February 7, 2001 - Part I
Jon had made slow, luxurious love to Vicky last night, and again in the morning, and then he’d held her as she drifted back off to sleep for another hour. And now they were lying together, both of them knowing they needed to get up and start their day, but neither wanting to let go of this moment.
It was real. She’d get to fall asleep every night and wake up every morning in Jon’s arms. She could worry less of what she’d do if she were alone and started having premature contractions. Jon would watch over her and take care of her. Do everything in his power to ensure she and their baby were safe.
Jon sighed as he checked the time again. “I have to get up.”
“Five more minutes,” she mumbled.
Jon laughed. “I need to. I still haven’t showered, and I have to make sure Kai wakes up.”
Vicky rolled over. “I thought you were going to try less parenting and more brothering.”
Jon’s smile was amused. “I’m pretty sure ‘brother’ isn’t a verb. Anyway, between the sleeping pills he’s been taking every night and his hearing loss, he has trouble getting up in the morning.”
Vicky’s brows furrowed.
“He can’t hear the alarm?” Jon supplied. “And he has to take his morning meds on time. Don’t worry. This is a temporary solution. Once we’re moved in, I’ll make sure he finds an alarm system that will work for him that doesn’t involve me shaking him awake every morning.” Jon gave her a peck and hopped out of bed before she could offer any further complaints.
Kai startled awake with a gasp, gripping Jon’s arm painfully tight. But this was the fourth day waking Kai after he’d taken a sleeping pill the night before, and especially considering the unfamiliar room, Jon would take that. He’d learned to give Kai a chance to wake up, to gauge whether his brother was still half in a nightmare, confused, or simply not fully awake before he said anything.
Kai was breathing raggedly, like it was difficult for him to get air, and his wheezing was particularly bad. Kai pushed himself up without a word, coughed a little. Squeezed his eyes tightly shut and then relaxed, opening them again. He looked directly at Jon, and there was no fear there. “Sleeping pills are helping. Amazing what a full night’s sleep four days in a row can do for the crazy train,” Kai signed with one hand. He was still breathing with effort. He tried to cough again, hard, and then he started to gasp, like he was choking. “Can’t breathe,” he signed. Trying to cough harder.
It wasn’t an attack. It was too much overly sticky mucus clogging Kai’s airways. It had happened more than once while Kai was sick with his fever, and Jon was beginning to believe that Dr. J was right after all: Kai wasn’t entirely cured. And stress seemed to be one factor, although Jon had his suspicions that one downside to Kai sleeping solidly for eight hours was he didn’t move as much in his sleep, didn’t sit up when he woke up, and that made the mucus build up more.
Jon handed Kai his inhaler, and he barely waited for his brother to finish using it when he shifted so he sat behind him and started pounding his back with cupped hands to help loosen the secretions. It was a routine that Jon had done when Kai was little twice a day every day, and still sometimes performed on some of his patients. Though nowadays there were machine-assisted percussion devices, like a vest that vibrated to shake the mucus loose. But Kai didn’t have one anymore, not since his transplant, so Jon’s hands would have to do.
Kai was too focused on breathing, on coughing up what he could, to fight Jon’s assistance. In fact, he automatically shifted into the next position without prompting, perhaps recognizing he needed the help today.
Kai was in the last position, on his side, and Jon was tapping with his fingertips to create a vibrating action to hopefully get the last of the mucus loose.
“Do you remember how I used to do this when you were a kid? Before Mom and Dad died?”
Kai coughed a few times, then nodded his fist. He put his hand on his head, four fingers standing up and thumb folded, and drew it back a little. His old homesign for “dinosaur.”
Jon laughed. “You remember! You loved those things. You were devastated when Sara broke the tail off of K-dino.”
Kai laughed faintly, which turned into some coughs, but his breathing was easier, and the wheeze had faded. “And you tried to convince me his tail would grow back, like a lizard’s.” Kai pushed up so he was sitting, adjusting his legs. He coughed a few more times, gratefully accepting the tissues Jon offered him, and then he calmed, shut his eyes, and just breathed for awhile. Then he let out a long breath and opened his eyes again. “Thanks for helping me.”
Jon nodded. “Are you still tight?”
Kai nodded. “A little. It’ll pass. I’ll cough myself again after I shower.”
Jon frowned. “OK. I need to get ready. I’m running late.” It had taken more than thirty minutes for him to help Kai with his coughing routine, but he didn’t regret it. He never regretted anything he did for his brother. “But you might want to talk to Dr. Johnsen about this. He may want to change your medications.”
Kai nodded and sighed, seemingly unhappy, although he didn’t say anything more about his breathing. Instead, he offered a slim smile. “I was worried I’d regret agreeing to spend the night here instead of going home--” Then Kai laughed dryly as he pointed at the sign for “home,” holding it on his cheek for a moment. “Guess I should start calling here home, huh?”
Guilt swirled in Jon’s stomach, and he tried to ignore it, but it was such a visceral, reflexive feeling he wasn’t sure if he could ever not be like this, despite everything Dr. Miller said. “If you don’t think this will work . . .”
But Kai interrupted, shaking his head and hands, fingers up, palms out. “No. I’ll admit I agreed to this for you, but after last night. And this morning?” Kai looked at Jon like he was saying so much more with those signs than they meant on the surface. “I want this, too. I think we could all be a family. A real family.” Again, Kai’s eyes widened and he paused, staring at Jon as if trying to get him to understand the gravity of his signs. It meant something that Kai was finally to the point where he could see all of them as one family instead of insisting that Jon and Vicky and the baby were a unit Kai wasn’t part of.
