January 29, 2001 - Part I
Jon tied Kai’s scarf a little tighter around his neck like an overprotective parent nervous about letting his child out to play in the snow. “Page me if you need anything, OK?”
“I’m fine,” Kai said, shifting his grips on his crutches. “David already told me I could text him, and I took an extra Xanax. If I could survive the bowling alley, I can survive class.” The truth was, Kai was terrified of having a panic attack--or, worse, dissociating--while on campus, but he’d prepped with Dr. Miller and he was as prepared as he possibly could be.
Jon took a fraction of a step back, taking in Kai from head to foot, his eyes lingering longer on Kai’s crutches than anywhere else. “I’m glad you’re having Renee drive you, but if you only have one class together, won’t that be too much walking? Especially with the extra sedative--”
“Didn’t Dr. Miller tell you not to worry so much?”
Jon froze, then a fleeting smile crossed his lips, and he nodded. “I just wonder if it’d be better for you to use your chair today.”
Kai shook his head. “I can do this, Jon. I know my limits.”
Jon held up a finger and pulled something out of his briefcase. “At least take this so Renee can park close,” he said, waving the handicapped placard Jon kept in his car for when he was driving Kai.
Kai nudged his head toward his backpack. “Stick it in there,” he said, just as he heard a honk. “Re’s waiting. If we don’t leave now, we’ll be late for our first class.”
“OK.” Jon still seemed uncertain. “And you have Vicky’s number, too--”
“I know. I know. I just want you to remember you’re not alone. You have people who care about you you can reach out to if you need it.”
Kai smiled, dropped his arm out of one crutch and extended it for a hug. He embraced Jon quickly. Kai did know that; yes, he still had a suffocating feeling of aloneness fall over him from time to time, but over the past few weeks he’d come to appreciate Jon and David and Renee, too, knowing without them he may never have survived after he left the hospital back in December. Though Kai thought all of this, all he said was a simple, “Thank you,” before pulling away.
Renee honked again, and Kai made for the door, Jon rushing to open it for him even though he knew Kai disliked that. “I’ll be late tonight, and I’m working all day tomorrow, but I’ll meet you at our joint session with Dr. Miller--call me if you need a ride, though. I don’t want you driving--”
Kai nodded. “With too much benzo in my blood. I know, Jon. Will you still be able to swim with me Thursday morning?”
Jon smiled. “I promised you, when we started doing that weeks ago that I would make time for you. Barring a serious emergency, I’ll be there. Maybe I’ll even beat you once or twice.”
Kai laughed. “Keep dreaming. I’ll see you later.”
Renee drove what Kai affectionately called a “clown car”: a two-door coupe perfect for her small frame and that got great mileage. However, it was a feat for a man of Kai’s size to squeeze into it, and Kai’s disability, especially with his braces, didn’t make it any easier. Renee had tried to help him in advance by putting the passenger seat as far back as it would go, but it still required a lot of trial and error on Kai’s part before he finally managed to get in.
Kai leaned back in the seat, the door open to the cold, giving himself a moment before he finished adjusting his legs, bag, and attempted to slide his crutches into the back seat. He looked over at her, his cheeks flushed with the cold and effort. “If you and I last, we have to talk about this car.”
"You apologize to Gigi! And hurry up and close the door! My delicate Southern sensibilities are freezing over here!"
Kai laughed. “Not sure where to even start with that. Will my crutches even fit in this car? Excuse me, Gigi.” Though Kai teased, he managed to work them in and between the seats without too much trouble. He did bump the rearview, but not Renee. “Will they drive you crazy here?” Kai asked. In his car, he had enough room in the backseat that they were out of the way, but Renee’s car was much shorter and narrower, and his attempts to get his crutches fully in the back hadn't worked out very well. So right now the handles were leaned on the console between them, the cuffs in the air. “I think they’ll get stuck if I try to put them in another way.”
Having them clattering against each other right at her shoulder wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t a long trip. “That’s fine. Need me to put your bag in the back?”
Kai had pulled it into his lap so he could close the door, and the poor guy looked like an adult folded into a child's toy car. Apparently even with the seat pushed all the way back, he still didn’t have enough room for his legs, and his braces weren’t terrible forgiving. “There’s a ‘back’?” Kai joked, but he nodded enthusiastically. “It might be easier to put my crutches in from the back next time, too.” Kai closed his eyes and let out a long breath, his first sign the joking may have been a front.
Kai didn’t open his eyes. “I have to be,” was all he said.
