Efforts [excerpt] – Taylor Napolsky
September 20, 2019
The monument stood fifty feet tall, composed of marble segments with cavities and crawlspaces carved into the top, and it was here that people liked to gather and watch, seated on the grass, waiting for the spectacle that happened regularly each night. The animals would come out in a steady, deliberate trickle, dart across the sky and dart across the sky, shooting into the distance with acute turns left and right. They moved with sudden specificity, total control disguised as jagged haphazardness.
It was important for Jhooselan to have a ritual, somewhere to go where she could be with her brother and not get caught up in anything.
Maximilian sat next to her and they watched the bats go off; there’s one, there’s one, there. Big brown bats headed out for the night to eat dinner.
“I heard they have friends,” Maximilian said.
Jhooselan was silent for a moment, and said, “What?”
“I heard they have friends that they keep. Like they hang out with them, for however long they live…the length of their lives.”
“Oh, wow,” Jhooselan replied, “so they know each other.”
“Sure, they probably kick it,” Maximilian said with a smile. “Maybe they have cliques, or maybe just friends they like to sleep next to, hanging upside down.”
“And how long do they live?” Jhooselan asked.
There’s one. It flicked out, darted to the right, then dove somewhere out of sight. She found it funny how they looked a bit like insects, just in the way they moved. But maybe that made sense, that they would fly in a similar way to what they hunted.
“They can live a long time for something of their size,” Maximilian went on. “Fifteen years.”
“Fifteen years,” he repeated. “I wonder if it’s a joy or if they’re miserable?”
“A mix,” Jhooselan said.
“Nah, I bet they’re mostly happy.” He shot a glance at his sister. “I mean, they sleep most of the time—how could they not be happy?”
¨ ¨ ¨ ¨
Watching their shadowy shapes streak about, Jhooselan tried to picture their faces, as if zoomed in for a close-up, with their noses upturned and goofy-large ears and toothy pointed smiles either snarling or grinning playfully (it was hard to tell which) while they listened, always listening to get a handle on their surroundings. The idea had been Maximilian’s initially. He picked up an interest in seeing the bats, and Jhooselan eventually took to going with him. It gave her time to spend with her brother, and she found the experience relaxing, seeing them leave, imagining their eating habits as they devoured obnoxious insects that would otherwise cloud thick and pestilent in the air. Because without these bats the mosquitoes would likely suck her dry. They’d take over the city, or at least certain neighborhoods, and make life hell for anyone with the misfortune of being succulent to the bugs. (Of course there are the others—the lucky ones—who don’t get bit, but something about their smell, something about their blood, is a turnoff.) So thank God for the bats, that one should never be scared of, that aren’t clumsy enough to get caught up in a human’s hair, that send out their cries and listen for the returning bounces, that stay deep in the dark with no interest in partaking in the nonsense so common to the active, humming day.
The Kiassiamas. Maximilian, aged sixteen. Jhooselan: six years older. And there was EJ, the middle one, at nineteen. They all lived together just a few minutes’ drive away in a not particularly well-lit cul-de-sac. The summer night was warm and Jhooselan could feel the soft grass curl around the flesh of her fingers. She wondered how long the bats stayed out each night, how long it took them to eat their fill, but when she asked her brother he said he wasn’t sure. She felt strongly—she noted to herself—that the idea that nothing is real, that we’re all in a simulation, probably isn’t true, no matter what esteemed intellectual posited it.
She was headed in the right direction, she thought. Or she was headed in a direction. If anybody ever asked her advice (not that she thought she was necessarily fit to be giving out advice), she would tell them to at least find a direction to go. To be moving somewhere. That was key.
Then there were the breaks such as this, when she could relax and reprioritize whatever needed it. Every bat left home with one goal in mind; Jhooselan wanted to be as single-minded as that. Work and sleep…wake up, think very hard, sleep. It was a matter of not getting distracted, of flying around at peace fully not giving a shit.
A number of weeks ago she had been in the room—the one she most wanted to be in—where she was allowed to put her talents forth, and show how she could write songs, how ideas came to her. There had been all the faces focused on her, impressed with her, when she showed Val the song she had written and then allowed him to have. Val leaning against the wall in the corner in his dark ripped jeans and Vans, a black shirt and a skinny chain around his neck, looking at her thoughtfully as she explained it, as she laid out the reference to follow, both doing him a favor and proving her abilities, acting more confident than she felt, but playing the role anyway, and the more she adopted this character the more it became her; she was allowed in the room, they couldn’t avoid giving her credit, but more than anything she wanted to do it for herself, not for Val, not for any other singer, and in time she’d get that, she thought, maybe it wouldn’t be long.
This was the kind of confirmation that came from Jhooselan’s manager, as well as her friends. It was indispensably helpful in keeping her head up.
