What Comes in the Night

When I saw the bat, I didn’t think. I screamed. I picked up Frida, my 10-pound, bat-like dog, and ran into the bathroom, pulling the door closed with something akin to maternal instinct. Then my brain turned on and I thought, oh, fuck.

            It was almost midnight. I had been in bed, sitting cross-legged in boxers, a glass of white wine to my right as I talked aimless shit on the phone to my best friend. Peripherally, I had seen the unmistakable yet graceful flapping of wings. A shadowy body darting across the white of my ceiling. It was quick, nearly silent, making its way around my lofted apartment with an urgency I assume was fueled by fear.

            I ducked out of the bathroom with a towel draped over my head. After trying but failing to open a window, I fled the apartment, grabbing Frida, her leash, and a pair of black jeans that I yanked on while rushing out the door. I ran to the nearby apartment of my partner Aaron’s graduate-school friends, who I had only met a handful of times. They had kindly set up a bed in their office, complete with a lit candle.

            The bat was scared, as was I. Yet, I left and therefore trapped it, running from my own fear and probably escalating the bat’s. When I locked the door, I left the bat stuck to fly loops in my little apartment.

            Let me be honest; I was afraid before the bat. When my eyes made out the spider web-y shape of its wings, I was alone. Aaron was out of town and I was battling the recurring fear that at some point during the night, I wouldn’t be alone anymore. I double checked the locks, even assembled a small cardboard obstacle in front of the door to quell my anxiety, to warn me should someone come in. Three nights before the bat, I had an interaction with a man on the street that wound me up so tightly that I laid awake until four in the morning, waiting — to hear steps on the stairs, or the sound of my doorknob turning. Despite swallowing the white ovals of anti-anxiety medication at midnight, I didn’t drift off until almost sunrise. That night, I shone the flashlight of my phone into the living room more times than I’d like to admit, crept downstairs silently to look at the locks yet again, knew my behavior was illogical but couldn’t truly could not stop.

            The interaction with that man, in which nothing even really happened, had compromised my fragile sense of safety. Or rather, had reminded me that safety is largely illusory. My body, regardless of what I clothe it in, will be seen. My locks, regardless of how many times I double check them, could be picked. My windows, regardless of how shut I thought they were, were cracked. Or perhaps they weren’t. It doesn’t really matter because something in my apartment was open enough to let something else in.

            From the home office, I called what Google told me was the highest-rated local bat specialist. I was greeted by the gruff and irritated voice of a man I assumed to be The Bat Specialist. I can come, he told me, but it’ll be $200 whether I find something or not. I wanted to know when he could come, what he would do. He said he could be there in forty-five minutes and would look for the bat itself in addition to investigating the outside of the building to determine how it might have gotten in. By that point, it was almost 1 AM and I figured I should wait until morning to avoid disturbing my neighbors. Instead of asking him to come, I said I’d call back. I then sent my landlord an email with the subject line: URGENT – bat, help. Finally I curled up around Frida and slept briefly in the safety of a bat-less home.

            I called the bat specialist again the next morning around six (uh, hi, I have a bat— I uttered, before he cut me off. Yeah, I know. You called last night) and was told he couldn’t come anymore, that his day was now full. He gave the number of a wildlife specialist who might be able to help. When I called her, she calmly informed me that nothing could be done until the bat woke up. Is there a way to… wake it up? I asked in disbelief. No, she said curtly. Bats are nocturnal. They’re able to make their bodies so tiny that no one will be able to find it during the day. Call back when it’s flapping around. She hung up.

            Around 8 AM, my Tesla-driving landlord called me. I understand how frightening that must have been, but we cannot kill bats. They’re an endangered species. I emphasized that I didn’t want to kill any bats; I just didn’t want to cohabitate with one. She continued, In the past, we have even built bat houses, so they have somewhere to go. I’m sending someone over with a big net. The call ended and I waited for Someone with a Big Net.

            Intellectually, I knew the bat posed no existential danger. Yet, I felt a sense of primal fear spurred on by what ifs. What if it emerged while I was taking a shower and I hit my head on the bathtub because I was so startled? What if my dog ate its shit and got sick? What if it bit me and somehow I didn’t know and it evolved into rabies? I knew this wasn’t rational, yet I couldn’t stop thinking of all of the ways this encounter would turn into something Bad.

