Wednesday, July 26, 2000

In/Exhale - November 23, 2000 - Part II

November 23, 2000 - Part II


Jon was sitting in his car, parked in the street not far from Vicky’s parents’ house, trying to get himself under control. Vicky squeezed his hand encouragingly. “It won’t be that bad. I promise.”
    
Jon laughed nervously, pushed his hand through his hair, which didn’t work so well when he was wearing gloves. Apparently, that made the strands stand up crazily, because soon Vicky was laughing, a bare hand reaching into his hair to smooth it back down.
    
“If things get to be too much, no one but me knows you’re not still on call. You can always duck out and use the hospital as an excuse.” She flashed him a smile, leaned forward to snatch a quick peck.
    
Jon nodded, but secretly, he wished he’d snagged some of Kai’s anxiety meds on his way out. It didn’t help that he had that lingering pit in his stomach about Kai. Yes, he was still mad at his brother, but even after the sex that morning, Jon hadn’t managed more than a couple hours before the dreams woke him again.
    
Vicky frowned at him. “If you don’t want to do this--”
    
“No, no,” Jon said, shutting off the car as if to prove his point. “I’m just all fucked up with what happened on Tuesday, I haven’t slept for shit, and honestly, I’m freaking the fuck out a little about meeting your entire extended family all at once.”
    
Vicky smirked. “Eh, it’s like jumping into the cold water. Get the shock over with quick, right?” Vicky pushed her door open and climbed out, so Jon did the same. “Besides? What’s the worst that could happen? Even if they don’t like you, that won’t change how I feel about you, or what we have together,” Vicky added, laying a hand on her stomach.
    
Jon smiled faintly, but he wasn’t convinced. He didn’t know much about family, but he found it hard to believe that things between him and Vicky could really work if hers decided they didn’t like him. He snagged his bag from the back, with his insulin, syringes, and testing supplies, and locked the car, joining Vicky on the road, since it was salted and cleared, unlike the sidewalks, which looked pretty precarious.
    
Jon idly observed the houses in this neighborhood, though not brand new, were enormous, almost palatial. Vicky’s family obviously had money. Perhaps not the same kind of money as Jon’s adopted father, but it still surprised him. Vicky lived modestly, and though she owned her own decently sized home, Jon hadn’t thought much of it, since she was older than him, had a good-paying job, and had presumably been single a long time.
    
Vicky linked her arm in his. “Just don’t mention the pregnancy, OK? My family’s pretty Catholic.” She laughed. “Well, that’s an understatement. It’s better they don’t know.”
    
“Yeah,” Jon said as they walked up to the front door. “I really want to start talking about our sex life to your--”
    
The front door opened before they’d even gotten halfway to it, a woman in her early 40s who had Vicky’s face, but was shorter, plumper, with totally different hair, came dashing out. “Vic!” The woman squealed. “Oh. My. God. Why didn’t you tell me your man was so handsome?”
    
“Uh . . .” Jon felt himself blushing fiercely and hoped that it was cold enough his cheeks were already flushed.
    
“Jesus, Viv. Can’t we at least get inside? It’s freezing out here!”
    
“Zero degrees, with the windchill,” Vivian reported, taking Jon’s hand and leading him in like a lost child, babbling the entire time and making Jon look over his shoulder pleadingly to Vicky.

“I’m Vivian, Vicky’s oldest sister, in case it’s not already obvious!” she said as she pulled Jon away. He noticed immediately she spoke in a very animated way, like she might have been a cheerleader at one time and had never really grown out of the exuberance. “Wow, you have amazing eyes! Are they blue? Or gray?” She stood up on tip toes, leaning way into Jon’s personal space, as if trying to get a better look, and Jon took a reflexive step back. She laughed. “Here, let me take your coat,” she said as she practically forcibly stripped Jon’s long wool coat off, tangling the strap of his bag in the arms.

Vivian continued to babble as Vicky joined them, removing her own coat and hanging it up on one of several standalone racks apparently brought out for the sole purpose of giving her enormous extended family a place to hang their outerwear. Jon noticed the racks were already pretty full, which meant most of Vicky’s relatives had already arrived.

When Vivian continued to insist on taking Jon’s bag, Vicky finally stepped in, whispered something in her sister’s ear before guiding Jon toward the kitchen.

“Vic, I don’t know if I can do this,” Jon said sincerely. Social situations had never been his forte, and he was already feeling overwhelmed.

“It’s all right. Viv is just a little . . . vivacious,” Vicky said with a laugh at the subtle pun.

The kitchen was enormous, practically commercial sized, and bustling with women, all at various stages of food preparation. More sisters, some cousins, aunts, grandmothers, wives, and Vicky’s mom, though Jon couldn’t tell who was who.

