There are so many kinds of nights in this world.
Nights when it thunderstorms. Nights when sleep will not come, because you can’t stop counting all the ways you’re not good enough yet. Pass-out-in-a-cab nights. One-night-stand nights. Nights you can’t remember. Nights you do not want to remember.
I meet Carmilla one of those nights.
I’m sitting on the grass in Union Square, smoking and watching as rats weave through fences.
She’s sitting across the pathway, reclining on her elbows between a boy with pink hair and another with horn-rimmed glasses. Her chin’s slightly raised. Her lips are slightly-parted. She’s wearing this loose white summer-dress that tightens over her breast; her hair is long and gold and flower-strewn. She’s humming. She’s reading the collected poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Her lips are so perfectly red.
That’s what I can’t stop looking at.
Carmilla leans up. Her lace dress is grass-stained and burred with twigs. She stops humming. She looks at me – me smoking alone, so much shorter and skinnier, so much more unformed than she is.
“I like your jacket,” she says.
It’s leather. It doesn’t fit.
She beckons me to join her. I do.
She’s just graduated from Hunter, she says. She’s going to Chicago in the fall.
Someone, somewhere, is smoking a joint.
“I hate the smell,” Carmilla says. “It doesn’t smell like – like, like alchemy, you know? Like true magic?”
She takes a black clove cigarette from an Edwardian case. It snaps open, shut, so violently. “If you’re going to massacre my mind,” she says, “I’d want it to smell – oh, I don’t know. Musky. Dark. Beautiful – the way perfume is beautiful. Or like old furniture. Or books.”
She hands me one of her cigarettes, it smells like incense. She tells me to curl up beside her on her lace picnic blanket; I do.
“What’s your name?”
“Like Plutarch’s Laura!” Carmilla claps her hands and the fragile fabric ruffles. “Yes, yes, I can see it. You could be a muse – if you wanted to.” She reaches out, takes a strand of my hair – so pale, so straight, so shorn next to hers – and tucks it back behind my ear. “You really could.”
“I could never be a muse.”
“Nobody’s ever been in love with me.”
Let me tell you about Carmilla’s laugh. It is throaty and thick. It is savage and world-destroying. Even though she is so graceful. Even though you would never think something so untamed could ripple through a throat like hers. “You little fool,” Carmilla says. “For all you know there could be men dying, just dying, of love for you – all the way across Union Square. How would you ever know?”
It’s approaching midnight and nobody else, sitting and smoking on the grass, is even moving, except for the skateboarders who don’t even count.
“Besides, how old are you, anyway?”
“Sixteen. Sixteen. You’re still so young.”
“How old are you,” I say – quick enough that she knows she’s cut me.
“Seventeen. So?” She flings out her arms. “Nobody’s ever been in love with me, either. Yet.”
There’s a full moon tonight, and now the grass is almost empty.
“It’s late,” I say.
“Pshaw! It’s only ten. It’s only ten – and it’s summer.”
Carmilla takes a flask from the folds of her lace.
“Nunc,” she toasts, “est bibendum.”
She drinks. She offers it to me. I raise it to my lips.
“Do you know what Baudelaire said?”
“Get drunk, he said.”
“With wine, with poetry, with virtue as you choose
but get drunk.”
She falls back on the grass, limbs spread-eagled. Like she’s embracing the world.
Like she encompasses it.
I watch her and think: I will never stop watching her.
“Get drunk with me, Laura,” Carmilla says.
Carmilla doesn’t want the rum in the flask. “It’s all I have,” she says. “But I want something better.”
“What do you want, then?”
“Absinthe,” she whispers. “Like the poets in Montmartre had. Like the old poets had. And the old gods.”
“They don’t sell absinthe in New York,” I say. “Not the real kind. Not the kind with wormwood in it.”
“O ye of little faith!”
“Do you have a fake ID, then?”
“Walk with me,” Carmilla says, enclosing my hand in hers.
We walk down boulevards of colored lights, past decaying brick stoops and the witchcraft store with its mason jars and apothecary, past St. Mark’s cemetery. We pass St. Mark’s Place, which is so infused with neon that it might as well be daylight, and there’s a store called Trash and Vaudeville, and when Carmilla sees it she cries “Stop!”
In the window, there’s a mannequin.
