November 17, 2000 - Part I
Kai answered the door, rolling backwards to give Renee space to enter. He was smiling, that smile she’d come to learn was hers, because he only ever flashed it when he was looking at her. It wasn’t too broad or too pinched, just a little teeth showing, and slightly lopsided, and it usually went with a kind of far-off, misty look in his eyes. He nibbled his lip.
“So what’s going on?” She unzipped her coat and hung it on one of the hooks at wheelchair height near the door, also very conveniently placed for someone as petite as she was.
“Uh, I have something I want to show you,” Kai said, suddenly nervous, rapidly doing a 180 and pushing toward the hallway. Renee followed a few steps behind, watched as Kai wheeled to the kitchen table, pulled out one of the chairs, and arranged it so it was facing outward. He gestured for her to sit.
Renee looked at him, perplexed, but obeyed.
Kai pushed toward her till their knees touched, and it made her stomach dance. “Just . . . just wait here, OK? I’ll . . . I’ll be right out.” Red had crept up his neck, and he smiled another new smile, this one slim and shy, before hurrying into his bedroom.
Nervous wasn’t normally an emotion Kai struggled with. Anxiety, yes, but nervousness? He pushed to his dresser and scanned the prescription bottles until he found the one he was looking for, tapping out a hydroxyzine into his palm and swallowing it dry. Just in case. He closed his eyes, took a few steadying breaths. His body was telling him no!, his heart racing, his stomach knotting, but if he didn’t listen to it, he remembered how excited he was and how much he wanted Renee to be the one to share this moment with him.
Swallowing, Kai wheeled to the door, opening it just a crack. Then he angled his chair carefully, set the brakes, and used his hands to push himself forward on the seat. He could feel his body wanting to panic, but the hydroxyzine worked quickly, and he focused hard on his breathing, on each minor task as he did them, forcing his brain away from the anxiety, as Dr. Miller had coached him. He also kept in mind how excited and happy he was, pushing away the negative feelings.
Once his feet were on the floor, in position, Kai reached for his crutches, angled against the wall nearby, slipping his arms into them. He opened and closed his fists a few times on the grips, took a deep breath, then placed the tips and heaved his way to his feet. He shifted his weight until he heard his left brace lock, then again to use one crutch tip to push the door open the rest of the way. Even with the medicine and the mental prep, he felt like he was going to throw up his racing heart. It was one thing for Renee to see him walking without the sticks, another for her to see him in the chair, but the crutches changed everything. They were like two giant yellow highlighter strokes on his abnormal gait.
She’s seen you on the parallel bars, walking worse than this, Kai reminded himself as he took his first few steps out of his room and into the main area of the apartment. Carefully planting each crutch, negotiating his right leg forward, which still dragged a little, waiting for the posterior lock at his knee to engage, then rotating his body to his right side to help his left foot clear the floor, partially using the crutches to pull his locked left leg forward.
He looked up to see Renee’s expression, but it was unreadable, and his anxiety spiked, held back only by the drug. He stood in the door to the hall, leaning on his crutches, moderating his breathing and desperately trying to maintain his neutral mask as Renee rose and walked toward him. She reached out, smoothed one hand over the tense muscle of a forearm, then dipped her head back to look up at him, smiling, since even with the slight lean, he was nearly a foot and a half taller than her.
She gently arched her brows, then drew her hand over her forehead in the sign for “forget.” She pointed at him, then stood on tiptoes as she gestured in the air to indicate “really tall," shifting her facial expression to emphasize her point. She’d said, in ASL, “I forgot how tall you are.”
It was like she’d stuck a needle into the balloon of his anxiety, immediately bursting it, leaving room for a host of other emotions to come rushing in, all battling for expression. “My doctor just cleared me yesterday. . . . I wanted you to be the first . . .”
Renee smiled up at him, asked, strictly with her body language, if she could hug him. He nodded, his own smile appearing as she threaded her arms between his and his body, wrapping them around his waist. Her touch immediately relaxed him, comforted him in a way he hadn’t even realized he’d needed until he felt it. Perhaps because she just accepted him. Not unlike Nikki, yet not quite like her, either.
“If this had never happened, that would have been OK,” she said, looking up, her eyes sincere. “But I’m happy for you, Kai. And I’m really glad you chose to share it with me like this.”
