Catch up with the Table of Contents
September 1, 2000 (continued)
Nikki leaned against the alley wall, one foot pressed against the brick, her knee bent. She sucked hard on her Nicotrol inhaler, trying to pretend it was a cigarette and not succeeding very successfully. She glanced at her watch, a cheap one with a plastic band she'd picked up at Walmart, and debated about whether or not she had time to run across the street for some real nicotine, when the kitchen door opened, attracting her attention. Marge squeezed out, looking a bit flustered.
"I still have five minutes," Nikki said, taking a final inhale of the Nicotrol before shoving it in her apron pocket.
"I know," Marge said. "But Blondie's here."
Nikki used her foot to push off from the wall, turning and folding her arms on her chest. "He has a name."
Marge got a doughy-eyed grin. "Don't mean he can't have a nickname." Her smile soon soured. "I took his order, but I think you should serve him. It's a three-for."
Nikki blinked and dropped her hands, joining in Marge's frown. "Did he say what's wrong?"
Marge shook her head, looking worried.
Nikki laid a hand on Marge's shoulder as she passed her to reenter the diner. "Thanks for getting me."
Nikki smiled at Clyde, the short-order cook, as she poured milk into a mug and threw it into the microwave. Then she crossed to the pies, covered and stacked on the counter, grabbing plates and knife. Kai had the biggest sweet tooth Nikki'd ever seen. His usual order, when he stopped by the diner, was a slice of pie and a mug of hot milk, to which he'd add half a shaker's worth of sugar. Whenever something was bothering him, Kai'd ask for two slices. So if he ordered three. . . .
The microwave caught her off guard, and she jumped, grabbing the mug and setting it on a tray with the pie. Sucking in a breath, Nikki pushed back against the swinging door, tray in hand, and entered the dining room. It was a little early for the dinner crowd, so the diner was mostly empty. Kai sat perched on a bar stool, hunched over the counter, looking a bit like a disheartened yellow lab puppy.
Nikki set the mug and slices of pie on the counter, then tucked the tray under an arm to study him. He said nothing as he reached over to dump sugar into his milk, stirring it with his spoon as if he were on autopilot.
"All right," Nikki said, watching as he set his spoon aside and picked up a fork. "Why three slices?"
Kai gripped his fork backward, lazily, and stabbed at the first slice. Shrugging, he responded, "I like pie. I have a lot of years to make up for."
Nikki frowned, but Kai didn't see since he was bent over his pie, breaking it up with his fork, but not eating much. He'd only managed a few bites when she decided leaning over the counter wasn't getting her anywhere and turned to set her tray down. She glanced toward the opposite end of the counter and caught Marge's eye, gesturing with a flick of her hands to suggest moving around to join Kai. Marge nodded, and waved toward Nikki to tell her to go ahead, then went back to refilling coffees.
Nikki jogged around the counter and sunk down into the stool to Kai's right, laying a hand on his back and leaning in to whisper. "Becca call?"
Kai stopped stabbing his pie and hesitated before looking up at Nikki, his eyes a little wider, irises dark blue. He shook his head, then dropped it again to resume dissecting his nearly untouched food.
Nikki watched him push one smashed slice away and pull another closer, breaking off a portion with the side of his fork before hesitantly slipping it into his mouth, chewing slowly. She rubbed his back, realizing he wasn't offering any info freely.
"Tell me why it's a three-slice day," Nikki said softly.
At first, she didn't think he'd answer, since he hunched further, digging into his pie as if trying to excavate some buried treasure. Finally, he sighed, laid his fork down, and reached into his right pocket. Nikki watched, confused, as he laid his fist on the counter, releasing his fingers slowly and depositing something that clattered as it came to rest on the surface. His hand then returned to his fork.
Nikki stared at the inhaler, bewildered.
Without taking his eyes off the mash of fruit and crust he was focused on, he spoke. "I had to use it today."
Nikki shifted. "Oh. Are you OK?"
Most of what Nikki knew about Kai she'd learned from Becca, who, until things started to fall apart between them, had let everyone with an open ear know about Kai. Because Marge and Nikki were the only two staff (other than Clyde), who stayed around more than a few weeks, it meant the two waitresses were more exposed to her stories than anyone. At first, it seemed like the typical lovesick drivel that Nikki mostly ignored, reminding herself how she was glad she'd never had a relationship last long enough for her to moon over anyone.
