November 8, 2000 - Part II
Kai’s room looked the same as it had a few days earlier, though his bed was neatly unmade, the sheets folded down at the end and his pillow collection stacked off to the side, out of the way. She turned to face the door and saw him wheel in slowly, still shirtless, his face vacant. He paused in the middle of the room, as if waiting for her prompt. So Renee settled down on the edge of his bed, patting the space beside her.
Wordlessly, he approached, aligning his chair and quickly heaving his body out of it and onto the mattress. As he adjusted his position, she noticed his right leg was bobbing, but he ignored it. Renee took one of his hands, kissed his knuckles, then gave it a reassuring squeeze.
“So everything in the essay is true?”
Kai took a long, slow breath. Nodded.
The essay had told Kai’s history: a childhood spent struggling for air, the pneumonias that had ultimately destroyed his lungs, and his long journey toward where he was right now, sitting beside her, desperately trying to maintain his calm though she could see his emotions struggling to burst the seams.
“And the story about your 21st birthday?”
Kai lowered his eyes. Nodded.
In the essay, Kai had explained, My 21st birthday was only six weeks before my transplant, but of course, at the time, none of us knew that. We all figured it would be my last. I spent most of my time either asleep or drugged those last few weeks, but my brother made sure I was awake for at least part of that day, trying his best to be cheerful for my sake. Whenever he visited me and I was conscious, he’d always remind me that “today could be the day,” and how he managed to hide the fear and sadness from his eyes I know he had to have felt surprises me still. Perhaps that was the doctor in him.
He brought me a piece of cake--a real piece of cake, not one from the hospital cafeteria, because he knew how much I liked sweets, and I remember--though how, I’m not honestly sure, as most of the final days are a blur--how much that seemingly innocent dessert made me want to cry.
For my first few months with my tracheostomy--a tube in my neck, connected to a machine that helped me breathe--I was still strong enough and my lungs healthy enough I used a valve that enabled me to smell and taste food, so I could still swallow and speak. By about six months before my transplant, I could no longer tolerate the valve, even for short periods of time, because it made breathing so much harder. I tried a special kind of tube next, with holes in it that would at least let me have a limited sense of smell and some speech, but swallowing was difficult, and soon I got a feeding tube in my stomach and stopped eating by mouth entirely.
By June, my birth month, I couldn't get enough ventilation--a doctor's fancy way of saying the amount of oxygen getting into my lungs--with the special tube. So I had it replaced with a solid one that fit snug inside my trachea with a balloon. The less air that leaked from it, the more that got into my failing lungs, the more oxygen that made its way into my blood. But the change meant my sense of taste and smell were gone. Completely, since air didn't go up into my mouth and nose. I could also no longer speak. At all. For several weeks before my brother presented me with my birthday cake, I had been unable to smell, taste, or talk, and though I know he didn't make the gesture with malice, it felt that way.
Especially when we tried to adjust the balloon that held my tube in place just enough so I could smell, maybe even taste a tiny piece of my birthday treat, and I almost passed out from a lack of oxygen.
So it was more than the cake itself that had me battling tears that day--but what it represented. Like Odysseus's hope of seeing his home once more, tantalizingly close and yet impossibly far, something I believed I'd never experience again. That cake was my future, coming from a world outside the hospital, apart from doctors and nurses and never-ending days of waiting.
A future I couldn't take in. Couldn't taste. Couldn't smell. Couldn't experience. As unreal as a photograph, yet frustratingly material.
Even after our failed attempt to get me to taste and smell my cake, I refused to let myself break down in front of my brother. Who had sung me happy birthday anyway, and insisted I make a wish, even though we couldn't have candles and I couldn't have blown them out even if we had. How desperately he'd tried, as miserable and hopeless as it was, to make the day special for me.
While other guys celebrate their 21st getting drunk with their friends, I spent mine in a hospital bed, staring at a piece of cake, a sugary reminder of death.
"What did you wish for?"
Kai took in a harsh breath, shook his head. The obvious answer would have been to find a match and finally get a transplant, but if Kai didn’t offer that reply, perhaps it meant his wish had been darker. Had Kai wished for death? The thought sent a chill through Renee’s veins, but she did her best to nod and leave the topic alone for now.
Renee gave Kai a moment, finally squeezing his hand. “So your memory problems . . . ?”
