February 7, 2001 - Part II
The advanced interpreting students didn’t show up--apparently they were on some assignment or something, and the lower-level ones had had only one semester and didn’t feel prepared enough to solo. So it was arranged that Kai would voice and one of the lower-level interpreting students would help with any English questions, if there were any. But maybe it was because it was the start of the semester, or maybe because there was a promise of pizza, but students from every corner of the campus had flooded the meeting room, and Kai was beginning to seriously regret volunteering.
He’d met all the officers officially, each of them carefully spelling out their first and last names so he’d know them later, but his memory was so shit he asked Renee to write them down for him. He normally didn’t have any problems reading fingerspelling--he’d been signing his entire life--but when his nerves came into play, and in front of a group, he didn’t want to take any chances. He even had a moment to check pronunciations with Renee and hoped that he wouldn’t make a fool of himself when he actually was interpreting.
“Deep breath. I’m going to sit right beside you. Focus on the person you’re voicing for. Your back is to everyone else, so act like it’s just you and them and you’re voicing for me, interpreting for me. OK?”
Kai felt like he couldn’t breathe despite trying to follow Renee’s advice. Why had he volunteered?
As if reading his mind, Renee laid her hand on his face to get him to open his eyes. “Because you care about others. You’re not so different from your brother in that way.” Renee’s signing was crude and very Englishy, but he appreciated her trying to reassure him.
Kai focused on that feeling he’d had, however fleetingly, out in the hall, the one she’d given him as if it were her super power, the one that made him feel calm and confident. He nodded. Then he guided his chair so he was less sideways and facing straight ahead, toward the front, where the officers were standing, signing to each other in low, private, urgent signs, and he got their attention and indicated he was ready when they were.
The blur of the background noise fueled Kai’s anxiety, so he reached up and turned both his hearing aids off. The room faded into that muted, warped pseudo-silence like hearing underwater, and he dropped one hand under the table, reaching for Renee’s and holding it tight, trying to focus on the fact that he was interpreting for her, and only her. Breathing was still difficult, but she squeezed his hand back and it bolstered him.
The president gave him one more confirmatory eye gaze between them to signal she was going to start, and then she raised her hands and began to sign. Kai’s English was halting at first, but he focused on Renee’s hand and on making sure she’d understand the signer, and soon the English flowed off his tongue without really needing to think.
“Hello everyone, my name is Amber Newman and I’m the president of Show of Hands, the ASL club here at Jonesville U,” Amber signed and Kai interpreted. She smiled faintly at him because she could tell from his lips, likely, that he was doing a good job, and that encouraged him further. As she continued to talk, he began to relax more and more, and the rest of the room disappeared. It was just him and Renee and whoever was signing at the moment, each of the officers introducing themselves in turn and saying a few quick things about their plans for the semester.
Before Kai knew it, they were finished and had invited everyone to join in on the pizza and socialize, encouraging even the greenest of signers to use ASL and practice rather than talking in English.
Kai let out a huge breath when his job was done, feeling like he was going to throw up, bending forward at the waist, not caring what anyone thought of him as Renee smoothed her hand up and down his spine, reassuring him with her touch. He finally pushed up from his knees, trying to keep himself under control, to not lose it in the midst of all these people.
Kai tried to smile, but he wasn’t sure if he managed it or not. “Yeah. I’ll be fine. I’m just nauseous.”
“I’ll bring you some pizza.”
“No. I can’t eat right now.” His thoughts were threatening to take charge of him, to yank him into that dark, horrible place, and he just had to keep himself together a few seconds longer until he could get out of here.
“Maybe if you ate, you’d feel better.”
“No! I can’t. I can’t eat with all these people watching me. I can’t . . . I need some air,” Kai said taking a huge gulping breath. “Five minutes. I’ll be back.” Then, without letting Renee say anything else, he hurried out of the room as fast as he could manage with the crowd, having to practically force his way through and doing all he could to keep from throwing up before he got to the men’s room. God, he was kidding himself. He couldn’t even manage something as stupid as this without freaking out. How could he ever even dream of teaching someday?
Renee had waited by herself for a few minutes, and then when she realized Kai was taking longer than the five he’d promised, she decided to grab a piece of pizza and try to mingle a little. A group of girls who looked like freshmen wandered up to her.
“Hi,” they all said rather loudly with a stiff sign to accompany their English.
“Uh, hi,” Renee said as she tried to balance her plate to free up a hand to sign. “I’m Renee. Nice to meet you.”
They murmured amongst themselves. “Uh, this is our first semester taking ASL,” one of them said, a tall, slightly chubby Native American-looking girl. “I’m Mandy, that’s Carrie, and Krystal.”
Renee nodded. “Renee,” she repeated, spelling her name again but also speaking it.
“How long have you been signing?” the one who was apparently called Krystal asked, a big-breasted bottle blond with long, straight hair. She looked like she was trying to dress sexy but failing.
“A few months,” Renee signed and spoke.