She’s in a black corset. It’s so tight her plastic chest is heaving. She’s wearing a black choker around her neck.
“Look at that!” Carmilla breathes. “Oh, Laura – could you imagine wearing something like that?”
“Sure,” I say.
That’s the first time I lie to Carmilla.
I mean, I am imagining it. She has asked me to. I just can’t picture it on me. I have neither breasts, nor a waist. I have never even kissed anybody. It’s so much easier to imagine it on her.
“One day,” Carmilla says. “When I’m out of the house, I mean. When I know for sure my parents will never, ever find out. I’m going to buy one. We’ll both buy one.” She spins on the balustrade, so that the streetlight beams across her face – a pirouette. “Promise me we’ll go together.”
“I promise,” I say.
“Do you swear an unbreakable oath, though?”
Her mouth is an enclosed heart.
“I swear,” I say. She clasps both my hands in hers.
“We’ll come back, when it’s open. Just you and me. We’ll wear them to parties. And our parents will never know. Nobody will know. I promise – and I can’t abide it when people break promises,” Carmilla says. “I think that’s the worst thing in the world, don’t you? No one today means anything they say.”
But she’s past the T-shirt stores, now, and the bong shops, and the stores that sell feathered headdresses. She’s tripping across Second Avenue and I’m running to keep up.
“You see,” Carmilla says lightly, like I’m close by, like I’m not exhausted trying to stay close by. “Sometimes I think – no. Sometimes I know. I know, very keenly, that I am a mistake.”
“What are you talking about?”
We’ve come to Tompkins Square Park. She’s leaning on the railing. She’s looking right at me. “I’m not supposed to be here. The universe went wrong, somehow, when I was born. There was a tear in the firmament and I just fell through and ended up here. I’m not of this time – not even a bit. Don’t you feel that way too, Laura?”
What can I say but yes?
“I knew it,” Carmilla says. “You’re like me – after all.”
We walk: downtown, and uptown, and cross town, and past lights and past oil-skimmed streets with rainbow reflecting off them, with Coca Cola signs and dollar pizzeria lights and bodega awnings reflecting off them. We walk down and west and around like we are searching for something; we retrace our steps and then we are at the Christopher Street Pier.
The pier spreads on the water. The water spreads into the sky.
“So, Laura.” Carmilla spreads her shawl on the grass for us; she spreads out the grass and the ground for us. “How strange do you think I am?”
“I don’t think you’re strange.”
She laughs. “Really?”
“Really. I mean – I do. But only a little. In a good way.”
“You mean you like it?”
I feel she’s tricked me and I don’t mind. “I like it.”
“That’s the cosmic mistake,” Carmilla says. “Right there.”
“What do you mean?”
“I told you. I’m from another time. I’ve thought about it and thought about it and in the end that’s the only conclusion I can come to. I mean – a person can’t go on feeling this way forever, can they?”
“Feeling what way?”
“You mean you don’t feel it?” She strokes my hand like it is a feather she has found.
Of course, I feel it.
“Your hands are so cold,” she says. “Are you cold?”
“A little,” I say, and she flinches.
“You want to go inside?”
“I want to stay out here. With you.”
She laughs. “Oh, thank God.”
“Oh, Laura, if you only understood how lonely I am!”
She lights a clove. It’s like a firefly in the darkness. It and her are all the darkness lets me see. “Normal people, Laura.” She exhales. “There’s no way they can feel like this – they just can’t.”
“Then we’re not normal people.”
We have the night in our palms. We see every star.
“Thank God,” Carmilla says.
She takes her purse from underneath her shawl. She opens it. She takes out her keys. She bends the ring until it’s a single, sharp, wiry shard.
She slices along her life-line.
“It’s what they do in novels,” she says.
A fine, calligraphic trace of blood blooms along her hand.
“It’s how people swear oaths,” says Carmilla. “I mean, how they did. In another time. In our time.”
If I knew words, I have forgotten them. All I am is a string, plucked and vibrating with a sound no soul can hear.
“Swear an oath to me, Laura.”
So I say I swear.
And Carmilla says I Carmilla solemnly swear.
So I say I Laura solemnly swear.
And Carmilla says I will never grow up.
So I say I will never grow up.
And Carmilla says I will never grow old.
