Thursday, July 27, 2000

In/Exhale - November 18, 2000 - Part II

November 18, 2000 - Part II

By the time Jon found his brother, Kai had already transferred out of his chair onto a bench and was pulling off his clothes, revealing the strange suit he’d evidently put on at home. Jon had never seen Kai actually in it, the suit covering his chest and back, going down to just above his knees, revealing his powerful arms. Kai looked like an athlete, and Jon wondered, if things had been different, if maybe he could have been. Jon hesitated, pulling off his own shirt, knowing how gaunt he was. Vicky was right; he needed to take better care of himself, especially if a little Jon or Vicky would be here soon. Kai used to be even thinner than Jon. If Kai could bulk up, maybe Jon could, too.
   
“Here,” Kai said, tossing something Jon’s way. “It’s my old one. It might be a little big, but the advantage of this style suit is it won’t fall off.”
   
Jon held it up: a suit just like Kai’s, only the fabric was a little faded from use.
   
“It’s clean, Jon.”
   
“I’ll look ridiculous.”
   
Kai laughed as he tossed his clothes in his bag. “Yes, you will. If you decide you want to do this with me regularly, I’ll order you something different, in your size. But for now, little brother gets to give big brother hand-me-downs!” Kai stuffed his bag in his locker, then began stretching his legs on the bench.
   
As Jon struggled with the skin-clinging spandex--or whatever futuristic material this suit was made out of--he realized why Kai put it on at home. He managed to finally get it up, shifting his weight, pulling at the fabric between his legs--he did not like the way it felt there--struggling to reach behind him to zip it up.
   
He heard Kai laugh, shift his legs. “Sit down.” Jon obeyed, and a moment later, heard and felt the zip as Kai obliged him. “There. You should stretch, but you can do it out there. Come on.” Kai grabbed a couple things out of his locker before shutting and locking it, transferring back to his chair and leading the way out to the pool.

#

The heavy scent of chlorine hit Kai’s nostrils immediately as they approached the pool. That smell, the subtle squelch his tires made on the wet tiles, the echo of splashes in the large room, the heaviness of the humidity: it all blended together into pure happiness. Kai had worried Micovic would never clear him to swim again, and he’d honestly wondered if part of what made the last couple months so hard was his inability to dive into the pool and swim until there was nothing but his body and the dim rush of water in his ears as he pushed himself lap after lap.
   
Kai stopped at the edge of a pair of empty lanes, pulling on his cap and adjusting his goggles. He noticed Jon hesitate, gripping their towels to his body and looking around nervously. “You do know how to swim, right?”
   
“The basics,” Jon said, though he still seemed tense.
   
Kai angled his head to look up at his brother. “Look, you don’t need to do this if you don’t want to. I just thought it might be fun.”
   
Jon actually laughed. “This coming from the guy who would probably see skydiving as fun.”
   
Kai pulled closer to the lane, locked his wheels, and lowered himself to the floor. “There are a lot worse ways to die,” he said with a shrug, tying his pull buoy to his legs.
   
Jon joined Kai on the floor, sitting cross legged, laying the towels on the seat of Kai’s chair. “What’s that?”
   
“It helps me keep my legs afloat in the water. Makes it easier for me to use my upper body without having to worry about them.”
   
Jon suddenly looked incredibly sad, and Kai, for a moment, got a taste of his own medicine, uncertain what had caused the sudden shift in his brother’s face.
   
“What?”
   
Jon shook his head, smiled faintly. “It’s just . . . I’m realizing how little I really know you. Just in the last half hour, I feel like I’ve learned more about you than . . .”
   
Kai sighed. “Jon, let’s just swim. OK? I’ll race you to the end? How about, every lap you win, you get to ask me something. Fair?”
   
Jon eyed Kai through narrowed vision, as if seeing through him. Kai might have been restricted from using the pool for the last eight weeks, but that didn’t mean he was out of shape. He was pretty confident he could beat Jon every time without even trying. And Jon apparently knew that.
   
Kai put on his goggles, pulled his legs into the water, then lowered himself into the pool. “Best thing about swimming? No talking!” Kai said with a grin, taking off down the lane, feeling like he was flying.

