That Star Over There
The light from the screen washed the surroundings with a static glimmer as I sat in the darkness, my black headphones engulfing the sides of my face. Carl Sagan’s calm voice whispered into my ears as the display guided me through some kitschy renderings of galaxies and stars. I was watching a documentary called Journey Through the Universe, and the little sparkling images of space danced around the screen like a box of nerds spilled across the floor. Nerds spilled, most probably, by a poor production intern sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a dark, empty room – or so I mused. I imagined them, sitting there, similarly illuminated by a screen, clicking away mindlessly, furiously Ctrl-V-ing on photoshop. One click, a star; a Ctrl-V, a galaxy; a new multiplied layer, a system of nebulae, and so on so forth. I wasn’t bothered by its apparent insignificance – tiny, ice-blue dots on the screen that I could traverse simply by stretching out my index and middle fingers: a fleshy, intergalactic bi-pedal creature. I was fascinated by it. Looking back, I was always fascinated by space as a child, but then again, what child isn’t? The reasons for my absorption though, were a little less quotidian. I remembered when I was younger still, my mother had told me that when people died, our souls were shot into the skies, into space to become stars, launching my interest in the dark nothing that was apparently always above me. Thinking back on it fifteen years later, I couldn’t help but admit it a hilarious image: what would we use? Rockets? Giant guns? Do souls just naturally float? (Cartoons seem to imply that) How does one strap a human soul to a rocket? “When people die, we bury them underground right? Then why do you always look up when you talk about grandma? Shouldn’t you look down? That was the adolescent question that had triggered my mother’s tall-tale.
“Well, that star over there is grandma, and that one is grandpa.” “I want a star mom!” “Don’t go rushing up there just yet. You still haven’t had your chance to shine down here. We’ll all be up there eventually, just in a very, very, long time from now.” Most of these conversations probably auto-fabricated out of memories that don’t exist, but just like my continuing belief in my mother’s star-soul theory, I had made them concrete over the years for the sake of comfort and convenience. After all, if I couldn’t put those souls up there, where in the world else would I put them? Everywhere else seemed too small, too constricted, too close; my own mind being the smallest of those imagined rooms. I needed to put them somewhere far, far away, but always close enough to see, and my mother had given me a perfect solution. Even so, I entertained the fact that as I sat there in the suffocating economy cabin of a Boeing 747 a mile above Illinois, I was probably the closest I was ever going to get to the dark worlds depicted in the screen. “In order to be able to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” Carl Sagan was now sitting at the edge of a nearly empty table with a slightly ajar red-checkered tablecloth, staring at an overly perfect apple pie in front of him. His fingers were crossed, wise-man style below his face, and he held his fatherly smile just long enough for a viewer to wonder whether he knew the cameras were still rolling. I reached my hand forward and switched the display off, wondering if he was ever embarrassed to say such a ridiculous line. I was back to darkness, save the blinking red no-smoking light
and the occasional bleed from the reading lights of my fellow sleepless travelers. I slid my headphones off, and as the drone of the aircraft seeped back into my ears, I remembered a similarly outlandish line that I had heard a couple years ago, in high school. My body suspended in darkness a mile above the states, and with the snoring, bent-neck businessman in the adjacent seat denying me my sleep, my idle mind had nowhere to travel but down to land and to the past. “Did you know that when subatomic particles collide and shatter in a particle accelerator, the fragments exhibit a mysterious attraction to reassemble the original whole? So, they say that the movements of these scattered particles closely resemble the neuron activity of the brain during love. So imagine this. Imagine that maybe, we are just masses of subatomic particles scattered by a particularly big ‘bang’, trying to reassemble our original wholes. The neurons in our brain also look like those satellite pictures of the galaxy!” This was what Skyler Peddiman had told me in Junior year AP Lit as he scratched his temple with the corner of his book. More accurately, Skyler had announced it to the entire class. Mrs. Penfold had led us into a heated discussion on love and destiny in The Great Gatsby and Skyler had raised his hand. “So I think Jay and Daisy were meant to be, it’s just that, not being together tore them down, you know? Like, it’s hard to go against the will of the universe.” Needless to say, it was absolute bullshit, and the class had replied with a queered silence as Skyler looked around, lowered his eyes, and shrugged. Mrs. Penfold gave him a
