Dark Levity: On Clear Shower Curtains & Living as an Unreliable Narrator
“Such a soft sound
being eaten from inside
your own skull”—David Welch
I. We Call the Hour Magritte-Dark
In Magritte’s The Empire of Light there are three light sources: the glow in the bedroom window; the lantern in front of the house; and the belly-lit clouds, holding the sun like a fever dream as it begins to sink behind the tree line. This painting captures the reverse effect of seeing a thunderstorm off in the distance: the viewer is already embedded in the airy obscurity of the foreground with the knowledge that the same darkness will soon blot out the clouds, those piggy banks of light. Before I become terrified of this painting, I am in love with it:
René Magritte, The Empire of Light,
1953-54, Guggenheim Collection, Venice
For my tenth birthday, my grandma takes me to the Magritte exhibit at The Met, and we we stand in front of The Empire of Light. It reminds me of biking home for dinner, when the forest skirting my house magically absorbs the sunlight before the sky behind it settles into dusk. The sun’s migration takes away visual cues one chunk at a time. The varied branches of maples and oaks blur into one dark ruffle cocooning our cul-de-sac. This moment feels like living in two time zones at once—the bikeable world is already sleepy, a mosquito fat with blood, while the sky is still begging for kite action.
I feel this pull inside of me all the time: opposing emotions not only coexisting but informing each other. The emotions shadow play long after their cause—the sun—has receded from view.
The Empire of Light is described as fantastical, simply because it brings together night and day. The implication is that night and day are distinct periods and that their incongruence is unnerving and unsettling for the viewer. That dusk and dawn are the only ways these concepts overlap. But standing in front of it with my grandma, I sense familiarity: I know this moment, I’ve biked through it. I beg her to buy me the poster as an extra birthday present and she does.
At home, we start referring to this instance as Magritte-dark. We rush to point it out when we’re in the car together or walking through the neighborhood as the fireflies are waking up, stirring their luciferins. Our strolls are made museum-worthy.
Critics call The Empire of Light “devoid of human emotion.” But there is a light on in the bedroom: someone is home. Someone is tenderly preparing the house to meet the evening. Maybe this someone is folding linens or making tea for other family members who will return soon. For a whole year, I feel calm when I glance at my wall and see it.
Then one night, I become terrified of this painting—my poster: I’m convinced I could be the one inside that bedroom, trapped.
In the dark, alone, I believe that if I fall asleep, I could wake up inside The Empire of Light.
So, I stay awake until the sun rises.
II. Roald Dahl’s The Witches
I’ve been infected. It feels like a single book—The Witches—infects me or triggers some disease I’m unaware my body has been harboring. The more books I read, the more the infection controls my judgment, my sense of safety. Suddenly: I’m terrified of any dark space and of closing my eyes when I’m alone.
I fight sleep because I’m convinced that in doing so, I’m fighting to stay alive.
In The Witches, the witches despise children with “a red-hot sizzling hatred” and conspire to rid the world of them. They’re rigorous in this pursuit—“One child a week, is fifty-two a year. Squish them and squiggle them, and make them disappear!”—and wildly inventive in their approach, turning them into rats, egg-laying chickens, stones, and porpoises. Children permanently transform into animals and objects that fit the environments in which they live.
I trace this visceral fear and my development as an unreliable narrator, to one particular “disappearance” in The Witches. A seemingly “nice lady” gives a young girl an apple to eat. Dahl explains, “The next morning little Solveg was not in her bed. The parents searched everywhere but they couldn’t find her. Then all of a sudden her father shouted, ‘There she is! That's Solveg feeding the ducks!’ He was pointing at the oil-painting, and sure enough Solveg was in it.”
Dahl succinctly captures the radical shift in the family: “She was standing in the farmyard in the act of throwing bread to the ducks out of a basket. The father rushed up to the painting and touched her. But that didn't help. She was simply a part of the painting, just a picture painted on the canvas.” Here is Solveg, looking out the window of the farmhouse:
A still (image) from the film The Witches (1990),
in which Solveg finds herself trapped inside a painting.
Solveg grows old inside this painting. There is no way out. Her parents cannot help her return. They are helpless.
She feeds the ducks, wanders around the property, and eventually grows old and dies. When she dies, she simply fades away. Her absence is her death. Her death returns the painting to its original landscape:
A still (image) from the film The Witches (1990), when Solveg
has grown old and died, and the painting returns to its original image.
My parents cannot protect me from what they do not believe in.
“A witch, you must understand, does not knock children on the head, or stick knives into them, or shoot at them with a pistol. People who do those things get caught by the police.”
“A witch never gets caught.”
My parents are helpless.
