Wednesday, August 2, 2000

In/Exhale - October 26, 2000 - Part I

October 26, 2000 - Part I


Jon was hurriedly scrawling orders into a chart, leaning on the counter of the main nurses’ station of the pulmonology floor of Jonesville Memorial when a stack of new charts landed with a thump off to his side. He glanced up to see Jo, looking serious.
 
“I went through and prioritized for you. You should head to these patients next.”
 
“Thanks, Jo,” Jon said, filing his current chart and sliding the pile over to investigate. “I can’t remember it being this busy in awhile.”
 
“That time of year: beginning of flu and pneumonia season.”
 
“And time for me to start getting nervous about Kai,” Jon said in a low voice, skimming through the first patient’s file.
 
Jo laid a hand lightly on Jon’s arm. “He’s had the shot. He’ll be OK. I’ve gotta run.”
 
Jon offered a faint nod, forcing himself to focus on the paperwork in front of him so he wouldn’t slip into a cycle of worry. He was far too busy to allow himself to be distracted. He was scooping up the charts when his phone rang. Probably one of the fellows, or even a med resident, with a question. Like he wasn’t busy enough.
 
“Dr. Taylor,” he said in his usual stern, professional tone.
 
“Uh, you’re Kai’s brother, right?” a nervous female voice said on the other end of the line. She spoke with a light, soft, unfamiliar accent.
 
Jon had a flash of dizzying deja-vu but forced himself to keep his voice level. “Yes.”
 
He heard a harsh intake of breath on the other line. “I got your number from his voicemail. I didn’t want to bother you, but . . .” Another breath, as if she were nervous. “We go to school together, and we were study partners, but Kai sort of fell off the map, and we have a big midterm coming up. And . . . I’m just starting to get worried about him. You wouldn’t happen to know where I could find him?”
 
Jon shifted so he was leaning with his back against the counter, one arm on the stack of files, staring out at the bustling hall in front of him, though he wasn’t really seeing it, lost in thought. This had to be Renee, a girl Kai talked about more than Jon thought his brother realized, and whom, Jon knew, Kai had been avoiding. In some ways, Kai had made a lot of progress, psychologically, since his Valium-withdrawal breakdown the month before, but in other ways, he was worse, and Jon had become concerned.
 
Kai rarely called Jake, the only one of Kai’s friends who had visited him in the hospital before and after his transplant, and whom Kai normally spoke with regularly. Kai’d also refused Jon’s efforts (via Megan, Jon’s ASL tutor) to participate in any Deaf Community events. Kai went to class, physical therapy, and doctors’ appointments, and nothing else. He never visited the diner anymore, or any of his other usual haunts, like Lost Apple or Nancy’s Cafe, and though in some ways he’d been better at communicating with Jon, in others, he was more withdrawn than ever.
 
“Dr. Taylor? Are you still there?”
 
“Yes.” Jon checked his watch; Kai would be working with Troy right now. If Jon sent Renee to PT, Kai would be furious, but Jon worried if he told Renee to meet Kai back home later, Kai wouldn’t answer the door for her. He sucked in a breath, pushed his hand through his hair. “You’ll find him in the Physical Rehabilitation Center; it’s on your left when you enter Jonesville Memorial Hospital complex from the south entrance. You can’t miss it.”
 
Jon hung up on Renee’s chorus of thank yous. Kai couldn’t be mad at Jon forever, and maybe this would be the nudge that would push him out of the protective trench he’d buried himself in over the past few weeks.

#

The physical therapy facilities at Jonesville Memorial were enormous, far larger than Renee had expected, housed in their own building (although it was attached to the main hospital complex). It was late, past six-thirty, but Jon had told her she’d find Kai here, and after weeks of not seeing him at all, then finally getting glimpses of him in the far front row, yet never rushing down the steps fast enough before he wheeled out the door, she knew she had to talk to him. Her attempts to hangout in the front row, or dawdle in between classes had also failed miserably; this was her last shot. Even if meant an ambush. Even if it was only for five minutes. Even if what he told her was something she didn’t want to hear.
 
She had so many questions, many of them revolving around his mysterious absence/disappearance followed by his quiet reemergence in that wheelchair. No matter how she timed her arrivals or departures, she never caught more than a glimpse of him. The wheelchair, the hint of a knee brace she’d seen, and the physical therapy all suggested surgery. But she could have sworn--even in her minor glimpses--that it was his right knee that seemed injured. Hadn’t it been his left that was “bad”?
 
