Sunday, July 16, 2000

In/Exhale - February 8, 2001 - Part V

February 8, 2001 - Part V

Ghostbusters, plus Martin and Frankie’s company had been just what Kai needed. Kai and Martin were still laughing and quoting lines to each other--Kai’s favorite was, “When someone asks if you’re a god, you say yes!”--long after Frankie’s dad had swung by to pick him up. Frankie seemed to have changed in the last four years, but then Kai had almost become a different person as he went through high school, and something about how Martin and Frankie interacted suggested they didn’t know each other well. They certainly weren’t friends, and whereas Martin and Kai were kindred spirits, complete with a dark, occasionally profane sense of humor, Frankie had always been a straight shooter, uptight even when he was a kid. Maybe he just didn’t feel comfortable with Martin and Kai’s banter. But banter between his friends, whether it was David or Jake or Steve or Martin always kept Kai sane. Or as sane as was possible considering how deep fried his brain was.
Still, it was about time for Kai to leave, and he didn’t want to go back to the bookstore, and Vicky’s was out of the question if Jon wasn’t there, and the thought of the empty apartment made the darkness start to creep in on the edges.
“You OK, Kai?”
Kai let out a shaky breath. Forced a smile. “Just tired.”
Martin’s breathing had gotten forced and noisy, although it didn’t sound like Kai expected thanks to his hearing aids, and it took seeing Martin’s shoulders and chest moving more visibly to connect the sound to meaning. It was getting time for his evening breathing treatments, and it showed.
“Guess I should get going,” Kai said with reluctance.
“No. We could watch another movie,” Martin said a little desperately, then he seemed to catch himself, coughed a little, and said, “I mean, if you want.”
That actually sounded great, but Kai did have a ton of homework and Martin’s mom would be home soon. “Don’t you need to do your vest?” Kai used to use one too, before his transplant to help him cough up the mucus. It was basically a specialized vest you strapped on tight, then it inflated and vibrated to help loosen the mucus so you could cough it out. Martin told Kai he did it four to six times a day when he didn’t go to school.
Martin looked disappointed, somehow younger in that moment. He coughed a few times, wet and desperate, gasping for air after the spell.
“Breathe through your nose,” Kai coaxed him.
Martin let himself fall back a little so the couch was supporting him, though he stayed upright so he could breathe more easily, his eyes closed and his mouth clamped shut to try to get as much oxygen as he could. He coughed weakly a few more times and cracked his eyes opened. He was wiped, and it was selfish of Kai to stay any longer. But Martin seemed to read Kai’s thoughts, because he took a deep breath through his nose and said, having to pause a few times to breathe or cough, “I’ll feel better after I cough and take my medicine.” His eyes pleaded with Kai to stay.
Even if Martin’s mom would be home soon, Kai remembered that feeling, those long, lonely days when he could do very little but sleep, maybe read a bit, and the company of someone who wasn’t a doctor, nurse, or therapist felt like the sun burning through a thick fog. “I guess I can stay until your mom gets home, but you need to go do your treatment now before your PO2 drops.”
Martin’s lips were pale but not blue yet. Martin nodded. “Cool. OK. I’ll go now.” Martin took a few more deep breaths through his nose and then he got up, carrying some of the blankets with him.
Kai watched as Martin took the stairs up to his room slowly, having to pause after about three or four to catch his breath, and that more than anything reminded Kai that Martin really was dying. A fifteen-year-old boy shouldn’t struggle to go up a flight of stairs, and Kai wondered if he’d be out of place to suggest to Inez that it might be time for Martin to move downstairs permanently. Kai turned away to hide his frown in case Martin could see. Fuck. Martin would probably be dead in a year, maybe two if he was really “lucky,” and Kai had almost killed himself last night? How fucking selfish could he be?
Kai felt the chill of self loathing creeping over him like a swarm of bugs, and the urge to do something to stop it, to get rid of that feeling rose up violently. He hadn’t wanted to cut so badly in days, the negativity and the urge battling each other so intensely he could hardly breathe.
Kai grabbed his bag off the floor and dug through it, desperate. Finally, he found what he’d been searching for. A red marker. According to Dr. Miller, for some people the cutting was partially the visual stimulus of seeing blood, so drawing on your skin with a red pen could be a harmless way of getting the same satisfaction. Kai had always been doubtful. He liked the blood, but what he was really after was pain. Right now, though, he was worried if he did cut he’d hate himself so much for violating the promise he made that morning that he might go dangerously far.
God, it felt like his throat was closed off, sort of like when he was doing a pulmonary function test and they closed the valve for a few seconds so he literally couldn’t breathe. Kai was shaking as he shoved up his left sleeve and used his teeth to pull the cap off the marker, slashing with it over the remnants of his week-old scabs, pretending the soft tip was actually a blade and the ink was blood.
It was actually surprisingly cathartic, and once Kai had covered his stomach and chest and arms with red, he felt like he could finally breathe again. But maybe that was just the marker fumes giving him a high. Either way, he’d held off the dual demons of the darkness and his response to it, and now exhaustion swept over him. It was amazing how tiring constantly fighting this mental battle was.


