Sunday, July 23, 2000

In/Exhale - January 29, 2001 - Part II

January 29, 2001 - Part II

Renee wove her way through the crowded cafeteria dining hall, searching for Kai’s golden hair. It took her awhile, but she finally found him toward the center of the room, sitting in a chair at one of the tables that had a booth on one side that made a long line, broken up by tables every few feet on each side of the half wall. He’d laid his crutches against the other chair, the sticks under the table to keep them out of the way, and was bent over a book, absently chewing on the end of his highlighter, his bag on the floor and his coat hung on the back of his chair.
Renee carefully squeezed between the tables and set their tray down, sliding into the booth and swinging her legs over his crutches without knocking them over, making them both chuckle. “You OK?
Kai looked tired, and some of his good humor from earlier seemed to have faded into tension in his shoulders. He shut his book and pushed it aside. “I’m starting to get anxious. But I took some more medicine. I think I’ll be OK.
Renee nodded, distributing their food. She’d gotten the special: spaghetti with meat sauce for herself, and a cheese and veggie omelet for Kai.
“This looks freshly made,” Kai said, surprised.
Renee smiled, nodded. “I talked to one of the cafeteria ladies, explained your situation, how you’re vegetarian for health reasons, and she made this for you. I think she noticed you and thought you were handsome.”
Kai let out a subtle laugh as he grabbed a fork and started cutting the egg into tiny pieces. “How could she not notice me? A blond giant with crutches? Throw in a reference to aliens or bigfoot and the tabloid headline practically writes itself.” His eyes twinkled, and he dug into his food. For one of the first times since she’d met him, Kai didn’t seem to be forcing himself to eat, and it made her heart explode with happiness that she was able to get him something he liked.
Renee laughed, relieved to see a bit of the man she’d fallen so hard for re-emerging. “You feeling better, then?”
Kai nodded, gestured dark clouds above his head, with his hands and facial expression, his shoulders drooping. Everything about his face and posture suggesting the heavy weight of the darkness he'd been struggling with lately. Then, with his fingers of one hand in the “F” hand shape, looking like a small sun, it “broke through” the clouds, his fingers piercing down through them with its light, brightening his face. His shoulders lifted, his body language showing relief. The English, “finally seeing the light through the clouds” hardly did the sign language justice.
“God, that’s beautiful,” Renee couldn’t help saying.
Kai shrugged, a little self conscious. He shoved some hair out of his eyes. “Anyway, that’s what it feels like.” Then he blushed a fierce red, lifting his eyes just barely to look at her. “You’re my ray of sunshine, Re.”
Renee felt tears spring to her eyes and hurried to blink them away. She was trying to formulate what to say to that when Diane suddenly appeared.
“Hey, love birds,” she said so suddenly and loudly that Kai actually physically started, and Renee could practically see his heartbeat racing at his throat.
Renee slid her hand across the table, an offer of support if Kai wanted it, and butterflies danced in her stomach when he accepted, draping his larger hand on top of hers, pushing his face into neutral, though Renee could see that hint of anxiety in his eyes.
Diane didn’t seem to notice Kai’s unease. “So, Blondie, I heard you were sick. Feeling better? Because you look fantastic.”
Renee rolled her eyes.
Kai shifted in his chair, the only hint that he was uncomfortable, and looked up at Renee, his eyes full of betrayal.
She shook her head. “I told her you were sick, but I didn’t tell her anything about the hospital or your . . .” Renee hesitated, worrying that the sign she was going to use to indicate the “mental” part of “mental illness” might give something away, so she finger spelled it instead.
Kai’s eyes darted sideways as if to see if Diane revealed any understanding of their conversation, then his entire body visibly relaxed when he realized she was clueless, watching them with a mixture of curious fascination like they were freaks on display at a circus. He cleared his throat. “Yes. Much better now. Thank you,” Kai said politely.
Diane blinked, as if the English had surprised her, or maybe she’d been spacing out and his voice returned her to their conversation. “Renee, is this guy for real?” She sighed. “You sure your brother is still unavailable?”
Kai chuckled softly. “Highly unavailable. Plus he’s ten years older than you.”
Diane shrugged, opened her mouth to say something when she heard someone across the room shouting her name and jumped up to signal them. “I’ve gotta jet. You should drop by the apartment some time. Even when Renee’s not home,” Diane said, wiggling her eyebrows.
Renee sighed good naturedly. “Diane. Behave.”
Diane blinked her eyes in an exaggerated manner. “I always behave. See you around!” And she was gone.
Sorry about Diane. You OK?
Kai didn’t answer right away, breathing slowly and deeply for several minutes. Finally, he nodded. “I just need to get out of here. All these people . . .


