Saturday, August 5, 2000

In/Exhale - September 22, 2000 - Part I

September 22, 2000 - Part I


Kai transferred carefully from his bed to his chair, hissing harshly as the movement jostled his still-sore right thigh, even though the brace he wore kept his knee relatively immobile. His leg was already aching from the morning stretches he’d been ordered to do, and shoving his legs into jeans. Something that normally took him only a few minutes--even when his legs were being particularly stiff and stubborn--had stretched into nearly a half-hour, during which Kai had seriously debated skipping yet one more day of class.

How long had it been? He tried to remember. The Friday before the severe MLS attack, he’d gone to two of three classes. But he’d missed several before that. Fuck. Jon was right. Kai was kidding himself. Still, he was determined to keep going. It was largely his innate stubbornness, a trait that had always served him well in the past. But also, it was a matter of practicality. If he dropped the semester’s classes, what would he do with himself? Get a job? He laughed hollowly as he slowly pushed across the room toward his closet, his back speaking loudly, making sure to remind him that it could ache just as badly as his leg.

If he couldn’t even handle four classes, how could he manage a job? What employer would be flexible enough to put up with him? Art would. But Renee worked at Lost Apple, and that would be even worse than having class together three days a week. At least there, they were cushioned by a huge lecture hall, her in the back, him at the front. They’d never have to talk, or even really see each other, if that’s what she wanted. And of course she didn’t want anything to do with him. Who could blame her? Even if Kai worked only the days Renee didn’t. . . .

He sighed, staring into his closet. All his button-ups and polos--the shirts he normally wore, were on the top rack. Ironically, he’d only put them there a few weeks ago, out of stupidity or maybe just hubris. With his long arms, he could reach up and pull one off the hanger, but instead, he dug into the bottom row of T-shirts, finding one squirreled into the back, hidden behind the ones he normally wore to workout or when he wasn’t leaving the apartment.

At one time it had been black, but years of wear had faded its fabric to a steely charcoal gray. He studied the cracked white print on the front, handshapes he remembered well. Together, they said, roughly, in ASL, “If you can’t read this, fuck you.” Kai laughed as he shook it out and pulled it on. The shirt had been a gift from his County House roomie, David, freshman year of high school. David had been in charge of a school fundraiser to print shirts to sell, and the printer, being ignorant of ASL, had filled the order. Of course, it didn’t take long for the administration to discover David’s design and confiscate the shirts, but not before a few had made their way into the hands of students and friends. Kai had worn the shirt at least once a week throughout his term at the hearing high school, and feeling the soft fabric against his skin brought back a lot of memories. When he was younger, the shirt had always hung loosely on his frame, but now he’d apparently outgrown it, the fabric clinging tightly around his chest and biceps. It wasn’t uncomfortable, just odd, so Kai pushed his way toward the mirror to check his reflection. To see himself wearing it one last time before he folded it away with his other boxed-up memories.

He blinked at the man he saw before him, who had his same golden hair (even if it had gotten a little shaggy) and deep, sea-blue eyes. But he was strong and well muscled, the T-shirt defining a chest and arms Kai’d been so used to hiding he didn’t recognize them. Instead of growing out of the old tee, he’d grown into it.

His eyes moved to the ugly, pink, puckered scar just north of his clavicle, visible above the collar of the shirt, touching it with the tips of his fingers. A knock on his bedroom door distracted him, and he turned away from the mirror to see Jon, looking concerned.

“You OK? I made you some breakfast. You should eat before we go.”

Although Gates had tapered Kai off most of the drugs (and the drugs to combat the side effects of the other meds), the effects of the Mexitil still lingered, and Kai was still taking more Valium than he normally would, meaning driving was off the table for at least another week.

Before Kai could answer, Jon took a look at the shirt, studying the signs for a moment. “Does that say what I think it does?”

Kai offered a faint smile before pushing past his brother toward the kitchen. The smell of fried eggs and toast, plus Jon’s dark roast hit his nostrils, and he drifted to the table, nausea suddenly hitting him. He felt Jon’s hand on his shoulder.

“Just plain toast and scrambled eggs. You have to eat,” Jon said, his voice soft.