“I never stopped seeing you as my family. Nothing could ever change that. OK? Now I must go get ready or I’ll be late for work. Really glad we took your meds out of the safe last night,” Jon said as he stood up. “Have a good day at school.”
Vicky was cleaning some dishes in the sink, wondering if she could pull off a sick day and then remembering it would just mean a hundred times more work tomorrow when Kai crutched in. Vicky was so used to seeing him in his wheelchair, or sitting, it was always a bit of an adjustment when he was upright. He really did look so much like Jon sometimes it was uncanny. “Morning. Can I make you something to eat?”
“Uh, no, I kinda have to run. I have an appointment before class and I’m already late.”
“Oh. OK. Uh, you wouldn’t have time to drop me off at the hospital, would you? Jon had an emergency page and he was already in a rush, so he took my car. If you leave . . .” Vicky forced a smile and wiped her hands. “Forget about it. I’ll call my sister or something.”
Kai’s face was totally unreadable, and he didn’t respond immediately. Finally, he let out a soft sigh. “I can drop you off. I’m going that way anyway. But we need to leave now. I’ll meet you in the car.”
Vicky got to the garage just as Kai was moving his wheelchair frame and tires into the back seat.
“Sorry. I sometimes put it in the passenger’s side if I know no one’s riding with me.”
Vicky shook her head to say it was all right and climbed in. Kai had already started the engine to warm up the car. She wasn’t sure if he always did that or if it was on her behalf. “I grabbed you a banana and some yogurt,” she said, holding them out to him. “Figured you could eat while you drive if you don’t otherwise have time.”
Kai stared at her offering long and hard with yet another unreadable expression. His mouth twitched like he was fighting a frown. “I need both hands to drive,” he said, his eyes darting to the hand controls, “and even if I didn’t, Jon would kill me if I did anything that might cause an accident while you’re in the car with me.” Kai cracked a faint smile, but it didn’t seem genuine. He seemed irritated. Maybe even angry. Vicky knew Jon was concerned by how little Kai seemed to eat, and she once again had crossed over from being helpful to obtrusive.
“Sorry,” she said, leaving the yogurt and banana in the cupholder. “For later, then.”
Kai cast her a tired look and said nothing else. He hit the button to open the garage door the rest of the way, shifted into reverse, and backed out. Vicky had known Kai could drive of course, but she’d never actually seen him do so before, and she couldn’t help watching, at least as surreptitiously as she could. She still remembered Jon fretting about finding a car that could easily have hand controls installed, of finding someone to teach Kai to drive with them, how excited Jon was the day he presented the car and the driving lessons to his brother.
Kai didn’t say a word to her until they were almost to the hospital, and then he sighed heavily and said, “Look, I’ll be honest with you. I’m doing the whole moving thing because it’s what’s best for both Jon and me right now.” It seemed like Kai was about to add a qualification, like, “I’m only being nice to you for his sake,” but instead, Kai said, “I’m a difficult person for a lot of reasons, and I’m sorry. I know you’ve done nothing but try to . . . I don’t know, welcome me into your life?” Kai’s face scrunched up. He let out a faint groan like he was frustrated. “I’m not always good at saying what I want to in English.”
Kai turned into the hospital’s east parking lot, heading for the entrance that would be closest to the pulmonary clinic, and whether it was habit from his own visits with Dr. Johnsen or again, out of consideration for her, she appreciated it.
“I mean, you redid your house for me, and not just a little, and then there was Christmas.” Some emotion leaked into Kai’s voice when he said the holiday. Jon had told her how much Kai dreamed of the whole family Christmas thing, which was one reason she’d done her best to give it to him, even if at the time it had felt like it was money and effort wasted.
Kai paused for so long Vicky figured he was done despite the fact that he hadn’t sounded done. But then he surprised her. “My point is, I was in such a bad place at Christmas, and you still did the whole dinner and presents and movies thing like I hadn’t just gotten out of the hospital, like I hadn’t done anything but treat you like crap since you and Jon became official.” Kai sighed heavily again as he pulled up to the curb near the outpatient entrance. He put the car in park and used his hands on the seat to shift so he was facing her a little more. “I’m not saying any of this right. God, I wish you signed.” His cheek twitched in a failed smile. “I’m just . . .” Kai let out a long breath. “I can be an asshole. And you don’t deserve that.” Kai reached up and shoved his hair out of his face in a gesture that was just like Jon. “I’m not good at this. It’s something I’m working on. But . . . thank you.” Kai swallowed. “And not just for me. I’m realizing more how much you’ve taken care of Jon over the past four years. So . . . thank you.”
Vicky blinked, not sure what to say. The past couple days had proved to her that Kai wasn’t at all the person she’d thought he was. He was young. Very, very young, and yet he’d lived more harshly in those twenty-something years than most people did in a lifetime. She knew from Jon that Kai could count the people in his life who genuinely cared about him on one hand, and it was one reason he could be so distant. “You’re Jon’s family,” Vicky said finally, “and that makes you my family now, too.” She offered him a smile.
