February 9, 2001 - Part II
Kai’s interpreters were waiting for him outside the classroom. They were both in their forties, white, with bland brown hair and green eyes. Not twins, but both average enough that most people wouldn’t notice either of them or be able to recall one over the other. They were both in all black, dark slacks and cardigan combos that made them look like school teachers ready for a funeral.
Kai gave himself a good straight push, and on the glide he signaled to them and introduced himself quickly. “You’re my interpreters?”
They both looked surprised by the chair but quickly recovered and introduced themselves frustratingly as Cheryl and Sheryl. At least their sign names were different. Sheryl’s was an “S” twisted near her cheeks, maybe for dimples; Cheryl’s was a pun on the sign for communicate.
Kai wasn’t in the mood for chit chat, but he couldn’t come off as rude or his interpreters wouldn’t care about him and they’d do a shit job. And psych was going to be a challenging interpreting gig. Especially since he really wanted them to help him figure out who was talking by giving a brief description of some kind, so he had to put on his best fake smile and make conversation like he was any other Deaf guy instead of someone who’d lived in the hearing world long enough he’d prefer to get straight to the point and be done with it.
When Steve entered, Kai was sitting in his wheelchair in his usual spot, but he had two older women dressed in black with him. One sat beside him and the other across from him, and the three of them were signing to each other. Ah, so he’d finally sucked up his pride and gotten intepreters for class. Good for him.
Steve tapped Kai’s shoulder to get his attention. She noticed he flinched but quickly straightened his spine as if recovering. It wasn’t the first time he’d reacted that way, but she decided it was none of her business. It couldn’t be easy not hearing someone coming, and maybe that’s all it was.
Kai turned to see her and offered her a smile, but he seemed . . . tired wasn’t quite the right word for it. Off, somehow. “Hey,” he said with a wave of his hand, and the woman across from him voiced it. “Meet my interpreters. Uh . . .” Again, the woman voiced, including a verbal signal for Kai’s hesitation. Kai signed something and pointed to each of them, then shrugged, and the interpreters chuckled a bit and then voiced, “This one’s Sheryl with an S and this one’s Cheryl with a C, I think. Their English names are almost the same. It confuses me.”
It was strange having Kai sitting beside her and yet having him talk through the interpreter when he’d always spoken to her directly. Maybe it was impolite not to use the interpreters, but it put her off a bit.
Kai had shifted his chair a little so he could see his interpreter but also catch Steve in his field of vision, and he signed while the interpreter voiced, “Sorry. I know it’s weird, but I lost my voice.”
Steve knew she should look at Kai when he signed, even though he was mostly looking at his interpreter, but she couldn’t help looking at the interpreter, too. Partially because that’s where the voice was coming from, but partially because she’d never seen an interpreter before, not counting the ASL class when Megan had voiced for Kai.
“You’re welcome to watch my interpreter during class. You might learn a lot, because you’ll hear the English and see the signs, so you won’t have as much guesswork.”
Steve nodded. She really wanted to tell Kai that he could just sign directly to her, but she knew that if she were honest with herself she wouldn’t understand him, not if he wanted to have a college-level conversation with her, anyway. Yes, she knew the alphabet, and yes she’d been picking up signs as fast as she could. She’d even managed a very simple convo with him and his brother at the pool the other day, but even then Jon had ended up interpreting for Kai more often than not when Steve slipped into English.
Kai went back to talking to his interpreters and she felt a little left out. It was stupid and silly, but even though she’d only known Kai a couple weeks, she’d come to enjoy their little pre-class conversations. She wanted to know if he’d had a chance to read any of the comics she’d lent him, or if he’d given any more thought to the Blue Blur.
Instead, she pulled out her notebook and got ready for class. She was going to have to get used to the distraction of the two women working beside her, and she could already hear the whispers of curious and irritated students that Kai clearly couldn’t and his interpreters were either ignoring or just not interpreting. Though Kai was observant enough that he frowned subtly even though that was the only indication he had any clue about his classmates.
A few minutes later, Patrias came in, and Kai took a sec to “introduce” his interpreters, not in the same way he had to Steve but just letting him know he’d be using them for class from now on. Patrias of course was fine with it, and wished Kai luck and then moved to the head of the class to get started.
“So today we’re going to spend about half the period talking about conditioning,” Patrias said, and watching the interpreters and Kai--Steve couldn’t help it--she noticed Kai didn’t seem to understand the spelled English word that Steve read as conditioning only because she had just heard the English. Maybe Kai was right and seeing and hearing the two languages would help her improve her signing skills.
The interpreter then launched into an explanation, or at least that’s what Steve assumed she was doing, since Patrias was still talking but the signs didn’t line up. Something fingerspelled that ended in a “V” and something about a dog? Oh. The interpreter was probably explaining the English term in a way for Kai to understand it. In the little time they’d spent together, Steve had noticed that the big psych terms got lost in Kai’s brain. He knew the concepts, but when you just gave him the term by itself, Kai couldn't always immediately connect the concept to the word. On one hand, it seemed a little unfair. Almost “cheating” for the interpreter to explain the term Kai was supposed to know like this, but then how else would she take a word that probably didn’t have a sign and help Kai understand it? It had to be like learning a word in another language and needing a good English description in order to really understand what that word meant just on sight. And then again, that wasn’t too far from the truth, right? English was Kai’s second language.
“Steve. Mind telling me what we’re going to be doing today?”
Steve blinked and realized she’d totally zoned out. Maybe Kai’s interpreters would be more distracting than she’d thought.
Kai glanced at her but didn’t say anything.
