He was the first lover she’d had who had a secret deeper, and sillier, than hers: he was totally, utterly, wickedly afraid of the dark.
Oh, but whom was she kidding? Bridget was twenty-four, and he was the first lover she’d had, period. That was her secret.
Bridget had gone on dates, of course. She’d gone to an all-girls Catholic high school, Mary Star of the Sea. Dating was unavoidable. The old joke — that its acronym was SOS, meaning save us, meaning get me out of here — never failed to raise a smile among certain outsiders, non-initiates, non-Catholics, but always fell flat with the girls. Keep us in was what the girls mostly thought. Enough with these mixers. Sophomore year, Bridget was on the swim team, a season of surprises: She was fast. The goggles really hurt. She felt more naked with the slick, taut Lycra racing suit on than off. And one sunny Saturday, flip-turn flags fluttering and the stands full, her coach, saying: We arranged this coed meet just for you. Come on now, go talk to them. You can do it. Be brave! Just one word, it’s all it takes. Just go up to them, just say — Hi.
* * *
It took her seven years, but she did. Thanks not to her coach, but someone with an even more spurious approach to aquatics management, the lifeguard at her local public pool in Baltimore. The pool was inside a long-shuttered high school that had been converted to a community center. Then a jail. And finally, a municipal warehouse, but through it all, the pool remained. Occasionally, the lifeguard did not. Sometimes he monitored things from the chair, sometimes from the deck, sometimes from the windowless guard’s office, and sometimes, apparently, from the sidewalk outside while he walked home, unaware or uninterested that he’d just turned out the lights on his last two swimmers.
But she could, because what she learned at Mary Star of the Sea was that what a girl needed most in life was not a boy but books, and anything else could be had merely by pulling yourself up straight and striding broadly toward your goal. In this case, that was the half-lit exit sign at the far end of the room, and she would have made it, too, had she not heard the high-pitched cry from the deep end. Someone was scared. Not Bridget, who had a fairly good idea whose cry it was, a guy who’d been showing up lately, cute, didn’t stare at her, once lectured the guard about leaving. Now he needed her help. This she provided, and he, in turn, coffee, and then dinner, and then he called the au pair (I can’t stand her, but when I call late like this, she doesn’t complain, so I guess I can’t), and then they decamped to another spot for dessert, and then a bar for a nightcap, and then another bar where they mostly just kissed.
* * *
He was divorced — “catnip to a Catholic girl, right?” he said, but she ignored or forgave him, mostly because he said it so despondently.
And because he was named Laurel.
“Like the wreath?” she said, and she saw it happen, she saw him start to reply to what he’d thought she’d say, and then rewind and listen again.
“Everyone always says, ‘Like Laurel and Hardy?’ ” he said in a hush, like she’d discovered a new element. Obscurium.
“He was the brains of the act,” Bridget said, and saw she’d now delivered the second part of the one-two punch. Thank God for SOS and its senior year electives — and its sophomore requirements, like classics.
And for lonely, divorced quasi-academics who were suckers for smart girls.
“He was,” Laurel said. “No one knows that! Hardy golfed on his off-days. Laurel went back to the set and futzed with the script, the lighting…”
But Bridget had only gotten an A- in The Legacy of Silent Film, taken the class during the dizziness of senior spring, and so she panicked now: Laurel was the actor’s last name, what was his first? Larry? Fritz? Couldn’t she just get credit for things she did know? The names of the first five books of the Bible. He whom Homer termed Tamer of Horses. The 23 Helping Verbs. That had been freshman year, the year of memorization, stuff she’d remember for life.
Is am are was were be being been has have had do does did shall will should would may might must can could.
But what did you do with those words? Meanwhile, this Laurel was saying something — she saw his lips moving, and they were pretty, and she kissed him, to shut him up, to get things moving. She was twenty-four. SOS!
The silent actor’s name dropped onto her tongue like a bright, sweet butterscotch, and for a moment, she couldn’t stop herself, she was opening her mouth, she was going to tell him this, too, but he misread her, thought she was just adjusting, getting really serious about this kissing thing, and she thought maybe she was.
