February 3, 2001 - Part III
“So the key is you have to heat the pan, then the oil, then add the onions first,” Kai said, supervising Renee at the stove. He was walking her through cooking some very basic beans, using the ones in the can to keep things even simpler. She’d been shocked at his step-by-step guidance, since her family had just had her watch or threw her into it, leaving out important details like the order in which you cooked the veggies, or being careful not to burn the oil, all things Cook had drilled into David and Kai from the beginning. She may have been a glorified cafeteria lady, as she liked to joke, Kai told Renee, but she took pride in her cooking, even if she often had limited ingredients and had to keep things bland. Kai had learned the basics from watching her and picked up the rest from cooking shows, reading cookbooks, and trial and error.
“How do you know if it’s cooked enough?” Renee asked, staring into the pan as if she could will the onions to tell her themselves.
Renee realized she hadn’t been looking at him, and especially with the sizzling of the oil, there was no way he could have understood her. She apologized, made sure he could see her lips, and repeated herself.
“Uh, I can’t see that well without moving the pan, especially a pot like this one, so I used to rely on the sound. It changes as the onions cook down.” Kai frowned slightly, but the expression didn’t linger. “I like mine cooked really well because it kills my stomach otherwise. Are they brown?”
“Uh . . . I don’t want to burn them.”
Kai laughed, shifted position so his chair was angled a little differently, then reached over to guide the handle toward him. He lifted it off the stove and tipped it so he could see inside. “Yeah, that’s good. You can cook them a little more than this, but much more and they’ll burn. OK?”
Renee seemed nervous, but she nodded.
Over the next fifteen minutes or so, Kai guided her through the rest of the steps--cooking the other vegetables and adding the spices. And Renee really learned something for the first time in all the years she’d watched her relatives cook. For example, she had no idea that if you put the garlic in too early it would burn, or that the spices tasted better if you toasted them first.
She did notice that all the vegetables Kai used were pre-chopped in little baggies, either in the fridge or freezer, and as she stirred, she’d occasionally glance around the kitchen. Her gaze landed on the empty butcher’s block in the corner, sitting on the counter, and she realized all the knives were missing. She was hesitant to ask, since things were going really well with them right now, but it worried her. As honest as Kai had been with her today, she knew there was still a lot he hadn’t told her.
“Did someone steal your knives?”
Renee set the spoon down and attempted to sign that, hoping she didn’t mangle it completely, pointing to the butcher’s block to hopefully get her point across more effectively.
Kai’s face shifted. Some blood drained, but then he recovered. Not as seamlessly or as quickly as he normally did, but he did. His nose began to twitch frantically, like it did when he was sleeping, though she’d noticed this past week he’d started doing that even while he was awake. “It’s just a precaution,” he attempted to say casually enough.
But that made her worry. Was there more to why he’d gone into the psychiatric hospital than Jon had told her? “A precaution against what?”
“Knife thieves?” Kai said, and although he was joking, his face looked pained. So much for his renewed quest for honesty, right?
Renee didn’t bother saying anything, biting her tongue and taking her anger out on the pot of beans, which was nearly done, he’d told her moments ago; the spices just needed to cook in a little.
Kai sighed loudly, reached up and turned the heat down. “If you put something on low once it’s cooked, it should keep it warm without burning it as long as you don’t leave it there indefinitely. But be careful, because ‘low’ might work different on different stoves.”
Renee cast him a look, but she realized he wasn’t trying to avoid the issue. He’d rolled backwards and was sitting, his hands on his wheels behind his shoulders, his arms at almost a perfect 90-degree angle. In that position, the muscles of his shoulders and upper arms stood out, and it amazed her how such a little, innocent thing like that position could take her breath away, even as irritated with him as she was.
He swallowed. Rolled backward a little, then forward, just a few inches, fidgeting. Or maybe micro-pacing. “After what happened on Thanksgiving . . .” Kai took a breath. “I wasn’t always in the right . . . wasn’t always thinking clearly.” He was speaking slowly, drawn out, as if this was difficult for him.
Despite her irritation, Renee’s stomach knotted.