Patrias wasn’t one of those teachers who liked to skewer his students, though. He felt like it was your education, and if you weren’t going to value it, it wasn’t his responsibility to humiliate you into doing so. “I realize that having working interpreters in the room is a change and a little distracting, but I promise you will habituate to them soon, and it will be like they’re not even there after a few days.” Habituation was another term they’d learned in this chapter.
“Sorry,” Steve mumbled.
Patrias continued. “So, as I was saying, first we’re going to talk about conditioning, then we’re going to spend the rest of the class working on your presentation ideas--and remember, I want them to be personal to you somehow. But first thing’s first. What is conditioning? Can anyone tell me?” No one immediately volunteered. Many were still watching as Kai’s interpreter finished conveying what Patrias had said. “Don’t give me the rote definition from your book, either.”
After a moment, one of the girls who always sat in the back corner. Pearl, or Jewel, or some other silly name like that, raised her hand. “You basically take a stimulus that didn’t normally cause a reaction in the subject and associate it with something that creates an innate biological response so that you eventually get the reaction with the neutral stimulus without needing the original biological one.”
Patrias nodded in a way that said she was right but he didn’t exactly like her explanation. “The important thing here is we take a normal response system, like a dog salivating when he’s presented with food, and trigger that natural salivation response via something that would normally not cause the dog to react. Pavlov noticed that the dogs in his experiment began to salivate as soon as they saw the people who fed them and not just at the sight of food. Does everyone understand that concept?” Patrias seemed to pause a little longer than normal to give Kai’s interpreter a chance to finish, then gave Kai a look. When Kai nodded, Patrias smiled. “All right. If everyone has a firm understanding of classical conditioning, let’s discuss. I want a few examples of classical conditioning. Preferably not ones straight from the book. I want you to think and show me you really get this concept, because it’s one of the fundamentals of psychology.”
Patrias went around the room and dissected some of the proffered examples. Finally, Kai raised his hand, and through his interpreter, said, “Would PTSD count as a form of conditioning?”
Patrias looked pleased, and he nodded for a long moment like he was considering this. “You could definitely make an argument that conditioning happens and that leads to part of the disorder we call post traumatic stress.” Patrias thought some more. “A woman may not respond much to the smell of roses, but if she was attacked in a rose garden, the scent of roses could stimulate her fight or flight response, her heart beating faster, her breathing increasing, etc. Interesting point to bring up. Though it’s important to note that we usually think of conditioning happening over a period of time, rather than something that occurs after a single event.”
Kai seemed pleased with himself, and Steve had picked up that Kai didn’t have much confidence in his scholarly abilities, but maybe a lot of that had to do with having to learn in his second language. Steve suspected she would never really know what went inside that blond head of his, and his mysteriousness was part of what made him so intriguing. The Blue Blur definitely needed some of that.
Using the interpreters, especially having them speak for him, definitely boosted Kai’s confidence. He never would have been able to bring up PTSD during their discussion if he’d been speaking for himself. Maybe it was the fact that he felt so comfortable in ASL that he didn’t have the complex about speaking in front of the group. That second-guessing he always had about whether he had the words right and if he was going to pronounce them correctly, say them in the proper word order, all of which gave him the chance to doubt himself in more ways than one. He was so hesitant to talk about anything even tangentially related to his mental illness and past because he was convinced that people would somehow figure him out, would see through his skin into his tainted soul. It’s one reason he’d dropped writing. He could learn to deal with Pelto. He’d had bullies like her before, when he was in high school. But it was the fact that anything he wrote would have too much of him in it, and he was only just getting comfortable sharing some of that with Renee, let alone a group of strangers. One reason he still hadn’t made it to that support group he’d promised Re he’d go to.
Using the interpreters had helped enormously during the discussion; sure, he missed things since he turned his hearing aids off so he could focus better, but he also was more engaged than ever, and he found, like with his learning theory class, he retained the information better. It helped with his mood, too. He still wasn’t OK, but he felt like maybe he could do this if he tried hard enough.
Steve seemed irritated by the interpreters, almost jealous, as crazy as that was, and had reluctantly moved to the other side of the table so she could sit next to his working interpreter while they discussed their presentation. This way Kai could see them both easily.
“Improve your sign language and we can cut out the middleman,” Kai teased her when he caught the look she cast the interpreter as Steve adjusted her chair.
Steve rolled her eyes, covered one hand so the interpreter and teacher couldn’t see, and flashed him her middle finger.
Kai and the other interpreter, whose job was to assist the one who was actively working, both laughed. “OK. Fine,” Kai said in English. “I’ll continue to watch her interpretation of what you say. Why? It’s more easy for me.” Kai’s brows crinkled. His voice was still hoarse but apparently worked well enough, but he wasn’t sure if he’d gotten that English right. He decided not to worry about it. If Steve wanted English, she’d have to take what she could get. “But I’ll talk if you want.” Kai didn’t miss the look his working interpreter cast toward her colleague. Maybe wondering why he was speaking now, or curious as to how he spoke so well. Whatever it was, it was fleeting and Kai decided to ignore it.
“So have you given any thought to your topic? You were stumped last time we talked.”
Kai nodded his head and fist, then caught himself and repeated his answer in English, though he found himself signing anyway. “Yes.”
“So . . .?”
Steve’s eyebrows went up. “Well, aren’t you all cheer and smiles. You’ll have to narrow it down.”
Kai sighed and pushed against the seat of his chair to shift his weight and recline back a little. On second thought, if he was speaking anyway, he’d prefer to talk to Steve directly. The day might come when he’d find he needed to suck it up and use an interpreter more often, but right now he had a choice. He signed to the interpreter, “I think I would actually prefer to do this one-on-one with her. So you guys can take a break if you want.”