Kai let out a long breath. “I can’t walk too far or stand too long, but . . . do you want to go somewhere? Somewhere I couldn’t go in the chair?”
“Sure,” she said with a playful half smile, slipping one hand partially into his pocket.
“You don’t mind? People stare when I’m in the chair, but like this they gape. And they’ll be staring at you, too. If it makes you uncomfortable . . .”
“I waited weeks just to talk to you again. You think a couple crutches are going to scare me off?”
Kai shifted his weight, freeing up an arm. He dropped it out of the crutch so he could pull Renee closer to him in a brief hug. “I’m glad you’re so persistent, because I’m an idiot.”
Renee chuckled. “I coulda told you that. But I still love you.” Kai felt Renee stiffen, then clear her throat. “Uh, you know what I mean.” But she didn’t let go, and Kai realized hearing that word, from Renee, wasn’t terrifying.
It was wonderful.
Even though Kai had warned her, and she'd been out with him before, in his chair, the looks he garnered amazed her. Pity. Curiosity. Disgust. And he'd been right: she got them, too, though hers were slightly different. Confusion. Appreciation. Skepticism. Like people were trying to work out her motivation for being with him. She forced herself to ignore the gapers and focus on Kai. He didn't move quickly or easily, but he did have his own quirky rhythm, and she loved the way his hands and arms looked as they supported his weight with each crutch. It was an adjustment, again, to his height, and she realized part of her missed the chair. But she knew what a huge milestone this was, how much it meant to him, and her insides still buzzed with the fact that he'd wanted her to be the first to see him walking again, outside of PT. She loved his quiet determination, and realized no matter what their onlookers might think of her, they'd never guess what she was really feeling. Pride. Attraction. Affection.
She had expected things to be a little awkward for him with both hands occupied as they were by the crutches, but apparently, even though she had never seen him using them before, it didn’t mean they were new to him. At the ticket counter, he simply adjusted his weight, slipped out of one crutch, leaning it against the surface, and reached back for his wallet, managing to extract the money from it single handed. He’d handled doors similarly smoothly, at least from her perspective, standing off to the left, dropping his arm out of its crutch and pulling it open, sometimes using the crutch to push the door open farther before planting the tip back on the ground. She was sure he’d manage by himself, but years of indoctrination by her grandmother meant she couldn’t resist holding it for him once he got it open.
The theater was packed, and Renee was grateful they’d opted to see Requiem for a Dream, a more cerebral film that had been out a month instead of the night’s blockbuster release, The 6th Day. Kai had confessed he didn’t like crowds, especially now that he was immunocompromised, and though he’d worn a scarf to cover his mouth and nose, he hoped he wouldn’t have to wear it or the surgical mask he’d brought if their showing was mostly empty.
Even without the mask, though, most people seemed to give Kai a wide berth, as if he were contagious. As if they’d somehow catch “crippled.” Renee couldn’t help rolling her eyes.
“I think I can count the number of times I’ve gone to the movies on one hand,” Kai said, standing just inside the doorway, looking around. “Without using ASL,” he added with a grin she could see as a sparkle in his eyes.
“Well, considering what passes for ‘quality cinematic entertainment’ lately, I don’t think you’ve missed much.” Renee angled her neck to look up at him with her own grin.
He nudged his chin toward the concessions. “You want anything? I’m afraid you’ll have to carry it yourself, but . . .” He offered a slight shrug.
“I’m good,” she said, laying her hand lightly on top of one of his, which gripped the handle of his crutch tightly. “But I don’t mind carrying anything if you want something.”
Kai ended up getting some water and a box of candy--Renee had learned pretty quickly that Kai had a sweet tooth the size of Mt. Rushmore, and it was something about him she found enormously endearing. He viewed eating as a chore, but put something sugary in front of him, and his eyes would light up like a child’s. In fact, the more she was with Kai, the more she realized he was almost like two different people: who he was in front of strangers or those he didn’t know well, and the person he was with friends and family--with her. At first, he seemed quiet, reserved, distant, cold, but in reality, he was smart and funny, more sensitive than he was willing to admit, and sweet as the treats he loved.
