[CREATIVE NONFICTION] Slings and Aros
“This lipstick is poisonous, so when boys kiss me, they will all die!
I was already quite the charmer at five years old, playing make-believe with my sister Sharon in our shared bedroom. I would hold up a small red bead that I’d snuck out of the classroom (sorry, Mrs. Green), and glide it along my lips. Despite the fact that boys had cooties, I already knew then that I liked them. Or, at least, I liked boys well enough to tolerate kissing them in order to kill them with my imaginary femme fatale lipstick.
Sharon is three years older than me, so naturally, she was the boss of everything. Whenever we dressed up and re-enacted scenes from Disney animations, she would invariably get to play the princess and wrap a blanket around her torso to imitate a strapless dress, whilst I had to settle for the likes of Eric and Phillip. I wanted so badly to play a princess, marry my cootie-less Prince Charming, and sing ‘A Whole New World’ on repeat at family karaoke nights until my parents begged me to stop, a sentiment that my sister obviously shared. You see, Sharon’s preferences more or less dictated my own, whether it be for music, books or clothes. This was partially because I was doomed to wear her ill-fitting hand-me-downs as the younger sibling, but also because I idolized her despite all our quarreling. If she played a princess, I wanted to be one, too.
I used to tease her relentlessly for reading Harry Potter, accusing her of ‘liking’ the character. In my naiveté, I was unaware that Harry Potter was not a real person. At six years old, ‘like’ was a very loaded word for me. It entailed hand-holding, hugging and possibly even kissing. Then the kissing would lead to love, marriage, and my sister with a baby carriage. We all knew that! So why was she willing to risk contracting cooties, especially without my toxic lipstick to protect her? But being the irritating copycat I was, I picked up our gargantuan hardback copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and devoured it page after page. It was the first novel I’d ever read and was the work that cemented my love for the written word.
Following that experience, I began borrowing books from Sharon’s shelf for years. She became my go-to source for these stacks of paper that tore my heart out, set it on fire, and left me craving for more. She was responsible for planting the idea of becoming a writer in my mind, thus making our parents panic when I went on to inform them of my aspirations. As Taiwanese immigrants, neither of our parents could understand English well enough to read entire books, and they were never very interested in literature anyway. Sharon and I were the only avid readers in our family of four. As a result, I absorbed her literary tastes as I digested the thousands of pages that we shared between us.
I was a shadow that followed her movements with astonishing precision. Although my leanings occasionally deviated a little, our tastes would inevitably converge once more, a shadow and a body connected at the feet. However, when we relocated to Australia and she moved onto Year 7, we began to grow apart.
Sharon began gravitating towards romance novels, and as hard as I tried, I could not fathom the appeal. I read them one after another, appreciating how well-written they were yet never quite comprehending how my sister could be so absorbed in these love triangles whose lines formed Vs instead of actual closed shapes. I was interested in the relationships as a concept, but could not connect to the themes at a more visceral level. Chalking it all up to our age difference, I cultivated my own collection of books as I gave up my attempts to emulate my sister. Our diverging literary tastes mirrored the growing distance in our relationship as siblings, a distance that was stretched even farther because of our differing sexual and romantic orientations.
After moving to Taiwan, English-language books became more of a luxury since they were more expensive there and not readily available in libraries. As a result, I went back to leeching from Sharon’s collection. Then one afternoon, I came across one of her high school textbooks whilst scanning her shelves for an interesting read. She had scribbled ‘I <3 my boyfriend’ all over it in bright pink ink.
It wasn’t the first time that I’d seen her completely smitten with a boy. I had stumbled upon her absent-minded writing several times before, so I wasn’t exactly surprised. Besides, I was in junior high school by then and knew classmates who doodled similar things in their own books. Nevertheless, a pool of puzzlement bubbled at the pit of my stomach as I stared at her neat, animated handwriting. I was perplexed because I shared an intimate friendship with a boy named James at the time.
