Ace | Shannon O. Sawyer

We played Texas Hold’em when a power line snapped beneath the weight of ice. The generator outside whirred loud and guzzled gasoline while my family hunched over the dining table with the lamp plugged into one of the few working outlets.

Our fingers were chilled and fastened to the cards, joined by the smell of singed hair from when mom burned a few strands on a candle. It was repulsive and reminiscent of decayed fat when burned. The smell loomed and smothered my family. It made the darkness of the house sinister with the flickering candles playing puppet master with our shadows. They glared over our backs, looking at our hands.

Stacks of poker chips surrounded us as multicolored towers wall piled higher and higher. We were each a monarch, holding sovereign over the crumbs scattered within our domain of the table. We defended our towers from the onslaught of the river as the final card slipped across the table.

I didn’t know how to read faces. My sister asked my mom if she had a good hand. The muscles beneath her skin fall and I knew my hand was worthless, even with the ace of spades between fingers I could no longer feel.


I organized cards for fun, and my friend hated it. She loved to shuffle, the randomness of it all and mixing the cards so you didn’t know what’s coming next. A queen of hearts, to my jack of spades, slammed down another card against the table, but it was too low of a number to win. She took the hand and I felt my heart beat faster, faster, as we played again in our game of War.

My friend won and the cards flew over the table. Her smile glittered beneath the yellow lights, she handed me the bowl of oyster crackers. A handful clenched between my hands and my teeth gnashed, crushing them into a thick paste mixing with saliva that slid down my throat. “What movie should we watch?”

Lilo and Stitch?”

She made a face, a little wrinkle to her nose. “We’ve seen it before.” Maybe we have, but that didn’t stop her from watching Sandlot all summer. A few movies toppled from the case, some stacked to the side after giving up on finding space. “How about Pretty Woman?”

“Never saw it.”

There was no argument because she didn’t give me a chance to. My friend put in the movie and I sat back against the fabric of the couch. Something didn’t sit quite right about the movie in my stomach and it mixed unpleasantly with the oyster crackers.

“Why did she let him in the apartment?” My back sank a little further into the cushions and I found myself restless as the main character is pushed down screaming. The woman’s screams echoed in the room. Why doesn’t she use her nails to scratch at the man’s face? She struggled, but it wasn’t enough. Even as her lover saved her, the tension never broke in my own nerves and I twisted on the couch. Immobilized and afraid of a movie. It twisted my stomach and I swallowed down bile that stretched up my throat.

“It’s a movie, just watch it.” My eye traveled away from the screen and found my friend resting against the couch, a complacent smile on her face, passive and comfortable with the violence. She hummed, almost a sigh as woman fell into his arms. The end result of the scene didn’t give me any comfort.

She fell asleep before the movie ended and the press of a single button muted the noise. I was awake at one in the morning, picking up the cards, putting the deck together, and picking it apart again.

Cards are organized when they are fresh out of the box. I had never seen a new deck and imagined how the light might reflection off of freshly laminated paper; how sleek they would feel beneath my fingertips. The deck was old. All of the jokers were long gone and slipped through my fingers before I had ever seen them. Three more decks like them were gathered in my room just down the hall. More decks hidden in the closet. They were unusable when even a single card was missing. I put the deck back together.

Each suit was piled together; the cards decorated little indents and scratches from nails and wood tables. Red and black, contrasted next to each other and numbers stacked. The card on top when they are joined was the ace of spades, face up for all to see, but at the bottom of the deck when in play so no one will ever know it’s there.


Ace is what I learned to call myself. It was another label, but at least the word itself had pride.

Ace is an aviator darting through the sky and putting holes in those that try to shoot them down. The skills to fire a perfect shot, to create a work of art that can make someone collapse into tears, the one who has mastered a single practice.

Ace is the highest card in the deck. Discarded by American soldiers with intent in the Vietnam War and feared by those that would find a small, crushed ace of spades near their home. The card of death. The symbol of the pike where heads of the French revolution would sit upon to listen to the roar of a crowd that refused to sit in silence. Even in fear, at least it is known.

Asexual had too much ambiguity to be taken seriously.


