February 13, 2001 - Part II
Kai stood at the sink in Renee’s kitchen, finishing the last of the dishes. Renee had tried to insist he let her do them, but backed down when he reminded her cleaning calmed him. And he was calmer. Maybe, between the exercises he’d done in his morning session with Dr. Miller, plus Renee’s understanding in the bathroom, combined with therapeutic scrubbing of cutlery rather than his own skin, he’d broken through the lingering effects of any emotional flashbacks that had clung to him. He felt a little better. Like he could get through today, and for him, that was significant.
Renee came back into the kitchen, and it took Kai a moment to realize she was talking. He shut off the tap. “Sorry. The water is really loud with my hearing aids. These things are noise canceling but not magic. Say again?”
Renee looked at him quizzically. “I was saying I put the bacon grease in the garbage bin outside and lit some candles to help with the smell.”
Kai felt a blooming of warmth in his stomach knowing the lengths Renee would go to to make him more comfortable. “I’m almost done.”
Renee picked up a towel and started drying to help clear space. “By the way. You were in my house pretty early this morning. Please tell me you didn’t pick the lock.”
That made Kai laugh. “Don’t be ridiculous. I bribed Diane with breakfast.”
“That’s all it took to get Diane to be up before the sun?”
Kai felt his nose twitch. “She did a strange voice and said something about coming to me with a favor someday.”
Renee snickered. It took her awhile to get herself under control. “You really need to get me Martin’s phone number. There’s a few movies he needs to add to your ‘must watch’ list.” Renee continued drying. “So what else is on the schedule for today?”
“Scavenger hunt. I know it’s stupid, but there’s not much to do this time of year, and I wanted to do something fun and different. Since I can’t give you flowers.”
Renee seemed genuinely surprised. “Flowers are overrated. This sounds much cooler. When do I get my first clue?”
Kai chuckled. What was it about Renee that made all the bad in his life fade away when he was with her, even if it was only for a little while? He felt totally transformed from the mood of only a couple hours earlier. Kai’s hands were covered in soapy water, so he said, “Right front pocket.”
Renee grinned. She saddled up alongside him, perpendicular, placing one hand on his stomach as if to brace them both. Kai tensed, suddenly worried she’d be able to feel the bandages beneath his layers. He forced himself to finish washing the dish he was working on even as her tiny fingers working into his pocket made his flesh heat and his breath catch. Renee extracted the note, and Kai watched as she read it to herself a few times before saying it out loud, “‘With a flat hand on the side of your face, you’ll find the place where we first made love.’”
Kai cringed inwardly, his inner critic trying to berate him for his horrible attempt at poetry, not to mention how ridiculously cheesy it was, but Kai took a breath and tried to ignore it, spending a little more time than necessary scrubbing the sink.
Kai caught Renee muttering to herself as she worked out the clue, and she laid her hand on the side of her face as she thought. Then she brightened in realization and jumped up in the air, beaming. “The sign for ‘pillow,’ right?”
Kai smiled despite himself. “Why don’t you go find out?”
It took Renee a few minutes to find the next slip of paper, which had been slid inside one of her pillow cases. How had Kai managed that? Even if he’d done it before he cooked this morning, there’s no way he could have snuck it in without waking her up. Diane’s help, again? Renee opened the note and read it quickly. If, palm up, you flick your thumb into the V then you will see a play that is important to me. Well, Kai definitely wasn’t a poet, she thought with a fond smile. This one was more perplexing, and she re-read it a few times as she wandered back into the kitchen.
Kai had already put the leftovers away and was cleaning the stove. How had she managed to find a man who was hot as hell and not only loved to cook but loved to clean? She couldn’t help watching him, the way he used his left hand to brace himself on the counter while his right scrubbed, his long hair cascading around his face, the movement of the muscles in his shoulders just visible through his sweater, the way he rocked from one foot to the other as if subtly shifting the weight so it was never on one hip or leg for too long.
Kai startled when he caught her in his peripheral vision, and she saw him take a breath and compose himself before he pushed against the counter on each side of the stove to get to his full height. “Did you find the second clue?”
“Yeah, but I don’t understand it.”
Kai held up a finger to tell her to wait a moment, pushed again to help shift his body toward her, then stretched for the island so he could use the surfaces to help him align his feet.
Renee’s stomach fluttered watching him. She tried not to think about how much she would miss him every day he was in Omaha, or why he had to go there, because it turned the happiness she felt just sharing the room with him bitter.
Kai balanced and released one hand so he could push his hair out of his face. “The point of the game is for you to figure it out for yourself.”
“Can you give me a hint?” Renee gave him her best puppy-dog look.
Kai rolled his eyes but she saw him give in. “OK. One hint that applies to every clue. Each one has an ASL sign described in it. Figure out the sign and you’re on your way to finding the next location.”
