February 2, 2001 - Part IV
Kai had been kept pretty busy the entire class, either teaching, answering questions, or playing with some of the kids and teaching them signs in the process. When the class finally ended, he got stopped by more than one parent, and though Renee couldn’t tell what their conversations were about, from the smiles on the parents’ and children’s faces, she suspected they were thanking him. Kai was waving and smiling to the last set of parents, who were walking out with what looked like a six-year-old girl in blond pinktails, when Renee finally figured it was safe to approach.
“Do I need to get in line?” Renee said, forgetting herself.
Kai turned to her, but he pointed to his ear. “Say that again?”
“Sorry. Uh. I don’t know how to say that in sign.”
“Say it in English, just make sure I can see your lips. It helps me figure out what I’m hearing.” Renee had expected Kai to be irritated, but he seemed to be in a good mood. Maybe the patience he had for the kids was overlapping to her.
“I was joking that you’re so popular I need to get in line to talk to you.”
“Oh,” Kai said, laughing. Then he showed her how to sign that, teaching her a few different ways to sign “popular,” and showing her how a line of people was signed by using your fingers, spread out and upright, to represent all the people, and then you could show exactly how the line was set up depending on how you placed your hands in space. It was moments like these that reminded Renee how much clearer ASL could be than English sometimes.
“I love you,” Renee said once she felt she’d mastered what he’d taught her. “Have you thought of majoring in education? You’d make a great teacher.”
Kai frowned. “No one would want me to teach their kids.”
Renee’s eyebrow dipped. Hadn’t he just spent the last hour and a half doing just that? “You could teach Deaf kids. You’d love it, and you’d be good at it, too,” Renee said, remembering David had explained to her about the sign for “skill” or “talent,” using that.
Kai stared at her a long time but didn’t say anything other than a nod that seemed to be his indication that he’d understood her. “I want to show you something. Come on.”
Renee followed as Kai pushed out of the classroom and down the hall, in the opposite direction of the few remaining parents who were chatting with each other in English while their kids played together. Kai moved so elegantly on the smooth surface--unlike the college, where most of the halls were carpeted, this one was a kind of linoleum--and she loved to watch him. Even though he was wearing a sweatshirt, she could still see the strength of his arms, the fabric not so loose she couldn’t see it strain a little with his movements. Not enough to be uncomfortable for him, most likely, but enough to give her a nice view.
After a moment, Kai slowed, letting himself glide, a short push here or there to keep his momentum, his head turned to the side and up, as if he were looking for something. “Ah. Here it is.” Kai swiveled around to face her, pointed. “My locker,” he said, gesturing a box and then fingerspelling the word. Renee may not have gotten it in other circumstances, but it was pretty obvious what he was saying. The lockers were the tall kind, unlike what Renee was familiar with from back home, but with the long winters here she supposed you needed the space for bulky coats.
“What are you doing?” Renee asked out loud before she could stop herself, nearly smacking herself in the forehead when Kai ignored her.
A moment later, Kai popped the locker open.
“Kai!” she said, whacking him on the shoulder. Then she pulled her hand away, realizing he may not have liked the unexpected touch.
He did flinch a little, clearly a reflex, but he laughed. “Can’t believe they haven’t changed the combination in all this time.” Kai stared into the locker, which had a few decorations on the door--it obviously belonged to a girl, from the magazine cutouts of young male celebrities and the pink magnetic mirror--and a few school books, but otherwise was empty. “Can you believe I used to fit inside one of these?” Kai said, looking up at her with an expression she couldn’t read.
Renee’s eyebrows went up. She spoke in English, but she tried to supplement it with gestures, since she honestly had no clue how to sign it. “You got stuffed into your locker?”
“Maybe something I shouldn’t admit to?” Kai said. But then he shrugged. “I was tiny until I was almost eighteen. Then I shot up like a foot, but I was super skinny. Probably the only person in history on as many steroids as I was who didn’t gain weight.” Kai almost seemed to be talking to himself, as if the ghost of his younger self were hiding out in his old locker. He shut the door after a long moment of silence, making sure it was locked. “Come on. I’ll point out a few of my old classrooms.”