#


Kai hadn’t realized he’d dozed off until he woke suddenly, his mind a little bleary, trying to make sense of his surroundings and the distorted sounds his brain was struggling to interpret through his hearing aids. He finally remembered: Martin’s living room. Martin was probably still upstairs doing his treatments, and the sound was . . . Kai listened harder, putting all his focus into making sense of what he was hearing. A woman’s voice. Probably Inez’s, although Kai couldn’t understand her. She was probably too far, the angle wrong, since the garage was behind him and off to one side.
Kai grabbed his crutches and pushed himself to his feet. He had to brace himself at the head rush. His blood sugar and pressure was probably low. A few peanut butter crackers was not nearly enough calories, and he hadn’t drunk anything really since early morning. Once Kai felt he wasn’t going to pass out or throw up, he slowly crutched toward the hall that led to the garage and kitchen.
Inez was hanging up her coat and bag and she smiled when she saw Kai. She then launched into what sounded like soft, rapid sounds that Kai knew were words but he couldn’t pick out anything, and he didn’t have the best view of her lips, either.
Kai’s heart sped, and he took a breath. He’d spent a good chunk of his childhood figuring out what people were saying based on tone, body language and facial expression, and the few bits of English he’d manage to decode, but right now Kai felt totally lost, panic creeping up. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”
Inez looked at him in a strange way, then laughed gently. Shook her head. When she spoke this time, Kai was able to get enough of what she was saying for it to make sense. “Sorry! You look so much like your brother and he speaks so well I forget you don’t understand Spanish.”
Kai let out a relieved breath and smiled faintly. She’d been speaking Spanish. No wonder he couldn’t make sense of her words. Even before his hearing problem, spoken language was always a challenge for him, his mastery of English taking years of immersion, therapy, and study. Jon had tried to teach Kai some Spanish, but all Kai had managed to learn to recognize were a couple words. Especially post transplant, Kai’s brain just wouldn’t process the strange, soft, slurring sounds of Spanish as more than nonsense.
Inez smiled bigger, perhaps to try to further reassure Kai. “You’re usually gone when I get home. It’s nice to see you.” She beckoned Kai to follow her into the kitchen. She was still dressed in her office clothes, her dark hair twisted into a fancy bun. Kai had only met her a couple times, and she’d always seemed so old, but studying her now Kai realized she was probably somewhere between Jon and Vicky in age. Not even old enough to be his mother, unless she’d had him very, very, very young.
She offered him something to drink, and Kai accepted the juice, leaning one crutch against the counter to free up his hand so he could sip it. He wanted to down it in one gulp, but his stomach would probably protest violently at that, so he took it slow.
“Where’s Martin?” Kai didn’t miss the hint of worry in her voice.
“Upstairs doing his treatments. I promised him I’d stay till you got home.”
Inez smiled sadly and nodded. “I was going to make enchiladas for dinner. You should join us.”
Kai blinked, convinced at first he hadn’t understood her right. “Join you for dinner?”
“Of course. Martin would love it. And don’t take this the wrong way, but you could use some meat on your bones.”
Kai felt a fierce blush ignite his cheeks and he held his breath as if to stop it. Like he needed another reminder of how shit he was doing on the whole “putting on weight” thing. “I’m vegetarian,” Kai said in a low voice, like that would be his way out.
“I know,” Inez said, pulling things out of the fridge and freezer and stacking them on the counter. “Martin told me.” She grabbed an apron from a hook on the door and pulled it on. “Cheese and spinach will be ready faster, anyway,” she said.
Kai was surprised that she didn’t want to change and felt a little guilty, thinking maybe it was because of him, but he swallowed it down and offered to help her cook instead.
Inez seemed shocked. She muttered something that was either too quiet for Kai to hear or was actually Spanish.
“I like to cook.”
Inez smiled at him. “You’ll make some woman very happy someday. Have you ever made enchiladas before?”
Kai shook his head.
“Well, this is my cheating recipe, for after a long day’s work. You should come over some Sunday and I’ll show you how to make the sauce and tortillas from scratch.”


