What If It Isn’t – K. A. Cook

Handdrawn illustration of a green meadow foreground with green and yellow pine trees growing against a mint-hued sky. Scene is overlaid with the dark green/light green/white/grey/black stripes of the aromantic pride flag. The text Aro Worlds Fiction sits across the image in a black, antique handdrawn type, separated by two ornate Victorian-style black dividers.

Pretending to be girlfriends while casing an art gallery with Keiko shouldn’t be a problem, but once Jessie realises things have gotten a little too real in the façade they’re showing to the world, the only thing to do is ask.

What if her love is a dull, flickering, rare thing, so insubstantial it makes better sense to disregard it as meaningful? What if her love is quiet and companionate at best while Keiko loves with fairytale passion, a woman who wants and needs to be wanted?

Contains: a queer, allosexual, greyro autistic protagonist, stimming, unwanted commentary on capitalism and the trend of companies making expensive versions of disposable items, explicit use of the words “greyromantic” and “queerplatonic relationship”, heavy-handed metaphor, an observation on the matter of what is romantic anyway, and a happy ending … as long as nobody gets caught later on.

Alternate Links: PDF (read in browser) | Patreon | Tumblr

PDF, EPUB and MOBI editions are available (in the When Quiver Meets Quill collection) for download from Patreon.

Length: 2, 097 words / 6 PDF pages.

Advisory: there’s a fair bit of cuddling and touching along with non-explicit/really vague sexual references. I don’t describe Tangles in too much detail, so here’s a link to the Tangle tag on my stim blog if you’re wandering what Jessie’s stim toy is. This piece is also light on things like polishing and any actual knowledge on how one might case an art gallery.

The problem isn’t the job. It’s second nature to walk into a room and look for exits, lights, cameras, sensors, windows, the lines of sight from adjoining rooms, the distance between doorways. The back of Jessie’s mind is always counting steps and cataloguing scents, even if she doesn’t yet know why it matters that a recent janitor used a bleach-containing cleaner—bleach and that particular note of Ajax lemon—on the floor. Her brand of observation works best when she leaves her brain free to make note of things without trying to get in its own way by deciding what what’s important. While it can drive Keiko to impatience when she needs a direct, simple answer, sometimes the bleach in the floor-cleaner is the unexpected answer to salvaging a bungled job.

This gallery, housed in a Federation-era bluestone building, all tiny rooms, thick walls and a tangle of cameras and sensors inhibited by the plan that is everything but open, demands her attention—but it’s the kind of puzzle Jessie loves solving.

It shouldn’t be difficult, then, to enjoy a pleasant afternoon in the company of a cute girl. True, the mustiness of the rooms—something no amount of modern chemicals can erase—makes Jessie’s nose itch. True, the gallery is a paean to the glorification of capitalism, a collection by artists who have made diamond-adorned plastic shopping bags and disposable coffee cups from crystal, and while the pamphlet crushed in her pocket insists this is somehow a post-postmodernist message, her fingers itch to grab the nearest item and smash it over the curator’s head. True, she can feel the other patrons watching her while she stims. But it’s an art gallery: the air still tastes of aged oil paint, old varnish and familiarity. Potential. It feels like coming home, if coming home means breaking in after dark and stealing something priceless.

The problem, and Jessie coils the pink and yellow Tangle in her hands, is Keiko.

She’s cute, all quick steps and lively eyes, the excitement of the job broadening her lips and colouring her cheeks. Impossible not to smile when she smiles, laugh when she laughs: by all the rules on the subject of how to be human, Jessie should be head-over-heels in love.

She isn’t.

“Oh, look at that!” Keiko pulls Jessie forwards, pointing at a burger wrapper made from a fine brown, logo-covered leather. A wrapper that costs more than Jessie’s entire wardrobe and doesn’t distract Jessie from the warmth of Keiko’s arm wrapped around hers. “Do you think they’re taking the piss?”

She wonders if the artist saw a different meaning in the painting of soup cans, but a couple—a middle-aged man and woman wearing offensively-shiny shoes and crisp suits—turns to glare at Keiko.

“It’s a burger wrapper.” Keiko turns to face the scowling pair. “A calf died so someone could make a fake burger wrapper to sit in an art gallery. Even the real thing is at least used!”

