Sixty Search Dropdown Menu

When the Sky is Starless


In a story about finding one’s true self in the most extreme environment, Brittany Gray remembers her first sexual experience with a woman while attending a skydiving event in Montana.

Image: An orange parachuter dives towards the bottom right of the image with the purple silhouette of a plane in the background. Illustration by Damiane Nickles.
Image: An orange parachuter dives towards the bottom right of the image with the purple silhouette of a plane in the background. Illustration by Damiane Nickles.

The Douglas DC-3 was the workhorse plane of skydiving in the 1970s with its low, sweeping wings, two radial engines, and a body that somehow looks sleek and stocky at the same time. DC-3s were useful to skydivers for the same reason C-47s, their military counterparts, were so prevalent in the paratrooper missions of WWII — volume. Used as airliners in the ‘30s and ‘40s, these planes had the capacity to carry 40 skydivers to altitude on every load.

“Hey, we’re on a 15 minute call,” the woman I was jumping with said. I got up and grabbed my rig, checked that the pins were still properly seated, and stepped into the leg straps. As I geared up, I was feeling a sense of excitement I hadn’t felt since early in my jumping career. I was finally going to get to jump my dream plane. I tightened my leg straps, routed my chest strap, and did a quick handle check. 


I felt my ears popping as we climbed, and I started to smell the tickle of smoke that had become a consistent indicator of altitude on this trip. It was so dry in Montana that we were surrounded by wildfires, and at a certain point in every climb, I smelled the fiery death of the forests around us. Everyone shifted onto their knees, some people standing up fully and getting ready to move toward the back of the plane. 

“Door!” Someone yelled, and cool air rushed into the cabin. The sky was no longer sprawling outside the windows, it was surrounding me and filling my lungs. Even though it was 90 degrees on the ground, the air at 13,000 feet was cold. Everyone bustled toward the door, arranging themselves into groups and preparing to exit the plane.

My group of three planned to dive out the door individually and then meet up again in the sky. I pressed on the woman in front of me, my muscles taut and ready to propel myself out the door the second I felt her give way. As I sprung forward, I felt a blast of air whisk me away from the body of the DC-3. Crossing the threshold was like stepping out of a house into a hurricane. 

As I dove away from the door, I peeked over my shoulder to get one last look at the DC-3. It was even more beautiful from underneath, a giant bird with sprawling wings moving against the clear blue in a way something that size shouldn’t be able to do. 

I aimed my body toward the circle of friends that was forming in front of me. I straightened my legs and swept my arms back against my sides, angling myself into a dive. I felt my speed increase as I swooped closer, adjusting the arch in my lower back and the angle of my shoulders to control my line of approach so that I could be sure I wouldn’t miss docking on the formation. As I got closer to them, I softened my knees to a slight bend and brought my arms to 90 degree angles next to my head to slow down. Now the air was hitting my body evenly, and I could feel equal pressure on my torso, arms, and legs. 

As I linked hands with my two friends, we all nodded in excitement and smiled at each other. We took a moment to look around and admire the scenery, and then one of them dug a knee toward the earth and started our formation spinning. I could feel the air pressing us to the left faster and faster, and I had to work harder to hold my grip. Eventually the force of the spin blew the circle apart, and I laughed as I spun away. 

There was only one DC-3 still flying jumpers in the country and it would be at Lost Prairie. 

I took the cheapest flight possible from Buffalo, NY to Spokane, WA. In Spokane, I started my rental car and set off on route 90, the same highway that ran through my home in Buffalo, and headed East. The towering pines flattened into expansive fields and the traffic slowed down as I crossed the first state border into Idaho. Once I made it to Montana, signs for Elderberry concoctions sprung up along with the Rockies. I wanted to be at the drop zone to set up camp before dark, and I felt the pressure of the setting sun on my gas pedal.

