Clockbeat

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

You hear this question all the time. In church youth group, in leadership conferences, in job interviews, at parties, dinners, and meetings. It’s a classic icebreaker, one everyone answers easily. You spend a lot of time, too much probably, contemplating this question. After all, you spend much of your time with heroes and witches and mutants and aliens.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

You have different answers at different times, but there’s one you never give, even though it might be what you crave the most. You’re always doing this. Keeping your deepest desires pinned inside you, twitching, but rarely cracking the surface. Why is it always so hard to say what you want?

You don’t want to be a superhero, but you want superpowers. You think about it all the time: the powers, the magic, the prophecies, the otherworlds. You wonder what it would be like to change something with your touch. You wonder what it would be like to think something into existence.

Every superpowered person has an origin story, and you’re not sure what yours is, but you’re always trying to figure it out.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

When lightning strikes, you wish you could control the weather. You think, naturally, of Storm, one of four women from the X-Men universe who captures your heart. Volatile weather scares you as a kid, then still as a teen, then still as an adult. You joke that you need a thunder jacket like your friends’ dogs, but it’s less funny when the thunder rumbles and you feel like your planet is about to split in half.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Lately, you can’t stop thinking about teleportation. It’s not the first time you’ve obsessed over the idea of hurtling your body through space in the blink of an eye. In high school, you have more friends in faraway places than nearby, scattered across time zones, untouchable and yet inextricable, like the bones beneath your flesh. It takes years to meet some of them, and you’re surprised every time by that transformation from liquid to solid. Someone who once existed as flat text, an occasional moving and talking picture on your screen, crackles into the physical world. Aren’t books and the internet teleportation portals? Did tumblr dot com not teleport you to otherworlds?

Once upon a time, you lived in a place where all the worst things happened to you, and yet you couldn’t leave. Maybe you still wouldn’t have even if it was as easy as teleporting.

Now you’re thinking about teleportation more than ever, because the woman you love lives on a peninsula very far away, and you live in a house of ghosts. But the ghosts don’t spook you as much as her absence does. Empty space that you can’t fill. So you think about teleportation. You think about how when characters in Harry Potter apparate, they risk splinching, accidentally severing from parts of their self in their previous location when they teleport to a new one. You wonder how often you’d take the risk. The hair you’ve left behind on hotel pillows, the blood on sheets—was that not like splinching?

You keep sending the same text: teleport me to you. You remember how your father used to say “beam me up, Scotty” so often in your childhood that you thought it was an American idiom and not a Star Trek reference. Beam me up, Scotty. Teleport me to you.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Sometimes, you wish you could shapeshift like Mystique. You spend afternoons in the woods running on fallen leaves toasted by autumn and pretending you can become your favorite animal, a wolf. You haven’t decided if this dreamed-up ability would be the result of a curse, like a werewolf, or a learned skill like an animagus from Harry Potter. You secretly like the idea of being a little bit cursed.

When you are in second grade, you wish you could change your hair color at will. Specifically, you wish you could shapeshift into a blonde, like Olivia Newton-John in Grease. Or like your mother. You don’t realize yet that she makes her hair blonde with boxed dye, a shapeshifting potion you can buy for $11.79 at CVS. You don’t realize yet that if she didn’t use the potion, her hair would be the color of wet sand.

You create a fantasy world that frankensteins together all the otherworlds you love from books, television, movies, comics. In it, there’s a woman who is you but not you. She has a different name, a different shape, different DNA, different dreams. She has a briefcase that contains a map to the universe, and she kisses women. You shapeshift into her every time you escape into this fantasy world. You daydream too much. You have created a whole otherworld of your own, and it will never exist outside of you, because you don’t know how to explain it.

You try once. You try to explain the woman who is you but isn’t you to your best friend in elementary school. Your friend looks so much like you that people ask if you’re sisters, and you love it. Then her dad dies, and she stays over at your house so much that it feels like you might be sisters after all. On one of those nights, you try to tell her about the shapeshifting you do in your mind, but she mistakes it as an invitation, and she says she’s too old for pretend games now.

