Or perhaps it would be because one day on a visit to, say, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I’d be strolling among the re-created teahouses on one of the upper floors when, unbeknownst to me, trundling down on a spindly silver thread unspooling from its bottom, a tiny coron-arachnid would find purchase on my folded arms, crawl up my sleeve, and unfurl two pincers from its mouth to puncture my skin. I’d absent-mindedly squash the creature, its paste spilling down to my wrist, and later, I’d ignorantly touch it with my fingers before running my hand across my face, glazing myself with the virus. From that day forward I’d be forced to wear a mask hiding the mutated pincers that formed as a result of the bite.
But those are the dreams of a man who grew up on fantastic comic book lore, on stories that helped a bookish, small black boy growing up in Trenton, N.J., make sense of what often felt like a senseless world. But today, in a year whose numerals feel torn from a comic book page — it is the year 2020 and the X-Men are losing a war that threatens the very planet — when I don a mask every day to, yes, protect other people; I don’t do it in any of the ways that I typically dreamed. I am not bounding from skyscraper to skyscraper. I am not pensively crouched among gargoyles, surveying the city beneath me. I am not using heightened senses to locate bombs, or smell the dripping gasoline of a building that’s about to explode, or listen to the tremor of a lying heart.
I am now wearing a mask to survive and to make sure you survive — and you’re wearing one to make sure that I survive. And together we’re all some bizarre, jacked-up town of vigilantes wandering a barren city.
I still have my superpower, though, the one I’ve always had. Something like Spidey sense, but it vibrates on a different frequency. I’ve used it in the past to detect any sort of potentially apparent danger: avoiding the gaze of cop cruisers when I’m walking around, watching for how soon a store attendant follows me when I shop, listening to the slightest inflection in someone’s voice when they talk about “some people.” A black woman in a Zoom call referred to this power that black people share as “psychic energy,” but said it in a way that made the phrase feel like a gift that was a blessing and a curse. I imagine the invisible fingers of black people lightly touching their temples like Professor Xavier, both in cartographic anticipation of danger and in an attempt to calm it before it befalls us.
I call my power Black Paranoia (“BP”™), and it is fully alive and alert during covid-19. I walk out the door, masked, and I extend my BP like a sonar. In my mind it races ahead of me on the street, pinging off boarded-up restaurant facades, hurdling over the hoods of cars, rimming the frames of pedestrians. The effect makes my neck tight and my eyes a constant quiver of narrows; I have to hone my vision to a skewer, but now I’m so self-conscious of that, too, because it means that despite all my superhero tropes and hopes, I may occasionally look villainous, what with this half-covered face and piercing eyes.
I am used to the bustle and shove of a vibrant Philadelphia street where people, despite the ample space to go around each other, will still barrel down the sidewalk and jostle you. But now the urban magnetization — people feeling like they’re on top of each other because the city feels so packed, so intimate — is gone. Now, with poles awkwardly aligned, we’re actively repelled by each other on the sidewalk and in grocery store aisles, soundlessly moving away from each other. With my BP at its strongest, I’m already trying to avoid people as much as possible in this new world, so I’m switching sidewalks, streets and store aisles before people even see me. To the ones that don’t demagnetize, that choose to stand their ground, I try to convey peace, I come in peace, no need for alarm, I’m just as weirded out as you, honest, with my eyes and sometimes, if I’m close enough, I can mouth a mumbled greeting. How does Spider-Man do it? I can barely hear myself. How can I make anyone feel safe when I barely feel safe? Sometimes I hold up two fingers as a sign of good will, but my BP won’t let me hold too many fingers or conversations or even my ground in places.
I can save nothing or no one — in my waking world or my dreams. I have video calls, text messages and emails daily, telling me about the latest life claimed by covid-19. Video calls, text messages and emails about someone losing their jobs. Video calls, text messages and emails updating me about broken relationships. Video calls, text messages and emails updating about loved ones’ mental health conditions. At night, when the video calls, text messages and emails eventually trickle down, I sit and wait for sleep to wrap a cape around my shoulders so that I might fly off to a dream world, where I’m used to having so many powers without fear or paranoia or a mask.
But now when I dream, I save nothing. I can’t save me: One night I dream I am crouching in a gas station convenience store with eight strangers — a mix of parents and their children — as we watch a soaring missile splinter in the sky; its fragments race back to the ground and erupt the world in a fiery storm. Right before that, in another dream the same night, a former high school classmate whose face is made up of several faces of other classmates, chases me down our town’s major street. He shoots me in the back several times, and as I fall to the ground, he stands over me, pelting me with more bullets. In another, I ride in a limousine with Alfred Pennyworth and The Rock, probably because before I’d gone to bed I was reading Batman while clicking through the channels and “Fast and the Furious 8” was playing and I’d almost kept it on because, why not? Nowadays I’m putting on a lot of things I wouldn’t normally watch. But we’re in the limousine and The Rock turns around, trademark twitch to his eyebrow as he realizes that we have to get out of the limo now. It was right before that bomb in the sky came.
I can’t save the people I love. In my dream, one of my best friends, someone who is fighting an internal battle in real life, and I are finally together in person, underwater. We’re mer-people, angrily floating before each other face-to-face and I am finally screaming at her all the things I haven’t been able to say to her face because of covid-19 restrictions and because of the horror of loving someone through their pain. But even here, underwater in this free world, we’ve only been able to exchange angry bubbles that don’t even dissipate; they hang in the water between us, building an oxygenated wall that grows between us. As I emerge from the dream, her face is stretched and warped as I peer through the bubbles at her screaming face. In another, I’m back in Paris, on the trip I took last December with my mom, and as she walks toward me down an empty Parisian alley with white Christmas lights strewn above our heads, her face unseams straight down the middle and stars erupt like 4th of July sparklers from the opening. The whole time she’s smiling, smiling, smiling and I’m screaming, screaming, screaming through a mask. I pull it off and out from my open mouth another one parachutes out and covers my mouth again.
In comics and superhero stories, we lose and create worlds. Krypton vanishes in a catastrophic explosion. The world is unmade by the arrival of mutants. The Silver Surfer helplessly watches Galactus devour endless planets. Covid-19 has likewise yanked us into a reality that’s ending as another one actively starts building itself. These times feel like wet comic book pages, sodden by a virus that makes fantasy and fact bleed into one another like colors across the panels. It’s become harder and harder now to separate those stories.