January 27, 2001 - Part II
Kai and David had barely made it a few steps when a rail-thin, goofy-looking guy with thick glasses and a creepy mustache flagged them down, rushing up excitedly. The problem with having such distinctive red hair was it was nearly impossible for David to go far in the Deaf community without someone recognizing him.
"Holy shit," the man signed with emphasis. "Do my eyes deceive me, or are the Siamese twins reunited?" Growing up, it wasn't uncommon for people to refer to him and Kai collectively as "the twins" or with hand shapes showing two people conjoined at the hip. It wasn't malicious, and it was true that they'd rarely been apart, but it irritated David, especially now.
David could see, in his peripheral vision, that Kai was barely shielding his anxiety from the other man. Shifting his weight in a way that would probably go unnoticed because of his disability, but which David knew had nothing to do with his MLS and everything to do with wanting this interruption to be over. David's suspicions were confirmed by observing how Kai's gaze kept scanning the room, an unconscious habit that drove David crazy. Fortunately, the interloper didn't seem to notice.
And now David remembered him. Peter. He demonstrated the man's namesign, which was a "P" on the forehead that then twisted as if to mimic the sign for "misunderstand." The man had gone to school with them, originally a grade above them but had been held back since he wasn't exactly the sharpest tack in the box. David had never criticized him. After all, he'd gone to kindergarten three times himself, although in fairness, the first time was at a hearing school, and the second he was learning his first language.
"Hate that namesign, but what can you do?" Peter shrugged and grinned, showing off his crooked teeth. "So it's really you, Kai? Damn, you grew! Makes David look like a shrimp!" He punctuated everything with a laugh, as if he were greatly amused by everything he said.
David folded his arms tightly on his chest and stared hard at Peter. He knew he was short. He knew Kai was tall. But the fucker didn't have to rub it in. Even if Kai had always been tiny, and David had always been so much bigger, partially because he was older and had hit puberty young.
Peter didn't get the hint, asking Kai question after question, interrupting the assault only to interject with long, rambling stories of his own “exciting” job as sorting manager at the post office. To Kai’s credit, he stayed polite, though he began to fidget more and more.
Peter was halfway through a story involving someone who tried to mail a live chicken that got loose in the sorting room when David felt Kai pinch him.
David broke eye contact with Peter--an exceptionally rude thing to do--and met Kai’s gaze. Kai was breathing rapidly and shallowly, his pupils wide despite the bright room, and fear and pleading hovered in his irises. David nodded, turned back to Peter and said, “I need a beer. We’ll catch up later?”
Even as dense as Peter was, he was taken aback by David’s blatant rudeness, but then he seemed to realize David was offering to “hang out” later, so he brightened. “Awesome,” he said with a thumb’s up David barely saw as he helped Kai toward the tables surrounding the bar area.
Even though David did his best to play interference and had managed to extract them from Peter, the man hovered near the entrance to inform everyone that the twins had reunited, and dozens of people approached for a very-much-unwanted hug and hello. It was Kai's first real Deaf event in ages--his chair had helped him hide at the Halloween party and Thanksgiving had only involved a handful of people--and Kai's height and limping walk didn't exactly make him inconspicuous.
It shocked him how much he had been missed by the community. Some of the women he'd known as a child even cried as they greeted him, relieved to see the rumors were true and he really was alive.
It didn’t change how he flinched with every touch, or how his heart beat louder and faster with each person who crowded around him. Kai gripped David’s forearm so tight he knew he had to be leaving bruises, but it was all he could do to keep from panicking. Not that the panic attacks ever followed logic, but a remote part of Kai’s brain found it funny that his greatest fear was being abandoned and yet being surrounded by people who apparently cared about him, who were affected by his “death’ was pushing him rapidly toward a second attack.
Finally, David was able to literally drag Kai away. Forcefully enough Kai nearly stumbled over his own stubborn feet, but David gripped him tightly and wouldn’t let him fall. He pushed Kai down into a chair in a dim corner of the bar area that reeked of stale cigarette smoke even though smoking had been banned in the bowling alley years ago.