Kai nodded. “Not enough oxygen to my brain,” he said, pointing to his head, trying to smile wryly, but failing. “All things considered, I’m lucky,” he said with a shrug. “And I used to be worse. I could hardly follow a conversation at first.” Kai picked at the sheets, his focus on his fingers instead of her. “It was really frustrating. Sometimes, I'd have to stop almost mid sentence, because it was like the thoughts disappeared as soon as I formed them. Like one of those people who stumbles through a joke but can't remember the punch line.”
“Wow,” Renee said, smoothing his skin with her thumb. “It's hardly noticeable now.”
Kai shrugged. “Part of my rehab after my transplant was cognitive. Plus, I've learned some tricks and can hide it most of the time. If I'm interrupted, though, there's usually a good chance whatever I was going to say is gone forever.” His smile looked painful. “Though I'm sure you'll see more of it the longer you're with me.” His voice trailed off on those last few words.
“And the coughing? The other night.”
Kai inhaled. “Because of the transplant, my lungs don’t clear on their own very well, so I have to force myself to cough at least twice a day, to get all the gunk out.”
“But you’re OK now, right? Back on Ithaca, battle fought and won. Time to claim Penelope?” Renee offered her own grin.
Kai let out a short, sharp sound that could have been a laugh, but he covered his face with his hands and didn’t respond for a long time, breathing slow and deep into his palms, his head dipped. What had she said wrong? Renee wondered. She gave him some time, smoothing his shoulder until finally he inhaled sharply and let his hands fall away.
“These lungs are healthy, but I have to take medicine, on time, twice a day, every day, probably for the rest of my life, to prevent my immune system from attacking them. But . . .” Kai took in a breath. “That makes me more susceptible to getting sick with things normal people don’t need to worry about. I’ve been lucky, but . . . I really should wear a mask when I’m around a lot of people in a confined space, like class, and I haven’t . . . I haven’t been doing that.”
“Kai . . .”
“I’m already enough of a freak. And then I met you. . . .” He shook his head.
Renee tugged on Kai’s hand to make him look at her. “Kai, promise me you’ll protect yourself. I’ll wear a mask, too, if you want. In solidarity.” Renee felt a full, brilliant smile peel across her face, but it faded when Kai’s eyes blinked rapidly and he turned his head instead of returning the grin. What was she doing wrong?
“There’s more,” he said in a low, quiet voice, not meeting her eyes. “Even with the drugs, even if I’m careful, my body can still reject my lungs. I can still get sick. And if that happens . . . I’ll get very sick.” Kai extracted his hand from her touch so he could pull himself farther back on the bed, his back against the wall. His legs were jittering with minor spasms, and they resisted his attempts to bend them as he pulled them toward his chest, hugging them close. “I can’t tell you how long. . . .” Kai swallowed. “You can’t plan your future with someone like me, and I understand if this is all too much.”
“Oh, Kai,” she said, climbing onto her knees and walking closer to him. He wouldn’t meet her eyes, so she lifted his chin and kissed him, warm and wonderful, deep and pure, and she felt a fire inside her ignite as it always did when she was with him. “Do you remember the fortune you got the other night, when you brought me back here for twenty questions?”
He sighed, a harsh, defeated sound, shook his head.
“It said, ‘The future is what you make it.’ The other day, when I spent the night here, I realized that things will be different. Maybe more difficult, being with you, but I don’t care. What good is easy if I’m not happy? And being with you makes me feel alive.”
She heard him swallow thickly. “I could die, Re,” he said in a voice so quiet she barely heard it.
“And so could I.”
That garnered a faint laugh, and he finally looked up at her, eyes glossy, pushing his legs down, straightening them in front of him. Who was he trying to protect? Her, or himself? “Even with the transplant, I sometimes have trouble breathing. I might have years, but I might not.” Kai’s breath hitched, and he pulled her into his lap, hugging her close, his head on her shoulder, lips near her ear. A way to hide his face, perhaps, though she heard the emotion in his voice. “I want you, Re. I’ve wanted you since the moment I saw you that first day of class. But if you can’t do this, if you don’t want to do this, I get it. Just tell me now, please? Because I couldn’t handle falling in love with you and losing you when what I’m talking about becomes more than just talk. I can’t . . . I can’t go through that again.”
Renee heard the “again” clearly, and her heart crumbled. There was a story here, one Kai had left out of his paper, perhaps involving his ex, but now wasn’t the time to probe him for it. Perhaps she’d weasel it out of Jon at some point. Renee tried to push him away, but he clung closely to her.
