After settling deeper into the couch, Shaun looked at Lea expectantly.
She idly noted that he still hadn’t let go of her hand.
“We’re best friends, right?” Lea said, her voice soft.
Shaun was now looking down at their still-connected hands in amazement, like he couldn’t quite believe he was actually being allowed to do this.
“Yes,” he answered, just as softly, still looking down at their hands.
“I thought of a few things that... might hold us over, until...” Lea announced, letting her voice trail off meaningfully. Please understand the subtext here, Shaun. It won’t work unless you do, she mentally added. “That is, if you’d be open to trying them,” she finished.
She watched an internal battle rage inside Shaun with a sort of glazed fascination. His expressions variegated among panic, desire, and guilt.
At last, he nodded. “But... it’s not...?” he whispered, voice fading.
Lea shook her head. “Not quite. Almost. A... different kind of communication. Some talking. Some... not talking.”
‘Please explain,’ Shaun’s face read.
“Okay. Tell me something,” she started, having come up with another way to have the conversation with Shaun, that she really wanted to be having.
She wanted to ask him all about his feelings for her. How they’d started, how they’d grown, how they’d evolved. The whole timeline of their... connection.
And the only way to do that, she felt, was to ask Shaun to tell it to her like a story – like they were best friends catching up over coffee, talking over their respective relationship highs and lows.
Then, Lea thought, he’d be able to be much more open about his feelings for her, and if they were only talking in hypotheticals – well, Lea thought they could probably both go to bed with clear consciences. She knew that was of vital importance to Shaun.
It was important to Lea, too, of course, but she had the advantage of knowing that she and Jake had never actually had the ‘exclusivity’ Talk.
She hadn’t told Shaun this, and she didn’t intend on doing so. As far as Shaun was concerned, Lea wasn’t single, and she was willing to cede to his binary perspective on the matter. Because that was a hill to die on, for him. Semantics didn’t change facts.
“What do you want me to tell you, Lea?” he responded.
“Well, Shaunie, I seem to recall hearing that you’ve fallen in love with a girl. Tell me about that,” Lea pressed. “I want to know all about her. You know, make sure she’s good enough for my wonderful best friend.”
Shaun looked at her, confused, his expression clearly saying: ‘But... that’s you. Why wouldn’t I just talk to you directly?’
“Best friends want to hear about each other’s relationships. They give one another encouragement and advice. And they offer their support when things aren’t going so well, either,” Lea explained. “You’re my best friend, and I want your life to be happy. So, tell me about this girl.”
Shaun processed this new context, and understood: Lea wanted him to talk about his feelings, without ‘cheating’.
He supposed this was a way of talking around a subject that was still forbidden.
And he was happy to try it this way. He hadn’t really had many opportunities to explain his feelings for Lea to anyone, least of all her. People only seemed to ask him if he had them. They weren’t all that interested in why he had them. Morgan had been the first person to ever ask him why.
And, while it was true that Lea made him feel incredibly alive, he knew there had to be more to it.
So, if Lea wanted to know – if she was genuinely curious to hear his perspective on the development of – whatever this would end up being – then he’d tell her.
“You’re doing the same thing people do when they say ‘Netflix and chill’,” he responded, blushing a little. “Saying one thing, when you really mean... something else. You’re using subtext.”
“I absolutely am,” Lea acknowledged. “You cool with that? I think it could work. I don’t think we’ll spontaneously combust into flames from guilt.”
“Okay,” Shaun agreed. He let go of Lea’s hand – so he could concentrate on talking, she supposed.
“Where’d you guys meet?” Lea asked.
“She was my neighbour. The night we met, she came and knocked on my door. She asked me if she could borrow some Triple-A batteries for a video game controller,” he began.
Lea nodded. So far, her recollection of the evening was in line with his.
Shaun continued, “But I found out later that the controller didn’t need batteries. It should have had a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. I let the girl borrow the batteries, yet I always wondered why she really needed them.”
Lea blinked. This was new information.
