Sunday, March 11, 2007

So You Wanna Be a Superhero...

I don’t know where they came from, but we all had them. Wonder Woman for my little sister, Superman for my brother. I’m sure mine were cool, too, but for the life of me I can’t recall what they looked like. “Underoos. The underwear that’s fun to wear” went the jingle. Put them on and you were instantly transformed into a superhero. No matter that they were hidden by your every day clothes. That was part of the mystique – just like Batman, nobody knew who you were by day. Nobody except you, that is.

They were the fad. The fashion of the day. The one thing every kid between the ages of four and nine had to have in their underwear drawer. A perfect Christmas or birthday gift for anyone on your list. Underoos, the underwear that’s fun to wear. Why be without them?

My sister was obsessed. She had that singlemindedness that only a five-year-old can possess. That kid who wears their cowboy costume to school and the grocery store every day for weeks after Halloween is over. The parents who have to sneak quietly into the room and retrieve the crumpled clothing after their child is asleep in order to launder it and have it back before dawn – if you haven’t been one you know one. Unfortunately for my mother, Underoos were underwear. That meant my sister refused to take them off. At all.

We were young enough that bathing together was still fun until Wonder Woman showed up. After a few consecutive days of wear, she stunk. She smelled like little kid sweat and pee and I didn’t want to get in the tub with her. The one time my sister dared to remove her Underoos she was horrified at how long it took to get them back. In the 70s washing machines were slow. In a family with four kids, laundry took time and you had to wait in the queue. She actually snatched them between the washer and the dryer and tried to wear them, but the cold damp nylon against her naked bottom was too much to stand. Temper tantrum is too tame a phrase for what happened next. There was hair pulling (her own), crystal-shattering shrieks, floor flailing, and despair. She couldn’t wait another hour to be Wonder Woman.

My chest ached for her. This little girl who needed so desperately to be something other than who she was. I understood and worked as quickly as I could to fix it. Fix it. Fix it. Grab the hairdryer and turn it on full force, the blast filling the bottoms like a sail and ripping it from my eight-year-old hands. She sat on the floor, tears skidding down her cheeks. Watching me with timid hope. I waved my magic wand back and forth, frantic to dry them enough for her to put them on and silently longing for success.

After that, she refused to take them off for anything.

We lived two blocks from school. Across the street, through an alley, across another street to the brick building that took up an entire block. Up seven steps to the double doors and downstairs to Kindergarten where I dropped her off at the door each morning. She was usually reluctant to hang her backpack and coat on the low-hanging hooks outside the door and leave me outside the bright classroom. It was the cheeriest room in the school – artwork hanging everywhere and small round tables with boxes of scissors and crayons in the middle. A huge rug at the front of the room waited for the children to gather in a circle and sing. I wanted to stay there. Instead I left her with a hug and a kiss on the top of her head and walked back down the long hall to my 3rd grade classroom. Rows of desks faced the chalkboard, orderly and precise.

“Have a good day, girls!” Mom stood in the doorway and watched us crunch through the snow across the front lawn. Our brother had run up ahead to walk with his friends – too cool to be seen with us. He was in sixth grade – the Kings of the School. We were just babies.

I took my sister’s hand and we tromped across the street in our moon boots, warm beneath layers of clothes and puffy coats. Mom stayed in the open door until we got into the wide alley and then we couldn’t see her anymore. Halfway down the alley, K. pulled her glove free of mine and swung her backpack off her shoulder.

“What are you doing?” I stopped and looked at her, a half step behind me. She didn’t answer, instead bending over her pack and shedding her gloves to unzip it. Her silky black hair fell forward, shrouding her face.

Her coat came off and she struggled to stuff the puffy mass in to her backpack. She kicked the heels of her moon boots on the ground, loosening them enough to slip them off.

“What are you doing?” I repeated in a shrill voice. “You’re going to freeze and we’ll be late for school!” She peeked up at me from under her hair as she fought to undo the button on the waistband of her corduroy pants. She gave me a half-smile and refocused.

Oh crap. She was wearing the damn Underoos. Peeling layer after layer from her small frame, she slowly began her transformation into Wonder Woman. The yellow stars that adorned the panties glowed like neon signs and I imagined that their radiance could be seen by the airplanes passing up above. I grabbed her coat and fumbled with it to pull the sleeves right-side-out and cloak her in it. She was too big for me to carry to school, but at least I could wrap her up. Surprisingly, she let me, and grabbed the straps of her backpack as I shuffled her farther into the alley toward school. At some point I realized we had left her boots behind. She was barefoot in the snow and hadn’t made a peep. I blew a sigh out from between my lips and let go of her to run back for the boots, but first I stole a glance at her face. She was radiant. Her black hair shone in the sunlight, her olive skin was smooth and velvety, without a trace of goosebumps. She stood straight, empty arms of her coat hanging down at her sides. I hesitated. She really had been altered. I scooped up her boots, managed to shove her little feet into them and somehow we made it the rest of the way to school before the bell rang. I knew the teachers would think we were nuts, but I wasn’t about to make her change. I understood her need to be invincible. I wish I had put mine on that morning, too.


Kim said...

Terrific writing, and what a powerful, radiant little girl! Definitely a super hero.

Carrie Wilson Link said...

Your most authentic voice comes when you talk about your sister. What a piece of work! Both my kids had garments they wouldn't take off, but THANK GOD not underwear!

I think your first book idea dove tails with your stories of parenting so young, yourself. What do you think? Can you juxtapose the two somehow?

grammer said...

What a great piece. And you, such a perceptive, empathic sister, so willing to "fix it, fix it, fix it" for the little one so she could effect her transformation. I loved that paragraph especially, I really felt the urgency... Now, how did I miss out on the Underoo craze? :) xo

Deb said...

You are an amazement, Kari, both as a woman and as a writer. I'm honored to share your work and to be in your circle.

Suzy said...

LOVED LOVED LOVED this story. Boy, can you write detail that takes us there: "She didn’t answer, instead bending over her pack and shedding her gloves to unzip it. Her silky black hair fell forward, shrouding her face."
Just one example. Great, great writing.

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