Tuesday, July 11, 2000

In/Exhale - February 13, 2001 - Part I

February 13, 2001 - Part I


“God dammit!” Kai’s shout startled Jon as he entered the main room of the apartment. It was followed by a clatter and a crash, and considering how stiff and tired Kai had been yesterday, Jon worried his brother might have tried and failed at a transfer or something like that.
Not wanting Kai to be hurt—or to hurt himself—Jon rushed over to the couch only to find Kai in his wheelchair, looking pissed, and Jon’s laptop half-open on the floor nearby.
Kai didn’t seem to notice Jon. He gripped his wheel with one hand and bent over to retrieve the computer with his other. “Shit.” He tapped at the keys, pressed a few buttons. “Shit.” He let out a string of unintelligible curses—some that may not even have been actual words, and looked like he was going to throw the laptop again when he suddenly noticed Jon and physically started. “Jesus.”
What are you doing awake? It’s the middle of the night.
Kai cast a nasty look Jon’s way as if that were answer enough, then lowered his brows and tipped his head as if to ask, “And why are you awake?
I’m an insomniac.” Jon signed it like a person tossing and turning, but light-hearted, as if it were a joke, since he still felt restless and unsettled by his dream that Kai had died young because their parents hadn’t, and he didn’t want Kai to pick up on it. Part of Jon wondered if the dream had been triggered by Kai’s harsh words of the night before, but Jon knew it was possible Kai didn’t even remember their fight, so it was best Jon put it behind them.
Kai’s nose twitched, but other than irritation, he was unreadable. Angry, but like he was using it as a mask, whether he realized it or not. “I broke your computer. Sorry.” Kai tossed it onto the couch. Nothing in his tone of voice expressed sincerity, although Jon had seen Kai have a meltdown before because he broke a coffee carafe—far cheaper and easier to replace than a laptop—so it struck Jon as off.
Jon drew closer and plucked up the machine. Ann—when she was manic—had been known to not sleep at all, feverishly working on her next big project—all of which would evaporate by the time the mania faded. Jon didn’t sense any of that freneticism from Kai, though. Just . . . a kind of black hole where his brother used to be, and it renewed the sadness Jon felt from his nightmare. “What were you doing?” Jon asked innocently with one sign and a gesture with the computer, using some techniques he often employed when taking a difficult history from a patient.
Kai stared at Jon, his hands on his rims as if he were going to take off without responding. His nose twitched as if it had a life of its own. “Emailing a friend since I won’t see her for awhile.” Kai rolled his eyes. “It doesn’t matter.”
Jon fiddled with a few buttons, the computer chimed, and began booting up. After a moment, it gave Jon a message reminding him to shut it off correctly, then began loading Windows. “Not broken,” Jon said with a shake of his head, turning it so Kai could see. Anything more complicated than the TV or the coffee maker and Kai was mystified. He didn’t like technology, and tech didn’t like him, or at least that’s how Kai saw it. He knew how to send email and the bare-bones of word processing, and that was about as advanced as Kai cared to learn.
Kai barely reacted. He held himself tensely, and the bags under his eyes seemed more pronounced, his cheeks hollow.
Jon shut the computer and set it aside to free up his hands. “Is that what kept you up? Email?” When Kai didn’t respond, Jon continued, “Nightmares?” Nothing. “Pain?
Kai stiffened on that last part, which was answer enough.
I can give you another half tab of Valium, and some Mexitil. You might want to take some today if you’re hurting as much as yesterday.” Jon felt guilty about not giving Kai a stronger benzo dose last night, but he didn’t regret prioritizing Kai’s safety over pain management.
Kai snorted and glared as if the power of his stare could physically wound Jon. “That won’t help me sleep. And I’m not spending the day throwing up. As romantic as that is. You don’t understand. You’ve never experienced pain like I have,” Kai said cryptically, perhaps switching to English for that very reason, because ASL was far less abstract. Kai had never really complained about his muscle pain, not even as a child, and rarely even spoke to Jon about his struggles growing up. Kai accepted so much as simply life—or at least he seemed to—but maybe that was just another one of Kai’s many lies? Kai was visibly angry, but Jon saw the raw pain underneath, barely masked. Kai was tired and frustrated. And hurting in more ways than one.
I’m sorry. Last night. You were right. I would do anything to protect you. Even from yourself.
Kai stared at Jon, his nose twitching, breathing roughly. The moment went on long enough Jon was concerned Kai might be dissociating. But then he said, with a disturbing lack of emotion considering he was signing, “I’m going back to bed. I have a long day.” Then Kai stiffly wheeled back to his room and (to Jon’s surprise) shut the door. It couldn’t lock, but Kai still tended to prefer leaving it open.
Jon sighed and wandered to the kitchen to get his testing supplies. Kai was shutting Jon out, almost like he had when they’d first reconnected, and it hurt.


#


The door slamming behind him made Kai jump, and that made him even angrier. He let his momentum carry him until he rolled to a stop near his bed. He cast a glance at his reflection and his fury grew. He scanned the room for anything he could hurl toward the mirror to destroy the person he saw there. Renee’s gift, carefully wrapped by the store employee, sat a few feet away on top of some of Kai’s moving boxes. Without a thought, Kai pushed hard toward them, grabbed the gift, and hurled the heavy package with two hands toward the mirror. The crash was loud enough that Kai heard it without his hearing aids, the glass splintering at the place of impact and the gift tottering briefly on the edge of the dresser before falling to the floor with a thud Kai felt through his tires.
Kai’s chest heaved as his distorted reflection glared back at him before a couple shards of glass, their connections severed, toppled to the dresser’s surface. Their sharp edges caught Kai’s eye, making his pulse quicken and his dick begin to harden, but before he could move toward them, his door shoved open and Jon thundered in, Vicky hovering behind him.
Kai’s outrage and anger was like a living creature, clawing and tearing its way from his stomach, trying desperately to escape and attack, fighting against Kai and his terror that Vicky was here, that he was going to hurt her. His chest heaved as he struggled to breathe, to think beyond the all-consuming nature of his emotions.