“Hey, everyone,” Vicky said in a loud voice, making the chatter temporarily stop and everyone look up. “This is Jon. My boyfriend.” Then Vicky started pointing to each woman in the group, making introductions, though Jon quickly lost track of names. Finally, a middle-aged woman stepped forward, and Jon knew immediately this was Vicky’s mother. “Ma, this is Jon. Jon, my mother, Margaret.”

She eyed Jon up and down, then stepped closer and put her hands on him, squeezing his shoulder, tapping his cheek, almost as if he were a piece of livestock she was examining for signs of weakness before a purchase. Jon did his best to not step back or jerk away and hopefully not look as terrified and mortified as he felt.

“So,” Margaret said after she seemed satisfied enough. “You’re Catholic?”

“Technically.”

Margaret frowned. “You’ve been confirmed?”

Jon noticed the women in the kitchen had all gone back to their work, yet were still watching the exchange surreptitiously.

“Yes.” Jon had completed his confirmation only a few months before his parents were killed. Neither of them had been incredibly religious, but they’d insisted Jon go through all the sacraments. Sometimes, when his mom was in one of her manias, she’d go to church everyday, fill the house with votive candles, say the rosary over and over like a deranged nun. Once, before Sara was born, she’d admitted the religious fanaticism was a way to cleanse her sins so God would cure Kai. It surprised Jon how much that old memory still hurt.

Margaret was looking at Jon expectantly.

“St. Anthony of Padua,” he responded, assuming she’d wanted to know which patron saint he’d chosen for himself.

Margaret seemed to consider this, frowning, before she asked, “You don’t go to mass?”

Jon looked at Vicky for help, wondering how honest he should be, but she just shrugged. The truth was, Jon had gone to the main Catholic church in town--which happened to bear his saint’s name (though that wasn’t the church his mother had attended), and whom some of the less religious locals referred to as the “Star Wars Church” (an awful pun on “Padua/Padawan”)--a few times during Kai’s final year pre-transplant. He’d been desperate enough to hope lighting some candles and praying to a God he wasn’t sure he believed in would be enough to save Kai. Perhaps the fact that Kai had lived should have turned Jon into a believer, but the sad truth was the church reminded him of Kai’s worst days, and he couldn’t stand to go back.

Finally, he took in a breath, let it out slowly. “No, ma’am. My schedule keeps me pretty busy.”

Margaret seemed to consider this. “You’re a doctor?”

He swallowed. “Yes, ma’am. I’m a pulmonologist. Mostly inpatient, but Vicky and I work together in the outpatient clinic.”

“And what does your father do?”

Jon darted his eyes at Vicky, who was glaring daggers at her mother, but saying nothing.

“My parents passed away when I was fourteen.”

Margaret’s expression didn’t change. “So who raised you?”

Jon swallowed again. Hadn’t Vicky told her mother anything about him? “I spent some time in foster care, then I was adopted. My adoptive father paid for me to go to school.”

“So you don’t have any family?”

“I have a younger brother.” Jon felt himself sweating. Even though the top of Margaret’s head came up only to his chin, she was incredibly intimidating. Jon began to see where Vicky got some of her assertiveness, but a warning about the interrogation would’ve been nice.

Margaret looked around, as if wondering where Kai was, as if he should have appeared suddenly.

Jon glanced at Vicky, then cleared his throat. “Is it all right if I put my insulin in the fridge?”

Margaret didn’t immediately respond, still staring him down. Vicky had told her mom about his diabetes, at least, right? Shit. Was she going to be offended if he didn’t gobble up potatoes and bread and pie?

“I mean, if it’s a problem--”

Margaret led him to the fridge, opening it, peering inside for a moment. “How much space do you need?”

“Uh, not much. Just enough for one vial.” Jon fished the vial out of his bag and showed it to her.

“Glass?”

Jon’s eyebrows knit, but he finally nodded. “Yes?”

Margaret took it from him, examining it for a moment, whether to prove it was what Jon said it was, merely out of curiosity, or what, he wasn’t sure. Then she shuffled a few things in one of the doors, and shoved it in, where it wouldn’t be at risk for falling. She pointed, looking at him, to make it clear where it was, then shut the door.

“Thank you.” Jon tried not to sound like a balloon deflating when he let out a sigh of relief.

“Is there somewhere we can keep his bag? Somewhere the kids can’t get to it? He has syringes in there, and his testing kit,” Vicky said, jumping in. Finally.

Margaret nodded, nudged her head toward the top of the fridge, and Vicky took the cue, taking Jon’s bag and putting it in the cabinet above the appliance.

Jon was hoping the interview was over, but Margaret looked him over again.

“Dinner won’t be ready for another two, three hours. But if you need to eat before then, just let me know and I’ll round something up for you. You won’t offend me.”