Over the next half hour or so, Kai took Renee on a mini tour of the school’s silent halls, pointing out some of his former classrooms, telling a few anecdotes about when he was a kid or the things he and David got up to. It shocked Renee how forthcoming Kai was being, though she didn’t miss the hint of sad nostalgia in his voice.
“You really loved this school, didn’t you?”
Kai and Renee had made it back to the front entrance, and were facing each other so they could sign. He smiled, shrugged. Signed something she only understood part of, so he tried again, in a different way, a more Englishy construction, mouthing the words. “This school is the only place I ever really felt like I belonged.”
Renee wasn’t sure how to respond to that, especially considering how sad Kai looked when he said that. As reserved as Kai could make himself, his emotions leaked through by necessity when he signed.
“Ironic, right? Considering I was the only hearing kid amongst a sea of Deafies,” Kai added in English, as if to emphasize the irony. Then he took a breath, blinked his eyes furiously a few times. “I’m going to miss this place.”
Renee was sure she had to have misunderstood Kai. “What?”
“One of the Deaf moms told me the state is thinking of closing JSD. And CH, too.”
“What? Why?” Renee blurted in English.
Kai looked up at her, that sadness still weighing down his shoulders, his happy mood evaporated. It seemed like Kai could never hold onto a happy feeling for long. “In the old days, it was too difficult to travel all the way to the southern part of the state if you lived up north. So the state had two schools for the deaf and two homes for disabled kids. Now, it’s easy to travel, even in winter.”
It took a moment for Renee to process all that, but Kai paused to make sure she understood him, so she nodded to signal she’d figured it out.
He smiled faintly, as if he were happy that she seemed to be catching on, and continued. “The state has a budget,” Kai explained, helping her with the unfamiliar sign for “budget,” which looked like you were literally sweeping a stack of money toward you. Kai sighed heavily. Shoved his hand through his hair. “If this school closes, it’ll destroy the Deaf community in Jonesville.” Kai let his eyes close momentarily. His jaw was working, like he was gritting his teeth, and his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed more than once. Finally, he opened his eyes and tried to force a smile. She saw something cross his features, like maybe he was thinking of saying something else, but changed his mind.
“What about County House? There were a lot of kids there. Where will they go if it closes?”
Kai’s nose twitched. Not in the way that signaled agreement in Deaf culture, but almost like a tic. Like it did when he was sleeping. Maybe it showed he was irritated. Should she not have asked about CH? “They’ll send the most disabled kids south, to the home in Council Bluffs. The rest they’ll stick in other group homes around the state, or in foster care.” Kai was signing slowly despite his obvious disdain for the topic, thankfully, or she might not have understood him. As it was, he added something else, almost as if he were talking to himself, like the equivalent of speaking under your breath, and she didn’t catch that, but she decided not to push it.
Instead, she asked, “I thought this meant ‘FAKE’?” Renee asked, demonstrating the sign he’d used for “FOSTER,” index finger brushing off the tip of the nose.
“It does. It’s also a derogatory sign for ‘FOSTER.’ Since foster families are fake families. An imitation of the real thing.”
Renee’s eyebrows dipped. “I thought you lived at CH your entire childhood. That you never lived with a foster family. I thought you’d be happy for those kids.”
Kai’s eyes suddenly seemed lit by an intense fire, blue being the hottest part of the flame. His hands dropped to his rims and tension took over his entire upper body. What had she said wrong this time? “You have no idea what my childhood was like. Don’t presume you do,” Kai said with ice in his words, though he didn’t raise his voice. Kai clenched his teeth again. Normally this would be the moment when Kai would apologize for going off on her, but he didn’t. He was calm, although his increased breathing betrayed that was largely a front. He was furious, a totally different kind of anger than she’d seen in the cafeteria earlier today. And she wasn’t sure why.
Before Renee could figure out what to say, Kai pointed behind her. She turned to see Megan and David walking their way. David had a tote bag full of leftover materials from the class draped over one shoulder, and Kai’s coat and scarf stuffed under his arm. Once he’d gotten within a few feet, he tossed them to Kai.
“Forget something, genius?”
Kai’s anger slipped away, like an agitated rattlesnake, hidden, but still dangerous, and he rolled his eyes. “I told you not to make fun of my memory problems.”
