The Very Modern Vampire, Chapter Two
Patterns and Coincidences
Last week on The Very Modern Vampire: our hero is introduced and receives an invitation to László Szabó’s lecture.
But after a few moments alone, Klaus swept the thought of Brad’s invitation from his mind, using a procedure he’d developed over years of avoiding social events. First, he felt the anxiety and shame kicked up by thoughts of venturing outside his usual near-solitude. Then, he interpreted this negative emotion as a judgment of the likely quality of the event, and the people attending it. Accepting this judgment as sound, he decided not to go, and suppressed the slight flicker of regret at the decision to spend another night alone on earth.
He hardly noticed this mental procedure happening, it was so habitual. He did notice the emptiness of the apartment. Klaus could appreciate the visual elegance of an empty room, but he could not stand to be alone and idle for more than thirty minutes.
The air was oppressive. The stillness threatened to fill his lungs. His memory rose through his mind like bilge overflowing from a manhole—reminiscent of disease sweeping the streets of England, the glassy eyes of a lovely coked-up girl in Ibiza, rotten yak’s milk in a distant yurt.
His room’s one window looked out on a brick wall immediately opposite. The brick seemed diseased. The window frame crawled with imaginary maggots. He didn’t want to be associated with the walls, stained with his handprints, or his bare bed. These were the quarters of some kind of degenerate, clearly! And then there was his gut, squeezing out of his ratty black jeans. He could write sonnets about his abdominal fat, if he could only sit down and think for a moment.
But this room was not, itself, the issue. Finer quarters would not have pleased him more. He didn’t want to be associated with anything. Klaus was blessed with the power to judge everything inadequate. Nothing sufficed, nothing he could be—he could detest it all. His mind was always poisonously abuzz. Residing in a Savile Row suit would repulse him—what was he, some sort of hamhock-colored inbred Englishman?
He was a vessel with a hole in the bottom, forever leaking. After a moment of satisfaction, the need would return, the need for something, anything. The buzz, buzz, buzz, like a cloud of flies fucking around his head.
It wasn’t the sadness. The sadness was fine, and sometimes nice. Despair could be velvety, voluminous, aesthetic—a sophisticated billowing garment of dark purple or thoroughgoing grey. Melancholy could be an intoxicating substance, like a teacup full of stinging clouds. Klaus could enjoy, sometimes, gently, feeling like shit.
But this enervation was another thing. A screaming little monster, whimpering and yelping, with a hundred venomous spines, each with their own flaming vinegar sting, each leaving a thousand boils upon consciousness itself. It was an allergy to everything at once—a demand, yelped by the nervous system, to shed, to molt, to peel, out of the present moment, which presented, suddenly, as a dried-up carcass.
In this moment he quickly relieved the sensation by masturbating to his favorite pornography of that week. Lately he had been opting for software images of women with generous, motherly expressions, unattended in messy bedrooms. He hadn’t had the psychological steadiness to endure the penises of strange men. It always felt somewhat incongruous to masturbate in front of his MacBook—here he was pawing his ancient skin in front of this gleaming marvel of technology—but that wasn’t enough to get in his way.
After cleaning up with a brief shower, he smoked another cigarette in the kitchen. He could’ve smoked on the back patio, but he enjoyed doing things incorrectly. All-in-all, the occasion delayed his dread by about fifteen minutes, at which point he needed something else to occupy himself.
After practically jogging around the apartment for a few moments, he resolved to see Masha, assuming that she was at home. He’d walk down to her neighborhood and pretend he’d just dropped by during the course of some errand. She never stopped talking, which was an asset for Klaus, most of the time. He gladdened to think of the shabby city beyond, the city wind, and the sound of Masha’s voice—anything, really, would do.
Klaus liked the streets of Toronto well enough. He had relocated to the city knowing that the only way he could possibly change himself was by changing his environment, and he was hoping that Toronto would make him a slightly less interesting person. In Barcelona, the constant parties and ever-present joie de vivre offered him far too many opportunities to be unhinged, but Toronto was not known as a thrilling place, and Klaus was looking forward to a lack of excitement.
Toronto was essentially halfway between America and Europe. It was almost an American city but slightly less vital, providing its residents with a lower chance of receiving violence and a lower standard of art, culture, and food. Or, alternately, it could be considered a central European city with a less advanced case of rigor mortis, lacking the beauty of illuminated graveyards like Prague but also lacking their rigidity. It would never be a world-class city, but it was quite comfortably second-tier, making it a relaxing destination.