#


Inez was amazing, and Kai enjoyed cooking with her, even if everything was pretty much pre-made and all he was doing was helping her assemble it like a Mexican lasagna. A layer of store-bought tortillas (on weekends or special occasions she explained she’d make them herself and she’d teach him that, too, if he wanted), some cheese, some of the sauteed spinach she’d whipped up really fast, some of this delicious smelling sauce, then repeat.
“The sauce isn’t too spicy?” Kai said as he ladled it on, following her instruction to be generous so the enchiladas wouldn’t come out dry.
Inez shook her head. “Dr. Taylor doesn’t like Martin eating spicy food. Says it’ll give him heartburn and irritate his lungs. But Martin loves spicy, so he sneaks it sometimes.” Inez smiled fondly, and although Kai was genuinely happy that Martin had such a loving and supportive mother to get him through his illness, it made a pang form in Kai’s stomach. Even if he didn’t remember much about Ann, the little he did, and the few bits of information about her Jon would leak didn’t suggest that he and his mom would have had anything like what Martin and Inez had. The depression Kai had been fighting so hard all day began to push through, and Kai momentarily forgot what he was doing.
Inez said something he didn’t pay enough attention to distinguish, but he assumed she’d asked if he was OK so he answered that way, forcing a smile. “Just tired. Long day.” Not a lie, but as always, not the full truth, either.
“Go sit at the table. I’ll finish this and put it in the oven and make you some tea.”
Kai tried to argue, but his inexperience with mothers showed through because Inez would not budge. So he washed his hands and then sank into one of the chairs, tempted to lean forward and lay his head on the table. But that would probably be rude and he couldn’t promise he wouldn’t fall asleep if he did so.
A few moments later, Inez joined him, carrying two mugs of tea. “Enchiladas are baking. Shouldn’t take long. And the beans are reheating. By the time Martin comes down, we should be ready to eat.”
If Kai could rate his appetite on a scale of ten to negative ten, with the positive numbers being ravenous and the negative how unappealing food was at the current moment, he was at least a negative five. He wondered if he could still figure out a way to get out of this. He wasn’t sure how much he could make himself eat, and with both Martin and Inez watching, it’d be difficult to hide if he only took a couple bites. The thought of that made Kai’s stomach churn uneasily, and he was reminded how exhausted he was. Not physically, but just so tired of constantly fighting himself, trying to act as normal as he could when he was feeling anything but.
Inez said something and Kai had to ask her to repeat herself. “I wanted to thank you for all the time you’ve spent with Martin. It’s meant a lot for him to have an older male role model and to have someone to talk to about . . .” Her smile was pained, but she took a deep breath and continued. “To talk about what he’s going through.”
“Yeah, sometimes I think it would have been easier to have cancer, just because people get that, you know? You don’t need to constantly explain yourself. It sucks, but you’re not alone, right?” Kai took a huge breath. He felt precariously close to losing it, to breaking down, and he wasn’t even sure why. He grit his teeth hard. “Being sick is lonely. In more ways than one. And if I can help Martin with that, even if it’s only a few hours a week?” Kai shrugged.
Inez smiled. She grabbed her purse from the end of the table, pulled out her checkbook, wrote a quick check, tore it out and handed it to him.
Kai stared at it without taking it, confused.
She shook it, insistent.
Finally, Kai accepted it. It had his name on it and a staggering amount. “What . . . what is this?”
“I know you have your own troubles and you don’t need to visit Martin every week. But it means so much to him, and it helps me to know that at least one afternoon he isn’t alone, that if anything happened, you’d be here.” Inez’s calm demeanor broke a little before she recovered.
Wait, was Inez paying him for “babysitting” Martin? The amount worked out to a couple hundred dollars a week. Money Kai could definitely use, but there was no way he could take it. He pushed the check back to her. “I visit Martin because I remember what it was like to be him. To be sick and scared and alone. I appreciate the gesture, but I can’t accept this.”
Inez sighed and fiddled with the check. “I wanted to thank you and I was hoping maybe you’d be willing to stay with him more often in the afternoons. The idea of him spending so much time home alone when he’s so sick . . .” Inez didn’t say it, but her face said everything, a portrait of worry. “And I know you are a busy young man. I thought it was only fair to compensate you for your time.”
Kai pushed against the seat to adjust his body and sit a little more upright. “Inez, if Martin found out I was being paid to spend time with him, he’d be devastated. Nothing either of us could tell him would convince him that I wasn’t spending time with him only because of money. I’m willing to bet most of Martin’s friends have been scared away now that he’s so sick. And if they haven’t yet, they will, because people are--” Kai was about to say something bitter about human nature, but he took a breath and stopped himself. “Illness and death scare people. Especially young people. How many sixteen-year-olds have any real concept of their own mortality? His friends may not be bad kids, but they probably don’t know how to act or what to say around him and it’s easier to just make up excuses and keep their distance.”
“What are you saying?”
“Talk to Martin. If he’s cool with you paying me for my time, then I’ll consider accepting your money. But you need to talk to him. And not just about this. He’s in that sh--” Kai cleared his throat to swallow the swear. “He’s in that crappy place where he’s not a kid anymore but he’s not an adult, either, and yet he’s faced with very adult sh--crap. He needs you, but he also needs you to understand what he wants as he gets sicker.” It was the closest to talking about a DNR or anything like that with Inez that Kai had gotten.
Inez looked like she was about to say something when Martin came thundering in. He obviously was feeling much better after his treatments, his energy level pretty high. “Woah, it’s so serious in here you could cut the tension with a knife.”
Kai pushed against the table so he could lean back in the chair and let out a sigh. “You know me. Debbie Downer.”
Martin glanced between Kai and his mom, Inez abruptly standing up and going to the stove, announcing she was checking on dinner. “DNR?” Martin mouthed, as if asking if Kai had brought it up with Inez.
“Your mom was just wondering if I’d be willing to come over more often on days she has to work late or you’re feeling particularly bad.” Kai noticed Inez had folded up the check and pushed it aside, but it was still there. Martin sat down at the seat across from the check, giving Kai very little chance to get rid of it discretely. Fortunately, there was some mail near it so maybe Martin wouldn’t notice.
“I don’t need a babysitter,” Martin complained.
