Bruce Wayne

He calls himself Bruce Wayne. He was once my guardian angel.

It was my first year in the city, and I was a bundle of raw emotion. Coming out had been a rollercoaster of exhilarating highs and devastating lows. Weekends often found me on “The Strip” celebrating my newfound liberation—sometimes too much. On this night, everything had been fun until it wasn’t. Dancing at the only lesbian club in town, I suddenly found myself very drunk and in need of home, my bed and safety. I made a hasty exit and jumped on the next bus, only to find my vision blurred, my walk unsteady—not exactly the condition you want to be in late at night on a city bus. It was well past midnight when I exited the bus. 

“Steady now. Tuck your wallet in,” came the voice behind me, making me realize my wallet was quite exposed in the front pocket of my jeans. An older man walked behind me, keeping enough distance not to cause me alarm. Quietly, he followed me home through the dark streets, three blocks to my house and then vanished into thin air. 

For a long time, I actually wondered if he was an angel.

Many months later, as I was walking into a convenience store to pick up a package, a man cordially asked if I could buy him a meal. I immediately recognized his voice and face and was glad to comply. We walked in, and I bought him a hot dog and drink while he told me about life on the streets. I asked him his name and he said, “Bruce Wayne.” The way he said it suggested more of an inside joke than actual delusion.

More months pass. I move to a new apartment a few blocks up the street, leaving the sadness of the old place behind. My life has found an even keel, a steady equilibrium, a balance between work and play. The city is the same—frenetic, at times pathetic. A melting pot of those with much and those with nothing. The crazy and the sane. The sick and those who just think they are healthy.

Rushing to pick up a prescription, I see a familiar face. He’s sitting on the ground in front of the drugstore. I smile and ask him how he’s doing. “Just trying to get a meal,” he says, and I agree to buy him a Gatorade and turkey sandwich.

When I come back out, I apologize for having forgotten his name.

“Bruce Wayne,” he says. “We’ve met?”

I remind him that we met at the 7-11.

“I can’t go there anymore. I got shot,” he says, nodding toward his left arm wrapped in a sling.

“How did it happen?”

“You know, things happen … even to Batman,” he says with a smile. “Maybe I needed a stronger cape.”

He asks me my name. I tell him again and he shakes my hand in both of his. 

“I like you, Jennifer. You’re always so nice to me.”

I don’t think he remembers the time he helped me home, but I do. Meeting Bruce Wayne reminds me that kindness cuts both ways, and heroes are always in disguise.

Handlebars and Scars

Act One

Too fast! Too fast! Afraid to lift my gaze, I watch orange parking stripes fly by beneath the bicycle’s spinning tires. The Methodist church parking lot is a vast ocean of black asphalt that threatens to devour me. “Don’t let go, Daddy.” The ground’s surface that once seemed so benign now tilts at a grotesque angle. The training wheels no comfort. The brakes no remedy for the terrifying speed. My father’s hand, holding onto the seat beneath me, the only thing to keep me from flying off into that awful open space. Willful, stubborn child. She will not learn to ride the bike. And yet I did not fall.

Act Two

Time to try again. A lovely, sunny day. A quiet path beside the still lake. “That’s it. You can do it.” Again, my father’s hand beneath the seat, running fast, steadying the bicycle as I tentatively pedal forward, training wheels leaving the ground as I gain speed. Over the bridge, loud sound of bicycle tires on wooden slats. I see the water below. Sickening tilt before the training wheels reach the ground. Too far! Too fast! Awful feeling of imbalance, my body floating in space above the firm, hard ground. Stubborn, willful child. Sell the bicycle. It is no use. She will not learn. And yet I did not fall. 

Act Three

Evening falling fast. Cool, crisp fall air. Time to ride the bicycle – fast! Speeding down the steep driveway and into the street. Push hard. Pedal fast. Punish the body, willful, stubborn thing. A girl trapped in a woman’s body, rounded hips, soft, curving thighs. Pedal harder. Burn, burn, burn the flesh away. Bend the will. Sudden flight, flying fast over the handlebars. Sudden meeting with the firm, hard ground. Blackness. How long lying on the street in the fog of evening? Who knows? Walking now on unsteady feet, leaning on the handlebars, eyes on the pavement. Feeling with my tongue where teeth used to be. Put away the bike. Walk into the house. “Hey, hey, what happened there?” Kent, the family friend, staying calm, cheerful, trained as a paramedic not to show panic. “Everything’s going to be OK. Just be calm. Stay with me.” Walk past him, into my bedroom — no, wait, the bathroom. Look into the mirror. Funhouse mirror, reality suddenly tilts at a grotesque angle. My mom beside me, upset, panicked: “What happened!” The bicycle forgotten, the brain reboots. “I don’t know. I was just lying in bed, and when I got up …” 

Dad’s calm hands on the steering wheel, controlling the speed as we rush to the hospital. The world outside the windows now dark. The world inside my head gray as twilight, synapses switching on and off like a light bulb on the fritz. Emergency room, CAT scan, six shots of Novocain in the tender skin around the mouth, and then the doctor’s slow, careful needle, slight tug as he closes the ragged flesh. Weeks later, scabs gone, porcelain in place of teeth, I am ready to ride the bike again, but it is gone.

Trust will not tolerate training wheels, and yet the scars remain.

Nothing Left to Say

Four a.m. and the phone call comes. Already I know as I rush to the phone exactly what waits on the line: My sister’s voice, struggling to get the words out. “Dad’s dying.” The words still a shock, words that speak reality into being. Don’t mention it. Don’t say it. Don’t make it real. A code my parents lived by for so long. Maybe it will go away, without doctors, without help, by faith alone.

Faith. That word, too, hangs empty in the air.

Four a.m. and there’s nothing left to say. I wish I could be there. I wish I could’ve talked to him. I wish I had spoken up. It doesn’t matter now. Words don’t matter now. Perhaps they never did.

Four twenty-six and there’s nothing left to do. The ER doctors have done all they could. “I think they’re going to pronounce him soon,” my sister says. They’ll say the words. The end will come. Like magic, speaking death into existence. Don’t say it, and maybe it won’t be true.

Four thirty-eight and there’s nothing left to feel. Shock, disbelief, anger, sadness have all washed over me in waves. They will return to scrub my mind again until it’s clean and whole, ready to face the pain that comes with living, and the cruel fact that everything must die. Even you. Even I. Those we hold closest to our hearts. Those we wish we’d held closer. 

Five thirteen and there’s nothing left to write, except, “I love you, Dad.”