glazed stare before slowly pivoting on her heals to call on the next raised hand. A strict believer in the idea that there were no stupid questions, but millions of stupid answers for those questions, she would always swivel around the room when she was upset or bothered. It was as if she were squashing and grinding a bug into the horrible orange carpet of the classroom floor. I remember how Skylar’s eyes were sewed to that floor for the rest of the period. He looked as if he were scrutinizing each and every nauseatingly orange tendril of the carpet, as if he could make the strands unravel and tie down his own embarrassment. I recall feeling bad for him. I was never particularly fond of him, not to say that I disliked him, but in the common sense of the term, I was a bully. Between hiding his calculator in the toilet, laughing as the bigger boys in school knocked him over, and talking shit about his quirks behind his back, I greeted him with non-verbal gestures in our hallways and classrooms – words were obviously too precious. Now that I looked back on it, I was the proverbial ‘silent party’, both then and now. I had never apologized for any of it. But I remember that the bad I felt that day was for some inexplicable reason the kind of bad that I could feel physically, viscerally; there was a wounded bird trapped and fluttering in my ribcage. After class, for another set of vague reasons that I’ve long since forgotten, my own anxiety had stirred within my lungs and had inspired a sense of sympathy. I followed Skyler into the hallway, and before I knew it, something resembling confidence had taken my hand and placed it on his shoulder. He swiveled around as if he had expected my hand and looked me straight in the eye. I remember it was the color of ocean, only without the water – a plain of dirt and dry dust under a graying blue sky, where water should have been but never was. A serene emptiness. (Again, probably auto-fabricated, but beautiful to keep in
memory.) He had auburn hair that wriggled outwards like the edges of an unkempt fire, and any coherent message of condolence that I had rehearsed in my head burned to a crisp above it. “I liked, um… what you said in class just now.” “Hm?” “Like, you know? I like to think that our desperate war for life, love… death, you know things like that? Is just the result of like, some unexplained but solvable physics.” A hoarse laugh croaked from my throat, stifled, with just the wrong amount of inelegance. He probably believed I was making fun of him, like everyone else. “It’s like argh! I can’t understand it but ahhh! You know? So yeah! I liked it. Fuck Penfold am I right?” His eyebrows shot up in concert. I had noted in the past that his eyes always seemed to be far-off, looking at something invisible in front of him, something that I couldn’t begin to grasp. Strangely enough I never had a clue as to what it was that always drove his focus into thin air, but I instinctively felt its impossible remoteness. So when in that moment, he looked straight into my eyes, I was thrown, and impelled to freeze and listen. “Ya. It’s all just tiny shit bumping into even tinier shit. Laplace, I think. Is who I stole it from. But thanks, I appreciate it, really.” An imagined silence drowned out the din of the hallway, and just as it began to creep in between us, I muttered, “No problem”, and stepped away and into the passing-period crowd. The bird having flown, my chest felt a little lighter. I had done my good deed, and Skyler remained standing in the same spot, shooting me a two-finger salute from
the tip of his brows, smiling. He was almost handsome, but terribly awkward; his shoulders were just a little too wide for his face, and his arms were unusually long, which gave him an odd sway amongst the crowd, like one of those fluorescent inflatable flailing men at car dealerships. A little more than a year later, Skyler had leaned on a podium in the middle of the school football field, delivering a speech to his dumbstruck classmates and their confused parents. The students were shocked by his mere presence on the podium—pity points from administration—that was what most us had assumed. The parents simply gawked at the content of his speech. I remember sitting there, picking at the wrinkles in my cheap navy gown, my eyes focused on Skyler, but my mind out the gates and far, far into the future. “Lincoln Central Class of 2012, yes, all 52 of you, are like coffee beans! You have now been grown and harvested, and might feel like the journey is over, but the world is waiting out there to roast you, brew you, and drink you.” He kept fidgeting with his gown, tugging at the left sleeve and bringing it up and down about his wrist. “Yes, you will die one day, and yes, you will try to change the world and fail. But the try is the most beautiful part of life, so please, try your best to be delicious.” He occasionally massaged and stroked his left wrist with his thumb and forefinger, as if he were toying with an invisible bangle. He then led the audience in a lukewarm rendition of Beautiful Nebraska, and as I robotically mouthed the words I found myself mimicking his actions. I spun my left wrist into my right hand and caressed the fragile joint as Skyler took a bow and skipped off the stage. ***
