February 3, 2001 - Part II
David was lounging on his couch, drinking a beer--it was five o’clock somewhere, right?--staring at the TV, which was playing some random college basketball game. He wasn’t really watching it, let alone reading the captions. He’d managed to rein in his anger Friday, partially because he’d had a job that kept him busy most of the day, then had the class, then had the night out with Megan, Kai, and Renee. But now he was idle. The Saturday that he and Megan had intended to spend together shattered by a last-minute, all-day interpreting gig she couldn’t turn down, since that not only meant a solid eight hours pay, plus time-and-a-half for the lack of notice. So it meant David had the entire day to stew in his juices. He’d debated texting Kai, see if he was interested in hanging out, maybe playing a pickup game of basketball or going for a run together, but Kai had been so out of sorts yesterday David didn’t want to burden his friend with his own petty failures.
David tipped his beer bottle back and took a few long pulls. He wasn’t drunk--one thing David had inherited from his father was a high tolerance for alcohol--but he was determined to get there. Yeah, he knew he was being a self-pitying pussy, but he was angry and defeated and beginning to wonder why he’d even bothered listening to Megan back when they’d first met. Why had he pushed himself to improve his English, to get his GED, to go to a college full of ignorant hearies who didn’t respect him then and certainly didn’t respect him now? All deaf people were good for, apparently, were menial jobs, so why the fuck had he wasted all his time and money on an education no one would even let him use?
David took another angry slug of beer, draining the bottle, and was debating going to the store for more when the lights flashed. Who the hell could that be? David hoped it was Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons or some other religious missionaries like that so he could flick them off and tell them other very graphic vulgar things in sign language just to make himself feel a little better.
He pushed himself to his feet and took his time getting to the door, but whoever was outside was impatient, the lights flickering repeatedly. Oh, God, he hoped it wasn’t one of Megan’s strays. She was such a bleeding heart, like the “missionary of interpreters”--speaking of religious types--who was always helping out anyone in the Deaf community who might need any kind of support, whether they were hearing, Deaf, or anything in between. Especially the people on the fringes, particularly the late-deafened adults, the LDAs, the older folks who had spent their entire lives in the hearing world and suddenly, with their hearing gone, were left with nothing and no one. Megan occasionally taught ASL classes and Deaf culture classes at the Jonesville Senior Center directed at those people, and she’d often invite them over for dinner or whatever. It sometimes drove David crazy, but Megan would look at him and remind him these people were lonely and isolated, and didn’t he know what that felt like?
After all, it was Megan’s compassion that had saved him in the first place. Still, David was not in the mood for someone old enough to be his grandfather wanting him to keep him company for an afternoon. Especially not today. But Megan was obviously rubbing off on David, since he’d ended up being loosely in charge of organizing the volunteers for helping out that poor Harriet woman with the sick kid. They were even trying to find a lawyer who would take on her custody case pro-bono and help her get her son back, since the state didn’t seem to think a Deaf woman was capable of caring for her own child. Thinking about it all just made David angrier, so he tried to push the thoughts away as he approached the door.
David peered out the peephole and saw nothing but the gray February morning sky. Maybe whoever it was had given up. Or maybe they’d left him a pamphlet explaining how much Jesus loved him. Jesus didn’t fucking love him. That had been made pretty fucking obvious a long time ago. By the time David ripped the door open, he was pissed. Really pissed, especially since he didn’t immediately see anyone there. But then he noticed a familiar car parked in his driveway, and he looked down and saw Kai, sitting in his wheelchair, shivering.
David’s eyebrows rose in surprise and question.
“I need to talk to you,” Kai signed clumsily, since he was wearing thick gloves and he was shaking a little from the cold. “Can I come in?”
“Are you sure?” Kai had refused to visit David’s house since Thanksgiving, and David had stopped trying to push him, figuring Kai would return when he was ready.
“No, I drove all this fucking way so we could stand in your doorway freezing our asses off.”
David rolled his eyes and stepped backwards, holding the door open while Kai wheelied over the threshold, closing it as soon as Kai was out of its path. “You want something warm? I can heat you some milk, or I think Megan might have some snobby tea somewhere you can have.”
