Shaun worried his hands together in his lap, breathing short, tight breaths. Leah’s couch was too soft, and sitting in it felt somewhat like being held loosely in the arms of someone who didn’t care if they dropped you or not. He tried not to focus on the movie that was playing, trying to stave off that burst of annoyance that he felt anytime a story he was following was interrupted. Any moment now, it would be interrupted. Even so, he felt a slight prickle of pleasurable anticipation on the back of his neck. Leah was inches away from him in the near-darkness, and by now he was familiar with her pattern.
hey, she’d text him. Then she’d wait for him to respond. He always did. Hello.
i’m super bored, she’d write, or something to that effect. do you want to come over and watch a movie?
He always did.
Shaun had a much better television than Leah, but he soon realized that didn’t matter. Leah would sit very close to him, as close as possible without touching him, so close he could hardly think, much less focus on the image quality. And just when he’d adjust, just when his brain would calm down enough to pick up the thread of whatever narrative was unfolding on screen and begin to follow it, Leah would put her hand on him (his shoulder or his arm or his knee) and he’d be lost again.
Leah took the words right out of him, so it was all he could do to nod when she asked him softly if it was alright if she could kiss him. The very first moment of a kiss with Leah was always perfect. So Shaun always nodded yes.
The soft press of her lips against his, the gentle pressure of wherever her hand had first rested (on his knee was definitely the best) grounding him just enough to really feel her warmth and the rhythm of her affection for him, was something Shaun would never pass up. But it only ever lasted a moment. Afterwards, Shaun soon learned, there were any number of uncomfortable things that Leah was bound to do.
The first was usually squeezing him in some way. All of a sudden, she’d be holding his arm or his wrist or, worst of all, his hair in what felt like a viselike grip (but was probably gentler, he knew) and he didn’t know how to get her to stop without calling the whole thing off. It was painful and it left him with the sensation of ants crawling on his skin, but sometimes he’d bear through it because having Leah so close, and the press of her lips against his, was decidedly worth it.
Even so, if he managed to cope with the squeezing, she often decided to start moving her hands around. This behavior was not only uncomfortable, it was also puzzling. The first time it happened (which was the third time they kissed) Shaun thought she might be indicating her desire for him to move, so he tried to shift on the couch so that she didn’t have to turn her body quite so much to kiss him. This, however, only seemed to prompt more movement from Leah -- although it did seem to excite her, judging from the increase in her breathing rate, which was definitely good. She sometimes moved her hands up and down his back, or sometimes in circles there, and sometimes on his arms; but it was always unpredictable, and it always made him anxious. Never mind the fact that it felt like being blown in all different directions by gale-force winds.
But even if Shaun put up with the grabbing and the moving touches, the worst was usually yet to come. Because after the first few times that they kissed, Leah seemed to develop the end goal of cramming her tongue inside of his mouth. And that was why, sitting on Leah’s couch in the near-dark in front of a flickering screen, Shaun was breathing in the same way he did back when he was a kid, sitting under the slides on the playground, waiting to see what the other kids had in store for him that period.
Leah moved closer to Shaun on the couch. He could smell her coconut shampoo. He inhaled shakily and wet his lips, clenching his hands into a ball. He waited in anticipation for the gentle pressure of her hand, the quiet request of whether or not he wanted to be kissed. He did. It had been such a long day, and he really, really did. But Leah did something different now; she placed her hand over his, resting in his lap, and leaned against him with her whole body weight, resting her head against his shoulder.
Shaun tensed up. He waited for her to move, or do something, anything. But Leah stayed put, her attention fixed on the screen. It finally dawned on Shaun that they were in a position that he knew well from the many romantic comedies he had enjoyed over the years. Shaun’s stomach had always lurched a little bit from the sweetness of two characters cuddled together on a couch, a mixture of cuteness overload and want. But with Leah’s head a dead weight on Shaun’s shoulder and the pressure of her body on him starting to hurt, he was dismayed to realize that he hated it. It hurt.
He thought about pushing her off of him. Then the memory of the face made by every person he’d pushed away from hugging him or touching him affectionately over the years stopped him. This was Leah. Leah who was funny and who made him laugh and who laughed at his jokes. Leah who didn’t mind when he ate an entire pint of strawberry ice cream from her freezer after a particularly grueling shift at work. Leah who loved the ocean, who drove to the beach with him and suggested they stand on the asphalt the entire time, feeling the sea breeze and watching the waves crash, because he told her he liked the ocean too but hated the sand. Leah, who picked him up and drove him home when he was standing alone in the dark. Leah, who was so beautiful that he’d begun to care for her, with a sudden warmth that momentarily froze him in place, the first time she’d knocked on his door asking for batteries.