#


As soon as they’d left the still-busy cafeteria and were in a less crowded common area, Renee made Kai sit down. He was pale and sweating and didn’t seem entirely all-there.
“You don’t look so good, Kai. Are you sure you’re OK?”
He closed his eyes and dipped his head. He hadn’t even taken his arms out of his crutches as he focused on his breathing. “Freaking out, Re,” he said in a strangled voice.
Renee sat beside him, careful not to touch him uninvited. “Can I do anything to help?”
“Help me breathe. Count. Keep me focused,” Kai said in pieces as he began to hyperventilate, his eyes darting around the room frantically.
Renee helped Kai out of his crutches, laying them to his side, then lightly touched his hands to see if he’d accept her holding them. He turned his palms up, inviting her in, and she gripped his hands tightly, looking straight at him even if he wasn’t returning the gaze. “Focus on my touch. Breathe with me. In . . . out. In . . . out.” Renee counted between each guided breath, never taking her focus off Kai, who had let his lids shut, desperately trying to follow her prompts. She could feel him shaking subtly, but he was really trying to breathe slow and deep, and after about ten minutes, she felt his body calm, and his breathing became slow and regular even without her guidance.
He opened his eyes, his lids a little heavy at first, but then a slim smile tipped his cheek. “Thank you,” he said in a small voice.
She smiled back. “Better?”
Kai nodded, let out a long breath.
“Was it Diane?”
Kai’s eyes widened momentarily in confusion before he understood her question and shook his head. “Sometimes my panic attacks have triggers, but usually . . . they just happen. Maybe it was being in between Xanax doses. But I’ve been anxious all day.” His shoulders sagged, as if he were tired, but he didn’t let go of Renee’s hands. “I really thought I was going to go full panic. My heart was racing, my thoughts were beginning to, and my limbs get this kind of floaty, tingly feeling, especially my forearms and hands. . . .”
Renee shifted on the sofa, releasing his hands so she could give him a sideways hug. “I’m sorry that happens to you, but I’m glad I was here to help you. You do know if it had . . . ‘gone full panic,’ that would have been OK.”
Kai sighed. “I’m just glad it didn’t. All I need is a complex about the cafeteria or the student center.” When Renee glanced up, she saw he was troubled, but he wrapped his arm around her. “I can’t believe I’m doing this and I’m not freaking out about it,” he said, and at first Renee didn’t know what he was referring to, until he squeezed her tighter. The hug. Even a few days ago, Kai had still been uncertain about too much touch between them, yet here he was, cherishing her support. Especially considering how distant he’d been after history class, she was relieved to see him being more open and physically affectionate with her. She wondered if, even though he’d known she needed to leave, if subconsciously he’d still seen her as abandoning him when he needed her on some level. She’d ask him, but Kai would probably never admit to it, even if he had any inkling that could be the case.
“I’m glad,” Renee said, leaning into his touch.
“Me too,” Kai sighed softly.
“You have class after this?”
Another sigh, this one frustrated. “Yeah. I kinda wish I could just go home. But it wouldn’t look good to skip the first day.”
“I have class until five. Are you going to be OK? Or do you need me to take you home after yours finishes?”
“I’ll be OK. I’ll either go to the library to study, or . . . probably, I’ll go to the pool. Swim a little to relax me, then soak in the hot tub.”
Renee pulled away so she could see his face. “Will you be able to do that without your wheelchair?”
Kai’s face squeezed up in frustrated realization. “Damn. I’d forgotten for a second I didn’t have my own car today. Fuck.”
Renee glanced at her watch. “I’m parked not far from here. If we leave now and are quick, we can go back to your apartment, grab your chair, and get back before class starts. I can park near your next class and leave you the keys so you can get your chair after. Then I can meet you at the pool when I’m finished.”
“Re--”
Re hopped up and handed Kai his crutches. “Come on. We’re doing this. Especially since it’ll give me an excuse to see you in your swimsuit.”
Kai’s face melted from the lingering worry into a warm smile. “All right. As long as your motives are clear about all of this.”