#


“Get out.” Kai was breathing so hard Jon wasn’t entirely sure of what Kai had said. “Get out! Get out! Get out! Out! Out! Leave! Leave!” Kai’s voice became increasingly loud, his articulation failing so much he was barely intelligible by the time he finally switched to sign.
As much as Jon worried about his brother, right now Vicky’s safety was his first priority. He turned to guide her out, assuring her as best he could with his touch and smile. If they were all going to live together, this likely wouldn’t be the first time something like this would happen. After all, Kai’s mental illness wasn’t something that could be cured, only managed.
“Only her. You stay.” Kai’s voice was raw but he wasn’t shouting anymore, though he was still speaking unnecessarily loudly and clumsily.
Jon was both surprised and relieved. “Go back to bed. I promise I’ll join you as soon—”
“—As you’re done pacing?” Vicky smiled to show she was teasing, but it didn’t escape Jon’s notice how she hadn’t once stopped smoothing her belly.
Jon kissed her, taking a moment to rest his head against her forehead. “Everything’ll be OK.”
But Vicky was frowning when they separated. “You’re sweating a lot. Check your sugar.”
“I will check it again, and I’ll eat something before I come back to bed if I need to. I’ll be fine.”
“Jon?!” Kai’s anger was melting into panic.
“I have to go. Get some sleep. I love you.”
Jon hesitated, then shut the door. He wasn’t even sure if it was because of Kai’s obvious desire for privacy or to avoid Vicky’s disapproval.
By the time Jon turned around, Kai was bent over, hands fisted in his hair, sobbing. Seemingly a total 180 from his violent fury of only moments ago, but it proved Jon’s suspicions about that anger being a mask.
Jon started to speak to Kai, but then realized he might not be able to hear him, so he approached slowly, and took a seat on Kai’s bed, nudging Kai’s tire with his foot to hopefully get his attention without startling him.
Kai didn’t respond immediately. Finally, his hands dropped, almost as if they were numb, and then slowly, Kai used them to push against his legs and raise his torso. His breathing was uneven, and snot slid down from one nostril over his lip. His eyes were red and desperate looking. Kai stared at Jon for a long moment, hiccuping, chest jerking, before he finally wiped his face on the shoulder of his shirt. “I ruin everything,” Kai said (or at least Jon thought he said, he spoke so quietly and with his accent thick).
Jon followed Kai’s gaze to the mirror and realized Kai must have been worried about Renee’s present. Jon leaned over, stretched, and managed to snag it. It wasn’t easy to grab with one hand due to its weight, but Jon’s workouts were paying off and he managed enough until he could use his other to support it. “It’s fine,” Jon said once the package was in his lap. One of the edges was a little bent and some of the paper was a bit torn, but the book had been placed inside a box before being wrapped and so it was likely unhurt. “See?” Jon said with a gesture. “A little tape will fix this.
Kai shook his head, grabbed the present and tossed it onto the bed. “No. Not that.” Jon didn’t even really understand Kai’s words, but figured out what he meant. Why he wasn’t signing when his speech was so bad baffled Jon. Kai stared at the present—no, the bed—and fresh tears spilled. Kai was wheezing a bit, which concerned Jon, but right now he really didn’t understand what was going through his little brother’s head.
Jon started calculating if Harbinger would be open by the time they got to Omaha if they got in the car and left now. Maybe Kai couldn’t wait 24 hours. “Talk to me. Please.
I’m sorry about your computer. And the mirror.” This time Kai was almost too contrite. Like a scared little kid worried he’d be beaten for it.
The idea that anyone hurt Kai when he was young and vulnerable made a well of anger, sadness, and guilt burn in Jon’s stomach, but he pushed it away. This wasn’t about him. “I showed you the computer is fine. And even if it was broken, I don’t keep any important documents on it. I could have gotten another. And you won’t be needing the mirror anymore after tomorrow anyway. So it’s OK. Tell me what’s wrong.
Kai shivered. He rubbed his arms, winced. Glanced over at the bed as if thinking of transferring, then back at Jon as if trying to wordlessly communicate something. When Jon didn’t seem to get it, he sighed softly. “Did Mom ever cheat on Dad?” Kai used a sign Jon wasn’t familiar with and he didn’t have enough context to be confident in a guess, but Kai intuited this and repeated in more graphic sign language, getting his point bluntly across.
Jon felt a trail of sweat slide down his forehead. Had Kai watched the entire video at last? (The one in which their mother admitted her daughter wasn’t her husband’s child.) Jon wiped his face with his sleeve and took a few breaths. He couldn’t give anything away just in case.
But Kai misread Jon’s hesitation and rephrased his question. “If Dad caught Mom cheating, what do you think he would have done?
Jon wanted to ask why Kai was so desperate to know, but he was afraid. If Kai hadn’t watched the video, it might push Kai into dangerous silence, since it could make it seem as if Jon was holding back. But if Kai had watched the video and this was some kind of test. . . . No. Kai looked far too fragile right now for that kind of manipulation. And as good an actor as Kai might be, his emotions were too unstable. If he’d found out how their mother truly felt about him, heard the disgust in her voice, he wouldn’t be able to play coy.
Jon took a deep breath. “Our dad loved us too much to risk losing us,” Jon finally responded, using Ann’s  answer from the video, because he believed it to be true.
But that answer didn’t seem to satisfy Kai. “What if Vicky cheated on you? What if you found out the baby wasn’t yours?
Jon’s heart ground to a screeching halt. He wanted to ask Kai where all this had come from, but he didn’t want to risk pushing Kai away. Jon forced himself to take a deep breath, dispel any visible tension in his body, and answer Kai honestly. “I would be hurt. But unless Vicky was going to stay with that other guy, I . . . I’d have to think of the child.” Maybe Jon was more like his father than he’d thought.
Kai’s nose twitched frantically. His gaze dropped to his lap, fixated on a loose string in his pants that he pulled over and over until it finally broke. Then his hand trembled and he looked back to Jon. “The other night I went to Nikki’s. I blacked out. The next morning, I came to, naked and bleeding, and David had to bring me home.
And you think you had sex?
Kai shoved his fingers through his hair, pushing it off his face and gripping the strands as if he were going to yank it all out. Fortunately, he let his arm drop. He nodded slowly. “Nikki says no, but why else would I be wearing a shirt and nothing else?
Jon glanced away for only a split second, chewing his lip before catching himself.
What the fuck does that face mean?” But Kai wasn’t angry, just resigned.
Jon sighed. “During some particularly bad flashbacks, you’ve stripped before.” Jon’s signing was slow, hesitant. Not because he didn’t know which signs or gestures to use, but because it pained him so much. Not just the recollection, but that Kai clearly didn’t remember.
Kai grit his teeth hard enough they creaked. His eyes misted but he managed to withhold fresh tears, his face a torment of anger and grief. Kai swallowed audibly. “So you think that’s what happened?
Jon shrugged. He found it difficult to imagine Kai would intentionally cheat on Renee. So either he was manic—or something close to it—or he hadn’t been his adult self. “I think it’s possible. Especially if you took more benzos than you’re supposed to.” Jon’s face indicated he wasn’t being accusatory; that wasn’t what Kai needed right now. It was simple fact. Kai had a history of increased and worse dissociations while on higher dozes of benzodiazepines like Xanax, Ativan, and Valium. It was one reason (beyond Kai’s suicidality) that Dr. Miller strongly regulated Kai’s dosages.
“Shit,” Kai said out loud on a breath. “Shit.” Kai’s chest heaved. “Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.” Kai bit his hand to stifle the increasingly unintelligible curses, fresh tears escaping. Kai bent over and screamed into his legs, the sound muffled by his body. His chest jerked and soon he was sobbing, his hands clutching his knees, fingers gripping the fabric of his pants as if he were holding on for dear life.
Jon couldn’t even begin to imagine what Kai was feeling. But he hated that he was inches away and yet it was as if they were miles apart. He hesitated, and then reached out to smooth Kai’s back.
But Kai flinched and angled his torso away, finally popping up, his face red but his eyes flashing a warning: don’t touch. Kai lifted his T-shirt to wipe his face. His breathing sounded even worse than before, and Jon’s trained eye didn’t miss how Kai’s accessory muscles were engaged with each breath.
It’s OK,” Jon signed, knowing immediately it was the wrong thing to say.
It’s not fucking all right!” Kai’s chest heaved and he looked on the brink of a panic attack. His fists clenched in his hair on both sides of his head. “I hate this. I want it to stop.” Kai’s accent was the strongest Jon had heard in years. Kai let out a short sob but didn’t break down again. He let his hands fall, as if he’d used up all his energy, his head and shoulders limp, like a toy with a drained battery.
We can leave for Omaha now if you want,” Jon offered once Kai looked up again, not knowing what else to say or do.
Kai sighed. He shook his head. Jon wasn’t sure he’d ever seen his little brother looking so defeated. With one exhausted hand, he signed, “I should go to sleep.
Jon nodded. Neither of them moved or said anything else for a tense moment, so Jon took a chance. “You know you can talk to me about anything, OK? You don’t . . . you don’t need to feel . . . ashamed. I’ll listen.” Jon braced for Kai’s anger.
Kai looked gutted, but almost as if he were still processing their earlier conversation and hadn’t even seen what Jon had said. Then he rolled backwards, changed his angle and approached the bed again. Leaned forward and tugged at the covers as if trying to pull them aside, but since Jon was sitting on them they were stuck.
Jon got the hint and stood. “Do you need help?” Jon used his gaze, shifting from Kai to the bed to imply assisting with the transfer, although he ended with a long look that again implied he meant a lot more than that.
Kai threw the sheets toward the wall and realigned his chair again, but didn’t move to transfer. “Apologize to Vicky for me. I’m sorry she’s gotten dragged into my shit storm.
Jon took that to mean Kai was shutting him out again, and it stung, but he had to remind himself that Kai had built a protective layer, and he never let anyone in too long. It was possible right now the one who knew Kai the most—maybe even better than Kai did—was Dr. Miller. As long as Kai talked to her, Jon supposed everything would be OK in the end.