Kai smiled back, looking relieved. “I need to make things work. At your house. For Jon’s sake. Don’t let me ruin what you have, OK?” This time when Kai looked at her it was like he’d pulled back the curtain he’d been using earlier to mask his emotions and she saw how scared he was. Shit. This entire time Vicky had been convinced Kai was jealous of her, or that he hated her, but she’d been wrong. At least partly. Kai loved his brother and was sure that his problems would destroy Jon and Vicky’s relationship.
Vicky smiled to reassure Kai. She wanted to touch him, her nurse’s training kicking in even if she hadn’t really practiced in years, but she knew he didn’t like that so she resisted. “It won’t always be easy, but we’ll make it work.” Vicky nodded. “Thanks for the ride.” She said it while giving him a pointed look to let him know she was also thanking him for opening up to her, for telling her all that he had. Kai was normally so stoically silent with her she sometimes forgot he could speak.
Renee was supposed to be reviewing the material for today’s history lecture, but instead she found herself sketching out ideas for her semester-long drafting project. By the end of the semester, they were supposed to have a completed blueprint of a single-story house of their own design. They weren’t going to be graded on the details so much as the concept and their skills in completing the blueprint. Unlike last semester, where their projects had been focused on smaller details, this was the first time Renee would be responsible for an entire project herself, and she knew she wanted to figure out where she was going with it early so she could spend as much time as possible drafting. But it was honestly a little overwhelming, since all the plans she’d studied seemed so derivative, and she really wanted something unique, something that meant something, and so far all her sketches had felt frustratingly uninspired.
Renee glanced up and a smile spread across her face as she saw Kai enter, making his slow, purposeful way toward her. Left crutch, right foot, right crutch, lean toward the right, pull left foot forward. Then repeat. Renee’s heart did a little happy flutter in her chest, especially once he looked up from the floor while planning his next step and saw her, smiling her smile. Would she ever stop feeling that warm elation that hit her every time she looked at him?
Even though he could do it himself, she unlocked the desktop on the empty accessible desk beside her, lifting it up, which gave him more space to settle into it. He paused in front of the desk and slipped out of one crutch, leaning it against the half wall that separated the floor from the first row of stadium seating, adjusted his balance, then, when he seemed sure he was stable, also slipped out of his second crutch. He then took off his backpack and dropped it on the floor. It made a loud thump that echoed in the large, empty room, and she noticed he flinched a little, though he quickly recovered and went about removing his gloves, scarf, and jacket, tossing the coat on the back of the chair. Finally, he braced one hand on the chair and let himself start to sink down, his other hand quickly going to the edge of the seat to help catch himself and guide his legs. Once he was settled, he unlocked his left leg and pushed against the seat to get his body in the right position, face forward, finally using his hands to guide his legs into place, stretching them out a little. Lastly, he unlocked the desktop and lowered it, letting out a sigh.
Renee leaned in and gave him a quick kiss, then sat back and just smiled at him. He smiled back. He looked better than the last time she’d seen him, and definitely better than Saturday. Like he’d been sleeping better, the bags less prominent under his eyes. And he seemed . . . she wasn’t sure how to describe it. A little lighter, somehow. Less groggy. Though she did observe how his cheeks seemed even more hollow, and his neck just a little less muscular, like he’d lost more weight over the past week and a half rather than gaining it. And she worried about how much he’d been eating. She never saw Kai eat more than two or three bites of anything since they’d reconnected, and she wondered if he ate even less when she wasn’t around to watch him. She wanted to ask him, to talk to him about it, but she didn’t want to make him angry or push him away.
Kai seemed to sense the turmoil going on in her head, probably because it played out on her face, but he assumed she was hesitating asking him about his hearing test and had no idea what she was really thinking. He took a deep breath. “So . . . my hearing loss is permanent,” he signed, and she wouldn’t have known the sign for “continue” could be used like that, but he mouthed the word, and the context helped.
Renee let out a soft sigh, and she couldn’t help feeling for him. “I’m sorry,” she said, using the sign for “sympathy” David had taught her. Even though English used the same word regardless of whether you were personally sorry for something you had done, like a mistake you’d made, or you simply wanted to let the person telling you something bad that you felt for them, ASL apparently had two different signs, and she’d been doing it all wrong for months.
Kai tried to smile, but his cheek barely twitched. He took another breath. “Now, and in the future, my life will be very different. I’ll be even more comfortable with ASL than before. Prefer it. Even with hearing aids, I won’t always be able to understand you when you speak to me, especially if you’re not facing me. I might get lost if we’re in a group with all English speakers.” Kai looked almost physically ill, like he could throw up any moment, but he pressed on. “But I want to make this relationship work. I’ll ask David to help me with my lipreading skills, and I’ll wear my hearing aids every day to help my brain learn to hear with them better. I know it won’t be easy, and there will be times we won’t understand each other, literally, but I want to be with you. If there’s anything I’ve figured out in the past couple weeks, it’s that.” Kai let out a long breath. It seemed like this was a speech he’d rehearsed in his head and had been anxious about getting off his chest, though his signing had been slow and clear, and he’d made a point of pausing or adjusting as he went along so that she would know what he was saying, and that meant more, perhaps, even than the actual words. Yes, Kai still hadn’t said or signed “I love you,” but his little speech just now was proof of how much he cared about her. Kai was trying--he wanted to try--as hard as he could to be with her. Her. Not someone else. And that meant a lot.
Renee felt herself tearing up, and she struggled to blink them away. She didn’t want to give him the wrong message. “I love you,” she signed, breathing deep to get herself under control. “Thank you.” She smiled at him to show that she was happy. “When do you get your hearing aids?”