I woke up to a stewardess tapping my shoulder, with a terrible pain in the left side of my neck. As I rolled my head and struggled to pry open my eyelids, the stewardess walked up the aisle and picked up the little phone PA system at the front end of the cabin. “Please put— return your seats back to their original position, our plane will be landing shortly.” I groaned, and while clutching and massaging my neck, shoved my hips into the seat to push it into position. The lights were too bright, and speared my pupils from unreachable apertures on the ceiling of the cabin. I felt helpless, as if I was floating in thick ether, barely alive, and to make things worse the cabin inexplicably smelled like sewage for the entire descent. It was almost as if one of the septic tanks in the restroom cubicles had burst open. I hadn’t been back in Nebraska since I had left for Emory, and my waking moments soured my already wretched return. When the plane finally touched down on the asphalt path and lurched its giant frame onwards, the belt burrowed into my abdomen and an itching pain welled in the crevice. I unbuckled it in frustration, and looked out one of the open windows to see clear skies and a cool, green hue over the passing asphalt landscape of the airport. It was a familiar and nostalgic landscape, but not one that I welcomed with open arms. I had left near the end of the previous summer hoping only to return in an entire year, and I now found myself back with budding spring. My departure the past August was nothing but eager. I was convinced there was nothing interesting left for me in Lincoln. I had spent that summer lazing around in my inner tube in the backyard pool, occasionally having friends over, saying goodbyes that were diluted by the fact that everyone I cared about would be back the next summer, and waiting for time to pass with my parents. Over the months, my room was emptied and
packed, and my mom had finished stitching Emory collegiate patches onto all my bags—one was left over, and it found its home on a plain white sweatshirt that I almost never wore. I recall my mother’s monumental pride. Pride in her American vernacular life, pride in her inability to be swayed by any religion or God—she valued herself a rational woman—and finally, her pride in me. And like any maternal mountain, it could not be moved, could not be placated, and I was helpless to scale its cliffs. Quite frankly, it embarrassed me: how her back straightened and the tip of her nose shot up to the sky when she was boasting to her friends, how her protruding cheekbones scrunched up and flushed to match her short red hair when she talked about me, and finally the godforsaken patches that spelled out social suicide for my anxious little heart. She had always been decently intelligent, but simple-mindedly straightforward; I had only inherited the former, and grew increasingly appalled by the latter. Growing up makes one wary of straight-forwardness; this obviously wasn’t the case for my mother. She was prone to becoming obliviously engrossed in selfish thoughts; disposed to casually throwing the rest of humanity out the window, and that had made my heart fidget in its already unsteady, pubescent seat. So much so that on her birthday during my sophomore year in high school, I had held her by the hand and whispered, “Please, mom, please, shut up. It’s a gift, Jesus Christ just thank him and move on.” My dad had bought her a nice pair of hiking boots, and this had somehow upset her enough to trigger a lengthy rant about stupid presents, and how my dad had never really cared about her. I was aware that these boots were a part of my father’s ongoing agenda to
go on a family hiking trip, and that it was a gift that carried ulterior baggage. Even so, I could not stand to see someone get punished for getting his wife a gift on her birthday and so I had reached for her hand. She had stared down the barrel of my pupils, terrified, the underside of her eyes painted with the black clouds of tears fit to burst, and her jaw clenched so tight that her slim, rotund face had become constricted and angular. “Please, stop looking at me like that,” she had whispered, “Like I’m some kind of— I’m not some evil… thing.” *** When the plane finally came to a halt, my screen turned itself on, and I met Sagan’s smug face still staring out of it. Creepy, I thought. It was as if he had been watching me sleep from beyond the darkness of the screen, generously waiting the whole time to offer me a slice of pie. The image of his face remained with me until I arrived at baggage claim. His left eyebrow was raised above an unevenly opened pair of eyes, and his unkempt, faded brown hair complemented a jaunty smile. His lips were poised, ready to frame clever words for not-so-clever people. “You know you’ll have to reinvent the whole universe. Right?” “I know.” I watched the overlapping panels of the conveyor belt move along like a giant flat caterpillar, and smiled at a child who was standing alongside me, mesmerized by the machine in front of him. He held a plush dodo bird in his hand, and I could see in his little grey eyes that he was considering whether to experiment by dropping it on the conveyor belt. Before he could make his move, his mother came along with their luggage and
