One Flew East
Claudia wondered why it was that everyone in the whole wide world seemed to know that Clark Kent was Superman but only she knew her sister was Superwoman. Not that she didn't try to let other people in on Ilene’s little secret, even if all she ever got for her trouble was, first, inane giggling, as if they thought she was trying to be funny, and then, when they realized she was serious, this dead silence, often followed by some insipid comment, like the one Mary Beth Watson had made the night of the senior prom. "Claudia Chandler," she'd said, batting her made-up eyes, "You're crazy as a Betsy bug."
The only exceptions were the shrinks Claudia, at the insistence of her mother, had been seeing off and on since the summer when she was thirteen and discovered Ilene's alter ego. Of course, they never said much of anything, at least not in the beginning, just listened without interrupting too much, that being one thing they were usually good at, and reserved comment. Yet she'd learned that this certainly didn't mean they believed her anymore than anyone else. It simply meant the doctors knew enough to keep their opinions to themselves and not come right out and say, "Claudia, you're off your noodle."
Given this insight into how psychiatrists and psychologists worked, by the time she was thirty, Claudia knew what to expect each time she had to go in for what she had come to think of as her "periodic refill of psycho-babble," something she did, not because she herself saw any need in it, but because her mother threatened to cut off her allowance if Claudia didn't keep the appointments.
Not that losing that small stipend would have mattered all so much, except Claudia needed it to pay her rent, thanks to Ilene, who was always interfering and making her lose her job, like the last one she'd had through the employment agency as a temporary legal secretary for Mr. John Frederick, attorney at law. All she had done was ask him to shoo her sister away from the fifth floor window so she could concentrate on typing the brief he'd wanted her to prepare. Looked at her like she was mad as a hatter the man had, and all he’d had to do was turn around to see Ilene for himself, hovering outside that window and smirking like she found it all so hilariously amusing. But that was Ilene for you. She had a mean sense of humor for a superhero.
Thinking about this and how it was all Ilene's fault she had to spend this December afternoon sitting in some shrink’s office instead of Christmas shopping, like she needed to be doing, Claudia entered the elevator of the Russell Davis Building in downtown Atlanta and pressed the ninth floor button. Watching the floor lights make their way up the scale toward her destination, she clenched her fist in determination. All she wanted was to get this tedious ordeal over with, put it behind her, and get on with her life. The one thing she was certain of was that she was wasting her valuable time. Dr. Willis L. Ingram wasn't going to be any different than any other stupid doctor with whom she'd dealt. Just sit there and look at her like he understood, when he didn't understand anything at all. Hell, Claudia thought, Ilene was her sister, and she should know whether or not her own flesh and blood had superhuman powers, now shouldn't she?
Fifteen minutes later, after wasting even more of her life by thumbing through an outdated copy of People magazine, Claudia was ushered into Dr. Ingram's inner-sanctum, the typical psychiatrist's office--overstuffed couch and chairs, soft lightning, and strategically placed boxes of tissues.
"Hello Claudia," said the portly, rather grandfatherly man who walked from behind a monstrous desk. Made of polished cherry, it took up half the office space, and Claudia calculated it was approximately the size of the Titanic. Holding a pen and a yellow legal pad in his left hand, he extended his right toward her, but she ignored it, having decided her allowance wasn't generous enough for her to have to be civil to the man.
Clearing his throat, he motioned toward a chair near the couch.
She also ignored this and sat down in the one immediately to her left. "Let's get right to the point," she said. "I'm here because my mother doesn't have sense enough to know her own daughter is Superwoman."
Pulling a chair around to face hers, he settled his ample girth and replied, "So, you're a superwoman?'
"No," she informed him, "Not me. Ilene."
"And who is Ilene?"
"My older sister."
"Oh, so Ilene is a superwoman."
"Not a superwoman. Superwoman, with a capital S."
"There's a difference?"
She decided he was an idiot. "Sure there's a difference," she said. "A big difference. One could say Hillary Clinton is a superwoman. Or Oprah Winfrey is a superwoman. But there's only one Superwoman, with a capital S, like there's only one Superman; and that's my sister—the one and only Superwoman."
He raised one shaggy eyebrow.
Claudia said, "It's true . She’s Superwoman, and like Superman, she has a day job. She’s managing editor of Fashion Trends."
"Believe my wife subscribes to that."
Thinking she didn't care what his wife subscribed to, Claudia added, “Like Clark Kent, she’s in the publishing business, just a different branch, since she’s hardly the type to be a mild-mannered reporter for some newspaper, not even the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, which I hear pays pretty good." Claudia frowned. "Ilene makes a six-figure salary and has a plush office in Buckhead. But her job is beside the point. The important thing is what she does have in common with Clark Kent."
