Fiction: The Vampire Conundrum, Part Two

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: 3, 737 words (part two of two).

Romance, too, feels like one of the mechanisms by which a dangerous trans body can be rendered more acceptable to cis folks.

His name’s Aro,” Melanie says after lunch, showing a new volunteer around the office. She pats Rowan on the shoulder as she walks behind his chair, startling him enough that the clipping path he’s making around a photo of Damien’s head goes veering off to the side. “He does our website, our flyers and the information guides we send out. Aro like from the Twilight movies!”

Introductions once only encompassed Melanie’s habit of overly-stressing pronouns when referencing him—a dysphoria-triggering reminder that she doesn’t think him masculine enough for people to assume it. Isn’t that bad enough without her also getting his name wrong?

He sighs, frustrated. Complaining about this, when trans people are in desperate want of a working environment free of outright antagonism and discrimination, feels unreasonable. Hell, Rowan knows aromantics who’ll revel in being named “Aro”, so isn’t his hurt just pettiness? Isn’t this why he’s no longer welcome at home, a man too intolerant of his family’s mistakes? How many times did they tell him that his harping on about little things demonstrates a concerning lack of gratitude for their acceptance?

His co-workers do seem to believe in Rowan’s masculinity; he shouldn’t take that for granted.

Instead, he feels like he’s failing at being both transgender and aromantic.

After a fair amount of editing, he places Damien’s image in the brochure mock-up and exports to PDF. The office will make suggestions, some useful, some ignorant and some so absurd that Rowan will laugh with his friends later on, but that’s fine. He can’t expect otherwise in a workplace where everyone considers him possessed of unknowable ability with computers. They’re good people, in the main, and they care about their work.

It’s just complicated, and Rowan hates the feeling that complicated is the best cis people will let him get to a normalised acceptance.

“Aro? An Arrow fan called Aro? Really? Do you like comics or are you one of those people only into DC TV?”

Rowan looks up from attaching his PDF to an email to find the volunteer sitting on a creaking office chair and crab-walking it over to Rowan’s desk. “Comics?”

“Oh, good.” The volunteer sighs as if in relief. “I mean, the TV show? It isn’t terrible—better than most of DC’s movies, at least—but I’m so tired of people who call themselves fans but have never touched a comic book.”

Rowan glances at his journal cover, ponders its possible similarity to the show’s motif and nearly bursts out laughing. He’s never read a comic and doesn’t plan on doing so. He prefers indie podcasts and audiobooks on account of increased representation and greater ability to sew and cook while listening. “I’m not an Arrow fan. Sorry.”

Another show about cis people possessed of everyone-should-pair-up amatonormativity?

Hard pass.

“You’re not?” The volunteer gapes, waving his hand towards Rowan’s cluster of pride mugs. Three, now. Only one contains coffee, which feels like a terrible oversight. “Is this a joke, then? Are they getting you arrow stuff because of your name? Like some office thing?”

Aro.

His name is not Aro.

Rowan once thought the concept of snapping a mere storytelling device, something as ludicrous or impossible as “glittering eyes” or “romantic interest that lasts after getting to know someone”. At best an experience had by people without a brain that doesn’t devote most of its time to screaming alerts at the prospect of anything dangerous. Absurd, irrational, void of any real-life relevance.

Not even with his family has he felt this chilling, all-encompassing moment of enough.

He looks back at his computer, attaches a second PDF file to his email and, before he considers pesky things like consequences, clicks send. Then Rowan climbs up on his office chair, steps up onto the desk and whistles like a country boy who owned a border collie prone to sneaking off the property and rounding up the neighbour’s sheep.

Everyone in the office gapes up at him with a motley assortment of parted lips, unblinking eyes and, in Melanie’s case, the pointing of a long, vermillion-polished fingernail.

Up high, the room reeks of nesting rodents and the popcorn ceiling desperately wants refinishing.

Now Rowan’s brain tells his limbs to shake and his chest to heave; of course, he thinks as he shoves his hands behind his back, anxiety kicks in after he’s neck-deep in it! “My … my name is Rowan. I chose it.” He looks at the vent on the opposite wall, fighting to sound collected. Is that black mould? “Dad told me if I rejected my deadname, I was rejecting them. That I was being cruel and selfish. I earnt my name!” He stops, gasping for breath like a hooked fish—which, given his terror, feels far too appropriate a simile. “My identity is aro, short for aromantic, like being queer—one way of my being queer. So … there’s a PDF booklet in your inbox about aromanticism. Read it! I’m proud of being aro, but you need to call me by the name I chose! It’s Rowan!”