Inez carried the casserole dish of enchiladas over, setting them in the center of the table. “I didn’t say you did. But I’d worry less about you if I knew you weren’t alone so much. Besides, you like Kai’s company, don’t you?”
Martin was evidently starving despite all the junk he’d packed away earlier, and he grabbed his fork and leaned forward to stab a bite, only for Inez to bat his hand away. She rattled something off in what had to be Spanish, and Martin returned in the same language, his voice petulant sounding, but he sat back down.
Inez smiled and then went back to the stove to fetch the beans, spatting off something at Martin Kai couldn’t understand, probably because it was Spanish again.
Martin groaned but he pushed up and went to the fridge. “Milk or water?” It took Kai a moment to realize Martin was talking to him.
“Milk.”
Kai watched as Martin and Inez made the final preparations for dinner. This was obviously a routine for them, and Kai couldn’t help feeling that pang again. Jealousy or longing, he wasn’t sure which. Kai and Jon rarely ate together, especially dinner, because of their different schedules, and now suddenly Kai was having all these family dinners. The one earlier this week with Vicky, today with Martin and his mom, and Sunday with Frankie’s family. Kai still couldn’t get over how bizarre that was. Frankie? Adopted?
“You’re acting even weirder than normal,” Martin said as he set the glass in front of Kai.
Kai just shrugged and took a sip of milk. Did a quick mindfulness exercise to prepare himself for the food. It smelled good, but honestly Kai had wished he’d made up some excuse for not being able to stay. Though he knew the reason he hadn’t was he didn’t want to be alone. Pathetic.
“When Martin’s feeling good he can eat this whole tray by himself,” Inez said as she used a spatula to cut out a gigantic piece, plating it with the cheese stretching and resisting separating from the whole. “So eat up before he does,” she said, presenting Kai with the plate he had been sure was for Martin.
Kai smiled politely as he stared down at his portion, which was seriously like a third of the tray. His stomach churned uneasily at how gloopy it looked, the green from the sauce and the spinach making it extra unappealing, and Kai had to put all his will into keeping his smile in place. No way he was going to be rude to Inez, even if he wasn’t one-hundred percent sure he could keep from throwing up. Deep breaths, Kai. One bite at a time.
Inez finished serving everyone, scooping the beans onto each plate before she sat down. “The beans aren’t 100% vegetarian. I hope that’s OK.”
Kai smiled and assured her it was, though the reality was that if they tasted too much like bacon or ham, Kai probably wouldn’t be able to eat them either.
Martin was about to dig in when Inez scolded him in Spanish, and he dropped his fork, sighed, and clasped his hands together.
Kai noticed Inez also put her hands together and bowed her head. He always felt awkward when people prayed around him. Maybe going back to those hypocritical missionaries at County House, the type of people who either thought illness and disability was a punishment from God or that God would heal you if you only believed enough. Either message was depressing, disheartening, and made God out to be a total asshole. Which, truthfully, in Kai’s experience, if he existed, he probably was.
Kai’d never been able to understand why people went for religion; even Jon was far more Catholic than he normally freely admitted. But Kai did as the Gomezes and bowed his head, too.
Inez started in English, thanking God for giving Martin a good day and for Kai’s company, and praying that he would give them all as good of health as was part of his plan, and to help them through the darker times.
Kai wondered if he believed that there was a higher power with a “plan” for him if he’d be less depressed, less suicidal, less everything bad, but he had such a hard time believing that he couldn’t even imagine it. Kai had lived a life that was far too cruel and capricious for him to believe there was any “greater plan” to it. The closest he came to a higher power was his genuine belief that certain souls were assigned particular kinds of lives because they were strong enough to endure them, but it felt more like a spiritual natural selection rather than because some god somewhere decided who would be born in what body.
Inez finished the prayer in rapid Spanish that Martin joined in on, and then they both did the sign of the cross and said, “Amen.” The word was barely out of Martin’s mouth when he was spooning more sauce and cheese from the pan onto his beans and devouring his food like he hadn’t eaten in years.
Kai watched him, shocked, partially because he’d never had that good of an appetite. He was honestly surprised he’d grown as big a he had, considering how badly he ate most of his life.
Inez said something in Spanish, maybe encouraging her son to slow down, and Martin reluctantly obeyed again.
That sadness hit Kai again. Most of Kai’s life he’d convinced himself he didn’t need a family, that he was fine without one, but moments like this made him wonder what it would have been like to grow up with a mother who loved him. What would it be like now if he didn’t just have Jon, but a mom who actually cared about him and doted over him the way Inez did with Martin? He’d probably hate it half the time, like Martin pretended to do, but at the same time . . .
“Something wrong?” Inez asked, snapping Kai out of his thoughts. “Is it too spicy?”
Kai shook his head and cut off a piece of enchilada, putting it in his mouth as if to prove how good it was. And it was. It tasted good. Kai knew it, but at the same time, something about the texture of it or the way it sat in his stomach. . . . Maybe he should have insisted Molly start him on the appetite stimulant now rather than later. There was absolutely no way he was going to be able to eat even a fraction of the portion Inez had served him.
Kai forced a smile. “No, no, it’s very good. I just don’t eat that much.” Kai immediately hated himself for saying that. “I mean, not as much as Martin, anyway.”
Martin had polished off almost his entire plate already, and he swallowed a huge mouthful of food while he cast an eye at Kai. Something changed in his face, like maybe he remembered how Kai had puked his guts out last week after barely choking down a few potato chips, and he wiped his mouth and said, “Kai eats like a girl before her wedding.”
Kai glared at him even though he wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.
“Trying to make sure you fit into your wedding dress?” Martin teased as he popped another huge bite into his mouth, grinning like a contented hamster.
Kai tried to hide his smile, but he couldn’t quite manage it. Martin had picked the best possible way to heckle Kai, with an outlandish comment that would distract from the real reason he wasn’t eating. Dammit, Martin was awesome.
Inez murmured something in Spanish, and Martin translated, “She says you look too skinny and you should stay for dinner more often.”
“I don’t eat very much at one time but I will take home what I don’t finish and eat it later.” As if to prove his point, Kai took a generous bite of the beans and smiled to show how much he liked them. They were delicious. Very creamy and definitely not vegetarian.