“Ha ha,” Kai signed sarcastically. He was trying to warm up his rims before he took off his gloves. His cheeks were bright pink from the cold, and his hair was windswept. Even though he’d been sarcastic, though, David couldn’t help noticing how Kai’s eyes scanned the room nervously. “I’m fine. This isn’t a social call.” Kai sighed. He pulled off his gloves, tested his rims, winced, but dropped his gloves into his lap anyway. “I have something to tell you, and it needed to be in person, and it was important enough that I decided to suck up my fear of coming back to your house.”
That seemed ominous, especially considering how messed up Kai’s head had been last night. David nodded and held out his hand to take Kai’s coat, scarf, and gloves.
Kai finished stripping off his outerwear and handed them over, signaling he’d head for the couch and for David to join when he was ready.
David finished hanging up Kai’s things and detoured to the kitchen. He still had a single beer in the fridge, and he almost grabbed it, but then decided to take a soda instead: something caffeinated for him and a Sprite for Kai. Kai wouldn’t have come here if he didn’t have something serious to discuss, and David needed to be alert.
David noticed Kai hadn’t transferred to the couch, instead parking beside it, though he had turned the TV off, which was interesting. Kai still really didn’t feel comfortable in David’s house, and yet he hadn’t asked David to come to him. “What’s up?” David asked after he’d offered Kai the soda, which he declined.
Kai waited for David to sit. He pushed away from his knees, fidgeting a little, pinching the fabric of his jeans. For a moment, Kai closed his eyes, and David knew his friend wasn’t trying to be rude. This was difficult for him. Being here. And whatever he needed to talk about was probably not easy, either. So David used some of his uncharacteristic patience and gave his friend the time he needed.
Finally, Kai took in a deep breath and opened his eyes, slowly lifting his hands to sign. But he hesitated, either unsure of how to begin, or still mentally preparing himself for what he was going to say. “I need to start by saying that you are still my brother, no matter what. I hope you understand that.” Kai looked so uncertain, so worried, it struck David. It was almost like . . . like Kai was afraid that what he was going to say would destroy their friendship.
“Of course,” David said. He set his soda aside so he could sign easier. “If you could forgive me for not being there when you had your transplant, then of course I know we’ll always be brothers.” But those words didn’t reassure Kai the way David had hoped.
Kai nodded, but his shoulders were hunched, and he was fiddling with his pants again, appearing to agree with David on the surface when it seemed like he didn’t really believe it. On a certain level, that hurt, but David decided to give Kai a chance to say whatever it was he needed to say first. Then he could figure out a way to make Kai believe that when David said Kai was his brother, he meant it, and nothing could change that.
Kai reached up with both hands, shoving his hair off his face. He stared into David’s eyes for a long moment, almost as if he were hoping that their amazing ability to communicate had jumped into telepathy. “I . . .” Kai said. Then slowly, jerkily, he lifted his hands to either side of his head, starting to form them into fists, thumb up, finally bringing them to his ears and dragging them downward as he squeezed his fingers. “I’m losing my hearing.”
David let out a contained sigh through his nose. When Kai had gotten very sick in December, the doctors had worried the infection was spreading, that his organs were going to shut down and he was going to die, so they’d given Jon a choice: they could treat Kai with a new set of drugs that could possibly damage his inner ear, or they could take their chances with the treatment they were already giving him. Jon had given Kai as long as possible with the original drugs, but had decided that Kai’s life was the most important thing, and taken that risk for his brother. So many weeks had passed since then that David had assumed Kai was out of the woods, but apparently that wasn’t the case.
David nodded, but decided to reserve his reaction until Kai was finished.
Apparently, David’s restraint surprised Kai, but it gave him the courage to continue. “My hearing has been going in and out. I’ve been having vertigo and tinnitus. I see a doctor Tuesday to see if it’s permanent, or how severe the damage is, but . . .” Kai sighed. “My hearing has been out continuously since Thursday morning. All the other times, it was just a few hours, but it’s been days. I don’t think it’s coming back.” Kai paused, staring David down like someone asking for forgiveness and afraid they wouldn’t find it. “I . . .” Kai’s hands were shaking. He took a breath, sat up straighter, and tried again. “I’m scared.” Despite the tremble, Kai was facing David straight on, speaking honestly and boldly. “I know it’s stupid. I know it’s hypocritical. But I’m so fucking terrified. I wish I could feel differently.” Kai didn’t break eye contact, and he didn’t shirk, but David knew his friend well enough to see that Kai was so close to losing his fragile self control. Kai was upset. Very, very upset. More than even his emotions that showed through while he signed. “I understand if this changes everything between us.”
