November 5, 2000
Renee laughed when Kai parked in front of the Jonesville Public Library. “I thought you promised me a real date.”
Kai turned to her, smiled one of his genuine smiles, one she was starting to believe was reserved just for her. “It is, but like us, it’s nothing conventional. If you hate it, I have a backup plan. Just . . . trust me?”
Renee raised an eyebrow, chuckling and nodding. She decided to wait in the lingering warmth of the car for now, watching as Kai popped his door open and carefully pulled the pieces of his chair over and out, listening to the click as each wheel was fixed in place. Then he twisted, grabbed his backpack and attached it to the back of his chair before lifting his body onto the cushion, adjusting his legs.
“Come on,” he said, hitting the lock and shutting the door. “Follow me.”
Kai led her up the winding ramp that angled up toward the entrance, bypassing the numerous steps. The building was a bland box, likely constructed in the 1970s based on the color of the brick--a cream that was in bad need of powerwashing--and the shape of the windows, narrow and modern (thirty years ago). Especially coming from New Orleans, where buildings had real history, it was a travesty of architecture in Renee’s mind, though she wondered if anyone other than her even bothered to notice. Kai certainly didn’t, leaning forward, his shoulders and arms working hard to propel himself up the ramp. The cold air bit at Renee’s cheeks, and though it was a clear day, the forecast promised the first significant snow of the season for later that day.
Kai held the door open for her, as he always did; Renee had learned quickly that here people weren’t as overtly polite as they were back home. Not necessarily rude, per se, but holding doors wasn’t something people generally did for one another. She’d noticed Kai didn’t like it when she did it for him--even though she did it reflexively--and wondered if his supposed chivalry was preemptive; Renee couldn’t hold the door for him if he was already holding it for her. Of course, she could be overthinking things, as she often did, according to Diane.
She smiled at him and walked through into the foyer, hearing the soft click as Kai rolled over the threshold behind her. Without a word, he took off at a brisk pace through the main walkway of the library, past the bank of computers on one side and fiction on the other. She had to admit she was curious, although she wondered if all of this could be some kind of elaborate joke.
Kai turned right at periodicals, cutting through nonfiction, using his hands on the shelves to propel himself forward where they were a little narrow, occasionally glancing back to make sure she was still following him. Finally, they reached a secluded back corner, shielded from the majority of the library by rows of dusty shelves filled with books on obscure topics that looked like no one had even bothered to touch them in quite some time. He wheeled up to a door that was marked “Staff Only” in bold letters, and pulled out a couple elongated pieces of metal, like straightened paper clips, out of a zippered pocket of his coat, then began working on the lock.
“What are you doing?” Renee said in a harsh whisper, easing closer and looking around nervously, certain some crotchety librarian would stumble onto them and beat them halfway to death with the thickest volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
“Shh. Relax,” he said without looking up from his work. Renee saw Kai’s hand jerk, heard a click, and the door creaked open far too loudly for Renee’s comfort. “Come on,” Kai said, pushing in. She knew Kai was full of secrets, but lockpicking? Another thing to add to her increasingly long list of “Things to Ask Kai Later.”
Reluctantly, Renee followed, easing the door closed behind her. “Should we be in here?” Renee asked cautiously, walking behind Kai. They were in a barely lit hallway, and Renee realized there was something more than a little creepy about this situation.
“Nope,” Kai responded. “Almost there.”
They reached another door, but this one was apparently unlocked--either it was left that way or Kai had already picked it earlier--he clearly had an agenda--and pushed it open. Renee hesitated before following him in. She heard the flick of a switch, then saw soft light begin to appear one by one, forcing her eyes to adjust as she approached.
The room was enormous, the ceiling at least two stories high, apparently some kind of storage space, boxes and furniture and old books piled around, though someone--presumably Kai--had cleared a space in the center and left a ring of candles--ensconced in glass--on every surface remotely within reach from his wheelchair. He was now pushing around, lighting them, one by one. Renee took time to study the room, puzzling out why Kai had brought her here, when she noticed the window, barely illuminated by what remained of the meager overhead lighting. It had clearly been walled in and no longer faced the outside, but it was gorgeous. Over a story high, old, with bits of colored glass in abstract designs. That guided her eye to observe the room more clearly, noticing the wooden crown molding--carved simply and geometrically. The ceiling was molded plaster, water stained in some places, but the design was still visible, drawing her eye to what she realized now was a kind of balcony that circled the room, the rich wood dried and dusty from years of neglect, and the suggestion, behind them and the stacks of detritus, similarly artful bookshelves.