Shaun thought again of the rom coms he was secretly fond of. He thought of Dr. Andrews’s question, and many others like it he’d been asked insistently over the years: “What if it’s someone you like? Or someone you love?” People who cared for each other romantically interacted physically in certain ways. Shaun knew this. Therefore, Shaun was supposed to like certain kinds of physical contact with Leah. Shaun squeezed his eyes shut and tried to transform the suffocating weight of Leah’s body into a pleasurable sensation.
Finally, Leah lifted her head and moved back from him slightly. Shaun gasped in a breath and exhaled deeply in relief. And just as he let down his guard, in that moment, Leah did two things: she grabbed onto his hair and slammed her lips against his.
Shaun couldn’t help it. He flinched.
Leah pulled back immediately. “Shaun? Are you okay?” she asked.
Shaun said nothing, eyes wide, breathing shallowly.
“Sorry,” Leah corrected herself. “I’m concerned about whether you’re feeling okay about all this,” she rephrased.
Still, Shaun said nothing, looking away from Leah and down at a loose feather poking out of the couch cushion that, for some reason, was on the floor. His fingers laced together, his hands gripping each other tightly. The words just weren’t there.
Leah drew back from him. When Shaun glanced over, her eyebrows were drawn together sharply, the corners of her mouth turned down. “Oh, God,” Leah said.
Shaun’s chest felt tight. He kept doing the wrong thing, and each mistake was tessellating so rapidly he couldn’t keep up. Leah climbed off the couch, scrambled to turn off the light. Finally, she shut the TV off, placing the remote down on the coffee table with a loud tap in the sudden silence of the apartment. “Oh, God,” she repeated. “I’m so sorry, Shaun.”
Shaun rocked slightly back and forth. He needed to speak. Leah was now angry, or sad, or both. She was sorry that she had tried to be intimate with him. He needed to say something to make it better. The only noise he could make sounded like whining and humming put together. It made it worse.
“Shit,” Leah said, scrubbing her hands over her face. “I should have known it was weird when you never initiated anything, but you always seemed like you liked it so I thought…” she trailed off. For a long moment she just sat there on the couch, facing the television, with her head in her hands. Finally, she looked up at Shaun.
“Shaun,” she said, “I want to know how to help you feel better right now. Please tell me how to make this better.”
“Okay,” he gasped. “Okay. Okay. Okay.” He focused on slowing his breathing, slamming the palm of one hand into the other.
Leah waited for him to say more. When he didn’t, she stood up. “Let me get you some water,” she said.
“Okay,” Shaun replied.
Distance between their bodies helped Shaun return to equilibrium. Leah came back from the kitchen and set a glass of water down on the table in front of Shaun. He picked up the glass with both hands intending to take a sip, and downed half of the glass. He hadn’t been aware until he started drinking that his mouth was dry and he was thirsty. The glass hit the table again with a dull thud. Shaun’s hands came to rest, curled, on his thighs. He looked up at Leah, who had remained standing, frozen, watching Shaun.
“Okay,” he said again. And it was.
Leah’s body softened, and she dropped down on the couch next to Shaun again, leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees. “Shaun,” she said, looking up at him, “I thought you were into me. I never wanted to freak you out or… or hurt you. When I kissed you, I thought you were into it. I didn’t realize…” she trailed off again. “Anyways, I’m really sorry, and --”
Shaun cut her off. “I like kissing you,” he said.
Leah sat up. “Really?” she asked.
“I like kissing you,” he confirmed.
Leah let out a breath. “Well, that’s a relief,” she said.
“Yes,” Shaun said, smiling at her. She didn’t look sad or angry anymore.
“Still, something was definitely wrong,” she said. “When I kissed you, you totally flinched.”
“Not because you kissed me, it was because you grabbed me,” Shaun explained.
Leah’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Grabbed you?” she asked. “I don’t understand,” she clarified.
“Yes, in my hair, just like this,” Shaun said, reaching up and gripping his own hair tightly in his hand.
“Oh,” Leah said, realization dawning over her face. “So you don’t like your hair being touched.” she said.
“No,” Shaun said. “I like my hair being touched. Not grabbed.”
