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art by Melissa Mead

Wonder

We were sitting across from each other on the subway car. I wouldn't have been looking at her--there, I mean--except it was the first thing I noticed. Sometimes your body reacts in a certain way, whether you want it to or not, or even before you know you're doing it. Face, chest, face. Sometimes I hate myself for being so hormonally driven. Which doesn't stop me from being that way.
Once I'd seen, it was too late. I mean, I couldn't stop looking, wondering if it was real. I studied her face. I knew it was her. The stripes, those colors, that metal-studded bra strap--all peeking out from beneath the collar of her cotton sundress. And I knew it had to be real. I mean, the rest of it could be fake or a joke or themed underwear (themed underwear?). But a metal bra strap? It had to be her.
I caught her eye without quite meaning to. She was looking back at me. She'd noticed.
My face began to burn.
I cleared my throat. I signaled with my eyes down to her chin, her neck. Her collar.
She grinned at me, missing my warning completely. Her grin was overt. Daring, even. I am a hopeless people watcher, and this was not my first time getting caught. Usually I flush and look away, and by the time I've worked up the nerve to glance back, the other person is studiously perfecting several interpretations of pretending I don't exist. I glanced down, cleared my throat, tugged at the collar of my own shirt (green with blue checked stripes--a very superheroey color combination, if I'm even allowed to think that).
When I looked back, she still hadn't adjusted her shirt. I didn't know if I should come out and say anything, partly because I didn't want to offend her but also partly because I was feeling more disgusted with myself with every passing moment, first because I'd noticed at all, and now because I was unable to stop thinking about it. I was perving on Spacegirl. There was Spacegirl, sitting across from me on the uptown F train, and I had found out her secret identity, and now I was perving on her.
There were doubts in my mind--so many that it was almost like I didn't want it to be her--but none of them held water. Mostly, it was her face. Spacegirl had these pronounced features, that sharp jaw, those overripe shoulders, the kinds of minor touches that you'd never notice without the uniform but as soon as the suggestion was made in your head, something deliberate enough so that you'd say to yourself, "Hey, isn't that Spacegirl?" there was no way you could argue against it.
Not only that, but she was still looking at me. She arched one eyebrow meaningfully in my direction. I wondered what she wanted me to do with it. I seemed to recall she had some sort of laser-eye-power--she'd used it on Dr. Memento a few months ago, I thought, and resolved to Google it when I got home.
We could have lasted like this forever, riding back and forth on a train, but she had her stop and I had mine. I worked at the next-to-last station stop in the city, sitting at a little desk and asking people where their late payments had gone. They're coming. They're coming. There was only one stop after mine, in the middle of the shopping district, the train station that led directly into the basement of Filene's. Really? I thought, giving her wardrobe one last once-over before I left the train. Superheroes shop wholesale? She followed my eyes, misunderstood my intention, offered me one last throat-parching smile. I raised my eyebrows, conveying (hopefully) appreciation. I wouldn't be able to think of anything else for the rest of the day.
My life is not that super. I work at my job and earn money. I give to Sierra Club and the March of Dimes, and I volunteer at a soup kitchen twice a month. I have a lot of friends, and you probably wouldn't call any of them close or best, though I'm usually the guy that friends call when they're upset or depressed or their girlfriend kicked them out in the middle of the night and they've got nowhere else to go. I don't mind. I don't really have that much going on, no wife or kids to wake up, and if I can be that guy, I'm okay with being it.
I moved to the city about a year ago. No specific reason. I just wanted to feel a bit more important in the world. Why does anyone do anything? I found a really cheap apartment right away, and wasn't suspicious at all. I made my down payment over the phone. I know how hard it is to find an apartment. Turns out, it was on the top floor of an abandoned warehouse. I take an elevator made of spare lumber to bed every night. It's okay, though. Like I said: I don't have much going on.