“What is this place?” Renee asked in wonder, searching out other hidden details she may have missed now that Kai’s candles had illuminated more of the space.
She heard his voice draw closer as he wheeled toward her. “The library was built in 1904, by Horatio Jones’s son, in the prairie style. It featured large windows, high ceilings, skylights, and open balconies, giving plenty of natural sunlight to read by. But in the 1970s, the town voted to expand and remodel the building, and the original architecture was lost, except for this room. It’s just used for storage, and no one ever comes in here, but I remembered Art telling me about it. I thought you might find it . . . interesting.”
Talk about atypical romantic gestures, Renee thought, remembering their conversation from the week before. “Kai . . . I don’t know what to say,” she finally admitted, looking down at him. He’d taken off his coat, and she saw he was wearing a navy long-sleeved T-shirt, loose enough to hide the scar at his neck and his shape, but the sleeves fit closely enough to outline the strong muscles in his arms.
He hid his frown, though she’d seen it fleetingly on his face. “I told you I have a plan B if you don’t like this.”
Renee shook her head. “I don’t like this.”
Kai nodded, started to turn, perhaps to snuff out the candles, when Renee reached forward, laying a hand on his arm to stop him. He glanced up at her, his face that purposeful unreadable mask she hated to see.
“I love it,” she said, leaning forward and kissing him lightly on the lips, feeling his surprise and relief. When she pulled back, he was smiling faintly, almost hesitantly. “Really. It’s bizarre, but sweet. Very you.”
Kai laughed now, relaxed a little more. “Better than flowers?”
Renee joined his laughter. “Much better.”
“I asked my brother and friend what to do and they both said take you to dinner, but that seemed so . . . normal. Life with me will never be ‘normal.’ Thought you should get used to it early.” He grinned, but even so, she still saw the hesitancy, uncertainty, in his eyes.
“It’s a crime what they did to this building. It must have been so beautiful.”
“I never saw the original, but I imagined you of all people would appreciate this.”
Renee felt that indescribable pleasant feeling in her chest, not quite like the moment on a rollercoaster where you find yourself shooting down a steep incline, but close. She’d never felt that way before, but with Kai, it was becoming a regular sensation. She leaned forward, kissed him again. Reluctantly, she pulled away. Flashed a smile.
“Didn’t you know? All my boyfriends bring me to dusty hidden rooms on our dates.” Renee felt a light, happy feeling at the word that had slipped out easily--only a hint of regret afterward. Would Kai be annoyed with her presumption of essentially calling him her boyfriend?
“Hey, I dusted in here!” Apparently not, Renee realized with a rush of relief. “And if so, did you press charges? Because I really don’t think orange is my color.”
Renee managed a smile, but she couldn’t quite laugh, thinking of Jude. She pushed him from her mind. Today was about Kai, and new beginnings. “So what do we do now? Tell ghost stories?”
Kai pushed to one of the tables, yanked out a duffle, from which he pulled out a couple blankets. “Something like that,” he said with a playful smile.
Renee helped clear the plates and the tupperware Kai had brought for their lunch out of the way. "So the other night wasn't a fluke. You really can cook."
Kai shrugged. “I hope vegetarian was OK. I thought of making meat for you, but my brother said if you’re going to be with me you need to accept my diet . . .”
Renee laughed softly. “It was delicious. Even better than the other night." And it really was. Some kind of potato and pumpkin and lentil stew she was certain Kai must have spent most of Saturday cooking. "But can I ask you something?” She shut the last of the tupperware and set it aside.
Kai shifted the pillow, rolled onto his stomach, propping his head up with his hands. “I think that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?”
The memory of the antiemetic medication Renee had found in Kai’s bathroom floated in the back of her mind, but she decided she’d put off asking about it for now--she didn’t want to ruin their first official date by potentially revealing how much of his privacy, his hard-earned trust, she’d violated. Instead, she asked another dietary question she’d been curious about, “You don’t strike me as a ‘meat is murder’ type.”
“You want to know why I went veg,” he said, shifting so he was leaning on one hand, his other arm draped across the pillow, gripping his elbow. He looked so sexy like that, peaceful, relaxed, the warm light of the candles highlighting the faint redish gold in his hair. It still seemed strange the way his legs lay so still, except for the occasional minor twitch he barely seemed to notice.