Kai seemed a little worried by her reaction, but the slight shift in topic threw him. “I already have them.” Then he leaned forward a little, lifted his hair--which he badly needed to cut--away from his ear to reveal the small blue case resting on top of it. If Renee looked closely, she could see the clear tube leading from it into Kai’s ear, although she couldn’t see an earpiece. It must have been too deep.
She was shocked by how tiny the hearing aid was. She didn’t have much experience with them, but it was almost . . . sexy. Maybe part of it was that the plastic was nearly the same color as Kai’s wheelchair, or maybe it was just because it was Kai’s, and she was starting to believe that even in drag Kai would be sexy. (Not that she was in a huge hurry to see that, although it would be pretty amusing.) “Wow. They’re so small,” Renee remarked when Kai showed her the other side, which looked identical, at least outwardly.
Kai’s head popped up when she said that, which threw her a little. He smiled. Then he reached up and pulled one off, holding it in his palm. If she’d thought it was small when he was wearing it, in Kai’s huge hand the thing looked almost ridiculously tiny, like there was no way it could be a real, functioning piece of technology. After giving her a moment to study it, he put it back on, taking a few moments to make sure it was properly seated. “I’m still getting used to them,” he admitted.
“But you can hear me?”
Kai hesitated, then nodded. “Yeah. These have a little bit of a learning curve, so your voice sounds . . . it’s hard to describe. But partially because I know you and partially because I can see your lips I know what you’re saying, yeah.” He smiled. But it soon faded. “It’s silly, but I missed hearing your voice.”
“That’s not silly,” Renee said, shifting back to sign. She started to reach up to tuck some of his hair behind his ear but paused. “Is it OK if I touch?”
He stiffened, as if it were a reflex, but then he nodded. “The mic is sensitive,” he said, almost like a warning.
Renee slipped her fingers into his hair on either side of his temples and began massaging there. His hair was so soft and silken; she loved running her hands through it, and she also knew how this relaxed him. It didn’t take long for Kai’s breathing to slow, occasionally punctuated by contented sighs.
Finally, he reached up and pulled her hands away, although his lids were a little heavy and a lazy smile tipped his cheeks. But, as always, his momentary good mood was just that, and his face grew sad, those beautiful blue eyes of his darkening. “I’m trying to pretend I’m fine. That everything will be OK. That things will be different, but I’ll adjust, like always. Remind myself things could be worse, focus on the positive, but . . .” Kai shivered, and his eyes bored into hers.
“No one said you had to be fine with your hearing loss. It’s a major life change, even if you already have a Deaf connection. But you have me. And you have your brothers. Everything will be OK.” Renee poured all her love and sincerity into her eyes, and then she cupped his cheek.
He leaned into her touch, nodding. “I think I’ll be able to hear our history professor well enough with the hearing aids, but if I miss something--”
“I’ll help you. All you have to do is ask.” She leaned forward and kissed him, delighting in how he kissed her back in a way that showed his love and gratitude that he couldn’t quite express otherwise.
“I really don’t know if I could do this without you,” Kai admitted when they’d separated. “This whole semester. All of it. I’m so lucky to have you.”
Kai’s hearing aids made everything louder. It had amazed Kai how, even at the distance from the board to his seat, even with the subtle noises that came from a room full of 300 twenty-year-olds how much better he could understand their history professor. He hadn’t fully appreciated how much he’d had to strain before, even with men, especially at a distance, to make sense of their speech, and at least for his history class, they worked wonders. It actually melted some of his anxiety away, and when he sank into his chair in psych, he was actually hopeful. Yes, this class would be the real test, since the benefit of amplification could make the crosstalk and occasional shouting during their discussions so much worse. Maybe even painful. But he took a breath, got out his notebook, and focused on the positive, like Dr. Miller had encouraged him this morning during their session. He was OK. He and Renee were a team. He could do this.
Background noise didn’t sound like it had before. Some of it was too loud, other bits muddled because the hearing aids were doing that frequency adjusting thing--or so Kai assumed. Most of it was hard to distinguish, and Kai wondered if it would always be like that or if his brain would re-learn how to hear in this new way, just as it was supposed to do for voices. Even so, it made him realize how much he’d been missing, even before he’d really noticed his hearing loss. Dr. Feingenbaum had suggested as much, but his hearing aids made it even more obvious.
For example, he heard--not just felt--loud and clear when Steve stomped up beside him and dropped her bag with a thud. “Morning, Superhero,” Steve said with her usual exuberance. She didn't seem surprised that Kai had turned to see her, and Kai actually wondered if she’d put her bag down a little more forcefully than necessary so he’d feel the vibrations and know she was there. It was something a normal hearing person would never think about, but she did have her cousin, who she obviously cared about deeply.
Kai smiled at her. Her voice was a little deeper than other women’s, nowhere near a man’s, but it came out clearer than Renee’s had, and he wondered if he wouldn’t need to look at her as much to understand what she was saying.
Before Kai could respond, she attempted in stiff signs, “Good morning. That’s right, right?”
Kai nodded. “We don’t normally say things like that, though. That’s a hearing thing.” It was only after the words left Kai’s mouth that he realized he’d identified himself as Deaf. Yes, even before his hearing had gone out, he had always felt more Deaf than hearing, but . . . Kai shook his head to clear the train of thought from starting.
“Oh,” Steve said, deflating. “What do you say?”