“No way,” the third girl, Carrie, said. She was average height--which still meant several inches taller than Renee--with mousy brown hair she’d done into twin braids and dark pink plastic glasses. “Are you and your boyfriend interpreting majors?”
It irritated a little that they were all supposed to be here to practice signing and other than a stray word here and there, these girls were only responding in English.
“The guy in the wheelchair?” Krystal said like there was any doubt Renee knew who they were talking about.
“No. He’s Deaf and I’m learning,” Renee said without speaking, getting irritated. She was also worried. It was easy to lose Kai in a crowd when he was in his wheelchair, but she would have noticed him return since she’d purposefully positioned herself with an eye on the door.
Renee had apparently signed simply enough that Carrie, the smartest of the group, apparently, had understood. She whispered to her friends to explain, then said, “Wow. No wonder you sign so well. It must be cool having a Deaf boyfriend. And he speaks really well, too. I mean, you’d never know.”
Renee sighed and gave them a look inspired by Kai. “You should practice signing. I have to go.” Renee abandoned her pizza and started making her way toward the door. She ran into a few people she knew from her fingerspelling class or the Deaf table at lunch, but she didn’t linger. She needed to at least text Kai to make sure he was OK.
In the bathroom, Kai threw up the meager contents of his stomach, since he hadn’t eaten breakfast, and then he made himself throw up whatever else might be left, hoping that feeling that sometimes took him over would be purged from his body. That slimy, dark, disgusting feeling that made him doubt himself, made him see himself like a failure and a freak who was selfish and worthless and every other negative label his brain could conjure up. And then he cried. Sobbed, hating himself for what he was doing to his body--the cutting and the vomiting and the not eating and all of it--hated himself for being a total failure in every possible sense of the word no matter what anyone said.
He didn’t want to go back to the meeting. Or to his appointment with Zach in thirty minutes. Or his afternoon class. He didn’t even want to swim. He wanted to go home and bury himself under his covers and sleep. Only if he slept, he’d dream, and if he dreamed, he might see things even worse than the man who stared back at him from the mirror right now as he desperately tried to scrub away the evidence of his recent breakdown.
His eyes were rimmed with red, his cheeks hollow, his fingers long and bony with their deformed tips. Nothing about him was normal. Nothing ever had been, and nothing ever would be. And once Renee snapped out of her puppy love, she’d see what he saw: someone no one had ever loved, that no one could love, because he was just too horribly broken. An ungrateful mess who playacted at putting his life together. Like he had when he was a kid, after recovering physically from the effects of that summer. Smiled, done his school work, cooperated with the shrinks just enough. Pretended to swallow the pills they gave him that they promised would “help him feel better,” and then more pretend that he was fine. Adjusted. That he didn’t have nightmares. And so sometimes he slipped up, and he stopped eating too much that they noticed. Or he spent too much time curled up under his bed where it was safe. But he was just some freak kid lost in the system. No one could be bothered with him for too long anyway.
The story of his life, right?
Kai felt his phone buzz and pulled it out of his pocket.
U ok? Renee had asked.
God, he felt like crying again, because as much a he didn’t want to believe it, he couldn’t help thinking that what he had with Renee couldn’t possibly last. He closed his eyes for a moment and tried to focus on that feeling she’d given him earlier, pure faith and love, and latch onto it. Use it like a bright light to push away the darkness. Renee had never let go of his hand the entire time he was interpreting, even though he’d probably held it too tight. Renee loved him. Believed in him. And if he ignored those evil voices in his head that lied, he knew deep inside his heart that she would never leave him, no matter what. Even if he told her everything that happened to him as a kid. Everything. The things he didn’t even like to think about because he didn’t want to believe they were true, let alone had told anyone, even Dr. Miller.
Kai took a huge breath and typed out a quick message. Fine. B thr soon.
Renee was waiting for him outside the meeting room when he rolled up. She didn’t sign anything, but her face said it all--she was concerned, and she wanted to know if he was OK.
Kai was about to say he was fine. Or that he’d be fine, but then his stomach cramped, and he felt the rawness in his throat from throwing up, and some of that feeling that had gripped him earlier came back, and he shook his head. That prickle in his sinuses that signaled he was on the verge of yet more fucking tears, and he shook his head more enthusiastically. “No. No, I’m not fine. I can’t. I can’t go in there. I can’t be around people right now.”
Renee’s face softened, and she nodded. She held up a finger, jogged down the hall a little ways, tried a few of the doors. Then she signaled for him to come over.
She’d found an empty and unlocked meeting room, and she sat down in a chair, beckoning him closer. “You don’t need to be OK all the time. You know that, right? I won’t think less of you.”
Kai rolled as close as he could. Nodded. And then he gestured for her to climb into his lap. “I just . . . I just need to know you’re here,” he said, knowing that he wasn’t really making sense right now.