#


Jon had a long work shift, so he had given David permission to use his key so he could get Kai ready for his day with Renee. Trying to be as quiet as he could, David entered the dark apartment. David had spotted Jon’s car on his way in, so he knew Jon was still home, perhaps actually asleep for once, so David tiptoed across the floor toward Kai’s room. Once there, David pushed Kai’s door open the rest of the way, expecting to have to wrestle Kai awake, surprised to find him sitting perpendicular on his bed, his back to the wall. Naked. His thighs, stomach, forearms and shoulders were red and raw and bloody. At a glance and from this distance it wasn’t even entirely possible to make out clearly how exactly Kai had hurt himself. David noticed the broken mirror and for a moment, he panicked, thinking Kai had used a shard of glass to cause the damage. But when David looked back at his friend, he saw Kai was raking his fingers across his skin, over and over, almost as if he were scrubbing. It was eerily reminiscent of how David had found him at Nikki’s the morning before. How was it even possible for Kai to cause so much damage with as fucked up as his nails were?
David rushed forward, signing placatingly, trying to get Kai to focus on him instead of wherever his mind was instead. “Look at me. You need to stop, OK??
Kai stopped, stared back at David. No, through him. “Need to get clean.” Also not too unlike what Kai had said yesterday. Was he in the same flashback, or whatever the hell this was?
I know. I’ll help you shower and you’ll get nice and clean for Renee, OK?” David eased closer, yanked Kai’s hand away from his arm.
Kai balked, tried to pull away. “NO!” Kai signed, using the lexicalized version of the sign, a special way of spelling out the word for emphasis. In this version, the letters were signed upside down, though Kai twisted his hand after the “N” and when his fingers spread for the “O” he used them to shove against David with all his might.
David was stronger, but Kai caught him off guard and he nearly fell over.
Kai was hyperventilating now, David could see by how rapidly and visibly his shoulders were moving. “Clean. Clean. Clean. Nikki saw me and Frankie saw me and you can’t see me and Jon can’t see me and Renee . . .” Kai’s eyes spilled over and he shivered. “She can’t see me!” Kai wasn’t making sense. In some ways, this was worse than when he was feverish back in December.
David took a breath, thinking quickly. His eyes scanned the room and he spotted Kai’s fox on the floor between the bed and the nightstand. He held his hands up pacifyingly as he inched closer to claim it, offering it to Kai.
Kai stopped scratching and took it, hugging it and smelling it, and he seemed to relax subtly. Now David could study Kai’s injuries more clearly and realized most of the blood was from Kai scratching and pulling open his still-healing wounds on his forearms and stomach, and then smearing the blood elsewhere. It looked a lot worse than it was, David was relieved to find.
I’ll help you get clean. OK? I promise.
Kai shook his head. “Can’t. Inside me. Never.” Then Kai broke down into sobs.
David was dreading tending Kai’s wounds while he was like this, but he would. And then he would carry Kai to Dr. Miller’s if that’s what it took to get his friend the help he obviously needed today.