#


Although in a different building than his psych class, Kai’s Intro to Creative Writing elective was in an almost identical classroom, with the tables arranged in more of a circle this time instead of a “U.” Because they’d run home to grab his chair, Kai was one of the last to arrive. He was tired and achy and his ears hurt. The din of conversation was also strangely muted, almost like he was underwater, and there was an obnoxious kind of ringing hum above it all. Tinnitus. Dammit, was he getting an ear infection or something? It was the wrong time of year for the worst of his allergies, especially now that Christmas was long gone, which meant no more pine. It wasn’t the first time he’d had issues with his hearing over the past couple weeks, but he’d always chalked it up to congestion since it usually didn’t last long. But this was different somehow. Kai really didn’t want to be sick again.
Fortunately, Kai didn’t have to fight for the most accessible seat since the bulk of the class had congregated on the other sides of the “O.” Kai sank down, stripped off his bag and coat and secured his crutches--being extra careful they didn’t stick out--and tried popping his ears several times. It helped a little--the conversations around him became a little clearer--but he still felt like he was hearing through some kind of barrier. This was going to make class fun, Kai thought drolly.
He peeled off his outer long-sleeved T-shirt. He was warm, too. He was finally over being sick. There was no way he’d gotten sick again. Even with his ears misbehaving, Kai was still looking forward to swimming after this, and even more to soaking in the hot tub. It would feel so good on his aching back and hips especially.
Kai had closed his eyes, doing his best to ignore the ringing in his ears, imagining the calm, warm water bubbling around him. He felt a poke in his shoulder, much harder than it needed to be, and he turned to face the perpetrator, scowling.
A man, about nineteen, tall but wiry, with crazy curly blond-brown hair was speaking to him, obviously angry, but Kai realized between the ringing and being stuffed up, he couldn’t clearly make out what the person was saying.
Kai furrowed his brows and shook his head. Without thinking, he pointed to his ear. “Say that again?”
The guy’s face changed almost instantly, from angry to apologetic. “Nevermind,” Kai read off his lips more than actually heard. That was the kind of reaction Kai was used to from his Deaf upbringing--hearing people found it easier to dismiss the Deafie than try to repeat or explain themselves, and it was annoying as fuck. But something about the situation was surreal, and Kai struggled to dismiss it.
Kai knew the confusion was obvious in his face, but he turned away from his classmate and stared at the board instead. The teacher was there, lecturing, and Kai hadn’t even realized it. How long had she been talking? His ears were clearing up a little, but he found if he wasn’t looking at her lips, he couldn’t understand what she was saying. Did she have an accent? It seemed like it, and he’d like to believe that was part of why he was struggling to understand her, but Kai wasn’t so sure. He’d had ear infections before, mostly when he was young, but he couldn’t remember his hearing ever getting this warped.
The professor looked right at Kai, clearly annoyed. “Thank you for joining us, Mr. . . .?”
Kai’s heart was hammering against his chest. He glanced around the room, as if for help. Some of the students looked bored, others looked gleefully intrigued. Kai swallowed. “Fox.”
Then the professor looked away from Kai, and he had to guess at what she was saying; he heard strange words, but if he concentrated he could figure out what they had to be in order for her sentence to make sense. “Mr. Fox, this may be an elective, but I still expect you to treat my class with the same respect you’d give any other.”
Kai could only nod. Then caught himself, since she wasn’t looking at him. “I understand.”
She turned to face him again. “Would you like to tell me what one of the crucial elements of this class is, Mr. Fox?”
Kai had no idea. He was sweating, and his hands were getting numb. He forced himself to take slow, deep breaths. Then he took a wild guess. “Participation?”
She frowned, but nodded, as if she were displeased she couldn’t skewer him. “Exactly. I expect you all to attend every class, to read your assignments, to complete your writing projects on time, and to participate in discussions and workshops. Just because this class is after lunch doesn’t mean you can dissolve into daydreams.”
Kai nodded. He felt faint. Oh God, was he going to pass out? He forced himself to keep breathing regular and deep.
The truth was, even without his ears misbehaving, his writing teacher--her name was apparently Pelto--made him extremely anxious. Maybe it was something about the way she held herself, maybe it was how intense she was, maybe it was how it was the first day and she already seemed angry, but Kai wasn’t sure if he’d be able to take her class. Even though his ears finally “popped” and his hearing cleared up halfway into the lecture, he still felt like he was just barely keeping himself from flashing back every minute, keeping his fingernails dug into his wrist to try to ground himself.
