A storm blew inside his head the night he reluctantly decided to answer another personal ad. He had promised himself that he would not respond to any more; he was done. But someone left the local paper on the front step of the house and he couldn’t let it sit there.
“Intellectual and gloomy SWF with a great sense of the ironic and the look of Vampira seeking a classic Gothic Romance; an imaginative and macho SWM (a pale hero. Brooding. Blonde) with a penchant for stormy nights and darkness, interested in possible eternal after hours relationship.”
A storm blew outside shaking the shutters of his small converted apartment, rain tapping angrily against thin panes of glass as he followed the ad to its conclusion; the telephone icon and four digit number in addition to a small illustrated envelope. He thought it sounded too good to be true but, it had piqued his interest.
He decided to write, not phone, because he expressed himself best through the written word (he was after all, among other things, a poet). The weather provided the inspiration needed to reply with what he hoped was the right balance of allure and menace. He drifted into musings about what kind of imagination the ad writer might be looking for. He considered himself to be imaginative and also a non-conformist in many areas of his life; the poetry, his knack for playing the fragile and silent Guqin, the melancholy plays he had written. As a child he remembered wanting to impress his theatrical mother by staging what he thought were cutting-edge plays starring beheaded dolls. She would sit in silence smoking cigarettes, her face lost in a haze of blue-gray. At the finale, she would stub the last one into the ashtray and rise from the couch muttering her only comment, “the only edge that will cut is a slab of butter”.
His physical attributes matched the ones required and he believed his receding hairline gave him a certain charm. He embraced the concept behind vampire movies; the lead vampire always so attractive to women. He knew he had a degree of magnetism, maybe not as heroic and irresistible as the undead, but there was always a chance the next woman would see his promise. The following day she wrote back. The date was arranged for Saturday night.
She wanted him to go to an after-hours basement bar. These were popular subterranean haunts scattered around the metro area. They provided a place to go after the regular bars closed to play pool, have a beer and mingle with the more interesting locals at an inconspicuous hour of the night.
He picked her up outside a cafe near his apartment. He wore an oversized black trench coat and the only pair of black jeans he owned. She appeared from around the corner wearing a vintage men’s overcoat that reached down to her calves with a burgundy dress underneath. He thought the Vampira thing was a bit overstated however, she was attractive.
They headed in the direction of a bar she had been to before.
“It’s low-key,” she whispered. “I want to break you in easy.”
“Really,” he replied thinking this wasn’t a bad start.
As they continued their walk he could tell she was studying him, weighing him up the way so many women had. He had a fleeting concern that she might not be his type.
“I like your hair,” she said. “You have an understated air of chaos. It’s attractive.”
She grabbed onto his arm. At least she’s not blind he thought and let her lead.
“You’re more appealing than Vampira,” he said, even though it wasn’t entirely true. “You didn’t mention that in your ad.”
“Why, thank you,” she replied, squeezing his arm. “We have arrived.”
The house was a small one story located on a nondescript street. You had to knock four times then pause, count to three, then knock twice. A tall, dark haired man with pale skin and an earring answered the door. He kissed her on both cheeks and said, “greetings Great Enchantress and guest” and ushered them inside. The kitchen was dark except for a few candles on a window ledge. The man opened the door to the basement and said, “have a splendid evening”.
Great Enchantress, he thought. How unimaginative. This was beginning to feel like a scene from a film he had once reviewed. Some dire piece of cinematic flop inhabited by wooden characters and cardboard facades.
The basement was dank and cavernous, much bigger than he expected in relation to the size of the house. A bartender nodded in their direction as they came in. The bar itself was reminiscent of the 70’s with its wood paneling and Formica, like the kind he had seen in friend’s houses. The ones where all the parents went to get away from the kids. There was a large gilded mirror on the wall behind with ornate bottles hanging upside down, silver spouts attached to their mouths. He ordered two craft beers and they found a small table.
“Have you been answering a lot of ads?” she asked.
He didn’t want her to know that he had. The last was a few months ago. The woman he met, an intense blonde who claimed to be an actress in horror films, had started an argument with him over B-movies while they were eating poppy seed bagels, calling him an ineffectual and tragic figure. The argument didn’t bother him, in fact he had welcomed it.
She just wasn’t a very promising opponent. When he came back with an equally demeaning response, she didn’t have a comeback and sat there blankly, looking down at the tiny black seeds dotting her plate. He found out that, in reality, she worked as a receptionist for a psychiatrist who treated people with compulsive disorders. When he thought about it, it did seem she might have been counting the seeds.
He replied, “a few lately”.
“Any luck?” she asked.
“People are rarely who they say they are. Have you noticed that?”
“I have. Yes. ”
“Have you placed a lot of ads?” He couldn’t think of anything else to ask.
“A few, but this is the first serious one. I tend to avoid people. Isn’t this place relaxing. And it’s seldom crowded.”