Kai shrugged, leaned forward a little, eyebrows up, his hands spread upward, like the answer was obvious. “Hi. What’s up? Face. Facial expression,” Kai said, signing a couple greetings and then circling his face, following that up with his index fingers curled and wagging up and down in front of his forehead to mimic his eyebrows moving. When Steve looked at him blankly, he explained, “A lot of times we don’t necessarily sign anything. You make eye contact, and it’s all in your face.” He shrugged again.
Steve seemed to be digesting that. Finally, she said, “You have a dark sense of humor, don’t you.” She pointed to his sweatshirt.
Kai glanced down, since he had just grabbed something that morning without really paying attention to what he was putting on. It was another gift from David, and said, in bold letters, I HATE RUNNING. David actually had one, too, and he liked to wear it while he was running (for the irony, since that was his favorite form of exercise after boxing). David ran every single morning, rain or shine, regardless of temperature, and he was always trying to get Kai to go with him. Kai vastly preferred swimming, since wheeling in the cold at a pace fast enough to keep up with David was really hard on his shoulders and back.
Steve apparently hadn’t been expecting a response, and she went about getting her notebook and pen out of her bag.
Kai leaned forward and opened his own notebook, turning it to a free page and writing the date at the top. He was a terrible notetaker, especially now that he got distracted so easily. He actually wondered if, when he talked to Zach about his hearing loss, he could get a notetaker as part of his accommodations. The school paid a small amount to students to do so for Deaf students who relied on an interpreter, or those with disabilities that made notetaking difficult, if not impossible. It seemed like Kai’d gone from being independent to suddenly having a whole stack of accommodation forms, like he couldn’t do things on his own. Kai felt his good mood being sucked away into darkness, like matter into a black hole, and he realized he’d been scratching his pen so hard against his paper he’d torn it. Dammit, Kai. Get it together. Kai forced deep breaths, but his hair kept getting in is eyes no matter how much he shifted it away, and it was driving him crazy. Kai focused on his breathing. He didn’t want to do anything to scare Steve off, who was the first candidate for a friend Kai’d had in years.
Kai shoved one sleeve up but only enough to expose the rubber bands he wore underneath it and peeled one off. His cutting wounds were still healing, and although they weren’t that obvious, especially since he’d picked off the scabs, with Steve right next to him instead of at a distance, like she had been at the pool yesterday, he didn’t want to risk undue scrutiny. His hair wasn’t quite long enough to properly pull back into a ponytail, but he managed to get enough of it tied that it would at least stay out of his face. He’d go get a haircut this week and stop putting it off.
“Rubber bands are bad for your hair. I have an extra hair tie if you want one.”
Kai turned to Steve once she’d said this, and shook his head. Since he was immunocompromised, he was better off not sharing anything, even something as innocuous as a hair tie. “I’m fine.”
That made Steve stop short. “You heard me?” Then she must have seen the case of Kai’s hearing aid, which Kai realized was exposed. “You got new hearing aides!”
Kai burst out laughing, and the anxiety that had built back up seemed to escape through his laughter.
“What? Did I say something bad?”
It took a moment for Kai to calm down. “Hearing aid,” Kai signed, his crooked index finger above and behind his ear, mimicking what they looked like. “You signed ‘hearing’ like the opposite of ‘Deaf,’” Kai explained, demonstrating the signs while he spoke the English. “Then you signed ‘aide’ like a teacher’s aide.”
“Oh. Oh.” Steve seemed a little embarrassed and frustrated.
“Two words of advice for ASL. First is, don’t translate from English word-for-word. Second, think visually. So to say what you wanted to say in English, ‘You got new hearing aids?’ I’d sign it like this.” Kai demonstrated, “YOU HEARING-AIDS NEW YOU?” He used two hands to show he had hearing aids on both sides, and acted like he was putting them on to emphasize that he didn’t have them before. “You could say ‘HAVE’ in there, too, if you wanted, but it’s not necessary. The point is, you can see exactly what I mean with just one sign. Get it?”
Steve sighed. “I’m now in even more awe of how wonderfully bilingual you are.”
Kai felt his cheeks heat, and tried to will it away. He hated how uncomfortable compliments made him. It was actually on his therapy to-do list with Dr. Miller. She’d analyzed it in her typical psychobabble as something along the lines of how his upbringing had inhibited the proper development of self esteem, and that, combined with the severe emotional abuse he’d suffered, led to a generally low self image. Compliments contradicted that image and thus made him uncomfortable. The key to changing that was altering how Kai felt about himself. Not just feigned change, either, but a genuine transformation. Dr. Miller believed strongly that with work, that would happen, but Kai was doubtful that he could ever look at his reflection and see what Renee, or even Jon, saw. Kai’s mood soured again, the weight of depression again struggling to bring him down with it, gravity somehow increased, making him heavy.
Steve seemed to sense his downshifting mood, and she held up a finger, digging in her bag for something. She then deposited a large ziploc bag filled with comics on the table in front of him. “Here. Before I forget. I don’t want to lug these around the rest of the day.”
“Uh . . . OK?” Kai asked, flipping the bag over.
“You said you’d never read a comic book before, so I thought I’d let you borrow some.” She tilted her head from side to side. “Well, actually, I told Aaron that and he was appalled. He picked these out himself. Insisted I let you read them. He was quite taken by you.”
