By Void Yuen
The two of them are huddling together on Jake’s parents’ couch, sharing sweat and his mother’s quilt, and xe can’t get xyr brother’s voice out of xyr head. It would be stereotypical to say that xe likes Jake despite the objective fact that he’s a loser. The more unfortunate, and honest possibility, is that xyr affection for him is because he’s a bit of a loser, and that for xem, it’s a welcome mirror of xyr own patheticisms. He’s practicing in Smash Ultimate on his Switch while xe plays through Journey a fifth time on his Playstation, and both are dead silent, absorbed in their respective video games. It’s nice. His legs sprawl over xyrs under the quilt, an arrangement of limbs that maximizes T-shirt-to-T-shirt contact and minimizes the chance of breaking out in sweat. Or, really, further sweat—as his mother has noticed, they tend to enable each others’ (un)hygienic practices. Grand swells of cello glide through the room as xyr character slides down a mountain of sand, red cloak and scarf waving behind xem. (The Traveler, xe has decided, should use neopronouns, because like xem, the Traveler wears red and shows naught but xyr face to the world at large.) Xe nudges xyr boyfriend to look up; they share an appreciative hum at the rendering of the light reflected off on the sand. Xe tests out new movement tech as xe reaches the peak of xyr momentum, flapping up into the air at a sharp (but not too sharp) angle, up to a ledge on the top of the ruins littered about the game’s desert. Jake grins as xe lands perfectly and snags the achievement-token awaiting xem. This is what they do together. Xyr brother wouldn’t understand. Pathetic hand in pathetic hand, xe resolves, is simply enough. Even if sometimes xe suspects Jake likes xem back mainly because he’s the kind of guy who will take what he can get; even if he doesn’t understand why “him, Aiden” is no longer “enough” for xem anymore. Xe had tried to explain The Name Issue to Jake, a year ago. The two had been sitting in xyr dorm room when xe decided it was time for The Discussion About Forms of Reference. On two sides they were plastered with a miasma of indie game posters, but the wall they’re to talk about, the one right over the head of xyr bed, was dedicated to xyr friends in Queer Trans Council, photos xe had mailed back and forth with other Internet enbies, and a whiteboard with a running poll for possible new names, which xe and xyr roommate had guests vote on. Jake had voted on the whiteboard before; once for a name now-erased, Yutong, and then for a name that xe was tempted to try but hadn’t yet, Jietong. Xe was using the conversation to decide if xe wanted to be with Jake actively, and moreover, if xe wanted to be Jietong with him. Xe can’t help but appreciate the romanticism in them sharing initials someday, but that would have fallen apart if they hadn’t gotten together. Could still fall apart, if they don’t stay together. But xe defers the thought; tries not to muddle the memory. Xe had been re-outlining the reasons for the whiteboard and name change when Jake asked, “Okay, but, so, what are you going to go by until you find a winner?” Then: “…What should I call you?” “I don’t know yet,” xe admitted. “I mean, I’m still using ‘Aiden’ for assignments and stuff, so you can use that, but…” “‘…but it’s not me,’ you said?” Jake finished uncertainly. He fidgeted with xyr stim cube, grinding the thumbstick left and right like a joycon. “I guess I just don’t know what that means.” Xe fished for words. “It’s like a gamertag to me,” xe tried. “People call me that, and I respond to it, but on the inside, there’s something else I use to refer to myself.” “But you don’t know what that something else is,” Jake thought aloud, absentmindedly switching to the X of buttons. He nodded at the whiteboard, “…Which is why you have that.” “Yeah.” “Okay.” Jake nodded again, less slowly. “I guess that makes sense.” Xe had sensed an unspoken clause. Leaned forward. “But?” Jake shrugged, then looked embarrassed. “I feel like my dad,” he had said then, rolling his shoulders. “He doesn’t get why I wanted to take Mandarin, or wanted to go to SGDQ.” Xe smirks now thinking about the summer speed-running convention. Xe has learned since that it was a big thing for Jake, who had been persuading his parents to let him participate in one of the marathons. “He thinks I’m passionate about hardware because I enjoy getting my hands dirty. He doesn’t get that I feel more comfortable digitally than when we go to visit my grandma, because when I’m streaming or at a competition, I don’t feel like I have to present any more of myself than I want to.” “I’m not sure that’s the same,” xe had frowned, “but there’s a bit of that, too, maybe.” Xe mulled it over. “To be honest,” xe said to fill the silence, “I’m just glad you didn’t say, ‘but my gamertag is me!’ ” And Jake had laughed at that, and nodded in self-deprecation. A few days later, xe had asked Jake if he wanted to “finally go on a date, or whatever couples do,” and he said yes, and they agreed that his word for xem is “my boyfriend.” Now, holed up together for the duration of remote classes, xe feels that itch on the back of xyr neck again. Xe is thinking about having The Discussion again, and just hopes that Jake will keep treading the path with xem, even as they leave the soft-gliding sand behind and head into the snow. It’s not Jake’s fault that his family learned xyr deadname from xyr grandma, nor that even before that, they pronounced “xe” like a chain-smoking “he,” and “Jietong” like “G-tong.” Hell, it’s definitely not his fault that xe had hoped that Jake’s parents, themselves first-generation Chinese Americans, would be understanding when xe had said that it is “for my family’s sake” that xe hadn’t told xyr grandmother that xe has been spending most nights in Jake’s bed. It’s not Jake’s fault that xe sometimes wishes to xemself that Jake would be more romantic; it isn’t his fault that he doesn’t attend to desires xe doesn’t vocalize. It’s not his fault that they do what they always do, because that’s what they enjoy, and their number one love language is Quality Time. It’s not Jake’s fault that xyr brother and his fiancé go on trips and little adventures; fill xyr phone with photos of their escapades. From Jake’s Switch comes the Smash announcer’s voice of his victory; from the TV swells cello and violins and the whistle of the mountain. All routine. It’s not that xe doesn’t love their routine; the days they spend back to back in their respective Zoom lectures, and then side by side playing platformers or MMOs. There’s a real comfort they’ve developed in the year they’ve been together, one xe won’t take for granted after years of one-off and half-hearted flings. Can’t that comfort be enough? Yet, as they cuddle in one of their arrangements for Optimized simultaneous gameplay, xe thinks about xyr older brother. Didi, xyr brother had said teasingly, you start to worry me, you know. I know you like pathetic men, but at this rate, you’ll actually get the poor guy’s hopes up. I’m not stringing Jake along, xe had retorted. You make it sound like I’m just using him. Aren’t you? Then, scoffing: Listen, think about the future. It’s only going to get harder to find new guys after you graduate. Don’t end up saying your wedding vows to poverty out of complacency. There’s money in tech, xe had said witheringly. And it’s not like you’re making bank off of Scott, either, xe had pointed out. Xyr brother’s fiancé was in public relations and worked with NGOs, a field xe had considered but decided was too corporate for too little. To xyr brother’s disappointment with both of them, xe knew. Yea, xyr brother admitted begrudgingly, but at least he’s unionized. You heard what tangjie said about how bad labor rights are right now with her job at HP. And she’s been working there for almost two decades now. Xe had held xyr tongue on that. Their cousin Amy had complained extensively when she had last come to visit taitai, and Jake had recounted similar comments from the blogs of industry people he kept up with. For several seconds xe let the line go silent. Then, because xe had no other defense, xe had said, It’s not Jake’s fault that the field he loves treats people like shit, because it was true. Silently, xe pauses the game, mid-maneuver, and disconnects. The abrupt end of the music caught Jake’s attention, and he turns to xem, but xe only shrugs. What can xe say? Their future isn’t a new topic; only a haunting one. Maybe he’ll become a consultant, xyr brother had mused thereafter. So the two of you can get by on commission money, and the generosity of others. Without speaking, xe and Jake rearrange, xe setting aside the Playstation controller, so instead xe can simply watch as he beats up twinks and furries as a pink sphere with feet. Xe was the one to convince Jake to take up Kirby; he was a Sonic main when they had met. Watching him play as the living mouth reminds xem that they matter to each other. And, as xe watches him swallow and side-kick a hapless Toon Link, that he’s good enough to make money this way. That while it’s shameful to have over a thousand hours in a game that came out four years ago, it’s also what convinces Twitch viewers to subscribe to him for $5 a month, and to give enough