I loved James. We would chat on MSN messenger for hours each day and exchange spectacularly awful jokes. We shared our innermost thoughts about our families, school, and ambitions. We were so close that he ended a phone call one night, saying, ‘Hold on, the boys and I are going to watch porn at midnight. I’ll talk to you later.’
I loved him. And that confused me.
It confused me that I would never get any butterflies in my stomach when I saw him at the end of the hall. It confused me that he would pat my head and sling his arm around my shoulders, yet the proximity would never set my nerves on fire. It confused me that I didn’t care when James, one of the most popular boys at school, told me he fancied me in ‘that’ way. The kissing-love-marriage-baby-carriage kind of way. It confused me that my love for him was never upgraded from platonic to romantic love as if it were a video game like it seemed to with my sister and her boyfriend.
Straining to match Sharon’s every stride, I had missed the subtle indications that I was not exactly the straightest arrow in the quiver. Whilst she remained very, very straight, I became very, very, well…aro.
The web of emotions grew even more entangled as my love of bad puns expanded to encompass sex jokes when I started attending an all-girls senior high school. Trapped on a tiny campus for ten hours a day, it became abundantly clear to me that I was not attracted to women. Unacquainted with the terms ‘asexuality’ and ‘aromanticism’, I assumed I was straight by default, an assumption that was fortified by my reputation as one of the most sexually outspoken students in my class. I had no real desire to be in a romantic or sexual relationship, but anything sexual was absolutely hilarious to me. The word ‘penis’ alone could send me howling in laughter for ten minutes straight. In addition, I was increasingly attracted to people—particularly boys—purely aesthetically. I didn’t just talk about pretty boys; I squealed over them. In true Tumblr fashion, half of my comments would consist of some variation of ‘his face is unfair’, ‘I hate his face’, and ‘ugh no’ for days on end.
Despite our prolonged discussions about beautiful complexions, however, there was always a communicative barrier that stood between my peers and me. ‘Sexy’ and ‘hot’ were notions that I couldn’t grasp at all. When I saw an attractive face, I saw it as just that: an attractive face, a work of art to admire. I couldn’t fathom how anyone could possibly look at somebody and think, ‘Yes, that person is sexy. I would like to have sex with them, please.’ It was this realization that I didn’t actually know what sex appeal was that led me to start identifying as heteroromantic grey-asexual.
When I finally told somebody about my newfound identities, I explained that I adopted the prefix due to occasional sexual attraction and that I was heteroromantic because I still developed crushes on boys. Lies. I’d never felt sexual attraction, and it had been years since the last time I had a crush on anyone. I was perfectly aware that I had always been asexual, and had shifted from heteroromantic to aromantic. But I didn’t want to admit it. Every fiber of my being aligned with the labels ‘asexual’ and ‘aromantic’, yet the confidence and belonging that accompanied my increasing identification made way to terror. I secretly wanted people to be right when they suggested that I just hadn’t met the right man yet, even though I would argue vehemently against them. I did not despise being asexual or aromantic. Instead, I was terrified of not being straight, of the ever-widening chasm between Sharon and me.
I told myself—hoped, even—that I would outgrow it, just like I’d grown out of my aversion to boy germs. I would probably still have sex one day, fall in love, and have kids. Sure, I didn’t actually want any of it, but in my mind, that was just what people did. Like the way people stayed up binging TV shows, bought gym memberships they never used, and regifted at Christmas. I desperately tried to convince myself that a sliver of me was actually still straight.
To be aromantic asexual meant that I was condemned to a life of solitude, whilst all my friends ‘grew up’ and had their own families that would never include me. To be aromantic asexual meant that my sister, whom I loved with all my heart, would drift even farther away from me because I could never relate to an integral part of her life. I would forever be ‘just’ someone’s friend and ‘just’ someone’s sister. My love would never be the right kind or the best kind of love since it wouldn’t be romantic love, the ultimate type of affection according to everyone I knew. To be aromantic asexual was to be emotionless and hopeless and broken.
