By: Sam Hayes
On those hot summer days in upstate New York his dreams sat the heaviest. On long walks through shadeless fields from porch to creek, they took cover under his sweaty cap, endlessly bouncing between skull walls, clouding his mind with the densest of fogs.
Jay would not deviate from dreams except to wonder how he had not already become famous. He didn’t expect to be a superstar, but thought that his skills should have gained him some fame. He was, after all, the best in the world. Yet, as time forged on, Jay sat still—unrecognized, unmoving. Without a job or a plan, he spent his time at home, fending off the gaze of disgruntled parents. While classmates got ready for college, Jay strolled through the shelved alleys of his cool basement, admiring thousands of brilliant paper airplanes. They rested in tight rows, not rousing to the dim light that seeped through a lonely window well. Jay held the planes close as if to whisper them awake, then tossed them to flight as swift as wind. He wandered through the paper maze of his imagination, shaking hands and posing for photos, standing tall on podiums with his paper planes. They were his babies, his creation. He had given them life, and in return they were his lifeblood.
Jay had little else to his name. He spent class time designing and folding. In the hallways he would float the planes at cute girls, landing on their shoulders from afar, gently falling into their hands, delivering flirty notes and invitations. It was charming at first, but got old fast. He had no other flirting tactics. No talk, no smiles, certainly no eye contact, just planes. Planes and wrinkly white T-shirts that looked like old paper. Planes and faded jeans fit to ball up and toss in the trash.
When it came time to think about college, Jay would simply fold applications into aerial masterpieces and send them away in boxes. Most admissions counselors probably thought it was a joke and had a good laugh. None replied. Jay never considered orienting his design talents toward something else, not even real planes. That wasn’t what he wanted. Jay stuck to what he knew. He did what he was good at. He hadn’t tried much else. For better or worse, Jay dumped all the weight of life into the one aspect that felt completely comfortable. He had an unmatched ability to live in fantasy, perfectly certain worlds governed by unfulfilled desires.
After winning the New York Young Flyers contest at the age of twelve Jay expected to get interviewed by the New York Times. What he got was a shiny, plastic trophy. Then came the New York State Fair Paper Airplane Contest, in which he most assuredly became the youngest winner in history, though they don’t keep records. He won some money and had his Dad make him a T-shirt. It read NYSFPAC. Occasionally people would ask him what it meant. He liked that.
Sometimes events were cancelled because they didn’t have enough competitors, but Jay won every contest available. Each time he crushed his competition with an innovative design, soaring barely believable distances with pinpoint accuracy. His parents were always there, and usually a handful of other parents. He found state fairs and contests to compete in all over New England. He always won, and he always had a sharpie wedged behind his ear, where people would notice it. But that’s exactly where it stayed. His mother told him people weren’t too big on autographs anymore.
It wasn’t until after he won the NYSFPAC for the seventh year in a row, throwing backwards from between the legs, that someone finally called him up for a much deserved interview. Maybe this would knock some sense into people. Maybe now people would care. A part-time journalist was going to write an article for the local paper. Jay didn’t know it was his dad’s friend, or at least had chosen to forget. On the morning of its release he biked down to the newspaper box in town. He popped off his cap and swept his sweaty hair to the side to peer through the little window and read the cover: Local Graveyards Running out of Space.
“What?” He whipped out his cell phone and dialed up his dad.
“David Bloom speaking.”
“Dad, you said my article would be today!”
“Well, it is today.”
“No. It’s not. Lookin’ at the paper right now!”
“Hmm…lemme check…July…17th. Yup, today. Today is the day.”
“Well, no. I mean, it’s not. It’s not in here.”
“Jay, I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe they forgot. You check every section?”
Jay hung up in righteous rage. He shoved a couple of quarters into the rusty slot and began thumbing through the newspaper, mainly so that he could get the newspaper’s phone number and call them. The other reason he strove not to admit to himself—maybe they hadn’t forgot. He didn’t notice his article until he was looking for the phone number on the back page. In the sunlight he could see the silhouette of an edgy airplane bleeding through the thin paper from the inside. He furrowed his eyebrows and furiously turned the page.
It was only a paragraph long and they took just one quote from his entire interview. It was on the inside of the back page. The picture wasn’t even one of his original paper airplane designs, just some generic clip art. It was terrible. He called up his dad again, who didn’t seem to be all that upset about it. In the face of Jay’s great injustice, he was “not planning on calling to complain,” and managed to be proud that “plenty of people” would be reading about his son.