They entered the theater for their movie, one of the mid-sized ones, with a flight of gently sloping stairs on each side of the rows of seats. It was empty, save for a few people up toward the back, since they’d arrived extra early for the show. If you’re with me, you’ll get used to showing up early for everything, he explained. It makes things easier, gives me time to figure out how or if I can get in somewhere.
“Take this off for me?” Kai asked, holding his chin up.
Renee’s eyebrows furrowed. “Are you sure?”
“If it gets more crowded, I’ll put on a mask. I promise,” Kai said. “But this is hot.”
She chuckled, stood on tiptoe to carefully unwind the scarf from around his face. He shook his head, tossing his hair everywhere, making her laugh.
“Ah, that’s better. Thanks.”
She followed him past the front rows of seats, toward the tiered seating, nearly bumping into him when he paused at the foot of the stairs, as if having second thoughts. She hugged him quickly from behind. “I don’t mind the front row if you’re not up to it.”
“No, I need to . . . want to do this.” He seemed to be assessing the path, as if planning how he’d tackle it. Finally, he said, “Go ahead of me. If I fall--which I shouldn’t--I don’t want to hurt you. And that way you can sit down without having to climb over me.”
“Maybe I’d like that,” Renee teased, then flushed red.
Kai smiled slyly, his lips pressed together, but said nothing, waiting for her to hop up a few stairs.
“Uh, give me a couple steps and I’ll let you know.”
Renee nodded, waiting patiently.
The steps were wide and close together in height, giving Kai room to place his crutches carefully, using them to help pull each leg up, one at a time. He managed his right fairly easily, but his left was more of a challenge, since it didn’t bend. But like everything Renee had observed this evening, Kai handled it, readjusting his crutches and right foot until he got the angle such he could pull his left leg up. His face showed his obvious concentration, but once he cleared a step, he’d look up and smile at her, a version of her smile, with a hint of that shy one he’d shown her earlier.
It continued to surprise her how sexy he was, no matter what he was doing. Whether it was something as simple as sitting beside her, reading, his golden hair falling in his face as he bent over a book, or working hard, as he was now, at something everyone else--even she--took for granted--her heart beat a little faster, doing its mini tango in her chest. She realized, even though she’d only known him since August, and only really gotten to know him over the past few weeks, that everything she was feeling about Kai could be condensed into one short word. Love. It had leaked out earlier by mistake, but she hadn’t really regretted it. The light, bubbly feeling in her stomach whenever she was near him. Knowing she wanted to be with him no matter what he was doing. Realizing how badly she was going to miss him next week while she was in New Orleans for the holiday.
Halfway up the steps to the fourth row, he paused, not quite breathing hard, but obviously tired, leaning heavier on his crutches. He nudged his chin toward the row. “Go ahead and sit. I think this is good enough.” He flashed a smile, but it didn’t last.
She obeyed, easing into the row, but not taking a seat yet, watching as he leaned forward slightly, pushing hard against the floor with his crutches to pull his left leg up the final step.Then he shifted his crutches, twisting his torso and taking a cautious angled step with his right leg so he turned a few degrees, paused. His feet were now at strange angles, nearly perpendicular to each other, his left toes pointed toward his right heel. He planted his crutches one by one, again pulling his body to shift his left leg. Kai had positioned himself at about a thirty-degree angle to the row, facing the front. He eased one crutch, then his right foot into the row, then followed with the other crutch, using his upper body to get his left leg in place. Then he adjusted his weight, shifting it to his left crutch, and slipped out of his right.
“Take it,” he said, offering it to her.
She did, surprised at how cool the metal felt in her hands, waiting for him to finish, figuring if he needed her help he’d ask for it, like he had just now with the crutch.
Kai cast a quick glance over his shoulder to check his position, his left hand gripping tightly on its handle, his knuckles white. He twisted, bending, his right hand reaching back for the armrest. It was a precarious moment, his right leg unlocked, and if he were going to fall, it’d be now. But he didn’t, bracing himself on the armrest with his right hand, using that arm to pull his body toward the seat. Once he was partially secure there, he released his grip on his left crutch handle in favor of the other armrest, finally sinking into the seat with a sigh. His right leg was bent, but his left lay straight, sticking out into the aisle. He removed his second crutch, stood it between his legs temporarily, the cuff balanced against the back of the next row of seats, then found the release for his left knee, unlocking the brace. He pulled on his jeans to maneuver his leg out of the path of the stairs, then offered Renee his second crutch.