Relaxing? Hardly, he thought. It was unsettling. Even to him. The more he scanned the more it seemed to stretch back into crypt-like darkness. He half-expected shadowed figures to come crawling out from the gloom. She was right about the crowd though. The bar could have held dozens of people. Where was everyone, he wondered. Besides them, there were only three other people; two of them were silent men playing pool, one was the bartender. The front section was lit with floor candles on wrought iron stands and there were large lanterns on the deeply scratched wooden tables. The stone floor was uneven and rutted reminding him of photos he had seen of medieval castle interiors.
“If you tend to avoid people, why place an ad?” he asked.
“I don’t avoid ALL people. I’m just choosy.”
He understood this. He was choosy too but in a different way.
“I would say I’m more specific than choosy.”
“Specific. In what way?” She held her empty beer bottle and two fingers up in the direction of the bartender.
“Well,” he paused to finish his drink. “Let’s just say I have a certain type.”
She got up from the table and went to collect the drinks. As she did, a woman and man entered the bar. She was tall and slender, an imposing presence wearing a long black dress and clutching a small evening bag. Her red hair was twirled into a tight, dramatic upsweep. Her face wasn’t beautiful, not in the classic sense, but something about the way she held her head, upright and regal, gave him chills. She regarded him severely and with what he read as deep interest, as she passed. The man’s dark hair was heavily greased back; an oil slick would have looked drier. He dressed in similar evening wear and walked behind her. He appeared to be slightly smaller than her, even though he was about the same height.
While he waited for his date to return he watched this couple with curiosity. They brought their drinks to a nearby table and sat stiffly, a tangible tension between them. A wave of anticipation moved through him but there was something else. He couldn’t quite figure out what but it reminded him of a film he had once seen, about a family of Vampires run by a stern couple conspiring to turn an entire town.
This made him feel more alive than he had in months. Maybe this night held possibilities after all. Maybe his hesitant decision to answer this particular ad would yield results. The thought of it made him almost light-headed.
But now came the sudden shattering realization that the woman he had come with wasn’t his type. His earlier premonition was correct. The entrance of this striking creature provided an unfortunate backdrop for comparison. His date stirred nothing within him; not fear or passion or even interest. But this woman, she exuded a sense of superiority deeply shrouded in dread. Looking at her was painful, he could feel this in every part of his body and it was exquisite.
The return of his date depressed him. She slid his beer over then took a big gulp from her own.
“Thanks,” he said.
“What do you do for a living?” she asked.
He had the overwhelming urge to tell her to shut up. She was nothing as her ad promised. Where was this dark, gloomy woman ready to fall at his feet? It seemed all on the surface; the makeup, hair, dress. These were all fine, she looked the part, but where was the Gothic Romance, the threat? Where was the substance?
“I write film reviews and articles for the Twenty-Third Asylum.”
“It’s the Journal of Disorder. An underground publication.”
Clearly, she had no clue of what was going on in her own community. It’s a tight-knit place. How could a person live here and not know what’s going on?
“I haven’t heard of it but that’s not surprising. I’m not from around here.”
“Where are you from?”
“You wouldn’t know it.”
While her sudden vagueness was mildly disturbing, which he liked, he stuck with the thought that she was not as described in the ad. She was probably a bored suburban type who placed personals in the hopes of injecting excitement into her drab life.
“This has been nice,” he said, “but, I have work to complete. It’s time for me to go. Can I walk you anywhere?” He asked hoping she would say no.
Her tone changed, going from what he saw as flat and dull to something caustically charged, “oh, what a shame. My friends over there were going to join us”. She smirked and pointed to the couple who had come in.
“They’re not from around here either but they are dying to meet you.”
He gazed at her, unable to speak. A million thoughts raced unhinged through his mind until finally, he settled himself by conjuring a series of black and white film clips of the four of them together. These layered themselves one on top of the other; a montage of unquenchable lust, his date and the dour greasy looking man melting into the background leaving himself and the tall woman alone at last.
He was aware of his date looking at him intently now. It made him uncomfortable; he felt sweat rising at the back of his neck. She caught his gaze, holding it like a captive bird and he found it difficult to look away.
He said, “well, maybe I can stay for one more”.
“I thought you might,” she replied, her emphasis on the word ‘thought’ as annoying as a taunting child’s. She reached out and took his hand. Her grip was strong, her skin slick and icy and for the first time he noticed her nails. They were abnormally long. And sharp. He pulled his hand quickly from hers saying, “actually, I really need to go”.
He turned to get his coat but it was not on the back of his chair where he had left it. Out of the corner of his eye he thought the woman and now the man were looking over at him. And smiling. But the room was getting darker, he couldn’t see clearly. Were they smiling? He looked down at the back of his hand and the thin red line her nail had made.
Then, there was absolutely nothing. No texture, no sound, no terror or threat of violence. Everything around him seemed as empty and blank as this bar with its giddy promise of something sinister lurking around every corner. He had hoped for a moment in this night that would be different. But like so many before, the moment had passed.
‘The Moment Had Passed’ by Deborah McMenamy (c)2022
First published by Labello Press in ‘At Love’s Altar’ (c)2020
All Rights Reserved