“Jon decided--and I agreed--that it was better--safer--if he kept everything dangerous locked up.” Kai’s nose wiggled again. “There’s a safe in his room that only he and David know the combination to. The knives, the worst of the chemicals, and most of my meds are in there. And Jon’s syringes, too.” Kai looked up at her now, his face completely open, fear and nervousness in his eyes. He was being honest with her, and maybe that alone terrified him.
Renee frowned as she took this all in. “Did you . . .” Renee couldn’t bring herself to ask if he’d attempted suicide. It hurt too much to even think, let alone speak, that Kai may have been dead by his own hand, that she now had to worry about one more thing that could take him from her too soon.
She glanced down and saw his hand was on her forearm. “In the hospital. Yes.” Kai looked away, obviously ashamed. It was the most he’d ever talked about his stay in psych except in very general terms. “They had me on meds that made my symptoms worse.” That didn’t make sense. Why would they do that? Hadn’t Kai gone into the hospital so they could make him better?
“But you’re OK now, right?”
Kai wouldn’t meet her eyes once he’d read her lips. His shoulders had fallen; everything about the easygoing, confident teacher of a few minutes ago had faded away to this shadow of a broken person she hated to see. She wondered what had happened to Kai as a child to turn him into this.
She stepped forward and cradled his cheek.
“I think about it. Sometimes a lot.” Kai swallowed thickly and forced himself to finally regain eye contact. “But I want to live, Re. For you. With you. Not just for you, but . . .” Kai’s eyebrows rose like he wasn’t sure she’d still want him after this confession. Would she, no matter how much she told him to the contrary, no matter how much she acted to show him that it wasn’t true, ever stop seeing that look? The one that was convinced that the more she learned about him, the more she saw behind the curtain, the more she’d decide she couldn’t love him anymore? Kai’s eyes filled, and he shook his head, pulling away from her. He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes and swept them to the side, like he was forcibly trying to stop any tears from falling. “I haven’t admitted this to anyone except Dr. Miller,” Kai said, looking up at her with that uncertain expression. Did that mean that Jon and David didn’t know about what happened in the hospital, or that Kai thought about suicide, or both? Somehow, Renee suspected both.
“Thank you for telling me,” Renee said, shifting to sign because he deserved to know how she felt about his confession without needing to work to understand it. “You don’t need to hide things from me. Please promise me that you’ll come see me, or call me, or text me, or whatever you need if you’re having bad thoughts. Even if I’m at work or school. Please. Promise.”
Kai’s eyes threatened to spill over again, and she saw him clench his jaw hard, inhale sharply, obviously not wanting to break down despite what he’d told her about his difficulty controlling his extreme emotions. “I promise.” Even though Kai signed it with a sincere expression, there was something in his eyes that made her wonder if he really would come to her when the suicidal thoughts hit him.
She tried to push that idea aside, though, grateful Kai seemed to be moving toward sharing things with her that he didn’t with anyone except his therapist. She touched his chin, nudging it up, and stared into his eyes for a long moment. “I love you,” she said. “I don’t want to lose you.” And then she kissed him, deep and tender, to tell him that way how much he meant to her.
Renee sat across from Kai at the table, bowls of beans and rice in front of each of them. He nudged his chin toward her, an encouragement for her to have the first taste.
“Sure. Let me eat the poison. How modern of you. Chivalry really is dead.”
Kai frowned momentarily. “I have no idea what you just said. Go ahead. Taste your handiwork.”
Renee stuck her tongue out--he was sure to understand that--and picked up her spoon. She scooped up a modest portion and brought it to her lips, but didn’t put it in her mouth. She sniffed. Thanks to Kai's guidance, it wasn’t burned, and it did smell good, but coffee was pretty much the only thing she ever managed to make without epically screwing it up. She inhaled, closed her eyes, and took a bite. “Oh my God!” Renee said as she chewed and swallowed. “Oh my God! This is good! Really good! And I made it!!”
Kai finally burst into a proud, amused smile once he realized what she was saying. “See. Told you you could do it.”
“You are the most amazing man. And teacher. Thank you.”