"Which is how she dashes into phone booths, closets, and around corners, then emerges as Superwoman. Well, except she doesn't throw on the traditional superhero garb."
"Hmmm, so what does your sister put on?"
Claudia shrugged. "Oh, different things."
"Last week it was a blue Elizabeth Arden suit, the week before, a green Ralph Lauren polo shirt with khaki Dockers. This week, it's tennis togs."
"Yes, tennis togs. You know, short pleated skirt; crisp, white shirt with a designer logo on it; plus one of those little sun visors sitting atop her head." She leaned toward him, lowered her voice. "Did you know Ilene's hair never gets mussed like a normal person's? Doesn't that strike you as more than a little odd?"
He reserved comment, instead made a notation on the yellow legal pad he had propped on the arm of the chair.
Claudia said, "Look, I know you think it's strange that, if she's Superwoman, which she is, Ilene shuns the requisite uniform. But you just don't know my sister. Like I said, she is a fashion editor, and even if she wasn't, Ilene is hardly the type to be caught dead in some tacky red, white, and blue jumpsuit. With a gigantic S on her chest? Get real! Not to mention the hideous cape."
"She's not, huh?"
"No, she's not. What kind of statement would that make?" She rolled her eyes. "I'll tell you what kind--one that blares, and I mean blares, to the world--Hey, look, this person has absolutely, positively no fashion sense at all--no flair for style--and the taste of a comic book character. That's what."
Umm yourself, she thought, wondering briefly if that was the most intelligent response he could come up with, before she added, "You don't know Ilene. So let me fill you in. Ilene believes what we choose to wear is one of the most important decisions we ever make. Right up there with selecting a compatible mate or deciding which prep school to enroll our child in. In fact, maybe it's even more important."
"What about you?"
"What do you mean--what about me?"
"Do you feel how you dress is important?"
She couldn't help but laugh. "What do you think?" Saying this, she swept her right hand outward and down, taking in the plus-size cotton shirt, which was decidedly wrinkled, given she hated ironing; the just-as-wrinkled slacks, and the scuffed, rather soiled sneakers. "Of course, Ilene tells me I'm just reinforcing my psychosis by dressing the part of an anxiety-ridden neurotic and I'll never get any better until I take a remedial course in Fashion Savvy 101."
He wrote something on the pad, looked back at her. "How do you feel when Ilene says this?"
How do I feel?"
"Yes, how do you feel?"
"Well, " she admitted, "I've never thought about how I feel when she says it."
"Then maybe you should think about it."
She pursed her lips, but decided perhaps he was right and she should consider Ilene's comment in light of her own emotional response. Watching him turn his attention once more to the pad, she pondered the question, reached a conclusion, and said, "I think she's full of shit."
He glanced up and smiled. "Good for you."
"Because the way I see it, my choice in clothes is hardly reflective of some psychosis, given there is no psychosis. Nor am I anxiety-ridden or neurotic. Ilene just likes to reinforce this misconception because she knows if people think I'm nuts, then they won't believe me when I tell them about her secret identity." Saying this, she smiled back at him, pleased with her honest appraisal of the matter.
Yet his own smile faded as he said, "Let's backtrack a moment. Claudia, I want to know exactly why you think of your sister as being a superwoman."
"Not a superwoman." She clenched her fist. Couldn't the man keep his facts straight? "I told you—she’s Superwoman. Remember. With a capital S."
"Yes, sorry. Superwoman. Why do . . ."
"Because that's what she is--Superwoman!"
"Oh, I see."
"No, you don't see anything." She pushed her shoulders back into the thick cushion of the chair. "But then, nobody else does either. Me, I'm the only one who sees."
He narrowed one eye. "Tell me, Claudia, what exactly do you see?"
"Ilene! I see Ilene do all these things that no one else sees because she won't let them see."
"All that superhero stuff. You know. Leap tall buildings in a single bound. Outrun speeding locomotives." Pausing, she glanced toward the closed door, then the window. "And Ilene knows everything I do," she whispered. "Everything I say. She's listening right now, and she also knows you don't believe me."
"Who says I don't believe you?"
She sighed, said, "I know you don't, but no one else believes me either. I'm used to all you disbelievers."
This time it was he who bent toward her. "Claudia," he said, "what I do believe is that you yourself believe Ilene is Superwoman and there's a reason you believe this."
Now he's talking in circles, she thought. He was just like all the rest after all. Typical psychiatrist. Got a person as confused, that’s all any of them ever did. Besides, she knew he had already decided she was crazy. She could see it in his eyes, like an echo image on a computer screen. This woman is as nutty as a fruitcake. That’s what he was thinking. A few fries short of a full Happy Meal. A real . . .
