November 8, 2000 - Part I
Kai sat in the front row of his history class, in his wheelchair, struggling to remain calm, focusing on the touch of Renee’s hand in his. She sat beside him in a rickety stand-alone desk as she had ever since they’d reconnected via her surprise PT visit. He’d insisted she didn’t have to be uncomfortable or sit right in the front on his account, but she had simply smiled and said, “I’ll sit on the floor, or in a chair without a desk, if that’s what it takes to sit beside you.” And so she had, at first, sitting in a regular chair, her legs folded up, using the surface of their textbook to write on, until the professor had requested a desk be brought in for her.
Today they got the results of their midterm; since the test was multiple choice and used a bubble sheet, it was scored by computer, so they didn’t need to wait for their grades. Kai had dosed himself up with drugs to try to control his anxiety, but he felt that dizzy, detached feeling that sometimes preceded an attack, so he took slow breaths and tried to remind himself it was just a test. He'd survived far worse ordeals than history, after all.
“I’ll admit, you guys impressed me,” the teacher said to the crowd. He turned to face the board, drawing a large number 105. “That was the high score: perfect, plus the bonus questions. And the low.” He turned back to the board, drawing a 22 on the opposite side. Kai reflexively squeezed Renee’s hand tighter. If that was his score, there was no possible way he could recover from that and pass the semester. Then the professor drew a bell curve connecting each number, and at the peak, he drew 75. “But the class average was a solid 75, which is just right. Some of you did very well and showed some real improvement.”
Next, the professor began calling out students’ names one by one so each person could come forward and collect his or her scored answer sheet, along with a copy of the test, if they wanted to use it to see which questions they’d missed. Kai was grateful for his chosen last name--Fox--instead of his family name--Taylor--because it meant less stress waiting. At the same time, it also meant he’d either have to put off looking at the grade longer or spend more time in class agonizing over it if he did.
“K. Fox,” the professor called, and Renee had to tap him on the shoulder to get him to snap back from his thoughts.
Kai pushed the short distance to the front table, accepting his bubble sheet from the teacher.
“I’d like to speak with you after class.”
Kai swallowed, nodded, and snagged a copy of the test from the pile, shoving both papers between his legs and returning to his spot next to Renee.
She smiled at him encouragingly, but didn’t speak; the professor’s voice continued to drone out names.
Kai smoothed out the papers in his lap, debating about whether or not he should look now or later. Finally, he decided he’d rather know, and glanced at the computer’s printed score.
71! Kai’s heart raced. A C minus! A smile bloomed on his face until his happiness was hit with the hammer of realization. The professor had asked to see Kai after class. Did that mean he thought Kai had cheated? But how? Kai took the test in a study room in the tutoring center, with a proctor. Though, granted, the woman had spent most of the time pretending to read a book while actually staring at Kai’s spasming legs.
As if on cue, his knees began to bob asynchronously. Renee laid her hand on his, which he had securing his right thigh, as if that would somehow protect it, as ridiculous as the idea was.
Finally, the professor finished handing out the graded tests and flipped through a copy of the answer key. “I’m going to review some of the most commonly missed questions for the remainder of class, but I encourage you to go through your own exams at home as you prepare for the final, which, let me remind you, is only five weeks away.” He cleared his throat. “The first most-missed question was number 10, which asked, ‘Which century was affected by the Black Plague?’ The correct answer was ‘D: All of the above,’ because while the fourteenth century certainly was most immediately affected, the repercussions of the Black Death went far beyond that. Some argue that even modern events, such as world wars, may not have occurred were it not for the devastation of the 13oos. It’s one reason why it’s so important to study history - the past can have significant ramifications on the future, even generations later.”
Kai glanced over at Renee, who was, of course, taking notes on everything the professor was saying. He had to tell her about his FS, his transplant. Soon. It wasn’t fair to her to take this relationship much farther without her knowing what she was getting herself into, and more than that, he didn’t want to hide it from her. Pretending and hiding were exhausting: he wanted to be able to be open and honest and just himself with her.
She noticed him looking at her, dropped her pen and reached out for his hand, offering a sweet, gentle smile. He didn’t want to lose her, which he might, once she realized how truly fucked up his body was, but it’d be better for them both to hurt now rather than later.
Renee had promised to wait for Kai outside until he’d finished talking to their teacher, agreeing to go back to his place to review the test together. Kai knew his hands were shaking subtly, and he tried to focus on happy thoughts and not the swirl of negative emotions that threatened to overwhelm him if he let them. He had a good grade on his midterm, and Renee only smiled like that, warm and sweet, for him. Whatever happened in the next few hours, he had to remember that, at least.
