Made of Folded Paper by Kai Wolden
General Release Date: 10th May 2022
Word Count: 35,645
Book Length: SHORT NOVEL
College friendships are supposed to last a lifetime… But this is a little more complicated…
Will, a daydreamer and romantic from small-town Iowa, starts his first year at Weston Academy of the Arts, where his peers nickname him “Iowa.” Iowa becomes acquainted with a charismatic thespian named LA, who introduces him to his two best friends—Cynic, a suave and sardonic musician, and Charlie, a reserved and enigmatic writer.
Over time, Iowa becomes increasingly fascinated with his three new friends in different ways, forming a brotherly bond with LA and a more complex connection with Cynic. Only Charlie remains distant, capturing Iowa’s intrigue most of all.
When Iowa catches a glimpse of an alarming scar on Charlie’s chest, he becomes obsessively concerned about him. He begins to view Charlie as a fragile, tragic figure—but when he finally breaks through Charlie’s barriers, he discovers that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
As Iowa is overcome by intensifying feelings for Charlie, the group dynamic grows tense. It turns out Charlie and Cynic have a history, and seeing Charlie and Iowa together just might be enough to drive Cynic off the rails…
As graduation approaches, the four friends’ relationships are tested by jealousy, heartbreak and tragedy. Will love be enough to hold them together in the end?
Reader advisory: This book includes the death of a character in a drunk-driving incident. There are mentions of substance abuse, self-harm and depression, as well as mentions of suicide, homophobia, and transphobia.
I’m not sure when I first started fictionalizing my life, casting everyone around me in glamorous roles, romanticizing their flaws and my own. Maybe it was in middle school, when life was hell and it made things so much easier to imagine that the mean kids had secret, tortured home lives—neglectful parents, dead siblings, empty cupboards, holes in the roof that let in the rain. Maybe it was in high school, when I skipped class and hid in the back of the library with a stack of books, listening to the other truants who slipped between the shelves for more sensational reasons, contriving storylines for their hurried love affairs, illicit exchanges and muffled heartbroken sobs. Maybe it was after high school, those nights working at the general store, where drunks shuffled in to buy cigarettes and pornography, where my boss told me not to accept checks from Black people, where one year off to save money for college turned into another and another while at home my father slowly died from lung cancer. Regardless, at some point along the way, I developed a fascination that bordered on fetishism for tragedy.
I had always planned to go to college. There was never a time in those five years that I resigned myself, even for a moment, to a lifetime of working at the general store or the mill where my father had grudgingly labored for most of his life. I made excuses for putting it off year after year—money, my father’s health, my mother’s well-being after he died. She didn’t need me, but I pretended she did, pretended she needed someone to clean the leaves out of the gutters and fix the leaky pipes at the very least. I put into that drafty old clapboard house all the love I was never able to give to my father and all the love I wished I could give to my mother that she wouldn’t accept. When she told me she was selling the house and buying a condo in Des Moines, it was like she was telling me she was giving me up for adoption. I was twenty-three, but I curled up in the corner of my closet and cried like I was six. Then I crawled out, grabbed the laptop that I’d scrimped and saved for and lay on the threadbare carpet all night, researching colleges.
I made the economical choice—I would take general classes at a community college, a respected one as far as community colleges went, that was only an hour’s drive from Des Moines. I still wasn’t ready to completely sever those arterial ties with my mother that she’d clipped as easily as an umbilical cord. After two years, I would transfer to a four-year university to complete my bachelor’s degree, though I wasn’t sure yet where I would go or what I would study. I’d only ever loved one thing—books—but there was no money in an English degree, and I needed to make money if I ever wanted to escape Iowa for good. For those two years, in which I worked odd jobs and rented an elderly couple’s basement for almost nothing, provided I helped out around the house, I tried to muster an interest in something else—accounting, real estate, law, anything lucrative and sensible.