As Renee and Kai rode the elevator to their history class, Kai felt a certain sense of déjà vu. Things were different this year than the start of first semester, though. With his crutches, he stood out, and people stared without trying to stare, which actually amused Kai immensely, and ironically or not, helped him relax. Right now, the elevator was pretty crowded, but other than Renee, everyone was giving him a wide berth, and the freshman-looking brunette in the corner kept shifting her gaze from the elevator doors to Kai, trying to be surreptitious, but failing disastrously. Kai actually chuckled, and Renee, who was the other huge difference for this semester, lightly touched his arm, looking up at him questioningly.
The elevator was slow--thank God elevators weren't intolerable anxiety feats for him--and their class was on the fourth floor, so Kai slipped out of one crutch and signed close to his chest. He pointed subtly to the girl, then used his fingers to represent an eye, and with his facial expression mimicked her not-so-subtle gawking.
It took Renee a moment to get what Kai was saying, and then her eyebrows went up. "Really?"
Renee just sighed and rolled her eyes and cast a dirty look the girl's way. She apparently didn't find the situation nearly as amusing as Kai did. "People are so rude."
Kai shrugged and slipped his arm back into his crutch, since the elevator was getting ready to stop.
It did, with a lurch, and Kai was grateful he's braced himself, because he really didn't feel like being the first in a tsunami of human dominos. Everyone filed out in a hurry, including Kai's gawker, who squeezed around him, clearly embarrassed. Without prompting, Renee went to the controls and hit the door-open button, giving Kai all the time he needed to wait for the car to empty so he could exit.
Even though elevators didn't make him nervous--Kai wasn't sure what he would do if they did--a tight ball of anxiety was building in his stomach anyway, and he wasn't even sure why. The brief diversion during the ride up had helped, but now it was back. He had to focus on the fact that he was OK, that this class was familiar, that Renee would be with him.
"Deep breaths," Renee said. She gently, hesitantly, laid a hand on his lower back, and Kai hated that he reflexively flinched. "You're all right. Let's go sit."
Kai forced himself to take those deep breaths and walk, one step at a time, his legs moving easily today, his crutches more for reassurance and to check his balance than out of pure necessity, though Kai suspected by the end of the day he'd be dragging his tired legs with his upper body.
Fortunately, their auditorium wasn't far from the elevator. Kai was surprised to find two accessible desks at the front, and he hurried to sink into the first one. He didn't even want to bother with the stairs.
“It’s proof how much you’d captured me that I made myself go up and down those for weeks,” Kai said, indicating the stairs and hurrying to remove his bag, scarf, and coat.
Renee seemed like she was going to say something, but then thought better of it and smiled instead. She pulled off her own bag and coat and started getting ready for class. Of course. Renee was always prepared.
They'd arrived with fifteen minutes to spare, so the auditorium wasn't completely filled, and students continues to drift in. Kai couldn't make that anxiety in his chest dissipate, though. He waved for Renee’s attention.
“I feel like I don't belong here.”
Kai shrugged. “The teacher passed me out of the goodness of his heart. I deserved to fail. I missed the last month of class.”
“You were sick. Don’t let your negative thoughts win. You deserve to be here. I’d be lonely without you.”
Kai knew that Renee was trying to cheer him up, but it wasn’t working. He focused on his breathing--slow, deep breaths--and tried not to think about how he had his anniversary tests coming up, and that would mean a pulmonary function test and a little box, and forced hyperventilation, and--
“Kai. Calm down,” Renee was saying in a harsh whisper.
Kai forced his eyes on her, realizing he was already letting his anxiety take hold. He was breathing heavily, and sweating, and he felt dizzy. He forced some calming breaths, and cleared his mind of everything except the color blue (he was supposed to use white, but white made him think of psych and isolation and did the exact opposite of calm him). It took several minutes of meditation before Kai felt some of his anxiety unfurl. “I can’t believe I thought I could do this,” Kai said with a dry laugh.
“You can and you will. Try to think positive. When a negative thought pops up, turn it around.” Renee offered her hand and Kai accepted it. He still felt a tightness in his chest, but he did his best to focus only on the feel of Renee’s hand in his, on affirmations. He could do this. He would do this, and he wasn’t alone.