donations to be worth depositing into savings. It’s exactly what xyr brother fears—to be reliant on others’ whims—but it works. And it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative. Or, y’know, xyr brother had suggested cheekily, you can go work at that video game journalism website you like, the one owned by Vox, and get chewed up for content, as their prized diversity hire. Because, of course, xe calls home a job market that is just as hostile as GPU chip engineering, and doesn’t even have the bankrolling to make gig work worth it. That night, they lay together in the shadows of Jake’s bedroom, as they usually do, while his parents snore away down the hall. In the dark xe lets Jake look and hold xem; xem protected from xyr ambivalences toward xyr body, and him saved in his attention toward it. In the dark both of them can live in their physical edges and contours, and so the boyfriends do, until both have broken out in sweat, naked in naked hand. Xe thinks vindictively of xyr brother. So what if I’m using him? xe replies in xyr mind. Jake makes a sound between wheeze and groan. He enjoys it. To xyr surprise, Jake is awake and out of bed when xe awakes the next morning. He’s not far—xe spots him rummaging through his basket of laundry in search for clean underwear—but has clearly been awake for a while, his hair wet and soaking a white towel draped across his shoulders. Like many of his cadre, Jake has let his hair grow long over the pandemic, and tells xem that xyr elbow-length black hair makes him want to keep it long. “But only if you do it like how your brother does his,” Jake said. “Kind of wuxia style.” Xe neglected to mention that xyr brother uses extensions, privately hoping Jake will grow it out to xyr brother’s perceived length, fully down his back. It’s only shoulder-length now, but xe’s in it for the long haul. Xe gets up without particular stealth, but Jake still jumps when xe curls around xyr boyfriend, putting a hand on his side. It gives xem pause. “Something on your mind?” “You,” Jake replies in a way xe first thinks is horny, before catching xyr boyfriend’s gaze. Xe waits for him to elaborate. “I was thinking about that other guy you were with when we met.” Xe indicates for him to clarify. “All of them,” he says. “The white humanities dude, the chemical engineer, the Filipino physicist, the bi business major, the Latino poet,—“ “Okay, okay. I got around, I know.” “I don’t mind that,” Jake says quickly. “But I guess it’s like, all of them seemed like they were more attractive, or had more going on, or more money, or more connection to your interests.” He looks at xem softly, with dark eyes most guys reserve for girls or enbies more worthy than xem. “I guess,” he admits shyly, “I wonder sometimes why you picked me.” Xe opens xyr mouth in shock, almost in affront; then, closes it again, and instead moves xyr hand along his side, fingers splayed and tracing down to where his pelvic bone protrudes from his gaunt skin. “It’s true,” xe replies quietly. “You’re not the most handsome man I’ve been with, nor the wealthiest, nor the smartest.” Xe rests xyr hand on his hip, though it would be easier to continue xyr descent; deflect the question. But xe thinks of xyr brother then, and wants to answer him, now. “And I could say it’s because you’ve been the most understanding, and been most patient, but I don’t want to keep you comparing yourself to others.” “But others do exist,” Jake points out. He rests a hand on xyr. “I guess…” He looks down. “I like being with you, and I like that you don’t expect me to be more than I am, but I guess I just worry… am I enough? Or am I like your name, something you use because it’s there and it gets the job done?” “I don’t—no!” xe exclaims, and feels pitted doing so. Xe hadn’t told him about xyr conversation with xyr brother because xe didn’t want him to feel worse for it, but perhaps xe should have. Interlocking xyr hand with his, xe holds xyr boyfriend’s hand tightly. “It’s true that sometimes I wish things were different, like that we could get away from your parents, or that I could feel more myself around them, or that we could do more things like my brother and his boy does. But I still appreciate and feel lucky for all the things we do together,” xe emphasizes. Then, softer: “I love that I don’t feel judged by you.” Xe leans into him. “I know I complain sometimes, but I hope you don’t feel like I’m judging you.” Jake nods, slowly, and doesn’t speak further, and xe, against xyr better judgment, doesn’t press it. Instead, as if xe can simply brush away his anxieties, xe guides xyr boyfriend back to bed and starts combing out the