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. This section includes ableism/abuse, assault and self-harm and/or wound mentions.
Length: 940 words.
A word isn’t a gift if you can’t discard it. Keep it, or not, as you want.
He arranges the spoon flush across the empty bowl, careful to avoid clunking the metal against the crockery. “There’s … maybe that explains, but I can’t. I can ask more questions, but that … that might make it real, and I can’t…” Darius shakes his head. If he can’t agree, even when this may be more right to him than the word he couldn’t give Harlow, maybe he can explain why he’s so unable. “Outside here … what I feel and know, it’s … I’m all upside down and sideways, large over things rightly small, small over things rightly large. Feelings are all upside down and sideways. People tell me I can’t trust what I feel, what I think, me. But then I’m supposed to do that, sometimes; I’m supposed to trust. Just not most of the time. How…?” He presses his lips together, his eyes burning. “How do I know when to trust what I feel and when not to? Are you right or am I feeling things wrong? How do I know?”
He doesn’t know if he’s talking to himself or Ila. Neither does he care. One thing feels sure and certain: everything else—Harlow, asking the Ravens, letting Ila guide him to an answer and accepting hir response—will be so much easier if he sheds his divergence.
He shouldn’t feel that way. This confusion is less about him and more about the damage caused by the world’s views on what makes the right, valid shape of human. He knows better than to bow to the world’s belief that autistics shouldn’t exist at all. He knows better than to bow to the request to hide his divergence so none else are inconvenienced by it. He knows better than to lose himself in trying to mimic someone else’s personhood. He shouldn’t feel that way, because there’s nothing right or reasonable in what the world, outside this precious room, asks of him.
Understanding doesn’t halt Darius from wishing for it nonetheless.
Ila perches on the edge of the bed before resting one long, narrow hand on Darius’s shoulder, hir fingers flat and hir touch heavy. “A word isn’t a gift when forced on you. A word isn’t a gift if you can’t discard it. Keep it, or not, as you want.”
Darius heaves a shaking breath and leans into Ila’s chest, breathing in the warm smells of skin and soap; ze leaves hir hand resting on his arm and runs the other through his damp curls, finger-combing just hard enough to pull. “My … my family says that gender, names, are gifts. I can give back femininity. But Oma yells when I won’t wear clothes she gave me. I don’t … decide, what’s right to give back. Not me.”
Guilt grabs him as soon as the last word slips from his tongue. If Akash is a brash protector, given to amusement and outrage in equal measure, Ila is the priest, patiently accepting and valuing Darius’s need for honesty. They’re as kind a people as he ever hoped to find in a world where even those who are “good” rarely manage to voice compassion free of condescension.
He can’t take this word, aromantic, even when he thinks it may, will or should ring true.
He can’t take Ila’s words as a gift, even when he knows that spirit to be true.
Darius should trust what he feels, except when he can’t because everything he knows and feels doesn’t fit the shapes of difference become allowably human.
One identity, divergence, shouldn’t be so entwined through all the others.
“I know,” Ila murmurs, hir voice soft, hir fingers firm. Neither tortures him with the featherlight touches that set his skin afire, however well-intended their gentleness. Just the pressure and the weight that lets him relax into something as complicated as touch. “But you can give anything back to me. Anything. You don’t have to explain as if it’s an apology for not accepting. You don’t have to explain why.”
Where else can he go? The only place better for a divergent man is the College, but how can he go back when he’s no longer a child? Where else can he be so comfortably different that aromantic needn’t feel dangerous?
He exhales, shaking, and looks down at his forearms. The sleeve of his robe rides up far enough on his left forearm that he can see the first of the new cuts, raw and pink against the skin. Less shocking, now, than the pinkish-white scars framing it, scars starting to take on age’s translucence. The lessons March taught didn’t protect him from bullies in the world outside, and Darius doesn’t regret his sacrifices when the gain is something closer to safety—even if Akash won’t pretend acceptance.
At least here he needn’t pretend that his feelings for the people he cares about aren’t uncomplicated.
He breathes out, long and slow. “Can that be enough? For now, tonight? Can we … something else?” Darius hesitates, thinking he should ask Akash and Ila about their lives, but he struggles with those sorts of conversations; they don’t ring naturally on his tongue, however sincere his intentions. Between all the things Darius thinks impolite to ask and all the things other people expect him to ask, not to mention the things Darius wants to discuss and the inane things other people insist on discussing, he finds himself scrabbling to identify the suitable middle ground for polite small talk. “Can I ask about … the stick insect, maybe…? Can I ask about that?”
Ila snorts and waves hir freest hand at Akash. “You tell him that one!”
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.