One Thousand Paper Cranes

This essay was written for a college creative non-fiction course.

“Tweet tweet, tweet tweet!” is what freshmen boys would say to me in our level one Spanish class, often accompanied by inept thievery of the myriad paper cranes that were decorating my desk. They were piled gently next to my cluster of pens and notebooks, spilling over the edge into my unzipped backpack. It was easy to snatch them back; both I and the Spanish teacher were thoroughly irritated by these interruptions, though now I think my incessant folding helped contribute to his perpetually furrowed brow.

I folded the cranes religiously. During class, on the bus ride to school, in between bites of a turkey sandwich at lunch – I was folding the cranes. They came in a variety of sizes, born of still-sticky post it notes, discarded blueberry-and-chocolate lollipop wrappers, and any manner of semi-usable piece of paper. I was attempting to fold one thousand of them, for him.

I’m not very good at hosting parties and get-togethers. I fail to invite enough people to stay entertained, there’s a lack of food, and I am constantly consumed with the fear that no one is having fun. But if it hadn’t been for my overtly boring mid-June pool party following the end of my sophomore year in high school, I would not have this story to tell.

I’ll spare you the details of the party, but one sneakily-snapped photograph of me by a friend led to four teenagers coming together at an elementary school playground one hot summer afternoon. The entire meeting was a ploy for my friend to introduce me to a boy named Brendon (who had received the aforementioned photograph of me) – a mysterious, freshly-graduated human with a brooding face and contradictory golden hair. His eyes were hidden behind smudgy aviators which served to terrify sixteen year old me. My friend and my cousin comprised my support team should awkward circumstances arise, but that didn’t seem to stop me from violently sneezing myself off the bench I was occupying. I was a ball of pink cheeks and embarrassment. He laughed and asked for my number.

July approached, bringing thick, humid days with it. Finally, this Brendon person who I had been unabashedly flirting with asked me out on a date. He proposed the classic dinner and a movie; Italian and the newly remade Predator movie. A winning combination. On July 16th, 2010, we ventured out together. He picked me up in a boisterously loud black 2001 Toyota Celica, a thing so low to the ground I more or less fell rather than climbed in.

That night, at 12:30 am on July 17th, he asked me officially to be his girlfriend, closing off an evening that had been feeling old-fashioned and romantic. But I can guarantee you, achieving this status of girlfriend did not come easily. An hour prior, sick with nerves, stuffed with fettuccine alfredo, and reeling from the gory movie, I did in fact double over in the movie theater parking lot and retch the entirety of my dinner onto the pavement. Three weeks later, mere seconds after a picturesque, sunset-bathed-on-the-beach first kiss, I vomited yet again.

Luckily, this isn’t a story about the numerous times I’ve been able to embarrass myself in front of this boy – those stories could occupy a novel. Instead, this is a story of how I fell in love with him – a thing I feared so much that I somehow concluded that the remedy for this was to fold him one thousand origami paper cranes.

In Japanese culture, being in possession of one thousand paper cranes grants that person one wish. The most commonly known story surrounding this tradition comes from the tale of Sadako Sasaki, the true story of a girl who had contracted leukemia following the World War II atomic bomb explosions and consoled herself by folding one thousand cranes. In markets in Japan you can purchase bundles of pre-folded thousands and lay them on the graves of loved ones. Cranes are highly thought to be bringers of luck in Japanese culture, and are praised for their near-immortal lives along with the dragon and tortoise. These facts presented themselves to me via internet research while I mulled over the possible creation of these cranes as a gift for Brendon. The month was September and fall was on the fringes, but my mind was wrapped around the coming Christmas. I was absorbed in the idea of presenting him with a gift that was bold, something soul-bearing. I teetered between thoughts that we were forever or that I was getting dumped soon – sure, whispered I love you’s had been exchanged, but had I shown the love, proved it existed? So I decided Christmas would be the hour of do or die for our relationship. The clarity of the moment comes more obviously to me now, but had you asked me in the moment, “why are you folding so many cranes?” I earnestly would have replied, “because I want to,” unwilling to truly recognize what was driving me forward.

Faint memories of an elementary class and my stubby fingers attempting to grasp the art of origami resurfaced, so I knew the ability resided within me. A couple of YouTube tutorials reawakened the skill, and thus I began to fold these delicate birds. The goal: to create one thousand paper cranes by Christmas and present him with a wish. After forming approximately fifty of them, folding paper cranes was no longer a skill; it was an instinctual extension of my limbs. Folding cranes became my natural resting state.

