November 11, 2000 - Part II
Vicky sat at the kitchen island of her childhood home, watching her mother, Margaret, roll out yet another sheet of sugar cookie dough.
“Ma, isn’t it a little early for Christmas cookies? It’s not even Thanksgiving yet.”
“Bah. It’s never too early for sugar snowmen.” Her mom grabbed her cookie cutters and expertly went to work, turning the blank dough into dozens of tiny snowmen, snowflakes, and other holiday shapes in minutes.
“So, Ma,” Vicky said a little hesitantly, spraying Pam on a couple cookie sheets, “remember I told you I was seeing someone? That I might bring him to Thanksgiving dinner?”
“Mmm,” Margaret muttered, nodding a thank you as she began laying the cookies out on each tray. “The doctor, right? Dr. Tyler?”
“Same difference. Get the oven, will you?”
Vicky sighed and rose, pulling open the oven Margaret had indicated so her mother could shove the cookies inside. Her mom’s kitchen had four ovens--two sets of doubles--which might have been overkill in a normal home, but with eight children and legions of other relatives, all four were well used.
Before sitting back down, Vicky went to the fridge for a beer. From the way this conversation was going already, she was going to need it. She had one in her hand when she heard her mother.
“Your father will wonder why he only has five beers left instead of six,” Margaret noted, cleaning her workspace so she could roll out still more dough.
Vicky blinked, the fridge still open, as she realized, Shit. Can’t drink while I’m pregnant. Reluctantly, she replaced the beer and grabbed some juice instead, probably stocked for the numerous grandkids who shuffled in and out of the house. “You’re right,” Vicky said as she returned to her seat.
Margaret stared at her suspiciously for a moment, probably wondering why Vicky backed down so easily, though she said nothing.
“His name is Jon, and we’re serious.”
“Are you sure it’s a good idea to date someone you work with? Remember . . . oh, what was his name . . . Todd?”
“Terry. And that was nursing school. I was still getting over. . . . Anyway, this is different.”
“Do you think I should do three turkeys this year, or two turkeys and a ham? Or maybe just the breast. I was reading in a magazine the dark meat really isn’t good for you, and your father--”
“Ma. I’m trying to talk to you.”
“I’m listening.” She searched through a few drawers before pulling out some more cookie cutters, these more fall themed. “See, not too early for these, I hope,” Margaret said, as if trying to prove her earlier point. “Maybe I should do two turkeys and two hams. Everyone seems to prefer the ham leftovers.”
Vicky sighed. “Jon is diabetic, OK? So he’s not going to be eating too many starches or carbs or sweets.”
Margaret nodded, though by the way she seemed distracted by her task, Vicky figured it had nothing to do with what she just said.
“I’m telling you this so you’re not offended when he doesn’t eat much or drink any alcohol. His blood sugar can be hard to regulate sometimes.”
Margaret looked at Vicky with a sour frown. “You and your sister Victoria--”
“I’m Victoria, Ma.”
Margaret rolled her eyes, wiped her hands and started setting up cooling racks. “Victoria, Veronica, whatever. You two are always talking down to me. Just because I didn’t go to college and stayed home with you kids, you think I don’t know anything about the world.” She slipped on a pair of oven mitts, pulling out finished cookies. “I’ll tell you something,” Margaret said, pointing a spatula at her daughter, “I’ve learned more about life from raising eight children than anyone could teach you in school. Which you might know, if you were a mother.” It was a low blow, and even Margaret seemed to realize it. “Vicky--”
Vicky blinked furiously, took a few deep breaths. It would be so easy to just tell her mom the truth, but she knew all too well the truth didn’t always set you fucking free. So instead, Vicky smiled, shook her head, dismissing it.
Margaret frowned, but seemed to accept the easy out, continuing as if the slip hadn’t happened. “Anyway, I know all about that. Vincent’s oldest, Emily, was just diagnosed. Poor thing. Has to prick her finger all the time and take these horrible shots several times a day.”
