“It really is,” I whispered, “It really is a beautiful world."
“This really doesn’t feel safe,” Jamie said, her voice holding just a hint of fear. She was probably right. By anyone’s standards, this was straight up stupid, and here I had convinced her to come along with me.
“Nah it’s totally fine. I wouldn’t do anything to put you in too much danger.” I said this without a hint of doubt in my voice, confident as usual. I had to keep the fearless and confident image or she might change her mind. I hoped the risk would be worth it in the end, but I couldn’t really be sure. How could I know unless I tried? If I didn’t try, I would just be left wondering how great it might have been.
“We are really freaking high.” This time Jamie said it deadpan, more of an emotionless observation than anything else. Again, she was right. I looked down the long white ladder past her. It was probably 80 yards to the ground from where we were. Above us was another 20 yards of ladder, leading up to a narrow platform. We were climbing a water tower. The platform above us circled around the tower just below where it began to bulge outward into a spherical shape at the top. There was no safety cage around us, nothing to break our fall except for the climbing harnesses we wore. Each harness had two straps, each with a clip on the end. One clip would be snapped onto the first rung, then the next clip to the second, and so forth until we reached the top. It wasn’t fool proof but it was better than nothing.
“But seriously my hands are getting tired. How much further is it?” Jamie was great, but complaining was one of her most annoying flaws. Most people wouldn’t have made it this far anyway. The fact that she had was just a testament to the athleticism and strength she had underneath all that complaining.
“Close. Maybe fifty rungs. Hang on for another five minutes and we can sit down and rest.” Yet again she was right. My hands and forearms were burning like crazy. I had long ago learned that climbing with gloves on a slick painted surface was asking for trouble, so today we had no protection from the narrow rungs pressing into our skin.
For the next fifty rungs, the only sound I could hear above my heavy breathing was the clink and snap as each clip was removed and replaced. It was surprisingly calm this evening, the sun not quite finished slipping below the horizon. It was late August, so the temperature was still somewhere in the 70s this time of day. The backpack on my back seemed to get heavier and heavier the higher we went. I could feel the straps digging into my shoulders and trying to tip me over backwards. This bag was far too big for what I was doing, but I needed some way to bring a sleeping bag and blanket up. Finally, my hand left the last rung and found the top of the steel platform. I unclipped from the last rung and snapped on to the hand rail that went around the outside edge before I reached down to take Jamie’s hand.
“Thank you sir,” she said, “I see chivalry is not dead.” Her hand brushed a few loose strands of long blonde hair out of her face as she stood upright next to me, looking out over the edge.
“Ok, you were right. This is worth it.” She said in a matter of fact tone. I laughed softly.
“This isn’t actually what we came for,” I said with a grin, “We aren’t done climbing yet. I just didn’t think you would actually come if I told you how far we were going. But the view is really nice here.”
“You can’t be serious. I didn’t see anything going up any further.” She sounded rather incredulous.
“We have to follow this platform around to the other side. There is a set of stairs going up to the very top. At least it isn’t another ladder.” I tried to sound confident, like it had already been decided that we would go on, but I couldn’t stop a tiny bit of a pleading tone from leaking in. I knew there was a small chance that she would want to stop here, but I also knew that going just a bit further would be completely worth it. I had scoped this tower out from the ground several times, using my trusty binoculars that I bargained for at a neighbor’s yard sale. When I discovered the stairs going up past the platform, I used an online satellite map to take a peek at the very top of the tower. From what I had been able to tell, at the very top there was a completely level platform, twelve to fifteen feet in diameter, with a secure looking rail around it. Amazing what a person can find online.
My hope was to spend the night on that platform, hence the sleeping bag and blanket in my massive backpack. Tonight was supposed to be the brightest and most active meteor shower of the year in North America and the weather had decided to be kind to us star gazers, leaving a clear and cloudless sky for the evening. It would be perfect. Perfect if Jamie would go along with it, that is.
“You are the worst kind of person,” she said. She wasn’t facing me so I couldn’t really tell how she felt about it. Finally she turned around and rolled her eyes. “Ohhhkaaaay. Let’s go. We’ve already gone this far.” She was used to situations like this. I was the one who always wanted to push the limits, go a little further, risk just a bit more, and she was the one who always asked me to reconsider and then went along with it anyway. I always felt bad for a little while, but I got over it pretty quick. It’s not like she didn’t know me well.