“So your first assignment, other than to read the first set of stories in your book, is to find a picture, any picture,” Pelto continued, and she definitely had an accent. Kai’s experience wasn’t good enough to tell him what kind of accent it was, but it certainly made understanding her--even with his ears seemingly working fine--much harder. “It could be from a magazine, or a photo, it doesn’t matter. But I want you to write a short story inspired by it. And don’t pull out a picture of you and your girlfriend and tell me the real story of how the photo was taken. Use your imaginations. The picture is meant to be an inspiration. Got it? They don’t need to be long.” She then waved her chin in dismissal, and the class began emptying out.
Kai wanted to flee, immediately, but it wasn’t practical. Instead, he concentrated on packing up his bag and focusing on breathing. He’d be in the pool within thirty minutes. He just had to remember that.
A cleared throat made Kai snap his eyes open. Professor Pelto was standing over him, her arms folded tightly on her chest, scowling. It made Kai enormously nervous, and his anxiety exploded in his chest, his respiration rate skyrocketing to nearly double his normal in a fraction of a second.
“Mr. Fox, do you not take my class seriously?”
Kai looked around, almost as if he were hoping she was talking to some other Mr. Fox, or that maybe one of his classmates would jump in and rescue him, but everyone was gone. He and the professor were alone. Kai swallowed. He thought he was going to puke. Or pass out. Or both. He couldn’t find words to answer her.
“I will accommodate you as I am required to based on the forms you provide me, which I’m assuming you will,” she said, as if it were a question even though she didn’t inflect it like one.
Kai managed a nod. He felt light-headed, and he was beginning to forget how to breathe.
Pelto seemed to recognize she’d terrified Kai to nearly unconsciousness, or so he assumed, because her body language softened, but only slightly. When she spoke, Kai struggled to understand her English. He picked up the words, but his brain refused to convert them into any sense. “My point is I don’t do special treatment. I have the same expectations for you as anyone else. Am I clear?”
Kai knew the last part was a question, but he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to nod or shake his head. He really, really wanted to throw up.
Pleto frowned. She pointed to his shirt. Said something else. More words with no meaning. “If you can’t understand me, how can you expect to comprehend my lectures? Participate in workshops?”
More questions Kai couldn’t make sense of. He looked down at his shirt, since she’d pointed there, and remembered the Jonesville School for the Deaf Tee David had given him, the one that jokingly had “CHORUS” written in huge block letters below the logo, was exposed. Was she asking if he was Deaf? Kai was so confused. The only good part of the confusion was it had enabled some of his anxiety to ebb. He still felt dizzy and sick, but at least he wasn’t in immediate danger of passing out or vomiting.
Pleto sighed in obvious frustration. Pointed to the board. Then she grabbed a marker and wrote, finally stepping away to reveal her message. GET AN INTERPRETER, OR DROP MY CLASS. She pointed at it for extra emphasis, then grabbed her briefcase and stormed out, clearly done with him.
Kai felt as if something inside him had collapsed. He hadn’t felt this . . . humiliated wasn’t quite the right word for it. . . . Crushed? Totally destroyed? Since high school. His freshman history teacher had been particularly good at that, insisting from day one that Kai speak, often putting Kai on the spot and forcing him to answer questions or explain sections of their textbook out loud. “This is America, and we speak English, so you have to speak it too,” he’d always said. Kai had loathed the man. Kai was still convinced the guy had been some kind of sadist, getting a thrill out of watching Kai nervously fumble over his grammar and articulation, his sentences often coming out in poorly pronounced, verbalized ASL that made no sense to English speakers. Sometimes, the teacher would make Kai try again and again until he was understandable.
Kai often used swimming as a healthy means of escape, but right now, he didn’t think it’d be enough. He felt so . . . defeated. His English had completely, totally failed him, just as he’d feared it would. Worse, he felt so . . . alone. He couldn’t call Jon or Dr. Miller, because he didn’t trust he could deal with English right now. And texting with David wouldn’t cut it. Yes, cutting was exactly what he wanted to do. Renee had said he could contact her any time, even if she were in class, but. . . . The sad truth was as much as Kai was trying to be more forthcoming with her, he didn’t feel like she could understand what he was feeling right now. Kai grabbed his stomach. Dammit, he felt sick.
Kai sucked in a breath. He would swim. He would swim until he forgot about everything today. In the water, there would be no language, just pushing and pulling, his body gliding along like he belonged there. His mind could shut down, and he could put all his anxiety into movement. By the time Renee got out of class, he’d be calm. And if he was calm, his English would come back to him. He’d be fine. He was always fine. He just had to keep telling himself that enough to actually believe it.