But in the end, when I confessed to my guidance counselor that I’d failed, she said impatiently, “Hey, at least you love something. You know how many people live their whole lives and never find anything they love? Do what you love.” So I started applying to English programs.
I had it in mind that I wanted to go to the East Coast—Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire or New York. I wanted to get out of the Midwest anyway, and there was something so gloomy and romantic about the East Coast in my mind (I’d never actually been there). But when I added up tuition and living expenses, I just couldn’t make it work, no matter how many financial aid packets and possible scholarships I factored in. I wasn’t a particularly impressive student on paper, though I had done well on my ACTs and written a masterful personal statement on the topic of my father’s agonizing demise. I ended up applying to eight universities across the United States, chosen for the prestige of their English programs, affordability and admittedly the aesthetic of their websites. I got three letters of acceptance, and when I laid them out on the flimsy card table in my rented basement room, it was the one with the thickest paper, the blackest ink and the most elegant sigil at the top—which contained an open book, a pen, a paintbrush and a violin—that drew my eye because I’d never seen anything so beautiful with my name on it. That was how I ended up in Michigan.
I was a bit embarrassed to be starting college at twenty-five—and I did think of it as starting because, compared to Weston Academy of the Arts, my quaint little community college was less than nothing. During the long drive east, then north in my beat-up Toyota with everything I owned rattling around the back seat, I did something I hadn’t done in a while—made up a backstory for myself. My father’s death I would keep, but it would be a boating accident rather than cancer—much more dramatic and devastating. My mother’s estrangement I would also keep, but I would lose her to grief and a pill addiction instead of apathy and a condo in Des Moines. Iowa I would abandon entirely in favor of something a bit superior—Minnesota or Illinois, perhaps—nowhere that would require an accent or change to my mannerisms. I wouldn’t lie about my age, but I would explain it away—a gap year that got out of hand, a spree of reckless behavior after my father’s death, a soul-searching quest across South America, a whirlwind affair with a Columbian woman (I’d taken Spanish in community college). By the time I arrived, I knew my story so well it was almost as if I’d actually lived it. But I never told it to anyone.
It turned out I’d misjudged the student population of Weston. I’d thought they would be wistful romantics like me, and they were. But the people who attended Weston were people who could have gone anywhere, but chose to slum it in Michigan because they romanticized the Midwest, small-town America and working-class, salt-of-the-earth folk like me. There was no better role I could have played than William Paine from Iowa. People called me “Iowa,” and soon enough, I dropped my name and embraced the character. I began to exaggerate certain parts of myself, the parts I could tell my peers most appreciated—my ignorance and inexperience (I didn’t know what Uber was, I’d never tried sushi, I’d never been to Europe), my wealth of practical knowledge (how to change a tire, how to sew on a button, how to fix a wobbly table), my poverty (my old flannel shirts and scuffed work boots, my battered Toyota with its cracked windshield, my job at the campus bookstore where I hauled boxes of textbooks and mopped muddy footprints from the floor).
I played the boy next door, blond and broad-shouldered, wholesome and hard-working, bursting with Midwestern hospitality. I exuded images of green and gold cornfields, boundless blue skies, blood-red sunsets, black storm clouds and ruinous tornados. I manifested the American Gothic—William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Sherwood Anderson, Stephen Crane. I became a warped and grotesque caricature of myself, composed entirely of the qualities I had been most ashamed of and most wanted to leave behind when I started my new life. But my peers reveled in it, and I enjoyed the unfamiliar novelty of being popular, even if it was for all the wrong reasons.
About the Author
Kai Wolden writes fantasy, sci fi, and contemporary fiction starring queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming characters. Whether it takes place in outer space, a fantasy world, or a modern-day college campus, Kai loves honest, heart-wrenching stories about queer love in all its forms: friendship, romance, found family, and those ambiguous relationships that are somewhere in-between. Growing up queer and trans in small-town Wisconsin, Kai always wished he could find fictional characters who were more like him. Now he’s populating the world with them, one book at a time!
Check out Kai’s website here.
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