#


Kai had offered to stay to help clean up, but he seemed so tired and clearly not feeling well that Inez had insisted he go home, carefully packing up his leftovers for him to eat later. Kai evidently hadn’t wanted to be rude, but Martin had been watching him and Kai had only managed maybe six bites total. Kai had reluctantly mentioned that he’d always had a bad stomach and post-transplant it was worse, partially because of the drugs, and Inez had launched into some home remedy she promised would ease his nausea and improve his appetite and assured him she’d drop by the yerberia at her next opportunity and pick something up for him.
I don’t think Kai liked the food,” Inez said as they finished cleaning up. She always insisted Martin didn’t have to help her, especially since he was sick, but honestly, Inez had to work so much now to save up for his transplant fund--she still had hope too--that dinner and the clean up after felt like the only time he had with her. Besides, it felt good to do something so normal, to forget for a few minutes that he was dying. Plus, he liked the idea of his mom having memories of them together that weren’t of him sick or in the hospital for when he was gone.
Martin felt his chest grow tight, but he knew it was emotion and not his FS. He tried not to think about dying as much as possible, because he was scared. Even if Kai had insisted that being scared was normal, he knew he had to be strong for his mom, like Kai was strong for his brother.
Mi’jito, if you’re tired, you can go sit. It’s OK. There’s not too much to clean up since I used ingredients I made in advance.
Martin shook his head and forced a huge smile. Remembered Kai’s advice about acting confident and it would convince people you were no matter what you really felt. “Kai liked the food, Mamí.
Inez frowned as she handed him the casserole dish she’d cooked the enchiladas in for him to dry. “He barely ate. You going to tell me a big young man like that doesn’t eat?
Martin sighed. He remembered last week. “He liked it. He ate it without looking like he was ready to puke it back up again. I think from Kai that’s a compliment.
Inez frowned at him, but she left it at that.
Where should I put this?” Martin asked, holding up the dried dish.
In the oven,” she replied, indicating it with her elbow as she finished the last of the dishes.
Martin nodded, double checked his oxygen tubing wouldn’t get caught and carried it over. As he passed the table, the flutter of air caused something light to be blown off. Once he put the dish away, he bent down to grab it. At first he thought it was some junk, maybe a receipt or a coupon, but then he realized it was a check. “Mamí, I found a check on the floor--” Martin froze as he saw the name on it, and the amount.
Inez’s face was pale and guilty when Martin looked up. “Let me explain--
You’re paying Kai to visit me? Díos mío! Am I really that pathetic?” This entire time he’d thought maybe Kai actually liked him, but of course he didn’t. Kai had his own life, his own problems, and why else would he bother to waste any of his new post-transplant life on a kid who would be dead soon anyway? Martin tore the check into tiny pieces because he was furious at himself for being so fucking naive.
No. No, Martín,” his mom began, saying his name in Spanish, “Mar-TEEN” instead of the English pronunciation he usually went by, “MAR-tin.” “That’s not what happened. Sit down. Dr. Taylor said stress isn’t good for you.
“Why does it matter?” Martin said, switching to English. “I’m going to die anyway. You can tell Kai he doesn’t have to waste anymore of his precious time with me. I’m going to bed.” Martin took off at the closest thing to a run he could manage nowadays, charging up the steps toward his room. Only halfway there he suddenly felt faint, and he sank to one knee, bracing his fall with a hand on the railing and the other on the stair. Breathing hard, his heart racing faster than he ever remembered it beating, struggling not to pass out.
Thundering on the step beside him, and soon Inez was there, helping him sit up, smoothing his hair and whispering in Spanish to breathe, that he’d be OK.
Martin resisted her at first, but finally gave in and let her pull him close. His heart was still beating painfully quick, and every breath felt like his chest was burning. His hands and feet had gone cold and tingly and he knew he wasn’t getting enough oxygen. He needed every muscle in his body to draw in each breath, and before he passed out, Martin wondered if this was what dying felt like.


