When I Needed Batman the Most

One night after dinner, at the peak of my Batman phase, I asked my mother for a garbage bag. She handed me a big, black bag which I proceeded to tie around my neck, head out the back door, and pretend to be a Superhero rescuing all the creatures in our backyard. Wind hit my face as I stepped out the back door and into my very own Gotham. I pushed my glasses up against my face to prepare for battle. This Batman had creatures to save. There was an old swing set in the back and I would lay my stomach flat on the seat and fly across the city. Nothing felt more freeing than that backyard. In the winter it transformed into K2 base camp where I would plot the rescue of my mates like in the movie Vertical Limit. But the rest of the year, it was Gotham.

×××

I first started to become obsessed with Batman around my fourth birthday. When my mother asked what I wanted, I asked for everything and anything Batman. I wanted Batman bedding, toys, action figures, and Batman salt and pepper shakers for our kitchen to replace my great-grandmother’s wooden ones.

For street cred, I would like to tell you that I was a badass-of-a-little-kid whose single- parent mother had her watch old movies and that I found my love for Batman by watching Adam West make his way across my television screen leaving me no choice but to admire him. In reality, although I don’t completely remember, it was more likely the 1990s Bruce Timm Animated Batman series, obviously made for children, that my mother plopped me in front of while she heated up the last three cans of soup in the house for her and her two daughters.

My father left the three of us when was I only a few months old. There were a few weekends here and there he would pick my sister and me up but lately he’d stopped coming around. Back then I liked to think my father was Batman and he was too busy saving people to be there. This was an easier reality to swallow as a little kid than a father who chose not to be around. When I would lay in bed at night I would blend the images of my father with Batman; the dark hair, broad shoulders, deep eyes that were never green or blue enough to be categorized. Although I begged my mother to make him come, he didn’t show up to my birthday that year, or any year after.

I was incredibly disappointed when I ripped through the wrapping paper at my birthday party only to find too much pink, fairies and princesses.

“Thanks, (insert family name here) for the present,” I would say with gritted teeth after I opened each present.

My mother, the only one who really knew how much I loved Batman, got me an action figure. I don’t know that I ever loved her more than in that moment.

The lack of Batman’s presence at my fourth birthday led me to become friends with more boys than girls when I entered kindergarten. It wasn’t that I enjoyed their company more than those of my own gender, but I figured they were more likely to have Batman toys I could play with. The problem was, these boys never invited me over for birthday parties or sleepovers. They would enter my world of magic on the playground and then walk right by me without a glance as they handed out their Ninja Turtle-themed party invites.

One boy even told me, “My mom thinks you need to act more like a girl so she said you can’t come over.”

What did you mean, “act like a girl?” I wore sweatpants every day. But they were purple. This was a compromise between my mother and me. Boys didn’t wear purple. I wanted to take my mud-covered hands and rub them on his face until he cried.

There was one girl in my class whose older brother also had an obsession with Batman so I became friends with her and conned her into inviting me to her house.

×××

As the sun set in my backyard and I had officially saved Gotham, I went inside for the night. Everything in the house was the same except for a can of rainbow chip frosting on the counter. Not only did we rarely have sweets in the house, when we did it usually indicated my mother was going through a hard time. In my memory that can of frosting seemed out of place, but I am sure I was just trying to figure out a way to get my hands on that frosting.

×××

A month or two earlier, Kayla and I started to bond. Maybe it was longer or maybe it was short. Sense of time is distorted for a child. We were on and off again friends because she was always concerned with doing the right thing and I was concerned with doing what was fun. A typical conversation between the two of us would look something like the following:

“Hunter made fun of my shoes. I think I will find him on the playground today and trip him.”

“Kacie, don’t do that. If you did, I would tell.”

I would look at those big brown eyes, sunken behind her round cheeks and decide that being friends with Kayla was more important than getting even with Hunter. Anything so I could play with her brother’s Batman toys. I remember Kayla’s hands being exceptionally soft. They reminded me of my great-grandmother’s wrinkly skin. She would always lay one of her cloud-like hands on mine and ask me to think twice about my actions.

One day at recess we were on the playground by an inside corner of the brick building and the way the wind blew made the leaves spin in a circle. I started to chant and said that I was a witch and I was making the leaves move. Kayla told me it was wrong to lie so I stuck my tongue out at her as she walked away, taking a few of our friends with her. I was furious. Just like Batman before Robin, I was flying solo.

Kayla had recently been to Joe’s Pizza and used her quarters she earned from house chores to get a blue ring out of the vending machine. I thought it was ugly but I knew she loved it and I was so angry at her that I stole it from her Rugrats-themed backpack hanging in the back of the classroom. I remember unzipping the front pocket slowly by each tooth as to not make any noise. I reached in as if I were Indiana Jones and pulled out the ring and slipped it into my new Batman hoodie pocket.

Later that day, Kayla was surrounded by two of our mutual friends, or maybe they were just friends with me because Kayla was, and our teacher.