* * *
A few months after meeting him at the pool, Bridget moved in with Laurel and his two children, Thomas (seven, and the name Laurel’s choice) and Jasmine (four, her name the only thing the deserting wife had left behind). Bridget wasn’t living in sin; she’d been hired as the new au pair.
It wasn’t that simple, and maybe not smart, but she wanted it to be. Anyway, Laurel had fifteen years on Bridget, and age must bring wisdom, right?
Something had to bring wisdom; graduate school, Bridget’s reason for being in Baltimore, had not. She’d fled here from post-college life in Los Angeles to attempt a graduate degree in creative writing. But she’d quickly abandoned that for a master’s program in social work — same subject matter, less filter, or so it seemed.
But now, with Laurel, she had a chance to reenter the writing world, from the other side of the classroom. Laurel ran the continuing education program of a local college, mounting dozens of classes month after month, everything from macramé to memoir. In a pinch, Laurel turned to Bridget to cover a fiction workshop. “Not so different from nannying? And you could use a night off,” Laurel joked, or maybe he thought he was joking. Bridget joked back, said a weekly night off might be fun, but for the both of them, a weekly date back at the pool, say — and he laughed, and they kissed, and she knew she could leave at any time, and she didn’t.
Instead, Bridget smiled, loved his kids, let Laurel love her, and, one night a week, spent her night off teaching. Some weeks went better than others, but it did get her out of the house, and it got her talking with people who were interested about writing. Interested in publication, too, but unlike her grad school classmates, Bridget’s students were most concerned with the words, the way they went down on the paper. They struggled. Bridget liked that they struggled. It was hard work.
Some of her students made it harder. It startled her, time and again, how many students used the class as group therapy. Some realized this, some didn’t. But most wrote out of pain, or wrote to pain, the words, sentences winding down the page until they found the place, again and again, where it hurt most. This woman had miscarried, quite recently. This woman had witnessed a beating. This man had abandoned a friend at a critical time. This boy had tried drugs for the first time and found them “simply astounding” and marveled, with increasing despair, how each subsequent high wasn’t as “sticky green great” as the first one.
For the most part, though, Bridget could still workshop the stories as stories, not case histories, and whenever students tried to draw her out on the topic, Haven’t you done this, Bridget, written things out to figure things out? she said yes, she had, but that she’d not always shared that writing. She talked about public versus private, which, listening to herself, did sound very thoughtful, professional, but which was also, upon later reflection, completely hypocritical.
And what about your kids? What do they think?
No idea. They weren’t really her kids, either, though Laurel had recently said, I want you to think of them that way, and even though she did want to think of them that way — to think of them not as her charges, but her children, to think that Bridget would share in their lives as Laurel was inviting Bridget to share in his. Laurel: the first man Bridget had truly fallen for, not least because he was so grateful that she was so smart. And good with kids. Good in the dark.
Recently, Bridget had tentatively called Laurel’s children “her” kids in the classroom, in vague, oblique little anecdotes she told so as to better bond with the other working parents and because, well, it felt normal to talk about one’s kids, and Bridget wanted to try that, practice for the life that was arriving, with a mate, a family, a quiet, private life out of harm’s way. After college, before Baltimore, she’d worried how life would work out, and was now comforted to see simply that it would work out. Messily, but happily. Ever after. Maybe life was like a silent film, the occasional stumbles only cause for comedy, the train never reaching the damsel draped across the tracks, the lovers finally embracing, the camera irising in on the kiss, tighter and tighter, until it was just their heads, their lips, then the image was gone, everything black.
A newcomer joined Bridget’s course midway through, announcing loudly that he had seen it all, he’d been in prison, he didn’t scare. They should sit up and pay attention to what he wrote because they weren’t going to read anything like it anywhere else.
He didn’t say what he’d been in for — maybe, Bridget thought, for stealing Christmas presents, because he looked a bit like a Santa, albeit one who’d lost too much weight, and thereupon his job. But he wrote dark, bitter, misogynistic stories, and when he asked Bridget if she would show what he’d written to her agent, she said, No, not even stalling like she usually did. Because she didn’t have an agent. Because the writing was bad. And because an ex-con had lived a hard enough life that he could take bad news straight up, right? He didn’t scare.
