The underlying message of every fairy tale is the same. Nobody gets to live happily ever after until everyone is disenchanted and all the illusions are shattered.
On my way into Hollywood for a gig I stopped at the light at Hollywood and Highland where actors dressed damply as superheroes pose for tips with disappointed tourists. Waiting to cross the street with a cluster of mere mortals, Superman stood on the curb. He was a particularly convincing Superman, well enough built to wear the jersey knit costume without fake padded cartoon muscles built into it. His bootblack hair reflected the streetlights like ink on a high-gloss page and the one comma of curl dipped down over his brow just as it is supposed to.
Standing nearby, a young boy held his mother’s hand and saw Superman standing, waiting with them. He might have drawn his mother’s attention to the man of steel, but he did not. I imagined that he did not want to hear what she thought of the spectacle in red and blue. He wanted to have this moment of overlap between fantasy and reality to himself, unbroken.
The iconic hero looked down at the boy and the boy looked up at him. Superman smiled, half winked and then the light changed. For a breathless moment, it almost seemed that as the crowd moved across the street, Superman might raise a guiding fist to the sky and lift into the night air to vanish into a primary-colored point in the distance. He did not. He walked across the street as did those around him. As the group thinned, stretching across the roadway, his costume boots came into view, scuffed and blackened by the Hollywood boulevard filth.
As I passed the man in the costume, driving on down toward the small theater in which I would tell stories of my childhood, jokes about the nature of memory and the magic of language, I experienced an odd sensation, a nagging sense of loss to which I could not quite put a name but which I knew to be familiar and worthy of further exploration. It seemed that something important had happened, and I needed to figure out just what it was. I needed to remember when I had felt it before, it seemed, and everything would come into focus.
A few weeks earlier I awoke from a Saturday morning sleep-in indulgence with a similar sensation. My wife had taken the dogs for their morning walks on her own and allowed me to sleep in so long that I was able to reach that rare and wonderful state of lucidity in which dream and imagining and memory all melt together. As I lay in bed, I remembered a childhood joy.
As a child, out late with my father, I would doze warmly in the back seat of our lumbering station wagon to the drone of National Public Radio. I was awake enough to know that I was dreaming, that I was on my way home, but asleep enough to be completely relaxed, heavy in the swaying, vibrating momentum of the journey home. I would feel the slowing shift from highway to road, the last, familiar turns and then the rocking stop of arrival.
Knowing the travel was at its end, I would pretend still to be soundly asleep. My father would lift me from the back seat in his arms to let me remain asleep, though I knew I was faking and perhaps he did, too. I was too big to be regularly carried now, though, too heavy, too capable. So I would pretend to sleep and I would smell the nicotine and the antiperspirant and I would feel the rough beard growth of his cheek against mine and would allow him to let me feel safe and protected in a way that I had not in months or years.
I did not know, as a child, that what I was experiencing was my first taste of nostalgia. I did not have that vocabulary, yet. I did not have that much self- awareness. I did not know that I was reveling in the pretense that I could reclaim a simpler time when I was less self-reliant, when felt better protected, safer. I did not know that even that simpler time was a distortion of memory, that in that time when I had been smaller and more often carried, all I had yearned for was to walk on my own, to learn self-reliance, to escape the coddling of toddlerhood. I only knew that I felt warm and comfortable in the arms of my father, groaning as he lifted my growing weight and that I must pretend to sleep to enjoy it. The lie of memory aided by the lie of unconsciousness carried me in my father’s arms up the steps, into the house toward the bed of my childhood.
As I lay in bed, dreaming the memory of lying in my father’s arms, I knew it was a dream, but I did not want to wake up. I longed to hold on for just a moment more to that beautiful fantasy.
It evaporated though, first melting from dream to fantasy and then from fantasy to memory and then vanishing in a vapor of melancholy wakefulness as I knew against all powers of desire that I was not a child in my father’s arms but an adult alone in a double bed. That was the moment. That undeniable sublimation was the moment at which I had most recently felt that sense of loss.
By using both of those moments, the heartbreaking desire to remain asleep in a moment of double-paned nostalgia and the sad-startled vision of filthy red boots on the mortal in the super hero costume, I was able to focus on the elusive, the obscure. Those moments served as the spaced lenses of a telescope, allowing me to see clearly through the distortions of time, across the lying vastness of the mind, to the shameful, human heart of the matter.
Once I had seen it, my experience seemed as obvious, as clunky as utterly without subtlety as the six-panel, four-color tales of the comic books I once loved so much. Like a child, learning new vocabulary, I put words to the sorrow clumsily at first. Then I refined them, edited them until they met the expressive need as simply, as eloquently as I could manage. This was the sadness of a grown man who, just for a moment, had allowed himself to believe.