When I turned around, he was already down, slid onto his side like a runner into home plate. But he wasn’t a runner, and this wasn’t home plate. He was a math professor wearing dress pants, and we were on a sidewalk in downtown Babylon, New York. There were mounds of slushy snow everywhere; it was bound to happen to one of us. I’m just glad it wasn’t me.
People fall on ice. It isn’t an unusual occurrence. Not normally one worth writing about. But the strange thing was this: inside my next blink, he was up, standing erect on the sidewalk, as if nothing had ever happened. Before I could ask if he was all right or decide if this was funny or not, he was off the floor, casually dropping a quarter into the meter. There was no transitional position. No bent knee straightening, no hands pushing himself to his feet. No groan or curse. One second he was down, and the next he was, miraculously, up, as if my brain skipped like a scratched record, and jumped over the in between image of Phil scrambling. I watched him poised upright, and while I was befuddled, he seemed cool as a cucumber. The only proof that he had ever been on the ground was a streak of dirty snow up his pant leg, and the honk of a passing car, the driver of which must have seen the wipe out too, and was doing us the courtesy of blaring witness.
I blinked once. Twice. Then I asked, “Are we just going to pretend that never happened?”
Phil turned to me, his face blank. “There are only two acceptable ways to handle a fall,” he said. “One, you climb up and yell at whatever caused you to lose your footing. Two, you act like it never happened.” Then he began to walk in the direction we were heading. A non-confrontational person by nature, he was choosing the latter approach.
By then, I’d processed the scenario. It had sat on my tongue. I tasted it, chewed it, swallowed and digested it. I’d decided. Yes, I was certain. The fall was funny.
I hurried, carefully, to catch up to Phil. A laughed rumbled up my throat, and I tried to suppress it, but admittedly not very hard because, after all, the man wasn’t hurt.
“How did you recover so quickly?” I asked finally, because his seamless rebound was really astounding. He’d snapped back up like a bungee cord. It wasn’t human. It was superhuman. Most likely a mutant power he’d accidentally let me discover. He’d been threatened and responded by instinct, unwittingly revealing abilities that for years had remained under his control.
But he kept his eyes fixed ahead, determined that the fall never happened. And I was beginning to think his denial was not for the sake of his dignity, but for the sake of his secret.