Kai blew out a harsh breath, smiled at her. “Could you put that beside you? Just lean them together, or put them on top of the seats if no one needs to sit there.” He unzipped his coat and hurriedly pulled it off; his cheeks were flushed and he had to be hot, but she knew he’d adjusted his cuffs before he’d left to accommodate his jacket. For that and other reasons, it was easier for him to wait until he was sitting to remove it. He watched her position his crutches. “Don’t let them fall, if you can.”
Renee carefully checked that they were secure, adding in her own coat and his scarf to help keep them in place. “I don’t blame you; this floor is kind of sticky.”
Kai laughed lightly, then grabbed the armrests again to further adjust his body, pausing to manipulate a leg when it would catch. Probably a strap of his brace on the lip of the seat. “Whoever invented folding seats obviously didn’t have anything wrong with his legs or arms.” He leaned back and sighed, but he had a faint smile on his face. “Life with me will never be boring, I’ll promise you that.” He used his hands to stretch his legs out as far as the space would allow, grinned when she offered him his bottle of water. “I’m going to miss you next week,” he said, opening the bottle.
She watched him take a long drink, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed, eager to lean forward and kiss his neck. “I’m going to miss you, too.”
He smiled, set his water in the cupholder, and started massaging his hands, working his fingers into the palm of his opposite hand, then the knuckles, flexing his fingers. She wondered if he hurt after all that crutching, but she treasured this quiet moment with him, sitting together, the way he’d glance over at her fleetingly and flash a quick smile before looking back down at his hands. It occurred to Renee that she didn’t just love to be with him, she was proud. It was a strange feeling, since with the guys she usually dated, she always felt more like an accessory than a girlfriend, a status symbol, a cute face. Kai never made her feel like that--not that she didn’t think he found her beautiful; she knew he did. Instead, she felt more like equals, partners. Kai never assumed what she was thinking, what she wanted was what he wanted. It was evident the stares didn’t faze him, but he’d been cognizant that they might bother her. She’d brave the harshest looks to spend time with him, but the fact that he’d considered her feelings and desires meant something. Most guys she’d been with before dragged her along, not even aware she might think otherwise. Like Jude.
Renee’s thoughts were interrupted as a group of guys about their age wandered in, laughing and talking and whacking each other as they joked, jogging up the stairs. They didn’t look like the Requiem for a Dream type, and she wondered if The 6th Day was sold out and they’d heard there was sex and nudity in this film. When they reached the fourth row, they stopped, stared at Kai, apparently waiting for him to get up.
Renee saw Kai let out a long breath before tilting his head up to look at the three guys. “Look, it’s not easy for me to stand up and sit back down, so could you go around?”
The three dudes glanced at each other, whispering as they noticed Kai’s crutches, the hint of metal and plastic at his ankle, peeking out from the bottom of his pants. The one who seemed to be the leader rolled his shoulders, cracked his neck as he nudged it toward the front of the theater. “Crip seats are down there.”
“Yes,” Kai said, “and they suck. Go around. Or sit in another row. Don’t be a jerk.”
“Oh yeah?” the leader said, looking to his friends with a “watch this” look, then leaning forward and grabbing Kai’s shirt. “Who’s being the jerk here?”
Kai’s eyes dropped to the guy’s hands, but otherwise, he didn’t move. “Don’t touch me,” he said, his voice level, though the threat was clear.
“Wait. I recognize you,” the leader said, still gripping Kai’s shirt.
Renee noticed Kai’s eyes narrow, his lips press together, but otherwise, he was outwardly completely calm.
“You’re that little spazzy retarded kid. Kyle?” The leader laughed, turned to his friends and started speaking in a mocking accent, imitating a deaf or mentally handicapped person’s speech. “Ooh, look at me! I’m going to the movies! Ooh boy!” The leader continued to mock Kai to his friends, laughing, and he didn’t notice when Kai reached up, grabbed each wrist, pressing his thumbs into the flesh, forcing the joker to let go with a howl of pain.
“I said, don’t be a jerk,” Kai hissed, shoving him back into his buddies, who had to scramble to catch each other to prevent all three of them from tumbling down the stairs in a heap.
