Fiction: The Vampire Conundrum, Part One

Banner image for The Vampire Conundrum. Banner features black handwritten type on a mottled green background with two green feathers and a black pencil. A translucent overlay of the dark green/light green/white/grey/black aromantic flag sits underneath the text. Text, feather and pencil images are boldly outlined in various shades of green and white.

When Rowan Ross is pressured into placing an aromantic pride mug on his desk, he doesn’t know how to react when his co-workers don’t notice it. Don’t they realise he spent a weekend rehearsing answers for questions unasked? Then again, if nobody knows what aromanticism is, can’t he display a growing collection of pride merch without a repeat of his coming out as trans? Be visible with impunity through their ignorance?

He can endure their thinking him a fan of archery, comic-book superheroes and glittery vampire movies. It’s not like anyone in the office is an archer. (Are they?) But when a patch on his bag results in a massive misconception, correcting it means doing the one thing he most fears: making a scene.

After all, his name isn’t Aro.

Contains: One trans, bisexual frayromantic alongside an office of well-meaning cis co-workers who think they’re being supportive and inclusive.

Content Advisory: This story hinges on the way most cishet alloromantic people know nothing about aromanticism and the ways many trans-accepting cis people fail to best communicate their acceptance. In other words, expect a series of queer, trans and aro microaggressions. There are no depictions or mentions of sexual attraction beyond the words “allosexual” and “bisexual”, but there are non-detailed references to Rowan’s previous experiences with romance.

Length: 2, 951 words (part one of two).

Note: Rowan’s pride patch exists in real life. I don’t usually write my crafting projects so directly into my stories, but I liked the thought of including it this way during a week (#aggressivelyarospectacular on Tumblr) of celebrating aros who create.

What is pride merch for if not petty passive-aggression in response to allo folks’ amatonormativity?

Beset by dizzying anxiety, Rowan places a green mug, printed on one side with a five-striped flag, on his desk. Done. He exhales and takes another furtive glance around the poky ten-desk office, but only Shelby sits close and she’s too busy peering at her computer to notice him. There: mug at work! Right where people can see! He grabs his phone, snaps a quick photo to send as proof to Matt and then, before anyone can ask about the mug or Rowan’s behaviour, moves it beside his pen caddy, the handle angled to hide the stripes.

Why does he have to be this scared? Everyone knows he’s trans. Hormones aren’t yet magical enough to give Rowan cis-unquestioned masculinity; coming out felt less damaging than constant misgendering. At the same time, being trans is why he feels like to pass out from nervousness. The initial slew of queries, concerns and clarifications, followed by daily episodes of cissexism, isn’t something anyone should care to repeat!

Trans identity, after the passing of marriage equality, at least possesses the dubious state of being the new conservative-favourite punching bag. Before he sent Damien his “I accept the position, by the way I’m trans” email, few people here would have been ignorant of Rowan’s theoretical existence.

Aromanticism, by contrast, requires more than revelation: it requires conceptualisation.

He thought he was prepared, last time.

Rowan Ross, master of whiteboards and planners, came for his first day armed with a list of resources and print-outs of an article he wrote for his university’s student magazine. He’d written out answers to likely questions and rehearsed them at his mirror. He wasn’t going to have another panic attack when faced with questions he couldn’t answer. He was going to be fine.

Instead, he learnt again that one can’t prepare for all the shapes of cis ignorance.

Hesitating to mention his aromanticism because being out as trans already ramps up the difficulty of his working life shouldn’t be cowardly. Why can’t Matt see that?

He stares at the mug, dizzy. Damien may not notice the striped flag, but Shelby uses anything as an opportunity to provide unneeded reassurances. Melanie has enough enthusiastic, unrestrained curiosity for ten people!

I read that trans men bind their chests. Is it comfortable? Do you do it every day? Are you allowed to wear a bra when you don’t?

Rowan shudders. No. He’s survived her interrogations; can’t he survive this, too? He practiced a short explanatory speech, made an email-ready digital PDF booklet and packed printed versions inside his satchel. He rehearsed his responses to as many provocative and prying questions as possible, including the line I’d rather not answer that. Maybe it won’t be as bad, this time! Maybe they won’t notice immediately, giving him more time to prepare and anticipate. Melanie doesn’t come back until next month; perhaps this mug, so bright and green, will pass unremarked until then.

