Name one angel who isn’t strange, and a stranger. A stranger came to Mary and introduced her to her own body, announced what it was bound to do. From then on, angels wouldn’t give her a moment’s peace. There’s no getting away from that dark-alley snowflake of an angel. No two alike. Yours is, after all, all yours. It’s a surprise every time you need saving—so much saving, to offset the hubris and jockeying. So much human still underneath the wings. In high school, my sweetest, dearest friend—I’ll call her Cindy—was the first person I knew who believed in angels. Long before mass-produced Hallmark angels decorated our lives every day, all year, Cindy said she felt her guardian angel watching over her all the time.
But there was not room for nearly enough angels, balancing side by side on the head of a pin. Or a nail. Or a railroad spike. Each angel would have to be a black-eyed nonconformist. Flawed and failing. Look around and know that angels are fallible, culpable. Each one envying the other’s trumpet. That maligned Angel of Death, will we know him when we see him? Perhaps he is no he after all, but your next-door neighbor, and you don’t recognize her coming to the back door with a slice of pound cake or an empty cup. No matter how good or kind or hapless or charmed we might be, some people, like Cindy, believe an angel is guarding you. A rough kind of guarding, like jostling in basketball, aggravating the air around you. Or invisible as static, the tinnitus you hear inside your head. Who might hover over our shoulders while we’re typing an email or scrolling through Facebook, looking for friends? It seems to me that Cindy and I—most of the young women we knew—were driven by a curious, rarefied agitation to know that life after girlhood would be an improvement. We wanted to hurry and be grown up, not recognizing how vulnerable we really were, weak and fraught with the need for possibility. Now years go by and eclipse and alter us. Through wormholes of memory, we marvel that we were ever safe.
Cindy worked at the mall, and she would park her tan station wagon in the shade of a tree far from the entrance, with the windows rolled down to keep the vinyl seats cool. She and I cruised her neighborhood, past the houses of boys we’d never have the nerve to speak to, and drove back roads, and went for pizza, all in that ugly, beat-up, hand-me-down family car a seventeen-year-old girl had no business loving as much as she did. This was a couple of years before she bought a cool greenbottle-fly–colored VW Bug. She had to work to save up for that car, and gas, and insurance. I remember thinking I wasn’t a bad friend, but I didn’t understand her choices. I never asked why she needed a car at all, though it felt like a luxury to me, and also an awful responsibility. She was two years older than I was. My parents drove me, would drive me gladly, to keep me from needing a job. I didn’t mention our opposing liberties. She was free to go wherever she wanted, but did not have much free time for going. I had nowhere I was required to be, so much boredom, time on my hands.
Which of us was more free? I harbored this sense that I was luckier, not having to work a crappy mall job. But Cindy needed money to spend on items to put in her hope chest. None of the women in my family—who taught school and farmed—had ever led me to believe that a hope chest was an actual thing. But Cindy’s was a real wooden chest inside her closet, nearly full. She devoted herself to it the way she’d promised herself she would someday devote herself to a man and children. She saved up and put items on layaway and bought baby clothes and flatware and china plates and sheets and towels and blankets. Her hope chest was very hopeful.
Cindy had moved to Tennessee because her father’s work up north transferred him. Friends of hers came down for spring break and rode around in her station wagon looking for cabins and land to claim. They had a ridiculous idea—from the movies, maybe—that Tennessee was still the frontier. When they gave up on the Tennessee hills, they rode into North Carolina to find a cabin, the one they’d imagined just waiting for them out in the middle of a field. They were disappointed when they were told that people—or the government—owned every tree and stump and rock. Instead of homesteading, Cindy was responsible most nights for closing whatever kiosk or store she was working in at the mall.
Believing in angels made Cindy gullible, I thought, made her a walking target.
She worked for a while in a bakery near Sears, and she gave me free cream puffs and eclairs. She wore all white, and a white cap. Her skin was sweaty from the ovens and steam. She would get off work and pull down the heavy metal door, that cagelike garage door, when nearly everybody else had gone home. She walked down the long darkening mall to the exit and across the empty parking lot to her cool car, unlocked, with the windows rolled down. Believing in angels made Cindy gullible, I thought, made her a walking target. I probably didn’t actually say the word rape, every girl’s worst fear. But I told her she was putting herself at risk, that she should park close to the exit, lock her doors, check her back seat, walk with her keys ready to jab someone. We didn’t know about mace back then. Maybe it wasn’t even available. We didn’t have cell phones with their handy flashlights. But Cindy had her faith. She scoffed and said her guardian angel would never let anything bad happen.
I tried to picture what she must have pictured, though she never described it, or him or her. It had to be a male angel, I felt sure. I knew I was more devout than Cindy was. She seemed wispy to me in her thinking, superstitious, which made me question the beliefs I kept those adolescent years, the images and the faith in unseen keepers. What do I believe now? Even then I doubted.
