“In some ways, I think — ” Lea began, tentatively.
“Yes?” Shaun asked.
“ — I just – I don’t know. I want to talk about the nightmares you had — ”
Shaun shrank back from her instinctively; Lea cringed.
Have I forgotten how the hell to start a sentence? she thought.
“I mean – I – I don’t want a play-by-play, but I think we have to talk about it in the abstract. Do you have nightmares like that often?”
“No,” Shaun said. “Not anymore. I had them more frequently when I lived alone. That’s why I needed my sink to drip like it did in Casper: hearing the water hit the metal of the sink is repetitive and soothing.”
Lea nodded, although Shaun felt, rather than saw it.
“It grounds you. Like how I sometimes have music playing softly during the night,” she said.
“Yes. It grounds me.”
“So, this is the first time you’ve had the nightmares since we’ve been living together?”
“Yes. It is.”
“God, I feel awful,” Lea sighed.
“Why?” Shaun asked.
“I think it’s my fault you had the nightmares, Shaun. Obviously.”
“Why would that be obvious? I do not understand. Did you reach into my mind and force me to dream about my childhood? That’s not possible, Lea. You cannot control what I dream about, any more than I can.”
“You locked me out, Shaun,” Lea said.
“You are wrong, Lea. I locked myself in,” Shaun replied.
“I hear you, I understand you, I know I shouldn’t get angry or yell at you. I know all those things, and yet I – just – could we please be, I don’t know, charitable about things and say I care? Like, a lot? I wouldn’t bother getting emotional about something I couldn’t care less about,” Lea pleaded.
“Do you get angry and yell at people at work? Your boss? Your other friends? In public places?” Shaun asked, shrewdly.
“No, I guess I don’t,” Lea answered, reluctantly. “I get angry, sure. Or upset. But I do know how to behave in public.”
“Then I am confused. Why is it acceptable for you to do those things to me, Lea? Is it because we’re in private? Is it because you don’t love the cashier in the store or your boss at work?” Shaun asked. His tone was mild, but his words cut right through to Lea’s soul.
“I — ”
He’s right. He is exactly right. As always, Lea thought.
“It’s not. I know it’s not,” Lea tried again. “But I — ”
“As long as you keep getting angry at me and yelling at me, I will keep shutting down. It is the only thing that can protect me. When you are angry and yelling, I cannot feel safe.”
“Am I meant to be emotionless, then?” Lea asked, hot-tempered. “Because, correct me if I’m wrong, Shaun: you are attracted to me.”
“Yes. I am. You know that.”
“Why?” Lea asked. “What is it about me that attracts you?”
“You make me feel alive,” Shaun responded.
“Okay, and can... anyone else... do that?” Lea pressed.
“Not like you,” Shaun answered, as though it was the most obvious answer in the world. “And I am not interested in giving anyone else the opportunity to try.”
“Okay. Part of being alive is having emotions, and allowing yourself to feel them — ”
“I am not saying you cannot have emotions, Lea,” Shaun interrupted. “I am not even saying you cannot get angry and yell at me — ”
“Then what are you saying, Shaun?”
“ — But I will shut down in the face of it. I guess that... I’ll give you consequences for treating me like that.”
Lea’s eyes narrowed.
Why did that phrase sound so damn... familiar?
“You were in the room with us,” Lea said, slowly, realising that Shaun had used almost the same phrasing she had, when Claire and Morgan had asked her about her feelings for Shaun, and why they weren’t a couple.
’I guess I gave him consequences for treating me like that.’
“You eavesdropped when I was talking to Claire and Morgan. I could have sworn I heard a door open while I was talking. It was you. You — ”
Without warning, and in embarrassed fury, Lea flung the comforter off of herself, flicked the switch on her lamp so hard it wobbled on the base, and stood up quickly from the bed.
She rummaged in her nightstand until she found what she was looking for: a well-worn piece of paper, folded and unfolded so many times it had holes in it.
She tossed it on the bed.
Shaun’s eyes were wide, and she saw his expression flicker between their own mix of embarrassment and fury, as he recognised exactly what Lea had thrown onto the bed.
With shaking hands, he picked up the letter he’d never sent to her, and unfolded it.
“Been looking for that?” Lea asked, sarcastically.
Pausing in rereading the letter he’d written her, Shaun looked up, and spoke calmly: “This was under the baseball you lent me. I never mailed it. Why do you have it?”
“I found it the night I came back. I picked up my baseball — ” Lea replied, emphasising the my. “And the letter was underneath it.”
“Why would you read something that was not yours?” Shaun asked, confused.
“It’s not mine? How does that work? It’s addressed to me,” Lea bit back.
“I never mailed it,” Shaun repeated.
“I know you didn’t. I’ve had it for months. I pocketed it in a panic when you nearly caught me reading it. I guess you’re not the only one who stumbles on information you were never meant to have, huh, Shaun?” Lea said. “Well, that’s all I’ve been keeping from you. Exactly what else did you overhear?”
“You never stopped wishing I would kiss you. You don’t think I do well with change. The whole story about what happened in Hershey. You don’t like San Jose. Morgan insists she hasn’t been a ‘heinous bitch’ from birth. The first thing you wanted to do when you saw me again was kiss me. And during our fights in my old apartment and outside the hospital, I apparently resembled the lead character in Psycho when I was yelling,” Shaun answered, his voice wry by the end. “The scalpel does not help that image.”
