“Welcome to English 140: Origami. If you are not supposed to be in here, or didn’t mean to be, let me know now before we start making crafts.”
Some of the students rustled out of a first-week-of-the-semester slouch. Many had their interest piqued at the mention of crafts. A young gentleman raised his hand.
“Yes?” I said, pointing to him. “Here by mistake?”
“No, no.” He shook his head. “I’m just wondering — are we actually making crafts?”
I smiled, then elaborated. “Yes — but first, I will tell you why.” I set a clipboard with attendance rosters and syllabus notes on my desk, then wound my chair around to sit and level myself with the yet-unknowing class. I had arranged them in a circle, desks set aside. Leaning forward, elbows on knees, I began the tricks to lure them in. Eye contact, rubbing my hands together, a quick and ridiculous stretch routine as if prepping for a chilly, fall-weather track meet — these tricks have worked for years. A decade at this college and I’ve never — not once! — had a student drop English 140 once I’ve sat in my chair.
“Before we make crafts,” I reiterated, “I’ve a quick story to tell.”
He grew sicker as he read.
We were several hours into our flight by now — a stretched-out haul from Los Angeles to Chicago, turbulent at times but stocked with a selection of in-flight snacks to tame the nerves. The attendants, in their thematic dress and flashing eyes (there were shenanigans to come, I’m sure, after the day’s last trip), repeated to each row of patrons that great question of the airline industry: “Pretzels, waffle, cookies?” I opted for the waffle and — when the beverage cart rolled near — some black coffee, content with my window seat and the slow roll of squared fields and townships below the wing.
When the flight attendant turned to my seatmate — 32K was his seat number, and this became his name in my mind — they said nothing out loud to each other. There was a pair of quick grins, a nod from the attendant, and then empty space. This was confusing, and I can’t say I understand it even now. But I could tell it was very important.
As she disappeared down the aisle, 32K coughed violently and thumped his chest with a heavy fist. He glanced briefly at me and met my worried eyes; he only chuckled and returned to rocking over some magazine inked through with cultural commentary. His arms were crossed, clutching a bony set of shoulders, and his silvery hair was falling out to wisp away in the wind of the little vent above his seat.
Curious, I began to peek at the articles every few minutes. From what I read they seemed good; the writing was clever, each argument nestled in the unique voice of its individual author. The New Yorker was there, and whatever he had open — maybe Harper’s. The topics were profound and he seemed bent on the liberal pieces, though an editorial page of the Wall Street Journal was within my seatmate’s reach, curled in the seatback pocket and hoping, I think, to counter a few lefter ideas or at least sedate them. His impression was that of a thinker — a small person toeing the edges of a very large thought-lake, and he was a bit mysterious.
32K coughed and thumped his chest every few minutes. Each bout was drier and more starved for air than the last.
My concern found a voice. “That cough — have you had it a while?”
He smiled so that the wrinkles around his lips touched a set of dark, inset eyes. “Yes — since I was a kid, really.”
“Have you ever had it looked at?”
I was a bit shocked. “Not once?”
A pause there left me looking awkwardly around. I adjusted the vent above my seat even though I was perfectly comfortable. I stretched the mesh of the seatback pocket just to check its elasticity. (It had good elasticity.)
“Do you read much?” 32K, aware like an old crow, saved me from myself.
“Once in a while — “ I stuttered. “Not as much as I should.”
“That’s ok.” A singular, heaving cough drew the attention of rows 31 and 33. “Read too much and you get sick like me.”
A jokester — my seatmate was a jokester! And so much gentler than he had seemed when the beverage cart rolled by. This guy was a thinker in good humor — one of those souls, I thought, that let their mental wiring run erratically around their scrunched eyebrows before trailing off into the blue-sky, crow-flies world.
“That’s good,” I told him through a pink-lipped grin. “I like your style.”
A frown snapped to shape beneath 32K’s long nose. “You — you think I’m joking?” And then he coughed again — one, two, three rasps to disrupt that dry, dry airplane air.
I laughed again. “It was a joke, right? Reading making you sick — I’m saying I liked your joke.” My seatmate slumped. I had upset him. “You’re — you’re not serious.”
