Shaun came to a decision early on Tuesday morning.
The solution to his Lea conundrum arrived unexpectedly, while he was idly contemplating the toast slices on the plate in front of him.
Shaun knew he shouldn't do what he was considering doing – he knew it was inappropriate – to bring this up with anyone else, and to talk about Lea behind her back. He should be talking to Lea herself.
But trying to talk about his reluctance to ask for sexual favours from Lea with Lea herself wasn't proving to be much of a winning strategy so far, and Shaun thought he might die of embarrassment if he spoke about it with Dr. Glassman.
Plus, Lea would also be embarrassed if Shaun were to bring it up with Dr. Glassman. She'd told Shaun she didn't want him ‘kissing and telling’, and she'd expressly requested that he not talk to Dr. Glassman about the physical side of the relationship.
Shaun had tossed and turned the whole night through. He'd annoyed Lea with the incessant shifting of the mattress, and all of it was punctuated by frustrating hypnic jerks, yanking him back into alertness every time he thought he was finally – mercifully – falling asleep.
He wasn't a fan of the smell of coffee, and he despised the taste, but the lack of a decent night's sleep was getting to Shaun. He was seriously considering working on acquiring at least some semblance of a taste for coffee. He felt utterly exhausted, like he'd just finished running a marathon.
Talking to Morgan was out: Shaun still had some unresolved feelings about the kiss they had shared last Wednesday night.
It wasn't that he wanted to kiss Morgan again, precisely: rather, it was that kissing her had awakened an almost primal instinct inside himself, simmering incessantly far below his skin. A distant, buzzing sort of hum, like the sounds of the white noise machine he sometimes used to help lull him to sleep. He couldn't understand how he'd always been so ignorant of its existence before.
On reflection, Shaun would have much preferred it if Lea had been the one to help him to discover that drive of his, instead of Morgan.
He vividly recalled nearly knocking his forehead against Morgan's, the fingers of one of his hands weaving roughly through her blonde hair, and the fingers of his other hand stroking the featherweight cashmere of her sweater, like it was something alive.
Then there had been Morgan's own unyielding hold on Shaun, one of her hands grabbing for a fistful of his shirt collar, the other yanking on his hair. And he flashed back on shuddering and shaking while he clutched at her, seeking out some sort of grip on reality.
Until that kiss, Shaun had never really understood just how something could be painful and pleasurable at the same time. All the frustration and the fury he had kept buried – because it got too loud when he carelessly let it start creeping, unchecked, up to the surface – every last bit of it found a home in that moment, when he was – willingly – kissing someone other than Lea.
A knot of discomfort lodged in Shaun's stomach as he next recalled lying to Lea. In the hospital, he'd told her he had kissed Morgan, and he'd known immediately that he didn't want to do it again.
Telling Lea that he'd known it immediately had been a lie. Shaun damn well had not known it immediately. Sometimes he even wondered what else might have happened, if Lea hadn't walked in on the tail-end of that kiss. Would he have kissed Morgan again?
Kissing Morgan had hurt. It had been forceful and brutal. Shaun knew he couldn't kiss Lea like that. It might hurt her, and that was the last thing he wanted to do.
In the end, Morgan's plan to make Lea jealous had worked: Lea was Shaun's girlfriend now. And he knew Lea and Morgan did not like one another.
So that left —
“Shaun?” Claire asked him curiously, sitting across from him at their cafeteria table. Her brow was knitted in concern. “There's something on your mind. Want to talk about it?”
“Yes. There is something on my mind,” Shaun admitted. “I want to talk to you about it, because you communicate well with autistic people. I think you will understand it.”
“Well, it's nice of you to say that, Shaun, but I'm not trying to communicate with you just because you're autistic. Communicating with you is important to me because you're a good friend. One of my best friends, actually. What bothers you bothers me. And something is bothering you. You haven't stopped fidgeting, all through breakfast.”
Shaun couldn't help but note the striking contrasts between Claire's and Lea's individual approaches to conversations with him.
Where Lea seemed to jump in and try to finish the thoughts Shaun sometimes couldn't complete on his own, Claire simply sat patiently, waiting for him to gather his thoughts up and shuffle them around, until they made enough order and logical sense in his own head to justify being spoken aloud.
