Origin Story | Ruth McCormack

Some superheroes are ordinary citizens, transformed by chance into defenders of peace and justice. You know, your Spider-men, your Incredible Hulks. Some are born to a life of heroism, like Superman or Harry Potter. Some undergo a terrible trauma and vow to seek revenge, like Batman or the Punisher. As a child, this sort of career didn’t seem that far out of reach.

Not that I couldn’t distinguish fantasy from reality, but I had an acute sense of fairness, strong little arms, and a lot of gender-neutral toys. What, then, could stop me from standing up for Truth, Justice, and Gender Equality? Nothing, it seemed, and I grew up feisty and outspoken. If I felt for one second that someone might think I couldn’t do something because I was a girl, I relentlessly pursued that thing until I was the best, daring anyone to find fault with my work. It’s why I’m so good at math and spatial reasoning and drinking whiskey. I picked a career that was a total sausage fest, and I was very good at it. But it was exhausting to always have to prove myself and so I stopped spending so much time, you know, crusading, and started working in an office and eating brunch on the weekends like a normal person.

I was eating eggs Benedict when my friend Jenn invited me to do the naked bike ride with her. I always order eggs Benedict. Between bites of cinnamon roll, Jenn and I laid out some ground rules. Jenn always orders a cinnamon roll.

I wanted to be anonymous. Solution: masks. I wanted to be able to cover myself easily if shit got weird. Solution: capes. I wanted to wear underpants. Solution: underpants. The obvious answer to all of these: superheroes. But which?

Superman doesn’t wear a mask. Spiderman’s costume is too elaborate. We didn’t have enough people to pull off the Avengers or X-Men, and the Fantastic Two seemed sort of pathetic. Batman and Robin were obvious choices. We didn’t really consider the lady heroes because their costumes are already pretty naked, which is – as they say – problematic. Plus, Jenn already had a Batman mask and I had a red cape. Now, my research showed me that Robin’s cape is actually yellow, but I wasn’t about to let that stop me. A girl can never have too many capes.

I bought some green underpants. I bought some green shorts in case I got too self-conscious for the underpants. I went to the fabric store for yellow cape fabric and picked up a sequined belt while I was there. A girl can never have too many sequined belts. I went to every store in Boystown that looked like it might sell body paint, and there are a lot of stores in Boystown that look like they might sell body paint. After walking for miles and explaining to countless cashiers that I didn’t need that paint to be edible or glow-in-the-dark, thank you, I finally walked into Beatnix and was greeted by floor-to-ceiling wigs and false eyelashes. These were my people. I walked up to the counter. “Um, do you guys have body paint?”

A saleswoman whisked me into a room full of Ben Nye and when she rang me up said knowingly, “Naked bike ride?”

If you’re counting, I spent sixty-five dollars on a very small amount of actual costume, and on my way home I started to wonder if maybe Wonder Woman dressed sexy not because of the patriarchy. Maybe that leotard is all she can afford because this shit is expensive and she has a lot of student loans from the time she thought it was a good idea to get an MFA. Then somebody whistled at me from his car and I thought, nope, still the patriarchy. Fuck those guys.

The day of the ride, I put on my green underpants. Then, I put on civilian clothes to hide my secret identity. I put on my sequined belt because it looked awesome and I rode south to a secret location, feeling a little thrill as other half-costumed riders pulled into the bike lane. Something was happening.

Now, you might be thinking Jenn and I were besties, as naked events imply a certain level of closeness, but this wasn’t true. Not that I didn’t like her, just, until this point, our friendship was mostly brunch-based. That day, though, Jenn ditched her boyfriend to meet me at the secret location. We got directions to an even more secret location because the naked bike ride is serious about evading creeps. We found ourselves in an alley in the West Loop with other cyclists in various stages of undress, and we parked our bikes.

I looked at Jenn.

I opened the body paint.

I looked around the alley.

I took off my shirt.

“So, um, I was thinking, like, an ‘r’ on this one? In yellow?”