Finally, the professor gestured for Kai to come forward, taking a seat at the chair by the front table to keep them more at eye level. That made Kai’s pulse spike--most people didn’t worry about looking down at him when he was in the chair, so making the conscious decision to sit. . . . Deep breath, Kai, he tried to assure himself. Maybe the professor was just tired.
“I wanted to talk to you about your test,” the professor said, once Kai was parked across from him.
Kai swallowed. If the teacher thought Kai cheated, did that mean he had to retake the test? Kai wasn’t sure he could go through that again.
“It’s all right,” the professor said, as if noticing Kai’s agitation. “I wanted to tell you good job on the exam. It’s nice to see a student working hard and having his effort pay off.”
Kai let loose a long, whooshing breath.
“This grade significantly bumps you up for the semester. Right now, you’re passing with a D minus average. We have one more regular test, a couple quizzes, and the final. As long as you pass all those, you’ll be able to move on to the next semester.” The professor smiled encouragingly. “Registration starts next week; sign up for my class. I have confidence that if you do whatever it was you did to prepare for the midterm, you should be fine. And if you have any major health issues that force you to miss class or anything like that, come talk to me and we’ll work something out. All right?” He offered Kai his hand.
“Thank you, sir,” Kai said, shaking.
“I only pretend to be a heartless bastard. Gotta keep the freshman scared, or they walk all over you,” he said with a chuckle. “You’re a good student, Kai. I look forward to seeing you again next year.”
Kai rolled into the dining area, his backpack in his lap. He set it on the table, but quickly abandoned it when Renee leaned forward to kiss his ear, making him arch his shoulders into her touch. “Congrats on the test. I knew you could do it.”
He turned around carefully, pulling her into his lap, caressing her in a way that was both hungry yet protective. His hands were so large on her small frame, and it amazed her how his touch, even when he wasn’t specifically trying to arouse her, set her entire body alight. It was like he was trying to memorize her every curve and angle with his fingertips. Renee searched his eyes. They were impenetrable, disturbingly sad and distant, despite the way he was now rocking her into him, immediately making her breath come in panting gasps. They’d promised to go slow, and somehow, she knew he’d respect her if she asked him to stop, but she didn’t want to. She only wanted to see that horrible fear and vacancy leave his eyes.
“Kai--” she started to say, but he silenced her protest with a kiss.
This kiss was unlike any they’d ever shared, epic in its depth and passion as Kai kissed her as if it were his last chance. It stretched for several minutes, barely allowing either of them breath, making Renee dizzy, though she didn’t want it to end. He nipped at her lips and encouraged her to nip back, pressing her closer, and she could feel so much emotion in the way he gripped her and moved his tongue against hers, as if he had somehow distilled himself into an essence and were attempting to empty it into her. As if, through this kiss, even more than those in the past, he could tell her every one of his many secrets, the story of the past that often haunted those beautiful blue eyes, transferring his memories to her so that she would share them without forcing him to relive them.
And Renee wondered--as her heart beat painfully in her chest, her nipples achingly hard and her body increasingly desperate to feel him inside her, a longing like she hadn’t experienced since her early days with Jude--if what he’d started to tell her a few nights ago had anything to do with this. Especially as the kiss continued, still heated, yet somehow becoming more desperate, as if he would lose her as soon as it ended.
Renee finally pushed him away with a gentle hand on his shoulder. His eyes were reluctant to open, but when they did, that sadness still remained, though he tried to clear it with blinking. He stuttered out an apology through panting breaths, and Renee found herself wrapping her arms around him in a hug, her lips at his ear.
“Tell me what’s wrong, Kai,” she whispered.
He gently guided her back, then off his lap, looking up at her with a sigh. His face was blank, yet his eyes again gave him away, and she wasn’t sure if he was trying to put up his neutral mask and failing. “We need to talk,” he said in the toneless voice Renee hated even more than the mask. Did he want to break up with her? Was that why he’d kissed her like he’d never do so again? Her heart sped up as her brain raced with explanations: it had only been a couple weeks since she’d walked in on him in PT, but everything had seemed good between them. Their date Sunday had been unique and perfect.
“OK,” she forced herself to say in a calm voice.
He glanced back at the table, smoothing his hand anxiously on his thigh. “I need to stretch first. Could you . . . could you start going through the test? See which questions I missed so we can go over it later? My answer sheet and the questions should be in my book.”
Renee let out a long breath, nodded. “Sure.”
Kai smiled at her, tired, but not forced, before turning and disappearing into his bedroom.
Renee opened the main pocket of Kai’s backpack. As neat as the apartment was, or even Kai’s room, his bag was a perpetual disaster of crumpled papers mashed into books and notebooks. She shook her head as she extracted his history text, not surprised when a flutter of papers fell out of it.