But Renee nodded and got in his lap, snuggling close, smoothing her hand on his cheek. She didn’t try to speak, or it didn’t feel like she did. She just hugged him and let him bury his head in her neck. And when the tears finally took him again, she just held him tighter, smoothing a hand on his hair or shoulder just to remind him she was there.
They stayed like that a long time. Kai wasn’t even sure how long. But finally, he pulled back. Sniffled. Laughed at himself, but Renee lifted his chin to make him look at her. “I mean it when I said we will do this together,” she signed a little awkwardly because of their position. And her face showed her sincerity. “I will tell you ten times a day, every day, if I have to. I will keep telling you that until you believe it.”
Kai supported Renee with one hand, and with his other, he signed, “I’m so messed up. There are moments when I’m OK, and then it’s like . . .” Kai sighed. “It’s like I wake up and see myself and I’m back to square one.”
Renee kissed the top of his head. Smoothed some hair out of his face in a tender gesture, staring deep into his eyes. “In some ways I’m still getting over what happened between me and Jude,” Renee said, her signing a little awkward and very Englishy. “A bad day, or even a bad five minutes doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You did an amazing interpreting job back there. You sounded confident. Your voice didn’t waver. You are strong. And talented. And you have time to figure everything out. To get better,” Renee said, placing a finger on his temple. “You told me it took you months to get better after your transplant. Right? This will take time, too.” She smiled, soft and sweet and full of love. “Try not to be so hard on yourself,” she said in English, maybe because she couldn’t figure out how to sign it. “Next time you have bad thoughts, negative thoughts, think how you’d feel if someone said that about me. Maybe it’ll help you see through the lies your mind tells you.”
Kai squeezed her tight. He was still upset. Still wanted to run and hide, disappear. But Renee was right. As much as he wanted to just crawl in bed and wish his problems would go away, at the same time he was finally beginning to feel ready to move forward. And meeting with Zach was an important first step. He took a breath. Shook his head subtly. “I don’t understand how you’re so perfect. How you can see so much in me. But I’m glad that you do. I’m going to talk to Zach, and I’m going to do what I need to do for school. And I’ll try to remember it’s all right not to be OK sometimes.”
Tanya was working the desk again, and she smiled when she saw Kai. “Here to see Zach?”
Kai nodded. “Sorry if I’m late. The ASL club meeting ran long,” he lied. “I hope that’s OK?”
“Was that today? I never can go. I’m always working.” She checked the computer. “I sent him an IM, so he should be out to get you in a sec if you want to wait.”
Kai smiled politely and pushed to the waiting area, parking in one of the empty spots left vacant for wheelchairs. A couple other students were waiting, but no one Kai knew, and Renee had really helped him. Yes, he was still anxious, that basic tingling in his system that never quite left him, but he was able to ignore it.
He spied a pamphlet on the table--WORK STUDY PROGRAMS--and snagged it, reading through it while he waited. A few minutes later, he felt--and heard, with some help from his hearing aids--someone stomp on the floor nearby. Kai glanced up and saw Zach.
“Hey. You look upset. You OK?”
Kai’s cheek twitched in the attempt at a smile. “I have good days and bad days. Most days my emotions are up-and-down,” Kai answered truthfully. “Today I’m all over the place.”
Zach looked concerned, but in a genuine and not patronizing way, and beckoned Kai to follow him, so Kai tucked the pamphlet between his legs and made his way to Zach’s office.
Once they were inside, Zach offered Kai a bottle of water, which Kai accepted. It seemed like he could never drink enough; not only did he naturally suffer from low blood pressure, but the anti-rejection meds and the antidepressant dried him out, and throwing up didn’t help. Zach settled into his chair and studied Kai for a moment. “What can I help you with today?”
Kai held up a finger while he downed three-quarters of the bottle at once. Then he set it aside and fished out some rumpled papers from his bag, unfolding them and offering them to Zach.
Zach’s brows went up, but he skimmed them quickly, turning to the page that showed Kai’s audiogram from his hearing test the day before, then to the last page, a copy of Kai’s hearing aid prescription. He looked a little bewildered, almost hurt, but Kai knew he was reading into Zach’s natural expressiveness. “How long have you been having hearing problems?” Kai realized then that Zach was wondering why Kai didn’t tell him sooner.
“It’s from the antibiotic they gave me when I had my fever back in December. I wanted to wait to say anything until I knew if it was permanent or not.”
Zach nodded. “Can I keep this, or do I need to make a copy?”
Kai shook his head. “No, that’s for you.” Kai rubbed the heels of his hands on his jeans.
“You didn’t make an appointment just to give me this. You could have left the papers with Tanya.”
Kai nodded. “I know.” Kai didn’t sign anything else, but his turmoil must have been written in his face.
“What’s wrong?” Zach’s face was full of concern, but friendly and open, as if to say that Kai could tell him anything, and Kai knew this.
Kai hesitated, then signed, “Everything.”
Zach nodded slowly in understanding, but he didn’t say anything, as if giving Kai a chance to explain.
