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Azrael says most of his feeding is done psychically these days, though there's just no substitute for blood.
Evan Christopher says he used to feed on blood, "but I don't dabble in that anymore. We're living in the age of AIDS. There are better, safer ways to take of that." If a vampire must consume blood, Christopher suggests they abide by a vampire code of ethics, found online. It promotes discretion, safety, and respect for elders. "We advise people to get tested, wait for three months, and get tested again before any kind of blood play. In that time, you can get to know the person you're dealing with."
Between gatherings such as Fetish Factory's in Fort Lauderdale, Electrolust Hollywood, and Vamps South Beach, fang bearers and fang bangers can all don their darkest robes, show off their customized teeth and contact lenses, and dance to electronic tributes to Depeche Mode almost any night of the week. There is plenty of hedonism and "psychic feeding" at these parties, says Joseph Bonilla, organizer of Vamps South Beach (and a former New Times ad salesman). Rarely is there "blood play" or discussion in public. "That part is a little bit like the Mafia: The more people know, the less they talk, and the more they talk, the less they know."
Most vampires and black swans connect through online meet-up groups, small covens, or quiet networks of friends willing to share feeding partners.
"I think being a vampire is about as cool as you can get right now," says Julio Hernandez, a Miami dentist who, for $400 per tooth, will install a set of permanent vampire fangs on his patients. It's a bonding procedure, similar to a white filling, he says. He doesn't know of any of his patients drinking blood, and Hernandez would have fangs himself, he says, "but people are already scared enough when they go see the dentist."
Nikolai and his friends spend plenty of time in the clubs, but the act of consuming blood, at least for him, is "what being a vampire is really all about." After cleaning the scalpel with his tongue, he puts his lips to the new wound on the thigh of his best friend's girlfriend. With Nikolai's mouth on her leg, sucking gently, Violetta quivers. She moans softly. There is no blood visible as Nikolai's cheeks pull tighter against the bones in his face.
Legally speaking, what's going on right now is assault — even though it's completely consensual. Many vampires argue that the desire to consume blood is intrinsic; when a child gets a cut, they say, the first impulse is to put the finger in his mouth.
A representative from the Centers for Disease Control says they don't have information on the possible dangers of human blood consumption. Hepatitis B and HIV are the biggest risks, says Paul Wilson, quality assurance director at Continental Blood Bank. However, "orally consuming blood is less likely to result in transmission than unprotected sex. If you have an open sore in your mouth or gums — which is completely likely — you're going to risk blood-to-blood contact. Otherwise, your gastric fluids usually take care of those things."
After a minute or so, Nikolai is done, and he signals for his girlfriend, who's wearing a red dress like Violetta's. He stands up, looking like he just woke up from the most refreshing nap of his life. "It's completely revitalizing," he says, blood smudging his lips and outlining his front teeth.
His girlfriend carefully imitates Nikolai's suction procedure, though for a shorter time. When she's done, there's only a thin smear of blood left on the thigh. For Violetta's boyfriend's turn, Nikolai cuts a small slit on the inside of the girl's ankle. "See these lines? That makes a good place for a cut. On a male, the best place to cut is right here," he says, pointing to his own collarbone.
When the three vampires finish feeding, they seem more energized. All three bob their heads to the loud music still pumping from the living-room speakers. They're also smiling, though just barely. Violetta moves to the couch, where she's perfectly still, her eyes closed. She looks unconscious in the candlelit room.
"There's a balance you feel that's really hard to describe to someone who's never had it," Nikolai says. "You just feel right, healthy, stronger. Even just a little bit, it makes such a difference."
Before he got into the vampire scene four years ago, Nikolai says, he felt sick. "Basically vampires have something wrong biologically. For me, it took the form of depression." It's a common claim in the vampire community, a feeling there is something different with them biologically, including an inability to go out in the sun, struggles to gain or lose weight, asthma, and a reversed circadian rhythm — meaning they function better at night.
Nikolai says as soon as he had his first feeding, his depression was gone.
Most vampires report similar awakening experiences. But the personal beliefs and lifestyles in the community include lighthearted role players, literature scholars, and, on the extreme, sadomasochistic fetishists. And these people aren't hard to find.