whisked him away, saving his little friend in the process. I watched them stumble away, amused at the mother who obviously had trouble allotting her attention between the luggage in her right hand, and her child in the other. I looked back towards the conveyor belt just in time to see my bag drop out of the chute. I walked towards it, and after checking the Emory patch sewed onto the side, lugged it off the belt. A few months into college, I had ripped off most of the patches from my bags, save the luggage that I had planned to bring home the next summer, and the white sweatshirt. It was messy business; scissors and alcohol were heavily involved, and shamelessly so. (At that point in time, at least) I had refused my parents’ plea to spend thanksgiving and Christmas with them, because I’d had an unfulfilled childhood fantasy of spending those holidays at my friends’ homes. Most of my friends had similar patches sewn onto their belongings, which they seemed to take pride in, but that didn’t matter. I was ready to accept I was lesser than they were, and even as I carelessly snipped and tore at the stitches with my scissors, I told myself I didn’t love my mother any less for what I was doing. When I carried a patched item, even in an empty room I felt the weight of hundreds of snickering eyes, and I told myself I was just severing that uncomfortable load. As for the white sweatshirt, I could only wear it when I was drunk. I would wear it to lawn parties and drunken nights at the deli, and slowly it became stained with food, alcohol, vomit, sweat, and the musty smell of weed. Taylor, my roommate, called it the ‘dank-shirt’, and often jokingly sprayed me with Febreze when I had it on. I didn’t know what had compelled me to keep the patch on that particular item. Perhaps the shame was alleviated when the inebriated person in the sweatshirt was more embarrassing than the sweatshirt itself. It’s always fun to read into myself.
I remember once, I was sitting on a log in the backyard of SAE, away from the rest of the drunken crowd, when Taylor came up to me and tugged at the sleeves of my sweatshirt. “Wow, you ever wash this thing?” “Of course not.” “Ya, it’s better that way anyways.” “Go inside, I’ll be right behind you.” “Alright, see ya in there. they just broke out the tequila in the back. Don’t miss out.” I pulled away and slid the sleeve back, and found myself caressing my wrist between my fingers. It was eerily calming, and it gave me the sense that I was holding my life in my own hands. As if the sinuous veins beneath my pale skin were raging streams of all my life’s problems: streams that I could stem with just the press of my thumb. Taylor later told me that I had then sat on the log for the next hour, staring at and caressing my wrist in a hilarious stupor. “What were you on?!” I was sober. Of course, during those days, Skyler was the last thing on my mind. After all, we weren’t all that close during high school. The only extended interaction I shared with him was during Junior year when he had come over to my place to work on a group presentation for AP Biology. Over dinner, my mom had asked, “So Skyler, any plans for after high school? Anything you want to be?” Skyler looked up from his plate of stir-fry, and looked back down, tapping his fork against the porcelain dish. Clink, Clink, Clink… he looked up again,
“You see Julia, can I call you Julia?” My mom nodded. “Thanks, you see Julia, I just want to be happy.” My mom giggled, and much to my discomfort decided to press on, “Of course! Doesn’t everyone? But don’t you have any dreams? Any lifelong aspirations? What do you want to study in college?” Skyler picked up a large clump of stir-fry with his fork, and stopped midway between the plate and his mouth, the noodles dangling above the table. He was motionless and his eyes were fixed on the tip of his fork. “I don’t know if a career or major can be called a dream Julia, but if you really want to put a label on it, I would love to write.” He then put his forkful of noodles back on the plate, and picked up another clump. “So you want to be a writer? That’s wonde-” Skyler slurped on the stir fry loudly, “No, Julia I don’t want to be a writer. I want to be a happy person that also happens to write. Not a writer that also happens to be happy. It’s… different.” That night, after Skyler left, my mom had turned to me wide-eyed and with hands placed on her hips, “Well, he’s certainly… Avant-Garde.” *** On March 3rd of my second semester at Emory, I had received news that my mother had died. Ceased to exist, at least in a non-physical sense. It was around 3:00 AM and I