I don’t believe that the witches in The Witches will walk off the page and offer me an apple. But my revelation is that I’m fully exposed: that some strange force could consume me, devour me, shred me, dissolve me, strangle me, chop me up. That this force gestates in a dark chamber, erupts like lava when I’m finally alone.
I take The Empire of Light off my wall and hide it in my closet. I cover it in old soccer uniforms. I leave the wall blank.
My parents ask me why I’ve removed it. They care, they want to know. But I’m embarrassed. I can’t tell them I'm afraid I’ll become “simply part of the painting.” As much as I want them to recognize these newly unleashed possibilities—I know they will be concerned that I’m showing signs of instability. Confirming that my fears are irrational does not feel reassuring, it only heightens my belief that my parents cannot shield or find me if they’re actualized.
My parents battle rational fears: my dad’s recent bankruptcy, mounting bills, Lyme disease, my poor grades in math class. Their concern about family responsibilities is more tangible to them than the probability that “something could get me in bed.” They don’t have emotional or imaginative room for this. Because they’re shut to the possibility, my own fears become ominously molten—I quietly accept that my account is somehow inherently less credible. My internal narration about the choices I’m making—why I refuse to go out to the car after dark to retrieve my backpack filled with homework or why I want locks for my closet doors—are no longer reliable to anyone else.
In my room alone at night, there are no witnesses.
In my room alone at night, I believe anything could be in there with me—it’s this potential that grips my imagination: gloved hands might pop out of the wall and clench my neck; yellow gas might leak through the heat ducts and smother me; gelatinous blobs might fall from the ceiling; my dolls might animate and attack me.
The dark is a nest of threats, gory deaths, or disappearances. The more I read, the more the evil eggs in this nest multiply. In my room alone at night, there are no witnesses if the eggshells begin to crack open. What will hatch?
III. Waiting for Pennywise
One of the few places I am allowed to bike on my own is the library. I have secret reading spots on all the floors. My name is on sixteen green stars on the wall, near the circulation desk, one star for each book I read the previous summer, as part of the library’s Reading Challenge. I find most books on my own. I have worked my way through Beverly Cleary, Monica Furlong, and Judy Blume, when my older cousin tells me he’s reading IT by Stephen King. I don’t know what the novel’s about, but I want the challenge, to hold a book that thick, to be like my cousin, the origami and math genius.
I begin reading IT and immediately know I should stop—something is shaking loose inside of me—like a porcelain bowl tipped off a high shelf, careening into an impossible puzzle on the floor. My insides quiver like a spider web. I hope that if I finish the book, the evil will be contained, will pool into a resolution that won’t saturate my reality.
But the book ends ambiguously and so I lie in bed for as long as I can on my own. It’s so quiet, I confuse my own heartbeat for footsteps on the staircase. I picture Pennywise, the clown from IT, making his way to my door. I try not to think of my worst fears like spiders ripping through my skin and scattering on my floor, pearls from a broken necklace. I try not to picture the ax murderers conjured during summer campfire tales breathing quietly in my closet. I don’t want Pennywise to hear my thoughts: for this demonic clown to turn into my worst fear, to destroy me, and leave no sign other than the soft indent on my pillowcase.
It’s 2 am. Like accidentally scratching my eye when brushing hair out of my face, my imagination has turned against me. The footsteps get louder, are right outside my door.
I shrink down in the bed, trying to lower my head below the pillow, so whatever dark force is outside my door can’t see my sweaty forehead, my brown hair curling over the rose-patterns on the pillowcase. I want my bedroom to look empty. Empty of me.
I wait for Pennywise to descend on me or not to descend on me. I try to think of anything besides my worst fears—words I need to learn how to spell for the test on Friday, playing G.I. Joe with my brother on the couch after dinner, what notes I passed to my friends in school—even though it feels like my worst fear is currently happening, has reached the top stair.
When my heart rate slows down and it sounds like Pennywise has stepped away from the door, I slip out of bed and bolt down the hallway to my parents’ room. I sit outside my parents’ door. I can see from the crack underneath that they are asleep. I want them to sleep. I listen to see if anyone is stirring, if I don’t have to wake anyone up.
I should be able to talk myself out of this. I should be able to convince myself of the same reliable narrative that lets everyone else rest. I don’t want to tell them I’m scared. But I am. I knock on the door and open it, letting both the light and my shadow spread across their carpet. Standing in the doorway, I look Magritte-dark.
My parents are confused. They walk me back to my room. I ask my mom to stay with me until I fall asleep.
Our routine changes. When my mom comes into my room to kiss me goodnight and says, I love you to the moon and back, I no longer respond, I love you to the Milky Way. I now abashedly whisper, I’m scared.