Does the want to return it to his bag make Matt right?

Rowan touches the handle for luck and wonders if this will go better should someone not Melanie ask first.

“Good morning, everyone!” Melanie breezes through the office in an aura of floral-with-vanilla perfume, making a beeline for Rowan’s desk. She’s small, curvy and grandmotherly-but-modern in appearance: coloured slacks and loose floral-print blouses worn with dangling gold pendants and stacks of bangles over freckle-dusted forearms. Aside from her pixie-cut grey hair, she looks to him like a walking Millers advertisement. “Rowan, can you tell me how to put the new logo in my email again? Please? I know you told me last time.”

Rowan doesn’t understand why people who send emails on a daily basis don’t take the time to learn these things, but he’s worked here long enough to accept this lack as a fundamental truth of the universe. He turns to face her, his flag mug held in his right hand. “Do you want the instruction PDF I wrote, or do you want me to just do it for you?”

A few months ago, caught up in a fit of hopefulness inspired by a new SSRI and the less-inspiring reality of being the youngest person in the office, he spent his spare time typing up Rowan Ross’s Ultimate Guide to Basic Office Computing—a guide languishing unread by anyone not Rowan.

“Just fix it for me now.” Melanie beams at him, paying his mug no attention. “Thanks, Rowan!”

What will it take for someone to notice? Pouring his coffee on their shoes? He swallows the dregs, stands and follows Melanie to her computer before setting his mug on her desk, flag facing outwards, to take up her mouse and open her email settings.

To think he worried about someone’s asking questions! Rowan didn’t consider the problem of a lack of interest, but he’s spent the last five weeks drinking from a flag mug without as much as a passing glance.

“You’re a doll, Rowan!” Melanie hesitates; Rowan holds back a sigh. Here it comes. “Wait. Is that offensive, even though there’s male dolls, like Ken? And gay men collect dolls, don’t they? But gay men like feminine things and you don’t when you’re trans-gender, do you? You’re a darling? I know! You’re a treasure.” Melanie grins, as though she didn’t make an easily-overlooked statement into a thing shaded with too many queer microaggressions for one bi trans man to untangle, and grasps his mug. “I’ll get you some more coffee! One sugar, a dash of milk! Thank you so much!”

Her pink-painted nails and beige hands cover the flag, only a small section of black and grey visible at the edge of her pinky finger.

Maybe she’ll notice when she fills the mug.

Maybe she’ll notice when she brings it back to him.

Maybe pigs will fly and she’ll stop placing that too-long pause between “trans” and “gender”, too.

This way, there’s no need to endure alloromantic absurdity or criticism. No suffering the pain of being unable to explain or correct, given how often cis people dismiss even small gender-related requests. He did what Matt demanded; he left the mug on his desk. How is it Rowan’s fault that nobody’s knowledgeable enough to express curiosity? That he forgot to factor in the remarkable cishet tendency to avoid anything suggestive of unknown queerness?

Going ignored, somehow, doesn’t feel like a victory.

When Rowan sees a mug online featuring a shield in aromantic colours behind a design of crossed arrows in pride colours for other aromantic-spectrum identities, he snatches one with frayromantic blues. He also buys an unneeded but matching pencil case followed by a journal covered with rows of arrows coloured in aro stripes.

If he needn’t fear curiosity or question, why not pride up his desk? At least he can gulp coffee from a frayro mug emblazoned with an aro shield every time Shelby asks him if he’s found a partner yet.

What is pride merch for if not petty passive-aggression in response to allo folks’ amatonormativity?

A fortnight later, he arranges his mugs on his desk, stashes his decorative paper clip collection in the pencil case and ponders, just for a moment, if anyone’s made a pride-themed whiteboard.

“Rowan!” Damien appears out of nowhere and claps his hand on Rowan’s shoulder. He’s a raw-boned giant of a man with an improbable ability for stealth; Rowan, cursed with a body that reacts to unknown stimuli as though lethal rather than first checking, still can’t keep himself from jumping out of his chair on Damien’s approach. “I’ve got this photo from last night I want for Facebook. Can you crop out an arm from the side for me? I just sent it to you.”

“Sure,” Rowan murmurs, once his heart stops threatening to burst from terror. “I’ll do it right now.”

