Stillness. A breeze, a gentle tickle, like a soft kiss on the back of the neck. The roads are empty. Parking lots, empty. Over here, an abandoned ten-speed bicycle. Over here, vacant picnic tables. Over here, an overflowing trash can absent of chittering squirrels. A breath held. The world on pause. The world waiting. And then the green.
It was the middle of the 90s and the internet innovated new forms of interaction. AOL, CompuServ, Prodigy—within these cyber universes, infinite chat rooms on any and every subject. I found a cyber home among the undead—vampires. I obsessed over them. A little too much maybe.
I had the only computer on my dorm floor, situating it facing a window that overlooked a lake and a tree swing. The window, not properly sealed, let in cool air in the winter when the dorm was overly heated. My desk faced west, and each evening, the sun disappeared behind a forest and in the spaces between trees was an eruption of fiery orange. I allowed my mind to drift away, far from where I was.
This was loneliness, but I didn’t know it then.
On the other side: my roommate and his belongings—boxy TV, radio, and endless cases of soda and bags of BBQ chips. He thought himself a real vampire, sleeping with his arms crossed, as if in a tomb. He slept through most things: classes and my rumbling around in the morning, preparing for Modern American and Victorian Lit. We got along, and sometimes we’d fall deep in conversation about all things paranormal.
Late at night, however, his vampiric nature took over. He’d leave the room and rollerblade into the campus woods, a black trench coat billowing behind him.
In his hours of absence, I went online.
When Bram Stoker created Count Dracula, he gave birth to a creature with enormous power. Modeled after Vlad the Impaler, a man known for his cruelty, Dracula wanted nothing more than to dominate the world.
Yet, despite such evil, he was a tragic figure. This is why Stoker’s novel comprised of letters and diary entries has withstood the test of time, why every book about vampires thereafter is in homage to Stoker’s creation. The description of Dracula’s death—told in Mina Harker’s journal—humanizes the monster before his body turned to dust. “I shall be glad as long as I live that even in that moment of final dissolution, there was in the face a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined might have rested there.”
Dracula was without reflection, and in that emptiness existed all our yearning—to be touched, to be seen.
Green. The air is green. The smell of the air. The world. Green. Out the window, the lake is stagnant, absorbing the green in the air. The sidewalks are green. The green deepens the green in the grass, the leaves. Green is no longer a color; it is the slow movement of the earth, the molecules of air rearranging in the atmosphere. A green muted by clouds. Clouds gathering. Clouds spinning. Bonding together into a monster in the sky. Above us begins the swirl of the finger of God.
My computer—a Packard Bell—sang the song of dial-up, like a spell that transformed my college dorm room lined with posters of scantily clad bikini blondes to a vampire bar, somewhere far away, where patrons drank wine glasses of blood in rooms of dark wood and scarlet-colored walls. That’s how I imagined it. Round tables with candles. Corners of deep shadow. A skull here and there. Everyone clad in black, faces glinting in a world where the moon was always full and casting its nocturnal light.
For the first couple of weeks, I sat in the bar and said nothing. I watched. I observed. I learned. The language of chat rooms, of role play. Action was noted in double colons. Like, he ::sits at the bar, the brim of his hat shadowing his eyes::. Or the language of acronyms. Like, OOC (out of character): “OOC: My internetz is real slowz today. That’s why I’m lagging.” Or like IRL (in real life): “IRL I’m a teacher, and this is so much better than taking care of those a-holes.”
I was the silent vampire. Logging in after 10 p.m., sometimes staying on until past 3 a.m. If someone spoke to me, I typed, ::puts finger up to lips::, ::returns to drinking blood, uninterrupted::, or ::turns his back and begins chanting a spell of demise::. At first people were curious about the vampire whose screen name was Scripture. Scripture sat in a corner and watched the comings and goings of other vampires. Watched the drama of the bar, the conflicts that were inevitable among the undead. Vampires in chat rooms were no different from vampires in books who were no different from emo teenagers in high school. They formed cliques or covens or clans, which were identified by their screen names, like xvx_name_xvx, the lowercase letters indicated a specific coven. There were a few groups that dominated the bar I frequented, and like any bar, brawls were inevitable—::grabs throat, eyes flashing red::, ::throws body across room::, ::bares fangs, ready to bite::.
At some point, I would have to break my silence.
I noticed xvxEbonyxvx in the bar. In the year we would know each other, she would drop her clan name and be just Ebony. She had red hair and green eyes and wore a cloak that hid a golden hair clip. xvxEbonyxvx hung out with other xvx coven members, but she was the den mother of vampires, always making sure everyone played nicely. Always quick to offer a taste of her latest kills. Always asking others how they were, both in the game and in IRL. Every day for a week, she entered the bar and ::smiles at the stranger in the corner::, me. I would ::nod[s] and toast[s] a glass of blood to the green-eyed vampire:: in return.