“I’m very, very serious.” He turned his head and locked his eyes with mine. Our gazes clicked into place like a puzzle solved. A club soda popped and hissed as it was tabbed open at the back of the cabin. I shuttered; this flight was conspiring to weird me out the window.
“Reading can’t sicken you. I mean — I’m no doctor, but come on. Looking at words? There’s, well — there’s no bacteria there.” It was a weird argument, I confess — but was it wrong? “There aren’t little sickness things floating into you while you read.”
“Mm.” 32K kept his eyes on mine, turned the page of his magazine and let it flutter to lay flat again. We were our own argument at this point. No one else paid attention, save when 32K huffed or wheezed every five, then three, then every two minutes.
32K was, in fact, getting sicker as we cruised through a high, thin altitude. A pocket of turbulence shook us around. I hit my elbow on the stiff plastic of the armrest between my seat and his and massaged it, feeling the sky had just slapped me like a mother does a misbehaved child’s wrist.
I had touched a fragile nerve in 32K, so I apologized. “I’m sorry, man.” Not a budge from the stony glare beside me. “I didn’t mean to upset — “
“It’s ok.” His speech was tight and gruff. After a few taut moments — sharp moments, like barbed wire — he returned finally to his reading. I escaped and stared out the window, letting go an exhausted sigh. I must have been holding my breath.
I was awoken from an accidental sleep by the gasps and small cries of some passengers around me.
After rubbing my eyes and righting the glasses upon my nose, I decided to see what the ruckus was about. Looking at 32K, I saw him coughing without pause — the violent sound of it came to my waking ears — and a slight but visible splatter of blood, ruby in color, was making geometry in the white space of his magazines.
“My goodness — man!” The gaspers and criers were helpless, doing nothing for 32K as his condition worsened. I picked one of the panicked faces and — surprisingly, for my usual lack of boldness — issued a command. “Find the goddamned flight attendant.” While my soldier went toward the galley, I looked around for something to sop up the spatter — some old napkins from snack-time, or maybe some Kleenex in my personal bag.
“What’s wrong?” Reverting to dumbness, I lambasted my ill friend with questions. “Does this happen a lot? Is this normal?”
“Nope, nope — first time.” 32K managed to speak through what sounded like throat and chest cavities swallowing each other, but only after crushing each other first — pythons around mice.
“Good god,” I muttered as I wiped up some of the blood. It wasn’t that there was a lot of it; it was just that there was blood. “Eck.” The last threads of doubt that ran in me about his sickness were snipped and frayed to nothing. When I went to move his reading material out of the way, another slap burned my wrist — this time from my ill seatmate.
“No! For God’s sakes, fella’, leave these be!” He wrapped up the literature in his arms with wild flare, the pages blossoming out from their slim spines like flowers, some ripping and flitting through the cabin like leaves let go and carried in the air of those little plane vents. They spiraled and danced with a few of 32K’s silver hairs, which had continued falling out. He was balding quick — quick as I’ve ever seen a man bald, and this added to the grandeur of his illness.
“What the hell! I’m trying to help you, dude.” Where I made the switch to hostility I don’t know. Stress must have done it. I’m really not very hostile.
“I will die with my reading!”
“Oh, so you’re dying! When did you decide that?”
A fabulous, awful, prolonged cough. “Just now.”
“Don’t snap at me.” 32K took me by the shirt collar and pulled my forehead to his, somebody’s sweat beading down their flush surfaces. “If you’re quick, I can teach you things.”
The flight attendant arrived smiling, walking with a quickened stride but visibly calm. She laid a hand on 32K’s shoulder, and I noticed now that she was fairly young — not twenties-young, but early thirties seemed fair, with just a pair of faint wrinkles at her eyes to indicate it. 32K laid one of his hands on hers in an unromantic way; it was more endearing than anything, and that was the entirety of her assistance. 32K let me go and was calmer, though still rasping. The blood spatters had stopped. No doctor was sought among the passengers. Concerned onlookers — uneasy but satisfied that a death midair was not imminent — slowly returned to whatever had been occupying them, and the flight attendant strolled off as if nothing had happened.