Renee shrugged, bundled up some of the blanket and curled up on her side, facing him.
“My brother read some studies that showed that a vegetarian diet was correlated with a reduced amount of MLS flare ups. We both figured it wouldn’t hurt for me to try it.”
“September’s major attack notwithstanding, I think it’s helped.”
“Well, I can get used to tofu if it means you won’t be in pain.”
Kai blinked, and his face shifted through several emotions, rapidfire, almost impossible to distinguish individually. A shade of a smile lingered. “So you never really told me what a good New Orleans girl is doing in northern Iowa.” He said “New Orleans” in a fake accent, attempting to imitate the way she pronounced it, and it made her laugh.
She noticed how he had changed the subject, but she answered anyway. “I told you, JU has a good architecture program.”
“Mmm. And I’m sure there are good programs in New York or California or Chicago.”
“Jonesville is plenty far from home, and it pissed off my parents. Don’t think I’m callous for saying this, but sometimes not having parents has to be a blessing.”
Kai’s brows furrowed sternly. “I guess we both know a little something about hiding, then.”
Renee rose, paced back and forth in front of Kai several minutes, debating inwardly before speaking again. “When I was 16, I started dating one of my brother’s friends. In secret. He was 21. In college. It was fun. Exciting at first.” Renee hesitated. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”
“You don’t need to tell me anything,” he said, his voice neutral, but his eyes weren’t. She could see that whatever she was going to tell him, he wouldn’t judge her for it. You can trust me, they said. I’ll understand.
“We were . . . intimate. My first ‘real’ boyfriend,” Renee said with a sad laugh. “But after awhile . . . he started . . . taking me, even when I didn’t want him to.” She was almost surprised by how nonchalant her voice was, as if she were talking about something that had happened to someone else, like a rumor she’d heard whispered in the back of one of her classes.
Kai’s eyes darkened, but he kept his voice level. “He forced himself on you?”
Renee swallowed, nodded. “What was I going to do, though?” She wrapped her arms around herself. It’s a little chilly in here without my coat, Renee told herself. “I wasn’t underage anymore, and it was my word against his, and he comes from an old, wealthy Uptown family. Who was going to believe me when we’d had consensual sex before?”
Kai exhaled sharply through his nose before his eyes tracked back up to her. “So that’s what you’re running from? Him?”
Renee sighed, sank down beside him. She watched him move onto his side: first, by placing his hands on either side of his head, as if he were going to do pushups, pushing up and then walking his hands to help twist his torso till he was facing her. Then he reached down to adjust his legs, bending them slightly at the knee. The whole process wasn’t effortless, but Kai was evidently in good shape, the muscles she knew he had likely the byproduct of a solid workout regimen. Would he ever let her see them?
“Only my grandparents, my roommate, and now, you, know about what really happened between us. My parents keep hoping I’ll come to my senses and marry him.” Renee sighed. “I just had to get away from that. From them.”
Kai stretched out one arm, resting his head on his bicep. “I’d ask why you don’t tell them, but that wouldn’t even do justice to the cliche ‘pot: kettle.’” He reached out for her hand, and she let him take it. His eyes found hers. “I wanted to take things slow between us . . . physically . . . anyway. I want this to be real. I don’t want another relationship that starts with sex and turns into something else later. I want ‘something else’ to turn into sex.” Kai sighed, his face scrunched up. “That sounds awful.”
Renee smiled. “I know what you mean. I’d like that, too.”
He smiled, soft and sweet, and beckoned her close. She stretched out beside him, letting him wrap his arm around her, her forehead resting against his chest. Somehow, in his warm embrace, she believed he would never let anything harm her.
“One question,” he said after a while, his breath soft and warm on the top of her head.
“When you saw me in PT, found out the truth about my disability. . . . Said you still wanted me. . . . Was it partially because you saw me as non-threatening?”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
But then she started laughing, pushing away so she could cover her mouth. She tried to stop, but she couldn’t help it. “That’s funny.”
His eyebrows dipped sternly over his eyes, but all she saw in them was that penetrating sadness, despite the rest of his face remaining relatively neutral. “I’m the king of finding humor in inappropriate places, but you’ve lost me here.”
She sucked in a breath to get herself under control. “I knew you were strong, but seeing you in PT proved that.”
Now it was Kai’s turn to laugh. “You’re right; that is funny.”