“Lea is my girlfriend now,” he began, awkwardly, to which Claire grinned widely and exclaimed, “Hey, that's terrific!”
“Yes. It's terrific. We have had sex four times since Friday. It's very fun.”
Claire had been sipping her orange juice when Shaun made this nonchalant declaration, and she choked on her drink. Her eyes began to water, and she kept waving her hand around in the air like, 'Heard and understood, I'm okay, just give me a second.’
Shaun took this gesture literally, and stayed seated, instead of launching himself across the table to perform the Heimlich. He waited patiently for Claire to pull herself together.
“Uh, that's – great, Shaun,” she said weakly, when she had recovered her composure. “Congratulations?”
“Lea is telling me that I should be asking her for sexual favours. She seems troubled that I am not asking for them, and it is beginning to trouble me that she is troubled by that,” Shaun went on.
Claire translated in her head: 'Lea wants to do other things, and so do I, but I can't seem to get comfortable with asking her for them.'
“What kind of sexual favours?” Claire asked, mirroring Shaun's terminology. “Like, blow jobs? Hand jobs? Fluffy handcuffs? How adventurous are we talking here? A gimp suit? Pegging?”
“Lea has offered me two blow jobs so far. Also, I bought the Hemnes bed from IKEA on the weekend, because Lea seemed fixated on the fact that there are bars on the bedhead. Therefore, I had to buy it.”
Claire let out an involuntary chuckle that she was able to turn into a sort of wheeze. Thankfully, Shaun didn't seem to notice the odd noise Claire had made.
"Uh... did, um, you want me to explain... why the bars... did Lea tell you, or...?” Claire managed to stammer out.
“Lea would like to tie my hands to them. I would like to tie her hands to them as well, one day. I have already set aside a necktie that I do not like, and will not want to wear ever again, for this exact purpose,” Shaun outlined, factually.
“Okay, right, you're keen on a bit of light bondage. Fabulous. Well, uh, thanks for the nightmares, buddy. But do you want other things as well, like a blow job, or whatever, Shaun? What you want matters, too. You can say yes to some things and no to others. You can have soft and hard limits – actually, you know what, I'm really crossing a line here now, you should discuss these things with your girlfriend — ”
'Can I be honest?' his pained gaze – or the bit she could see of it, at least, since his head was tilted down – seemed to ask, followed by, 'And will you tell anyone else what I've said to you, if I am?'
“Shaun, this chat doesn't go beyond this table, if that's what's worrying you — ” Claire started.
But Shaun carried on: “Claire, I have been trying to discuss these things with my girlfriend... and I cannot get the words out. I don't know what I'm scared of. There are many things I'd like to do to Lea, and many things I'd like her to do to me. I know what they're called – it's not a case of not knowing what to ask for.”
“All right,” Claire said, slowly. “Have you tried just telling Lea that? It sounds like she's pretty confused, Shaun. Worst case, she might be feeling like you're sleeping with her out of a misguided sense of obligation, or that you aren't really attracted to her. Sex – and relationships, generally – are all about give and take. Lea feels like she's been doing all the taking, but not giving you anything back. She's worried that you aren't getting what you want. Do you feel guilty for wanting things, Shaun? Or maybe like you're not worthy of them?”
Shaun looked thoughtful. “Maybe. My parents didn't ever make me feel like I had the right to ask for anything. I was never in control of anything until I ran away with my brother.”
“Hmm. Then I'm wondering if it's that you're afraid you won't get what you want… or whether you're really afraid that you actually might. Are you asking yourself the right questions?” Claire pondered aloud.
“I am not afraid of Lea,” Shaun stated.
Claire shook her head. “I'm not saying you are, Shaun. I'm saying that you don't think you deserve Lea's love. You're waiting for the bottom to drop out. Preparing for the end. You're scared to be truly vulnerable with her. You think she'll leave you again, and you'll have to relearn how to live without her from the ground up. Any of that sounding familiar?”
“Yes, it does. Your insights are very helpful. You always give useful advice. Thank you, Claire.”
“Anytime, Shaun. We should get going now, though.”