#


David pushed Kai’s wheelchair forcefully toward the open door to Dr. Miller’s office. Kai grabbed his wheels to try to fight his friend, clearly not wanting to be pushed, finally signing something angrily that caused David to let go, though he stayed behind Kai so he really had no choice but to go forward. Kai was pissed, tension obvious in his body language as he wheeled toward the couch where he normally sat, but he didn’t transfer.
David signed something, directing it toward Dr. Miller, repeating the same single sign over and over, each time with more enthusiasm in both his movements and facial expression. Kai did nothing but glare. So David had clearly been worried enough about his friend to force him to see her when they had previously agreed on the day off, and Kai was not happy about it, to say the least. David dropped his hands, almost as if he were about to give up, but then he picked them up again and signed rapidly, facing Kai directly. Barely giving Kai a chance to respond with more than a fiercer glare, David lunged at his friend and shoved his sweater up, revealing several ugly, evenly spaced, roughly parallel gashes criss-crossing the irritated skin of his stomach. They looked very fresh.
“God fucking dammit, David,” Kai screamed, shoving him away. Kai flashed his middle finger at his friend and then crossed his arms on his chest without bothering to slide his shirts back down.
David pointed, then turned to face Dr. Miller, meeting her eyes and gesturing on his body as if to indicate that Kai also had those marks on both arms and legs. Then he gestured with a clawed hand miming scraping along his opposite forearm with it, then pointed to Kai, as if to say that the marks were quite literally self inflicted.
If Dr. Miller was understanding David correctly, then it was no wonder he’d dragged Kai to see her.
Kai wasn’t even watching David. He was staring off into space. Dissociating, maybe. While the wounds Dr. Miller could see weren’t deep enough to be dangerous by themselves, if Kai’s self harming behaviors were escalating to this point, it meant he might need to be hospitalized sooner rather than later.
“You did the right thing, bringing him,” Dr. Miller said as clearly as she could, hoping David would be able to read her lips.
David sighed. Nodded to signal he understood. Some of the tension in his body fled. His eyes darted to Kai and then back to Dr. Miller, his look imploring before he disappeared into the waiting room.
Kai didn’t react to his friend’s departure. But Dr. Miller decided to give Kai a moment to see if he’d speak first. Just when Dr. Miller thought she’d have to crack Kai’s shell open, he said without making eye contact, “David doesn’t fucking understand.”
“What doesn’t he understand?” Dr. Miller had to repeat herself once Kai reluctantly looked her way.
“You know Frankie.” Kai didn’t inflect it as a question, and yet he seemed to wait for her answer.
“The boy you were at County House with. The one whose house you went to dinner Sunday night. The one who was adopted. Seeing his life upset you.”
Kai scoffed. “That’s what I told Renee. And yeah, it fucking hurts knowing no one wanted me, but why would they? Why would anyone?” Kai’s chin trembled and he stared down at the floor. His rage seemed to be battling with his body’s urge to break down into tears. Kai took a difficult breath. “He kissed me.”
“Who did?”
“Frankie. Poor little shit’s been in love with me since . . . forever. And . . .” Kai pushed against his seat cushion with both hands to lift his body and shift his weight. “What if that’s why I freaked out and went to Nikki’s?”
“Are you attracted to Frankie?”
Kai let out a laugh, short, sharp and bitter. “No.”
“Have you ever been attracted to another man?”
“No,” Kai said, anger creeping into his voice this time.
“Then why would Frankie kissing you upset you so much you’d go to Nikki’s and blackout?”
“I don’t know,” Kai said, and whether he realized it or not, he began to scratch at his exposed stomach, slowly digging his nails into his skin.
“I think you do, or at least you have an idea or you wouldn’t have brought it up.” Dr. Miller rose and went to her “Kai drawer” and pulled out an old T-shirt, offering it to him.
Kai accepted it but shook his head. “I just want to get rid of it. I thought if I scratched deep enough maybe I could finally get clean. I just want to be clean.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. You’ve read my files, you’ve talked to the Warden. You know.”
“You told me yourself that those files don’t tell the full story. What’s scaring you so badly right now, Kai? You know this is a safe space. No one outside this room has to know what we talk about. Not David, not your brother, not Renee.”
Kai shook his head. “No. I’m not—I can’t do this today. I have to suck it up for Renee and I can fall apart tomorrow. So unless you’re committing me now, I’m leaving.”
“Kai.”
“I won’t kill myself today.”
“That’s reassuring, but—“
“But what? What do you want to hear? That I’m afraid I went to Nikki’s because I needed to prove something to myself, but I’m fucking leaking and Nikki saw it and . . . and I went apeshit and blacked it out because I just want my fucking wall back.” Kai’s words flowed rapidly out of his mouth as his breathing escalated. “I’m tainted and I can never, ever, ever fucking fix that.” Kai’s chest jerked and soon he was sobbing into clenched fists.
Dr. Miller rose, grabbed a box of Kleenex and offered it to Kai before retaking her seat closer to him. “It’s normal to feel extreme shame in cases like yours,” Dr. Miller said, being delicate. “But I promise you, with time you’ll be able to put those feelings behind you and accept who you are. We can never change what happened to you. I wish I could. But it doesn’t have to haunt you forever. You can move past it.”
Kai stared at her through red-rimmed eyes full of skepticism. “I’m supposed to go to Re’s house after this when I don’t care about celebrating because I feel like a fucking puppet. She loves me but she doesn’t fucking know me and she never will because I’m too fucking ashamed to tell her there are parts of my body I literally can’t feel because of what was done to me.” Kai covered his mouth and stifled a fresh wave of sobs. His eyes widened. “I feel sick.”
Dr. Miller offered Kai a trash bin and waited patiently while he dry heaved. She suspected Kai had never come to terms with the sexual abuse he’d suffered. Unlikely he had ever totally suppressed the memory, but rather consciously chose to think of it as something that happened to someone else as a way to survive. And now he was having to face horrific reality.
Kai almost wiped his mouth on his sleeve, but caught himself and used the tissues instead, balling them up in his fist when he finished. He looked raw. “What if . . .” Kai swallowed.