David sighed heavily and leveled a look at Kai Renee couldn’t interpret, which was returned by one from Kai that was equally mysterious. More of that wordless communication they did so eerily well.
“They’re like a couple of freaky twins when they do that, aren’t they?” Megan whispered in Renee’s ear even though neither David nor Kai could hear her. Although it was likely she didn’t know about Kai’s hearing issues, since as far as Renee knew, Kai hadn’t told David yet, either.
Megan left Renee’s side and whacked David on the arm. He jumped, pretending she’d hurt him, so she stuck her tongue out at him. “Keys?”
David fished them out of his pocket and handed them over. “Let’s all go out. Come on. It’s early! It’ll be fun.” David seemed to mostly be asking Kai, though.
Renee (and presumably David, too) expected Kai to say no, especially since he seemed to be particularly irritable, but instead he just shrugged. “OK.”
Then David signed something Renee couldn’t understand. Megan just rolled her eyes and Kai sighed, exasperated. Some kind of juvenile jab, maybe? Then the three of them began signing rapidly to each other, not excluding Renee, per-se, but forgetting she wasn’t as fluent as they were. She didn’t want to ask Megan to interpret, but she feared if she didn’t, she’d be left out. Maybe she should just go home. Let Kai hang out with his friends. He was angry at her anyway.
Though it was nearly ten, the Jonesville Diner’s parking lot was pretty full. Even in this “college town,” there weren’t too many places that stayed open past ten, even on a Friday, especially in the height of winter. David had to park pretty far from the door, but he honestly didn’t mind the cold.
As David was parking, backing into his spot, he saw Kai’s car drive past. David had originally wanted to hit a bar, but Kai reminded David he didn’t drink and even post-transplant tried to avoid cigarette smoke, and Renee wasn’t yet 21. So here they were, even though David knew Kai hadn’t been back since his panic attack in November. When Megan had innocently suggested the diner, David had waited for Kai’s objection, but it never came. Still, David knew his friend.
Shifting into park, David hit the overhead lights and turned to Megan. “Go ahead inside and get us a table. I’m going to talk to Kai in private real fast.”
Megan’s eyebrows dipped for a moment, but she nodded. “I’ll order you a Coke. See you in a bit.” She kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks for coming tonight. It was nice having you there.”
David smiled. “You could still be a teacher, you know.”
Megan sighed. “Interpreting pays more. You know that.”
David’s face fell as he was reminded of his disastrous interview, and all the frustrations that went with it.
Megan shook her head. “I love you. You’ll find something. Go to the Deaf Club next week, suck up your silly pride, and ask around. OK?”
David was still angry inside, but he smiled. How did he ever get so lucky? To find a woman who didn’t see him as a worthless orphan and a thief and not only helped him get his life on track but also fell in love with him? He nodded, pulled her in for a deeper kiss that promised more when they got home.
He felt Megan’s giggle through the kiss as she pulled back. “See you inside.”
Kai sat in his car, focusing on his breathing. On blue. On calm. Wishing he had another extra Xanax, even if it meant he wouldn’t be able to drive himself home. When Megan had suggested the diner, completely clueless as to Kai’s history with it, why hadn’t he spoken up? Made some excuse as to why they couldn’t go there? Instead, like a total fucking pussy, he’d gone along with it, too afraid that if he said anything, Re and Megan would want to know why, and then he might have to tell him about his panic attack, and then they’d probably laugh at him for being so fucking stupid that he’d let it keep him away from a place he loved.
Kai’s hands tightened on the steering wheel as his heart began to race. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t go in there. What if he had another panic attack? What if he dissociated? What if he hurt someone?
Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Kai tried to stop thinking. To just focus on breathing, and only breathing, to stem the anxiety. He’d managed fine during the class, and now a diner was going to push him over the edge? Dammit. Dammit. Dammit. He couldn’t breathe. Dammit, his anxiety was not as controlled as Dr. Miller thought it was. But maybe it couldn’t be controlled? Maybe this was going to be his life? Hiding, always scared, constantly worrying about losing charge of himself?
A rap on the passenger’s window startled Kai so much he jumped and let out a frightened noise. His heart thundered even harder in his chest, and Kai’s hand trembled as he struggled to unlock the door.
