Before We Stopped Speaking
I once watched my friend fall from a height of thirty stories and live. Well, not live, but you know what I mean.
At first I thought he only fell out of his chair. He’d been leaning back, same as always, front legs floating above the floor, when he lost balance. I laughed as he tipped backwards and crashed onto the carpet, except he wasn’t on the carpet, or anywhere else in the apartment. Then I noticed the open window.
By the time I poked my head out, his body was passing the twenty-ninth floor. Face first, clothes swollen with the breeze, growing smaller.
“He’s not falling very fast,” I called to tell one of our mutual friends. “But what do you think? Should I do something? Maybe tell him to slow down…”
“I wouldn’t worry too much,” this friend assured me. “He’s fallen off things before.”
This friend had a point. Off the top of my head, I could think of at least four occasions I’ve watched my friend fall: a second-story balcony, a concert stage, the roof of an RV, and the dock of a lake. He got a bruise here, a broken arm there, but he was more or less fine.
“You said he’s where now?” asked the next friend I called.
I peeked out the window.
“Hmm, that’s quite the fall,” this friend sighed. “He’s really done it this time, hasn’t he?”
We talked a while about what to do. There were places to call, professionals trained to deal with these sorts of things. But I don’t know, I didn’t think he was that far gone yet, only being at the twenty-fifth floor and all.
The third mutual friend I called was no longer friends with my friend. I didn’t remember this until after I’d dialed and her line was already ringing. She’d stopped speaking to my friend after an incident at a party, an accident, really, when my friend misjudged a step and, trying to steady himself, grabbed the shoulder of this woman and sent her tumbling down a staircase.
“I’m not surprised he’s falling,” she stated flatly.
“This time is different,” I said.
I wanted to explain why this time was different, how after the twenty-second floor his body had picked up some momentum and if he wasn’t careful, if he kept falling like this, he might really hurt himself.
“Listen,” she said. “I’ve watched him hit bottom before. If I were you, I’d look away.”
I made other calls, then circled back with some of the first people I’d spoken with, updating them on his current whereabouts: he’s facing up now, now he’s past the thirteenth floor, now his shirt has come untucked, the twelfth floor, the eleventh…
Several friends agreed to meet at my apartment next Tuesday and hash out a plan. Before they arrived, I set up chairs by the window where everyone would be able to get a view of his descent.
“As you can see,” I said after they’d been seated, “he’s falling rather quickly.”
We each shared our ideas. A few sounded pretty good, but then someone would say we were too late, to which another insisted we still had time. One woman who stood gazing out the window announced that our friend looked to be passing the seventh floor, and that she would take the elevator to the sixth, where she would try to reach out and grab him.
Fifteen minutes later she returned, alone, to explain that by the time the elevator reached the sixth floor, our friend was already on the fifth.
“You should have taken the elevator to the fourth!” somebody cried.
“I did,” the woman responded. “But by then he’d already fallen past to the third.”
We fell silent. Everyone stared at the floor. As I glanced around the room, I noticed a few of us leaning back in our chairs, which felt a little inappropriate given the circumstances, but I didn’t say anything.
“Remember the time he fell off the bleachers at the football game?” somebody finally asked.
A few of us laughed at this. The witness of this particular fall went on to narrate what happened, which another person followed with a story about how our friend fell into an outdoor fountain, which reminded me of when he fell off the RV roof. We took turns trading these tales until somebody told a story that felt more sad than funny and the room grew quiet again.
It was getting late, so I thanked everyone for coming, said that it’d been a long night, a long week, a long couple of months—years for some of us—but they should go home and get some rest. We’d figure it out another day.
Nobody wanted to be the first to leave. Eventually, somebody stood up, but before heading out, walked over to the window for one final glance. Others followed suit, everyone making a point of looking out the window on their way to the door, but it was dark outside so none of us could really see our friend anymore.
At first, they can’t believe it. “Did that just happen?” they keep asking each other. How quickly it all escalated, how unexpected, how even now, hours after they’ve escaped the situation and things have calmed down, they’re still questioning whether it really occurred.
The next day they tell a friend.
“Wow,” the friend says. “Crazy story.”
Over the next few weeks, they tell anyone they run into. “How’s it going?” people ask, then the man and woman glance at each other a moment before launching into the story.
“Oh my god,” people gasp.
“Like something out of a movie.”
Everyone loves the story. They stop what they’re doing to listen. They put a hand over their mouths. They shake their heads in disbelief.
During their early narrations, the man and woman didn’t see it as a story. They thought they were simply describing their experience, stating the facts. Once they realize that what they have is a story, they lean into it, make it better. The woman tells certain parts and the man others. They divvy it up based on who tells which part better. As they’re telling the story over dinner one night, the man mixes up the chronology—he says one thing and the woman corrects him— which makes the entire table laugh. Without discussing it, they incorporate this bit of playfulness into their story. The next person they tell, the man makes this same mistake and the woman again corrects him, so that the person listening to this new version laughs and laughs and eagerly asks, “Then what happened?”
People see the man and woman differently after hearing the story. They judge them as a couple. They mistake them for a long-term pair when really, the man and woman have only been dating about a month. However, the story makes the man and woman feel they have been together much longer, that what they went through brought them closer, that they know each other more deeply because of it.
Unsurprisingly, their story continues to make the rounds. Friends and family. Coworkers. Neighbors. For a while, the couple performs this story daily, but eventually a number of days pass without them telling anyone. The man, feeling the loss of a new routine, turns to the woman in bed to exclaim, “I still can’t believe what happened” and she suddenly springs up. “I know! It’s insane!” and they begin going over the details, both of them excited to bring up tiny moments they had forgotten.
At a grocery store they run into one of the man’s old roommates, someone from years ago, and as they’re catching up the man begins to tell him the story when the old roommate cuts him off.
“Yeah, I heard,” the roommate says. “Crazy.”
A similar thing happens two days later. The man is at work when he sees someone riding a bike who looks like one of the guys from the story. He points this out to a colleague, who responds, “Yeah, you told me about that last week. So that’s what the guy looked like, huh?”
There are a few final performances. A trickling of folks who were out of town or who they don’t see very often, but soon there is no one left to hear their story.
That weekend, they’re at a party with a group of friends who have all heard the story when one of them starts telling everyone about her recent trip. It’s not as good a story as theirs, but everyone listens attentively. The man finds himself wishing none of these friends had heard the story so he and the woman could tell them. Sure, it’s been a while since that whole mess took place, but it really is a fantastic story. It’s a shame they only get to tell a story like that once.
“So what’s new with you two?” their friend asks after she’s finished with the story about her trip. “Last thing I heard was pretty wild.”
The rest of their friends turn to the man and woman.
“Yeah, tell us!” their friends cheer.
For a second the man racks his brain, trying to remember some interesting thing that’s happened recently. Honestly, it’s all been standard stuff. Going on walks after work. Pretty good sex. Cooking dinner together: a great curry they made on Tuesday. It’s a perfectly fine life but nothing you could turn into a movie or a book. Certainly not a story. They’ve only been going out a few months. Is this story all they have? Should there be more? Are they missing something? Is it enough?
“We’ve mostly been hanging out,” the woman answers. “No crazy stories.”
The man thinks he notices one of their friends frown, but then the woman is stroking the man’s arm, looking at him the way she does when it’s only the two of them.
“It’s been great,” she says to everyone, or maybe just him.
Nick Sabolik‘s writing has appeared in Mississippi Review. He lives in Colorado, where he enjoys hiking below treeline looking for wild plants to turn into tea.