Kai was shocked. Aaron seemed like a good kid, even if his mom was definitely overprotective. He opened the bag and pulled out the comics. Batman, Superman, X-men, and a few others Kai had never heard of. “I’ve always been more of a Shakespeare guy myself, but tell Aaron thank you and I’ll read them.”
Steve rolled her eyes. “Of course you’re a Shakespeare guy. But don’t diss comics. There are some kick ass stories if you give them a chance.”
Kai felt a real smile form on his face. He wasn’t used to people thinking of him, giving him gifts--even if the comics were just to borrow. Sure, Art had growing up, and of course Jon had made sure Kai had every essential since he was 18, but this was different. Kai and Steve barely knew each other, and he’d only met Aaron once. “Thanks. Uh, is it OK if they get beat up? My bookbag is notorious for being cruel to anything that gets swallowed up by it.”
Steve chuckled. “Comics are for reading, not keeping locked away where no one can touch them. It’s OK.” She pulled another notebook out of her bag. “Speaking of, take a look at this.” She opened it and pushed it toward him on the tabletop.
Kai could see now it was a sketchbook filled with different drawings at various stages of completeness. They were all done in a stylized, cartoony look, and featured a man in a wheelchair, although the wheelchair itself had several different iterations, from a more realistic design not that different from Kai’s own chair to something out of a, well, comic book. Kai had to admit Steve had talent.
“I’m calling him the Blue Blur right now, but this is obviously all a work in progress.” Oh. The superhero idea that she’d been raving about last week at the pool. She was serious.
Kai couldn’t help chuckling. “The Blue Blur?” he asked to confirm he’d understood her. “Really?”
Steve feigned hurt, exaggerating a pout. “It was just an idea. I’m not married to the name.”
Kai studied the pictures a little closer. Even uncolored, even as cartoony as they were, he couldn’t miss that this Blue Blur looked a little like him. He eyed her sideways, then handed the book back. “I still don’t get how this whole crippled superhero thing works. I can hold my own in a fight, but you pin my arms and my torso and I’m screwed. Believe me.”
Steve stared at him, and for a split moment, he could see the resemblance between her and Aaron, that same look of awe that the boy had displayed Friday evening.
“Seriously. This guy shows up to a fight in this thing?” Kai said, pointing to one of the sci-fi wheelchair designs. “It looks like it weighs a ton. And all the bad guy has to do is knock him out of it, or worse, pull him up, and there’s not much he’s going to be able to do.”
Steve, instead of being disheartened that her fantasy was crushed, grinned maniacally. “See, this is why you’re the writer and I’m the visionary.”
Kai burst out laughing, especially because Steve’s face was so ridiculously cheesy in her feigned seriousness. Kai liked her. A lot. There weren’t many people he felt comfortable with. “Well you can keep dreaming. I have a lot on my plate right now, and I’m just struggling to keep afloat.”
Steve packed her sketchbook away. “I take it you haven’t come up with your presentation topic for this class?”
Kai huffed out a weary sigh. “I’ve been trying not to think about it. You?”
Kai could tell immediately by the excited, gleeful expression on her face that Steve was probably halfway done with it already, even though it was only the fifth day of class.
Steve nudged Kai playfully, and seemed completely oblivious to how he stiffened and pulled away in reflex. “I need to narrow it down, but I have an idea in mind. You don’t have much time. We have to turn in a topic next week. What are you waiting for?”
Kai sighed. “I don’t like talking in front of people.” Kai decided he’d be honest, because if he wasn’t, Steve would hound him or tease him until he gave in anyway.
Steve looked puzzled. “But you talked in front of a few dozen parents and their kids just days ago.”
“Signed,” Kai said in English while also doing the ASL sign for emphasis. “You may have noticed I had Megan voice for me.”
Steve was surprisingly silent for a long moment, as if she was trying to remember. “Oh. So it’s the actual speaking that’s the problem?”
“Well, I’m not a huge fan of the whole ‘center of attention’ thing if I can help it, but, truthfully, I think I’d rather fail the class than have to speak in front of everyone.”
Steve seemed genuinely sympathetic. He expected her to compliment him on how well he spoke, but instead she took a breath. "If you talked to Patrias, he might allow you to have a pinch runner."
"It looked like you said 'pinch runner,' but that makes no sense."
Steve smiled. "Not a baseball guy, I take it?"
"In baseball, you can have one guy at bat and use a substitute to run the bases. So Patrias might let you prepare your presentation but have someone else, like moi, actually present it to the class."
Kai's heart exploded with hope. "You think he'd really let me do that?"
Steve shrugged. “Doesn’t hurt to ask.” Steve was studying Kai in that intense way of hers that unsettled him a little. Kai was usually good at reading people, especially hearing people, but he had no idea why the scrutiny. Was she trying to work out why he hated to speak? She’d been there at the class, so she’d heard him talk (via Megan) in general terms about how bad his experience at Jonesville High had been.
“Uh, so,” Kai said, changing the subject, “I’m still getting used to these hearing aids and I don’t know how they’ll handle Patrias’s crazy discussions. Do you think you could help me figure out who’s talking? Like, maybe point them out and do a short description, like, GIRL RED HAIR?”
Steve frowned, but not in displeasure, more in a, “huh” kind of way. “You’ve been totally lost the last few classes, but too stubborn to say anything, haven’t you?”
Kai’s brows shot up. As usual, Steve saw through him and got right to the point.
