by Cat Rambo
Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Tor.com. Her short story, “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain,” from her story collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. For more about her, as well as links to her fiction and information about her popular online writing classes, see kittywumpus.net.
***Editor's Note: Adult language and situations***
This is a story about superheroes. And Love and Art.
Maybe vice versa.
To complicate things, one of the main characters is named Art. I also play a part in the story, but I'm not Art. Call me Henry. That'll do.
You're wondering: superheroes? Yes. Art was one. Genetically created by evil super-scientist Mondomania. And married to a second superhero, the living embodiment of Gaia. We all called her Maggie.
Both original founders of the Justice Avengers.
I was there, too. I'm not a superhero. But I write books about them. You name the cowl and I've probably peered beneath it in my time.
Art was not just a superhero. He was superhuman. Talented at everything and I do mean everything: you name the sport, the hobby, the musical instrument, the poetic form, and he'd been there, done that.
He liked me for the two things I was talented at: writing and women. We were friends; we hung together. Less so after he got married.
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His talent extended to his own writing--up to a point. Sentences clean and graceful as a ballet dancer, not a single misplaced nuance. Pacing that moved you along from scene to scene, delivering enough precise, evocative, sensory detail to hook into your brain and run whatever story he was telling on your firmware, delivering you to a well-crafted but not entirely satisfying ending.
Glossy writing. That was the best way to describe it. So perfect, so polished that it felt lifeless as stone. Something you swallowed that gave you an uneasy lump in the pit of your stomach.
The public loved him; the critics did not. That was part of our friendship; he was always trying to figure out what it was about my unpolished words that somehow rasped against their sweet spots in just the right way. I enjoyed how much it irritated him, to tell the truth.
The women, too. He couldn't understand why they liked me. He envied me, liked to hear me talk about them. It's a new, permissive age--not your father's century anymore--and I take advantage of it, spread a little human joy and comfort where I can. I like women. And they like me.
Art thought me shallow because of it.
"A new one every week or two," he said as we stood in line at a tiny counter-culture coffee shop. "Do you ever feel as though you make an actual, deep emotional connection with them?"
I eyed him. Everyone else in line was trying to be discreet, trying not to notice the superhero standing there spandex-clad among them, but the smart phones were out and snapping pictures already.
"I make the kind of connection that both they and I are looking for," I said. "If they are looking for a deep emotional connection, by which I presume you mean a permanent relationship of the sort doomed to failure, I make it crystal clear I'm not in the market for or offering such a thing."
"It's what they're after, though," Art said. He took his cup to a table and used an irritable finger to break the heart-shaped pattern of foam riding the surface of his latte. After a minute, he said, "Can you blame them?"
"Blame them for buying into a false image?"
He scoffed. Sunlight silhouetted him, the perfect aquiline profile. Outside the glass window a crowd was accumulating, peering in at him. "What's false about an image of love?"
"A false image that somewhere out there is a soul mate, someone you will magically click into place with and then live happily ever after in a fairy castle." I licked red jelly from the fork I'd used to dissect my pastry. "Relationships are work, lots of work. I've got plenty in my life without the additional labor."
Something haunted his face. "I have good news," he said, as somberly as though delivering a death sentence. "Maggie's expecting."
The thought made me smile. "Congratulations!"
His hand waved in a dismissive gesture. "Anyway, we've got three newbies coming in at the end of the week to try out with the group. You should document it for the Project."
I'd been documenting the Justice Avengers for a decade and a half, a work that combined all the writing I'd done for the individual members--a sprawling mess we called The Project. "Anyone I should know?"
Someone tapped on the glass, trying to take a picture of him.
"I've spoken with them online only, not in person," he said. He paused. The silence stretched out weirdly, got baggy and wrinkled, as though unspoken words were hiding in it.
Which they were, though I didn't know it at the time.
I give everyone I write about a code name. Not that I'm worried that anyone is reading over my shoulder, but because it distances me from the subject. So with the three new potential members, El Lobo Obscuro became Ears, because they were set oddly in his costume, all too obviously homemade. Drunkbear was DB, for obvious reasons.