Of what? My parents ask.
Of things getting me.
I can never be more specific, which is what makes this harder for us all. Sometimes I can say, I’m scared of what could be in the dark. But they have no idea what I’m picturing. All they see is an inarticulate daughter staring up at them blankly, shrugging and holding back tears.
Some nights I sit outside my parents’ bedroom door for hours. I rub my fingertips over the worn stubs of the hallway’s thick brown carpet and listen to my parents breathe.
Some nights I peek in on my younger brother and get jealous pangs—he falls asleep so quickly, like a puppy that’s played fetch for hours. I catch him sleeping fully dressed with his pajamas still folded at the foot of the bed. I catch him sleeping with his legs crossed and a book on his chest. He barely climbs into bed before he’s asleep. He looks so vulnerable, yet he must feel so safe.
Some lucky nights I calm myself down and fall asleep before midnight. This happens only when I finish my homework early and promptly get into bed and when my parents also stay up late so I hear them downstairs. Their low murmurs are soothing—I convince myself that if I fall asleep before they come upstairs and go to bed themselves, I’ll be protected through the night. If they are awake, they are witnesses. This immediate sense of safety lulls me.
Most nights, I try to read myself to exhaustion but often, right before I fall asleep, some terrifying thought crosses my mind and I’m wide awake again. I picture a watercolor illustration from Scary Stories 3 and then the image hovers above me in bed, like a ghoul waiting to devour me when I close my eyes.
An illustration of “Pale Lady” from a children’s book of
urban legends, Stephen Gammell, 1991, Scary Stories 3.
To distract myself, I’m now allowed to watch TV as a last resort. When I see other people on the screen, I trick myself into believing I’m not alone. I’m surrounded by a dark forest, but I’m also with the contestants of American Gladiators. When the reruns run out, though, there is nothing lonelier than the taunting glow of the Color Test Pattern signal:
SMPTE color bar.
I begin to dread the Color Test Pattern. I climb into bed and cry as though it signals the collapse of human consciousness. I picture an entire world swaying in dreams. Usually around 4 am, I fall asleep from sheer exhaustion and have to wake up at 6:30 am to get ready for school.
I drag my spoon over the top of my cereal and barely have the energy to lift up the Cheerios. I forget the correct spelling for quiz words like “colonel” and “loquacious.” I nap on the way to school with the seatbelt cradling my head.
My parents feel helpless.
They are helpless.
But my parents try to help: Some nights they lie in bed with me until I fall asleep. These are my favorite nights, but it means they may be awake until midnight to prevent me from staying up until 4 am on my own.
They buy an extra mattress to fit under their bed so I can sleep in their room if I can’t be alone. I’m embarrassed but they don’t shame me. Sleeping on this mattress comes with new fears: when I curl up beneath them, I’m staring into a giant dark hole in their bathroom wall from an unfinished project. I close my eyes and hope nothing crawls out of it. I calm myself down by convincing myself that if anything does drag me into that dark hole, my parents will hear the commotion. Some nights I sit in the hallway, weighing the safeness of being near my parents against the danger of being near the hole.
They send me to a therapist who asks me to draw and play Jenga with her.
I’m continually getting bronchitis and pneumonia. My parents worry about how the irrational fears gripping my mind are wearing down my body from sleep deprivation. After many consecutive sleepless days, they will crunch up an Excedrin PM in a tablespoon of ice cream so that sleep is guaranteed no matter how hard I fight it.
I watch them crush the blue pill and sprinkle it under the mint chocolate chip. It makes the ice cream taste slightly bitter. I try to swallow it in one mouthful so that the blue flakes don’t get stuck to my molars and dissolve after the mint flavor’s gone.
My parents let me plan as many sleepovers as I can on weekends because if other friends are in the bedroom, I follow their reliable narratives. We braid each other’s wet hair. We’re excited to go to sleep so we can see how crimped our hair is in the morning.
Yes, we will be alive in the morning with crimped hair.
IV. Beyond the Bedroom
When I am alone again, it feels like there is no cure for this infection. Fears mutate and expand like black mold in a damp basement. There is no one else to narrate my experience and I’m held hostage by my own anxiety.
Darkness is the shower’s drain and the blood that could bubble up from it. I shower with the curtain pulled open, the door open, looking at the drain for any signs of gurgling. Water bounces out of the shower and drenches the mat. My brother gets mad at me for soaking the bathroom and his socks when he comes in to brush his teeth.
Darkness is watching my parents’ faces when I tell them in the morning I was up until the Color Test Pattern signal came on.
