Read Just Call Me Superhero Online

Authors: Alina Bronsky

Just Call Me Superhero

Europa Editions
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This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2013 by Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Köln
First publication 2014 by Europa Editions
Translation by Tim Mohr
Original Title:
Nenn mich einfach Superheld
Translation copyright © 2014 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
www.mekkanografici.com
ISBN 9781609452414

Alina Bronsky

JUST CALL ME SUPERHERO

Translated from the German
by Tim Mohr

 

I
immediately knew I’d been tricked. I pulled my hat back down over my forehead and crumpled up the scrap of paper with the address on it that Claudia had shoved in my pocket—
Family Services Center: Meditation Room
—tossed it to the floor, and I was about to head home again when I saw the girl. She looked at me for a second and recoiled. I couldn’t blame her. My own mother had to practice for weeks before she could look at my face without wincing, and this girl didn’t even know me. If anything I gave her credit for not throwing up.

Instead of turning around, I lingered in the doorway, pushed my hat back up, and stood there staring at her like an idiot. It slowly dawned on me that I wasn’t going to leave. Not now, and hopefully never again. I was going to sit down in the last empty chair, which seemed to be waiting expectantly for me, and I was going to look at this girl. I’d never seen such magical beauty before, those green eyes, that raven black hair—and so sad. She was wearing a very long dress, white with small red flowers, that hid her legs. A short dress would have been fine by me. Brightly colored reflectors shaped like butterflies and flowers sparkled in the spokes of her wheelchair.

I picked up the crumpled paper with the address on it and stuffed it into my pants pocket. I straightened my sunglasses and while the others glared at me, I walked over to the last empty chair.

 

There were six of us. Aside from me and the girl, there was a long-haired guy with a prosthetic leg, an amorphous doughy figure with a froth of red hair on his or her head (with no apparent disability), a long-legged drag queen with a nervous gaze that bounced around the room, and a frowning arrogant-looking pretty-boy who was wearing sunglasses like mine. Though mine were certainly pricier. He was the only one who didn’t turn his face in my direction.

We were each supposed to take a bongo drum and play a rhythm that represented our personality, said the guru as he pulled a box overflowing with pumpkin-shaped objects into the middle of the circle of chairs. Let’s do it!

When nobody moved, I thought maybe this place was a good fit for me after all.

The guru was not to be discouraged. He spun slowly around so he could look each of us in the eyes. As expected, he didn’t linger on my face for long; it was exactly the opposite when he looked at the girl. I could certainly understand why. What the hell else were we supposed to do here other than look at her? Play the bongos?

How can she stand it, I thought. So beautiful, and the only girl among all these guys. Had she ended up here because she was in a wheelchair and nobody cared what she really wanted? Had her parents put her up to it? Had she been lied to, like me?

The girl shrugged her left shoulder without meeting my gaze. I did her the favor of averting my eyes and looking instead at the others. They all began to shift uneasily in their chairs.

I sighed and directed my gaze to the Lord of the Drums.

It was embarrassing enough that the guru, like me, was wearing a hat. My first impulse was to remove mine. On the other hand, I hadn’t been to the barber in ages and the girl was probably having a hard enough time dealing with the sight of me as it was.

Beneath his hat the guru pulled a face depicting a sort of infinite beneficence. There was something about it that brought to mind an old lady who must have been very cute when she was younger—big saucer eyes that over the years had faded, wrinkles around the eyes and mouth. Set against our grim faces, his cheerfulness seemed somewhat out of place.

“Then I’ll do it for you,” he said with unbearable placidity. “I’ll start with you, Janne.”

That’s how I learned her name.

 

I had already suspected that she was stuck up when I saw her small, green eyes. My suspicions were confirmed when she interrupted the guru.

“Stop that,” she said. “What could you possibly know about me?”

“Well, then, do it yourself, cupcake,” said the guru, rapping a pleasant rhythm on the drum with his knuckles. He smiled so broadly that she blushed.

“I’ll start,” I said, to get her off the hook. But I was too late.

The kiss-ass in cheap sunglasses had beaten me to it. He had reached up in the air and snapped his fingers.

Marlon was his name, he deigned to tell us. He dragged out the first syllable forever. I looked over at him worriedly. I didn’t want to have to share my first name with anyone else. Fortunately, as he moved past the first syllable, it turned out we shared just the first three letters. His voice was calm, almost sluggish, as if he wanted to telegraph with his tone just how cool he was and just how much our company bored him. He’d been blind since the age of seven. That’s all we learned. A degenerative disease of the retina, I thought immediately, bad genes, you can never be too choosy about that sort of thing. His family had two dogs, one was this big and the other that big—he held his hands well above the floor. I cringed. For a moment the worn tiles of the meditation room seemed to fall away beneath my feet.

“Seeing-eye dogs?” asked the guru with that typical I’m-actively-listening-to-you face.

Marlon made a gesture with his chin, but it didn’t bear any resemblance to a normal nod.

He was very sensitive to smells, he said, pausing dramatically. His nose was unbelievably acute—he could smell what each of us had eaten for breakfast the day before, he said. He asked us to take that into account and pay extra attention to hygiene. And for that reason he was going to change seats now, he said.

The doughy entity next to him exhaled loudly and turned red. I would have felt bad for the person if I hadn’t been so disgusted by him, or her.

Everyone watched silently as Marlon stood, picked up his chair, and went to put it down next to Janne. The fact that the fidgety queen was already sitting there didn’t seem to bother him. He apparently couldn’t see him. The queer grabbed onto his chair and, still sitting, shifted his way into the middle of the circle. Marlon sat down in the vacated spot and turned his face toward Janne, breathing deeply. His nostrils flared.