“What if what, Kai?”
Kai sniffled, more tears leaked out. He started tearing the tissues into tiny pieces. “What if I . . .” Kai swallowed thickly. “What if I liked it?” Kai hugged himself tight.
“Liked what?” Dr. Miller asked, although she had her suspicions about what Kai meant.
Kai glared. “You know.” More tears leaked and Kai didn’t bother to wipe them away. He was shaking, holding the T-shirt Dr. Miller had given him in each hand, pulling, trying to rip it in half.
“Why do you think you may have liked it?” Dr. Miller asked, doing her best to seem as non-threatening and friendly as she could, praying Kai would keep opening up to her. This was the closest he’d ever gotten to talking about the sexual abuse he’d experienced, and Dr. Miller strongly believed the self-harming of this morning was directly linked.
Kai stared at Dr. Miller a long time with a complex expression, a mixture of shame and sorrow and sadness and more she couldn’t parse out. “Sometimes . . .” A sob leaked out of Kai’s mouth and he covered it as if to control his emotions. “Sometimes, I’d . . .” Dr. Miller could tell Kai both didn’t want to talk about this and desperately did.
“You need to say it, Kai. I know it’s difficult. Take your time. It’s OK. This is a safe space,” she reminded him. “Nothing will leave this room without your permission.”
Kai relaxed a fraction with that reassurance. “Sometimes I’d . . . get hard.” Tears slid down Kai’s cheeks. “Once or twice . . .” Kai cried, hugging himself tight, shaking.
Dr. Miller smiled gently, offered her hand.
Kai stared at it for a moment, but then he relaxed his hold on himself and accepted it.
“Nothing bad can happen if you’re holding my hand,” she encouraged. “Just like when we do memory work.”
Kai was still crying, but he nodded enthusiastically. “Once or twice, I . . .  came. . . .” Fresh sobs gripped Kai, and he buried his face in his free hand without letting go of Dr. Miller’s.
She squeezed to offer her wordless support, and when he finally looked up, she said, “Orgasm, especially in men, is very much about physical stimulation. It’s not uncommon for orgasm to occur, even in . . .” Dr. Miller hesitated. “Even in situations where the person might not be mentally aroused. Just because your body responded to certain physical stimuli, it doesn’t mean you liked it,” she finished delicately, using Kai’s words. “Conversely, presence of mind can affect male orgasm more than one might think. It’s possible that it’s not just the medication that is to blame for your ejactulation problems.”
Kai blew his nose and wiped his face. He was a little calmer, now, though he still held on to Dr. Miller’s hand. His brow furrowed as he processed what Dr. Miller was saying. “You think because all this shit has been bubbling up I’m, what, afraid to come?”
Dr. Miller shrugged. “You experienced significant trauma that you’re only now beginning to process. I think it’s possible. I think you carry this heavy weight of toxic shame like a second skin. And you desperately want to slough it off, but you feel you can’t.”
Kai lifted his sweater and stared down at his stomach. “I don’t remember a lot. Mostly bits and pieces. Pain and shame and fear. Living inside me like a horde of insects creeping and crawling and biting. Filling me so I can’t breathe. Part of me knows Re would understand because of what happened with Jude, but . . .” Kai took a difficult breath, trembling again.
“Breathe, Kai,” Dr. Miller coaxed. “You’ve been seeing me almost six months and this is the first time you’ve had the courage to talk about this. It’s difficult. I’ve had patients who have been married for decades who haven’t been able to tell their spouses they were sexually abused. I do think your relationship with Renee will be stronger if you tell her, but you don’t need to do it today. You don’t need to pressure yourself to tell her right away.”
Kai shuddered. “I just. I want to stop feeling like this.”
Dr. Miller nodded. “Do you remember when I told you about emotional flashbacks?”
Kai’s nose twitched and he pulled his hand back. “Maybe?”
“It’s OK,” Dr. Miller said with an encouraging smile. “They don’t usually have a visual component. They’re usually set off by a trigger that causes a powerful emotional reaction. Typically intense shame or fear. And while the other kind of flashbacks normally last a few hours at most, these can linger for days or even weeks.”
Kai’s eyebrows furrowed. He picked up the T-shirt and started twisting it over and over. “So what are you saying?”
“I think it’s possible that Frankie’s kiss pushed you into an emotional flashback linked to the sexual abuse you experienced, and the shame from that affected you deeply, perhaps even causing more traditional flashbacks and your blackout. I think it’s lingering still.”
Kai glanced down at himself and cradled his stomach.
Once he’d looked up again, Dr. Miller said, “It’s possible the places on your body you’ve been self harming the last few months, the ones you hurt this morning, are significant.”
“Or it’s just where I could easily reach.”
Dr. Miller laughed gently. “Possible.”
“These . . . emotional flashbacks. That’s part of that ‘complex’ PTSD you told me you thought I had. Right?”
Dr. Miller nodded. “I’m beginning to think a lot of what you’ve been dealing with over the past twelve years may be related. Self harm, body image problems, and suicidality are all common symptoms of C-PTSD. So are emotional dysregulation, which we’ve discussed—rapid, intense mood swings—as are a tendency to isolate oneself, fear abandonment, while also feeling intense loneliness. Social anxiety, skittishness, and frequent dissociation are also related to C-PTSD.”
“Shit. So . . . what, not only did I probably never have an eating disorder—like I always said—I probably don’t have an anxiety disorder either?”
“I’m not ready to entirely take back panic disorder as a separate diagnosis, but C-PTSD does have features of many other disorders that myself and Dr. Looney have considered for you at one time: bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, panic disorder, eating disorders . . . I could go on and on. I think you definitely have features of both ‘traditional’ PTSD and the complex, emotional version, and I think that, combined with your depression, has created the myriad symptoms you’ve experienced. I think if we can get your depression controlled with medication and begin processing your most traumatic memories, along with some behavioral modification to help you recognize and release yourself from both kinds of flashbacks, you’ll be OK. I won’t lie to you. It’ll take time. Maybe a long time. Sometimes you’ll feel like you’re back sliding. It will be difficult and painful. But you will be able to move on.”