“You are the best kind of person,” I said with a wink and a grin, “But let’s rest for a bit. My arms are tired now.” We sat down and I took off my backpack, setting it on the platform beside me, digging through a side pocket. I pulled out two bottles of water and a box of Poptarts.
“Poptart?” I offered, “Snack of champions. All the professional water tower climbers eat them I heard.”
“How are you not fat,” she replied, taking a delicious cherry snack from the silver wrapper. It wasn’t a question really, it was more a running joke between her and I about how much I should actually weigh. She’d usually joke that one day all the junk I eat would hit me at once and I would wake up weighing 400 pounds. Even though she joked, she wasn’t beyond being bitter about my eating habits since she worked hard to keep a perfect physique.
Next I pulled out two plain white pieces of paper and handed one to her. I began folding mine delicately into the perfect paper airplane, using the flat section of the water tower for some of the more delicate creases.
“I don’t know why I hang out with you. You are literally so freaking weird. Like who the hell would bring paper up the side of a water tower just to make a paper airplane.” She laughed even as she criticized. I knew she didn’t really mind. She had on multiple occasions told me that my “quirkiness” as she put it definitely made me more interesting to be around. I guess I was a little odd, but I didn’t really think that was a bad thing. I did what I thought to be amusing or entertaining. It wasn’t my fault the rest of the world didn’t seem to feel quite the same way about life.
“In fifty years don’t you want to be able to set your grandchild on your lap and tell them all about the time you tossed a paper airplane off the side of a water tower? Grandkids don’t want to hear boring stories. I would know. I was a grandkid once.” Jamie just shook her head with a grin and started folding her airplane. Mine was finished and ready to be launched into the great unknown.
“This is Air Farce One to ground station Loser, requesting permission to take off.” I did my best Top Gun impression, trying to remember how cool Tom Cruise sounded when he said it.
“This is ground station Awesome to Air Farce One. Ground station Loser could not be located but we can go ahead and give you permission to launch. Have a nice flight.” Jamie still had at least a little bit of a child left in her. I tossed my paper airplane over the side, watching it glide several hundred yards before landing in the low branches of a tree. Mission complete.
“What perfect throwing form you have,” Jamie said sarcastically, "You were probably one of those nerds who just made paper airplanes in class all day as a kid." Ouch. Yea, that had been me. Jamie wound up and threw her airplane with all her strength. She had made more of a dart than a glider and it flew fast, eventually landing in a tree considerably further than mine had.
“You win this round,” I said with mock disgust, only barely able to hide a smile, “Let’s keep going.” I removed my clips from the rail and began walking along the platform. The bulb at the top of the tower was much bigger than it looked from the ground. I could just imagine the thousands of gallons of water above and beside me.
Eventually we reached the stairs. It was nice of the designers to have taken pity on the poor inspectors who had to climb this far up. A ladder going around the outside of the bulb would have been terrifying. The stairs curling around the side felt much more secure. Reaching the top, there was a narrow platform leading from the edge of the bulb where the stairs ended to the flat space in the center of the tower. There was only a handrail on the left side so Jamie and I were sure to snap our harnesses on. The sun had almost fully set by now, the last tendrils of light just enough to see by as we made our way to the center.
“Okay this is cool. You know what we should have done? We totally should have brought an air mattress up here and slept or something,” Jamie thought aloud. “I’ll bet the stars look amazing from here. Oh and look you can already see the city lights over there!” I loved seeing her excited. She would take one hand and play with her hair while the other would point at things. It was kind of weird when I thought about it, how she always pointed at things when she was excited. But that was just Jamie being Jamie.
“You read my mind.” I pulled the sleeping bag and blanket out of the backpack and laid them on the flat steel. I probably should have realized how cold that steel was going to be. Oh well.
“We are so in sync right now,” Jamie laughed. “This is awesome. You were right.”
“Wait so what did you think was in the bag?” I asked. She hadn’t mentioned it before and I never said anything about it.
“Honestly I thought it was a parachute or some **** and you were going to try jumping off the edge,” she laughed, “I would have tried to stop you but I decided I really won’t feel guilty when you die doing something stupid.”
“Brilliant!” I exclaimed, “I am so going to try that next time!” I wouldn’t really. I liked doing risky things, but I wasn’t suicidal. We spent the next few minutes getting the sleeping bag and blanket situated. I loved the fact that Jamie could be spontaneous sometimes and that she was totally okay with just camping out on top of a random water tower on a Wednesday night. How many people in the world would have been okay with that? I was lucky to have her as a friend.