Kai bit his lip, took a breath. “I thought I’d be fine on my own, but I’m so lost in my psych class. Do you think I could get an interpreter?” That was only part of what was on Kai’s mind, but Zach wasn’t his therapist.
Zach’s face twitched like that wasn’t what he’d been expecting Kai to say, but he nodded to signal he understood, then leaned back in his chair, his lips pursed like he was blowing out a breath. “It’s tricky to put in a request like this once the semester’s started, but let me pull up your schedule and see what I can do.” Zach turned to his computer and clicked a few things, typed for a bit, clicked, until he apparently had Kai’s schedule on his screen. “Which classes do you think you need the interpreter for? Only psychology?”
“I can handle history. The hearing aids work well especially since I’m in the front row. But I struggled today in psych. In some ways they made the crosstalk worse.”
Zach nodded. “And writing?”
“Actually . . .” Kai hesitated. “I wanted to drop that class. Maybe see if there’s something in the education major track I could take instead?”
Zach seemed surprised, but he smiled. “I take it you’ve decided to stick things out?”
Kai nodded. “I want to try an education class. See if it’s something I could do.”
Zach nodded, grabbed the course manual from the edge of his desk and thumbed through it. Then he set it face down, keeping the page he’d left open, and fiddled on his computer some more. “OK. So there’s still space in a section of Learning Theory that’s about the same time as your current writing class, so it wouldn’t really change your schedule much. And that’s a good class to get a feel for whether you might want to major in education. Plus, no matter what kind of education major you decide on--if you did--this class is a requirement for all of them.”
Kai’s brows furrowed. “There’s different kinds of education majors?”
Zach chuckled. “Yeah. There’s elementary, middle school, and high school, and then there’s also bilingual education, special ed, Deaf ed--” Zach smiled in a friendly, reassuring way, perhaps seeing how Kai was feeling overwhelmed by all this new information. “But don’t worry. You don’t have to declare education to take Learning Theory. OK? So should I make the switch for you?” Zach checked his watch. “If we hurry, you might be able to make the class today.”
Zach beamed proudly and turned back to his screen, making a few clicks and keystrokes, then hit a button. “Your new schedule is printing. Do you think you might want an interpreter for this new class, too?”
“If it’s mostly lecture, I might be OK. Is the teacher a woman?”
Zach glanced at his monitor, pursed his lips. “Yes. Is that a problem?”
Kai shook his head. “I just have more trouble with women. The hearing aids help, but . . .”
Zach sighed. He held up a fist to tell Kai to hold on and opened something else on his computer, staring at it for a bit. Then it looked like he pulled up an IM program and started chatting with someone. Even though the person on the other end obviously couldn’t see him, Kai noticed that Zach would nod or shake his head or other subtle instinctive bits of body language ingrained in him from Deaf communication that showed he was listening. Finally, he turned back to Kai.
“Good news. Looks like I’ll be able to get you a pair of interpreters for your psych class, starting Friday. And even better, I have someone who can meet you for your new Learning Theory class today. She’s an intern, but she’s really good. If you think you’ll need someone for that class, I’ll see if I can get something more permanent arranged.”
Kai was blown away. He couldn’t even react.
Zach’s face was worried, and he was waving for Kai’s attention. He was aware that Kai had concentration issues, that he got distracted easily, and that he also had problems with dissociation.
Kai blinked. Shook his head like it was filled with sand, and finally smiled. “I was sure you’d tell me my hearing loss wasn’t enough to merit an interpreter.”
Zach frowned. “You have problems with English that may have been enough for me to get you an interpreter if you requested one. One good thing about the university is they leave those kind of decisions up to the counselors.”
Kai let out a long breath, grabbed his bottled water, and finished it.
“Can I help you with anything else?”
Kai hesitated. Picked at the label of his water bottle. Finally, he said, “Can I ask you something personal?” Using a single sign, the sign for “CURIOUS,” which was often used for just this situation.
“Ask me,” Zach said, but his face suggested that depending on what the question was, he might not answer.
Kai took a deep breath. “I know this is rude to ask, but . . . how well do you hear, really? I mean, how well do you manage with hearing people?” Zach had talked a little about himself as part of Deaf cultural introduction norms when they’d first met, and also, Kai suspected, as a way to get Kai to trust him more, but he’d been vague at best, and Kai hadn’t been able to stop thinking about what Renee had said earlier. How hard of hearing people taught hearing people all the time, citing Zach as an example.