Shaun went on, “So I asked my workmate Claire about it. I explained that my neighbour’s controller didn’t take normal batteries, and Claire started laughing really hard, for some reason. She wouldn’t say why. All I could get out of Claire was, ‘Ha! Yeah, I bet she needed them... for her joystick!’”
Lea’s eyes narrowed. Where, exactly, was this part of the story going?
“It was very frustrating that Claire expected me to understand the joke she was making. But she would not elaborate. Finally, I asked my other workmate Jared what Claire’s joke had meant, and he laughed, too. I thought no-one was ever going to explain the joke to me.”
Yes. I, too, would like to know what the joke meant, Lea thought, snippily. She didn’t appreciate the thought of Shaun’s co-workers having a laugh at his naïveté.
“Jared said ‘Oh, mate, Claire meant that your fit neighbour probably needed them for her vibrator! You know, a joystick!’ Then he told me what a vibrator was for. That was a very awkward day.”
Lea turned bright red. That had been Shaun’s colleagues’ first impression of her? She had actually needed them for the controller – she’d been using an aftermarket version, which took normal batteries.
The original one had landed in a container of watery ice and soda cans at a party, and short-circuited. She hadn’t bothered springing for a genuine replacement. The imitation model was just fine.
And then she went even redder when she realised that, for some days after they’d met, Shaun had probably been thinking she was an insatiable sex maniac. At the same time, she idly wondered if him thinking of her that way, had actually turned him on.
Tabling that rather dangerous thought for the time being, Lea went back to paying full attention to Shaun’s recount.
“She never returned or replaced my batteries. I had to go and ask for them back. Jared suggested I not ask my neighbour what she really needed the batteries for. He said it was offensive and unnecessary. I didn’t want my neighbour to think I was a moron. So I told her I was a surgeon. She said, ‘That’s insane’. And it turned out Claire and Jared were wrong, because the neighbour girl took my batteries right out of the controller in front of me and gave them back. I made sure to tell my colleagues that they had been incorrect in their speculation.”
Lea nodded. “Well, yeah, she said ‘borrow’. Fair enough! And what went through your head when you first saw her?”
“‘Her clothes don’t match, and her hair’s a mess’,” he said, without missing a beat. “But she was beautiful.”
“Mismatched clothes, messy hair, and all?”
Shaun nodded. “Everything.” Then, he sneaked a sideways look at her. “She still is.”
Lea flushed pink again. “And then, did you start seeing the pretty girl around more often?”
He nodded. “Yes. She drove me home one night, after she saw me walking home. I’d missed getting off at my usual bus stop. She’d just come from the gym. She was all sweaty. She didn’t smell great, either. And yet, somehow, she was still the prettiest girl I’d ever seen.”
“Those gym showers are disgusting. She probably just wanted to shower at home,” Lea commented.
“Yes. She mentioned she was frightened of foot fungus. Very reasonable. It can be a tenacious condition to treat. But she said she appreciated my honesty.”
“Okay, so then you started hanging out, or?”
“Then she started to play her music loud at night, and I had to buy earplugs. She barged into my apartment one morning, angry that our landlord had cut her power, to express his displeasure with her loud music. I told her that her music was loud, and that I wore earplugs when it annoyed me too much. I suggested she buy headphones. She was very upset. She snatched the apple I was going to have for breakfast, and bit into it. That was irritating, because it was my last one.”
Do you ever think before you act? Lea asked herself, inwardly cringing at what a human steamroller she’d been when they first met.
“I had to go to the corner market and buy a new one before work. The store I was in got held up. The robber kept giving confusing, contradictory instructions. He wanted me to obey them, but I couldn’t keep my hands up where he could see them, and also get out my wallet and phone, like he asked. He lost patience with me. He had a gun. A girl got shot. I tried to take an apple from a patient’s meal tray later, but I got caught.”
The story of a young man and his noble quest for a damned apple, Lea thought. She knew that the events of this day led into the night she’d hugged him for the first time.
He’d alluded to making some sort of mistake, but he hadn’t explicitly told her what had gone wrong.
