November 3, 2000
Kai's eyes opened blearily. He was vaguely aware that his alarm was blaring, and he suspected it had been sounding for some time, yet he couldn't find the energy to reach over and shut it off. There was no way it could be morning already. He felt weighed down, worn out as if he hadn't slept at all. Disconcertingly the way he felt after an attack. To make things worse, breathing took more effort than it should.
Kai must have drifted back into sleep, because he woke with a jolt, surprised to find Jon sitting on the edge of his bed, looking worried. Kai's alarm had been silenced, and Jon had his hand pressed against Kai's forehead.
"Your alarm had been going off for thirty minutes, so I came in to check on you. You don't look good."
"I'm fine," Kai insisted, pushing himself up. "Just tired."
Jon looked at Kai, clearly not buying it. He handed Kai the thermometer. "Take your temperature, at least."
Kai snatched the thermometer from his brother and shoved it in his mouth, holding it expertly under his tongue as he used his hands to shift his body, sitting up straighter.
"Let me listen to your lungs," Jon asked as he reached up to help keep the thermometer in place. Kai glared at him, but Jon ignored him.
Kai adjusted his weight, supporting himself with one hand, freeing up his other to sign, "No. I saw Dr. J yesterday. I'm fine." The thermometer beeped, and Jon immediately checked it, seeming surprised by its reading.
"See. Fine. Now, if you don't mind, I have a midterm later today, so . . ." Kai made a shooing gesture.
Jon frowned. "All right. Good luck on your test. Dress warmly. And cover your mouth. I'm working late tonight, but call me if you need to."
An hour later, Kai had taken his meds, showered, and coughed, and though he felt a little better, he'd gotten even more gunk out than the night before. And like the night before, he sensed a heaviness suggesting more lurked in the depths of his lungs. Worse, what he managed to cough up was thick and incredibly sticky.
Kai hesitated, then pulled up Dr. J's number on his phone and dialed. He'd expected to leave a message, but at the last moment, the doctor answered.
"Kai? I don't have all your results yet. You feeling OK?"
Kai took in a breath, which hitched. Then he explained his concerns, hoping he was just paranoid.
When he finished, Dr. J was silent a long while. "And your PO2 has been down?"
Kai sighed. "Yeah, a few points."
"I'm going to call down a script for amphigarol. l want you to start taking it again. It's worth a try."
"So I'm not being paranoid. It's started already. I'm going to get sick again."
"We don't know that, Kai. I'm just being cautious. Come see me after you've been taking the amphigarol for a couple weeks, unless anything changes before then. Nebulize twice a day with the albuterol to help you clear the mucus if you need to."
That afternoon, Renee was waiting for Kai with a steaming to-go cup when he finally emerged from the study room where he took his tests. She was smiling at him, looking beautiful as always, even though she wore a baggy sweatshirt, her face makeup-free, and her hair pulled back into a frizzy ponytail.
He knew he had to look tired, because he was exhausted, and despite Dr. J's assurances, felt about as good as he had when he'd woken up that morning. It didn't help that his legs had spasmed all through the test, his anxiety just below the surface, barely kept in check by the hydroxyzine and sheer will.
But Renee rushed up and kissed him quickly and sweetly, offering him the drink. "Hot milk with lots of sugar. I heard through the grapevine it was your favorite."
Kai accepted the drink with a sweet, grateful smile, taking a hesitant sip before securing it between his legs and pushing out of the tutoring offices. "Thanks, Re," he said, after they'd gone awhile in silence.
"Did the test go all right?" Renee asked, finally, as they wandered through the student center, as if she'd sensed it was finally safe.
Kai led her to a lounge area, a group of couches and tables for students to gather. Kai parked so he wasn't blocking through traffic and gestured for Renee to sit. He sipped the hot drink slowly, which helped settle his grumpy stomach and eased the tightness in his chest some.
"I don't think I failed, so that's something," Kai said, forcing a smile.
Renee curled up on the seat closest to Kai, wrapping her arms around one of his, laying her head on his shoulder. "I know you did well," Renee said, squeezing his arm. Kai caught the confident "know" and appreciated her not digging for more. He didn't want to think about history this weekend. "Let's do something."