“Really. And the more I get to know you, the more I realize it’s not just physical strength.” Renee worked her fingers through Kai’s hair; it fell midway past his ears now, and she tucked a few strands to the side. “Jude did what he did to me because, ultimately, he’s a coward.” She met Kai’s eyes. “You’re definitely not.”
Kai sighed, pushed himself onto his back, not bothering to shift his legs, so his pelvis remained twisted, like he was halfway into a stretching routine. He stared upward into the vast shadows of the multistory ceiling. “Guess I shouldn’t be surprised this unconventional date took a completely unconventional direction, conversation-wise.”
Renee chuckled, settled down beside him again, tracing a finger along his chest, down to his stomach. “All right. How about a typical first-date question, then?”
“Blue, I’m allergic, and basketball player.”
Renee laughed. “What?”
“My favorite color, do I like animals, and what I wanted to be when I was a kid. First-datey enough for you?”
Renee let out a long, trilling laugh. “OK, fair enough. Red. My mom hates animals, so we never had any pets. Architect.”
It was Kai’s turn to laugh now, rich and full. “Really. Your pipe dream when you were six was to be an architect. Not a rockstar or an astronaut.”
Renee stuck her tongue out at him. “I didn’t know what it was called then, but yeah. I always knew I wanted to design buildings, even when I was a little kid.”
“So you’re literally living the dream.”
“Working on it.” She reached over, laid a hand on his thigh, just below his hip, wondering if he’d push her away. He looked at her, but otherwise didn’t move. “What about you? I’m guessing the basketball thing didn’t work out?” Her cheeks suddenly flushed hot and she pulled her hand away. “I’m sorry. I--”
“It’s all right, Re,” he said. He pushed himself up, walking his hands until his torso was upright. Supporting himself with one hand splayed on the floor, he used the other to adjust his legs, first pushing on one so it rotated out at the hip, then reaching over to straighten each until they were stretched out in front of him. Renee noticed they naturally fell outward now, his feet splayed, since he wasn’t wearing his braces. The more she was with him, the more she realized every movement that anyone else would do easily took him a few extra steps; he had some control in his hips, but otherwise, his legs didn’t move unless it was by spasm or his hands guiding them.
. . . And the more she realized how much she loved being with him, watching him execute each calculated move, though he never seemed to think about how he’d do something. She supposed he’d had plenty of time to learn how to manipulate his body.
“Come here,” he said, nodding to his lap. “It’s OK.”
He’d explained about his injured right leg, but apparently it was healed enough he could take her weight. It made her blush, imagining climbing into his lap when he was in his chair, wrapping her legs around his backrest and kissing him long and hard until they both were panting for breath. She climbed over his legs, her knees bent, sitting on her calves, her hands on his shoulders, looking into his eyes. The candlelight was dimming; soon they’d have to head back, but for now she was going to enjoy him.
“I’m a big boy. I’m pretty sure, short of ‘good bye, I never want to see you again,’ there’s nothing you could say to me that would hurt my feelings.” He shifted his weight onto his right arm, lifted his left to guide his fingers along the side of her face, just a graze. It always made her eyelids drift downward as the pleasant tingle coursed through her. “I don’t want you to be afraid of being honest with me. OK?”
She nodded; forming words seemed to be too challenging right now. She reflexively shifted in his lap, pressing their crotches closer together. His arm wobbled, and he had to drop his other hand to keep himself upright.
He let out a short, reflexive moan. “Re.”
She smiled, kissed him, hard and probing, feeling his smile and his warmth somewhere else. She agreed with him that they should take things slow, but making out was still on the books, right? Her lips drifted to his cheek, his chin, his jaw, his neck, until she got to the scar he always hid; she could barely see it, partially masked by his collar, and she wondered if she shouldn’t press her luck, but he was breathing heavily, he was hard and using his hands to push himself closer to her, so she decided to take a risk. She kissed the edge of it, licking his skin just above it, waiting for him to tense and pull away. He did freeze for an instant, but he didn’t stop her.
“Will you tell me about your scars one day?”
He sighed. “Yes. But not today, OK?”
She pulled back, wrapped her arms around him. “Let me guess: not first-date material?” She grinned, hoping he’d get the reference. It was something he’d told her the day they’d kissed the first time.
He smiled, relaxed, sighed again, though this time it was soft, not one of frustration. “Yes. Exactly.”
“OK, fair enough. How about another first-datey question, then. Favorite movie?”