It was just a day afterwards that a young boy pointed his direction in the grocery store. Jay smiled and raised his eyebrows and cleared his throat. The boy’s mother walked straight toward him, the giddy child sitting wide-eyed in her cart.
“Excuse me,” she smiled and said politely.
“Yes?” he beamed, slowly reaching toward his ear.
“Little Billy just can’t help himself,” she chuckled. “You think you could reach up to that shelf and grab that box of Lucky Charms? He just loves em.”
“Oh—oh, um…right. Yeah, for sure, no prob.”
He reached past his ear for cereal instead. He almost signed the box before he handed it to her. That was about the closest Jay had ever come to fame.
It’s difficult, having dreams far grander than tools or skills, desires outside of Fate’s periphery. Jay constantly carried with him the sense that his train had already left for bigger and better things. He just needed to run fast enough to catch up with it. It was on one of those hot summer walks to the creek, reflecting and wishing, hoping the most hopeless of hopes, that he heard the buzz of a prop plane above him. He looked up. Sweat dropped from his hair to his eyes and ran moping down his face. When he could see the airplane clearly, he was struck by an idea to die for.
Jay never made it to that refreshing creek. There would be no cooling down, no de-clouding of his heavy head. He was prone let his dense dreams swirl and build pressure until they found a way out of his mind. He turned around instantly and ran back to the house. Ripping open his desk drawer, Jay gathered up all the money he had won over the years and drove to the arts and crafts store, where he bought out their entire construction paper and super glue supply.
The design alone took almost a month, each tedious moment pushing eager hope into the next. His parents had stopped asking him questions at this point. It was useless. There were no answers. His lips, though dying to burst, were sealed. Letting his dream out prematurely would surely mean letting it die.
He told them only that it was something big, that it was that something they had been waiting for all these years, that they would be proud.
“Is it another paper airplane?” his dad asked.
“No. Well, yeah, sort of. But, it’s different! Just trust me.”
“I trust you Jay…I just don’t trust paper as much as you do.”
After years of slicing comments, his parents’ bladed words had grown dull. And though they didn’t really trust him, they were happy to see him working so hard at something, because they loved him. He was too stubborn to fight with anyway, and they were too tired to try. So they held out a drop of slippery hope that maybe, just maybe, Jay’s talent would be recognized.
Jay had no problem building something very large, or even building something that he could control in the air. The trick was to build a paper plane with these qualities that could be folded into a suitcase. By the time he was ready to build, he had gone through so much of his construction paper on scratch designs and mini test-models that he had to steal money from his parents to buy more.
He cleared out his entire room to make space for the project, setting his other possessions all over the house, sleeping in the living room. He worked from sunrise to sunset every day. He never went down to the creek anymore; he hardly even went outside, except to eat dinner on the porch after sunset. Every night he would sit and watch airplane lights move into the distance until it seemed they had turned into stars.
The work was difficult, but inwardly thrilling, pulling him towards itself more every day. He looked like Da Vinci, or Michelangelo—his focus unflappable, his steady hands unshakable. When he finally finished the gigantic paper airplane, he spent a couple of days just sitting in the room with it alone. He stared at it, studied it, as if was finally responding to all the love he poured in, talking out its life story, sharing its reciprocated hopes and dreams. When he could live inside that elaborate head of his no longer, he carefully folded the airplane into an extra large, sturdy suitcase on wheels.
The day of his reckoning came on a late summer Friday. As the sun came up, he hopped in an old pick-up truck and sailed through peaceful greens toward the Big Apple. It took a few hours to get there, but time passes quickly when every second is devoted to the anticipation of one particular moment. In such a case the whole time, no matter how long, feels like one moment anyway.
He had to park a few blocks away, but didn’t mind. Jay strode down sidewalks in a black suit with a black tie, suitcase riding in his wake, not shifting an inch for anyone in his path. He wore a dead stare toward something far away but quickly approaching, something massive and invisible, something only he could see. Nearing the Empire State Building, Jay looked up and grinned, then glanced back at his suitcase for a second opinion, for reassurance of reality.