It was a brisk day in early spring, and the streets were filled. Some of the passers-by were underdressed and shivering in their eagerness to expose themselves to even the first furtive scrap of summertime, and some were still bundled, assuming that winter would strike with the evening. Red streetcars screeched to a stop on steel rails, and cyclists flowed through the slow-moving traffic. A low sky sat on the brick and concrete that never aspired to more than two or three stories.
Some glanced at Klaus. His appearance was slightly notable. He was somewhat tall, at 6’2”, but also unusually hunched and hesitant, with glancing eyes and twitching limbs, which gave him the appearance of an overlarge child. He might once have been handsome, with clear blue eyes and a cruelly masculine face, but he’d accumulated enough scars over the years that it appeared as if he’d been thrown through a window with regularity.
He wore his usual ragged black jacket and walked swiftly. He took satisfaction in the storefronts he passed, beholding the outfits and the soaps. Each held the faint promise of a new life that could be obtained for a small sum. Would he, today, come down with the kind of insanity that led men to wear bathrobes? Would he get hit over the head and wake up a dandy in a sandalwood-scented changing room?
He swept past these possibilities, towards Parkdale, where gentrification hadn’t yet pushed out a local mental hospital, and the owners of boutiques continually shooed out mumbling wards of the state. Outside an upscale hotel, men in dark blazers manned a velvet rope limiting access to something presumably amazing. Every mile contained at least four faces that could break your heart if you let them.
Masha’s side door, up a brief wrought-iron stair, was always open. People came and went. She was never afraid of theft, figuring that if a burglar was deranged enough to proceed past her sitting room, strewn with random fur pelts and small vials of homemade elixir, they deserved her MacBook more than she. In the living room, adorned with red velvet and billowing curtains, she was surrounded by small boxes, and running around and fussing with things.
“Hello Klaus,” she said, not looking up from whatever she was doing, as he entered.
“Is it Christmas?” he said.
“I’m working on my new company, Essentialism.”
Masha’s professional life was a mystery to everyone, including herself. After amassing a fortune from a well-timed cryptocurrency investment, which could’ve occasioned a permanent retirement, she kept herself busy with a variety of profitable enterprises, such as an astrologically-themed dildo company, a contemptuous AI chatbot, and plastic face shields that simulated Instagram filters. She had a simple procedure: she came up with the dumbest product she could think of, and, each time, it was a stunning success. Every time Klaus walked in, it seemed, she was engaging in some new commercial perversity.
“What does this one do?”
“It’s a perfume subscription service.”
“Yes. It’s a very special product.”
“The perfumes are based on the body odors of popular celebrities.”
“How do you know how popular celebrities smell?”
“There are ways.”
Masha always had ways. Many vampires did. After sticking around for hundreds of years, if you were power-hungry and had even a modest level of intelligence, you tended to accumulate a certain kind of network. She’d gained and lost many fortunes, through dalliances with oligarchs, commodities, and poker tables.
“Hm. I’m interested. How many customers do you have so far?”
“How much do people pay for this?”
“We offer a normal package of $100 per month, which makes the business completely unprofitable.”
She continued rushing around, unpacking and packaging things, threw an empty box at Klaus, and suggested that he make himself useful somehow. Instead, they went for coffee. Klaus was very fond of asking people if they wanted to go for coffee. Rather than saying ‘I’d prefer to die than continue the current social trajectory we’re on,’ you could say, ‘I know this great espresso bar,’ and get out of whatever you were doing.
They walked together down the busy street, Klaus lumbering, Masha trotting. Klaus noticed that her gait was exceptionally crisp and graceful—he’d noticed this before, for decades, but he was noticing it again. He wondered if she was self-consciously modifying her gait so that other pedestrians wouldn’t think they were romantically entangled. Masha noticed him looking at her feet.
“Why are you being weird and awkward?” she said.
“It’s just my ‘vibe.’”
“The weird and awkward vibe.”
Klaus didn’t respond, being unable to argue. They arrived at the coffee shop which had a communist-themed name, because its high-achieving investor founder wished to give the patrons the impression that they were making an ‘alternative’ choice. The shabby-looking furniture made it especially attractive to the aspirational but guilt-ridden upper-middle class.
Masha made a gesture to the barista through the window as she and Klaus sat down outside at a small table to have a cigarette. In a moment, the barista arrived with two espressos. Masha’s orange nail polish contrasted strikingly with the blue of her pack of Gauloises. Over the centuries, she’d honed her dialogue with herself so thoroughly that no one could possibly interject. She had that kind of look that only some Russian women do, of perfect feminine elegance combined with a dormant but apparent capacity for savagery. Nobody ever saw her looking anything less than immaculate. If they did, they might pay a terrible price.