knots from his wet hair, one long stroke at a time. That weekend, xe asks Jake to go with xem back to xyr dorm on a day when xyr two roommates will be away. Xe forefronts xyr roommates’ absence intentionally, and so he obliges. It’s easier than it should be to sneak him in, and then they’re sitting in xyr room once again, a different physical room than last time, but marked the same. Xe pulls down the whiteboard with names from over xyr headboard. Xe still dreams about matching initials, but decided xe wants one xyr future mother-in-law won’t flub, too. So instead they sit down, side by side, and erase Jietong from the board. “It was nice while it lasted,” xe mourns, Expo eraser still in hand. “I’m sad to see it go,” Jake agrees. With one thumb he wipes away the tail of the J with a reticence like caress. “Do you know which you’re going to try next?” “I don’t know yet,” xe replies. “I was hoping you could help me pick.” “Is it really my place?” he asks nervously. “I mean, it’s your name. It matters a lot.” “You matter to me a lot,” xe says in a warm but firm tone xyr brother would describe uncharitably as pushy. “You’ll be the one who has to use it, more than me. I want it to be one that makes you happy to call me by.” “I already had that,” he says, and xe sees it then: the softness has returned to his eyes, the vulnerability of asking about his own stake in xyr life. Nevertheless, he looks over the list. Xe watches him pour over the names, his eyebrows raise at some of the more recent additions, but he says nothing. The two sit in silence, brought back to the moment. Then, setting down the whiteboard, he turns to xem. “I can’t do this.” He bows his head. “I feel like I’m preparing you to become a stranger.” “It’ll still be me,” xe protests. “I’m not going to change just because my name will.” “I know,” Jake says, “and even if you did, I would be excited to see who you become. But,” he breathes, looking up, “I can’t shake the feeling that this is a big change. That this is somehow tied to what we talked about a few days ago—that the name you were using is tied to our relationship.” Xe grimaces. In xyr mind xe prepared for the conversation, but the reality of Jake’s fears dissolve xyr pre-scripted consolations. “I know,” is all xe can say. “I know.” In the evening, they lay together on xyr dorm bed, illuminated only by xyr roommates’ fairy lights. To cover their voices, xe put on the soundtrack for Celeste, a platformer xe’s embarrassed to admit xe’s playing because, like Journey, it’s “a game about climbing a mountain.” But Jake is nervous about passersby out in the hall regardless, so they lay entwined, but not more, only side by side. And then, in a mix of personal and sexual frustration, xe decides it’s not enough. “I don’t want to push you to do anything you aren’t willing to,” xe begins. “Uh?” Jake sits up; looks at xem. Xe looks back at him with desperation. “All the things that would make my brother tell me to dump you are why I don’t want to lose this relationship. Like what you said about feeling more at home digitally—that’s how I feel about you. You take me as I am, so I’m willing to make effort to see that this works out.” “I want this to work out, too,” Jake interjects in equal desperation. “You make me want to be more than who I am. I don’t always know how, but I want to be the person you see in me.” “I know,” xe says. Xe pulls him over xem. Xe wants to turn on the lights and for them to see one another for who they are; to not shy away and fall back into the protective veil of darkness. To burden him with xyr desires, and xemself with his, in all forms that they arise, and into the future. Instead, xe lays under him, xyr arm slung around his neck, locked into confrontation. “I don’t expect you to be all and everything forever. And I know I’m definitely not all that, either. But I need this one thing. So we can agree to be bound to each other, in all our adorations and failings, unflinchingly.” Jake doesn’t pull away. “You’re the mirror, Junxin,” he replies with a grin. “Whatever you do, I’ll do, too.”
Void Yuen (阮掭艺) is a creative writer and asexualities theorist with a penchant for character-driven fantasy and D/death. He received his BA in Writing & Literature from UCSB’s College of Creative Studies, where she has spent the last year as Editor-in-Chief of Spectrum Literary Journal. Void has published essays, poetry, and fiction, and his zine titled “DO YOU LIKE SEX?” And Other Asexual Questions is forthcoming fall 2022. Gods willing, thereafter he will pursue graduate school. You can find Void on Twitter @voidyuen, where she follows death studies with morbid fascination.