#


Vicky was watching Jon pace in a furious, tight circle in front of the couch in his office where she sat. She was rubbing her belly, trying not to feel vicariously anxious. “Jon, I think you should take a Xanax. You’ve been off all day and I know you’re worrying about Kai.”
Jon didn’t stop moving, his hand in his hair. “I’m on call for the ER tonight. How can I take something that’ll inhibit my ability to work?”
“Your anxiety is already doing that.”
“Kai was going to kill himself last night. That’s why Renee wouldn’t leave him. And he’s been alone all day. I should have found someone to cover my shift. I should have--”
Vicky stood up and stepped into his path. When Jon tried to walk around her, she held out an arm to stop him, finally pulling him close. She could feel his heart hammering in his chest. “Take a deep breath, OK? Kai is an adult. He is not your son. You’re not responsible for him. You don’t know what was really going on last night. If he says he’ll ask for help if he needs it, you have to trust him. You have to let this toxic worrying go.”
Jon held her tight, resting his head against hers. “My nightmares are so real. . . . When I woke up I really thought for a moment . . .” Jon took a deep breath, held it, and then let it out slowly, clearly trying to calm himself down. “I could always handle it. The worrying. But lately . . .” Jon looked troubled, and a little scared.
Vicky smoothed down his hair, fixing the chaos he’d created during his pacing. “Maybe you should talk to Dr. Miller. Maybe consider something to help with the anxiety, at least until Kai is better and the baby’s here.”
Jon swallowed. Seemed to consider it a moment, then shook his head. “I can’t risk anything screwing with my blood sugar. It’s been hard enough to control lately as it is.” Jon covered his face. He was trembling subtly. “I don’t know why I waited till Saturday to take Kai to Omaha. I should have taken him a month ago. God. I can’t lose him. Not like this.”
Vicky reached for Jon’s phone, pulling it off the belt clip.
“What are you doing?”
“Sending Kai a text. There.”
“What? Why? What did you send?” Jon tried to grab it back, but Vicky kept it out of his grasp.
A moment later, it chirped to signal he had a new message. “I just asked him if he was OK. He says he’s getting there. He’s going to spend the night at Renee’s.” Vicky showed him the phone as if to prove she wasn’t making it up. “See, he’s fine.”
Jon took his phone back, reading and re-reading the message over and over, finally starting to relax a little. “I’m sorry. All this stuff with Kai . . . I think it’s bringing up all my shit with my mom . . . I don’t know.”
“That’s why I think you need to seriously start seeing Dr. Miller regularly. Not just this once in a blue moon crap.”
Jon sighed and looked like he was about to say something when his phone rang. He froze. “It’s the ER. What if something happened to Kai? I mean, anyone could have had his phone--”
“Jon,” Vicky said. “You’re on call, remember?”
“Right,” he said, letting out a breath. Work was good, though. It would let Jon burn off some of his anxiety and let him focus on anything other than Kai. “Dr. Taylor,” he answered at last in his sexy, slightly deeper doctor voice. Something in Jon’s face changed, and he looked shattered for a split moment before he shifted into gear and quickly started barking instructions. “I want a chest x-ray and a full metabolic, and a sputum sample if you can get it. Put him on the biPAP and I’ll be down as soon as I can.” Jon hung up and sighed. “Martin Gomez. He was doing so well, too.”
Great. Of all the cases for Jon to be working on tonight, it had to be the one most like Kai’s. So much for distraction.
“You should go home. Sleep is important for both of you,” Jon said, rubbing her belly. “I’ll be OK.”
Vicky didn’t believe him, but she also knew that by going home she’d give him one less thing to worry about. “I’ll text Kai myself and tell him he can come over if he needs to, OK?”
Jon struggled to smile. They both knew Kai wouldn’t take her up on it, but maybe he’d appreciate the gesture. He kissed her, just a quick peck. “Thank you for letting me be my real, frazzled self with you. The neurotic guy I can’t let Kai know I really am.”
Vicky smiled at how adorable Jon looked in this moment, smoothed his hair one last time. “You’re not neurotic. You’re quirky. And I love quirky. Now get down there and help Martin feel better.”


