Back to Issue Forty-Two

Stumbling on Infinity


One day my teenage body turned into koi paper, so I folded myself into makeshift objects of enchantment. I creased the patterned kami of my flattened limbs. I reinvented new morphologies in every pleat, cultivating a love affair with the changing shapes of my crinkled identity. I learned that origami was kinetic sorcery: part dream sequence, part zoomancy, and part totem. I learned that my teenage paper heart could be a pixilation of desire. I learned that love could transform me into musical slurs. I learned that origami could be the erotics of metamorphosis, and so I did what any literature student, linguaphile, and emerging writer would do, I studied the language of creation, vowing to become a metaphor of the metaphor in every movement my body made until my flesh and my spirit occupied the same oath. I learned that folding paper was an act of divination, so I prayed to the kami, I asked for paper cranes to intercede and rescue me from isolation, not knowing that one day I would wash my face in Baskerville font and memorize all the creation myths about my changing form, not knowing that one day I would devote myself to the storytelling of the crane and the ontology of the crease. I learned through origami that this life wasn’t mine until the first fold. Since koi paper was sometimes gold-speckled or reinforced with silver foil and sometimes torn and ripped apart, origami became a book of magic spells about self-creation and reinvention that I recited after every Robert-Smith-black eye, after every clipped migration to the sun, and after every disintegrating kiss in the fickle shade. Origami was my salve of crushed myrtle and lavender oil to heal the inflammation of loneliness and sabotage the shovel digging of grief. Origami became an artform of profound longing straight boys were not supposed to feel because we did not fall in love, we must never fall in love, we must never be defined by our vulnerability to others, and our tears must only be the flares of Jericho, the poison-tipped bolts of outrage, never confessions of a fat ugly heart, never confessions of devotion and self-overcoming and infatuation and solicitude. In time, origami became my garbage can shield to protect myself from the ricochet of fire arrows shot in the cold brutality of the night. Origami became the graphic design of my own survival, my first and only solution to the disruption of the staggering flame and the enlightenment of the scar-tissue soul.

My life is a ledger of paper cuts and ripped origami squares: in 8th grade, my mom moved into a motel with a complete stranger. In 9th grade, she trekked 2,400 miles across the
country from Northern Michigan to Southern California to inhale the ocean brine in the air and graze in the sparkly dander of sunlight on her pale hapa skin. And so, I learned that origami was not just a functional metaphor of my bony adolescence, but also a torn-and-taped road atlas for my itinerant hapa family, shapeshifters of the plane and mixed-race drivers of the mid-city, all of us. When my mom disappeared from our timeline, we abandoned Northern Michigan one by one like a decimated confederacy, all of us migrating to Portland, Seattle, LA, Denver, Chicago, Indianapolis, South Bend, Buenos Aires, the Gambia, and Burkina Faso where we stumbled into abandoned dreamworlds colonized by other dreamers as if our heliotropic existence had been blotted out by the fallout of our nuclear imaginations. I was no different. I was no outlier. During every crisis and migration, I refolded old koi paper, I rewrote apocryphal psalms of the self at the bottom of every dark cellar I fell down. I turned myself into a fairytale of palette knives and bleeding narratologies. I became a Shinto fever-dream of the Nisei body, making new creatures come alive in my hands like a St. Francis cartoon. I ignited phoenixes with the sparks of my brokenness. I drifted to new cities that sold different colors of koi paper and offered different rules of personal transformation. I joined cooperatives of loss everywhere I went. I joined search and rescue teams to measure the depth of my own voids. I practiced folding and pleating new destinies from warped astrology charts and wrinkled kami. This is how the West Coast, with its historical amnesia, three-hour-time-zone-distortion, and culture of self-creation became my workshop of dream language, the Japanese studio of my origami training, and the birthplace of my defiant obsession with love, which is the music of our bodies.

