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Today's Story by Ada Ngo

Like every one of my past lovers, you too, wanted to leave your autograph on my paper body.

Made of Paper

This is how it all began: I dreamt I was made of paper.

I was made of paper; and you were a weary, world-worn traveller who showed up on my doorstep one wintry afternoon. You wore the neon hues of the street lamps on your hunched shoulders, the faint smell of one too many drinks on your coat, the mud of a thousand cities you had traversed on your boots.

You made yourself at home in my house with admirable familiarity. You roused the silent stoves (I never cooked; being made of paper – I had to be extra careful, you see), settled into the rocking chair that once belonged to my grandmother. You took the attic room; you were not one of those quiet tenants that I was used to. They would fade into the walls and tapestries and curtains – sometimes I would forget their existence for weeks on end.

You made the house come alive; made the corners and corridors wind around you like tender tendrils. The rooms wrapped themselves around your very presence. The floorboards would creak with the weight of your sighs in the deep of the night, and I would lie awake listening to you fight your deepest darkest innermost battles.

I would wish earnestly that I could fight them for you – but I am made of paper, and I knew not how to be a soldier in your battalion.

I was afraid, and yet I loved you. When you were not fighting, when you were being you – you smoothed the creases from my paper palms, teased the edges of cellophane tape that held my rough ragged sides together.

“Don’t try to fix me; I’m damaged.”

“Not nearly as damaged as I am.”

“Don’t come too close -“ I warned you; but you paid no heed.

I watched you every evening, reclining so easily in my grandmother’s rocking chair with your long legs outstretched; followed the light of your cigarettes dance in the dark smoky depths of your eyes. I always hated smokers, always loathed the pervasive fumes that permeated the room – but with you, it was different.

Why is it that you were everything that I never wanted – and yet all I wanted was you?

I was content to sit enswathed by the curls of smoke, taking in, with every breath, a bit more of you. You told me stories of lonely towns, of the battles you had won and of the girl whose heart you had lost. These stories weren’t easy to come by; I had to coax them out of you. These tales of adventure fascinated me: I am made of paper and I – cannot travel.

Whenever you spoke of her, a hard glittering glint would come into your eyes and a crooked cynical smile would play on the corner of your lips. I know that your past haunted you; that the old ghosts that slept soundly in your suitcase sometimes stirred, ruffled your hair and tugged at your sleeves, demanding an audience. Yet I also found out that while you dreaded them, you would never trade them for anything in the world. Like old wounds, the pain they wrought served as reminders that you, too, were human.

You are human – and I envy you that.

I would never come to know her name – would only know her as the one whose heart you lost. The one you never could quite forget.

You would swerve the train of our conversation abruptly – jerking us both forward – master navigator that you are. You told me that you would fall in love with someone who could sit next to you and not feel the need to fill the silence: and I tried to be that – for you. I stifled the tip of my tongue, swallowed words which I might have spoken, and left the air heavy with pauses – and your smoke. Laughingly, you tried to offer me a cigarette –

I’m sorry, I don’t smoke,

But I took it anyway. I set my hands on fire trying to light the cigarette. You stifled a laugh and put it out immediately, but my hands were burnt, the carpet was littered with the ashes of what used to be my finger, an unlit cigarette lay between two patterned roses on the floor.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I should have seen it coming.

But the damage has been done.

You saw that I was unhappy, and the following afternoon you took me out with you. You kept me in your shirt pocket together with a folded road map – something you carried with you on all your travels. I spent the journey studying the map, running my fingers – paper on paper – over its creases, looking at faded pencilled circles. I fell asleep between a Hemmington Square and an Oswald lake, buried in the warmth of your history. I fell asleep, listening to your heartbeat.

When I awoke, I was seated on a park bench next to you. The road map was spread open in your hands; and you were squinting at an unfamiliar town whose name I had never seen. You looked at me, still lost in that city which I did not know.

“I wasn’t always made of paper.”

You nodded, but I wasn’t absolutely sure you heard me. So I did not tell you about the man who turned me into paper. I did not tell you that we once sat upon the very same park bench, the way you and I did now. I did not tell you how he tore me apart, and how I carried myself home and put the pieces back together with cellophane tape. You did not want to peel back the folds of my paper ribs – not that afternoon, at least – so I did not weigh you down with the burden of my heart.

There are some stories that must be left untold.

“Sometimes, I envy you. You are paper – and paper doesn’t bruise, it can only crease.” I smiled indulgently at you when you turned to me. I did not tell you about how I had more creases and wrinkles than your oft-consulted road map.

It rained that afternoon.

You snatched me up and shoved me into your pocket, together with your road map, together with the same road map. But even your best intentions were not enough to shield us from the rain. When we reached home, I was damp and had the criss-cross structure of a city’s roads stained on my back. It looked silly, but you did not laugh – you held me gently like a wilted flower in your palms before the fireplace, forgetting the sparks.

