After seven years in Rajad, Darius has fallen out of love with the unattainable and failed to fall in love with the companionate. When the right person offers a romantic relationship and he doesn’t understand why yes won’t grace his tongue, the only thing an autistic man can do is ask the Ravens–and hope he can survive the word they give him in return.
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: 990 words.
Does an inability to conform again need labelling when he owns one dangerous, difficult word—one whose roots touch everything Darius is and will be?
“I don’t look back on the folks I thought I loved and think I wasn’t.” 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. Acknowledgement more than agreement, but words like that need something in response.
“What you think? Do you have any questions?” Ila shifts hir weight on the stool, stretching hir legs out across the floor. “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’s life is infinitely easier when he keeps such ruminations to a minimum. 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, finds the meaning: not romantic, although it seems to mean a surrounding identity more than a subjective evaluation of romance itself. Attraction, as Ila kept saying before, more than experience. Not having romantic attraction, although Darius guesses that, like any other term that has real-world meaning, it’s more fluid in practice–in the same way the Malvadan phrasing of attraction in terms of direction uses the same words to describe both interest in nobody and interest irrespective of gender identity. Complex because most humans abhor a black and white simplicity; their languages, burdened by shades of meaning, mirrors their contradictions and confusions.
He never considered that Ila’s word can or should describe him, too—maybe for the same reasons Akash and Ila didn’t think of it.
Darius can’t dismiss the explanation he asked for, not when his friends are kind enough to give it. What, then? It’s true that Harlow offered the steps of a common dance that he couldn’t follow. It’s true that thinking back on March leaves Darius with a sense of cringing immaturity, but he was nearly a child at the time! Why shouldn’t he struggle with romance, then, when a legion of songs, stories and poems speak its mystery? When even most adults can’t distinctly define it? Furthermore, how does he know he’s this aromantic when he’s never met a divergent adult not his teacher, one with whom he can attempt an easy relationship free of limiting expectations and judgements? One safe from the beginning, unburdened by miscommunication and misunderstanding?
Isn’t his divergence also a reasonable explanation for the word he couldn’t speak? Does an inability to conform again need labelling when he owns one dangerous, difficult word—one whose roots touch everything Darius 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 near 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, 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 shape of questioning, because it seems obvious to him, because there’s no cost for him in accepting it. 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, but he doesn’t know enough of his own feelings to decide anything better. So, silent, he lets Ila help him into the towel and over the edge of the bath, his leg twinging hard enough Darius gladly grabs Ila’s forearm and grunts as Akash grasps his shoulder. 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 breathes in the smell of the robe, trying to relax into its comforting familiarity of ink, graphite and lavender, before reaching for the tray.
Darius has never possessed an uncomplicated relationship with food, but it occupies both hands and mouth; Oma’s understanding of “good manners” means not asking someone to talk while they’re eating. Darius learnt long ago that he can delay conversation by eating slowly, so he picks at the meat and savours the nutty flavour of the rice, counting to four hundred and ninety-four by thirteens.
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’s working as a mercenary in Rajad when his blood kin want him home and married. Yet it’s another way in which he battles against a world trying to push him further downstream. Why shouldn’t he want something 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 disconnected in him? Can they be?
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.