So I say I will never grow old.
And Carmilla says I will never grow grave nor grey nor wise
And I say me too.
She takes my hand.
“You have to bleed too.”
“I’ll do it.”
I take her keychain. I draw it across my flesh. I press my palm to hers.
You don’t know what I would have done to keep that moment there.
I don’t see the dawn, at first, because the sun rises over the East River and we are facing west. But it comes, and in the light we are so conscious of each other and of time.
“We’ll hang out again tomorrow?”
I don’t even have to ask.
“Every single night,” she says. She grips my shoulders. “Oh, Laura, let’s hang out every single night. Every single night until I go.”
It only takes two weeks.
After two weeks, I stop knowing where my blood stops flowing, where hers begins.
It’s summer in the city. We have fake IDs. We meet every night in Union Square, and every night we dream up adventures for ourselves. Carmilla brings her flask. We walk.
“Sometimes,” Carmilla says – she always says – “I think I’m destined to do something great. Something extraordinary. Like – you’ll think this is silly.”
“I’d never think you silly.”
“I think I could be a real hero. I could tear down the walls of Jericho with my teeth. I think I could bring down an empire. All of the empires! Yes – all. I shall set the world free.”
We are so astonishing with one another. We walk hand in hand across Delancey Street and revel in the shouts of strangers. We lie with our heads on one another’s shoulders under the arch at Washington Square Park. We stand outside jazz clubs we can’t afford with our ears pressed up against the window-panes.
I can’t imagine loving anybody more.
Once we are grown we will move to Paris and we won’t even notice that it’s no longer fin de siècle, because we’ll have a studio with low-beamed ceilings and green curtains, and lilies in blue china on our shelves just like Oscar Wilde did, just as Oscar Wilde adored. We’ll roam the Black Sea together on horseback. We’ll have falcons soaring from the tops of our wrists. We’ll have vague love affairs with shadowy figures.
At least, Carmilla will.
“When I fall in love,” Carmilla always says, “it will consume me. It will make me lose the ability to write or think or reason, or even be. I’ll be catatonic, positively catatonic. I just know it will destroy me. And, it will be wonderful.”
“You’ll have to write enough for both of us, then,” she says.
In August, Carmilla texts to say she’s got a surprise for me.
She adds meet me in Washington Square Park, so I do.
When I arrive, she has arranged herself in the shadow of the archway. She’s wearing a fur coat like it’s not high summer. Her dark skirts are gathered. Buttoned Victorian boots peek out .
She pulls me to her. She kisses me.
“You had a surprise for me?”
“I have many surprises for you.”
She takes my hand. She brings it to her ankle, up further, underneath her skirts. She has my fingers close around the neck of a bottle.
“I haven’t even opened it,” she says. “I wanted to wait for you.”
“What is it?”
She hikes up her skirt so I can see her calf, her stockinged thigh, the garter – the green.
“I had to sell my soul to get it.”
Carmilla has brought everything for us. She’s brought the absinthe spoon, the sugar, a jacquard-embossed lighter so we can set the liquor aflame.
She’s brought a brown paper bag. We slip the bottle into it. Carmilla retrieves two ornate cups from her purse. We put the cube on the spoon.
“This is it,” says Carmilla. Her voice low and trembling. “Oh, Laura,” she whispers, from between those dark, dark lips. “I’m going to get you drunk.”
“We’ve been drunk.”
“Not like this. Not on this.” Her laugh’s so soft tonight. “We’ve got to finish the whole bottle – do you hear me?”
“I hear you.”
We break the seal. We pour each cup. We set the sugar-cube aflame. We watch it flicker and the smoke rise.
“To our first taste of absinthe,” says Carmilla. “To the first of so many tastes of absinthe. To the rest of our lives.”
It tastes like gasoline.
It’s so strong, so milky and thick, and so much sourer than I expected; anise barrels up my nostrils and punches down my throat, and still it’s easier than looking at her face. Because all the while I am thinking this has to be the best thing I have ever tasted, it has to be, and pretending that my gorge isn’t rising – pretending I don’t want to vomit – the worst part is that Carmilla is, too.
The worst part is she doesn’t even try as hard to pretend. Her face – her lovely face; her lovely, unencumbered face – never hides the truth. Her lips – those lovely, bruise-dark lips – are grimacing
She can’t even pretend.
