Labors of Love

by nicolecallihan

One of my students has just completed the construction of one thousand paper cranes. He’s a soft-spoken boy with glasses who admits that he loved church basement Ping-Pong long before he loved anything else.

The birds, he tells me, are kept in freezer-sized Ziploc baggies in groups of one hundred. Last week, in his essay about art critic John Berger, he confessed that he’d created all one thousand birds for a girl. He didn’t mention if he had ever given the birds to the girl, only mentioned that after a while, they weren’t birds at all, they were something else entirely.

Then the weekend came, and Eva–very early Saturday–woke up with a fever. She was hot to the touch, and I was bleary-eyed, and I kept whispering to her that I was sorry–not for anything but for everything–and at least half a dozen times I went in to put my hand on her warm back, and I pressed a cold washcloth to the soles of her feet and measured out Motrin and sang about stars. Her fevers affect me like nothing else; somehow they contain every illness and playground injury, every paper-cut and heartbreak; they make me weepy and lonely, and every time I go in to press my wrist to her neck, I get more scared and more grateful.

When I was 20 or 22, I loved a boy who left me poems everywhere, tiny poems scrawled on torn-up pieces of paper. He left them in the medicine cabinet and the butter-dish, in my apron pockets and old notebooks. For years, I discovered them. They were beautiful in their way, and for a long time I wondered if I hadn’t loved the boy quite enough or long enough, but by then he was gone–making t-shirts in Queens, someone said–and love, then, seemed to matter far less than time.

I think of my student and his thousand paper cranes, and I want to write him an email:

Dear B.–
Eva suffered a fever,
and I fell into an old & magical loop.

I’ve been thinking about your birds.
Please don’t give them all away.
Keep at least one for yourself.

N.

When I was a girl–5 or 6–I found a seagull feather in the parking lot of the Sanitary Fish Market. I remember loving that feather, carrying it everywhere and sucking on its end. I’m not sure now, but probably, I thought that it could make me fly. Still, somehow, I knew that it was forbidden and I’d wait until I was alone before bringing it to my mouth. I think it was my first great privacy: the first thing I really kept from my mother, my first labor of love.

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