But after a while, Nikki had begun to pick up a common theme--Kai was always sick, either because he'd had an attack, or he'd gotten pneumonia--and the way Becca related these travails. . . . Something just wasn't right. At the time, Nikki wasn't sure how accurate Becca's accounts were, since they seemed significantly exaggerated, Becca mopping up all the sympathy she could get, as if she were petitioning for sainthood for being with someone like Kai. It had made Nikki nauseated at the time, and later, once she'd started seeing Kai and realizing--deductively--how truly sick he must have been. . . . Becca had never been someone Nikki liked, and after getting to know Kai, to see what he'd gone through, knowing Becca had used him and then left him when he needed her most. . . . Nikki was glad Becca had disappeared, because Nikki didn't think she could stand working with that bitch again.
Nikki wasn't sure if Kai was aware of all that Becca had done, or if he knew how much, relatively, Nikki understood about his health. All she knew was that ignorance is bliss, and Kai had enough demons and worries without adding to it. Becca had hurt him deeply, and Nikki wasn't sure he needed to know exactly how much.
What Nikki did know based on what Kai had told her, was that he'd been sick most of his life, and that he'd had a lung transplant a year ago. That he was enjoying being attack-free, and as far as she knew, this was the first time he'd needed to use his inhaler since before.
Kai didn't respond immediately, poking the fork repeatedly into the pie as if expecting it to come alive. "Yeah . . . I mean, I don't feel the same way as I did before. . . . So I don't know." He sighed, scooped up some fruit and shoved it in his mouth mechanically, reaching for his mug and washing it down with lukewarm sugar-milk.
He continued, talking to his pie, talking to himself, it seemed. "Maybe it wasn't an attack. . . . I don't know." He stabbed the center of the slice, his hand fisted on the fork, his frustration palpable. "I don't know if I should see if it happens again, or tell Jon, or Dr. J . . ." Kai sighed heavily, discarding his fork to palm the inhaler. "What if . . . what if it's a sign of rejection?" Nikki watched him squeeze the inhaler tightly in his palm until his skin whitened. "What if . . . What if it means I'm not . . ." He drew in a hitching breath before finishing in a voice so low, Nikki nearly missed it. "Cured?"
Kai sighed, shoving the inhaler in his pocket and turning to the third piece of pie, spinning the plate around absently back and forth.
Nikki watched him for awhile. She'd seen him upset over Becca, but he usually kept his guard up; she'd never seen him look so utterly . . . defeated. Unsure what to do, she said nothing, smoothing her hand over his back, watching as he took small, deliberate bites of the third slice of pie. She couldn't stand to see him like this, so she pulled her keys out of her apron pocket, fished her house key off, and slid it along the counter toward him. He stared at it, then up at her, confused.
Nudging it toward his hand, she spoke low but firmly. "You're going to finish your pie, then you're going to take that, get in your car, and drive to my apartment. You're going to let yourself in, and you're going to strip, then you're going to lie on my bed and wait for me. And when I get off work, I'm going to come home and fuck you till you can't think anymore."
Kai looked up at her, his face long and eyes dark blue. "Nikki . . ."
She shook her head, picked up the key, and shoved it into his hand. "You'll do exactly as I say, or I'll tell Marge you're cut off. No more pie."
Kai's eyes widened and his mouth dropped open, his arms reflexively cradling his pie slice as if Nikki were ready to snatch it from him.
She had to stifle a laugh, leaning forward to kiss him on the tip of his nose. Hopping up, she smiled. "I have to get back to work, but my shift's almost done, so I'll be home soon." She winked and started to head toward a table where a family had just been seated for an early dinner.
"Thanks," Kai muttered with a shy smile.
What am I doing? Nikki thought, sighing and then plastering on a smile as she approached her new table. Every instinct told her giving him her key--even if it was temporary and in no way a sign that they were any more than fuck buddies--was the type of thing the old, pre-Kai Nikki would never have done. Her voice screamed in Nikki's head: first you try to quit smoking for him, then you ask him to spend the night, now you're nearly asking him to move in with you? Fuck, Nikki thought, her stomach churning, as she took the family's drink order, her eyes lingering on the two kids squirming as each parent tried to calm them. This is what Kai wanted; he was the white-picket-fence guy, and she just wasn't the "two-and-half" kids type. Reminding herself as she strode toward the soda fountain to get the beverages that she wasn't what Kai wanted or needed, not long-term. She never was and never would be, and it'd be best for everyone involved if she kept things simple, and stopped trying to be something she wasn't, something she never could be.