#


Renee hadn’t spent much time in the rec plex, and it took her a bit of wandering around until she found the pool, the humid, chlorine-scented air hitting her nostrils as she made her way through, her backpack heavy against her and her coat stuffed under an arm. The pool area was enormous, featuring an olympic-sized pool, complete with a separate diving area, and at the far end, a large hot tub that was almost like its own small pool. Even at this distance, she could see Kai’s wheelchair parked nearby, and just barely make out his head and shoulders peeking up above the lip of the tub, his hair a damp light brown.
“Hey, handsome,” Renee said with a smile as she approached from behind.
He tipped his head back, squinting against the harsh fluorescent lighting, returning her smile. “Is it that late already?”
Renee shifted a little so he didn’t have to tilt his head to see her. “Don’t tell me you’ve been in the hot tub the entire time!”
He laughed, pushed his fingers through his hair. “No. I swam a little, then hopped in here for a bit, then swam a little more, then came back here, then got out, stretched, then got back in.” He sighed and let his body relax into the water, his eyes sliding shut. “Feels so good, though.” He yawned. “God, it’d be awesome to have a big tub like this at home I could use whenever I want. I don’t fit in a regular bathtub.”
“Never had that problem,” Renee said with a wink. “I’d join you, but I don’t have a suit.”
“Just skinny dip. I don’t mind.” Kai grinned.
Renee laughed. “I doubt the school would appreciate that nearly as much as you would.”
Kai shrugged, smiled, angled his head just so, and Renee was struck by how incredibly handsome he was. He was a good-looking man; she’d known that from the very first time she’d laid eyes on him. But right now, with him relaxed and smiling at her like that, she was convinced there wasn’t a more attractive man anywhere in the world.
Renee glanced down at his chair, some towels draped over it, a few looking slightly damp. “Do you mind if I . . .” She gestured to it. “I’d like to sit with you for a bit, but I don’t want to get wet.”
Kai’s face clouded for a moment, and finally, he nodded. He looked as if he were going to say something, but thought better of it, though his face was a little wary as she unslung her bag, scooping the towels out of her way, and carefully took a seat. Even with his permission, it seemed wrong to sit there, and an awkward silence descended between them, the only sounds the movement of the water bubbling in the tub and the echo of splashes in the pool as the few students there swam laps.
It was strange, but somehow, sitting in Kai’s wheelchair made her feel even tinier than standing beside him when he was upright; her feet only reached the footrest if she sat forward in the seat, which was awkward because it was angled slightly with the back lower than the front. She tried sitting all the way into the chair, but Kai’s legs were so long that the cushion went past her knees, leaving her legs hanging awkwardly in the air. She finally settled for sitting halfway in, her feet wrapped around the bars leading to the footrest, and her coat stuffed behind her, between the backrest and her spine.
While Renee was arranging herself in his chair, Kai heaved himself out of the water in one smooth motion, sitting on the edge, his legs bobbing in the current created by the whirlpool jets. It gave Renee the first opportunity to really see him, and the sight made her lick her lips. Damn. The unusual suit covered him completely from knee to neck, with only his arms bare, but the fabric was skin-tight and highlighted every single muscle in Kai’s chest and stomach, not to mention the lack of coverage on his shoulders and arms made the definition there even more prominent. Like this, it was even more obvious what a fantastic body Kai had, even with all the weight he'd lost. Kai had a swimmer’s build, a long torso with broad shoulders and chest, but a flat profile, slimming down to a narrow waist. Right now, in that suit, his long hair damp and clinging to his head, beads of moisture on his skin, Kai looked like something out of a cologne advertisement. Strong, sexy, masculine, and incredibly fuckable.
