Tuesday, August 1, 2000

In/Exhale - October 28, 2000 - Part II

October 28, 2000 - Part II

“The break room: the height of romance,” Renee joked as she laid out their food.
Kai pushed a chair out of his way so he could pull into the table and help Renee. “I’m not much for traditional romantic gestures. Why be trite when you can be personal? Besides, I’m deathly allergic to pollen.”
“Is that your way of telling me I’ll never get flowers from you?”
“Real ones. Unless you don’t want to see me for a couple weeks afterward.”
Renee laughed as she unwrapped her sandwich. “You couldn’t take an antihistamine and live with watery eyes to make me happy?”
He smiled faintly, rubbed his chest absently. Honestly, he didn’t know how he’d react with his new lungs. Before, a single flower could potentially kill him. But now? He knew dust didn’t affect him as badly as before, though that could also be nerves still healing; his cough response wasn’t what it used to be.
“If that was all it was, I could and I would.” His heart began to race, and he had to hide his hands under the table as he felt them start to tremble. No, please, not now. The hydroxyzine he’d taken that morning as a precaution had probably worn off. He knew he needed to tell her about his transplant, his FS, but. . . . He had to redirect his thoughts before this bubble of anxiety turned into a full-blown panic attack. That’s all he needed, with Renee and her front-row seat to the crazy show.
But then she leaned across the table to lay a hand on his arm, just for a moment, and it was like a wave of calm washed over him. He took a few breaths, looked up at her. 
Kai swallowed. “Something like that. I told you there was more than the chair.”
“Flowers are overrated anyway,” she said, casting it off as if it genuinely weren’t a big deal. It made Kai smile despite himself, and though he still felt a flurry of anxiety lingering in his stomach, Renee’s open, honest, carefree acceptance made him feel better. “What’s not overrated is you. You were fantastic.”
Kai shrugged, grateful his hands were still so he could open his soup without spilling it everywhere.
“Really. I mean, I know the moms were gushing over you, even if I couldn’t understand what they were saying. And one of the hearing moms told me you were a million times better than the last reader.”
Kai stared at his soup, stirring it with his plastic spoon as a way to avoid her eyes. “Of course they’re going to tell me I’m wonderful. The last time Art was able to do this was . . . four? five? months ago. They’ll tell me I’m Jesus reincarnated if it means they’ll have one Saturday morning a month they don’t have to be at home with their children running around, driving them crazy.”
Re sighed. “That’s awfully cynical.”
Kai shrugged. Tasted some soup. It had gotten cold, but he swallowed it anyway.
“Do you think . . . do you think I could learn?”
Kai finally looked up. “Learn what?”
“Sign language,” Renee said, smiling, as if she’d wanted to add “silly” to the end of her sentence. She was so beautifully happy all the time. It would have been annoying if he didn’t love that about her so much.
“Most hearies who say they want to learn pick up a couple signs.” He demonstrated the “I love you” sign. “That doesn’t mean what you think it does, by the way.” He shrugged again. “And that’s it. Maybe they learn a bit more, but they still basically sign English without caring about ASL grammar, usage, etc.”
Renee almost literally deflated, and Kai remembered the other night in his car, when his anger had poured through despite his best efforts to contain it, feeling, again, like an asshole. Here was a woman who calmed his anxiety, who took his escalating amount of crazy in stride, who apparently wanted to learn ASL, and yet he had the portcullis down and the soldiers on the barricades, ready to fire.
He decided maybe it was time to turn down his cynic meter a few notches. “Do you know the alphabet?”
Renee shook her head.
Kai laid his spoon down. “OK. Watch. I’m going to do it fast, first, then slow down and you can do it with me.” Kai blew through the alphabet, correcting her form when she didn’t get it quite right, reminding her to relax her hand--the irony of his telling someone else to relax not escaping him--until she’d gotten the hang of it, more or less. “Practice until you can do it without thinking, and hopefully be able to at least read when someone finger spells their name.”
“Do mine. My name.”
Kai smiled, then finger spelled her first and last name, showing her the signs for name and last name. Simplifying things for her by double-signing the “E’s” in “Renee” instead of sliding.
“Now yours.”
Kai felt his smile growing; Renee was leaned forward on the table, her eyes sparkling like a little kid’s, engaged, excited, and so incredibly kissable. Without thinking, Kai rapidly fingerspelled his first and last name.
“Woah. If I didn’t know what you were doing, I’d never get that.”
Kai chuckled. “My name is really easy to fingerspell quickly, especially my first name; the letters all flow into each other. K-A-I. F-O-X.”
“Wait, you twisted on the ‘X’?” she asked, referring to the way he’d turned his hand from the front-facing position to the side for that letter.
“Uh, yeah. We’ll get into that type of thing later, though.”
She squinted at him, as if assessing him, before sitting back and taking a few bites of her sandwich. Once she’d swallowed, she asked, “If you’re describing someone, do you really do ‘fat’ like you did in the story?” Renee demonstrated, looking adorable, her cheeks puffed out and her hands spread wide at her sides. “Or was that just for the kids?”