Kai dropped his bag in the back corner near Nikki’s bed, leaning his crutches against the wall. He’d decided to bring them, hoping he could maybe avoid putting his braces on again for a while. It felt strange, being in the quiet apartment without Nikki, the only sounds the shuffle of feet or movement of furniture from the surrounding apartments, and the subtle hum of the fridge in the kitchen a few feet away.
Kai took a deep breath and stared at his wrist, the thick flesh-colored rubber band lying against his skin. He pulled at it with his opposite thumb and forefinger as far as the resistance allowed before letting it slam back. He barely felt the first sting, so he repeated it a dozen times until the redness remained, then cursed under his breath and pulled his shirt over his head in one fluid motion, discarding it.
He unbuttoned his jeans, pushed them down toward his knees, and then allowed himself to fall back on the bed. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on each breath for a moment. In. Out. In. Out. Hoping to clear his mind. Lately, he felt like he was going crazy, and worse, he felt crazy for feeling that way. He’d defied all odds, he’d gotten the transplant, and here he was, a year later, with a fucking new lease on life. So why wasn’t he happy?
Kai made sure his legs were unlocked and carefully slipped his feet out of his shoes, setting them aside. Next, he pulled off his jeans, and was about to throw them at his shoes when he hesitated. Fishing his rescue inhaler out of his right front pocket, he laid it on the bedside table before tossing his jeans toward his bag. Maybe it was all in his head, but if it wasn’t, the last thing he needed to do was scare Nikki. He had barely talked with her about his FS, and he knew she wouldn’t know what to expect if . . . if he needed to use his inhaler again. Not that he even entirely knew what to expect anymore. Fuck. Wasn’t that part of the problem?
Sighing, Kai rubbed his thigh with the heel of his hand before slowly undoing the straps that bound his right leg into the KAFO. Once free, he carefully lifted out his leg, setting the orthotic against the bed, and peeling off the brace sock, eager to expose his skin to air. He rubbed the palms of his hands along his legs, from thigh to calf. These braces–leather for the thigh and modeled plastic for the calf–fit him better than any other pair he’d ever used, but in the heat of the late Iowa summer, he was still grateful to be done with them for the day, his skin damp and slightly irritated despite the sock.
Repeating the motions, he removed his left brace, then set both out of the way and slipped under the sheet. He tried to keep his eyes open, to wait for Nikki, one eye on the far side of the apartment, but soon exhaustion overcame him and he slipped into sleep.
In his dream, his mind returned to the weeks before his transplant, the respirator barely enough to keep his blood oxygenated. The pain–from the machine, from persistent oxygen-deprivation neuropathy–meant he was sedated most of the time, and when he wasn’t, his mind swam in a fog. Every time he woke, his mind grasping at a semblance of lucidity, he’d expected to be dead; half the time, before the haze of confusion cleared enough for him to feel, he’d think he was. Fire and brimstone couldn’t be worse than that hell, of wishing for death, of fearing that the worst news was coming. That he’d finally crossed the threshold he’d been teetering on for weeks, and someone–probably Dr. J–would be by to break the hard news that no transplant would come because he was simply too sick to undergo surgery.
In reality, he had woken, vision blurry, mind dazed, to a face–to this day, he wasn’t sure whose–Jon’s? Dr. Johnsen’s? Jo’s?–telling him they’d found a match and they were going to start prepping him for surgery. But this dream was different. The confusion was there, the vision that he couldn’t quite clear with blinking. Curly hair, hovering near his chin, a face he couldn’t distinguish.
Was his dream merging with wakefulness? Groggy, he felt the back of a small hand along his cheek, stroking the skin, soft curls grazing the stubble.
"Becca," he signed reflexively, the ASL "B" merging with the sign for "beautiful," hand swept over his face, a smile tipping his cheeks.
He accepted the kiss, warm lips against his, uncertain if this were dream or life, realizing something was wrong. Taste. Smell. Becca never wore perfumes or any scent that would irritate his FS; before the respirator stole his sense of smell and taste, her skin and hair had always had a faint aroma of soap, mild shampoo, coffee, and her innate Beccaness, a sweetness all her own that he’d clung to. Right now, his senses were assaulted with fruit, overpowering and tangy like a tropical drink.
Confused, Kai blinked several times more, finally seeming to wake fully from his dream. The face that hovered near his, surrounded by medium brown curls, was Nikki’s. Nikki, wearing a wig.