By the time I got near the drop zone, the sun was gone and so were the street lights of the highway. Out of signal range, I navigated the back roads from what I had memorized. Because of smoke from wildfires in the area, the clouded-over sky was completely dark. No moon, no stars. After what felt longer than my entire drive from Washington, I arrived at a large prairie filled with the lights and sounds of the first night of a ten day party. I had made it to Lost Prairie. 

After an anxious night alone amid a field of reunited friends and cliques, I unzipped the door and hobbled out into the cold, damp fog of the prairie morning. I was still getting my bearings, not yet convinced this whole trip wasn’t a mistake. 

“Hey there,” a man said, emerging from his own tent a few feet from mine. It was 7 a.m. and he was wearing jeans. More noteworthy, though, was the white cowboy hat angled far back on his head. 

“You get any service out here?” he asked, and I knew before I came here that I would be off the grid for the next ten days, whether I wanted to be or not. The forced cutoff was part of the charm, but so far it wasn’t doing much to help quell my rising panic about spending the next week and half knowing nobody. 

With an outstretched hand and goofy smile, this man introduced himself as Dave. He had traveled here from southern California by car. He made me feel at ease and uncomfortable at the same time. I learned that he brought a much younger woman with him, who he had met just days before the trip. She needed a ride, he had one, and I got the sense that he saw this as an opportunity. She climbed out of the tent, wearing a fuzzy, thick bathrobe, her long black hair smooth and shiny. I wondered what skill he possessed to have beautiful women who barely knew him travel across the country to sleep next to him on the ground. 

“Hi, I’m Phoenix,” she said, smiling to reveal perfectly straight, white teeth, a flash of desert sun.

I looked out over the hard, yellowed prairie grass. I could see the invisible demarcation where the tents and trailers stopped and the landing area began. The people who arrived earliest set up right along this line so that they could tease the people who tripped and rolled around when they landed. I saw other camps set up like compounds, tents huddled together and marked off by ropes, custom flags, and group names blazing overhead. These were the veterans who came to this boogie year after year.

“Alright, well I guess I’m going to go check in.” I flipped my hood up against the cold and unlocked the door of the rental car to grab my gear from the backseat. Dave started grabbing his gear to tag along, and Phoenix declared she needed coffee first. 

I suddenly wished coffee was part of my morning routine. 

A few days in, I had collected a small group of people to jump with, developing an easy comfort with each other, jumping together during the day, splitting off in the evening to clean up and eat, and then meeting up to hang out at night like old friends. 

Dave and Phoenix were part of this group. I noticed that Phoenix started popping up near me whenever we would all hang out; I wasn’t going to complain about attention from a pretty girl, but I was baffled about what drew her to me. 

I had spent my teen years confused about my sexual attraction to girls. I knew I wasn’t a lesbian, because there were several male teachers whose careers I would’ve happily risked if I had known how to seduce, and I wasn’t familiar with the concept of bisexuality. I buried my feelings for girls down deep and silently dealt with my shame whenever I felt that throbbing in my groin. What else could I do? I had to be straight. By the time I got to college, I realized that it didn’t have to be either/or, and, into my twenties, I was fully ready to experience all of the benefits that came with being attracted to multiple genders. 

There were a few problems with this. First, I had committed to being straight. After all, giving in to male pursuit is the path of least resistance, as it was so much easier to find male partners. Second — and probably related to the first — I had absolutely no game; I didn’t know how to talk to women, and I still harbored shame and internalized homophobia from my teenage years. I could not imagine any woman openly hitting on another woman, let alone one hitting on me. As far as I was concerned, Phoenix was out of my league in every way. 

Most mornings she slept in, but on the one morning that she managed to wake up with the rest of us, she bounded over with a breakfast sandwich and a hot coffee. Her slight, curvy body was draped in a fluffy pink unicorn onesie and without hesitating, she curled up in my lap. 

“It’s so cold in the mornings,” she said, cuddling into my chest for heat. There were a million places I wanted to put my hands besides the grass where I placed them, but I didn’t. 