Renee nodded and went back to studying the current clue while Kai peeled off the gloves he’d worn while he was cleaning. She tried to imitate the sign and it took her a minute, but it finally clicked. “Hamlet!” she said out loud as she realized it was the sign for “TV.”
Kai looked up and then smiled after a second. It was possible he hadn’t heard her well but had figured out from her body language and facial expression what she must have said and that she’d figured it out.
Renee rushed up and gave him a quick squeeze, ignoring how his body reflexively stiffened at the initial touch before he relaxed into it. Then she dashed off into the living room and checked the VCR. Sure enough, there was a tape inside. Hamlet, the Kenneth Branagh version. She wasn’t sure if she was supposed to play it or not, so she ejected it. Carefully taped to the top was her next clue. To find what you seek, two fingers in a C on your cheek is what you must do to get your next clue. This took her a few confused tries since she couldn’t quite work out what the sign was, but once she did—one of the signs for “watch”—she realized she was supposed to watch the movie. She was confused, since she was pretty sure there was no sign language in Hamlet, so she took the note off, shoved the tape back in, and went back to the kitchen.
Kai was taking a small pill case out of his left pocket when Renee came back into the kitchen. She watched him pry a tablet from the case and pop it in his mouth. He saw her worried look and sighed. “Just a small dose of Valium.” He stuck out his tongue as if to prove it was only a single half of a pill. Kai dry swallowed it. “To keep my muscles in check. Call Jon or text David if you don’t believe me.”
Even though Kai was more defeated than accusatory, it hurt that he thought she might not trust him. He’d insisted as far as he knew he hadn’t tried to OD yesterday, and she’d seen how bad his muscle pain was lately. She took a few steps closer. “I love you and I worry.”
Kai smiled faintly. Beckoned her to sit on the counter. “Save my back?” he said in reply to her quizzical look.
Renee nodded and hopped up where he’d indicated, sitting facing him. Like this, only a few inches separated their faces instead of over a foot, and she could feel this invisible force pulling her towards him.
Kai braced one hand on the counter beside her, leaning closer so their noses almost touched. “Can’t guarantee I’ll understand anything you say this close, except this.” And he kissed her, pulling her to him with his other arm.
Renee melted, wrapping her legs around him. She wanted him. And the hunger of his kiss told her he wanted her too. But Kai didn’t scare her today like he had that night he’d confessed about his last hospitalization. Something about Kai was different. A level of tenderness and restraint she hadn’t quite felt from him before. But she also sensed his sadness, although that was a simplistic way of putting it. Through Kai’s kiss, she could tell how much today meant to him, how much he loved her, how much he was going to miss her, and perhaps how much he longed to be honest with her about everything. The old Kai would have kicked her out of the bathroom, earlier, embarrassed and angry. But he’d literally let her in. He’d told her the truth.
They finally broke away, gasping, panting, Kai’s eyes dark with lust, and Renee felt a physical pain deep inside her, as if the kiss had cut off right when she was finally going to see behind Kai’s curtain to the deep pain he kept shackled away in the fortress of his mind. She clung to him, one hand on his chest, the thrumming of his heart palpable.
“Did you figure it out?” For a second, Renee thought he meant his deepest secret. “The next clue?”
“Right.” Renee tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. Nodded. “Should we go watch Hamlet, then?”
Kai smiled. “Never did get to watch that version.”
Renee had insisted she needed a shower and to make herself beautiful no matter how much Kai argued she was gorgeous the way she was and he loved her hair even when it was frizzy. (He really did. She looked adorable and very kissable.) So he spent that time figuring out how to turn the captions on her VCR, something David probably could have done in seconds but that took Kai almost the entire time Renee was gone. Honestly, he was embarrassed at how much technology tended to baffle him. He wouldn’t even know how to text on his phone if Jake hadn’t showed him while he was recovering after his transplant.
Renee finally stepped out of her room looking smoking hot in that red sweater Kai loved, the one that dipped over her shoulder, her hair damp but already starting to spring up into its dark spiral curls, and she also had on a pair of tight jeans that highlighted her amazing figure and that made Kai want to do very nasty things to her. She must have interpreted his thoughts from his eyes because she grinned, wiggled her hips a little, and then laughed. “Did you figure out how to make the captions work?”
“Finally. I’m pretty sure I’m halfway toward my degree in engineering. Just don’t ever ask me to program it for you.” Kai hit play on the remote just to demonstrate, part of the scene with the ghost, before stopping it and rewinding to the beginning.
Renee settled into the couch beside him, curling her legs up and snuggling up against him. She was so small and felt so right in his arm, and the scent of roses wafted up and made him pull her a little tighter against him. “Do you really need the captions?” she asked while they waited for the tape to rewind.
“My brain is still adjusting to these hearing aids, so they help. Especially with the British accents.”