            When Someone with a Big Net arrived, I was typing out an email in the living room. I didn’t know when to expect someone and was wearing jeans and a white tank top, sans bra. I heard a key slide into the lock of my door. I heard the twist of the knob, the unmistakable creak of my wooden door opening up its hinged jaws. Then, a short, bearded man was in my kitchen holding a large fishing net. My dog bleated an urgent warning in her shrill soprano. My heart rapidly thrummed somewhere underneath my visible tits. Where is it, he asked me, his eyes wandering the ceiling, my furniture, not me, maybe me; I tried not to look. I replied in earnest, I don’t know. Again, my dog went into the bathroom. This time, I stayed out, watching him search behind furniture, in the closets. He said I’ll be back and left.

            Thirteen years ago, I stood at the edge of a bridge on South Congress in Austin waiting with a crowd of people to watch the famous bats emerge at dusk. What first looked like errant freckles scattered across a watercolor sunset in South Texas evolved into a sky in motion, made up of thousands of flapping wings and tiny black snouts. A few years later, in that same city, close to that very bridge, something happened to me in the dead of the night that forever changed my relationship to both sleep and my body. The next morning, I thought it was nothing. A few days later, something. Years later, I finally called it something other than a bad night. When I saw that storm of bats, I still thought that sleeping was safe, that he was a friend, that Austin was fun, that Texas was home.

            When Someone with a Big Net arrived the second time, he knocked. By then, I had put on a bra and an oversized denim shirt over my tank top; my tattooed arms covered. Where is it? He asked me again and I felt irritated by his incompetence. He brought a ladder upstairs and I listened to heavy boots amble up the rungs. I watched as the man stood on the ledge of my loft, watched his eyes scan my books, my bed, the haphazardly flung sports bra that I peeled off the previous night after a workout. We can’t do anything, he said, when he came back downstairs, eyes boring into me. You have too much stuff.

            A close friend, Sam, had recently moved to New Haven. I hadn’t seen her in years yet when I texted want to come help me get a bat out of my apartment? I have tequila. My phone immediately pinged lol sure. Gratefully, I waited the four hours until dusk. My landlord emailed me that the man had left the Big Net. I opened the door to find five feet of silver pole and a lime-green net leaning against the wall like it was confidently picking me up for prom. I grasped the cold metal in my hands. I was the Person with the Big Net now.

            Sam arrived around 6:30. I hugged her on the street and loved that her shape felt familiar, her curls consistent, a tattoo I remembered peeking out from the hem of her shorts. The sun was supposed to set at 7:03, which was when we needed to be ready. I poured two glasses of wine and we caught up. She had just gone through a breakup with an ornithology enthusiast who didn’t not look like Zac Efron; I thought New Haven was fine but missed Brooklyn; a bat had flown into her apartment once and she screamed until someone got it out with a towel; my dad died; her dad sucked.

            When shadows appeared in my kitchen, it was time. I kept all of the lights off and slid open a living room window. I turned on a single lamp directly in the center of the window to guide the bat out. The lamp cast a romantic glow on the green leaves of a Bird of Paradise on the other side of the window. The scene was set.

            A few days before the bat came into my apartment, I took Frida on a walk around the neighborhood. I had been working from home all day in a pair of black bike shorts and a baggy T-shirt, my hair a messy knot on top of my head. I was rounding the corner to turn towards my apartment when I could’ve sworn I heard my name called. I turned my head and saw a man staring at me so intensely that I held his gaze, my brain trying to place him: surely I must know him.

            I spent most of my twenties in Brooklyn and preferred walking to public transportation. I wasn’t a stranger to cat-calling, yet it didn’t happen nearly as often in New Haven. Younger, in Brooklyn, I felt armed with my anger. If a man said something disgusting to me, I yelled back at him to eat shit. Once, while on the phone with my mother, a man in Prospect Heights lunged towards me in a deep squat, his soft, wet tongue protruding out of his mouth and moving in gross, lapping gestures. I immediately felt my blood run hot and demanded that he get the fuck out of my way. He laughed at me, the melody of it etched into my head like a perverted iteration of the braille in a music box. I actively miss the version of myself that got angry instead of scared.