Zach smiled faintly, like he could see through what Kai was really concerned about. “With these hearing aids, in a quiet environment, I can get by really well. Even when I was a counselor, I mostly specialized in treating Deaf and HOH patients, but I did occasionally get hearing people, too. And when I first started this job, I worked with everyone, not just the Deaf students. Your hearing loss is new to you, and though your situation is different from most, it’s still an adjustment. You have every right to be thrown,” Zach said, using the sign that looked like you were tossing something in the air, both hands facing each other and then flipped, wrists twisting. It meant “mess,” but it could be used in so many different situations. Kai often used it near his head to suggest how screwed up he was, mentally. Sometimes with his middle fingers standing up for extra inflection--a fucking mess. “Now is the time when I’m supposed to tell you to go to the counseling department, or to talk to your psychiatrist about this, and I do think you need to discuss your concerns with Dr. Miller if you haven’t already. But I informally counsel a lot of the students with hearing loss, because what do the school psychologists know about being deaf? Nothing,” Zach added for emphasis. “So I’m here if you ever need to talk. You know I’ve been on the road you’re on, in my own way. And I will tell you that it won’t always be easy. But you can do anything you want. Including teaching hearing kids. Technology is always improving. By the time you graduate, there will be tech we couldn’t even imagine today. For example, based on the hearing aids I had as a kid compared to what I have now? I never would have imagined. I can hold my own with hearing people in ways I never could have before, and it’s not because my hearing got better. Yes, I’m better at reading lips and guessing at the holes in conversation, but the tech also improved. You would make a fantastic special ed or Deaf ed teacher, but your hearing doesn’t have to limit you. Don’t give up your passion because of your hearing. When I was a kid, before I went to the deaf school, everyone told my parents that I would never amount to anything. That I couldn’t. And here I am. Masters degree and everything.”
Kai nodded, even if he wasn't fully convinced. Believing you could do anything was great and all, but there was theory and there was practice, and they rarely aligned.
But Zach nodded in understanding, smiling his friendly, open, totally non-patronizing smile. “You don’t have to get there in a day. It took me years. Just focus on one class at a time, and remember I’m here to help you, even if it’s just for you to vent about being non-hearing in a hearing world.”
Kai let loose a long breath, relaxing a little. Wasn’t that more or less what Dr. Miller always told him? Don’t “what if” or stress about the future too much. Focus on what he was doing right now. Celebrate little victories, no matter how small. Kai smiled faintly. “I voiced for the Show of Hands officers today even though I hate talking in front of groups and I felt like I was going to throw up the entire time.” Kai felt a little sheepish after he’d admitted this.
But Zach beamed and held up a hand for Kai to high-five him. “That is amazing! Do you think the guy I talked to in here a few days ago could have done that?”
For some reason, Kai wanted to break down again. It was stupid, but even though he knew, logically, that Zach was 100% genuine in his excitement and praise, it felt like he was mocking Kai, pointing out how much Kai had fucked up in the past couple weeks, and he had to suck in some effortful breaths.
“Hey,” Zach said out loud when he apparently failed to get Kai’s attention otherwise. He leaned down, trying to make eye contact with Kai. “You’re OK. You’ll be OK. Deep breaths.”
Kai nodded, trying to breathe as deeply as he could, focusing on Zach even though he felt some of those stupid tears leak out anyway. He shivered, though it was warm in Zach’s office, those greasy feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy swimming around in his stomach. How could he have ever thought he could attempt a job when he could barely hold it together for a couple hours at school?
“I don’t know what your head is telling you right now, but don’t listen to it. Listen to me. I have done this job for years, and I was a therapist for even longer. I know how easy it is for someone in a situation like yours to withdraw from the world. It’s easier to stick to ‘safe,’ to never risk having a panic attack or a breakdown. Just coming to campus three times a week and staying here all day is something you should be proud of yourself for. And I’m not making fun of you. I’m serious.” Zach gave Kai an encouraging smile. “And you never stop at the bare minimum either. You’re always pushing yourself, even when it’s scary, and that’s great. That’s how I know you can succeed. Maybe it won’t always be easy, and maybe it will take you longer than someone else, but you can’t measure yourself against others. Focus on what you want, and you will achieve it someday.” Zach offered Kai the box of tissues.
Kai hadn’t completely broken down, but he was still embarrassed that he’d cried in front of Zach. He knew he couldn’t really control his tears, not like he used to be able to, but that never seemed to matter. But Zach wasn’t judging him. In fact, Zach was . . . proud of him. Kai tried to focus on that, blew his nose and wiped his eyes, took a few grounding breaths.
Zach indicated the flier that Kai still had tucked between his legs. “I think you’ll even be able to take a work-study job someday, but I don’t think you’re ready for that yet. Discuss it with your psychiatrist, and when she thinks you can handle that, come back and talk to me. I already know the perfect job for you. They always need help with reshelving books in the library. It’s quiet and you don’t need to interact with too many people.” Zach checked his watch. “Your new class starts soon. But I’m not kicking you out. You don’t need to leave this office till you’re ready, OK? Your interpreter will meet you outside your classroom.”
Kai felt more relaxed, more confident, even though he knew if he wasn’t careful he could break down into tears again. Kai took a deep breath. “Thank you. I don’t know if I would be able to get through this semester without your help.”
Zach shrugged. “It’s my job. But you need anything else, you have any questions, you can email me, or come in and see me again. OK? You will do great this semester. I believe it.”