“You don’t like it?”
She’s coughing so hard. She’s coughing so hard she spits her first taste of absinthe to the ground.
“You don’t like it.”
Like I’ve won something, figuring that out. Of course, it doesn’t matter if Carmilla wants to hurt me. She can hurt me, anyway, just by existing.
She blinks, slowly. She looks at me, and her full glass, and the bottle with so much absinthe left in it.
“I like it,” she says, eventually. “Beauty demands sacrifice.”
Her mascara has smudged, a little. Just a little.
“But we’re still going to finish – aren’t we, Carmilla?”
“Do you like it?”
“Yes,” I say.
That’s the second time I lie to Carmilla.
“Don’t be angry with me, Laura,” Carmilla says. “It’s just, I didn’t expect it to taste… It’s like Twizzlers, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Licorice. Anise. Anise sounds more beautiful than licorice, don’t you think? But it’s an experience. Right, Laura.” She flings out her arms, but her smile’s not the same.
I hate that it’s not the same.
“We have to drink the whole thing,” I say. “A promise is a promise.”
“You’re right,” she says. She says as you wish.
“Let’s get drunk.”
“Let’s get drunk.” Carmilla forces it down.
“On wine!” Carmilla closes her eyes. “On poetry.”
I refill her cup. The absinthe bubbles and overflows onto the grass.
“On virtue – God!”
She’s choking, hiccupping, erupting. “God!” She licks the lipstick off her lips. “It’s not so bad, you know. Is it? You get used to it.”
Then I notice her breasts, underneath her cloak.
I notice her waist.
She’s wearing the corset.
The one we’d looked at together, the one in the window of Trash & Vaudeville. The one we could never afford. The one that would never fit me.
But it fits her. It fits her exactly like it did when I imagined it. I don’t even know how she can breathe – I can barely breathe watching her. Her waist is so small that it could fit between my encircling fingers. Her breasts curve like the moon on water over velvet, lace and bone.
“How the hell did you afford it?”
“My graduation money,” Carmilla says. “I know – I know. I was going to wait until I was gone to spend it. But I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to get something to wear at college parties. I’ll be able to dress how I like at college parties.”
“You’re won’t really be gone.” I say, like it’s true.
School was such a temporary thing, I’d thought. She’d go – of course she’d go, in a physical sense, lie flat in a dormitory, read some books. But departed she would wait for me. She’d lie suspended in that bed but then she’d come back for Christmas and we’d drink hot mulled cider and take snowlit walks in Fort Tryon Park. She’d only be fully alive when she was with me, and in winter, the nights would be so very long.
“You broke your promise,” I hiss, and she says What? in such a horrified tone, like she hasn’t even thought about it.
“You said we’d go together. You said we’d try it on together!”
“Oh, Laura, I’m sorry. I was in the area – and my mother had given me some money, and they were having a clearance sale and I was so afraid that someone else would find it first.”
“I didn’t want to lose it. Someone else could have bought it.”
“I could have bought it. If you’d given me the chance.
Like I even have breasts.
“I thought you’d like it,” she says. She is so sincere, saying it, that I am ashamed and I am angry. I’m ashamed and I am angry with her that I am angry. “I thought you’d be happy. I mean – we did it! We got it!”
“You got it, you mean.”
“I mean – you can borrow it sometimes.”
“I mean – it’s mine. I paid for it.”
She can’t unsay it once she’s said it.
“God, Laura. That’s not what I meant. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Laura.”
She takes my hands. She kisses them.
“Forgive me, Laura. Please. Please. You know how much I love you.”
She’s still swaying. She’s still smearing her hands all over my face.
“I’m drunk, Laura. I’m so stupid when I’m drunk. I love you, and I should have waited for you.”
I’m still silent.
“I love you, and I should always wait for you.”
“Yes,” I relent. “You should.”
Then it’s like it never happened. “Come on,” Carmilla staggering to her feet. “Come on, let me make it up to you, Laura. Please let me make it up to you. Please, please let me make it up to you.”
I let her drag me up. We stumble into the street.
Carmilla’s mascara has streamed down her cheeks. In the light, it’s like cat-claws.
“It was stupid,” she says. “I just – I wanted to feel a certain way, that’s all. You understand that, don’t you?”