was at a friend’s foam party when my dad had called. It wasn’t painful, he had said, it wasn’t anything spectacular or long drawn, there was no hard fought battle or dramatic turn of events. “Nothing like you’d see in the movies.” I was huddled in the bathroom, away from the din of the party, and I remember pressing the phone closer and closer to my head, pushing the bubbling foam deeper and listening to it gurgle in my ear, hoping it would distort whatever my dad was telling me. I wondered why he was saying the things he was saying. All he needed to do was relay the news but it seemed he had dropped the reigns to his own words. He used the word ‘serendipity’ at some point in the call, and that’s when I hung up and went back into the party. She had choked on her own vomit in the early hours of the night. The ordeal was probably short and inconspicuous, and no one had seen it coming. My dad had found her in their bed after coming home from a boy’s night out with his college football buddies. I couldn’t help but think that God had finally gotten her back for all those years of negligence. Although none of us knew when she had actually passed away, the timestamp in my mind was March 3, somewhere around 3AM. It was as if this deity had machinated her untimely death as a tool to prove its own existence. I’d always thought, for those who believed in him anyways, that we lived under a petty God; I recall considering whether I should begin to believe in him as well—for my own safety. After the party I walked home with Taylor, white foam still clinging to our hair and our clothes drenched in sweaty soap water. We smelled like my cousin’s deodorant. I looked up at the starless night, long snuffed out by the busy lights of Atlanta.
“That one over there is mother.” When we got to our room, we stripped and flung our clothes on the coat hanger to dry, and Taylor immediately went to sleep. I took a long shower, washed my hair, changed into a fresh pair of pajamas, and followed Taylor’s lead. The following morning I requested a leave of absence from school and booked a flight home. I was surprised by how easy it was. After all, no administrator in their right mind would think of asking, is your mother really dead? So for that morning, the institution that had always required some kind of verifiable proof annulled their traditions. No proof of death, no signed piece of paper, nothing concrete. People often feel as if the world denies their existence, but I had found that it could also do the complete opposite. It could deny a person’s ceasing to exist, prolong their imagined life, will them somewhere they weren’t, through little things like that. So in that bizarre afternoon, I was above the clouds and headed for Lincoln, Nebraska. *** I took a cab home from the airport, and when my driver asked me why I was in Lincoln, I told him that I had come to visit my parents. He was a gruff middle aged Puerto-Rican man, (a detail that he was quite proud to provide), heavy set, with curiosity in his smile. Throughout the trip he kept glancing at me through the back mirror, twirling the left side of his wispy mustache, eager to ask questions but taking hints from the density of my silence. The drive was short, and after around 20 minutes of playing eye-ping-pong with the driver, I stood on the curb with my luggage by my side, watching the sun pierce my house with custard-yellow shards. I tipped my driver, thanked him for the ride, and watched him drive away, feeling strange that I didn’t want him to leave. I walked up to the door,
and I was hesitant to press the bell, choked with trepidation for what I’d find, or wouldn’t find, inside. Before I got to press the button though, my dad opened the door from inside and gave me a rather abrupt hug. He smothered me with his 6’3” frame, but he somehow felt so light on my body, a lioness gently gnawing its cub. We stood there in our doorway until the dust settled, my dad holding me, and my hands firmly locked onto the straps of my backpack. When he finally pulled away and looked at me, I saw in his face that he had planned to say something. But he had forgotten his lines, and gently, with a tight-lipped smile, he ushered me into the house. When he closed the door behind us, he stood and stared at the doorknob for a while. “Dad?” “I’m sorry.” “What? Oh, no, I—" “Um. Do you want anything to eat?” “Oh, no. Not hungry.” “I’ll get you some water, I put new sheets on your bed, why don’t you go unpack and have a rest? You must be tired.” “Ya, I’ll do that. Thanks” I went upstairs into my room, a familiar path that I hadn’t taken in a while. I put my bag down on the floor and crumpled face-first into my bed. A few minutes later my dad knocked and walked in the room with a glass of water. “Do you need any help with unpacking?” “No, I didn’t bring that much stuff anyways. But thanks” “They’re doing a rerun of last weeks SNL.”