Kai smiled self consciously. He knew it was silly, and he knew, as Zach had just reminded him, that Zach was just doing his job, but it felt good to know that he had someone else rooting for him.
Even with the abrupt schedule change, thanks to his wheelchair, Kai was able to get to the other side of campus, park, and make it to his new classroom with ample time. His learning theory class was in the main education building, a new, modern bit of brick and glass that reminded Kai of some kind of modernist church.
Kai had never been in this building before, but the bank of elevators were easy to find from the entrance, and they rose quickly to the fourth floor where his class was. Kai was relieved to find that the halls were wide, and unlike some of the other, older buildings on campus, the classrooms were actually arranged in logical, numerical order.
A young woman dressed in black stood outside the door, waiting patiently. She had her hair in a low ponytail and was devoid of any jewelry, a coat, or a backpack that would have identified her as a student, despite the fact that she looked like she was about 25.
Kai pushed a little closer, mindful that he wouldn’t be blocking the hallway but still far enough they could have a decent signing distance. “Are you my interpreter?” Even though Zach had assured Kai he merited her help as much as anyone else, he felt a little sheepish using her services when he could manage on his own. But then he reminded himself that he needed all the help he could get if he was going to get through this semester.
She smiled. “You’re Kai Fox?”
Kai nodded and showed her his namesign. Normally it was polite to explain it, but he was not in the mood for that conversation, even the fake one he had to clear up why his name sign was a pun on the sign for “hearing.”
“I’m Paula Juhlin.” She demonstrated her own namesign, which looked a lot like the sign for purple. “It’s my favorite color and I used to wear it all the time.” She smiled again. Kai had to admit so far that he liked her. Her signing was smooth and natural, not jerky like some of the interpreters he’d used as a kid. “I’m an ASL interpreter intern. Zach sent me.”
Kai nodded. “I’m just switching into this class, and I’ve used interpreters before, but never for school.” Kai swallowed, knew he had to be honest with her if they were going to work together. “I went to JSD for most of my schooling, but then transferred to Jonesville High, where I was forced to talk.” Kai knew the disdain for that memory was etched in his face. “I’d prefer to have you voice for me today, if that’s OK.”
Paula nodded, her facial expression telling him she was fine with that.
Kai tried to think what else she might need to know. “I, uh, have problems with English sometimes, so I can handle signed English, but I prefer something more ASL, more visual. And I have hearing aids, but I get distracted easily, so I may decide to turn them off for class. That’s not a problem?”
“Of course not.”
Kai fidgeted, pressed his hands into the seat of his chair and lifted his body up, shifting his weight. “I don’t like being touched, so I’d prefer you get my attention in other ways if possible.”
Kai let out a long breath, trying to relieve some of the anxiety that was forming in his belly. He wasn’t even sure entirely why, but the fact that Paula hadn’t looked at him in a judgmental way at all, despite all his caveats, helped him relax a little. “How did you learn to sign?” Kai thought maybe asking a few questions about her, slipping into the routine of a Deaf culture interaction might help him relax.
“My aunt is Deaf, so I grew up with it, even if the rest of our family is hearing. My mom and her sister are really close, so she learned to sign, and they made sure I learned it along with English. Then, when I got to college, I decided to take some formal ASL classes and realized that the ASL I knew growing up was so different from what they were teaching in class.” Paula chuckled.
Kai nodded. One thing he really wished was that JSD had formal ASL classes in the same way that they had English ones in the hearing high school, where they taught you the proper form of the language. Kai had picked up a lot of what he knew about the formal structure of the language when he was older, partially from Jake, who had gone through some interpreting classes in college.
“So what made you decide to go into interpreting?”
Paula tilted her head, as if she were thinking. “I’m good at it?” She laughed, like it was a bit of an inside joke. “Seriously, I took one class as an experiment and fell in love with it, and there’s always a demand for interpreters, so . . .” She shrugged.
Kai still couldn’t shake his unsettled feeling, the urge to fidget growing. He wanted to ask who her aunt was, where she’d gone to school, if Kai might know her, but he was using all his effort to focus.
Paula tried to reassure him. “Kennedy is teaching this class, right?”
Kai honestly didn’t know.
Paula smiled. “It’s OK. I’m pretty sure she is. She’s a really good teacher, and I’ve worked with her before, so she understands the protocol of the whole Deaf student/interpreter thing. She also usually arrives early to class, so we may have some time to talk to her and figure out where you want to sit, and where you want me to sit.”
Kai rubbed his palms on his legs and nodded.
A few minutes later, the last class ended, the door beside Paula popping open and students beginning to file out.
Even though Kai’s hearing hadn’t been as bad as it now was for very long, he realized he’d gotten used to it in a way. Or maybe it was just the amplification of the hearing aids, because the din of the exiting students was loud and made his anxiety spike. Kai pushed closer to the wall, praying no one would bump into him, not wanting to risk a repeat of yesterday at the Cattle Baron, especially in front of Paula. It was ridiculous, but that seemed to be the only kind of thoughts his brain could spit out nowadays.