“Aren’t like, plants asexual or something?”

“Do you reproduce by budding?”

I wanted to give answers, to have some confidence in the word, but they tried to laugh off. I wanted to tell people that I wasn’t broken; not a product of sexual abuse that never happened, not an amalgam of hormones that don’t line up properly in my chemistry. They laughed and I strained to find a reason to smile.

Acephobia is a strange state for people, the fear of someone who doesn’t feel sexual attraction to another person. It’s the fear of people that really want little to do with sex. Why is there fear? Maybe it’s because of a culture so ingrained with sex that to think anything else is wrong. How many people grew up on Disney films and other romantic clichés as a child? It’s not an intense fear, like spiders or falling. It’s a fear that people don’t realize they have.

“Why can’t you just like sex?”

“How do you even live?”

“Are you human?”

I learned to shut up. I learned to accept that I was a defect and not meant to be seen.


I learned about robots, monsters, and aliens. How to create creatures without human faces and strange twisting limbs, or no limbs at all. Every new headline from science articles sparked electricity and a harsh buzz filled the back of the skull until I found a way to connect it into the millions of planets made of electrons that revolve around my frontal lobe.

They were amphibious humanoids, not mermaids, without hair that scream in the dead of the night in horrific songs to their starving children. A universe filled with aliens on four legs, tall and plated skin ravaged by human disease. Every little detail is thought through. Every question is asked. How do they think? What is their language? What is their physiology or programming like? How do they interact with humans?

I wanted to play with life because this was my representation for asexuality. Anything that isn’t human. My mother had her Hallmark dramas. For my father it was anything that had a heterosexual male. Not hard to come by. Even homosexuality had a pool of characters. A small, small pool, but a pool. Dexter wasn’t the kind of role model I was looking for in the molecule of water that made up asexual representation.

Science fiction is where an asexual can thrive, even when wires and space suspend your existence.

Tear down numbers, formulas, DNA sequences, and build them into something new. Amino acids, chromosomes, cell structure, enzymes, all of the building blocks were there to expand the universe I built between the synapses of my brain.


One percent.

There is less than one percent of phosphorous in the human body. We glow but cannot see it. Our bodies have less than one percent of iron in our blood, but I can taste it when my lip is split.

A survey in the United Kingdom in 1994 found that approximately one percent of their population was asexual. It is a large enough presence to be tasted, but we are made of cells and can’t feel when one dies in our own blood stream.

There is an acronym for those who don’t fit into the heteronormative. LGBTQIA, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer, intersex, ally. Ally. Ally. A letter stolen away, and suddenly taken away by people that support without a system working against them because those that cannot love, or love outside of sex and romance, cannot exist. Erasure happens to those that others are no comfortable with. Like how bisexuals are forgotten because people are uncomfortable by those that cannot commit to one side. Asexuals are forgotten because they are the odd one out. Sexual until proven not, and if you aren’t sexual then what kind of human are you? “Who’s going to step all over you if you are doing nothing?” And then the one letter of representation asexuality has is hoarded away by those who want to feel included.

The chant for the one percent from the protests in Zuccotti Park rings in my head, over and over, “We are the one percent!” This time it has a different tone. A wailing rage that lasts longer than a few months. It hungers for more. It kicks and screams until it chokes, cracks, and finally breaks down.


I was told that sexuality is hard-wired into your brain and nothing can really change it. I also remember the horror stories of forced hormone doses and correctional rape.

Set up by family, friends, doctors, it didn’t matter because the betrayal cut deeper as pills and injections turn the body upside down until the sky and earth mesh as floating islands crash into the sun while blue collapses into the crust of the world.

The color is taken. Ripped from the bloodstream, over and over again. A layer of lead laced pain is added to hide. Toxins seep into the blood, but not through the walls of the cells. It cannot intercept the message of a ribosome, even if your brain and voice scream hard enough to crack the lining of your throat. There are bruises, but the purple has already been bled out of the body.

“I want to help you,” they say as they hurt. Pressing, scratching, biting, a carving of a name into the skin that will never make it any deeper than the blood and fluid dripping onto a trap made of frayed fabric and plucked feathers.