He jumps down off the desk. The creaking laminate and the thud of his dress shoes, a little too large for Rowan’s feet, sound abominably loud in the sepulchrally-quiet room. Heading past giddy into faint, but pushed on by a heedlessness of the “this can’t possibly get worse because I’m going to be fired” variety, Rowan snatches up his satchel and reaches into the side pocket to pull out his handful of print leaflets. He drops one in the lap of the gaping volunteer, tosses the rest on an empty desk for luddites who prefer paper, and returns to his chair.

Seven sets of speechless eyes bore holes through his skull, shoulders and spine.

Rowan jams on his headphones, opens his no-romance metal playlist and turns his music up to a volume just short of deafening before queuing new posts to the project’s website.

When he invented the God of Trans Men as flippant rhetoric to cope with Melanie’s questions, is it right to pray to him?

Two hours later, doing his best to radiate an aura of do not disturb on pain of your bloody death, Rowan fights to pay attention to the last event write-up. Leaving early means asking permission and walking down the row of desks, risking stares and comments; he instead corrects Melanie’s idiosyncratic punctuation. Didn’t Melanie go to school at a time when they taught more than English comprehension? How doesn’t she know when not to use an apostrophe?

There’ll be consequences. Warnings? A formal discussion in the private office the supervisors only use for interviews? A request that he undergo counselling? A strong recommendation for psychiatric assessment? Firing? It isn’t like they can’t throw a rock and hit thousands of people under the age of forty with general computer skills and design ability who aren’t prone to standing on desks to make unwanted announcements.

No. Focus on the damn comma splices.

Should he ask his psychiatrist for the soonest possible appointment? New meds?

A tap on the shoulder makes Rowan’s head threaten to brush the probably-asbestos-riddled ceiling; he gasps and yanks off his headphones, trembling.

Melanie stands beside his chair, holding out her phone in its glossy pink case. “Those words that are underlined? Can I click on them to find out what they mean, like on a website? Like … al-lo-sexual?”

“Hyperlinks in an interactive PDF—the file on your phone—work the same way as on a website,” Rowan says without thinking: in the last three months, he’s been asked this ten times. “If you click on those links, they’ll take you to a glossary at the end of the document with definitions.”

Damien sits facing his usual computer, his head tilted as if watching out the corner of his eye.

Melanie smiles the expression of a woman in an alternate dimension where Rowan doesn’t engage in embarrassing outbursts. “You’re so good at all this stuff, Rowan.” She stresses his name just enough that he can pretend she didn’t. “Where did you learn it all?”

He once tried to explain his philosophy of clicking on things only to realise that while the concept of generational divides requires excessive generalisation, a difference exists in terms of his willingness to fearless experimentation with electronic devices and programs. “School. Uni.”

“You’re so lucky. School was nothing like that when I was a girl. You have so many more opportunities now. And identities.” Melanie sighs and pushes a wisp of grey hair back from her eyebrows. “It’s good, it really is.”

Rowan blinks, startled into silence by a rare glimpse of validation stripped of performance and demonstration.

He hadn’t thought anyone here capable of it.

“It says that some people feel repulsed by romance? Are you like that? Should we do something? Do we need to not talk about romance in the office? Like, if I describe my daughter dating her boyfriend, not that I want to, is that bad? Do we need to hold a meeting? Damien—Damien—

Damien turns, wearing the blinded look of a rabbit frozen in a spotlight. “Yes…?”

For how long has Damien worked with Melanie? For how long has the office rolled with Melanie’s interruptions and proclamations, her meetings called about the slightest of issues? For how long has the office accepted Shelby’s incessant reminding and Damien’s inability to surrender event photography to someone who knows how to modify their flash settings? Isn’t there a chance that they’ll tolerate Rowan’s occasional moments of desk-blathering?

A trans aro should be able to sew a patch on his bag reading “aro” without provoking cis weirdness. Since when does someone read a new word on his bag and assume that’s now his name? Isn’t that another over-the-top demonstration made by awkward cis people trying to prove their acceptance, something that’s never made Rowan feel safe?

Even when he’s aromantic, he never gets to avoid cissexism.

He slides his hands between the seat and his legs, aware of Melanie’s once again drawing the office’s unbroken attention. “I, personally, don’t care if people talk about their romances,” he says, certain that Damien needn’t answer Melanie about meetings, “but I do care when people assume I must want one. I do care when Sh … some of you just keep asking if I’m dating anyone.”

Rowan long set aside the need to bother with romance. He isn’t aromantic in the way most people first think of the word, as he does fall in love, but it describes his frayromanticism nonetheless. Why put himself through the inevitable messy, angry break-up when his partners don’t understand why what started as romance ends up to him as a friendship? When dating isn’t without trans-related challenges, why force himself into a type of relationship that he knows won’t last?

Romance, too, feels like one of the mechanisms by which a dangerous trans body can be rendered more acceptable to cis folks, in the same way it sanitises his equally-threatening bisexuality. If queers are holding hands and exchanging rings, just like cis and heterosexual couples, they’re safe.

