Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex is Angela Chen’s first book: an incredible feat considering the breadth of topics that Chen covers with the adroitness that only an experienced journalist could bring. This is a book about asexuality, the often overlooked ‘A’ in LGBTQIA, and the ace community. But the book also challenges everyone, regardless of sexual identity, to interrogate their own relationship to romance, sex, desire, and culture. Chen is particularly interested in the phenomenon of compulsory sexuality, which, in her own words, describes, “a set of assumptions and behaviors that support the idea that every normal person is sexual, that not wanting (socially approved) sex is unnatural and wrong, and that people who don’t care about sexuality are missing out on an utterly necessary experience.”
“Places remember what people forget.” – Richard Powers
Instead of speaking, we eat peanuts in the Holland Tunnel: the unshelled, lightly roasted kind from the bulk section of our grocery store. With one hand on the steering wheel, my father takes handfuls from the top, since all the salt falls to the bottom, and my mother digs for those. Outside, the tunnel tiles blur as our Subaru speeds beneath the river and all the buried foundations of New York.
The wall above the desk in my childhood bedroom is covered in sticky notes, index cards, and fading color photographs. They are haphazardly layered, held up by torn pieces of Scotch tape and pushpins at odd angles. Each time I sit, spinning in my blue, cat-clawed desk chair, I reread and remember.
My first college English professor told us everyone should keep a commonplace book: somewhere to put words, ideas, and sentences we want to hold. He said it was a way to mark the passage of time and the changes of our minds. I was intrigued by the idea, but aware it was the sort of thing I’d begin and then forget in the bustling adjustment of no longer being at home. So I wrote down the word—commonplace—but started nothing then.
It was mid August when my mom and I made the trek into South Central Houston to visit Sidney. We wound through the dense medical district towards the massive complex of 5 buildings making up MD Anderson Cancer Center where Sidney, my mom’s former student, was being treated. As we made our way out of the parking garage, groping toward centralized air conditioning, I marveled at the sheer number of cars from all over the country occupying what was only a single corner of MD Anderson’s campus. I shouldn’t have been surprised. After dethroning Memorial Sloan Kettering as the U.S. News & World Report‘s best hospital in cancer care in 2015, MD Anderson boasted around 140,000 patients a year and rising.
It’s not as though the military fiction canon ignores social commentary; books like Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22 certainly have a lot to say. But while many celebrated works in the genre feature criticisms of war and the armed services, water & power is the first of them I’ve encountered whose critiques discuss the racism, sexism, and homophobia running rampant in military culture. (At least in Navy culture, which the book focuses on.) The most climactic moments are not just battles and bombings—they’re also things like the Tailhook Scandal, a three-day symposium after which eighty-three women and seven men reported sexual misconduct. “A group of up to two hundred men who lined the corridor outside the hospitality suites around 10:30 each night” engaged in behaviors ranging from “consensual pats on the breasts and buttocks to violent grabbing, groping, clothes-stripping, and other assaultive behavior.” Steven Dunn, a Black West Virginia native, experienced Navy culture close up during his ten years of service.
It was a hot Los Angeles day when Dad took me to the Oaxaca Festival. As the women onstage twirled their colorful skirts, I could feel the sun sink into my skin and sweat drip down the sides of my face. The light fell directly on my neck and shoulder. I wished I’d brought sunscreen.
In his thirty years of work in publishing, my grandfather never once revealed to his colleagues he was gay. Doing so could have cost him his job as a children’s book editor at a prestigious house, or at the very least, his reputation as an honest, hard-working family man. It took me only ten minutes, in a phone interview with the same publishing house, to accidentally out him.
We arrive at night, landing at West Palm International, still wearing jeans and fleece jackets as we step into the Florida night and walk to the taxi stand through air softened by warmth and humidity. Fifteen minutes later my sister and I stumble over the tiny brick path that leads from the edge of the cul-de-sac to the front door, swatting at mosquitos while my dad punches in the security code, everybody exhausted but excited to finally be back. It’s always like this, in all my memories of the place – an evening flight out of Boston landing us in West Palm sometime between ten and midnight, the night always clear, the air a humid 73.
The house belonged to my grandparents. Every February while I was in elementary school, my family would stay there for a week, a brief respite from the New England winter. My grandparents purchased the house as an eventual retirement home, but my grandfather had still not retired, and so the house occupied a strange sort of limbo, going entirely un-lived-in over the summer, and seeing only nine or ten weeks of use in the rest of the year. We returned each year to a sterile, static domicile that was clearly nobody’s home, greeted by the same immaculate white carpets, spotless tabletops, and barren kitchen. The house felt like a blank canvas over which our vacations were painted; it functioned simply as a base of operations. And this was the role my parents wanted it to play, because they were always desperate to get out of the house, to not let their week off go to waste. But for me, the house, and the similarly sterile neighborhood around it became the consummate vacation setting. February vacation came to be synonymous with Florida, the days 80 degrees and sunny, the blacktop so hot that wiffleball games couldn’t be played barefoot, the nights cool and humid and echoing with the hooting, melancholy whistle of the night train that passed along the outskirts of the gated community just after my nine-thirty bedtime.
Like an orgy—or a fight. Legs collide with legs; strangers struggle around each other, into each other. A collective gasp clutches them all together. One, shirtless, leads the ball down the field, stumbles, and loses control of it. Now the ball leads him and leads his opponent into him. The two collide without a sound, the crash dampened by their flesh. Everybody stops to watch them battle for the ball. When it spills free, the first man gains control and rolls it across an invisible line between two heaps of t-shirts. Half the players cry in ecstasy. Half sigh in frustration. For a few seconds before this, nobody breathed at all.