Cindy didn’t believe in going to church or prayer or any kind of worship, except daring her guardian angel not to protect her. I knew because I had invited her. I talked about God and Jesus back then, and she just said not everybody believed the same thing. We had a friend who was a Pentecostal and would speak in tongues whenever we asked, who laid hands on the toilet when it nearly overflowed. So I totally got the whole we-all-believe-differently thing. I agreed to disagree about her guardian angel. And I shut up about it, thinking I would never reason with somebody who thought she had her own private personal invisible bodyguard. Maybe an angel that looked like a bulldog, with a collar and a not-uncute underbite, a slobbery mutt who really didn’t have much to do, except whenever Cindy left the mall. Otherwise it was just lie in the sun and eat Cheetos, if angels eat.
We save ourselves, I thought, even back then. I held myself accountable for things outside me, out of my control. I imagined the worst. But I was a hillbilly and Cindy was from the north. She believed in kismet and love at first sight. She believed in free cabins lined up for miles on end on hillsides, in fields of daisies. She missed her home, though. She missed the suburbs and the boyfriend who’d dumped her. She couldn’t figure out if her best days were already behind her or if they were up ahead somewhere, but she believed she was destined for goodness. She wasn’t interested in college or books, but she planned for a future and a house of her own. She knew the names of the three kids she would have someday, was blithely confident against any disruption as she moved toward that someday.
Cindy knew just as well as we all did, I think, what danger might be out there. But she didn’t flinch at walking alone in the dark.
So on that one night, after a ball game, Cindy and I and a few other girls were walking back to her car. Cindy got separated from us in the crowd, so far ahead we lost sight of her. The crowds got lighter as we walked, because she’d had to park far away, down long streets a few blocks from the high school stadium. Cindy knew just as well as we all did, I think, what danger might be out there. But she didn’t flinch at walking alone in the dark. She wasn’t afraid enough, I thought. I hated finding out that night that I was right: independence is a fine blade a girl walks. I don’t know what I could have done to keep her among friends. I don’t know how I took my eye off her.
She ran back to find us, crying—we could see from a distance—sobbing as she reached us, and shaking, barely able to make sense. Some boys down the street, just as she was almost to her station wagon, had pushed her up against a wall. We passed her around from girl to girl hugging her. I was last, and I held on. She was little and thin. We didn’t hug a lot back then, the way I see teenagers do now, and I’d never hugged her before, not with my whole arms and ribs. She cried into my shoulder and neck. I’d always envied her petite build, but not at that moment. My height and size felt like defenses for the first time. I didn’t know how it felt to be a mother, but that’s what I felt in that moment, bravely outraged, larger and with purpose. And then I understood the vulnerability even in that purpose. None of us was safe. She was shaking, this fragile, spare person I adored. But I hadn’t been able to protect her. I couldn’t protect myself, either. She wouldn’t tell us what the boys had done, exactly, though somehow we understood they had grabbed her crotch. Nothing more.
Nothing less. But we didn’t think that way on that evening. We didn’t talk. We felt sick to our stomachs, or at least I did. No one was permanently harmed, I thought, or in mortal danger. So why were we changed forever? Why did we feel we’d barely escaped?
I had survived, too, by proxy. I’d survived and stumbled away from my first encounter with one of the shadowy possibilities we all feared. Cindy believed, and kept believing, she was protected. She still parked her car wherever she wanted, with the windows rolled down and the doors unlocked. Because, like all of us, she wanted to change when she decided, and not be changed until then.
She and I never said anything about that awful night again. The details and memories were hers, and I didn’t know the private dark of her trauma. I still don’t. How was it we’d been there to see her sobbing and broken, feeling the violation hot between our own legs, glad it wasn’t us, knowing it could any day be us, and yet we never spoke it to any adult? I told my parents everything, but not this secret. Out of solidarity or terror or simply because we lacked the words to use, we never mentioned that night even to each other. Cindy had an armor then, earned. She had every right to make an unspoken scar of the darkness. She’d been granted an inkling of the powerlessness we’d only imagined until then.
Over many years, even into middle age, I think I believed we were somehow to blame. We oughtn’t have done it that way, let ourselves get shoved around. Girls ought to stick together. We were old enough to know better. But that sort of logic, the kind that comes with built-in gongs and sirens and nervous fidgets and dread, isn’t everybody’s logic. It’s not the logic of angels. The logic of angels, if there is such a thing, is surely power and self-righteous wrath and dignified smiting.
Cindy drove us home, one by one. She told us not to tell our parents. She said she would never tell anyone. She made us swear we would never tell anyone. She needn’t have worried then. I felt as if I was the one who had committed a crime. I felt I would get into serious trouble at home if I even said the words aloud that I would need to say if I had been brave enough to say them. And I never have, until I write these uncertain words, and hide her real name, though she’s lost to me. I can only tell this story as my story, and even now I mangle what I mean.
We were girls who swallowed secrets whole and went into our houses heavy. Knowledge made us hunker, more earthly than ever, closer to an ugliness we didn’t want. How many of us? How many nights? And what’s to happen when guardians falter, when we betray our old lessons and tell all the secrets, all the stories