He wants to be normal, but not that normal.

Melanie surprises him again by nodding. Opaque red only colours the corners of her lips; the worn centres reveal the brownish-pink beneath. “Like how we now don’t assume everyone’s—what’s the fancy word you use for not being you?”

“Cis. Yeah.”

“At my first job, I never dared yeah my elders. Can I ask what’s this a-sexual thing? Not-sexual? That’s a thing that can go with your a-ro-manti-cism? Am I saying it right? Is that something people can be?” Melanie grabs the volunteer’s vacated chair and wheels herself up to Rowan’s desk. “Tell me about this. Please.”

Damien gives a theatrically deep sigh, winks at Rowan and turns back to his keyboard.

Rowan’s tangle of feelings bewilders him too much to be simple relief, but he doesn’t appear to be at immediate risk of losing his job.

“We need to have a meeting!” Melanie announces ten days later, striding up to where Damien peers over Rowan’s shoulder to approve the touch-ups on a series of scanned photos. Rowan grasps the want to have a section on the website showcasing past events, but surely Damien’s film-camera predecessors weren’t all unable to take decent pictures? “Today. Perhaps before lunch?”

“Do we?” Damien doesn’t bother to turn his head. “What’s the number on the urgency scale, remembering that whiteboard markers aren’t a five?”

“I’m aro-ace.” Melanie stresses the words, beaming with the confidence of a child presenting a new finger-painted masterpiece. “I didn’t know, but I definitely am. I’m aromantic and asexual.”

“I’m glad for you.” Now Damien faces her, scratching his shock of unruly brown hair. “I don’t know why this needs a meeting? Do you want something addressed?”

Rowan leans back in his chair, too startled to do anything but watch. Melanie’s interrogation of him about all things a-spec over the last few days left him certain that she was questioning, but he didn’t expect this announcement—or Damien’s reaction to it.

“I’ve been reading, and I sent around a list of links everyone else should read, too. We must do something about our website. And, of course, everyone should know I’m aro-ace, and then let people ask any questions. Then we should consider changes to our submission forms, and then…”

Already, Melanie has done more to integrate her identity into the office and its projects than Rowan ever dared risk. Why, then, does he feel as though he’s being pressed inside a metal suit three sizes too small? Shouldn’t the end result be worth enduring a staff meeting in which she announces she’s aro-ace? Melanie being Melanie, she’ll gladly answer questions about aromanticism. Doesn’t that give Rowan everything he wanted—ability to be out as aromantic but someone else’s dealing with allo nonsense?

Matt’s right.

Rowan’s just a coward.

Damien nods at Rowan. “What do you think about that?”

“Uh…” Rowan draws a delaying breath, fighting against a brain too bewildered to be useful in forming comprehensible speech. “Uh … you’d have to run form changes past someone higher up, wouldn’t you? We have to ask about everything else? But…”

He doesn’t name Melanie a friend, but fellow aromantics aren’t common enough that Rowan will reject a companion—even if they’re cis and have subjected him to half a year’s discomfort, anxiety and alienation. He slides his restless hands under his legs, biting his lip against the sickening realisation. Melanie’s enthusiastic fearlessness may make this office and program better for him as an aro, but how can it answer all the attitudes that made Rowan fear coming out in the first place?

If he’s a coward, doesn’t he have reason?

“We do need a meeting,” he says slowly, his heart pounding in his chest like blast beats in death metal. “On better integrating marginalised people into our office. Because the way you emphasise my pronouns, Melanie, or the way Shelby reassures me five times that I can correct her … that doesn’t make me feel safe. It makes me feel reminded. Different. Too visible. And that’s why…”

“You ended up standing on a desk?” Damien asks with the gruffness of a middle-aged cis man trying to sound gentle.

“Yeah,” Rowan mutters. “That.”

Melanie clasps her fingers to her lips. “Oh! I didn’t mean anything by it! I just wanted people to get it right!”

How many times has he suffered through well-meaning people explaining that in response to his saying that they made him uncomfortable? How many times has he heard people justify their actions as though good intent always mitigates bad impact?

“You’re … you’re still making this about you! The only answer I want or need from you is thanks for telling me, Rowan, I won’t do it again! That’s all! Not your reasoning, not this effort to justify! I want to know that you hear me, that you’ll acknowledge that your intent however good still made me come home crying from dysphoria, and that you’ll stop because I don’t want to put up with it anymore! That’s all!”

For the second time in less than a fortnight, a chilling silence envelops the office.

“We need a meeting,” Rowan says breathlessly, reminding himself that at least this time he isn’t standing on his desk, “discussing how to include marginalised people in our office. Discussing all the microaggressions. Maybe you need to find … educators, trainers who come in and do this. I don’t know. I’m just so tired of never feeling safe or normal, never feeling like I can say anything because this isn’t hate and at least you’re not my parents! Like I don’t ever get to have anything better!”