My hands got their chance the next day. Citing tightness in her back from jumping, Phoenix made a big deal about needing a massage and, ever the oblivious gentlewoman, I kept my over-eager reaction to myself. Phoenix pulled her jumpsuit down to reveal a sports bra, laid on her stomach in front of my chair, grabbed my hand, and pulled me down to straddle her hips. As I tried to keep a neutral face while rubbing up and down her bare back, I felt her fingers caress the side of my calf to match my rhythm. 

Message received, and subsequently scrambled. The most sensual touching I had ever received from a woman, I excused it away as her being lost in the pleasure of a good massage. She was going to have to try a lot harder than that.

Every night, when the jumping was over, everyone gathered around the firepit to drink, enjoy a myriad of drugs, and swap jump stories. Because of the wildfire alert, the drop zone couldn’t actually have a fire that year, but everyone gathered there anyway. Phoenix led me there by the hand. At the edge of the pit, she pulled herself into me and wrapped her hands around my body. It felt amazing, and not just because of her body heat. It didn’t take long before I felt the pressure of her hand inside the waistband of my pants, and the shock of cold fingers as she reached her destination. 

“I’m staying in your tent tonight,” she said. I led her away to gather her blankets. 

She was a shadow that I could feel, backlit by the yellow glow of bright trailer lights and bouncing flashlights illuminating the tent wall. 

“You’ve really never been with a woman?” she asked.

“Really, I swear.”

“I do not believe that.” She was being playful.

“I mean it.” 

“It’s just that you look—“ 

“I look like I would’ve.” I laughed softly.

“Yeah. Is that rude to say?”

“Not at all. I mean, I do.” I gestured vaguely towards my lilting mohawk with the sides buzzed almost to my scalp. I was ecstatic at this acknowledgment of my queerness. 

We sat in silence for a moment with the cold air pimpling our exposed skin. I could hear groups of people moving around the vast prairie outside, shouts and laughter growing louder and then faint over the indistinguishable hum of many different songs playing all at once. 

“What about Dave?” I asked. “Aren’t you here with him?” She laughed.

“He wishes,” she said. When she leaned in and kissed me, I noticed that her lips were much smaller than any of the men I’d kissed before. They were so soft that I had a hard time keeping my teeth from hitting hers. 

“Shit, sorry,” I mumbled into her mouth, the chill of teeth on teeth still lingering in my spine. She wrapped her hand behind my neck and stopped me from pulling away. 

Sex is sex, and I had had plenty of it with men, but my hands suddenly didn’t know what to do because they were faced with a woman’s body. They were waiting for permission from my brain, which was waiting for permission from Phoenix. I wrapped my arms low around her back and left them there, not daring to touch any other part of her body. 

After a moment, she pulled away and started taking her clothes off, so I followed her lead. 

The dim lighting accentuated the slight contour of my abs. She reached out and touched my stomach, pulling me in for another kiss. In just her underwear, she led me down to the ground, and I positioned myself above her. I was still wearing a sports bra and underwear, but I started thrusting my hips against hers the way men had always done to me. I wasn’t so much using prior experiences as a template as I was finally letting my body fall into the rhythms of my genderqueer identity. I kissed down her body, licking and sucking as I went, until I got to her waistband. 

Without hesitation, she took her underwear off. I pressed my face deeper as her body shuddered, then her hands grabbed just behind my ears, pulling me upward. In a single movement, I was on my back, her silhouette poised over me. I relaxed into the thin sleeping bag under me and saw the shadows of legs moving past the tent. For a split second, my mind went to Dave sleeping only a few feet away and I grinned as I imagined him wishing he was in my place instead. 

I woke up to the sound of my tent door being unzipped. As I squinted through the dark, I looked for clues that this was a welcome visitor, not a hostile one. It took me only a second to recognize her outline. 

“I was starting to worry you found somewhere better to sleep,” I said, as she slid her blankets up next to my sleeping bag. She was leaving in the morning and I was hoping that she would come around when she was done with all the late night activities.