#


Jon stood outside the curtained cubicle where Martin and Inez were for a lot longer than he normally would. He’d seen Martin’s X-ray and his test results, and he didn’t want to go in and give them any more bad news. But, as Jo had told him once during a crisis of confidence, if he’d wanted nothing but happiness and easy cases he never would have gone into critical care, and he definitely wouldn’t have chosen to specialize in treating kids and teens.
Jon pushed the curtain aside and walked through. Martin sat upright in the bed, the biPAP mask strapped to his head and the monitor leads sticking out of the top of his T-shirt. His eyes were closed and Inez was holding his hand and reading softly to him in Spanish from her bible. From here, Jon could see Martin’s saturation was much better with the machine, and his heart had calmed, though his heart rate was still a lot higher than Jon would have liked.
Neither Gomez seemed to notice him, so he cleared his throat and tried to smile. “Hey, Martin. Feeling better?”
Martin opened his eyes slowly. He reached up as if to take off the mask, but his mother stopped him.
“Let’s leave that on a little longer, OK?” Jon pulled a pad of paper and a pen from his white coat pockets and offered them to Martin.
A few minutes later, Martin flashed a note. I’m OK. Went up steps too fast. Mamí worries too much.
“That definitely didn’t help,” Jon said. “I got your x-ray back.” Jon pulled the film out, double-checked he had the orientation correct with a glance, then clipped it to the light box on the wall and turned it on. “The good news is your aspergillosis is still under control. No signs of inflammation or further scarring, and you don’t have pneumonia, either. Which, with the immune suppression, is a relief.” Jon took a breath. His worry for Kai kept creeping in on the edges and he was having trouble concentrating. He cleared his throat. “Have you had any swelling in your feet or ankles?”
Martin shook his head, but it wasn’t clear whether he didn’t understand exactly what Jon meant, or if he was responding in the negative.
Like some women get when they’re pregnant. Has Martin had anything like that?” Jon asked Inez in Spanish.
She shook her head. “I don’t think so.
“Mind if I see your feet?”
Martin shrugged, but Jon didn’t miss the worry in his eyes. Maybe Jon wasn’t doing a good enough job of keeping stoic.
Inez helped Jon remove Martin’s shoes and socks and roll up his pants.
It was subtle, but Martin was so skinny that even a little edema was obvious.
Shit, Jon thought. “I’m just going to press on your skin in a few places. It shouldn’t hurt, but let me know if it does, OK?” Jon held one of Martin’s legs with one hand and used the other to press the swollen part of the bridge of his foot. As Jon had feared, the indentation lingered rather than the skin immediately springing back to normal. “Perfect, thanks,” Jon said, regulating his breathing as he lowered Martin’s pants legs again.
But Inez knew something was wrong. “What aren’t you telling us?
Let me finish my exam first,” Jon said, taking a moment to listen to Martin’s heart and lungs, check his pulses and fingernails, everything which cemented what he already knew. He just had to be very careful in how he phrased what he said next, because he wasn’t a cardiologist. “You understand the lungs and the heart work together, like a team, right? So if one isn’t pulling its weight the other one has to work even harder to keep up.”
Martin pushed himself up a little, wrote something quick on the pad. I want off this machine. Now.
“I don’t recommend it,” Jon said, but he took a few minutes to get Martin off the biPAP and on a high-flow oxygen mask instead.
Martin’s sats dropped, and his heart rate began climbing back up. His breathing was rapid, but he seemed determined to be able to speak. He lifted the mask just enough to say, “My heart’s quitting, too, isn’t it?”
“You’ll need to see a cardiologist, and I’ll refer you to one I’ve worked with before. But you are showing some signs of congestive heart failure.” Jon took a breath. “But we’ve caught it early, and it’s manageable. There’s medication you can take to help strengthen and regulate your heartbeat, for example.”
Martin looked like he was desperately trying to remain strong and confident even though it was obvious he wasn’t taking the news well. Inez was already crying. “So . . . so this means I can’t get on the transplant list, ever?”
“No. You can still be eligible for a transplant. But you’d probably need both a heart and lungs, and . . .” Jon reluctantly admitted, “the wait for those can be very long.”
“And I don’t have that long,” Martin said tightly.
“That’s not for me to say. We’ll admit you to the cardiac unit and I’ll get you a cardiology consult tonight. They’ll be able to diagnose you and--”
“No. I feel better.” But Martin was gasping in between his words. “I just want to go home and go to school tomorrow like I was supposed to.” Martin had to put the mask back on and sucked in the air greedily. No matter what he said, he was not better.
Jon rushed to his side, listening again to his lungs. Fuck. He had fluid in them. Jon knew heart failure in patients like Martin could come on suddenly, but he still felt like it was his fault, like he’d missed something. “Breathe. Slow and deep.”
Martin had lost most of his fight as he put all his energy into breathing. Inez held his hand tightly, looking worried but knowing she needed to let Jon work.
Jon took his stethoscope off and slung it around his neck. “I know you want to go to school, but if you go home, I’m not sure you can keep breathing on your own.” It was more honest than he might have been with another patient, but he’d watched Martin grow up. He was a smart kid who deserved honesty. “Your heart isn’t pumping well and it’s making fluid backup into your lungs. You’ll be OK if we can keep you overnight and give you medicine to eliminate some of the fluid and strengthen your heartbeat. But if you go home, there’s a good chance you’ll die. I’m not trying to scare you,” Jon said, switching to Spanish and making eye contact with Inez. “I’m working all night and I will check on you every chance I can. I promise. And I promise as soon as the cardiologist and I determine it’s safe, we’ll send you home.” Jon picked up the biPAP mask.
Martin was struggling, his shoulders working, gripping the sheets tightly with his other hand and squirming in that way that only someone who couldn’t get enough air did. He nodded.
Jon quickly replaced the oxygen mask with the biPAP mask, adjusting the settings so that Martin wouldn’t have to work to breathe but it would still be comfortable. Jon suspected Martin would need the help of the machine until morning, and if his heart was really failing, he might need it at home every night. But Jon didn’t want to scare Martin or Inez any more than they already were, not without talking to the cardiologist first. Nevertheless, it was possible that Martin might need a tracheostomy sooner than Jon had anticipated, which meant his time was rapidly running out.