Renee nodded against him. “I love you.”
Kai took a breath. He was ready. Despite his insanity, despite his throwing up, she loved him, and he knew he loved her too. He was still a little afraid to say it, put it into words, like the moment they left his mouth or his hands a fissure would open in the earth and swallow her up. But the time was right. Renee had first said it nearly two weeks ago, and it was proof of how wonderful she was and how much she really did love him that she’d been patient and hadn’t pressured him to return the sentiment. Still, he’d worked out this whole big speech thing for later, and he didn’t want the first time he told her to be during the opening credits to Hamlet. So he just squeezed her and hit play to start the film instead.
They watched for a little while without talking, and then Renee reached over for the remote and turned the volume down. “You can hear me OK?” He loved how considerate she was. She was still learning the ropes as far as his hearing loss went—he was, too—but the fact that she made that extra effort to ensure he could understand her when she spoke meant a lot to him.
“You know, the last time we watched Hamlet, you finally told me about your name. You’d bitten my head off when I’d first asked about why your brother had a different last name, so I was so surprised that you just told me. Joked about it, even. It meant a lot that you shared that.”
Kai shifted a little so he could look down at her better. He didn’t remember biting her head off, but he could see himself doing that, especially if they hadn’t known each other very long. He also had only the vaguest memory of what they’d talked about or done that night they’d watched Hamlet together. He remembered his MLS flaring and Renee trying to give him a massage and not being strong enough, but everything else was lost in the murk of his mind. Normally, he would have lied, hidden his memory blanks, but he needed to be honest with Renee. She deserved that much. “I don’t remember,” he admitted. “I’m sorry.”
Renee must have seen something in his face, because she smiled sweetly and cupped his cheek. “How about if I remember for you?”
Kai felt his own smile forming and nodded. Then he sighed and decided to continue his honesty. “Changing my last name has to do with my past.” Kai swallowed nervously. “The stuff I’m not ready to talk about yet.” He hoped he didn’t have to spell it out for her.
But Renee seemed to understand. “It’s OK.”
“And I want you to know that if I snap at you, especially if you ask me something, it’s probably baggage or because I’m avoiding something else or something and it’s nothing to do with you. Figured I might as well get the blanket apology out now.” Kai’s cheek twitched, but he didn’t manage a smile this time.
Renee linked her fingers in his. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Not long after the film started, Kai grabbed a large cushion and placed it between them. At first, Renee was worried he’d decided he’d had enough contact for one day, but then he used his hands to help adjust his body so he was at about a 45-degree angle to her and the back of the couch, and then he carefully guided his torso down until he was partially reclined. Most of his upper body was supported by the pillow, though he did lean his head against her shoulder. She glanced down at him, smiled sweetly, and shifted so her arm was draped over the cushion, so she could align her arm with him in a kind of embrace. He guided her hand to his mouth for a brief kiss before releasing her so they could both settle into a slightly more comfortable position. Renee noticed Kai didn’t try to lift his legs onto the couch, maybe because he’d have to tuck them and between his braces and the length of his legs, it might have been more uncomfortable than leaving them on the floor. Perhaps this position meant he had the least amount of weight on the support bars of his braces. She didn’t ask.
Renee wondered if the marvel of seeing how differently Kai moved compared to everyone else would ever wear off, as he reached down to pull on his jeans to spread his legs a little so his knees, with their large metal hinges, wouldn’t be pressing against each other. She noticed how his ankles seemed locked, keeping his feet in a roughly 90-degree angle instead of the more relaxed orientation they may have had without the braces.
“Too tired to take them off,” Kai mumbled, probably talking about his orthotics. He smiled faintly as he sighed. “You got food and a show,” Kai said, likely referring to how she was staring. Renee’s heart beat faster in worry, but Kai smiled. “Happy Valentine’s Day.” He must have remembered how she’d expressed admiration for the way his body moved; the only one who ever had.
“We can go lie down in my bed,” Renee offered. “It’d be more comfortable.”
Kai didn’t answer, and when Renee looked over, she realized he’d already fallen asleep.
Renee smiled, even if it belied sadness. As beautiful as Kai looked when he was sleeping, if he’d sunk in so rapidly, even in this awkward position, it showed how exhausted he must be. She’d been witness to his nightmares, even if it was as an outsider, and the anxiety and fear they born. Plus, his pain had been so bad yesterday, and if Jon had still withheld most of his meds, it was possible he’d struggled to sleep last night. She wondered if he’d gotten any rest in the past few days.
Renee leaned into him and planted a kiss in the crown of his hair, taking a moment to inhale his scent: clean and simple, just soap but without the hint of chlorine she expected. That meant he hadn’t been swimming. Kai not swimming at all was worse than him swimming too much, and despite doing her best to pretend tomorrow wasn’t happening, she was faced with the reminder: Kai was sick. Very sick, and he was checking himself into the hospital tomorrow.