And I called Daisy the Girl from Drama, Texas. Not that it was accurate--the town's name was something smaller and humbler. But her superhero nick was Drama Queen, after all, she had a defiant, almost exaggerated drawl, and there was something about her pointed face that made me think girl, not woman. A face that had never grown up completely. A mean girl face, with all the oblivious narcissism and self-entitlement that gets puffed into them right around the time their tits start filling out.
Yeah, you can probably tell I knew and hated a few in high school. I wasn't a cool kid. I didn't hang around with superheroes or have prestigious writing prizes on my wall.
They wouldn't have given me the time of day then. Nowadays, the mean girls come around like the rest of them, but there's plenty of sweet women in the world without having to resort to grapes long soured on the shelf.
It took me weeks to realize Art was fucking Daisy.
That was embarrassing. I'm a writer, after all. I'm supposed to be attuned to fine nuance, to sniffing out details that other people might not notice. Supposed to be able to put clues together.
Maybe I just didn't want to believe it. I was cynical about relationships and I liked the existence of something proving me wrong. Now that was gone and I was right, after all.
That wasn't how Art saw it.
"We're soul mates," he told me when I confronted him.
"Bullshit," I said. "Six months ago Maggie was your soul mate. And she's pregnant. What sort of shit fucks around on his pregnant wife?"
His voice lowered. "You don't know what she's like at home. Sometimes she's verbally abusive. She threw things at me when she found out about Daisy."
"I don't know that I really blame her."
"She threw a coffee cup at me."
"She's physically capable of throwing a three-ton trailer truck. You should count your blessings."
He shook his head. "Sure, the timing is regrettable."
"No, the timing of it all, the way it happened. But Daisy's my soul mate. I knew it when we first started talking online. I could tell. And then the first time we kissed...." He paused, savoring the memory. "Magical," he breathed out, as softly as a Disney princess, his expression sappy, sticky sweet.
"You have responsibilities. At least sever things with Maggie in a way that doesn't add insult to injury. Can't you spare your future kid a year to get to know him before you plop an outsider into the mix?"
"He could be a her. We haven't let the doctor tell us. Anyway, there's no point in waiting for the baby."
I stared at him. Sometimes words come out of someone's mouth and you realize you never knew them. "Really? You're going to do this to the woman you swore to cherish and defend? You're not even going to give her that?"
"I thought you'd understand." His eyes were painfully moist. "I thought if anyone would understand, it would be you."
Art was the only one surprised when the group asked him to leave, once it all came out. I'm not sure why. He wouldn't be in the same room as Gaia, which made working as a team difficult. He rejected any attempts at mediation. Then he went to the media and gave a series of tell-all interviews that went awry, exposing her secret identity, and digging up a lot of dirty laundry. You'd think a man with X-ray vision would have seen what was coming.
But no, he was genuinely astonished. Well, the Girl was, too. She'd washed out by then, but she was still coming around in her role as Art's "partner," offering to renegotiate his contract, asking why he wasn't getting to go first on media appearances, making a fucking nuisance of herself.
She'd hang out in the break room, telling us stories about Gaia's vindictiveness.
"She's trying to punish him by withholding the baby," she whispered. She'd been kicked in the throat by the Centispider early on, and ever since then whispered. I had my suspicions this was affectation rather than affliction, since it meant everyone else had to shut up when she was talking. "Some Earth mother," she went on.
The words rubbed me raw. It didn't seem to me that talking smack about the woman you'd replaced showed much class.
But in that she was only following Art's lead.
Art seemed miserable and exhilarated all at the same time. He gave more interviews and wrote a lengthy screed denouncing the Justice Avengers, saying they'd never treated him fairly. The woman he'd once called the best wife in the world was now painted as an abusive, angry shrew who'd driven him away.
He left me out of the loop of anger until the day he showed me his new manuscript.
It was beautiful. Every sentence rang like a bell, resonant and lovely.
And glossy. Very glossy. All surface, in fact. Like a perfect imitation of prose, a hollow shell with no emotion inside it.
"What do you think?" he asked.