Although Renee took diligent notes as always, particularly on important aspects of the syllabus, she never stopped glancing Kai’s way to check on him. He was feigning indifference, reclined in his chair, his notebook open on his desk, but he wasn’t really paying attention to the lecture. He wasn’t taking notes, either, but instead was doodling almost frantically, a if he were inwardly nervous as hell and the doodling was the only outlet he could have during class. Though he was trying to act calm, she could see his pulse jumping at his neck, and his chest moving up and down far more often than it should have if he were really as relaxed as he were pretending. It made her sad. Sad that Kai was still struggling, and sad that he felt he had to pretend, always pretend that he was fine in order to cover up what he was really feeling inside. But maybe the act, like Kai’s joking earlier, was all part of Kai’s coping strategy. Maybe if he put his focus into his persona, he’d be less likely to let his panic take full hold of him.
The fact that he’d flinched away from her touch earlier still haunted her, too. She knew that it was probably reflex; he’d been keyed up, and both Jon and Dr. Miller had emphasized that Kai’s PTSD and anxiety meant that he could become hypervigilant, jumping at the slightest touch or noise, but it still hurt. Renee glanced Kai’s way just as he happened to look towards her, and she smiled.
He smiled back, but it was forced, and as well as he seemed to be covering up his unease, she saw the truth in his eyes, how badly he wanted to not be there. Maybe Kai was right. Maybe he really wasn’t ready.
“Looks like that’s all the time we have for today,” the professor announced in his resounding deep voice. “Make sure you’ve read chapters one and two by Wednesday. I’ll see you all then.”
He’d barely stopped speaking when voices erupted, along with the sound of three hundred students getting to their feet. Kai didn’t move. In fact, he shivered visibly, as if the vibrations had frightened him.
“You survived,” Renee said, trying to be encouraging, reaching for his hand.
At first, Kai didn’t seem to have heard her, staring ahead blankly, but he finally looked down at her offered hand and slipped his into it. He wouldn’t try to leave until most of the class had already exited. “Did you say something?”
Renee tilted her head. Kai must have been distracted. “I was just saying you survived your first class.”
Kai nibbled his lip and nodded reluctantly.
“You’ll be OK,” Renee said, squeezing his hand.
Kai continued to chew on his lip, and he looked at her, clearly unconvinced. In fact, if she hadn’t known better, she’d think he was near tears. But he blinked and it was gone. Something seemed to be bothering him, and her gut told her it was more than his anxiety over making it through the day, but Kai would never talk about it right now, not even in sign, not with all these people around, so she didn’t push.
“Mr. Fox, Ms. Poche. Good to see you both back,” the professor--his name was Dr. Miller--said. He was a short (by Midwestern standards) balding middle-aged man with a face that managed to be both friendly and intimidating, depending on how he flexed his bushy eyebrows.
Kai said nothing, so Renee asked, “Are you related to a Dr. Angela Miller, by any chance? She’s a psychiatrist.”
The question didn’t seem to surprise the professor too much. “She’s my sister. Two doctors in the family, but only one ‘real’ one, as my father never got tired of reminding me,” he said with a smile. “I’ll see you both in a couple days.” He packed up his briefcase and followed some of the other lingering students out.
“Of course my shrink and my teacher are related,” Kai signed lazily, angrily, almost as if he were signing to himself. “I feel sick,” he added, moving his hand over his stomach to indicate he was nauseous.
“Do you want me to drive you to your next class?”
Kai shook his head. “It’s in this building.” Kai inhaled a breath, as if he were going to say something else, but then changed his mind at the last moment. He was leaned forward slightly, frowning, staring at his feet, or likely nothing in particular, thinking, chewing on his lip.
Renee packed her things away and pulled on her coat. She didn’t want to leave Kai, but her classes were spaced tightly together; it was the only way she could fit in all the hours she needed and still leave as much time for working as possible. “You can text me or call me any time, even if I’m in class, OK? I have to run.”
Kai nodded absently.
A few early birds started drifting in for the next lecture.
Renee hesitated, then laid a hand on Kai’s shoulder. Again, he flinched, but she didn’t let it deter her, leaving her hand there until he pulled away more purposefully.
“Please don’t touch me right now,” Kai said in a small voice. He inhaled a strangled breath.
Renee eyed the clock and the door nervously. She really didn’t want to leave Kai like this. He was definitely not OK.
“I’ll be fine, Renee,” Kai said in a low growl. “You and Jon forget that I’m perfectly capable of handling things on my own.” Kai grit his teeth and fished a finger under the cuff of his sweatshirt, flicking a rubber band. He inhaled sharply. “I’m sorry. I’m not angry at you.”