Kai finished his milk and leaned forward to set his drink aside. Renee was snuggled up beside him, clearly not caring who saw them together, wheelchair and all. She was just happy to be cuddling with her boyfriend on a Friday afternoon. It wasn't too early to think Renee thought of him that way? Did she even want to think of him that way? Or would his novelty fade and she decide he was too much trouble to bother with? Especially once she learned his MLS was only part of the package?
As the hydroxyzine wore off, all the anxiety began to pour illogically out into his increasingly erratic thoughts.
"Kai." He felt Renee's hands gripping his wrists. When had he covered his face with them? And when had his breathing become harsher? "Kai," she said again, managing to speak firmly, yet soothingly at the same time, "the test is over. Stop thinking about it and tell me what we're going to do tonight."
"Like what?" he asked in his best nonchalant voice. He tried to take slow, even breaths, hating how his body got away from him, how it made him feel threatened even when he knew everything was perfectly fine. After all, there were far bigger problems in the world than a history test, or whether or not he and Renee would last the semester. And a few days of bad coughing didn't mean he wasn't cured. Kai could almost hear Dr. Miller’s voice, You’re discounting your feelings again. He sighed. Maybe it had been too soon to drop down to seeing her only once a week, as much as he hated to admit it.
"I don't know . . ." Renee squeezed Kai's hands, kissed his knuckles, glanced up at him with a smile. It was an, "I've gotcha," moment without being fussy. Just what he needed. "What would you do tonight if I wasn't around?"
Kai took a deep breath, then took back his hands so he could use them to shift his weight in his chair. He felt himself coming down a bit from the anxiety, though it still hummed in his chest. "Honestly?"
Renee nodded, accepted a chaste kiss.
Kai clung to her a moment before releasing her again. "It's not very exciting, but I'd probably go home and sleep." He smiled tiredly.
"Did you stay up late studying?"
Kai started to say no, but realized that might leave him open for telling her about his anxiety or his "asthma"-- neither of which he wanted to do while exhausted and desperate for another dose of hydroxyzine, while in the middle of the student center. Instead, he said, "Why don't you come back to my place with me; I'll make a quick dinner and we can watch a movie or something?"
Renee stood behind Kai as he peered into cabinets. She'd noticed his stress and tension had lingered even after the exam was over, and though she'd tried to distract him with her kiss and touch, he'd been distant. She'd discovered Kai often withdrew, like a turtle into its shell, but to protect himself from what she wasn't certain. She just had to be patient and wait for those glorious moments, like on Halloween, when his curtain had come down and he'd been delightfully silly and sweet and wonderful.
“Well, I guess with the midterm I got a little distracted and didn’t go to the grocery store. But I can get creative, if you don’t mind vegetarian.”
“My maw maw told me never to complain when someone else is doing the cooking,” Renee said, accepting cans as he pulled them out of the pantry. Chickpeas, tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes.
“Can you check the freezer for spinach?” Kai asked as he pushed across the kitchen, leaning forward to snag a bowl of onions and pulling one out.
Renee set the cans on the counter and grabbed a package of frozen spinach. “Can I help with anything else? Preferably something that will ensure I don’t burn down the apartment complex?”
Kai laughed. “You know how to chop onions? I have to do it on the table, so if you could help with that, it’d be great.” He set the onion on the counter, then pulled out a cutting board and a knife, setting them aside as well.
“I think I can handle that.” Renee started peeling and chopping while Kai bustled around, taking out cookware.
“Uh, do you want me to make rice or pasta or something? I don’t usually bother, because it’s too much carbs for Jon and I don’t really care either way, but I can, if you want.” Kai set out a pot and a skillet, then snagged a towel and the can opener to start opening the food.
“I don’t even know what you’re making.”
“Uh,” Kai said, stretching to drain the chickpeas in the sink, “something Italian-y.”
Renee laughed, relieved to see Kai joking around. “OK. You do know how to cook, right? You’re not just trying to impress me?”
“Hmm,” Kai said, dumping the chickpeas into a pot, then stretching again to fill it with some water. She noticed the unmodified kitchen made things awkward for him, but like everything he did, he’d figured out his own way to do things, working as seamlessly as possible under the circumstances. “Guess you’ll have to find out.” He winked, set the pot on the stove, and turned it on. “Chickpeas take forever. This’ll soften them up while we cook the onions.”