Kai nodded, closed his eyes and tried to push the nausea away. Sometimes eating helped. It wasn’t easy to do, but once he’d done it, he felt better.

A few minutes later, Jon sat across from him, munching his own eggs and drinking coffee, reading the latest copy of CHEST, although Kai could tell Jon was actually watching to make sure Kai was eating.

“Turnabout’s fairplay, I guess,” Kai muttered under his breath.

“What?”

“I said, ‘this is salty,’” Kai said, forcing some more food into his mouth.

“I know. But Gates and your nephrologist are worried about your blood pressure being too low. A little extra salt helps.”

It was an argument they’d had nearly every day since Kai had been released from the hospital, and before his brother could ask the inevitable question, Kai hurried to respond, “105/70.”

Jon let out a kind of grunt, but said nothing else, thankfully. Kai was genuinely grateful for all the time Jon had taken off the past couple weeks, honestly not entirely sure how he would have made it through without his brother. Still, Jon tended to helicopter.

"I have rounds most of the day, but if you need me, I'm just a call away. I'll come get you, or if I can't, I'll send someone, like Vicky. OK?"

Kai's instinct was to immediately reply that he was fine; his hand even started to go to his chest to make the sign, but he stopped himself. He wasn't fine. He probably never had been fine. And, if he were honest with himself, fine was a long, perhaps impossible way off. So, instead, Kai nodded, managing a hint of a smile.

#

Kai had survived world history, in which he’d struggled to follow the professor's lecture on Hannibal and his war elephants. Kai wondered how Hannibal could have been stupid enough to think he could have taken elephants through the Alps, a ridiculous and daunting proposition. Then he looked at himself, knowing he'd likely have to withdraw or fail most of his classes, and suddenly he could understand. Sometimes, when you start out to do something, you don't realize how impossible it is. It isn't until you're suddenly freezing to death amongst a herd of dead elephants that you realize what an asshole you are.

English comp had involved spending time brainstorming for their first big writing assignment of the semester, a two- to five-page essay on “What I hope for the future,” and which Kai could describe in one sentence fragment, “Not be sick.” Somehow, he doubted his professor would appreciate his succinctness, even if brevity is the soul of wit.
One good thing about being so sick, drugged up, nauseous, and dizzy for the past two weeks meant he hadn’t had a lot of time to think. Now he had fifty minutes to be inside his head, that terrifying place he’d been happy to avoid. Although brainstorming what he hoped for his future was better than focusing on the increasing pain in his back and legs. He still couldn’t take more than Tylenol, which wasn’t much better than nothing at all.

Or remembering he had no chance with Renee, and that he’d pushed Nikki out of his life.

And he still had one more class after this. He linked his hands, raised them over his head and stretched, making an effort to ease the ache in his lower left back. He may have also taken the chance to dip his head back, straining to see up the rows of seats toward the back, where Renee would be. He hadn’t seen her come in at any point, but since he’d been doing his best to appear completely invisible, it was possible he’d missed her. It was likely she was up in her usual spot, though. Renee gave off “good student,” probably never missing a single lecture, always dutifully taking notes, and likely getting A’s without ever having to study.

Of course, the high wall that separated the first row of seats from the main lecture area (along with the space allotted for wheelchairs) meant Kai couldn’t see much of the auditorium, let alone the back row. It was for the better. Dr. Miller had suggested Kai spend some time focusing on himself and not worry about the added strain of romantic relationships, not that Renee would want anything to do with him anyway. Even if he explained himself, who would want to deal with that? Becca hadn’t, and even Nikki . . .

He was getting off-track, and his pages were blank except for a few quickly scrawled words. His left hand curled around the pages, wrinkling them. Fuck, his leg hurt. And Micovic had been more than clear it was possible Kai would never even stand on it again.

Be someone else. Kai added. Then he hurriedly scratched it out, ripping the paper. Fuck. He hated this class. The first assignment had been to write about something they’d done last year. He’d lied, deciding he hadn’t wanted to write about rehab. The teacher had seen through it and told him, Write what you know in her red cursive writing, but had praised his talent for fiction, recommending he consider a creative writing class for the following semester. It meant he either had to work on his lying, or he’d have to tell the truth this time.