“If I woke up tomorrow, hearing, I’d totally freak the fuck out.” David could understand, at least theoretically, how going from hearing to deaf could be a shock, especially for Kai with his anxiety, even if he couldn’t personally really understand, having never been hearing himself.
Kai’s eyebrows furrowed. David’s reaction was not what he’d been expecting, evidently. “You’re not mad?”
David shook his head, his body language and facial expression suggesting Kai was stupid for even thinking of it. “Are you full deaf now?”
“No. That’s why it’s so stupid.” Kai sighed. “Right now, I can still hear, but it’s . . .” Kai’s fingers wiggled like he was trying to think of a way to explain. “It’s kind of like . . . like if your eyes are really dry, and everything’s blurry? Like, if that was now. I could still see you. I’d still know you were there, that you were signing, but I might not be able to understand what you were saying specifically. You know? Like, maybe in my gut, I could get an idea of what it was, but I couldn’t be sure, and I’d have to squint and try really hard to make sense of it. It’s like that. I can hear. I know when someone’s talking. But especially women . . . I can’t be sure of what they’re saying exactly if I’m not looking at them when they’re talking to me. You know?” Kai laughed, but it was in a self deprecating way.
David nodded his head and his hand in the “Y” handshape to signal he got what Kai was saying. And put that way, he did. David had very little concept of sound, despite how close he and Kai had been growing up, but he could picture exactly what Kai was saying about blurry vision. “Lip reading is hard as balls, right?” David said, cracking a smile and hoping that would help Kai feel a little better.
Kai did relax subtly. He nodded. “I don’t think being hearing is better than being Deaf.”
That surprised David. “I never thought you felt like that. I always thought you saw Deaf as better anyway. But maybe that’s because I’m so amazing.” David grinned.
Kai rolled his eyes, but he relaxed a little further. “I was worried you’d hate me.”
That shocked David, so much he actually startled back a little. “Why? If you’re hard of hearing now, you’re even better than you were before, in my opinion.” David got a little more serious. “I can’t understand, not really, what you’re going through and what you’re feeling. But I know you. You’ll be OK. You’ll get through this. And I will always be your friend, whether you stay a silly hearie or become just like me: amazing and fully deaf.”
David saw Kai’s face shift like he was letting out a laugh that was part scoff, but Kai exhaled, looking relieved. “Was it really hard, using an interpreter all through college?”
The shift in topic threw David for a minute, but then he realized how Kai had probably gotten to that idea considering what they’d been talking about. He sighed. Grabbed his drink and took a long swallow. “At first, yeah, it was really tough. I’d never really used an interpreter before especially not for a situation where it wasn’t one-on-one. I also wasn’t used to being surrounded by hearing people like that, so it was really difficult. So you have an advantage over me. You used interpreters a lot growing up when you were in the hospital, or for doctor’s visits. And you’ve been in the hearing world for years. But yeah, it’ll be an adjustment. Especially since I’m sure you know some interpreters are better than others. Some are more ethical than others,” David said with a bit of a growl.
Kai blinked. “Did you growl just now? I thought that’s what I heard, but . . .” Kai pointed to his ear.
David chuckled. “My last interpreter was an unethical asshole, and I’m still pissed about it.”
“Oh, shit,” Kai said, realizing. “I’d forgotten. I’m such a selfish idiot. The job interview.”
David waved it away. “I should apparently just go kill myself, because only hearing people can do anything,” David said dismissively, then realized he probably shouldn’t have said that considering why Kai had approached him, and Kai’s history.
Kai dismissed it. He nudged his chin to the couch, as if for permission, then transferred, settling in. That’s when David knew they were OK. Maybe Kai wouldn’t be in a rush to go into David’s bathroom any time soon, but this was progress.
