There is this moment, when you’re speeding down a gravel road trailed by a cloud of dust; you come over a crest and fling the car around a sudden corner, but the wheels lose their grip on the track. When back of the vehicle refuses to change direction or slow down and you threaten to plunge into the field of stunted corn along the side.
When it is 90 degrees and you’ve been staring at the shaded water at the base of the cliff for so long that you can’t back away now, so you take a couple strides and fling yourself forward as the ground falls away beneath your bare feet.
Or when there’s a lull in the conversation and your eyes meet, so you slowly lean in for a kiss from that girl with the tousled hair highlighted by the sun, and the quiet half smile that spreads to a crinkle in the corner of her eye – the one that you’ve had your eye on for a long time.
There’s this brief second of existential terror; you’ve done something insane – something monumentally stupid. You’ve miscalculated and you’re going to crash. You see this image of the car wrapped around an ancient willow by the side of the road, or of yourself bouncing off the rocks lining the gorge, smashing the tranquil surface of that water, and then never resurfacing; the girl raises her eyebrows in shock and deflects with an outstretched palm, or turns her face to the side to present you with a smooth cheek instead of the lips for which you’d aimed. Your internal organs threaten to exit violently through your windpipe. The space in your chest seems to contract and the air inside feels more like helium than something you can breathe.
But then you find your traction. The tires find the unyielding surface of packed earth beneath the gravel and the car straightens out on the other side of the turn. Your pointed toes lead your descent into the water and the rest of your body follows into a refuge of quiet, dark and cool. The girl doesn’t turn away or shudder; her eyes drop down to your mouth and she rises on the pads of her feet to meet your lips with hers. You want to grin and shout and laugh all at the same time. You took a plunge, and found that the landing was soft.
You don’t get to feel that feeling if you watch it happen on television or push “A” to make your character do it in a video game. You don’t get to feel it if you’re drunk or otherwise numbed to the world. It requires the combined input of every one of the human body’s finely-tuned senses; it requires that you take a risk, and that you care about the outcome.
At that moment, you know what it means to be alive.