images by Cathy Kwan (@completelycathy)

Paper Planes

Apr 10, 2016 · 11 min read

It all started with a simple, whimsical idea.

Paper planes, and high places.

“Adam, are you doing anything this afternoon?”

“Well, I’m at the office right now,” he said.

“Do you still work at that big building in Akasaka?”

“Uh, yeah. Why?”

“You think we could get to the roof? Sneak out for an hour?”

He considered it.

“Yes,” he said. “I think we could do that.”

I bought some A4 paper from a local stationery shop. A calming emerald green. Just beautiful. I hefted it to Adam’s office building in Akasaka.

He met me at reception.

“Delivery,” he said.

The receptionist nodded, and gave me a visitor’s pass. We jumped in an elevator.

I looked out at the buildings and the traffic.

“You think there’s a girl out there for me?” I asked.

“Out where?”

“You know, out there.”

I took my time. Folding. Creasing. Getting it just right.

“Maybe. Probably. Statistically? Definitely.”


Adam let a plane go. Watched it a moment. Smiled.

“Man, this feels good,” he said. “We should do this more often.”

So we did.

We wandered the city. Listed potential spots. Drew maps.

We wore suits at some places. Looked like deliverymen at others. Turns out if you look like you’re supposed to be there, and ask for Suzuki — there’s always one — reception will usually let you straight up.

We threw planes from office buildings. Apartment blocks. Old factories. University libraries. Each offered something unique to its location.

Most of the big buildings — the dream spots — we couldn’t get into. Mori Tower, Toranomon Hills, the Metropolitan Government Building. Tokyo Tower. Security was tight. It seemed impossible.

We still tried.

Some days we set off fire alarms.

“I mean, you would think there is someone out there, right? For me, I mean.”

“Statistically, yes.”

Adam watched another plane fly from his hand. Nodded.

“You and those statistics.”

“Well, it helps put things in perspective, you know? It’s how I make sense of the world.”

“What are you writing?”

The paper said, ‘Let’s be lonely, together’.

And underneath that, a phone number.

“Wait,” I said. “Is that my phone number?”

“It’s an experiment.”


“Like, a statistics experiment.”

He folded the paper, and threw the plane. We watched it float, and dive, and spin through the air.

“That’s thirty,” he said. “So I guess now we just see what happens.”

I groaned. Adam laughed.

And then we went home.

At first there was nothing.

Then one day, a phone call.

It was a salaryman. Kohei. He said the paper was stuck in his bicycle. He liked the color of it. So calming.

He said he didn’t know why he called.

“Let’s talk,” I said.

Kohei talked about his life. About working for a small game development company, playing pachinko, reading shojo manga. He said he missed his wife and kids. Said they were long gone, now. Weren’t coming back.

I asked how old they were. What he thought they might be doing. What it was like having kids. I asked about his favorite characters in his favorite manga. Where the appeal was in pachinko. How to play.

He talked, and he talked, and eventually, he stopped.

He said he felt much better.

Funnily enough, so did I.

“So yesterday I went to Glitch, finally,” I said. “You were right. The coffee is good. Excellent.”

“Yeah, wait. What’s with the paper?”

“What do you mean?”

I took a piece, folded it, and stared at the city before me. Where to throw first?

“I mean, what’s with the times? ‘Unavailable from 8:00 to 13:00?’”

I’d scribbled it underneath my phone number.

“Well, I have to work, you know? If I can’t work, I can’t eat. I need some space between the phone calls to actually get work done, yeah?”

I waited for it. That point where the wind felt just right. A little lift, a little push. I let the paper plane go, and watched it twist and turn above the buildings. How lazy. How free. The first one was always my favorite.

“Wait,” Adam said. “You mean people are actually calling you?”

All sorts of people called.

Stressed office workers, students on break, bored housewives, part-timers in search of dreams — they were all of them lonely, and we shared that. Gave it warmth. Made it ours. They spoke, and I listened. An unspoken agreement. Comfortable. Calming.

Some six or seven people called in the afternoon. In the evening, four or five. After that, I turned the phone off.

And then I met Yuki.

“I found your flyer,” she said.

“Thanks for calling.”

“I like the color. So calming.”

“It’s wonderful, isn’t it?”

“I’m Yuki.”

“Hello Yuki.”

“Can we talk?”

“We can.”

“Does it take long?”

“Uh, sometimes? It depends on the person.”

“So what do we talk about?”

“Well, whatever you want, really. What do you feel like talking about, Yuki?”

Yuki was the first person to do something no-one else had.

She was the first to ask me about me.