“We’ll both be fine, right? We’re always fine.”
Kai laughed at that and rolled his eyes again. “Do you think you could ever have been with a hearing girl? I mean, like, a regular hearing girl, because Megan doesn’t count.”
That made David laugh, but he knew what Kai meant. Megan was from a strong Deaf family and didn’t have any hearing friends or relatives who didn’t sign. She was more familiar with Deaf culture than hearing culture, and like Kai, most of the time David didn’t even remember she could hear. It did strike David as interesting that Renee had asked him almost the exact same question yesterday. Had Kai told her about his hearing loss? Or had she figured it out? Part of him was hurt that Kai didn’t come to him with this first, but if Kai did tell Renee, that was major progress for him. “I’d say no, but maybe if I’d met someone like Renee is to you I wouldn’t care about the difference in language and culture, because we’d both figure out a way to make it work. Because that’s why you’re asking me, right? You’re worried about how your hearing loss will affect your relationship with Renee?”
Kai nodded. “I feel like I’ve already demanded so much from her. How much more can I possibly ask?”
“So then dump her and find a nice, hot Deaf girl.” David was baiting Kai.
“Because I don’t want to, asshole,” Kai signed angrily. “I mean, if Renee decides I’m too much trouble, that’s one thing, and maybe she still will, but I . . .” Kai took in a deep breath. “Is it crazy that I could see myself marrying her someday? I mean, assuming I actually live long enough to marry anyone. Or that anyone would even want to marry me.”
“Stop it.” David clapped his hands when Kai wouldn’t look at him. “Stop it. That’s the negativity talking, not you, OK?”
Kai didn’t seem convinced, even though he nodded. He let his head fall back on the top of the couch and released a long breath before he rolled his head toward David to regain eye contact. Again, David saw that hesitation, and Kai just stared at him a long while, again, as if trying to impart something without needing to sign. Finally, Kai pushed himself upright to facilitate signing, and raised his hands. “I know I’m better in a lot of ways. I mean, I’m here, right? I didn’t think that would happen for awhile. And I’m not freaking out.” Kai blew a breath upward, his bangs fluttering and then falling across his forehead. “But in some ways, I feel like I’m spiraling. I think there’s shit in my past I don’t even fully remember that’s coming out, and I scare myself sometimes.” He sighed. “I just mean, losing my hearing is just another thing to add to my pile, and maybe that’s the problem. I feel like that will make everything else I’m already struggling with so much worse.” Kai shook his head. “I don’t want to talk anymore for awhile. Can we watch a movie? Preferably something with a lot of explosions and not a lot of dialog so I can just zone out.”
David nodded. “Now you’re speaking my language.” He rose and scanned the shelves where he kept his collection of VHS and plucked one out of the rack. He waved it at Kai. “This one is terrible in all the right ways.”
Kai smiled, though his eyes were tired. It worried David a little that Kai had admitted he scared himself, that he felt he was “spiraling,” though instead of elaborating had decided to forget for awhile. He just had to hope that Kai knew he could always come to David for anything if he needed a friend.
Renee was sorting through a box of special orders, double-checking the books against the master list and sliding in a little bookmark with each customer’s name when she heard the front door chime. It was nearly two and she hadn’t had her lunch break yet, but the store had finally slowed down and she’d hoped once she got through these she could finally eat something.
“I’ll be right with you,” she called out, sliding a bookmark into her next book when she heard a familiar creak. Despite what happened last night, a smile bloomed on her face, and she had to force it away before she looked up.
Kai sat in his wheelchair on the other side of the front counter, a plastic grocery sack in his lap, his hair windswept and his cheeks flushed from the cold. He reached up and nudged his scarf down away from his mouth. He looked tired. Not just physically, but emotionally, though he was trying to hide it and feign seriousness. Above the deep sadness that never left his eyes--now that Renee knew how to recognize it for what it was--she saw a hint of playfulness.
“Excuse me, miss, but do you think you could direct me to a book about how to make up with your girlfriend after you’ve been a total jerk to her?”