One night, she private messaged me. No one private messaged me. I didn’t even know there was a private message function.
“I like your name,” xvxEbonyxvx said.
“I like yours, too.” A strange rock formed in my throat, one that happened when a cute co-d talked to me. But this time, I wasn’t talking. I wasn’t Ira the freshman or Ira the lonely or Ira obsessed with vampires. I wasn’t even Ira.
“What’s your favorite verse?” xvxEbonyxvx said.
“What do you mean?”
“Scripture. Your name. The Bible, right?”
“Not the Bible,” I said. “I’m Thai Buddhist. I just like words.” I was young and senseless. I liked the word Scripture, liked how it came off the tongue, liked that it sounded deep and soulful because I was trying to be deep and soulful like all good vampires. For the first time in a long time, someone other than my roommate was talking to me. And this someone was a girl—or I assumed xvxEbonyxvx was a girl, or I wanted her to be a girl because girls were hard to talk to, especially when you’re a boy who sought quiet spots to read books about vampires. And this boy, this me, had given himself a name that referenced the Bible—for fuck’s sake! The first name that came to mind when I created my onscreen alias was Chomper, which would not have been any better. Maybe worse. Probably worse. On top of all this, I told this girl an IRL detail about myself. I’d read chat room etiquette articles that said never to give real details of your life. Never say where you are from or what your age is. And never, never ever give anyone your bank account or social security number, even if they are claiming they are from a poor African country. But I slipped. I was Thai. I was Buddhist. WTF. She was probably LOL-ing at this moment. This could be the end of the conversation because not only did I illustrate that I was a “newb,” someone with zero experience in the role-playing world, but of all the IRL details I chose to give, I said Thai Buddhist. No one liked Thai Buddhists other than Thai Buddhists and there weren’t many Thai Buddhists rolling around in this rural college town. Shit.
“I like words, too,” xvxEbonyxvx said. “I like how you write, Scripture.”
What followed Dracula? Lestat, Blade, Edward Cullen. Selene, Angel, Barnabas. The Lost Boys, Blackula, Nosferatu. The vampire has pierced the neck of contemporary culture. The vampire is reinvented, but what remains: immortality, the bite, suffering.
And then rain. Rain building on itself. Coming down harder and harder. The planet suddenly flooded, saturated in puddles. The puddles rising, joining, becoming a lake of its own.
And then gusts of wind blowing rain sideways. And gusts of wind sounding like a train in a tunnel. And gusts of wind creating cresting waves on the lake.
And then hail bouncing on the pavement, splashing the wet earth.
And then the shrill of the alarm.
My obsession: Anne Rice.
In the beginning, Ebony and I stayed up late into the night chatting about Rice’s vampires. Our relationship deepened because of our shared passion for Rice’s writing—her rich and elegant prose, her seduction, her vampires always grappling with immortality. Rice’s vampires were the vampires we wanted to be: deep, mysterious, and sexually charged. They were who we modeled our role-playing characters after.
Now in the vampire bar I had someone to talk to. Ebony would ::wink[s] at Scripture:: and Scripture would ::feel[s] a rush of red heat enter him and wink[s] back::. Ebony would ::sit[s] on Scripture’s lap, arms wrapped around him::, and Scripture ::holds her tight, fingers intertwined::. Sometimes the vampires in the bar would make fun of us. Get a room, will ya? Or, Ebony and Scripture sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G… Sometimes jealous vampires intruded on our relationship—all part of the game—and Scripture would have to defend Ebony’s honor. How dare you speak to her in this manner? ::flashes fangs::. I will ask you kindly to step off, mofo, ::grabs gentlemen by the collar of his coat::. Or once, Let go of my woman this instant, ::changes into wolf and lunges, claws drawn::. The character of Scripture was formed by the idea of simple and sexist love, a love born from movies and TV shows. I assumed this was what a man was supposed to be—chivalrous, rescuing the damsel, invoking violence as way to settle conflict. I was eighteen. I didn’t know what a man was supposed to be. It didn’t matter. Ebony played along, sometimes typing, OOC: This is so much fun! Right?
On some days, Ebony and I didn’t go to the bar at all. We created our own password-protected chat room. In the months we were together, I thought about her incessantly. I hoped she thought about me. I wanted to fill her in on what I was reading and how my classes were and the funny things my roommate did. OMG, I found him standing on his desk like a gargoyle. I kid you not. Or, OMG, he’s making a glove with butter knives as fingers, so it looks like Freddy Krueger’s. With her, I was more Ira than Scripture. I was more eighteen-year-old than the 789-year-old vampire I imagined myself to be. We existed in the virtual IRL world. And soon, a deep relationship formed.