#

Jon had exhausted himself after only a hundred yards or so--he really needed to get in better shape--so he'd spent part of his time hanging out in the shallows, sitting on the edge, watching Kai.

Jon knew there was no way Kai could have had formal lessons, and he primarily used his upper body, but he moved so smoothly and powerfully through the water. Jon could see as Kai made lap after lap, only pausing to turn (since he couldn't flip turn) why swimming meant so much to him.

In the water, he was just like anyone else. Walking and talking weren't important. Jon wondered, did speaking clearly still require effort? Jon knew Kai sometimes slipped into ASL grammar when he was tired or sick or mad. That day they'd reconnected, when Kai had first revealed he could speak, his sentences had been awkward, his pronunciation rough, and he’d needed to think and talk slowly whenever he put forth the effort to use properly pronounced and grammatically sound English. And he’d been furious with Jon for forgetting how to sign, for forcing him to speak. It had never occurred to Jon that at least part of the reason Kai hated English so much was because he’d been ridiculed for his speech problems.

A wave of guilt crashed into Jon. How selfish had he been, not hiring an ASL tutor until now? How many times had Kai perhaps wanted to talk to him, but was dissuaded by the language barrier? Jon recalled, a few months earlier, how Kai had broached the subject of Renee, explaining it was easier for him to discuss the topic in sign. Jon hadn't really appreciated what that meant.

Jon's thoughts were interrupted when Kai's head popped up above the water, his pull buoy in one hand, his other gripping the wall. He was beaming. "I fucking love these lungs," he said, breathing hard, tossing the buoy on the wall and pulling off his goggles and cap.

Jon smiled, but he knew it was tainted by his thoughts.

Kai's face flickered for a microsecond before slipping back into his smile. "Did you even swim at all? I only did half my set today."

Jon shrugged.

Kai pushed his stuff aside, turned around so his back was to the wall, then levered his body out of the water and onto the floor as effortlessly as he breathed with his new lungs. Jon wasn't about to admit that without his legs to help push himself out, he would have struggled.

Kai was already wiping off excess water and beginning to stretch his upper body, his legs dangling in the water, one bobbing with minor spasms. Jon's instinct was to ask if Kai was OK, but nothing about Kai suggested he was in pain, so Jon held his tongue.

"I can see why you love the pool," Jon tried instead. "You swim like a fish."

Kai laughed, glanced over his shoulder, then planted his palms behind him to pull his legs out of the water. "Yeah, a gimpy fish." But he rolled his eyes at Jon's frown.

"When did you learn to swim? I never asked. I guess I didn't really think--"

Kai shook his head, still smiling, as he began to stretch. The spasms in his leg had quieted, at least so they were no longer visible. "What, did you think I doggy paddled for 40 laps each week? Troy taught me some basics. When I was a kid, during some of my worst MLS flare ups, he’d work with me in the pool. It helped a lot. Allowed me to develop control where I had it, strengthen those muscles, stretch.”

Kai bent forward, stretching his back, reaching for his toes, holding it for several seconds before releasing and pushing his torso back up. "In high school, the district wouldn't let me participate in PE, but I was required to take it. I tried to petition them to let me take swimming, but they said I was too much of a liability."

Jon wasn't sure what to say, so he merely watched Kai stretch.

"I don't know what the big deal was. If I drowned, it's not like there was anyone to sue them."

Kai spoke matter-of-factly, continuing to stretch his body; clearly, his nonchalance wasn't a facade. Kai’s bluntness from his Deaf upbringing had faded over the years, but it still came through occasionally. And knowing that didn’t make it hurt any less, hearing about his brother being alone, having something Kai clearly loved taken from him.

"What's wrong?"

Jon sighed, shook his head. "I just have a lot on my mind."

Kai didn't seem to buy it, but he let it go for now, pulling his chair closer and spreading one of the towels over it. He gripped the seat and a wheel to lever himself into it. He used his hands to place his feet on the footrest, then to help settle his body fully back in the seat. He leaned forward, arms on his knees, bent in half, meeting Jon's eyes, since Jon hadn't yet stood.