David climbed in, shifting in the seat to face Kai. He hit the overhead light to facilitate signing. “You don’t need to stay,” he said, his face concerned.
Part of Kai was angry with David--he could have said something when Megan suggested the diner, stopped her from wanting to go there without revealing Kai’s secret--but then Kai would probably have been furious at David for speaking for him. Just like David didn’t like people to assume he couldn’t communicate and automatically speak for him or interpret for him, Kai would have been pissed if David had taken it upon himself to decide if Kai was ready for this or not.
“Fuck!” Kai screamed out loud, because he knew he was really angry at himself. He was shaking, all because of a fucking restaurant. One he’d been to hundreds of times.
David carefully laid a hand on Kai’s arm. Just a gesture to both get Kai’s attention and to offer support. His face said so much--he was sympathetic to Kai’s situation, he was willing to go into the diner and make excuses for his friend, and more--but he didn’t sign anything. Maybe he was worried anything he said might piss Kai off.
Kai knew this was like the bowling alley in the sense that it marked a turning point. He could go home, crawl into his bed with his stuffed fox like the scared kid he often felt he still was because of his nightmares and flashbacks. Or he could man the fuck up, take a risk, and trust that David would be there to help him through his panic if it happened. And maybe it wouldn’t happen. Maybe, like the ultimate outcome at the bowling alley, he’d have fun. Maybe he could even feel “normal” for a few minutes, hanging out with Re and Megan and David like normal people their age did. Normal people who didn’t hallucinate and attack their friends and family. Fuck.
Kai was shaking even harder now. Fuck his fucking messed up brain. “I’m scared,” Kai admitted, the trembling adding to the power of the sign.
David nodded. “I’ll go in with you. I’ll be right there.” David showed a couple different options, that he would either sit across from Kai or right next to him, whatever Kai wanted.
So much for being fucking independent, right? Kai couldn’t substitute David for Jon, not if he really wanted to be on his own. But could he ever manage that? Kai had never lived independently in his entire life. At County House Kai had been as self reliant as he could be. But from time to time, including his first two years of high school, with the Mexitil making it difficult for him to walk, especially without his braces, Kai had needed to give in and let an orderly--or, preferably, David--help him get in and out of the shower.
But needing help physically was one thing. Kai had been sick enough too many times in his life to be unwilling to let a nurse or a physical therapist or a doctor or someone else help him move his body. But mentally? Mentally Kai had always been able to get through things himself. It wasn’t always easy, and there were times he almost hadn’t survived, but--
David was waving to get Kai’s attention. He was frowning, but not in an irritated way, more in a concerned way. “Are you lost?” David asked, signing it to imply that Kai was dissociating.
Kai shook his head. “It’s 2001,” he said, the default answer to signal he wasn’t trapped in a flashback.
“Tell me what you’re thinking, then. I know you, and I can read you, but I can’t get inside your head.”
Kai swallowed. Even though the engine was still running, it was a little chilly in his car, and he shivered. “I want to be independent,” Kai signed, his anxiety downshifting into its relatively default state. “I want to be normal.”
David sighed, his face sympathetic. “What does that mean? To most people, I’m not normal because I can’t hear. Needing help from friends and family when you’re going through a difficult time isn’t weakness,” David signed passionately. “Megan and her family saved me. I thought I could do it all on my own, and I fucked everything up.”
“It’s not the same! You’ve never known what it’s like not to be in charge of your own body. And to lose control of your mind, too?” Kai felt he was precariously close to breaking down into tears. He hit the steering wheel violently. “Dammit!” Kai took a huge breath to try to regain some semblance of composure. “I’m not better. I have multiple panic attacks a day. I can barely hold it together in public. I’m cutting daily. Yeah, I’ve been lying about that--”
David nodded. “I know, Kai. I always knew. Even when we were at County House.”
That made Kai pause. “Why . . . why didn't you say anything?”
David shrugged. “Would you have stopped even if I had?”
Kai had nothing to say to that. It was possible if David had tried to actively stop him--instead of indirectly, like taking his hidden stash of sharp objects--that would have only enraged Kai and driven him to cut more.
