The silence is going on and on, and someone has to break it, so I say tightly,
“It’s fine. I’m crazy. Whatever.”
“No!” Linus sounds really shocked. Shocked, embarrassed, discomfited. Kind of mortified. Like he can’t believe I would say that. (I’m getting all this from one syllable, you understand.)
“You’re nothing like my granny,” he adds, and he gives this little laugh, like he’s enjoying a private joke. “If you met her you’d understand.”
Linus’s voice is kind of easy. Not like Frank’s, which sounds like a harsh battering ram most of the time. He laughs again and I feel like this swooshing of relief. If he can laugh, then he’s not repulsed, right?
“So I guess I won’t be round again till Frank’s ban is lifted.”
“Your mum thinks I’m a bad influence.”
“My mum thinks everything is a bad influence.” I roll my eyes, even though he can’t see.
“So do you ever go out or anything?”
He hasn’t stopped midsentence, but still the air feels prickly. At least, the air around me feels prickly. Go out or anything. I feel an urge to curl up and shut my eyes.
“No. Not really.”
“I mean, I’m supposed to go to Starbucks.”
“Awesome. When are you going to go?”
“I’m not.” I say it roughly, without even meaning to. “It’s…I can’t.”
There’s another silence. I’m hunched away even further. I can sense his questions circulating around the silence like more vocab words: Why? How come? What’s going on?
“I’m supposed to do, like, exposure therapy,” I say in a miserable rush. “Like, you do a little bit at a time. But Starbucks isn’t a little bit. It’s huge. I just can’t. So.”
With every revelation, I’m expecting him to leave. But he’s still here.
“Like allergies,” he says, sounding fascinated. “Like, you’re allergic to Starbucks.”
“I guess.” This conversation is starting to wear away at my brain. I’m clutching a cushion for comfort; the tendons are standing up on my hands.
“So you’re allergic to eye contact.”
“I’m allergic to everything contact.”
“No you’re not,” he says at once. “You’re not allergic to brain contact. I mean you write notes. You talk. You still want to talk to people, you just can’t. So your body needs to catch up with your brain.”
I’m silent for a while. No-one’s put it like that before.
“I suppose,” I say at last.
“What about shoe contact?”
“What’s shoe contact?” I’d laugh, only my stupid lizard brain has disabled the laugh button for now. I’m too frozen up with tension.
I am owed so much laughter. Sometimes I hope I’m building up a stockpile of missing laughs, and when I’ve recovered, they’ll all come exploding out in one gigantic fit that lasts twenty-four hours.
Meanwhile, Linus has sat down on the sofa, at the other end from me. In my peripheral vision I see him extending a grubby trainer.
“Go on,” he says. “Shoe contact. Let’s do it.”
I can’t move. I’m a hedgehog rolled into a ball. I don’t want to know.
“You can move your foot,” says Linus. “You don’t have to look at it. Just move it.”
He sounds persistent. I can’t believe this is happening. My lizard brain is really not liking this. It’s telling me to dive under the blanket. Hide. Run. Anything.
Maybe if I don’t react, I tell myself, he’ll just give up and we can forget all about it.
But the seconds tick on, and he doesn’t go anywhere.
“Go on,” he says encouragingly. “I bet you can do it.”
And now I have Dr. Sarah’s voice in my head: You need to start pushing yourself.
Gradually, I shift my foot across the carpet, until the rubber rim of my trainer is touching the rubber rim of his. The rest of my body is still turned away. I’m staring fixedly at the fabric of the sofa, my entire brain focused on the inch of foot that is in contact with his.
And OK, I know there’s like two layers of trainer rubber between us, I know this could not be less erotic or romantic or whatever, and by the way, my entire body is still twisted firmly away from his as if I can’t stand the sight of him. But still, it feels kind of—
See how I stopped midsentence? I can do it too. When I don’t necessarily want to reveal the exact thought I’m having.