“Everything must be simplified and glamorized with you people. Why? I don’t know. You’re not stupid, not lazy. I just can’t figure it out. You even had to shorten the name. In Russia, he… and I say he in the most general way because there are many of these supermen… Ha ha, only one! I cannot imagine this… he cannot fly or lift trains, or if he can he has never tried so he doesn’t know. He hasn’t tried a very great many things. This is the heart of his dilemma.
You are writers though, so maybe you know something of our literature. In the 19th Century a character arose in Russian novels called the superfluous man. He was a new type of man – filled with bold ideas yet paralyzed by doubt, not able to take part in the world around him…”
Suzie was trying to tilt her metal chair back so that it would balance on a single leg. It wasn’t clear that she was even listening.
“Well, that doesn’t sound like much of a superhero,” she giggled.
“I still think you’re messing with us,” Diane said, becoming somber and quiet as her roommate began an irreversible plunge into tipsiness.
“Now, the authorities … I mean, literary critics and so on, explained these figures from the pages of Turgenev, Goncharov and Dostoevsky as a phenomenon of the times – a loss of the values or the result of social, and later capitalist, oppression. But the ugly truth was they were the result of this.”
Vassily pulled another piece of kryptonite from his pocket, held it up and with one hand deftly slipped it out of its wrapper and popped it in his mouth.
“Hey careful, Vasya,” I said jokingly, “Can’t you overdose on that stuff?”
“No, not really. I’m used to it. Maybe I will just become a little gloomy and self-absorbed.”
The sun had dipped out of sight somewhere and the brides and grooms were replaced with a nighttime crowd too young to get married.
And it came to pass just as Vassily had predicted. The self-confident womanizer I had met in New York had become a shell of his former self over the course of a few hours. Suzie even began leaning over to him and blowing seductively in his ear, but it was as if he mistook her breath for a chill wind coming over the river and tucked his arms in his jacket as if he were cold.
Eventually the three of us left him there. I said I had to go back to my room and write, but I don’t think lies and excuses were even necessary. Vassily mumbled a goodbye and as we walked away I took a look back and saw him sitting in the same position, hunched over, staring out at the river or at the vast expanse of nothingness eating away at his soul.
She had mentioned wanting to buy a bag to bring home and was surprised at Vassily’s reaction.
“No, you must not!” he had said. “It is very strictly illegal to transport across the borders. For foreigners it’s not a good idea to have it at all. Besides, it is illegal in your country too, believe me I know.”
Suzie looked in her backpack and saw a little space where she could slip a small bag. Not that she really believed she needed to smuggle the green candies, but the truth was it was the last thing she could fit inside and still be able to zip it closed.
She was on her way to buy a bag of the stuff when it occurred to her she didn’t know what kind of store she should look for it in – a candy store? A pharmacy? A head shop? Or were there street dealers who whispered “kryptonite” from darkened doorways to ghostly figures of doubt-ridden addicts?
She opted for a cluttered market that seemed to have everything from CDs to alcohol to cleaning supplies and imitation Circassian daggers.
“Zdravstvuyte,” she said to the uncomprehending Armenian behind the counter. “I would like some kryptonite, please.”
An utterly blank stare.
“Creep-to-nite,” she tried in a vaguely more Russian pronunciation.
Still nothing. Yet Suzie wasn’t the type to give up easily and wasn’t willing to acknowledge that she had been the victim of a practical joke.
“You know Superman… up, up and away.”
She raised her arms in the air to simulate flight. The sales clerk’s stare was no longer blank. He was scared. Just then, Suzie thought she spotted green and white stripes high up on the shelves between an assortment of incense and refillable lighters decorated with skulls and crossbones.
“That’s it… up there,” she pointed earnestly.
For a moment the man thought she had changed her direction in mid-air and was now going to fly into the shelves. Then he saw what she was pointing at. Doubt seemed to cross his face. Then again, maybe he just didn’t want to climb up a ladder that high for such a questionable request. Suzie wasn’t paying attention to him though. She was too ecstatic.
She flew into JFK and was planning to spend a few days in New York clubbing and recovering before heading home to see her parents. She would wait to break out the Vodka until she got back to Michigan, but figured she could offer her friends in the city a few pieces of the green candy to see if it really did anything. Maybe she would even try some herself. After being in Russia and traveling in Europe all summer Suzie had developed a taste for novelty, so why not give self-doubt a little try.
It was a gray sky welcoming her home but she was impatient to get into the city as soon as she could. She had already resolved on springing for a cab rather than the endless subway ride when she saw her backpack coming towards her on the conveyor belt.
“Freeze right there! Put your hands on the back of your head …”
A third hand was added to the two behind her head and pushed her face down on the floor.
“Anything you say can be held against you in a court of …”
“But what the …?”
She could only see their feet and the paws of police dogs scurrying around. The floor was filthy.
“Let’s clear the area people!”
“What about our bags?”
A dog started barking wildly.
“That’s gotta be it. Step back. What are you doing?”
An airport security guard had come up to the conveyor belt and pulled the bag off and dragged it on the floor. He couldn’t stand how these city cops came in and acted like the bomb squad when it was only a college kid with some dope in her backpack. He couldn’t stand a lot of things about this job – seeing his co-workers turn a blind eye to baggage handlers slipping electric razors and wrapped parcels out of people’s suitcases with these greedy wolfish smiles on their faces, the same guys who moaned about being exploited by the “Man.” And was he any better? Mister paragon of virtue who would leave his wife and kids without a second thought if he could think of anywhere to go. His eyes remained fixed on the conveyor belt making its slow, grinding circle full of untouched bags now that the area had been cleared. What was even the point? He didn’t even care when he felt the grip of that arrogant cop dragging him away from the backpack, telling him to get away from the bag, because all he wanted to do now was get away.
Michael Stein is a writer and journalist in the Czech Republic and runs a blog on Central European writing called literalab. He is an editor at B O D Y and a regular contributor to journals such as Absinthe: New European Writing, The Cerise Press and Berlin’s Readux, has had a book review in Asymptote and published short stories in publications such as Drunken Boat, McSweeney’s, The Medulla Review and Cafe Irreal, among other magazines.