One Christmas day at San Elijo beach, the sun was a soft and lyrical whisper on my pores. Surfers bobbed in the ocean far away at the smudged horizon line, their black wetsuits flapping with every Japanese woodblock wave. Families hurled fluorescent frisbees down the beach. Old dudes with beach-ball stomachs and Santa beards sprawled out in frayed lawn chairs. Incestuous teenagers sunbathed on clashing bright towels. A golden retriever darted through the mechanical claws of the ocean to retrieve a blue rubber ball as I wandered through the counterpoint of shadow play like a detective searching for clues of happiness underneath octopoid vines of kelp and splintered chunks of calcified driftwood as the frothing waves dragged civilization back into the great blue void, nudged my ankles like lonely Tabbies, and glided over the sand like a shimmering verb. I squatted over tiny underwater volcanoes and miniature rock pools at the elevated tide pools that had been hollowed out, rendered osteoporotic by time and tedium. I witnessed a whole subdivision of miniature canyons and thumb-poked craters, most of them tucked inside sheets of porous rock, filled with lukewarm salt-water, misplaced algae, kidnapped stones, and dismembered starfish. The tide pool was a pelagic junkyard of predictable mystery, a chapel of protective devotion, and a sanctuary city under the tissue-paper sea where I tempted fate, jabbing my finger into one of the tiny submerged volcanoes as a sea anemone puckered up, releasing a cloud of sand and stone fragments as waves unrolled up the shoreline, crashing against the elevated tide pool and spraying my thin legs. The design of my koi body changed with every wave as the sun stalled in neutral on the shoreline, lingering in the procession of aquarelle waves and Vaseline sunlight, dragging the cultural flotsam of blond surfers, white families, Latino barbecues, and teenage lovers back into its vast canyon of restless gold linework while origami cranes (tacked to the skyline like a middle school art project) dangled their graceful beaks over the beach. This place of idle worship, where strangers transformed themselves into experimental fables of the self, where my hands could conjure paper dragons with a few seconds of distracted prayer, where no one knew the basic difference between craft, accident, and birthright, had wiped our memory clean for the day.

As we walked to my mom’s car, the horizon like a gradient blue mosaic encrusted in the simple syrup of the punctured sun, I put my arm around my mom and kissed her face that had aged from the spectral hunger of the desert, the dotted signature lines of smoke breaks, and the replicating vows of happy hour. As we talked, we squinted. Our pilgrimage to the West Coast had brought us to a small surfing town in Southern California where cactuses bloomed on crowded roads and orphaned bulbs of kelp and algae popped underneath our heels on the shore. My mom’s rebellion against the world meant divorcing my dad but also tearing up our family, which in its structural violence, accidentally gave all of us permission to leave the Midwest. This is how I recoded myself in the strange and complicated colors of koi paper again and again. While Northern Michigan was once a space I’d known intimately, a space I’d demonized and later longed for when I’d floated to the Pacific Northwest, Northern Michigan was still the site of trauma where my mixed-race identity had been torn apart, refolded, and stapled back together much like this memoir, where my life was always throbbing, half unzipped for the shoegaze daydream that only happens out west, where my mom had dragged me in this tipsy parabola of
desperation, heartache, and amnesia against my will, where I somehow learned to crease myself into a tiny paper crane on this beach in high school after I’d lost my virginity to a girl in my English class who used to argue with me about The Sound & The Fury. This state of reimagining, this cradle of azure myopia, this love song of lethal shard and gold sparkle, this place as idea and invention was where I learned to fold myself into a paper frog, a hanging star, and three-bit dinosaur in grad school, where I smothered my garish colors and wrinkled edges and paper tears in obsessive Scotch tape after every mistake, where eight-bit castles floated in the sky, where every tossed daydream dangled from the rafters of heaven with sky blue string, and where backwards lyrics were pinned to cork boards and dropped from window sills in celebration. It was here that my flaws became my premises of discovery. It was here that I time-traveled thorough the intersecting maze of imagination, reality blur, and self-creation in California. My smooth and unblemished fingers stumbled into infinity here, where they learned to create schools of thin and wobbly starlings with my papercut, artist-soft hands, both absolved by clumsiness and forgiven by longing. I learned to fold, unfold, and refold reincarnation into new creatures of fragmentation here. I reimagined every life decision as a choice here. I crafted my own hapa voice from the grocery lists of my mistakes, communities, and racial illegibilities here. I learned to fight for my own metaphoricity as an imagined creature of the besotten universe and redefine origami as a spiritual exercise of my own impossible transformation here. I learned that only I could write the story of my paper metamorphosis here, only I could give bone marrow to this memoir here, only I could nourish this feral garden with my silk-soft hands here, because without the book you’re reading right now, the ravenous joy and the mutable heartache of this world would be just tremors in my life, just tiny, burning tremors in the blown-out veins of the earth that I was once too shy to run away from and once too afraid to abandon. But with this memoir, I’m in love until the end.

Jackson Bliss is the winner of the 2020 Noemi Book Award in Prose and the mixed-race/hapa author of Counterfactual Love Stories & Other Experiments (Noemi Press, 2021), Amnesia of June Bugs (7.13 Books, 2022), Dream Pop Origami (Unsolicited Press, 2022), and the speculative hypertext, Dukkha, My Love (2017). His short stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Ploughshares, Guernica, Antioch Review, ZYZZYVA, Longreads, TriQuarterly, Columbia Journal, Kenyon Review, The Offing, Hobart, Witness, Fiction, Santa Monica Review, Boston Review, Juked, Quarterly West, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Arts & Letters, Joyland, Huffington Post UK, and Multiethnic Literature in the US, among others. He lives in LA with his wife and their two fashionably dressed dogs.

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