The table was shrouded in shadow, a weak overhead light serving to pierce the gloom. But it was the perfect place for David to have stuck Kai. Not only was it out of the way, but Deafies tended to flock to brightly lit areas because it was hard to have a signed conversation if you couldn’t see each other. But it didn’t help Kai’s anxiety, and he’d begun to shake visibly.
David sat down in front of Kai, shielding his friend further from the rest of the patrons with his body. What Kai could see of David’s face was serious, visibly irritated. Kai knew David was probably annoyed with how the Deafies had assaulted Kai regardless of how much he clearly didn’t want to be touched, yet Kai’s poisonous brain filled his mind with doubt that only served to fuel his growing panic. David was sick of him. David had wasted the last two months babysitting Kai, turning down jobs and social engagements, and now David finally had the a chance to get out and have fun and Kai was just dragging him down again.
David’s face softened, focused entirely on Kai, any irritation gone, and gently laid a hand on Kai’s chest. The other gripped Kai’s hand tightly. Never breaking eye contact despite the poor lighting, David pressed against Kai’s chest, pushing air out of his own mouth as a visual cue for Kai to breathe out. Then he relaxed, breathing in and encouraging Kai to do the same. It was difficult for Kai to follow him. His eyes wanted to scan the shadows--shadows were dangerous--and his breaths wanted to come rapid and shallow. But Kai forced himself to focus, mindfulness-style, on only his friend. Slowly, Kai’s breathing began to regulate, and as it did, his heart slowed and the trembling ebbed. Even several minutes after, David continued to guide Kai’s breathing until he was apparently certain he’d postponed Kai’s panic.
Kai felt calmer, but his stomach swirled. “I'm going to throw up.”
“You haven’t eaten anything,” David said, but he was already helping Kai back to his feet.
Kai pulled away. “I can go to the bathroom myself,” Kai insisted, signing with one hand.
David seemed doubtful, but he released Kai. “If you’re not back in ten minutes, I’m coming after you.”
Kai didn’t have the strength to argue. He had to put all his focus into two things: walking the twenty feet to the men’s restroom without his crutches or David’s help, and keeping the meager contents of his stomach firmly in place until he got there.
The good thing about needing to focus so hard on both these things was it moderated his blooming anxiety. It helped that Kai was able to follow the back wall all the way to the bathrooms, giving him some support, though he tried not to think about how many germs he was picking up, or that he should be wearing a mask, or that he shouldn’t even fucking be here. OK. Maybe not such a good job at damping down the anxiety.
Kai managed to stagger into the men’s room without tripping, sweating profusely and deeply regretting not having at least one crutch for reassurance. The bathroom was disgusting. Old and dingy. Filthy and reeking of piss. The smell overwhelmed Kai and he barely made it to one of the sinks before he finally lost the battle with his stomach and hurled. Thank God it was too early in the social and no one was in here trying to sneak a private conversation, though how anyone could tolerate this place more than the thirty seconds it took to piss was beyond Kai. His stomach spasmed again, and even though he'd had little more than some tea and water, he threw up again. Nasty, acidic, sticky yellow bile.
Kai’s vision swam as dizziness swarmed him, and he reluctantly put both hands on the counter to stabilize himself. His heart was beating way too fast in his chest, and Kai was pretty sure he was going to pass out.
David checked his phone again. Kai had been gone more than ten minutes. As much as David didn't want to be the “warden” Kai had accused him of being yesterday, he was growing concerned. Kai thought David didn’t know that he was still cutting, because he didn’t harm himself in obvious places, like his stomach or arms, but David had noticed how the scars on Kai’s thighs had blossomed over the last two months. And even though Jon kept everything dangerous--medicines, knives, chemicals--locked in the safe--David knew Kai. He wouldn’t put it past his friend to have some blade or something else hidden somewhere, because even if David couldn’t personally understand, he could see it in Kai’s eyes. Had seen it all their lives. The depth of pain that Kai was desperate to find any relief from, even if it meant hurting himself to do it.
David pocketed his phone and abandoned the ginger ale he’d ordered for Kai and headed toward the restroom. It was just as nasty as David remembered, although they had made some effort to clean it. The smell of vomit wafted up above the urine and bleach. David started to head for the stalls when he saw Kai slumped against the wall near the sinks, mostly held up by his braces.
