The bat room is on a reverse time cycle. Bats are nocturnal and we work during the day –our day – so we switch their morning and night, keep the colony dark between nine a.m. and eight p.m., but when we go in the room we hit the override and blast their eyes with fluorescent hell. Bats blink like people. They swoop out of the air, unfurl their translucent ears and cling to the cage bars, chittering and shuffling, as we snap on gloves and take the animal we need.
When you come to Rhode Island, I’ll bring you to my lab. You’ll be surprised by how cramped and messy it is, kudzu-vine cables in the electronics room, beer bottles clinking in the recycling from the nights we work late. The X-ray tunnel looks like it’s made out of tinfoil, and the computer screens sprout aerials like spider legs. I’ll take you to Animal Care, suit you up to protect you from the rabies our bats don’t have, and turn on the lights in the bat room. I’ll unlock the cage, and as soon as you step inside you’ll hear the wing beats and the hissing humidifier, feel the wind on your face as the bats spin above you. You’ll tilt your face to see their horned noses and beady eyes, and I’ll stand behind you, watching your thin braids slide down your back.
Right now I’m working with Gentle Ben. I’ve sent you pictures of him. Black fur, bald snout, wide nose flared on top like a gingko leaf. He’s a Carollia perspicillata, Seba’s short-tailed bat. In the wild they roost in caves or hollow trees, eat fruit, not insects. Most of our Carollia are bad flyers, wobbly and lazy after years in lab cages, but Ben works hard. Dmitriy and I have been training him to fly the X-ray tunnel, dropping him down its rubber maw three times a day and shooing him to the far end with slices of cardboard taped to broom handles. He barely needs the encouragement now, which means he’s ready to fly on camera.
We have to operate first. Monday morning we’ll wax the fur from Ben’s back, slice his skin open and sew metal balls to three points in each shoulder. If the anesthesia doesn’t overwhelm his heart he’ll get a full day resting in isolation, silver sulfadiazine on the incisions to protect him from wing rot, and a quarter milligram of meloxicam in his food for the pain. Flight trials start Wednesday. We’ll put him in the tunnel, set up our video and watch the metal move with his bones.
Ben recognizes me when I open the Carollia cage. The others scatter, hang far out of reach with their talons wrapped tight around the ceiling mesh, but Ben stays put. He trusts me. He lets me scoop him from his roost with the butterfly net or, more often these days, with my latex-covered fingers. His heartbeat rattles his thin body. Someday I’d like to handle him without gloves, even though he scrabbles, shits, bites when he goes right side up. I want to feel his downy fur, the hot rush of blood in his wings.
We all talk to the bats. When we hold them we coo close to baby talk, trying to soothe them as they struggle, and when we fly them we grunt, curse, mutter that if they don’t give us twenty good wing beats down the three-foot tunnel they’ll end up lizard food at the bottom of Animal Care. And I talk to them when I need to think. Anna caught me a few days ago, hanging feeders of mango pulp and monkey chow, telling the circling bats how much I miss you. She linked her fingers through the bars. ‘You need a real girlfriend, Mike. One on this coast.’
I shook my head.
‘Well, at least get some roommates. Bats don’t count.’
Anna was a dancer before she studied bat shoulders. Jazz, swing, and modern, she told me. She spent two years at SUNY-Purchase studying choreography and performance before she blew out her right knee. ACL and MCL tears on the same fall. The surgeons reconstructed the joint, but you can see the injury in her walk. She doesn’t limp, but she sways. Misses beats. Dmitriy and I got to this lab studying small mammals, skeletal anatomy. Anna wanted to learn flight. Dance is about takeoff and landing, she says, and she’s done with landing.
Yesterday night, after we scrubbed down the cages and replenished the food and fruit-juice supplies, the three of us went to the Grad Center bar, same as always. We shared five-dollar pitchers of Narragansett and discussed the wing-shape data Dmitriy had just finished collating until Anna slammed her hand on the table. ‘We’ve got to stop. We have to talk about something other than bats or we’ll go insane.’ She cocked her head at me. ‘Michael’s heading there already.’
Dmitriy shrugged. ‘I like bats.’
‘You can’t only like bats.’
‘Bats and beer.’ Dmitriy reached for our half-empty pitcher and poured out refills.
‘We’re going out tonight.’ Anna sucked down the foam on the top of her glass. ‘We’re going to act like normal people.’
‘To a club. We’ll find one.’