I was confused, and I tried to relay as much. “I’m confu — “
“Ah!” my seatmate said with a fervor. He shoved a pair of fingers against my lips as if I was spilling secrets. Then, in a strained whisper, he commanded me. “Don’t say anything.” One of his silver hairs fell and twirled until it hung from my eyebrow and dangled before my left eye. He grabbed it and flung it behind him, where it took off toward first class. “Say nothing. That’s your first lesson.”
For a moment, the vent above 32K seemed to blow golden air around him. I watched this man glow, turn back to his readings with total disregard for its strange link to his health. He opened up the less-ruined of his magazines and dug in.
Despite lasting only a few minutes, the incident had worn me fresh out. I was determined to nap again. After one cautionary glance at 32K — I wanted to sleep comfortably, and that meant knowing he was alive — I leaned my head against the plastic wall of the plane and let the hissing of the vents put me to bed.
The thud of landing gear on the runway awoke me. I stirred, corrected my glasses, and playfully slapped my cheeks a few times until I felt conscious. Awake now, I figured I should check on my strange — well, I guess he was a strange friend by then, the strangest version of a friend I’d ever known (and still have ever known). I looked to my right.
I nearly choked on airplane air.
32K was slumped over, his upper torso protruding into the aisle. He was wheezing and gray as a tombstone. His magazines and paper were in magical tatters; The New Yorker and Harper’s and The Wall Street Journal laid around in the shapes of little origami figures. A few of them were tumbling down the aisle, kicked about by restroom-goers. A bird was strung up beneath a vent with a piece of silver hair and looked like it was flying.
“Good god, my goodness!” I took 32K’s clothing in my fists and tried to upright his body, which felt impossibly heavy. “Why did no one wake me?” I looked around, incredulous at the stoicism of our economy class. They had been so worried earlier — what had changed? It was very, very odd. (I felt very, very odd.)
“He made us swear,” said a woman across the aisle and up a row, “to let him be. No matter how sick he seemed.”
I could not believe her resignation. “And you honored that? Look at him!” 32K was still wheezing, and he began mumbling, too, through trickles of drool on his lips. “He’s a thirsty willow! He can’t even speak!”
“You should have seen the glow in his eyes!” said a man two rows behind us. “Golden — it was golden, and serious! I dare say we all knew, right then, that we should let him wheeze away.”
“Who made these fucking crafts?” I picked up an origami fox from my friend’s lap. “What in the world…”
“He made them.” The flight attendant had reappeared — she was breaking protocol, as we were still taxiing to the gate — and was resting her hand again on 32K’s shoulder. “Actually, he taught us all to make them while you slept. You missed out.” She took the fox from my hands and, with the grand innocence of a three-year old, made it leap between the headrests of the seats as she walked away.
The plane jolted as we parked at the gate. The seatbelt sign — the only real thing left on the plane, it seemed to me — dinged off, and everyone went about getting their bags per usual. One-by-one they left the plane, off to some future that might exist; I had no way of knowing, and I abandoned making any assumptions. I had learned that lesson, at least.
I waited a while, assuming someone would come to help 32K. I looked at him; his skin had marbled now, an uneasy swirl of gray and white. His origami army still littered the floor around us and was strewn up the aisle, some of the figures flattened in the exodus of passengers.
“Hello?” The vents above us had quit hissing. “Anyone?”
I was getting nervous. “Flight attendant?” Not a whisper. “Goddammit, somebody has got to be — “
I gulped as my collar was gripped again, more violently than last time. It was 32K; he had stiffened and turned to me while he began slipping out of his seat. “You!” he roared. “Shut up, you — you — “ He looked up at the overhead bins. “Shut up, 32L! And listen.”
Seeing I had no choice in the situation, I obeyed.
“Listen, 32L.” My seatmate, gushing sweat and smelling of — cherry blossoms? Something smelled of cherry blossoms — put his gross, wise lips to my ear. I winced, as it was uncomfortably warm. “You think I’m nuts, 32L. But listen.”