“I know,” Renee said softly. “Let me kiss you before I go.”
Kai looked up, his face full of turmoil, but he smiled faintly. Nodded. They kissed, short and chaste, and Kai didn’t flinch when she let her head rest against his for a moment before pulling away.
“I’ll meet you in the lounge outside the cafeteria for lunch, OK?”
Kai nodded. He looked green, and she wondered if he was going to go throw up after she left him. He pushed his hair out of his face. “I’ll be fine, Re.” He seemed to be saying it as much for his own sake as hers, especially since his hand shook subtly.
Kai bent over the bathroom sink, splashing water on his face over and over. He wanted, desperately, to take the extra Xanax he had with him, the one that was supposed to be for later, for emergencies. But he knew he shouldn’t. He couldn’t. If he took it now, he’d never make it to his next class, and even if he did, he’d never manage to stay awake. And worse, he’d be screwed if he needed one for later.
He lifted his head and let his gaze meet his reflection’s. Water dripped off his face. His eyes were red and puffy, and no amount of cold water could hide that. Dr. Miller had explained that “unexpected and unexplained bouts of crying” were normal for someone with PTSD, especially in someone like him who’d spent so many years denying his feelings. It didn’t change the fact that it sucked, and it didn’t change the fact that he felt so fucking out of control that he could barely hold them off, and he couldn’t stop the tears once they started.
After Renee left him, he’d forced himself to get up, to leave the auditorium and wander into the bathroom. He’d locked himself in the handicapped stall and stood over the toilet, wondering if he’d throw up or not, debating whether he’d feel better if he forced himself and finally deciding against it. His stomach remained stormy, but his meager breakfast remained in place. But he was so angry at himself, and the anger had eventually turned to tears, and the more he cried the angrier he got.
He hated how he couldn’t even let Renee touch him half the time without shirking from her. And he didn’t even understand why. He hated that he was crying in the bathroom like a fucking little kid, scared to go to his next class alone like he was back in high school.
Kai splashed his face again, rubbing his eyes. He took a deep breath and stared himself down. He would do this. He could do this. And he wasn’t going to let that asshole in the mirror stop him.
Kai was really regretting not listening to Jon and taking his chair today as he dragged his tired, achy legs forward a few more steps. He’d hiked from his history class to where his psych class was supposed to be only to discover the class had been moved all the way to the other end of campus. Stubbornly, he’d insisted on walking the whole way himself. Now he was exhausted and grumpy. His shirt stuck to his back with sweat since he had no choice but to keep his coat on until he arrived at the classroom. Fortunately, he’d scheduled his two morning classes with ample time in between, so by the time he finally arrived, he still had a few minutes before his psych class started. Added bonus: there was a good chance any sign of tears had been erased by time, the cold, and physical exertion. The exercise had also given him the chance to work off most of his lingering anxiety.
Kai planted his crutches and used them to help pull his legs forward one at a time as he entered the room. It was small, especially compared to the theater-style rooms he’d been used to from last semester or like the one he’d had his morning history class in. This one had tables and chairs instead of individual desks, arranged in a blocky “U.” A quick survey told Kai that no more than 25 students could possibly be in his class, which sent a small spike of fear up his spine. There would be no getting lost in the crowd here. But right now, his elbows and shoulders and back were aching more than his legs, and he didn’t even want to think about being grateful his muscles weren’t spasming, worried he’d jinx himself.
To Kai’s chagrin, it looked like most of his class was already there and had picked their seats. Worse, the most accessible seat was already taken, which left him with two options: either he forced his way awkwardly into a seat that was more difficult for him to get in and out of, or he asked the person to move.
Kai sighed heavily and approached the seat on the end, near the door. “Excuse me?”
The guy sitting in “Kai’s” chair had headphones on and was bobbing his head to the music while he flipped through a magazine, apparently completely oblivious to Kai’s presence.
Kai was debating about whether it was rude by hearing standards to nudge his leg with a crutch when the girl on the oblivious guy’s left poked him.
“Hey, dude,” she said, pointing up at Kai.
The guy slipped off his headphones and looked at her, baffled, before turning his head toward Kai, then leaning it way back since Kai dwarfed him. He blinked stupidly.
“Could you move?” Kai shifted his weight, as if to emphasize his crutches.
The guy blinked at him again. “I was here first, man. It’s not like there aren’t other seats.” The guy didn’t say it in a mean way. He seemed completely oblivious.
