I am a few days older than seven and a half, and I am chasing a false hero, a man in webbed tights. It is Christmas, and I still believe that a fat man in a red suit managed to find his way through our gas fireplace in our apartment, a box without a chimney. I awake long before dawn stretches rosy fingers in an arc over crystalized happiness. The purple light sends the shadow my bare feet poking out of Spiderman pajamas sailing in front of me. I creep into the living room, smiling politely at the tree. But these secrets wrapped in shiny paper do not interest me as much as the real present, the one that comes in a thick envelope, the one that does not require Santa. It’s 1989, and I still think that I’ll be with Spiderman soon, my skinny little boy chest encased in red polyester that I’ve almost worn to school.
“The Spiderman Academy,” my best friend Jimmy had explained while it was warm enough that I didn’t need to wear mittens and gloves. “You get letters when you’re seven and a half,” smirked Jimmy, who was thirty-two days older than I was and would be receiving his letter first.
“But what is it?”
He had proceeded to tell me what his cousin had told him: that there was a Spiderman Academy for boys. Spiderman handpicked the boys according to athleticism, work ethic, and personality.
When I called Jimmy on his seven and a half birthday, he was crying. He had not been accepted to the Spiderman Academy. I was secretly thrilled that I was still in the running to train with Spiderman. Jimmy was always picked before I was chosen, finished puzzles or races first. His mouth had kissed Lulu behind the slide while mine hung open in disbelief. Lulu with her tight blond curls had squealed, pink sneakers lighting up with flowery lights as they struck the pavement to run and tell Sarah. I stared at those sneakers all day, wishing that they had run away from me squealing instead of Jimmy. Both Jimmy and I got Valentines from everyone in the class, but tired mothers and fathers had signed mine, whereas Jimmy’s were all written in the sloppy crayon handwriting of our peers. It was always Jimmy, first place, me, a close second. I wanted to kiss Lulu behind the slide and get twenty-two crayon Valentines.
My feet slap wood boards as I run into the kitchen, and I drag a chair across the floor to reach the top shelf, knowing it has to be in here. This is the adult shelf, with wine bottles and spicy food. A few days ago, on my half birthday, my parents got my letter. I saw them open it and tuck it up in between two bottles. Since they got it, they have been whispering long into the night, and I hear things like he’s so young, or how can we tell him, or I can’t live without… I can hear them through the vents, their muffled tears blurring the edges of my dreams. It’s natural that my parents should be crying after reading it, because being chosen to train with Spiderman means that I’ll be away from home a lot. Spiderman Academy is a boarding school.
My fingers reach up, brushing against wine bottles, dragging over spices. I find the letter, batting at it and knocking it to the ground. I know Spiderman has picked me; I am the best, I work the hardest, and I know that I can shoot webs out of my wrists with a little help. With legs spread in a ‘V’ I sit down on the kitchen floor, hunching over the letter. The cold tiles banish cocooned heat of New England winter nights. Yanking the letter out of the envelope, my fingers hesitate before smoothing the creases of the heavy white paper.
Instead of an acceptance letter it is a series of long words. Doctor, it says. Autoimmune Expert. I bite my lip, trying not to cry. Had it not come yet? I hadn’t gone to any doctor, and this is certainly not a Spiderman letter. Spiderman letters come on your half birthday, Jimmy had said. And it came on my half birthday. Did my parents hide it? Are they trying to keep me at home, keeping the truth of my future hidden?
They had hidden things from me before. They hid when my father had been mugged a few weeks prior. It was scary; he came back trying to hide where the man’s knife had cut, right near the wrist. But blood, not webs, came out, and wouldn’t stop. He spent a few days with his arm mummified, a brown bloodstain blemishing the white bandages. They explained that he might get really sick, and I had to get ready. I’m not too little now. I haven’t asked him to play catch since it happened, because I know his arm hurts. Even grandpa said that was an adult thing to do.
I look back at the letter. It is addressed to me, right? I look down at the paper again, and feel enormously relieved. In my haste, I had missed the “Col.” This is my dad’s letter, and mine could still be in the mail. Spiderman letters usually come on your half birthday, but my mother explained that since it is around the Holidays, mail is slow. I look at the piece of paper again, this time venerating the wonderful news. I still have a chance.
Human Immuno- what is that? Where was my letter? I would find it and I would train with Spiderman. And dad was positive. What does that mean? I leave it open on the table, and trudge back up to bed, to a red room with blue sheets, forgetting that it is Christmas morning. My bare feet poking out of my Spiderman pajamas make me sad. I am sad on Christmas morning. I am sad because I don’t have my letter from Spiderman, and I can’t play catch with my dad.
I am seven and a half, and a hero in red tights won’t save the one in a billowing white sling.
Amelia Nierenberg, Age 17, Grade 11, The Fieldston School High School, Gold Key