Renee’s face must have betrayed her thoughts, or perhaps he’d simply noticed how she was staring at him, because he crossed his arms over his chest as if to cover himself and ducked his head, his cheeks coloring, and not just from the heat of the water, as if he were embarrassed.
“When you told me what your swimsuit was like, I was picturing one of those ridiculous ones like they used to wear in the 1920s. I know you don’t believe me, but you look so incredibly hot right now.”
Kai blushed deeper, but he dropped his arms to his sides, supporting his weight with them. “Really?”
“You’ve positively driven me to distraction, Mr. Fox,” Renee said in a mock accent.
That made Kai laugh and she noticed he relaxed further, less self-conscious about his body. “I prefer to hide my scars so I don’t invite as many questions,” Kai said, as if defending his choice of swimwear. Then, in true Kai form, he deftly changed the subject. “I don’t think I could eat much, but we could stop for a bite on the way home, if you want. Or I could cook you something.”
Renee smiled. She realized she’d been smiling a lot lately, and she wondered if part of it was pure, simple elation at just being around Kai after so many weeks apart or only seeing each other in structured visits once a week. “I’d love to, but I have a night class Monday and Wednesday. Rain check?”
Kai stretched his neck, his eyebrows furrowing. “You never told me you had a night class. How many hours are you taking?”
“Too many. I had to get special permission to add this last class. It’s fingerspelling.”
Kai had been wiping the excess moisture off his arms, but he went still when she said that, looking up at her, his expression one of his complex ones, but she saw a hint of awe in it, as well as surprise. “Fingerspelling?” Kai asked, one hand quickly wiggling his fingers from side to side in the ASL sign.
Renee felt her own cheeks heating faintly as she nodded. She struggled to say what she wanted to say in sign, giving up halfway as her vocabulary failed her. “I want to learn ASL better for you. I want you to be able to bring me to Deaf events and not be the clueless hearing girlfriend who doesn’t understand the conversations, who makes you feel like you don’t belong there.” Renee shifted, her eyes down. “I want to be able to have this entire discussion, right now, all in sign, if that’s what you’d like.”
Kai was silent so long, hiding his face, Renee worried she’d said the wrong thing. But finally, he lifted his chin, his eyes meeting hers, and she saw a faint shimmer in them, saw the raw emotion he wasn’t masking, and heard the tremble in his voice when he said only, “Re.” Then, with one hand he lazily signed, “No girl has ever learned to sign for me.
Renee bent forward so their faces were more at a level with each other, grinning. “I guess that makes me special.”
A new smile, one Renee had never seen before, tilted Kai’s cheeks. It was shy, barely there, but warm and besotted and a bit bewildered, too. It was childlike, and yet at the same time the kind of smile only a man in love could give. Kai hadn’t echoed her sentiment of love in words or signs, but looks like that told her that he did love her, too, even if he wasn’t ready to say it yet. “I already knew you were special.”