Kai’s eyes were closed, his mouth open, panting, and sweat clung to his face. When David touched him, his skin was clammy. David felt for Kai’s pulse. Very, very fast. But the fact that Kai wasn’t flinching from David meant this wasn’t from panic. David had learned enough over the past couple months to know what the signs of extremely low blood pressure were. He tapped Kai's face.
It took a moment, but Kai’s eyes finally opened. Slowly at first, then suddenly, as if in panic, clearly disoriented. But David kept his hands on Kai in a way that was stabilizing and not overpowering. Kai could pull away, but David wouldn’t let him fall.
Kai finally seemed to come to, putting both his hands on David’s shoulders and using them to help settle himself properly on his feet. He still seemed dizzy, but once he was stable, he lifted one hand, holding it tight to his chest to make it easier for David to see since they were still standing very close together. “I need to drink.” Kai didn’t bother to bring his hand all the way up to his mouth, but David understood. Kai needed to boost his electrolytes and fluids. Gatorade or juice.
David nodded. “I’ll help you. Come on.”
David and Kai were sitting together in the dim back corner of the bar area again. He’d rescued Kai after he’d passed out--or nearly so, Kai wasn't really sure--in the bathroom, and forced Kai to drink several glasses of juice and eat a couple packages of peanut butter crackers.
The truth was, Kai felt like he needed a shower and a long nap, and despite the welcome he’d gotten when he’d first arrived, seeing the bustling bowling alley (the social was in full swing now) made Kai want to disappear. But he did feel better. Relatively. He nodded.
David dug around in Kai's bag, which Kai would have normally considered a huge invasion of privacy--Kai’s backpack was his life pack, a holdover from County House, when he’d been used to keeping everything that was important, including emergency medicines, with him all the time. But David and Kai had practically no boundaries with each other, especially after the last few weeks.
David pulled out the small pouch that held Kai’s wrist blood pressure cuff, put it on Kai, pushing Kai’s arm into place over his heart and hitting the button. David said nothing, but his face warned Kai that if the reading was still low, they were going to the ER, no argument.
Fortunately, Kai’s pressure was only slightly lower than his normally low reading, so David packed the meter away and told Kai they’d stay a little longer and then he’d take Kai home.
Kai shook his head. “No. I need to stay. I need to stop feeling like I'm your baby brother. I start school in two days. I should be able to handle things on my own.” “Should” being the key word here.
“Stop. You have done amazing, OK? You held it together even though a couple dozen Deafies were hugging you and talking to you and you wanted to freak out. Give yourself credit.”
Kai took a deep breath. Nodded. David was right. The truth was, his anxiety had faded to a low hum, and though the allure of a hot shower and a long nap still appealed, the relief of not being on the precipice of panic was almost pleasurable. “Do you want to bowl? You deserve to have some fun. I'll watch.”
“Have I ever left you out before?” David asked, referring to Kai sidelining himself. It was true. From the moment they’d first met on that fateful afternoon, Kai wheezing and teary, David had immediately accepted Kai’s disability. He’d never let it come between them. Like Kai, David adapted to it almost as seamlessly as if Kai’s disability were completely normal, and if a situation came up that Kai couldn’t adjust to, David would stick with this friend rather than leave him behind.
Once, when Kai was eight, because of rain, they’d had recess inside, in the gym. The boys had started to play tag, which Kai couldn’t participate in since he couldn’t run. Kai was used to being sidelined for physical games because of his disability and breathing problems. But David, thinking fast, had spied a couple stacks of chairs in one corner. He’d waited until the supervising teacher wasn’t looking, taken the chairs off their flat dolleys, and sat on one, encouraging Kai to sit on the other. Then he’d invented a new game, a kind of bumper cars, in which they used their hands on the floor to push themselves backwards, facing each other, then barreled toward one another as fast as they could. The point of the game was to knock the other boy off his “car,” and then the next boy would take his place, challenging the winner. There were so many kids inside that gym that day, and only a couple teachers--all Deaf--so that they didn’t get caught until recess was nearly over. One of the girls complained about the blood on the floor (from smushed fingers and road rash). David had gotten detention for a month (and Kai, too, since he wouldn’t let his friend take the fall for something David had done for him) and were also on lockdown at County House for twice as long, but it had been worth it. Kai had returned to that game often in his daydreams while he was in the hospital, or later, when he was alone in his aunt’s house, scared and missing David terribly.
