Sarah Altendorf CC
I think I have found the right side, but I’m on the wrong side and I know this because everyone else is on the other side. I’m so early it’s okay, more than okay, and I have the whole western view to myself. When you spend a day by yourself, you need these errors and false starts to help you fill the time. Without conversation, everything is just so efficient. I flew in for my friend’s wedding yesterday, giddy with reunion and community, but now there is this extra day before I fly back. I meander within it. When I cross to the other side of the bridge, I ask one couple and then another:
“Is this the right place?”
“Is this where I’m supposed to be?”
They think so, but the truth is they’ve never seen it either. We all wait for the sun to go down — only then will it happen, will we know if it’s true.
I eat a donut, I watch the ripples, I study the skyline. I check my phone, I call my grandfather, I text my friend. More people mass on the bridge, leaning over the rail like a single precarious entity. I have a defined spot now and I nudge my bags closer so no one steals them. My laptop is in this bag, a peacock feather is in this bag. I’m often a little paranoid in public space.
Sundown is 7:15. Just before then, dozens more people stream onto the bridge, ushered along by a costumed man dressed like a bat, some riff on Batman. He doesn’t speak, only gesticulates. He tells his people to go farther down the bridge for the best and most vivid view. I go as well. And then I wonder: is this smart and strategic — a useful bit of eavesdropping — or am I so easily moved?
Everyone’s leaning over, but in the dark mirror of the water, there’s not much to see, just the faint colorings of reflection. I’m standing next to two girls now, college age. I wish I had someone to share the experience with, but it’s not my city and the friend I’m staying with hasn’t finished the architectural model he’s working on — he won’t get here in time. Maybe it’s an effect of a full day of solitary wandering, but I start frantically texting people I haven’t spoken with in a while, stricken with a deep-seated loneliness as though it’s a fever of the spirit. The girls and I chat a little bit — they aren’t part of the larger tour either and we wonder if it’s all somehow a scheme cooked up by the Batman. Together, we wait. Tour boats, moved by big wooden wheels, pass under the bridge to get into position. Then the kayaks and paddle boats. On the shore, people mass by the edges, straying from their picnics. There’s a lot of fidgeting, people and boats alike, and no one can seem to find the exact right spot.
I think the girls are friends, though the way they talk about their friendship, it’s almost like they’re lovers, their intimacy treasured, a special thing to be guarded and protected—other connections pale in relation to it, they say. There’s talk of a third girl who’s jealous of them, and they talk of the jealousy too like it’s a pretty jewel, proof that they have something of value. The one who’s visiting is exhausted, possibly from her long flight, but also it seems from the day, of this one day with her friend, to get as much of her as she can, to fit everything in. I miss that feeling and listening to them prompts thoughts of friendships that haven’t been quite the same since they moved or I moved. I rarely get to see some of these friends anymore, the connection kept alive at a low flame, shielded by intermittent phone calls and texts. I check to see if M. has responded to my message — we had a long first date before I left — but she hasn’t yet.
I’m mindful not to intrude on the reunion, but sometimes I allow myself to ask the girls a question. One is in school here, the other lives in New York. Then the Batman walks by tapping on his watch. When he passes us, I look at him and he looks at me. He stops dramatically, reading my face like it’s Braille. He makes the motion to dive and shakes his head emphatically, like he thinks I might be a jumper: don’t do it. I assure him that I’m fine, but now I feel rattled. I’ve always found one of the pleasures of solitude to not have to orient your face toward anyone, a freedom to just be exactly as you are without having to be responsive in the way that’s called for when you’re having a conversation. But I’ve been through periods of depression in the past, and I wonder: is that somehow visible?
What an unnerving thing to see in someone.
“That was an intense observation,” I say to the girls and they help me laugh it off as we discuss whether we’d survive the jump from this height.
“I’m hungry!” one of them says after a minute. Without them, I would be dwelling, but they are dreaming of burgers and booths and sodas and now I am too.
We point out boats and people. The large white birds that have come to watch, waiting on the branches. Maybe it won’t happen tonight, what we’re waiting for — maybe even though they usually come, they will not come for us.
“They’re late,” I say and we all agree we wish they would come already. A horn honks and we startle. Some of the kayakers paddle away, having lost faith. I take pictures of the skyline to note the changes in light, to prove to myself that time has passed, that something is different now, that there has been a progression. The Batman passes pins that explain how he is deaf and this is how he makes a living, guiding people to this spot. Would we please give him three dollars?
There’s movement under the bridge, just a flutter, and we all lean over. But there’s no decisive movement, so it feels like a letdown. “Is this just a warm up?” we wonder to each other.
My brother isn’t there, but he’s sending me little bat facts: “you know bats use sound waves to understand their surroundings, right?”
So many little lonelinesses that make up a life, but also so many ways to iron them out.
It doesn’t happen at any single time. Like so many things, it’s incremental. Then there are more and the bats fly farther from the bridge as they start their nightly hunt. First we can only see them when we lean over and squint. They are gone quickly, but there are always more. Hundreds of thousands, in total. Their movement is so fast and continuous that it’s difficult to follow any single bat for long. They become a gray comet of shadows emerging from a crack in the world. Lost beings that have found their way, at least for tonight.
Eventually, people start heading back to their homes and routines, but I feel unable to turn from the bridge. It feels like I’m witnessing — and part of — a planetary catharsis.
Then even the girls are leaving.
“Have a nice night!” one says, to my surprise.
“Thank you for watching bats with us,” says the other.
I wave to them, moved by the small but meaningful gesture of their acknowledgement. My friend should be here soon to pick me up, but I don’t feel any itch of hurry. I’m content, mesmerized by the miracle of the bats. I want to watch more and more. I do.
Jason Schwartzman’s first book, NO ONE YOU KNOW, is forthcoming from Outpost19 in May 2021. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Narrative.ly, The Rumpus, Hobart, River Teeth, Nowhere Magazine, Human Parts, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Hippocampus Magazine, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @jdschwartzman.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.