We had everything settled by the time darkness fell completely. The climbing harnesses had been stuffed into the backpack and the backpack had been strapped to the railing on the side of the platform. With the sleeping bag laid completely open, there was still at least five or six feet of open platform on all sides of us. It felt secure enough.
“I also forgot to mention that tonight is a huge meteor shower.” Jamie and I were on our backs, looking up at the infinite blackness.
“I love shooting stars.” She said softly. Her eyes were wide and I could see her making fake mustaches out of her hair. She had kicked off her shoes and socks and was wiggling her toes in the night air. There was only a sliver of moon, just bright enough that I could see the glow of it on her cheeks.
“It makes me feel small,” Jamie whispered, “I feel like that should bother me, feeling small, but it doesn’t. It’s weird because it’s almost comforting to me. Here I am, this tiny speck of dust, floating around on a larger speck of dust in the middle of infinity.” She wasn’t usually one to enjoy philosophy, but on the rare occasions she spoke like that, her point of view and opinions usually inspired me. She had a beautiful mind. She just didn’t often care to open up and share it like this.
“It makes me feel like it can’t all be an accident. Some people say that we got here through a series of random and fortunate events, that there is no great plan or design. But I just don’t see how that can be. How can mere chance create something like this? Of all the possibilities, of the infinite infinite possibilities, I just can’t believe that people, that you and I or anyone else were put here by accident. I don’t think that life could be an accident.” She spoke softly the whole time. Her voice never raised or quickened. Words seemed to flow forth effortlessly, as if this all were prepared and practiced. She was able to speak without doubt or hesitation, with such certainty that even the greatest cynic might have stopped to listen.
She continued on, weaving words as though spells, playing ideas as though harp strings. She talked about her life, telling me things she never had before, teaching me things even I didn’t know. Jamie didn’t seem to be Jamie for the next while. Instead, she seemed to have become a font of wisdom, ideas, and genius. At least, that is how I saw her. She was able to take a single idea, and examine it from all perspectives. It was as though she held it in her palm, slowly rotating it to peer closer. She made connections that I had never thought of, inspiring me to think even deeper, loving the moment. All the while she lay there, watching the stars, wiggling her toes, and making pretend mustaches out of that long blonde hair. Eventually, she turned silent.
“But what if it is an accident?” I said. My voice was unusually soft. “What if it was all an accident? What if there is no plan, no fate, and no reason for anything? What if there is no beginning or end and we are just insignificant bits of space dust? The idea of it not being an accident just seems so conveniently comforting, almost too convenient.” Jamie was silent after I finished. My heart was beating fast and my mind was alive. I didn’t feel close to being tired.
“So what if it is,” she said eventually, “What difference does it make? Even if it is all an accident. Even if there is no meaning to life at all, it seems like a beautiful accident to me. Here we are, you and I, able to share this with each other. That seems like a beautiful accident to me. Here is this great big world, all the adventure, all the excitement, and all the love that it is filled with. That seems like a beautiful accident to me. Here is this infinitely huge sky, filled with stars that are incomprehensibly far away. If this is all an accident, it is the most beautiful I can imagine.” She paused for a while longer. “I feel that whatever you believe, it doesn’t really matter. Perhaps you believe there is a supreme design and plan, or maybe you believe that life is an accident filled with chaos. It doesn’t matter. We all live in the same world. We all see the same beautiful sights, we are surrounded by it. It is only our perception of it that differs. I choose to believe that such an incredibly beautiful world cannot be an accident.”
I was quiet for a long time. Jamie had, for all intents and purposes, rocked my world. Hers was a perspective I had never thought of before. I, who believed I had thought it through from every angle. I, who believed myself smarter than the world. I realized then, at that moment, laying on the top of a water tower in late August watching a meteor shower, that maybe I was not a genius. Maybe I did not have the world figured out like I had believed. Maybe, just maybe, I was just a cynic; a cynic blinded by the misfortunes I had seen and suffered; a cynic disappointed in a world that had not treated me well.
Jamie took my hand in hers, interlocking her slender fingers within my larger ones. She turned her head to the side and looked at me, still sporting a fake mustache. The sliver of moon was reflected in her eyes just so that I could not really look into them. Her lips were curled into just the slightes
Does it really matter whether or not this world,
Is made from some divine blueprint?
What beauty is lost in either idea?
It doesn't matter if this is an accident.
Excerpt from my book of short stories, Fictional Truth.