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Paper Cranes for Japan
In the fifteen minutes before homeroom ends, you and Liz sit cramped and cross legged on the carpet, folding paper cranes from pink and white and orange squares. Together, the two of you have been quite productive—hundreds of the birds lie on their sides all around you. They remind you of flowers strewn across the pavement, after a wedding has passed through.
Two days ago, everyone heard on the television about Japan—and you saw the pictures, of smoke pouring out of a power plant and clogging up the sky, of a home swallowed up and regurgitated onto the beach as a dollhouse in its pieces. You remembered the times when your parents used to drive out to the coast so you could see the ocean, and how you and your mother would scour sand because it was a graveyard, filled with glass and the corpses of jellyfish, with wood bleached so white you thought it was bones. Sitting in front of the TV, you watched a blond woman with a microphone speak without really saying anything. “No Americans dead,” she said. The next day at school, Mr. Anderson announced in homeroom that you were supposed to make paper cranes, and then the class would send them in, and an organization would donate two dollars to Japan for each bird. You like this methodical process of folding. You like the way your hands are always busy. When first period starts, you fold one more and take the crane home, where you hang it on a white string above your bed.
“That’s two dollars you took from Japan,” Liz says later, raising an eyebrow, but she is laughing.
Your mouth twitches. “Shut up,” you say. At night you watch the crane spin in circles, slowly turning to face you.
You are cynical about the divorce. When Liz asks you if you are okay about it, you say something along the lines of, “fifty percent of the marriages in this country get divorced, and your parents are still together, so I guess it makes sense.”
Liz looks wary, like she isn’t sure whether or not to laugh. You wish you could take it back. “Yeah, I guess so,” she tells you as the two of you sprawl out inside in her claustrophobic bedroom, doing physics homework on the floor. Then hesitantly, she says, “Let me know if you need anything, okay?”
“Okay,” you say, and look over at her paper. “What did you get for the last problem? I got 60.”
That evening, you lie on top of the covers on your bed, staring at the fan, and mouth the words you forgot to say: thanks. You’re not sure why, but God, you feel terrible about it, and in your dizzy mind, you replay the scene in Liz’s bedroom over and over, trying to fall asleep.
Liz: Let me know if you need anything.
You: Aw, thanks, Liz. That means a lot. Really.
That’s what you would have said.
What gets you most about the whole thing, about the divorce, was how, when your mom told you over breakfast one morning what was going on, she said they had actually waited to tell you. They had known for a while, but they wanted to wait until things wrapped for you, didn’t want to distract you, your mom said. You looked to your dad. Your dad, sitting across the table right next to your mom—like a team, you thought numbly—was nodding.
Here, your mom paused. You realized afterwards that you were probably supposed to fill that silence with something, or maybe nod. A nod of understanding would have been enough. But instead you sat mute, dumbly silent like a cat, and your mom was forced to continue. And while she went on about how most things are going to stay the same, all you could do was wonder how long they had waited to tell you. You swam, a stranger, through the past weeks. You watched your mom’s hands. They were clasped together on top of the table but they kept moving, twisting back and forth and into each other. As you sat there paralyzed in the ordinary sunlight of an ordinary kitchen on an ordinary morning, you wanted to reach out for the hands and grab them hard and hold them still—but it was like in that dream everyone has, the reoccurring one where you can’t seem to move.
At three in the morning your dad sees the yellow light spilling from under your door into the hallway, and pokes his head around the door like he thinks you won’t notice him. Long ago, your mom gave up trying to enforce a bedtime, and resigned herself to finding you awake at strange hours—but not your dad, never your dad. You look up at him and say what you always say: I couldn’t sleep.
“It’s hot in here,” your dad says. “How about I turn on the fan?” And you say no thanks, but after he leaves and closes the door and you hear him lay back down in bed, you get up and flip it on. The fan beats overhead at a steady rhythm, churning shadows on the floor.
Suddenly, you remember something. It comes to you as an epiphany, although you can’t place why: Physics class. Period 3. Your science teacher pointed to one of his posters on the wall, the cheesy one proclaiming that “Our Great Big Universe Came in with a Bang.” Striding up to the whiteboard with something like excitement, he told the class how some of the stars were so far away from Earth that it took millions, maybe billions of years for their light to even reach us. And he went on to explain in hushed tones what this all meant: the universe was so vast that by the time we actually watched the stars die, they had already fizzled out centuries ago. For years without our knowledge, they were really just lumps floating through time and space, frozen and dark and lonely and cold.
Your grandmother’s funeral is tomorrow. It takes everyone by surprise, mostly because she seemed like a permanent fixture after all these years. Your memories of her are warm and fuzzy at the edges, like a childhood blanket. The funeral puts a halt to all the talk about the divorce, puts a halt to all the things that your parents are still working out. In the wake of your grandmother’s death, everything is strangely normal. How messed up is that, you think to yourself with a vicious sort of relish.
Your dad is already up in Arcata with your Uncle Herman. For a while now, ever since your grandmother started getting sick (sicker than usual, at least), your dad has talked about moving her down here, but now it’s too late and there’s nothing to do, really, except get things cleaned up.
Flowers and notes of condolence keep accumulating on your kitchen table. Most of them are for the whole family, but some are addressed specifically to your dad. No one seems to know that the day before your grandmother died, your dad starting moving into his new address. Your mom has to shift everything to one side of the kitchen table so that the two of you can eat dinner, and even then, the lilies have to be thrown out because the sickly yellow pollen makes everybody sneeze. Your mother sniffs a bit at the mess, the way she sometimes sniffs at certain offending houses in the neighborhood with dried out front lawns and paint that’s started to peel off in strips under the sun.
You and your mom will be driving two hours upstate this evening, staying the night in a hotel before the funeral. An hour before you are going to leave, as you are wandering through the kitchen, your mom looks up and says, “Are you all packed? We’re leaving soon.”
“No,” you say, “I’ll go finish up.” Which is a bit weird. You’ve been packed since last night. Everything is already zipped up in a duffel on your bed.
It is awfully hot outside at the funeral, even though it’s morning and the grass is still wet. There are rows of white plastic chairs assembled out on the lawn, and you sit down to find that the plastic is slick with dew; a wet patch slowly spreads up the back of your cotton dress. The voice of the man speaking up front, up where all the heads before you are gazing, keeps sliding into a sunny sort of buzzing noise. You try focusing on your few vague memories of your grandmother, of how nice she had been to you, of how once when you were nine and visiting her house, you stayed up late playing Go Fish with her while your parents went out to the movies. But you keep returning to different moments, different things: to Liz, to the houses with the dried up lawns, to the paper crane hanging in your bedroom. You are thinking about all this, about physics class and bedtimes and funerals and divorces, and all of a sudden you wish you could say something to the people in Japan whom you saw on the television. You wish you could say something— something like I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I am so, so, sorry. That’s what you would have said.