Paper Cranes

Paper Cranes
From the Menninger Institute?s seven criteria for emotional maturity:
The capacity to find more satisfaction in giving than receiving.
The capacity to relate to other people in a consistent manner with mutual satisfaction and helpfulness.
The capacity to love.
In the opening scene of the film L.I.E., the main character, Howie, a fifteen-year-old boy with baggie jeans and hair that does a chipmunk tail flip at the top of his forehead, jumps up to stand on the railing of an overpass on the Long Island Expressway. Arms extended to the sides, he tightrope walks to the left. He stops, turns, and begins back. Then stops again and lifts one foot so he?s balanced only on the tip of one sneaker, on a metal beam the width of a cassette tape. We, the audience, see him from behind: a thin figure in too-big clothes, car after car after car whizzing by beneath him, all oblivious to the boy who, with just the slightest sudden gust, could land, crumpled, on their roof. As you watch, all you want to do is wrap your arms around the boy and hug him to the ground, to safety, to chiding words about what could?ve happened, and keep on hugging him. And as you watch the rest of the movie, that feeling never leaves: Howie only seems more and more alone. You see the already motherless Howie abandoned by his father, abandoned by the boy he?d thought was his best friend, bullied at school, until the only person left to listen to him at all is a middle-aged man who also happens to be a pedophile. At first I was outraged that the director portrayed this pedophile as the only person willing to put a supportive arm around Howie?s shoulder. After all, aren?t pedophiles scum? But then I realized that maybe that was the point. It?s easy to judge. And it?s easy to keep speeding home, aware only of the other metal boxes zooming along next to you in tenuous synchrony.

When I was little I got fevers. They were uncomfortable fevers that made it so all I could think about was feeling nauseous and anticipating the moment when I would feel well enough to eat the promised popsicle. But the worst part was at night, when I?d float somewhere in and out of consciousness: since I wasn?t always sure if I was sleeping or not, I wasn?t sure when I was dreaming or not, either. And this one hallucination came to me every time I was sick:
It starts in a field of pastel colors, with rolling hills spotted with pink, blue and yellow flowers. As I stand in the soft, lima bean-colored grass I sense a delicateness to the scene, like the ephemeral feeling of holding an origami crane in your hand. Somewhere in the background, music box tinkling fills my ears. And then suddenly, a huge, dark monster of a machine rolls in and churns everything into blackness ? churning, roiling blackness spotted with pink, blue and yellow flowers, like a giant garbage compactor. And somewhere in the background, the music box tinkles, only now it sounds purely ludicrous, like the chirping of a bird that doesn?t see the cat crouching behind it.
I always got better, of course, and the hallucination faded from my mind until the next time that my forehead broke out in a constant sweat. But something about that origami feeling, that feeling of holding the world in your hand and then dropping it, helplessly watching it crumble, makes me shudder even now that I haven?t had a fever in years.

I hate not having plans on a Friday night. When you live surrounded by people and yet have no one to turn to and relate something that happened that day, something you read, something you thought about, loneliness aches in a way that it doesn?t when you?re alone because you?ve chosen to converse within your head.
?I think you?re probably the friendliest person I know,? my friend told me recently. I took it as a huge compliment.
But I also remember:
A few weeks earlier, out at a club with a friend of a friend who I?d met once before. We?d been hanging out all night, talking, joking, smiling; he was a New Yorker whose how-many-beers?-driving, accelerating into screeching-halt stops, scared me, but I got in the car anyway. (I wore my seat belt.) We chatted and talked, had to lean tongue-distance apart to speak into each other?s ears at the club.
?You wanna come back to my place for a drink??
But soon, on the couch, he asks another question, ?Should I put a move on you??
?Umm, no.?
And he stopped speaking then, hasn?t spoken to me since, except to say, over and over, that he doesn?t understand me. When I think back on the scene now, it has a frozen quality, as if we, the room, the white-slipcovered couch, had all turned to paper. And the moment I told him I didn?t want to sleep with him, he crumpled, crushed, into a clump on the far corner of the couch.
So when a couple of weeks later I stand at the Metro stop and a dark suited, middle-aged man with a face the color and texture of rising bread dough asks for directions, and where I?m from, and what I?m doing here, and is this our train, and may I sit next to you and?
I wonder, what does this man want from me?
?It?s a good thing, that you?re so friendly,? my friend adds.