“The police called?”

I nodded.

“Yeah, they wanted to know about the papers,” I said.

“What did you say?”

“I said I didn’t know. I said it was the first I’d heard about it.”

“Did they believe you?”

“No. They said if it was me, I should at least make the paper biodegradable. It wouldn’t be a clean-up issue that way.”

“And you said?”

“I said as soon as I could source good quality biodegradable paper, that flew well and looked nice, I’d do it.”

Adam laughed.


I smiled. Shrugged. We threw another two planes from the roof.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “That officer sometimes calls on Thursday nights when work slows down. Tetsu is his name. Good guy. Diligent, kind. He was just offering advice.”

Yuki called once a week. Every Tuesday, 19:30. She asked about my day, my writing, my calls. I shared funny stories from work, and ideas I had floating around in my head.

I could hear her smile through the phone. Repressed excitement in her voice. She chased my ideas like a puppy with a tennis ball — unsure exactly what to do with them, but enraptured all the same.

And little by little, she opened up. She had a pet cat, Mr. Mittens. Lived in a tiny apartment along the Inokashira Line. Worked a boring customer service job. Liked to draw. Loved it. Sketched a picture a day. Mostly of people. Sometimes Mr. Mittens. Sometimes a landscape.

I asked her to show me some. She said she couldn’t. Had never. Could never. I said she should. I said please.

No no no, she said, giggling.

It was something like flirting.

And in the flirting and the talking, was something like friendship. Something like romance.

Perhaps something like love.

Adam looked up from his half-folded plane.

“A TV station called? Seriously?”

“Yeah, a morning program,” I said. “I forget the name. They wanted an interview. I said we could talk on the phone, but they wanted in-person.”

“You won’t do in-person?”

I shook my head.

“I think it would spoil what I have with the people I talk to.”

I had this idea that on the phone, I was malleable. Without shape. Each caller imagined me a particular way — a way that made them comfortable. To see me in person, I thought, would cause a clash of reality and imagination.

In that clash, reality always wins. I didn’t want it to.

“But TV, man,” Adam said.

“Yeah, I know.”

“You don’t ever want to meet them? The people you talk to?”

“I don’t know that they ever want to meet me, if I’m honest. I’m quite happy with things as they are. There’s a simple status quo, and I don’t feel lonely.”

“Fair enough.”

We threw some more planes. Made jokes about Bob Ross. Impersonations as they pertained to plane throwing. Laughed. We talked video games and design, and I thought about the loneliness I felt. The way it was changing over time.

A gradual slide, like blue to green, from loneliness to longing.

And I wondered which I preferred.

“They asked you on TV?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Can you believe it?”

There was a moment of silence. Deep thoughts swam in it.

“Yes,” Yuki said simply.

I laughed.

“What? You seem like a nice guy. Maybe people want to know you.”

“I listen to people talk. If it helps, great. I’m happy. But I don’t need to go on TV. If I do, or if I meet people, I’ll spoil the illusion.”

“There’s an illusion?”

“Well, no. Probably not. It’s just me.”

“You’re the illusion?”

“No, I’m the spoiler.”

She laughed.

“You won’t meet anyone?” she asked.

“Not if I can help it.”


“Well, never say never, right?”

“Would you ever meet me?”

I paused for a moment.

“I… would that be okay?”

“Is it okay with you?”

“It’s okay with me if it’s okay with you.”

“It’s okay with me.”

“And me, too.”

We shared the silence. A space that felt like it was closing in.

“Should we just…should we meet, then?” she asked.

Teenagers, all over again.

“Would you… would you bring one of your pictures?”

I sat at the cafe. Waited.

I waited for an hour. Then two.

I waited a long time.

Inside, couples, families, and friends sat and talked. The air buzzed with conversation. Laughter. Joy. Staff members prepared coffee. Poured it with a smile.

Outside, traffic rolled by. Cars. Motorbikes. Scooters.


Any one of them could have been her. Any one of them could have been Yuki.

But none of them was.

I didn’t hear from her that week.

Life went on. The world kept spinning.

People called, and we talked, and there was a feeling like relief and fleeting joy.

Yuki didn’t call the next week, either. Or the next.

It was something like a gradual slide, like green to blue, from longing back to loneliness.

I didn’t need to wonder which one I preferred.

I knew.

“So you’re plane throwing without me now?”


Adam passed over a piece of paper.

“This,” he said. “Is this you?”

It was a cat. A pencil sketch of a tabby, sitting on the edge of a desk. Pens sprawled across its surface. Sunlight streaming in from an open window.