He sent his answer, a scrawled note, right to the house, like he was following the script of some non-silent movie, or, worse, the script of his own story. Or maybe it wasn’t a note, maybe it was a story. It was called “Hangman,” the victim’s name had seven letters, the murderer was the victim’s creative writing student.
Bridget hid all this from the children — the tears, the wide-eyed lying awake, the rage, the flat-out fear. How this one man, or how everything, including not being able to work out at the pool in months, had winnowed her, made her forget. She couldn’t hide it from Laurel, though, who made her call the police. Inconveniently, the plainclothes policeman arrived while Laurel was still at work, and Bridget home alone nannying the kids, trying to get dinner ready, go a whole sixty-minute stretch without ducking into the closest bathroom for a quick cry.
She told the kids the man was going to ask her questions because he was a newspaper reporter, and then sent them to watch PBS. Which was good, because the policeman asked about terrifying things, and Bridget got upset, especially when he left. Not because of anything he said then, but because she realized, as he turned to walk out the door, that underneath his shirt was a bulletproof vest.
Santa was arrested — the “story” he’d sent Bridget prompted an interview with his parole officer, which went badly enough that the officer wound up in the hospital and Santa in custody. In his story, the victim got seven chances to get the letters right, but in his life, he faced a justice system that only allowed for three strikes. Santa was hustled off to prison, where he’d write the rest of his life.
Bridget kept all this from Thomas and Jasmine. Skillfully, she felt.
Laurel said he was proud of her, too.
And while it wasn’t that Bridget didn’t believe Laurel — his pride in her, it was one of the things she liked most about Laurel, other than the way he’d looked, or felt, in his swimsuit that first night — Bridget did feel the air change slightly, the way the fiery Santa Ana winds back in California signaled their coming madness with a single hot puff pulsing out of the desert.
Bridget didn’t think the first and fatal blow would come courtesy of the children, though. They were talking about the newspaper reporter at dinner, all of them, together. (Bridget had first talked about it with Laurel, who was, but would not admit to being, furious that Bridget had let his children see a policeman in their house. Bridget should have called him, and Laurel would have taken them away.)
(Oh, like a real parent, you mean? Laurel’s nanny thought.)
Laurel’s older child, the seven-year-old, scary-smart Thomas, he of the x-ray vision, the one who could see everything, even or especially things he did not understand, Thomas wanted to know why the reporter had come.
Laurel broke in: “Because Bridget’s a writer,” he said.
“Oh!” said Thomas.
For Thomas, being a writer was a goal of late, now that soccer season had ended and tee-ball had yet to start.
“Have you written a book?” Thomas asked.
Bridget shook her head.
“You should!” Thomas said.
Laurel told Thomas no. Or maybe he was telling Bridget no.
The four-year-old, Jasmine, loved color. Fall leaves. Pizza with all the toppings. Candy aisles and circuses. She asked, “What color will it be?”
“Blue!” said Thomas.
“Red!” said Jasmine, who insisted on reading one Christmas book a night, no matter the time of year.
Bridget thought, but did not say, I’m tired of red, of blood, of threats, of students always committing suicide in their stories, or killing off pets, grandmothers, bad guys, good guys. Of anyone’s stories where anyone dies. I’m tired of everyone everywhere always dying at the end.
But mostly, Bridget thought, I’m tired of red.
Jasmine wasn’t. Bridget tried to brighten, and said: “Let’s do the title first.” And then Bridget checked to see how Laurel was taking this. Not well.
“You should call it Spaghetti,” Jasmine said. Made sense. It was going to be a red book. And Bridget had made spaghetti tonight because that didn’t require a knife, and thus, she’d be that much less tempted to — not that she would, no — kill herself.
See, Laurel? We can make it. I didn’t harm your kids! Our kids! They just think that I’m a famous writer, and that the policeman was a reporter! I’ll quit teaching, I’ll be a real mom, the stay-at-home kind, PTA, cookies, carpools. And we’ll stay in bed on Sunday mornings and the kids will watch television and every night we’ll read them to sleep, only the sweetest of books, so they’ll dream, like us, only the sweetest of dreams.
Thomas said, “You should call it Angels in the Darkness.”