The working interpreter gave him another strange look but then shrugged. “Sure. We’ll be back in five just in case you need us.” Then she got up and they left the room.
Reluctantly, Kai reached up and turned on his hearing aids, the swell of all his classmates talking to one another filling his ears in a strange cacophony. “With all these people talking at once it’s going to be hard for me to understand you.”
Steve nodded, but she seemed pleased. “Of course.”
Kai’s nose twitched. He was starting to feel restless. One reason he’d dismissed the interpreters, because his ability to stay focused, even on ASL, was diminishing. “Do you want . . .” Kai struggled to come up with the word he was looking for, signing it a few times in a couple different ways, both of which meant “leave” or “take off,” but he just couldn’t find the English word. Like the other day with Dr. V, when he’d done the association games. He tried to see if he could find the written English word, but even that wasn’t helping him. Kai sighed heavily. Tried signing each a few more times. Finally, he tried again, a different way. He signed it first, “Do you want to skip class with me?” And then, even though he wasn’t supposed to translate, he did. “You want skip class you me go?”
Steve seemed to be studying him. He knew his English had been terrible, and maybe she was working out what he meant. “Play hooky?” She chuckled.
Kai nodded. “I’m just done,” he said, signing “FINISH” with one hand in a way that signalled just that. It was kind of halfway between “LEAVE” and “FINISH,” really.
Steve’s lip curled. “Like, all afternoon?”
Kai shrugged. “I need a break,” Kai said, speaking slowly to pry the English out of his uncooperative brain. “We can . . . discuss the presentation and the Blue Blur.”
Steve actually jumped up a little in excitement. “Sweet. Sure.”
Kai noticed her look over his shoulder and he turned his head to see his interpreters stroll back in, talking to each other in English. A little rude, in his opinion, but he’d given them a break so he wasn’t going to be too critical. He shifted his chair so he was facing them more and signaled them. “Hey, can you interpret for me with the teacher? I know I gave you a break but I need to ask him something.”
They nodded and one followed him up to Patrias’s desk, where he was making some notes. Kai’s stomach tangled in on itself and he wasn’t even sure why. He could rely on his signing, after all, and what did he have to lose? “Dr. Patrias?”
Patrias looked up toward the interpreter at first, then turned his gaze to Kai. “Everything OK?”
Kai swallowed. “I know we’re required to present to the class, but I . . . I don’t do very well with English in big groups. Is there any way I could maybe have someone else actually present for me? I mean, I’d definitely do all the actual research and everything myself, but . . .” Kai took a huge breath since it felt like he hadn’t breathed in minutes.
Patrias glanced up at the interpreter for a moment, then looked at Kai pointedly. “I’m afraid that wouldn’t be fair to the other students. However, if you wanted to sign your presentation and have an interpreter voice for you, I would definitely not be opposed to that. It’s your right as a student with a hearing and speech disability.”
Kai sighed heavily. The idea of presenting on a topic that might be sensitive to him scared him, even if it was in ASL. But it was suck it up or fail the class. Kai’s heart was beating way too fast and he was doing all that he could to keep his breathing even. He nodded reluctantly.
Patrias wasn’t a bad man, though. He’d been more than understanding with Kai last semester. “If you really feel it’ll be a problem, I’d be willing to let you present just to me. But I think you should push yourself. OK?” Patrias smiled encouragingly to him, winked, then stood up abruptly and clapped his hands to get the class’s attention. “Class is almost up. If you feel confident you have your presentation idea set, you’re free to go. Otherwise, you can stay and use the rest of the time to brainstorm.”
Kai waited until his interpreter had finished, and then he asked, “This question is for you--the interpreter--what’s the English for this sign?” He showed the two signs he’d been struggling with earlier.
She mimicked him, mouthing the word on her lips clearly for him to read. “Leave. Take off. Go. Depends on the situation.”
“Leave?” Kai confirmed, fingerspelling it then signing it again. He rolled his eyes. “Yes. Thanks. Brain fart. I’ll see you guys Monday. I’m sorry if I’m . . . spacey. I get distracted really, really easily and my memory is bad.”
She smiled and nodded, signed something that basically meant, “It’s no big deal,” then indicated she’d see him next week.
Kai let out a huge breath. He was feeling those strange paradoxical emotions, where half of him wanted to go home and crawl under the covers for the rest of the day and the other wanted to race Steve down the hallway. Half wanted to never eat anything else ever if he could help it, and the other wanted a giant chocolate peanut butter milkshake.
Kai pushed back to Steve, who was packing up her bag. She looked up at him curiously, obviously wondering what he’d needed to talk to Patrias about.
“No . . . uh, I forget how you called it?” Kai shrugged. “He says I have to present myself. But I can sign if I want.”
“Sorry,” Steve said, using one of the few signs she knew.
Kai’s back was to Patrias as he made another announcement, and it pleased and surprised him how one of the interpreters immediately got in his view and began interpreting, “Remember, I want your topic ideas on Monday. Try to make sure it’s not too broad and that it’s something that resonates with you for some reason. Either it’s a field you’re interested in learning more about, or it’s a reason you got into psych. Whatever it is, I don’t just want a topic you picked because it’s ‘easy.’ I will be meeting with all of you for a few minutes to discuss your topic, and I will ask you to explain why you picked it. In psych, we can’t be lazy. So if you aren’t going to put in 100% effort, then I don’t want you in my class.”
That made Kai a little nervous, but he was feeling shockingly optimistic that talking it over with Steve would help boost his confidence. And even if he had to present himself, if he could do it one-on-one with Patrias, it wouldn’t be so bad. Kai took a huge breath because he felt like he was drowning. God, maybe he was kidding himself this semester. Maybe he should just go to Omaha and lock himself up there for the next couple months. Damn, that was a depressing thought.
