I could feel Sean’s comforting bulk as he settled beside me on the sofa. The small hairs on my forearms stood and waved at the dark silken hairs on his forearms – and were ignored. We were hanging out as usual in the common room of the Grad House, a pleasant old Victorian-style drawing room, complete with overstuffed armchairs and broad oak coffee tables where we liked to spread out our laptops and papers and snacks.
“I just don’t get this,” Sean said, clicking until the screen before us filled with his open email. He scrolled until he reached the offending Dear John letter:
It’s not you, it’s me… I’m just not sure I’m ready for the commitment…
I laughed. “What, you’ve never been dumped by email before?”
“I’ve never been dumped.”
I elbowed him away from the screen and scrolled through the whole sorry mess. “Sean, Sean, Sean,” I sighed. “Here’s the problem. You keep your love notes as cold and formal as a job interview. What’s this: ‘I would like to invite you for a hot beverage?’” I turned my incredulous face to him.
He gave a helpless yet endearing shrug, like a guy who needs a button sewn on, who has just spotted a pincushion on your desk.
He clicked to a new email thread from Wood_Nymph@hotmail. “Go ahead,” he said. “Amaze me, Edna.”
“Say something like: ‘There’s a table waiting for us at a steamy little bistro hung with original artwork down on Queen. Your choice, coffee, tea, or something stronger.’ Doesn’t that seem more enthusiastic? Let her know you appreciate art… that you think she’s more special than a franchise coffee shop.”
“Slow down,” he said, typing madly while I fantasized more about the silky hair on his warm well-muscled arms.
Two days later, Sean caught up with me after grad seminar. He said, “The ‘steamy’ note worked.”
“Oh? Do tell.” We headed over to the Grad House for coffee.
“Petite, olive-skinned, dark-dark eyes, dazzling smile – a natural lady.”
Every word he said was a staple puncturing my heart, every quality he named was the opposite of mine. He didn’t even have to add Wood_Nymph had unblemished skin and dressed with a innate sense of style. I’m the ugly duckling, the unkissable toad, the Beast who’s anxious to keep out of Beauty’s way. I’ve known this since primary school when I got more laughs for farting the alphabet song than I ever got invited on playdates. That’s why I’m Sean’s pal, never his paramour.
“Help me write a follow-up, okay?” he said, opening his laptop and, yes, sitting close enough to radiate a little body heat.
I read the email he’d started.
Hey Clarissa, it was nice meeting you over coffee. Do you want to go for dinner, maybe come to my place afterward?
I took off my St. Jude’s pendant and slowly swung it on its chain before him. “Sean, your eyes are getting heavy… You are feeling sleepy now… You are remembering everything you spoke about with Clarissa… At the count of three you will tell it all to me…”
I know, kind of hokey. But it worked. Sean gave me a very detailed report of their conversation, even the minutiae of where to find the washroom in the basement of the bistro.
I pushed up my sleeves and began to compose on his keyboard:
“Dear Clarissa, Queen of the Woodland,
“I can’t get that image out of my head, you on your tender knees hunting for rare mycological specimens. What a fascinating hobby. Such a joy to discover our shared passion – although your knowledge far outstrips mine. Would you like to meet for a walk in the woods? A second coffee at Benson’s Bistro, or anything in between? I could bring sandwiches for dining al fresco.”
“What the fuck?” he sputtered. “I want to hook up with her, not geek out about mushrooms!”
“Of course you do,” I said. “But every other joe out there does, too. You have to differentiate yourself, Sean. You could do that by going on and on about yourself – but I know you are a modest guy.”
I rested my eyes on this magnificent man. His seafarer’s brow, his superhero’s jaw, his little-boy grin. I also knew the inside guy—his innate humility, his puppy-dog playfulness, and his Gibraltar-like steadiness. As I thought on these things, I maybe stared a little too long at him. (See what I mean about his modesty?) He got up and slowly paced the floor.
“The best way to differentiate yourself is by showing her you are attentive and empathetic. Her username is ‘Wood Nymph’ and you told me she was keen on mushrooms –”
“– yeah, she even had a book – The Mushroom at the End of the World – that she was reading while waiting.”
“Oh no, you didn’t arrive late, did you?”