“I’m messed up, Re. So messed up,” he said, his voice small.
“It’s OK,” Renee said, pressing herself against him, smoothing his strong back, feeling the subtle jerk of his shoulders indicating he was crying, though he was trying desperately to hide it. God, his ex must have been horrible, Renee thought, doing her best to comfort him with her touch. “I told you. Messed up together. All right? I’m in this game as long as you want me.”
“Stay with me,” he said, his voice tiny, almost frightened. “Please.” He finally pulled away to look at her, his eyes rimmed with red, so terrified and lost and sad.
She nodded, smoothed his hair out of his face. “I'm not going anywhere.” She kissed him lightly on his lips, tasting salt, then offered him a smile, held his chin to ensure he wouldn’t hide again. “I’m a big girl, too, OK? There’s almost nothing you can tell me that will make me think less of you. I don’t want you to be afraid of being honest with me.”
He cracked a smile then. “You stealing my lines, now?”
“I know I’m little, and I look delicate, but I’m strong. Let me be strong for you, OK?”
Renee pulled off her own shirt, hesitated a moment, but left her bra in place, not quite ready to be that naked with Kai yet. She brought his hands to her ribs, where they moved slowly, reverently, before he pulled her close for another kiss. This one was sweet, slow, tender, making time stutter and stall. She wondered if Kai had intended her to find and read his makeup essay, because clearly, more than any other revelation he’d shared with her, the truth about his scars was the hardest piece for him to share.
Finally, he pulled away, smiling faintly, some of the darkness faded from his eyes. He lightly teased her breasts, fingers grazing over her nipples, making her gasp, before easily lifting her off his lap and setting her aside. Confused at first, she saw him push himself onto his side, lying down, arranging his legs and beckoning her into his arms. She snagged a blanket to cover them, snuggling beside him.
They held each other like this for a long while, Renee’s forehead resting against his chest, and she found her ears tuning to the sound of his breath, slow, regular, just a tad noisier than her own, if she really focused on hearing the nuances. She could still feel the subtle twitch of his legs, but he was calmer, more relaxed, and she hoped she had helped his tension seep away.
“You know, when Jude . . . did . . . what he did . . . to me, I didn’t leave him right away. I . . .” Renee sucked in a breath. “I thought, at first, he was right, when he told me I was a cock tease, and that I owed him, and that I couldn’t have sex with him for months and then change my mind.” Renee laughed. “I can’t believe I’m half naked with a man, telling him this.”
Kai’s hand slid along her side, finally resting at her waist, his touch almost reverential. “I get it.” She felt him take in a deep breath. “My ex abandoned me when I was dying,” he said in a level, but low voice. “I still waffle between knowing she’s a bitch and thinking it was my own fault. I hate my scars, especially this one,” he said, bringing her fingers to his throat, where she felt the unnatural indentation, “because they make me think of her, of how stupid I was. Of the look on her face when she finally showed up, weeks after my transplant, and saw this scar.”
Renee kissed his chest. “I never thought I’d find a man who could understand what happened between me and Jude. Why I stayed with him, why I didn’t say anything.” She smiled. “You were totally worth the wait.”
Jon was looking at his first couple days off in nearly two weeks of mostly night shifts, making up for the time he took off to be with Kai, and he was eager to spend them--preferably naked--in bed with Vicky. Jon hadn’t felt this horny since he was a teenager; with his shit schedule lately, they hadn’t seen each other outside work in ten days, and it had been over a week since Vicky had snuck him a quickie in his office while he was on break. Jon was more than willing to put aside sleep and food to fuck her again.
Vicky opened the door, and before she could get a word out, he grabbed her, burying his tongue down her throat, shutting the door with a kick of his foot, then pressing her up against it. He shimmied out of his coat, tossing it aside, kissing her hungrily, one hand immediately fondling her breast, the other caressing her hip as he ground against her. She gasped and sighed and leaned into him, but when he reached to unbutton her jeans she pushed him away.
“We need to talk.”
Words no man ever wants to hear from his woman, especially when he’s so hard it hurts. They’d made up after the mini fight Saturday morning; she wasn’t still angry about that, was she? She knew he could be clueless sometimes. Was she mad because they hadn’t seen each other much lately? “Vic, I won’t be on this horrible schedule forever. Just another week, and then I’m back to my usual. And I’m on-call for Thanksgiving, but I don’t have to be on-site--”
Vicky turned her back to him, crossed to her living room. “That’s not what this is about, Jon.”