Though it looked dark through the main entrance doors, they were still open, so Renee pushed through anyway, her heart the accompaniment to her steps as they echoed over the floor. A large, open-plan waiting room beckoned her, so she headed that way, though the lights were dimmed for the night and it was eerily empty.
 
She heard shuffling and was so tense, hesitating about whether or not this was a mistake, that she nearly ran into someone. A short (by Iowa standards, though she still towered over Renee several inches) woman with a bobbed haircut and lilac scrubs, with a bungie on her wrist from which keys dangled and a large purse slung over one shoulder.
 
“Oh, we’re closed for the day,” she said, starting to guide Renee with her. “I hadn’t had a chance to lock the front door yet.”
 
“Uh, yeah. I’m actually supposed to wait for Kai Fox?” Renee lied, crossing her fingers behind her back. She wasn’t an awful liar, but lying wasn’t something she enjoyed. Her entire body buzzed with tension. She’d taken the bus here, since her car was in the shop and she didn’t want Diane to question her motives or stop her. Renee didn’t really have a plan B.
 
The woman’s face transformed into a smile, appraising Renee suddenly as if she were a prize livestock in a competition. “Oh. I think he’s still working with Troy. You could wait out here,” the woman said, looking around, “but I wouldn’t recommend it. Why don’t you go on in, through that door over there.” She pointed down the hall, gesturing toward the left. “That’ll be open. Troy always locks that up when he leaves at the end of the day.” The woman checked her watch. “They should be finished soon anyway.”
 
Renee let out her held breath and nodded, not sure she could manage a word without her faux calm dissipating instantly. She raised her hand to wave to the woman as she departed, then power walked toward the back door. She didn’t want to give the woman a chance to change her mind.
 
Renee could feel the blood coursing through her veins as she eased the indicated door open. To one side, she could see a row of what might have been offices, a hallway splitting off to somewhere else. A large doorway on her left opened up onto the physical therapy room, but she eased up to it, keeping her body mostly hidden for now, so she could get a sense of what to expect before rushing into the fray.
 
Her eyes took in the room. No, it was more like a gym, enormous, with high ceilings and subdivided into different stations. There was equipment she recognized, basically standard things like treadmills and stationary bikes, stuff she’d only seen in movies, and more she didn’t recognize. Large overhead lights hung down, and Renee saw that most of them were shut off for the night, casting large areas of the room in shadow. Off to the right, quite a distance away in the large room, a set of parallel bars was bathed in light, and she could hear a pair of male voices, echoing in the enormous space.
 
Taking a breath, Renee quietly wove her way through a stand of weight equipment, finally finding a place she could pause to get her bearings, ducking behind some kind of upright contraption with pulleys that apparently raised the flat, book-like weights up when you pulled. It had a small gap through which she could see to the other side of the room, and she hoped the darkness, combined with the machine, would hide her from view for now.
 
Her cheeks were hot. What was she doing? She should have waited for him outside. She took a breath and forced herself to look across the room. The contrast in lighting created a sort of silhouette effect from here; she could see a man in shorts and a T-shirt, hands on the parallel bars, and another, standing off to one side. She listened carefully to their voices, which were more distinct now that she was closer and at less of an angle.
 
One was clearly Kai. No mistake. Renee took in a breath. She hadn’t intended to sneak up on him, but it would be wrong of her to just pop out on him now, wouldn’t it? Her heart thundered, her stomach clenched. The other man--the Troy the woman outside had mentioned, perhaps?--was speaking to Kai.
 
“So you finally got the fit right on your left leg?”
 
“Yeah. It’s nice not feeling like my knee’s going to dislocate every time I take a single, shuffling step.” Kai’s voice was strained; what he was doing was obviously taking a lot of effort.
 
“Right leg.”

“This would be easier if my right ankle would help.”

“Let the brace work for you, just like it does on the left.”

Kai grumbled, managed to pull his right leg forward, clearly using his upper body to execute the move, his hands sliding along the bar, his shoulders jerking and straining with the movement. “My knee, too.”

“Left leg,” Troy said automatically. “You probably won’t get your ankle back, but you might get your knee.”
 