Darkness is the window next to the front door I have to scamper past in order to climb the stairs. It’s the panicked run and squealing noise I make when my mom asks me to go upstairs and grab her glasses or slippers. I’m afraid Pennywise will be standing right outside, see me, and reach for the door we never lock.
Darkness is the wolf-in-a-cave cough I develop after weeks of barely sleeping.
Darkness is my refusal to walk into the garage since the light switch is on a post halfway into the room.
Darkness is my fear of losing control, which ends up controlling me. It’s my ouroboros of anxiety. And it’s self-justifying: hypervigilance is necessary to stay alive because the moment I let my guard down, accept the narrative that everyone else believes, that’s when the improbable will get me.
It’s the loneliness of waiting for the sun to rise.
When the sun noses the tree line, my vigilance for dark places dissipates like dust motes on a windowpane. Daylight means I can see what’s coming. The space between objects is transparent: the rug between the lamp and the sofa; the grass between the front door and the trees; the wallpaper between my dresser and the closet. My unreliable narrative slides under my bed like a dormant slipper.
In daylight, instead of seeing the gaps between objects as potential harm, I’m able to see the connections. I’ve banned myself from reading horror stories and instead the librarian introduces me to poetry. I tape green stars to the library walls for reading Shel Silverstein and Maya Angelou. Suddenly: budding relationality is hopeful.
The top of my nightstand is a lily pad. The strip of bacon is a bookmark for our breakfast. I can identify moments when my own anxiety feels like a bee trapped in a glass. Connections accordion out like a chain of paper dolls. Metaphors and similes hold the possibility of correlation and germination. Figurative language is expansive, inviting.
I start writing poems in the flyleaves of the books I’m reading and then secretly type them up when no one is home. One day my mom finds a wadded up poem in the trash and asks me if I wrote it myself or just copied it from a book. I wrote it, I say. She tries to un-crinkle it on the kitchen counter and asks, Why’d you write it?
I guess because I didn’t have anywhere else to put those thoughts? When I talk to my friends on the phone we’re just gossiping about our teachers or other friends. I can’t bring up topics we’re discussing in history class. Or, like, how I feel about what I’m learning.
Don’t throw your poems out, honey. My mom raises it to the refrigerator and searches for a free magnet.
At the library, I pin up green stars for Pablo Neruda and Adrienne Rich.
Each night that I don’t die edges me toward a daylight in which I can read and write, gives me a little more strength to cultivate a new kind of vigilance. I am on the lookout for how to bring together objects, emotions, and abstract ideas in combinations that have not existed before. My best friend’s laugh is the sputter of a sprinkler turning on at dusk. Spelling a word incorrectly on a test feels like a stack of pennies spilling over. My parents whispering in my dad’s office about his bankruptcy is algae creeping over the top of a pond.
Even if I’m navigating darker emotions, the unpredictability of what connections unfurl is joyous.
I ask my friends to stay inside during recess and write with me. We sit around a library table and build poems together with markers and construction paper, our snacks of orange juice and crackers adrift on our napkin rafts.
My dad bikes to the library with me and helps me Xerox poems from the books I like so I can cover my walls with words instead of images that can trap me.
I’m learning that an original perspective can be reliable.
V. Dark Levity
I can’t write myself into a daylight that lasts twenty-four hours. But poetry lets me accept this deeply anxious side of my imagination. I can’t have one without the other: they are mittens connected by a thread that runs through a child’s coat.
Exhausted at night, I used to get so frustrated at myself. I would cry quietly asking, Why am I like this? Letting my irrational thinking trick me, take over? I wondered how other people were able to keep these dark fantasies in a box labeled “Impossible.” Why were mine labeled “Possible,” why were mine able to dissolve the box, and then flood me like a wave of blood?
Now, I call this thread between mittens “dark levity.” I think it’s a mode of being rather than an approach to writing. It’s an embodiment of a range of moods: a place to write from, not the writing itself. I invite you into this positionality, which acknowledges the multiplicity of vigilance: the perpetual terror of death, oppression, and loneliness as well as the deep empathy forged by interpreting the world through the lens of unexpected correlations. It’s Magritte-dark.
Dark levity is a constellating principle. It frees me to walk around, buoyant with curiosity. It lets me write for hours, sorting through words and images that hopefully coalesce into new entry points for interpreting our experiences. While dark levity lets me vibrate toward the imaginative side of the spectrum, by its very nature, it accepts all vigilances.
This means that even in my thirties, wherever I live, I have a clear shower curtain hanging in my bathroom. Clear curtains let me see anyone entering the bathroom while I’m taking a shower. So I am not defenseless. So I won’t be surprised.