“I know from my cousin that sometimes it’s easier to pretend and follow along than admit you don’t know what everyone’s saying. But believe it or not, I was trying to give you the reins and not interfere.”
Kai couldn’t help smiling, shocked that the girl who’d chewed out a guy for not moving for Kai on the first day of class hadn’t immediately jumped in to “save” him from himself. “Uh, thanks.”
“See, I don’t have to be a stampeding elephant all of the time.” Steve grinned. “I’ll help anyway I can. And if you want to get together and brainstorm topic ideas, I’m up for that, too. Here,” she said, scribbling something on the edge of her notebook and then tearing it off and handing it to him. “My number and email.”
“Thanks,” Kai said, chuckling faintly at how she’d decorated it with silly faces.
“Hey, I’m being totally selfish here. The more I help you pass this class, the closer I get to convincing you to help me make the Blue Blur a reality.”
Renee was sitting on a bench in a quieter part of the student center, near the meeting rooms. Her last class had gotten out a little early, so she’d decided to head over to wait for Kai, since they’d planned to meet up before the ASL club meeting. She hadn’t been waiting too long when she saw him, wheeling down the hall toward her.
He smiled when he saw her, pushed hard once and signed quickly while he road out the glide, “Easier to sign like this.” Then dropped his hands back to his wheels and pushed a few more times till he was in front of her. He seemed like he was happy. He was smiling, but again, it was so hard to tell sometimes when he was just feigning for her sake or even how long a genuine mood would last.
“How was your psychology class?” Renee asked, uncertain about the sign for “psychology” since it was similar to the sign for “bother” and “tequila,” amusingly enough. But he visually confirmed she’d gotten the sign right.
He sighed. “A mess. My classmate Steve helped me understand during the discussion, but I think I need an interpreter.” He pushed some hair off his face. “I invited Steve to come to the meeting, but Steve has a work study thing, apparently.”
“Steve?” Renee asked, half to confirm she’d read the name right.
Kai nodded. “Remember that boy in the wheelchair from the class on Friday? Aaron? That’s Steve’s cousin.”
Renee nodded. She vaguely remembered. And she thought Kai had mentioned Steve before, that he was helping Kai with psych and maybe becoming a friend. It wouldn’t hurt for Kai to start making friends, especially if they could help him with his classwork. Maybe he’d stress less, and the less Kai stressed, the better he would do. Half of Kai’s problems with school, she’d noticed, were his lack of confidence in himself that caused him to shut down and give up, or race into panic.
“Anyway, I meet with Zach after this. I’ll talk to him. See if I can get an interpreter for psych.” Kai seemed fine on the surface, but she remembered what he’d admitted to her this morning. How the hearing loss was hitting him hard no matter how much he tried to be OK with it and think positive.
“You know needing an interpreter isn’t failure or weakness, right?”
Kai chuckled dryly. And she wondered if he was amused because she’d extracted what he’d really been thinking. “It’s not that. It’s . . . I don’t know. It’s weird. It’s stupid. But I feel all . . . mixed up inside. About my hearing, about everything. It’s not . . .” Kai sighed, clearly frustrated that even in sign he couldn’t figure out how to express himself. He looked around, as if to see if any of the other students walking by were arriving for the meeting and would know what he was saying, but he seemed confident their conversation was private, so he finally continued. “It’s like I’m finally beginning to see myself as having a future. As succeeding. That is huge for me.”
Renee smiled fondly, because she knew it was. Kai had admitted to her either directly or indirectly more than once how his whole life had been about just surviving; he’d never had the luxury of imagining a future. And he was struggling to shift out of that “survival” mode into one in which he could see beyond the past and the present and begin to plan and dream and hope.
Kai took a difficult breath. “But then I think, ‘when is the next disaster going to hit?’ The next thing that potentially destroys my future? If I need an interpreter to understand my own classes, how can I possibly hope to teach other people someday?”
Renee softened. She reached for his hand and squeezed it when he let her take it. “Hard of hearing and Deaf people teach all over the world. And not just other Deafies,” Renee added hastily when she could see Kai’s face shift and his hands begin to rise like he was going to add that as a protest. “My fingerspelling teacher is hard of hearing. And isn’t your counselor also?” She stared at him, trying to convey her deep belief that he really could do whatever he put his mind to, especially teaching, which he had a natural ability for. “What happened to the little boy who believed that he could be a basketball player when he grew up, even though he was tiny and he couldn’t breathe well and his legs didn’t work right?”
Kai laughed. “How do you know that?”
“You told me. On our first ‘real’ date.”
Kai was smiling that awed smile, the one where he looked at her like she was his everything, like she made him see himself and the world in a way he never had before, and he was amazed that she had such magical abilities. “I don’t remember. But yeah. Jon told me when I was little, I spent hours gripping the end table in the living room, pulling myself up and dropping down over and over and over,” Kai signed, being very visual, and she could almost see a child version of Kai doing just what he was describing. “When my dad came home and asked what I was doing, I told him I was practicing jumping. I believed that since I had to practice for months to walk, that if I just tried hard enough and long enough, I’d be able to jump, too.”
“I’m still adorable,” Kai said, flashing a grin worthy of David’s cheekiest. “Jon told me I need to believe in myself as much as you and he and David do.”
“Jon is a smart man.”
Kai stared into her eyes a long moment. “Do you really think I could be a teacher?”
Renee smiled. “I think it’s what you were born to do.”