"I think it'd be good for you to swim with me, but this is a guilt-free zone. The point of swimming is to shut off your mind." Kai leaned back, gripped his left wheel for stability while offering his right hand to help pull Jon to his feet.

Jon smiled faintly, and the words spilled out before he even realized he'd spoken. "Vicky's pregnant."

Kai blinked, but he controlled his emotions, as usual, carefully crafting his response. "Wow, Jon. . . . Congratulations."

"She just found out. She's not due till June. We're not telling anyone yet. . . ."

"I'm good at keeping secrets, Jon."

Jon nodded, let out a breath. "You really wouldn't mind if I came with you each Saturday?"

Kai smiled. "I can even change my routine to work around your clinic hours if you want. I'll see about getting you a pass for here, so we don't need to worry about the YMCA swim lessons."

Jon followed Kai back toward the locker room. "You--you'd do that?"

Kai laughed as he held the door open for Jon. "You've rearranged your entire life for me, more than once. I think I can change one small thing. It's . . . fun, spending time with you. Being brothers."

Jon’s brows furrowed. “You know, when the baby’s born . . . things’ll have to change. Between us.”

Jon caught a fleeting darkness, maybe even panic, in Kai’s eyes before Kai shook his head and plastered on a bright smile. “Of course it will. It’ll be really hard for the baby, knowing his uncle is so much better looking than his father. But he’ll get over it.” Kai winked and powered into the locker room, disappearing between the rows.

#

Kai followed Jon into the Jonesville Diner, which was decently busy, the familiar scents of grease and coffee filling the air. Kai hadn’t visited the diner since Nikki had left him, which meant it had been nearly two months. Despite his occasional pie craving, Kai hadn’t been able to bring himself to drop in, since it held memories of both Becca and Nikki, which hung in the air as thick as the aroma of food.
   
But Jon had apparently been feeling sentimental--after all, their first meal together on Kai’s 18th birthday had been here, when the two of them were only hours into reconciling their new situation. Kai, still desperate to discover Jon’s true motivation behind his seeming benevolence, and Jon, frustrated and confused at how much Kai had changed in the twelve years they’d been apart.
   
Kai said nothing as a waitress he didn’t recognize guided them to a table, taking a chair away for him so he could slide in across from his brother. The two of them studied the menu in silence. Kai rarely ate anything other than pie here, but he knew Jon would insist on a more nutritious choice, so he scanned for something vegetarian that he knew his stomach could handle.
   
A surreptitious glance told Kai Jon wasn’t actually looking at the menu, but lost in his thoughts. Perhaps he was regretting telling Kai about Vicky’s pregnancy. Perhaps he was regretting the pregnancy. Kai decided he wouldn’t point out the irony that Jon had lectured Kai more than once about “safe sex.” Kai reminded himself to make sure he had some condoms in his bag for when Renee got back. Maybe it would be a while before she was ready for vaginal sex, but Kai figured it probably was best not to take any chances either way.
   
Kai was debating saying something when Marge swung by the table, looking happy and relieved to see Kai. “Oh, hon, I was beginning to worry about you. How long has it been?”
   
Kai shrugged, noticed Jon was working even harder to fake profound interest in his menu.
   
“I’m sorry about Nikki,” she said sincerely. “The usual? Pie of the day is pumpkin.”
   
“Marge, this is my brother, Jon. Jon, Marge. This is her diner, essentially.”
   
Marge waved a large hand dismissively, but Kai could see how the compliment had pleased her. “What can I get you boys?”
   
“Coffee and chef salad,” Jon said brusquely. Kai waited a second too long to place his own order, prompting Jon to ask, “Do I need to order for you?
   
Deja vu, Kai thought, though of course Jon wouldn’t order him a bacon cheeseburger, now that he was a vegetarian. Kai gave Marge his most winning smile. “Hot milk,” Kai said. “And I’m told I need to eat my lunch like a good boy before I can have pie,” Kai added sardonically. “Grilled cheese, no fries.”
   
