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A friend once told me about an ancient Japanese legend promising that anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish. I had been folding cranes since I was summoned to this wretched city.
The customs attendant pushed my passport across the desk, saying nothing. Looking up, he nodded for the next passenger in line to step forward. He was done with me, and I stepped out into the dull day. I was in the clear. Some of the tension eased from my shoulders. I would be fine as long as I was not caught.
The morning was grey, the sky the colour of dirty chalk. My flight from America had landed just after sunrise. I had not slept once during the hours spent above the Atlantic- another run in with insomnia to add to the slew of broken nights that plagued me.
My hands, clutching a scrap of paper, went through the well-worn motion without a thought, twisting and creating the wings, the body and the beak of the little bird. I took in a gulp of air, the gritty taste of the city filling my mouth. It tasted better than home.
Anything was better than the rancid taste of home- even this city.
But just like home, there were always two sides to everything- two sides to a person and two sides to Paris. Taking the metro from the airport, the change was mapped out before me. Upon entering the Chateau d'Eau, I left behind the world of towering apartment blocks and glossy people in shiny SUVs. Here, rubbish littered every corner, grubby café owners and un-shaven merchants perched on the side of the road, their vegetable wares turning rotten in heat of the day.
I was ignored.
It did not take long to navigate my way through the city, the streets a labyrinth of familiarity. At street level, my family’s old haunt seemed dead. The faceless café, all florescent tubes, stained linoleum and yellowing walls that seemed to have aged with their owner, was empty. I glanced around the room, searching for the man who had stood sentry behind the bar for so many decades.
“Adnan?” A croak rose from the shadows.
I could smell my uncle from here. Sweat and tobacco, a pungent, nauseating scent. The longing to turn, to run, from this disgusting shell of a man was overwhelming- to turn, spread my wings and fly away.
Without a word, I marched straight into the bathroom, a shameful flush staining my skin. When I returned, I thrust a sealed bag of powder into his paw. He gave me nothing- no payment, no reward. After all, this was the family business and I should be proud to help. It was my duty- or else.
With a fresh wave of disgust, I turned for the door.
I did not turn around.
“Send my regards to your mother.”
Snatching a piece of paper from the bar till, as if my habit was a nervous tick, I left the room, my hands lost in the rhythm of origami. I stormed out, because if I let myself walk slowly, I would stumble, crack my knees against the asphalt, and never get back up.
I wished for freedom, for choice, for hope.
But all I had were a thousand paper cranes, which could never spread their wings and fly.