Jon was shocked enough he blinked, looked at Vicky before regaining his composure. “Thank you, ma’am. I’m good right now, but I might need a little something later.”

Margaret smiled for the first time and patted his shoulder. “Welcome to our home. Go meet the rest of the family. I have work to do.”

Once out of the kitchen, Jon felt like he’d surfaced after being underwater for five minutes, taking in a huge, deep breath. “Fuck, Vicky,” he whispered.

Vicky smoothed his back. “Sorry. I probably should have warned you my mom can be a bit . . . intense.”

“No shit.”

“Were you really confirmed? ‘Cause Kai always struck me as the bullshitter in the family.” Vicky lowered her voice when she swore, as if her mother would somehow be able to hear, despite the distance, background commotion, and the fact that she was already whispering.

Jon nodded. Thought for a moment, then admitted, “My mom was off-and-on fanatically Catholic, depending on how she was cycling--”

“You did it for her?”

Jon had opened his mouth to say something when Vivian came marching in with six other people. Jon’s stomach fell. The men and women looked too much alike for them to be anything other than the rest of Vicky’s siblings.

Amusingly, they all lined up in a row, like something out of The Sound of Music, and it became obvious pretty quickly that Vivian was the leader. Especially when she tried to nudge Vicky into place with the others.

“I’m pretty sure Jon knows me already,” Vicky smirked.

Vivian rolled her eyes, annoyed, and took her own place at Jon’s far left. Presumably, they were arranged in birth order, with Vivian at one end and two identical-looking guys a couple years older than Kai at the other.

One by one, each sibling stepped forward, introducing themselves, stating their name, what they did, their spouse’s name, and any pertinent information they deemed worthy. There was no way Jon was going to remember who was who, since all eight siblings were apparently “V” names: Vivian, Valerie, Vincent, Vaughn, Veronica, and Verne and Vance--the youngest, identical twins--plus Vicky, of course. Jon wasn’t sure where Vicky fit in among the group, but he figured it was somewhere between Valerie and Veronica. Jon noticed all seven siblings--even the twins, who were only 26, they’d revealed--were married with children. Meaning Vicky was the one sole wolf in the pack.

Of the group, Jon liked Veronica the best--the youngest daughter, looking like she was about his age, plus or minus a year or two, with hair just like Vicky’s, though she kept it short. The twins also seemed pretty mischievous, and their playful, joking personalities reminded him of Kai, when Kai wasn’t hiding behind his thick protective barriers. Walls that kept even Jon out, he remembered bitterly, forcing his emotions not to show on his face.

Jon shook hands with everyone, laughed at a few jokes--mostly at his expense, primarily about his weight, especially since except for Vicky, Veronica, and the twins, they were all a little portly.

Finally, the siblings dispersed, and Jon couldn’t help laying a head on Vicky’s shoulder. “Did your parents name all of you ‘V’ names just to mess with poor hapless future spouses?”

Vicky laughed. “Saves a ton of money on monogramming, right?”

They hardly enjoyed their moment together when . . . an aunt? maybe? of Vicky’s emerged from the kitchen, looking a bit harried. “Your mother needs you.”

Vicky sighed, looked at Jon apologetically. “I’ll be right back.” She kissed his cheek, and had hardly pulled away when Veronica slipped her arm into his.

Veronica grinned. “I’ll watch him for you.”

Vicky sighed again, a bit more exasperated. “Behave,” she cautioned her sister before dashing off back into the kitchen.

“Valerie, right?” Jon tried. He honestly couldn’t have remembered all seven siblings names, let alone which belonged to whom, if his life depended on it.

Veronica laughed. “Veronica. But it’s OK. Even our mom never gets us all right.” She smiled bigger, to reassure Jon it really didn’t bother her. “Maybe it’ll help if you call me Roni.”

“Roni?”

“Like ‘Toni,’ but with an ‘R.’ It’s a good way to stand out among a sea of ‘V’s,’” she explained. “But if you make a Rice-a-roni joke, I might have to hurt you.” Roni wasn’t as tall as Vicky, who was several inches shorter than Jon, but he believed her.

“Promise to never call me Jonathan, and we’re golden.” Jon could tolerate being called almost anything that wasn’t his name, but “Jonathan” always irked him. There’d been a resident in his medicine program who never ceased to do that, no matter how many times Jon explained that his name was “Jon”; it wasn’t short for anything.

Roni nodded with a slim smile as she led Jon through the family room. She didn’t stop to make formal introductions to the gaggle of men gathered around a big-screen TV, watching football. Though it looked more like they were yelling at each other than really watching the game. She leaned in to whisper. “The husbands, our father, grandfathers, uncles, and a few cousins.” No one seemed to notice them as she directed him toward another room. “Ah, here we are,” she said, pushing a door open.