“Yes and no. ASL is a visual language. Where English would use a modifier like ‘really’ or ‘very,’ we convey it by the way we sign a word and in our facial expressions. So, like, ‘really tall’ would look like this,” he said, signing by holding his right hand up high above his head, his hand flat, shaking it a bit to emphasize the height, also expressing it on his face. “And ‘really short’ would be the same, only down here,” he said, using the same gesture but at table height, his facial expression shifting again. “That can also mean ‘little’ as in, ‘when I was little,’ but . . . you’ll learn ASL is heavily context-based.”
She observed him intently the whole time; he could almost see her brain working, absorbing the information greedily as she nibbled her sandwich. “What about colors. I picked up a few from watching you read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but . . .”
“Sure. COLORS,” Kai said, holding his spread hand above his mouth, wiggling his fingers slightly. Then he signed through the basic rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, white, black, gray, brown. First, to demonstrate, then again, slower, letting her mimic him, correcting her when necessary.
She picked up quickly, and Kai began to hope maybe she actually would learn, at least enough for basic conversation. His heart did a funny tango in his chest at the thought of being with a woman he could sign with. Even if he had to slow down, even if it wasn’t as smooth as it would be with a native signer. . . .
“So, if I wanted to describe you, I might say, WOMAN, VERY-SHORT, THIN, HAIR BLACK CURLY, EYES GREEN.” Kai signed slowly, speaking each word so she could clearly see.
HAIR?” Renee asked, mimicking him, her fingers on her head as if she were picking up a piece of hair.
Kai nodded his fist. “YES.
“OK, do you!”
Kai couldn’t help chuckling at her childlike exuberance. “Well, I could cheat and just say, ‘man wheelchair,’” Kai said without signing. “But you wouldn’t learn, would you? MAN VERY-TALL,  WHEELCHAIR, HAIR YELLOW!, EYES BLUE!
Renee laughed when he signed the colors, quick flicks of his wrist and his eyes bugging out. “That’s the ‘very’ you were talking about before, isn’t it?”
Kai nodded, smiling. “There’s a sign for blond, but ‘hair yellow’ works.”
“OK, one more question,” Renee said, shifting in her seat. “I noticed you did this a few times during the reading.” She held her hand up on one side in a relaxed claw, palm up. “It looked like ‘what’ or ‘huh’?”
“Yes.” He drummed his fingers on the table, thinking. “If I wanted to ask you your name, I’d do it like this. YOU NAME WHAT?” He pointed to his eyebrows. “My eyebrows, and the way I lean forward, tell you I’m asking a question. Think of it kind of like the ASL equivalent of a question mark, or the inflection you do in spoken English: what is your name?” Kai said, adding a bit extra inflection to the end of the sentence to illustrate his point. “If I were asking a yes or no question, you’d know because my brows would be higher,” Kai said, demonstrating, making Renee laugh. “If I ask you something like that, you know all you need to say is ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” Kai demonstrated the signs for yes and no in turn. “Though it’s polite to sign more than that, to show you’re engaged in the conversation.” He shrugged. “ASL has a lot of body-language and facial-expression elements that indicate grammar.”
Renee’s eyes widened. “Sounds so complicated.”
Kai shrugged. “It’s really not. It’s pretty intuitive, for the most part. It just seems that way once you start breaking it down. English is much, much more complicated.” He stared down at his soup, realizing he needed to eat more of it but not really wanting to. “But that’s one reason most hearing people never really learn to sign well. They keep trying to think in English instead of remembering ASL is its own language with its own rules, and it’s visual.”
Renee studied him a while, an elbow on the table, her hand supporting her head. Finally, she asked, “Do you think I could learn? Really learn?”
LEARN.” Kai demonstrated the sign for learn, his left hand flat, his right pulling from it toward his head. “Yes. My hearing friend in high school learned from me, though he took classes later to improve his fluency. He’s a certified interpreter now, so it’s definitely possible.”
“How do you say ‘want’?”
Kai demonstrated, his palms up, as if grabbing something and pulling it toward him.
I really want to learn,” Renee signed, doing her best to put her emphasis on the ‘want’ to show how much she wanted to learn.
A smile blossomed on Kai’s face as a delightful warm feeling filled him, seeing her, after only a few minutes, put a full sentence together.
Yeah, he could definitely love this girl.
“What are you doing Halloween?” Kai blurted.
Renee tilted her head. “Uh, Diane wants me to go to this party the visual art students are throwing, but . . .” She shrugged.
Kai swallowed, reached for her hands. His heart was pounding in his chest, but he decided not to back down. “I volunteered to take some of the kids from the group home where I grew up trick-or-treating at the hospital. Would you . . .” He swallowed, bit his lip. “Want to . . . come with me?”
Her face transformed into confusion and hesitation, pulling her hands away; it made his mostly empty stomach knot and swirl, his pulse at his throat racing so fast it had to be visible. “Yes,” she said, signing and speaking, smiling shyly before retaking his hands. “If you really want me there.”
Did he? Want her there? His first time back to County House in years, and he was going to bring Renee with him? “Yes.” He smiled, felt some of his anxiety fading away again as her thumbs stroked the tops of his fingers. “Yes. Yes.”