“I’ll be downstairs in a bit, thanks.” I sat on the couch, side to side with my dad for the rest of the somnambulant afternoon, watching the rerun of SNL. Every time we laughed we’d glance at each other, uneasy, and quickly back at the TV. As evening rolled in, the sun sifted it’s orange fingers through our windows and dragged its prints across the TV screen. As I switched the TV off, I received an unexpected text, Hey, I hope you still use this number. Assuming you’re in town. Wanna hang out? This is Skyler, by the way. I stared at the name on the screen, baffled and double checking that it was indeed Skyler Peddiman who had just texted me. After a while, though, vexed by the expectation of footsteps I wanted to hear in the house, and washed by a sudden resignation, I texted back, sure. your place? where do you live again?, and headed out the door, leaving my dad, long since asleep, snoring on the couch. *** The address that he gave me led me into a dingy apartment complex in Hitching Post Hills, in the southwestern edge of the city. I drove through an automatic gate and into an unassuming cul-de-sac lined with identical one-story apartment blocks. I parked by the pavement, which was cracked and sprouting green at the edges. After a short ordeal with my seatbelt, I exited my car, walked up to the unit marked 302 and knocked. Almost immediately, Skyler’s voice rang out from behind the door. “It’s open! Close it on your way in! Please.” I promptly let myself into the rather small living space, which was grungy but well organized. There was a red loveseat on the opposite wall, overlooked by a large tapestry depicting Klimt’s The Kiss. Cliché, I thought, as I looked around. A large bookshelf was
crammed adjacent to the couch, and in front of it was a glass coffee table with a notepad and assorted pens scattered on it. To the left was a twin size bed draped with burgundy and black sheets that were at least a size too large, and a door, which I assumed, was the bathroom. To the right was a kitchenette, under a circular window on the wall neighboring a row of shelves with many jars filled with what seemed like paper cranes and a little red analog clock. Directly to my right there was a dining table for two, behind which Skyler sat, absorbed in a book. He looked up and smiled. “Hey! It’s been a while! Have you read this book? It’s called Us, Gods, by some French dude named Bernard and it’s absolutely fascinating.” I shook my head and stood there, not knowing what to say or do. Skyler got up and crossed the room to slide the book back into the bookshelf, spun around, and pointed at the chair by the dining table. “Wanna sit?” I happily obliged, for at that moment I was a puppet either to my own anxiety, or to his voice, and the latter seemed a less intimidating option. After a moment, Skylar came and took the other seat and just sat there. The silence gave me butterflies, so I pointed at the jars that filled the shelf behind him. Anxiety had a hold of my strings after all. “Did you fold all of those?” He spun around in his chair, and without looking back at me, scratched his head, “Yep! All two thousand of them. After the third one I just went on autopilot.” “Nice.” I slipped back into an awkward silence.
“Wanna learn? How to fold them?” Skyler was now looking straight at me, and somehow he already held two small pieces of colored paper in his right hand. I smirked and took one of the pieces from his hand. “I feel like I don’t have much of a choice.” He laughed and took his piece of paper in both hands, and flattened it on the table. “That’s the spirit. Now do exactly as I do.” I already knew how to fold paper cranes, but I let him teach me anyways. Fold by fold, move by move: it was quite cathartic. I think Skyler realized that I knew about halfway through, because he stopped explaining, and silently continued to fold and crimp. It was either that, or that he had unknowingly switched to ‘autopilot’. We finished our cranes around the same time, and he looked up, as if from a trance. “And, voila! Wo, you’re a natural. I think I’m going to fold a few more. I can never just stop at one you know? Join me if you please. Or not.” His was a light baby blue, and a bit crumpled around the beak, and mine was bright yellow; seemingly perfect. Practice makes perfect. My dad always told us that it was his college football coach’s motto, much to me and my mother’s rebuke against the blatant cliché. Of course, none of us believed in the phrase. My dad had naturally figured out during the same college career that practice simply made better (Better than what? Than who?), and sometimes not even that—he had permanently injured his shoulder during a regular strength drill, effectively ending his twelve-year career. My mother and I, on the other hand, were born with a cynicism against the obvious, and steered away from such agency-depriving