And then Jenn and I were the kind of friends who paint each other’s nipples in an alley in the West Loop.

She had thoughtfully outlined the bat symbol in eyeliner on her chest earlier in the day, and then done some errands. Being a superhero is like that. You can be surrounded by organic produce at Whole Foods and still look the cashier in the eye as you buy a Diet Coke and an Us Weekly because the judgment of a cashier doesn’t touch you when you carry in your secret heart the knowledge that you are the Batman.

And look, you can spare me the lecture about how Batman is the worst superhero. I mean, I get it: he doesn’t have any powers and what the hell is a batarang? And does the world really need another rich white dude doling out vigilante justice? Batman sucks. But he looks cool and he has a sidekick, so there you go.

We met a lot of superheroes at the secret location: a Superman, a Captain America whose pasties were little shields, and a creepy freakazoid. Now, there had been a lot of discussion on the ride Facebook group about creeps on the ride and creeps on the street. And, I’ll confess, although my secret heart is bold and fearless, when confronted with street harassment, I’m pretty likely to look at the ground and keep walking. On the night of the naked ride, I don’t know if it was the mask or the cape or whatever the hell a batarang is, but I was no longer a mild-mannered corporate slave, so when some clown shoved his camera toward my sweet rack as I rode past, I yelled, “have some class, asshole.” Because, seriously. I was not having that shit.

And later, when a naked dude on a bike chatted me up for a few minutes about peak oil, because, oh yeah, the naked bike ride is not just an excuse to ride topless down Michigan Avenue with your cape fluttering behind you in the wind, which is amazing, it’s also a really important political statement about sharing the road and our dependence on fossil fuels, so anyway, this guy was talking to me about peak oil and then he said “I just have to say, your breasts are amazing,” I said,  “nope, creepy,” clicked into a higher gear, and sped away. From yards behind, I heard a faint, “I’m really sorry-y-y-y,” but I didn’t care. Nothing could touch me.

After the ride, Jenn and I met back at the secret location. We took a few even more secret photos and got dressed. We rode toward the train. Outside a fancy bar in the West Loop, there were lots of cabs around and we lost the protected lane, so we had cabs driving past on the left and people getting out of cabs on the right. I heard a noise behind me, and turned around to see Jenn, her bike leaning against a taxi, stopped in the lane of moving cars. She had swerved away from some idiot getting out of a cab in front of the club, and tipped into the slow traffic.

I turned my bike around. “Are you ok?” She nodded.

And then, faster than I could even think about it, faster than a speeding whatever, I confronted the bewildered man-child in the cab. “Did somebody fucking door you?” I said, for once, not silent, for once, not cautious, but acting on an ancient animal instinct to protect my friend.  And I don’t know if he sensed my righteous and terrible power or if he just thought a person with a mask painted on her face was dangerous and unpredictable, because oh yeah, that mask was still painted on my face, but that frat boy cowered behind the taxi door. I bared my teeth and glared at him, wild-eyed, through the face paint, then turned my bike around and pedaled with Jenn toward the Red Line.

On my bike my legs are fluid and strong, and I’m comfortable in my body in a way I haven’t been on land since puberty made me lumpy and off-balance. If I were to have an origin story, of course it would be biking. But even after the naked ride, I wasn’t expecting anything to change.

Weeks later, though, a weird dude cornered me at the bike rack to hit on me. Instead of looking at the ground or mumbling, “Uh, thanks?” I looked right at him and said, “You’re making me uncomfortable. You should go.” And I hopped on my bike and rode away, my unbuttoned cardigan fluttering behind me in the wind. From yards behind, I heard, “I like your thi-i-i-ighs.” But I didn’t care. Nothing could touch me.

Ruth McCormack earned her MFA from Florida State University in 2010. She sold out and went corporate shortly thereafter. When she’s not telling stories, she’s busy winning trivia championships, growing delicious basil, and making theatre with the Ruckus.
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