Kai closed his eyes, took a few breaths, then turned to Renee, offering a slim smile. “You OK?”
Renee looked at him as if he were crazy, thinking, Am I OK? Are you OK?, but instead, she just nodded.
“Good,” he said with his own nod, putting his arms up, linking his fingers and stretching his back and shoulders.
Renee watched as the three punks collected themselves, walking around to the other set of stairs, casting surreptitious glances at Kai while whispering to each other.
Finally, Kai lowered his arms, sighed, cradled his neck. “In case it wasn’t already obvious, I went to high school with those guys. I used to be small and scrawny, and I was just learning to speak, so I had a weird accent. Plus, sometimes, especially when I was nervous or stressed, my brain would get confused and I’d talk in a kind of oral ASL, which sounds like broken English. . . . Anyway, with the crutches and spasms and all that, let’s just say I wasn’t exactly the homecoming king.”
Re shifted in her seat so she was almost sitting sideways, took one of his arms and hugged it. “Well, I like you just the way you are,” she said, smiling. Then she pulled back to sign, kissing her fist and casting it downward, “LOVE A-S-L.”
Kai beamed. “YOU LEARN FAST.”
She giggled. “I have a good teacher,” she said while signing, “YOU GOOD TEACHER.”
Renee was practically dancing as she led the way out of the theater. Despite the darkness of the film, she was delightfully happy, spinning around every few feet to smile broadly back at him, clearly enjoying their time together. She didn’t seem to care that people stared or taunted him--instead of being embarrassed by the harassment of his former high school classmates, she’d simply hugged his arm throughout most of the film, occasionally glancing at him with this enraptured look he couldn’t believe was reserved for him.
“Oh, Kai, can we, please?” she squealed as she pointed to a photobooth, rushing up to it.
He joined her, staring at it. It was a bad idea for so many reasons. The most obvious being who knew how many germs the thing harbored, and second, the booth was tiny and cramped, not easy for a man his size to squeeze himself into even if he were able bodied. But Renee’s eyes were filled with such pure childlike exuberance he didn’t think he could stand to disappoint her.
“I mean, uh, if you think you can manage,” she said, deflating, apparently reading the hesitation in his eyes.
He sighed, though he kept it soft. “I can manage,” he said, offering her a sweet smile. “For you.” He took a moment to assess the situation, shifting his weight to one crutch so he could drop his hand out of his other and pull the curtain to the side. The space was small, but that could potentially be an advantage. He studied the angles one more time before slipping out of one crutch completely. “Hold this.”
He made sure he was balanced on his left side, then used his free hand to help lift his right foot forward, into the booth. He braced his hand on the wall, using that and his left crutch to help pull himself in and down onto the bench. He took a moment to catch his breath before slipping out of his left crutch and guiding his other leg in, unlocking the brace.
Renee peeked in, beaming pure sunshine rays of happiness, accepting his second crutch, since there didn't appear to be any room for him to lean them in the booth. He watched her propping them against the outside wall, which made him nervous.
Perhaps she sensed his anxiety, so she smiled. “No one is going to take them, Kai. We’ll only be a few minutes.”
Of course, Renee had no way to know that had happened to him before, more than once, and with his high school “buddies” possibly still loose in the theater, perhaps bent on revenge after he humiliated them. . . . But Renee was right. It was only a few minutes, and he didn’t really have a choice.
“Just . . . angle them so I can see the tips below the curtain. Please.”
Another woman might have protested, or accused him of being paranoid, but one look in Renee’s eyes told him that she understood, and so instead of leaving them outside, she climbed in, carefully sandwiching them between the front and back walls, angled, the tips under the bench. Since Kai was so tall, they just barely fit, and it meant they blocked the doorway, but they were inside, and with the curtain drawn back, would be impossible to filch surreptitiously.
He couldn’t begin to express the relief that swept over him, but thankfully, he didn’t have to. She simply kissed him, refusing to let him pay for the photos. “They were my idea after all.”
She settled into his lap, and he held her waist as she added money to the machine. “Ready?” She laughed and kissed him on the cheek just as the camera started clicking away, and he looked at her, and she looked at him, and they both smiled as he realized as big a pain as the booth was, it was worth it, to see her smiling at him like that.
Continue to November 17, 2000 - Part II ------->