Renee shifted so she could smooth his hair, admiring his small ear and the blue of his hearing aid casing normally hidden by it.
Kai’s nose twitched in his sleep as his upper body grew more lax, his hand that had been gripping the edge of the pillow sliding down to curl over the lip of the seat cushion. Kai’s long blond hair splayed over his neck, and as Renee toyed with it lovingly, her fingertips brushed the edge of his necklace: the medical alert dog tags Jon and his doctors had urged him to wear. Renee wondered if maybe she really was naive. As much as she loved Kai, did she really, really know what she was getting herself into?
Kai squirmed and Renee pulled away, not wanting to wake him, but then he let out a soft moan and his grip on the pillow and cushion turned vicelike. His eyes squeezed tighter shut and he grunted, then moaned again.
“Shh,” Renee said out of reflex, smoothing his hair, combing her fingers through it, gently massaging his scalp the way she sometimes did when he was awake because he loved it, hoping it would relax him. “I wish I had a magic wand I could wave and take all your pain away,” she whispered.
Kai woke with a grunt. His “everything” hurt, the muscles in his back, hips, and around his knees particularly tight. The last thing he wanted to do was move, but doing so would be the only way to release some of the tension. Plus, no matter what Renee said, he owed it to her to do more than recline beside her all day. He rolled his neck and caught a glimpse of Renee looking down at him with a smile.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” she said.
Kai arched his back, yawned to stifle another groan, and carefully, slowly, using the back of the couch to help, managed to guide himself up. Not sleeping at all last night had definitely caught up with him, and lying in that awkward position for who knew how long was going to haunt him the rest of the day. He tried to move his legs to straighten them, align them more with his torso so they weren’t at this painful angle, but the taut muscles argued with him. They fought, and Kai finally won, but his entire body hummed with pain he tried his best to ignore. “How long was I asleep?”
“Long enough for me to finish the movie.”
Kai groaned but for a different reason than tight and sore muscles. “Jesus. I’m sorry. Really gotten this Valentine’s Day off to a perfect start, haven’t I?”
Renee snaked her hand to his neck, and his body must have been too worn out to flinch. She guided her fingers up into his hair, massaging his scalp.
Kai’s lids dropped to half mast. “I shouldn’t be so worn out. The tour was days ago. Sorry you ended up watching that long, boring movie by yourself.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Renee said single-handedly, without stopping that wonderful movement of her fingers on his head. Kai loved the feel of Renee’s hands in his hair, on his scalp. It was almost like he had a magic, hidden button there that automatically released his tension, but only Renee seemed able to find it.
Kai turned his head enough he could see her better, but not so much as to break contact. “Huh?” Renee wasn’t crazy about Hamlet, and definitely no where near the fan Kai was, so the fact that she’d obviously watched it multiple times by herself struck him.
Renee smiled. God, she was so beautiful, the way her curls framed her face and her smile brightened her green eyes. She signed awkwardly with her left hand since her right was working its magic, but Kai appreciated that she did sign. “I watched Hamlet a lot while we were apart. It reminded me of you.”
Kai’s brain was still a little fuzzy from being asleep, and Renee’s massage wasn’t helping. “Apart?” Kai asked, mimicking the sign she’d used, which could have a range of meanings depending on context, the two hands, bent at the base of the knuckles, starting together with the folded fingers touching, then pulling apart.
Renee sighed. He didn’t hear it but felt it in the movement of the pillow that was still wedged between them, combined with how her massaging hand shifted. “While you were sick,” she explained, again with her left hand. Renee was still looking at him fondly, but her eyes had grown misty.
Reluctantly, Kai pulled away, literally pushing through the pain to adjust his body so he was facing her more.
“I missed you so much. Not talking to you at all during that time was really hard.” Renee had to have learned how to sign all that from David. She blinked furiously, then gave in and wiped her eyes with her hand.
Kai’s heart fractured. God, all he did was hurt her. Maybe Dr. Miller and David were right that he shouldn’t tell her about Nikki and how he believed he’d cheated, even if he wasn’t actually sure he had. Renee suffered enough. He grabbed the pillow and tossed it aside, then pulled Renee closer until he could wrap his arms around her. He kissed the top of her head. “I’m sorry,” he said genuinely. He inhaled her scent, that faint hint of roses that always reminded him of her, and kissed her hair again. “If it makes you feel better, I didn’t do much talking to anyone for most of that month.”
Renee pulled back, tears trailing down her cheeks even though she seemed as if she was actively trying to stop them. “You really were that sick, huh?”
Kai sighed. Nodded. Nudged some of her hair off her face. “I have no desire to repeat that month again any time soon. And now that you’ve seen me looking incredibly sexy in a hospital gown, maybe I won’t be so worried about letting you visit me next time.”
