3rd Place Winner, “A Character Study”

By Richard Charles Schaefer

Artwork by Coe MacFarlane

It’s too loud to talk. My boss Kimberly is sitting on the left of me; on the right, my thigh
is touching the thigh of a man who slept with my wife a total of four times over a three month
time span about two years ago. I’d rather not say his name, but I can’t help but whisper it under
my breath, knowing it’s too loud on the plane for anyone to hear me. Gregory.

“What?” Gregory asks, shouting to be heard.

“Shut the fuck up,” I say.

“What?” Kimberly asks.

These are the first words I’ve spoken to Gregory since finding out about the affair. I think
I acquitted myself pretty well, all things considered, and no one can hear anything anyway, over
the howling air at the open back of the plane. When we reach the proper altitude, we’re going to
jump, one by one, out of that hole. I look at the folds and pins of Gregory’s parachute backpack;
I wonder if there’s anything I could loosen to ensure his death. My wife told me, once, during an
argument, that his dick was bigger than mine. I think she was lying.

I’m terrified to jump out of this airplane; I’m sure my heart will stop, or I’ll freeze on the
edge, unable to take the plunge, then, looking down, my heart will stop and I’ll fall anyway,
unable to pull my chute. Or my heart will hold out but my chute won’t open. Or my chute will
open, I’ll stick the landing, and I’ll choke during the team lunch we’re having afterwards. Or I’ll
survive the jump and the lunch and crash my car on the way home to my wife. You see, our
marriage survived her sleeping with Gregory, the man whose thigh is touching mine. I was able
to forgive her. Most spouses do, even if it’s much to their surprise.

There was a time when Gregory and I were quite close. A time before the fucking.
Though, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time our thighs have touched. Was the
friendship real at all? Who gives a shit. No, it wasn’t. The fact that the affair happened defied
certain previously inalienable truths I held about the world, privilege, really, that certain things
will never happen to me. Betrayal, adultery. Add skydiving to that list. A stupid team building
activity. It’s too loud to talk and you need to have a physical exam done just to get on the plane,
which flies in the face of certain diversity and inclusion initiatives our company espouses. And,
though I passed the physical, I’m sure the fall will kill me. I won’t do it. It’s like trying to touch
my own eyeball; my body just won’t let it happen.

Will Gregory do it? Will Kimberly do it? Myself and seven coworkers are jammed into
this plane. Will they all do it? How many will die? None, of course. That’s not a thing that
happens. Not a thing that happens near me, anyway. This inalienable truth will hold—someday,
yes, I will die, but people don’t die near me. I am not one of those people who has found a
corpse in the woods or sat down next to an apparently sleeping person on the bus, only to find
that they’re stiff with rigor mortis. I credit my lack of exposure to the recently deceased to the
infrequency with which I take public transportation. If Gregory jumps, I will jump. Especially if
he doesn’t jump, I will jump. So it comes down to that: a flip of a coin, both sides with
Gregory’s head on them.

I have worked at this company for nine years. In that time, we have gone to maybe eight
baseball games as a team, had innumerable pizza parties, taken occasional team photos, and now
we are jumping out of a plane together. I bet they’ll share video on the company website of us,
floppy mouthed, wind-swelled cheeks, screaming as the wind tries to rip our copious flesh from
our bones. I did watch some videos on Youtube in preparation, to get a sense of how I’ll look
while I fall. I’m not a vain person, but I like to know.

Gregory rests his gloved hand on his thigh, which is basically like resting it on my thigh.
I move about a centimeter toward Kimberly, but don’t want to give her the wrong idea; it’s better
to touch the thigh of a man I hate than that of a woman I respect. And when I say ‘hate’, I don’t
want you to think I mean ‘dislike’. I mean hate—I want to see him humiliated and dead, I want
to see the world scrubbed clean of his blotted corpse, I want to see his family suffer for his sins
after he’s gone to his early grave.

But, this being polite society, all I can do is rest my thigh against his and hope that there
is a manufacturer’s defect in his parachute, or that he chokes on the lunch we’re attending after
the jump, or that he crashes his car on the way home after, or that he falls asleep holding a
cigarette and burns his house to the ground, or that he remembers to stub his cigarette before
falling asleep but that it gives him cancer. I know he still smokes because I can smell it, even
under the heavy outfits we’re wearing. His nasty yellow teeth have bitten my wife’s neck, though
I imagine, in the interest of discretion, she discouraged this. I wouldn’t have noticed, anyway, so
inconceivable was the whole idea.

My wife told me about the affair. That’s right, I didn’t notice subtle differences, pick up
on clues, anything like that. She told me she was unhappy, so I knew she was unhappy. She told
me she fucked Gregory four times, so I knew she fucked Gregory four times. And, as evolved a
species as we claim to be, I still can’t help but believe that she and I wouldn’t have reconciled if
I weren’t better in bed than Gregory. When it’s not happening to you, you tend to think of an
affair as something that tarnishes the people involved, but I do not believe my wife is a cheater,
any more than depositing money in my checking account makes me a banker. The structural
integrity of her conscience and vagina remains intact. I don’t believe she’ll do it again.

