Friday, August 18, 2000

In/Exhale - September 1, 2000 - Part 1

I really wanted to include Friday, September 1 as one entry, but at nearly 9000 words, it was a bit too much to publish in one chunk. So here's Part I; Part II will follow soon.

Last time, we got some great insight into Jon and Renee. Now it's Friday, Labor Day weekend, and Renee finally catches up with Kai after not seeing him since the previous Friday.

Do they hit it off? Read on to find out...

-CA

Catch up with the Table of Contents

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September 1, 2000

Renee had resigned herself to the fact that she might not see Kai again. He hadn't come to any of the classes they shared together; she'd spent most of each class searching the vastness of the large auditoriums hoping maybe he'd simply chosen another seat, and still she hadn't spotted him. It was possible she'd missed him in the crowd, but with each class without seeing him, she'd become convinced he was either one of those students who showed up the first week and then didn't appear again until the exam, or he'd simply changed his schedule.

She'd even taken to dawdling around campus--the library, the cafeteria, the student center--hoping she'd at least see him in passing if nothing else. But with such a large campus, she knew the odds of just "running into" him were low, and she tried to shelf her disappointment. After all, she'd only shared a few hours with him, and it wasn't like he was interested in her anyway. I mean, how could he be?

Renee sighed to herself as she crossed one of the smaller quads. She knew she should head home. She started at Lost Apple Books tomorrow, and she had a lot of work to do, even if it was only the second week of classes. At least they had Monday off for the holiday, not that Renee had any plans. Diane was going up to visit her family; in fact, she probably had already left, Renee realized. Not in a particular hurry to get back to the empty apartment, she decided maybe she'd grab a coffee at The Chipped Mug and try to get through some of her reading surrounded by the smell of roasted espresso and muted conversation.

The sun was hot, but not unpleasant, as she passed through the mostly empty quad, thinking of Kai and hating herself for thinking of him. She was 19, but acting like a middle schooler with a puppy crush. She just couldn't get the image of his smile, his eyes, his hair, his unusual long fingers out of her mind, no matter how she tried, and studying her core classes only made it worse, because they made her think of him even more.

Renee was so lost in her thoughts she almost walked right by him. But something made her turn her head just as she walked past the benches near the halfway mark of the quad. He sat on one of them, lengthwise, both his legs pulled up and stretched out in front of him, the shade of one of the trees casting leafy shadows over his shoulders. His bag was wedged behind his back, and he had a textbook open in his lap, an arm on the top of the bench, the other, a rubber band on his wrist, propped the pages open. His head was bent, his hair falling loose and partially covering his face, the sun catching it and making his entire head glow, an artful contrast of light and shadow. God, he looked even more beautiful in sunlight than he did indoors, Renee thought, feeling her stomach flutter. Even though she hadn't seen his face, she knew it was him.

Unable to contain her excitement, she rushed up to him, stopping with halting breath just in front of the bench. "Hey."

He looked up; dark wrap-around sunglasses shielded his eyes from her, but she could still see the shift of his expressions, first surprised, his eyebrows arched, his mouth slightly open; then annoyed or angry, eyebrows dipping, mouth closing into a frown; before wiping everything clean with a smile that didn't look forced. Maybe he was just irritated about being disturbed.

"Sorry. If you're busy, I can go . . ." she said, feeling her cheeks heat.

He reached back to scratch the back of his head. "It's OK." His nose wrinkled for a moment before he smiled again.

"I just hadn't seen you around. Thought maybe you changed your schedule or something." Renee tried to see through the lenses; even though he was smiling, she still sensed tension in his shoulders and by the way he pursed his lips seemingly without realizing it.

Kai folded his book closed; Renee could see it was their world history text, and shifted it in his lap, rubbing his left thigh a bit. For a moment, she didn't think he was going to answer, his gaze fixed downward.

Had she said something wrong? She noticed he kept his legs awfully still. As much as he seemed to fidget, his hands rarely staying long in one place, it seemed discordant, strange.

Finally, he lifted his head, again smiling, and said with a shrug, "Something came up and I couldn't make it to class." He paused, and Renee found herself holding her breath. "I missed you."

Renee exhaled with relief. "You could borrow my notes, if you want," Renee said, then remembered Diane's suggestion. "Or . . ." Renee looked toward the opposite end of the quad, then back to Kai. "Or we could go grab a cup of coffee at The Chipped Mug and I could fill you in on what you missed?"

Kai's face seemed to hesitate for a moment, as if it couldn't decide on an emotion, before he finally smiled. "Sure, that'd be great."

Renee gestured with her thumb toward the opposite end of campus. "If you're free now, we could walk together . . . it's not far from here, actually."

