Love Is Kryptonite

  The photograph that inspired the 2007 Valentine's Fiction Contest.
The photograph that inspired the 2007 Valentine's Fiction Contest. (Jutta Klee -- Getty - )
By Dean Hebert
Sunday, February 10, 2008

In my version, I'm Superman. My mountain cabin is the Fortress of Solitude. My father's ghost hovers nearby like Jor-El, his hat and coat still hanging on a hook by the door as if he were there for the weekend. Not long after I got my motorcycle license, I wrecked my bike. I lay there in the stillness afterward, the heat ticking from the engine, the sound of my helmet scraping pavement fresh in my ears, my jeans and coat tattered . . . and I stood up and walked away unscathed. You walk away from a motorcycle wreck, and it gets you thinking that maybe you can mouth off to somebody in a bar without getting a couple cracked ribs and some teeth knocked out. But you don't do that if you're Superman. You put your street clothes on and try to blend in.

And then, of course, there's Lois. Beautiful Lois. I met her before I met Jeff, and the more time I spent around her, the more I liked her. She had dark curly hair and brown eyes. Her voice was like music. She loved rabbits. She practiced reiki. She smelled like lilac. One day, it just hit me that I loved Lois or since. How can I explain why I loved her? I can't even tell you how much I loved her; so I'm not going to try. Either you feel that kind of love, or you don't. I've had girlfriends, and I've never felt like this about any of them. And that scares me a little, to think that maybe I never will. I loved Lois, but there wasn't any chance that she could love me, because she was married to Jeff.

Jeff knew how special Lois was, and that's how he treated her. I remember the surprise party he threw for her 30th. He arranged hotel rooms and flights for her girlfriends who lived far away so they could be there. There was a live band, and a caterer, and flowers everywhere. But it wasn't the money he spent; it was the attention he'd put into the details. Everything, right down to the hors d'oeuvres and the floating candles in the pool, was perfect, and he'd done it all without her having any idea of the surprise. When they danced that night, you could see how happy they both were.

SO, WHAT DO YOU DO IF YOU'RE SUPERMAN, and you love Lois, but she's already found herself a great guy and married him? The smart thing would be to keep your mouth shut. I wasn't that smart. I told her that I loved her. It was a line I shouldn't have crossed, I know. But I thought if that's all it was, just me telling her how I felt, without asking anything of her, that maybe it would be okay. And it sort of was. When I told her I loved her, all she said was, "I know." This only made me love her more.

I couldn't leave it at that, so I wrote her a love letter. I rolled it into a tight little scroll and tied it with thread so it wouldn't unravel. In the pottery class I was taking, I made a rabbit figurine with a secret opening in the bottom. After it was done in the kiln, I put the note inside and sealed the opening with a bit of raw clay. Once it dried, you couldn't see where the opening had been at all. I gave it to her for her birthday. To her, it was just a paperweight, sitting there on her desk. To me, it was a little ship traveling through time, carrying a message to her someday in the future. I figured that when the moment was right, if she was meant to find it, she would. Maybe her cat would knock it off the desk, and it would break open. Maybe she would move, and she'd find it smashed in a box when she unpacked. Maybe she'd never find it. It was the most romantic thing I've ever done, and I couldn't tell anyone.

But that's how it is if you're Superman. Having a secret kind of goes with the territory. Since I knew nothing could happen between me and Lois, those feelings I had for her evolved into a warm friendship. That's all it was, and that's all it ever could be. For a long time, I managed to stay friends with Lois and Jeff. Buying the motorcycles was his idea. It was a package deal -- two small, old bikes for $300. We got them running, and he taught me to ride. After we graduated to bigger bikes, I took him out to my cabin in West Virginia and showed him some great winding roads.

They moved away, and I went out to my Fortress of Solitude on weekends and developed my powers. I couldn't lift a car over my head, or fly, but for a long time I didn't need anybody else. That's the thing about Superman -- he's the loneliest guy on the planet. Last of his kind, his world destroyed, and he can't date Lois because that would make her a target for every villain. His real power is just waking up alone every day. That became my power, too. I learned how to thrive on solitude. When I think about any of the pain in my life, there's always another person involved. I realized out there at the cabin that as long as I could just be by myself, I was invulnerable.

I KEPT IN TOUCH WITH LOIS AND JEFF and saw them a couple of times a year. I knew I wouldn't meet anyone who compared to Lois, so I threw myself into other things. I staked out a half-acre in my back yard, worked it into a garden with just a shovel and a hoe, and grew more vegetables than I could eat in a year. I renovated my house and cleared out all the brush from the woods out back. I built a garage and restored another old motorcycle. It's amazing how much you can accomplish if you're not in a relationship. I made a plan for my future, and a relationship wasn't anywhere in it. Then one day I heard that Jeff had moved out and gotten his own apartment, and my one real power, my ability to live in solitude, disappeared. If I had real superpowers, if I could fly, or see through walls, I would give them up just for the chance to love. I still like to imagine that the real reason bullets won't bounce off me and I can't outrun a train is because I've given up my powers so that I can love Lois without putting her in danger.

But the truth is never that simple. The truth is that my reawakened yearning for Lois took away my only power. The truth is that when Jeff was setting up Lois's new computer, he crawled under her desk and pulled on a cord that had caught on that rabbit paperweight. He found the letter among the broken pieces on the floor. He thought what any man who finds a love note from his friend to his wife would think, and in Jeff's version, I looked a lot like Lex Luthor. The truth is that we all want to be the hero of our own story, but sometimes we're just the villain in somebody else's.

The story never ends with Lex and Lois driving the kids to soccer practice. The story ends with me back at the cabin alone. It ends with Jeff racing a Porsche on his motorcycle and missing a curve. It ends with Lois alone in bed, crying on the phone, wondering what to do now that her Superman has gone.

Dean Hebert, who won the 1988 Sophie Kerr Prize, is an assistant director of the University Honors Program at the University of Maryland, where he teaches a short story class. He can be reached at dhebert@umd.edu.


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