“Calm down, Edna, you sound like my mother,” he said, flashing a lopsided grin at me.
I shook my head exasperatedly. “Anyhow, let’s dial up the mushrooms and that way you can slip in three phrases of romance: ‘passion,’ ‘al fresco,’ and ‘on your knees.’”
“I get it: subliminal.” He raised his eyebrow.
I bit my raggedy nail and tucked my hair over my ear. “It’ll get a reaction, yeah.” She might run in the opposite direction, although I doubted that. When it comes to getting away with things, Sean has the halo effect of Saints Stephen, Michael, and Francis all rolled into one.
For the new love affair, things heated up faster than a Portobello pan-fry. He needed more emails to fuel the flirtation engine. I fell into a low-humor, high-yearning twilight zone. We’d curl up every day after lunch on this very sofa, reading and talking about what Clarissa said and did and read.
Second-hand love: this was as close it gets for me.
I started to understand mushrooms better, too. They multiply in dank places of rot and shadow, where no creatures of sunshine want to live. Blotchy, underrated, and slippery with slime. Not much to look at – some species even look like dented balls of turds. Le champignon, c’est moi.
I imagined the roles played by the lovers: he was the tongue-tied suitor, she was the hesitant muse. Whenever I thought about saying, “Sean, write your own flirty phrases,” I’d remember the cozy camaraderie we felt while crafting just the right comeback.
Clarissa was an outdoor adventurer. Not just mushroom forays, but also white-water rafting and scaling the waterfalls that dotted the woodland paradises here in British Columbia. When Sean didn’t call or text after the July long weekend, I assumed the lovers were simple prolonging their pleasure at Banff. By end of the week, though, my worries got the better of me so I went on Facebook as “Sean’s big sister,” a fake account we’d started in high school to evade age limitations. I saw Clarissa was posting from a hospital waiting room: “he’s been admitted” and “drug-induced coma.”
Christ. I drove all night. I arrived totally wired from coffee and adrenaline, one bad scenario churning through my mind after another: mushroom poisoning, bear attack, a nasty fall…
“He’s in recovery,” the receptionist told me. I think she was a little afraid of the distraught banshee who had flown in with the morning’s storm. I hadn’t even combed my hair. “They operated a second time to reduce swelling.” She clicked the keyboard. “As his sister, you’re allowed to see him in the recovery room.”
Okay, so I fibbed a little. I raced to the recovery unit. “Sean – Sean – Sean!” I cried, reaching for his waxen hand. He lay so still, with a slender tube snaked into the ghastly tape-hose-gauze collage on his chest.
“Oh, hello?” said a figure, moving forward from a darkened corner.
I tore my eyes from Sean. “Oh my God,” I said. Yes, I know it’s hackneyed, but she truly was gorgeous. Think: Amal Clooney as an undergrad. I understood Sean’s infatuation, and I felt a wave of unworthiness wash over me again. Then machine began to beep, and its panels blinked reproachfully.
The nurse poked his head in, glanced at the screen showing a mountainous profile that had plateaued. He called for reinforcements and hustled Clarissa and me out of the room.
We stood in the waiting room, at a loss. Pray or bargain or simply rage? She told me he’d gone out for an evening run and a truck had side-swiped him. “I didn’t know he had a sister,” she said awkwardly.
“Yes, well.” I looked down at my stained hoodie and my plaid pyjama pants, wishing I had changed before hopping in the car. “I’m… his Facebook sister.”
I needed six hours of quality time with a mattress about then but it seemed wrong just to walk away. We stood side by side staring at the closed door to his room until she suggested coffee and rummaged in her purse for coins.
“Hey, is that Ann Tsing’s book?” I said and Clarissa pulled it out. We managed a conversation about the importance of fungi – although I kept thinking “fun guy.”
“I don’t mean to bore you,” she said suddenly, blushing. “You must be exhausted. Why don’t you get some shut-eye? I’ll call you if anything happens.”
I checked into the nearest motel, but sleep was impossible. I was ravaged by the vision of that new, wonderful Sean-magnet. If I truly loved him, I would graciously bow out. I only had a chance if she didn’t love him. But clearly she did. She was here now. She was worrying herself sick over him just as much as I was.