“Don’t have one. Haven’t really seen many movies, to be honest.”
“You’re kidding. You quoted Princess Bride to me the other day.”
He laughed, walked his hands backwards, sunk to his elbows, then dropped down so he was lying flat again. “Because when we finally got a VHS player at County House, it was one of the only movies we had, and all the girls were in love with Cary Elwes, so they’d watch it over and over. Plus, it was one of the few films my roommate liked, mostly for the fighting scenes. I could probably interpret that movie in my sleep.”
“Well, it’s one of my favorites,” she said, climbing off and snuggling up beside him.
“And now you have your very own Westley? Should I say ‘As you wish’?” His tone was slightly sardonic.
“Can’t blame a girl for falling in love with golden hair and blue eyes.”
He turned his head, looking at her, incredulous.
She pushed up on her elbow so she was gazing down at him. “You really don’t think much of yourself, do you?”
“Please don't tell me you're dating me because I'm some crippled Cary Elwes fantasy,” he said on a sigh. “I need someone firmly in reality. I thought you understood that.” Kai pushed himself up, grabbed his wheelchair and pulled it closer. He planted his hands on the seat and levered his body off the ground and into the chair, pushed up until he was sitting all the way into it. She sat up onto her knees as she watched him place his feet on the footrest, his legs inert until he released them, at which point his left leg began to jump. It was subtle, like the way you might jiggle your knee when you're restless. It meant he was stressed, or tired, or both.
“What happened to ‘nothing you can say will upset me’?”
Kai sighed heavily. “I’m sorry. You were trying to compliment me, and I . . .” He shook his head. “Instead of movies, I had books. Art used to let me borrow some. He was the only one who ever came to visit me.” Kai bent, snatched one of the blankets and started folding it.
Renee followed his lead, folding up the other blanket. She remembered her brief visit to County House, how much it had meant to Kai to make the holiday special for those kids, how their eyes had lit up when they’d seen the two of them arrive, the laughter and the joy from some store-bought treats and a few simple games. It put Kai’s statement, said flatly enough in his normal, nonchalant style, take on a much sadder air. Art had apparently been the only person in Kai’s life for how many years? Ten? Twelve? Who’d cared enough to go see him, to bring him “gifts.”
Growing up in a huge family, Renee couldn’t even begin to imagine what that must have felt like.
“That’s why he was so ready to defend you.” It came out like a realization instead of a question.
Kai shrugged, pushed to the edge of the cleared area to get the bag he’d packed the blankets in. “My favorite is Hamlet. I know it’s a play, but I’ve never seen it.”
Renee stopped halfway through her folding. “You’re kidding.”
He shook his head, shoved the blanket in the duffel.
“Well, we’ll have to fix that and add a few movies to your repertoire in the process. Maybe second date?”
“Maybe.” He looped the strap over his head, then wheeled toward her, taking the other blanket. She saw that haunted look in his eyes, though he tried not to meet her gaze. “I also always liked The Odyssey and Tom Jones. And Count of Monte Cristo.”
“The classics.” Adventures. The kind of books a boy could read and live vicariously through, Renee realized. She helped him stuff the pillow into the bag and zip it shut. “I used to spend my summers pouring over art and architecture books I’d check out from the main public library. I’m a dork, I know.”
“You really did always know what you wanted to be, huh,” Kai observed in an indeterminant tone, noticing she was packing away their trash and tupperware into the backpack Kai had brought with them, so he went around blowing out the candles that were still lit.
“And you didn’t?”
Kai let himself glide to a stop, his back to her. “As I said before, kids like me learn pretty quick dreaming is futile. It’s best to take things one day at a time.”
Renee approached, laying a hand on his shoulder.
He glanced back, carefully turning around in a smooth circle; she stepped out of his way.
“Have you ever been happy, Kai?”
He looked down, away. “I’ve had moments. A few I remember, with my brother, before our parents died. Some good times with my roommate or my high school friend. Some with Becca, in the beginning.” He shrugged. “Like everything in my life, happiness is relative.”
Renee lifted the strap over his head, setting the duffel aside, then climbed into his lap, sideways, her legs dangling off, her arms wrapped around his neck. “I want to make you happy, Kai. Really happy. Smiling that rare genuine smile of yours until your cheeks hurt.”
A shade of that smile slipped onto Kai’s face. “As you wish.”
Continue to November 8, 2000 - Part I -------->