Kai’s smile shifted to something shy, since he was obviously pleased he’d made her happy but still couldn’t take a compliment.
“Can you do something for me?”
Kai’s eyes were wide, but he nodded.
“Look into taking a basic-level education class? You’re a born teacher, and you love kids. Stop selling yourself short,” Renee said, switching to English because she had no clue how to sign the last bit.
Renee had worried Kai would be angry, but instead, he just looked defeated. “No one wants an insane male teacher who’s hard of hearing and can’t walk on top of it all. Majoring in education is a waste of time.”
“Just one class. It’s still early in the semester. You can still register. Do it for me. I’m not asking you to major in it yet. If you hate it when the semester is over, then you don’t have to take another education class. OK? Fair?” Thank God she’d been frantically studying her ASL vocab.
Kai sighed. “Once I know more about my hearing, I’ll talk to my counselor about it. OK?” Kai was pretending to be irritated, but she saw that besotted look in his eyes that said he would do anything for her, as he’d told her once.
Renee snaked her hand across the table and linked her fingers in his.
He smiled at her and she saw some tension in his shoulders relax. “You’re so good for me, Re. You give me purpose. Remind me of why I want to get better.” Again, it seemed like Kai might finally say the L-word, but he just leaned forward and kissed her hand.
Even though the beans were good, as shocking as that was, Renee had noticed Kai didn’t eat very much of his portion. And he’d barely eaten anything for lunch, either. She remembered he’d also picked at his food last night. That meant three meals almost in a row Renee had witnessed where Kai hadn’t managed to eat much. She wanted to say something, but everything was going so well between them, she was afraid she’d ruin things. Besides, Kai had told her how hard eating was for him. And he was obviously self conscious about his weight, feeling like he was too thin. Did he really need her rubbing it in?
“We can clean this up later,” Renee said, tired of watching Kai move the same portion of beans and rice around his plate without actually eating any more of it. “Let’s go sit on the couch.”
Renee had momentarily forgotten about Kai’s hearing loss, and he hadn’t been looking at her when she’d spoken earlier. She tried again, attempting to sign it all.
His brows furrowed, but he finally nodded, pushing away from the table and rolling over to the sofa, where he made a quick transfer. “What?” he asked when he noticed her staring at him.
Renee smiled and shrugged, taking a seat on the opposite end of the couch so they’d be able to see each other. “I’m just happy to be here with you. And I’m glad that you were honest with me today. That means a lot.”
Kai shoved his hair off his forehead, smiled shyly at her, and then shifted his body so his back was against the armrest, pulling his legs onto the couch one by one. It took him a few moments to find a position that was comfortable, finally settling for stretching out one leg and leaving the other bent, supported by the cushion. Renee had noticed that Kai never sat Indian style, or any position that put his hips at that angle.
Renee looked down at her own position, her legs folded and crossed, not quite the full lotus position, but not quite Indian style, either. “Does it hurt for you to sit like this?” she asked, indicating her own legs.
Kai didn’t understand her initially, but finally he got what she was asking. “Yes. There are small muscles in the hip joint, and mine are almost always tight, no matter how much I stretch. There are only a few angles I can shift my hips into without them hurting me. It’s been that way as long as I can remember.”
Renee was shocked that Kai had been completely honest with her; he hadn’t tried to duck the question or cover the truth. It made her smile. His leg was so long that his foot was essentially wedged between her knee and the cushion. “Can I?” she asked, indicating his foot.
Kai looked nervous, uncertain.
“I won’t if you don’t want me to.”
Kai sighed. “My feet spasm really easily. Sometimes all it takes is a touch in the wrong place to set them off, and . . .” He seemed reluctant, but he continued. “It can be very painful.”
“Tell me where I can and can’t touch you. Because I want to touch you.”
Kai still seemed wary, but he finally nodded, as if he were determined to live up to his promise to trust her more. “Hold my leg at the ankle or calf and set my foot in your lap.”
Renee was surprised--even during sex Kai hadn’t let Renee manipulate his legs, and she knew how sensitive he was about having his movement restricted. But she did as he directed. Even through his jeans, she could feel the tension in his calf. She saw his sock-clad foot suddenly move, and in anyone else, it would have seemed innocuous, but it made her look up at Kai, who was barely hiding a grimace. Maybe she should have let sleeping dogs lie.