“Oh,” Leah responded. “I’m not sure I get it. You could show me,” she suggested.
Cautiously, Shaun reached up a hand and ruffled his hair, in the front. A familiar warmth, like the smell of an orange peel, blossomed in his chest and faded, leaving him calmer.
“Got it,” Leah said softly. Then she lifted her hand hesitantly. “I’d like to try it, if it’s something you want,” she said.
“Yes,” said Shaun.
Leah reached out and carded gentle fingers through his hair, brushing it forward slightly onto his forehead. Shaun’s eyes closed and he shivered with pleasure. Leah’s touch was uniquely her own, and nothing had ever felt like this before. He never wanted her to stop.
All too soon, she pulled away, her eyes assessing him.
“That was nice,” Shaun breathed.
Leah grinned. “So, I’m sure there are other things you think are nice,” she said in a low voice.
Shaun blushed deeply. There were. It was a long list.
Leah laughed. “Wow! I was so not intending to sound suggestive,” she said. “I guess it must have come across that way.”
“It did,” Shaun said, smiling. Then he added, “I like light touch.”
“Oh,” said Leah, serious again. “You could show me that, too.” She held out her hand to Shaun. “It will be easier if I can feel it,” she explained.
Shaun rested her open palm in his left hand and lightly drew the fingers of his right hand down the length of Leah’s arm, starting just below her elbow and ending at her wrist. He looked up at her when he finished to see if she understood. She nodded. Her pupils were blown. She laughed softly. “I guess I do too,” she said.
“What else do you like?” Shaun asked.
“Well, um, back to kissing… I like when you… kiss back? Like there was one time a while ago, I think it was when I started rubbing your back, that you really responded, like you moved in towards me, and it was really nice,” she concluded, biting her lip in the way Shaun knew meant she was feeling self-conscious. Shaun’s stomach flipped. He got a little lightheaded whenever Leah bit her lip.
“I hated that,” Shawn said.
“What?” she asked, taken aback.
“Yes, the movement of your hands feels bad. And it’s distracting. But I can move closer to you when we kiss. That part is nice,” Shaun said.
“Oh,” Leah said, nodding slowly, “that makes a lot of sense, actually. So, kissing is fine, but no grabbing, no hand-moving-around, yes to light touch,” she summarized.
“Yes,” Shaun agreed. “And moving closer together is good. Responding is good,” he confirmed.
“Yeah,” Leah said, smiling.
Shaun smiled back. He wondered if now might be a good time to try another go.
“Oh! One other thing, just while we’re getting this all on the table,” Leah said. “I take it you don’t want to go any further than kissing for right now,” she said.
Further where? Shaun thought. It took him a moment to process what she meant. “Oh,” he said, his hands twisting together furiously.
“That’s totally cool,” Leah said hurriedly. “We don’t have to move any faster than you’re comfortable with, I just --”
“What are you comfortable with?” Shaun asked her, his heart pounding.
“Me? Oh… I…” Leah said, blushing. She looked embarrassed.
Shaun waited patiently.
Finally, Leah spoke, more tentatively than Shaun was used to hearing from her. “Well, I mean… when we kiss we could… how do I say this? We could deepen the kiss? Like, french kissing,” she finished, then laughed. “God, ‘french kissing’ sounds so seventh grade,” she muttered.
“You mean kissing with tongue,” Shaun confirmed, dismayed.
“Yeah, exactly,” said Leah.
“I don’t ever want to do that,” Shaun declared.
Leah’s shoulders slumped. “Oh, never?”
“No,” Shaun said firmly.
“Okay,” said Leah. Shaun could tell she was trying to look neutral because of the way that she set her mouth, but the rest of her body gave her away. Leah was easy to read.
“Are you sad?” Shaun asked, concerned.
“No!” she insisted. “Well…” she admitted, “I just thought, after we got to know each other better, someday we might, like, do more stuff.”
“I want to do more stuff,” Shaun assured her. “I just don’t want to kiss with tongue. It feels like I’m going to swallow a slug.”
Leah laughed. “Fair enough!” she remarked, when she caught her breath. “No kissing with tongue.” Shaun grinned, pleased that his comment had amused her, although it wasn’t intentional. “Well,” she said, “you know you can always ask if you want to do something different. Or go further.”
“I can’t,” Shaun explained.
“What? Dude, we’re doing it right now,” Leah laughed.