“You wanted to feel sexy?”
“No. No, not sexy. Beautiful.”
“I don’t like that word.”
“For when you fall in love?”
How cruel I can be.
“Yes,” she says. “For when I fall in love.”
“Because you can’t do… you know. Otherwise.”
“We’re not like other people,” I say, and she nods, tears shining.
“I know that,” she says. “And I don’t want to forget that. I’m scared of forgetting that. It’s just…”
“I’m so tired of waiting, Laura. Sometimes I simply can’t stand it – I just want it all to begin!”
She’s grabbing my wrists. She’s pleading. She’s clasping my hands in hers and rubbing them.
“Let’s just try it, Laura, okay? Just for one night!”
“We’re already drunk.”
“I mean you and me and bar. A bar. There’s this place – I mean I’ve never been, but I’ve heard about it – it’s a Bulgarian bar – it’s hidden, and they don’t card you. They never card girls. They won’t card us.”
“What do we even need to go to a bar for?”
But Carmilla is too quick for me. She is tearing down the avenues just like she did the night we met, with me scrabbling after her, and it was like a kaleidoscope then but it is like a fever tonight, and all I want is to cry out stop, make it stop, stop moving, just for a second, but Carmilla is so light on her feet and even now I will do whatever she wants.
“It will be beautiful, Laura!” she cries. “I promise.”
She echoes all the way across Houston Street.
“We might even fall in love!”
So I let her take us to this gross bar on Rivington Street where the floors are watery with beer, where the hallway walls are smeared with flyer-tape, fingerprints.
Carmilla almost falls over, coming in.
The bouncer barely glances at us.
Downstairs everything is silver and white. Everything is chrome. They’re playing Russian pop songs at top volume. There’s a stripper pole and a sign saying free shot if you take off your clothes.
Fuck in public. Get the whole bottle.
And all I can think is this not what we signed up for – this is not for us. We are not for this century.
But Carmilla is drunk. Carmilla doesn’t care. Carmilla sails to the bar with her red, red lips, and doesn’t have to even do anything – just sail and stand, and a drink appears and it cannot taste less like absinthe but she downs it anyway, wholesale.
“Come on, Laura!” She slams down the glass, like she owns the place, like she’s the type who owns places. “Let’s have fun! We’ve drunk absinthe, now! Let us live, Laura – vivemus, bibemus, oh, Laura!”
I have to prop her up to stop her keeling over. I have to tell the man paying for her drinks that she never wants to see him again.
She’s so beautiful in that corset. She looks exactly seventeen and so so many men want her. She’s stumbling around drunk and that just makes them want her more.
Then again, everybody will always want Carmilla.
“Are you having fun, Laura? Say you’re having fun! Say this is glorious.”
Carmilla wants things, too. She wants to dance. She wants to put her arms around me and bask in the glory I reflect back to her. She wants me to adore her the way the men adore her. She wants me to forgive her. She knows I will always forgive her.
“Let me try on your corset,” I say.
I am so small and beastly and ugly.
“We were supposed to try it on together.”
“Of course. Of course.”
“You wouldn’t go back on our promise, would you?”
Sometimes I really hate myself.
Carmilla swallows. “Never,” she whispers. “I wouldn’t dare.”
So I lead her into the bathroom. The sinks are shaped like women bending over.
Montmartre would never have had sinks like these.
Carmilla lets me take her corset off. She lets me undo the stays. She lets me pull so tight that she can’t breathe.
“It’s caught. Just stay still.”
Carmilla does exactly what I tell her.
I watch her in the mirror – face flushed, panting, biting her lip, gripping the sink, and I don’t know if I’m hurting her or if she’s just scared of throwing up all the absinthe that I made her drink.
Her hair falls loose over her shoulders, into the sink, and her reflection is halo-bright. Even in this darkness, it’s halo bright. Even in the darkness, in mirrors, all I can ever see is her.
She cannot see me.
I take off my shirt and give it to her. She hands me the corset.
“Now you pull.”
But Carmilla can’t hurt me, pulling. Even if she wanted to she couldn’t. On my body, my child’s body, it will always hang too loose. Even if she pulled with all her human might.
Which she never would.
Carmilla’s a better person than I.