Steve touched Kai’s shoulder, which made him flinch and his stomach clench up, but he forced himself to relax. “You OK?”
Kai smiled. “Of course. Let’s get out of here?”
Steve seemed to understand that even if she eyed him in a way that suggested she didn’t believe him. Dammit, his ability to hide his emotions was getting worse and worse.
Kai thanked his interpreters and started gathering his stuff when he noticed a girl stop on the other side of the table from him. He looked up. She was one of those unassuming, dime-a-dozen bottle blondes with modest breasts she plumped up with magic to give her cleavage she didn’t really have. The kind of girl who got what she wanted because she turned most men’s minds to jelly. She actually reminded him of his first girlfriend, Diane, if he could even use the word to describe what they'd had. Despite that, girls like this weren't really Kai’s type. He prefered stronger women, brunettes, obviously curly hair, and right now he was not in the mood to be bothered.
“Hi,” she said, her voice high enough it made the hearing aids do that tech, forcing her voice to come out slurred and hard to understand, so he watched her lips.
Kai raised his eyebrows as his only outward response. His cock had woken up at the mere suggestion of sex.
She shifted her weight, leaning forward a little, obviously trying to flirt with him in her over-the-top way that irritated him and yet he was so fucking sex deprived lately his body refused to yield, threatening to cloud logical thought. He didn’t know her, didn’t want to know her, but not talking consequences, he'd fuck her right here if he had the chance. But logically, he knew that was a bad idea for a million reasons. He just needed to get off campus before the bats in his belfry broke loose and swarmed somewhere. “I didn’t know you were hearing impaired,” she said, stroking the tabletop in what was obviously meant to be a sensual way.
Kai’s eyes dropped to watch her fingers, his mouth watering reflexively, his tongue sweeping over his lips. But he forced himself to focus, to give her an unimpressed look. He didn’t think it was worth correcting her on terminology. Instead he gave her a tight smile and turned to shove his books back in his bag as a wordless way of saying the conversation was over.
But she didn’t get the clue, or she was just that persistent, and she kept talking. He couldn’t make sense of it without looking at her, so he turned back around, frowned fleetingly, and said, “I can’t understand you if I’m not looking at you.”
“Oh,” she said, and she blushed. Perched on the desk edge now, practically batting her eyes at him. “Of course.”
Kai was panting and sex was almost all he could think about, picturing tearing off her clothes, sucking each nipple, and slamming her hard on his cock until he finally came, sweaty and relaxed. He blinked. Tried to think of Renee and how he didn't want to hurt her, but that just made the sex fantasy in his head include her. Kai shifted his weight, trying to find a more comfortable position, but his cock was straining painfully against his zipper, and he wanted nothing more than to reach into his pants and stroke himself until he came.
She giggled, which sounded horrendous with his hearing aid’s tech, and then she said, “You talk so well, though. I mean, you don’t sound hearing impaired at all.”
Kai was so blinded by his little brain he couldn't even be angry.
Steve stepped up beside him and rattled off something, though. Her voice was a little deeper, but he still couldn’t be 100% sure of what she said since he wasn’t looking at her.
Whatever she’d said, blondie got bright red, looked to Kai for help, then seemed to realize he hadn’t caught what Steve had said and just muttered something Kai couldn’t make out before stomping off.
Kai was ashamed how his immediate emotion was anger, like he was a hungry tiger about to pounce on his dinner only for Steve to chase it away, but his lust fog began to clear and his irritation turned to gratitude. Before this little interaction, Kai would never have imagined he'd cheat on Renee. Now, as chickenshit as it sounded, Kai wasn't entirely sure he could stop himself if the situation arose. And that scared him on more than one level. “What just happened?”
Steve rolled her eyes and sunk into the seat beside him, but sideways so they were facing each other. “Other than the fact that you looked ready to jump that bitch like she was in heat?” Steve frowned. Was she jealous? “I couldn't let her get away with talking to you like that. When she said you didn’t sound deaf I may have told her she didn’t look stupid but appearances can be deceiving. Though in fairness, she does look stupid.”
Kai was irritated that Steve had felt she needed to speak for Kai, but he was glad she’d been there to pull him out of the fire. Under other circumstances, he probably would have said something similar.
“She called me a bitch, though, as if I’d take that as an insult from someone like her.” Something in Steve’s face changed. “I’m surprised you were willing to give me a chance, considering I complimented your speech first time we met.”
Kai genuinely didn’t remember. “You did?”
Steve laughed. “Yep. I think that's how I brought up Aaron.”
Kai vaguely recalled that conversation. “Learning to speak, especially well, was really difficult for me. You seemed to recognize that. I guess because of your cousin. People like that girl . . . they make me feel . . .” Kai growled as his English seemed to fail him. “They make me feel like a performing freak. Like a monkey who's been taught a trick. Remind me how the hearing world measures intelligence by the quality of your speech.”
Steve stared at him blankly. “Really wish your freaky interpreter clones were here right now. I got something about feelings, and there was a monkey in there somewhere? Either that or your sides are itching.”
Kai laughed. Steve was unlike anyone he'd ever met. She disarmed him and cheered him up in such an effortless way that he couldn't help feeling comfortable with her. Not that he was ready to share any of his dark secrets, but she was one of the only people Kai didn't constantly worry about losing because he'd been too honest. Too himself. It was unnerving and freeing at the same time.
Kai had insisted they go somewhere off campus, and since he’d eaten breakfast, he didn’t feel so bad about skipping lunch. And Steve apparently lived on coffee, because when she joined him in their quiet back corner of the Chipped Mug, she was carrying the largest to-go cup for a hot beverage Kai had ever seen. His eyebrows shot up. “My heartrate just jumped 50 beats just looking at that. Jesus.”