#


In Renee’s kitchen, David and Kai stood diagonal from each other, chopping vegetables. After Kai’s session with Dr. Miller he’d been more cooperative and yet extremely withdrawn. David watched as Kai sliced an onion mechanically, as if he were on autopilot. And maybe he was. Maybe it had been a mistake to insist Kai go through with Valentine’s Day, even if they’d abbreviated Kai’s original plans. David couldn’t help spotting all the dangers in the room, from the knives to the cleaning chemicals, even the gas stove.
In David’s peripheral vision, he saw Kai suddenly—dangerously—drop the knife he’d been using, his eye gaze darting around the room as if to signal he’d seen David and knew exactly what his friend had been thinking. “How fucking selfish do you think I am?” Kai signed angrily, his body tense. “You think I’m going to . . . what? Slash my throat, spraying blood everywhere, so Renee can walk in and find me instead of her Valentine’s breakfast?” Kai’s signing was bitter and graphic, no euphemisms as he made his point.
David sighed. “You don’t have a great track record,” David said, miming the scratches Kai had made on his body that morning that he’d thankfully finally allowed David to treat properly after the session with Dr. Miller.
Kai was furious, but he clenched his fists and took a few deep breaths as if trying to get himself under control. Still, his arms sliced at the air as he signed, “All of this,” Kai said, indicating every part of his body he’d self harmed—his legs, his arms, his torso, “is to help me live. And you have no fucking idea what I’ve lived through, or what it’s like to be in my head. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, I really do. But back the fuck off.
David had a lot of experience with the vagaries of Kai’s moods, but his words still struck David like a physical blow. “I’m sorry,” David said, thinking carefully before his next signs. “I worry. I just want to know you’ll be safe today.
Some of Kai’s anger left him, and without its protective armor, David could see how tired and scared Kai really was. “I’ll be with Renee all day, and as long as I’m with her, I’ll be safe. But if I think I won’t be, I’ll text you. I promise.