The paper was creased. I knew those folds.

It was a plane, once.

“This isn’t me,” I said.

“Yeah, I thought so. I didn’t think you could draw.”

I nodded.

“Guess you’ve got yourself a copycat,” Adam said.

“I guess so.”

I stared at that cat for a long time. Listened to Adam whistle while he worked.

“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Mittens,” I said.


I shook my head.

“It’s nothing,” I said. “Where did you find this, anyway?”

The next day I walked from Shibuya Station, towards Roppongi. I dropped in and out of back streets, picking up paper planes. Unfolding them, staring at the pictures, and putting them in my bag.

Each of them contained a sketch — a landscape, a cat, a girl staring out the window, a boy drinking a coffee.

I took them home, and I put them in a folder.

And I stared at those pictures for a long time.

Each Wednesday I found a new picture or two somewhere in Aoyama.

I had enough to categorize my folders.

Cats. People. Nature. Birds.

And finally, a cityscape as drawn from upon high.

I knew those buildings. Knew that space. Knew that sky.

It was one of the dream spots. It was in Shibuya.

“I need to get to the top of the Mixi building,” I said.

“We tried that already. They kicked us out, remember?”

“Yeah, but I have a hunch about something.”

“A hunch about what?”

“I can’t say.”

“You can’t say.”

I shook my head.

“I can’t say.”

I felt like she wanted me to find her.

I just couldn’t say it.

“Alright,” Adam said. He sighed. Nodded. “I’ll order a package delivery to an upper floor. It won’t be their’s so they’ll need someone to pick it up and return it. That’s your way in. You’ll have to look the part, and you won’t have much time, but that’s probably the best I can do.”

“It has to be Tuesday,” I said.

“What? Why?”

I stared at him. Shook my head.

“Okay, okay,” he said. “I get it. You can’t say.”

We watched the skyline a moment longer.

“Thanks,” I said.

On Tuesday night, reception was empty.

I looked around the empty foyer of the Mixi building. Outside at the traffic passing by in the night. Shrugged.

I took the escalator to the second floor, and an elevator to the roof.

“How did you get up here?” Yuki asked.

I shrugged.

“It’s odd,” I said. “There’s uh… there’s no-one at the reception desk. You?”

She smiled. Blushed.

“I’m the receptionist.”

We stood there for a moment. She with a piece of paper in hand, me with my hands in my pockets.

She looked like her voice — delicate, beautiful, and wrapped in timidity.

“Your art,” I said, “I really like it.”

“You always said I should share it.”

“I’m glad you have.”

She blushed again.

“Bit cheeky, isn’t it?”

I smiled. “I think it’s a great idea. But one thing, if I may?”


“Will you let me teach you how to fold a sturdy paper plane?”

We threw planes in silence for a time. Watched them twirl, dance, dive and float.

“This is nice,” she said.

“It is,” I said. “It is.”

“I… I didn’t think it would be.”

“What did you think it would be?”

“I don’t know. Something different. Something… bad.” She paused. “Something disappointing.”


“Look,” she said, “I’m… I’m sorry I never called.”

“You don’t have to be sorry,” I said. “It was never something to be sorry for.”


I shook my head.

“Let’s just throw some paper planes, yeah?”

“Will you keep doing it?”


“Answering calls,” Yuki said, “talking to strangers about their lives.”

I thought about it. Looked down at the plane I was folding.

“I figure as long as people keep calling, I’ll keep listening,” I said. “It’s just… I don’t know. I feel like in this city, we’re all porcupines that can’t hug because we’re too scared of hurting each other. These calls are like long distance hugs, I think. There’s space, but there’s warmth. It’s a unique kind of connection. A link between lost souls.”

“Long distance hugs,” she said. “I like that.”

We stood in silence. Listened to the wind through the air, and the traffic below. Life as it crept around corners.

“I’m a porcupine, too,” she said finally.


“Even long distance hugs are hard for me.”

I nodded.

“And that’s okay, too.”

And a gentle lightness in the air. Serenity.

A smile.

“Thank you.”

Yuki watched a plane float through the sky. Looked at her watch.

“Can we do this some more?” she asked. “Can we do this for a bit longer?”

“As long as you like,” I said.

It was a relationship like a paper plane in flight.

Lost and aimless, rambling and free. We didn’t know where it might go, or where it might land — we were happy just to see it float, and fly, and ride on the wind.

We were making a different kind of hug altogether.

One for just the two of us.

— -


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Thanks for reading! — Hengtee


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Fragments of the everyday in Tokyo, as written by Hengtee Lim.