“How do I look?” I ask her.
“You look beautiful,” she says.
That’s the first time that Carmilla lies to me.
I don’t need a mirror to know the truth.
I’m a little girl in a woman’s clothes.
“Come on,” I say, because I am as cruel as I am stupid. “Let’s go back to the bar. It’s time for someone to buy me a drink.”
Nobody buys me a drink.
Oh they laugh and they whisper things, and of course they whisper other things about Carmilla, who has made my shirt obscene with her breasts – even though she doesn’t mean to, even though she wouldn’t know how to – because even in my tatty blouse she is something other than a child, and I am ever one.
That’s when I start hating Carmilla.
I hate her for bringing me here, for exposing me to men, for grimacing over the absinthe, for buying the corset without me, for letting me make her let me try it on. I hate her for lying to me and for not even lying well enough to make me believe her. I hate her for talking about Chicago.
“I have to get out of here.”
I shove her aside, hard enough to bruise. Her corset swings from side to side, like a pendulum as I run.
Carmilla catches up with me on Delancy Street. Her mascara and lipstick have converged in wounds over her face. There’s glitter in the tears on her lashes.
“I’m sorry, Laura,” she whispers. “Please, please, I’m so sorry – forgive me. Please, Laura, I love you so much more than you know. I love you, and I’ll do anything.”
That’s the first night I drink from Carmilla.
She’s too drunk to know what’s happening. She slumps against me on a stoop on Doyers Street and I brush the hair from her soft skin. I brush the hair from her neck and bite where nobody will think to look. I rest her body down on my knees.
She gets so light with my drinking. Light enough for me to hold her.
Carmilla tastes like perfume. She tastes like her lipstick. She tastes like boot-leather and absinthe, and cloves. She tastes like all the nights I won’t let end.
With her in me, my lips become red. The corset tightens. It almost fits.
Carmilla enjoys it, too.
At least, I think she does.
Afterwards, Carmilla doesn’t remember anything. We go together to the all-night diner on 23rd and Ninth, and we order Irish coffees: weak filter and rubbing alcohol and whipped cream, and she doesn’t even notice that I don’t drink mine.
Carmilla is so pale, huddled over her cup, cradling it for warmth.
She’s so quiet. Dawn is breaking somewhere east of us. We have so little time.
“Hey Laura?” she says.
“Do you ever want to cry sometimes?” she says. “I mean – for no reason at all.”
“All the time,” I say.
It’s not like I plan to drink from Carmilla. At least, that’s not how it ever starts.
It’s only that our nights together are such epic nights. It’s only that they’re so beautiful. It’s only that when we’re together we can count the stars in the sky and the moonbeams on one another’s faces. It’s only that sometimes without meaning to Carmilla will say something cruel – something odd or idle or disobedient about Chicago, or about the clothes she’ll wear, or the people she will love. It’s only that sometimes when she drinks absinthe she makes a face, and sometimes she gets tired and wants to go to sleep even when the night has so many hours left, even when we have so much more to talk about. Even when we have so many plans left to make about how it will be once we have both grown up. Once Carmilla has grown up.
And the thing is that Carmilla hates hurting me. She hates hurting me so much that she’ll do anything to fix it. She will even bare her neck to me to fix it.
I hate hurting Carmilla, too.
Every time I hurt Carmilla I think this is the last time I will do this.
And I always get her home safely, after. I put her in a cab. I tell her stories about all the fun we’ve had that she’s too drunk, too exsanguinated, to remember. She’s always in bed by dawn.
That’s what counts.
I love her. That’s what counts.
The month isn’t real until it’s upon us. Until it gets cold. Until nights grow long.
Carmilla and I see each other every day.
Sometimes she doesn’t want to. Sometimes she’s tired, or has the flu, or doesn’t know why just that she doesn’t want to go out any longer – that something about the dark makes her afraid.
But she always comes round, in the end.
The night before her flight, Carmilla and I don’t talk about Chicago. We meet on the High Line and hide as we always do, in the rose-studded bushes until the police finish sweeping the area, until they lock up all the gates so that nobody can come in until morning, leave until morning.
I like it this way. The best nights are the ones when there’s no one in this neon-dark city but us.