Kai’s sigh echoed as he readjusted his hands on the bars and pulled his left leg forward. Even in outline, even at this distance, Renee could see the effort each small movement took, the tension in his arms, could hear Kai's panting breath as he paused between each laborious step.

“Right leg. Almost there,” Troy coached. “In two or three years, it’s possible we’ll have smart orthotics that actually assist in bending the knee.”

“Yeah, well, by the time those are commercial, the rate I’m going, I won’t be walking anymore anyway.”
 
“Left leg. You don’t know that, Kai. Right leg.”
 
Renee’s eyes had adjusted, and she could see a little more of the two men, though no real details. She caught the gleam of metal on Kai’s legs that suggested full leg braces, explaining why he’d moved so stiffly. Kai was nearly at the end of the bars. The other man stood nearby; he was short--at least compared to Kai--not even six foot, it appeared, but muscled. Even with the lighting, she could see he had a strong chest and arms. For that matter, so did Kai. Kai wasn’t as visibly strong--at least not at a distance--his build leaner, longer, though no doubt powerful enough in his own right. Renee’s stomach clenched further, and she sucked in a breath as she watched Kai pull himself to the end of the bars, the roll of his shoulder and arch of his hip as he dragged each leg forward.

“Need help turning?”

“Just make sure I don’t fall.”

Renee watched, feeling even more like a voyeur, as Kai shifted his hands on the bars, twisting his torso and using his upper body to pull his legs, awkwardly, one by one, until he’d shifted 90-degrees. It was clear his knees were locked, his legs fixed straight, making what would be a simple turn for anyone else far more complicated. He paused for a long moment, then, both hands on the left bar, his harsh breath echoing subtly in the cavernous space.

“I know it’s your job to be a cheerleader, Troy," Kai said between panting breaths, "but we both know one more flare-up like this and . . .”

“Kai.”

Kai shook his head, then repeated the series of careful movements to complete the full about-face. Gripping the bar with one hand, he bent slightly, but she couldn’t see what he was doing, though she noticed he wavered and had to increase his hold on the right bar, consciously shifting his body back to that side. He repeated the motion on his right as Troy pushed the wheelchair closer. She realized he’d unlocked his knees, and could see, despite his strong grip on the bars, he was now unstable. In a move that made her--despite herself--think of a gymnast, he dropped down, arms bracing on the bars, until he was settled back in his wheelchair, held secure by Troy.

Kai used his hands to pull his legs--which, to Renee’s shock despite the scene she’d just witnessed--were apparently deadweight--one by one until his feet were settled on the footplate of his chair. She got a better view of the braces now; these weren’t the temporary kind you saw someone wear after a knee injury--the kind she'd glimpsed him wear to class--but rather the full, FDR hardware she’d only seen in movies.

Crap. What to do now? She couldn’t hide here forever, but popping out now might be worse than anything. Maybe she could try to sneak back the way she came. She could find another time to talk to him. Renee inched farther down the line of machines, carefully, quietly, back toward the door, pausing every few seconds. She wasn’t sure what was wrong with Kai, but it was obviously more than just a “bad” leg. He may have had some way of minimizing it from her before, but today made it obvious; he was disabled.

Although nervousness still hummed through Renee, her mind cleared. Perhaps this explained some of his hesitancy. His mystery. Although she knew leaving and finding some other way to approach him was still best, she wanted to talk to him more than ever now, her curiosity and desire to know who Kai really was piquing. She decided to wait. At least a few more minutes.

“I’ll go get you some ice,” Troy said, his tone shifted from before, chastened rather than authoritative or encouraging. Although Renee had heard everything, she suspected she’d missed part of an argument somewhere.

She tensed as she saw Troy jog away, towards her, but then she realized he was heading into that back hallway, and let out a breath of relief that she hadn’t chosen then to make her escape.

Kai pushed tiredly to a stack of raised mats on level with the seat of his chair, and she watched him pull up to it until he was roughly parallel, his left side closer to the mats. He flicked something on his wheels, then levered himself onto the mats, lifting his legs with his hands one after the other slowly, carefully. Then he used his hands to pull himself back, his legs following, until they were stretched out on the surface in front of him. It was kind of eerie how still they were, how straight his feet remained.

With his hands, he adjusted his left leg until it was bent at the knee, removing his shoe. Now that they were a little closer to each other, Renee could see his left brace was entirely metal and leather, and what, from a distance, she’d assumed was his skin was actually a sock that covered his leg from toe to hip. His right brace was distinct from the left, solid leather on his knee and thigh but plastic on his calf. When he removed his shoes, she saw a piece of plastic rested against the bottom of each foot.