Renee nodded, though she looked sad and worried.
“I don’t want there to be, but there will be a next time, Re. I’m sorry.” Kai sighed heavily. “Sometimes I feel like I’m held together with duct tape and old chewing gum.”
Renee stretched and grabbed some tissues from the box on the coffee table. Blew her nose and wiped her eyes. Then she took a breath like she was composing herself again, and got very serious.
Kai felt his stomach knot. He’d been so caught up in recovering his last week or so in the hospital and his first couple weeks out he hadn’t really thought of how the separation had to have affected Renee. Most of that time he was throwing up or having severe flashbacks or in such pain that he wasn’t even really all there. He tried to put himself in Renee’s shoes. What must that have been like? Even if he’d had her brother or someone else giving him regular updates, how would he feel knowing she was in the hospital and he couldn’t see her or even talk to her?
“I’m so sorry,” Kai signed, knowing if he signed it his face would reveal his contriteness. He knew that couldn’t take away all the pain he’d caused her: the separations, the worry, all the lying he’d done. And about Nikki. Maybe nothing had happened, but Kai still felt sick knowing as fucked up as he was after the dinner with Frankie he hadn’t gone to Renee. But Dr. Miller would probably point out that self-realization was the first step, so if he was acknowledging his failings and trying to make amends, that was real improvement. It didn’t feel like it, especially since his stomach knotted at the thought of Renee seeing him potentially like he was after his transplant, confused, unable to communicate because of his stupid, fucked up, damaged brain. . . .
Renee said something and gently touched his face, perhaps to get his attention. It did snap him out of his thoughts. “Stay with me today, OK?” Then she leaned in and kissed his cheek.
Kai swallowed the self-deprecating remark he was going to make about being a space-cadet, struggling to focus and stay in the present. He nodded.
Renee smiled at him, her eyes sparkling, face full of love and happiness. It still blew Kai’s mind that he could make anyone happy, when he’d struggled to find that state of being his entire life. He expected her to sign or say something, but instead she picked up one of his hands, turned it over like she was examining it thoroughly, though she didn’t try to push his sleeve up, to Kai’s great relief. Next, she tugged at his collar and acted like she was peering down it, although there was no way she could actually see anything because the fabric didn’t give enough with all his layers to reveal much. Then she took hold of his chin and encouraged him to open his mouth and peered inside.
Kai laughed. “Re?”
She ignored him as if she were on a mission and smoothed some of his hair away near his ear and acted like she was peering in there, or at least he assumed since he could really see what she was doing. She did a few more odd things like that and finally she sat back and said, “Well, I checked everywhere and I don’t see a single piece of duct tape or gum. You might need to reapply.” She slid her hand over his arm and squeezed near his elbow, bending his arm back and forth. “Yup. Definitely something loose right about here.” Her serious face melted into a smile.
Kai couldn’t help laughing. He lifted her onto his lap so she was facing him, stared at her for a moment before pulling her toward him in a kiss. He ravished her mouth, savoring her taste, the warmth of her tongue as he swept his over it, the electric zing that surged up his spine as he tried to devour her, holding her tight like he never wanted to let her go. In this moment, Kai could forget everything: his fears, his doubts, his self-hatred. Finally, Renee pushed against his shoulder so they could come up for air, both breathing hard. Her curls were a little wild around her face, her cheeks flushed and her eyes bright with a smile.
And it happened. Before Kai could think to stop himself, there they were. Those three words he’d been holding back for weeks. “I love you.” He swallowed, nervous as soon as he finished, his heart beginning to race, the moment before she reacted lasting only a millisecond and yet feeling like eons stretching between them.
Renee’s eyes filled again but her smile expanded. She leaned forward for a quick peck. “I love you too.”
Kai let out a huge breath of relief. “I had this whole speech. . . . It was supposed to happen later. It was supposed to be romantic. It was supposed to be perfect,” Kai babbled.
Renee took a shuttering breath since she was still crying happy tears. “This was perfect. You’re perfect.”
Kai let out a dry laugh. “I’m like the off-brand of perfect. Perfekt with a ‘K.’”
“‘K’ for Kai,” Renee said with a nod and a smile, brushing her fingers over one of his sideburns, making a pleasant shiver course through him.
“I wanted to tell you before but I was afraid,” Kai admitted, brushing some of her tears away. “But I’ve never felt about anyone what I feel for you. I’ve never had anyone who can make me feel so good about myself, just the way I am, and at the same time who makes me want to be better. The best person I can be.” Kai took a huge breath. “I love that you want to help me become the best person I can be.” Kai cracked a smile. “Even if I’m stubborn and don’t always want help.”