“Thanks. I’ll get you a coffee.” Damien snatches up the new mug, tiny in his oversized hands. Rowan doesn’t care to imagine how much of Damien’s pay goes to custom tailoring, but his pinstripe suits are the living dapper embodiment of every How to Dress Like a Professional Man guide Rowan has read and failed to implement. “Huh. I didn’t know you were into archery. One sugar, little bit of milk?”

“Yeah. I … uh…” Rowan blinks, struggling to find an answer, but Damien heads for the hallway and the kitchenette they share with the rest of the floor. Archery? Surely none of the arrow designs are realistic enough for any archery enthusiast to regard them as an expression of interest for the sport? Not to mention the stripes?

How do cishets cultivate their air of continued obliviousness? They’ve all seen Rowan’s trans pride phone case and bi pride pin; nobody won’t have seen the rainbow flag in the news. Shouldn’t one of them catch on to the concept of pride flags?

Why complain when their ignorance is easier than their questions?

He shakes his head, opens his emails and finds the photo from yesterday’s event, complete with a stray arm on one side and a half an empty chair on the other. He crops out the arm and the chair before adjusting the contrast and colours, until the photo appears as though only maybe taken on a cheap phone, indoors, by a man with his back to the window.

“Hey, did you know that Rowan’s really into archery?”

Rowan looks up. Damien stands by the door, showing Melanie Rowan’s newest mug.

He should say something before he gets archery gear in the office Secret Santa. He should say something even though they’re on the other side of the room and a lifetime of good manners, parental expectation and disabling anxiety says one doesn’t intrude on someone else’s conversation. What if someone in the office secretly likes archery and asks him questions? But corrections mean doing the one thing Rowan hopes he can continue to avoid, so…

He slides his hands under his legs and inhales slowly in a vain attempt to head off the giddy anxiousness. Does this mistake desperately need fixing? Can’t he wait to see what happens first?

“Archery? How does anyone get into archery?” Melanie shakes her head. “You don’t do it in school. Is it a country thing? Or a rich kid thing?”

“I did. Year nine, I think? And my school wasn’t that fancy. I think kids do more of that stuff, now, than real sport.” Damien shrugs and heads towards Rowan’s computer, setting his mug down on the desk. “You fixed the lighting! I don’t suppose you can make my face less red? It isn’t that red in real life.”

It is, but that’s easier to fix than the burgeoning fear that this archery misconception won’t be a one-off incident.

Another awful conversation with his housemates pushes Rowan into getting out his sewing box, despite a Melanie-induced fear that showing himself to be good at a traditionally-female art will result in another expression of cis nonsense. Too many friends still ask why he buys plain T-shirts from the women’s section (better fit) or has lavender-scented shower gel on his shelf in the bathroom (he likes it). He’s a man to the not-completely-cissexist people in his life if he meets a boring, insecure definition of manhood. “Oh, great God of Trans Men,” he mutters, “please pardon me for the crime of unmasculinity, because everyone knows you don’t allow true men to embroider.”

How is cross-stitch not just analogue pixel art, anyway?

He flips off whomever it is Melanie thinks “allows” him to defy gender norms before sketching a pattern, struggling with the shape of the R. His embroidery floss stash doesn’t allow him to perfectly colour-match the greens, but after the best part of a weekend Rowan produces a patch reading “ARO” in aromantic stripes against a background of allo-aro yellow and gold. He needs another hour to stitch it to his satchel beside a cluster of badges (trans pride, pronouns, bisexual flag), but the finish is worth the late night and sore fingertips.

Surely this will tell people that those five stripes mean something more than a liking for archery or the colour green?

He fists his hands, lips trembling. What call does an allo cis gay like Matt have to mock the idea of coming out as aromantic when Rowan, who lost his home, his family and his dog to the mistakes he made in coming out, knows exactly what those words mean? Why did Matt have to say that “someone like Rowan” only put a lousy mug on his desk because he knew nobody will ask? Yes, he owns a collection of anxiety disorder diagnoses, illnesses fairly earnt, a disability unchosen. That doesn’t make him cowardly!

Matt doesn’t emerge from his bedroom before Rowan dashes to catch the train, so he lacks even the questionable satisfaction of seeing his housemate note the large patch on his bag. He’s just left with a mood bouncing between frustration, anger and the quieter, sickening fear that making the patch didn’t challenge Matt’s opinion as much as validate it. Should Rowan have done that? What else can he do?