Lea sat down on the bed, and buried her face in her hands, until the last sentences hit her, and she snuffled, almost laughing, anger subsiding.
“You mean, you’ve been compared to the dude from Psycho before?” she managed to ask.
“Of course. The film students in my college dorm used to ask me whether I spied on girls in the shower. I got a little confused when they asked me about my mother. I told them I haven’t seen her in years. Apparently, that was especially funny to them.”
“Jeez,” Lea interjected, not really knowing whether to explain the relevant plot points, or leave it be.
“Particularly when I’m disassociating, I have a habit of staring past or through people, without really seeing them. I used to look at people for a long time without ever speaking, which Dr. Glassman informed me is ‘unnerving’. I got called ‘creepy’ a lot. ‘Moron’, ‘retard’, ‘spaz’, ‘perv’, ‘psycho’.”
“Wow. In school, too? People were that mean the whole way through?”
“Elementary, high school, undergrad. The insults were always fundamentally the same. I never bothered fighting back. It would only get worse if I tried. I don’t like being shoved headfirst into water, and that was a favourite tactic. It made sense to avoid it as much as possible.”
“I don’t think anyone likes that,” Lea said.
“Being submerged headfirst in toilet water is disgusting.”
“Oh, my God. They didn’t,” Lea gasped, feeling sick to her stomach.
“Yes. A few times. I’ve been pantsed, I’ve been kicked in the groin too many times to count, I’ve been spat at. I’ve been spat on, as well.”
What the actual fuck is wrong with people? Lea thought.
“You never made... any friends?” Lea asked.
“You’re pitying me now, aren’t you,” Shaun noted, in his matter-of-fact way.
“No. I’m just... appalled at the human race, sometimes. But surely there were people with ASD in college? There’s plenty of them in Silicon Valley. They had to get their degrees from somewhere.”
Shaun shook his head. “Until I treated a patient named Liam, who had autism, I’d never met another person with ASD.”
“Maybe not. Or you did, but you never realised they were on the spectrum, as well,” Lea speculated. “And they never told you.”
Shaun looked thoughtful. “That’s very possible. I’ve treated another patient with ASD more recently. Her name was Lana. Her roommate – Javi – was also autistic. Their relationship was purely physical. Javi loves Lana, though.”
“Javi was a guy, or a girl?” Lea asked.
“A guy,” Shaun answered.
“Huh. And Lana... doesn’t love Javi?”
“No. Javi said ‘I think I love you’, and Lana replied ‘I think you do, too’. She did not say it back.”
“Did it remind you of...?” Lea ventured.
“Us. Did Lana and Javi remind you... of us?”
“I treated Lana around the same time you started having Jake over to stay the night,” Shaun said.
“You’re not answering the question,” Lea replied, a little frustrated.
“Are you asking if that’s when I put a name to my feelings for you?”
“I put names to quite a few of my emotions around that time.”
“Do you remember when I said that my life is better with you?”
“Yeah, absolutely. And, ditto. You know that, right?”
“Javi came to realise his life is better with Lana. That he’s a better person with her.”
“And that switched a metaphorical lightbulb on in your head, too?” Lea guessed.
“He said ‘I don’t love her. She’s my roommate’.”
“I think I see where this is going,” Lea commented.
“Yes. I am sure you do. You’re very smart,” Shaun told her.
Lea scoffed. “I’m not that smart.”
Shaun pointed to a framed degree on the wall. “The University of Pennsylvania is an Ivy League university. I think we can safely assume you are ‘that smart’.”
“Go, Quakers,” Lea said, ironically. “So I can pass a test. Woo-hoo. Well, you’re a freaking surgeon. Hey, did you go away to college? Claire seemed to think you never left Casper until you came here to San Jose.”
“Yes. I went away to college.”
Take that, Claire! Lea’s inner petty voice cheered. I know something you don’t know, doo-dah, doo-dah — oh, grow up.
“Ivy League?” Lea asked, the competitive streak of an Ivy graduate resurfacing.
“Oh, God, this is like pulling teeth! Where?” Lea asked, exasperated.
Shaun smiled beatifically.
“Harvard. You went to Harvard,” Lea guessed.
“Maybe,” Shaun answered, as close to coy as he ever got.
“It’s gotta be Harvard,” Lea said, decisively, having just recalled something pivotal she’d heard Shaun say, only a little while ago.
There is absolutely nowhere else he would have gone to get that degree. And I know exactly why I’m right.
“What makes you say that, Lea?” Shaun asked, but his eyes were darting all over the place. Another giveaway.
“Something you said earlier, actually. I was listening,” Lea said, enjoying their playful banter. “Steve always told you: ‘Never forget: you’re the smart one. You can do anything. And I’m proud of you, Shaun’.”
“Yes, Steve did say that. But why are you so sure I went to Harvard, Lea? How does what my brother said support your hypothesis?”
“Shaun. Shaun, Shaun, Shaun,” Lea tutted, jokingly. “Where else would the guy who can do anything want to go? And I’m guessing you had one hell of an admissions essay.”
At last, Shaun broke into a smile that made Lea’s heart flip.
“Yes. I did go to Harvard,” he replied. “And I like how you worked it out.”