By Demy Ren
When the woman at the counter informed her that her baggage was overweight, she didn’t say anything. Instead, she bent over her trunk and took out a wool scarf, a college hoodie, a pack of sour candies. After the check-in she proceeded leisurely; her steps were light as she pushed her trolley. When she got past security check, she whispered to herself: I could have told her I was weightless.
She weighed nothing. It was her superpower. She had weighed nothing ever since fourth grade when a friend told her about weight classes in professional boxing. She was leaving school, mulling over the novel terms – lightweight, cruiserweight, heavyweight – and the first thing she did when she got home was to watch the channel on TV that always showed two burly men giving each other regal beatings. She had watched them intently. She didn’t believe a hundred and fifty or two hundred kilograms was a big deal. Back then, she thought it logical to compare those weights to the only other reference she had as a child: the weight of a whale. And those weighed a hundred and forty thousand kilos. Try boxing that, she thought. Then she wondered: what would boxing be like if people were weightless? The next day on her way back home she had tripped over a sidewalk and fell. It didn’t hurt as much as it should have, but it made her more self-conscious about her weight.
So she dreamed that she was light. Her body was a cloud, airy and buoyant. An unknown power kept her off the ground. She could do cartwheels and jumping jacks in the air, dive down and walk on water, little soundless ripples following behind her. She crossed oceans and discovered new worlds, of pristine ice or sleeping forests. When she woke up from the dream, she felt different, refreshed, and new. And she knew what was different.
She didn’t have a scale at home; her mother believed scales were the reason women would stress over their size, so they did not keep one. At school that morning, she checked her weight at the nurse’s office, when the nurse wasn’t there. The zero on the scale had stared back at her like a Cyclops’ eye.
Superpowers called for secrecy. She hadn’t told a soul about her power ever since. She hadn’t told anyone so as not to burden them. She didn’t know if it was a disease, but she figured if she didn’t feel pain, then she didn’t need to tell. The last thing she wanted to be was a sick person – dead weight.
When she was small, before she knew her power, there was a boy next door she used to play with. He said he had a father who was perpetually drunk. The quiet type of drunk. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t move, and he quite liked white beds in white rooms in white buildings. She had asked, what did he drink? My mom drinks whiskers, she had said. Isn’t that funny? You can’t drink whiskers. Either you eat them, or you simply don’t. He said, my father drinks from a bag that is connected to his arm. He drinks ivy. She imagined a man tied to a white bed with vines of ivy. But then the boy said that his mom told his aunt that his father was becoming dead weight. And the phrase had shocked the girl more than the understanding of the situation, which she had learned about only years later. Dead weight – was one’s weight one’s death? And then the boy said, that his mom said, heaven would be a nicer place for him.
Flight. She always thought her superpower was that of flying. As she arrived at the boarding gate, sat down and watched an airplane taxiing outside, she thought of her older brother. He watched dozens of movies and cartoons with superheroes who could fly. She had thought – I could do that. No big deal. But her brother would watch the power of flight as if it were something he solemnly wished he had. She had wanted to show him, back then. She had wanted to say, look, I can do it too, just watch, you’ll be hella jealous. But she didn’t. Superpowers were meant to be kept secret, even from her family. Even from herself – she wasn’t sure if she could really fly. It was an assumption she never bothered confirming. Like owning a pair of winged sandals – stashed away in her closet – which she presumed would allow her to fly someday. When she would need it. But when would she need it?
She never bothered with airplanes before because she thought it was a waste of money. She could fly anywhere she wanted to with her power, save a lot of cash, so her mother and brother could live a little better. She just needed a good map and a way to fly without garnering attention and off she would have gone. But she had been too busy to figure those out, so she never went anywhere.
But now that she had graduated, she wanted to go meet her father who worked on the other side of the world, in smoggy Beijing. She hadn’t seen him in years. It was too far for her to fly, so with her pocket-money she saved up all these years, she decided to take a plane.
It was the first time she would board one; the reality started sinking in. Just walking down the jet bridge made her palms sweaty and cold, and she was feeling something between excitement and fear.