“How am I supposed to bowl?” Kai asked with a laugh, surprising himself. The only sport other than swimming Kai had ever really attempted was wheelchair basketball. Kai presumed there was probably such a thing as wheelchair bowling, but he had left his chair at home.
David took a final swig of his beer. Shrugged. Then grinned. “Want to try?”
Kai laughed. That was something David had said more than once to Kai growing up whenever Kai said he couldn't do something. Normally, Kai was right, but usually he and David had had a blast trying anyway.
The shoes David had rented didn’t fit, so he’d left Kai behind in the lane while he went back to get another pair. He hadn’t even attempted to suggest Kai switch shoes. Kai trusted the pair he always wore with his braces. Not only did they fit well even with the footplates, but they had sturdy rubber soles that gripped the floor just right and helped him keep his balance. So Kai spent the time watching the other bowlers, studying their movements and trying to work out how in hell he could mimic anything remotely close to the complicated dance that involved throwing the ball down the alley.
Feet together. Then a small step forward with the dominant leg while the non-dominant leg went back an equal distance. Then the legs switched, knees bent as the bowler stepped forward. Switch, switch, switch. Bending farther, legs stretching longer with each stride, pushing off against the floor to aid the power of the swing. Fuck. There was no way Kai could do that. Even if he didn’t have to keep his left leg bent. He didn’t have the coordination. Or the balance. Not to mention he couldn’t push off the floor like that. His braces helped him pick up his feet, and that was it. Damn David and his insistence on not leaving Kai out. The best Kai could probably hope for would be to walk up and pray he didn’t slip on the slick-looking floor, and mimic the upper body movements while standing still. It’d probably mean he’d suck, but it was the best he could do.
A few people waved at him and smiled. Offered to get him a beer or something to eat, seeing he was without David and knowing it wasn’t easy for him to get around. Under other circumstances, it may have pissed Kai off, but David had been right. These people were his family, and he didn’t feel coddled. He felt like he was cared for. They weren’t offering to help him because they thought he couldn’t handle things on his own, but rather because that’s what you do for people you care about. Wasn’t that why David had stuck by him all these years?
“These shoes stink. Do they stink as bad to you as they do to me?” David asked, his lip curled, waving the hideous shoes toward Kai’s face before sinking into the seat beside him.
“They do stink.” Kai watched David put the shoes on, feeling bummed. He didn’t want to just sit here and watch David bowl. He tapped his friend’s arm, waiting for him to look up.
“I don’t know how, but I want to try,” Kai said. “Bowling. I’m afraid I’ll fall. Help me?”
“Of course,” David said, a huge grin peeling across his face. His, “we’re about to get into trouble, and I’m psyched,” face Kai recognized so well from their childhood.
It made Kai laugh. Something he hadn’t done much in the last few months. And even if his stomach was tying itself in knots about how much of a fool of himself he was probably about to make, he felt good. And excited. He felt alive for the first time in a very long time.
Jon was surprised to find the lights on in the apartment, but there was no sign of Kai or David anywhere. Worry immediately flared. Especially after their fight, after handing over the tape, memories of the morning of Kai’s birth, of finding his mother lying in a pool of blood of her own making, the stench of it heavy in the air . . .
Jon dropped his briefcase and tore off his coat. “Kai?”
“In here,” his brother called from somewhere that sounded vaguely like the living room.
Jon rushed over. He saw Kai’s wheelchair, but not his brother. Even though Kai had sounded fine when he’d responded, Jon couldn’t forget Thanksgiving night, when he’d woken with Kai missing only to find him filthy and hiding in terror under his bed, trapped in a flashback, his palms bloody from holding onto the metal bedframe so tightly.