“No problem, hon,” Marge said with a laugh. “I’ll be right back with your drinks.”
   
Kai waited for Marge to leave before leaning back in his wheelchair and studying Jon in a way that made his brother shift uncomfortably in his seat.
   
“What?”
   
“So what are your plans with Vicky?”
   
Jon stared at Kai blankly.
   
“Since she’s . . .” Kai waved a hand in the air before finally signing “pregnant,” but in a way that meant it was unexpected.
   
Jon frowned deeply, but quickly turned it into a smile when Marge returned with a mug of milk for Kai and a carafe to pour coffee for Jon.
   
“Food’ll be out in a bit. You holler if you need anything.”
   
Jon reached for his coffee like a junkie grabbing his last fix and took a few tentative sips. “I don’t know. We haven’t even said the ‘L’ word.”
   
Kai frowned for a fraction of a second before pressing his lips together to control his expression. “You don’t want the baby?
   
Jon shook his head. Sighed. “I do want the baby. But . . . I told Vicky I didn’t want to get married.
   
And she’s fine with that?” Kai couldn’t hide the skepticism in his face.
   
“Supposedly,” Jon muttered. He looked miserable, but before Kai could say or sign anything else, Jon continued, “She said she’ll put the baby up for adoption if I’m not in this with her, and I won’t let that happen.
   
Ah, so that explained a lot. Jon clearly wasn’t ready to be a father--a real father, not the surrogate he’d been to Kai for so many years--but he wouldn’t risk his child going through the system, either. Kai didn’t blame him. He could barely take care of himself, but Kai would be willing to take the kid in personally if it would mean a “real” family instead of foster and group homes.
   
You’ll need to move in together,” Kai signed single-handed, adding sugar to his milk, playing his favorite role of disaffected perfectly.
   
Jon sighed, shrugged. “Probably.”
   
Kai bit his lip, tried to smile and mask the unease in his eyes as everything sank in. “I’ve never lived alone.” It was ridiculous, but he felt his anxiety flaring up, his fingers twitching. He debated reaching into his bag for his pill box and taking a hydroxyzine, but there’d be no way to hide that from Jon. Would it be better to admit the thought of living alone, or Jon leaving him, as stupid and outrageous as it was, terrified him? Or risk having a panic attack in the middle of the Saturday lunch crowd? The thought of that fate made his heart rate spike and his breathing become uneven, sweat breaking out on his hairline.
   
“Take your meds,” Jon said in a calm voice. “It’s all right.”
   
Kai’s hands were going numb, so he simply nodded, shifted his body in his chair and snatched out his pill case. He set it on the table for a moment, taking a few slow breaths and trying to calculate square roots in his head to give his shaking a chance to ease enough he wouldn’t send tablets flying all over the place.
   
The pills rattled in the box, and he finally felt his brother’s hands on his, plucking a hydroxyzine out and pressing it into Kai’s fingers, which were trembling so badly it took Kai several tries to get the tablet to his mouth.
   
Kai swallowed the pill quickly, closing his eyes and trying not to think how much he hated himself in this moment, because it would only make things worse. He could feel himself being pulled closer toward panic attack than calm, a full-body tremor racking his frame, and the threat of having one in public only made the rush toward full crazy accelerate. He could beeline for the bathroom, but right now the thought of an enclosed space made the terror surge.
   
People were staring now, probably, though he had his eyes tightly shut. Staring more than normal, whispering to each other about the crazy guy in the wheelchair.
   
Kai couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe. He tried to take deep breaths, but his hands were numb and his head was buzzing and he couldn’t seem to get enough air. His shoulders rose and fell with each desperate, shallow breath, and part of him prayed he’d pass out because at least that would be an escape.
   
“Kai. Kai. You’re OK.” Jon’s voice, and his hand on Kai’s shoulder.
   
The pull of unconsciousness was alluring, his breathing slowing to the point at which Kai had to consciously remember to breathe in and out.
   