Dmitriy groaned. ‘Oh, hell, no. I don’t do clubs.’
‘Come on. Don’t be lame.’
‘I’m lame, Anna. I’m so fucking lame.’
She narrowed her eyes at me, pushed a strand of blond hair from her forehead. ‘Fine. But Michael, you’re going to dance with me. Right?’
Our research is on the mechanics of flight. Bats have more flexible wings than birds or insects, more joints to bend, and crepe-paper skin that stretches against the air no matter where the wings fold. We call this compliance. Our lab is looking underneath the compliant membranes, under the muscles, trying to isolate the locking mechanism in the shoulder that gives bats the power to lift off. At least, that might be how it works. So much of science is not knowing. Wrong guesses, failures. You would hate it.
We left Dmitriy on campus, cut down Benefit Street in the humid dark and landed at a Water Street club with a balcony overlooking the metallic river, a Top 40 R&B playlist, and a two-for-one Sauza Gold special. We did three rounds of shots surrounded by guys with blow-dried hair and the hip undergrads laughing at them before Anna tugged me away from the bar. ‘I want a cigarette.’
‘I don’t have any.’
‘Then I want to dance.’
On the dance floor the speakers vibrated and yowled and my hiking boots stuck to the parquet. Anna wriggled her thin shoulders and nodded her head to the beat. Her T-shirt rose away from her jeans, showing a band of pale skin as wide as my thumb. She flashed me a grin as I shifted my weight from left leg to right. Bodies rustled around us, circles tightening, couples snaking their hips together. Next to one dim wall I made out three poles, each with a collection of heeled girls around it, rubbing their backs down the metal and laughing.
Anna was laughing too. She opened her mouth to speak, but the music was too loud and she motioned me closer. As I bent to her lips the tequila burned behind my eyes. ‘Dancers are the worst in clubs,’ she said. Her breath was warm in my ear. ‘We never know how to act.’
‘I think you’re doing fine.’
‘I’m better at it now.’ She sent a shiver from collarbone to knees, hips swinging with the song. My field of vision was shrinking around her. When I’m drunk it’s always sight that goes first. You know that. You’ve seen me trip over roots in the sidewalk, bang my shins on the corners of your bed.
The DJ switched to a song I half-recognized. Anna touched her bad knee and grinned. ‘“Homecoming.”’
She edged closer, the mass of backs behind her pressing into the space that she’d left. ‘The song.’ She lifted a hand to my shoulder. ‘Kanye. “Homecoming.”’ As I nodded she moved her other hand to my waist.
It was easier to dance that way, easier to keep the beat in my body, move with the music instead of the alcohol whirling deep inside my head. It was disorienting to be so close to somebody. Her mint-and-lavender smell cut through the club grime of sweat, liquor, stale smoke. I could feel the warmth of her skin, the soft brush of her hair on my cheek. She arched her neck, tipped her face up. I lowered my mouth to meet hers.
Flight takes more parts than you might think. Bats use tendon and bone for takeoff, muscle and skin to flap and maneuver. It’s not just up-stroke down-stroke. Their wings curve and flatten like kites, the skeleton bending to reduce drag. A bat can turn completely around in less space than its body occupies in the air.
I left Anna on the dance floor. While we were in the club it had begun raining, a thin drizzle that caught on my arms. I checked my phone, but you hadn’t texted or called. It was still early for you, just after dinner. Cars skidded down Water Street, bass lines leaking through their closed, tinted windows. I wrapped my arms across my chest and walked back to campus fast.
The streets were full of drunk undergrads, most moving from party to party with their elbows linked, Solo cups in hand, some groping each other behind buildings or pissing in the bushes. None of them noticed me as I headed up Thayer to Bio-Med. I swiped into the back of the building, got two Brooklyn Lagers from our lab fridge and took the stairs to the bat room. The lights were on. I flipped the override and before long the bats woke up, spread their wings and began to chirrup and squeak. I sat on the floor outside the cage, cracked a beer and listened to them taking off.
When I woke up this morning the room was light. The bats were folded like umbrellas, roosting in clumps when they should have been awake, flying. The back of my mouth tasted like Styrofoam, and my temples were about to cave in. My shirt smelled like Anna. I imagined her curled in bed alone, arms tight around her bundled blanket. You in bed, one leg kicked free of the covers, one hooked between mine.
I got up, left the bats still asleep. As I walked outside I saw that I’d missed two calls from you in the night. You always forget the time difference. Three hours. I hope you remember when I don’t answer.