Renee chuckled. Worked her fingers into his hair the way she loved to do, staring deeply into his eyes, looking so beautiful it made his heart ache, like it was too full, and the idea of not being with her was too painful to think about. Her smile was sweet when she finally asked, “When do I get my next clue?”
The next clue lead them to Nancy’s Cafe where they’d shared their first kiss, and since they were totally off-schedule (as Kai complained more than once on the way there), they arrived in the heat of the lunch rush. As a result, it wasn’t easy for them to find an open table that could accommodate Kai’s wheelchair. The dining room was packed with hospital staff, business people, and students chatting loudly as they hurriedly swallowed their sandwiches. Kai carefully and deftly navigated the narrow spaces between chairs, people, and tables, but Renee didn’t miss the looks cast his way: pity, irritation, disdain, and more. If she saw, it meant Kai did too, and even if he was used to it, especially with how fragile his mood had been lately, she worried.
Kai pulled into the table, gripping the edge to better align himself in the tight spot, although no matter what he did, the back of his rear tires stuck out into the aisle. He sighed heavily, then bent his head, cradling it in his hands. His fingers massaged his temples. “It’s so loud in here,” Kai shouted, raising his voice more than necessary, which caused the people at the surrounding tables to glance over with mixed looks of annoyance and pity. “I’m sorry. I have to turn my hearing aids off or I’ll go nuts with all the feedback,” Kai said, switching to sign. Renee noticed a few people were staring, so Kai cast a scathing glare their direction that made them uncomfortable enough to look away.
Renee noticed how stiffly Kai sat, how his eyes constantly scanned the room. He drummed his fingers on the table over and over, first one hand, then the next. All these people were making him anxious.
“We can leave. It’s OK.” It took Renee a while to get Kai to look her way long enough to sign.
Kai shook his head.
“OK, how about we imagine our table has a bubble around it.” Renee did her best, signing the table and indicating where they sat, then using one hand as a placeholder for them and the other cupped, putting it on top of them like you might the domed lid of a pot. To be sure of what it was she was describing, she fingerspelled “bubble.” She hoped that made sense. “No one can enter it or even touch us except the person bringing our food.”
Kai’s nose twitched, and he was doing that thing where he seemed like he was seeing through her instead of making eye contact, but after a moment, he nodded. Closed his eyes and seemed to be focusing on his breathing. He stretched his hand toward her and accepted when she placed her palm in his. After a few moments, he opened his eyes and let out a long exhale. He seemed marginally calmer.
“Did that help?”
Kai smiled weakly. Nodded.
For a few minutes, they didn’t try to talk, just held hands. Renee could tell despite his best efforts, the vibe of the packed restaurant was getting to him. Kai had admitted to her once that he’d never liked crowds, partially because of his disability, but also because the energy of all the people around him, their emotions, affected him even if he didn’t want them to. When his anxiety or PTSD was bad, it was even worse.
“We don’t have to stay here.”
“The food will be here soon. We’ll eat and move on to the next clue.” Kai sighed. Tucked some hair behind his ear and consciously stopped himself when he seemed to realize his eye gaze was searching the room. “I’ll be fine.” It wasn’t convincing, but today was important to him, and she had to trust that if this really was too much, he’d tell her.
Renee nodded. Thought for a moment. “OK. Then why don’t you tell me one thing about you I don’t know, and I’ll do the same.”
Kai’s eyebrows dipped, but before he could answer, Nancy arrived with their food. Chicken salad sandwich and coffee for Renee, and herbal tea and soup for Kai.
“You two OK? I was expecting you about an hour earlier.”
Kai’s brows dipped further. He glanced over at Renee, but then perhaps what he’d read off Nancy’s lips clicked or he intuited what she might be saying from her body language—he was eerily good at that—and replied, “We’re fine. Sorry for the trouble.” He flashed his charming smile, the one Renee knew was totally fake but easily swayed all but his inner circle.
Nancy smiled back, and presented them with a small box with the deli logo on it. “Open it after you eat your lunch.” She gave Kai a pointed glance, added an, “Enjoy,” and disappeared into the crowd.
“What did she say? At the end?”
“I think the box is supposed to be a surprise for after we finish our food.”
Kai’s nose twitched and he stretched for it before Renee pulled it out of his reach—not an easy feat considering how long his arms were. He pouted.
That made Renee laugh. “Soup first. Then . . . whatever this is.”
Kai stuck his tongue out at her, but he picked up his spoon and took a few slurps of soup. He didn’t hide how difficult that was for him to do, but he was making an effort, which relieved Renee considering he’d thrown up the little he’d eaten of the delicious breakfast he’d made.
“So have you thought of your one thing to tell me?”
Kai looked at her for a moment like he didn’t remember what she was talking about—and maybe he didn’t—but then he seemed to get it and sighed heavily. He set his spoon down so he could have both hands free to sign. “One thing about me you don’t know? What you don’t know about me could fill a dozen books, at least.”