David gave Kai a sincere look. “Cutting seemed like something you needed, and as long as you weren’t hurting yourself too badly, as long as you were taking care of the wounds--” At Kai’s surprised/skeptical look, David responded, “You didn’t think I’d notice all the antiseptic you were going through? You don’t need to inject yourself that often, and I know you like to use it on your face after you shave if you cut yourself, but that’s infrequent, too. I love you, but you’d make a terrible criminal, leaving the evidence behind.” David cracked a smile. “You have friends and family to help you through this. Dr. Miller warned you it would take time. Let us help you.”
Tears threatened in Kai’s eyes, and rude or not, he pressed his hands into them to try to stop them, his chest jerking with the need for release. Why could he never have anything he wanted? Why couldn’t he be normal? Or at least some fucking fraction of it?
Kai lost it, though he still struggled to hold back the sobs that wanted to tear through his body.
David laid a hand on Kai’s arm, comforting, and once Kai looked up, he signed with one hand something Kai couldn't quite make out through the blur of those fucking tears.
Kai wiped his face with his scarf and blinked. Asked David to repeat himself.
“Dr. Miller. When do you see her again?” David seemed extremely concerned. And no wonder. Kai was a total fucking basketcase who deserved to be tranqed and restrained in a looney bin somewhere and forgotten.
The thought brought on more tears Kai couldn't control. “Tomorrow. Emergency session.” Dr. Miller had called him back not long after his message, worried since Kai never called her directly unless things were bad. Even with speakerphone, she’d had to shout and repeat herself frequently for him to make sense of what she was saying, but he’d managed. Once he’d convinced her he wasn’t suicidal, she’d agreed to see him first thing Saturday morning. That she’d help him.
But Kai was starting to believe he really couldn’t be helped. He certainly couldn’t be fixed. He was born broken, and every stolen day of his life he was reminded of it. The sobs gripped him again, and soon he was crying so hard it hurt, like his mental anguish was embedded in his chest and it was trying to rip its way out.
A moment later, David's arms wrapped him in a hug that felt like a lifeguard keeping a drowning victim afloat in deep water. It had to be awkward because of the center console, but David didn’t let go until Kai’s jerking tears stopped.
Once he’d pulled back, David signed, clearly very worried about Kai, “Let me go in there and tell them your anxiety meds you took for the class kicked in hard and you need me to drive you home. Let me stay with you until Jon gets home, if he isn’t already.” Now that the tears had drained away some of Kai’s anger, Kai could appreciate that David was willing to lie for Kai and give up greasy food, too.
Kai wiped his face with his scarf and inhaled through his nose to try to get a handle on the snot situation. “Do I look like I just spent the last ten minutes bawling like a kindergartener?"
“Your eyes are puffy and red. And so are your cheeks. Why?”
Kai bit his lip hard. “Because I need to go in there. I need to try.” And by that, Kai meant he couldn’t hide or make excuses anymore. If he was going to attempt independence, he couldn’t run at the first opportunity, no matter how difficult it was to forge ahead. Just like he had at the bowling alley. More than once.
David smiled, almost proud. “Head straight for the restrooms. Splash water on your face. I’ll meet you at the table.”
“So how long have you and Kai been together?” Megan asked to fill another awkward silence. David and Kai had been delayed long enough they’d exhausted all the banal small talk.
“Uh, we met in August, when school started, but we’ve only been a couple since late October, and only reconnected recently. Since Kai was--” Wait, did Megan know about Kai's mental illness? She had to know something, since David had helped Kai through his physical and mental recovery over the past few months, but how much did she know? Renee cleared her throat. “Sick. Since he was sick, and I was in New Orleans for the break.”
Megan nodded, mostly because it didn’t seem like she knew what to say. “I don't really know him. Kai. David had never even told me about him until they suddenly ran into each other at the Deaf Halloween party.” Hmm. So David kept secrets too. No wonder he and Kai got along so well.
“Kai’s . . . an enigma,” Renee said for lack of a better word. “David probably knows him better than anyone, and I know for a fact there are things Kai hasn’t told him.”
That made Megan’s eyebrows go up in curiosity, but she had the decency not to ask. Not that she had much time, because the front door chimed, and they both turned to look as David and Kai entered. Kai immediately beelined for the back of the diner, his face so covered in his scarf she saw him as little more than a blur of fabric as he tore past. David took a moment to survey the restaurant before seeing Megan’s waving hand and loping over.