“I know I brought it to class, Ms. Cook. I put it in my backpack. But when I went to put it on after lunch my bag was unzipped and I must have left it unzipped. It probably fell out on the bus,” Kayla said in one breath.

I like to think that it was the look on Kayla’s face that created a sense of empathy in me encouraging me to pretend like I found the ring. But it’s more likely I was afraid of getting caught.

“This ring?” I asked Kayla. Knowing that she knew I had to of known what her ring looked like. “I found it on the playground as I came in for recess.”

Kayla kindly took the ring back and hugged me. I wondered if she was on to me. Could she my heart beating in my chest like a timpani drum?

×××

I flew back into the house with my garbage bag cape. When my mother noticed my return from outside, still in her work clothes, she asked me if I had captured the villains and when I responded with a chipper yes, she tapped her hand onto the couch queuing me to come sit with her. She put her arm around me and pulled me into her as we sat in silence for what was probably a few seconds but felt like a few minutes to five-year-old me. I ran my fingers through her frizzy long blonde curls while she hummed my favorite Lion Ling song, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” My mother, standing at 5-foot-4-inches seemed so tall to me back then. Her legs long, lean and tan from the weekends spent digging from clams at the beach. Her voice was soothing. The cigarette smoke giving it the perfect amount of rasp for a woman in her late twenties. I started to jump off the couch but she pulled me back.

×××

My last memory of Kayla is her birthday party. Because of her friendly spirit, everyone was her friend, but she was limited to inviting six kids to her party. Maybe she felt bad for the irrational, bossy, low-income child that I was, because I got an invite. In that moment, I realized Kayla was my real friend and I truly cherished her for that. I was finally getting invited to a birthday party and I was grateful for her kindness. I wish my memory was clearer of the party, but no doubt there was soda pop, a piñata, and small children running around hyped up on sugar. I do remember Kayla’s mother and father, with their arms around her as we all sung the happy birthday song and how her dad held her hair back as she blew out the candles. I remember Kayla opening her presents and thinking that I wished the presents I received at my birthday would have been as good as hers.

There was a quick moment that I snuck off to see if Kayla’s brother was missing from his room so I could steal a few minutes of play time with Batman, but he was there. He had unzipped the lower half of his pants into shorts since I last saw him grabbing a piece of cake. He was so cool with his don’t-give-a-shit fashion. When he noticed the five-year-old with long, curly brown hair he said, “I know you come in here and play when I am gone. You never put my stuff back in the right spot.

At first, I was mortified. I started to come up with an alibi but then I realized he was smiling. “I don’t mind,” he said, brushing his long, blonde waves behind his ears. My older sister thought he was cute. He reminded her of the blonde-haired boys in the band, Hanson Brothers. “I actually think it’s kinda cool. Kayla hates this stuff.”

I was about to ask him if I could play with his Transforming Bruce Wayne Figure-that resembled my father until you clipped on his Batman suit for a complete transformation into Superhero-but Kayla’s mother spotted me and led me back to the party. I told her I got lost coming back from the bathroom, a lie she must have caught on to quick since I had been to their home numerous times.

A few weeks later I was on the playground at recess again and two boys were making fun of my glasses. I was mad at Kayla for not being there to defend me. I wasn’t concerned that she hadn’t been at school for a week or two, the main problem was that I needed her there to tell the boys that four eyes were better than two. I needed my Robin, but she let me down.

×××

I don’t remember exactly how my mother told me, what words she used to break the news. I don’t remember if she cried with me or if she was as heartbroken as I was. I do remember her telling me that Kayla had a disease called Leukemia and she had died that morning. I remember her trying to wipe my tears with the garbage bag that was draped over me and that it, being plastic, just pushed the tears around my face.

I remember asking if I could go to my room and once there looking at my reflection in my closet door mirrors and thinking how silly I looked. I was covered in dirt, wearing a garbage bag and Kayla was dead. I tore off the garbage bag and in a fit of anger I started to grab everything Batman in my room. I grabbed the throw blanket and pillow off my bed, the hoodie out of my closet, and anything else I could find that resembled my love for Batman. For one moment I hesitated as I grabbed the action figure my mother had given me on my birthday but the moment passed and all I could think about was Kayla leaving me. Just like my father. I shoved it all under my bed. My Batman stuff along with my feelings.

When I stopped crying my mother came in, now changed into her nightgown and bathrobe, and asked if I wanted to watch a movie with her in her room and eat the rainbow chip frosting.

A few months later I was walking in line with my classmates on the way to the library and passed Kayla’s brother. He always wore t-shirts with Batman characters on them but that day he wore a plain green t-shirt. At this point Kayla was becoming a distant memory, but seeing her brother made me like I was going to do something embarrassing like poop my pants or throw up my lunch. Sweat started to bead up underneath my clothes and I felt trapped in the line. I needed a bathroom, the principal’s office, a hero, something. Every emotion I had in my bedroom the night of Kayla’s death rushed back. But then, just like the short existence of Kayla, her brother passed and so did the feelings.

I don’t know if it was a coincidence that he wasn’t wearing Batman that day but I did wonder if he too felt like the The Dark Knight had let him down.