Having regained sufficient dexterity, she catches the pull, drawing the zipper of her boot all the way down, leaning into the descent, allowing it to thud to the floor. If her feet hurt, she can’t feel it. They are blocks of numbness from her heels to her toes after all the darting, skirting, climbing, leaping, and balancing on the balls of her feet in an elevated power stance she has performed this day. And running, of course. They love to watch her run.
Most days she can resign herself to being incessantly surrounded by onlookers. Their movements are unified, arching back for the peripheral view, leaning far from her. Never has one of them ever leaned forward. Not once has she ever been offered an outstretched hand. They come only near enough to get a better view of her as spectacle—the female form demonstrating before their eyes the strength of a primordial brute.
She unlatches the lasso at her waist and feels the intricate texture of the woven strands, smooth on her rough fingertips. She pulls at the knots on either end, considers the allure of the tassels. She values the tight bind of each strand, only as strong as the ones to which it is attached. It’s the one implement that needs no upkeep, with a shine that never dulls. So bright, in fact, that caught even in a ray of moonlight or a glint of introspection, it can be blinding. She yearns to apply to herself its golden essence like a rule—always treating herself as well as she treats others. Always telling the truth. Even to herself. Even at midnight.
Despite her best efforts, the victims harrow her, disturbing any peace of mind she had hoped for. The collective expression of the students remaining earnest despite the actuality of their bus careening toward a ridge; the soldiers shuttering yet stalwart before the advancing teeth of the tank tread; the trepidatious captives helplessly composed as they listen to the insistent hissing of the fuse of the bomb; and the laughter of the picnicking family all at once split into shrieks wide as the fault line, plunging them into the gulf between love and disaster.
Her mere presence is all the reassurance they need that they will live. Their expressions assure her they suspect nothing of the traits she shares with them: the way they collectively lean resolutely away, contentedly disregard the obvious. Enticing wayward citizens back to their daily lives, she knows what they initially went looking for—the exhilarating dizziness of the height, the escape from monotony, the lure of a clean edge of possibility, the breathless shimmering promise of flight.
The lower half of her bodysuit and her tights bind her, married like a second skin. The spandex shorts are fairly easy, but the stockings resist with compassion, as if knowing they are the only element holding her together. She begins tugging down the waistband inch by inch. Sensing proximity, her stomach rumbles as she pauses for a moment to recall the last time she ate, or for that matter, gave a thought to sustaining herself. Always, it is she who can wait. Always, it is others who are allowed the luxury of need. She bites back the bitterness she feels rising in her throat and forces herself to swallow. The tights tear, of course, the fine threads unraveling like the secrets everyone puts away at the end of every day. She can do nothing but shrug. The slack makes it easier to slough them off while she rubs gently at the bruises no one else bothers to look close enough to see. Her own skin, the sole bearer of the enduring debt to valor that will never fully be paid.
Despite her continued efforts, the villains crowd in, further disturbing her futile hope for peace. They parade before her like a waking nightmare. The garish neon flash of costume unfurled, the wayward lure of body language cunning as a trap, the pervasive grimace matched by the menacing gesture, the maniacal cry bordering hysterically on mirth, and the unreason flickering in their heavy-lidded eyes blurring into one, precarious on the threshold between Hades and Utopia.
She raises her palms to her temples with effort. The weighty silver cuffs are tarnished by gunpowder and dented with deflection. She eases them off her aching wrists. She can stop the bullets, but the insults hurl past her defenses: abnormal, deviant, aberrant, transfigured, a mutant, a behemoth, a tragic abomination of the feminine.
It is a marvel, really, the way her slogans combat and pacify, ringing endlessly true for them if not herself. Her words, once pithy and laden with gravity, long ago began to fail her, but she persists despite herself, projecting until she is hoarse hollow mottos designed to neatly encapsulate the unfathomable. So long as there is hope, there can be victory! Only love can truly save the world! You can only have the truth, and the truth is enough, and the truth is beautiful!
If only they knew the actual risk of split-second assessing, the ominous and omnipresent uncertainty, the lurk and jeer of doubt, the sheer fear of reversing the trajectory of a falling skyscraper, of inserting herself between colliding planets, or most perilous, rescuing those scores of young girls, by any means necessary, from adolescent self-loathing. If she could add them up, it would be staggering how many look to her, from one nation, on an entire continent, all the world over. I will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves! Yet, they can never know, especially those young girls, what she’s foregone to be a wonder or the ways in which she is boundlessly confined to liberation. You can be anything—as long as you don’t mind being an anomaly. You can do it yourself—as long as you don’t mind the absence of embrace. You can have it all—as long as you don’t mind having it all, alone. You can only have the truth.
Pondering this just makes her sink deeper into the edge of the bed, too tired even to recline. One more piece to go, the last, the most wearying, in every way the hardest. She grips the iron and irony of it, extracting, carefully, the breastplate, perspiration securing it to her like an untenable grief, protecting the most feminine part of her no one ever touches. In an enervated instant, she releases the clattering armor and the emblematic golden eagle recedes.
Without thought or grace, she clutches her chest in a moment of tenderness, trying at once to gather and center herself around the faint but reassuring rhythm of her own heartbeat. Desire dwells there, too, palpable but unspoken. Not to designate, but to be given. Not to answer, but truly wonder. Not to seek, but to be sought. Not to devote, but be doted on.
Not to trace, but to be taken.
Vulnerably, involuntarily, she lies back, her arm unwittingly flung across the empty pillow beside her. From the headdress, her black hair slips loose, a wingspan of ravens—their insistent cries beckoning her to dream. She begins to breathe deeply, moving into sleep. Delicate, perfectly fallible. Surrendering the warrior; submitting to the woman.
Author's CommentWhile at my desk, sorting through a pile of old documents and photographs, I came across a paper doll of Wonder Woman that I was given many years ago. While she was in her traditional stance looking every inch the heroine, holding the paper doll in my hands made me consider its ephemeral nature. I began to think about what comprises a heroine and about the thin lines we all tread—about traditional gender roles and the qualities that are valued or reviled in a woman. I began to think about the care that is bestowed or disregarded by those who rely upon us most. This story acknowledges the tenuous nature of strength and the profound sense of dependence we seek in one another and ourselves.