Kai was trying to contain his irritation when the girl spoke up. “Let him sit here, asshole.”
The guy seemed baffled by the girl’s hostility, but he gathered up his stuff. “Whatever, man,” he said, shuffling off toward the back corner.
Kai was a little annoyed by the girl’s intervention--he didn’t need her help--but the problem was solved, so he used the tip of a stick to adjust the chair and then slipped out of one crutch, leaning it against the table. He secured the chair with that hand as he lowered himself into it with relief. He stowed his other crutch, then tossed his bag on the floor and ripped off his coat and his outer layers, piling them on the tabletop for now. Last, he unlocked his brace and adjusted his legs, shifting his weight in the chair until he was as comfortable as possible.
The girl had turned to face him. She looked about 20, with medium-length hair pulled into ponytails on either side of her head. A stripe of magenta ran through one side, and cobalt on the other, though her natural color was a dark brown. She had huge, round eyes and a pug nose, and was a little on the heavy side, but not so much as to be considered fat. She was wearing a faded band T-shirt Kai couldn’t make out the logo of over a long-sleeved Henley and a short, tight stone-washed black denim skirt and either leggings or thick tights--Kai couldn’t really tell--with combat boots. “I’m Steve,” she said. “It’s short for Stephanie. My dad always wanted a boy.”
Kai stared at her, pushed a hand through his hair. He really wasn’t in the mood for friendly right now. “Kai,” he said, hoping that would get her to leave him alone.
“I love your shirt. It’s hilarious. Are you deaf?”
Kai looked down at it, trying to remember which shirt had ended up on top since he’d dressed in layers. It was a short-sleeved Tee, more fitted than what he normally wore, but the collar was high enough to mask most of his trache scar. It was a light charcoal gray and had “Jonesville School for the Deaf” emblazoned on it. Beneath that, David had stamped “CHORUS” in convincing letters, resembling the official school shirts for football. David had bought several shirts at the Halloween party and “customized” them for his own amusement, then given Kai a few, insisting Kai needed to stop hiding in sweats and Tees two sizes too big for him. “You’ve got the muscle, show it off,” David had said, squeezing Kai’s biceps. Even if Kai hadn't regained most of the muscle he'd lost.
“I went there until high school,” Kai said, indicating his shirt and pointedly not answering her question.
“Cool,” she said, nodding her head. His answer seemed to satisfy her.
“By the way, people tell me I don’t have the most tact, which is probably not a good thing if I want to go into psychology, but anyway.”
Whatever. Please shut up, Kai thought, but he smiled politely.
A moment of silence passed as a few more students filed in, and Kai thought he might be home free when someone stumbled over one of his crutches--he thought he’d stowed them safely enough. The girl who’d tripped on them turned bright red and apologized profusely. Kai waved it off, leaning down to shift them out of the way again. The worst thing about being tall was his crutches were really long.
Kai had stashed his coat and outer shirt on the floor and was pulling a pen and notebook out of his bag when he felt Steve tap him on the shoulder. He sighed as he rose back up to face her. He said nothing, his eyebrows up, waiting, questioning. He was pretty sure the irritation was written in his face.
“I was just wondering,” she said, pointing toward Kai’s crutches. “CP?”
Kai stared at her for a long while, finally responding, “Sure.” Again, not really answering her question.
She blinked, as if she weren’t certain he’d understood her, but finally nodded. “Sorry, I’m being nosy. It’s just . . . my cousin has CP, so I was curious.” Hmm. Maybe that explained her intervention earlier. Maybe this cousin of hers was the type of disabled kid who had been coddled by his family his whole life, and so she didn’t even realize what she’d been doing. “I also wanted to say you speak really well.”
“Thank you. Good to know the years of speech therapy paid off.” Kai was being sardonic, but it was so subtle she didn’t catch it.
“My cousin has a really bad speech impediment, and he’s hard of hearing, too, so he prefers not to speak. It’s really frustrating for my aunt in particular.”
Kai nodded. He sympathized.
“Anyway. You walk really well, too. Damn, I shouldn’t have said that. That was rude.”
Kai’s irritation was subsiding. Yeah, Steve definitely lacked tact, especially for a hearie, but she seemed like a good person. “Normally, I walk better, but I went all the way to one end of campus only to find out the class had been moved to the other, so . . .”
“Oh. Damn. No wonder you weren’t exactly Officer Friendly to the stoner. Yeah, you should have looked online. They posted the change there.”