He stands up, unsure what to do past fetching himself a distracting cup of coffee.

Maybe, then, he’ll be able to survive the way Melanie looks at him—as though he just ran over her puppy.

She just came out, and he did run right over it.

“I’m sorry.” Rowan sags onto his chair, leaning forwards to grab his satchel despite the unpleasant giddiness. “I’m sorry. It’s wonderful, Melanie, that you now know who you are and that you can come out. And it’s amazing that you’re doing things already, when I needed like six months just to get used to my knowing I’m aro. I just…” He reaches inside the satchel and pulls out a rough oblong shape wrapped in white tissue paper. “Here. I’m sorry.”

He, an allo-aro man, screwed up an aro-ace woman’s coming out. Shouldn’t he know better? He wants to laugh, wants to cry, wants to curl up in a ball and hide under his desk. Even now, when he’s trying to get what he needs as a trans man, he’s being the worst kind of aromantic!

Her lips pinched, Melanie takes the present in her hands, worrying at the top piece of tape with her long, pink nails.

“We’ll have a meeting.” Damien runs his hand through his hair as though he doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. “I’ll talk to the heads about … sensitivity training, I suppose this also is. Would you be willing to write me an email outlining some of these behaviours and any ways we can make this office safer for you? Is that an appropriate thing to ask of you?”

“I don’t mind,” Rowan says. As long as he doesn’t go ignored, he’ll send a few emails—and he already has a few blog posts on which to draw. “Thank you.”

“Do you … want anything, now? To talk privately to me or anyone else? Or to a senior supervisor? Or someone with the government body? Can I do or arrange anything else?”

“Coffee. Please. And … and then to go back to fixing photos as though absolutely nothing happened because I don’t … do this sort of thing.” Rowan heaves a shaking sigh, pushing aside the thought that nobody can have failed to observe this. “Thank—thank you. I’m sorry. Thank you.”

He notices Damien gesturing at Melanie, notices that Rowan’s aro flag mug leaves with both and returns a few minutes later—now distracting from the office’s musty odour with its rich bitterness. He takes a few sips, but only by throwing himself into his work can he survive the gibbering, chattering thoughts building into a crushing tsunami of what the hell. Why did he do that? Why—no. Photos.

The soft clunk of crockery hitting laminate makes him look up.

Melanie leans against the edge of Rowan’s desk, her hand resting atop her new orange, yellow, white and blue aro-ace flag mug. “I’m sorry. Thanks for telling me.” She draws a deep breath, tapping her nails against the rim. “I didn’t know I could … that there’s an explanation, until I read your booklet. It described me. Things I didn’t realise about me! Things I’d been feeling! But … I’ve been learning about things like micro-aggressions. I didn’t know I’d been doing them myself. I’m sorry. I’ll keep learning. And thank you for my cup.”

“I know,” Rowan says softly, thinking back to the day when he realised the words “aromantic” and “frayromantic” describe him. A belated voicing of confusion and alienation; the naming of a constant sense of difference from the world. Revelation, understanding, explanation. “I know. I’m sorry, too. I don’t like … scenes. Or asking people things. I’m an anxious coward. So it just…”

He waves his hands, trying to mime an explosion.

Melanie, wide-eyed, jerks her head. “I couldn’t have said anything if you hadn’t done it first—and I wouldn’t have known to say anything if you hadn’t! And you’re asking us to do things knowing that we don’t understand, which must be frightening at least. You’re brave. And you shouldn’t be sorry.”

Rowan stares at her, unsure what to say in response. Never has anyone in his life freely offered such a sentiment. Never has anyone offered him something so generous without subsequent critique of Rowan’s intolerance for and impatience with their struggles to deal with him, praise softening the following reproval.

Brave.

His throat tightens and his eyes blur.

“Would you work with me on a proposal to put together for the submission forms? Damien insisted that I work with you, if you want to.”

“Uh … yeah?”

Melanie grabs a stack of papers from her desk and a chair. “I’ve gone through the old forms and highlighted passages. Do you want to read through and see if there’s anything I’ve missed or anything that should be left?”

He nods and takes the papers. Is this an alternate universe, the world flung upside down? Or, if people possess a minimum of decency, can he make needed change by addressing his problems instead of letting everyone talk over him? Can he build a world where he doesn’t endure cis or allo microaggressions by believing that their inconveniences aren’t worth more than his discomfort?

If his co-workers doesn’t object to correction, if they’re willing to make changes and investigate training, is the problem one of Rowan’s overreaction?

Does that mean he can talk to Matt the way he spoke to Melanie and Damien?

“Is something wrong?” Melanie asks, frowning.

Rowan shakes his head and plucks a pen from his frayro mug. “No.”

For the first time in a long time, that’s mostly true.

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