Finally, things quieted a little, though the halls still echoed with the sound of excited voices as other classes emptied out and friends greeted friends. Kai noticed Paula wave to someone. Kai turned his head to see who and noticed a petite African American woman with neat braids dressed in a pants suit walking toward them, pulling a rolling briefcase. She looked like a businesswoman rather than a professor, although her face was round and friendly, and seemingly very young. As she grew closer, Kai could see the silver woven in among the dark brown of her hair suggesting she was middle aged, at least.
Just as Paula had said, she and Kennedy apparently knew each other, and Paula wasted no time getting into professional mode, positioning herself so Kai could see both of them.
Kai realized Paula was being ethical in letting him introduce himself, so he forced himself to raise his hands to sign, grateful Paula was there because he suddenly found himself unable to come up with any English. Maybe it was his bad experience with Pelto, even if Kennedy looked nothing like her, or maybe it was just the fact that his brain was royally screwed up. “Hi. I’m Kai Fox. I’m a late addition to your class. I hope that’s OK?” Kai instantly hated himself for adding that bit of uncertainty, and straightened his back to try to give himself a little more confidence.
Kennedy was only a few inches taller than Renee, and she listened with a smile as Paula voiced what Kai had said. “Of course it’s not a problem. It’s always good to have another student.” Kennedy’s voice was high but strong, and Kai could just hear her because of his hearing aids, though it wasn’t easy with all the background noise, even at this distance. He was grateful that he could rely on Paula’s signs instead. He could tell immediately that Kennedy would be nothing like Pelto, and that helped him relax a little.
“I’ll get you a copy of the syllabus. Why don’t you come in so we can figure out where you and Paula want to sit.”
Kai nodded and followed Kennedy into the classroom, with Paula behind. The room was much larger than he expected, with rows and columns of desks instead of chairs and tables, and a windows along one wall. Along the wall perpendicular to the door as they entered were two white boards, and there were more on his right against the same wall as the door. A large teacher’s desk sat in the front, just off center, and a podium stood beside that. Kai surveyed the desks and saw they were all the kind where the desktop was attached to the seat, similar to the ones at Jonesville High that Kai abhorred. He liked the accessible desk in his history class, which had a similar design, but the desktop folded up and out of the way, and there was a lot more space between the chair back and the edge of the desktop, making transferring a lot easier whether he was walking or in his wheelchair.
Kai visually checked one more time, but he didn’t think any of these desks were the accessible kind, since those were a little bigger and bulkier than the standard student desk.
Kai vaguely heard Kennedy talking, and he turned his head just as Paula signaled him and then started interpreting for the teacher. “I’m going to call and see if we can get you an ADA desk before class starts.”
Kai didn’t relish the idea of some maintenance worker carrying in a desk just for him, and a room full of students immediately all gaping as he transferred into it, but he didn’t really want to transfer into a regular desk, and he also knew everyone would be looking at him anyway since he had an interpreter.
Kennedy had gone to the podium, which apparently had a built-in phone, and was already making that call.
“Where do you want to sit, once the desk arrives?” Paula asked him directly.
Kai would have preferred the middle of the room, but the outside top row would work best, and it would mean Paula would be off to the side, making it easier for him to see her and the board, and occasionally glance over at Kennedy, too. God, he was so fucking nervous right now he thought he was going to throw up, but he willed it away. Kai pointed to the spot he thought would work best.
Paula nodded and found an extra stand-alone chair, which she positioned near the front of the room but off to the side, sinking into it and asking if Kai thought this would work. “Normally, you’d have two interpreters, and we’d switch off, but this was so last minute . . .”
Kai nodded. He had been a little surprised that one person was going to try to interpret for an hour-long class, but he was grateful she was there anyway. “This’ll be fine. I’m glad you’re here.”
She chuckled, smiled.
“I have problems with anxiety, in case you haven’t noticed.” He smiled weakly, trying to will his heart to slow down, and his breathing, too.
“It’s OK. It’s a new class and you’ve never used an interpreter in this setting before, and you’ve never worked with me.”
Kai noticed Kennedy had finished on the phone.
“They’re sending someone over with a desk right now.” Kennedy checked her watch. “So it should be here before class starts.” She went to her briefcase and pulled out some paper, then crossed the room and handed it to him. “Your copy of the syllabus. The textbook is on the first page.”
It was disconcerting to have Paula sitting in one part of the room with Kennedy so close to him, and he realized that this whole arrangement might take more getting used to than he expected. But he managed to get what she said between his hearing aids and Paula, and thanked her for the syllabus. Kennedy then went back to the front of the room to begin prepping the board for class, and Kai took the time to scan the pages for anything that might be pertinent. He’d only missed four days of class, but he could see he had a lot of reading to catch up on. He made a mental note he hoped wouldn’t be lost in that crazy, unreliable memory bank of his to make sure he stopped by the bookstore before heading home.
