The boy was only four. His heart on display for everyone to see, for anyone to rend. He thought he could fly. Like Spiderman, or Superman. And when he visited his grandmother’s ninth floor apartment in New York City, and looked out the windows in his mother’s old bedroom, he found, to his astonishment, a stage custom made for a boy who wanted nothing more than to soar. Buildings as far as he could see, cars so tiny they could be his Matchbox cars. He pressed his face into the grimy windowpane and dreamed.
His mother found him there and knelt beside him. She wanted to see what he saw. And she did, she did, though she had to squint to make it so, to bring into focus what it was to have been a child in this room. Together they admired the vastness of the city before them. When she stood she issued a mild admonition. The windows stay locked, she said. That’s Grandma’s rule, and my rule, and it’s one of those rules for keeping you safe. The boy nodded. Yes?, his mother repeated. Yes, he murmured, before turning back to where he could fly, down 74th Street and north up 3rd Avenue. He had placed his superhero figures just so, on the windowsill.
When it was time for lunch, his grandmother called him into the kitchen. What have you been doing?, she asked, anxiety lifting her voice into an unfamiliar register, reedy and high. She’d wanted her grandson to visit up to and until the moment he arrived, when she realized that he was now old enough to get into things, to cause disarray. (It may be that she preferred to study photographs of the boy, which overwhelmed every available surface in her home, than to have him, nose persistently running, hair sticking up every which way, before her. It may well be.)
Flying, he answered. Simple and true, the reply.
A mocking noise escaped his grandmother then, out her nose and mouth along with the smoke from her cigarette. Her daughter understood that this was a warning and stopped slicing her son’s banana. Waited. And soon enough:
You DO know that you can’t fly, silly boy. That Superman and Spiderman are made-up characters in comic books? People can’t fly. If you, or Spiderman, were to jump out this window — here the grandmother gestured to the small frosted kitchen window closest to her — you’d end up on the sidewalk. Dead, or nearly so.
The boy stood stock still in front of his grandmother. He’d gone pale, and his mother considered whether he might faint. In her head she was running through the symptoms of shock when her child blurred past her as he fled the kitchen. She found him in the dining room. He was sitting on a hard-backed chair, a chair so formal, so forbiddingly tall that she feared it might swallow him whole at any moment. He was looking straight ahead, not moving. Turned to stone, she thought. She hugged his body to her, and in the safety of her embrace he started to shake and shudder and finally let loose great heaving sobs. I CAN fly, Mommy, he cried. I know you can, baby, she soothed, and stroked his still baby-fine hair.
Back in the kitchen her mother sat, arms crossed, a detestably smug smile on her face. How could you?, wailed the daughter, as she swiped ineffectually at her tear-dampened blouse. Oh, come now, replied her mother. You know as well as I do that he had to find out sometime. And I certainly don’t want to be responsible for the child trying to jump out of the window. Not in my house.
He is FOUR!, shouted the daughter, but she knew she’d lost. Lost so many years ago, in fact, when she was herself a child, and her mother couldn’t bear to be around a person, even a little person, with hopes and dreams and… joy. Yes, that was it. Joy. Her mother had never known joy, and damned if she was going to let anyone else know it. Not if she could help it.
The boy took the loss of his dream with uncharacteristic stoicism. But his mother noticed that not long after they returned from their visit to New York the boy put away his superheroes and moved on. To dinosaurs.
Sighing as she lifted the bin of superheroes onto a high shelf in the boy’s closet, she supposed that dinosaurs were a safer bet. They had lived, they had died, they had left evidence of themselves. Their existence indisputable, even on cross-examination.
She thought that once her mother must have believed she could fly, too. Don’t we all? Wondered what crushing blow must have been administered sometime between then and now, a blow that would cause a woman to smother her own grandson’s wonder as carelessly as she extinguished the stub of a cigarette with her shoe.
It must have been an event like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs: sudden. Catastrophic. Shattering. Otherwise… Well. There could be no otherwise, could there?
The boy never again brought his superheroes down from where they lay high up in his closet —
At night did those superheroes dream of flying out of their box and around the house? When you are built to fly but find yourself unable to, what then?
– which may have been just as well. Even a child would find it difficult to imagine a world where dinosaurs and superheroes might coexist.