The truth sucked. In the truth, pain was reality, family was a neurotic, workaholic brother, and love was an illusion.

#

Renee’s heart began its rapid dance against her chest. She’d arrived late for her first two classes, sneaking in the back, grateful the professor didn’t spot her and look up to give her an angry glare, so she’d been sure to make it a few minutes early to philosophy. She’d just started unpacking her things when she’d seen him. It was a significant distance from the far back row of the auditorium to the front, but the way her heart lurched, there was no doubt. Kai. Pushing his way into the room in a wheelchair, one leg in a bulky black brace. She blinked, thinking she must be hallucinating; she’d hoped so much to finally see him that she’d transposed his face onto someone else.

But no, it was him. Shocking golden hair falling into his face, long muscular arms she could see from here since he seemed to be wearing a fitted gray tee instead of his usual loose collared shirt. He looked pale and tired, even from this distance, his eyes downcast, pushing carefully toward the wall that fronted the tiered seating.

She rose, excited, planning to rush down the steps, but class was filling up quickly, and she’d barely made it down a few rows before she saw the solemn face of their professor, Dr. Becker, striding in. Disappointed, but not wanting to get on his notorious bad side, Renee returned to her seat. She’d catch Kai after class. The wheelchair and brace made her curious--maybe that’s why he’d stood her up, gone MIA?--but it didn’t matter. Her entire body buzzed with anticipation of seeing him, talking to him again. Just an hour. Concentrating would be rough.

#

“So what can we take away from the allegory of the cave?” Dr. Becker announced to the class. They’d been reading Plato’s Republic. He paused. The class was silent except for the shift of bodies, the occasional cough. “No one? This is one of Plato’s most famous works. Come on. Wake up.”

Kai struggled to focus. His pain had been increasing steadily all morning, and now the dizziness and nausea were starting to battle for his attention, too. It was hard to keep his eyes open, the room seeming to tilt first one way, then the other. The voice of a student--apparently Dr. Becker had found a victim--leaked out of the murk of Kai’s increasingly hazy brain.

“It has to do with the issues of reality and perception? That we are limited in how we interpret the world based on how we perceive it.”

Kai covered his mouth as he felt his stomach churn angrily, the room spinning even when he closed his eyes and focused on the semidarkness of his lids.

“Yes, that’s definitely part of it. Our understanding of the world is shaped by our experiences. It’s also a commentary on how man fears the unknown, the unfamiliar, the unfathomable.”

Oh God, if he threw up or passed out in the front of the class, in the middle of Becker’s lecture, he’d never forgive himself. He tried to take a few slow, deep breaths, hoping. . . . His thoughts were blurred, and he lowered his head to his legs, not caring if the professor saw and was pissed, thinking he was sleeping in class. He just needed everything to stop moving, to keep his breakfast from reasserting itself.

“When our prisoner is released, sees the ‘real’ world, but is then returned to the cave, how do the other prisoners see him?” Dr. Becker continued. “He’s a freak, a madman, because he no longer can see the world--their world, what they consider to be real--as valid any longer. He’s an outsider, someone who doesn’t quite belong in either world.”

The queasiness surged, and Kai gagged, barely able to keep himself under control. He had to get out of here--fast. Relieved he hadn’t bothered to take out his notebook and that he was near the door, he pushed toward the exit, managing to escape relatively unnoticed.

Though the restroom wasn’t far from the auditorium, Kai had to stop halfway there, forcing himself to breathe slow and deep, will himself not to throw up, not to pass out.

Grateful that most guys were in class, Kai finally made his way to the restroom, shutting himself in the handicapped stall. He lowered his head toward his knees, willing the dizziness and nausea to go away. It felt like he were spinning on some kind of devious amusement ride, and even taking slow, measured breaths wasn’t helping.

His stomach clenched suddenly, overwhelmingly, and he barely got his mouth over the toilet in time. Hurling only made the dizziness worse, and it didn’t make him feel much better, either, his stomach still roiling in complaint. He fished out his cell phone, bracing his head with one hand, elbow on his knees.

It rang several times, nearly going to voicemail, when his brother answered, his voice rough, like he’d rushed to grab the phone. “Kai? You OK?”