“Pick one. Doesn’t have to be serious.”
“Re, I have more baggage than a fully loaded 747,” Kai muttered, perhaps using English because he wasn’t confident she’d understand him if he’d signed, or maybe because it wouldn’t translate. Kai stared down at his soup like it was a dead animal, then took a few more sips before continuing with both hands, “I can’t think of anything you don’t know about me that I’m comfortable sharing with all these people watching us.” Kai used all ten fingers, splayed, pointed at them to indicate prying eyes. Apparently, Kai was paranoid someone in the crowd might know ASL and leak his closely guarded secrets into the Deaf community. Still, his phrasing implied that he would be willing to share otherwise, which made Renee inwardly happy.
“Fine. I’ll go first. Unlike my brothers, who went to a non-religious, co-ed school, I went to an all-girls, Catholic school.”
Kai’s face revealed this information surprised him. “But you’re not super religious, or a rebel.”
That made Renee laugh. “Are those the only choices?”
“Growing up, I was a good kid. But I did know what I want and liked finding . . . loopholes?” Renee fingerspelled the last word, uncertain how to sign it and not confident Kai would get it if she said it out loud.
Kai showed her a few ways he might sign that, then forced himself to eat some more of his soup. It smelled good and Renee hated how difficult eating was for him. Was he nauseous all the time?
“My first real act of rebellion was Jude. I wonder if I had gone to a co-ed school if maybe he never would have tempted me.”
Kai bristled. “Dr. Miller says you can’t blame yourself for things outside of your control.”
“Does that work? What happened to you, you can tell me right now—and believe what you’re saying—that it wasn’t your fault?”
Kai hung his head. Pushed his food to the side. When he looked up at her again, his eyes were filled with such raw pain. “If I hadn’t been born disabled, my entire life would have turned out different.” He seemed like he wanted to say more, but he stopped. Renee saw his jaw shift like he was grinding his teeth, and he dropped one hand to the table where he drummed his fingers on it in rhythm, over and over and over, his tension back.
Renee had intended the game as a way to distract him, and if anything, she’d made things worse. She hesitated, then laid her hand on top of his restless one.
Kai froze. Let out a long breath. Pulled away so he could sign freely. “Here’s something you might not know about me: not long after my parents died, the state forced me into hearing kindergarten for a little while. Special Ed,” Kai signed disdainfully. “Most of my life has been out of my control in one way or another. One reason it’s so . . .” Kai looked like he wanted to cry and scream at the same time, and she took his hand, smoothed it and kissed it as a way to remind him he didn’t have to fight this battle on his own. Kai smiled, relaxed subtly, giving her a grateful look. “I hate that I’m finally ‘free,’ but tomorrow . . .” Kai looked ready to shatter. He took a shaky breath. “I know a lot of the time I don’t seem like it, but . . . I’m really glad you . . . I’m glad I have you. I’m grateful you love me.”
Kai had managed to eat about half of his soup, which Renee knew was an achievement even if it wouldn’t have seemed that way to anyone else. Kai had eagerly accepted the box from Renee when she offered it, and had immediately brought it to his nose to try to sniff out what might be inside.
“Smells like chocolate,” Kai said with a huge childish grin. But then he sighed. “I’m not supposed to eat sweets.” Kai opened the box anyway, removing its treasure: a miniature heart-shaped cake that had Kai ♡ Renee written on it in white icing. Kai licked his lips, and it took him a long moment to set the cake down and push it toward Renee. “I’ll eat that whole thing if you don’t keep it away from me.”
Renee used her fork to get a section of the cake and waved it toward Kai. “One bite won’t hurt,” she said, not sure if he would get her English or not, but figuring the fork said it all.
Kai cast a look her way she couldn’t interpret before he seemed to give in, opening his mouth. He’d barely tasted it when he moaned in pleasure, his eyes rolling back in his head.
Renee couldn’t help laughing. It amazed her how something as simple as soup could slay him but give him dessert and Kai would devour it like a little kid. It reminded her of how happy and alive Kai had been on Halloween, and it made her smile to see some of his shadows receding, even if only for a moment. She offered him another bite once he’d swallowed the first.
“I shouldn’t,” he’d barely finished saying when he accepted the second.
Over the next few minutes, they shared the cake, and Renee reveled in seeing Kai so relaxed and happy. Smiling. One of his rare, contended grins that lit him from the inside. And in his eyes was that look, her look, that told her how much he loved her.
“This is nice,” Kai admitted, taking a sip of his tea. “I feel . . .” He hesitated. Stared into her eyes a long time as if he were trying to say whatever it was on his mind without words or signs. “Normal.” He hesitated. “Us, I mean.” His brow furrowed. “I’m not saying this right, am I?”
