“Yeah, Mom. Just let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you out."
“There isn’t much, hon. Not anymore.”
“Does he still ask for me?”
I swallowed thickly. “Well, tell him I love him.”
“Okay, hon, I will. How is the writing going? Have you found any clients yet?”
I closed my eyes. “I’ve gotta go, Mom.”
I put the phone down, running a hand through my sticky, unwashed hair. These calls were becoming more frequent with every passing day. And there was nothing I could do. I wished she would just stop calling.
Picking up my notebook, I stepped outside onto the balcony. This was my daily ritual. One hour outside, just me and my notebook. Call me old-fashioned, but to me, there’s nothing like a pencil and a clean sheet of paper to get ideas flowing. And I needed ideas.
Across the way, a little boy was sitting cross-legged on the floor of his balcony, folding what looked to be a small piece of paper. His family had moved in several weeks before, renting the apartment for what was supposed to be a very short period of time, only a month or two. They didn’t tell me why and I didn’t ask. With everything going on, it seemed their stay was extended. The boy was out there almost every day, practically from dawn to dusk. He was always quiet, so I usually didn’t mind.
Today, however, he kept folding that paper over and over and it was grating on my nerves; not quite loud enough to be reasonable cause for complaint, but not quiet enough to go unnoticed. I turned back to my writing, trying to center my fleeting focus on the task at hand. I picked up the pencil, but found that I couldn’t formulate a single sentence. This had been happening often. Blame it on the confinement or blame it on the cheap wine I had taken to drinking at unreasonable hours. Regardless, nothing was coming. I blew out a breath in defeat, kneading my temples. I was about to give up and go back inside my coffee-stained wreck of a den when something struck the back of my head. Irritated, I turned to find a small paper airplane on the floor beside my chair. I heard a shuffling noise and looked across the way to see the little boy on the opposite balcony. His knees were pulled up to his chest and he had covered his face with his hands. I could make out one wide eye peering anxiously at me from between his fingers.
“You want this back?” I asked, holding up the paper airplane. The boy scrambled to his feet then, opening the sliding door and disappearing inside. I shook my head and picked up the airplane, prepared to crumple it up and throw it away. But when I reached the trash can in my grimy kitchen, something slowed my hand. The kid had made this, had put effort into it. Was I really going to destroy it, just like that?
The little brat will just get more paper and make another one.
I dropped the little airplane into the trash with purpose.
But I made sure it didn’t get crumpled.
The following afternoon when I stepped outside, the boy was there, as usual, sitting alone in silence, folding paper. But no. Not paper. This time, the boy had something much smaller, a pale, buttery yellow. It took me a moment to realize it was a leaf. The kid was trying to make a paper airplane out of a stray leaf. For the first time, I thought that maybe I was wrong. Maybe the boy didn’t have paper. Why had I assumed he had endless resources? Especially in a time like this. I tried reasoning with myself. It made sense to assume someone had access to scrap paper. And anyway, I had tried to return it, hadn’t I? At least I had asked. The kid hadn’t responded. I continued to make these rationalizations to myself as I marched back into my apartment and began rifling through the trash can for the kid’s stupid airplane. It only took a minute to find it, but when I lifted it out, my nose wrinkled. The thing was covered in a pungent mix of coffee grinds and spaghetti sauce from the night before. This plane would never fly again.
I dropped the soggy mess back into the trash, wondering why I hadn’t thrown the damned thing into the recycling bin.
On my way back out, my phone began to buzz. I already knew.
I let the phone ring for a moment before I picked it up.
It took me a while to get out of bed the next afternoon.
When I took up my usual position, I was bleary-eyed and numb. I wasn’t even sure why I went out that day. It wasn’t necessary. I knew I wasn’t going to get anything done. Not after that. Not for a while.
The boy was there, same as always. He had a different leaf this time. A smaller one. I watched him for a long time. Watched him fold that leaf over and over again. Watched his silent tears fall to the floor as it fell to pieces in his hands. I knew the feeling.
I glanced down at the notebook in my lap and had an idea.
I hadn’t made a paper airplane since I was the boy’s age, but I thought it couldn’t be too difficult. Anyone could fold a piece of paper. If I couldn’t accomplish anything else in all my thirty years, at least I could do this one thing. It only took a few minutes and when it was finished, I stood at the corner of the balcony and waved to the little boy.
“Hey kid!” I shouted. “I made you something.”
He looked up at me and for the first time, I saw the boy smile. Not much, just a tiny lift of the corner of his mouth. But it was enough. I took my stance, lifting the tiny plane with as much drama and grandiosity as I could muster.
The kid smiled again and nodded, moving to the edge of his balcony, arms outstretched.
“Okay, here it comes”
And with a great whooshing sound for added effect, I launched the plane. I watched it soar, catching the wind and dancing around for a few brief seconds.
And I watched it spiral to the ground, just missing the boy’s open hands.
It’s cliche, but my heart sank. I swear I felt it, low in my chest, falling with all the false hope I had built up around this boy and his useless airplanes and my useless career. None of it mattered. I had thought I could make at least one person happy, that maybe things would change, if only for a moment. I couldn’t. The only change was another person disappointed in me. Beyond that, I still had no dad and no goddamned money.
It was too much.
I put my head in my hands and wept, right there in front of the kid. I should have gone inside. When I was a kid, I always thought grownups didn’t cry. The first time I saw my mom cry, it had shaken the very roots of my understanding of life. Adults didn’t do that. Adults were supposed to be invincible. And yet here I was, bawling like I did that day, in front of a child probably younger than I had been at the time. But I couldn’t stop and I couldn’t bring myself to move. I just sat there, knees curled up to my chest, just like the little boy’s had been when he hit me with that airplane. Suddenly I was burning. If he had never thrown that airplane, I wouldn’t be here humiliating myself. It made me cry harder.
When the tears subsided and the sobs that wracked my body lost their fervor, I lifted my head to see the boy was gone.
I didn’t return to the balcony for two weeks.
When I did, I went out late at night to be sure the boy wouldn’t be there. I did not think I could bear it if he was. Anyway, I enjoyed the stillness and the chilly night air. That night, I sat for nearly three hours, gazing up at the stars and thinking of nothing. It wasn’t until I stood to go back inside that I saw it: a minuscule flash of movement in the far corner of my vision. On the edge of the balcony floor, something lodged between the bars of the railing was flapping feebly in the wind. It was difficult to see among the night’s shifting shadows, but I thought it almost looked like…
I stooped to pick it up, gingerly extracting it from its prison. Holding it in the moonlight, I understood. It was an airplane made of leaves. So many leaves, held together with twine and glue. I didn’t know how, but the kid had done it. I felt certain it was no coincidence that the little creation had come to rest on my porch. The boy had spent days, maybe weeks, gathering runaway leaves in this grey, lifeless city and putting them together with the few resources he had just to send his finished masterpiece to a bitter woman who had not done anything to deserve it.
A bitter woman who needed it more than a silent little boy could possibly understand.
A lone bird chirped her song far above me; a new day was approaching. I gave myself one minute of contemplation, but not a second longer. There were stories to write and people to contact. Mostly, I needed to call my mom.