A large enclosed porch, complete with white wicker furniture. It was cold, the room obviously not heated, but the numerous large windows meant it wasn’t unpleasant. After the loud, stuffiness of the main house--at least the two rooms Jon had seen--kitchen for the women and family room for the men--the sunroom felt delightfully peaceful.

As if sensing Jon’s mood, Roni grinned. “Exactly. Plus, it’s far enough from the playrooms that you can’t even hear the rugrats running around upstairs. I swear, these family things are worth it, if only because the younger cousins watch the brats and give us moms a break.” Something changed in her smile as she pushed Jon into one of the sofas. “You’ll appreciate what I mean someday.”

Jon watched as she sank to her knees and pulled something out from underneath one of the other couches. It looked like a small, soft-walled cooler, which she unzipped only partially, removing a bottle of beer. She waved it at him.

“I shouldn’t.”

She laughed. “If you want to get through the rest of today, you’ll need one. Trust me.”

Jon leaned forward to accept it, though he didn’t open it, debating. On the one hand, he was between meals, so it wouldn’t spike his blood sugar as badly, but on the other, having a mostly empty stomach meant he’d get drunk easier. He remembered the last time he’d gotten drunk, at Vicky’s friend’s party. Which had led to sex, which, if the math was right, could have been the night he got Vicky pregnant.

Roni laughed at Jon’s contemplative frown as she stashed her prize again and joined him on the couch with her own beer. She didn’t comment on his unopened brew, twisting the cap off her own and taking a grateful gulp. “Our mom doesn’t really approve of women drinking beer,” she explained. “Plus, the men in this family drink beer like most people breathe air, and if I didn’t stash some in here in advance,” she added, gesturing with the neck of the bottle toward her hiding space, “I’d never make it through these things with my sanity intact.” She took a sip, then laughed. “Probably not what you want to hear right now.”

That made Jon relax, though. Roni was easy to talk to, even if he hadn’t actually said much, reminding him of her older sister. She looked a lot like Vicky, too, only she was closer to Jon’s age, probably somewhere between 28 and 32, and her face was more open, less serious than her sister’s. Maybe a little plainer; not that she wasn’t beautiful--put her and Vicky’s pictures side by side when they were the same age, and you could easily have mistaken one for the other--but she lacked a certain delicateness that Vicky had. Or maybe it was simply that Jon loved Vicky. He blinked when he realized what he’d just thought, then smiled as it dawned on him how much he really did.

Roni, apparently just as perceptive as her older sister, winked. “So. You and Vicky, huh?”

Jon nodded. Thought about opening the beer again.

“How long have you guys officially been . . .” she shrugged, waving her beer, as if not sure how to finish the sentence.

“Only a few months, but we’ve known each other for years.”

Roni took a long slug of beer. “No shit. I was wondering if you two were ever going to get together.”

Jon stared at her.

Roni laughed. She laughed freely, easily, far more than Vicky. “Vic and I are close. Always have been. Maybe because we’re six years apart, which meant we never went to the same schools or were dating the same guys at the same time, etc., etc.” She shrugged. “Even before . . . this,” she said, pointing to Jon and off toward the house, as if to suggest the two of them, “Vicky talked about you all the time.”

This revelation caught Jon off guard. Not that it should be surprising that Vicky talked to at least one of her three sisters about her life, of course. But it struck Jon as surprising how much Vicky had apparently been thinking of him even before they’d finally started seeing each other romantically.

Roni laughed again. “Relax, Vic’s not nearly as close with the rest of the siblings as she is with me.” Then she frowned deeply, which contrasted sharply with her light, relaxed mood that had colored her face previously, and took a long pull of her beer. “Some of them have been pretty shit to her over the years, actually,” she remarked, almost as if talking to herself.

Jon sensed there was more to the story. Maybe because Vicky wasn’t married? She had said that her family was very Catholic. Jon thought about asking, but he wasn’t really sure how. Was it wrong to gossip about Vicky behind her back? Would Jon be mad if Vicky had sat down with Kai at some point to pry out the details of his past? Not that Kai could really tell Vicky anything she didn’t already know.

Roni shook her head, planted a smile on her face, as if realizing she was wading into something sticky. “You two are serious, though, right?”

Jon nodded. Smiled sweetly. “Yeah. Yeah, we are.”

Roni eyed Jon with a sideways glance, as if debating whether to say something or not. Finally, she asked, “How far along?”

Jon’s eyebrows furrowed, and he may have let out a sound like, “Huh?”

Roni studied him, as if trying to decide if he was feigning confusion or not. “Don’t tell me she dragged you here without telling you.”

Jon blinked. Things had been going well between him and Roni, even if she had been controlling the conversation, but now Jon was well and truly lost. He wasn’t sure if was his cluelessness about the subtleties of communication that women seemed to be masters of, or if it was just his social ineptitude.