“You’ve got everything. The whole package. You’re a triple threat.”
“What’s the triple?” Jhooselan would say cautiously.
“Singing, writing, dancing. Triple threat.”
Jhooselan waved her hand at some specimen of gnat or other insect drifting from her shoulders toward her forehead. There’s one to be eaten, she thought, soon to be chomped down. It stayed light out late this time of year and she appreciated this aspect so much that it seemed there was nothing she could possibly complain about—not in good conscience anyway—because more light feels like more time and this is a gift one never grows tired of, feels like more hours with loved ones, more hours with friends, the nights go deep and blend with the day in a slow diluting process like watching two substances mix, distending and enveloped within one another.
It always came to her as a delight (the drawn out, invigorating summers). She never failed to be thankful for it. The heat gives people energy and it brings to mind bodies. It brings to mind intellectuality, too. It means far-reaching thought processes taking shape, conversations made more stimulating, pouring off terraces onto sidewalks and streets.
¨ ¨ ¨ ¨
She considered how to put it.
“It’s about finding yourself. Being in a relationship, and maybe even being in love, but at the same time not needing it. Most importantly not needing it.”
“Being okay with yourself.”
“Having an idea where you’re going.”
“Otherwise, without that ground to stand on, a relationship can fuck you up worse than you already were.”
“So you’re going toward someone—you are—but at the same time away from them, inward.”
“I think about that…moving toward my own light, kind of. It’s not a breakup song; it’s not a ‘fuck you’ song, you know?”
“I see it as about stability. Stability as your own person, which is part of being free.”
“And getting your head in the right place to be with someone.”
“Yeah. That’s what so much is about, too. Everything’s about having your head in the right place.”
“It’s how you get clarity. The most important thing is clarity.”
“Everything else comes after gaining that, and then not letting it fade.”
“It’s why people talk about being zenned out,” she agreed.
“So you have to be that way. Most important. I spend so much time trying to be in the right mood…. You make a song, you got to have the right mood.”
Ten centimeters, her brother told her when she asked him, in body length, but way more in wingspan: thirty centimeters or more. The fur covering their bodies couldn’t be seen; virtually no details could, so sitting so far away didn’t seem like nearly enough; thus, in a way it wasn’t useful, viewing the bats from such a far distance, and they’d be better off (there’s one) venturing into a cave somewhere, towing lights capable of exposing the animals, to see what they were really about. Maybe an easy Google search would suffice; it would give her a better idea of what she was looking at. But she also appreciated the mystery, the uncertainty of what she was seeing, while allowing her brother to understand it. Yeah, she’d let him have this. She preferred being the ignorant one, simply watching them fly, and one shouldn’t have to be an expert on bats to appreciate them. You don’t have to know anything about cars to find pleasure in climbing into the seat of a nicer model, or watching it from the outside, the driver at a stop, waiting for the light to change before pulling away.
Surrounding them was light chatter from the others watching, it sounded like far off whispers carrying in the breeze, and occasionally the music thumping out the windows of a car cruising by. Jhooselan sat fully alert, grateful for her confidence in the realness of her physical self, of her current mood and experience, of her brother’s body seated beside her. Sometimes it wasn’t so easy to find that kind of stability, and she felt unsure about nearly everything. She thought this was why movies and music can often have a dreamlike quality, a dreamlike aesthetic: because life gets to be like that pretty commonly, and the best one can do is push those uneasy sensations away; fight through them; break through them; inflict violence on it until it’s killed, brutally and bloodily; it repulsed her…the macho, soldierly, warrior-like traits people are expected to possess in order just to make it day by day, with no complaints, “biting the bullet,” bullets involved, firearms involved, prices “slashed,” taking stabs at it, at anything. It was the emphasis on mental toughness but Jhooselan didn’t care about being tough she cared about love and uplifting, getting back to nature, water, light, vegetables, grass, exploration, not having time constraints (“dead”lines), goodness, willfulness.
She cared about her vocal inflections and using the voice as an instrument. The monument was an ivory-white cylindrical structure of stacked, interlocking pieces. It resembled a storage unit, made for sundry items to be placed around it. Jhooselan checked her phone for the time. It had been fifteen minutes or so since the 8:20ish time when they began leaving. How long would the bats be out before they returned home, satiated? She turned to her brother to ask him but instead what came out was, “You have to have range.” She expressed that you have to be willing to broaden whatever it is you’re trying to do; be open with it. Maximilian said Sure, I guess, and Jhooselan couldn’t tell how he felt about it—if he was only agreeing to agree. She asked him How have you been? and he didn’t reply at first, then said that he’d been good lately but playing lots of video games—too many, he realized—and he needed to cut down. It’s hard though, he said. Jhooselan commented that these games are addictive, are designed to be addictive, and he agreed one hundred percent. He said he knew he could be doing better at his studies if he didn’t spend so much time on video games and it was a habit he didn’t want to bring into college: flunking out because of Xbox.
