After seven years in Rajad, Darius has fallen out of love with the unattainable and avoided falling in love with the companionate. If he lives at arm’s length from passion, isn’t that better than risking the abuse his fellow mercenaries so eagerly deliver to an autistic who can’t quite fit in? But when the right person suggests a romantic relationship, “yes” still won’t grace his tongue, and Darius hasn’t the least idea why. He likes Harlow. Shouldn’t he want to love her?
The only thing he can do is turn to his old friends and rescuers, the Ravens. They have an answer if he can stumble his way through asking the question … but it may upend every truth Darius thinks he knows about himself.
Content Advisory: Discussion of the intersectionality between autistic-targeted ableism and amatonormativity and the ways said ableism make more difficult an acceptance of aromantic identity.
Length: 998 words.
Does an inability to conform again need labelling when he owns one dangerous word, one whose roots entangle everything Darius was, is and will be?
“I don’t look back on the folks I loved and think I didn’t, that I wasn’t in love.” Akash leans against the chair’s seat, slicking a hank of tangled hair down over his shoulder. “Not most of them. I’m … angry, or confused, or frustrated, or just hurt, but I don’t doubt that I was in love with them, once I was old enough to figure what that kind of love should be like. I wouldn’t be so angry or hurt if I didn’t.”
Darius nods in acknowledgement, for honesty shared deserves something in response.
“What you think? Do you have any questions?” Ila shifts hir weight on the stool, now stretching hir other leg out beside the tub. “Anything you want to add? Or disagree with? I know you’ve been around us too long not to have some idea, so…?”
Think? Darius endures fewer problems when he keeps ruminations to a minimum, but he knows of no magic able to craft a thoughtless mind. Instead, he flaps both hands, afraid of what will spill out if he attempts to describe a growing bewilderment. Another word? Doesn’t he already exist as abnormal against a world unwilling to validate his divergence? How does another shape of strangeness, aromantic, help him?
The magician in him pulls the word apart for meaning: not romantic, although it seems to mean a surrounding identity more than a subjective evaluation of a romantic quality. Interest or attraction, as Ila kept saying before, more than experience. Therefore, not having romantic attraction, although Darius guesses that, like any other term, practical use requires more fluidity and less precision—in the same way the Malvadan phrasing of attraction in terms of direction uses the same words to describe interest in nobody and interest irrespective of gender.
He never considered that Ila’s word may describe him, too—perhaps for the same reasons.
Darius can’t dismiss the explanation for which he asked, not when his friends are kind enough to answer. What, then? Thinking back on March leaves Darius with a sense of cringing, horrified immaturity, but he was nearly a child at the time! Why shouldn’t he struggle with romance, given that a legion of songs, stories and poems speak its mysteries? Why shouldn’t he stare in bewilderment at the steps of Harlow’s dance when most adults can’t define or understand romance as distinct from other shapes of want? How can he know if he’s this aromantic when he seldom meets divergent adults not his teachers, people with whom he can attempt a relationship free of unexpected expectations and judgements? One safe from the beginning, unburdened by miscommunication and ignorance?
Sex owns myriad complications when involving people of different mind-types but, as a concept and feeling, is still comprehendible.
If a relationship as intimate and demanding as romance, at least as Harlow explained her desires, only feels possible with another autistic, isn’t that itself a reasonable explanation? Does an inability to conform again need labelling when he owns one dangerous word, one whose roots entangle everything Darius was, is and will be?
Divergence. Autism. Strangeness.
Isn’t that enough?
He fishes the soap out of the water and digs his fingernails into the bar until his fingers ache to match his leg.
“You’re the only one who gets to decide if it’s true.” Ila grasps a towel and stands. “Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m right but you don’t want to identify this way. Maybe you need weeks or years to accept. If I’m still scared to be aromantic, and I am, I can’t imagine this for you. You don’t have to agree with me, now or ever.” Ze glances toward Akash. “Akash laughs because he doesn’t have to go through this questioning, because it now seems obvious to him, because there’s no cost for him in accepting. It isn’t as funny for us.”
The soap slips from Darius’s fingers and lands, with a thunking splash, in the greyish bathwater.
“I’m glad that you’re not just agreeing. I’m glad you’re being honest with us.” Ila offers a soft smile and, thank the silent dead, changes the subject. “Are you finished or do you want a while longer?”
Darius sighs and flaps his right hand above the cooling water. He doesn’t know what he wants; he doesn’t know enough of his own feelings to reason out his options. So, silent, he lets Ila help him into the towel and over the edge of the bath, his twinging leg necessitating a frantic grip on Ila’s forearm. He feels easier when he’s dry and sitting on the bed wrapped in his green merino-silk robe, the fabric soft enough that he can sleep free of itching. He stretches out across the bed, breathing in the robe’s comforting familiarity of ink, graphite and lavender, before reaching for the dinner tray.
Never has he possessed an uncomplicated relationship with food, but eating occupies hands and mouth. He learnt long ago that he can delay conversation by picking at the meat and savouring the mild, nutty flavour of the rice—counting to four hundred and ninety-four by thirteens when food alone isn’t sufficiently distracting.
Only when Ila and Akash finish clearing away the bath water does Darius risk pondering.
What do you think?
He can ask Ila more questions about hir feelings and experiences, tease out the potential he may share. Something leaves him adrift from the relationships he’s supposed to have; something justifies his difficulty in instigating them. Something explains why he works as a mercenary in Rajad when his blood kin want him home and married. Yet this something names another way in which he fights against the world’s torrent shoving him further downstream. Why shouldn’t he yearn for a circumstance in which he isn’t different?
If he isn’t aromantic, can a divergent man have a normal romantic relationship in a world that makes him abnormal?
Are those truths, autism and aromanticism, disconnected in him?
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.