A harsh noise escaped Kai’s mouth as he managed to hold the phone out of the way as he threw up again, coughing. He could vaguely hear Jon’s voice, panicked, on the phone. The room was swaying.

“Gonna pass out,” Kai managed to say.

“Kai, I’m coming to get you. Is there a vending machine nearby?”

Kai groaned, grabbed some toilet paper to wipe his mouth. “I think . . . I think there are some near the front entrance.”

“Do you think you can get to them?”

“Ugh. Why?”

“If you can, drink something with caffeine. It’ll give your blood pressure a quick boost.”

“Jon, I don’t think--” Kai’s vision wavered and he slumped, barely keeping himself from tumbling onto the floor.

Jon’s voice raised on octave. “Kai. Where are you? I’m calling 9-1-1.”

“No. No,” Kai tried to protest, but making words was hard. “Third floor. Thomas Hall. Gonna try to go downstairs.”

#

Vicky rushed through the automatic doors into the lobby of Thomas Hall. She paused just long enough to look around. Off to one side were the elevators, and across from it was a small lounge area, mostly empty; students were either in class or at lunch, so it didn’t take her long to spot the lanky blond man in the blue wheelchair, folded over, his face buried in his legs.

“Kai?” She rushed up to him, sinking down to her knees, lifting his chin gently. His skin was completely pale, his eyes dim when she looked into them, and his breathing was quick and shallow, but he was conscious. She felt for his pulse with one hand. “Kai, can you talk to me?”

“Vic?” He blinked a few times, as if confused. “Jon?”

“He had an emergency, so he sent me.” Kai’s pulse was weak, so she wrapped the blood pressure cuff she’d brought with her quickly around one arm. “You’ll be OK.” This cuff was automatic, so she was able to get a reading fast. 81/64. Much lower than that, and Kai wouldn’t be conscious. A few points beyond that, and he could have seizures, organ damage.

Kai’s blinks were growing more lazy. Maybe it had been a mistake not to call the ambulance after all. She’d have to hightail it to the ER.

“Kai, I’m going to bring you to the hospital, so they can get your pressure up, OK?” She hurriedly packed away her supplies and thrust a bottle of Gatorade into his hands. “Can you try to drink that for me?”

Kai stared at the bottle for a moment, his eyes slightly unfocused. That wasn’t good.

“Kai. Come on. Drink some. You’ll feel better.”

He nodded drunkenly, struggled to open the lid, finally taking a few gulps. He barely swallowed before he was gagging, as if ready to throw it back up again.

Vicky frowned, but decided not to waste anymore time. She tossed her bag over her shoulder and pushed Kai out the door to her car. Hopefully he could drink and keep down some of the sports drink; it wasn’t as good as an IV, of course, but it’d help until she could get him to the ER.

#

Vicky saw Jon as soon as he stumbled into the ER waiting room. His eyes scanned the crowd with urgency until they found Vicky, and he rushed up to her before she could hardly stand. He grabbed her wrists, staring into her eyes. He didn’t have to speak; his face said it all.

“They’re keeping him down here, hoping his pressure will stabilize. If it does, he can go home. If not, they’ll admit him.”

Jon nodded and pulled his hand through his hair. His face changed to pained worry that Vicky wanted to kiss off his face. They’d only technically been seeing each other a few weeks, but it felt like longer. After all, Vicky had known Jon for years, and they’d gotten to be pretty close friends last year while Kai was awaiting his transplant. Jon wasn’t the most outwardly open or affectionate person, but behind closed doors--in her office or his--he’d always accepted more physical touch than he normally did otherwise. Still, they’d both agreed to keep things discreet between them while at work. The hospital didn’t forbid employee fraternization (as long as it wasn’t mentor/student or boss/underling), but they’d both agreed it’d be better to keep things private for now.

So she had to settle for squeezing his wrists and offering him a faint smile of encouragement. “He didn’t lose consciousness, at least not when I was with him. I think they were bringing in Gates and a nephro consult, if you want to go see him. I should probably get back upstairs.”

Jon’s eyes lingered on hers for a long moment, as if to say, Thank you and maybe even, Don’t leave, but it was impossible to be sure. His hand slid into hers, and he squeezed her fingertips.