#


Diane was curled up on the couch, doing some rough sketches for her next assignment, frustrated that nothing she seemed to come up with felt right. The doorbell rang, and she rose, shaking her head, figuring it must be Renee. Between her heavy load of classes and worrying about Kai, Renee was pretty frazzled, and sometimes she forgot her key. How she managed to do that and still drive her car Diane hadn’t quite figured out.
But when Diane pulled the door open, she was surprised to see not her roomie but Kai. Sitting in his wheelchair, a grocery sack in his lap, looking tired and sad. Diane stood there for a moment, the cold air seeping in, not saying anything. This was the first time Diane had really faced Kai since Renee had told her everything. Time to put her acting and lying abilities to work.
Something had happened last night. Something major, because Renee had called pretty late to let Diane know she wasn’t coming home, that she had to stay with Kai. She wouldn’t elaborate more than that over the phone, but based on what Renee had told her about Kai, and the worry etched into her friend’s words, Diane knew it was something serious.
Diane finally found her voice, beckoning Kai in out of the frigid evening. “Renee’s not home from work yet.”
Kai’s face shifted, and he looked a little like a lost puppy. “Oh.” It took him a long while to figure out what to say next. “I brought her dinner. Uh, I guess I’ll put this in the fridge and leave you alone then.” Kai smiled, and it seemed genuine enough, but his eyes were too tired, too sad, that they betrayed him.
Diane held out a hand for the bag.
Kai handed it over, misinterpreting the gesture. “Oh. Yeah, you’re probably busy. Tell Re I stopped by I guess.” He forced the smile to broaden and started to turn to leave.
Diane sighed. “She’ll be home any minute. Of course you can wait for her.”
Kai’s eyebrows twitched, but he finally nodded and started to strip off his scarf and gloves and coat.
Diane waited, then decided to put the food in the fridge. She noticed a few moments later the subtle creak of Kai’s chair followed her. “Can I get you anything?” Diane asked as she grabbed a soda before she shut the refrigerator door.
“What?” Kai asked like he’d spaced out and hadn’t heard her.
Diane waved the soda.
“Oh. No. Thanks.” Now that Kai was out of the cold, he seemed very pale, but like he was also sweating, and Diane prayed he wasn’t going to have one of those panic attacks Renee had told her about. She would have no idea how to react, especially since she was supposed to not know about them. Diane hoped Renee would get home soon.
“OK, well . . .” Diane gestured with her thumb toward the living room. “Guess I’ll get back to work.”
Kai nodded slowly. “Do you think Re would mind if I waited for her in her room?”
Diane was sure that despite his attempts to act casual enough, there was something going on with Kai tonight. Probably connected to whatever had prompted Renee to stay with him the night before. But she had to pretend she was the ignorant artsy friend, so she just shrugged. “I don’t see why not. I’ll let her know when she gets home.”


#


Kai was sitting on Renee’s bed, his knees tucked to his chest, hugging them tight and staring straight ahead toward the doorway when Renee finally entered. His eyes were red-rimmed and he was shaking. His wheelchair was parked nearby, and he’d taken off his shoes and laid them on top of it. Despite how upset he clearly was, he smiled when he saw her. “I brought you dinner. It’s in the fridge. Martin’s mom made it but I helped.”
Renee smiled sweetly as she approached. “Art fed me, but I’ll eat it tomorrow.” She climbed onto the bed so she was sitting across from him, her thigh near his feet, her legs hanging off the side of the mattress. “You OK?
Kai shook his head without hesitating. “Jon’s working late and David’s still out of town. I don't think I should be alone.” He took in a huge breath. “My heart’s beating so fast, but I’m afraid to take my Xanax. I’m in such a bad place,” Kai signed with one hand, and she was shocked she was able to understand him.
It’s OK. You’ll be OK.” Renee crawled so she was sitting beside him and she wrapped her arms around him, hugging him tight. Then she kissed his cheek.
He was breathing rapid and shallow, but she was glad that he’d come to her instead of trying to deal with his on his own, which she knew he would have in the past.
Did something happen today?
Kai shook his head. “The bad thoughts are just so intense . . . I can feel them. Physically. It’s hard to breathe.”
Renee frowned and gestured she was going to crawl behind him so she wouldn’t startle him. Then she walked on her knees until she was in position behind his back, and she began to gently massage his shoulders, neck, and scalp. Just a light touch to reassure and calm him. Every few minutes she’d kiss the top of his head, or his cheek, or his neck. Gradually, his breathing slowed and evened out, and his posture slackened. She kept up her ministrations a while longer, then shifted to his side so he could see her. “Do you want to spend the night?”
Kai hesitated. “It may not be safe,” he said in a way that suggested he did want to, but was worried what might happen.
“I was fine last night. It’ll be OK.”
Kai shook his head. “Too much I could hurt myself with here,” he said in a voice so quiet she barely heard it.
Oh.
Kai started shaking harder. “I tried to be OK today, and I was some of the time, but the moment I’m alone it all comes back . . .” Kai bit his lip like he was trying hard to keep it together.
“Did you take your medicine already?”
Kai nodded. “Except my sleeping pill and my Xanax.”
“Take the sleeping pill and sleep with me tonight. I’ll keep you safe. I won’t leave you.”
Kai looked at her, his eyes full of hope, brimming with tears that were a breath away from spilling over. “You’ll lie down with me until I fall asleep?”
Of course.” Renee kissed him, cradled his face for a long moment, her forehead resting against his. “I won’t let anything bad happen to you.
Kai cracked a teary smile. “I’m supposed to be the one telling you that.”
Us. Together. Remember? Helping each other. Always.” Renee stared into his eyes to emphasize her sincerity. “That’s what love means.
Kai nodded enthusiastically. “I don’t want to need anyone, but I need you.
Renee smiled and smoothed his hair. “I need you too. No shame in that.
Renee helped Kai take his pill and climb under the covers. She had a lot of work to do, but she set her alarm for extra early instead. She was tired, and holding Kai until he fell asleep seemed like the most important thing in the world right now. She hated how much Kai was hurting, but she loved that he’d come to her for help. She knew how much trust that took on his part, how much he worried she wouldn’t love him if he showed her too much of what he saw as weakness. She just had to continue to prove to him that she loved him unconditionally, and she was in this with him for the long haul.

#########

4 comments:

  1. Fantastic and powerful episode!

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  2. So many things are going on. It makes it all so exiting...I hope there will be a new chapter next week.

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  3. What will happen to Martin? I don't have a food felling somehow. I think it will be another sad thing that Kai and Jon will experience sooner or later.
    great writing as usual

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  4. I hope there'll be an update today.
    Love your story.

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