#


Renee shut the door to Kai’s apartment and followed him to his bedroom, where she deposited his admittedly heavy braces--which she’d insisted on carrying for him despite his protests that he could handle them himself--on the bed. He laid his crutches against the wall, and then turned to her with a smile. “Sure I can’t get you anything?”
“No, I really have to go. I’d like to stop at home before I have to head back for my night class.”
Kai nodded, gestured for her to lead the way back to the front door. “Thanks for chauffeuring me around today.”
Renee let out a low chuckle. “I don’t mind. Do you need a ride tomorrow, too?”
“No. I have an appointment with Dr. Miller in the morning, and then I’m at the hospital all day.”
Renee stopped halfway between Kai’s room and the front door so she could turn and face him. “Everything OK?”
Kai smiled, sweet and simple, and nodded. “My 18-month anniversary is coming up, so I have weekly tests for awhile, and then I have my six-month derm appointment in the afternoon.”
“Anniversary?”
Kai gestured with his thumb, drawing down the center of his chest.
Renee’s eyebrows went up. “Oh. I should’ve realized.”
Kai shrugged. “Hard to believe sometimes,” Kai said. “Anyway, in February, I have some more invasive tests to see how my lungs are working, and then I’ll meet with my pulmonologist and nephrologist to see if everything is still OK. If I’m lucky, my lungs and liver and kidneys and white blood cell count all look good. If I’m really lucky, I’ll have my immunosuppressant drugs cut back. But probably not.”
Renee wandered closer to the door, knowing she needed to go, but hating to leave Kai. “I also didn’t know you saw a dermatologist regularly?”
Kai rolled his eyes. “The drugs that keep my body from rejecting my lungs put me at an increased risk of cancer, especially skin cancer, so I go every six months and have her scour and scrutinize every mole and freckle, taking samples until I look like swiss cheese, to catch anything before it gets bad.” The word cancer scared her, but Kai seemed to notice and quickly reassured her. “My risk is mostly blood and skin cancers, and I get checked for both regularly. If they ever found something, they can step in quickly. Honestly, I’m much more likely to die of an infection.”
Like what nearly killed him a month ago? Renee shivered at the thought.
Kai shook his head, sighed, as if he seemed to realize he shouldn’t have been so blunt. “I’ll be OK,” he said, obviously trying to reassure her, flashing another smile that she wouldn’t have realized was put on for her benefit if she didn’t know him. “This is why I don’t like inviting questions. Never a short answer.”
“No, thank you for telling me,” Renee said, making sure her face showed her sincerity. “Medicine is so complicated.”
Kai shrugged. “Medicine is simple. It’s people that are complicated.”