Kai tried to strike up a conversation with Paula, to keep himself distracted, especially as the students began filtering in and he caught some of their curious looks. Not only was there some strange guy in their class, but he was in a wheelchair, and he was doing something weird with his face and hands, and there was some strange lady dressed like a mime sitting across from him, also doing the same weird gestural thing as he was.
It turned out Paula’s aunt was a teacher at the school for the deaf in Council Bluffs, and she knew David through her aunt (since David had worked as a janitor there when he was in college), and through his reputation in the community, even if she hadn’t interacted with him herself. Everyone in the Deaf community in this area knew David in some form or other, it seemed.
Paula was nice and funny, and chatting with her helped relax him a little. He still had that tight knot in his stomach that felt like it never went away, but the conversation by necessity required him to focus on her and not the rapidly filling classroom, and he barely noticed when the maintenance guy arrived with Kai’s desk.
Without asking Kai, which was irritating enough, the guy shifted the desk closest to the door out of the way, replacing it with the accessible one he’d brought in on a cart. Then he left without another word. Kai decided to pretend he and Paula were alone in the room, pushing to his desk and lifting the desktop up until it locked in the vertical position. Then he aligned his wheelchair, gripped the far edge of the seat with one hand and heaved his body into it. He lifted his legs, arranging them on the floor in front of him, gripped the edges of the seat to help shift himself into a more comfortable position, and then unlocked the desktop, lowering it into place. It made a noise when it did, painfully loud to his hearing aids, and worse, it made him startle, and he knew everyone was looking at him and his anxiety morphed into full out nausea. Kai wanted to leave. Take off and never look back. He could manage the transfer back to his chair without moving the desktop again--it wouldn’t be easy, but he could do it--but then he looked up and saw Paula, and her face was reassuring, her friendly smile in place, but it wasn’t at all fake, and Kai forced himself to take some deep breaths. Zach had been so fucking proud of Kai, for not dropping out of school, for finding a class that might possibly be in a major Kai could love, for wanting to do work study.
Kai felt the burn in his eyes and fought those fucking tears, twisting the rubber bands tight against his wrist without actually flicking them so he wouldn’t make any noise. A few more deep breaths and Kai felt like he had himself moderately under control. His chest still felt tight, like he couldn’t get a full breath, and his heart was pounding almost painfully in his ears, but he was fine. He wouldn’t let his anxiety win.
Kai discovered that missing the first few days of class wasn’t nearly as detrimental as he’d thought it would be. Kennedy was a really interesting teacher, and Paula was a fantastic interpreter, and he realized that not having to rely on English and his shit aural memory meant that he could actually relax and let the material sink in. He even asked a few questions--still relying on Paula to voice since he felt more comfortable signing--and by the time the lecture was over and most of the class had funneled out, he was feeling a whole lot better.
Kennedy gave him a smile and a few words of encouragement as she left, and Paula came forward to chat with him a little as he packed up and got ready to leave himself.
“So. What do you think?”
Kai smiled. “That was amazing. Thank you so much. You must be exhausted.”
She chuckled. “Yeah, a little bit. But I’m done for the day.”
Kai nodded. “Same. I know you’re just an intern, but I would love if you could interpret for me for this class, especially if you could find someone else to switch off with you.”
Paula seemed surprised and even blushed a little. “Talk to Zach. He’s the one who coordinates all of that. But I’m happy to work with you if that’s what you want, and schedules allow.”
“Great. I will. I’ll send him an email. Thank you again so much. You have no idea how much easier that was for me than managing on my own would have been.”
She smiled like she’d heard that before, but was still pleased. “All right. I’m going to take off. See you Friday, if everything works out.”
Kai was on a bit of a high after class. He felt invigorated, like he really could beat his anxiety and PTSD and everything that threatened to hold him back. He made a quick detour to the library, where he sent Zach an email to tell him how well the class had gone, how amazing it was working with an interpreter, and how excited he was about the rest of the semester. And Kai realized then he was excited about school. For probably the first time since the first day of class back in August. This semester he’d been so afraid of panic attacks and flashbacks, of failure in general that he loathed coming to school each day. It had fueled that hopelessness he felt all too often, which was one reason he’d thought he might be better off dropping out entirely.
But Kai had forced himself to focus on how he’d felt when he was working with the kids during the ASL class on Friday. Playing with them while he taught them signs, how natural it was, how comfortable and anxiety-free he’d been. Maybe Renee was right and he was born to do that. The idea that in a few years he could spend every day working with the Aarons or Jasons of the world. That he could make a genuine difference in the lives of kids like he was once gave him a renewed sense of purpose he could use to fight off the negative voices in his head. The ones that told him more often than anyone realized how much better things would be if he were dead.
Kai finished the email by praising Paula in particular and requesting her for his education class if that were possible, and again thanking Zach for believing in him and helping him. Then Kai dashed off to the bookstore so he could grab a copy of his education textbook before they closed since he was actually looking forward to reading it.
Continue to February 7, 2001 - Part III ------>