Across the river, there are so many straight lines, so many shadows, so many silhouettes studded with sickeningly bright signs. Above us, so many towers jabbing at the sky. But here on this narrow lurching track there are only flowers, and benches – and Carmilla and I.
“Have we got any alcohol?”
Carmilla speaks so timidly, now. Always like she’s dreaming.
I say “I brought you absinthe” and Carmilla says “my favorite.”
She almost smiles.
I hand her the flask. She drinks it without making a face. Like she doesn’t even taste things, anymore.
“What do you want to talk about, Laura?”
We walk so slowly uptown.
“What do you want to talk about?”
Her eyes won’t focus properly.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t really want to talk about anything.”
“We could talk about what we’ll do when we’re done with school?”
I never get tired of talking about that one.
“Yes,” she says. “Yes, we could.”
“What will we do when we’re done with school, Carmilla?”
“We’re going to Paris.”
“We’ll get a garret room in Montmartre?”
“We’re going to write poems and draw artists’ models wearing corsets.”
Her corset fits me so perfectly, now.
“We’re going to be in love.”
I’m not a monster. I don’t like seeing her like this. But it’s better than not seeing her at all.
Besides, if I don’t drink from her, everybody else will.
“Tell me what it will be like,” I say and she says Beautiful.
Carmilla says: “It will be the most beautiful thing in the world.”
So I take her hand and we walk together past the dissociated statues, the trellises, the facsimile vending machines.
“You’re going to hate Chicago,” I say. “It’ll be cold and wet and miserable, and you’ll never get to have walks like this.”
She nods without looking at me. “I’ll hate Chicago.”
“You’ll want to come back straight away.”
“Come back straight away.”
“Maybe you don’t want to go at all.”
She raises her head a fraction. She looks at me so strangely. She looks at me like I frighten her.
“I want to go,” she says.
“Don’t be stupid,” I say. “You don’t want to go. There won’t be anyone like us, there.”
People like us write poems. We tread on stardust. We go to Paris. We don’t grow up.
People like us have nights like this. We have nights that shake us through, that leave us breathless, that we wish would never end.
Wish hard enough for something, sometimes you get it.
Like if you’re on the cusp of everything you are or ever will be. Like you’re kicking your heels in a speakeasy you can’t recall knowing the password to; like you’re listening to a saxophone play a melody you’re terrified you’ll forget because that’s how truly sublime it is – you might find yourself saying to a stranger you don’t know what I would do to make sure this night ever ends.
And she’ll say how much do you want it?
Maybe you’d say with everything I have. Maybe you’d say with everything I am. Maybe you’d spill your drink on the ground. Maybe you get what you want. She gets what she wants.
“What time is it?” Carmilla asks, as we float.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “It’s only midnight. We have so much time.”
Carmilla and I keep strolling. We’ve run out of things to say.
So in the silence I start to plan it out: how it will be.
I’ll take her to the crop of lilies on 28th Street. We’ll talk about Oscar Wilde. We’ll talk about the lilies that broke his heart with their beauty. I’ll ask her if she doesn’t want to keep everything beautiful forever. She’ll lean over to smell them. She won’t even see me. I’ll push her hair away from her neck. I’ll drink.
I’ll cut my palms with the key-ring Carmilla let me keep.
She’ll drink, too.
We’ll get drunk together.
I take Carmilla to the crop of lilies on 28th St.
“Smell them,” I say, so she does.
“What do they smell like?”
She looks at me with crystalline eyes.
“I don’t know,” Carmilla says. “What do they smell like?”
When I fall in love, Carmilla always said, it will destroy me. I’ll become positively catatonic – I just know it.
She is this way because she loves me.
I could tear down the walls of Jericho with my teeth. I think I could bring down an empire, Carmilla always said. Carmilla is so young.
“Let’s get drunk, Carmilla,” I say and she says on what?
And because this is the poem she loves most I say “you tell me.”
Because this is the poem she loves most I want to hear her say it. Things that were first will also be last.
But Carmilla only gazes at me.
“No,” she says. “You tell me.”
And because I am so stupid I say why?
And because I have destroyed her Carmilla says because I love you.
“No,” I say. “You don’t.”
If you want something badly enough you can have it.
That’s the great thing about this city.
If you don’t want to grow up, you don’t have to. If you want somebody to give you their life, they will.