#


The smell of bacon wafted into Renee’s bedroom, stirring her from sleep. At first, she’d been convinced it was a dream born of hunger, but she soon had to acknowledge the reality: definitely delicious breakfast smells coming from the kitchen a few feet away. Reluctantly, she left the cozy warmth of her bed and enveloped herself in her plush robe and fuzzy rabbit slippers her younger brother Luc had given her as a joke for Christmas.
Confused, Renee followed the delectable scents. Diane didn’t cook much more than Renee, and even so she rarely rolled out of bed before ten since underclassmen often had to use the studios at odd hours because seniors and juniors got first dibs on time slot reservations.
Renee’s rumbling stomach turned to butterflies when she saw a tall familiar figure standing at the stove, his back to her. Renee watched Kai for several minutes as he worked. He’d always cooked from his chair before, and it felt like a treat to observe him this way. He was wearing a sweater that must have been his brother’s because it was a little tight in the shoulders, outlining the strong muscle beneath the fabric with every subtle movement. Not that Renee had never seen Kai standing in a kitchen, of course she had, but right now, seeing him in her own was a little surreal. For her, the counters fell midway between her waist and bust, so she really needed a stepstool to use them comfortably, but they only served to emphasize Kai’s height, as they fell at about crotch level on him.
Kai set down the spatula he’d been using and rolled his neck and shoulders, stretching. Then he pressed both palms on the countertop to lift his body subtly, shifting his weight. With his left arm he kneaded his lower back, his right hand on the counter for support and stability. He sighed loud enough she could hear it above the sizzle of the food, and for a moment he bent his head and cradled it in his left hand. She knew how much energy standing and walking took for him, and she wasn’t entirely certain why he’d chosen to be on his feet today.
She snuck a little closer; in her soft slippers her steps made no sound. She didn’t want to startle him, but she suspected he might not have his hearing aids on and so wouldn’t hear her regardless. He’d resumed cooking. He started to push up his sleeves and then stopped himself, adjusting them so only the sweater was scrunched up and the shirt beneath remained in place. A very conscious habit, and one that made Renee worry. He tucked some loose hair behind his ear with the back of his wrist, and then stirred the food in one of the pans. He’d turned a bit, slightly angled in her direction, and she could see he was wearing an apron that looked amusingly tiny on his tall frame. His facial expression was sad and tired, a bit absent, and even at a distance Renee could see his nose twitching.
Kai spent so much of his life putting forward a very calculated visage it wasn’t often she had the chance to see him unguarded. Kai’s depression and anxiety, his fear about his upcoming hospitalization, all of it weighed heavily on him, and yet here he was cooking for her.
Renee took a few more steps and called out, “Good morning.”
Kai’s brow furrowed and he tilted his head, but perhaps he couldn’t hear her properly over the sound of the food.
So Renee tried to slowly take steps in an arc toward his field of vision, because the last thing she wanted was for him to think she’d been watching him, and she knew he hated to be snuck up on.
“Morning,” Renee tried again now that she was closer, speaking a bit louder.
Kai’s gaze happened to shift her way and he startled in reflex, letting out a harsh breath of air before he consciously composed himself, offering her a hollow smile, his eyes betraying all the emotions she’d seen just a moment earlier, when he’d thought he was alone. Either he was too sad and tired to hide it, or he didn’t care, and she wasn’t sure which was worse. “Was I loud? I was trying not to wake you.”
Renee couldn’t help smiling at the sentiment, but she shook her head. “It was the bacon.”
It took a moment, perhaps for him to pry out what his hearing aids and lip reading were telling him, before he chuckled. “I know you love it.”
“But you hate it.”
Kai shrugged. “But you love it,” he reiterated. “It can’t be easy being with a vegetarian who hates food,” Kai admitted. “You deserve something special.”
You always make me feel special. I don’t mind if we eat breakfast and just hang out.
Kai’s expression was pained before he neutralized it. “It’s our first Valentine’s Day.”
I know, but watching you cook standing up is a treat, and being with you is all I need to be happy.
Renee had expected Kai to smile at that, but instead he looked pensive, almost angry. “I need to do this.” Renee didn’t miss that he said “need,” not “want.” He broke eye contact in a way that seemed intentional and started furiously stirring the eggs as if they had personally offended him.
Renee tried calling his name to get his attention, or waving, but either he didn’t notice or he was ignoring her. Finally, she lightly tapped his forearm, and Kai recoiled. Renee was used to Kai flinching from her touch, but this felt different. Like he’d wrapped her insides with barbed wire so even breathing was painful.
Kai cradled his arm against his chest protectively, and the way he looked at her, his eyes wide and terrified, Renee wondered for a moment if she’d lost him to a flashback. Kai took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and rolled his neck. When he opened his eyes again, his expression had softened. He looked exhausted, like he was doing everything he could to power through when he was running on fumes. “I’m sorry,” he signed, without further explanation, his attention going back to the three skillets on the stove: breakfast potatoes, a vegetable scramble, and one partially covered with a lid that she could hear sizzling and spitting she suspected must be the bacon.
Renee decided to let him cook, watching him. A lock of hair fell forward, the end of it brushing his cheekbone as he looked down at the food. She wished she could reach up and tuck it behind his ear, right where she could just barely see the clear tubing of his hearing aid that led from the earpiece to the casing. But because of their huge height disparity, she’d need to stand on tiptoe and brace herself against him or the counter, and in front of the stove he was the only option and she didn’t want to set him off balance. Besides, despite his apology, his body language told her he wasn’t ready to touch, so she kept a comfortable, if intimate distance.
Renee wasn’t used to being idle in the kitchen, even if she couldn’t cook herself. “Can I help?” she signed once she caught his eye.
Kai stared at her for a long moment. He looked angry, although he didn’t say or sign anything.
Cook?” Renee clarified. “My grandma always had me help her. She says, ‘if you can eat, you can help.’
Kai’s shoulders relaxed, and he took a deep breath. Obviously, he’d misinterpreted what she’d meant by “help.” He smiled, genuine, if faint, and shook his head. “It’s ready. Grab a plate and some paper towels?”
Renee did so, her happiness showing itself in her face and movements. “It’s nice to see you smile.”
Kai quirked his head, and for a minute she thought he might not have understood her, but he smiled again, this one a bit forced, though not entirely fake. “I’m trying,” he said, some of the exhaustion of earlier showing through, as if it were the effort itself that was wearing him out.
Renee watched as he used tongs to transfer the bacon from the pan to the plate she was holding, setting it on top of the paper to absorb the grease. “Your smiles are one thing that made me fall in love with you.”
Kai raised a brow, paused what he was doing. “Did you say ‘smiles,’ plural?”
Renee laughed. “Yeah. I remember thinking, ‘I hope I get to see them all.’”
Kai sighed, his face shadowed. He finished with the bacon and massaged the space between his eyes. “Then you got to know me and realized I’m the most depressed person on the planet.”
Renee frowned. She started to reach for him, but held back at the last moment.
Kai sighed again, made sure the stove was shut off, and used the counter on his right to push up so he could get his left foot off the floor and reposition himself so he was facing her. She figured he was preparing for when they left the kitchen to eat, but instead, he took the plate of bacon from her hands, set it aside, and pulled her into a hug. “I’ve been having a really, really hard time since dinner at Frankie’s. Much more than I admitted yesterday.”
Renee squeezed him tight, her hand smoothing over his back where she could feel the tautness of the muscles he was using to help keep his balance. Then she took a step back, not entirely breaking the embrace, but just enough so he could see her sign, “I know.
Kai looked so shattered. It reminded her of how raw he’d appeared yesterday when he’d admitted how he’d blacked out but David was afraid he’d OD’d, how upset he’d been seeing Frankie with his happy family, a family Kai would never have. For a moment, she thought he might say something else about all of that, but instead he said, “We should eat before the food gets cold.”