Especially not with Gregory, who she has since acknowledged is a tepid piece of white trash
with predatory eyes and no pilot light in his soul.

We hit some turbulence; Gregory topples into me, and I lean into Kimberly. The
instructor says that we’re nearing altitude, and pats me on the shoulder. Just me. Why me? Do I
look like a guy who needs a pat on the shoulder? Do I look like someone who knows he’s about
to die, and, if so, is slapping my shoulder the most effective comfort this man can provide?

Gregory, who’s still leaning into my shoulder and forcing me against Kimberly, my boss
of seven years, is a notorious shoulder grabber. He’s a fan of jovial, one handed massages that
feel like they’re searching for a nerve to pinch. I can’t imagine those clumsy hands brought my
wife anywhere close to orgasm. Although, to be clear, he hasn’t touched me since I found out he
touched my wife. Until now. His thigh against my thigh, his shoulder against my shoulder.

I have fully forgiven my wife for her infidelity, and I will never forgive Gregory. I hope
that his chute fails. I hope that his heart fails. And when he’s dead, my non-forgiveness will be
locked into the ether, set permanently in the record of the universe. I’m sure he comes from a
family of fuck ups for whom early deaths are a congenital condition. When they hear he’s fallen
from a plane, they’ll say “well, Gregory fell from a plane, that’s the way it goes”, the same as if
he succumbed to cancer or a black lung. But of course, that’s not the way it goes. Gregory will
not die jumping out of this plane; because if he dies jumping then I could also die jumping. But
as long as Gregory doesn’t die, neither will I.

Kimberly bumps against me. Her had lands in my lap, like a baseball hit into a
frightening neighbor’s yard. I sit there, stunned, waiting for her to retrieve it. She sits there, too
stunned to retrieve it. It’s hard to tell how long her hand remains there, but before she moves it,
she squeezes my thigh. A hell of a place to be, packed in between Gregory and Kimberly,
between two pasts that somehow lead to one present, here on a plane we are about to jump out

Over a ten month span starting about three years ago, Kimberly and I slept together a
total of 30 times. My wife found out, through a combination of savvy detective work and the fact
that I stopped giving a shit and was planning to leave her anyway. But, when she found out, and I
saw that she still held enough of me in her heart to be heartbroken by my behavior, it rekindled
something in our relationship. Of course, a few months later, she slept with Gregory four times,
and that was something I never expected. Revenge is not something I ever thought would factor
into my life. But there you go.

And of course Kimberly is my boss, so, though we broke the affair off, we couldn’t cut
off communication. She never told her husband, because he would have killed me. Literally
killed me, his hands punching into my body to turn me inside out. God, I wish I had that kind of
passion. I never even thought about hitting Gregory except, sometimes, when I was falling asleep
and having arguments with myself in my head; the kind of nights when you plot out a second
draft for your whole life to that point. But Kimberly’s a professional, and I’m good at my job, so
it all worked out okay. But just now she touched my thigh and, let me tell you, I’m over people
touching my thigh today. I’m ready to face that gaping hole in the back of the plane, if it means
getting off this bench.

And, in fact, the guy who slapped my shoulder is gesturing to the people on the other side
of the plane to get up, one by one. They step up to the edge of the opening, turn their backs to it,
and are instructed to take a step backwards. An instructor jumps with each of them. All four of
them seem to do okay, but falling’s the easy part.

The lead instructor gestures our bench up, and I end up at the back of the line, behind
Gregory. That means I’m going to be paired with the guy who slapped my shoulder when I jump,
step, or fall into the sky. Barry from accounting goes, no problem. Kimberly blows us (me?) a
kiss and jumps. Gregory steps to the edge, turns around, looks at me, and mouths something.

“What?” I shout.

Gregory jumps.

“What did he say?” I ask my guy, the shoulder slapper.

“Come on,” he says, “it’s time to jump. You saw how it’s done.”

I turn my back to the opening, my heels right against it, enough to suck me down if I just
lean my weight back. I do it, and place one foot down on nothingness. I don’t even really register
that I’m in the air until I see the instructor floating next to me, making a stupid surfer gesture and
shouting “woohoo”.

How much time passes before he motions to me to open my chute? I don’t know. I pull
the cord. The parachute jerks against the wind and blooms to its full size, slowing my fall. Before
I know it, I’m trotting along an open field, high fiving my exhilarated coworkers and checking
my limbs to make sure they’re all intact, discreetly checking to see if I pissed myself (I didn’t),
less discreetly checking to see if anyone else pissed themselves (they didn’t). Everyone made it.

I look at Kimberly, flush and giggling, at Gregory, who’s winded, lost in his diving outfit.
I look up at the sky, at the circling plane, higher now, flittering between clouds.

And I wonder, how on earth did I forget to look at the view as I fell?

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