“Stay with me, Kai. Come on. Deep breaths.” Jon had a hand on Kai’s chest, was coaxing him to breathe in and out with gentle pushes on his sternum, the way he’d learned to breathe on his own again after his transplant. Slowly, Kai felt the tension seep away, and breathing became less effort, though his chest was still tight and fogginess remained. His body felt heavy, used up. Right now, even though he knew everything in the restaurant had come to a sudden stop to watch the freak show, he didn’t care. He just wanted to go home and sleep.
   
“The ambulance is on its way.” Another voice. Marge. Kai was bent over now, his forehead resting on his knees. He could hear the murmur of curious voices around him, but it took too much effort to try to parse any of them out.
   
He did hear Jon say something, maybe in assent to Marge, and smooth Kai’s back. Kai wanted to tell him he was fine, that he just needed to go home, but he felt so incredibly drained, he wasn’t even sure if he could speak.
   
Jon crouched down beside him, whispering in his ear. “Let the EMTs evaluate you, and if your vitals are OK, I won’t let them take you.”
   
Kai turned his head enough Jon could see the relieved look in his eyes.
   
Then Jon may have asked Marge to pack their lunches--including a few slices of pie--to go--as if they’d simply decided to leave early and it was no big deal. In that moment, as ashamed and exhausted as he was, Kai couldn’t have loved his brother more.

#

Renee’s journey had been long and tiring. The flight from Jonesville to Chicago had been uneventful, but bad weather had delayed her departure from O’Hare, so that when she finally touched down in New Orleans, she couldn’t be more grateful. Still, part of her wished Kai were beside her, flashing that lopsided grin, looking incredibly out of place with his tall, blond, Midwestern looks, yet not caring as long as he was with her. Checking her phone, she saw she didn’t have any new texts from him, and she couldn’t help a flare of disappointment. She sent him a quick message to let him know she’d arrived in New Orleans safe and sound, and secretly hoped she’d get a reply right away. She sighed softly when she didn’t and reminded herself that Kai had said he had plans to keep pretty busy over the break, and knew they’d talk soon.

As the plane taxied to the gate, she wondered again, as she had about how he showered, what traveling would be like for him. She knew he’d never really left Jonesville, and that he’d never been on a plane before. Renee wondered how Kai would get on the plane, and where they’d put his chair or crutches? Would not having them handy make Kai nervous? He never said anything about it out right, but she’d seen his face pale the night before, when they’d gotten into the photobooth together and she’d started to leave his crutches outside, out of his reach. And she’d recognized the look of immense relief, too, when she’d managed to fit them inside the booth with them.
   
She had never really thought about it until that moment, because he seemed so laid back and comfortable with his disability most of the time, that he really did rely on his crutches or his chair for his independence. It was strange, but being with Kai made her simultaneously more aware of his disability and yet, it was easy to forget about his MLS, too, when his legs weren’t spasming.
   
Renee puzzled over this quandary as she gathered her bag and filed out of the plane, noticing an airline employee waiting impatiently with one of those large, bulky airport wheelchairs, probably to assist an old lady Renee had noticed on her way off the plane. The wheelchair, which she wouldn’t have thought twice about before Kai, looked so ugly and awkward, like comparing an old 70s station wagon to a brand-new, sleek sports car. If Kai traveled with her, would he have to leave his wheelchair at home and use one of those? She imagined Kai would be horrified if he couldn’t bring his chair with him, and she didn’t like the image she had of Kai having to maneuver around in a bulky, heavy chair.
   
Renee pushed the thoughts from her mind for now. She was home; as she drew away from the gates toward security and the ticketing area, she could already smell the familiar humidity. One thing about New Orleans Renee loved was no matter how much you might have changed--and over the past few months, Renee certainly had--the Crescent City always stayed the same.
   
Renee had hardly emerged from the secure terminal area when a squeal of joy met her ears. She looked up to see her grandparents and younger brother waiting for her near one of the shops, her maw maw Evangeline rushing up to her like she was a twenty-year-old girlfriend instead of a woman in her 70s. Evangeline wrapped her arms around Renee, squeezing all the air out.
   
“Oh, hon, I missed you,” she said in her soft, lilting accent that also meant “home.”
   
