It’s Christmas Eve. Marian’s staring at a porcelain nativity scene, and its gentility gives rise to a roiling in her stomach, clenched fists and grinding teeth. It’s the same every year: Mary and Joseph in the center, two shepherds and two sheep to the right, three wise men and two camels to the left.
Two camels. Three men. Did they carpool? It’s only a one-hump camel. How does that work?
Baby Jesus’s eyes glaze over, somewhere between zoned out and freaked out. Yeah, Marian feels that. Welcome to humanity, Jesus. Being alive’s a bitch.
There’s an angel nailed—impaled—to the top of the barn, the picture of celestial grace, like a moth specimen in a natural history museum. The wing is chipped.
The buzz of Nana’s home is familiar: the scent of apple pie in the oven, the chatter of family members, the tight clamp on her chest that says she shouldn’t be here. Ignoring that sensation, she taps one of the shepherd’s heads with a brightly painted fingernail, assigning the conversations around her to the porcelain figures.
“Did you talk to Laura Jean last Sunday at the potluck?” the shepherd on the left asks.
Shepherd on the right gasps. “Did I—strutting around talking about how her little Henry got top scores like she ain’t gotten him tutoring since before he could talk.”
“And I told my Jacob,” the sheep adds, “I told him that he was just as smart as any Collins boy, and that’s the truth.”
“Course it is! I tell you—”
Marian feels an arm wrap around the small of her back, the sudden contact pulling her out of the scene.
“Glad you came, Madame Librarian. It’s been awhile, you know.” Nana gives her a little squeeze. “You should call more.”
It takes all her self-control not to lean into the comforting gesture. “Yeah. Sorry. Been busy.”
“Oh, I know, fancy college girl. Rosalind keeps me posted.”
Marian manages to rein the giggle in her throat down to a smile. “That’s dangerous. Like getting all your news from clickbait articles.”
“What are you on about?”
“Nothing.” She starts to pull away, thinking the conversation’s over, but Nana’s grip around her waist tightens.
“I’ve told them to leave the topic alone,” Nana whispers. “But I doubt all of them will be able to resist. Avoid Uncle Roy and Aunt Barbara.”
A swell of affection courses through Marian, followed by a collapsing ache for not calling more. “Duly noted.” She bends down and kisses Nana on the cheek, then makes her way to the kitchen to find herself a cup of coffee.
She does her best to dodge conversation all night, pulls out her phone, makes it through three discouraging headlines on Twitter before becoming overwhelmed. People around her engage her in the shortest possible conversations—“how are you, how’s school going”—before ducking out. At least they don’t want to talk to her as much as she doesn’t want to talk to them.
That luck doesn’t last.
“Hey, doll.” Uncle Roy’s voice jars and he’s too close. Bourbon and pickled herring breath. “I haven’t seen you since you were yea big.” He puts his hand about four feet above the floor and laughs like their long separation is a funny coincidence.
“Yeah.” Marian’s already working to get out of this conversation. “It’s been awhile.”
“I hear you’re a lesbian now.”
Okay, she thinks. Wow. Jumping right into it, then. “Not… quite.”
“Not quite? So what, it’s straight on the weekdays, gay on the weekends?”
In her periphery Marian can see family members angling away from their conversations and towards hers, trying not to look too eager. There is no way this conversation is worth engaging in. She finds herself continuing anyway. “It’s—it’s complicated. It’s hard to pin down.”
“Really? Surely there’s a name for whatever you are. Seems like they’ve got a label for everything these days.”
“Labels—well, they’re… only there for people who want them. That’s their purpose. And if—”
“So you’re not a lesbian, is what you’re saying. Doesn’t that mean you like dick?”
There’s a long pause while she flounders, while all those classes on feminist and queer theory evacuate her head—that rhetoric is useless in this type of emergency anyways—and she is reduced to a child in front of a man whose power lies in the birthright of his gender.
If she had been able to pull herself from her voicelessness, she would have said:
“There are these boxes, you see, but what do they mean for people like me who have no use for them? I am not gay because I’d rather not have sex with women but I am not straight because why on earth would I want to fuck a man?”
“And there is a label for people like me: asexuality. But how do I condense myself into the ‘a’ in ‘asexuality’? That ‘a’ means ‘not.’ That ‘a’ means ‘lacking.’
“Which is not to be confused with aromantic—another label society has slapped on me, this one even more uncomfortable than the last because aromantic? Sure, that feels right for some people, and it’s true that I often do not feel romantic things—I am not Wordsworth reincarnate—but that apparently means I don’t ever have any ooey gooey feelings towards other people when God, I do. I want to hold her hand and look into her pretty eyes and maybe even kiss her once in a while.”
“But because I do not want that second base or third base or however many fucking bases there are, I’m a ‘not.’ I’m a ‘lacking.’ The modifier on my sexuality is a detraction, I am a freak show in Freud’s house.”
“My adulthood is perceived as innocent because of the ‘a’ in front of my sexuality, but they have not seen the horrors I have. They have not seen sixteen-year-olds carving their queerness as an encrypted epigraph into their arms and they have not heard the cries for help from a boy drowning in the expectations that his forefathers have placed on his body—a body that does not belong to them, a body that historicism says must pursue a sexual life because he is a man.”
“And they—they have not felt on their skin a nonconsensual, residual chalky sweat that’s not even their own, smeared on by the ideology that says I need to be fixed. That there is a broken piece in me, that there is a lacking. And they say I’m the innocent one.”
Instead, she sighs, “it’s called asexual?” There’s more to say, more depth to explain, but she’s suddenly overwhelmed by the thought, they’re not asking because they care.
If they don’t care, why should I?
“Asexual?” Uncle Roy scoffs, and the noise echoes from a familiar past, dissonant and ugly. “In my day, girls like you were just called prudes.”
Well isn’t it a good thing it’s not your day then? The mere idea of saying that aloud causes that clamp on her chest to tighten, but she ignores it. Smiles.
People are outright staring, eyes alight.
Vultures, she thinks.
They can’t know, of course. God forbid they know the damage of their quiet inaction. Her smile widens.
“Something funny?” Uncle Roy asks.
Her smile turns to giggles, and the giggles approach manic. “God, this is my weirdest Christmas yet. You guys are great.” She heads towards the front door without looking back. “Carpooling wise men—ha!”