Kai’s eyebrows dipped. “You can do that?” Kai wasn’t tech savvy. He knew how to type--he’d had a class on it at JSD, along with how to use a TTY--and he sometimes borrowed Jon’s laptop to check email or write a paper, but beyond that, Kai didn’t care for computers. They were too complicated, and the screen bothered his eyes.
Steve laughed. “Yeah. If you want, I’ll show you how some time.” Wait. Was she . . . flirting with him?
He decided to redirect the convo, fast. “Uh, your cousin. Does he go to JSD? Does he sign? How old is he? Maybe I know him?”
She shook her head. “His parents wanted him to be oral. I know a little sign language, but . . . I’m like the only person he ‘talks’ to since I’m really patient with him and I’ve come to be able to read him, you know? So he doesn’t have to use words sometimes and I still get him. It’s almost like our own private sign language. He’s twelve, and he’s really struggling in school. I know he’s smart, but . . .” She blushed. “Sorry. I’m one of those airplane people.”
Kai’s brow furrowed and he shifted his head, confused.
Steve chuckled. “You know, the type of person who sits next to you on a plane and tells you their life story when all you want to do is read your book and be left alone?”
Kai had never been on a plane before, but he understood what she was saying. “JSD is offering free sign language classes Friday evenings starting this week. I got volunteered to help teach them. Maybe you can convince your aunt to let you bring him? It’s meant for families, so there will be kids there. It’d be good for him to meet other deaf kids his age. It’s not too late for him to learn to sign.”
Steve brightened. “I’ll have to talk to my aunt. That would be so great for him. Thanks.”
Kai nodded. “Maybe if your aunt came, too, she might change her mind. Not being able to communicate with the people around you is a horribly frustrating and isolating experience. Believe me, I know.”
Steve was quiet, shockingly enough, studying Kai for a long moment, but Kai couldn’t read her. As much as Kai was trying to get out of helping with the ASL class, for Steve’s cousin’s sake, Kai hoped she was able to bring him.
A moment later, the professor strode in. Kai recognized him from last semester, and he recognized Kai, too, so they nodded at each other as he took his place at the front of the room.
“Good morning, everyone. I’m Dr. Patrias, and you all are here for Intro to Psych, I hope? If not, you’re lost and I can’t help you.”
A round of faint chuckles emanated from the class.
“Now, I’m supposed to go over the syllabus and tell you that you’re not supposed to cheat or plagiarize, etc., etc.” He pulled a stack of papers out of his briefcase and handed them to Kai. “Take one and pass it down,” he said in a low voice. Then Dr. Patrias took his place at the front of the room again. “But we have a lot to cover this semester, and I’m pretty confident all of you can read, so we’re going to jump right in without wasting any time. The highlights are this.” Patrias held up his hand and ticked off on his fingers. “You’re adults, so I trust you to take charge of your own education. That means I don’t take attendance, but,” he said, emphasizing the word, “because this section is so small, we’ll be doing a lot of group activities and discussion, which you’ll be missing out on if you don’t come to class.”
That made Kai’s pulse spike. Kai liked discussion, but he also didn’t like being the center of attention. Just as that thought hit, his right foot began to spasm painfully, distracting him.
“Also, if you need accommodations, for whatever reason, you need to give me your paperwork from the disability office ASAP. I don’t want you to wait until we’re halfway through the semester and you’re failing and you come crying to me saying, ‘Oh, but I’m dyslexic, you can’t fail me,’ or whatever the case may be. It’s why the school has procedures in place, to protect you, but it only works if you let me know now, at the start of the semester. OK?” He pointed to his third finger. “Don’t cheat. OK? I’d like to hope you think of this class as more than just a grade. Especially if you want to move on to the upper level psych courses, you can’t ride someone else’s coattails. Got it? Good. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get started. Because this is a small section, I’d like to go around the room and do a little icebreaker exercise. State your name, what year you are, your major, and then give us three things about you. Two truths and one lie. Then we’ll vote on which one we think is the lie. Sounds fair? Good. I’ll start.” Patrias rubbed his hands together excitedly. “OK, well, you already know my name--Patrick Patrias--yeah, my parents had a sick sense of humor. And I’m a psychology professor here at JU. I’ve been teaching here for about ten years. OK, my three things. My favorite food is popcorn. I’ve never been to Jamaica. And I have a cat named Bubbles.”
A few snickers went through the class.