Jon was just finishing a sandwich and some coffee when he heard the door open, then close, and the slight creak of Kai’s chair as he rolled in. Jon looked up, wondering if he’d get the silent treatment from his brother--who’d been avoiding or ignoring him the past couple days. (Not that it was difficult, since Jon had been working nights most of the week.)
Kai pushed to the table, gliding into his usual spot across from his brother. He signed hello, then drew his pinky in a kind of sideways mirror-image of a “J” on his mouth, like he was drawing a lopsided frown. Jon’s old namesign that Kai had given him when he was little, because Jon rarely smiled and always looked worried. It may have been nearly twenty years since Kai had given his brother the nickname, but it was still pretty true to life.
Kai smiled, leaned forward with this elbows on the table, looking amusingly like a puppy waiting for his master to notice him so they could go to the park and play fetch.
Did this mean Kai was talking to him? “I guess everything at Lost Apple went well?”
Kai leaned back so he could sign. “Renee wants to learn to sign. Really learn. I taught her some basics. She learns really fast.
Kai signed almost too rapidly for Jon to catch it, but his work with Megan over the past few weeks had apparently helped, and he was able to glean the meaning despite Kai’s excited, harried signing.
“The girl from the other night?” Jon decided to keep things vague in case that would clam Kai up again, and he wasn’t 100% sure how to sign it.
Kai nodded. “I’m still mad at you for sending her to PT, but I’m also glad you did, so we’ll call it a wash. Deal?”
“Deal.” Jon finished his coffee, checked his watch. He still had a few minutes before he needed to head in, and this was his first time in a while that Kai really felt like talking and wasn’t giving him monosyllabic or single-sign answers. “So this girl . . .”
She’s amazing. She’s just so . . . alive. Happy.” Kai signed with enthusiasm, his excitement coming through with the intensity of his signs, the gleam in his eye that Jon had never seen before. “She makes me feel . . . calm. Like I can do no wrong. She doesn’t push me or judge me or look at me . . . weird.” Kai seemed to be choosing his signs carefully, as if he almost couldn’t believe what he was saying. “I invited her to go with me to CH for Halloween.
Jon leaned forward, his eyebrows raised, his index finger drawing out from his mouth toward Kai. “Really?!
Kai ducked his head, nodded his fist.
“That’s really great, Kai.”
“I also . . . may go to Deaf Halloween. It’s at the school. . . .”
“Wait.” Jon leaned forward, as if to see Kai better, his eyes narrowed. “You ended your boycott of Lost Apple, made yourself the center of a Deaf event, invited Renee to go to County House with you, and you’re planning on going to Deaf Halloween. After years of staying away from the Community. Who are you, and what have you done with my little brother?”
Kai gripped the edge of the table, used it to to push and pull himself away and back toward it over and over. “Art needed help. Dr. Miller says I need to confront my past, and I got excited and invited Renee. And signing today made me remember how much I miss it. Making an appearance at the party won’t kill me.”
Jon pushed himself to his feet, carrying his plate and mug with him to the kitchen. “And this has nothing to do with Renee.” Jon looked over at Kai as he rinsed the items in the sink.
Kai shrugged, the hint of a smile playing at his lips. He rotated back, picking his casters up just a few inches off the floor, carefully balancing in place on his rear wheels. “You working Halloween night?”
Jon noticed Kai’s artful dodge, but said nothing, fishing out his meter and a clean lancet from a drawer and quickly pricking his finger and testing his blood. “Yeah. I get to be the consult for the ER, too. Yay.” Jon left his meter on the table and grabbed a vial of insulin from the fridge. He heard the clack of Kai’s casters hitting the ground. “Basically, I have the schedule from hell until mid November, plus I’m on-call Thanksgiving.” He filled a syringe, still waiting for the meter.
Kai twisted, Jon heard a zip. Some rustling. Then his brother turned back around, offering Jon a book he’d obviously taken out of his bag. Jon accepted it just as his meter beeped, so he left it on the counter while he quickly injected himself. 
After tossing the used materials in the sharps bin he kept for the purpose and returning his insulin to the fridge, he examined the book closely, noticing Kai seemed to be silently waiting for Jon's reaction. “Wow. The Velveteen Rabbit.” Jon flipped through the book, shaking his head. “I didn't think you remembered.”
