Paper Airplanes

Paper Airplanes


by N.D. Segal


Imagine:
A woman sits in an office with walls and a door, not a cubicle, at a dark wood desk with her back to a wall of windows. The other walls are decorated with corporate art, her desk with a philodendron and one photograph of two teenaged girls. She wears a black suit, a black and white stripped blouse, black shoes and stockings. Her makeup is sensible, her earrings small. Her hair is cut in a short style that flatters her small, neat features.

She’s reading the first draft of a report and tapping the eraser end of a red pencil on the wood of her desk. For a long time, the only noise in the office is the soft tap of that pencil on wood and the occasional rustle of paper.

Finally, sighing, she drops the pencil and pushes the pages away. “Shit,” she says, reaches for a pad of lined yellow paper lying on the desk, and tears a sheet off. She starts folding the paper into an airplane, the standard pointy-nosed model. When she finishes folding, she looks at what she’s made, smiles faintly. “Weird,” she says and chuckles, then lifts the plane and throws it.

For just a moment, not even a moment, maybe half a heartbeat, she follows the plane up. As she makes to release the neatly creased paper, her fingers stick to it. For just that fraction of a second, she can not release the airplane. It starts to pull her up. For that smallest bit of time, she rises with the plane, weightless. She could fly with the plane toward the ceiling.

Except, of course, she remembers she can’t fly—we all know we can’t, after all—and lets go. The plane soars up on a current of air from the radiator, and she settles heavily into her chair.

“Whoa,” she whispers as the plane glides gently onto the carpet near her door.

She stands up, snatches the plane off the rug where it has come to rest, and drops it tail first into her lacquered wastepaper basket. With a little shake of her head, she turns her back on the basket and settles herself at the desk.

She swivels in the chair to face the windows, studies the glass-encased buildings opposite her, or perhaps she’s staring at the cloudy sky over them. After a few minutes, she speaks again. “I hate this job.”

She begins to sing the words to the melody of the “Blue Danube Waltz,” rapping her knuckles on the arm of her chair for emphasis. “I ha-ate this job, da-da, dum-dum, I ha-ate this job, da-da, dum-dum—“

After a few moments, she stops singing, swivels the chair to face the photograph of the children. “College tuition must be paid,” she murmurs and turns to her computer. She pulls the pages she was reading earlier across the desk to the keyboard and begins to type.

The phone gurgles and she answers it, listens to the caller identify himself, and rolls her eyes. “Oh, hello, David. . . . “Yes, I’m fine . . . . Work is fine . . . . The car is fine—David, I’m at work, so if you have something . . . Excuse me? I didn’t hear . . . Oh, no, no, no. You promised Jenny you’d be there. It’s her first college recital and she—No. I will not tell her for you. I am not your messenger, and now I have to go to a meeting. Good-bye, David.”

Carefully, almost tenderly, she sets the receiver down on its cradle and breathes loudly before smacking her hand on the desk with a loud whack. She winces and shakes the hand just as someone knocks on her door and peeks in.

“Thought you’d like to know: Kromer is kicking about the cover design again,” Tina says with a wry smile.

“Doesn’t that manual ship in two days?”

“Yup.”

“OK. I’ll talk to Charley. Kromer will listen to him.”

“Thanks. See you at the meeting.”

After Tina closes the door, she makes a note on her desk calendar and lifts the receiver of her phone, punches some numbers.

“Hi, Charley. Sara. About the Earthquake Contingency Plan cover . . . Right. Two days. . . . No, no, it’s Kromer and the cover design again. . . . Right, no, he initialed every change, including that cover. . . . Thanks, Charley.” She laughs briefly. “You said it, not me. . . . Thanks.” She settles the receiver back on the cradle. “Sexist, my ass. He’s just a selfish bastard.”

After a quick glance at the wastepaper basket, she begins typing. “Dance, little cursor, dance,” she snarls.

Sara works at the computer until a soft bell sounds on the machine. “Time to make the doughnuts—which would be a better job, come to think of it,” she says. “However, we will cooperate.” She prints the pages she’s produced, gathers them from the printer, places them in a leather portfolio, snatches up a fountain pen, and starts out her door, but stops.

Frowning, she walks back to her wastepaper basket and lifts the paper airplane out. She sets it in the middle of the desk blotter and leaves the office for the daily project review.

The Kromer issue has been taken care of, and then there is good news, bad news, a new project, no more staff, deadlines moved up.

“More late nights,” someone mutters on the way out of the conference room.