maxims. Practice is practice, I would tell myself, effort and payoff isn’t physics. You can’t throw effort at a wall and expect something to come bouncing back. This was what I told myself when I was rejected from my first choice college and had to settle for Emory, when any love was unrequited, and when, as a child, I couldn’t beat my mother in chess. My current situation definitely wasn’t one that I had practiced for. I didn’t mind that. What did put me off was how easy it was, even without the practice. I was chucking the reality of my situation as hard as I could at the wall, but absolutely nothing came bouncing back. I simply folded and crimped, folded and crimped, imagining a tragic shot from some noir movie where the protagonist folded tear stained cranes; something that I, back in reality, seemed to be having trouble achieving. An hour or so into silently folding cranes, I began to try and force myself to cry. I stopped folding, and looked up at the mass of cranes that had gathered in front of me. The bright yellow one seemed to stick out, and I hated it. It was mocking me. Sobbing, quiet and sharp, and with fake tears blanketing my eyes and blurring my vision, I took my thumb and pressed down on the little yellow creature, flattening and grinding it against the rough wood of the dining table. Skyler quickly glanced up, but immediately continued to fold and crimp. I tried for the next thirty minutes. We seemed like a tableau from some silent indie art film—me sobbing emotionless at one end of the table, and Skyler mutely and incessantly folding cranes at the other, like I wasn’t even there. Not the shot I had envisioned moments ago. When I finally gave up, Skyler was still folding, and there was a multicolored heap of tiny birds in front of him. After a while more, without looking up, he shattered the silence.
“Do you miss her?” “What?” “Do you miss her? Your mom.” “Yes… Of course. ” “Did you love her?” “I… don’t understand why… Yes. Yes of course.” “You think your mom loved you?” “Yes.” Even as I answered, I wasn’t sure. I wondered whether this was some subtle form of revenge on Skyler’s part. An underhanded, silent way of hurting me back for the wounds he had gathered in the past as a result of my own silence. Whether or not this was the case, he had conjured the image of my mother’s face as she looked at me that day, as I held her by the hand and told her to shut up. That day, she had looked at me for the first time with fear in her eyes, and that inkling stain in her irises had remained since then. I had always believed love couldn’t, and didn’t last forever. It just wasn’t a possible timeframe for anything to exist in. I did think, though, that someone could love another into forever. Their last thoughts or loving wishes perpetuated into eternity. My mother never looked at me the same way after that day. I could feel her tiptoe around me, wary of my judgment. I just couldn’t, and didn’t want to imagine her bringing that fear into forever, much less love, for a child who had betrayed her. When Skyler finally looked up, he scratched the back of his head once more and giggled. “Then it’s all good right?.”
It wasn’t. “I lied. I don’t think she did. Actually.” He paused, torqued his eyebrows, then tipped his chair back and reached into one of the cabinets under his kitchen sink. From it, he procured a glass jar the size of his thumb. He opened the jar and placed it on the table, and after a staring at the lifeless heap in front of him for around a minute, reached for the yellow crane that I had crushed earlier. With a poised delicacy, as if he were handling a live bird, he smoothed out the crumpled wings between his thumb and index finger, and straightened the bent neck and tail. He held it by the tail and spun it around, looking closely, then smiled as he placed it in the jar and sealed the lid. “Well, I think she did.” What did he know? He nudged the jar towards me. “Keep it. It’s pretty. Even after you crushed it.” I thumbed the lid of the jar, and brought it closer to my side of the table. I gave the mini-ensemble a long, hard look, and suddenly, my vision blurred. Without realizing it, I was crying again. Loudly this time, and messily, as if no one else was in the room. For hours, I bawled with my forehead pressed to the table, one hand on my head, and the other clutching the tiny jar. Time flew unbeknownst to me, and the clock eventually struck midnight. At last, I looked up, and saw that Skyler had barely moved. He sat there, his shoulders drooping, perusing me with the slightest smile. “Sorry.” I sobbed and chewed on the word as I aggressively rubbed my eyes with my sleeves. Skyler chuckled and motioned at the pile of paper cranes with open hands.