I folded all throughout the school days, during and in-between classes of my junior year, attempting to scribble notes at twice my average speed in order to resume crane-folding as quickly as possible. At one point I recruited a small legion of classmates to assist in the process, some volunteers and others begged. Having folding assistants began to clog me with guilt, so I quickly put an end to my crane factory. Allowing others to do the work somehow felt like cheating, as if the message was not as genuine when other hands were involved. So I thanked them for their added efforts, and continued the folding journey in solitude. I was a paper craft machine.

In my room, beneath my bed and among countless discarded objects, I kept a small wooden box filled with the cranes. Using a blue pen, I scratched a tic mark on the inside of this box for each crane that came into being, and for every fifty reached, I would draw a square around the tic marks. I kept the cranes in this box at first as well, but they quickly outnumbered their confines, and eventually an entire drawer from my vanity was robbed of its clothing and forced to house the cranes. I continued marking the number of cranes in the small box, every once in a while becoming utterly paranoid that I had lost count. Folding the cranes had reached beyond visceral levels now and had consumed my very essence. With each fold and crease, a crane was imbued with emotion and delight for Brendon and fear that he would not understand their meaning – I feared he would not see the individual pieces of my heart nesting inside. And more importantly (even though I did not realize it at the time) as I folded these cranes, other parts of me were beginning to unfold.

Before Brendon, there was another boy. One I had also met through school at the tender age of fourteen. And as most fourteen-year-olds in relationships are, I was enamored with him. Completely and wholly consumed with this boy, our relationship unfortunately dawned with the age of texting. Communication between us was relentless and overbearing. We talked to each other often. Too often. I frequently felt as if I were falling, perhaps even near drowning, but I was constantly confused as to why. I discovered he suffered from Bipolar Disorder, an affliction quite devastating to adults, let alone a child. He became my addiction, and I his saving grace. Without him I felt pained, but with him I felt smothered and confined, and too cloudy and confused to notice the pain of his absence was better. Things began to change between us. Things began to change with him. He controlled aspects of my life, voicing his hate when I spent more time with my friends than him, harassing me to ask my mother every day if he could see me, and discussing our relationship extensively with strangers online while not allowing me to add input. In my absence, he fell to self-harm, which he would flaunt and brag to prove his love for me, and then threaten the same for future times. I was perpetually afraid that if I left him, he would end his own life. He never once laid a hand on me, but by the end of the ninth grade I felt like a mud-soaked rag, left on the floor to be trampled. I don’t really remember how I safely escaped, and I don’t care to ponder it.

It was these things, these haunts and ghosts inside me, that as one thousand folded paper cranes came to be, unfolded themselves and were mentally discarded. Lucky for me in later years, Brendon helped to plumb my subconscious wastebasket and permanently dispose of the crumpled memorial garbage.

I folded those one thousand cranes straight through to the few days before Christmas Eve, marking a full three months of continuous work. When they were finished, using thread and a needle I strung them into twenty strands of fifty cranes, in the same fashion you would string cranberries and popcorn for a Christmas tree. I am not very handy with a needle, and I did prick myself a few times. So my literal blood, sweat, and tears definitely permeated those cranes. After they were done, I had a brief day of panic where I decided this gesture to be too grandiose for our budding relationship. I even convinced myself that I would most likely scare him away with this declaration and that it would be best not to give them to him at all. But pure frustration from working so long on the birds helped to nudge me in the right direction, and after Christmas had passed I went over to his house with said birds in a bag.

In addition to folding the cranes, I had also purchased a hoodie for him. He had coincidentally done the same for me, and we exchanged them. I told him to close his eyes then, and fetched the cranes from the bag. They very loudly rustled and scraped against each other, beginning to slither out of my arms. I very hastily threw them into his outstretched arms and commanded, “Open your eyes!”

There I stood before him, so afraid to love before, and now offering him up my bare heart and shaking with anticipation. His eyes became huge, and his jaw dropped, a smile twitching on the edges. I told him he could have one wish, and in return he told me that he wished to be with me. Over the years we have utterly become the epitome of cheese and cliché.

I strung the ends of the strands together with heavy yarn one day and wrapped the yarn around a stick, creating a waterfall of cranes that hung similarly to a scroll, so that they may be displayed. Right now, they are hanging on the wall of our shared bedroom, next to the window. A room shared by the two of us and all one thousand of them.

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