Every second Friday I get my paycheck, and I like to take it to the bank to deposit in person. The city bank is grandiose, opulent, stunning like a museum, with Roman columns and architecture that soars. Waiting in line is a social activity. And it makes me feel like my check is more than just a piece of paper.
This Friday is no exception. The bank hums with activity, and there's enough of a crowd that I take a breath at the door, settle into my shoes. I take my place in line, holding my folded-up paycheck with both hands, wondering whether I should talk to the gentleman in front of me. He's wearing a plaid shirt and vest, and his face looks so much like a dog that he has to own one. He looks like he's got stories inside him.
The first screams come from behind me. The crackle of gunpowder going off. A cold, round imprint of something metal sticking into my cheek. The only thing I can think of is the bank tellers. What are they thinking? Are they going to hit the alarm?
There are three of them. Three robbers. Two at the front, guns pulled, handing out bags to the teller windows. One at the back, just pacing back and forth and looking dangerous. And the people in line. Most of us are stoic, but one or two are beginning to shake, to cry. The tellers look just like the rest of us do, surprised and tired. It's a summer Friday. It's been long for everyone.
"Bank customers, DOWN!" one of the robbers yells. His hand shoots into the air and his gun cracks again.
We go down.
"Not you." The guy next to me smiles, and he links his arm around mine. The gun digs into my cheek so far I can taste it. "You're our escape clause."
The strangest feeling I am having about this guy is revulsion. Nice shirt, a close-cropped beard--the kind of shave one gets in a barbershop--sunglasses, bad breath. You stupid hipster, I want to tell him. You can afford $200 shades and you still need to rob a bank?
I don't wonder why he chose me to be their hostage. This is the sort of thing that always happens to me. Caught in the line of fire, the most average-looking guy in the room. This is how I'm special.
The two guys in front drop to the ground. Quickly, one two: First they're standing there, then they're not. Not like they ducked down, but like they walked into quicksand. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch the second one fall: His neck jerks to the side, arms shoot up, body sinks fast.
Less like he fell. More like he was pulled.
Next thing I know, the gun's whipped away from my cheek.
That part does hurt. The muzzle whips my cheekbone, an explosion of pain. I grasp it and cry out and stare at the floor--
--where Spacegirl has thrown the thug, and has him pinned, one hand on the spine, immobilizing him, while the other deftly works a lasso around his wrists. When she's done, he falls from her hands like litter and hits the ground.
"Come on." She offers a hand, yanking me back up with surprisingly little effort expended on my part. "These guys aren't getting up any time soon. Let me take you out."
From our feet comes the weak, defeated moan of the robber lying there.
The way she walks in that leotard and bustier, it's like her hips and waist belong to two separate organisms. Powerful, show-offy. Her costume clings to her skin like an alien parasite. I try to keep up. Her chest looks fierce. It's impossible not to think of the first day. That shared violation of privacy. Right before we walk through the bank's front doors--before she goes to talk to the cameras and I guess I'll have to talk to the police--I ask her if I can call her some time.
She gives me a look like I'm crazy. "I don't carry a cell phone on me," she says. "And I don't exactly have pockets to take your card."
I try not to stare at her hips, and then the lining of her briefs. "You're a superhero, aren't you? Track me down."
She purses her lips and tries not to smile. I can tell she likes that.
We stop walking directly at the door, before we retreat back to joining our separate worlds. She raises her eyebrows, hands on the lever. Shall we?
I nod wryly.
"It was nice seeing you again," I say.
Doors open. I step out, ready to meet the police. Arms in the air. Nothing to hide.
My life feels decidedly un-super after that. What's listening to a few late-night relationship horror stories compared to smashing through a window and rescuing a room full of potentially dead hostages? I didn't think I was the type of guy to get emasculated after being saved by a woman. But here I am, emasculating.
I think about telling my friends. I don't. What would I even say? Where to start the story? I was gawking at this girl on the F train when I noticed her golden bustier was hanging out?