Annoyed, she stooped to collect them, grateful Kai had given her a task, because waiting to hear what those dreaded four words in a relationship meant--We need to talk--were going to be agony. Kai usually needed to stretch in the afternoons, which she’d learned not long after they’d reconnected. But he never did it in her presence, and it usually took at least fifteen to thirty minutes. Maybe because he took off his clothes? Now that she thought about it, he did usually reemerge wearing something else, comfortable lounging clothes instead of the jeans and newer shirts he normally wore to class.
She found the bubble sheet from the midterm easily, but the test was more of a challenge. She paused when she noticed an essay: Hubris: A Necessary Journey? The heading on the front page clearly indicated it was for their English comp class, but Renee couldn’t recall any assignment remotely close to the topic of arrogant pride. And as she heaved the packet in her hand, she realized it was long--much longer than their usual 2-5 page homework essays.
She was about to stuff it back in his bag with the rest of the miscellany, when she happened to read the opening line: Four-hundred, twenty-three days ago, a double-lung transplant saved my life.
Renee’s head popped up, shocked. Double-lung transplant. The words were still there when she looked again. And the number of days equated to more than a year ago. Memories started swirling back to her: Nancy, asking if it was too soon for Kai to be back at school. Art telling her Kai had “been through a lot.” Kai talking about severe allergies but never quite admitting to asthma. And all those prescription bottles. The scars she’d seen glimpses of, but that he’d never talk about. The other day, when he’d begun to explain why he was only starting college now.
Renee didn’t know much about medicine, but a transplant was a big deal. It meant he had to have been very sick. Possibly for a long time. She’d seen personal interest stories on the news before, with gaunt, desperate faces of people waiting for a new organ. Apparently, despite his promises to be more forthcoming, the paper in her hand made Renee realize how little she knew Kai.
Part of her thought she should ignore the essay, wait for Kai’s return. Maybe this was what the “we need to talk” was about? But it hurt, a deep, burning in the center of her chest that drove its way up to her eyes, tears wanting to spring from them, that Kai could write about this, that he could share such a significant part of his life with their teacher, and not with her.
So she kept reading.
Kai talked about the Greeks, about Odysseus and how he defied the gods and was punished, doomed to roam the seas for years before ever returning home, before ever getting to live the life he’d always dreamed of. Then Kai compared himself to Odysseus, talking a little about his own life, growing up an orphan, in a group home, sick all the time, and how he could relate to the ill-fated Greek king.
There are times in life where you feel abandoned by the gods, as if any achievements you make are solely the result of your own will. I’m not personally sure if there is a God or gods weaving the web of the universe; based on my experience, I’m inclined toward scepticism rather than miracles, ironic as one may find that. Perhaps the real lesson of the Odyssey isn’t only about pride being man’s downfall, but rather that sometimes, a man has to earn what he gets. Would Odysseus have been as grateful for his family, as proud of his son, if he’d returned immediately home after war?
I spent far too much of my younger childhood wondering what my life would have been like if I’d been “normal.” If I hadn't been sick. Disabled. If I’d grown up with my parents and siblings like any other kid. Would something as simple as passing this class mean as much to me?
And there are moments when I wonder if I, like Odysseus, was never meant to “come home.” The very act of transplantation is its own level of hubris, that man can look in the face of nature, much the way Odysseus did to Poseidon, and say, “No, not today.” There are days, dark days, just as Odysseus had along his journey, when I think I may have been better giving in, not accepting the transplant, and letting someone else get their second chance. But then I remember how hard my brother fought for my life, that someone else chose to give part of themselves so that someone they didn’t know, could never know, like me, could live. That somewhere else, there are others who, maybe, finally found their way to their own Ithacas, with a new heart or liver or kidney.
Renee’s eyes filled as she read, seeing this intimate insight into Kai’s psyche and experiences he hadn’t yet revealed to her. His writing was so good, so genuine, without the usual pretence or masking he so often did in life by reflex. But she also cried for herself, for the hurt she felt at having to read about his life, rather than hearing it from his own lips. Could she believe that he wanted her when he obviously didn't trust her enough to share such an important detail of his life?
It’s trite, but my journey isn’t quite over; in some ways, it’s only begun these past eight months, as I’m suddenly faced with a world of strange and foreign possibilities. Like Odysseus finally coming home yet having to fight for his crown and his family, I too, must find my way in this new world. It isn’t always easy, and I still often curse the gods--who doesn’t?--but I’m alive. I can. Hubris got me here, just like Odysseus.
I just have to hope, when the final lines of my story are sung, that it will all have been worth it.