“It’s not that bad, Ma. Jon’s been a type I diabetic since he was seven.”
“He’ll be fine,” Margaret continued, as if Vicky hadn’t spoken, scooping cookies onto the cooling racks. “I’m making a sugar-free version of everything anyway since Valerie is on a diet. Or is it Vivian?” Margaret waved a hand in the air. “Bah. Doesn’t matter, one of you girls is always dieting anyway.”
Vicky sighed. It was obvious her point wasn’t getting across no matter what she said. “Jon and I are serious, Ma,” Vicky repeated. “And he’s not used to a big family, so . . . just . . . be nice to him, OK?”
“I’m always nice,” Margaret said, scooping more cookies onto baking sheets. “Bring him some of these when I’m done. You can take some undecorated ones so they don’t have as much sugar.”
Vicky had to resist a full facepalm.
Kai was hurting. Renee could tell, even though he didn't complain. He shifted his weight every ten minutes, it seemed, occasionally linking his hands and stretching his long arms above or in front of him, like his back was tight. They had struggled at first to find a position that was comfortable for both of them, especially since Kai didn't want Renee lying on his legs for too long, since he was still having mild spasms, and he needed something to support his back. Finally, they'd settled for Kai sitting with his legs out, feet propped on the seat of his wheelchair, Renee leaning against him, his arm holding her close. Kai hadn't spoken further about her breakdown, but everything from the way he held her to his occasional surreptitious concerned glances suggested he understood, and it was OK. If any other guy had promised her it was always fine to stop, she would have taken it as a mere platitude. A variation on the Three Little Lies: "It'll only hurt for a minute," "I'll only stick the head in," and "I won't come in your mouth."
But Kai meant it. Kai might struggle with full disclosure at times, and despite his recent openness, she knew so much more still lay locked away in his fortress. Still, Art was right: Kai had a kind heart, and she believed he'd never hurt her intentionally. The fact that he'd been willing to let her go if she thought his "complicated health" was more than she could handle despite his obvious attraction to her meant a lot. What was the old saying? If you love someone, you have to be willing to set them free?
"'There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies. That's for thoughts,'" Kai said along with the actress playing Ophelia.
"You have the whole play memorized, don't you?"
"Not all of it," he said. "But I have read it an obscene number of times." He shifted his weight as well as he could with her beside him, trying to stretch his back again, letting out a faint grunt. Her instinct was to ask if he was OK, but she didn’t want to seem like she was hovering. She hadn’t known Kai long, but she knew him well enough he’d tell her if he needed to call it a night. “And now everyone starts dying.”
They’d reached the part of the play where the characters began to die, starting with Polonius, killed my mistake, then Ophelia, drowning herself, and proceeding from there to the final climactic sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes.
“I’m going to change my name again. To Laertes. What do you think?” He fingerspelled it, holding his arm out in front of him, and she could just barely make it out in the light from the television.
“Hmm. Kai’s a lot easier.” She felt him laugh subtly.
“Hmm. Kai’s a lot easier.” She felt him laugh subtly.
“You don’t look like a ‘Laertes.’”
“And I look like a ‘Kai’? I think I’m a little blond.”
Renee laughed, found his hand and caressed it with hers. She loved his long, unusual fingers, the tips rounded on the ends, which he’d explained was a result of his lung disease. “Well, I love 'Kai.'” She froze, her heart suddenly the only sound she could hear. That had meant something totally different in her head. But Kai just squeezed her, and she let herself relax. “Did you pick it, when you changed your name?” She held her breath, remembering how angry he’d gotten the last time she’d asked about why his last name was different from his brother’s. Of course, that was a long time ago, when they’d barely known each other. A lot had changed between them since.
She felt him take in a deep breath. “No, Kai was always my name, it just wasn’t always my first name,” he replied, seemingly no anger in his voice. And he wasn’t trying to speak in that dreaded defensive monotone either. He was just answering the question. Perhaps, if she didn’t push him, he’d reveal something new about himself.