He grinned hugely at her as he sat down next to her, then leaned in to give her a kiss on the cheek. “Kai went to the restroom. He’ll be back soon,” David signed lazily with one hand, apparently forgetting Renee was a newbie signer, or at least that’s what she assumed he was saying.
Megan nodded, not thinking twice about it as she offered David her menu. But Renee knew better. Kai gunning it to the bathroom, combined with his being gone so long probably meant he’d had some kind of anxiety attack in the car and needed to throw up. Kai had never admitted it, but she suspected his nausea and vomiting had just as much to do with his mental illness as it did the after effects of his GI infection.
Megan checked her messages on her phone while David scoured the menu. Renee already knew what she wanted, so she scanned the restaurant. It was pretty busy considering the time, but there weren’t too many places in Jonesville to hang out at this time of night, especially in the winter. A middle-aged woman was manning the counter, chatting and refilling a man’s coffee. A few minutes later, Kai emerged from the bathroom just as the woman happened to be looking that way. Even though Renee was sitting toward the front of the restaurant and the counter was in the back, near the kitchen, she could see the woman’s body language shift immediately, and a smile peel across her face.
The woman abandoned her station and rushed up to Kai, apparently elated to see him. Kai seemed tired, even from this distance, his shoulders and back not quite as straight and open as he’d normally keep them, and he seemed to react slowly to the woman. She soon threw her arms around him in a hug, and even from her vantage point Renee could tell that made Kai uncomfortable, but he hid it well even once the woman pulled away.
She chatted with him a little more, and then Renee saw Kai point toward the restaurant, the woman’s gaze following his finger. She nodded and pointed, too, then patted Kai’s head and headed off toward one of the waitresses. But Renee stopped following her because her focus was on Kai, who took a minute to apparently plan out the easiest route to their table before he pushed along toward them, sometimes having to shove a chair out of his way, sometimes using the chairs or tables to propel himself forward through a tight area. It took him a few minutes, but he finally pulled into the spot beside Renee, offering her a smile.
His eyes were red-rimmed, though, and even after he shifted his weight, his shoulders and posture made it seem like the air was somehow heavier for him.
“You OK?” Renee asked, kind of under the table so Megan and David wouldn’t see.
Kai forced his smile to grow a little, but it didn’t last. “Tired. Today was a long day.” Wasn’t that what he’d told her before? Yes, it was likely the truth, but not all of it, Renee was certain. But Kai grabbed his menu, breaking eye contact, and that meant he wasn’t going to elaborate further.
There was an uncomfortable moment where Renee felt like she didn’t belong. David and Megan and Kai talked to each other, but Renee didn’t understand what they were saying, and she didn’t want to interrupt them to ask, especially since it was probably banal. David would point to the menu occasionally, so she suspected they were talking about something related to what they were planning to order.
It was funny how Renee could be sitting at a table with three people, one whom she loved more than she’d thought possible, and still feel all alone.
Dinner had pretty much continued like that, with David and Megan doing most of the talking and Renee missing 80% of the conversation. Kai joined in occasionally, almost like he was hitting his cue. He even smiled or laughed, but the faraway, exhausted look in his eyes never left, and he spent most of the time cutting or breaking his food apart into increasingly smaller pieces, moving things around on his plate to make it look like he was eating when the reality was Renee didn’t think he’d even taken a single real bite. She suspected David was onto him from the occasional look he’d cast Kai’s way, but he apparently decided to leave well enough alone, because he didn’t say anything. Or at least, she didn’t think he did. Without fully being able to know what everyone was talking about, she couldn’t be certain.
She just hated that David--not her--had been the one to help Kai deal with whatever the hell it was he was dealing with right now. Maybe she’d been kidding herself thinking those looks Kai occasionally gave her meant he loved her. Maybe, despite what David thought, there was a reason he hadn’t said those three words, why he hadn’t signed it. Maybe Kai didn’t trust her after all.
David and Megan had finished saying their goodbyes in the entrance of the diner and disappeared out into the parking lot, leaving Renee and Kai behind. Kai was zipping up his coat and securing his scarf, so she waved to get his attention.