#


Renee and Kai ended up sitting at the island, since it meant less walking, and the higher chairs were easier for Kai to get into. The food was delicious. The eggs were cooked well done so Kai wouldn’t get sick, and yet they were still fluffy and tasty. The potatoes were some of the best Renee had ever had, and the bacon was cooked perfectly even though Kai admitted he hadn’t had much chance to practice. And yet Kai was stabbing at his plate, sometimes eating a piece of vegetable from the scramble but ignoring everything else. His left hand would occasionally go to his back or his leg, kneading the muscle with his fingers or knuckles. He hadn’t said much else since they’d sat down.
“Still hurting?”
Kai cast a suspicious glare her way and immediately stopped massaging his leg. “I’m always hurting, Renee,” he said, dropping the diminutive nickname in a way that felt like ice slicing through her heart.
I’m sorry. You didn’t need to walk today. I love you both walking or rolling, you know that.
Kai sighed, and some of his anger seemed to leave with the air. “You like me tall. I figured this will probably be a shitty Valentine’s Day so it was the least I could do. But I’ll be wheeling the rest of the day.”
Renee frowned. “You surprised me with breakfast. And it’s so tasty! Plus, I have you all to myself. How is that shitty?
Kai pushed his hair out of his face, not convinced, although he said nothing. He really was struggling through the fog of his depression today.
Renee took another bite. “You really could be a professional chef.”
Kai’s brow furrowed. “I can’t understand if you talk while you’re chewing.”
“Oh. Sorry.” Renee repeated herself in sign.
Kai sighed. As usual, he couldn’t take the compliment. “Yep, there’s a huge market for crippled cooks,” he replied sardonically. Then Kai broke eye contact and went back to taking out his frustrations on his breakfast.
Renee reached over and lightly touched his forearm to get his attention.
Kai flinched away and Renee noticed the tension of his body increase. He didn’t apologize. His chest rose and fell with rapid, shallow breaths, and he wouldn’t make eye contact. He didn’t say anything, just stared at the table in front of him.
Despite everything she’d learned from their dual sessions with Dr. Miller at the start of the year and what Kai had warned her about several times, she took his hand in hers. Kai’s instinct was to yank away but when she resisted he stopped himself as if worried he would hurt her. When he looked up she saw such raw pain in his eyes she wanted nothing more than to throw her arms around him, comforting him until his pain diminished and fled.
Maybe he was still consumed by thoughts of taking his life; with all the pressure of the hospitalization and his fears, it made sense. “Can you give me a number?”
“Huh?” Kai’s eyebrows furrowed. He shook his head and popped his finger up to say he didn’t understand. Whether it was because he hadn’t read her lips/heard her or simply didn’t get her reference, it was impossible for Renee to know.
Suicide scale?
Kai swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing. A flash of anger—or maybe irritation—then that penetrating sadness that haunted his beautiful eyes returned. “You say you love me, but you don’t know anything about me,” he said in a low voice, almost as if he were speaking to himself.
“Kai?” Renee’s heart thudded in fear. Was he . . . breaking up with her or something?
“You don’t know why I’m so fucked up. How can you love me if you don’t know that fundamental piece of who I am?”
That hurt. But Renee knew Kai well enough to understand he was a fortress, and he didn’t let anyone in easily. And he did his best to keep everyone—even himself—-from seeing the darkest, innermost rooms. “I know you’re a good person. I know you trust me more than you did even a few weeks ago. I know someday you’ll tell me.”
Kai stared at her hard, his expression unreadable. “What if everything I’ve told you is a lie? What if I’m just like Jude? What if I’m a rapist? After all, lying is the one thing I’m good at.”
It felt like Kai was throwing dozens of tiny daggers into her heart. “Stop it!” Renee signed, slamming her hand down on top of her other palm hard enough it made a loud slap.
Kai’s gaze snapped to her hands before jumping up to her face, surprise evident in his eyes.
I’m not Becca. I’m not going to leave you because you’re sick. I love you. You can try to scare me away but I’m not going anywhere.” Renee took a huge breath, and this time when she reached for his hand, he let her take it.
In the minutes that followed, neither of them said anything. Renee traced his fingertips, the arch of his nails with their rounded ends that Kai hated, but she loved. She noticed Kai’s fingernails were cut too short and his cuticles were lined with fresh scabs, and one was bandaged. A piece of nail on his ring finger was broken off, exposing the badly scabbed nail bed. They looked even worse than they had yesterday. Worried and confused, Renee held up Kai’s hand, her brows bent in question.
Kai sighed heavily. He pulled away, took a minute to glance at the nails of both hands. “I told David you’d notice.” Kai’s nose twitched like a scared rabbit’s. In any other situation it might have been funny or cute, but she knew it meant he was getting anxious even if he was trying not to show it. “Apparently you really can scrub till your fingers bleed.”


#


Kai?” Renee knocked on the bathroom door and opened it the rest of the way. Not long after Renee examined his fingers, Kai had suddenly pushed to his feet, said he’d be right back, and had headed off toward the bedrooms. Not wanting to trust Kai in his current mindset in a house full of potential dangers, she’d followed him, and the sound of vomiting had convinced her to intervene.
Kai was sitting on the edge of the tub, eyes closed, his legs partially bent and sprawled out in front of him, his head leaned against the wall, facing the toilet.
Renee put the seat down and sat, stepping over Kai’s legs.
Kai startled when Renee touched him to get his attention. She didn’t ask with words or signs if he was OK, just gave him a look she hoped would tell him how worried she was.
He didn’t respond, but she could tell he wasn’t. He looked wrecked, even more exhausted than before, as if he’d just lost a long battle.
She reached for his hand, relieved when he let her take it. She didn’t press him. In fact, she would be happy to spend the day in the bathroom like this, as cold and uncomfortable as it was, if that was what he needed, because she knew he would do it for her.
Kai sighed. Smiled faintly at her. “I’m a basketcase.”
“You’re my basketcase.”
Kai laughed. He met her eyes, staring into them for a long moment as if trying to do one of those mind-meld things he did with David. Finally, he sighed again and said, “I think bacon triggers me.”
Renee didn’t understand what he meant.
Kai’s nose twitched rapidly. “I don’t just hate it because I’m vegetarian, or because my stomach has a mind of its own.”
Renee finally realized he meant it set off his PTSD, and her stomach sank. “Then why did you cook it?”
“You deserve it. There’s so much you can’t do because of me, and . . .”
Renee pulled him into a hug, kissing his neck tenderly. She could feel his pulse jumping, and she prayed that her embrace would take some of his pain away. Finally, she pulled back, stared him right in the eyes and said, “I would go all vegetarian for you.”
Kai scoffed.
“I’m serious. I love you. Way more than I love meat. I don’t want you to ever do anything for me that hurts you.”
A shade of a smile tipped Kai’s cheek. “I’d kiss you, but I haven’t rinsed my mouth yet.”
That made Renee laugh. “I want you to feel comfortable enough to tell me about your past the way I told you about Jude, but I don’t need to know any of it until you’re ready.”
Kai’s smile broadened, and a wave of relief passed over his features. The way he looked at her now with fondness told Renee he loved her. She knew he did, even if he still hadn’t verbalized it yet, because why would he risk a flashback if it wasn’t for love?

#####


4 comments:

  1. Wonderful writing as usual. So glad you posted .Less angst? LoL very nice last sweet scene

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    Replies
    1. lol! I never said "less," just that there'd be some more sweetness throughout the "day" to balance some of it out... ;)

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  2. Very nice and long chapter. I took my sweet time to really enjoy it.

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  3. I am always happy to read your updates every 2 weeks.

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