"Now," he said, "let me ask you something, and I want you to be completely honest with me . . . and with yourself. Okay."
"Sure, ask anything you want." She crossed her arms. And she’d answer him all right. Like to see how he'd react if he learned his sister was Superwoman. Not that it was going to happen. Ilene was Superwoman, so the position was filled. Let his sister be Spiderwoman.
Tapping the pad with his black and gold ball point pen, as if he were keeping time with some tune he alone could hear, he said, "Tell me this, what exactly has Ilene done that's in keeping with the actions of a superhero."
Oh, crap, she thought. Hadn't the man been listening? Then again, it was her first session with him. Maybe he simply needed a little more evidence. "For starters," she said, "not only can Ilene do all the traditional stunts one associates with superheroes, you know, fly, leap, etc. She's completely, totally perfect."
"Perfect?" He frowned. "Perfect in what way?"
"Perfect, as in flawless, without blemish. Not a wrinkle. Eats all she wants and never gains an ounce." She glanced down at her own ample waistline. "How many other women do you know who can do that? I swear, but Ilene has the metabolic rate of a hummingbird."
Covering his mouth with his hand, Dr. Ingram coughed, but she saw the smile through his fingers and glared at him in retaliation. "Well, it's true ,” she said. Why, she’d seen Ilene devour half a cheesecake in one sitting. If she herself ate like that, she'd weigh three times what she already weighed. Maybe more. "And if that's not enough," she added, "I can't remember her ever having a cold. Zilch. Nada. Not Superwoman. She's impervious to cold germs." She turned, glanced toward the window, back at him. "Of course, maybe Ilene’s like Clark Kent, meaning Kryptonite would screw up her immune system. You wouldn't happen to know where I could get a supply of the stuff, would you?"
Now openly chuckling, he shrugged. "No, Claudia, can't say I know any Kryptonite dealers."
Disappointed, she glanced toward the window.
"Claudia," he added, "Let's try a little exercise."
Muffling a moan, she looked back at him. If there was one thing she hated more than their relentless, pointless questions, it was the mind-numbing exercises psychiatrists could come up with. And every last one of them involved the same steps--close eyes, breathe deeply, visualize--a process that made her so sleepy she invariably had to go straight home afterwards and take a nap.
Laying the pad aside, he laced his fingers together. "Now, close your eyes."
She complied, not being in the mood to argue with the man.
"Okay, breathe deeply and let yourself go to that special place--a place where you feel totally safe and comfortable. Maybe beside a gurgling stream, with the sunlight filtering through the canopy of trees . . ."
Hearing the steady drone of his voice, though ignoring his instructions, Claudia wondered where Ilene was at this moment. Hovering outside the window? Suspended there above the street? Like a fly on steroids, that's what she was. Probably had those x-ray eyes of hers trained on the wall, watching her sister and this idiot doctor play his stupid game. Having herself a good old time, Ilene and her super-human powers. Claudia sighed, wondering, as she'd wondered before, why it was that she couldn't have a normal sister like other people. No, she'd been stuck with being the younger sibling of Superwoman, and a really weird Superwoman at that. Didn't give a crap about fighting crime or over-coming injustice and the evil forces in the world. To hell with the teeming masses. All Ilene used her powers for was her own selfish gain. And to show off to her not-so-super younger sister, like she'd been showing off ever since they were kids.
She sighed, opened one eye a slit. The doctor was now silent, obviously thinking she was hypnotized or having a damn out-of-body experience. His head cocked to one side like he was deep in thought, he was busy again scribbling on his pad, and Claudia watched the way his lips twitched at the corners and the way the ribbons of December sun, streaming through the partially opened blinds, shimmered throughout his silver hair. Tilting her own head slightly, she studied the effect. The light flashing and dancing around his skull reminded her of a halo, a halo of sunbeams, so that he looked amazingly like she imagined God should look.
She turned her head to the right, opened the other eye a little and squinted. It caused the halo to expand, become almost blinding in its intensity. Claudia blinked. But what if, she wondered, Dr. Willis L. Ingram didn't merely bear a resemblance to God? What if—what if he were really God Himself?
Shifting in the seat, he cleared his throat, frowned, and continued to write.
She also shifted in her chair, still watching him, seeing the sun flash through those silvery strands of hair, watching the aurora of light encircle his head.
Finishing his notations, Dr. Ingram glanced up, saw her staring at him. "Oh," he said and laughed, "are we through?"
"Through with what?" she asked.
He laid the pen on the pad, cleared his throat. "Tell me, Claudia, how do you really feel about your sister?"
"What do you mean, how do I feel?" She shrugged. "She’s my sister."
"I know. But do you love her? Hate her? What?"
"I love her," she replied, which was true . “ I just don’t like her being Superwoman.” In fact, she hated Ilene’s being Superwoman.