“My name is Ira.”
“My name is —,” she said, “and I think I’ve fallen for you.”
Anne Rice wrote Interview with a Vampire as a way to grieve the loss of her daughter. When the book was published in 1976, the year of my birth, it garnered mixed reviews but began a cultural phenomenon. Subsequent vampire books followed and cemented Rice as one of the most popular authors in American history.
This is an understatement.
The country went crazy about Rice’s vampires. She had a 1-900 hotline where fans could call and listen to a recorded message, where she detailed her life in her New Orleans home, and what progress she was making on her new vampire book. On the VHS tape of Interview with a Vampire, there is A Message from Anne Rice, a prelude to the movie. The author, sitting in the comforts of her Garden District mansion, introduces, endorses, and defends the movie, after having criticized its casting of Tom Cruise as Lestat. Rice says of the movie version of Interview: “This movie is not just about vampires; it’s really about us.”
The alarm shatters the air and wakes my roommate. He rises out of bed. Looks out the window. Notices my duffle bag at the door. Blinks twice. Yawns.
The electricity goes out. The room is under a gray blanket.
There are instructions when something like this happens, in a freshman orientation booklet long lost. Something about staying away from windows. About huddling in a closet. About remaining indoors.
The tree swing sways, as if a ghost child was testing the limits of gravity.
My roommate might have thought this a dream, an apocalyptic one he often has and likes to relay to me with breathy excitement. And in this dream he sees the world ending and me staring out the window, college hat on my head, car keys twirling around my fingers. He sees me lost to the storm, lost like when he returns from rollerblading and finds me madly typing on the computer, fixated on the screen.
I point out the window. “You seeing this?”
My roommate rubs sleep from his eyes. “What’s happening?”
What happened was this: we made love inside the four walls of a private chat room, only it was called “cybering,” and it would last for three hours, each of us exercising the language of lust, avoiding phallic and cave synonyms or melodramatic declarations—::glides hand down the swale of her back::, ::arches hips towards him::, ::feels her breath on his neck::.
We exchanged phone numbers and made love over the phone, too, hearing each other climax then the soft whispery moan of post-coital pleasure. Ebony’s voice was different from what I imagined it to be—better, softer—and when she came, it was a high-pitched elongated release and then tremble. She said my name, not Scripture, and this fueled my need for her. The line between IRL and role-play faded.
Layer by layer, we lifted the veil. Ebony, who wasn’t Ebony, was forty and lived on a naval base, the wife of a chaplain, with two kids, one recently born. Sometimes, while we were on the phone, the baby would cry and she’d have to tend to him and I’d hear the sound of a newborn against a chest. Ebony shared intimacies she never shared with anyone else—her unhappiness and low-self esteem. IRL, her long days were spent cooking and cleaning and taking care of the kids while her husband wrote sermons. There was a lot of silence when they were together and if they spoke it was about the kids, never each other. Her husband began to look at the computer as a devil in a box but it wasn’t in his nature to say anything—“Do not judge or you too will be judged.” Not even when he came downstairs late one night and found her typing with one hand while the other was down her pants. “He just looked at me and said he needed a glass of water and then went back upstairs, never getting the water.” I LOL-ed when she told me the story.
To reciprocate, I revealed my deep and dark problems, too, like getting Cs on my American Lit papers, how the cafeteria had awful food, and how my roommate blasted Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” on repeat. What I didn’t tell her was how lonely I was, how I missed my friends back in Chicago, how I missed my parents—even my mother, who had been desolate after the divorce, and even my father, who I hadn’t seen or heard from in months. I didn’t tell her how she was the brightest part of my days, how she was teaching me the pleasure of the body, and how my body was always in need of her and her voice and her words. I didn’t tell her any of this because I was selfish. When she didn’t come online or call, I became sullen, not caring what reason she would give for her delay or absence—her husband was up late, her son had an ear infection, or she was in a car accident. I didn’t care when she cried on the phone, apologizing profusely. Though I loved her, I loved myself more and didn’t understand the depths and complexities of this relationship—what I meant to her, what I represented. I didn’t understand her life, because, in my youth, I couldn’t comprehend the complicated nature of real relationships.