“Claire told me that I might have been stupid to tell the girl I wore earplugs to drown out her music. That sometimes, women just want support, rather than advice,” he continued. “So I apologised to my neighbour, even though I still thought she was wrong. And then, my neighbour – she apologised to me. She said she had probably overreacted. And she gave me a fresh apple, to replace the one she took a bite out of earlier. Then, she went back into her apartment.”
No duh, Dilallo. Of course you overreacted!
“And I... hadn’t had a good day at work,” Shaun went on. “So, I went and knocked on her door. I didn’t really... think about why. I think I wanted to tell someone I made a mistake, but in my own time. Not a therapist’s time, or Dr. Glassman’s time. I just wanted to... tell her. Only her. Maybe because she didn’t ask. She wasn’t pushing me to talk.”
“And the girl helped you?” Lea prompted. She was pretty interested in Shaun’s answer to that. What had that hug been like, from his viewpoint?
“She hugged me. Everything still wasn’t okay, but it didn’t seem as bad as before.”
“What did it feel like, when this girl hugged you?” Lea queried.
“Uncomfortable, at first. I didn’t know what to do with my hands or arms. But I got used to it. She was warm, and her grip around me was secure, yet I didn’t feel trapped by it, either. I didn’t really know if I wanted her to ever let me go. And I desperately wanted to put my arms around her, too, but – I just – couldn’t. I tried. It was too intense. She hugged me for a long time. She was very quiet. I appreciated that. It let me concentrate on what it felt like to be hugged by her. And how it felt was – up to that point, I had hated hugs. Hers... I didn’t hate hers, at all.”
I’d never met someone more in need of a warm, welcoming embrace in my life before that night, Shaun Murphy. I didn’t want to stop hugging you, either. Lea thought.
“Well, that’s good, that the girl helped you to feel better. Did you see her much, following that?” Lea asked him.
“Yes. I was interviewing a potential housekeeper one morning. The girl from next door came back from her morning run, and she noticed the woman leaving my apartment. She asked me who it was leaving my apartment, so early in the morning. I’m not really sure why she asked me that.”
“Um, well – she might have thought you were sleeping with that woman. You know, the ‘Walk of Shame’?” Lea suggested.
Shaun shrugged. “I told the girl I was interviewing a housekeeper. I wasn’t hiring this one, though, because her clothes didn’t match.”
“Well, exactly. I mean, how could you expect her to look after your home, if she couldn’t even dress herself?” Lea commented, trying to be sympathetic to Shaun’s point of view.
“But when I said that, my neighbour punched me in the arm and called me an ‘asshat’. I still don’t understand what that term means. It makes no sense. And the punch hurt.”
“Well, this girl was probably teasing you to hide the fact that she might have been... a little jealous,” Lea hinted.
Oh, yes, you were. And maybe – if you’d said so earlier – you could have had him sooner.
She vaguely remembered the ensemble she’d been wearing that day: possibly a white jacket with red stripes, and black-and-white printed leggings? Maybe? If it was, that had definitely been a random outfit – she probably hadn’t done her laundry.
“Hey... maybe – did the girl’s clothes match that day?” Lea asked, “Or not? ‘Cause you said earlier, that when you met – when she borrowed your batteries – her outfit clashed.”
Shaun shook his head. “No. She was wearing... a white jacket with red stripes and graphic print leggings,” he recalled. “They clashed. Horribly.”
“In that case, she might also have thought you were judging her own outfit choice, given it clashed. So I guess she called you an ‘asshat’, because she thought you were insulting her,” Lea mused aloud.
Shaun looked thoughtful. “It’s possible. I brought it up with Claire at work. I told her that my neighbour had called me an ‘asshat’ that morning. Claire seemed convinced that my neighbour had been flirting with me.”
Ah, yes, Claire, and her advice, Lea thought, somewhat annoyed.
But she also realised that, just maybe – if it hadn’t been for that advice – she and Shaun wouldn’t be as tantalisingly close to somewhere as they were right now.