“You didn’t do that, did you?”
“No, I can’t move my feet voluntarily anymore.” He took what sounded like a difficult breath and stared at her for a long moment. “You want to help?”
Renee’s face brightened. She nodded.
“Roll up my jeans,” he said, his hands braced on the cushion on either side of him as he watched her. Kai’s legs were so long that it wasn’t easy for her to do that without disturbing his foot too much, and she didn’t want to make things worse, not if she was the reason his foot had started spasming in the first place. “Good. Peel off my sock. But be careful. Try to hold my ankle with one hand and work from the heel up. Try not to touch the arch.”
Renee followed his instructions meticulously. She could see more clearly, now that Kai’s foot was bare, that his toes were at odd angles, the cords in the top of his foot standing out, similarly to how it had looked before, when he’d first taken off his shoes. Only worse. She looked up at him to see what she was supposed to do next.
He let out a long breath and smiled at her just enough to let her know she’d done a good job. “The muscles that work your toes attach in your leg. Let’s try that first. I’m not too tight right now, since I massaged them a bit before dinner. You should be able to work your fingers into the muscles in my calf and shin.”
Renee wasn’t sure why Kai was letting her to do this; she knew full well he didn’t need her help, but she wasn’t going to squander this olive branch. Renee carefully adjusted Kai’s ankle so it rested on top of her own and leaned forward, her hands on his calf. She’d only ever seen Kai’s bare legs a couple times before now, and now that she really had a chance to focus on it, she could see how it was thinner than she would have expected for a man of Kai’s age and size. But this was Kai’s left leg, his weaker leg, so maybe she shouldn’t have been surprised.
Kai’s skin was naturally fair, and his leg was coated in blond hair darker than on his arms and chest or even his head. She cautiously smoothed her hand along his shin, surprised by how soft his hair was, and how dry his skin. She glanced down and saw the same was true of his foot, and what she could see of the underside was a little chapped and cracked.
“You’re very dry,” she said, still looking down, forgetting herself.
“Your skin. It’s very dry.”
Renee saw Kai’s face change as he finally got what she was saying. “The anti-rejection meds dry me out. It’s worse in winter. I use a couple different creams, but I can only do so much.”
Renee nodded and slid her hands slowly along his calf, feeling for the tension. Her head popped up.
“I can . . . I can feel your muscles twitching.”
“Oh,” Kai said with a shrug, shifting his arms up onto the armrest and leaning on his elbows. “You don’t have to touch me if it freaks you out.”
“No, no,” Renee said, shaking her head, amazed at how she could feel the tiny spasms but not actually see them. She spread her fingers along his skin, mesmerized. “It’s just . . . weird.”
“You look up weird in the dictionary and they have my picture,” Kai said. He was joking, but there was a weariness to his voice.
Renee held Kai’s leg still with one hand while she used her other to try to work out the tension in Kai’s muscles. She tried to be firm but at the same time she caressed his leg, treasuring this touch that she knew Kai didn’t allow freely, and the trust that came with it. It wasn’t just a massage, but a way for them to be intimate, as silly as it may have sounded to anyone outside this room, considering how far from sex they were. But she kept going, occasionally switching hands or positions, and she slowly felt the muscles unclenching, relaxing, and Kai’s breath slowing and evening out.
When she paused to look up, he was still watching her, but his eyes were half-lidded, and he had a slim smile on his face. He breathed deep and let it out. He must have felt her pause, because he opened his eyes the rest of the way. Then he shifted, planting his palms to straighten up a little, and he bent forward, pulling his leg from her lap and bending it toward his body.
She frowned, thinking she must have done something wrong, and he was taking away the privilege of touching him, but she didn’t say anything because he was focused on his leg and foot and wouldn’t have understood her anyway.
Kai had his hands on his calf, then on his foot, like he was feeling the tightness himself. He flexed his toes with his hands the way she’d seen him do before, and then he rolled his jeans back down. She was certain he was going to ask her to leave or something like that, but instead, he looked up and he smiled. “That felt really good. You stopped the spasm attack before it could get worse.”