Their conversations always followed a particular pattern. Masha rattled off details about her recent spate of lovers and ventures. Recently, she’d brought home a very handsome man who shit his pants in the night. One of her digital artworks had attracted the attention of a mysterious consultant who was either FBI or KGB. By Masha standards, it was roughly a standard week. Klaus made noises of agreement and mockery, and then there was silence, which Klaus traditionally broke with some piece of contrived philosophy polished for the occasion, or a rare piece of news.
“Brad invited me to a lecture,” Klaus said.
“Your cute little teen blood bag?”
“He’s twenty-two,” Klaus said.
“Relax, I’m not here to judge you for feasting on children.”
“What are you here to judge me for?”
“Your face, your soul, your fashion sense. What’s the lecture about?”
“Some Hungarian bloviating about how the world is a simulation.”
Masha looked surprised.
“I believe that was his name.”
“Oh,” Masha said. She felt a momentary disturbance, but she passed it off as a contemplative pause.
“He’s actually quite good,” she said. “I like his writing. It’s slightly self-important in its judgments, and too-clever at times, but it is occasionally thought-provoking.”
“I enjoy occasional thoughts.”
“There’s something odd about what he writes. At first, I didn’t think it was at all interesting. But it kind of crept into my imagination. Even his name coming up now is slightly odd.”
“How is it odd?”
Masha pursed her lips and looked slightly concerned for a moment.
“Well, I was just re-reading his book last night, and I was on a passage about how life repeats—in the form of coincidences and patterns—and how this is evidence that it’s some kind of…lazily written construct.”
“So his name coming up is evidence that…this is all…”
“I know, I know, it’s silly. But he’s made me rethink some of my assumptions, I suppose. It hasn’t changed my behavior at all, but it is interesting to think about.”
“Why don’t you go to the lecture, then?”
“I could, but to be honest…I think…reading him further might damage my mind a little bit.”
“But you think I should go.”
“Well,” Masha said, “perhaps it could be the case that your mind needs some challenging.”
“I suppose that’s possible. But perhaps it could be the case that I should fly to Antarctica with uranium pellets hidden in my urethra.”
“Oooh, I enjoy this witty repartee. Why don’t you want to go?”
“I just don’t like the smell of these old lecture halls. I am tired of the smell of brass. I think it’s overrated. As well, I’m disturbed by rustling. Nobody knows how to rustle like young students. They’re still essentially children underneath their new vocabularies. All they really want to do is throw javelins and drink beer, but their superior intellectual values tell them to sit and watch the lecture. All the time they’re focused elsewhere, jittering and jittering. I don’t know how I could possibly stand it. If László’s book is so good I’ll just read the book.”
She looked at him with withering pity.
“One of these days, you should…do something. Anything.”
“I do things.”
“Talking and eating aren’t doing things, Klaus.”
“What if you eat a lot of things and speak at a loud volume?”
“I still see art shows.”
“Are you referring to the opening I took you to a thousand years ago?”
The show, which Klaus remembered as an opportunity to get drunk in a fully-lit room full of paintings of sad triangular dogs, had happened six months prior.
“I have a philosophical disposition.”
“I wish you could die,” Masha said, casually.
Klaus looked at her.
Masha took that moment to take a long drag off her cigarette and fidget with her hands.
“Immortality,” she finally said, “isn’t your strong suit. You don’t handle it very well.”
“At least I’m trying.”
She lit another cigarette. One advantage of regeneration was the leeway it gave to aspiring chain-smokers. Klaus was starting to find this conversation more wounding than consoling. He couldn’t stand to be the object of anyone’s pity. But he didn’t know how to get out of it. Once you’ve gone for coffee, what else do you go for? You can’t go for coffee to get away from coffee. You could go for lunch, but then you’d have to explain why you’re going to eat lunch by yourself. Perhaps there was a delicate way Klaus could leave the conversation. He thought it over for a moment and then stood up.
“I am going to eat a revolting bacon burger alone,” he said.
And so he walked, and tried to shrug off the conversation, shortly to be replaced with beef. But as he walked, one moment nagged at him—the moment when he mentioned that Hungarian’s name. He’d never seen Masha disturbed before, not in that way. Masha was, at times, positively unnerving in her stoicism. But this time, he had seen something in her face—some mark that this ‘Szabó’ had left upon her consciousness. He wondered if he would soon bear the same mark.
Next week on The Very Modern Vampire: desire that cuts like glass, the future sighing in the past. Klaus is repelled by an unstoppable force, but nevertheless finds a way forward.