Kai beckoned her closer, cradled her face in his hands and kissed her, deep and mind-destroyingly passionate, pouring out his gratitude and the love for her that he hadn’t yet expressed in words but that she knew he felt for her. When he pulled away, he smiled faintly. “I never did learn how to jump, but that doesn’t mean I can’t take a leap now.”
Kai couldn’t believe he’d been so honest with Renee, but more than that, that he didn’t feel that sick mix of shame and guilt in his stomach that always seemed to rise up whenever he spoke too frankly with anyone. The feeling that they’d judge him or somehow figure out the really horrible stuff in his past and be repulsed. Maybe it was because Dr. Miller was right--the more he told Renee, the more she could understand him, and the more he could see how she would stand by him no matter what. Even when he’d admitted he’d been abused, she’d been sympathetic and supportive in that amazing way of hers, appreciating his honesty but not forcing him to tell her anything he wasn’t ready for.
And he meant what he had told her this morning. He wasn’t sure if he could have gotten as far as he had in his recovery without her, and he wasn’t sure if he could continue along that path if he didn’t have her by his side. Something about Renee emanated strength and reassurance that he felt he could always rely on when he needed it, and that was comforting.
Renee’s face softened, and she reached forward and tucked some of his hair out of his face, letting her fingertips trail along his skin. “You’re smiling. Really smiling.” The hallway had begun to fill up as students gathered for meetings in the various rooms, so he couldn’t really make out what she said with his ears alone, but it was written all over her face.
Kai’s smile expanded. “You make me happy. It terrifies me sometimes, because I’m afraid any second I’ll lose you, but I’m trying not to think like that.” Kai took a breath. He was about to say something else when Renee pointed over his shoulder. Kai turned his head, then dropped his hands to his wheels to shift his chair to see.
Spikey, the kid who’d introduced them to the Deaf table in the cafeteria, was loping down the hall. He waved when he saw Kai notice him. “You came! What’s up?”
“Have any of the other officers arrived?” Spikey asked.
“Other officers?” Kai asked, fingerspelling the word for confirmation since Spikey had used a sign he hadn’t really seen before, not to mention he was shocked that Spikey’s question implied he had some kind of position of authority in the club. Spikey didn’t seem like the type, or responsible enough, but maybe that wasn’t fair. Kai hated when people made snap judgments about him because of his disability, so why should he decide what Spikey was or wasn’t capable of after only a couple lunches together?
Spikey nodded, clearly missing Kai’s skepticism. “Maybe they’re ordering the pizza. We keep campaigning for the university to have one TTY in every major building, especially the student center, but they insist the disability office is good enough.” Spikey’s lip curled, and Kai was beginning to wonder if maybe he’d been particularly harsh in his initial assessment of this kid. “Is the door open? To the room?”
Kai shrugged and shook his head. “We didn’t check.”
Spikey tried the door and it opened, then leaned in and flipped on the lights. But he didn’t enter. He looked around as if he was searching for someone, then signed, “And the interpreting students aren’t here, either?”
Interpreting students? How stupid of Kai to think, when he’d checked the hall earlier to see if he and Renee would have privacy for their conversation, that there couldn’t have been hearing students waiting for the meeting. Obviously there would be far more hearing students, some like Renee, others planning on becoming interpreters someday, than Deaf ones. And they’d probably talk to each other in English, not in sign. Kai felt that pit of fear mixed with shame, the one he’d only just been relieved he’d eluded, form.
But Spikey, clueless as ever, didn’t pick up on Kai’s distress. “None of the officers speak English. I can, but I’m terrible. What are we going to do if none of the interpreting students show up? Most of the people who come to the meetings at the beginning of the semester are hearing. If all the officers are signing, they’ll maybe catch a little, but mostly it’ll go over their heads.”
Kai noticed Renee giving him an eye and subtly nudging her chin as if to wordlessly encourage him to speak up.
He sighed heavily. “If--and only if--you have no one else to interpret, I can voice. I speak well. But I’m a last resort, OK?”
Spikey jumped forward and threw his arms around Kai in a quick hug that made Kai flinch and stiffen, but the kid didn’t seem to notice. “Awesome! The professional interpreters are only allowed to interpret for class, or specific school functions, so we always ask for volunteers. It’s good practice for the interpreting students, anyway, but they can’t always come. Great. Fantastic.”
“I may not be able to interpret English to ASL though, just so you know.” Kai couldn’t believe he was offering to do this at all. That pit in his stomach was growing, and he hated speaking in front of people. One on one was fine. He was used to that now, but a group? Maybe this was OK because it’s not like he was speaking for himself, after all. Damn, Renee.
“We’ll figure it out. This is an informal meeting, so it probably won’t be a problem. I’m going to go in and start setting up. You’re welcome to come in, too.” Spikey waved and then hopped in. It was like he had a huge amount of excess energy he had to get out or something.
“Why did I do that?” Kai said, feeling his anxiety ratcheting up.
“You’ll be fine,” Renee assured him. “I’ll sit next to you.” She cradled his cheek for a long moment and then leaned forward and kissed him, chaste but in such a way that it made him melt, taking some of the edge off. In fact, it made that ball of thorns in his stomach transform into this warm, pleasant feeling that snaked its way up his body and made him feel lighter somehow.
Kai studied her eyes a long while, picking out the little specks of brown nestled among the green. “How is it you make me believe I can do anything?”
Renee smiled his smile. “Because you can.”
Continue to February 7, 2001 - Part II ----->