“I missed you, too, Maw Maw,” Renee echoed, squeezing back. “I told y’all you didn’t need to park!”
   
“That’s what I said, too, but you know your maw maw.” Anthony, Renee’s grandfather, stepped forward and offered her his own hug. “Missed you, too.”
   
Renee finally extracted herself from her grandparents, tilting her head at Luc, who smiled his foxy grin. “And you?”
   
“Ugh, anything to get away from the parentals and JP for awhile.”
   
Renee sized up her little brother. He was fifteen now, starting to shed his boyish looks and become a man, though he took after their mother and Evangeline, looking more like Renee’s fraternal twin than their older brother, JP, who had played football in high school and college. Luc was short, not much taller than Renee and Evangeline, narrow, and rail thin, with large, captivating hazel-green eyes and dark curly hair (just like Renee’s) that fell chaotically into his face, covering one eye. Luc’s hair had always been a fighting point between him and their parents: Luc liked it longer, the curls free and wild; their parents--especially their father--preferred it clipped short enough to mask them almost entirely.
   
She teased him by playing with his bangs. “How have Mom and Dad not killed you for this?” She laughed. Luc had always been beautiful, confused for a girl when he was younger, despite his mother’s attempts to dress him as boyishly as she could. His face was more oval than Renee’s, and he had a large, French-Roman nose, unlike her smaller one, but a brilliant smile with full, pouting lips and long, thick eyelashes. The hair wasn’t the only surprise: he was wearing a fitted, paint-splattered T-shirt and tight, low-slung jeans with leather flip flops that screamed “art student” far louder than the polos and khakis their brother had always favored.
   
Luc shrugged, pushed some of his hair off his forehead only for it to slide right back. “I told them it’s my hair and I’ll wear it how I want, or I’d move in with Maw Maw and Paw Paw.” He flashed his smile again, which made Renee laugh. Then he pulled her into a tight hug. “Missed ya, sis.”

Their mother had suffered terribly from Empty Nest Syndrome even before Renee had left, since JP was her favorite, so she could see Marie giving Luc more leniency if it meant keeping her baby a little longer. Perhaps that explained why they’d finally allowed him to go to NOCCA.
   
Luc shouldered her bag, even though it wasn’t really heavy and he wasn’t much bigger than her, threw his arm around her and started following their grandfather toward the exit. Anthony wasn’t known for his patience, and even as Renee and Luc had reconnected, had been inching away as a not-so-subtle signal to hurry up.
   
“I didn’t think it’d be so hard being just me and them, you know? But it’s not like JP isn’t always around anyway, and without you to buffer us . . .”
   
Re turned and awkwardly placed a kiss on her brother’s cheek, surprised to feel it was rough. When had Luc started shaving? She still remembered him as a little kid, his toothless grins, following her everywhere.
   
Renee pulled away from Luc long enough to take off her coat and enjoy the balmy late November weather: in the 60s, with a soft breeze. “I’m guessing JP isn’t a big fan of your new look.”
   
Luc grunted as they carefully crossed traffic toward the parking lot. “Yeah, every time he sees me he tells me I should stop dressing like a fucking faggot.”
   
Renee frowned and squeezed her brother’s free hand.
   
“He doesn’t like it when I glare at him and snap back with, ‘I bought this look because “stuck up asshole” was sold out.’”

Renee was struggling not to laugh. “Ohmygod. You really told him that?”
   
Luc shrugged.
   
“And you’re not limping?”
   
Luc shrugged again, flashed his smile. “The car is close. You know Paw Paw. He’ll drive around for half an hour till he gets the spot right in front.”
   
“I heard that!” Anthony called out.
   
Evangeline came up and squeezed Renee again. “Oh, I’m so glad you could make it home. How about we stop for po-boys on the way?”
   
Renee could feel herself drooling. She hadn’t had a shrimp po-boy in months. In fact, she hadn’t had any seafood in months. What had she been thinking, going to school in the Midwest, so far from a coast? “That would be awesome, Maw Maw.”