We were meeting at the monkey house at the zoo. I don't know why. There was a donut stand Art really liked nearby.
"I have a theory about writing. I think every writer needs to acknowledge his or her inner shittiness."
He frowned. "What are you getting at?"
"We need to be able to look at ourselves and recognize our inner shittiness. To look at the malicious impulses, the meanness, the moments when we give into temptation. To own the moment where we've failed to be good human beings."
I looked at him directly. His eyes, meeting mine, were full of anger.
"This is about Maggie," he said.
I shook my head. "No, it's about acknowledging what you've done. Good art teaches us what it means to be human, what it means to try and fail. To accept your own flaws, not deny them. Not every good writer is a good person, but they're honest, at least. This book makes Maggie the villain of the piece, rather than admit that you're the one who should be in that role. Pretty, but as meaningless as something made by machine. Write the truth. Write what you did. Because if you want to write with heart, you have to discover yours and use it until it hurts. That's what distinguishes great writing from competency."
He wasn't listening. "You're like the other small minds," he said.
"Tell me again how you thought I was the only one who would understand," I said. "Because I like to fuck around, right? But I never screwed any of them the way you did Maggie. Never made promises I couldn't keep. Soul mate? Daisy was an excuse. Any peg would have fit that escape-shaped hole."
He took out a wall in his departure. I took my own advice and counted my blessings. I didn't say anything to Maggie, but the next day she sent over a fruit basket, the kind you send in sympathy when your home or office or country gets damaged by a supervillain.
In the interest of acknowledging my own inner shittiness, in conveying the warped nature of my perspective, I will confess to jealousy. Jealousy at his sales, his Amazon rankings, the ability to put "New York Times best-selling author" right after "Saved the world three times."
Even though it lacked heart, it was fine writing.
But he'd never worked or sweated at it. He made beautiful prose because he was a superhero. He was incapable of writing an incoherent sentence.
It didn't seem fair.
But life generally isn't. Karma is a bitch, but she's a mythical one.
Particularly in a world where some of us are gifted. Not gifted like knowing a lot of vocabulary words, but gifted as in being able to breathe fire, or hear the moon, or change the course of destiny.
All that stuff about inner shittiness?
I got it from a high school teacher, the kind you listen to because you're amazed that a teacher is using a word like shit.
But it's true. It's lasted with me all these years because it's true.
Plenty of writers were shitty human beings. But they took responsibility. They wrote about how shitty they were. That was the secret Art couldn't seem to unravel.
You gotta own it.
Otherwise you're pretending to be something you're not.
I wasn't pretending to be anything other than the human I was. I liked to fuck around and I found partners who felt the same. Who weren't worried that we had some sort of conjoined destiny.
Who knew that if we chose to be together it'd be that: a choice.
Maybe that was what let Art feel good about what he'd done. He'd seen the marriage as an act of fate, something that had swept him up. Now a different wave was carrying him in another direction, and Daisy was there too, caught in the current.
Maybe I was doing her a disservice. Misjudging her. Maybe she'd fallen for Art's bullshit and didn't know what she was doing. She was young, after all. When you're young, you're frequently stupid and don't know it.
When you're older, you learn to realize that you're being stupid. Sometimes you go ahead and do it anyway.
I thought about going to see her, but I went to see Maggie instead.
For a woman scorned, she was remarkably calm. She might have been a little surprised, if it had happened before the wall incident, because I'd always been Art's friend, not hers, in that way that happens when you marry into someone's circle of friends. There are always markers on each of them saying which way they'll jump in a break-up, and most of those decisions aren't based on logic.
I admired the baby, named Star. I didn't ask if he had superpowers. It's rude. You never ask that kind of thing.
She let me hold him. Fat and placid, he smiled like Winston Churchill. I tried to see Art in the look of him, but he had Maggie's eyes and her calm aura.
"What does Art think of him?" I asked.
She shrugged. "He hasn't taken him for a visit yet."
"Because the divorce is still going on?"
"No, that'd be the smart thing to do, given that he's trying to get full custody."