“They’re ready,” she announced. “Should I put them in a bowl or something?”
“Nah, just bring them over when I say,” Kai said as he set the skillet to heat. “Can you cook the spinach? Put it in a bowl and zap it in the microwave three minutes. We just want to get it defrosted. I’ll finish cooking it in the pan.”
Renee obeyed; it felt nice, cooking together, and she noticed he’d continued to relax as he focused on prepping dinner, the exam seemingly forgotten. It wasn’t the most exciting way to spend a Friday night, but she wouldn’t trade it for anything. Especially if it meant she’d see him smiling. Not one of his faked or forced grins, but one of his beautiful, lopsided, genuine smiles she loved seeing so much.
She heard the sizzle of hot oil and vaguely got the impression Kai had asked her more than once. “Oh, coming!” She carried the cutting board over and watched as he slid the onions into the pan with a spatula.
Renee stood by as Kai browned the onions, then drained the chickpeas and added the spices, tomatoes, and sauce, covering it and letting it simmer for a few minutes. It could have been the fact that she was hungry, but it smelled delicious. “So . . . I grew up helping a grandmother who cooks better than anyone I’ve ever met, and I still can barely make toast. Who taught you?”
Kai pointed to himself. “It was something to do after . . .” Kai hesitated. “. . . I got out of County House,” Kai finished, as if he were speaking about prison. “I found I liked it.”
“Well, I think it’s pretty sexy,” Renee said.
Kai laughed, lifted the lid to check the sauce. “I think we’re ready for the spinach, if you’ll bring it over.”
“Plus, I’ll never go hungry as long as I’m with you.”
That really made him laugh as they added the final ingredient together. Their eyes met, and Kai smiled one of his relaxed grins before looking away to stir in the spinach. “Let that heat up a bit,” he said, covering it and setting the spatula aside.
“So, teach me some signs,” Renee said, figuring she’d make use of her time. She’d gotten some books out of the library, but having Kai teach her worked so much better than trying to interpret a drawing in a book.
“Cook,” Kai demonstrated, speaking the English word as he did the sign.
Renee attempted to imitate: right hand on top of left, then flipped until it returned back to rest.
“Music,” Kai said and signed, confusing Renee initially until she realized it was similar, though it looked more like waving the fingers of his right hand along his left forearm. “Some people do those signs almost identically, so, remember, context.” He repeated the sign, this time on his hand, and she could see how the two could be confused.
She nodded, repeated them both.
“Eat.” Kai tapped his closed right hand, fingers straight, on his lips. “That means food, too.”
Renee tapped her left wrist, then brought her hand to her lips, making sure to arch her brows. Kai didn’t respond immediately, and she began to deflate, thinking she’d done it wrong.
But a shy smile twisted its way onto his face, and he offered a slight nod, then signed using a lot of pointing and the outline of something in the air. A bowl? She caught him repeating TIME and EAT, but she was afraid she had to admit she’d lost him.
She shook her head, flicking up her right index finger, indicating she didn’t understand.
He laughed. “I was asking you to grab a bowl,” he said, awkwardly trying to match the ASL to the English for her sake, though it was clear it didn’t match up very well. “In ASL, you always have to identify who you’re talking about first. So I have to identify you, and the where and what I want you to get, then tell you to bring it to me. We can go into that more later. Let’s eat.”
A few minutes later, they were sitting diagonally from each other at the table, partaking of Kai’s creation. “Wow, this . . . is really good.” Renee used the sign for GOOD, emphasizing it in the way she signed and in her face; she’d noticed Kai’s eyes always lit a little more for her when she was signing, and she loved to see that sparkle.
Kai chuckled, picked at his food, as always, and forced himself to take a few bites. “Chickpeas have a pretty meaty flavor, but adding some Worcestershire sauce helps.” He shrugged. “I know it’s technically not a vegetarian ingredient, but I figure a little anchovy won’t kill me.”
Renee smiled. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a guy cook me dinner who wasn’t related to me.”
Kai shrugged again, took a few more reluctant bites. “I’m glad you like it.”
