Human Touch


By Robin Lanehurst

 “They’re vampires, obviously,” Emmy said, swirling her margarita. “Has that never occurred to you? 

Vampires. Queer activist groups had been warning us for years, and as far back as sophomore year of college I remembered a classmate writing an incendiary paper about vampires and neoliberalism, but I hadn’t paid much attention. I wasn’t an activist, one of those lesbians. I didn’t go to any protests, or sign any petitions, or give any money to the emergency shelters that started cropping up. None of my straight friends had even heard of vampires yet, even the most outspoken allies. But then reports started circling in PFLAG meetings, among GSA sponsors, nurses at gender clinics – Boston, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Kansas City.

Still, vampires had been a distant, theoretical threat, until a college student was attacked in Dallas, leaving Urban Cowboy after Saturday’s drag show. “I knew something wasn’t right,” he said, “by the way they touched me,” and after this interaction he suddenly lost all physical attraction for his lacrosse-star boyfriend. Gay bars across Texas upped their security. We had illusions of safety in Austin, where we all pretended that race didn’t matter and sexual orientation mattered even less, but it didn’t take long before a long-scorned leftist fringe group uncovered the truth: Austin was a hotbed of vampirical activity. When they exposed a group of beloved progressive activists as being part of a tightly secretive circle of vampires, parasitically living off of their queer colleagues and constituents for decades, everyone tightened their social circles.

“No way,” I said. I had tightened my circle too, but I had been friends with Anna, Marni, and Liz for years – best friends. I had met them the first week I’d moved to Austin, connected through an acquaintance who had since moved to Oakland. I had felt lucky then, to drop into this already formed friend group with their weekly happy hours and brunches and semi-annual camping trips and days on the lake. I was good at knowing who people wanted me to be, and then being that exact person. Their type was easy: they wanted a queer friend with a little edge to round out their diversity checklist.

Emmy said nothing. She slid her empty glass to the edge of the slick table. I knew what she thought about the girls, as she called them. It’s not that they hadn’t been welcoming to Emmy when they met – it was the opposite. They had started texting her outside of our group chat, inviting her over, asking her opinions on music and restaurants. I knew she wasn’t their biggest fan, that she saw them as inauthentic and boring and full of themselves, but it felt disloyal for me to even entertain agreement. Sure, they weren’t the most genuine people, but they weren’t bad friends: they had thrown me birthday parties, invited me on family vacations, held my hand when I had to put my dog to sleep. It occurred to me that Emmy had thought they were vampires from the start.

“Wouldn’t I know they were vampires by now?” I pressed, picturing the “cautionary tales” on MSNBC and the “miracles” trotted out on FOX: former drag queens dressed in conservative suits, musicians whose fingers forgot how to make their instruments sing, poets reduced to Hallmark cards. And it wasn’t just queer artists – everyone put upon by the vampires lost their spark, their special. Became less themselves. I still felt like myself, but maybe Emmy saw something I didn’t. Maybe it happened slowly. Maybe I had been the one tricked into their friendship, not the other way around. Maybe I didn’t notice because assimilation came so easily to me.

My parents had divorced when I was seven, and my mother had never stayed still afterwards. We moved from one small Midwestern town to another for the next ten years. Springfield. Terre Haute. Rolla. Conway. Iowa City. To someone less observant, each little town might have seemed much the same, but every place had its own idiosyncrasies, which I had to absorb and believe in if I was going to survive at all. Assimilation was about mannerisms, shared interests, wardrobe, syntax. Being gay would have brought me the opposite of success, and so it wasn’t so much hiding I was gay or pretending I wasn’t, but truly not being gay. Being straight was safety. Being straight was assimilation.

“I mean, we obviously don’t know everything about vampires at this point, so a lot of this is speculation. But I’ve read some reports that instead of appropriating you all at once, they just take little pieces at a time. Every time they touch you they extract a little bit more.”

I had read the same article on Autostraddle. The theory was that, instead of biting necks and sucking blood from veins, like the vampires in classic horror movies, these vampires could survive and even thrive off of much smaller pieces of you. Flakes of skin, shreds of hair, sweat, tears. Theoretically, every handshake could be dangerous. Vampires didn’t just want your blood – they wanted your DNA. The same article had warned lesbians away from trying to seduce straight women without knowing their V-status, and had encouraged people to always have a large queer buffer when going out to bars where straight people congregated. They kept driving their point home, over and over again: never. trust. any. straight people. Period.

