I grimaced at that dumpster. The lid was flipped open, as it was on that fateful night. The balcony, third floor, loomed dark and deserted overhead. Tonight's boisterous party was elsewhere. The dumpster itself stood in a different spot: either that, or the fall had been more improbable that I ever realized. The entire episode was freakish. How the hell was I even there for it? What the fuck was I doing there now?
I kicked the dumpster. Stupid, I know, but I was moving on. For good.
Before I could, however, I heard a faint rustling sound. I drew up to the edge of the dumpster and looked inside. There was something stirring inside. A cat, possum, maybe a rat? All kinds of crazy things in the city. I threw aside a cloth and ducked out of the way.
Nothing jumped out at me, so I peered inside. Something was definitely there, but it was tiny. Mice, most likely. Couldn't be a snake, not in this weather. Now curiosity was getting to me. I reached in to move away another cloth.
My heart jumped into my throat. It was a baby!
For a moment I had the shakes. Thankfully, my hand thought on its own and brought out the phone.
"Yeah, yeah, listen, I found a baby here, outside, in the cold, in the garbage. There's blood, but it's alive. I'm in the alley south of Roscoe, between Kenmore and Seminary." I answered the man's questions while I paced and held the infant close for heat.
When I hung up, my breath seemed to have left me along with my last word. My mouth was open but I couldn't draw breath. I was crying, crying uncontrollably, while I wrapped myself around the baby in the night.
I was in better control when the medic hopped out of his truck and took the baby from me. "Take me with you. I'm going with you."
He looked at the baby, then at my coat. It was matted with blood.
I whipped off my coat and threw it in the dumpster. "I'm going with you."
"In the front. Belt in."
At Children's Memorial, we learned that Baby Doe was a Hispanic girl only a couple of hours old, hungry and cold but otherwise healthy. No leads on the mother, according to the detective at the scene. In a way, I was pleased. My heart had already laid claim to her.