Renee couldn't tell his reaction, because he immediately covered his face with his hand, taking a breath before pulling it away to respond. He wasn't smiling; she couldn't quite gauge his expression, even now that his face was in full view. Kai almost looked . . . tired, but that couldn't be right, could it? Weary, maybe? Or maybe . . . it suddenly hit Renee: what if Kai was just being polite earlier, and he didn't really want to spend time with her? Maybe he'd thought she had meant "grab coffee" in the generic sense, and now that it was concrete, actually happening, he was trying to formulate an excuse to avoid having to meet with her?

Perhaps her apprehension showed clearly in her face, because Kai reached for her wrist, taking her hand in his; it seemed so small in the midst of his palm, and she felt herself tingle as she felt those round, calloused fingertips cradle her skin.

"It's OK," he said softly, almost to himself, staring at their hands before looking up. "I have a few things I need to do but I'll meet you there in twenty minutes?" He smiled, but it wasn't like his other smiles. This one was softer, more genuine somehow, a more complex grin than she'd seen before. Even with his eyes obscured, this grin seemed to show more of Kai than he'd let her see so far, and it made a warmth flutter up in her stomach.

"OK. Great," she said, feeling her face light up. "OK," she said again, bouncing, not wanting to leave him, but obviously needing to go. "Um, I guess I'll see you in a bit, then. I'll go copy my notes, I guess. Bye," she added, walking backwards toward the library for several feet so she didn't have to look away from him.

Kai laughed and waved, and Renee felt like she was floating even once she turned a corner and he was long out of her sight.

#

Kai kept his smile up until he saw Renee disappear around the corner. Then he let his entire body relax--at least the part of it that would--and released a long breath. His heart was still fluttering in his chest, whether from nerves or the budding attraction he felt between them, he wasn't sure. Kai sighed as he reached behind him for his backpack, stuffing his book into it before pulling it on. He hadn't been sitting here that long, and it wasn't too hot, especially in the shade–not that he could stand to be in the sun long due to the antirejection meds–but he was already sweating through his brace socks, and what he really wanted was to go home and take his KAFOs off.

Checking the knee locks with his fingers, he used his hands to ease his legs off the bench one by one, pushing himself carefully to his feet, placing most of his weight on his right leg. Making sure his left leg was extended, he locked the joint, finally shifting to balance on both feet. Kai looked around for Renee, even though he knew she was long gone, and was grateful for the hybrid plastic/leather orthotics he'd switched to recently. The upper, thigh portion was more the traditional leather he was used to, but the lower half, below the knee, was made of molded plastic that not only gave his calves and ankles more support, it meant they fit in his shoes with a footplate instead of attaching on the outside with a metal stirrup. Which made his braces nearly invisible under his jeans.

Kai shook his head as he carefully made his way to his car, keeping his left leg locked and allowing his right to swing freely. Why did he care so much whether Renee or anyone else, for that matter, knew the truth--or even part of it? She was bound to notice, if not now, at some point soon; it wasn't like he could hide at home forever. After avoiding campus the entire week, today, he'd meant to go to class. He'd gotten up on time, gone through the motions, ignoring the lingering aches in his legs that were just enough to make him want to change his mind. He'd put on his braces and gotten in his car, and had driven to campus in time for his first class. But instead of parking, he'd simply driven around most of the day, sometimes pulling into a space and seriously thinking of going to history or philosophy or English, only to feel a muscle twinge and remind him of his hesitancy. Finally, after missing all of his first two classes and most of his third, he'd decided to sit on a bench and study for a while rather than show up disastrously late. The last thing he wanted was to draw attention to himself.

As Kai climbed into his car, he tried to convince himself it was pain and stiffness that had kept him from his classes all week, but he knew that wasn't really true. When it came down to it, despite his "new start" mantra, he didn't really care what anyone thought of him--except, bewilderingly, Renee. He turned the engine and shifted into reverse, then, with one hand on the wheel and the other on the controls, backed out of the spot. He should never have agreed to meet her. It wasn't like he even drank coffee.

He hadn't intended to tell her he'd missed her. It had slipped out. It was true, of course, but . . . it didn't make sense. He'd spent a total of nine hours with her, they hadn't spoken more than small talk, and yet . . . . Kai could see the coffee shop ahead. Maybe if he got there early, it'd be OK. His walk wasn't that bad. He sighed, drumming his fingers on the wheel as he waited for the light. Kai knew he had to decide what he would tell her if she asked about his legs. The truth? He focused on the red of the stoplight. The problem with the truth is it would most likely invite lots more questions, questions he didn't want to answer, not now, anyway.