Renee was shocked. She had?
Then Kai rolled his other pants leg up and took off his sock by holding his leg up, a hand gripping the calf while his other hand peeled the sock off, heel first, just as he’d had her do moments ago. “Would you do the other leg?”
Renee nodded and helped him position his foot in her lap. “Can we play a game while I do this?”
Kai chuckled. “A game?”
Renee nodded. “You’ve been honest with me, so I should return the favor. Ask me a question, and I’ll answer.”
“You know I can’t hear you right now, right?”
“I’ll keep my answers simple. Will that help?”
Kai sighed, but he was smiling. She heard him moan softly, but not in pain, in pleasure. “Right there. Dig your thumb in a little harder.” He groaned, and his foot arched suddenly. He cried out.
Renee released him like he was on fire. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Kai shook his head. “Not your fault. Gonna walk you through massaging my arch. OK?” He was breathing heavily, but was shockingly calm.
“Support my ankle with one hand. With the other, see if you can gently press against the ball of my foot. Sometimes that’ll do it. But be careful. If the muscles don’t want to relax, don’t force it. You could tear them.”
Renee looked at Kai, nervous. Why was he trusting her with this? “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll probably scream before that happens. Go ahead. Try.” Kai sucked in a breath.
Renee nodded and did as Kai instructed. She’d actually seen his right foot worse than this before, where it looked almost like a professional ballerina’s, it was so pointed. She took her own breath and slowly tried to flex his foot against the resistance of the spasm.
“OK. Now with your other hand, try to massage the arch; see if you can help loosen things up. Try to do both at once, if you can.”
Renee nodded. She slid her hand that had been supporting his ankle up along the underside of Kai’s foot, and pressed into it with her thumb all along the arch. She could feel how tense the muscle was, could hear Kai’s breathing stutter; he was obviously in pain. But the more she massaged, the easier it was to flex his foot with her opposite hand. It took patience and several minutes, but finally, his foot returned to neutral.
They both let out a whooshing breath in relief.
Kai laughed. “I think I’ll keep you.”
Renee gently laid his foot back in her lap. She smiled.
Kai’s face was serious now, though she saw a hint of her look in Kai’s eyes. “I don’t normally let anyone massage my feet. Not Jon. Not David. Not my ex. I don’t let a lot of people even touch them, if I can help it. You saw for yourself how easily they spasm. Thank you.” Kai beckoned her close, patting his lap. “Sit here. With your back to me. I want to hold you.”
“If I do that, we can’t talk.”
“Is that a problem?”
Renee smiled. Shook her head. She supposed if Kai’s hearing loss really was permanent, she was going to have to get used to the limitations of visual communication, and Kai hadn’t held her, not really, not since before Thanksgiving. She carefully lifted Kai’s leg and set it aside, then climbed off the couch. She crossed to the opposite end and let him help settle her down into his lap, loving the feel of his warm, strong body as he wrapped his arms around her. She turned her head to lean against his, and she felt him sigh in contentment.
“Thank you for trusting me,” he said, squeezing her a little tighter. His words confused her initially until she remembered one of the reasons she’d kept his distance--he was paranoid of hurting her.
She extended her arm so he could see it, and signed, “Same.”
Kai sighed again, wrapping her in his arms like he never wanted to let her go. As “weird” as Kai was, with all his hiccups and caveats, she’d never felt as complete as she did in this moment. It felt, as silly as it seemed, like God had made her tiny on purpose so that she’d fit oh-so-perfectly in his long arms.
It was her turn to sigh in happiness, and she knew he felt it, because he moved his head just enough to plant a kiss on her cheek. She covered his folded arms with hers, smoothing her thumbs on the muscles on each side, and then she closed her eyes and cherished this quiet moment, neither of them speaking. Neither of them needing to speak. And despite everything that had happened in the last week, especially yesterday, Renee felt at peace. She felt confident again.
They could do this. Them. As long as they did it together.
Continue to February 3, 2001 - Part IV ------>