“Not while I’m kissing you. While we’re kissing, my mind is so busy I can’t find the words,” Shaun explained.
“Oh, got it,” Leah said. She paused, chewing her bottom lip thoughtfully, and Shaun could feel his pulse quicken. “Then I guess you have to tell me without using words,” she finally concluded, snapping him back into focus.
“How can I talk to you without using words?” Shaun asked.
“Like, nodding, or shaking your head,” Leah explained, “but also, you can use your hands, too. Like you can pull me closer, or push me away from you. We could also come up with signals that mean a certain thing. Like…” She paused to consider, then continued. “Like if you tap me repeatedly like this with open palms, it means to take a break,” she suggested, demonstrating by her knees with her open palms several times. “Then we could stop until you’re able to say whatever you need to say, and then keep going.”
“Okay,” said Shaun, trying it out for himself. Then he looked over at Leah and said, “I think we should practice.”
She met his eyes briefly, bit her lip again, and paused. Then she kissed Shaun, a soft, gentle press of her lips against his. More, Shaun thought, closing his eyes, combusting, and she kissed him again, and again. Each warm brush of their mouths coming together sent another staticky wave of pleasure throughout Shaun’s body. He turned around towards Leah, bringing his knees up under him on the couch. Leah’s breaths became quicker. She braced herself against the couch, leaning into him. He cupped her face with one of his hands and pushed the other one through her honey-blonde hair. The feeling was running water in a sun-warmed creek. The feeling was something peppery and volatile and perfect pooling in his abdomen, and her hands were on his hips, and one of his hands was resting in her hair and the other was skating down her back, skimming over seaglass-soft cotton and the clasp of her bra through her t-shirt. There weren’t words and there weren’t images for what was happening, just a sensory kaleidoscope that built in intensity until it felt like all there was.
And then Shaun realized suddenly that they were on a precipice, and they either had to tip forward or back. So Shaun pulled back, carefully disentangled his breaths from Leah’s breaths and his hand from Leah’s hair and sat back on his heels. She sat back as well, smoothed her hair, tucked a piece behind her ear. She looked flushed but composed. Shaun did not feel composed. He was panting and his body felt hot and his thoughts were still wild and tangled and the world shone with a soft patina. Leah sat across from him, smiling at him, waiting for him to come down.
Finally she spoke. “So, I’m thinking we could finish this movie,” she teased, grinning.
“Yes,” Shaun agreed hastily, breathlessly. If she wanted to go back to where things were before, he could play along.
“Or… we could talk about that,” Leah proposed tentatively, twisting a piece of hair around her finger.
“It was good,” Shaun said.
“Yeah, it was,” Leah replied, laughing. Then she paused, and said in a more serious tone, “You were good, Shaun. You’re a good kisser.”
“Thank you,” Shaun said, blushing.
“I hope it was better this time,” Leah said.
“It was,” Shaun confirmed. Then he continued thoughtfully, “It was good, but it was not normal. There was not certain touching, and there was no kissing with tongue, but that was okay. It was just me and you. We are allowed to decide how we want to kiss, and we are allowed to decide how we want to do anything else.”
“Damn right we are,” Leah agreed. Then she said soberly, “You didn’t really think that before.”
“In relationships people are supposed to behave appropriately. For most people, ‘appropriately’ means the same thing as ‘normally,’” Shaun confided softly.
“Well, I think that’s fucked up,” Leah replied in a tight voice, “and totally not true.”
“You’re angry?” Shaun asked, surprised.
“I just think that’s fucked up,” Leah repeated. “That’s all.”
Shaun wanted to calm her, but didn’t understand why she was suddenly upset. “We could watch the movie,” he suggested.
“Alrighty,” she said, turning the television back on and starting it up again. Gradually, she relaxed into the couch, appearing to become engrossed in the story. Shaun’s hands fluttered in his lap. His heart rate had decelerated and his body felt fuzzy. He glanced at Leah, awestruck, then looked down at his hands.
“You know, you could come lie down in my lap if you wanted to,” Leah said, without taking her eyes off the screen.
“Okay,” said Shaun. He settled down with his head in her lap, snuggling his face against warm denim. He then drew his knees up against his chest and wrapped his arms around them, allowing his muscles to relax, watching through half-lidded eyes as colors flickered on screen.
Then he felt Leah’s hands in his hair, soft and slow, and Shaun shivered and shut his eyes and sank into a creamsicle haze. It had been such a long day, and he was very, very glad to be close to Leah.