“OK, who votes for popcorn being the lie?” Patrias counted hands and wrote the number on the board--five. “Jamaica?” More hands went up. 15. “Cat?” The rest of the votes, including Kai’s, went there: 10. “All right. Well, the lie is the cat. Sorry.” He smirked and rubbed his hands together. “Who voted for cat?” Several hands went up. “OK. You,” he said, pointing to the stoner who’d originally been in Kai’s seat. “Why’d you vote for the cat being a lie?”
He shrugged. “You’d name your cat Freud or something.”
Patrias seemed amused by that. “Interesting logic. You,” he said, pointing to Kai. “Why’d you pick cat?”
Kai felt his pulse spike as all eyes turned to him, but he took a few subtle deep breaths, focusing on planning out the English in his head so he wouldn’t mess it up before he spoke. Luckily, Patrias knew him and didn’t rush him. “Because I’m really allergic to animals and I think I would have known pretty quick if you had a cat.”
Patrias slapped his hands together. “Now, you all are probably thinking I’m insane right now, but the point of this game--besides getting to know each other--is to give you a chance to start thinking about people and for me to begin to see how your minds work. OK, why don’t you go next,” Patrias said, indicating Kai.
Great. Kai said. His spasms had traveled up to his knee, making it jump, though he hoped no one could see, or if they could, they might just see it as jitters. Kai pressed his hands into the chair to help him shift his weight. His blood was thundering so loudly in his ears it made him falter. Don’t even think about worrying about having a panic attack, Kai told himself. Worrying about having one right now would only make it more likely he’d have one. Kai realized he was breathing faster and tried to slow down. This wasn’t a big deal. This wasn’t high school.
Damn, the other students were probably wondering what the fuck was wrong with him. He hadn’t even said his own name yet. Had he? Damn, he couldn’t remember. Yeah, they were probably wondering how the special kid got shoved into a class with them. No, you can’t think like that. “Stop mind reading,” Kai heard Dr. Miller’s voice echoing in his head. “You don’t know what they’re thinking. It’s a good chance they’re not even thinking about you. People tend to be self-absorbed. Their focus is probably on themselves. What they’re going to say next, or what they want to have for lunch. Don’t worry about them.”
“What am I supposed to say?” Kai asked, hating that he couldn’t remember. His memory always got exponentially worse when he was feeling anxious and stressed.
Patrias was patient, and he knew a little of what Kai’s issues were. “Your name, major, what year you are, and your three things. Two truths and one lie.”
Kai nodded as he forced a deep breath. “Um, my name is Kai Fox--”
“How do you spell that?” Patrias asked. He knew, of course, so perhaps he was asking for the class’s benefit.
“K-A-I. Not Kyle, not Kay. Kai.” Kai cleared his throat. “I’m, um, undeclared. . . . And a freshman.” He felt himself sweating and wondered if anyone could tell. His heart hammered against his chest. Kai struggled to think of what three things he could say. Lots of ideas came to mind, but they were all too personal or too obvious. “I know how to pick locks. I’m a vegetarian. And I have a twin brother.”
“Great,” Patrias said. “Who votes for lock picking as the lie? Vegetarian? Twin?” Patrias tallied the votes. Most people pegged either lock picking or vegetarian as the lie, with the former slightly outweighing the latter. “All right. Kai, which is the lie?”
“I do have a brother, but he’s not my twin.”
“Interesting,” Patrias said. “So who voted for twin as the lie? You?” He pointed to a girl in the middle of the far table; the one who had tripped over Kai's crutches. “Why did you pick twin?”
She resembled a crane, tall and extremely thin, her face buried in a hood. “Uh, I don’t really know. It was just a hunch.” She seemed to sink in on herself, obviously not liking that she didn’t have a better answer and was the focus of everyone’s attention. Kai could commiserate there.
“That’s good, though. A lot of what we understand about interaction with others is instinctual, unconscious. Being able to go with your gut can be a good thing. And you,” Patrias said, pointing to Steve. “Why did you pick twin?”
She glanced at Kai. “Well . . . the first two both seemed outlandish enough to be lies, especially compared to the third item, being a twin, so I figured maybe they were the truth and the inane one was the lie.”
Patrias snapped his fingers. “That is excellent reasoning. Good job. OK, your turn.”
They spent half the class doing the exercise, with Patrias dissecting people’s reasons for picking out the lies, then moved onto a lecture about what psychology was and what they could expect to learn over the course of the semester. As class went on, Kai’s anxiety subsided, and his spasms eased. Though he was still a little achy, he was able to sit back and let the info sink in, though toward the end of the period he was beginning to feel restless, and looking forward to seeing Renee again.