The gap between the airplane and the bridge was what tipped the scale towards fear. Seeing the asphalt several metres below ignited apprehension in her. What if she slipped through? The gap wasn’t that small. Mind the gap, someone said. When she looked up, the attendants’ smiles were suddenly horrific. She had seen those smiles before she had gained her power. On a playground at school with the setting sun as witness, where she had been a timorous goalkeeper between two trees, facing a mob of classmates ready to practice penalty kicks. Team Her versus Team Everyone Else.
It took a while for her to calm down from that thought. She repeated a mantra (lightweight, cruiserweight, heavyweight), thought about her powers, the freeing feeling of levitation. They made her feel safe, kept her from being hurt. She theorized how she could survive a fall or a crash – her lack of weight could nullify the force of gravity. She would be all right, she kept telling herself.
Buckled up in her seat, she took a magazine from the pocket in front of her in hopes of distraction. The cover featured a new plane model, set in a clear sky above a suburb of red-roofed houses, uniform lawns, occasional cyan pools, peach trees. The hues were sickening. Her brother had cried like a banshee in a backdrop like this one. She couldn’t remember what made her brother cry, but the vision was brusque, vivid. Her brother crying, standing in the middle of a red brick road. He was repeating: no, no, no. No, no, no. Something happened that shouldn’t have happened. Something happened that should have happened. He had the face of a superhero who had failed to save a child.
The memory flickered to other memories as the plane took off. The higher the plane went, the brighter and more colourful the images became. She gripped her armrest tightly and was so tense she felt her throat constrict, turn into heavy lead. The passenger seated next to her, an old man, looked at her with sympathy. Not good with planes, dear? It was her first time, she admitted. The man smiled. It was a neutral smile. He suggested: think of nice things.
At first, it went well. She thought of ribbons, rabbits, Beatrix Potter, wizards, magic, flying on a broom. Flying without a broom, Peter Pan, jumping on clouds, skidding on water, never finding Neverland.
But then the old man said, I like brick roads. Imagine a misty morning on a brick road, quiet stores, new sidewalks, the smell of bread and coffee.
She thought of red roads. She thought of white trucks, white rooms, and the smell of whisky. Yellow people, pale kids, black infants sleeping in cradles with curling ivy. Blue whales, red gloves, white weight scales. Her mind fizzed, white noise on a TV, bubbles in a soda drink. Her thoughts were a blender, and in the blender was a cyclone and in the cyclone was an eye. An eye like the zero on a weight scale. It wasn’t nice, it wasn’t evil, it was neutral. It said something, it told nothing of importance. Maybe just sweet nothings in her ear, maybe just secrets from a nearby ghost, maybe just the sound of silence, the movement of dust and air and other particles too small for the human eye to see.
She closed her eyes, but they were still restless under her eyelids, twitching in their sockets. She saw her mother in a scarf, her brother in a hoodie, her with sour candies, trotting behind, eating blissfully. The voice of her friend, the boxing aficionado, commenting about weights over this peculiar family portrait. And then her brother crying, crying that he couldn’t fly, couldn’t fly to save her. But the engines of the plane were roaring, her ears blocked from the change in altitude, and after a while, she couldn’t hear him anymore. The muted memory was what cooled her down.
Flight wasn’t her superpower. She slipped on her winged sandals. Gently, like she would have done with glass slippers. She rose to her feet and walked down the aisle, her used vomit bag in her hand. The captain was welcoming his passengers over the intercom, and she swayed every time he ended a sentence. A flight attendant quickly stood up, offering to help her, but she told her she was fine, just weak in the knees. Her feet were light, but her head felt lighter.
The plane rocked sideways, and her world was tipping. It was defying inertia, gravity, and other such physical laws, abstract phenomena, psychic states.
And then she realized that she too could defy them all.
Demy Ren lives between worlds and has two homes: Montreal and Tainan City. She holds a BA in English Literature from McGill University and is dipping her toes into creative writing and Chinese literature. She currently teaches English in Madrid.