Renee had to stifle her smile. “You know, I think I’ve read that one, and it starts with bringing her lunch, so I think you’re off to a good start.”
She read some confusion in Kai’s face, and noticed how he was staring intently at her--so his hearing was still out and he was reading her lips. “Lunch? I brought you lunch,” he said with a little less confidence than before, like he was hoping that was what she’d been talking about. “You haven’t eaten yet, have you?”
She shook her head. “I need to finish up here,” Renee said, switching to ASL, her signs jerky as she tried to think how she would say what she wanted to. “If you want to go to the . . .”
“Break room?” Kai said, pointing, using the sign that meant to relax, but mouthing “break” on his lips.
Renee nodded, relieved. “Five minutes,” Renee said, since she wasn’t sure how to say she’d join him or she’d be right there.
Something shifted in Kai’s eyes she couldn’t possibly read, but he nodded and pushed off toward the back of the store.
Renee wanted to watch him go--she loved the movement of his shoulders as he maneuvered his wheelchair, especially from behind--but she didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. It would take a lot more than lunch to get things back on track between them. As much as she wanted to just rush to the break room, she decided to take her time securing the register and storing all the orders under the counter before she finally wandered to the back office.
Art was bent over some paperwork, his glasses perched precariously on the tip of his nose, and barely looked up when she knocked.
“I’m going to take my break. Everything’s locked up up front.”
Art nodded. “Take your time. You deserve it. I’ll handle any customers who wander in.”
Renee nodded and ducked out, following the aroma of food toward the break room. Her mouth immediately began to water--she scented tomato sauce and oregano, garlic, basil--and she couldn’t help licking her lips, though she steeled her expression once she entered the room, just in time for the microwave to go off.
Kai had taken off his outerwear, revealing only the close-fitting long-sleeved T-shirt he’d been wearing beneath his layers, the fabric clinging to the lines of his shoulders and biceps as he carefully removed the food from the microwave and laid it on top of a towel in his lap. He’d already set out plates and cutlery--not the fake stuff, either, but things he’d obviously brought from home, and he startled when he turned around and saw her. “I--I didn’t hear you,” he said in a soft voice. He swallowed, offered her a smile. Despite his attempts at being lighthearted, Kai seemed so . . . precarious, almost like he was Art’s glasses, dangerously close to falling. She wanted to take the food out of his lap so she could climb into it, wrap her arms around him and cradle his head against her, her fingers massaging his temples. But she was determined. If they were going to do this. If they were going to survive, then they needed to both put in effort toward this relationship.
Kai gestured for her to sit, so she did. Then he went about serving her, which she admitted was a bit of a luxury. Growing up, she’d always had to help her mom or her maw maw serve her male relatives, whether it was her dad or her brothers or her paw paw or someone else. And she couldn’t help smiling at Kai. And the look that passed over his face when she did--genuine happiness and relief although there was still that wary sadness beneath it all.
Kai held up a small container that smelled like sausage. “I made you some meat to add to it, if you don’t . . .” Kai swallowed, tried again. “If you don’t want to eat vegetarian.”
It was sweet and kind of Kai to make the effort, but the way his shoulders dropped when he said it, the way he offered it almost without looking at her, it was like . . . like he felt that he wasn’t good enough, that her adjusting to his diet was a major inconvenience, even though she had told him more than once she didn’t mind eating vegetarian occasionally, as long as he didn’t mandate she had to give up meat entirely.
She nodded, accepted the container from him and set it aside. She wasn’t sure if she should take some or not. Which would be better? It seemed like a situation she couldn’t win. If she ate it, it was saying she couldn’t accept him for who he was, and if she didn’t, she was rejecting him. God, she was overthinking everything, walking on eggshells with Kai again because he seemed so fucking fragile today. And he’d hate her if he knew what she was thinking, because Kai hated admitting weakness. She’d learned that much over the last few months.
He read something in her features, though what, exactly, that was, she couldn’t say, and he just nodded, looking a little chastened, cleared his throat and struggled to smile at her before taking his place across from her at the table.