The woman you love who lives on the faraway peninsula who you wish you could teleport to right now always talks about the questions underneath the question being asked. The unasked questions. The real questions.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

What do you fear? What do you desire? What do you wish you could control?

This would be a good superpower actually, to always know what someone is really asking.

Then again, telepathy is a complicated power. It takes different shapes: There’s mind control, and there’s mind reading. Mind reading is intermittently appealing. You’d like to know what someone is really asking, what someone is really thinking. You’d like to know when people are lying, because it turns out that you’re consistently bad at detecting half-truths and untruths. You’d like to see it coming when someone’s going to hurt you. Sometimes, you want to be a psychic.

You’re a Gemini, and you’re told this is why you enjoy hearing the secrets of others.

Once upon a time, you saw mind control in action. You don’t realize it until after, because the person being mind controlled rarely knows that it’s happening. The most harrowing moments of Jessica Jones are the split second after Jessica’s completed an order from her mind-controlling tormenter Kilgrave, when she realizes what she’s done because he made her do it. Maybe it wasn’t mind control. Maybe you’re giving her too much power. But you know that you once saw one person, and she said it was another, so you believed, for at least some stretch of time, that it was.

Empathy is the sister power of telepathy. Empaths don’t just hear the thoughts of others; they feel them. In an episode of Charmed, Prue Halliwell inadvertently becomes an Empath and is so bombarded by the intense emotions of others that she crumbles with the world’s worst migraine.

You already feel too much all the time, but you still wonder what it would be like to absorb someone else’s interior, like Theodora Crain when she removes her gloves to touch a person or thing and learn its history in The Haunting Of Hill House. But both Prue and Theo feel burdened by their gifts. Theo keeps her gloves on most of the time, a barrier between her and her power that becomes a barrier between her and other people.

The superpowered often feel burdened by their powers. Like Theo, Rogue wears gloves to protect herself and her loved ones. Prue’s sister Piper often longs for a life without magic, longs to be “normal.” Wolverine feels sharp metal splice the tender spots between his fingers every goddamn time he unleashes his claws. The Hulk full-time hates himself.

Powers come at a cost. With great power comes great responsibility. Nothing is easy. Life sucks. Etc.

What’s a superpower you’d never want to have?

Why doesn’t anyone ask that question?

Flying seems fine, but you’ve never quite understood it. Even in dreams, your mind can’t wrap itself around the idea of your body hovering on its own; you’re always on a broom or have webs shooting out of the ends of your hands as you swing between the crevices of skylines. You don’t even like Spider-Man that much. Dreams are weird.

Superhearing sounds like your personal nightmare. See: aforementioned fear of thunder.

You’ve never wished to be invisible. When playing hide-and-seek as a kid, you give yourself up. If it’s too dark, too quiet, you shout “here I am!” to the seeker, because the thrill of deceiving them is overthrown by the fear of never being found. The scariest part of The Haunting Of Hill House aren’t the actual ghosts but the time young Nell vanishes and then, upon reappearing, insists to her family that she was right in front of them the whole time.

You don’t wish for self-healing powers, because you worry how often you’d take advantage of it.

You don’t really wish for superstrength either, no matter how many times you dress up as Buffy or Faith.

You’ve thought about a modified version of invincibility: invincible lungs. Superman and Supergirl have super lung capacity, but it isn’t forever. Even they have to breathe eventually. Thanks to a database of superabilities, you learn that one of the only fictional characters with infinite lung capacity is the power absorber Kirby.

You’d like to be able to stay under water without ever coming up for breath. Open water heals and scares you, but lungs of steel could cure the latter. You’d also like to experience being buried alive, but that’s one of those pinned-in desires you keep inside.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

There’s still the answer you’ve never given. The one that might be the truest of them all. Why are you so scared to say it?

Let’s start with a baby-step, a half-truth: You want the power of time.