            Sometimes, the catcalls were funny. When I walked by a group of men while wearing large silver hoops, one yelled Jenny from the block!. Once, I was chased six blocks in Chicago by a man who wanted my number. I like your leather jacket, I want to take you out, he panted. I could see the particles of his breath suspended in the January air. It’s my girlfriend’s, I replied and turned to walk away, leaving him slack jawed. Sometimes it came in the form of do you need help carrying that? Let me help you carry that, that looks heavy. Other times, it was more sinister: being followed home from the subway, someone pressing their hips against my ass on the crowded morning commute. Once, on a weekday afternoon, I looked up from the couch where I had been pathetically flopped all day with period cramps to see the postman blatantly staring into my window from where he stood on the ledge. I quickly wrapped a blanket around my naked thighs and ran barefoot to the back of my apartment. When I came back out, he was gone and I never again sat on the couch in my underwear. Despite living on the second floor. Despite the fact that the mailbox was on the first.

            This isn’t unique. Women experience street harassment; water is wet. Yet, I was still surprised when this man stepped towards me on the street in New Haven, asked to get to know me. Aaron was out of town visiting family. I barely knew anyone in New Haven. I was a block from my apartment; what if this man followed me home? I didn’t want to bring my drama into the nearby liquor store that was run by a sweet family. I didn’t want to bring this stranger into the little grocery store I lived above, run by a woman whose Border Collie sniffed Frida nearly every day, as we said hi baby to each other’s dogs. In New Haven, I didn’t have the orientation I had in Brooklyn – where I knew which bars were open, which friends were nearby, where the closest train was. I felt entirely, vulnerably alone.

            Perhaps what I’m trying to get at is that none of these experiences are situated in a vacuum. One experience compounds upon another, like tile, like brick, to build a house. A man taking a step towards me on an empty street became an echo of another man telling me he wanted to taste me as I walked by became an echo of a boy who tried to forcefully pull my shirt over my arms when I was thirteen became any of the other moments when I’ve been forced to witness a man see me as less, see me as a body, see me as a mouth, a hole, an experience; see me as something that exists to please, to fuck, to watch. It echoes all of the times I’ve been forced to watch men watch me.

            People are afraid of bats because they come out at night. Bats spread their wings when the sun is down and can’t be disturbed until they deem it dark enough to be safe. During the daytime, they crunch and tuck and curl their bodies up so tiny that they can’t be found. Their slumber can’t, won’t, be disturbed. I wanted the bat out that morning, but that wasn’t possible and so the bat had the power in our dynamic. The bat had the power over me, had power over the man that came into my apartment, even had power over the landlord I pay every month for a temporary home in a brick building on the corner of an almost-busy street.

            I envied the bat. I wished I could contort my body to be so small that it couldn’t be found, that I could tuck my elbows into my knees, drape my head against my chest and wrap myself up in a blanket made of my own body. I wanted to be able to get so tiny that no one could find me, no matter how many men were scheduled to come and look, no matter how big the net was. I yearned to be able to emerge in my own time, to only be visible when I flew under a street light, for people to associate glimpses of me with an eerie magic, stay spellbound by my shadow.

            When the sun disappeared, I crept into my living room to see if the bat had woken up. I screamed when I saw it doing asymmetric loops. It’s here, I mouthed to Sam. I took a video of it with my phone, angling the camera towards the ceiling to capture flashes of movement, mostly to show myself later that I didn’t make this up: There was a bat; it came into my apartment. I have learned to document, to capture hard proof. A snapshot, a video. Evidence.

            The net was comically useless. I thought I could guide the bat out, usher it to the safety of the night. In the video, I hear myself urgently whisper I just want to help it! Eleven chaotic minutes passed: net swoops, screams, fits of laughter, silence. And then the bat left. Flew out on its own accord, slipped right over my window ledge into the void of the sky. It was over in two seconds, and if I looked the other way I would’ve missed it, would’ve spent the whole night wondering where it had gone, if it was still with me.

            I popped champagne and we clinked our glasses. Then I taped all my windows shut. I taped the heater vents shut, taped the tiny gap under my window-unit air conditioner shut, sealed everything with a manic ripping of tape, knowing still that tape can be ripped, clawed through, cut. It’s the illusion of safety that lulled me to sleep.

            Bats use echoes to navigate. They emit a high-pitched sound that humans can’t hear, see how it bounces back to evaluate distance, danger, prey. It’s with echoes that bats stay alive, that they are able to gauge what’s safe to move towards, and what should be dodged. The reverberations from past experiences are still rattling around my rib cage, emitting different frequencies. Walk faster. Go inside. Run. I feel it physically and instinctually, braille-like goosebumps rising on my skin, my blood suddenly running cold. Like a bat, I find safety through echoes, clarity through the feeling refracted back to me. The echoes that guide me through the dark.