Some cash and an elevator took him all the way to the observation deck, but that wasn’t quite high enough. A security guard on the far side of the room near an ugly metal door carried a wide ring of keys. He was an immovable mass in all black, including a hood, standing there like the grim reaper. There was really no other option to reach the tip top but the door behind that guard. Jay thought about bribing, but figured it wouldn’t work, not for this, not to this man. It was too risky. Instead he waited until not too many people were around, then sauntered toward the guard while staring blindly out the windows. Reaching the space just in front of the man, Jay suddenly turned and pointed to the door. Heaving with all his might, he yanked up his hefty suitcase and wacked the distracted giant on the back of the head with its hard corner. As the man thumped to the floor a gasp and a hush spread across the room. Jay bent down and ripped the keys from his belt. Before rising up, he shoved his remaining life savings of eighty-six dollars into the man’s shirt pocket in a frugle attempt to pay off bad karma. Besides, he wouldn’t need petty cash anymore, not after today. Standing straight up, Jay quickly scanned the eyes watching him and bolted to the door. He unlocked it and slipped through. The heavy mass locked behind him. Huffing and puffing, Jay ascended a few flights of narrow stairs to arrive at a black metal ladder. It climbed up a narrow shaft to a hatch littered with warnings and locks. Jay took longer than expected to find all the right keys, but before any sign of pursuers, he was crawling out into the big blue sky. By noon he was standing on top of the empire state building, firmly on the flat metal hatch, peering down great lengths to the street with a death grip on a metal pole for support.
On such a beautiful Friday afternoon, New York City was hustling and bustling. People packed the streets. The air, even a thousand feet up, was thick with anxious appetite as tangible as the skyscrapers and the trucks and the concrete. He drew short, shallow gasps, unmoving as a statue, and gazed out over the city soon to be his. He gazed until he gained some sort of numb peace, until he had either thought enough, or could not think anymore. Whether resolved or dazed, he began unpacking and unfolding his paper airplane. Bracing against gusts of wind, he secured it to the angled roof below him with clamps and pulled out two air horns. Pointing them straight down, he blew them until they ran out of noise. Reaching the street, his noise turned into a large crowd of gasping authorities and news people and business men and mothers and pointing children. In the air, loud helicopters hovered near. Men leaned out the sides with megaphones, shouting things Jay could not and would not hear.
This, this was that moment. It was actually, finally happening. He hopped into his giant paper airplane, released the clamps, and grabbed hold of two stiff, thirty-five layer, super glue bonded wing controls. He could hear the horrified roar of a giant crowd ricocheting from the skyscrapers as he slid down the angled rooftop toward open air. When he flew off the edge everything turned to pure adrenaline. In a moment he forgot everything he had ever known, yet in the next it all came rushing back. In the direst instant of his life, the great body of desire that defined him pushed through panic and took control. Jay began shifting flaps and wings to lift, then turn, then suddenly dip, feeling out the free air with a vehicle he knew so well. He swooped past gaping mouths in high office windows, gliding ever so swiftly on a rich silence wafting up from below, one as hushing as the wind in his face. He rode the intense gaze of countless eyes lifting his perfectly crafted wings. He had never felt so alive and would never again, but this moment for him was as long as the lifetime he had spent anticipating it. With each foot of descent his confidence and control became more precise, making tight turns and steep dives, then lifting up on his momentum and swooping just a few feet from colossal buildings. As he drew nearer to the ground the crowd’s shock and awe turned to cheering. He could hear them clapping and screaming, chanting, erupting in excitement. It was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. At the flight’s end he swooped low over the masses, waving and smiling and fist pumping as they reached up to grab a share of his glory. He sailed gently toward an open intersection behind the crowd for a graceful landing and his first steps into the new world he had always imagined.
But when Jay was just a few feet from the ground, without warning, a boundlessly heavy garbage truck came barreling through the intersection. Apparently the world hadn’t completely stopped. Neither could the truck. Starting from the corner of his eye, Jay’s whole being jolted. He jumped from the paper plane to avoid the unstoppable mass, but could not spring far off a plane so lightweight. The chariot he rode into magnificence had no magnitude to support him. He wound up only pushing his prized plane forward much faster, leaving himself stranded in midair. The garbage truck hit. Jay folded and tore like paper beneath powerful fingers. The airplane itself, just twenty feet past his remains, lay at the end of a smooth landing, unharmed and content, fit for all the most interesting museums in the world.
And if only for an instant, the world did stop. The crowd fell silent but for the scuffling of shoes, the hollow scraping of camera shutters, the dramatic rise and sudden quiet of squealing flashbulbs. With passing moments came hushed murmurs. With dragging seconds came yellow tape and pressing crowds. Buzzing minutes brought breaking news reports. Within hours, footage of the entire incident was showing worldwide. By the end of day President Obama had released a statement on the matter. By the end of the week authorities estimated worldwide video views over three-hundred million. At the end of the month Jay was a global legend. And at the end of the year, people were still talking about him.
It’s really a shame he couldn’t be there to see it—all his hopes and dreams fulfilled. Jay got exactly what he always wanted, only the reality of it was too heavy for his paper plane to bear.