Getting to the edge is easy.
Making the leap is something else entirely.
By Caroline Praderio
I am 10 years old the first time, with ten toes curled over the edge of a cliff that drops down twenty feet before it meets the ocean. I am all bones and limbs, all hands and feet that I’ve yet to grow into. My dripping wet bathing suit clings to me like plastic wrap on a glass bowl — bunchy and wrinkled, but sealed tight. I’m shivering. I fold my arms across my chest and tuck my hands into my armpits. They aren’t much for warmth, but that’s where I put them when they’re cold anyway.
My family’s on a camping trip to the same coastal campground that my father used to go to when he was young, out on a remote little finger of the Phippsburg peninsula. It’s our first time there, and my brothers and I delight in knowing that our father and aunts and uncle once walked the same dusty paths, jumped from this very cliff, and met the same unforgiving smack of Maine ocean water.
The cliff is on one side of a little inlet, which fills up with greenish ocean water when the tide is high. At low tide, there’s nothing left but the big rocks, some crab legs, and clumps of seaweed strewn across the sand like things accidentally dropped from pockets. In campground parlance, this place is called the Bathtub. And it’s tradition, we learn, that everyone jumps from the steep side and watches from the gentle, rounded side near the beach. My father tells us all about it as we walk toward it, following a winding and overgrown path through the dunes, brushing past spiny branches weighed down with the red berries left over when the pink beach roses fold up for the summer. The brush gives way to rock — the craggy kind that pinches the bottoms of our feet — and finally we see it. The cliff. The water sloshing at the rust-colored high-tide mark. The rockweed floating, dark and slimy. The ribbons of quartz sparkling in the August sun. The Bathtub.
Generations of jumpers have worn a pathway into the face of the jumping cliff, so we can see the way up even though we’ve never climbed it before. We ease into the water from the watchers’ side, doggy paddle across, and work our way up.
My mother stays with the other watchers, sitting on a spread-out beach towel and holding her camera at the ready, should one of us muster up the courage to do it. My father goes first. He surfaces in the murky green basin below and looks up at me encouragingly while salty beads of ocean roll down the bridge of his sharp nose. My older brother jumps, too. I shiver, tuck my hands into my armpits, step back from the edge. I let some teenagers pass me in line. I watch them jump. I think of the rocks at the bottom, of tumbling under the water and swimming down instead of up. Of being swallowed up in a gnarled, bubbly nest of seaweed. I wonder how shameful it would be to climb back down instead of jumping.
More than sharks, more than rocks, more than anything: I do not want to be a watcher. I want to burst to the surface and smile the jumper’s smile.
Soon, Elizabeth arrives. She is a new friend who’s staying at the campsite next to us on Dune Way. She is a bit younger than me, I think — or maybe just shorter. Her hair is black and waist length and her skin is deeply tanned, and I admire her because I think she looks like Pocahontas. We spend the week playing together in her family’s faded red-and-gray tent. We reach into a tub of discount club cheddar whales and dolphins, carefully extracting one of each animal. “If you hold a dolphin in one hand and a whale in the other and hold both up underneath my dog’s nose,” she tells me, “he can tell which is which. He’ll nudge the hand with the whale inside.” I don’t believe her until it happens, just like that, three times in a row. I decide there is something kind of magical in her. It’s confirmed when I see her standing on the ledge of the Bathtub. The wind upturns her bangs but she stands still — calm and brave, like the rock is hers alone.
If she’s afraid before she jumps, it doesn’t show. She leaps and becomes a cannonball of color — tan skin and black hair jumbled with the mustard yellow and hot pink of her one-piece suit. Before I have time to blink, she hits the water. It churns and turns white at the spot where she goes under. She emerges with her bangs stuck to her forehead as if she’s just dunked into a real bathtub, one that’s warm and full of bubbles.
I watch her carefully. When I see two rows of bright white teeth blossom in the middle of her face, I feel ashamed. I’m still scared of jumping and the smack of the water against my skin, of the rocks that are lurking like sleeping sharks at the bottom. Of going down but not coming back up. Elizabeth isn’t.
But more than sharks, more than rocks, more than anything: I do not want to be a watcher. I want to burst to the surface and smile the jumper’s smile. I want to go back to the fire pit and lick the last crumbs of my evening s’more from the tips of my fingers while I recall, over and over, the way it feels to fall. I want to paw at my mother’s purse when she comes home from the drugstore weeks later with the developed film from the camping trip, to see my flight preserved on glossy Kodak paper. I want to tape it to the inside of my trapper keeper when I go back to school. Because even though I will never see Elizabeth again, that photo will be proof that, at the Bathtub, some of her magic rubbed off on me. That I can make the leap even though I am scared.
I look up from my feet and decide I am resolved to jump. My mother holds the camera. My father says you can do it. My friend Elizabeth climbs back up the other side for her sun-warmed towel. My legs make a few false starts. My toes uncurl from the rock.