Just before Thanksgiving, 1983, Jon had woken in the middle of the night to find Kai unconscious, feverish, and barely breathing. It was the sickest Kai had been since he was a baby. Kai spent nearly a month in the hospital, most of the time sedated and on a ventilator, and even though Jon had only been 13, he'd understood how serious it was. Their father had been working nearly seven days a week to pay Kai's medical bills, and their mother had been barely keeping herself together, hardly managing to take care of three-year-old Sara.
So it was Jon who sat with Kai--grateful Kai’s nurses allowed him to be alone with his brother despite his age--whenever he wasn’t in school, reading aloud to him for hours, like Inez would to Martin, not even sure if Kai could hear him or knew he was there, but needing to do something. To be there. And when Kai got a little better, he’d ask Jon to read him the “bunny book.” Every time. Jon nearly had it memorized by the time New Year’s came around.
Was this Kai’s way of saying, without words or signs, Thank you for always being there?
“I kept hoping the fairy would come and make me Real,” Kai said, not meeting his brother’s eyes, tracing a scratch in one of the cabinets with his thumbnail. “Because then I could be like other kids. Like you and Sara. And Mom and Dad would love me.”
“It’s fine, Jon,” Kai said, doing a 180 and heading out of the kitchen. “I just thought you might like a copy.”
Jon raced around, caught Kai before he could escape into the hallway, standing in the doorway to keep Kai’s attention and block his flight. He ignored the glare Kai gave him, which could have leveled a small continent. “Is that why you had me read it to you over and over and over?”
Kai shrugged. “Aren’t you going to be late for work?”
“I have time. Come over here. Don’t make me push you.”
Red had crept up Kai’s neck, but he followed Jon to the living room, saying nothing when Jon perched on the edge of the sofa, looking intently at him. Kai was mad now, but angry was better than shut down. Kai hated to be pushed--physically and emotionally--but if Jon had learned anything the past few weeks, it was that sometimes, that’s exactly what his brother needed.
“Our mother had problems, OK? It meant she wasn’t always there for us, as a mom, the way we needed. And it was like Dad was practically a single parent of four children, Mom included. But he loved you. He was so proud of you. Always.”
Kai blinked at Jon, but his anger had faded. He’d slipped on that mask, that infuriating affectation that made it impossible to know what he was thinking.
“Dad was the one who believed me when I insisted you weren’t retarded. He was the one who helped me fight to get you into the preschool program at the school for the deaf so you could learn ASL.” Jon pushed his fingers through his hair, wondering if he should continue. “He gave you this giant lollipop the first day you walked on your own, at home. It was so big, it made you lose your balance, and you fell. You cried, because you thought he’d take it away from you for falling.” Jon smiled faintly, remembering Kai, as a toddler, so proud of himself once he’d finally mastered his first pair of braces, supporting himself with a wheeled walker to help with his balance. “But he scooped you up, and kissed away your tears, and hugged you tight, and then you shared the candy together.”
Kai’s mask dropped, looking a bit shell shocked. “I . . . I don’t remember that,” Kai said, shifting to ASL.
How could you? You weren’t even three.” 
You never . . . talk about them. About me, when I was little, before . . .” Kai shook his head. “I don’t remember . . . them.
So you remember me reading The Velveteen Rabbit to you, in the hospital, when you were five, but you don’t remember our parents?
A flash of hurt crossed Kai’s face before he quickly suppressed it. “I remember you,” Kai said in a small voice.
Jon sighed, staring at Kai’s hunched shoulders, his elated mood of earlier having completely vanished, trying to formulate what to say--or sign--next. His pager sounded, breaking the moment. Jon resisted checking it. “How about you keep the book. And I promise, we’ll talk later.” Jon took in a breath. “I’ll tell you another story from before. OK?”
Kai nodded.
I have to go. You’ll be OK? Don’t lie to me.
Kai offered a faint smile, nodded again. “Thanks.”
Kai’s brief sign--his hand flat, drawn out quickly from his lips--was simple, but Jon knew, like the book, it meant more. Jon stood, squeezed Kai’s shoulder as he walked by.  I love you, too, Jon thought.


Continue to October 31, 2000 - Part I -------->

1 comment:

  1. Warm and perceptive chapter. You always make me feel like I am there, in the room, with your characters. They have such presence.