Steve glanced at her coffee and shrugged before sitting in the seat across from Kai. “That’s really all you’re going to have?” she asked, indicating Kai’s juice. She’d apparently bought a sandwich, too, and was already opening it greedily.
Kai ignored her. “So you have your presentation all figured out, huh? How’d you narrow it down?”
Steve said something when she wasn’t looking at him and he couldn’t be 100% sure of what it was.
“You know that’s rude, right? Do you do that to Aaron, too? ‘Forget it, I’ll tell you later’?” Ugh, Kai was suddenly viscerally angry, and although he hated being dismissed for not understanding, it shouldn’t have made him quite this mad, not at Steve. Maybe the fact that he'd given himself five minutes in the bathroom trying to relieve his sexual frustration and all he'd managed to do was make himself harder and more frustrated than before. He focused on taking deep breaths to try to reign in his emotions.
Steve looked at him blankly, then surprised, then hurt, then confused. “I meant nevermind because it wasn’t important to what we were talking about. Sorry.” And she seemed genuinely sorry. For a moment there, Kai recognized her expression--it was one that conveyed the kind of fear he usually had with people. That he’d say or do the wrong thing and they’d leave him.
Kai’s heart was doing its weird fluttery thing that meant if he wasn’t careful he’d have a panic attack, so he took a few more deep breaths. “Let’s just start over, OK?”
Steve seemed uncharacteristically nervous. She gave up on her sandwich and fiddled with her coffee cup. “I have no tact, remember? Especially when I get nervous. And you make me nervous sometimes, because I like you, and . . .” Her cheeks pinked. “I mean, not I like you like you, just as a friend, but I don’t really have a lot of friends because people think I’m too weird and I say the wrong things and I just generally fuck everything up somehow. And you’re cool and funny and hot and I can’t believe you even talk to me.” Her face was beet red now.
Kai pushed against the sofa cushion he’d transferred to so he could sit a little more upright and studied her for a minute. “First of all, God bless my new hearing aids or I wouldn’t have caught any of that.” As it was, he’d mostly gotten the gist of it and plugged in the rest based on her body language and what she had to be saying. “And second, why does everyone seem to think I’m so cool?”
Steve picked up her sandwich and then frowned at it and tossed it aside. “Tell me why we couldn’t go to the Cattle Baron again?”
Kai had simply said he didn’t want to go there, but now he sighed. “Because I’m probably banned? I . . . sorta got into a fight with this other guy there a few days ago.”
“Holy shit,” Steve said, suddenly excited and much more “Steve” again, sitting forward in her seat. Kai was convinced even with the lid her drink was going to slosh hot coffee all over her, but it thankfully didn’t. “I knew I picked the right guy to write the Blue Blur with me. Tell me everything.”
Kai sighed and rolled his eyes. “There’s nothing to tell.”
“Come on!” Steve demanded. “You said there was no way the Blue Blur could fight, and you did.”
“Even with my bad memory I know that’s not what I said. I said your wheelchair designs were crap, and you had to take into consideration his limitations.”
“And you wonder why people think you’re cool. Who gets into a fight at a restaurant?”
“Someone with anger management and self control issues?” Kai blurted. Then he sighed. “Or a member of a biker gang. I can’t ride a motorcycle though, so guess that just means I’m fucked up.” Kai was joking, and yet he could feel his dark mood wanting to pull over him like a cloak, and he had to use all his will to fight it.
Clearly not picking up on the darkness hovering over Kai, Steve continued excitedly, “So I sat in on a wheelchair basketball game the other day. They play in the University gym sometimes. I went because you said my ‘wheelchair designs were crap’ and for some inspiration.”
Kai raised his eyebrow but said nothing.
“Those guys are intense! It’s like hockey, with all the checking and guys falling over and getting back up, and I’d never seen a wheelchair like that before. I started thinking, what if the Blue Blur’s chair was like one of those?” Steve set her coffee down and pulled her sketchbook out of her bag, flipping a few pages and then handing it over so Kai could see some of her new designs. Definitely inspired by a basketball chair with the canted wheels, but they still had her own style and interpretation.
“Yeah, those chairs are designed for agility, but they’re not practical for everyday use. Anyone who’s a serious para athlete will have a wheelchair for every sport, more or less. Racing, basketball, whatever. Then the one they use all the time. And even then they might have more than one, if they can afford it.”
“So it’s almost like he needs to be Batman and have a different chair for different things?” Steve said as she took her sketchbook back and started making some notes.
Kai rolled his eyes. “No, he needs a chair that could . . . I don’t know, transform or something. I doubt the bad guy is going to take a timeout so the Blue Blur can go back to his car or house and get his other wheelchair.” Kai frowned.
“Oh my God, that’s brilliant. I love that idea!”
Kai sighed. He hadn’t been serious, but Steve was running with it anyway. “So describe to me how you fought this guy the other day. So I can figure out how I’d draw it.”
Kai rolled his eyes again and shook his head. “I was standing. And I was under the impression the Blue Blur couldn’t.”
“Couldn’t . . . ?”
Steve didn’t respond right away because she was frantically scribbling notes. “Uh, well, I hadn’t thought about that. I mean, you’re the only one I know who can stand but also uses a wheelchair.” She looked a little pale for a moment. “I didn’t mean that in a bad way.”
Kai felt himself relaxing again, though. “Well, I’m not the only one. But what’s his deal anyway? You need to figure out if he’s in that chair because he was born that way or because he got hit by a bus. It’ll be a very different story depending on what you decide.”
“I don’t follow.”