He looked up, barely hiding a scowl. He was obviously tired and worn out emotionally and physically from the long day, but she couldn’t just let him go without making some kind of peace between them.
“Are you angry with me?”
Emotions flitted over Kai’s face too fast for her to pick out any of them other than his exhaustion and irritation. He took a long time to respond. “I’m tired. I want to go home and sleep.” A typical Kai non-answer.
Renee felt all the emotions of the day hit her, and she struggled not to let the tears come to the surface. “Talk to me. Please.”
Kai dry washed his face. “Not here.”
“Why not?” Renee demanded, getting emotional and not caring if the few remaining people in the diner looked their way, wondering why they were silently flapping their hands. “No one here is Deaf, are they? No one understands what we’re saying. Talk to me,” she insisted again.
Now Kai’s anger seeped away, revealing the real emotion underneath: anguish, with maybe a hint of fear. “I can’t.”
Now Renee felt her own anger building. She’d been patient with Kai, and she knew he’d “been through a lot” to use Art’s words, especially lately, but he’d promised her at the start of the new year that he would be honest with her. She was willing to tag along for his crazy ride, but he needed to fucking communicate with her. “You can. Maybe you don’t want to, but you can! I love you, but I feel like . . .” Renee blew air out in her frustration that her signing wasn’t better. “I feel like I’m here and you’re there,” she said, using the representation of a person, index finger standing up, then placing them as far apart as she could manage with her short arms, her way of expressing the distance she felt between them lately. She didn’t even try to sign in proper ASL grammar, too angry to worry about it, figuring as long as her signs were right, Kai would understand. “You say I don’t understand how you grew up, but how can I when you won’t tell me?”
Kai seemed to shrink under her harsh signing, nearly cringing; Renee had never showed her anger to him before. At least not like this. In fact, this was probably their first real fight. It was bittersweet to realize that; it was a milestone, but at the same time, could they survive it? Renee would have thought so if she’d asked the version of herself from this morning; now she wasn’t so sure. She loved Kai, and that would probably never change, but she wasn’t sure if she could do this if he didn’t want her to be an equal partner.
Renee dropped her hands when she realized Kai wasn’t going to respond, and the tears she’d been holding back that her temper had temporarily kept at bay spilled over. “Forget it. Good night,” she said, not caring if he could understand her or not. Why should she be the only one making the effort in this relationship? She turned toward the door.
“Wait. Please. Re. Wait. Dammit.”
Renee wiped her eyes and nose with her hand and slowly turned back around.
Kai seemed terrified. It reminded her a little of how he’d looked the day she’d finally found out the truth about his FS and his lung transplant, about how sick he’d been growing up. She’d been angry then, too, and hurt, but it was like a shadow is to a living thing compared to how she felt now. He swallowed. “Don’t make me talk about this. Not like this. Not here. Please.” Kai’s look was pleading.
Renee really didn’t want to give in. She always gave in. Wasn’t that why people like Jude had done what they’d done to her? “Tell me why you’ve been so angry,” Renee signed, not sure how to say “irritable.”
Kai sighed. “I don’t know.” And it didn’t seem like he was avoiding answering this time. “Let’s talk in my car. In private. Please.”
Reluctantly, Renee agreed. Maybe Kai would actually tell her something.
Kai had turned on the overhead lights in his car and the heat up as far as it would go. Once they weren’t totally freezing, he apologized. “I’m sorry. Haven’t been sleeping. I know it’s not an excuse. You deserve better. So much better.” Kai’s eyelids seemed heavy, and now she could see he wasn’t kidding. How had she not noticed the bags under his eyes? He was sitting slightly sideways--his legs were too long for him to turn too far, and when she didn’t say anything immediately, he leaned back, his neck angled so his temple rested against the headrest, and he was clearly fighting to keep his eyes open.
“Today was more than being tired. I’ve seen you before when you’re sleep deprived. Talk to me, Kai. Please.”
Kai stared at her almost blankly. “Too tired to lipread. I . . . I missed it all.” Kai sighed heavily. “Sorry.”
“Well maybe I’m too tired to sign!”