“Kai?!” Jon called out, his voice a little more shrill, his panic and worry leaking into it. His heart was thudding in his throat.
“Down here.” Kai was stretched out on the floor, on his back, his legs partially bent and spread, supported by the couch cushions, which Kai had apparently removed for the purpose. Jon scanned his brother for any sign that he wasn’t OK, that he’d hurt himself, but Kai seemed fine. Just in pain.
Next, Jon cursorily searched the apartment from where he stood. “Where’s David?”
“He went home about an hour ago.”
“What?” In the hospital, when Kai had been completely gone because of his mental illness being fueled by the fever-induced delirium, Jon and David had come to an understanding. Kai would never be left alone for long, preferably not at all. Over the past few weeks, Dr. Miller and David had insisted that Jon let out the leash a little. A sign of trust, and a chance for Kai to feel like he was making progress, like he wasn’t completely out of control of his life. It was necessary for Kai to recover, Dr. Miller had explained, but it didn’t change the fact that Jon couldn’t sleep--at all, not even the few hours he normally managed--unless he took the sleeping pills Dr. Miller had prescribed him when Kai first went into the hospital. Jon hated taking them, especially since he wouldn’t be able to wake up easily if Kai needed him.
“Chill, Jon.” Kai said it casually enough, but the look in his eye suggested he’d caught how deep Jon’s worry ran. It was bad enough Jon had reacted as he had the other night. It didn’t seem like Kai had even watched the tape. “I’m fine. All the chemicals and sharp objects and meds are locked up. Besides, I hurt too much to move right now anyway. It’s the only reason he agreed to leave me.”
Jon sat, perched on the couch arm, staring down at Kai, relieved, though the knot of anxiety in his stomach probably wouldn’t fade for awhile. “You need me to help you stretch?”
Kai shook his head. “I’ll be OK. I finally found the perfect position that doesn’t make my back and hips scream at me.” Then Kai smiled. Jon couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen that. “I survived the social. And I bowled.”
“What?” Jon said, chuckling, surprised to see Kai in such a good mood.
“It was what the sport would probably be like for a drunk conjoined twin, but David helped me. I’m terrible, but I actually had fun, Jon.”
Jon tried to suppress his smile, but he failed. “Watch out: two days in a row where you have a good time? Sure that’s not too much?”
Kai stuck his tongue out.
Jon sighed and sank onto the floor, leaning against the couch, but this way he wasn’t looking down at Kai. “So it really went OK?”
Kai chuckled. Rolled his head so he could see Jon better. “If by ‘OK’ you mean I had a major panic attack in the car, another minor one at the bowling alley, and threw up and nearly passed out in the bathroom, then, yeah.”
“Passed out . . . ? David was supposed to take care of you.”
“I don’t need to be taken care of, Jon. I know I’m crazy as fuck, but you need to realize that I can’t be babysat all the time. You need to both start trusting me that I’ll reach out to either one of you if I need you. It’s one reason David left. He trusts me. Well, he stared at me a long time studying my facial expression and body language and decided that I wasn’t going to hurt myself.”
“I don’t have David’s magical powers of reading you. How am I supposed to trust that you won’t hurt yourself when you’re alone?”
Kai sucked in a deep breath and pushed up against the floor. Pain filled his face as his legs fell open, the cushions getting pushed out of the way with Kai’s shift in position. Kai ignored the pain, though, apparently determined to talk to Jon in a more equal position. “That’s why I have Dr. Miller, to help me work things out.” Kai took a deep breath. He seemed reluctant to say this last thing, but he finally spoke. “One of the goals Dr. Miller has set for me is to be more honest with you. So that’s why I’m telling you this.” Kai shifted his weight a little, wincing. “I will hurt myself. I’ll try not to. But I can’t promise you I won’t. But as much as I resisted him at first, David was right. I need to try to get back to some kind of ‘normal’ life. And you guys treating me like I’m a little kid who can’t be left on his own doesn’t help. I’m not saying you shouldn’t continue to keep most of my meds locked up, but you need to give me a little leeway. I start school Monday. I’m going to be on my own. So you don’t really have a choice.”