Being too trusting was not the problem for me. I was obedient because I didn’t trust that anyone had my best interests at heart, or that anyone would forgive or protect me if I made a mistake. So, I was straight and obedient. I went where my mother wanted me to go and I did what my mother wanted me to do, except when nothing I did mattered and I was my father’s daughter and my father deserved a slap and so I, in turn, did too. I went to college in a central location to all of my mother’s wanderings so I would never be too far. And then, after college, my degree in hand, my tank full of gas and one lone suitcase, I left. I hadn’t seen my mother since.

“Okay, so… I’ll just ask them. If they’re vampires.”

“They’ll just lie. You know how they are.”

“What does that mean?”

“Honestly, Claire, are you for real?”

I shrugged and scoffed and generally tried to make it known that, yes, I was for real, and no, I didn’t know what she meant.

“They are constantly manipulating the details of the truth to their own benefit.”

“Example?”

“Like… like how they make a big deal about “thrift store hauls” but you know their parents send them Madewell and Anthropologie and LuLuLemon all of the time. And they always wear those terrible jerseys to Bar 96 for “watching the game,” but they only “watch the game” at Bar 96 when there are frat bros there watching them “watch the game.” They make a big deal about racial justice and anti-gentrification and shit – but then Liz bought that huge ugly new-build house on the East Side, like, the epitome of pro-gentrification. And her dad is a real estate developer! It’s like – complete hypocrisy, all of the time, but then they act so innocent, like they don’t know any better.”

“Doesn’t everyone do that?” I said, and then wished I hadn’t, because no, not everyone was like that, only people who were probably vampires or just unbalanced queers with high ACE scores, like me. Emmy didn’t need to answer, but she did.

“No,” she said. “Definitely not.”

It wasn’t that Emmy was the cynical one and I was the idealistic one, but we did have a kind of balance in how we thought about the world. Me, I was so jaded that my expectations of how I should be treated were extremely low, bare minimum. But Emmy – she expected things from other people beyond just basic human decency. She expected honesty, authenticity, transparency. I never believed when people said that they had a friend who helped them be a better person every day. I thought all of that was bullshit; I’d never known anyone like that, anyone whose presence made me want to be better at being me instead of escaping myself. But every day with Emmy I started to figure out more and more who I really was, what I really thought, what I should demand from the world.

She never shared her judgments of people or even of me in a negative way, in a comparison way – like she was better. Rather, she was trying to be informative and objective, sharing facts like a little kid who’d recently completed a report. I didn’t feel stupid when I was with her. I often felt stupid when I was with the girls.

“Look,” Emmy scrolled on her phone, then passed it to me.  

I read.  

If you even have a slight suspicion that your new (or old) friend is a vampire, you need to take immediate steps to extricate yourself from the relationship. You have several options: taking a “slow fade” approach or going “cold turkey.” We recommend the “slow fade,” because it raises less suspicion. If the vampire and their nest realize you are on to them, this puts you at extreme risk for a sped-up assimilation attack.

“Seems pretty straightforward, right?”

 It didn’t.  

“Another round?” Emmy was already signaling for the server.

She ordered us four more margaritas, to beat the end of happy hour. A group of sorority girls in shorts and baggy t-shirts sipped White Claws across from us, looking down at their phones. I don’t know why I made Emmy meet me at Spider House. The girls and I had spent so much time here our first summer in Austin, bringing visitors, telling them it felt so “Austin-y,” so weird, such a good vibe. They had since moved on to newer bars on Rainey Street, West 6th, but I had kept coming back. Sunlight glinted off of the miscellaneous sculptures and fountains and the mismatched rod-iron furniture, making the patio feel unseasonably warm for early April. A group of college students smoked weed in a secluded corner. A man with a handlebar mustache and an Irish wolfhound had his feet propped up, typing rhythmically on his laptop. If I didn’t look too closely or think too hard, it felt fresh and airy, like I could breathe, like I could blend in. But knowing absolutely anyone could be a vampire put a dull on the beauty and ease of the day. Nothing in Austin was the same, anymore. It would never be the same.

 ***

The next day, I met up with the girls for drinks at Cheer Up’s. As we got out of the Uber from Liz’s house – yes, that same new-build-gentrifier-monstrosity that Emmy had used as an example of their duplicity, and yes, I did feel guilty and terrible every time I had to park my car in front of the tiny 1920s cottage across the street – Marni took a deep breath and heaved a deep sigh. There was my cue.