At a party in an impossibly tall house in Manhattan, a woman tells you she believes in time-travel, and you think to yourself that she’s very beautiful, and you think to yourself that she’s right. You’ve talked about it before: art as time-travel. Studying history as time-travel. Writing as time-travel. You believe in time-travel in the same way you believe in mind control and teleportation and psychic connections. There are always ways to access the past, whether intentional or not.

But you definitely don’t want to fucking time-travel in the sci-fi sense. You can’t think about it too hard when you watch Outlander, Star Trek, Legends Of Tomorrow, Terminator. The open loops of time-travel hurt your head. If you think about butterfly effects and paradoxes for too long, you have to sit on the floor or, better yet, the actual ground outside, like being closer to your planet’s surface will keep you from getting too lost in your head. When your friend excitedly draws a diagram that explains the theoretical existence of time-travel, he pencils an event horizon on a piece of scrap paper, and it looks exactly like an actual horizon separating ocean and sky (that is to say, it’s just a line), and you snatch the paper out of his hands and rip it up and say “let’s do something else.”

Yes, you obviously have anxiety.

You fear time. Or you hate it. Or both. Sometimes you can’t remember the difference. And your anxiety makes time move way too fucking fast. You have depression sometimes, too, and it doesn’t slow down time so much as make it irrelevant, like you’re the one frozen while everything else keeps moving. In a way, that feels like time moving too fast, too.

Controlling time. That’s what you want. You don’t want to rewind. After all, time-travel hurts your brain, and you already know the dangers of rewinding, rewinding, rewinding. You still return to the once upon a time place in your head, obsess over the past in an attempt to undo it.

No, you don’t want to rewind. You wish you could stop. But you might want to fast-forward sometimes. Through the really bad shit. Just a little bit. Not an all-out jump to the future, just the ability to make time move a little bit faster, a little bit at a time.

You realize that when you’re with the woman you love who lives on the faraway peninsula, time moves too quickly. Not in the way it does when anxiety sets in and you feel like you’re on a carousel you can’t get off. This is a carousel you very much want to be on, and there never seems to be enough time. Then when you’re apart, time crawls. Fuck time.

They say clocks have hands, and you know time can touch. Circle its grip around you and crush. And you can’t touch it back.

Above all else, you don’t want to move between time, you want to freeze it. That’s your boring little secret. You tell the woman you love who lives on the faraway peninsula that you want to freeze time, and you think this might be the first person you’ve really said it to. She says “like the Twilight Zone episode?”

Well, not exactly. In “A Kind Of Stopwatch,” Patrick McNulty is kind of a dick. He’s self-obsessed but doesn’t even hide it beneath a cloak of charm like the narcissists you’ve known. The episode reminds over and over that, mostly, he’s just boring. He talks about nothing. Constantly. McNulty gets his hands on a stopwatch that pauses time for everyone and everything except for himself. He doesn’t fully understand its power. He uses it to gaslight his boss and try to rob a bank. In a perfectly Twilight Zone twist, he loses the stopwatch after freezing time and becomes the sole being on the planet, surrounded by unmoving statues. Powers come at a cost.

Maybe freezing time is boring. Maybe that’s why you’re afraid to say you want it. “I don’t know if I’m scared of dying, but I’m scared of living too fast, too slow,” First Aid Kit sings in your ears.

The first time you want to freeze time is on the playground at school. Your best friend Anna hangs from the monkey bars. Anna is quick to fight, so you two fight all the time. You aren’t fighting on this day, but you know it’s only a matter of time before the next one. Somehow, you know even then that you won’t stay friends, a rare moment of clairvoyance. You want to freeze time, to watch her suspended from the monkey bars for just a little bit longer. You want to delay the fight and fallout that’s coming. Instead, she lets go, falls to the sand. Time passes.

You want to freeze time in the seconds leading up to your first panic attack. The one you have on a stage at your high school in the midst of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The one that makes you wonder if maybe you’d accidentally swallowed poison. The one that your parents laugh about then and still laugh about now. You don’t get the joke, but you laugh, too.

You name your cat Piper. Like the character in Charmed. The sister who wants to be a normal woman and not a witch. The sister most likely to sacrifice her power. She can freeze time, but she wishes she couldn’t. Later, when her powers evolve, she can also blow shit up. There isn’t a clear thread between freezing time and making things explode, and yet you can see it.