The pamphlet used many long words to name this collection a scathing indictment on mass-consumerism, followed by a request for the world to return to the days of artisanal production. Jessie supposes it makes sense, somehow, to those who are wealthy enough to easily proclaim the evils of consumer goods, but she can’t help the feeling that the answer doesn’t lie in expensive art installations mocking the dietary habits of the working class.

She clicks the loops of the Tangle together as loudly as she can. It’s her favourite stim, the clicking sound accompanied by the movement of the loops, and most people Jessie works with can’t bear to hear it.

Keiko doesn’t mind.

The couple gift Keiko a parting stare and stalk from the room; Keiko leans into Jessie’s shoulder, giggling. “They were staring,” she murmurs, standing on her tiptoes to reach Jessie’s ear. “Now they’re not.”

Even if Keiko doesn’t understand the way Jessie thinks about observing details, she lets Jessie do it. She’s abrupt, sometimes, and when Jessie can’t always shorten words or prioritise in the way Keiko needs to make sense of a situation, Keiko doesn’t hesitate in revealing her frustration. She’s also sweet, generous and one of the few people Jessie likes touching her, and it shouldn’t be difficult to spend an afternoon pretending to be two girls in love. Jessie has told far greater lies in the quest for preparation.

The truth, inconvenient and terrifying, is that this isn’t a lie.

“You’re not pretending,” Jessie whispers, clicking the plastic loops against each other: one long swipe of the innermost-loop followed by three short clicks, repeated over and over until her fingers tire. “This. Isn’t a pretence.”

Keiko stiffens. “Pretending what?”

She knows. She knows, and Jessie isn’t wrong. Why did she speak? This isn’t the time—after the job, surely, but not now! What if Keiko takes offense? What if she loves?

“This,” Jessie says. “Us.”

Keiko exhales and slides her arm around Jessie’s back. “Okay. Maybe I’m not. So what if it isn’t?”

What if it isn’t? Two girls together matters, but not as much as it once did: love is love, everyone has the right to love, celebrate love in all its forms. Love now, if it comes in a couplet between adults, can wed however it chooses. What, though, if that kind of love doesn’t exist enough to matter? What if Jessie has been waiting all her life for interest to flower in strength enough for certainty, to feel the steady pull that makes marriage and children and years together natural and comprehensible? What if her love is a dull, flickering, rare thing, so insubstantial it makes better sense to disregard it as meaningful? What if her love is quiet and companionate at best while Keiko loves with fairytale passion, a woman who wants and needs to be wanted? How then do two people hold together?

Jessie draws a deep breath. “Is it romantic? Can it be, become, romantic?”

“I don’t have your need to label everything, Jess.” Keiko shakes her head. “I guess it is. I do…” She smiles, her lips bright against light brown skin, and rests her head against Jessie’s chest, forcing Jessie to crane her head down to look. “I want you. Clicking your twisty thing while we’re watching TV at night. Your lips against mine. Dating, I suppose—I know there’s some things you’d rather not do. There’s probably some other things,” and her eyes drift down Jessie’s breastbone, “you’d rather not do, too. I expect that.” Her smile broadens. “I think it is. I don’t know where we’d go, but I want to be with you. Is that romantic enough?”

What is and isn’t romantic is a vagary of social custom and individual opinion, most of it nonsensical to an aro-spec autistic.

It sounds romantic enough to Jessie.

“I do like … some other things. Some of them. In the right way, when I can … when it’s not too much to feel.” Jessie uncoils the Tangle and twists it in both hands until it creaks, stopping just short of snapping it. “I like you that way, and I think I’d like … I think I’d like to do them, the ones I can do, with you.” Not the sort of conversation she’s supposed to have in public, no, but when else is she supposed to say this? “I like your … you’re nice and pretty and … pretty. I just … I don’t, I’m not, romantic. I don’t mean I don’t like giving flowers. I don’t feel it, not very much. And if you are, that doesn’t—it doesn’t work out. You want a, a, feeling, and I don’t have it and I might not ever get it strongly enough. And that doesn’t work.”

Keiko leans back, loosening her hold on Jessie—not quite pulling away, creating space between them. “I’m not sure I understand.”