Kai and Renee shuffled into the cafeteria, and Kai shook out his hair. He was sweating and tired, and the place was packed and sweltering. “Can you unzip my coat? Can you reach?” Kai chuckled faintly.
Renee hovered a hand near Kai’s waist, asking for permission; when he nodded, she laid it there to help balance herself as she got up on tip toe to reach the zipper on Kai’s coat, tugging it down with a little effort and a few failed tries. “There,” she said once it was open.
Kai sighed, relieved. “Thanks.”
Renee smiled one of her sweet, Kai-exclusive smiles that made him melt a little inside every time before she turned to grab a tray. “You just tell me what you want, and I’ll carry it for you.”
Kai’s stomach wasn’t outright unhappy, but as he took in all the sights and smells of the cafeteria, it churned threateningly. He knew if he thought about food too much, he might not be able to eat. “Uh, just nothing that’ll make me want to throw up,” Kai said, his nose and lip turning up as he scanned the room. “And that’s vegetarian. Though I’m not sure how many options I’ll have. I can’t eat salad when I’m queasy.”
Renee turned from studying one display of food to frown up at him. “Why don’t you go find us a seat. I’ll take care of it.” That smile returned, “his” smile. “Anything you think you could absolutely not stand to sit with me while I eat?”
Renee’s consideration struck him; it was true there were a lot of foods that he couldn’t stand to be around when his stomach was acting up, and it wasn’t always consistent, either. Some days, he’d be fine to watch David eat a greasy pizza, others, the smell or just seeing the cheese would make him throw up.
Kai’s stomach did a flip at the thought. “Uh . . . nothing with a really strong smell. Or that’s really . . . gloopy looking.” Kai frowned at the way he felt his English was failing him, glancing around for an example. “Like, no mac ‘n cheese. I don’t think . . .” Kai closed his eyes and swallowed, trying to calm his stomach, unable to finish the sentence.
“Got it. I’ll do my best.”
“Wait,” Kai said suddenly, stopping Renee in her tracks. “Jon made me do a one-meal-per-day meal plan to try to make sure I ate every day. Take my ID so you don’t need to use your credit.” He nudged his head behind him. “It’s in my wallet. Back right pocket.”
Renee’s face went through a range of emotions before finally settling on uncertainty, her eyes asking for confirmation that he was really OK with her pulling out his wallet.
Kai nodded, and realized that he was using his crutches as an excuse for Renee to touch him even though he could easily have done these things himself--unzip his coat, pull out his wallet. Was he being passive aggressive, or was it a sign of progress? Despite the way he’d flinched this morning, ever since their session last week, where they’d shared that moment in which he’d wanted desperately to kiss her, Kai had found himself not only comfortable with Renee’s touch, but craving it. He still wanted to be cautious, but damn, he loved the feel of her small hands on him.
Renee set the tray she’d been carrying aside, and, oblivious to the fact that they were drawing even more stares than they had before, reached into his back pocket, her body oh so close to his, fishing out his wallet. Their breathing ratcheted up, and when she stepped back, she looked up at him, her cheeks slightly flushed, her lips so incredibly kissable, he wished they were somewhere else so he could explore her mouth with his tongue.
Renee flipped open the wallet, smiling, her fingers touching the photobooth pictures he kept there, glancing up at him almost shyly, before pulling out his university ID. She grinned up at him a little wickedly, opened her arms to ask if he’d accept a hug, threading her arms between his and around his waist as soon as he granted her permission. She held the embrace as she slid the wallet back in place, and it was bizarrely erotic. Kai didn’t care that people were probably gaping, or that, considering they’d had sex in November, this was barely intimate by traditional standards.
Still, considering all the trust issues Kai had gone through over the past few weeks, somehow, Renee’s arms around him, her head leaning against his chest, her hand in his back pocket, the entire cafeteria, all of Kai’s aches and worries fled, and it was only the two of them. Only that wonderful light, warm feeling that filled his entire body whenever he was with her. That “right” sensation he’d never felt before, at least not nearly as powerfully, with anyone else, ever in his entire life.
Finally, as if realizing they both had to return to reality, Renee reluctantly pulled away from him, snagging the tray again. “I’ll see you in a bit,” she said, and hurried off into the milieu, as if she were worried she’d never get away from him if she didn’t dash off immediately.
Continue to January 29, 2001 - Part II -------->