Fiction · 03/31/2010

More Than Anything

Listen to Ben read “More Than Anything” at the Orange Alert Reading Series.

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“So,” she says smiling, “do you think this guy is stalking you or what?”

They are going out to lunch together. She is the intern. She is young and vibrant, if a little weird and awkward, with her interest in graphic novels, Spider Man, and him, all things he is interested in as well.

He normally makes it a point to avoid the younger employees, especially the female ones.

He wants to get to work, get what needs to be done, done, and then get home to his wife, and his real life.

Because that’s the thing, like Spiderman he lives in two worlds, and his real life has little to do with work or who he is at work.

Spiderman is both a superhero and an everyman struggling to pay his bills and deal with a boss who doesn’t appreciate his job performance.

And that’s him as well, just in reverse. He is a superhero at work, but the rest of the time he is just a regular guy trying to deal with people’s expectations of him, his wife included.

It’s not that his wife doesn’t appreciate him. It’s just that his wife doesn’t appreciate him like the intern does. The intern has no expectations of him at all and frankly it’s refreshing.

The risk, though, in this kind of relationship is the inherent power differential between the intern and him, a mix of age and status and gender, and superhero or not, he doesn’t always know how to manage that, the boundaries aren’t always clear.

Even worse, there are his fears about opportunity, or perceived opportunity. He doesn’t want to be distracted by some other woman while at work or at home when he is with his wife, the wife who he loves. He doesn’t want to be forced to ask what if? What if she wants him? What if he could fuck her? What if he found himself in a position he could not get out of?

Because here’s the thing, it is the intern that allows him to see himself as a superhero at work. She treats him as someone worthy of worship and admiration and every superhero knows this can be a trap.

Just the other day for example he was in his office when he noticed one of the other Directors corner the intern out in the hall.

“Hello,” the Director said to the intern, “do you want to hear a story?”

“Sure,” she said, not knowing if she was even allowed to say no.

“I was at this biker rally over the weekend and this scary motorcycle dude and his even scarier girlfriend walked up to me and he says, hey man, do you want to see my cock?”

The intern smiled nervously. She did not want to be part of this, but she didn’t know how to get out of it either. He wondered if he needed to do something, but waited to see what would unfold.

“Anyway,” the Director said leaning in closer to the intern, “I must have looked at him weirdly, because then scary motorcycle guy said to me, you’re sick, dude, I meant my tattoo and then he rolled up his sleeve and showed me this tattoo he had of a rooster. That’s funny right?”

Again the intern smiled nervously and he realized it was now time to take action.

“And that wasn’t even the end of it,” the Director continued, “because then the guy’s girlfriend looked at me and said how about I show you my pussy…”

At this point he swooped in to save her.

“Hey,” he said putting his arm around the Director’s shoulder and steering him away from the intern, “there’s this thing you can help me with, come take a look.”

“I’m telling a story…”

“You know, it can wait,” he said hustling the Director into his office.

When he looked back, the intern mouthed “thank you” and he knew her appreciation was real and true, though unnecessary, since he had only done what anyone should do.

Still, not everyone is inclined to do the right thing, and while the superhero may have no choice in the matter, any superhero worth his salt knows that their reasons for doing the right thing can be complicated by feelings other than valor.

But then, the intern is different. She may be vibrant and interesting, but he’s not attracted to her and it is liberating. He can be himself and he can talk about things like whether Spider Man broke Gwen Stacy’s neck that horrible day on the George Washington Bridge or if in fact the Green Goblin had already done so.

She cares about this stuff and his wife doesn’t. And maybe it’s not all that important really, but it is to him and it reminds him of what he once was and what has been lost.

He wonders sometimes whether he can ever be that guy again. The guy he was before he got married to a woman he loved and let go of all those things that defined him before they met and decided to embark on a life together.

He doesn’t know the answer to this, and he certainly doesn’t know how someone would go back even if they decided it was the most important thing in the world to them.

Instead he is here alone with the intern at the Park Diner for lunch because she suggested that they get away from the office and all the distractions there. They are sitting in the back dining room, the one with the painting of Icarus who is forever falling and the big windows that overlook the river and its endlessly tricky eddies and whirlpools.

“So,” she says smiling, “do you think this guy is stalking you or what?”

It’s funny, her labeling the guy from accounting a stalker, like the guy is the villain in this story. He doesn’t even really know the guy from accounting, but that doesn’t matter to the intern, because superheroes need archenemies if they are going to be superheroes and she knows this as surely as she knows anything.

