A heartbreaking tale of grief and love in the wake of 9/11

"Fate is hard to challenge since we never know its contenders. She reached for the airplane, breathless, and unfolded it."



Excerpt from Paper Airplanes by Tabitha Forney. Reprinted with permission from She Writes Press.


A paper airplane hung in the afternoon air and glided to a landing in front of the park bench where Erin sat reading. It was a design she recognized, angles sharp and intentional. Daniel’s paper airplanes were works of art, sleek and aerodynamic. She smiled, standing up and searching among the people walking, jogging, standing nearby, but couldn’t find him. As it sank, the sun painted streaks of gold across the Hudson. Peals of laughter rang out from a knot of children playing a few hundred yards away. It could have been child’s play, but something told her it was him.


In the years to come Erin would think back on this moment often, as we do later in life about the moments that define us. Dissecting why we make the decisions we make, choose the people we choose when, on paper, other people would do just as well. On paper, Daniel and Erin weren’t necessarily suited—a girl from Texas and a boy from the Bronx—except, of course, that paper started it all. But how can one ever identify or sort out what makes one person attracted to another? It’s chemistry or kismet or pheromones or the subtleties of facial structure, or some combination of it all. It’s genetics and upbringing, nature and nurture and timing and choices made by you and the other person and a million other people before you that lead you to that one moment when you make your decision.


She said yes.


But what if she hadn’t? What if, instead of her heart thrilling at the sight of a paper airplane flying toward her out of nowhere, she’d been scared, or hesitant, or impressed with his intrepidness but not at all ready? After all, before Daniel, she’d never imagined this moment.


Never wondered what her new last name would be, never folded up those paper fortune-tellers in middle school to divine the number of kids she’d have and all their names. Never dreamed of planning her wedding or what her dress would look like. She might have said no, or not yet, or Can I take a rain check? Or what if she’d said yes but then dreamt dreams where her subconscious brought out her fears—dreams about sitting at a table with impossibly tall stacks of invitations to address, being chased into corners, wanting to flee but feeling weighted down, limbs mired in molasses? Maybe things would have turned out differently. 


Then again, maybe they wouldn’t have. We can’t rewind. Fate is hard to challenge since we never know its contenders. She reached for the airplane, breathless, and unfolded it. Pressed out the paper’s creases. It said, in Daniel’s handwriting: I wish Erin James would marry me.


She turned circles, laughing, searching for him. “Daniel!” People in the park walked dogs and rollerbladed past. Diners atthe outdoor café across the sidewalk sat under green umbrella seating farm-fresh salads and sipping white wine. “Dan-IEL!”


He emerged from bushes behind a fence separating the sidewalk from the café. Catapulted over the fence with one arm and strode toward her. Crooked smile, five o’clock shadow, red roses in hand.


Grinning, she launched herself into him. “Yes!” she squealed. He was warm and smelled of leather and fresh air and aftershave. She could’ve melted into him forever.


“Yes?” he teased, eyes twinkling. “I haven’t asked a question yet.” He pushed her away, dropped to one knee, pulled a small blue box from the pocket of his leather jacket. People slowed down, heads turned in their direction. Earnest green eyes looked up at Erin, hands outstretched with a diamond. “Erin James, will you marry me?”


The world crawled in slow motion. Her heart was floating, buoyed by helium. She grabbed his hand with hers and nodded like a bobblehead doll. “Yes!”


He smiled and popped to his feet, leaning in. The kiss was slow and deep. Around them, people squealed and clapped, cheered and whistled. Daniel pulled Erin in close, burying her face in his neck. Peeking out from over his shoulder, she blinked through happy tears, smiling at the crowd and feeling more content than she could remember.


Above them, the contrail of a real airplane cut a hazy line across a cloudless sky.



It’s how they met. A paper airplane.


