In Praise Of Shadows
It was two o’clock in the morning, and I stood paralyzed by the side of the road under a sea of stars. Anger and terror wrestled in my chest, and I desperately rooted for anger to win. My boyfriend of six months had just abandoned me – abandoned me! – on a deserted road on Shelter Island. It was 1977 – the Summer of Sam, the year the Bronx Was Burning, and if there was one thing this Italian girl with shoulder-length brunette hair knew, it was not to be caught in a vulnerable position alone at night. The fact that I was over a hundred miles, two counties and a ferry away from all the craziness did nothing to still my racing heart.
Yet here I was, watching the red tail lights of his Camaro recede into the darkness. I felt as though I were at the bottom of a bowl of black, surrounded by trees with only the moonless sky to light the road. The sound of the woods seemed to wrap its arms around my chest and squeeze. I was a city girl, used to the noises of sirens and knocked-over garbage cans punctuating my sleep. Not this midnight chirping. Crickets? Frogs? The Giant Gila Monster? These woods were foreign to me, but not the hyper-vigilance of a woman alone in the dark – the trope of every horror movie I’d ever seen.
I sucked down a chunk of humid air and mentally sent a prayer to my holy trinity. Not the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, but Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan. My personal icons were of this world: feisty women unafraid to tackle misogyny head on. Yet, weren’t they the very ones who had gotten me into this mess? I mused that I wouldn’t be standing on this godforsaken road if I’d just kept my mouth shut and followed my grandmother’s advice to always let the man win whatever argument you were dumb enough to get drawn into. Too late, now, Grams. My thin-skinned date had simply stopped the car and ordered me to walk when he sensed he was losing. Too angry to be near him at that moment, I got out rather than fight.
After waiting in vain for his return, it finally dawned on me that Prince Charming wasn’t coming back. Even if he knew the way home to his family’s summer house, I certainly did not. Platform wedges were hardly the footwear I would have chosen if I’d known my evening was going to end on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, but there was nothing for it. As panic mutated into resignation, I tried to get my bearings. No damsel in distress, I would save myself. Dimly recalling a route sign a ways back, I thought I would head for that main road. This island wasn’t that big. Sooner or later, I’d have to hit a ferry station. Or the water, I thought glumly.
Not a single car passed me as I sliced through the warm, thick air. I wasn’t even sure if I felt safer alone in the dark. The thought of rescue by a passing stranger seemed more fraught with danger than just finding my own way. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. My glance darted left and right, scanning the edge of the woods, waiting for the Bogey Man to leap out and drag me to my doom. My keys were clenched between my knuckles, just as my cousin had taught me. Like Wolverine, he’d said with a nod towards his prized comic book collection. But with aching feet and a bruised ego, I didn’t feel like a superhero.
Time dragged on. Even though I was wearing a watch, it was too dim to read it. It felt like being stuck in the Between – not quite here or there, not quite midnight or dawn, not quite woman or prey.
And then it happened.
I stepped on a cicada. Few things are more disgusting than stepping on a cicada in the dark. There was a crunch and a slippery, oozing feeling beneath my foot. I squealed and did a quick two-step, dancing away from the road and closer to the woods, reflexively dragging my foot in the grass to scrape away whatever it was I’d stepped onto. Only then did I realize that it had been a cicada. Prince Charming had been thoughtful enough to have pointed them out on a previous evening.
Disgust gave way to a burst of hysterical laughter. I had been a maelstrom of emotions and now, suddenly, the whole thing exploded into a moment of clarity. There was something utterly ridiculous in my predicament. It was all so simple, really. It was dark, I was alone in an unfamiliar place, and there was no benefit in being either terrified or furious. Eventually, dawn would come and I knew I would get home. And eventually, I’d give up my habit of dating handsome jocks.
No sooner had the thought formed, than I felt the shadows condense to trees, and the road opened up to become a lighter path in the darkness. If my keys still poked from between my knuckles, my nails no longer dug into my clenched fist. Something in me loosened enough to begin to appreciate how beautiful a solitary midsummer night can be, especially on Shelter Island. Rather than the soundtrack to my personal horror movie, the chirping morphed into a contemplative chorus, almost as regular as surf. I began to feel my heartbeat settle back into a steady rhythm, patterning itself after the crickets. Or frogs. I smiled in the darkness. Whatever.
My mood lightened. I’d never been on a walk alone at night. Too dangerous for solitary women. Yet, as I walked, the night turned velvet. The air was soft and seductive on my skin. I got that same frisson of excitement, of something wonderful about to happen that I got when my boyfriend kissed me. But he wasn’t there. No one was there. This was mine alone, unconnected to the protections of a man. I wondered briefly if this was part of what feminists had in mind when they talked about not needing a man to live a full life.
The clouds slowly sifted and the moon peeked out. I felt a kinship with that moon, shyly emerging from the shelter of the clouds. She seemed to be hesitant at first and then boldly stepped into that wide field of stars. I had walked for less than an hour, but I felt as though I had traveled leagues away from that long-ago argument in the car. The woods gave way to scattered houses. Windows were dark, but the white gingerbread homes seemed friendly enough, glowing in the silver light. The road eventually roped its way through a small, sleeping village, past the Chequit Inn and back to the ferry terminal. It was closed, of course, so I settled myself to wait for the dawn near the tennis courts. From the hill I had a view of the water. I sat with my chin on my knees watching the stars dance with their reflections in the bay.
Eventually, the ferry would come and the train would take me from Greenport back to the city. As for Prince Charming, eventually he would realize it was over. Meanwhile, I had stepped into the rest of my life. Not Eventually, but Now.
Some wise person once remarked that wisdom comes from experience and experience comes from bad decisions. Of course, my parents had sought to shield me from making bad decisions – to play it safe, to be a good girl and, like Red Riding Hood’s parents undoubtedly warned her, to stay out of the woods. But I couldn’t resist that bad boy, and as a consequence found myself alone in those scary dark woods filled with shadows. Still, those shadows had things to teach me. There was beauty as well as danger there, and I was resourceful enough to find my way out of the woods.
So I will praise the shadows.