Thankfully, Vicky appeared from the doorway off to his right, squeezing his shoulder as she sunk into the seat beside him. “Tell him what?”

The sisters exchanged looks that Jon could never interpret, and the tense silence between them stretched.

Finally, Roni stood up and smirked. “I’m gonna get another beer. You want one, Vic?” she asked, but she drawled the question, raising her eyebrows.

“I’m good,” Vicky responded tightly, and Jon wished that someone would just tell him what the hell was going on.

A moment later, Roni returned with her second beer, but instead of retaking her seat, she stepped forward and copped a feel of one of Vicky’s breasts, making her yelp, and Jon jump in reflexive surprise.

“What the hell, Roni?!”

“You in your second trimester yet? You’re not really showing. Well, except . . .” Roni nudged her beer toward her sister’s chest before opening it, pleased as punch with herself.

Oh shit, Jon thought, and immediately looked to Vicky, who was pissed. He held up his hands in surrender, still holding his unopened beer, his face desperately trying to convey, “I didn’t tell her, I swear!” The beer suddenly seemed like a good idea, so Jon twisted it open and took a long pull. It was harshly bitter on his tongue, but he swallowed it anyway.

Now Vicky was frowning, and Jon wasn’t looking forward to being lectured about drinking on top of the already tense situation, but then he realized she wasn’t so much mad as upset. Looking at the beer almost longingly. She took a breath, found Jon’s free hand, and squeezed it. In a low voice, she said, “I’m about nine weeks.” Jon realized Vicky looked ready to cry, and he wasn’t sure how to handle that, because he couldn’t remember ever seeing Vicky cry.

“You know I won’t tell,” Roni said, apparently sensing the same thing. “But it won’t take long for someone else to figure it out, and then the family gossip train . . .”

Vicky took a shuddering breath, but her eyes were dry. “I was hoping they’d buy my not drinking as being on a diet.”

That made Roni laugh. “Yeah, good luck with that.”

Jon looked between the two sisters, confused again.

“Vicky’s always had the good metabolism in the family. She probably won’t even be fat when she’s in her last month.”

That made Vicky frown, but Jon could feel her relaxing beside him, so he wrapped his arm around her and pulled her closer. He could smell her hair, the perfume of her shampoo, and he didn’t resist kissing the top of her head. He felt her sigh, softly, gratefully, and he knew he’d made the right move.

Roni was smiling sweetly at them. “Are you two getting married?”

And the tension was back, at least in Jon’s spine. “Uh . . .”

“Roni, stop,” Vicky said, but it wasn’t her usual firm tone. She sounded tired.

“What? It’s an honest question. Even with your figure, you can’t hide it too much longer, and a wedding takes time to plan. Mom is going to flip.”

“Then let her flip,” Vicky said, pulling away from Jon and shifting so she could see her sister better. “I let her rule my life when I was young. But I’m not a kid anymore, and I can fuck who I want, when I want, married or not.”

Jon pushed back against the cushion of the couch, hoping he’d somehow finally master the ability to slink into the furniture and disappear. Of course, it didn’t happen, and the two sisters continued to squabble as if he weren’t there. And this was Vicky with the sister she got along with?

Suddenly, Vicky burst into sobs, and it caught Jon by such surprise it took him a moment to react, pulling her close.

“Vic--” Roni started.

“I need some time with Jon, OK? Alone.”

Roni seemed reluctant to leave, but she nodded. “I wasn’t trying to start a fight, really--”

“I know. I know,” Vicky said, getting herself more under control, wiping her eyes.

Roni nodded and took Jon’s beer for him, then ducked out of the room.

The door had barely shut when Vicky was looking at Jon and speaking. “This isn’t my first pregnancy.”

Jon blinked, not sure how to respond to that.

Vicky continued, “My high school boyfriend knocked me up.” Her voice wavered. “I was 16.”

Jon squeezed Vicky’s hand, did his best to make his face neutral.

“My parents freaked out when they found out, and they made us get married. Right away. So no one would know that . . .” She sighed. “It was stupid, because of course everyone knew anyway, especially in a small town like this, but . . .” Vicky took in another shuddering breath, leaned forward so her head was resting against his cheek, savoring it for a moment. He did his best to comfort her, smoothing a hand on her back, kissing the edge of her face as best he could with the awkward angle. “I lost the baby.” The words came out slowly, and when they did, Jon realized Vicky was crying again, so he pulled her close, cradling her tightly against him, kissing the top of her head.

“It’s OK,” he said in a soft voice.