It sounds cliché as shit, but time freezes during the best orgasms.

Every subsequent panic attack wreaks havoc on your circadian rhythm. You forget to sleep for a period of time. And even when you remember to, you can’t. Time flattens then. It freezes but without your permission. Time is a constant, a reliable force, and yet it keeps betraying you. You suppose time is your ultimate supervillain, but you’re too tired to fight it. Once upon a time, if you could just freeze time, you would have frozen her so you could collect yourself in scarce moment of silence. Time, the news keeps reminding you, is becoming a scarce resource for your planet.

If you could just freeze time, maybe you could breathe long enough for the panic attack to curl back into itself and never claw forth. If you could just freeze time, you think you might be able to know yourself better. You don’t crave solitude, but you do crave stillness. In five years, you’ve lived in five different cities, and sometimes, embarrassingly, you forget that those cities don’t fossilize when you leave them. Everything keeps moving. Time passes. If you could just freeze time, maybe you could finally have enough of it, especially with the woman you love who lives on the faraway peninsula.

There are always questions beneath the questions, always wants beneath the wants and fears beneath the fears. Origin stories follow a formula, but they’re never simple.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Edited by Heather

SEE MORE FROM THE POWER ISSUE

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a Brooklyn-based writer, television critic, and comedian who spends most of her time over-analyzing queer subtext on television, singing "Take Me Or Leave Me" in public places, and assembling cheese platters. She has a cat named after Piper Halliwell from Charmed, and her go-to karaoke song is "Everywhere" by Michelle Branch. Her writing can also be found at The A.V. Club and The Hollywood Reporter, and she wrote the webseries Sidetrack. You can catch her screaming in all-caps about Kalinda Sharma, Jennifer Lopez, and oysters on Twitter and Instagram.

Kayla has written 191 articles for us.

17 Comments

  1. “Lately, you can’t stop thinking about teleportation. It’s not the first time you’ve obsessed over the idea of hurtling your body through space in the blink of an eye. In high school, you have more friends in faraway places than nearby, scattered across time zones, untouchable and yet inextricable, like the bones beneath your flesh. It takes years to meet some of them, and you’re surprised every time by that transformation from liquid to solid. Someone who once existed as flat text, an occasional moving and talking picture on your screen, crackles into the physical world. Aren’t books and the internet teleportation portals? Did tumblr dot com not teleport you to otherworlds?

    SO GOOD.

    teleportation. i’ve wanted it forever and ever more than anything. for small things & big things too

  2. You are not alone, my friend! I have always, always, ALWAYS maintained that being able to pause time would be the best superpower. I always explain it to people with a laugh and “think of how much sleep you could get!” since you could pause time after the alarm and go back to sleep.

    But it’s definitely a superpower that ties into anxiety for me. Even before we hit the time control portion of your piece, I thought to myself, “You know, the fact that you want to pause time says a lot about how you want absolute control over your surroundings.” Yeah, voice in my head, thanks. Drag me like this.

    Pausing time has always appealed to me for that aspect of control. Stressful or unexpected social encounter, or an emotional conversation that’s starting to go badly? Pause time and collect yourself, think of what to say, regroup and resume with your perfectly planned response! Also if I were ever in any physical danger, I’d most likely have a window to pause and assess the situation and figure out how to get myself to safety.

    And yes, I would also sleep in all the time. But for someone with a lot of anxiety who feels the need to plan and plan and plan again, of course being able to push the pause button on life and get my bearings appeals to me. I’d be the most prepared person in any room, all the time. In the long run, I’m sure it’s better for my brain and my emotional well-being that I don’t have this ability, but oh if it isn’t an appealing thought.

    (I also really love the way you explore the drawbacks to these powers, the vulnerabilities and fears that wanting them in the first place illuminates, and the ways that we have these things in less fantastical/scifi forms already in our lives. That put a REALLY interesting spin on this icebreaker question and added so much depth to what powers we desire and why)

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