They ate in silence for a few minutes, Renee unable to ignore how even a meal he cooked himself Kai approached like an obligation he wished he could get out of. Finally, Renee felt her curiosity bubble up, unable to contain it any longer. She attempted to sign it, hoping she wouldn’t flub it too bad and he might be more receptive. “Why do you hate eating so much? Even when you cook it yourself?”
Kai watched her signing, smiling faintly; apparently she’d made herself clear enough. He glanced down at his half-eaten bowl and shrugged again. “Would it surprise you if I said that’s not a simple answer?” he responded, sim-comming for her sake. She noticed he reached over for a sugar shaker, like the kind you found in diners, and sprinkled some onto his food the way someone might add parmesan, mixing it up.
She shook her head. “Not at all. I’m beginning to think your entire life consists of answers you can give with a shrug, headshake, or nod, or that would rival the greatest works of literature for complexity and length.”
That made him smile, lean back. Nod.
She laughed, pointed to the sugar. “Is it because you have really weird tastes and I wouldn’t eat it if you had cooked it the way you liked it?”
Kai’s eyebrows furrowed, and he tilted his head as he forced another couple mouthfuls. His actions were so measured, like a child counting his bites before his mother would give him permission to leave the table. But then, maybe he actually was doing that: must eat twenty bites today, Renee thought with amusement.
Finally, after mulling it over, he responded, “I eat because I have to,” and punctuated it with a shrug. He drummed the fingers of his left hand, his gaze going distant. She'd either lost him again, or he was calculating what to say next. Finally, he said, his voice strangely meek, “Re, remember I told you there was more than the chair?”
She nodded, trying to suppress her confusion. Was Kai actually going to volunteer information without her needing to extract it slowly and painfully like a stubborn tooth?
“I . . .” Kai seemed to be struggling as to how to proceed, and he took another couple bites of his meal. “I want to be honest with you about myself,” he said, shifting to ASL, as if that made it easier for him to get his point across. “Why I'm 22-years-old and starting college. Why remembering is hard.” He used listing when he signed, pointing to each of his first two fingers before explaining each, slow and deliberate, choosing his signs carefully to ensure she understood. Kai had explained listing was an important element of ASL, and since he'd told her that, she'd observed how it leaked into his English: firstly, second. . . .
Renee nodded, waiting for him to continue.
Kai's fingers fluttered in the air in front of him, as if he were trying to decide how to proceed. Several quiet moments passed, Kai's eyes shut, likely debating inwardly how to tell her whatever it was he was going to explain. But then he dropped his hands, rubbed his chest, his eyebrows furrowing. He took a few breaths that looked effortful.
“I’ll. . . . Excuse me a minute,” he said suddenly, pushing away from the table, disappearing before Renee could say anything else.
Confused, Renee sat at the table, finishing her food, before finally deciding to make herself useful by clearing their dishes. She'd gathered most of them when she suddenly heard Kai coughing. Hard, almost like he were choking on something. She abandoned the plates and rushed to his door, pressing her ear against it.
“Kai? Are you OK?”
Nothing but more harsh coughing, so her hand went to his doorknob, ready to turn it. But they weren't at a point in their relationship where she could just burst into his bedroom uninvited, so she waited a moment more, her ears peeled.
“I'm fine. Be right out.”
His voice seemed strange, forced, breathy, but maybe he'd just had something go down the wrong pipe. She listened a while longer, heard him cough a few more times, but forced herself to resume her task of cleaning up. She was in the kitchen, almost finished with the dishes, when she heard the minor creak of his chair as he rolled in. He looked even more tired than before, his chest and shoulders working a little harder than they should. Was it his asthma? Maybe his distance, tension, she’d seen earlier had been tied to his breathing rather than worry over the test? Was that maybe what he'd wanted to tell her about before he'd rushed into his bedroom? But how did that tie into his late start at college or his memory issues?
She waited for an explanation, but he didn't offer one, and she decided not to press him now. If he wasn't telling her anything voluntarily, she wouldn't get much from poking him. She'd learned that much about Kai, anyway.
As they moved together in silence around the small kitchen, putting the leftovers away, she could hear a subtle, audible wheeze in his breath.
Would being with Kai always be this way? Like exploring a vast building filled with sealed rooms, praying she'd find a fraction of them unlocked and open to her?