“What’s up, girl?” I asked as I held the door open for them to enter.

“You know, I was just thinking – remember when we were 21 and ‘pre-gaming’ was doing shots of cheap tequila at Liz and Ana’s apartment in Robertson Hill?”

“Remember when we were here last?” Liz cut in.

“Um, duh. How could I forget?” Ana’s turn – she always hung on Liz’s every word.

“It was when we met Emmy for the first time.” Liz looked at me. Was it a pointed look? Was I reading too much into her expression or was I finally noticing something that had been there all along?

“That’s right!” Ana laughed. “I thought for sure we were meeting your girlfriend, then you disappointed us all!”

I could tell that Marni would begin to pout soon unless her original memory had gotten enough attention. A pouting, pre-gaming Marni meant that she’d be butting heads with Liz or Ana or some poor random stranger at some point later in the night, and with everything on my mind I didn’t want to deal with that kind of distraction.

“Okay, but seriously,” I said, redirecting. “Cheap tequila in Robertson Hill was, like, the highlight of my youth.” Just the right amount of drama. We all pressed up against the bar.

“Well,” Ana said, “Who’s to say we can’t recreate those moments right now?”

Marni loved this. Liz looked amused.

“Oh my gosh, yes,” I said, some of my best gushing work. “Let’s do it!”

“Tequila shots!” Marni sang out, and waved down the bartender to order.

Suddenly, Liz was right next to me, her bare shoulder touching mine. I forgot to breathe for a second. I told myself the bar was getting crowded, that she was just trying to make room for people to pass behind us. Friends can get close like this, I told myself. This is normal, I told myself. I reached out and put my arm around her, just to prove how normal this was. I squeezed her waist, winked.

Liz flickered her eyebrows and hugged me back. Relief.

It felt good to please her, to impress her. Liz was above it all. She was self-confident, bold, unbothered. She was graceful, regal. She didn’t have the perfect body or the perfect hair or the perfect teeth, but people flocked to her.

It occurred to me in this moment that this could be a sign, a reason why Emmy had decided she was likely the Supreme – another buzzword from Autostraddle. Supremes weren’t necessarily the leaders, but other vampires looked to them for guidance, proximity to accessing the most humans possible. They were the ones with the most power, who could get the most from you.

I had always felt Liz could see through me, vampire or not. Marni and Ana were easy – they liked me, and we had fun together. But I often wondered if Liz just tolerated me, if she only bestowed her friendship on me out of pity. She kept her motives opaque; I never really knew what went on in her head.

Liz shifted next to me, and I flinched. She smirked as we pulled apart. There were some theories that with every ounce of you the vampires commandeered, they had a little more control over your thoughts – or at least, the ability to get inside of your head.

Before I could say – or think – anything else, Marni passed me a tequila shot.

“To a night on the town with the best friends a girl could ask for!”

And we all said, “Cheers!” and took the shots and grimaced and laughed and everything felt normal again for just one moment. I wished I had never heard of vampires, wished Emmy hadn’t brought her theory to me, wished I could stay in blissful ignorance for just a little while longer. These are my friends and they can be trusted and I will be safe.

We stacked our shot glasses on the bar and linked arms, snaking our way through the growing crowd to the back patio. My phone buzzed in my pocket: Emmy. My face went hot.

 What’s up tonight? the text read. How are the girls? with a gif of the witches from The Craft standing around a fire on the beach, lightning shattering the frame.

I laughed, and the girls looked over their shoulders.

“What’s so funny?” Marni asked.

“Oh, just Emmy – I’m telling her to come meet us.”

Liz looked at me again – okay, this look was definitely pointed – and said, “Awesome, tell her she can park her car at my place if she wants.”

I nodded, but I didn’t pass the message on to Emmy. I wanted an out, a way to get past them.

Thirty minutes later, we were on our second drink and I saw Emmy turn the corner to the patio. I felt relieved, with a little pang of anxiety. I hated feeling in the middle, like I had to make a choice between two options. I didn’t want that responsibility or that control. But Emmy didn’t let me do that. She would have accepted any choice that I made, she probably would have even accepted if I wanted to stay friends with the girls and risk it all, but she wanted the decision to be mine and she wasn’t going to let me off the hook.