The cellophane tape was falling apart, and you replaced them gently piece by piece with new tape. You put the pieces of me back together without asking – although I would have liked you to. You saw the signature of another man scrawled over my back – I saw it in your averted eyes and I knew you knew.

That night, you took a fountain pen (something you had procured during one of your innumerable journeys) and blotted his name out. I could feel the ink running down my spine, spreading into blotches on my shoulders. Now he will no longer own you, you declared proudly and I could only muster a wry smile at your innocence.

Like every one of my past lovers, you too, wanted to leave your autograph on my paper body. Did you not see the scores of scribbles trailing between the ridges of my ribs, the bunched-up ragged folds where my elbows should have been? Nevertheless, you wrote in large sloping letters above my collarbones – I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.

“Now, you will always have that constant reminder.”

“That is a pretty ideal: but I am afraid it isn’t always so.”

Perhaps, that was not the reply you wanted to hear. You quoted Plath to me – But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow. But there is nothing poetic about broken hearts, nothing picturesque about tears. It is an infinitely ugly emotion: the face contorted hideously with grief, the strangulated silence before a choked sob ensues. Broken hearts are immensely private – why else do we avert our eyes when we are confronted with someone else’s tears?

Finally, you asked – Do you love me?

I’m sorry, I don’t-

Even though we both knew the answer was otherwise. Words would not change the truth, which now hung like a curtain between us. I would never admit that I loved you – loved you despite your unpredictable temperaments. I loved you in spite of how damaged you were; in fact, I loved you because you were broken, and moody, and so full of yourself as to think that I would love you.

You nodded. I did not attempt to comfort you – any further words would have clattered to the ground like broken glass. You were not hurt; you were only bruised.

We both know that bruises fade, but creases stay.

You were gone the following day. The house that had wrapped itself around you now unfolded itself, yawned, and stretched its long corridors once more. The floorboards lay dormant, the stoves stopped singing. There was no trace of you ever having been here – that you, my traveller, had sat in the rocking chair, slept in the attic, chain-smoked cigarettes through the nights. Perhaps I made you up inside my head; the only souvenirs you left behind were origami cranes. Paper birds with wings that could not fly, with dark inky eyes that could not see and crisp cocked triangles for heads.

I wanted to run after you, ask you to stay or beg you to take me along in that pocket of yours with the road map whose imprint I bore on my back. But I could not unlock the front door – origami-crane-hands cannot hold keys; I tumbled down the stairs and could not get back to my feet – origami-crane-hands are quite useless indeed. My hands were twin paper cranes: even in your farewell, you were cruel, quite cruel indeed.

I slipped beneath the cracks of the front door (there is some advantage in being made of paper, after all), tried to head in the direction of the railway station –

This is how it all ended: how all dreams end. Waking up in cold sweat, shaking, my heart beating hard against my ribs as furiously, as much in futility as a caged bird. I was no longer made of paper; I rolled over and was vaguely relieved that the rustling I heard was the sheets – not my body. The real creases and wrinkles were hidden beneath this smooth taut skin, invisible to the prying eyes of the world.

But what was the world anymore, without you – you whom I must have made up in my head – you, the lost, cold, weary traveller who needed a little reprieve from the winter; you who made my house a home?

Why do people leave, and things fall apart? Why do things leave and people fall apart?

It was easier to forget you than I imagined. When you vanished, all the little things that once mattered so much slipped away too – all our familiar banter, quirky jokes, even the pregnant silences in which I held my tongue and left so many conversations aborted, so many words unspoken. It was simpler to replace you than I would have thought: with mundane routines, everyday chores, the humdrum and bustle of normal life.

But this is how I would have liked it all to end: not as upon waking up from a dream. I would have run to the railway station – would have floated in the wind, clung desperately to the back of the mailman’s bicycle, or nestled myself in a sedate old lady’s handbag. I would have been pushed and stepped and trampled upon, tearing the corners of myself apart – just to catch one – final – glimpse of you boarding the train resignedly, half looking, half heartedly expecting my arrival.

Why would you leave? You know you’ve always had my heart, I would have said but you wouldn’t have heard me – you always heard what I spoke, but never really what I was saying. I would have watched you leave anyway, like every one of my past lovers; would not have made you stay.

I would have waited until the train bells rang deafeningly – the only sound that would swim around the station, drowning all thought, engulfing every conversation. I would have waited until the wheels of the carriages started revolving slowly, until your pale face stopped gazing out of the grimy windows, until you turned away with a frustrated sigh. I would have waited for the train to pull out of the station, until you were a safe distance away – so I could trust myself not to chase after you, or let all the words and all the questions that I once held back rush forth, undammed.

But this is how it ends – both ways:
I let you leave; I do not know how to make you stay.


Ada Ngo has always dreamed of being a writer, but has chosen a greatly different path in life for practical reasons. Still, she takes the time to jot down short stories whenever inspiration knocks. Her hobbies include reading, playing the piano and daydreaming about nearly impossible situations.

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