My cousin Seth collected butterflies. He preserved them in glass-enclosed boxes on the walls in his room; each specimen had been painstakingly pinned and a typed strip of paper pasted below to reveal its identity. He had butterflies I?d never seen before: like one with shimmeringly iridescent blue wings rimmed with black, little ridges running out from the body like the pleats in a fancy silk ball gown. I wondered how he?d captured and then immortalized these creatures that seemed too glorious to even be natural.
My uncle went out to his barn recently. He found a glass-fronted box with crisp name tags pinned to the inside surface, a dainty pin pricking above each one. And collected in a crumpled pile below, a clump of brownish-blue dust.

Most of the photos at the exhibit were easy to jump into and out of; they showed places, and at places you can stop and smile and say ?Ooohhh?that was nice,? and then travel on somewhere new, from Calakmul to the Sawangunks, just like that.
But in the next room, the photos showed people, and it was harder to just move on. I felt as if I was examining suspects for an unknown crime through one-way police glass, but with the creeping sense that the suspects could see me, too, through the mirrored wall. One man sat in a half-harvested field, his feet bare and rough like sandpaper, his face a topographical map of wrinkles, his clothes frayed and fragile like Tibetan prayer flags. His eyes, black periods swimming on the white page of his eyeballs, fired into mine. In my head, he demonstrated the sweep of his scythe, showed the grace of that motion of utility. In the next photo, a baby, pillow-cheeked, examined me in puzzlement.
Then I came to Antonia. She sat on the edge of her porch, as sure of her sense of place as the broad maples that diverted the moss-covered stone walls in my rural New Hampshire childhood. Antonia held a white, magnolia-like blossom beside her face. She was looking at the flower, but she knew that she held my attention like a hand holds a robin?s eggshell. For in her gaze I saw contentment, the kind of contentment that comes from knowing the value of beauty, in the Keatsian sense, and pride, the kind of pride that comes from showing what is uniquely yours to the world.
Hands gnarled like mountaintop-tree branches, clothes layered to plug the holes and tears, roosters pecking bare gravel for food: all the images in these photos could symbolize the hard life. But as I leaned into the plush leather cushion of the bench, I was filled with the feeling that Antonia knew something that I didn?t. And just as surely, I was filled with the feeling that she wouldn?t tell me what it was, like a secret recipe passed down mother to daughter on a worn scrap of paper.
I couldn?t wheedle her silence; I had only a vague remembrance of some postcolonial text saying that the people who are in control are in the sorriest state of all, for they don?t question why things are the way they are, don?t wonder why some things crumple and others get passed on on scraps of paper frayed by handling.
Into the next chamber of the gallery, and I was in a new place: Lower San Pedro, tangled in thorns and prickers, vegetation made mean and selfish by eons of grappling for water.

On the Main Green a few weeks ago, some concerned group set up a table entreating passers-by to stop and make a paper crane to send to families of the terrorist attacks in New York. ?We?re working up to a thousand ? do you know the story of the thousand paper cranes? Legend has it that if you make a thousand your wish will come true.? (Smile, smile ? a blue square held in your face.)
I know the story. But as I remember it, the little girl who folds and creases for so long still dies of leukemia. Paper is no match for an atomic bomb.
I take the blue square and, leaning against the table, squint at the instructions and match up one corner to the other. I wonder how they plan to ship these paper cranes so that they won?t get crushed; they?ll probably arrive with bent beaks and broken wings. I make one anyway. I make another.
Which came first, the crane or the wish? I keep asking these questions?

Paper Cranes 7.1 of 10 on the basis of 2325 Review.