I tried to peek at the girls’ reactions as Emmy walked up, her arms full with drinks for the group. Marni and Ana, eager; Liz, stoic and a little bored. Ana got up to greet Emmy with a hug, but Emmy shrugged her shoulders, feigning awkwardness with the cold glasses. Ana seemed put-off and Marni’s enthusiasm dulled. Liz gave her a posh salute as she accepted her drink. Emmy handed me my drink and winked. Of course, I thought. She doesn’t want them to touch her.

“We’re going to Rainey Street,” Marni said, sipping. “Are y’all going to come?”

“There’s that drag show at Rain,” I said quickly. “That’s tonight, right, Em?”

Emmy swallowed and nodded. “Yep,” she said. “I think it starts at nine.”

Drag show was our code for trying to ditch the girls. A little counter-intuitive, as you might think that vampires would love drag shows for all of the easy access, but lately they had been heavily locked down, with the drag queens relegated to the stage instead of accepting dollar bills in their cleavage, and everyone else seated at tables arms-length apart to avoid mixed groups.

I wondered for the first time if they knew this had been our strategy all along; as soon as we mentioned our plans, the girls acquiesced, finished their drinks quickly, and started shifting towards the exit.

“Have fun!” Ana said.

“Be safe, girlies!” Marni winked.

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Liz said, as she buckled her fanny pack across her shoulder.

And even though I knew I shouldn’t let them touch my bare skin, I accepted their hugs goodbye, I let them hold me close.

I exhaled and took a large swallow of my drink as they disappeared around the corner. I knew if I squinted, I could trace their path on the other side of the slatted, wooden fence as they made their way down Red River, eventually running across West Cesar Chavez with a crowd of straight people doing the same thing, cutting across the parking lot before hitting the first block of Rainey.

“How’d it go?” Emmy asked.

“Fine,” I shivered. “I don’t know why I hugged them, you did such a good job of dodging it.”

Emmy shrugged encouragingly, and we sat with our drinks in silence, the kind of silence I was only just now getting used to as a sign of true friendship.

“So,” she said, firmly. “I think we should finally go on that camping trip to Big Bend we’ve been talking about forever.”

“That you’ve been talking about forever,” I said, tipping my drink towards her before taking another sip.

“The only reason you’ve never agreed to it is because every time you bring it up to the girls they find a reason that you have to stay in Austin.”

“Look,” I said, “It’s not that I have a hard time saying no, it’s just – I don’t want to hurt their feelings, like they’ve always been there for me in these big life changes, and then I’m just going to go off and do my own thing even when they’re asking me to stay for something important?”

“Important? Like Liz celebrating her birthday month on one particular random Wednesday or Ana’s best friend from home coming to visit like she does three times a year? But you can’t make the things you want to do a priority? They’ll prioritize themselves over you every single time, then expect you to turn around and do the same.”

“I just… I feel like I owe them a conversation, if I’m really going to leave – ”

“We’re going camping for a week – you’re not moving to Paris!”

“ – I want them to know why. I don’t want to have to be sneaky about it. But that’s going to be a big confrontation and I’m just not ready for that.”

“Look. I know you want this big, intense moment, where you confront them on all of their bullshit and tell them that you know they’re vampires. But then what? You think they’re going to have some huge revelation about the error of their ways and that they’ll stop being predatory monsters? That they’ll feel like total frauds because they see how they were the ones who needed you, not the other way around?”

“I just want… closure!” I said, starting to raise my voice. I looked around. It wasn’t that out of place, here, for two women sitting together to be having a passionate conversation. No one seemed to notice, but my face felt hot. I didn’t like drawing attention to myself; I just wanted to go with the flow, with the girls’ flow, and I wanted Emmy to be a part of this flow, but I was finally understanding that none of that was going to happen.

“They don’t care about you,” Emmy sighed. “Even if none of this vampire crap is real, they’re still just shitty friends.”

I took a beat before responding. It was like a final box had been checked and I was ready to validate whatever form I’d been completing in my head. Vampires, check. Shitty friends, check.

“You’re right,” I said. “Okay. You’re right.”

Emmy laughed. “Hate to burst your bubble there, but I know.”

I laughed too, and then I couldn’t stop laughing, as the absurdity of my mental gymnastics in the past 24 hours caught up with me. I hadn’t realized I’d been running on fumes, how panicked my body had felt, until it all came out in wave after wave of unrestrained laughter.

“So,” I said, gasping, holding my side, “When do we leave?”

End


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