Renee reached out for his hand and brought it to her lips to kiss. Renee was about to sign that she got what he was trying to say when she was distracted by the table behind them. A bunch of young guys who suddenly stood up loudly, talking amongst themselves, suggesting they were late and needed to hurry.
Two of the guys slipped past, but the third one had forgotten something at the table, and he turned to grab it while he was rushing by. His foot caught in Kai’s spokes and he tripped. The force was enough that Kai had to reflexively stretch his arms out and grab the table on each side, fighting against the pull of gravity so that he didn’t fall over. Renee saw Kai’s breath come faster and tension snap into his body.
“What the fuck, man?” the guy who ran into Kai shouted, but then he apparently noticed Kai was in a wheelchair and his demeanor changed completely. “Oh, shit. I’m so, so sorry. Here, let me help.”
That’s when things really went sideways.
Kai apparently couldn’t hear what the guy was saying, or he was too angry to process it, although in fairness to him what the guy did next shocked Renee, too.
“I’m so, so sorry,” the guy repeated again, but he was looking at Renee, as if she were the one he should be apologizing to, even as he put his hands on Kai’s shoulders to move him. Maybe he did it because Kai’s wheelchair had a low back and no handles. Maybe he was so flustered he wasn’t even fully aware of what he was grabbing.
As soon as the man’s hands touched Kai, he shirked, and only a breath later reached behind him to forcefully pry the man’s harsh grip off him. Kai growled. It may have been words, but if it was, Renee couldn’t extract them amid the commotion, because by now the surrounding tables were all watching and chittering amongst themselves. Some even chimed in with, “Lighten up” and “don’t be so ungrateful!” and the like. Renee thought she heard a woman nearby say, “Isn’t it such a shame? A handsome young man like that.”
“Chill, I’m just trying to help,” the guy said, once again trying to aggressively move Kai like he was an empty chair or table in the way and not a person.
Renee wanted to say something, but part of her was in such shock she couldn’t find words, and part of her knew this was Kai’s fight and he didn’t need her help.
Renee could see in Kai’s eyes that he was struggling not to panic, even if otherwise he seemed calm enough, just angry. “Keep your fucking hands off me,” Kai said, clear enough this time. He grabbed his rims and forced his chair backward against the resistance of the “helpful” samaritan, rolling over the guy’s foot. The man released his hold on Kai immediately, letting out a string of colorful curses and hopping out of the way. This freed Kai to escape. “Move!” Kai growled, plowing through the limited space between the tables and chairs, barely giving anyone a chance to dodge him before he barreled out of the cafe.
The world blurred as Kai pushed hard through the front door of the restaurant. Kai could feel reality wanting to rupture around him, and he used every ounce of training he’d learned over the months from Dr. Miller. Counting his breaths, focusing on the feel of his wheelchair cushion under his butt and thighs, the subtle tactile transfer of the ground’s texture through the tires into his hands and up his arms and shoulders, the bitter cold of the February afternoon on his exposed face, the tightness in his chest as the cold air triggered his airways. His only mission was to get to Renee’s car, where hopefully the vehicle would shield him from most prying eyes. Because either he was going to have a serious FS attack or slip into a major flashback, and either way, he didn’t want an audience.
Once Kai rolled to a stop, the panic—without the push of pain and movement to siphon it—began to tear at his mind. Either that or the cold or both made breathing almost impossible, and there were moments when Kai wasn’t sure if he had passed out for a few seconds or if somehow the bright afternoon had morphed into darkness, if the crisp, clean air was suddenly acrid, if the wind on his neck was really the brush of a large, brutal hand.
Kai’s chest jerked, his lungs fighting the chill air and sobs struggling to push through. Kai hugged himself, hoping the pain would help keep him in reality for a few more seconds. A touch on his shoulder made him shirk and jump and stop breathing. But then Kai realized it was Renee, looking scared and timid but still holding her ground, clutching Kai’s coat and scarf.
Kai coughed: rapid, desperate and unrelenting. His head spun. His lungs burned and he felt his wheeze instead of hearing it. He stared into Renee’s eyes for a second’s eternity. Then, without thinking, he tugged her into his lap and wrapped his arms around her tight, burying his nose in her hair, praying the rose scent would ground him. Kai’s chest rose and fell rapidly, frantically. Panic, terror, and his body’s battle for oxygen drove his panting breath. Kai warred against the raging emotions swirling inside himself. Another jerk that turned into a cough and then a sob, and soon Kai was overtaken by violent tears. Kai tucked his head into Renee’s neck, clinging to her as he cried, fought to breathe, and shook so badly he could hardly maintain his grip.
Renee draped his coat over them, rested her cheek on the top of his head. And she held him, not saying or signing anything, helping him ride out the storm.
Continue to February 13, 2001 - Part III ---->