Jon sighed and pushed his fingers through his hair. “I know. But it’s not easy for me. Ever since I first saw you as a newborn in the incubator at the hospital, I decided I would protect you. And I’ve failed miserably. I know it’s not necessarily my fault, but . . .”
Kai stretched out his hand for Jon’s. “Jon. The fact that you and David stayed with me every day I was in the hospital while I was sick, that you were there to protect me from myself once I got home, that matters. But now I need you to help me learn how to protect me from myself. By myself. OK?” Kai’s eyebrows furrowed. “That made a lot more sense in my head, in sign, before I translated it.”
“That’s why you got so mad at me yesterday.”
Kai sighed, but his breath hitched, and he signaled to Jon to wait while he got himself back down on the floor, taking a few minutes to arrange his legs in just the right angle. Jon resisted the urge to help, even though by the time Kai was done, he was breathing a little harder, and sweat had plastered his hair to his face. “You were right.”
“About the files, the video. Keeping it from me. I’m not . . . I’m not in the right place to get into that.”
Jon let out a relieved breath. “So you didn’t watch it?” He wanted to ask what Kai had done with the tape, but decided they were actually talking, maybe for the first time outside therapy in months, and he didn’t want to ruin that. He still felt bad for how he’d reacted.
Kai shook his head. Swallowed. “Well, I did. A little. Without the sound. But then I put it away. This doesn’t mean I don’t want to know about her, especially since we’re so much alike, but you’re right. I need to focus on getting better. On the future.” Kai seemed to be holding his breath. At first, Jon thought it was due to pain, but then his brother continued in a small, almost frightened voice, “Promise me you won’t hate me. If I’m like her.” Kai brought his hands to his face and swept his fingers along his eyes, almost like he was wiping away tears. “I don’t think I can do this without you.”
Jon’s shoulders fell. He reached over and started to touch the top of Kai’s head, giving him the chance to tell Jon not to touch him, but when he didn’t, Jon smoothed some of Kai’s hair the way he always used to when his brother was little. “I could never hate you, Kai. Never. I can’t say I won’t ever get angry with you, or frustrated, or worried, or any of those things, but I love you too much to hate you. I’m trying to learn not to hover too much. To give you the space you need to get through this on your own. But I’ll always be there for you if you need me.”
Kai didn’t seem convinced, and he was silent a long time. “Tell me about her. Something good.”
Jon leaned into the couch and stretched out one leg. The truth was his bad memories of their mother were so prominent it took him a moment to think of something positive to tell Kai. “She was beautiful. Radiant. Captivating. At face value, she was pretty, yes, but she just had . . . something . . . that made people turn their heads when she went by. This innate charm and charisma.” Jon paused. “Just like you.”
Kai let out a short sound that may have been a laugh that he buried in a sigh. “Yeah . . . people say that about me. That I’m so good looking, and I just don’t see it.”
“Believe me, you have the magnetism and I don’t. We may look alike, but no one’s turning their heads when I go by.”
“The wheelchair and crutches help, Jon,” Kai said, and although his voice was flat, Jon suspected he was teasing.
Kai let out a breath. Tipped his head a little so he could flash a smile at Jon to tell him he was still in a good mood, although the grin didn’t last, his eyes serious, that cast of sadness that never seemed to leave him. “I like it better when people stare because of my MLS than because they think I’m attractive.”
Jon knew Kai had serious self-esteem issues, but his statement still struck Jon. “Why?”
“I’m sure Dr. Miller would have a long list of reasons.”
They sank into a comfortable silence for a while. “Did you really bowl?”
Kai laughed. “Badly, but yeah. You would have died laughing watching me and David.”
Jon found himself smiling faintly. “You get your playful mischievousness from her, you know. Mom always said I was too serious, that I worried too much. She was always trying to convince me to let down my hair.”
“If I ever figure out how to do that, I’ll let you know,” Kai said with a laugh. He stretched out his arm, searching for Jon.
Jon took his brother’s hand and squeezed it, relieved to see that maybe there really was a light at the end of the tunnel for both of them.
Continue to January 29, 2001 - Part I ------>