“I don’t mean like a miscarriage,” Vicky said, her voice still emotional, though she seemed to have regained some of her calm. “I was at the end of my second trimester, and I went into premature labor, and . . .” Vicky pulled back, one hand curled in the fabric of Jon’s shoulder, her eyes looking into his, and the pain there was enough to tear his soul into tiny shreds. “They tried to stop it, but . . .” Vicky’s gaze drifted off to the side, going vacant. She shook her head. “The baby was born alive, but . . .” She swallowed, closed her eyes. Jon could see she was trembling now, and he wrapped his hands in hers to still and calm them. “He was too premature. He . . . died.”

Jon saw a few stray tears trace down Vicky’s cheeks, and he released one of her hands so he could brush them away with his thumb. He wasn’t sure if he should say anything. The circumstances, while not entirely the same, reminded Jon of Kai's birth, though Jon hadn't told anyone about that, and now definitely wasn't the time. Instead, he asked, “Is that . . . is that part of how you knew what that last year for me was like? With Kai?”

Vicky wiped her nose with the side of her hand, shrugged. “I never really . . . I didn’t think of it that way, exactly, but maybe.” She took in a deep breath. “He . . . he’d be almost Kai’s age now, you know?”

“Vic--” Jon started to say, but his voice broke.

She nodded sadly.

“Did he have a name?”

A few more tears escaped, tracing their way along her cheeks. “Not officially. But . . . I always thought of him as Andrew.”

Jon smoothed some hair out of her face, letting his fingers linger on her skin just a moment longer than necessary, noticing how her eyes fell partially closed as she leaned into his touch. “What happened . . . to . . . your . . . husband?” He regretted the question almost as soon as it was off his lips. “I’m sorry. You don’t have to answer that now.”

She shook her head against his hand. “If we’re going to be a family, then you need to know.” She turned her head enough to kiss his palm, then pulled his hand away and held it in her lap. “I was . . . I was pretty messed up after that. I wasn’t even 18, dealing with losing a baby, and a husband who didn’t want to be stuck with me, especially now that we had no ‘reason’ to be together. And a family who wasn’t the most understanding of the situation.” Vicky’s lips trembled, but she didn’t cry again. “Some said it was God punishing me for getting pregnant out of wedlock.”

“Jesus.”

Vicky managed a wet laugh. “Yeah, I was told more than once that God was pretty disappointed with me, and that my baby was going to burn in hell forever since he hadn’t been baptized.” 

Something in Vicky’s face cracked, and though she didn’t cry, the pain there was hard for Jon to see. But she shook her head, as if dismissing it. “Chuck. That was . . . my husband’s name. . . . He left not long after Andrew . . .” She took in a breath. “After our baby died, we tried to stay together for a while, but he finally decided the marriage was pointless without. . . .” Vicky shook her head. “He left one day, so I moved back in with my parents for awhile. It took me time to get my head back on, finish high school, all that. . . . And years before I could get a divorce and change my name back. I don’t know what happened to him. I don’t really care.”

Jon leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Vicky’s lips, just a gentle peck, before letting his forehead rest against hers. “I’m sorry.”

She sighed softly, but said nothing more.

“So that’s why you didn’t fight me on the getting married thing?”

She nodded. “My family won’t accept a civil wedding, and I can’t get married in the Catholic church again even if I wanted to.”

“Shit, Vicky, I’m sorry. This is . . . this is all my fault.”

Vicky laughed, pulled away, and Jon was surprised to see her smiling. “It takes two to tango. And that was twenty years ago, Jon. I want you. And I want this baby. Together. And yeah, I want my family to love you, too, and to accept this, but I did what they wanted once already, and . . . I have to do what’s right for me. For all of us.”

Jon cradled her cheek, smiled back. “I might not know much about family, and I might have fucked things up with Kai . . . but I will always fight for you. Even if it’s against a hundred angry Catholic relatives.”

Vicky chuckled, wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder, as if inhaling his scent to buoy her. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Vicky sighed softly. “I’m hoping the pregnancy won’t come out yet, but make sure your keys are in your pocket just in case they get out the pitchforks during dinner.”

Jon stared at her, worried for a split second she was being serious, before she started to laugh, and he joined in.

“I’m being extra careful this time,” Vicky said, her hand on her stomach. “The doctors told me it wasn’t my fault, what happened, but . . .”

Jon nodded. “Any appointments you want me to go with you . . . just tell me, and I’ll work my schedule around it, OK?” Jon kissed her again, and this time it got a little more heated, but the passion was more like two souls melding than anything sexual. “Thank you for telling me. I can’t promise I won’t do or say anything stupid, because, well, I’m me, but--”

Vicky shushed him with another quick kiss, then pulled him up. “We’d better get back before they send out a search party. Roni will kill me if we give away her secret beer stash and sanctuary. Though I’d better come up with an excuse for the red eyes, quick, before the gossip mill starts up too badly.” Vicky flashed him a grateful smile, reaching out for his hand again, giving it a squeeze. “Probably time you met the men of the family anyway. Come on.”