Sometimes, that’s not enough.
Tonight, that’s not enough.
I don’t know if Carmilla will lead a revolution. Maybe she’ll read so many books; maybe she’ll learn every page by heart. Maybe she’ll etch them onto her soul with such force and fire that she’ll forget all about Baudelaire, because there are as yet unborn poets she’ll love even more, once she only knows them, once she has the chance to meet them. Maybe they’ll make her strong. Maybe they’ll make her brave.
Maybe Carmilla will fall in love. Maybe she’ll fall in love with someone who is like me but older, but better, but less cruel. Maybe it will be someone who has even been to Paris. Maybe it will be someone who doesn’t mind the ending of nights, because in the morning she’ll be in Carmilla’s garret studio, making breakfast, opening the curtains and letting the light flood in.
Maybe Jericho will fall, just for her.
If Jericho falls for anyone, it will be her.
So I pluck a lily from the crop of lilies on 28th Street, and I give it to her.
So I sit next to her on the bench, without touching her, without making her touch me.
She inhales again.
“Oscar Wilde,” Carmilla says, gently. “Lilies broke his heart, didn’t they?”
She’s so like me it hurts.
“Yes,” I say. “They did.”
She laughs a little. I don’t remember the last time she laughed like that. Maybe the first time we met.
“I’ll put it in my buttonhole,” she says.
“Your first day in Chicago,” I say. “You could wear that. When you introduce yourself. So everyone will remember you.”
“They’re going to hate me,” she says. “They’ll think I’m trite and pretentious and awful.”
“Maybe,” I say. “But they’ll love you too.”
And she says I’m so scared and I say I know.
“What if I’m unhappy there? What if all the bars are just like that awful Bulgarian bar? Full of – full of horrible people?”
“So you’ll make another world. One you can be happy in.”
“I like that,” Carmilla says. “It’s like poetry.”
She leans her head on my shoulder. Her hair caresses my collarbones.
“I don’t want to change, Laura,” she says. “Can’t I just decide to be me, always?”
I light a clove. I pass it to her. She takes a puff and passes it back, lipstick smeared all over it.
“When you come back,” I say. “I’ll be here. I’ll tell you if you’ve changed.”
That’s the last time I lie to Carmilla.
“It’s getting late,” I say. “You should go home. Your parents might wake up and wonder where you are.”
“I don’t want to,” she says. “Not yet. Not when we have all night.”
And so we drink from our flask and make faces. We make faces each more stupid than the last, furrowed eyebrows and contorted mouths, and we make each other laugh.
“Oh, Laura – it’ll be mad! Sometimes when I think of all the books I haven’t read yet – I can’t stand it! It makes me wish I could cut my brain open to make more room. If I could I would! My father’s house has many mansions – I wish mine did, too.”
I don’t say anything. I just listen.
Dawn is clawing up the East River, with its terrible fingers. Somebody’s opening the gates.
It’s so hot, now.
“Damn you, dawn,” Carmilla is crowing. “Damn! Damn! Damn you, dawn! I defy you, dawn!” She teeters to the railing and shakes her first at the few remaining stars.
“You have to go.”
“You can’t make me!”
She calls to the stars and to the sun.
“You don’t control me. Do you hear that?”
She echoes through the pale, exsanguinated sky.
“I’ll do just as I please!”
I want to stop there.
We could say: let us leave Carmilla there, with me, for as long as we can imagine it. Let us leave her among the lilies, with the sun burning my back, as she shouts at the ancient gods that she will have none of them – that she owes them nothing, that they have no power over her; as I believe her.
But we all know how vampire stories end.
She says goodbye; she kisses me; she tells me I love you more than anybody in the world and more than I will ever love anybody else, and the better part of me hopes to God that isn’t true.
But Carmilla gets into a cab, waves a world-encompassing wave, and turns a corner.
So I walk back up the stairs to the High Line. I sit down on the bench. I sit among the lilies, with the sun on my face – and wait to see what happens next.
This story was originally published in Somesuch Stories Issue 4, which is available for purchase via AntenneBooks.
Tara Isabella Burton is the author of critically lauded and wicked fun novel, Social Creature. Her first non-fiction book, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, will be published by Public Affairs in May 2020.
Photograph by Caleb Oquendo // Pexels