I blinked. "Because you've been keeping the baby from him?"
"I haven't," she said wearily. "All that stuff he says? It's bullshit. Remember when he carved Star's face into the dark side of the moon? He'd just turned down taking him for the weekend because Daisy had made other plans. "
"That seems crazy," I said cautiously.
For the first time a ripple of anger stirred her. "Crazy?" she said. "He's been telling people I used to beat him. Half a year ago, I was the love of his life. Now I'm an angry, abusive bitch. You can check the truth if you don't believe me. Look at the timing on the moon piece. I've tried to build bridges. A child needs his father. But that woman gets in the way every time. He won't talk to me without her."
"He's scared," I said.
"He may be scared, but she's insane. You know she mailed me a pair of her underwear? Used. Said maybe I could learn something from them. I'd swear she had some sort of mental powers, based on how bizarre he's gotten, but I saw the profile when we were admitting her. She's headblind."
"Maybe Art's still figuring out his parenting style." I don't know why I felt compelled to make excuses for him. Some small part of me was still thinking of him as one of the good guys.
"He doesn't have one," she said. "Mondomania forgot to include that part, apparently."
That was an easy explanation. He was defective. He'd made the choices he had because he couldn't do it any other way. I'd been unfair in telling him he lacked heart. It wasn't his fault.
But if he didn't have a heart, how could he love Daisy, as he claimed to do?
Maggie was watching me. "It doesn't make sense, does it?" she said. "I thought about it for a long time, over and over. I thought about it while I was giving birth. Maybe he'd been dopplegangered. Or cursed, or mind-altered, or had his soul stolen. So many possibilities. But you know what Occam's razor is?"
"The simplest explanation is the one that's right," I said.
"And the simplest explanation is that he's a selfish asshole. Even heroes can be selfish assholes, it turns out."
So what do you do with that, the fact that someone can claim to be a hero or an artist or even a loving father, but then belie it all with their actions?
Should I even care? Should I feel that the universe should step in, make things right? Why did I want so badly for him to acknowledge what he'd done, why did his smug obliviousness irritate me so much?
What do you say to the friend who does such a thing? There was enough melodrama around the group, with some electing him douchebag of the year while others flocked to his side to defend him. I'd tried to stay out of all that drama.
Did you stick by a friend like that?
I didn't miss him; I missed the man I had thought he was.
I missed the superman that made me feel better about things.
I missed the person who'd made me believe their lie, right before they kicked it all apart.
I turned him in, of course.
Not to the police or planetary authorities. What would they have done?
But I called Mondomania. Who was, in a manner of speaking, Star's grandparent.
He came. Fussed over the baby, made Gaia promise to signal if she needed anything. Arranged for a picnic in the park with them next week.
"I never thought I'd have a family," he said to me afterward. I was driving him home. Why is a long story that would only bore you.
"You don't have one," I said. "You have the woman your child wronged. And a grandkid. Don't think it's ever going to be a pretty picture. Even when he gives up Daisy--or she gives up on him--there's never going to be a happy family going to Star's school play, en masse and full of smiles."
"I know," he said. "I wonder how I failed him."
"You didn't fail him. He failed all of us."
"You can still love someone who failed you."
"You can," I said. "But why bother?"
I turned the car down the next street.
Mondomania sat in silence for a few minutes. He said, "He never wanted to be a hero. He wanted to be a writer."
"Sometimes," I said, "it's not enough to just say you want something."
We drove the rest of the way in silence. I don't know what Mondomania was thinking about. Maybe ways to kill Art. Maybe about Star's smile.
Me, I was thinking that I'd keep writing about being a shitty human.
And loving my fellow humans in my own shitty way.
Because you can choose whether or not to be a hero. The rest of it, the rest of being human? It's not optional.
It's not optional at all.
This story was first published on Friday, October 4th, 2013
The everyday troubles of superheroes fascinate me. It's more interesting to me to watch a superhero deal with the death of a loved one or the break-up of a relationship than seeing them battle giant space viruses or the Kraken from Beyond (unless they're in love with the Kraken from Beyond.)
- Cat Rambo
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