Once his shoes were off, he readjusted his legs again, working quickly to undo the myriad straps. Renee tried to tiptoe a little closer when she misjudged, her foot hit one of the machines, letting out a resonating clank.

Kai immediately stopped what he was doing and jerked his head up, looking around. She saw him note his chair nearby, perhaps calculating how fast he could get back into it, before surveying the rest of the room. “Troy?”

Renee could hardly hear anything except the thunderous beat of her heart in her ears. She swallowed. She could continue to cower, or she could own up and reveal herself.

“I don’t like to be snuck up on. You know that,” Kai called out.

Renee closed her eyes, took a breath, and stepped around the bank of machines, not stopping until she knew he could see her.

He blinked; his shoulders slumped for a moment before he pushed himself up, hands splayed on either side of his thighs. “Re--Renee?”

She swallowed, unable to speak, uncertain the tone of his voice. Was he angry? He certainly had every right to be. Finally, she managed a faint nod.

He turned his head to the side, and she could just make out his jaw working. Finally, he beckoned her closer.

Reluctantly, she crossed the gap, sinking down on the edge of the mat a few feet from him. She didn’t want to stare at his legs, but she didn’t think she could look at his face, either. She settled for keeping her eyes fixed on her lap, where she knotted her hands together.

“How’d you find me?”

“Your brother.”

She heard him let out a long, frustrated sigh. Then the subtle creak of leather and click of metal as he resumed unfastening the straps.

“How long have you been here?”

Renee shrugged without looking up. “Twenty minutes, maybe.”

He said nothing, though he seemed to be more violent with his work. She hazarded a look after a moment, and saw him lift his right leg out of the frame of the brace and lay it over a wedge pillow so the knee stayed partially bent. Then he moved onto the other, still saying nothing.

“I’m sorry,” she ventured after she couldn’t stand the silence, which she perceived as hostile, even if she couldn’t read his face when she finally allowed herself to look at it.

He sighed, but that was his only reaction. She noticed his left knee had more supports than his right, with several thin straps above and below it that his fingers worked to undo. It was strange, yet for some reason her own fingers itched to help him, to work the straps through the buckles so he could free his other leg faster. Instead, she buried them under her thighs.

“I just . . . you disappeared, and you were never around long enough in class when you were there for me to talk to you . . .”

“So you got my brother’s number from my voicemail and called him. I get it.” It amazed her how his tone could be flat, yet it was impossible to tell whether he was angry or not.

“I don’t normally make a habit of spying on people,” she said, trying to joke, “but the lady in the front told me to come in, and--”

“Sure,” he said curtly, cutting her off.

She shut up immediately, forcing her eyes to look at his upper body as he lifted his left leg out of its brace and set it aside. He was wearing a thin T-shirt, which, though not tight, clung to his body with sweat, outlining his shoulders, pecs, and drawing attention to his biceps. He looked even better up close than he had across the room; she could see the muscles working as he moved. The neck gaped in the front as he leaned over, his hands massaging his left knee, and she saw the hint of something, though it could have been a shadow, at the base of his throat.

“If you keep staring, I’ll have to start charging you,” he said again in that toneless voice, giving her no indication of whether he was teasing her or furious.

She sputtered an attempt at an apology.

He shrugged. “Crip’s out of the bag, huh?” He offered a smile, but it was faint, almost painted-on.

“I can just go,” she managed to say, realizing maybe she should have done that twenty minutes earlier and saved them both the embarrassment.

Before Kai could respond, Troy came back in, carrying some large ice packs. He did a double take when he saw Renee.

Kai accepted the ice, laying one large pack on his right thigh and the other on his left knee. “Troy Snow, this is Renee Poche, a . . . friend from school. Renee, Troy, my physical therapist.”

Renee offered her hand to shake.

“He’s also a sadist, so be careful,” Kai said, his voice still flat but hinting at mirth.

Troy laughed. “Ignore him; he’s always grumpy after PT. It’s nice to meet you.” They shook, Troy’s grip firm. “Fifteen minutes. You’ll be OK?” Renee noticed an extra arch in Troy’s brows, as if--again--more were being communicated between the two men than what was actually being said. “I’ll be in my office.”