“My dog doesn’t remember me,” someone else says.

Sara doesn’t join in the complaining, just goes back to her office and sits at her desk. The paper plane sits there in front of her. She stares at it for a few minutes before fetching a cup of coffee from the machine down the hall. When she get back to her desk, she contemplates the plane some more while sipping from the paper cup.

Finally, she looks over at her clock and raises her eyebrows. “Half an hour? Whoa.”

She pulls the pages from her portfolio and turns to her computer, starts typing again, while the sky behind her darkens and that plane sits on her desk.

After three or four pages, Sara grimaces. “This is ridiculous. What are you afraid of?” she says and snatches the plane up, makes as if to throw it but glances over her shoulder at the lighted offices in the buildings across the street and doesn’t.

Instead, she tucks the paper into her skirt pocket and makes sure her jacket covers the part that sticks up. The she walks down to the conference room, which is windowless and has locks on both doors.

She locks those doors before she takes the plane out, shakes her head slowly at it, and throws it.

Her feet no longer touch the floor. They float a few inches above the carpet as she is carried almost the length of the room. As the plane dips toward the floor, her feet touch down and the plane again sits inert in her hand.

She stands there, where the plane let her down, and stares at the thing she’s holding.

Can you imagine her thoughts at this point? Because paper airplanes cannot lift people, you know. She certainly knows. She also has to know that she can’t tell anyone what has just happened. No matter how much she dislikes her job, the assistant manager of the publications department of a major property insurance company who is supporting two children in college does not tell anyone that something magical has happened. No.

She puts the plane back in her pocket and walks back to her office, slowly, thinking.

She is smiling, ever so faintly, but smiling, when she places the plane in her briefcase as she prepares to leave for the day, and still smiling the next morning when she comes back to work. She’s still smiling that faint smile when she finishes rewriting the report and carries it to the photocopier herself because the unit secretary is busy elsewhere, still smiling when the printer notifies her that the files she sent over yesterday are corrupted and please send the backups, still smiling when the network goes down.

Several days pass. Her smile doesn’t fade or grow, just lives there on her face as she goes calmly about her business. People notice the faint smile and whisper about it. They whisper about secrets, Maybe, some speculate, Sara is dating someone new. Maybe, others suggest, she’s inherited some money.

Her secret is simply that every night when she goes home, she flies her paper airplane in the attic. She used to watch a lot of television in the evening after work, but now, after having moved all the boxes and suitcases to one side of the space, she flies every night and smiles every day.

***

One day, about a year after her maiden flight, as she walks through the parking garage toward the elevator that will take her up to her office, a man snatches her briefcase. The paper airplane is in the briefcase.

Imagine what you’d do if something like the magic airplane were stolen from you. You might scream or cry out, chase after the man. She does none of that. She simply stares after him. Her smile is gone.

So is a project she’s worked on for two months along with the two-hundred-dollar briefcase.

After reporting the theft of the briefcase—which can be replaced with or without the insurance money, after all—and the project—which is backed up at home and in the office—she walks quietly into her office and shuts the door firmly behind her.

The pad of lined yellow paper from which that first plane came is still in her desk drawer, the one that locks, the one where she stashed that pad of paper after she flew the first time. Now, she pulls it out, tears a piece of paper off carefully, folds another pointy-nosed airplane, and sets it on her desk, just leaves it sitting there. If anyone notices, no one says anything, not to her, anyway.

For two days, she leaves the plane sitting there. Maybe she’s afraid to fly it. Maybe she’s afraid the gift is gone forever, gone with the thief, who almost certainly threw it away once he opened the case. Maybe she knows gifts come with a price that she’s no longer willing to pay. Or maybe she wants it to fly and will be so bitterly disappointed by its failure that she can’t bear to find out one way or the other. Whatever the reason, and she’s not sure herself what the reason is, she doesn’t touch the plane for two full days.

When she finally does pick it up, in her dark office, she doesn’t try it out, doesn’t throw it, just hefts it in her hand. Does it bounce a little? Maybe. It’s hard to say without the lights on.

After ten minutes or so, she sets the plane on her desk and walks down to the coffee machine, feeds coins into it, and requests light, no sugar. All the while, she looks thoughtful, far away.

When she gets back to her office, she sips at the hot coffee and stares at the folded paper.

Finally, she shrugs, picks up the paper airplane, and tosses it—

And is tugged a few inches up off the floor and toward her door. She smiles.

Imagine that.