As they scraped their chairs back and got up – Shaun cringing at the noise – he leaned across to Claire and said confidentially: “I do want Lea to give me a blow job.”
“Yeah? So tell her you want one.”
“Will it be fun?” he next asked, anxiously.
Claire flashed him a brilliant, mischievous grin. “Well, Shaun, there's really only one way for you to find that out. And it'd be nice if you were to, you know... reciprocate.”
Shaun appeared to be shaken to the core by this information, and stopped short.
“Oh, don't you go being a typical guy on me now, Murphy,” Claire scolded him, rolling her eyes. “So many men think they don't have to return the favour. I thought you were different, you know? Not a selfish jerk like the majority of 'em.”
“I am different, Claire,” Shaun assured her. “I'm autistic.”
The morning passed by without incident, and Shaun had stuck close to Claire's side for most of that time.
Whenever it looked as though Morgan might approach the two of them, however, he jerked reflexively, like a startled jackrabbit.
“Don't worry, we've all regretted kissing... particular people,” Claire assured him, in a sympathetic undertone.
“I don't regret kissing Morgan,” Shaun responded, briskly. “It made Lea jealous, just like Morgan said it would. It was very helpful.”
But Shaun couldn't continue giving Morgan the slip forever, and she cornered him in the doctors' lounge at lunch.
“Why are you avoiding me, Murphy?” she hissed. “I can't believe how ungrateful you're being. Are you still torn up about kissing me? Get over it. Don't make it weird. I'm guessing you got Lea out of it, in the end, so how bad could it have been?”
“Lea does not like you. I think she would prefer that I do not talk to you outside of our work here,” Shaun replied politely.
“Do you always say 'How high?' when Lea says 'Jump!'? Doesn't she trust you to think for yourself?” Morgan shot back.
“You and I are not friends, Dr. Reznick,” Shaun reminded her. “We just work together. Don't make it weird.”
Morgan was a little floored by Shaun's swift dismissal of her, and his reiteration that an isolated in-depth discussion and an impulsive kiss did not a friendship make.
She supposed she shouldn't have been taken aback by this, really: they'd carried out this plan with no intention of becoming friends by the end of it. She and Shaun had simply brokered an arrangement. At best, they were co-conspirators.
“Look, I'm not totally opposed to us trying to get along with each other, Shaun,” Morgan said, startling even herself, and resenting how plaintive she sounded. “Or would you prefer that I just call you 'Dr. Murphy' from here on out?” she added, injecting a tiny drop of venom into her words.
“We will not be seeing one another outside of work. There is no reason not to use our proper titles while we are working, Dr. Reznick,” Shaun answered, reasonably.
However, Morgan noticed that Shaun did not make direct eye contact with her, and needled him, deliberately: “Sorry, Dr. Murphy, but I can't hear you. You seem to be talking to the floor, not to me.”
“I find it difficult to look directly at people who I am uncomfortable being around,” Shaun responded, his voice calm and measured.
“Oh, I see, eye contact is haaaaaard,” Morgan drawled, mockingly. “So that's why you were perfectly at ease shoving your tongue down my throat and copping a feel over my sweater. You could keep your eyes closed for it,” she continued, remorselessly.
“Thank you for helping Claire write the essay, Dr. Reznick. It was instrumental in getting my surgical residency back. And thank you for helping me to make Lea jealous. It worked very well. She is my girlfriend now,” Shaun replied, his tone mild. Then he looked down at his cell phone, which was buzzing in his palm. “I have to go.”
He left, and his exit had a quiet sort of dignity about it.
But who should be coming into the lounge, just as Shaun was leaving it, and doing the clumsy little 'No, you go first!' dance with him, the awkward pas de deux of people who each want to go through the same doorway at once?
Browne. Of fucking course, a meet-cute. How vomit-inducingly adorable, Morgan thought, snidely.
Then she silently watched from afar, as Claire laughed gaily at Shaun, while they each tried to let the other pass through the doorway before them. Then she saw Shaun chuckling, too, and he lightly touched Claire's arm, indicating that he would step aside to let her go past him.
What a gentleman.
Claire lifted her gaze up at that moment, and Morgan didn't miss the triumph in her eyes, as the two women held an impromptu staring contest.
Morgan was the first one to look away.