Renee was bawling as she finished the essay, skimming through the half page of comments their professor had left in red ink, praising Kai for his writing talent, for his hubris in comparing himself to Odysseus, and his courage for finally being honest in his work.
A+++. This is one of the finest pieces of writing I have ever read in all my years of teaching freshman composition. I’m not encouraging you to purposefully skip class or assignments, but this is the piece that proves to me you’ve mastered this class and deserve an A. Come see me sometime as I’d like to discuss using this as a sample to encourage future students.
Renee was still crying, clutching the paper in her hands, when the creak of Kai’s chair caught her by surprise. She looked up through her veil of tears, not caring whether he was mad at her for reading it.
His expression, unsurprisingly, was difficult to interpret, as was his tone. “I see you read my English comp makeup paper.”
“How could you tell our professor all this, but not me?” Renee said in a quiet voice, not bothering to wipe away her tears.
Kai said nothing, his fingertips fidgeting on his rims, his head lowered, hiding his eyes.
“I told you the most secret thing about my life,” Renee sobbed. “About Jude. And you couldn’t tell me you almost died last year?” She tossed the pages at him, feeling sick, like Diane had been right all along, that Renee had put her trust in a man who used her and betrayed her.
He pushed closer, the paper crumpling under his wheels, stopping when their knees touched. He hesitated a moment, then pulled off his shirt.
His body was perfect, from the waist up, even better than she’d imagined, long and lean, gently sculpted, his pale skin outlining the muscles beneath. But the perfection was marred by numerous scars--the prominent sternal scar, and more beneath his pecs, on his abdomen, and the one at his neck. A simple chain necklace with several dog tags rested against his chest, and as he breathed, they shifted, and she noticed the red caduceus. She’d never seen them in real life, but she’d spot the ads every time she went to the pharmacy. Medical alert jewelry, so paramedics would be aware of his condition immediately, even if he were unconscious. The thought made her stomach lurch. Even more than the scars, somehow the necklace made everything real: Kai had another person’s lungs inside him now, and they were the only thing that had kept him alive the past year. The only reason she and he had even been able to meet.
“They split my sternum here,” he said clinically, sliding his finger along the scar, “and also went in here, and here,” he added, pointing to the scars beneath his pecs. “Tried to reconnect the nerves. This,” he pointed to a faint scar on his abdomen, “was where my feeding tube was. And this,” he said with a nervous intake of air, pointing to his neck, “is where I had a tube in my trachea that connected to a machine that kept me breathing.”
Renee's anger melted, seeing the tension in those fantastic shoulders, the fear he didn't try to hide in his blue eyes. Suddenly, the haunted look, the kiss, of earlier all made sense. Kai was terrified--of what? That she would change her mind about them? Whatever the case, he held himself stiffly, like a child bracing himself for the belt. It made her stomach ache.
Renee reached out for him, pulling her fingers back when he reflexively shirked from her touch, but then forced himself to relax, nodding subtly to signal it was OK. She let herself explore him, touch his bare skin below the neck and above the wrist like he’d never let her before, till at last she reached the circular puckered scar just north of his clavicle.
“Does it hurt?” she asked, her fingers hesitating above it.
“No,” he said with a bob of his Adam’s apple. “It’s just . . . ugly. It freaks people out.”
Renee shook her head, delicately tracing the outline of the scar. “Not me. Nothing about you does. I thought you knew that already.”
Kai brought his hand up to her forearm, ghosting his own fingers along her skin. “I wanted to tell you so many times,” Kai said. “I tried. The other night.” He sighed. “But there’s never exactly a good moment to say, ‘Oh, hey, I almost died last year, but then I got some dead guy’s lungs, so I’m good.’”
Renee cupped his cheek. “Kai. You don’t have to do that with me.”
He laughed, but his eyes betrayed a wariness. “What?”
Kai breathed in and out a few times before finally meeting her eyes; his were open, deep blue, filled with that piercing sadness she saw far too often. “My life has taught me that whenever something good happens, something bad almost always follows. You make me happy, Re, and . . . that . . .” He swallowed, looked away. “Terrifies me.”
Renee sank into his lap, wrapped her arms around him, laying her head on his shoulder. “Did you think if you told me about this,” she said, guiding a finger along his sternal scar, “I would change my mind about you?”
Kai held her tighter against him, but didn’t respond.
“Is your brother coming home any time soon?”
Kai’s breath hitched a moment, as if surprised by her question. “Today’s his first full night off in days. He’s with Vicky.”
Renee nodded, kissed his neck, then climbed back off. “Come on,” she said, leading him to his room. “We’ll study later.”
Continue to November 8, 2000 - Part II -------->