The playful, relatively forthcoming man of Halloween night had morphed back into this quiet, reserved, pensive version of himself, like the dark side of the moon, distant, shadowed, hidden.
"I guess I should go."
"What?" he said suddenly, as if her words had snapped him out of a trance. "No. Stay. I'm sorry." He offered a smile, which, though tired, appeared genuine. He signed and spoke, eyebrows raised, "Do you like Oreos?" A bit of the child she'd glimpsed a few days ago pierced his outer barricades, as he pulled a package of holiday cookies from one of the lower cabinets. "I ate the Halloween ones. They've already moved onto Christmas. I'll share." He held up the package, adorned with a Santa and snowflakes, depicting the festively dyed cookie centers. He looked at her with puppy eyes, and she couldn't resist a smile.
"You don't need milk for Oreos, he said, laying the package in his lap, "but I'll pour you some if you want."
"Let's eat them on the couch?"
He brightened further, following her.
She curled up much as she had the week before, when he'd brought her back here after PT, accepting the cookies as he transferred, heaving his body over onto the cushions, using his hands to help ease himself closer to her.
He smiled, plucked the package out of her lap and tore it open, snagging a few Oreos, offering her his palm for her to take what she wanted.
She accepted a couple, watching him with a faint smile. He seemed to be feeling better--maybe he'd taken some medicine in his bedroom--as his eyes sparkled.
"Are you a cookie- or filling-first Oreo eater?" she asked.
"Filling," he said, twisting several open and using his teeth to scrape the red and green frosting off.
She laughed as he ate the filling out of half a dozen before munching on the cookies.
"I can eat a whole package in one sitting if I'm not careful," he admitted with a slight blush.
“So sweets are never a chore to eat,” Renee said with a wink.
Kai shrugged. "Dessert is different," he responded in his usual cryptic manner. He licked a few more cookies, his tongue searching for any remaining frosting. Then Kai seemed to realize what he was doing, blushed, and hurriedly popped the cookie in his mouth.
Renee shook her head, smiled, and twisted open hers, also eating the frosting first. He seemed to approve.
They shared about half the package, Kai eating most of them, when he yawned, stretched, and set the Oreos aside. He pushed his body forward in the seat, using his hands, then adjusted his legs, stretching them out, reclining, his head on the back of the couch.
She took his cue and snuggled down beside him.
"D'you have a big family?" he asked lazily.
His question caught her off guard, but maybe the festive cookies had gotten him thinking of Christmas, and family. Whatever it was, it meant maybe he was relaxing again, willing to talk about more than cookies and superficial things.
"Yeah. My maw maw was one of 13, and my paw paw had eight brothers and sisters. There's a lot of us."
He held her close, and with her ear on his chest, she could hear a faint gurgle with each breath, like he had the beginnings of a chest cold.
"Did you dream of having a big family?"
Kai chuckled faintly. "Every orphan imagines what having a family is like at least once. Comes with the territory." He yawned. "Mostly, I just wished for my brother back."
"You two were close?"
"Mmm. He's eight years older, so he took care of me. I don't really remember my parents, but I remember Jon." Kai yawned again. "I used to imagine and hope he'd come for me, but like a kid growing out of faith in Santa Claus, I figured out believing in something that would never happen was only a recipe for disappointment."
Kai half laughed, half yawned, then spoke slowly, sleepily, "Ironically, he did come for me. Right before I aged out. Saved me."
Renee wanted to ask what Kai meant, but his body had gone heavy against her, his head drifting to rest on top of hers, snoring faintly. He'd fallen asleep, in the middle of their conversation, almost without warning, and she found it amusingly endearing.
She felt him shiver against her, but when she extracted herself from under him, she realized he was still asleep. His hands were ice cold, though. Was he sick? Or could it be his blood pressure? She felt his face, which seemed a little chilled, not hot. She spied a large blanket folded and tucked into the bottom of the end table, managing to stretch and snag it, then drape it over them both. Renee curled up close to him again, trying to use her small body to help his get warm. She’d let him rest a little while, then she’d have to leave, grateful she’d followed him over in her own car this time.
He let out a small, achingly adorable sigh of contentment and pulled her closer, still sound asleep. It wouldn’t hurt to stay a little while, Renee thought, closing her eyes.
Continue to November 4, 2000 ------------->