I sat down to write a suicide note and this brought an unexpected calm. Sunlight jarred me awake up six hours later and I was horrified by my hair, my B.O., and especially that first draft. I tried to punch it up a little, tone down the maudlin. Soon I came to my senses. I freshened up, went to the hospital, and – to my enduring delight – saw Sean sitting up, smiling.
* * *
I hung around for a couple more days. Sean’s mom arrived, and I did have to explain “Facebook sister” to Clarissa but she laughed it off. “Oh, come on, I knew you weren’t his sister,” she said, politely not mentioning my ugliness. “Why couldn’t you just tell me you were his best friend since forever?”
She promised to keep me updated on his recovery and I drove away, resigned to being emcee at their upcoming wedding. The radio was tuned to Country & Western. Kenny Rogers sang the Gambler. Know when to fold ‘em. I took it as a sign.
* * *
Two months later, I sat in the common room with Sean’s arm around me, heavy as the rope that tows a boat to shore. He looked deep into my eyes and uttered the words I thought I would never hear. “I broke it off with Clarissa. It just wasn’t right.”
“You for real?” I said. I think, in that moment, I felt as disappointed as Clarissa must have been. There went one helluva a great emcee speech, including my wicked double entendre about Cremini mushrooms.
“How could I have been so blind?” he continued. “I was so superficial. After weeks of lying in a hospital bed, I saw who I really loved.” He nuzzled my neck, possibly to show affection, but for all I knew he had a tingling in his nose.
I narrowed my eyes. “Eventually Roxane figured out her love letters were written by Cyrano de Bergerac. Is that what happened to you?”
“Who’s Roxane and Cyrano?”
I sighed. “Never mind.”
“Anyhow, look.” He cleared his throat like he was starting anew. “I wanted to come clean. I told Clarissa you’d written all those love notes.”
“And I wasn’t a big fan of mushrooms, either.”
“It was fun pretending to be your sister,” I said. “Sort of like having a pet—but no litterbox to empty.” Careful, careful, I reminded myself. This way heartbreak lies. Do not let the hydrogen-filled zeppelin of romantic hopes start to float into the air… I would only bring on the fireball of destruction. “After weeks in the hospital,” I said, “I bet you’ve got one helluva vet bill.”
That’s my style. Shoot the zeppelin of romance down, rip its thin skin to ribbons with darts of sarcasm.
“C’mon, be serious.” His mouth fell into a pout. “I’m trying to tell you I’ve developed feelings for you – yet you treat it like a comedy skit.”
Boyfriend-as-Pet, a common trope. Maybe he had a point. “Okay,” I said and gently bit the inside of my mouth, to prevent myself from speaking more and ruining everything. I simply batted my eyes at him.
“Let’s take this to a different level,” he said softly. He rested his other hand on my left arm.
Whoa, I felt surrounded by arms now. He leaned in and gave me a kiss. An “I’d like to get to know you better” kiss. Not flashy, not too earnest.
I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t been biting the inside of my mouth.
“I sense you’re holding back on me, Edna. How long must I wait until you’re ready for a real relationship?”
That was it. I had to say something. “Let you in on a secret, Sean,” I said, carefully lifting his arms from around me, like rearranging vines on a trellis. “While you were re-evaluating your life, I realized I’m allergic to love. Under social pressure I sometimes cave in and think I want it but… really, it’s bloody hell for me.”
He looked stunned.
“I know I’m supposed to … oh, fall into your embrace and show eternal gratitude,” I said, in breathy parody of a bodice-ripper heroine. “I know I’m supposed to stop the games and the repartee.”
“You’re the one I want.” He took both my hands in his.
I twisted them away. “Sean. I can’t go mainstream. I want to be on the sidelines. Don’t you see? Unrequited love gives the best perspective to poke fun at romance. At heart I’m a trickster, born to meddle where I don’t belong.”
He gazed into my face for a long time as if memorizing every zit and mole. At last he stood up and stretched as if to go. He fished in his pocket for something. “Well, if that’s truly the case…”—he winced apologetically as he handed me a paper, — “there’s a petite fun-loving brunette with a spirit of adventure…”
Same old mischievous Sean. Would I want him any other way?
I said, “not into mushrooms, I presume.”
“You’ll have to make that absolutely clear,” he said, and we both laughed.