#

Despite Kai’s affectionate nickname for the gathering at David and Megan’s house as “Deafie Stray Thanksgiving,” Kai wasn’t the only hearing person in attendance. Besides Megan, of course, there was a college girl named Yve working on her interpreting degree and license who was apparently from out of town and decided the gathering would be good practice. Kai hadn’t caught her full story, because he kept getting distracted, thinking how hard it would be for a deaf person to pronounce that name. Why not spell it Eve?
    
Besides Yve, there was a middle-aged woman named Suzanne whom Kai vaguely remembered since her son was his age--Michael, maybe? She hadn’t fingerspelled his name, just used his name sign, preceding to talk about how proud she was of him, since he was apparently currently at Gallaudet getting his master’s degree. It could have been the lingering hangover headache (which was mingling with the beginnings of a Zofran side-effect headache), but it seemed almost like she was gloating instead of bragging. You and Michael were in the same class and he’s on his second degree and you could barely pass two classes this semester.
    
She was still signing, though she’d lost Kai somewhere at “considering a cochlear implant,” though seemingly oblivious because Kai made sure to nod and sign in acknowledgement every few minutes, hoping she was content enough she wouldn’t expect more of a contribution from him than that. A hand squeezed his shoulder, and Suzanne frowned at the interruption, but David was smooth as ever, apologizing profusely and smiling, though Kai didn’t even catch most of that. He also didn’t fight when David literally pulled him aside, facing a corner, David crouching down in front of him so their signing would be private.
    
You look like you’re about to pass out. Are you OK?
    
Throughout the morning, David had been keeping a surreptitious eye on Kai, as if he expected Kai to break down again at any moment. Still, David knew Kai well enough to keep his distance and not push. If David had felt it necessary to rescue Kai from Suzanne’s diatribes, he must really look bad. But then, Kai normally only had this hard of a time staying focused and concentrating when English was involved, and he’d been pretty distracted (and distractable) since they’d returned from Walmart.
    
Just hungover. A couple aspirin and something to drink would probably help.
    
David studied Kai closely, whether to attempt to read between Kai’s lines, or to give Kai a chance to communicate something without signs if he was worried about being overseen. Finally, David nodded, as if satisfied, and looked about to stand back up when he added, “If you need to disappear for a while, you can lie down in our bed. It’s OK.
    
Jon’s harsh words of two days before filtered into his mind: “The world doesn’t revolve around you,” and vaguely, Kai realized it was only the Zofran keeping his stomach from reasserting itself. Again. Honestly, the idea of retreating to David’s bedroom, perhaps for the duration of the day, seemed incredibly appealing.
    
Instead, he plastered on his best fake smile, the one that could fool almost anyone, even those who knew him well, and said, “I’ll be OK.
    
David frowned, but patted Kai on the shoulder as he rose, then disappeared into the kitchen, apparently to get Kai a painkiller and a beverage.
    
Kai stayed, staring at the wall for a few minutes, wondering if he could possibly pull that off at least until David returned when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
    
He forced himself to not look as annoyed as he felt as he spun around to face the person. A tall 30-something woman who looked shy and uncomfortable, as if she regretted getting his attention. Maybe he hadn’t been quite as good at masking his grumpiness as he’d thought?
    
She smiled awkwardly, and as soon as she made her first sign Kai knew immediately where her uncertainty came from. “Hi. My name is Emma,” she signed so stiffly Kai had to bite back a wince.
    
You’re learning ASL?” Kai had to repeat himself a few times, slowing down each time, especially on the fingerspelling, until she finally nodded.
    
“That obvious, huh?” she said in English, then blushed, as if realizing her faux pas. “My son is deaf.
    
And you’re definitely hearing, Kai thought, masking his impatience in a deep breath. “Do you have a sign name?” She didn’t get what he was saying, and though it’d be easy enough to explain in English, he didn’t want to. If he revealed he was hearing, she might switch completely to English, and his headache would never get relief. So he tried a different approach. It wasn’t like he didn’t have a decade-and-a-half experience in making himself understood without speech. “My name is Kai.” Kai fingerspelled at glacial speed, making each letter as clear as possible. “My name sign is . . .” And Kai demonstrated his standard name sign, the letter K rolled out from his lips. It had started out partially as a joke at his expense, back when he first started school, since he was hearing but couldn’t speak (since the sign meant “hearing” because it also meant “speak”). But it stuck, and it was better than many of the other names some of the kids called him, mostly under the table, where the teachers couldn’t see.
    
Emma finally seemed to understand. “NO NAME SIGN,” she responded.
    
Kai sighed, wondered if he should correct her. “NONE NAME SIGN NONE,” Kai finally signed, unable to resist.
    
She looked at him, her head tilted slightly, confused. Maybe Kai should leave the tutoring to Megan.
    