Why does Matt have to be so damn allo?

By the time he arrives at the office, Rowan focuses just enough to concentrate on the distraction waiting for him in the kitchenette. The walls need painting and the air conditioning smells like mice, but sharing the floor with four other sub-governmental community projects meant everyone pitched in for a decent coffee machine without too many hassles. Damien needs to stop taking terrible work-related selfies, but he does enforce a cleaning rota so Rowan can enjoy avoiding the horrors of instant coffee.

“Aro?”

Groggy annoyance fades into a heart-pounding, palm-sweating, vibrant wakefulness. Rowan wheels to face Melanie; she peers at the satchel hanging off his hip. Matt’s wrong about Rowan. This will prove it!

“Uh, yeah,” he says, fighting to sound casual. “I’m aro.”

There. He said it!

“Oh, like the movie vampire?”

The movie vampire? What vampire? There’s no obviously-aromantic vampire in a well-known movie; someone online would have said so! “I’m sorry?”

“The Twilight movies! You know the ones the teenage girls liked, with the family of glittery, vegetarian vampires and the human girl? And it was supposed to be romantic somehow? My daughter had posters and a quilt cover and T-shirts and Barbie dolls.” Melanie pulls a face, her lips twisting. “But she loved them, and there’s a vampire called Aro.”

Belatedly, he remembers a joke that posts about a minor character used to turn up in aro hashtags. “I suppose? But it isn’t a name when—”

“Damien! Rowan’s called Aro now! Should we hold a meeting telling everyone? Or just send an email around?” Melanie looks out into the hallway dividing the floor into its suites of offices: Damien stands outside their door, his battered phone held to his ear. “I didn’t know trans people were allowed to change names twice! Although I don’t suppose there’s a limit, is there? If I married someone five times, I could change my last name five times, couldn’t I? Is it really that different?”

“It,” Rowan says into the barest break in sentences, “isn’t—”

“Damien! Stop gasbagging about golf or whatever … I swear, that man never listens when you want him. Always on the phone! Damien.” She bustles out into the hallway with the determined stride of a woman on a mission. “Rowan’s Aro now!”

Panic spurs him into running after her. “Melanie!

“Aro!” Shelby grabs his forearm as Rowan skids into the hallway, her brow furrowed in concern. If Melanie seems like the plump, huggable sort of grandmother, Shelby looks like the muscular, marathon-running grandmother who hits the beach every morning. Salt-coarsened long hair in a single braid, a fashionable black blazer worn over a T-shirt, hiking boots. “Is that European? Don’t worry, we’ll all do our best to remember, and you’re allowed to growl when we don’t. We said there’d be no problem, and we meant it. You’re allowed to growl at us when we make mistakes, okay? Okay, Aro? Promise me that you will correct us!”

The self-appointed protector figure of the office, she was kind during Rowan’s first week. Kind in a way that draws unnecessary attention, given her inability to correct someone else’s misuse of pronouns without crafting a production of hushed voices and pointed nudges—followed by scathing lectures that never happen far enough outside his earshot.

Why are the only options complete stealth or queerness front and centre in a way that never lets him be just a different shape of normal? Where exists a blessed middle ground?

Melanie reaches Damien and stares up at him, waving one hand and tapping the opposite foot, until Damien lowers his phone.

“Uh … thank you, but my name isn’t—”

“You absolutely must correct us.” Shelby squeezes Rowan’s forearm in a firm grip. “We’re not used to all this, but that doesn’t mean we won’t try. Aro. Do you people usually choose unusual names like that? You know, you trans people? Promise me that you’ll correct us. You need to know that we don’t mind in the least, truly we don’t!”

“I’m not—”

“Anyway, how was your weekend? You didn’t stay at home, did you? It worries me that you haven’t found a girl yet. Or a boy!” Shelby clasps his hand between hers, looking into his eyes as though hoping to impress upon him the depth of her sincerity. “You do know, Aro, that any girl—or boy!—will be lucky to date a sweet boy like you, don’t you?”

What does it mean, Rowan wonders in irony-fuelled despair, that returning to Births, Deaths and Marriages now feels like the easiest option?

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