Kai shifted his weight again, just as the graveyard scene began, and he interrupted their conversation to quote the famous monologue along with Mel Gibson. “‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. —Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning?’” Kai grew quiet a moment, before continuing, “‘Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam—and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer barrel? Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,/Might stop a hole to keep the wind away./Oh, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,/Should patch a wall t' expel the winter’s flaw!’” Kai sighed, and they watched the rest of the movie in silence, Kai interrupting a few more times to quote lines--she really didn’t believe he didn’t know the entire play by heart.
Finally, when it had finished, she turned in his arms enough she could just make out his face, loving the way he cradled her. “So. What’d you think?”
“It was kind of weird to see it performed after all these years of just reading it. It made it more real somehow, and yet less.” His gaze was far away, though, and she wondered what he was thinking.
“Penny for your thoughts?”
He laughed, squeezed her. “For me, I think you’ll need more than a penny.” He took in a breath. “Just thinking of how fickle life is. How one moment, someone can be there, smiling and laughing and alive, and then . . .” He shrugged. “Even the greatest men all become dust, as Hamlet points out.”
“But they live on, in our memories. In more . . . literal ways,” she said, laying a hand on his chest.
Kai looked down, his breath hitched.
“Would you ever want to meet the family of . . .”
Kai shook his head. “I don’t think I could. What would I even say to them?” Kai sighed. “I didn’t wish for this,” Kai said in a low voice, drawing a finger down his chest. “On my 21st birthday.”
Renee sat up on her knees so she could see him better, but she didn’t say anything, just reached up and tucked some hair behind his ear.
He rolled his neck, stretching it, before offering a slim smile. “How do you wish for someone else to die so you won’t?” And that, Renee realized, probably said more about Kai than a thousand other words possibly could.
His eyes met hers for a long moment before he let out a forced laugh. “Well, I’ve got introspective and broody down, and I’m pretty crazy. Maybe I should change my name to Hamlet instead? Then I can be ‘bounded in a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.’” He frowned, but there was a bit of a sparkle in his eyes, and she wondered if he were trying to make light of the situation for her sake or his. Perhaps a bit of both.
She decided to play along. “All right, Hamlet,” she said with a smile. “What’s your real first name?”
“Kai is my real first name. I changed it, legally.”
She stuck her tongue out, then stole a quick kiss that left him smiling.
“Joseph,” he said before she could ask again.
“Hmm. Your life story is very Old Testamenty. How fitting.”
Kai rolled his eyes, but he was smiling at her. It amazed her how open he was being with her about this, and a wave of happiness filled her. “My parents had a thing for simple, Biblical names, apparently: Jon, Joseph, Sara.” Renee noticed the mention of a sister. Kai had told her it was only him and his brother left. Did that mean he’d lost track of her, or was she also deceased? “My birth name was Joseph Kai Taylor. According to Jon, my father wanted Kai, but my mother didn’t, so it was a compromise.”
“So you’re Kai Joseph Fox now.” Renee guessed.
“My middle name is Marie. Not very exciting. It’s a family name. My mom’s name is Marie, and my maw maw’s middle name is Marie, too. Etc., etc.”
“I think it’s a pretty name,” he said, gesturing her in close for a kiss. It started out sweet, but quickly grew heated, pulling her into his lap, his hands palming her ass and rocking her into him. He wanted her. And she wanted him, too, but. . . .
She pushed him away, and he immediately stopped, releasing his grip, just as he’d promised, though a haze of lust hovered in his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
He shook his head. “It’s OK,” he said, but he was breathing heavily. “You just drive me crazy.” He pulled her close and playfully nipped at her ear, licking the skin just behind the lobe, making her insides explode. Fuck Jude. Fuck him for ruining this for her.
“I trust you, Kai, really, it’s just--”
Kai laid a long finger on her lips, just for an instant, to silence her. “A wise person once told me you can tell an arachnophobe a spider won’t hurt him, but he can’t help panicking every time he sees one.” He cupped her cheek, looking directly into her eyes; in the dim light, his brilliant blue irises looked almost indigo. “Trust me that I do understand, and it is OK. When you’re ready, you’re ready. Until then, I’ll do everything you feel comfortable with, including this.” He closed his eyes and brought her close in another heartbeat-stealing kiss.