Kai sighed, tried to figure out the best way to explain this. He glanced at the couch that was aligned perpendicular to the ones both he and Steve were sitting on, the armrests just touching. “Go sit right there,” he said, pointing. “Just do it,” he said when she gave him a perplexed look.
Of course, Steve stood up, walked the short distance, and collapsed where Kai had indicated, looking at him like he was crazy.
“OK. Now scoot over.” Transfers like these were harder on Kai since his infection; starving himself didn’t help, but he tried not to think about that. He took a deep breath, carefully planted his hands and pushed to shift his butt to the edge of the couch cushion as far as he could go without falling off. He took a minute to adjust his legs, then stretched out for the opposite couch. It would have been easier to transfer back to his wheelchair, push closer to the new couch, then transfer again, but he was trying to make a point. Another deep breath, and then Kai pulled with one hand and pushed with the other to lever his body toward the edge of the other sofa, leaving one hand in place on that couch and pushing off with the other couch to help get himself seated. He let out a breath, partly of relief that he hadn’t bumped his still-bruised leg and put one hand behind him and one in front, near his knees, pushing to get his body back and settled in, shifted a little so he could see her, leaning against the space where the armrest met the cushion. He adjusted his legs, carefully lifting one and angling it into just the right position so it wouldn’t ache, and set his ankle on his opposite knee.
Steve mimicked his position, whether it was consciously or not, he wasn’t sure. “I’m guessing playing musical chairs was part of your point?”
Kai nodded. “For people like me and Aaron, what you just did a few minutes ago is completely foreign to us. I’ve never been able to just stand up and walk, not without help. This Blue Blur is going to be a very different person if he was once like you and now he’s not, or if he was born that way and it’s normal for him. Get it?”
Steve didn’t say anything right away, uncharacteristically, as if she were considering what he’d said. “I never even thought about it.”
Kai gave her a knowing look and shrugged.
“What do you think? About the Blue Blur? You’re the writer, after all,” she said, half serious and half teasing.
When Steve had first told him her idea, he’d mostly thought it was ridiculous. But seeing her passion about the project made him start to see it, too. “There’s this kid I knew growing up that I actually just ran into again recently. He has CP that mostly affects his legs. Goofy, nerdy, serious kid. I think it’d be interesting if the Blue Blur had that kind of Clark Kent/Superman duality. So I picture him a little like this kid I know, the kind of person most people will take one look at and automatically dismiss because he’s clumsy and awkward on his crutches. He has a speech impediment and he’s spent years working to improve it but no one notices that. All they see and hear is the defect. But the reality is he’s actually very capable, strong, smart, etc. Maybe he created the Blue Blur because he was tired of being the joke, of being dismissed because of his disability and for once he wanted to show people that it makes him different but it doesn’t make him less.” Kai bit his lip. This was dangerously close to his own truth, but he took a leap anyway. “My whole life people have judged me because of how I walk or talk. Just one look or a brief interaction and they’ve decided what I can and can’t do. I’m sure it happens to Aaron, too. It would be great to use the Blue Blur to make people think just a few seconds more about people like us, about anyone who’s not ‘normal’ in some way.” Kai smiled. “Maybe a sort of inside joke in the comic could even be that the Lois Lane type character sticks up for him when other people crack jokes about him or whatever and they say, ‘You’re right. He could be a superhero.’”
Kai and Steve brainstormed for a while, including a name for the Blue Blur--Barry Butler, something innocuous and easy to make fun of. Kai had wanted Alec, but Steve insisted they do the double “B” to match with his superhero name. Besides, who could think anyone named Barry could be a superhero? (Though of course Steve had to point out that The Flash’s real name was Barry, a superhero Kai had never heard of before, and one that Steve insisted he had to add to his “must read pile.”)
Now that Kai had gotten sucked into this whole Blue Blur thing, though, he could have spent all afternoon working on it, but he needed to come up with a topic for psych, so he redirected them.
“You really want to tackle suicide? Or did you just say that earlier to get me to shut up?”
It was Kai’s chance to back out. Did he really want to talk about something so personal? Even if he approached it in an academic way, it was something he’d battled for a huge chunk of his life, and from what he understood, his mother had as well. Jon had implied that Ann might have taken her life if the accident hadn’t claimed it first. Kai shrugged, slipping into the safety of non-committal.
Steve rolled her eyes. “I’m going to get another cup of coffee while you mull that over. Can I get you anything while I’m up?”
Kai had eaten a little breakfast and had a bottle of juice. Nowhere near the amount of calories he was supposed to, even if Molly had told him not to think like that. “Uh, yeah.” Kai pulled out his wallet to take out some money, and he saw the suicide contract and it reminded him of how totally insane he was to have even considered it as a topic for his presentation. He cleared his throat and handed her a $20 bill. “Herbal tea and a muffin. I’m not particular, but I can’t drink caffeine.”
Steve looked like she was about to tease him, but something made her change her mind. Instead, she took his money and nodded, heading off toward the front register.
Kai let out a long breath. What would Steve think if she knew he’d spent time in a mental hospital? That his weekend plans involved visiting another one? That he’d tried to keep as busy as he possibly could over the past couple days just to stay out of his head?
What felt like only seconds later, Steve returned with their order. “Oh my God. The new barista is hot. He’s much sexier than the chick working when we first got here.”
Kai’s eyebrows shot up. He glanced toward the front, but he couldn’t see much since he and Steve were tucked in the back of the coffee shop. The barista was some college-aged guy with dark hair, and that’s about all Kai could see, especially since his back was to them most of the time as he worked. “I thought you said you were a lesbian.”
Steve rolled her eyes as she blew on her coffee. “I said I had a girlfriend. I’m like a four on the Kinsey scale.”