Jon pulled his fingers through his hair as he slowly followed her. As his erection faded, his exhaustion surged. Less than two months together, and she had already apparently decided they were a mistake. He sank into the couch opposite her, trying and failing to read her face.
“Why did you go into peds?”
Certainly not the next thing he’d expected to come out of her mouth. “What?”
“You could have done just three years, specialized in adult pulmonology. Instead, you came here, did five, so you could treat children, too. Why?”
Jon shook his head, rubbed his eyes. He was too tired for games and couldn’t follow Vicky’s logic, so he answered truthfully. “I knew I was interested primarily in Cystic Fibrosis and severe asthma, both of which largely affect children.” He shrugged, hoping Vicky would reveal what she was obviously fishing for.
“So it was academic.”
Jon pulled at his hair, sighing loudly. “Vic, what is this about?”
“Just tell me.”
“Why does it matter?”
“Because I need to know.”
Jon grit his teeth. “You know why.”
Vicky stared him down. “I need to hear you say it.”
“Because I thought my brother had died of an asthma attack when he was six-years-old. Because I couldn’t do anything for him. I spent more than a decade thinking about that moment, about how I should have been able to do something. Someone should have been able to do something. Because no child should die that way.”
Vicky folded her arms tightly across her chest, shaking her head. But when she spoke, her voice was flat. “It’s always about Kai.”
Maybe it was Jon’s exhaustion or sexual frustration, but he let his anger explode out. “When we were kids, I took care of Kai most of the time, because our mom was . . . unavailable, and our dad was working.” Jon jabbed his chest with a finger with each punctuated “I” as he spoke. “I was the one who stayed up with him nights when he couldn’t breathe. I was the one who taught him to sign and helped him to walk. I held him when he cried, when he was hurting or scared. I sat with him in the hospital whenever I could.” Jon rose, paced restlessly. “So yes. It started out about Kai, but it became more than that, because, as I remember you telling me, I understand what those parents are going through. And if I can make life better for them and their children, then I will.” Jon faced her, his own arms folded tightly on his chest. “What the fuck is this all about, anyway, Vicky? If you don’t want to see me anymore, fine, but don’t you fucking question why I do what I do.”
Vicky stared at him a long moment, her face unreadable, before finally rising so they were more at eye level. “I’m pregnant, Jon,” she said in a low voice.
Jon felt his knees start to buckle and he had to quickly adjust his feet so that he sank back into the sofa instead of the floor. “What? How?”
Vicky joined him, sitting a little closer, her knees touching his. “If you don’t know how, then I think you need your medical license revoked.” It was a joke, but she didn’t smile.
Jon swallowed, all of his anger having completely evaporated. “You’re . . . sure?”
Vicky nodded. “My OB-GYN says I’m about seven weeks.”
Jon shifted, pulled Vicky toward him. She turned so her back was to his chest, her head reclined against his shoulder, cradling his arms around her.
“Jon . . . I’m bringing this pregnancy to term. But if you don’t want to do this with me, I’ll look into adop--”
“No,” Jon said firmly, squeezing her wrists. “No, I’m in this with you.” He kissed the top of her head. “I’m not sure I’m ready for a little white chapel, but. . . . A baby.” He smiled against the top of her head. “I’ll do this with you, Vic. If you want it.”
She nodded. “I do.” She dipped her head back so she could attempt to look up at him. “Jon, I’ve wanted more than a friendship with you for years, but you were with Jenny, and then Kai got sick. . . . It was never the right time.”
Jon thought about it for a moment, squeezed her tight. Jon had always thought Vicky was unattainable, partially because of their age difference, and these past few weeks made him realize more than ever how much of a mistake Jenny had been. “Me too.”
“Just promise me,” Vicky said, pulling away, turning again to face him.
She laid a hand on one shoulder. “You’ll put our child first. Kai’s an adult; he doesn’t need a father. But our baby does.”
Jon smiled faintly, nodded. He gently cradled her cheeks and pulled her closer, kissing her deep, passionately, but tender. “Kai will always be important to me,” Jon said, staring into her eyes to show his sincerity, “but you and this baby . . .” He sighed softly, laid his hand on Vicky’s stomach. “Number one priority.” They smiled together, touched foreheads, and though the prospect of being a father was frightening, it also made him feel warm and light inside.
Continue to November 11, 2000 - Part I ----------->