I'd heard he was down in the dumps, that he could be seen hanging round a certain bar. I didn't believe it was true, but decided to go there anyway. I'd never met him personally, and like most had only glimpsed him in his red and blue costume, streaking between the city's skyscrapers on some life-saving errand. But I needed to see him in the flesh, so to speak, even if this particular flesh was hard as granite. I needed to talk to him. Well, in truth, I needed him to talk. The whole city did. Its resident superhero was going through a bad patch. Not good for a city with as many problems as this one.
I expected a line of people outside, but I guess people don't like seeing their local city superhero getting soused. I walked into the bar, and there he was, cape and all, slouching on a stool. The few punters there looked me up and down, then returned to their glasses, the only sound their occasional sips, accompanied by a rhythmic squeaking as the balding bartender fisted a tea towel around the inside of a pint glass. He looked edgy. Not surprising really, I mean what do you do if a superhero gets rowdy, besides run for the hills much faster than a speeding bullet?
The stool next to the man of steel was empty, so I moseyed over and parked my ass there, as if the guy next to me was just another customer. The barman flicked his chin upwards, I guess the way they do in any galaxy, and I asked for a Molsen. The superhero didn't look up or aside, just sat propped up on his elbows and stared vacantly at the whisky in front of him, same as a thousand guys must have been doing right about then all over the country. I wasn't sure what to say, so I coughed. No effect. I didn't want to ask him for his autograph or anything stupid like an out-of-towner would have, so I tried a different line.
"Does that stuff affect you, I mean can you actually get drunk on whisky?" There was a pause, then he turned to glance at me from the corners of his eyes. Startlingly blue, I noticed. I'd always assumed the photos in the local papers were touched up.
"No," he said, "not unless it's laced with a little kryptonite."
I nodded, trying to pretend this situation was normal. He must have sensed my tension, because he added, "Got any on you?"
After a pause I laughed. "Nope, the invisible man came round last night and cleaned me out."
He gave me another sideways glance and smiled, but it was pained, you know, the way it is when you don't even want to become happy again.
I sipped my beer for the next few minutes, not saying anything more. It was up to him from then on. He'd either talk or not. He finished his whisky, asked the bartender for a refill, then turned around to face me, leaning on his elbow. When he spoke, he stared at the pinball machine behind me. I'd always noticed that many folk like to talk, just not face to face. Guess that's why psychoanalysts lie you down on a couch so you can't see them when you talk. Or maybe it's so they can check their emails.
"You like women?" he said, and I froze. Had he turned gay? No, that would be too much for this city to take, he'd have to move to San Fran, and wash out the colour of his cape a little.
"Er, yep, I guess so, er, yeah, in fact, yes, I do." I pushed out my chest a little, trying to appear more heterosexual, then realised it probably made me look gay. I sagged instead. That was always easier.
He turned back to the whisky that had just arrived. "Me too."
I breathed out, quite a long way. "Er, I know some other bars ..." I began to say, but he cut in, the way people often did when I was talking. That's the trouble with being a good listener, or so I'd once been interrupted.
"I like just one, that's my problem." He said it as if that made it all crystal clear.
I coughed. I knew where this was going to end up; why I'd come to see him.
"Problem is, she doesn't love me anymore."
A bottle of bourbon crashed to the floor at the other end of the bar. The barman hadn't been listening of course, just coincidence, but it saved my embarrassment. I said "Oh," and took several swigs of beer, finishing it. "Bartender, I'll have some of that please," I said, pointing to the wet floor. I needed something stiffer than beer. I'd been here before -- not the bar you understand, but in this particular social avenue -- with other guys; but a superhero? Platitudes like 'you deserve better,' or 'you'll find someone else,' just seemed inappropriate. I decided to stall.
"How do you know?" I asked, taking a gamble that superpowers in one area might mean a lack of normal social skills, or even competence, in another.
He downed the rest in one, doing a good impression of someone getting drunk. "She told me."
Ah, well, that was that, then. It sounded in character, too. "Hmm," I said. "That's a difficult one. Clear, sure, but difficult." He looked back at me again. Those eyes. Not glassy at all, I realised. He'd noticed me now, I mean looked at me other than as a regular John Doe, the sort he saved every day. Maybe I preferred it before: social blandness and anonymity had its advantages.
"Why difficult?" he asked.
I'd started, so I had to finish. My mouth went into overdrive. "Well, the thing is, that's usually a little terminal. You know, it's gone beyond the problem stage, where they act as if nothing is wrong, but there is. Or the stage where they say they're not sure anymore, because they want you to win them back and make them love you again. That's a difficult stage too, where they push you away, but want you to fight for them. Most guys don't realise what's needed till it's too late."
I hung my head, caught my reflection in the mirror and continued, because this wasn't about me, not primarily at any rate. "But when they're clear like that, you know, 'I don't want you anymore,' it's gone too far. Irretrievable breakdown, it's called." I said it like it was a medical condition. I thought it was, actually. Five years ago it had felt that way. But I was cured now, I reminded myself. Sure.
He turned back to the bar and held up the tumbler between his fingers and thumb. It exploded, sending crystal shards in all directions, making me jump off my stool. A few remaining customers hustled coats over their shoulders and quit the place. The bartender sighed and brought another tumbler. Our superhero hadn't flinched. He'd meant to do it. Not out of anger, more a considered gesture. Resigned frustration.
"I guess I've known for some time," he said, sounding weary.