But the kiss ended abruptly when she felt his leg spasm beneath her. She climbed off him and watched as Kai linked his hands above his head and attempted to stretch his back, grimacing.
"I may have to take a raincheck on the Branagh film, Re."
He smiled faintly. "I'm fine, I just don't think I'll make it through another three hours."
Renee snaked her hand between his back and the couch, working her fingers into the taut muscle. "You're so tight."
"Yeah. My back's always stiff at the end of the day, but it's being particularly stubborn tonight."
She nudged him. "Scoot forward."
She shushed him, pushing on his shoulders until he sighed good-naturedly and shifted his feet off his chair, pushing it aside. Then he gripped the edge of the sofa to pull his body forward. Despite his downplaying it, he moved stiffly, his back locked pretty tight from at least the midpoint down. He attempted to arch it, pressing his hands down while dipping his neck back, but he didn't manage much of a stretch. Renee rose, balancing in the cushions until she climbed behind him, nearly falling over.
He laughed. "Should I ask?"
"Shh," she said with a giggle, settling down behind him, sitting on the top of the couch. Renee placed her hands on Kai's shoulders, encouraging him to lean forward. Then she dug a knee in his lower back, her foot braced against the couch, attempting to relax the worst of his knots.
He groaned, hands gripping tight on the cushion edge.
"Am I hurting you?"
"Oh God, no. Don't stop."
Renee laughed, adjusted her balance to use her other knee. She did that for several minutes, then shifted so she could use her elbows on his upper back, alternating that with fingers struggling to relieve the tension. "God, Kai, I'm not strong enough for this," she finally admitted with a laugh, embracing him and planting a kiss near his ear.
"I didn't think you would be, but thank you."
She collapsed onto the couch, on her back, her legs in his lap. He looked over at her, smiling his relaxed grin, though the worry lines near his eyes betrayed his back hurt more than he was willing to admit.
"I should go," he said with obvious reluctance.
"But I have you trapped!" she said teasingly, wrapping her legs around his waist.
"You've definitely ensnared me," Kai said with a warm smile. "This was fun," he added, carefully pushing her off his lap and snagging his chair. “Even if it was our typically unconventional evening of conversation.”
"Do you really have to leave?" Renee pulled herself up, linking a hand in one of his.
As if in answer, Kai's right leg kicked out suddenly, making him hiss and pull his hand back, gripping his thigh. "I have to take something before this gets worse. I don't want to risk hurting myself, and it's not safe for me to drive on the muscle relaxants."
Renee pouted, but nodded.
It took Kai a couple attempts to make the transfer, and Renee could see he was sweating, his foot bobbing. She suspected he was feeling more spasms she couldn't necessarily see.
"You could spend the night," she offered weakly. "I have a queen bed."
He beckoned her in for a quick kiss, looking deeply into her eyes as he replied, "We both know you're not ready for that. And that's OK." He smiled, but there was a weariness in his eyes now. "Plus, you don't want to sleep with me when I'm like this. I'll squirm and fidget and shift and kick until the meds knock me out, and then I'll probably stretch out and totally take over the mattress." He winked, nipped at her lips playfully before pulling back. "I'll call you tomorrow. Maybe we can try Branagh in daylight."
“Kai,” she said, as she followed him toward the front door.
He stopped, slowly drifted around to face her. “Yeah?”
“Thank you,” she said in a small voice. “I’ve never had anything . . . like this . . . before,” she said, not sure how else to put it.
His smile sweetened. “Me either.”
A few minutes later, Renee watched, huddled in her doorway as Kai wheelied through the slight accumulation of new snow on his way to his car. She sighed, smiled when he waved to her once he’d freed up his hands, and resisted chasing after him in the cold and wet for another wonderful kiss.
Continue to: Flashback: June 15-21, 2000 --------->