Perhaps, in some way, it was good that it had taken them so long to get to here. If they’d tried it back then – well, it might not have lasted.
“Claire asked what the girl was doing when she insulted me, and I said that she was touching me. Then Claire told me about something she called the ‘Flirting Trifecta’: the pretentious giggle, the squirm, and the hair sweep. All of which this girl had done, while she was talking to me. Claire said that, if all I’d told her was true, the girl had definitely been flirting with me.”
“Did she now? Well, that’s a good summary of the concept, I guess. So, your neighbour was flirting with you?”
Shaun sighed. “I hoped she was. Claire was quite adamant about it being the case.”
I was, Shaun. I was.
“That night, I told my neighbour that she looked absurd in the sweater she was wearing. Her response was surprising. She invited me into her apartment, because she had apples, and she asked me if I wanted one. It was nice that she remembered I like apples. Claire didn’t cover that scenario, but I found out later that my neighbour was probably just creating a pretext, to spend more time with me.”
Good guess, Shaunie.
“And I had apples in my own refrigerator. But, by then, I knew I should accept my neighbour’s invitation, because we were flirting with one another, and it was fun.”
“And what happened in her apartment?”
“I told her that I am autistic, and I explained what that means for me. I talked a little about how hard it was to get anyone’s respect at work. Then, later that week, I spent a night at work, sleeping in the janitor’s closet, because I was being forced by my mentor – Dr. Glassman – to see a therapist. He thought I wasn’t coping after the hold-up. And then Dr. Glassman said he was coming to my apartment with the therapist. So, I took a few things from my apartment, and I knocked on my neighbour’s door. She let me hide out in her apartment. Dr. Glassman came looking for me there.”
Lea remembered it well. Shaun had knocked frantically on her door. She’d seen the traumatised look on his face. It had hurt her heart to see him so broken.
It had been the first time he’d ever directly asked for her help.
”Shaun! Oh, my God, what’s wrong?”
”Lea – I – I need your help.”
”Sure, okay – what can I do?”
He’d looked behind him anxiously, and then back at her.
”I need a place to hide.”
She’d let him in straight away.
“Dr. Glassman is going to come looking for me at my apartment soon – I wanted to make my own decisions – I don’t want to see a therapist — ”
”I’ll take you somewhere. Are you hungry? Maybe we could go see a movie, that might distract you — ”
”No, no, no, I – have to hide – I slept in the janitor’s closet last night – Dr. Glassman figured it out when I ran into him – and I’m not getting a surround-sound system for my television — ”
Shaun had stayed the night. She’d offered him dinner, and he hadn’t been hungry. He’d been content just to watch her play Uncharted for hours. She had tried to get him to talk a few times that evening, but he hadn’t had much to say.
Glassy had barged right into her apartment the next morning. Thank God he hadn’t found Shaun, who had crawled under her bed, and she’d rolled the trundle in after him.
“So, what happened next?” Lea pressed. She was sort of looking forward to Shaun’s perspective on what had followed. She had vivid memories about this part.
“I ran away with the girl. She took me on a road trip. She tried to teach me how to drive. I hit a rock. We drank tequila. We sang karaoke. When we got back to the motel, she told me to kiss her. So I did. She asked me if I wanted to do it again, and I said yes. But then I felt sick from the tequila,” Shaun rattled off, and he was deliberately looking anywhere but at Lea, as he told this part of the story.
“Shaun, those – those are just facts. I want you to tell me how it felt,” Lea said, her voice gentle.
“I don’t... think I can,” Shaun said, mostly to his lap. “I have alexithymia, as well. That means I struggle with identifying and describing some of my emotions. Lea, I want to tell you how it felt. I will, if I can. Perhaps I can try to give you more details about the night, and maybe you’ll be able to tell what I felt.”
“Okay. I think the things you give more detail about are going to be the things you felt stronger emotions towards. Does that make sense?” Lea asked, softly, and Shaun nodded. “You went on a road trip...?”