Neither of them dug in right away. And Renee didn’t want to be the first to say anything. Fortunately, Kai finally spoke. “Thank you for . . . for switching to sign earlier. After an hour and a half with Dr. Miller, I’m tired of reading lips.” His cheek twitched, then fell, like he realized he was again making her do all the work. “But if . . . we can have this conversation all in English if you want. As long as I can see you. As long as you’re not eating while you talk--” God, he was trying so fucking hard, wasn’t he? What had that song said that he’d interpreted for her only a week ago? That he was doing the best he could?
Renee reached across the table and laid one hand on his. Met his eyes. Tried to reassure him. “Let’s just eat first. OK?”
Kai nodded after a slight delay and grabbed his fork.
Renee glanced down at the food in front of her. She saw pasta and cheese and vegetables, and again, she salivated. She took a bite, and her mouth exploded. For someone who grew up in a group home, Kai sure had a way with flavors. It seemed unfair when she’d helped her mother and her grandmother cook all her life and yet she could burn water.
“Do you like it? It was an experiment,” Kai said, picking at his own food like he couldn’t bring himself to eat any of it. “Baked ziti meets ratatouille.”
“Rah-tah-tool-le?” Renee said, confused.
“You know, French food? Vegetables cooked with tomato sauce?” Renee noticed that though Kai was speaking English, his structure was very ASL-y.
“Ooooh,” Renee said. “Rah-tah-too-ee.” She exaggerated the articulation a little.
Kai watched her lips carefully. “I said it wrong,” Kai said, obviously embarrassed by his flubbed pronunciation. “I’ve only ever seen it written.”
“It’s OK. Watch my lips,” Renee said, pointing, then repeated it, slowly. “No ‘L.’ It’s French. And French is never pronounced how it looks.” She smiled at him, and she noted he relaxed a little.
“Rah-tah-too-ee,” Kai attempted. “Did I say it right?”
Renee nodded. “And it’s really good. Thank you. I’m starving.”
Kai smiled shyly and forced a piece of pasta in his mouth.
They slipped into quiet while they ate, and Renee finished her portion, plus some of the sausage he’d made for her, and half of his, too, which he insisted she eat even though she knew he needed the calories. She gave in when he assured her he had more at home.
“Tell me about your session with Dr. Miller,” Renee said once they’d finished.
Kai’s nose wiggled, and he sighed. “She’s putting me on a new medicine. Switching me from the one I’m on now,” Kai added in clarification. “She thinks I may do better on this new drug. Won’t be as . . .” Kai hesitated. “Anxious. Depressed. Irritable.” Kai swallowed. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for yesterday. I can’t . . .” Kai seemed frustrated, but he pressed on, forcing himself to look at her and not at the table. “I don’t mean it as an excuse, but . . . I can’t . . .” Kai took in a difficult breath. “I can’t always control my emotions. God, that sounds so stupid.” For the man who seemed to have been a master at just that, it struck her.
“It’s OK. Explain.”
Kai shook his head. “It’s . . . it’s embarrassing, Re.”
Renee wanted to be angry at Kai’s continued refusal to be honest with her, but she kept it in check. He was trying. “I’d like to hope that we can’t be embarrassed with each other. Tell me,” she urged, squeezing his hand.
It took Kai a moment, like he was working out what she’d said, but finally, he admitted, “I’ll break down into tears for little to no reason sometimes. And I can’t stop it.” Kai looked away, obviously ashamed, before he forced his gaze back to her. “And I get angry, too. Sometimes really, really angry. It’s one reason I was afraid of being near you at first.” Kai’s eyes shimmered. “Fuck.” He wiped at them with his wrist. “I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to hurt you in any way, and . . .” Kai blinked rapidly. “Fuck. Fuck, not now.” He buried his eyes in the heels of his hands and she saw his shoulders shake. Kai really wasn’t kidding when he said he was a mess. He inhaled sharply and dropped his hands. His eyelashes clung to each other with tears, and he was struggling to keep himself together. He swallowed. “I . . . I’ve decided to go to a group therapy session. For people . . . like me,” he said, pushing a flier towards her across the table.