Break what is believed to be broken. Two wrongs make a right. Negative multiplied by a negative makes a positive. Each of these statements is true, but it does not fix anything. There was never anything to fix to begin with, but then again, everyone wants to help.


My mom told me once again that I should take medication for my anxiety, but I can’t help but think that if I give her an inch she’ll take the expanse of a continent. I was afraid. Why shouldn’t I be of the medical industry that believes that asexuality can be cured with a pill?

She wasn’t there when my anxiety attack hit.

The lake was meant to be vacation, relaxation and separation from the world of stress and work. It was an excuse for our family to drink, to laze in the sun, to float on the water and do nothing. My sister and I gave our parents space, away from them as they prepared dinner and ran in and out of the house we were renting.

My sister took the bedroom, away from disturbance of the living room with no walls separating it from the kitchen. She was smart to escape people. I kept forgetting.

My mother’s friend was droning on at me while my mom was at our cabin on the lake and the abyss of night separated us. She told me how I should have gone to a real school. That I had to find a husband if I wanted to survive. That I was going to be responsible for my parents and sister one day. That I was letting them down. That I would have to take care of everyone. That I was all alone.

I was Atlas, carrying the weight of her words and each sentence added another planet to a spine made out of fragile human bone. Words stung, taking an ice pick to my brain until those thoughts constricted my throat. My head severed and displayed on a pike. Air. Can’t breath. Fuck, don’t cry. Breathe. Breathe.

She constricted me, grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. We stood in the middle of the room, and she held me, trying to calm me down. “It’s okay. What’s wrong? Calm down. What’s wrong?”

I couldn’t get out. The world was dimming, blackened at the edge of my vision. When I was sick years ago I almost blacked out, and in the moment questioned if this what it felt like to die. My sister’s screaming was an echo. Everything was silhouettes and shadows.

The door slammed, and I was free. There was a new sensation in my throat. The world came back and the yellow lights hurt my eyes. My inhaler. My sister had sprinted out and brought my inhaler. She screamed until my mom rushed in a few minutes later. After I could breathe again.

I wanted to curl away from the world for the next three days but all I could do was will myself to not let it happen again. Anxiety attacks were a faulty defensive mechanism for my body. I would start to cry before I even knew what I was reacting to. It happened without my consent no matter how hard I tried to swallow it down.

My mother would never see or with her own eyes and ears what happened. Other people can’t see through your eyes no matter how many times they say, “I understand.”


The talk came to my parents when I show them a documentary about it the week before I left for college, it couldn’t even be a talk. All I could do is fold my arms and wait.

A coming out was different for my friends. The spectrum of response had been as wide as the sea of sexuality and gender identity, acceptance to blatant hostility. My parents had offered our house to shelter if the latter occurred and all of them knew they were welcomed with open arms. The house was a shelter to them.

Even then, neither of my parents knew how to respond to an asexual daughter.

It took less than five minutes into the documentary before my mom laughed it off. She told me that I could be whatever I want to be then left the room. Out of sight, out of mind. No one had to see what went on backstage.

My father waited; he said he wanted the science behind all of this. I knew what he was waiting for.

The word came up; Anxiety, in bright white along with a list of other disorders and mental illness scattered over the video. My dad grinned and looked at me, pointing at the screen. A child with a smile chanting, “I told you so.”

He turned back around and saw each word fading one by one, accompanied by the one phrase I had been waiting for. “No correlation.”

He left the dining room a minute later. I left the video I had watched time and time again running. I grinned at him with my teeth. It would be years later before my mom could accept it in the privacy of our car.


Over a glass of wine in Boston my cousin told me that I would have to come to her bachelorette party one day and party with the rest of her friends. The subject came up even though neither of us were drunk.

We had gone through the talks one does over dinner; politics, current events, gender roles, everything that is discussed at a family reunion that needs the alcohol to make you hate a little less. I had never been to Indiana, but my knowledge of its history with acceptance of anything other than gender conforming heterosexuality made the white wine turn sour.

I didn’t know any of her friends. I barely knew her. My parents told me that we like the same things and was stowed away in memory with every little white lie I had been told.

