I am afraid of the dark. I’m afraid of tight spaces, and I am terrified of being held under water. These days, I usually swim alone or sometimes with Mike or Nick, people I trust, though I had a couple of moments there when Nick was learning to swim and clutched at me for buoyancy. Mostly I taught him to swim in chest-high water but once or twice he caught me off my feet and I had to work to keep from thrashing about in the pool and hitting him.
As for spaces, I don’t do much caving these days and only have a bit of trouble in an MRI machine or on the aisle seat on a plane when the flight attendants park the drink cart to block me in. For both of these occasions, I’ve discovered that closing my eyes and imagining that I float near the beach in an ocean bay can keep me sane for the few minutes it takes for things to open up again.
As for the dark, I still struggle. The movie, I Am Legend, didn’t help. Mike tells me it wasn’t that scary, but that movie cornered me for years.
I could tell you the origin of every single one of these phobias, being held under water until my lungs felt like they were going to explode, being coerced to crawl through a hollow log in exchange for a stick of gum, and being forced to practice piano in the dark.
I blame my brother.
When I was about seven, I was required to practice piano for a half an hour each night on the old upright grand in our basement. It was a cold, dark basement with casement windows and that concrete smell that always associates itself with dank memories. If I tried to look out the windows, I saw leaves and a scrim of dirt.
The worst part was that the light switch for the room hung at the landing of the concrete stairs just outside the door of the basement. I had yet to discover the courage to go into the hall to my father’s den and turn on the other light there.
This layout gave my brother free reign to capture and torture me while I played. He’d wait until he was sure I wasn’t standing by the door, until I was in the middle of a scale then switch the light off and then on again. Then, he’d switch it off and walk up three steps to the heating duct and practically press his lips to the dusty vent.
“Frankenstein,” he would whisper. “Frankenstein,” he would say with drama, holding the last syllable out with a tremor. The word shivered and reverberated through the ducts until it came alive in my imagination, wolves and wild cyborgs both with red eyes, worms and snakes slithered down the hall behind me until they waited just behind my piano stool.
If I stopped playing, my mother would yell through the floor for me to keep practicing until my half hour was up. Those were the longest half-hours of my life.
I learned to memorize very quickly and played as best as I could while half-turned on the swivel stool so that my poor eyes could discern any light that drifted from the casement windows. It was always dim in that basement, but at night passing cars or lightning played tricks on my eyes.
I tried to remember the positions of each item in the room, chairs, tables, toys, and I prayed they hadn’t shifted when the next streak of light illuminated the room. Tiny reflections became eyes. Invariably, I thought I saw minuscule differences in the flashed scenes. That chair with the black shadow behind it had shifted toward me. Some tinker toys had been removed from the path.
In those moments, in that dark or dim room, I lived an Alfred Hitchcock life, altered reality, even after my brother gave up whispering into the duct and left me paralyzed in the dark, waiting for someone to come down to watch TV.
I blame my mother too.
She requested that anyone wanting to watch TV wait until I was done practicing. One half hour of practicing daily. I never had the courage to walk across the room in the dark to find the light switch on the landing or in the hall. If I moved, the predators could see me clearly. If I stopped playing the keys, they would be able to locate my breathing.
By the time anyone came, I sat at the piano, still playing for the company, but with tears in my eyes. I always dashed them away because my brother had called me a baby too many times for me to show my fear.
I still imagine creatures, usually rabid people, coming around a dark corner like the one to that hallway. I still don’t like that place in my mother’s house, all that terror built up in one place, making the veil between reality and imagination very thin. Anything can make its way through dimensions where terror resides.
But now, I have some sort of angels that accompany me. At night, when I walk through my dark hallways, avoiding the desire to run back and forth turning lights on ahead before turning lights off behind me, I turn the flash of my iPhone on so I won’t trip over anything. That light is no help against night’s creatures. None. It only reminds me of the man with the pen light who tried to break into my car one night.
I always check to make sure the front door is locked and the reflection of that light in the window takes my breath, as does the possibility in the eerie light that the doorknob will slowly turn as if someone on the other side was teasing me, about to shift inside.
No. That light is no help.
What reassures me is the way Blitz’s furry feet patter down the stairs. He is excited to get a midnight snack, some kitten kibbles with tuna flakes on top. And Teddy, pounds down the stairs knowing he’s about to get one of his hypoallergenic cookies before snuggling into his bed next to my bed. Those clicking toenails need to be clipped, but not until tomorrow when I am more awake.
Thank you for listening, jb