Thankfully, David appeared with a bottle of Gatorade and a couple tablets, offering them to Kai. Kai took them quickly, smiled gratefully at David. “You know Emma?”
    
David nodded. “Nice to see you,” David signed quickly enough Kai was sure Emma couldn’t have caught it, then he made his apologies to both of them and headed off to the other side of the room, presumably to continue playing host.
    
“God, I suck so bad at this,” Emma muttered.
    
As Kai swallowed the pills and took a long drink to stall, he wondered if now would be a great time to resuscitate his “pretend to be deaf” skill set he’d used more than once in his life, though not recently. He could even further the lie and say he didn’t read lips, though that could potentially backfire. If she thought he couldn’t hear her, and if she was certain he couldn’t tell what she was saying anyway, she might babble even more, and he honestly would rather go back to his eyes glazing over at Suzanne’s signed ode to her son than have to try to block out Emma whining in his ear.
    
How old is your son?
    
Emma bit her lip, watching him repeat himself, perhaps reading his lips as he did his best to make himself more clear. He was not speaking English the rest of today if he could help it. Finally, the lightbulb went off. “Nine . . . er . . . six,” she responded, fumbling with her fingers, initially confusing her thumb on her index finger, which meant “nine,” for her intended thumb on pinky, meaning “six.”
    
Where is he?” Maybe it was a stupid question, but Kai was seriously grateful that--annoying hearies aside--this was a strictly adult-only gathering.
    
With his dad,” she explained in her cautious, jerking way. “Divorced?” she asked, fingerspelling it.
    
Kai nodded, then demonstrated the sign, two “D” handshapes meeting together at the fingers, then drawing apart and out.
    
Thanks,” Emma signed. “Megan told me you might teach ASL . . .” Her face scrunched up as she struggled to figure out how to sign the rest of the sentence. “Next semester,” she finished, fingerspelling both words, and if Kai hadn’t been forced into the hearing world, he might have been confused. For Deafies, “next” didn’t mean the same as it did for hearing people. “Next,” to a Deaf person, meant “the one after the one after this one,” rather than “the one immediately following this one.” “Next exit” to a hearing person meant the exit immediately coming up; to a Deafie, it meant the one after the one immediately coming up. Kai had been late on several assignments his first year at the hearing high school until he’d learned that what he considered “next” Thursday was not the same, necessarily, as what the teacher had meant.
    
Kai had been so caught up in musing over “next”--there he was, getting distracted again--that he’d failed to answer, or even react to her statement. Emma had apparently taken that as meaning she’d messed up and was attempting to explain in various other ways. It finally hit him: Megan had told people he was going to teach ASL? Maybe she could have told him? Unless she had, and he’d forgotten. . . . No way his memory could be that bad. . . . But he was doubting himself. His thoughts were scattered, and he had trouble focusing on one thing for too long, especially since his fight with Jon kept trying to seep in between each idea. It reminded him a little of his early days post-transplant, when his memory and attention were shit and he’d been seriously worried that he’d never be able to function.
    
Emma was waving her hand in front of his eyes now, frowning.
    
He shook his head, as if to snap himself back to reality. It took him a couple minutes more to remember the topic. Finally, he asked, “Megan told you that?” But apparently that was out of Emma’s comprehension. He sighed. “Why did she tell you I was teaching ASL next semester?
    
Emma watched Kai’s signing carefully, managing to understand him from his combination of slow, clear signs and mouthing the harder words. “Because you’ve taught other hearing people before?” Kai cringed at her use of the English sign “because” instead of structuring her sentence in ASL with a rhetorical “why?,” but said nothing. Kai liked Megan well enough; she’d tamed David and dramatically improved Jon’s signing in only a few months, but sticking the newbie ASL divorcee on him was cruel.
    
Kai had taught three hearing people sign: Renee, Jake, and Frankie, his CP “buddy” from County House, who hadn’t been there when he’d dropped by for Halloween, but whom The Warden wouldn’t tell Kai anything about. He’d be only 16 now, too early to have aged out. So either he’d managed to get lucky and was adopted, he’d been put into a foster home, or he was dead. Despite his CP, Frankie had always been healthy, so far as Kai had known, so the latter option seemed unlikely. But the other options weren’t so likely, either, so what the fuck did he know?
    
Apparently, Kai had spaced out one time too many, so Emma pointed over her shoulder. “I’m just gonna . . .”
    
And she was gone. Kai was seriously debating taking up David’s offer to retreat to a bedroom, maybe try to call Jon and apologize. Fuck. He couldn’t focus. It was kind of like a panic attack, but without the sweating and hyperventilation. Maybe this was what losing your mind was like. Maybe that’s exactly why the idiom was “lose your mind,” as if it were sand slipping through your fingers, slowly escaping your grasp, unable to stop it.
###########

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