Kai rubbed the space between his eyes. Maybe it was all the brainstorming earlier, but he felt like he’d used up a lot of his good brain power. “I don’t understand.”
“You know, Alfred Kinsey? The sexologist? I’m doing my presentation on a condensed version of his sexual attraction scale.”
“I think my English is failing me because I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Kai sipped his tea. It was really good. Something he’d never had before. It almost tasted like black tea with vanilla, and he actually checked the tag on the bag to make sure it wasn’t. Nope. Dandelion leaf, apparently. He made a mental note to look for it, then realized that was pointless because he’d remember he wanted to buy a new variety of tea but not what kind it was.
Steve sighed heavily, clearly frustrated. “Kinsey was this guy who came up with this radical new view of human sexuality. Back then people thought you were either normal (straight) or you weren’t. Then he came along and proposed that things were more complicated than that, and he devised a scale of one to six, with one meaning completely straight, three meaning completely bi, and six being totally gay. He believed most people were somewhere between two and five, with very few people being a one or a six. So four means I prefer women, but I like guys, too.”
Kai just nodded and became suddenly fascinated by his tea. His heart had begun a rapid rhythm and he felt flushed, his chest tight. He was not going to have a panic attack. He wouldn’t fucking allow it. "Beautiful little shit." Kai shook his head, suddenly nauseous. His hands were getting tingly, and he felt himself floating. Ghostly fingers traced their way around his cheek to his neck and over his back, so light that in another context it may have tickled. But instead they made Kai’s stomach contract and a chill of fear race up his spine. No. Please. Kai felt himself wanting to fight, to escape, to break free. He was half caught in the real world of sitting in a coffeeshop with a friend and half in a hazy, dark room. He was trapped and terrified and his heart was slamming, throwing itself against his chest as if it would flee on its own, without him. Kai clutched his tea harder, his breathing little ragged puffs. Pain. Searing pain that made his vision go white. Heaviness. Memories strained, pressed against his will to contain them, desperate to surface.
No. No, he wouldn’t let it happen. Not here, not in front of Steve.
The lid of my tea says, Caution, hot. A deep, raspy voice blows in my ear, “You will never mean anything to anyone.” Alcohol stings my nostrils. No. NO! I smell coffee. Coffee. Some of it’s been burnt, but mostly it smells heavenly. Makes me want to taste some. I take a sip of tea and taste that. A hint of vanilla under the honey. “No one gives a shit about you.” No. Renee loves me. Jon loves me. David loves me. The cup is warm in my palm. I can hear Steve talking, but I can’t process it. “Retarded little fuck.” My shoulders ache. Something heavy presses against my wrists. No. No. I’m here. I’m here at the Chipped Mug--I see the logo over the coffee bar--with Steve. She’s looking at me like I’m a fucking nutcase, because I am. I’m nauseous. I want to cry. I want to curl up and die. Deep breaths. I’m here. I’m here in 2001 and Steve is helping me with my psych project. She doesn’t know what happened to me. She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know.
Kai felt himself “snap back into place.” His breathing slowed and so did his heart. The pins-and-needles in his hands subsided, and he didn’t feel disconnected. No harsh words echoed in his head. Memories kept trying to push through, but he focused all his energy on the present and managed to avoid disaster.
“You OK?” Steve asked, looking concerned.
No. No he wasn’t fucking OK. Stop trembling. You’re safe. You’re safe. You’re safe. No one can hurt you anymore. You’d kick their fucking ass first. Kai took a huge breath. “I’m fine,” Kai managed to say. “I drank the tea too fast. It was very hot.”
Steve eyed him. She clearly didn’t buy his bullshit answer, but she decided not to push. “We can do this later if you’re not up to it.”
He wasn’t. He felt drained even though he’d staved off the full panic attack, and what he really wanted to do was curl up with his fox and sleep. Although the reality was he was afraid of what nightmares might come if he did. God, he was tired. “I’m fine,” Kai repeated, managing a weak smile.
Steve hesitated, and Kai could tell by her body language that she wanted to ask what was really going on, or something like that. She even opened her mouth to speak.
But Kai held up a hand. “If it’s not about our project, I don’t want to talk about it.” Kai’s tone and face suggested that it wasn’t up for debate.
Steve almost looked wounded for a moment, but then she nodded.
“I’m fine. Really.” This time Kai’s smile was much more believable. Renee might not have bought it, but anyone else would. He straightened his shoulders and regulated his breathing. He still felt knotted inside, but outwardly he did his best to seem fine. If he could lie well enough to Steve, he could lie to himself. Or at least that was the theory he’d banked the last tweleve years of his life on. “Tell me about this Kinsey?” Kai said the name with each syllable distinct, like “Kin See,” since he wasn’t 100% sure he’d read her lips right earlier.
Reluctantly, Steve settled back into her seat and continued. “Kinsey,” she repeated, over articulating a little to make her lips easier to read. Probably something she did with her cousin all the time. “Kinsey’s work is one of the reasons I wanted to go into psychology. Growing up was so confusing for me, since I had a crush on the captain of the swim team, Kip Young, and the debate team, Karlee Michaelsson. Anyway, reading some of his stuff and the psychologists who came after him made me realize I wasn’t a freak. Well. I am a freak, but you know what I mean, right?”
Kai smiled and nodded. He was much more of a freak than anyone knew. He shivered, forced his mind not to yank him away from the present by trying a nibble of muffin. Focusing on the texture of it, trying to pick out each flavor. Cinnamon. Raisins. No. Apples. Ginger, maybe? It was tasty. Breathe. Chew. Focus. He took another bite, then a sip of tea.