Jessie opens up the Tangle, slides it over one wrist in a too-big bracelet and then pulls out her phone. It’s easier to type in a word, easier to find a definition online, easier to show the screen to Keiko than to fumble through what Jessie means and then remember, much too late, that she forgot to use simpler words like “low or infrequent attraction”. One word: greyromantic.

For a long, awful moment, as Keiko’s fingers scroll down the screen, Jessie hears nothing but breath and distant talking.

She’s ruined it. Ruined the relationship and the job.

“I’ve never … it’s never been much, enough to matter.” The explanation spills from Jessie’s lips, plaintive and desperate. “Like it’s there and it’s not worth doing anything about. It’s not enough to push me towards people, like this…” She stops and looks around the room, hunting for the kinds of words Keiko will best understand: metaphor. Something that’s thin or wavering, like… “Like this flickering of a burnt-out bulb, and it doesn’t stop flickering even with people it should. I should … I want it to be there with you, but it isn’t. I can’t replace the bulb when it’s me.”

Now Jessie hears nothing but the clicking of her twisting Tangle, the sound of Keiko’s breath and the low drone of a voice echoing from the hallway behind them.

“Does it have to be?” Keiko murmurs, her voice near inaudible. “Do you like being around me? Do you want to be with me in some way? Do you want to do things with me? Do you want me to be a person important in your life?”

Jessie nods. “Not all the things.”

“I knew that. I knew there’d be things you wouldn’t want to do, or couldn’t do, or do all the time.” Keiko shrugs and leans into Jessie’s chest. “Honestly? I don’t see how this is any different. You’re you. Anything with you isn’t just…” She snorts and tips her head back to look up into Jessie’s eyes, grinning widely enough to show most of her teeth. “It’s not a fast-food hamburger meal where it’s all the same! You’re not going to come with the same fries and soft drink in the same paper bag with the same wrappers! We’ll have to cook a meal together from scratch, and it won’t be like anyone else’s meal, but I think it’ll still taste good.” She pushes herself up and leans her cheek on Jessie’s shoulder. “Want to come home with me tonight and talk about the meal we’re going to cook? Maybe make the entrée? I don’t wash dishes, though, so we’re going to have to stop by somewhere and pick up some things first. I always go shopping after ten, just to avoid all the crowds, so it’ll probably be late by the time we eat.”

Jessie has worked with Keiko enough to follow when she starts segueing into not-so-veiled metaphor: she only ever speaks of shopping in reference to the job.

“It shouldn’t be,” Jessie says slowly, not sure she has the words for the idea brimming over the cup of her mind, “this … acceptable, that I need different things, because I’m autistic. It should be like that for anybody who doesn’t…” She tries to smile and talk, as easily as Keiko does, in using words that don’t describe the subject. “…want the same hamburger meal. For any reason.”

Keiko nods. This close, Jessie can smell the faint touch of vanilla oil in Keiko’s shampoo and the familiar mingling of salt and plain soap from her skin. She stopped wearing perfume soon after meeting Jessie—reason enough, at least on TV, to fall in love. “That’s fair. People aren’t good at accepting difference; you know that as well as I do. I suppose all that we can do, though, is try to accept those around us, talk about how things should be and hope everyone else does the same.” Keiko hesitates. “So, tonight?”

Jessie isn’t in love. She’s with love. Surely that’s worth trying?

“I like,” Jessie says, “shopping after dark. Too noisy otherwise. And, and cooking at midnight.”

“Midnight is the best time to cook.” Keiko grins, slides her arm around Jessie’s waist and guides them both towards the next room.

Jessie clicks her Tangle, makes a note of all obvious security cameras and the places where she’d put hidden sensors, and hopes that, tonight, nothing goes wrong when they break into the art gallery to steal the diamond-studded bag and other absurd artworks in need of redistribution.

It’ll be more than a little difficult to talk about a queerplatonic relationship if they’re both in prison…

K. A. Cook is an abrosexual, aromantic, genderless, autistic, queer adult who experiences chronic pain and mental illness. Ze writes creative non-fiction, personal essays and novels about the above on the philosophy that if the universe is going to make life interesting, ze may as well make interesting art. Ze can be found online at Queer Without Gender and @aroworlds.

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