He again picked up the pen. "So its Ilene's perfection that bothers you?"
Claudia wondered why he wanted to get her back on the subject of Ilene's perfection. Maybe, being God, he was pissed that she would dare to find fault with His top-of-the-line model. Then again, if she lied and said it didn’t bother her, wouldn't he recognize it as a lie? "In all honesty," she admitted, "I guess her perfection does get rather tiresome at times."
His lips curving downward, he made another notation.
She decided he didn't look especially pleased with her response. Maybe she should have lied after all. "Look," she added, "Ilene's really all right. Her powers don't bother me too much. Not really."
"They don't? But you just said. . ."
"Okay, maybe some of them do, for example, well, there's . . . there's"
"There's what, Claudia?"
"Her speed for one thing.” There, she’d said it. She held her breath, waiting for his reaction.
"Yeah, that faster-than-a-speeding-bullet stuff."
"Speeding bullet stuff?"
"Yeah, you know. Zooming everywhere like she does."
"So that bothers you. Why?"
"It makes me dizzy to watch her. Zoom! Zing! Zoom! But I guess anyone's equilibrium would be upset if they watched her long enough." Saying this, she held up her hand, added, "Not that you get dizzy watching her, just me; I get dizzy. So maybe, just maybe, you could do something about it. You know, like slow her down a little."
"Claudia," he said, "I think what you're really saying is that your sister leads an active lifestyle in comparison to your, shall we say, self-induced state of inertia."
"Inertia?" She had never thought of her life in that particular term, but maybe it was time she did. After all, could God be wrong?
"Yes, Claudia, inertia. You know, the tendency to remain in a fixed condition without change."
"I know what inertia is," she said. Had God forgotten that she'd gone to college?
"I'm sure you do."
She thought his tone rather patronizing.
"Hmmm." He rubbed his chin. "Let's concentrate on this line of thought for a moment. Your inertia and your sister's, well, shall we say—mobility?”
"Yes, mobility, for lack of a better word. After all, she is your exact opposite." He held out both hands. "Mobility. Inertia."
"Not to correct you," she said, hoping he wouldn't take offense, "but Superwoman can't be inert. It's against the laws of . . .of quantum mechanics or something."
"Exactly. But you can."
"You should know."
He frowned. "Why?"
"You know why."
Rocking back in his chair, he puffed out his cheeks. "Claudia," he said, "maybe we need to back up a minute. As you keep saying, your sister is a superwoman."
"Not a superwoman. Superwoman with a capital S." She smiled. "Like you don't know this, right?"
Ignoring the question, he said, "So here Ilene is with these superhuman abilities. Now. Let’s be honest. How do you really, and I mean really, feel about her having what you see yourself as not having?"
She said, "I have to think about it," and closed her eyes.
"Do that," he said.
Claudia wondered what kind of mind game he was playing. Trying to trick her maybe? Wasn't there a commandment about not coveting what other people had? Inhaling, she listened to the rhythm of his breathing and wondered if he were staring at her. Could the eyes of God see through a person like Superwoman's could see through walls? Look right inside her head and read her thoughts? Covering her face with her hands so he would think she was contemplating his question, she peeped through the slit between her little fingers.
Not paying any attention to her at all, he was chewing on his lower lip as he penned something onto the pad.
She suddenly wondered if the Book of Life could be a yellow legal pad instead of the ornate, gold embossed tome she had always imagined.
He looked up, met her eyes.
"Claudia," he said, "Tell me what you're thinking."
"About your question. You told me to think about it."
"And," he said.
"And I'm still thinking."
He laid the pad on the table beside the chair, looked at his watch. "Well, perhaps this is a good place to stop for today. Only a few minutes left anyway. So why don't you continue to think about it, and we'll discuss your response next week."
"All right, I'll do that."
"Good. Because I really believe we can get somewhere, that is, if you'll work with me." He pushed himself up from the chair. "Will you work with me, Claudia?"
She couldn’t say “no” to God, now could she? Besides, if he believed they could get somewhere, then who was she to doubt his word? Nodding, she stood and picked up her purse.
Smiling, he said, "So I want you to go home and keep thinking about what I asked you."
A few minutes later, she was again in the winter-bright glare on Washington Avenue, and as she stood on the sidewalk, Claudia scanned the metropolitan skyline.
"Look up in the sky," she said.
An elderly man stopped beside her and gazed upward. "What is it?" he asked.
"It's a bird."
"A bird?” He squinted. “What kind of bird?"
"It’s a plane."
"A plane? Where?"
Claudia waved at Ilene, who was now hovering near the fortieth floor of the Peachtree Plaza. "Never mind,” she said. “It’s only Superwoman."