Shaun sighed. “I played hooky from work with the girl, and we went on a road trip. She tried to introduce me to some of the music she liked. I didn’t really enjoy music before that, but I wanted to give it a chance, because I thought she’d like me better if I enjoyed the things she did. I told her about my deceased younger brother. I could smell pine trees. We stopped for snacks and gas, and she offered to teach me to drive. I’d always wanted to learn how to drive. It went well – at first. Then I crashed into a rock. I was very upset at myself, so the girl bought me my first tequila shot, saying it would make me feel better. It... wasn’t bad. We drank some more tequila, and we got very drunk. I remember getting up on stage to sing karaoke. She chose ‘Islands in the Stream’. I like that song a lot now.”
Come on, come on, tell me what happened next, Lea thought, feverishly. Tell me about our first kiss.
“And then we went back to the motel room, and the girl... she... was behaving strangely. She was standing in the doorway of the room, and she said that she had one more thing to teach me: the right way to end a date. She told me to kiss her.”
Please keep talking... I’m sorry I’ve never asked what it was like for you.
“It was... confronting... to have my emotions read so easily. How she knew I wanted to kiss her, too. I’m not used to people guessing what I want, and when they try to, they usually guess wrong. I would never have had the courage to try and kiss her on my own. I... I still... don’t.”
“Did you ever want to?”
Shaun looked away before he answered, “I never stop wanting to.”
Then, with a visible effort, he turned back and tried to look Lea in the eye. She could see that it was very difficult for him to do so.
In an attempt to offer some kind of support, she reached for his hand again, and he jerked in surprise.
“I’m sure she knows how that feels, too,” Lea offered.
This reassurance seemed to galvanise Shaun, who picked up the story again: “She – she asked me if that was my first kiss, and I said it was; she told me I was pretty good at it... and she asked if I wanted to do it again. I did. I really, really did. So it was awful that I had to go and be sick from the tequila at that exact moment. I got it all out, brushed my teeth and stumbled to bed.”
“Oh, that must have been horrible,” Lea soothed.
Shaun nodded, shuddering at the memory.
Meanwhile, however, Lea recalled what had actually happened next. There were big gaps in Shaun’s account. He must have forgotten some of the night. Unsurprising, given his inexperience with alcohol and the number of shots he’d taken.
Shaun had emerged from the bathroom about thirty minutes later, smelling of mint toothpaste and mouthwash, his hair damp from the shower. He looked spent and miserable, but relieved to be clean.
Before that, however, Lea had ducked into the bathroom once she heard the shower start running, toting bottles of shampoo and shower gel. She knew Shaun had never been drunk before, and she wanted to keep him safe as he muddled through it. That meant waiting in the bathroom while he showered. Making sure he didn’t slip and fall, or pass out.
She’d also brought in his pyjamas, as well as clean pairs of underwear and socks, all retrieved from his meticulously-packed overnight bag. She had a feeling Shaun might have been in need of some fresh clothes when he got out of the shower. Tequila could be nasty when it wanted revenge.
Judging by the pile of his clothes in the corner, she’d guessed right.
She also had a bottle of Gatorade at the ready, retrieved from the vending machine. Standing outside the shower, she had opened the curtain, offering Shaun the bottle wordlessly, while averting her eyes. He’d taken it gratefully.
“I’m gonna stay in here with you while you shower. I’m not gonna look, I just want you to be safe. Please let me know if you need help. You probably won’t remember this in the morning, anyway.” Lea had told him.
Shaun nodded, then a look of disorientation crossed his face, like he was trying to get his bearings.
“Dizzy?” Lea asked, sympathetically, “I know. It’s not nice. Just remember, I’m here.”
“I am... dehydrated,” Shaun pronounced, with some effort.
“Drink the Gatorade first, then you can shower. You’ll feel better, I promise. Try not to have the water too hot, it won’t help,” Lea had instructed him, trying to keep her voice soothing.
But she’d peeked. Of course she had.
Judging by the omission of those details from Shaun’s account of the evening, he didn’t remember it had ever happened.
She decided not to remind him. It might have been embarrassing for him, and it wasn’t important now.