When I sleep at home, I still set the bedroom door exactly six inches open. If the bedroom door is set exactly six inches open, then I can hear it creak if anyone tries to enter the room. And if someone is already in the room, then I can get out easily.
Notice how I write “someone” instead of “something” to sound more reliable.
Before I drive at night, I check to make sure the backseats are empty. I cannot not think about the urban legend, “The High Beams” or “The Killer In the Back Seat.” When driving, I’ll continuously look in my mirror to see if anyone is crouched down behind me, ready to pounce. I’m checking for any movement from within my own car.
My laundry machine is in the basement of my apartment building, past numerous dark corridors. The light switch hangs in the middle of the room, which means I have to walk fully into the darkness in order to turn it on. This means I never wash my clothing until I’m wearing my last pair of underwear. Sometimes I carry my dog into the basement with me so that I am not alone. Sometimes I can do my laundry a few days earlier if a friend is over and they’re willing to come down with me into the darkness.
I do occasionally watch horror films with friends but I have to be careful: they cannot focus on demonic possession; whatever is evil must die or be contained by the end of the film, otherwise, it seeps into my own reality; I try to watch it during the day or early evening; I must watch a comedy immediately afterward; I cannot sleep alone the night I watch a horror film.
Sometimes, I misjudge the outcome of the movie and my list of fears expands. When I watch Hereditary, for months I’m afraid of the corners of my own ceilings, that I will see a recognizable body floating up there, looking down on me. When I watch Oculus, for more than a year I am afraid of my own bathroom mirror. Every time I brush my teeth and bend down to spit the toothpaste in the sink, I feel a jolt of terror that someone will be standing behind me. During these times, I stay up many hours later than I should—until 3 or 4 am—until I am too exhausted to stay awake. Until my contacts dry out in my eyes and hurt when I blink. I’m avoiding the mirror or what the corners of my room look like in the dark.
For those months I’m groggier, less productive. I tell friends I’m staying up too late just futzing around. After a stretch of time, though, the newer fears diminish and contract back to the original list. A list that accrued when I still believed there was a way for parents to protect me. When I was more scared of urban legends and what my own mind could conjure than the invisible oppressive structures that visibly harm us.
Restricting the resources that could expand this old list and focusing on writing enables my irrational fears to reorient toward inventive images instead of terrorizing ones. Simultaneously, dark levity makes room for rational vigilance toward the spider web of interrelated systems that actually terrorize us: the anti-choice movement, rape culture, our failing educational policies, and racist carceral state.
Darkness on its own becomes unreliable paranoia, paralysis. Light on its own becomes unflinching acceptance and blinding optimism. Dark levity is sustaining. It’s alarming and also alleviating. It’s a continuous quaking that shakes us out of complacency. It’s the string between mittens we can rely on to keep our hands warm.
When I’m at a museum, I block out the witches and get absorbed in the swathes of Rothko’s colors and the pulsing wallpapers in Kehinde Wiley’s portraits. If I go with a friend, I can now play the game, “What Painting Do You Want to Grow Old In?” It’s a game I invite others into. On my own wall, I keep a photograph of George Oppen’s typewritten poem, “The Poem.” I read the last two stanzas almost every day: “I think there is no light in the world / but the world // And I think there is light.”
For so long I accepted a binary of unreliable narrator vs. reliable narrator. I was constantly trying to gauge which category I was narrating my experience from: was I in the clouds of The Empire of Light or in the gauzy shrubbery? This question was another way to calibrate my level of isolation, to doubt my trustworthiness. What scared me even more than monsters getting me were stories like “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which the protagonist is revealed, at the very end, to have such a skewed view of herself or external events that no one else would overlap with this perception. The moment when the snow globe cracks open and all the water pours out.
But we live in a society composed of systems that train us to dehumanize each other, so maybe reliable just means complicit, a singular and dominant mirror. There is no light in the world but the world. The vigilance to invite others to share their narratives: a constellation. Dark levity is a vigil for activating our senses as a collective. Dark levity is a playground at night: fireflies illuminating the silhouette of a swing set, the ghost of legs pumping in the air.
My poster of The Empire of Light was thrown out when my parents moved fifteen years ago. But I return to MoMA and see a body inside that glowing room waiting for another body to return. I interpret the viewer as that body. You approach the front door. You are not an intruder. No one is trapped behind paint. Like a poem, you are invited in.
JULIA COHEN is the author of 3 books of poetry and nonfiction. Her new collection of essays, Freak Lip, is forthcoming in the Innovative Prose series from Texas Review Press (2025). Recent essays and poems can be found in The New England Review, The Georgia Review, FENCE, and Paperbag Magazine. She is the Director of Writing at Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design.