“Anyway, enough about me. Why did you decide to take psych this semester?”
“Because I had to drop it last semester?” Kai took another bite of his muffin, but then it seemed to sink in his stomach like it was made out of lead and he turned his lip up at the rest of it and set it aside. Oh well. He’d tried.
“Your girlfriend must have a lot of patience. I’m trying to help you find a topic. Why did you take psych?”
Kai shrugged. He could feel his low mood sitting on his shoulders, like it was just waiting to catch him off guard and seize him. He had the sudden urge to pull his legs up to his chest, turn off his hearing aids, and bury his face in his knees, praying he’d somehow figure out how to disappear in the process.
Steve’s demeanor changed. “If you don’t turn in a topic, a real topic, on Monday, Patrias will dock your grade.”
So what? Kai wanted to say. Why did it matter? Why did anything he did matter? He was going to end up back in the hospital one way or another and miss the rest of the semester and have to start all fucking over again. Again. If it wasn’t one thing it was always another in his life, and maybe that was part of why suicide was so alluring. The idea of finally ending the brutal cycle of having a little taste of normalcy only for it to be interrupted by illness in some form. Nausea swarmed him and he suddenly wished he hadn’t bothered with any of the tea or muffin, however little it was. See, this was why he didn’t eat.
Steve frowned, and she studied him for a moment in that way she had, like she was trying to figure him out. Maybe she would make a good shrink someday. “I know we don’t know each other very well, but I hope maybe we’re becoming friends and friends are there for each other, you know? So if you ever need someone to talk to, not that guys are usually into that kind of thing or anything. . . . See, totally rambling, saying the wrong thing like usual.” She smiled painfully.
But it made Kai feel a little better. He felt a kinship with Steve. Maybe because they were both awkward freaks in their own way. Maybe because he also knew what it felt like to fear you were saying the wrong things and that those close to you would leave because of it. One reason Kai could be so stoically silent. Hard to say the wrong thing if you don’t say anything, right? Dr. Miller would have a field day with that.
Kai was quiet for a while longer though, picking at the seam of his jeans just to give his fingers something to do. “Why are you helping me?”
Steve looked at him strangely. “Because we’re study buddies.” A hesitation. “And friends?”
It would be so much easier if Kai could just tell Steve that she was wasting her time, that Kai wasn’t worth it, that he might go to Omaha and not come back for a month or more. Because yes, Kai thought part of the reason Dr. Miller and Jon were encouraging Kai so much about this visit to Harbinger was as a way to convince him to commit himself again. Kai’s sinuses began to burn, and there was no fucking way he was crying on Steve’s shoulder. The only people who he’d ever really let see what a mess he was were Jon, David, and Renee. And Dr. Miller of course. Too big a list already.
Kai was still figuring out how to make a joke out of all this, convince Steve he was just a slacker and didn’t care about school, when his phone started ringing. He could hear it pretty well with his hearing aids, even though it was in the pouch under the seat of his wheelchair and not on his person. “Uh,” Kai said as he reached for it. He frowned when he saw Martin’s name on the caller ID. “I need to get this. Hello? Hold on a sec.” Kai set the phone down and fiddled with the plug, searching for it with his fingers until it finally was seated. “Sorry about that. What’s up?”
There was a long pause and a noise, and for a moment Kai thought he must have the connection between his hearing aid and the phone loose, but a few seconds later, Martin’s voice came through clear enough. “Hey. Kai.” He sounded off, but Kai checked the connections anyway. “Uh. I know it’s not your normal day and I don’t know if I can pay you for your time but I really . . .” Some mic noise. “Could you come over? I mean, if you have class and stuff that’s fine. I get it.” Martin was definitely not OK. He was trying to act tough enough over the phone, but Kai had done enough fake bravado to recognize it. Also, he hadn’t missed that Martin was pissed about the check. But Kai could deal with that later.
“Sure. Uh, I’m not wearing my braces. I’ll have to go home and change. But I’ll drop by as soon as I can, all right?”
“Can you come now?” His voice sounded thick. Holy fuck, was Martin crying? Had something happened? He sounded as if he were breathing well enough, but over the phone it was difficult for Kai to tell other than the fact that his speech wasn’t halting.
Kai had never tried to go over to Martin’s in his chair. But he could make it work. Even if the doors were too narrow, he could always transfer to the floor, partially disassemble his chair, put it through the door, drag his ass through, then reassemble his chair and transfer back into it. “OK. I’ll come as I am. I’ll be there in five minutes.” Kai hung up, genuinely worried, all of his own selfish problems momentarily put on hold.
Steve was looking up at him, clearly wondering what the call was all about.
“Uh, there’s this kid I mentor. Kind of like a Big Brothers/Big Sisters thing. That was him. I need to go. Thanks for your help. I’ll think about what you said, about why I took psych and figure something out. Maybe I can email you about it over the weekend? I’ll be out of town.”
“Sure. . . . But let me get this straight. You go to school, you volunteer teach that ASL class, and you mentor a kid?”
Kai was busy packing his bag and it took him a minute to work out what she’d said. “Uh, yeah?”
“And you’re an education major, right?”
“Just thinking about it. I’m still undeclared. Why?” Kai tossed the muffin in his bag. Maybe he’d try to eat some more of it later.
“I don’t think you picked psych because you were so interested in it, like me. And I don’t mean that as a bad thing. I think you want to help people. I mean, I saw you with Aaron and the other kids. That’s really awesome. Maybe think about that and it’ll help you find your topic.”
Kai offered her a grateful smile, even if he didn’t feel nearly as selfless as she was making him out to be. “Thanks again. I’ll see you Monday.”
Continue to February 9, 2001 - Part III ------>