Janne lifted her hand. I thought she was going to smack Marlon. Which I would have liked to see. But instead she reached over and waved her long slender fingers in front of his sunglasses.

“You really can’t see anything?”

He grabbed her hand in midair. “Stop causing a draft,” he said, placing her hand on his cheek.

I decided not to come back here again. Despite the fact that I saw Janne smile for the first time.

 

At some point the guru hit a gong. We stared at him, wondering what he was trying to signal to us.

“That’s it for today,” he said. The tense corners of his mouth betrayed a genuine sense of relief.

Everyone except Janne and the blind guy stood up slowly, as if they were unsure they were really free to leave. Then they all hurried toward the exit. I let the guy with the prosthetic leg go in front of me. I was afraid I’d knock him over. Despite the fact that the prosthetic seemed to be shorter than his real leg, he was extremely quick. Maybe he was one of those guys who trained for the Paralympics. His name was Richard, though there was utterly no reason for me to have remembered it.

I bumped into the doughy creature in the doorway. He felt like a jellyfish. It would definitely have interested me to know what sort of disability he had. It hadn’t come up. Actually, other than each of us giving our first names, nothing had really come up because the nervous queen had spent the rest of the hour crying and trembling. In the end he’d gone and sat in the corner sobbing.

“I’m a psycho, don’t pay any attention to me,” he’d said.

The rest of us watched silently as the guru pranced around him with a packet of tissues, a glass of water, and a dropper bottle of Bach’s Rescue Remedy. It was the first time I saw something like uncertainty on the guru’s face. Now you know what it’s like, I thought to myself with mean-spirited glee—maybe you should have trained to become a yoga instructor instead, or learned to lead shamanic journeys or something.

The doughboy had fully intact face, arms, and legs, and he could see, hear, and talk. His name was Friedrich.

I stood aside to let him go ahead of me so he could finally head home and I wouldn’t have to look at him anymore. But he did the same thing and smiled up at me. How valiant.

“What kind of a name is Marek?” he asked.

“Polish.”

“Are you Polish?”

“No. The only thing East European about me is my father’s new wife.”

“And who did that?” he asked, gesturing first at my face and then at my hand.

“A Rottweiler,” I said.

“But you can see?”

“No,” I said, peering past him.

Then I turned quickly away so he didn’t somehow think I wanted to chat with him. I went out the damn door and started to run down the hall.

A woman was coming in the opposite direction—not yet old, dollish, and somehow familiar. When she saw me running down the hall she dropped her purse and tried to step out of my way. I had the same impulse and as I tried to avoid her we ended up running into each other. My hat flew off. I picked it up and heard her shriek in horror.

“Please excuse me, I’m so clumsy today,” she said and smiled past me. Her chin was trembling.

I wanted to say something nasty to her. But then I realized why she looked familiar: she had Janne’s face, or rather, the face Janne would have in twenty or thirty years. I said nothing and ran off.

 

On the S-bahn train I sat in a window seat and pulled the hat even farther down my face. The car filled up quickly. But as always, nobody sat next to me or opposite me in the four-seat banquette.

I kept thinking I saw Friedrich’s tuft of red hair behind everyone who got on the train. Then he would disappear again and I didn’t look around to see where he was. If we ever ran into each other again somewhere, I had no plans to say hello. As if I ever went wandering through markets or parks or museums or clubs or gyms anymore.

For once I didn’t want to go straight home. I was going to go see Claudia at her office. I wanted to ruin her day as payback.

First I had to get past Marietta, whom Claudia always called her right hand. Even though she, like me, was left-handed. Marietta stood up when I walked in and braced herself against the edge of the table as if she needed extra strength.

“Marek.” She looked up at me and her bright red lower lip quivered a little. I wondered for a second what it would feel like to sink into her lips. I hadn’t kissed anyone since the Rottweiler attack. For that alone, every Rottweiler on earth deserved to be skinned alive.

I sighed and took a quick glance at Marietta’s cleavage. I liked her because she started talking to me like an adult before I was even a teenager. And because she treated me as if I were her boss, too. Not to mention the hint of red nipple I could see through her not-quite-opaque white blouse.

“It’s nice of you to drop by. Your mother is in a meeting right now. Would you like a coffee?”

“I’m in a hurry,” I said. She stepped determinedly into my path. I shoved her gently but equally determinedly to the side. I didn’t want to hurt her.

“Claudia!” I yelled.

The office was hideous, and I always wondered whether Claudia had purposefully decorated it that way to make clear that she was about work, not window dressing. The hall was long and narrow like an obstructed bowel, the floor covered with ugly gray carpeting; and frosted glass doors rose to the left and right. Between the doors, in square frames, hung paintings that were nothing more than gloomy splotches.

Behind one of the doors Claudia’s voice thundered. I had to smile. A Godzilla-like shadow fell across the frosted glass, and then the door sprang open. Claudia swept out wearing a custom-tailored suit. The skirt was way too short for a fifty-year-old. Her makeup was sloppy, her mouth was scrunched up, and sparks flew from her eyes.

“Do we have a problem?”

“I don’t. But you? You lied to me.” I didn’t care whether her client could hear me or not. “It’s not a private tutorial on getting my high school equivalency. It’s a goddamn support group for cripples with some pathetic wannabe showman in charge.”

“Sounds perfect for you.” She put the palm of her hand on my chest and shoved me away from the partially open door. Behind the door it was awkwardly silent. Even so, Claudia refused to lower her voice. “I am with a client, so it’s not a good time to get hysterical. Take your meds and settle down.”

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