You’re not even there yet, she quickly replied. You’re only a sophomore. Too young to be worried about college. But Maximilian insisted he had to be thinking about college (other people his age were, so why shouldn’t he? The competition is getting too high, and increasing all the time, to treat high school casually. Everybody is fighting for their position) though maybe he could go into the video game industry, and then it wouldn’t be such a bad thing, that he was playing so much of the time. “But,” he reconsidered, “that’s not where I want to work anyway, I don’t think. I don’t see myself in video games.”
“You just jumped from college to full-on career. You’re too young for this,” Jhooselan insisted sharply.
“It’s true,” Maximilian conceded, “sixteen isn’t old.”
“Are you kidding?” she said. “Of course it isn’t old.”
“Well to you I’m just your little brother, so you’ll always think I’m young.”
“That’s not true,” she replied. “But anyway you are young.”
Neither of them said anything for a while. The bats were getting less frequent. A squirrel circled the base of a tree zanily before ascending a few feet and then stopping on a dime, still as death and layered over the bark.
“I’m with you on cutting back on the video games,” Jhooselan told him, “just not fretting about college and—” she sighed—“your future profession?”
Maximilian’s eyes stayed fixed on the monument. “Anyway, who knows if I’ll be able to cut back. Maybe I’ll just go on playing them the same. Whatever. I don’t know what I’m gonna do. Yeah, you’re right—I’m not thinking about my career or anything. That’s dumb.” With a small laugh he said, “Video games are just too ill though. It feels like a different world. That’s what feels so good about them. I mean, you’re not outside; you’re not getting any exercise; it’s artificial; I’m not making any new friends doing it…I’m not sure if there’s anything good that comes from it. But, you know…Dad watches movies. That’s in front of a screen, so what’s so different in that from video games? Mine’s interactive.”
“True,” Jhooselan said.
Encouraged, Maximilian spoke at a faster pace. “It’s like movies for our generation,” he went on. “It’s more popular than movies, too. Everybody’s on video games. Think about phones; if they’re not playing on computer or console they’re playing on phones.” His mouth went into a frown. “But at the same time, I don’t want to be like that. Stuck to the TV. My only community with friends online.” He looked at his sister, “I’m not into sports, though. So I’m not doing that. I’m not gonna be someone I’m not. I do like music, like you. I like the music in video games, if I’m honest. I like this. Coming out here. I like the bats. Seeing them leave. I like the park and just chilling, hanging out with you. I like school. Like my friends.”
“You’re not gonna be someone you’re not,” Jhooselan repeated.
“You’re not gonna be someone you’re not,” Jhooselan said. “I’m not gonna be someone I’m not, despite all pressure telling me to do otherwise.”
Maximilian leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees.
“You have pressure like that?” And he burst out: “Nah, you can’t. Everybody likes you.”
“No I do,” she said rapidly. “I do.”
Her song was slow-paced but fit for a party. Catchy and cool, not experimental, nor weird. It had a message: Being content with yourself, but also deeply enjoying a relationship. It was about not needing to be in a relationship. Jhooselan didn’t want every song she wrote to be this way; her songs shouldn’t have to have a message. Sometimes she got nervous about it. What if it became unavoidable, so she grew to be stuck in a mood, a certain emotion, or set of topics. Stuck in a sound. She didn’t like the idea of it: caught in repetitiveness.
That was why she thought about having range. That was why she saw it as imperative to trust herself, trust her abilities to diversify. Broaden your styles, ideas, what you’re willing to try. “Really,” she said, “people are always trying to get you to do something that doesn’t feel right.”
At this, her brother seemed reassured.
“You can’t just fit in with whatever’s ‘cool,’” Jhooselan continued. “And I mean cool with air quotes. Whatever’s deemed cool. It doesn’t get you anywhere.”
Her brother said quietly, “I know; seems like a big mistake.”
What makes it worse: a long mistake, lasting and lasting until you finally realize it—it strikes you that you’re being nothing more than a fraudulent sliver of who you are and ought to be—and then the hope is to be able to put that behind you; not to be torn up by regret, with the months or years piled up in heaps. Worrying about the time wasted only serves to burn up more time, and you have to start anew at whatever age you’re at, while trying not to think about how old you’re getting.