“Look what we made. Two-thousand-one-hundred-and-forty-three. Well, I guess it’s two-thousand-one-hundred-and-forty-two. One-hundred-and-forty-two more. I should be thanking you.” I tried to stifle a laugh as I nodded, but it came out as a snort, which made both of us laugh. As our laughter settled, he took his right thumb and forefinger, and twisted a simple, gold rimmed watch, re-positioning the faded leather straps, so that the face sat comfortably on the center of his left wrist. So that’s what it was, I thought. “Nice watch.” “This? Thanks.” He proceeded to twist his inner wrist towards the ceiling, and unlatched the leather straps. As the watch slipped off, I noticed a bright red keloid traversing across his wrist, and as he handed me the watch, my eyes bounced right back to his face, only to find that he had clearly seen the trajectory of my glances. I immediately slammed my eyes back down towards the watch, now safely on my palm, and pretended to examine it. “You got me.” “What?” “You got me. It’s ok it’s not a big deal.” “Oh. Ok ya, I couldn’t help but see that…” “As I said, no big deal. Remember kids, it’s down the river, not across the stream.” “What?” “Oh so the thing is, if you really want to end it, you go—”
He held up his wrist so that the scar was facing me, and with his right index finger, made a line from the bottom edge of his palm towards his elbow. “Down the river. Not—” Now he traced his right index across his keloid. “Across the stream. See? So no big deal.” “Oh. Ok.” I handed his watch back to him, slowly, as if it were a loaded weapon, making full eye contact for the entire duration of the transaction. Was he testing me? Teasing me? Was he attempting to guilt me? Look at what you’ve done to me. Whatever it was, it seemed as though he was completely comfortable doing it, as he never lost his sagely grin. “I’m sorry.” The short phrase leaked out of my mouth. “For what?” There was tension in the air. A tension only I seemed to perceive. “For everything. For everything I did, back in high school. You know?” He stared through and past my eyes. “Oh, you’re good. You didn’t do anything.” He replaced his watch on his wrist, and gave it the usual twist, glancing at its face. “Wow, look at the time.” “Ya it’s late isn’t it? I should probably go. Dad’s alone at home. Thanks, for this. For everything” I put the little jar in my pocket, stood up, and walked towards the door. Skyler shoveled the remaining cranes into one of the large jars on the shelf and cleared his throat.
“It was nice having you over. Come again. Bernard and I get bored with our own thoughts sometimes.” He waved and I replied with a nod before taking off. *** Driving back through the endless reaches of suburbia, I wondered if I had fallen in love with this man. Correction: I wondered when I had fallen in love with this man. Did it happen as he gave me a glance of his hurting? Was it the cranes? When he looked me directly in the eyes for the first time? Was that love fluttering in my ribcage all those years ago? Or was it even before that, much before I even knew he existed, when I had conjured an imaginary, quirky hero for myself? I gripped the handle, terrified of my sudden dependence on the idea of Skyler. I didn’t want to lean on him so effortlessly, as I had done moments ago. After all, if people were pillars to lean on, we wouldn’t say falling in love, we’d say climbing to love, or scaling love. People, I’d realized, were more like cracks or crevices on the ground you walked on. You couldn’t rest or depend on them for support—rather, you’d fill in the gaps from the sidelines, carefully pouring little bits and pieces of yourself into the mix, trying your hardest to avoid falling in completely. And as I sat in the drivers seat, I had realized that my short sojourn to Skyler’s place had already got me teetering on the edge, and circumstance had left my legs famished and weak. That night, I lay in my bed, in the middle of an empty room that was once cluttered with my belongings. My backpack was on the floor, and inside it were the white sweatshirt and all the collegiate patches that I had ripped off of my other bags. I didn’t know why I had brought them. I had thought that I needed to bring something, and my hands had immediately grabbed at those objects. It reeked of my sweatshirt but I kind of liked the
smell. It filled the barren room with some hint of familiarity. The TV was on in the living room, humming its constant drone throughout the entire house, and I understood it was my father’s efforts to drown out the silence. He slept in front of the TV that night. I slowly glanced around without moving my head, considering the fact that for a short instant in Skyler’s dingy little apartment, I had forgotten entirely about my mother. My eyes finally came to a stop, and hung around the yellow crane that I had placed on my bedside table—a spot of brightness in the dark and empty room—before fluttering shut.