More than anything, though, it bothered Kai how much this bothered him. Growing up in a small town, living a fairly sheltered life, he hadn't had too many occasions to meet new people to whom he had to explain himself, but he had never had a problem talking about his MLS before. It was what it was. As much a part of him as the color of his hair or eyes. He began to wonder if this whole "new start" mantra was just another persona, another attempt to become someone else to avoid who he really was.

Kai gritted his teeth as he pulled into the coffee shop. He'd tried being himself before, and what had that gotten him? The two handicapped spaces were both empty, so he parked in the first one and closed his eyes. He absently flicked the rubber band against his wrist as he thought. Becca. He remembered waking up for the first time after his transplant, his mind still foggy from the drugs, the respirator breathing for him, his chest a bizarre mixture of pain and numbness. Snap. Snap. Jon had found the best thoracic surgeon he could get on the short notice necessitated by the transplant, who'd used an experimental technique to try to graft the major nerves. It wasn't a guarantee, but the hope had been that Kai might have quasi-normal sensation in his new lungs, which would help him keep them clear. But it took months for the nerves to grow and heal, and for a while, Kai had needed to get used to the odd disembodied sensation that his lungs weren't a part of him. But of course, they weren't, were they?

Snap. Snap. But that first moment of waking to his new life, when his eyes had finally found focus, it was Jon's face, and only Jon's face he'd seen. It wasn't until several weeks later, after he'd been extubated and his stoma was healing, that Becca had even deigned to visit him. And still, he hadn't hated her, not then. He'd simply been happy to see her, hoping that once he recovered a little more they could have a life together. Snap. Snap. Snap. But it had all been too much, or maybe he was somehow not enough, as she'd told him in slightly less concrete terms in the alley behind the diner, the day he'd met Nikki. He loved Becca and he hated her, but mostly he couldn't stand the way she pulled him in several directions at once, making him unsure of himself in a way he hadn't felt in a long time. Snap. Snap. Snap. Snap.

Kai inspected his wrist, the flesh red, although he barely felt the sting; it was more of a dull buzzing sensation that faded almost instantly when he rubbed his thumb over the mark. Shutting off the engine, Kai decided he didn't want his FS or MLS to get in the way of his budding relationship with Renee, whatever it was. He didn't want to be too little or too much; with Renee, he didn't want to be anything other than "just right." Kai wasn't sure if that was even possible, but he was willing to try.


#

Kai concentrated on taking slow, short steps to make his walk look as natural as possible, pushing up with the toes of his right foot to help him swing his locked left leg forward. Walking this way was easier on his hip, and it was the subtlest way of moving--not quite natural, but not nearly as obvious as hip hiking or swinging his hip out. Although he was convinced everyone would be able to see through his jeans to his orthotics, no one even seemed to notice him. Kai wasn't used to not being stared at, and it felt both relieving and disorienting.

Ignoring the counter, he headed toward the back, hoping to find a comfortable seat, preferably tucked into a corner somewhere. His body stiffened, and it wasn't due to his MLS, when he saw Renee, sitting curled up in one of the plush armchairs along the back wall, a stack of papers in her lap. She was beautiful, reading over the notes, her curly hair falling around her shoulders in tight black corkscrews. Kai remembered how small her hand had felt in his, and he realized his heart was quickening. He had to decide--now--what he would tell her if she asked about his legs. If he wasn't going to tell her the truth, he needed to know what he would say. He didn't want to lie, so making up a story was out of the picture. Best to keep his explanation vague and simple. Concealing or skirting the truth wasn't the same as lying, and the entire point of avoiding the truth was to avoid a litany of questions. Deep breath.

Forcing a smile, Kai approached, trying his best for casual and disaffected. Not quite the same mask he'd worn for most of the party last Friday, but enough to keep himself at a distance.

Making sure he was standing still to mask the orthotics as much as possible, he said, "Am I late?"

Renee startled, but when she looked up at him, she smiled, staring--no, not staring, appraising. "No," she said, with a slight shake of her head, and Kai loved the way it made her curls bounce. "I was able to copy the notes a lot faster than I thought, so here I am."

Kai shifted his weight to his locked left leg, and shoved his hands in his pockets to resist the urge to lean forward and smooth a curl between his fingers. For a moment, they just gazed at each other, and Kai couldn't help noticing Renee absentmindedly licking her lips. He didn't see a coffee mug or to-go cup anywhere, and was reminded that being crutch-free left his hands open.

"Can I get you something to drink?"

"Oh," she said, smiling and blushing just slightly.

