He left me where he found me: the balcony of my mother’s apartment with the smell of adobo wafting in from the windows above, my sneakered feet dangling off the edge. His cape fluttered in the breeze and disappeared over the apartment building across the street, its jagged hem just barely missing a satellite dish.
The first headline I saw was by accident. My mother had sent me to sweep up the porch and Donny sped past on his bicycle, swinging a soggy newspaper in a perfect arc right onto the steps. We never paid for the newspaper, but Donny must have taken pity on us.
“Superhero Leaves City” it said, the subtitle too smeared by the sweat of Donny’s palm to read. I unfolded the newspaper and read the rest of the article carefully, me and the broom leaning against the door. I could hear my mother stomping around upstairs, digging through my room for things to throw away or clean or rearrange, but I couldn’t muster the usual annoyance.
When I finished reading, I rolled the paper up and tossed it onto the neighbor’s stoop.
No one liked to ask me how I was doing after he left. People pretended it had been some sort of fever dream, that my picture had never been in any papers, that journalists had never asked him to reveal my name.
My mother especially liked to pretend it had never happened. My feet were permanently stuck to the ground like hers. The day he left she found me crying in my room and asked if I’d read a sad story.
“I told you not to read books like these,” she’d said, picking up a paperback from my one of my neat stacks. What title it was I couldn’t see through the tears. “They’re too sad.”
A week after it happened, I got a job at a beauty salon that a friend of my mother’s owned. I was in charge of filling up the old bottles of nail polish, the glitter and clinging to the ends of my fingers. I’d sweep up locks of dyed red hair, highlighted curls, frizzy ends. I spent a lot of my time wondering why his hair was always so black, so unnaturally black. Maybe that was one of his powers.
“C’mon, it’ll be like in the movies,” he’d said. I stepped onto his toes and clung to his steel skin. We went only a few inches off the ground before I got too scared.
I don’t remember the last thing he said to me. I’d already begun trying to imagine my life without him. I already saw myself climbing in from the balcony, explaining to my mother why he had called so late.
“So rude,” she’d mutter under her breath when he’d knock on the second-floor window. “It’s indecent, Masha.”
“He thinks he’s special,” she’d continue. “But he’s not—oh, don’t try to argue! It’s his fault the city has so many criminals, Masha. It used to be so peaceful here.”
Whether she was talking about our apartment or the city itself would be left up to my imagination.
I would try not to care, but the words would gush out before I could pretend: “He is special. He is.” How many others had felt that way? And how many times had it been true?
His archenemy never made any attempts on my life. In retrospect, I guess, that was a sign.
I had followed the lives of the other superheroes’ girlfriends closely.
It was easy enough. Tabloid magazines were fixated on them. Who would be the first to get married? Who was using who for fame? Was that a baby bump?
I was never in any of them, but it only bothered me on nights that I couldn’t get to sleep. I’d wonder if I wasn’t pretty enough. Didn’t I have a good enough story? I should’ve been on dozens of tabloid covers.
In fact, there should’ve been a TV movie about me. I’d show it to our kids and they would laugh and ask for the real story, then he and I would fight over who got to tell it this time. We’d end up telling it in tandem, finishing each other’s sentences. And our kids would smile at one another with their little gap teeth, smiles that said: “Aren’t we lucky to have them as parents?”
“I bet you use your X-ray vision all the time. It’s disgusting, really.”
His laugh was thick and bell-like. “I bet you would, too.”
Underneath us, skyscrapers looked like gray smears. The wind whistled in my ears and stung my cheeks, but by then I was used to it.
“Probably,” I shouted over the wind.
“And if you could fly? Forget it. I’d never see you again.”
I remember smiling reflexively because he knew me so well. Underneath us, the world disappeared.
The woman who owned the beauty salon set me up on a blind date with her son. He lived in the apartment next to hers and worked as an accountant. I was determined to like him.
We ate at his uncle’s restaurant and walked around the neighborhood. He’d point out different places—that was the hospital he’d been born in. That was where he’d gone to school. That’s the stoop where he had his first kiss.
I pointed out his apartment building and told him I’d flown over it once, a long time ago. It was my first time. He stared at me for a while with his mouth open and I felt like I might be able to fly over it once more.
When we were together I had frequent dreams that I had his powers. Flight and lasers and X-ray vision. I remember jetting away from the earth, cape whipping against my legs, my eyes peeling the ground for something familiar in the blur of green and blue and gray.
But no matter how high I got, I could always see my apartment building and a speck of black I imagined was my mother on the balcony, sneaking a cigarette. I could soar past clouds, past layers of atmosphere, jets and birds and yet I would still see that little brick building and the little curl of smoke. I could fly to the sun and still hear my mother mumbling in Russian.
I told him about all of my dreams except that one.
The broadcast came out three weeks after my mother died. He’d been spotted in some far-flung country, the wave of his cape pixelated on some tourist’s phone. Reports came in frequently on the Internet: there he was over Anaheim, over San Salvador, over Windhoek.
One night after he’d been spotted nearby, I locked myself in the bathroom. I sat on the counter and balanced my cellphone on my thigh, willing myself not to do it. But eventually I started scrolling through the contacts, all nine of them, and landed on his name.
I pressed it. I called him. He had a new number.
The other day I thought I heard a cape. I rushed to the balcony and looked up, but it was only the landlady’s apron on a clothesline. I don’t know what I was expecting.
Jen Hickman is a comic artist and illustrator with a penchant for drawing luxurious hair, arguments, arguments in the rain, and small spats between minor background characters.