“Yeah, I’ll see you Tuesday,” Kai said, his eyes darting to Renee for the briefest of instances, then catching the stopwatch Troy tossed at him. “I have that . . . thing, so I’ll be here earlier than normal.”

Troy nodded before leaving.

A moment later, Kai lay back, letting the watch rest on the plane of his belly. Through the still damp T-shirt, Renee could see suggestions of abs, inferring Kai’s stomach looked potentially as good as his arms and shoulders.

Once they were alone again, Kai spoke. “I’m tired, but ‘talk later’ hasn’t worked real well for us, so if you don’t mind heading back to my place after this, I’ll tell you whatever you want. Full 20 questions. Guess I owe you that much.”

Renee was surprised. “I’ve . . . missed you.”

Kai breathed in sharply, almost as if he were about to laugh and had stopped the sound at the last moment.

“So . . . you’re not mad?”

Kai stretched his arms, one at a time, over his chest. “Sure, I’m thrilled that you spent twenty minutes watching me drag my legs around.” Again, that toneless voice, though she knew the anger in it wasn’t imagined. “But the way my luck has been lately, I’m not surprised this is the way you finally found out about my MLS.”

“MLS?”

He checked the stopwatch, then let it fall back. “I didn’t get hurt in an accident, or have my knee blown out in football. My legs are the way they are because I have a disease called MLS. I was born with it.”

Renee’s brow wrinkled. “I’ve never--”

“Heard of it? Yeah, it’s pretty rare. I’m just lucky.”

He stretched his upper body a bit more, but didn’t speak, so Renee kept quiet, too. Even though Kai was being deliberately neutral, he was angry, she could feel it. He had every right to be, she thought, letting her eyes drift to his wheelchair, really seeing it for the first time. Now she could tell it wasn’t the bulky, boxy kind she was familiar with from hospitals, airports, and stores. This one was compact, the frame seemingly solid, with a fixed footrest and a low back. The frame was a dark-medium blue, and she could see the paint was scuffed off in some places, revealing the chrome beneath. Clearly, this wasn’t a temporary chair, and Kai had obviously had it for a few years at least.

“But you were walking fine the last time I saw you,” she blurted, thinking out loud. She cupped her hand over her mouth.

“Actually, I wasn’t,” Kai said, pushing himself back into a sitting position just as the timer went off. “But it’s all relative anyway.” He shut off the alarm and set the ice packs aside, rubbing his legs; she noticed he’d left on the long white socks, and that his left leg wasn't as muscular as his right. He said nothing else as he started strapping his legs back into his braces.

“So . . . is it like MS, kinda, then?” She ventured. Things had always seemed so easy between them, even when Kai was being reserved and evasive. But this was different. The atmosphere seemed heavier, more bitter, and she wasn’t sure if it was her fault for intruding or if he’d changed somehow over the course of the past few weeks.

He sighed, finishing his left leg and moving to his right; she noticed his brow wrinkle as he lifted it from the wedge, a fleeting grimace as he slowly straightened it, laying it in the brace. “In the sense that my mobility can change from one day to the next, yes.” He hesitated, shook his head, then added, “Otherwise, no.”

She watched him struggle to get his feet in each shoe; with the footplate and the way the brace limited the movement of his legs, it wasn’t easy. Part of her wanted to offer to help, but somehow she knew that would be the wrong thing to do. Kai might not be happy with her right now, but he hadn’t sent her away, he was willing to let her come to his apartment to talk, and so that meant something. She didn’t want to shatter their fragile peace by saying or doing the wrong thing now.

Finally, his braces and shoes in place, he transferred back into his chair, one hand on the cushion and the other on the mat, arranging his feet and tossing the ice packs, wrapped in towels, in his lap, and putting the stopwatch around his neck.

“Come on. I gotta drop this stuff off first. We’ll go out the back.”

Renee nodded, walking hesitantly behind him as he wheeled toward the hallway from which she’d entered. It felt strange, seeing him so short, but she quickly grew distracted by his shoulders and arms as they moved with each push. He was clearly tired, but it was visible how powerful his upper body must be. Vaguely, in some back part of her mind, she knew she should be freaked out by it all, but oddly, she wasn’t. Seeing Kai like this--honest, vulnerable, strong--made her want him even more.

##################

Continue to October 26, 2000 - Part II ------->

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