Tuesday, January 29, 2008

(In)Action Figure

To be sure that it happens, I want to apologize in advance. Abundantly, humbly, tenderly and with tears streaming slick across my face, I a-p-o-l-o-g-i-z-e to anyone with the misfortunate of being stranded with me in the icy dimple of an artic incline, deep in the sinister thick of jungle extremes, clutching the rails on a hijacked passenger train, racing from an underworld hit man, or navigating shark infested waters in a raft we've made from Red Bull cans and waxed dental floss.

I'm sorry --particularly to the people whom I treasure and love fiercely—but I will not be your sidekick of choice in times of epic crisis.

And this sobering thought is what eventually swells in my mind while watching action flicks and thrillers. With every heroic leap atop high rise rooftops, every slug and gecko gobbled down for replenishing sustenance, with every half mile of sprinting (sprinting, for goodness' sake!), I shake my head at how utterly useless I would be in any of the cited situations and silently pity the fool who would be stuck by my side.

Perhaps it is true that I take my cinema a bit too seriously, but look at the lives I've saved. Plus, I've seen myself in near disasters and these instances, my friend, demonstrate the vast possibilities of hopelessly impotent. When I lived Chicago, for instance, I lived 100 paces from a train stop. Blue line to Austin, hop skip and jump two times to reach the front gate of my courtyard apartments. Take another dozen strides or so to reach an entry to the stack of one-bedrooms that held all my stuff on its first floor.

One evening, I was pointing my key at this entry door lock when a pair of hands materialized from the autumn chill and gripped my shoulders. The man's hands even gave a little shake for good measure, and I stopped moving. Stopped blinking. Stopped breathing.

"Damn," my boyfriend at the time huffed in disgust, "if that's what you're going to do when somebody creeps up on you, you're gonna end up dead in an alley somewhere."

(Sigh. Just one of the lesser 3,684 reasons he's an ex).

I remember, too, when I was 12 or so. My younger sister was already asleep in the room we shared, and I had not long climbed into bed. My mother was out and my father was in the bathroom across the hall. As I lay I my bunk waiting for sleep to pour over me, I heard a noise. It was familiar, but unnerving. My body was tense with unease and my heart skittered madly inside my chest.

As soon as my father's shower ended and that bathroom door cracked open, I hissed an urgent stage whisper from behind the trim of my comforter.

"Daddy!" He stopped, leaned into our room. "Daddy! I heard somebody open the refrigerator!"

My father paused, a beaded string of questions balanced on his lips. He reconsidered, squelched a smile, and checked the house.

"We're all safe," he reported a few minutes later. I fell asleep while he probably flipped through the phone book for a therapist.

Many, many years later, I would lay awake in my own king-sized bed in my own home with my own children sleeping in a room next to mine and, once again, waiting for sleep to quiet the bleeping, blinking mechanics of my brain. Almost complete in tucking away the corners of my day, beginning to spin lightly into a powdery dream state, I heard a noise. I couldn't name it this time. In fact, it was less of a sound and more like a sound breach. Like some foreign mass displacing the weight of my sleeping home's quiet calm.

All of my generators at full voltage, I lay in the bed rigid, eyes wide and listening. Maybe I listened for sounds of stealth or menace, but nothing came. Nothing moved. No thing claimed the slight disturbance. Calming my nerves and breathing, closing my eyes, I cursed the paralysis that didn't –couldn't—force my muscles to contract and crawl from that bed. Not to seek a crude weapon. Not to gather my children. Not to sweep the premises. Not to phone my husband and ask him to come directly home.

Rather, the fear was oppressive and my panic was molten lead expanding inside my chest and head. Even artificially, watching a movie, I sense that weight. Like the unnamed sound, it displaces my internal constructions, including Darwin's flight-or-fight instincts. I'm not a scaredy cat, necessarily, I'm just not sure my internal networking will hold up under such adversity.

Emotional adversity? Financial? Legal? Social? Professional? Been on all those shows. But a bank hostage? A vampire slayer? Cruise ship refugee? Battling alien invaders for intergalactic supremacy? Nope. My bravery doesn't swing that way. Not to mention, my SuperHuman is wired for "pretty" not "practical," which means our mountainside hideaway will be beautiful and homey … while we starve to death.

With our latest movie rental, I had to pause the disc and take hold of my husband's hands. I told him how much I love him and that if we were swept away in a rebel insurgency during our next vacation abroad, please don't mistake my whimpering and stumbling for any unwillingness to go all the way to the wire for him. I told him how I'd want to be the one tossing him a fresh box of ammo as we rifle our way out of danger. I'd want to, the odds just don't look good.

He kissed my forehead, pressed play and passed the popcorn. I knew he had accepted my in-advance apology. I hope you will, too.