I feel as though I'm the keeper of her secret identity, even though all I know about her is that she has a secret identity. But so what? We all have that.
I lie low for a couple days, not going out at all, not returning calls. My dismal boxcar apartment begins to feel like my old room, my small town. I watch the sun setting while I sit atop the bedspread, reading paperbacks.
The week gets old. Friday at work, the email flurries start. First one friend, then another. They've noticed my down-lowing. Now they are banding together to force me out. The city. A dance club.
I close my eyes, break eye contact with the screen. Mental pictures of dancing close with girls, words whispered into ears. A swish of star-spangled hips knocks them aside. Then it's her rescuing me again, my fingers spread across her flat stomach, jumping out a window, flying into the night.
I stay late at work. Board the subway in the business district, where it's still daylight, exit near the waterfront and it's already dark. I pay my cover, move through the crowded first bar, find my friends. They're smiling honestly, glad to see me. I don't recognize the music, but it's one of those songs that is instantly familiar, under my skin. Yes. Being here is right.
Someone gets us a table and someone else gets me a beer, and we settle into the evening. Girls look good and come over. Friends of friends. I wonder if this is the natural order of things. The scent and the hunt.
"Alisa." Bret pushes away his stool and stands and kisses a friend on the cheek. Maybe she used to be not just a friend: his hand too far up her side, the way their bodies fold into a casual hug, knowing where and how to expect each other. Maybe I'm reading too much into it. I take things too seriously.
She's with her two friends. They claim the last two seats at our table, our free range, draping handbags and coats across their backs. One is named Jamie and looks it. The other she introduces, but my brain doesn't process the name because it is too busy processing everything else: Her cheekbones. Her eyes. The wave of her hair. The jangly bands on her wrists that could just pass for bracelets but that the Internet has told me are actually of alien origin, bestowed by the queen of a distant planet after saving her race from extinction.
"Hey." I leap up, pull back the chair that she's about to sit in, offer it for her inspection. "It's really super to see you again." I wink. Let her know her secret's safe.
In an instant, her face has gone from French-makeup red to gravestone white and her lips are contorting like she's just swallowed pickle juice.
"Oh," she says. "You."
The stool sits between us like a deserted no man's land.
"Sorry." I'm not sure if it's Bret or his girlfriend who says it, but the voice is high enough to be awkward and low enough to voice its inherent disapproval. "I didn't realize you two'd already met."
"We haven't." She fishes her purse from the table and tucks it into the fold of her arm. "It's fine."
Nobody believes her that she has to go to the bathroom, but she says it anyway. I think about running after her, or about slipping away, catching her alone--after that, no one expects me to stick around--but I know her better than that. You don't catch flies with vinegar. So I live up to everyone's expectation and make my excuses, stopping at the bar to pay for that round, for the whole table, and I go back into the subway.
At home I ride the empty elevator, go to my room, and dowse the walls with gas. Then I light the whole tank on fire and send it back down the elevator. I don't bother breaking the windows. She'll take care of that.
I cross my legs and nestle myself into the bedspread. The floor is getting hot. A voice in my head bleats doubt, and I picture the seven floors beneath me losing their columns and ceiling beams, collapsing into one.
How do I know she'll come? I glance through the window, no other buildings around that are nearly as tall as this warehouse. At street level there are only stores, most of them closed. The police take a while to respond to anything in this part of town. But these buildings are the tallest in the city, and people will notice a part of their skyline falling. People will see.
And how am I sure it won't be Night Man, it won't be Captain Empire? My chest fills. I know, the way that only someone close to death knows, the exact way that this warehouse will collapse. When you don't have any choices, the future is the kind of thing that isn't unexpected at all. Soon the view out my window will be obscured by the lick of fire. Soon after that a golden bustier will appear, its metal reflecting those same flames.
I know she's coming for me. I know I will be saved.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 30th, 2011

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