We've all been there, I wanted to say, but you don't patronize super-people. "It's not easy," I said. "I'm not sure superheroes should be in a relationship at all." I felt sorry for him, really. "Maybe unless with another superhero," I ventured. It sounded pathetic, but he wasn't listening anyway.
"She said I didn't listen. I was always flying off. Always put others first. She'd cook dinner and I'd suddenly go and save fifty people. At first it was exotic, but then ..." He trailed off. He clearly found it hard to see the problem, even with X-ray vision. "She wanted a regular guy, some normality."
He said that last word like it was sex with minors. And there was the problem. He was a superhero, born of a different world, of garish colours that were ultimately black and white. He didn't live in the world of dullish greys that imbued most of our lives. He saved us because it was in his nature, not because he necessarily empathised with us. In his world there were harsh dividing lines between good and bad, between goodies and baddies. After all, how could a superhero function if he considered that maybe the baddie had had a really rough upbringing, been abused as a kid, all that kind of stuff. He couldn't, and, let's face it, we wouldn't want him to, either.
My thinking, fuelled by alcohol, took off as easy as he would to stop a runaway train. I mean, he was great at saving lives and averting catastrophes and thwarting criminals, but he had little time left for a relationship with Lois. He was unhappy, and out of his depth. How could a superhero cope with mortgages, laundry, diapers, screaming kids, relatives, all the problems of real life? And Lois? Anyone who had bothered to look beyond the tabloid smiles knew she had been miserable for years. But who'd dare to intervene, when the husband could kill you faster than you could blink? And who would dare to shatter the dream, to point out that beneath the emperor's clothes of red and blue there was a two-dimensional comic-strip being, born of a childish vision? It would take a special person, maybe a desperate one, but not a superhero, that's for sure. Just someone aware of his ordinariness and his flaws, able to look after her. But mainly someone to help her break free from the fairy tale in which she'd been imprisoned.
My stray thoughts were brought back to the present as he turned again to face me, his eyes fiery, as if he was talking to her, not me. I wilted under that lion's gaze, as I imagined the baddies did, as if he had seen my thoughts, though I knew he hadn't.
"She said she wanted her life back!" He said it like it was a preposterous statement, the way people do when they know something might be true, but it will hurt them a great deal. His nostrils flared. The last customer left the joint.
The barman stood wiping glasses at the other end of the bar. He looked tense, probably considering that his property insurance wouldn't cover damage by the city's most popular resident. But the superhero relaxed. He was a good guy after all, I mean the best. Every cell oozed morality. But here was this human side. He was human like the rest of us, a little under-developed in social matters, and like many of us, inept at moving from falling in love, to making love work day-to-day. We mere mortals just didn't want to acknowledge it, we wanted to believe he was above that, as if that would be a good thing. Beyond emotional pain, maybe, yeah maybe that's what we wanted to believe. Able to overcome relationship problems like they were tall buildings, at a single bound.
I placed a hand on his shoulder. "These things happen, sometimes for the best." He didn't react to my hand there. His shoulder was warm steel. I removed my hand. I felt bad.
"If there's another guy, I swear I'll ..." he didn't finish the sentence, couldn't.
I flinched, held my breath for a moment. I wanted to say something. He was in pain, wanting to lash out like any of us, but I reckoned it was superficial, like he was almost over it. Maybe he just needed a little push. Perhaps even superheroes need a little touch on the steering wheel occasionally. "No," I said. "No you wouldn't. It's not who you are. You couldn't do ... that." I felt certain, but also hoped very much that it was true.
He nodded, then stared into the mirrored glass behind the rows of bottles, and for the first time caught his own reflection. He sat up, straightening himself. Right in front of me he became a superhero again. It was as awe-inspiring as it was humbling. No wonder Lois still loved him, even if she couldn't go on with him anymore. He looked at the tumbler as if it was an alien artefact. Then he seemed to be listening. He peered down at the floor -- no, through it, I realized, deep into the Earth's crust. He stood, and glanced to the door, then to me.
"Tectonic plate pressure's building up. I have to go, there's going to be an earthquake tomorrow morning in California."
Like he'd just heard it on the radio, or seen it in a newspaper.
"I'm going to look up some people there, some old friends. I'll be out of town for a few days." He said it in the affirmative, by which I mean it was non-negotiable. I nodded, and in so doing gave the city's consent for his well-earned long weekend out of town. "Say," he said, momentarily looking the tiniest bit embarrassed, or perhaps like a tourist in a foreign country who doesn't know the customs too well. "I don't usually carry money on me ..."
I dug into my jacket pocket and slapped a twenty on the bar. "Don't worry, it's on me." He nodded, and flashed his winning smile. I grinned back inanely, like the dorkish citizens in the comic books, and he strode right out of the joint.
The barman met my eyes, raised his eyebrows and let out a long whistle. He walked over and pushed the money back towards me. I nodded, studied my whisky, and decided not to finish it. There was a 'whoosh' sound, and I caught sight of a red and blue streak in the neon-lit sky through the far window. I got off the stool, and caught the bartender's eye. "Can I use your phone a minute? It's local."
"Sure," he answered.
I went over to the booth at the back, and dialed a number. My hand was shaking. I leant my other hand on the wall to steady myself. I'd done it, for better or for worse. I hoped for better, for all concerned. The phone purred on the other end of the line. I held my breath and waited. A voice answered, and I felt relief flood down from my neck, running over my back, like a cape. But I knew I was no superhero, I was just an ordinary guy. I spoke softly, because I finally dared to hope. "Hello, Lois. It's me."