#

They’d stopped at a total dive of a place on Tchoupitoulas, huddled around a table with their fries and po-boys. The restaurant was dark and dingy, but the food was fantastic, and it was another reminder of home and how much she’d missed it.

“So tell me about this boy of yours,” Evangeline said in a way that suggested she’d been dying to ask since Renee landed.

Renee felt herself smiling, and she pulled the photos out of her wallet, where she’d folded them carefully. In the first one, Renee was staring at the camera, smiling, but Kai was looking at her instead, totally smitten, flashing his lopsided grin. She looked so small in his lap, and even sitting, even in the cropped shot of the photobooth, it was clear how tall he was. The second picture, they were both looking at the camera, Kai’s arms wrapped securely around her, their heads leaned against each other, smiling, Kai’s blue eyes bright and shining and happy.
   
“Oh my stars,” Evangeline said, holding the photo close so she could see it better in the dim light. “He’s even handsomer than you described, sugar.”
   
Renee felt herself blush, but she was smiling proudly. The photos made the rounds. Evangeline seemed reluctant to part with it. Anthony studied it like it was this year’s taxes, as if he could determine what kind of man Kai was from two 2x1” photos. Luc got the photos last, and she noticed his eyes widen slightly, and he unconsciously licked his bottom lip before taking in a breath, as if remembering he wasn’t alone.
   
“How tall is he? You look so tiny.”
   
“I am tiny,” Renee said, laughing, taking the photos back. “But he is tall, even for over there, where everyone is a giant,” Renee said proudly. “I don’t know how tall, but the top of my head hits him about here,” she said, pointing a few inches above the center of her chest.
   
“Over six foot,” Anthony said to no one in particular.
   
“Oh, definitely,” Renee said as she felt her grandmother snagging the photos from her for another look.
   
“His eyes are so blue. Is it a trick of the light?”
   
Renee sighed, nibbled on a fry. “No. They’re even prettier in person. This incredible aquamarine, like the color of the Caribbean sea.”
   
Evangeline smiled. “He treats you well?” Her eyebrows were raised, her gaze prying. Renee heard the unsaid words. Unlike Jude?
   
Renee tilted her head, remembering that morning, Kai’s large hands holding her in place while his tongue, warm and wet. . . . She flushed again. “Yeah, he does,” she said in a kind of dreamy voice.
   
“Renee and Kai sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G . . .” Luc sing-songed.
   
Evangeline squeezed her hand, finally relinquishing the photos, ignoring Luc. “That’s all that matters, then,” she said with a wink. “I can tell he cares about you. Reminds me of the way your paw paw used to look at me.”
   
Anthony promptly stuffed his face with some of his po-boy, but he glanced over at Evangeline, and Renee saw a bit of that same look. Maybe she and Kai would be like them some day, though Renee did wonder if Kai would live into old age. She’d decided she wouldn’t think about that, but it did pop into her head every now and then. Kai had been adamant in getting her to understand that there were no guarantees for his life expectancy, but she had meant it when she’d told him that she didn’t care. She’d rather have a year with Kai than nothing.
   
Evangeline squeezed her hand again, smiling knowingly. “You miss him?”
   
Renee couldn’t deny it. “Yeah. He’s . . . incredible, Maw Maw. I can’t wait for you to meet him.” She didn’t mention how difficult that could potentially be, but she knew she didn’t want to leave New Orleans without telling at least her maw maw about Kai’s health and disability.

#

Megan was working in the kitchen when she heard stomping, and then, when she didn’t immediately respond to that, a harshly loud, inarticulate shout. She sighed, rolled her eyes, and wiped her hands off on her apron. She loved David, but patience was definitely not one of his defining characteristics.
   
She found him standing outside their bedroom door. She looked at him, her eyes and face clearly conveying her annoyance.
   
He grabbed her hand and pulled her into their room, toward their bathroom. He’d replaced the doorframe so he could hang a wider door, and now he pointed to it, then leaned to one side for emphasis. “Does it look crooked to you?
   
Isn’t that what levels are for? she thought, but instead, she signed, “Looks fine.
   
He frowned, staring at it a few moments, before bending down to dig out another level.  He stood on tiptoes, placing it there, studying it for a while.
   