Renee picked it up. Glanced at it cursorily. Survivors Of Child Abuse, it stated on the cover, with the picture of a young child huddling in fear that morphed into an adult staring out with a haunted look in her eyes. Oh, no. Renee had had her suspicions, of course, as to why Kai had PTSD even if Jon had been cagey about the details, but to actually have Kai tell her, even in his typical indirect way. . . . She looked up at him, and he was clearly waiting for her reaction, almost frightened. But she didn’t know what to say.
“There’s a lot I’m not ready to talk about. With anyone. Even Dr. Miller. I know you think Jon and David know everything, but it’s not true. They have only bits and pieces. . . .” And then Kai said something that broke her heart. “If . . . if this means we can’t be together . . . I understand.” Maybe he meant his not being able to tell her the details of his past, but honestly, by the way he couldn’t meet her eyes when he said this, she suspected he meant that she wouldn’t want him now that she knew he was . . . what, “damaged”?
“Kai,” she said softly, but he wasn’t looking at her and didn’t hear her. She stretched for his hand. He recoiled initially, but then forced himself to relax. She tugged his arm gently to get him to look up. “I love you.” She held up the flier. “This doesn’t change anything. OK? Thank you for telling me.”
Kai swallowed. She could feel his hand shaking subtly in their grip, and he looked like he was on the brink of tears. “I have such bad nightmares, Re. I hardly sleep. I’m so anxious all the time. I hate it. I’m so scared I’ll hurt you. I don’t want to. I want to tell you everything, because . . .” Kai looked like he was about to finally say the L-word, but he held back. Swallowed. He was shaking more visibly now. “I’m trying so hard to get better.”
“I know,” Renee said, switching to sign. She smiled. “Promise me we will do this--us--together. That you’ll talk to me. Let me help you. Stop being afraid I won’t love you anymore.” Renee’s signing wasn’t smooth, and she probably got a lot of it wrong, but she hoped she got her point across.
A few tears had escaped Kai’s eyes, but his demeanor seemed to have lightened, especially with her shift into sign. He nodded enthusiastically.
Now Renee gave into her earlier instinct, rising from her seat and walking around to him, gently pushing on his shoulder and looking down at his lap for permission.
Kai rolled backwards to give her space, his expression one of such profound relief as he welcomed her into his lap. He wrapped his arms around her, leaning his head against her, almost clinging to her. “I was so afraid I was going to lose you today,” Kai said, his voice heavy with emotion.
“Shh,” she said, even though after she did she realized he probably couldn’t hear it. She let her body do the talking then, embracing him back, planting kisses everywhere she could reach without leaving their hold on each other. “I love you,” she whispered into his hair, even if he couldn’t hear it, cherishing the unique scent that was all him and letting her eyes fall closed. We’ll do this together.
Renee and Art were at the front counter, sorting through the rest of the special orders in companionable silence. A few feet away, Kai was asleep in one of the armchairs, his history book still open in his lap. He’d stayed so he could study, but not long after had fallen asleep. Renee hoped he wouldn’t wake up to a nightmare, especially if they had customers. Kai would be so embarrassed, and the fragile peace they’d forged between them might be shattered. After all, it was Renee who had convinced him to stay in the first place.
“How is he doing?” Art asked as he piled a stack of books into a box.
Renee glanced over at Kai. “He’s a survivor,” she said, remembering what David had told her yesterday.
“Sometimes when you’ve done nothing but survive, it’s hard to adjust to anything else,” Art said in that cryptic way of his.
Renee watched Art tuck the box onto the shelf behind them. “Growing up, did Kai ever . . . talk to you?”
Art stretched, his back cracking a little, and let out a faint laugh. “In case you forgot, Kai didn’t talk until he was in high school.”
Renee rolled her eyes. “Funny. You know what I mean. I know you used to visit him. Kai told me.”
Art sighed. “I did. Both at County House and in the hospital. He’s one of my best customers, even if he didn’t pay for most of the books.” Art smiled fondly. “But even if Kai and I talked, it wouldn’t be my place to tell you about it, you know that.”
Renee sighed, disappointed even if she wasn’t surprised.
“He’ll be OK,” Art assured her. “As long as you stand by him, he’ll be OK.”
