I don't consider myself a phobic person. I have never been afraid of heights (though I have blogged about a recent fear of flying, here); in fact, I have been skydiving and loved the experience. I am not fearful of things like speaking in public or needles or spiders. I am not afraid to take creative risks or to make mistakes. I am not, strictly speaking, afraid of the dark. However, on this last item, I have to confess: it depends on what is meant by "dark." For most of my life, I thought I knew what darkness was—I don't mean metaphoric darkness; I'm talking about the lack of light at midnight. But I was raised primarily in large cities—New York, Chicago, L.A.—and in a city like this, the darkness is never complete. There is always a light-leak from someplace. You get ready for bed, turn off the lights, and at most it takes your eyes a few seconds to adjust before you see outlines of objects emerging from shadow. If you have a window in your bedroom, then you sleep with some gradation of light; not even a "blackout shade" keeps out every particle. With this urban background for context, here now is what I remember about the first night sleeping in my mother-in-law's house in the far suburbs of Toulouse: It was a new house; rather, it was new for her. She had moved into this particular house about two days before I married my husband in a church ceremony in Carcassonne, in front of nearly one hundred people, some of whom had traveled across borders, channels, and oceans to attend the ceremony. It was a hectic time. We were staying with other family until after our honeymoon in Greece, but when we returned to France, we stayed with my mother-in-law. In her former house (which had been a rental), the shutters on the windows had been the old-fashioned kind that open out to the exterior of the house: wooden, hinged, heavy, but that still let in slivers of light when closed. As anyone familiar with the French language knows, these heavy European shutters are called "volets." Nowadays, it is more popular (only in certain areas? for reasons of security? for the allure of the modern?) to have a kind of rolling electric shutter instead of, or in addition to, the old-style volets. On our first night back from the honeymoon, I climbed into the guest bed prepared for us, and my husband closed the window, lowered the electric shade. There's an option for stopping the shade at any point along its descent, and even when fully down, there's a way to stop the slats from closing up entirely, so that there remain little pinpoints of light at regular intervals. My husband, however, closed the shade completely. I didn't think anything of it at first. Why would I? I am not afraid of the dark. I lay there, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the usual shapes to define themselves as shadows in the semi-dark. It didn't happen. I remember thinking that it was taking quite a while for my eyes to adjust, but in fact, they never did. And when I realized that I truly could not see a thing—not the giant armoire in the corner of the room, not the door to the hall, not my hand in front of my face—the darkness became more than darkness to me; it became fear. It became a palpable and malevolent presence in the room, a vacuum that pulled into itself all the air that was meant for me to breathe. I remember feeling intensely this impression of suffocation, and with it a mounting panic that I tried hard to talk myself down from. But one thought rose to meet me, and I couldn't shake it. I was convinced, even as I heard my husband's deep breathing beside me (he will fall asleep in two seconds flat when he's tired), that I was alone in that room, and that the room was a damp, heavy, tomb-like place. That, in fact, it was not a room at all but a hole in the earth, a grave where by some horrible mistake I was being buried alive. My heart beating fast, my breath getting shallow, it was when I was nearly sure I could imagine the taste of mulch in my mouth that I forced myself up and groped for the light switch. I can't say my husband was happy to have the lights flashed on, but as it pulled him back from his own half-sleep state, I made him get up to open the shades again, which he did. Turning off the lights this time, it was dark again, but not with the velvety depth that spooked me. I was able to sleep, and, while falling asleep, to know that I would indeed wake up come morning. Ever since, when we are vacationing in France, I remember that first night, and although I know now what to expect and could certainly adjust, still I make sure to keep a direct line of light and air coming in through the cracks of the shades at night.
As a side note to this post, the words "fermer les volets" (close the shutters), have another connotation: that of a song, "Canoë rose" (pink canoe), by the chanteuse Viktor Lazlo. For those who don't know, Viktor Lazlo was born Sonia Dronier in 1960 in Lorient, France. She grew up in Belgium, where she launched a modeling career before focusing on music. She debuted as Viktor Lazlo—a direct reference to the movie "Casablanca"—with the release of her first album, titled She, in 1985. The album went platinum in Belgium and gained her an international following. Viktor Lazlo's voice had a smooth, jazzy, lounge-music quality; her singing was sultry, sexy, augmented in a perverse way by her choice of a cross-gendered stage name. A beautiful and sad song, "Canoë rose" has a refrain that loosely translates thus: [There was nothing left for me but . . . ] To close the shutters/and no longer change the water in the flower vase/to forget who you were/to never again be afraid/to tell oneself that one was not/really cut out for the role.
For those of you who read French, the full lyrics of the song: