“Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light” is about a lonely young woman, recently moved to the big city, who is looking for love. What she finds is a friend and confidante who is much older and wiser than she.
Marcus arrived on the third day of school. Of course, Rosamunde didn’t know then his name was Marcus. All she knew was that the new guy was hot. Like, really hot. Shampoo-commercial hair hot. Tawny skin like a lion’s golden coat just like when the sun hits a lion’s golden coat on a plain somewhere in Africa hot. He walked into homeroom just like a lion, totally confident and cool. His confident gaze raked the classroom. Like he could eat them all alive if he wanted to. And then he looked right at her with gorgeous, glowing violet eyes. As if there was no one else in the world. As if his whole world, just right then, were Rosamunde.
Consider deleting second and third use of ‘lion,’ I write in the margins. To avoid repetition.
—Are his eyes really glowing? asks the vampire, looking over my shoulder. —Doesn’t that seem inconvenient?
Glowing eyes? I write. Reword?
It isn’t what you’re thinking with me and the vampire; we’re just friends. Probably you’ve read too many books. We meet every evening on the corner of Twenty-Sixth and Sixth after I finish work and go for cocktails at the Half King. I am an assistant to a literary agent and he is a vampire, which is I suppose a certain form of employment.
There are a lot of people in this city who have money that comes from no transparent source, but as far as I know the vampire is the only one who is a literal monster. Early in our acquaintance I asked the vampire why he liked to spend time with me, why he had chosen me out of all the millions of other girls moving in glittering packs through the night streets of the city. Soft-skinned slim cool girls with blinding teeth and neat manicures, immaculate girls who leave in their wake the scent of jasmine and new dollar bills; thoroughbred girls far glossier than me.
—I don’t know, said the vampire. —You have a certain je ne sais quois.
Rosamunde’s highly profitable literary franchise comprises three novels; the literary agent has given me a draft of the fourth to review. Thus far in the series, Rosamunde has proven a magnet for supernatural entities of all kinds. Two werewolf brothers, several half-demons, and one fallen angel have told her she is beautiful, but she doesn’t believe them. Rosamunde is certain she is only average. Her skin is soft and smells of roses. She enjoys bubble baths, the Brontës, and Frappuccinos. The vampire has offered to act as a consultant on Rosamunde’s latest adventure, in which the new boy in school turns out to be a vampire himself. Although he dabbles in the dark side, Rosamunde’s suitor is persuaded toward the light thanks to a generous application of Rosamunde’s love. Everybody likes a project. Tonight my vampire is feeling clever; he’s ordered a Bloody Mary, although that’s not a nighttime kind of drink. The bartender gave him a dirty look when he thought the vampire wasn’t looking and the vampire ran his finger over his teeth. Most nights the vampire drinks Pernod and complains daintily that he can’t smoke indoors anymore, although it’s been years and years since one could. Time is different for vampires, as you doubtless already know. The vampire has deigned to lend me his coat, which is the band jacket Hedi Slimane did for Dior Homme. I did not know things like this before I met the vampire, only that the vampire’s jacket was beautiful and made me feel, the first time I put it on, as though I had been wearing the wrong clothes my entire life.
—What does ‘shampoo-commercial hair’ mean? the vampire asks.
—I guess it means that he’s clean, I say.
The vampire looks at me in surprise. —Is that really all you people want now? My goodness, what a very different time it is, indeed. A year or two ago the Half King was closed briefly for the filming of a movie in which Drew Barrymore finds love in unexpected places, and I had to explain romantic comedies to the vampire. He was quiet for some time. —I like that fellow Tarkovsky, he said finally. —No talking.
It’s not my first winter in this city but I still can’t manage to dress warmly enough. There are nights I think the cutting wind will pull me apart and cauterize what’s left into solid ice. I came here with my pockets full of dreams but the people-clotted streets are lonelier than anywhere I’ve known. The place I left behind never got cold enough to kill you.
—You can make it here; you can make it anywhere, the vampire says. I think he means this to be encouraging.
We met at the library on Sixth, which is where I spend my weekends. The building has heat and you do not have to pay anything in order to sit all afternoon and cry like a teenager into your open notebook. The library used to be a courthouse but it looks like a palace. There’s a spiraling stone staircase and a tower with stained-glass windows that let in rainbow-chipped light from another, kinder dimension. Sometimes I imagine myself a princess coolly awaiting her coronation, her diadems, her velvet gowns. A princess, perhaps, called Rosamunde. I was reading a book about public executions in the sixteenth century when the vampire approached me.
—It’s not altogether true, you know, the vampire said, although of course I didn’t know then he was a vampire. I didn’t know who he was at all, this lean, tall man with cool gray eyes that were startling against his dark skin. Outside, the storm-silted afternoon was sinking into night.
—I’m sorry? I said. I’d only been in the city for a few months, but even then I could tell his clothes cost more than my rent.
—I’ve read that book, the vampire said. —It wasn’t quite like that, although he gets close.
—I’m researching a novel, I said, although my tear-spotted notebook was blank.
—Is that so, the vampire said. —How fascinating. Might I buy you a drink?
I share an apartment with four other girls in a part of the city that will not be cheap for much longer. Once a month a black family moves out of my building and a white couple moves in. My roommates, like me, all came here to do things other than the things they are now doing.
—Five of you in that tenement, the vampire says in horror. —Like rats in a box.
—We don’t call them tenements anymore, I say. The apartment is filled with the miasma of human presence. The bathroom is murky with leavings: clumps of hair, spent toothpaste tubes, a greasy sheen in the sink. The heat’s been broken for months and I sleep in two sweaters and wool socks. In the morning my stale breath clouds white in the pale air. I don’t much like to go home, which suits the vampire just fine. He’ll buy me drinks until the table slides across the floor. Sometimes he puts me in a taxi and I wake up in front of my building with crumpled twenties and pieces of eight in my pockets, the cabdriver’s eyes meeting mine in the rearview mirror.
—You are lucky, a cabdriver said to me once, —to have such a generous friend.
I gave him one of the vampire’s antique coins. —I don’t know if generous is the right word, I said, —but he does his best to be nice.
When I first interviewed with the literary agent, I told her I wanted to be a writer. —Who doesn’t, she said, rolling her eyes. —Bring me a story, I’ll take a look. The printout I gave her still sits, yellowing, on the bottom shelf behind her desk. Girls these days like to read about vampires, or so I am told by the literary agent, who makes her living off books that aren’t particularly good. If she had dreams once they have long since scurvied into misshape under the flickering gray-green lights of her windowless office. I suppose if one is not acquainted with an actual vampire, love disguised as cruelty sounds better than the world outside. All these monsters, waiting for the right girl. All these girls, hoping for monsters. Once a beauty finds her beast, she blossoms. Her junky old jewels turn out to be talismans, her dead mother’s cheap locket a portal to another plane. All she needs to learn magic is for someone to call her pretty.
How people die now: torture, shot by police, hate crimes, executed by the state. Am I safe? I can’t tell. In this city, in this century, I don’t know what the word means anymore. The literary agent sends me home with manuscripts to read on my own time; this is for my career development. Some of them belong to her clients. Most of them belong to people who want to be.
This one defies credibility, I write in the reader’s reports I submit to her.
I agree!!!!! she emails back, although she sits six feet away from me. Please reject J J J
After science, Rosamunde walked up to the new guy. He was so hot. She could hardly believe her own nerve. She was shy. She didn’t know how to talk to guys. Especially not guys like this one. So cool. So energetic.
—She means ‘enigmatic,’ surely, the vampire says.
—Or egomaniacal, I say, and am pleased when the vampire laughs. I make a note in the margins.
“We’re supposed to choose lab partners,” she said, trying to keep her voice from quivering.
—Quavering! the vampire says huffily.
—You’re the one who wanted to help, I tell him, and he subsides, muttering into his Bloody Mary.
“You’re new, so—I’m guessing you don’t have one.”
“No,” he said. His smell, now that he stood so close, was heady. Masculine. Like a forest. Almost like a powerful animal with muscles bunching underneath its rippling skin. He was wearing an expensive brand-name sweater that brought out the sapphire blue of his eyes.
Violet? I write.
“You’re trembling. Are you frightened? You have nothing to be afraid of,” he murmured to her, those sapphire-blue eyes full of promise. “Yet.”
—Vampires, says the vampire with dignity, —do not ripple.
A person can be afraid of: the cold, under the bed, dying alone, poverty, eels, earwigs. The subway at rush hour, stalled under the East River; the crush of bodies and the stink of human flesh. A vampire is not afraid of many things at all. The vampire has read more books than you could imagine existing, more books than there are now. There are a lot of hours in a century. It isn’t something you or I could understand so easily, what it is like to be the vampire. I wanted to be his friend the first time I saw him and not only because I was lonely as a cat in a barrel. It has occurred to me since that perhaps his initial motives were not entirely aboveboard; I was obviously someone no one else would miss. It seems gauche to broach the topic now. When I met him I told the vampire I was going to be famous before he knew it and he said he thought that was a nice idea. —You know what I miss the most, living in the city, he said, —is seeing the stars. As if, unlike me, he had finally come to the end of all the places he could go.
The literary agent is so thin her bones knock together when she walks, and the stiff blonde cloud of her hair doesn’t move when she does. Her clients write stories of teenaged girls caught up by destiny, torn between the love of an angel and a werewolf, or an angel and a vampire, or a vampire and a werewolf, or a renegade hero and a postapocalyptic dictator. The girls are often named floridly, with baroque flourishes of extraneous consonants and unnecessary vowels, ys winnowing upward like vines bursting from soil: Evelynne, Madelynne, Katherynne, Rosamunde. Sometimes it’s a vampyre who’s won their hearts for eternity. I try to imagine calling the vampire a vampyre.
—What are you laughing at, the literary agent says. I look at the news online. —I just want a nanny who loves my child as much as I do! the literary agent screams into her phone. —Is that so much to ask for thirteen fucking dollars an hour?
The news is bad. I close the browser: Goodbye, cruel world.
—Do you ever wake up wondering if staying alive will break your heart? I ask the vampire later.
—I don’t have a heart, you know that, the vampire says. —I think you should try the Woodford Reserve.
The authoress of Rosamunde’s saga lives in a split-level mansion in a flat, grassy state the literary agent refers to as “the middle.” She has three children and four cars. She is friendly on the telephone, which is more than I can say for the literary agent. On the days her royalty statements arrive at the office, the vampire, sympathetic, buys me an extra drink. I have tried more than once to explain how publishing works to the vampire, but if you want to know the truth, I can’t explain how publishing works to myself. I have never met Rosamunde’s creatrix but I picture her with the face of a girl from my high school who was once a cheerleader and is now a dental hygienist. She is wealthy, but surely she does not contain multitudes. I live in a glamorous city and I have a glamorous friend in the vampire, but I am penniless and unhappy and not in the least a pleasant person, so perhaps Rosamunde and her authoress have made better choices after all. It is obvious you are deeply invested in this story, I write in the rejection letters I compose on behalf of the literary agent. Your attention to detail shines. That said, I’m going to pass. Every time I hit “send” I wonder if I am destroying someone’s dreams.
—Why aren’t you working on your own books? the vampire asks me.
—I’m waiting, I tell him, —until I have something to say.
—No one else seems to be, he says. I am slowly realizing I may not be the greatest mind of my generation. I’m pretty sure he already knows.
The vampire is suspicious of vampires with arcane tattoos, bare pectorals, magical powers, secrets; vampires who eat deer instead of girls. Vampires who are looking for love.
—Where on earth does she get her ideas, do you think? the vampire asks, paging through Rosamunde’s adventures.
—They hate that question, I tell him. —They write essays online about how much they hate it. The vampire looks up at me, an eyebrow raised.
—Where do you get your ideas?
—I don’t have ideas, I say. Since the vampire started helping me, my editorial letters have gone more cutting and less enthusiastic. The literary agent says I am showing promise.
The vampire and I don’t talk about what he gets up to when he’s not with me. I know what vampires do in their spare time; I’m not stupid. Things that aren’t true about vampires, at least the one I know: garlic, crosses, that they don’t drink cocktails, that they want to attend high school and go to the prom with children. The vampire orders me French fries.
—More catsup, he says as I chew, and I can’t tell if he’s joking. Old people think strange things are funny. —Have you ever had foie gras? the vampire asks. —No? What about escargot? He is amused by how little I know about the world. I am bemused by how little rich people know about lack. —Once I had that sort of sushi they make with the poisonous fish, the vampire says, plucking the olive out of his Bloody Mary. —It costs a thousand dollars and it’ll kill you if they make it wrong. The vampire laughs and eats his olive. —Not that I could tell the difference. The literary agent sends me to the coffee shop for her latte (skim, not too hot, three Splenda, no foam) and to the organic deli for her lunches (one chicken drumstick; one diet yogurt, not strawberry or vanilla; one coconut water). Once she brought a cupcake to work and watched me eat it. So far, that is the only nice thing she has done for me. I know I am a lost cause, which is what makes me different from the literary agent. She is only aware that she wants something else.
I am always hungry.
The vampire and I don’t talk about the future or the past. How will I die? Cancer, car wreck, suicide, torment, drowning, don’t know. Dyspepsia, dysentery. Polar bears. Wolves. Although, of course, all the predators are going extinct. I think about telling the vampire how much I hate the literary agent in a significant sort of way. I know the vampire does not belong to me. Still, he has to eat someone. It might as well be her.
—Why do you stay here if you’re so miserable, the vampire says. —You could be one of those people who moves to the country and has a nice farm. What are those sorts of people called again?
—Rich, I say.
He shakes his head. —So negative. You could at least date.
—Well, I say recklessly. —You’re a little out of my league.
—More things under heaven and earth, et cetera, the vampire says lightly. I look down at the page in front of me.
Marcus moved closer. Rosamunde’s heart pounded in her throat.
—I know, I say before the vampire can protest. In her chest? I write. Or did you mean something else here?
—You’re wasting your life, the vampire says, and I want to say, But what if I had longer? What if I had until the end of the world? The way things are these days that might not be much time at all.
—I can’t move yet from where I am, I say to the vampire instead. —I need more time.
—To what? asks the vampire.
—To breathe, I say. I don’t know how to explain the harsh frozen light of morning to a person who sleeps away all the days, how sometimes all you can see is the lines surfacing one by one at the corners of your eyes. The vampire’s nights have no metronome ticking out the seconds he has left. We don’t, at sunrise, have much in common. Things human bodies do: piss, shit, stink, bleed. Hope.
—Do you want another drink? the vampire asks.
—Thanks, I say, gathering up Rosamunde and Marcus. —I have to work tomorrow. I should probably go. I give him back his coat; for a second I think he will tell me to keep it. But unlike me, it is not replaceable.
—Good night, the vampire says, and smiles. —I’ll see you in the evening.
But the next night the literary agent takes me to a literary party. I am wearing my favorite shirt, which is not a shirt you would notice, but it reminds me of home and summer and the smell of grass in sunlight. At the party I realize the shirt is a mistake. Instead of happy, I look poor. The host is an editor. The party is in his apartment, which is the size of my entire building floor. Beyond his windows, the city glitters. His furniture is taupe and rustic. I drink a glass of wine in the corner and watch writers circulate, pretending I am at the zoo. The writers preen and adjust their plumage. The writers prance. The writers engage in mating displays. The writers congregate at the watering hole, wary of predators. The writers would not hesitate to leave the weakest among them behind. I eat a bacon-wrapped shrimp off a tray and a tiny piece of toast covered in salmon and a single fried dumpling filled with pork. After a while the caterers avoid me. —Of course you’ve read Infinite Jest, a writer says to someone behind me. —But the essays? I turn around. The writer has an unflattering beard and shoes the vampire would not be caught dead in.
—Hi, I say. —Do you want to get out of here?
—Do I know you? the writer asks, and I shrug.
—Do you really care?
I don’t know how I will tell the vampire. I have never been busy after work before and it’s not like he has a phone. Will he find another girl just like me? Is he already well aware of the eternal fungibility of human lives? It’s too late to ask the writer’s name again now that we are on our way to this bar he knows on the Lower East Side where his old roommate is the bartender, and later on it doesn’t matter. Drinks keep appearing at my elbow. I find myself telling the writer all the things I can remember about my childhood.
—I was also misunderstood as a child, he tells me eagerly.
—I was not misunderstood, I say. —I was superior.
—Oh, Rosamunde! he laughs.
—My eyes are violet, I say into my drink, —and my powers are strong. He doesn’t hear. I thought I would be relieved to touch another person but instead I am only resigned. I pretend that if I turn my head the vampire will be waiting for me patiently just inside the door. You silly thing, you went to the wrong bar, he’ll say, taking my hand, and we’ll walk out together into the brutal burning world.
Rosamunde with her amulet, her sky full of stars. Rosamunde, a vessel waiting to be filled. Rosamunde, a blank slate, a mirror, a girl made easy to long for. Rosamunde who will never, not ever, be as sad as any of us.
The writer has Bukowski on his bookshelf but at least his apartment is warm. He brings me vodka in a dirty mug and I let him fuck me. —That was great, he says afterward, and I think of something the vampire said once about the infinite human capacity for self-delusion.
—You were human once, I said.
—Being human, the vampire said, —is a skill it is useful to outgrow.
—You’re beautiful, the writer mumbles, a snore already flaring in his throat. I wait for my heretofore undiscovered powers to appear. The writer’s radiator clanks.
I think about what I will tell the vampire tomorrow. —I would have left before morning, I will say in a casual, sardonic way, —but the heat in his apartment worked. The vampire will present me with a powerful locket, or inscribe upon my forearms a magical tattoo. The vampire will offer me a talisman.
—Now you have the secret, the vampire will say. —Now, at last, you have been seen as what you truly are. The vampire and I will go outside so he can smoke and he will be wearing his new Rick Owens coat, and I will tell him he should get a fauxhawk, and I will tell him I am going to buy him one of those Rastafarian hats to put his dreadlocks in. —Certainly not, he will say in disdain, until he sees that I am joking. I’ll tell him to start a fashion blog. When I cry he will touch my shoulder once and take his hand away. —It’s always hard to watch you people, the vampire will say. Of all the demons I know, the vampire is the most real and the least unkind. Maybe we will still be friends when I live on a farm with chickens and a goat and a big brindled dog that loves only me. I will write a novel about my time with the vampire; a caper, or a noir. We could solve crimes together.
Maybe even I will survive this cataclysmic age.
—If we lived in the country together we could see the stars, I’ll tell the vampire, snuffling.
—No more whiskey for you, little dreamer, he will say. He’ll take away my glass and I will lean into his shoulder, and in that single breathless moment the night will seem less large.
“Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light” copyright © 2016 by Sarah McCarry
Art copyright © 2016 by Jasu Hu