And I did not want to be broken.
Moreover, the first time I came out to my family didn’t improve my outlook. When I was eighteen, I came out to my parents. Their reaction was nearly identical to the one they had shown me when I’d told them I wanted to study theatre and literature. My father hastened to advise me not to label and limit myself at such a young age, whilst my mother started to worry that I would die alone in a house full of dogs with an expensive piece of paper that verified my love for useless disciplines. (Although I must admit, the prospect of becoming an old dog lady with no romantic or sexual partners really appealed to me.)
Perhaps what baffled my parents the most was the fact that I was—and still am—a virgin. A virgin who had an amazing knack for finding innuendos in the most mundane corners of life. A virgin who sniggered at anything remotely phallic and swooned over good-looking people. A virgin who read smutfic at dinner with a perfectly straight face, yet recoiled at the thought of kissing somebody herself. A virgin who genuinely, sincerely enjoyed being a virgin.
Yet there I was, telling my parents that I never wanted to have sex despite not having had it. The situation was hilarious in some respects, really. They were worried about my sister having a boyfriend, but at the same time, they were shocked that their younger daughter didn’t want one. But in that moment, I couldn’t see the humor in it. I bawled my eyes out that night, wondering for the hundredth time what was wrong with me. Was it due to my obsessive-compulsive disorder and chronic depression? Or perhaps I relocated too much as a child, and now had difficulty forging interpersonal connections? Then why was Sharon not ace as well? Am I now unlovable? Did I need to try to have sex with somebody? To simply lie there and close my eyes and pretend to enjoy something that repulsed me to no end?
Maybe that would fix me.
I sat there with uncertainty obscuring the future that I’d imagined for myself as a child. All my life, I thought I would follow the standard plot of the romance novels my sister adored: a girl gets her heart broken several times, finds The One and gets married. Maybe if I was lucky enough, I would even be like one of those Disney princesses that I longed to imitate at five years old. Even though the knowledge that I was aro and ace liberated me, the loss of a childhood dream still sent an unexpected ache through my bones. However, something inside me clicked into place in the depths of despair.
Gasping for air in an ocean of grief with no apparent shore in sight, I was so desperate that I somehow decided I simply wasn’t going to give a single flying fuck. Pun absolutely intended.
Since I was a reclusive nerd who had no idea how to text until college, I turned on my computer and somehow gathered the courage for a leap of faith across the rift. I came out to my sister via Skype message, and she told me something that I would never forget: ‘If you don’t want sex, then you don’t want sex. I don’t see the problem with that, and I think it’s absurd to expect someone who doesn’t want to have sex to have it. I don’t care. You’re still my sister.’
Yes, I am still her sister, and I am still me. My on-going journey of self-discovery has influenced me significantly, but at the end of the day, it’s not changed my worth as a person.
With the fear of prejudice gnawing at me, I’m still not entirely out of the closet. Rather, my feet are firmly planted inside it as I hold the door open at arm’s length, ready to slam it shut at any moment. After all, as an introvert, I do prefer staying indoors. Yet the darkness of my tiny wardrobe cannot extinguish the flame of certainty I have in myself: I am sex-aversive, I am aromantic, I am asexual, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. My love is enough, whether it be for my sister, for my friends, for Star Wars, or for myself. To quote my friend Amy, ‘Love is love is love is love.’
Plenty of people still think someone will fix me one day and trigger a late sexual awakening. But I am no longer amongst those people. I do not require anybody’s magical healing genitals.
Because although I may not be the straightest arrow in the quiver, I am not a broken one either.
Rebecca Wei Hsieh is a recent graduate of Wesleyan University with a BA in Theatre and Italian Studies. As both an actor and a writer, she’s interested in exploring under-represented perspectives and unpacking her own experiences as a queer, disabled woman color.