“I’m listen — “
“Shh!” Somehow, he came even closer. “Listen. I am dying, but I feel very good. Very, very good.” He thumped his chest, a hard warrior in the face of death. It echoed in the empty plane.
“I never saw it — the center of it, the core. The core, man! The driver, the epicenter, the hot middle.”
This was insanity. I took 32K’s sermon (at the time) to be an embodiment of lost wit — senseless, rambling, incoherent.
“Whatever is driving us, man, is hot and we can’t get to it. Listen: we can’t get to it. It runs away. But I came close as anyone. I’m sure of it. And it was lovely — so lovely, like flower petals on the sidewalk.
“Yes, yes, lovely — and I see it again, ah! I’m back — the sidewalk and the petals. They’re rose and lavender, they’re everywhere. This is where I’m about to make my bed. A minute or two, 32L — I will make the bed in a minute or two.
“Listen, man. I read too much. I’ve always read too much. But it got me close, and this bed — this bed is good, and nice. It’s shaped like a cradle — a cradle for crazy old men like meeee.” And there it came — a final breath, hot preacher’s magma in my ear, and 32K slumped to death in the cramped legroom of row 32, setting a paper crane in my lap on his way down.
32K died in a sea of origami birds and foxes and stars and roses and dragons, all these made out of words on pages. The bird strung up by a silver hair detached itself. I watched it fly forward, then veer left at the door. I looked out my window and saw it flutter into the rising moon.
Dazed, I took a long breath. An air of peace set in — an air of finality and completion. It was odd but palpable; I moved my hand through the space around me and felt it. I came slowly out from whatever trance had boarded the plane with me in Los Angeles. The crane in my lap was looking up at me, begging to be opened. I unfolded it.
There before me was a set of instructions for making origami, and a handwritten note that looked like it had been scribbled with urgency.
Sorry you were asleep when we made crafts, it read. This will catch you up. Use pages of Harper’s!! It’s good this month. See you. -32K
I put the dismantled crane in my pocket, crawled over my late friend, and left the plane.
“What the hell?” Some of my students wore wide smiles. Others pulled at their hair and rubbed their faces, lost to oblivion. A cocky soul at the back of the circle nodded his head with vigor, as if he, too, had already experienced the same cherry-blossom vision as my story’s pivotal character.
“What in the world?” The same voice — a girl toward the right side of the group, who had listened intently all the while — was voicing her confusion. “That’s such a strange story. I don’t get it.”
“You don’t have to. Not yet.” I looked around; no matter their reaction they were captivated, and that’s what I needed. “Some of you might never get there.”
The man with the vigorous nod switched to a vigorous shake. “What a shame,” he mumbled.
“Shut up,” I said to him with a harsh glare. “You’re not there. I’m not even there.”
“Not where?” With that question he reminded me of my dumbness all those years ago — the way I had lambasted 32K with questions. I gave the student just a touch of compassion. “Just — take your time and don’t pretend you get things you don’t get, alright?”
He blushed and retreated. “Okay. Sorry Profes — “
“Nope, nope. Don’t apologize.” I looked at everyone. “It’s ok to not understand. I don’t expect you to. Don’t apologize for it.”
I put on a tight grin, perfected through the years teaching this course. “That’s where we’re heading, though — the cherry blossoms.” I stood up and went behind my desk, kneeling down to pick up a large box of assorted publications — old books and magazines, sections of newspapers, random pages of my own writings. “Come grab whatever you want. This will be what you use to make your origami.
“But before you go folding this stuff into wings and dog ears and flowers — whatever crap you’re going to make — read the material you grab. Your assignment is to keep track of what you read, then bring me a short story made up of those individual parts by the end of the week.”
“Excuse me, Professor?”
“How long do you want the story to be?”
I shrugged. “I really don’t care,” I said, then pointed to something perched outside a window at the back of the classroom. “As long as it makes me feel like that when I read it.”
All at once, the students twisted and gazed in the direction of my pointing finger. There on the sill outside sat a little, unassuming origami bird. Everything in the world stopped for a moment; then the bird disappeared, carried by a faint, hissing breeze.
I swear it flaps its wings when it leaves, but I’ll never be entirely sure.