She really was beautiful. Her face was almost heart-shaped, her chin pointed yet rounded so that it was soft, rather than harsh, and she had large, round hazel-green eyes perfectly framed by dark eyelashes. Kai squeezed his hands around his rescue inhaler in his pocket, feeling that tightness just below his sternum again. His breathing hitched, and he grew nervous, although he did his best not to let it show on his face.

She cleared her throat and shook her head, laughing a bit. "Sorry," she said, smiling. "You're . . . distracting."

Kai felt something in him shatter--it wasn't entirely an unpleasant feeling, and he was grateful for the locked brace to keep him upright. He loved Becca, and he loved the way Nikki made him feel, physically, but Renee . . . he knew now where the term spellbound came from. A relaxed, genuine smile tilted his cheeks.

"So are you," he said, feeling the tightness increase and forcing himself to keep his smile. "So what would you like?"

She tilted her head, pressed an extended index finger to one cheek in an exaggerated thinking motion. "No one here knows how to do a proper cafe au lait," she said with a pout. "A latte, I guess. Thanks."

Kai nodded. "OK, I'll be right back." He slipped his bag off his shoulder and dumped it on a chair, then hesitated for a moment, glancing first back toward the counter, then toward the restrooms, not far from where he stood.

The tightness hadn't subsided, so he carefully made his way toward the opposite corner, relieved that the bathrooms were the single-person style, slipping in and locking the door, quickly leaning against it as soon as he could.

Now that he was safely alone, he shut his eyes and listened to his body. It wasn't quite the same feeling he'd had pre-transplant, but it was wrong. His breathing came fast and quick. He wasn't wheezing, but definitely felt uncomfortable, and decided it wouldn't hurt to use his inhaler. He fished it out of his pocket, shaking it and uncapping it, hesitating. He closed his eyes, then forced himself to take a deep breath and let it out before placing the inhaler in his mouth and pressing the canister at the same time that he inhaled, pulling the medicine into his lungs. He held it there a moment, then repeated for a second puff, waiting to see if he could feel a difference.

Kai knew the medicine didn't work instantaneously, but he didn't feel any better; if anything, he felt worse, the constricting feeling mounting, the hint of a wheeze carrying on every exhalation. It was his imagination. A trick of the nerves. This couldn't be an attack. He hadn't had one since before his transplant, and there hadn't been anything to trigger it that Kai could think of. It was just the anxiety playing tricks with his mind. Kai closed his eyes, staring into his lids, and focused on taking slow, deep breaths. Of course he knew stress could trigger an attack, too, but this wasn't an attack. It couldn't be an attack.
 

#

Renee shifted in her seat, glancing over at the restroom. She'd noticed Kai had walked oddly; he hadn't walked like that before, had he? Then she realized: she'd never seen him walk before. Every time she'd gotten to class, he was already there, and he always made some excuse as to why he couldn't leave with her. She'd assumed it had something to do with the girlfriend she was sure he had, but . . . was there something wrong with his leg? Or his hip? Or maybe it was simply her imagination?

Whatever it was, it didn't detract at all from how incredibly handsome he was, and how charming. She sighed a little and rearranged the photocopied papers in her lap, double-checking that they were all there. A little flutter of hope bubbled up in her stomach. Maybe he was single. Maybe he liked her. Maybe they had a future.





#

Renee watched as Kai walked toward her, a coffee in one hand and a bottle of juice and a paper bag in the other. She pretended to read over the notes in her lap, watching him in her peripheral vision, noting how his shoulders rolled as he walked, one leg obviously compensating for the other.

She allowed herself to finally look at him straight on when he spoke, handing her her coffee. "I didn't know if you liked sugar or not."

"This is fine, thanks," Renee said, smiling.

She saw how he bent awkwardly to set his drink and bag on the table between their two chairs, then shifted, gripping the sides of the seat and lowering himself into it carefully; she noticed his left leg stayed straight as he sat, and she couldn't help focusing on it, fascinated.

"I see you've noticed my bad leg."

Renee realized she'd been staring and flushed, gripping her coffee and looking sheepish. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean . . ."

He laughed, and although she kept her eyes down, she watched as his fingers moved to one side of his left knee, then slowly pushed his leg until it was bent like his right. "It's OK."

Renee forced herself to breathe. Curiosity overwhelmed her, but she bit it back; she had so much more she wanted to know about Kai other than his leg, and she worried if she pressed the issue he might lock up and she'd never learn more about him.

She sipped her coffee to buy her some time, noting how he reached forward for his juice, setting it between one leg and the arm of the chair, then pulled a pastry out of the bag.