April, sophomore year. She was sitting cross-legged on a blanket under a pink magnolia planted on a slow rise. Her back was propped against the trunk and she was studying. Wearing a white sleeveless T-shirt and jeans. She’d seen him before, in Econ 101 the previous year. Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:00 a.m. He was the one who came in late and sat in the back, a ball cap hiding most of his face. She was the one on time who sat in front, glancing his way as he walked in and took his seat. There was always a moment when their eyes met, and she was always the one who blinked first. He was not like the Ken doll boys from Dallas. He seemed gritty and real, rough around the edges. Later, he told Erin she was different from the pale, soft Irish girls he knew from the Bronx. For one, she wore lipstick.


Daniel sat about thirty yards away from her, under another tree. It was the first time she’d seen him outside of Econ. She was trying to study for finals, but her eyes moved like magnets toward him. A few times he was looking at her at the same time and she turned away quickly, as if he were a hot fire. Meeting his eyes would burn.


After a while, she lay back on the blanket, pages covering her chest, and closed her eyes. She tried to fall asleep, but all she could think about was whether he was still there and how she was going to meet him. She wanted him to come over and talk to her, but she didn’t know how to make it happen. Eyes closed, she focused all her mental energy on him. Trying to communicate telepathically.


From a reclined position, she cracked an eye at him. Rummaging around in his backpack, he pulled out a piece of paper and a pen. Jotted something down. Then he pulled out a book, laid the paper on top, and began to fold it. In half, then on the sides, turning the paper this way and that. He pressed creases with his thumbnail, meticulously making each edge sharp and smooth. It took several minutes. When he was done, the paper airplane in his hand was angular and streamlined.


He dug something else out of his backpack, then glanced around as if to make sure nobody was watching. His eyes landed on her. She closed her eyes, pretending to be asleep. When she glanced at him sideways again, he was popping a lighter. He set the paper aflame and sent it sailing into the air in the same practiced motion. The aerodynamics were good. It sailed away from him, higher than she would have thought.


A gust snuffed out the fire and sent the smoking airplane even farther away, toward Erin. He dashed in pursuit of his missive, eyes wide open. The same wind whipped her organic chemistry handouts into the air.


She jumped up, stomped on them, and tucked them under her books. Took a few steps toward the boy and the paper and held out her palm. His plane was about to crash. She leaned out a little more and caught it just in time. She opened her palm to look at it, and for a moment, they both looked down at it. Then heat seared her skin and she dropped it, still smoldering. He put it out with the toe of his sneaker.


He lunged toward her to grab her hand and with it, her heart. “Are you OK?”


Her hand in his, she looked down at a small red spot on her palm. She nodded. “Fine.”


She pulled her hand back and wrapped her jacket tighter, shivering. The wind had settled, leaving behind an awkward silence.


They stared at each other. Erin looked down at the halfburned paper airplane on the ground and picked it up. “What is it?” she asked.


“It was a paper airplane.”


“I know. But why did you light it on fire?”


His face reddened, soft green eyes crinkling with embarrassment. “It was a burning wish,” he said with a shrug and a confident smile.


Erin’s heart skipped a beat as he looked into her eyes.


“Usually my burning wishes don’t go so far. I’ll admit, I was trying to get your attention. Looks like I did that and more.” He glanced down at her hand, holding the crumpled plane.


She laughed. “You could’ve just said hi.”


The airplane was singed on the sides, but the paper was still intact. She wanted to unfold it and read what he wrote. Instead, she handed the crumpled airplane back to him, lingering a moment as their hands touched.


She narrowed her eyes and smiled at him. “What does it say?” she asked.


He shook his head and smiled as he ripped apart what was left of the paper airplane, but his eyes stayed with her. “Maybe I’ll tell you one day.”


One day. As though they had a future.


Tabitha Forney writes books to appease the voices in her head. She’s a mom, attorney, and yoga devotee who lives in Houston with her three kids and a husband who was on the 85th floor of the North Tower on 9/11 and lived to tell about it. More at http://www.tabithaforney.com.