She tapped him on the shoulder, but he ignored her, focused on his work. She tapped him again, harder.
   
This time, he turned around, and this time, he was the one who was annoyed. “I need to get this done.
   
Megan sighed. “You’ve been using every scrap of free time you have on this bathroom. And I’m in the kitchen trying to find something vegetarian to serve Thursday.
   
David shrugged, turned around and walked into the bathroom, Deafie for conversation is over.
   
Megan sighed loudly, almost a grunt of frustration, and followed him. Pulling on his shoulder.
   
David finally turned around, and though he looked mad, she saw what she’d suspected, that veil he put up when he was trying to look disaffected but was, in fact, afraid of where she was taking the conversation.
   
I’ve been giving you space about this, but obviously, if I don’t push you. . . . What’s the deal with you and Kai? Because my imagination has been running wild.
   
David blinked at her. Actually blushed. “God, it’s nothing like that!” He sighed, perched on the counter. “Kai and I . . .” David shrugged.

You don’t call someone ‘brother’ for no reason.

David closed his eyes a moment, took a deep breath, then brought his hands to his chest. “Everything I told you is true. We did go to school together. We did lose touch. But what I didn’t tell you is . . . Kai was my roommate. At CH. For ten years.

Megan felt a wave of relief wash over her. She’d concocted all kinds of crazy ideas in her mind. And not that she’d ever doubted her fiance’s sexuality before, but honestly, she’d never seen David act the way he had about Kai, and with no other explanation. . . . She leaned in close for a quick kiss, before pulling back. David still looked worried, and Megan couldn’t see why. She knew David didn’t like to talk about the group home where he’d spent most of his childhood, but there seemed to be more here.

Why not tell me from the start?

David glanced over at his tool bag, sitting in one corner of the bathroom, obviously wanting to break eye contact so he could end the discussion, but instead, he said, “Because neither of us talk about CH. And it’s impossible to talk about our friendship without bringing CH up.

Megan was willing to leave it at that, but he reached out for her to get her to stay.

He looked at her a long while, studying her face as if inwardly debating whether he should explain. “No one at CH signed. No one.” David’s eyes bored into hers, trying to convey the significance of the statement. “I was alone for a year before Kai came. Kai was the only one I could talk to outside of school for ten years. Ten years.” David bit his lip. “You can’t possibly understand what that was like. That’s why he’s my brother.” David rose, grabbed his tools, and disappeared, clearly needing space.

It was his way. Megan hated that when he was upset he often chose to deal with things on his own instead of turning to her, but she’d accepted she wouldn’t change him, so she let him go. Still, his final words haunted her. David never talked about his childhood, and she’d never given it much thought. The Deaf community was so close knit, she’d presumed David, as affable as he was, must have had a lot of friends.

She had never really stopped to think how different David’s experience must have been. Instead of growing up in the dorms with the rest of the kids, he’d lived elsewhere, with no one who spoke his language. No one except Kai.

David was right: even growing up as the only hearing person in a Deaf family, she couldn’t begin to imagine how isolating that must have felt.

David was Deaf with a capital “D,” and though he often complained about the hearing world, he was proud of who he was. This was the first time she’d really seen any kind of legitimate chink in David’s Deaf Pride armor.

Suddenly, David’s behavior since Halloween made sense: his elation at seeing Kai again, his willingness to pick up and go when Kai needed him, his determination to make their house work for him.

Megan wandered back into the kitchen, where she’d been midway through testing out a few vegetarian recipes for the holiday when she spied a note on the counter. Need nails. Love you. Megan knew David had enough nails to build a bridge, in every shape and size, but she accepted the note as his way of making a legitimate excuse for his escape.

Love you, too, she thought, blowing a kiss to the note.

###########

4 comments:

  1. Love this story!

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  2. Wow! Fantastic chapter.

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  3. It has everything for everyone I can't love it more thanks

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  4. Groovy chapter. Love Jon's awkwardness and integrity. Kai's panic attack felt very real. Sorta like my hot flashes! :))
    Delly

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