"I didn't know what you'd like, so I got a variety," he said, pointing to the bag. He took a bite of his and then continued, chewing, as if he'd suddenly realized something in the act of eating and couldn't wait to swallow to say it. "Oh, you're not diabetic, are you?"

She laughed, a nervous giggle, and shook her head, leaning forward to glance in the bag. "No, but thank you for being considerate."

"My brother is. Diabetic. He's supposed to avoid sugar, and I can't get enough of it." He smiled and blushed slightly, and she got a feeling that the guard he normally kept up around him had fallen down a bit.

Renee pulled a cookie out of the bag and nibbled on it, ignoring the crumbs that fell onto the pages in her lap. "You said you have a brother; do you have any other siblings?"

She saw something change in Kai's face; it was subtle, a microexpression, before he smiled and opened his juice to drink. After he'd swallowed, he responded, "No. It's just me and my brother," in a tone she couldn't distinguish.

Nodding, Renee sipped her coffee, again to buy her some time. "I have two brothers. JP's five years older, and Luc's five years younger." She shook her head, transferred the cookie so it balanced on top of her coffee cup, and handed over the sheets of paper, shaking out the crumbs.

He took it from her, hardly needing to lean forward with his long arms, smiling faintly. "Thanks."

"That's everything," she said. "I hope it helps."

She watched as he dipped his head to flip through the notes, his golden hair hanging down in front of his face. "I appreciate this," he said, waving the papers and reaching for his bag to stuff them into it. "Look," he said, pausing in zipping his backpack up. "I don't want you to think I'm taking advantage of you, but there may be times in the future that I'll have to miss class. Do you think . . . ?"

Renee leaned forward, thinking she wouldn't mind Kai taking advantage of her at all. "I'm happy to help. Really, any time," Renee said, blushing at how over-eager she sounded.

He laughed and leaned back in his chair, smiling, as if he'd read her thoughts.

Renee cleared her throat, shifted her cookie so she could find some solace in her coffee. "You a psych major?"

His eyebrows dipped, and he unscrewed the lid of his juice to drink, but said nothing.

"You mentioned Intro to Psychology was one of your classes, so . . ."

He licked some juice off his lips searchingly, and Re knew it wasn't intended to be erotic, but everything about him was so delicious. She was crazy; he just wanted someone to mooch notes from. That's all she was to him. She sighed softly, and tried to get back on task, thinking what she could say next, since it seemed like he wasn't planning on answering her. Maybe all he'd wanted was the notes, and now that he had them, he was thinking of a way to leave without seeming too rude.

"I'm undeclared, but leaning toward psych," he said with a shrug. "I think I'd like to work with kids someday, maybe."

That made her smile, picturing Kai, as tall as he was, sitting curled up on the floor surrounded by children, reading to them.

"You're not taking a foreign language?" Renee swirled the cup before taking another sip, already trying to think ahead to her next question, anything to keep him here and talking with her.

He shook his head. "Tested out," he said, then finished off his juice and tossed the bottle onto the table.

"Me too. Francais. Et toi?"

"ASL," Kai finger spelled.

"Sign language?"

Kai nodded with his fist and head. "Fluent."

"That's really cool," Renee said, then grimaced. "Sorry, that sounded really lame."

Kai used a hand to stretch out his left leg, then leaned back in his chair, almost as if he were ready to nap. He certainly looked tired enough. Defeated, almost. "So you're not from around here."

His question caught her off guard. "Oh, yes. I'm from New Orleans."

"Lived here all my life," he said, as if he'd anticipated a question, scratching under his nose with one long finger. "So what brought you to middle-of-nowhere Iowa?" he asked sardonically.

Renee laughed, but it was a nervous, forced laugh. "I needed to get away. A fresh start. You know?"

Kai inhaled sharply and nodded. "Do I."

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Ooooh! Things are starting to get interesting! Stay tuned for Part II, in which we see Kai's reaction to the day's events and once again find him going to Nikki for consolation.

Continue to September 1, 2000 - Part 2 --->

6 comments:

  1. I love the way you include all the tiny details - as I read the story, I can SO visualize in my mind all the scenes, movements and facial expressions.

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  2. Eagerly awaiting Part II indeed! I loved reading their separate perceptions of the same events, and Kai was just yummy.

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  3. Kai is so friggen dreamy! Excited for the next installment, keep em comin doll

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  4. This was just fabulous! I really enjoyed part I. You do a great job describing your characters. Your writing is so vivid I feel I could reach out and touch Kai and Renee.

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  5. Ok, I'm finally caught up and dying to read what is next!

    This story is such a treat.

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  6. You are a wonderful writer. I love the way you pay attention to the details. Where is part 2? I can`t wait!!
    Tina

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