David folds his napkin into an airplane, scrunches his forehead into a question mark, and says, “Bet you don’t know what this is.”
“An origami airplane,” I tell him.
He tells me he told me so.
“You don’t understand,” he continues as he points the nose of his origami airplane at my open mouth. I know if I let more words come out, the plane is going to hit David’s target. The only way to try to prevent the attack is to close my mouth. I do.
David turns to the window. Fog clings to everything but the people closest to us. Strangers seem to appear from nowhere as they get within a few yards of the diner’s door. David looks out the window as though he possesses a superpower that allows him to stare through the fog, across the continent, and into the souls of people who used to live in cities David has only seen on television.
“Why do they call it the Big Apple?” David asked last summer before he began making origami airplanes. I had to look it up. I no longer remember the answer, but I think it had something to do with horse-racing, because David asked if he is allergic to horses. I told him I didn’t know, because we’ve never been close enough to a horse to find out.
We keep a list on the refrigerator of things David is allergic to: milk, peanuts, shellfish, pollen, cat dander, bees, and penicillin. It’s next to the list of things David is afraid of: dark hallways, closets, sock seams, mustaches, tomatoes, and Dr. Holloway. The lists were David’s idea. He says the lists help him feel safe. When we learn about something new, David adds it to the bottom of the appropriate list. Last September, we added “airplanes.”
Dr. Holloway suggested that David make origami airplanes. For each airplane David makes, Dr. Holloway gives him a gold star. He said that if David’s anxiety level got down to below five on a scale of one through ten, that David could erase airplanes off the fear list if he wanted to. David told me it’s hard to know what number an anxiety attack is, and I told him it’s kind of like the color codes we have for the heightened states of awareness; no one knows what to do differently if the heightened state of awareness is orange or red. I can empathize with David’s fear of Dr. Holloway. It’s not just his mustache, it’s that he tries to turn everything into a math problem. David isn’t afraid of math yet, but I am.
David is 9 years old. His forehead has been punctuated by wrinkles since kindergarten. No one knows why. The best specialists on the west coast referred us to Dr. Holloway, who suggested we focus on managing the problem rather than trying to pin down the cause of it. Dr. Holloway specializes in behavioral therapy. I know what behavioral therapy means, because David looked it up, printed it out, and taped it to the refrigerator. The refrigerator is where David keeps the things he doesn’t want to forget, but David rarely forgets anything. It’s not that he doesn’t want to but that he doesn’t know how.
This morning, David erased “airplanes.” He didn’t tell me he had done it or why, but I noticed the missing airplanes when I went to make breakfast. I told David we could go anywhere he wanted to celebrate, and he chose the diner. David says anyplace that makes bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches without tomatoes should be celebrated.
David stares out the window into the past. He relives last September in flashbacks. He sees the planes penetrate one building and then the next. He sees the bodies’ tripping over themselves to find sanctuary, launching themselves into the sky like weapons of mass desperation. He sees the world collapse one skyscraper at a time. He says he can smell the flesh burning. I used to try to tell him it was impossible. David has never been to New York. He can’t relive something he never experienced. But Dr. Holloway told me, in monotone psychiatry jargon, to keep my mouth shut. I do.
I’m supposed to be letting David learn how to save himself, so I am sipping my coffee. I am swirling my spoon around an empty cup and watching my son’s forehead become an exclamation point. I am trying to give his anxiety level a number and thinking that this is the way we manage the problem once we have run out of productive options. I wait for David to pick up another napkin to make another origami airplane, and I wonder which superpower I would choose if I could choose a superpower.
There are three origami airplanes on the table by the time the server brings our sandwiches. It feels like several hours have passed, but it has only been ten minutes. Time operates at a different speed when David is around. David read somewhere that some people can’t wear certain watches because those people make the watches stop. Now David doesn’t wear watches because he doesn’t want to take the risk of making time stand still at the worst possible time.
There are no tomatoes. David picks up the lettuce and folds it around the bread. I don’t ask why. He keeps his eye on the airplanes as though he worries they might take flight. The server tries to collect them, as though origami is something to be carelessly discarded. There is probably a special kind of depository somewhere, like how when you have to dump chemicals you can’t just put them down the drain or in the trash can or in the earth. Shooting them into space is about the only solution for safely disposing of such things, but even that is probably too reckless. David knows what “gravity” means.
David pockets the airplanes with caution. They must face downward like the scissors he’s not allowed to run with. The pocket must be snapped shut upon proper placement. Only then can we exit the diner and allow the fog to swallow us.
I don’t have to ask David what he’s doing when he walks to the refrigerator. He knows where the pencil is. I don’t have to ask where he’ll go next. His fingers are unsnapping the pocket.
If I could choose a superpower it would either be to not know the future or to know it.
David’s toy box is overflowing with origami airplanes. He doesn’t have to count them and neither do I, but we both do. 3,621; 3,622; 3,623.
“Bet you don’t know what these are,” David says.
These are the symbols of an unnamed struggle to overcome an undefined problem.
“Origami airplanes,” I tell him.
He tells me he told me so.
Next Thursday, we will see Dr. Holloway. He’ll give David more gold stars. David will stand on his bed on his tiptoes to reach the ceiling, to fasten the stickers into their proper constellations. David says someday he’ll have his own galaxy.
Originally published Spring 2016 in The Ash