#


Jon was surprised, when he got home, to find Kai sitting on the couch in the semi-dark apartment. It wasn’t that Kai was sitting on the sofa; that was pretty normal. Rather, the fact that he wasn’t reading, or watching TV, or doing something but just sitting there was what Jon found so unexpected. And, frankly, worrying.
“Kai? You OK? How was school?”
Kai took in a deep breath. He didn’t answer Jon’s questions, but instead said, “I’d like to talk to you. In sign.” He glanced over at Jon momentarily.
“Uh, sure.” Jon hung up his coat and set his briefcase on the counter, then crossed to the living room area, taking a seat where he and Kai could easily see each other for a signed conversation.”What’s up?
You know that thing,” Kai explained, gesturing a cylindrical object with a cone head perpendicular to the base, indicating it had a light. “Doctors use it?” Then Kai pointed to his ear, then gestured as if the ear was in front of him with his left hand to represent it while he used his right, pretending he was holding the object and peering into the ear. “That? I don’t know the English. Do you have one?
Otoscope,” Jon said, fingerspelling the word slowly. “I might have one in my room. Why?
Kai took a deep breath. “Today was the worst example, but lately, I’ve noticed sometimes it’s like my ears are clogged up or something. I can’t hear well, and I have this ringing noise,” Kai said, fingerspelling “ringing” and then indicating a continuous, annoying sound with his fingers near each ear and his facial expression. “Today it happened during English class. The teacher got angry with me because she thought I wasn’t paying attention. I thought maybe it was an ear infection?
Jon took his own deep breath. He’d worried about this for weeks, but then when Kai seemed to be fine, he’d almost forgotten about it. But he should at least look first. “I’ll look. Give me a minute.
It didn’t take long for Jon to find what he needed, grateful it was charged. He checked both of Kai’s ears quickly, asked him a few more questions--was he congested, did he have a lot of drainage, etc., and then he was forced to tell Kai what he suspected was really the problem. He just had to pray Kai wouldn’t be too angry.
Back in December, you were really sick. Really, really sick. You understand that, right?
Kai’s eyebrows dipped, but he nodded.
You had an extremely high fever for days. The antibiotic they had you on wasn’t working. So your doctor told me he wanted to change you to some other medications. But the problem was, these drugs, especially used together, put you at an increased risk of inner ear damage. If you recovered, it was possible you could develop balance or hearing problems, and that those problems could be permanent.
Kai’s eyes widened and he covered his mouth.
The doctor explained that we either took a risk with those drugs, or there was a good chance the infection would cause your organs to fail and you would die. He gave me a choice.” Jon looked at his brother apologetically. “I chose to take the risk. The doctor told me that it would probably take weeks before we would know if you’d have any issues. And all this time passed, and you seemed fine. . . . I’m so sorry. I should have told you earlier.
Kai seemed dumbstruck, though it was impossible to tell if he were angry or upset beyond that. “I could become deaf?” Kai asked in clarification.
Jon nodded.
Kai inhaled sharply. “Completely deaf?
Jon nodded. “But the doctor told me most likely you’d have balance issues, or limited hearing loss affecting the highest frequencies. So you would still be able to hear, but you’d lose some hearing.
Did David know?
Jon nodded, looking guilty. “We talked about it. We both thought your life was worth the risk. Did I make the wrong decision?” Jon shook his head. “I don’t regret it, but I’m sorry.
Kai closed his eyes, but he was still unreadable. Finally, he opened them again. “So what happened today . . . that could end up being permanent? My hearing will go out and it won’t come back?
It’s possible.
Kai suddenly looked like he was on the brink of tears, struggling to hold his emotions back. “Today, in my writing class, I couldn’t follow most of the lecture because I couldn’t make sense of the words. It was like hearing underwater. And the teacher was so hostile. . . . I felt so . . . isolated. People were dismissing me for not understanding. It was the first time in a long time I felt like a true stranger in the hearing world, and it was awful. What am I supposed to do now?
I’ll make you an appointment with the ENT at JMH who specializes in hearing loss. You’ll go see him. Have a hearing test. He’ll be able to advise you. And we’ll go from there.
Kai nodded. He clearly seemed conflicted.
If you want to talk about it, we can. But if you’re too angry at me--
Kai shook his head. “No. I’m not . . . angry. I mean . . .” Kai paused. “I don’t know what I’m feeling, to be honest. I think I’ll need to talk to Dr. Miller about this tomorrow.
Jon nodded. “I should have told you earlier. I’m sorry.
Kai seemed to be thinking, his brow deeply furrowed, nibbling his lip. “I’m going to go cook. Unlock the knives for me?” Then he swiftly transferred to his chair and gave Jon a look that said he didn’t want to talk about the subject anymore for now.

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6 comments:

  1. Thank you for the update. I certainly didn't see this coming - I'm so glad Jon learned sign language again and Renee's learning for whatever happens. I'm curious to see what becomes of his English class. Thanks again for the update!

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  2. Man, Kai just can't catch a break---at least he liked the omelette. I do love Re, but I miss Nikki. I know she wouldn't fit into the plot right now...but I'd still like to know what she's up to. Thanks for writing! I'm hooked. :)

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    1. Don't worry. Nikki isn't completely gone from the story... ;)

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  3. OMG! That was somehow the hottest chapter yet for me. I didn't see that twist coming!

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  4. I love what you are doing with this story. It is progressing at a fine pace. Don't worry -- just tell it as you wish to.

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  5. Noooooooo! Kai! Good job he's got a good support network...

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