Ebony sent love letters and little gifts, like chocolates and pendants and bracelets. Once, she sent a white handkerchief with Scripture + Ebony embroidered in a corner. She told me she spent a few hours making it for me. I lost it within a week. The only thing I sent her was a photo of me, reminding her in IRL I was Thai. I feared being Thai; the vampire I imagined myself was not Thai because Anne Rice never wrote about Thai vampires, only white tortured ones. When Ebony received the photo, she said I was too handsome—so young with so young skin and so young eyes and a so young mouth that she wished she could kiss. I asked for her picture and she stammered on the phone and then abruptly hung up, calling back seconds later, saying she was sorry but she was afraid of what I might think if I saw what she looked like, worrying about fantasy dissolving into dust. I played the poor deserving boyfriend (though we never called each other boyfriend or girlfriend), relentless for this photo—“You’re beautiful, you’re beautiful, beautiful, I’m sure you’re beautiful”—because in my imagination she was some ethereal creature, bosom bound in a corset, lips blood red and skin like snow. She sent a picture of when she was my age, eighteen—a flash of red hair cropped to her neck, sunglasses like tea saucers over eyes, bare white arms in a pink halter top; she lounged on a beach chair, in yellow shorts, her legs slightly parted, hinting at the dark that existed in between them, the place I imagined I would be if I were in the graininess of the photo that looked liked it was taken in the 80s, color slipping into gray, gray creating shadows behind her. I would be in that world, on my knees between her legs, be with her, in her, our bodies in possession of the other.
In that photo, I thought Ebony was even more beautiful—she would have been regardless of what she sent—because I had made up my mind she was beautiful, because the libido of an eighteen-year-old boy was more potent than the weed I’d smoke on occasion. She reiterated how much older she was, and I kept insisting age didn’t matter; it was just a number and a number did not define our love, and our love was special, like Elizabeth and Darcy, perhaps even better, a love that had never been written about because we were writing it now.
But here was how she changed my life: she taught me to write—proofreading my college papers, correcting my clumsy grammar, asking me clarifying questions. “I do this for my husband,” she said, “I correct his sermons.” My papers turned from Cs to As, which prompted one of my professors to say, “Someone finally woke up.” I showed Ebony my secret short stories that weren’t about vampires, but about being Thai and living with a single mother who expected too much and loved too hard. She thought these stories were incredible, revealing, and I told her everything was made up, nothing true—“It’s all fiction.”
“I think you are amazing,” she said.
“I’m sure,” she said, “but you should write more. You have lots to say.”
That semester I enrolled in a creative writing course, found writing friends, and began to make a home in that college town. Ebony was responsible for the trajectory of my life, though I didn’t know it then and wouldn’t know it for a long time after because I would rarely speak of that time when I fell in love with an older, married woman. To the few people I did tell, it was a funny story, a blip in my youth, a memory recalled one day when my two-year-old son put on a black cape and said he wanted to be a vampire when he grew up. I smiled and thought of her and wondered where she was and what she was doing.
Back then, we didn’t know what would happen, not any of it, only that our fantasies were made real, our infatuation with one another felt real, and I thought it was real.
“Let’s meet,” I said one night. “I’ll come to you.”
“Okay,” she said.
Anne Rice’s vampires were in constant spiritual conflict with themselves. Whatever happened in the outside world was inconsequential to their eternal search for meaning. Rice’s vampires possessed a deep streak of longing—for a companion, for answers to their existence, for a love they could name and define. This would be Rice’s downfall. Her books became dense religious and philosophical explorations. Her fan base revolted and wrote scathing reviews on Amazon. Rice did not remain quiet. She retaliated with a long defense of her work: “Your stupid, arrogant assumptions about me and what I am doing are slander,” she wrote. “You have used the site as if it were a public urinal to publish falsehood and lies.”
I stopped reading the Vampire Chronicles after Memnoch the Devil, her fifth book, but it wasn’t because of the failings of the novel. Not entirely. It was because I was discovering other writers, like Carver and Minot, Tan and Updike.
Why the vampire remains embedded in our culture is because, as Rice said, they are us. When the vampire looks in the mirror, they see nothing but the world looking back at them, and that reflection is more terrifying than fangs. That reflection provides no answer, does not offer clues to the right questions to ask. And so we search. We keep searching.
That day, my bags were at the door. I was at the window. Outside, the storm pelted the world. A tornado touched down.
I would like to say it was the weather that prevented me from going out and driving to a motel outside a naval base and waiting for a timid knock on the door. I would like to say that. But if I truly believed in love, the melodramatic type, the kind written in books, no storm could have kept me away. I would have braved it, risking being swept away in a swirl of wind and transported, perhaps, to a bar nestled in dark woods, where all the patrons were fair-skinned and clad in black, drinking deep red wine. Perhaps there would be a red-haired woman dancing in a light of her own making and smiling at my entrance, smiling as if I were her long-awaited lover come home.
My roommate put a hand on my shoulder. I had been staring out the window, lost in thought. When I turned, I saw someone about to say something meaningful. Something that said he knew what I was going through because he was a vampire himself and loneliness wasn’t reserved for deep English major vampires like me but also weird undeclared vampires like him.
“Let’s see if the cafeteria is open,” he said. “It’s chicken tenders today. We want chicken tenders.”
Rumpus original art by Zach Swisher.