Kai’s eyes widened. Shimmered. He swallowed. Nodded. Shifted some more in his seat so he could reach into the back. It took him a minute and some stretching, but he finally snagged a notebook. He laid it on the dash, then reached across her without preamble and pulled the glove compartment open. He dug around in it for a moment before he found a pen. He shut the door, then pushed against it to more easily sit back in his seat. He grabbed the notebook and scribbled something on it.
We can’t do this, he wrote, showing her the note. But then he must have seen the worry in her face--was he breaking up with her? Sure, love could cross a language barrier, but he didn’t love her, did he?--so he wrote another note. This convo. Too complex. He looked at her, brows up, waiting, hopeful. “Tomorrow? My emergency appointment with Dr. Miller, fish.” After his appointment, Renee realized Kai meant after his appointment with Dr. Miller. His English was shifting into that hybrid between proper English grammar and spoken ASL. “I think more clear. Will. Lunch I’ll bring you. OK?” He offered her the pad and pen so she could respond.
Some of her anger melted. He was exhausted, and he couldn’t understand her when she talked, and he’d prefer to sign, but he was still attempting to speak for her. He was trying so fucking hard, wasn’t he? Like that song he’d interpreted for her? She was debating what to write, and how, because she wanted to make it clear she wasn’t letting him off the hook. It didn’t help that she even loved his handwriting, and staring at his sloppy slanted caps distracted her. Renee glanced up and noticed Kai had leaned back against the headrest, his eyes shut. He looked like he’d dozed off.
“Kai,” she said in a harsh whisper before she remembered he couldn’t hear her. She nudged him with the edge of the notepad.
It took a couple tries, but he finally startled awake, his eyes darting around like he was struggling to get his bearings. He let out a long breath. “Sorry. Tired.”
“Is it safe for you to drive?”
“What?” Kai blinked drowsily.
Renee repeated herself in sign.
“‘M fine,” Kai muttered. He managed to keep his eyes halfway open. “Here here, my apartment here, distance close. Five minutes,” Kai said nonsensically, half signing as he spoke.
It took Renee a moment, and she had to close her eyes, but she realized Kai was verbalizing how he would have signed, his English breaking down even more. What he was trying to say, she suspected, was that he didn’t live far, and so he could manage. She frowned. Tapped his arm until he opened his eyes more. “Let me call Jon,” she said, supplementing it with some signs.
Kai shook his head. “I’m fine. Don’t need help. Tomorrow. I’ll see you.” His signs were a little angry but mostly weak. He was barely staying awake.
“Kai,” she said, her eyebrows up. “Don’t be stubborn.”
“‘M fine!” Kai shouted. Then he signed something she couldn’t understand, rapidly and intense like he had earlier that day when he’d lost his temper with her. He seemed to catch himself, remember he was supposed to speak for her, but he shook his head, like he couldn’t work out how to say it in English. “Tired, my brain--” He made a sound effect as he crumpled his hands together, like he was saying his brain shut down when he was too tired. She’d seen it happen before, but not quite like this, and it made her wonder how much he consciously compensated for the brain damage he suffered before and during his transplant. He had told her that the longer she was with him, the more she would see it come through, and he’d also explained how English wasn’t always his friend if he wasn’t 100% all there to manage it. “I just want to go home and sleep. Tomorrow. I promise I will explain myself. Promise.” Even in sign he wasn’t easy to understand, but she was able to get enough of it to put the pieces together.
Renee was irritated she’d have to wait to get the answers she wanted out of him, but she didn’t have much of a choice. His ability to stay awake, let alone communicate, was quickly fading. So she nodded. She gave him a kind of glare to let him know how serious she was, but then she took one of his hands and kissed it. “Be careful driving home,” she said. She didn’t like the idea of letting him drive this exhausted, but short of reaching over and ripping the keys from the ignition, she didn’t have much choice. Plus his apartment was very close.
Kai smiled faintly. He still seemed ready to drop at any second, but not having to work so hard to communicate seemed to have relieved some of his exhaustion. “Same,” he said. Then he raised his hand a little higher, his index, pinky, and thumb up, his ring and middle fingers folded, and he shook his wrist. It wasn’t quite “I love you”--Kai had explained that sign had a slightly different meaning despite what most people thought--but it was close. Like, “Luv ya,” maybe. And the smile and look in his eyes rose above his exhaustion and gave Renee a little ray of hope that things might still be OK between them.