She was on the side of family from the Midwest with a military family. Catholic and abiding to the heteronormative and gender rules lay out in front of her from a young age. That was her choice. There is no problem with following that, but the problem lies in expecting it out of other women.

She told me, not a request, a demand, that I better have a boyfriend with me at her wedding. I told her that will never happen. She rolled her eyes and told me that it will happen one day. I bit into the lip of the glass until my gums bled, but the glass didn’t shatter.


I saw the reflection of a boy rushing by in the glass windows of the high school cafeteria; he mumbled his words that tumbled out of his mouth, I almost didn’t hear them. “You look really pretty today.”

A french-fry was held between my teeth when I turned and watched the boy walk away. He didn’t look back, but his shoe squeaked against the tile floor and he fell into his chair, looking everywhere but back.

I arrived at the lunch table to meet my friends, group, clique, whatever it was called to mull over his words over while I grazed on lukewarm fries and a slice of pizza that never tasted right. The grease eats away at the napkins and makes my hands slick.

No one had heard the one-sentence conversation, and no one could hear the debate in my head: is this where dating starts?

Asexuality doesn’t have a defined line. Gray asexuals feel sexual attraction on occasion. Aromantics want nothing to do with relationships. We can still form romantic bonds because romance and sexuality are not one in the same.

I wondered where I stood on the scale. Labels work to a point until things get complicated. In the end I never confronted him about it and we all went about our day-to-day lives.

A few of my friends talked about a quiz right at the beginning of class, fifteen minutes to complete it before the school bell rang for lunch to begin for our block. It sounded more like the warning siren for a nuclear strike than a bell.

One of them got a kiss on the cheek from her boyfriend before he made a quick run to the library in the last five minutes of our break. Two of my friends held hands under the table where they thought no one can see them. Of course we all knew. I saw her giving her girlfriend a kiss on the cheek, though it was quick, something lit up around the pupils of her eye. Another groaned about finding a boyfriend and he picked at his food with a faraway look in his eyes.

I didn’t finish my lunch before the bell rang again.

Before I left a few things fell out of my bag and my friends help me gather them; a few pencils, paperclips, my cellphone, a deck of cards.


 Another message from my friend popped up just as I left the previous web page of my computer.

They were streams of messages in caps lock, several swears neatly woven into the message with vowels dragged out for so long they create another line of text. I could hear her say these things in my own head and laugh at the auditory replication. The sounds were taken from memory. Sprawled out over the couch with the television droning in the background. A glass of lemonade and vodka between us, not to hate, but to simply relax and enjoy the slow burn; to taste. To forget the taste, to unwind our minds and let the neurons stretch further and further until we met again at the very same point. All of this just to be able to say “hi” again.

Maybe the alcohol was used to help us cope with hate, but it was our mutual hate of many things and how we could defy them by being happy. Intoxicated happy, but happiness needed a pick-me-up from time to time too.

The memory and sounds brought a pain that made the muscles around my ribcage tighten, wrinkling an internalized map to try and close the twenty-mile gap between us. The ache was only dulled by a computer screen, an illusion that we were in closer proximity than we really were. I thought this is what people feel when they mean love, or maybe something close to it.

It’s platonic. It’s different, bittersweet, but with salt. Not bad, and never perfect. Just as important as any other relationship in my life.

Friends were my family. Not from the same womb but forged in blood all the same. All maintained with instant messengers, cell phones, and web cams when we were miles apart.

My fingers danced over the keyboard, a simple touch making a new letter appear, then syllables, then a word until they are strung together in a series of complaints; of school, of teachers, of family, of isolation, or maybe my own discomfort of being pushed a little closer to the edge of a cliff every time someone asked me if I was dating yet. Everything and anything spewed from my mouth to reconnect.

The muscles in my face relaxed, and then ached again until my lips pulled into a smile. I read her message from the computer, all capitalized and without punctuation.


This person is typing…

The chair groaned and creaked beneath me as I shifted my weight to look across the desk. A new deck of cards sat just within arms reach. I took the cards between my fingers and felt their smoothness. I shuffled and organized them again until the ace of spades was at the top of the deck. I shuffled, organized again, and placed the ace of spades on top of the deck.


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