Whereupon, finally, horribly, exhaustingly, publicly, Bridget cried. Because she’d been wrong. She’d failed as a mother before she even got a decent crack at being a mother. She’d gone and screwed it up big time, blowing that one crucial test of parenting, which was sucking it up, whatever it was, and not letting the kids see you fall apart.
Because you were their world, both universe and the universe’s protective outer shell, and as a parent you had only one job, which was to make sure the glass didn’t crack, that the sun always shone, that it never got dark.
Angels in the Darkness. Bridget saw Thomas’s angels instantly, these tormenting winged creatures, like angry, makeupped, heavy-metal hair band rockers, black and bloody and altogether evil. Later, while Laurel tucked them into bed, Bridget looked on and knew that this was what the children thought of: dark angels. And that they thought of them because Bridget had introduced this darkness into the house.
Some mother she would make, Bridget.
Don’t cry, said Jasmine.
Bridget pulled herself together — how could she not, here was another girl who understood, like her, what empathy was all about? — and stepped into the room.
“I’m not crying,” Bridget said. She looked at Laurel.
Laurel turned away from the kids, looked at Bridget, and mouthed, Please, go.
But Thomas spoke first. “Angels in the darkness are the angels who sit with you, in the dark, when you are scared,” he said.
Bridget tried to nod her head, not look at Laurel.
Thomas went on: “They don’t do anything else but sit there. But that makes you feel better, doesn’t it?” He looked at Laurel, at Bridget, and finally, at Jasmine.
Jasmine nodded her head, once: Yup.
“Some people are scared of the dark,” Thomas said, and looked at his dad.
Bridget looked at Thomas, then Jasmine. Not Laurel. Bridget didn’t mean to say what she said next, but she wasn’t in a position then to police herself — not that she ever was, apparently.
Bridget said: “What about when it’s light?”
Because afraid as she was for the kids, for Laurel, for their relationship, which, in the space of an hour — or had this been coming for months? — was becoming the fiction it had always been (“Oh, her? She’s my nanny, Bridget”), Bridget was afraid for herself.
And because Bridget had only ever seen Santa in class, in the light. It would be nice to know that Thomas’s angels had fluorescent-lit scenarios covered, too.
Jasmine said, “Maybe there are light angels?”
Thomas said, “No, there aren’t.”
And Jasmine, who usually fought with him, said nothing.
And Laurel, who usually scolded Thomas for needlessly freaking Jasmine out, said nothing.
And Thomas got up, went to the wall, and turned out the light.
Light from the other rooms bled in. Jasmine got up to cut the switches off. Then Thomas ran around, racing her, it was a game, but neither Laurel nor Bridget could stop them until everything was dark, the only lights left the deepening dusk outside, the digital green of the appliance clocks, and a general lightness that seemed to hang in the air like fading smoke.
Grownups and kids huddled in the hallway outside the bedroom. It wasn’t so dark they couldn’t see each other. But it was dark. Bridget could hear Laurel’s breathing shallow, and she could hear him try to hide that fact. What she needed to do now was open her arms wide and draw them — Laurel, Thomas, Jasmine — all of them in, hold them close before or until the angels got there. But she couldn’t. Her skin was wet, she was naked again but for that Lycra suit, which, after all this time, was still worse than wearing nothing at all.
Outside, a car door slammed. Footsteps followed.
Years later, she’d remember this moment better than any from Mary Star of the Sea. Married by then to someone else, a kind, gentle boy who was scared of nothing “other than losing you,” living in Newport Beach, California, where three of her four children spent summers as junior lifeguards, and the youngest drew picture after picture depicting the day he’d join them, Bridget sometimes listened to the house settle at night, sometimes thought of Laurel and Thomas and Jasmine that dark evening in Baltimore.
“See?” Thomas said. “Don’t you feel better?”
Shh, said Laurel.
“Don’t you see them?” said Jasmine.
Shh, said Bridget, and it became an exhale, and at its extent, she found herself smiling, her lips parting, about to offer up what became, over time, her shortest, simplest, favorite prayer, the word her children found her with when they couldn’t sleep, the word she offered her husband when they were the first to awake on a sleepy Sunday, the word she greeted herself with whenever a painful memory came swimming back, that single word that ever since always dispelled the dark.