Renee watched Kai transfer to his bed. “You sure Art didn’t let you off early because of me?” He bent forward and pulled off one shoe, then the other--his feet were frozen in what looked like very painful positions, one foot arched and the other with the toes spread up and out. He pulled one leg up until it was folded, resting his ankle on his opposite knee so he could work his fingers into the muscles of his arch and still look up at her to understand her when she spoke.
Kai’s question struck her as strange. “I told you. He decided to close early because of the weather.”
Kai stared at her long and hard, clearly doubtful, but he didn’t say anything, finally nodding.
“Hey. Hey,” she had to say a few times before he looked back up at her. “He’s done it before.”
“OK. And he’s sent you home to babysit me before, too?” Kai set his leg back down and grabbed his other one so he could work on massaging his toes loose.
Renee was about to snap at Kai, but she remembered what he’d said earlier, how he could get angry and not always realize it or be able to control it. She took a breath. Waited for him to look at her. “Do you want me to leave?”
Kai stiffened and the sadness in his eyes blossomed before he shut it away. “I knew you didn’t want to be here,” he said in a flat voice. “Art told you to come.”
Kai swallowed. “I’m sorry. I’m . . . Dr. Miller calls it ‘mind reading’--assuming you know what the other person is thinking.” He pointed to his head, waved it around like the sign for crazy. “Part of my negative thought cycle. I’m sorry. It’s nice not being alone. But you don’t have to stay if you have something else to do.”
Renee smiled at him, grateful he was really trying. To be honest. To recognize when he wasn’t being fair to her. “Only thing I need to do is be with you.”
Kai smiled then, obviously relieved. He patted the bed beside him.
Renee accepted, making sure she kept enough distance so they could sign to each other. “The food you brought me for lunch was really delicious. How did you learn to cook so well?”
Kai chuckled, and it was nice to see, especially after the tense situation only moments earlier. Kai shrugged. “Practice?”
Renee stuck out her tongue. “My whole life I watched my grandma and my mom cook and I suck. You’ve been cooking for what, two years, maybe?”
Kai stared at her a long while before breaking eye contact so he could set his feet both firmly on the floor. He pressed up against the mattress, shifting his weight. “Growing up, David and I would watch the cook at CH. Later, when Jon found me, someone needed to cook, and Jon was too busy.” Kai shrugged. “I realized I enjoyed it. And I was good at it.” Kai kneaded his thighs a little, and then continued, “It’s just practice and experimentation.” Renee never would have got the “experiment” part except Kai always seemed to find a way to make her understand him. Even better than David. Like he could read in her face that she wasn’t getting it before she even knew she was confused, and he’d swiftly adjust, sometimes mid-signing, to something else. Mouthing the English, or switching his word order, or sometimes even slipping into spoken English entirely. It was cool and creepy at the same time, but probably what would make him a great teacher someday. Not everyone had that level of intuition.
“Considering I can burn water . . .” Renee muttered.
“What?” Kai pulled his wheelchair closer, like he was going to transfer.
She wanted to tell him it was nothing, but she also didn’t want to see the wounded look on his face. “I don’t think there’s any hope for me.”
Kai laughed, and his face lit up, and God, he was so beautiful she wanted to kiss him. Lately, he smiled so rarely, especially this full, eyes-sparkling grin that she’d nearly forgotten how handsome he was when he was smiling. “What?” he said after a moment.
“I love you.”
Kai shoved his hair out of his face, a lazy smile tipping his cheeks. He winked, touched her chest where her heart was with one long finger. “Yeah, you should probably see about getting that checked.” More of that self-deprecating humor that was so Kai and one reason she’d fallen in love with him in the first place. He transferred into his chair in one swift movement, and he hadn’t even fully settled when she stepped toward him and took that kiss. He didn’t even flinch. Just moaned and kissed her back, deep and knee-weakeningly the way she loved, though he pushed her away after a moment. “I thought I was the insane one in this relationship,” he said, his eyes twinkling. Then he hurried to adjust himself in the seat and fix his legs. “Come on. You want to learn how to cook? I can’t promise you’ll ever be as good as me,” he said, flashing more of that smile to show he was teasing her, “but it’ll be a start.”
Continue to February 3, 2001 - Part III ------>