Kai’s face drew into a deep scowl, and he pushed himself up quickly, causing her to fall back in surprise. "What the fuck," he growled. It was a statement, not a question; still, it demanded an answer.
Nikki frowned, but it was a shallow expression, her face impassive as she shrugged, pulling the wig off and tossing her hair; loose strands sticking up and clinging together from the static of the wig.
"I thought you’d like it."
Kai shook his head, realizing he was breathing hard. "I come to you exactly because you’re not her."
"OK," Nikki said slowly, twirling the crown of the wig around her finger as if it were a hoop and she were a circus performer. "Then what about the girl from the party the other night? What was that all about?"
Kai’s bites had finally healed enough they lay exposed on each shoulder, although the marks were still there. Neither of them had spoken of the events of the previous Friday, either the party itself or anything after, and Kai had hoped to keep it that way.
After taking a few steady, deep breaths, Kai responded, "That’s exactly why it was a mistake."
Nikki tossed the wig in the air and caught it, staring at it for a moment in her hands before throwing it toward the kitchen. "All right. Bad idea. Sorry."
She reached for him, but he held up one hand to stop her with a slight shake of his head.
They sat in silence for a moment, listening to the sounds of each others’ breathing. Nikki waited for Kai to look at her, then mimicked Becca’s name sign. "You did this in your sleep. Does that mean Becca?"
Kai hesitated for a moment, finally nodding. He rubbed the back of his neck, staring at the rubber band on his wrist. "Sign language still feels more natural to me, especially when I’m half awake," he said with a mirthless laugh. Kai had first started speech therapy the summer between eighth and ninth grade–eight years ago–but he still considered spoken English very much a second language.
Nikki risked smoothing a hand along his arm, fingers trailing onto his chest. "I think you’re sexy when you sign. Especially your facial expressions."
Kai managed a laugh; not quite his full, relaxed chuckle, but his anger was fading. "You haven’t even seen me sign much."
"Maybe," Nikki said, lifting her hand to his cheek, cradling it. "But I’ve had a lot of time to study your face."
Kai scrutinized her eyes for a moment, enjoying the feel of her skin against his, forgetting about his dream, the wig, everything for this brief moment of connection between them.
"Facial expressions in ASL are like tone in spoken language; they help convey meaning. Like in spoken English, you inflect your voice to indicate a question. Most people never think about it. In ASL, an arch of your eyebrow suggests you’re asking something."
Nikki laughed as he raised his brows, leaning forward to plant a simple kiss on his lips. "I’ll keep that in mind, Professor."
He frowned, then shrugged. "Four years of speech therapy, plus triple that of Deaf education. It’s hard for me not to think like that sometimes." He picked at the rubber band but didn’t snap it. "It’s like moving to a foreign country where you know the language, you’re fluent, and it’s comfortable, but it’ll never be as familiar as the language you grew up with."
Nikki folded her legs and smiled at him, leaning forward to place a playful peck on the tip of his long nose. "Sign something for me. Anything."
"Nikki . . ."
She watched as his hands moved quickly in the air in front of him, his face a mixture of annoyance and amusement; she loved how he could master keeping his face a blank mask and yet also combine emotions so well on it.
"So what does that mean?"
"It means you’re a pain in the ass," he said, repeating the signs.
"Do you have a sign for me, like with Becca? That means my name?"
"A name sign? Yeah." Kai demonstrated, sweeping his fingers over his forehead, bringing them into a fist, thumb between his fingers, two on each side of it, combing the sign for "forget" with the letter "N."
"Does it mean anything? I mean, other than ‘Nikki’?"
Kai sighed. "Yeah. ‘Forget,’ because that’s what you help me do."
"What?" She took his fingers in her hands, smoothing over the rounded fingertips.
"Everything. Before." Kai lay back, staring up at the ceiling, flicking the rubber band gently against his wrist. "That I’m not normal and never will be. That I’m probably deluding myself in thinking I can ever even have a ‘normal’ life. . . . That I can ever even have a life," Kai said, his voice trailing off to a whisper.
Nikki edged closer to him, leaning over to take his head in her hands, kissing him softly. "Then let me help. Let me do my job. Let me make you forget, if only for a night."
It's a long weekend . . . what does it have in store for our hero and heroine? Stay tuned, as Kai reevaluates his relationship with Nikki, Renee, and Becca; Renee learns hints of Kai's past enough to want to confront him about it; Kai runs into an old friend while another surprises him with a telephone call that could potentially change everything. . . .
Continue to September 2, 2000 - Part 1 --->