This makes him think about his wife. His wife is no villain mind you, but she is an essential part of the story. He is dependent on her, at least the idea of her and what she represents, home, safety, stability. Even superheroes need to escape to their other lives once in awhile and she is that life.

Still, it’s an odd thing really to feel so intensely self-righteous about what it means to look at other women and even fantasize about them. He knows how much he doesn’t want to do this and how wrong it feels because he also knows that if you bend anything too much, even relationships, they will break and that even if they can be repaired, they are never quite the same.

Betrayal is tricky like that, because betraying someone you love is like killing them in some ways. And once it’s done, it’s done, and you can’t ever escape the realization that what you did was wrong even if you didn’t intend to do it. It doesn’t work like that.

But again it’s different with the intern. She’s different. It’s like with Spider Man. She knows that Spider Man didn’t intend for his Uncle Ben to be murdered and that he certainly didn’t consciously intend to betray him. Spider Man was caught up in something new and exciting, and it was a mistake that he would have done anything to fix once he realized what had happened.

And that’s the thing with her, she knows that this distinction is important because it makes Spider Man human and flawed and worthy of empathy, something his wife does not understand and never has.

Does it help that he truly has no feelings for the intern and that she has none for him? That they can stay up late drinking at the office Christmas party and he can tell her how marriages get stale? And that no, she shouldn’t marry young because there is so much to see and do and he should know. That he might even have done it differently and that he might still do it differently if given the chance.

Of course it does.

“So,” she says smiling, “do you think this guy is stalking you or what?”

“What do you mean?” he says.

“You know the guy from accounting,” she says. “You were saying how you will suddenly notice him sitting next to you in meetings, and how he just happens to be in places like the post office or Thirsty’s. Like he somehow knows where you’ll be, like it’s a coincidence.”

“Did I say that?” he asks, because he doesn’t really remember doing so. “That’s funny.”

“What’s funny?” she says.

“For one, that you think I said that,” he says, “but also because for a moment you sounded like you were describing yourself.”

She recoils. Settles herself into her chair. Forces a smile.

“Why would you say that?” she says. “That’s so fucked-up.”

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” he says, and he didn’t. Did he? “It’s just that sometimes you suddenly pop up next to me at meetings or at Thirsty’s. And it reminds me of that story you told me that time about that guy you were in that class with who thought you were stalk… following him around.”

He stops talking. He realizes how selfish he has been. How it’s all been about some fantasy for him, but it hasn’t been for her. For the intern, all this has been real, and because it has, he has not only betrayed his wife, he has betrayed her as well.

The terrible thing is that he didn’t see this coming. He was blind to what was happening. And now here he is, in an empty room with her, a room that he came to willingly, even as the trap was being set, and even as he should have known better.

The villain, he thinks, always recognizes the superhero’s vulnerabilities better than the superhero does and in knowing this the villain is able to capitalize on them before the superhero can do anything about it. The superhero always escapes though, just as Spider Man does time and time again.

That’s just how it works.

The thing is, sometimes, most of the time, the superhero’s escape involves the use of force and the villain is hurt, or even killed, just as the Green Goblin was.

In this sense he now realizes, the superhero is also a villain, because the villain cannot exist without the superhero making them what they are, and yet to remain a superhero, the superhero must ultimately destroy them.

There is no other way.

“I don’t follow you,” she says again forcing a smile.

“I think you do,” he says, “and I’m really sorry, but I should go and we need to stop doing this.”

She wants to be composed. Cool.

“This,” she says, “I don’t know what this is. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m sorry,” he says trying to sound firm.

The intern suddenly gets up and closes the door to the room they are in, a door he never even noticed until now.

“You’re sorry,” she says, leaning against the door and standing between him and freedom. “This isn’t right. You don’t just get to pull back like that.”

“Let me get the check,” he says starting to panic, “I’m done talking about this.”

“You fucker,” she says. “Did you really believe that I cared about Spider Man?”

Did he really believe it, maybe, but did he really want to believe it, more than anything.

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Ben Tanzer is the author of the novels Lucky Man and Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine, and the short story collection Repetition Patterns. He also blogs at This Blog Will Change Your Life and oversees the crew behind This Zine Will Change Your Life. He is currently watching Sports Center, but upon on his deathbed, he will receive total consciousness. So he’s got that going for him. Which is nice.