The sky was a delicate, darkening blue daubed with pink and strips of hazy clouds extended as if being pulled apart. Jhooselan was just about ready to stand and get back home, though her brother looked as though he could stay around longer. There were still some stragglers heading out later than their colleagues. They’ll probably miss out on the best pickings, Jhooselan thought. They’re probably, right this minute, she thought—anthropomorphizing perhaps—regretting their sluggishness in waking up and jumpstarting the night. Now they’re going to miss out on all the juiciest bugs, on all that good energy. Because that’s what happens when you sit around too much. She rewove the clichéd old aphorism in her head, replacing “bird” with “bat” and “worm” with “bug,” but wasn’t about to say it out loud. The goal was so grand in magnitude, but not impossible, she reminded herself carefully.
Grand but not impossible. Not anything like impossible. It sat out obediently where she kept it, near her temples and in front of her forehead, and just above her eyes.
The common situation, which Maximilian kept imprinted in his brain, is bunches of them clustered together as if they need one another for warmth or comfort or just to be included. They aren’t solitary, reaping the benefits of community living. But aloneness is also the raw material. Social creatures as they are, when they’re grouped up, yet asleep, or in a deep, languorous daze, just partially cognizant of one another’s presence, they could be uninterested in the surrounding huddled bodies. When they awaken it’ll be to go out on their own for the night.
Maximilian wasn’t sure. He surmised that the bats could enjoy both sociality and withdrawal. They could be both introverts and extroverts. It’s the way people claim to be both, saying, “I’m actually really introverted, it’s just I like to go out too.” “Just because I’m not painfully awkward in conversation doesn’t mean I’m not introverted.” So people strive to own their introversion, for whatever reasons.
Maybe the bats had it both ways, Maximilian thought, and this would be discovered after more exploration of their social behavior.
¨ ¨ ¨ ¨
When it came time to leave, Jhooselan had a whole team behind her, which she could rely on for support. She took great comfort in this constant fact. Anything that happened—she had her team backing her up. On their easy, brief drive back she had her team; if again they came out tomorrow (just the two of them (which they undoubtedly wouldn’t; they didn’t do it nearly so often)) to watch, she’d have her team; tonight when she went through her routine for oral hygiene, flossing the slim interstices between each tooth, she would have her team; then brushing row by row with precise wrist control, she would have them. This was in the same way that she had her family as well as her friends who consistently inspired her, as well as those she considered mentors; those who wanted to help her achieve. They listened to Solange on the way back, but with the short drive could only make it through a couple songs. She hummed along to the sounds of horns, vocals and strings. They listened off her phone but—radio ran warm in the air in all its frequencies and fluctuations. It was always there. As was television, as were YouTube channels with millions of subscriptions, the deep-seated energy interlaced through a panorama of content. Maximilian considered his sister’s history of competition: contests she once devoted herself to where they’d pick just a few…those designated as having potential, who may go on to become something. He said, “What do you think about these parents who push their kids to pursue a dream. Do you think they go too far?” Before she could reply he said, “You know…how people are always saying they go too far. That they’re living out their dreams through their kids…. That they’re terrible parents.” She took a little time to answer, then said, “I don’t think they go too far. I bet you most of the time the kid is into it. I think it gets blown out of proportion.” She paused and, sounding irritated, said, “People feel attacked when they see determined parents. They suspect that they aren’t doing enough.” He said, “You’re probably right. And maybe it makes the kid more determined.” She said, “It instills something.”
Something in a kid’s drive—a something which can’t be taken away. Maximilian thought about it. It’s instilled there, cemented for good. Or it messes someone up.
“But…I gotta say I’m glad Mom and Dad never pressured me to do anything like that.”
Jhooselan nodded. “You have to have the inclination, first. I never felt like I was pressured into anything.”
“I wasn’t talking about—”
“I know. I’m just saying, I’m glad for how things worked out when I was younger.”
“But I could see how it’d be harmful too,” Maximilian suggested.
“Everybody’s different,” Jhooselan said, watching the road.
“I wouldn’t want to be one of those kids who was heavy into something. Some activity. I guess that’s what we have you for.”
“I feel like the more I know myself, the less I’ll be scared of letting people down.”
Maximilian looked at her. “You’re not letting anyone down. See, that’s what I’m saying—stuff shouldn’t be that serious.”
In a few more blocks they would be home.
“You’re right,” Maximilian agreed. “If you don’t know yourself you’ll worry about letting people down. I need to keep that in mind.”
“Our parents don’t care either way. They’re not like that.”
“But what about at school?” Maximilian said with an air of frustration. “It seems like teachers have these expectations. From school, to college, then on, everything’s serious. It shouldn’t be, but it is.”
“Parents become personal coaches to their kids because they know how serious it is.”
“Yeah,” Maximilian said.
“Well whatever—” Jhooselan said, “It’s serious. So what?”
You just about have to have a whole team behind you to get anywhere in music. But some do try to make it on their own. Mostly, Jhooselan figured, nobody listens to them.