“No way.” I wrapped around her the best I could through my sleeping bag, but it wasn’t good enough. I slid out of the bag and laid next to her on the blanket, and she rested her head in the crook of my shoulder. Her thin blanket was only big enough to cover all of her and one of my legs, so I tried to focus on feeling her body instead of the cold. There wasn’t much between me and the night air. I tried to relax back into my own sleep, but when I closed my eyes, the cold became even more noticeable. She stirred as I slowly slid my arm out from under her head and inched back toward my sleeping bag. 

“No, stay here,” she mumbled. Whatever she had consumed before coming to the tent made her much more tolerant of the temperature than I was. 

“I’m so cold, I’m sorry.” I ran my hand through her silky hair and kissed the place I had just touched, but she was already back asleep. I slid back into the warm pocket of insulated nylon and felt my body heat fill the space around me. Before I closed my eyes, I wiggled my sleeping bag over to her and curled up against the crescent moon of her body. 

I woke up a few hours later and hoisted myself high enough to climb over her without waking her up. On my way out of the tent to start jumping for the day, I leaned down and lightly tapped her ass.

“Thank you,” I said, and she responded with sleepy mumbles. When I returned later that evening, the only trace of her was the mattress pad she told me she would leave behind so that I wouldn’t have to sleep on the hard ground.

My alarm went off for the tenth morning in a row, this time a bit earlier than the other days. I reached my hand out of the sleeping bag to stop the noise and felt the bite of the cold morning air sneak in where my arm had created an opening. 

This morning — our last — the prairie was silent. A majority of the attendees had already left. Even if you didn’t notice them packing up and departing amidst the bustle of 700 other people, an unexpected empty patch of grass that used to be a tent would throw you off on your navigation to your campsite. Of course, everyone always heard the echo of the traditional beeps of car horns as the early departures drove away. 

As I crouched out of the tent door, I realized I couldn’t see any of the prairie. I stood for a minute trying to get my bearings. The whiteness was so thick that it moved in the air in front of me and I could feel it on my skin. It was like being in a cloud, but I had come from a tent instead of a plane. 

I could just make out the tent next to mine. A pack of coyotes yipped from across the prairie. Standing there alone in the heavy dark, seeing only thick white air and hearing the wild call of Montana coyotes, it seemed the prairie was giving me the parting gift of one final moment of beauty. 

I knew that if I came back to this boogie again another year, I would never be here again. The event would never be the same, and neither would I. I could never return to this place as the person I was before the jump from the DC-3, before the friendships that formed at 13,000 feet, before that night with Phoenix. As it turned out, maybe I was the one with that secret something I thought Dave possessed. Even though he got to spend the long drive home back to wherever they came from with her, I’m the one she chose in the end. 

Before getting into the car myself, I took one more look around the prairie. I silently thanked the grass, the mountains, the coyotes, and the people in the tents around me.

Image: A photo of Brittany Gray wearing a rainbow-colored outfit and sunglasses. She is in mid-motion and is slightly turned to our right.

About the Author: Brittany Gray was born and raised in Buffalo, NY, where she obtained a Bachelor’s degree in English, History, and a minor in Creative Writing from Canisius College. She specializes in human interest pieces and creative non fiction. In addition to writing, Brittany is a skydiving instructor, avid motorcycle camper, SCUBA diver, and Drag King. She is passionate about the LGBTQ+ community, racial justice activism, and womxn’s rights.

Image: A photo of Damiane Nickels, who is wearing a green jumpsuit and mask. he is sitting in front of a orange and black background.

About the Illustrator: Damiane Nickles (he/him) is a painter and illustrator working out of Chicago. He holds a B.F.A. in Illustration from Syracuse University and completed his first solo exhibition in June 2022. When’s he’s not creating artwork he’s diving into spirits as a Brand Manager over at Apologue Liqueurs.

Related Articles