“Call me, if you need anything,” she said. Reluctantly, she dropped his hand and walked out of the waiting room.

#

Jon found his brother in one of the back ER exam rooms, one of the few that was an actual room with four walls and a door, unlike most of the curtained sections where patients were treated. Perhaps Vicky had pulled some strings for him. Kai lay on his back, his legs elevated, a couple IVs snaking out from under the blanket. After the week in the hospital, Kai’s arms and hands were bruised, so they must have put the line in the femoral vein in his leg. An easier place to start a line anyway with Kai's pressure as low as it was. Jon also noticed the tubing peeking out of the sheets leading to a bed bag; obviously, they were tracking Kai's urine output as a rough gauge of kidney function. Even if Kai's nephro had cleared him last week, Kai's pressure issues still were unresolved. A blood pressure cuff was wrapped around one arm, linked to the monitor to check his pressure regularly. Kai’s eyes were closed, but Jon could tell by the pattern of his breathing and the subtle workings of his jaw that he wasn’t asleep. Likely in pain.

Since that one moment of weakness his first day awake in the hospital, Kai hadn’t admitted to Jon how much his injured quads hurt him, but he didn’t need to say anything for Jon to know.

Jon lightly touched Kai’s forearm, and Kai’s eyes opened, the bright blue dim. “I can’t leave you alone three hours,” Jon said, trying to joke.

“Anything to get out of philosophy,” Kai said in a dry voice, but he smiled faintly.

“Gates and the nephrologist are leaning toward neurally mediated hypotension. Possibly connected to your MLS, or maybe a side effect of some of your medications.”

Kai’s eyes slid shut, and he offered the subtlest of nods. “He’s taken me off the Valium. And put me back on the Mexitil.”

Jon hissed, then took Kai’s hand and squeezed it. “How’s your pain?”

Kai snorted. “Doesn’t matter. Can’t have anything stronger anyway.”

Jon sighed loudly.

Kai peeked one eye open. “I’ll live, Jon.”

Jon grunted.

Kai took a deep breath, which hitched, pain written in the momentary crease of his forehead. “I decided I’m going to drop a couple classes.”

Jon sputtered. “Kai--”

“Philosophy and Psych, probably.” Kai opened his eyes again. “Look at me, Jon. Do you know how many classes there’ve been so far? About fifteen. Know how many I’ve actually gone to?” Kai held up the hand unencumbered by the cuff, fingers spread. “Less than this.”

Jon shrugged. “It’s college, Kai. Lots of people skip class.”

Kai sighed, then his face scrunched up and his free hand went to his bad thigh, smoothing lightly over it. The softest moan escaped his lips. “Maybe I’m wasting my time in school.”

“What? Kai--”

“Why spend four--or even five, at the rate I’m going--years of my life? For what? That might be all I have. Four more years.”

“Jesus, Kai.”

“What, Jon? It’s true. Less than a third of people who have a double-lung transplant survive five years, and survival drops exponentially every year after that. You know that.” Kai closed his eyes, then opened them, staring up at the ceiling. “Sometimes . . . I think accepting the transplant was a mistake.”

“What?!”

Kai turned his head slowly to meet his brother’s eyes. “Maybe it would have been better if I’d just died last year, Jon.”

“Kai, you’re in pain and not thinking clearly from low blood pressure. You don’t know what you’re saying.”

“Do I?” Kai took in a deep breath. “I feel like those kids in that movie. The one that came out earlier this year? Where they avoid dying in the plane crash only to have death stalk them one by one. Like I’m on borrowed time. Like I cheated death.”

“For fuck’s sake, Kai,” Jon hissed, pulled his phone off the clip on his belt. “I’m calling Dr. Miller.”

“And what is she going to tell me? What can she possibly say? What can anyone possibly say? . . . Forget it.” Kai groaned, covered his mouth, glanced sideways, trying to see the monitor. “What’s my pressure?”

Reluctantly, Jon re-clipped his phone to his belt and consulted the screen. “95/59.” He frowned, found the chart on the end of Kai’s bed and glanced through it. “It should be higher than that by now. And your diastolic’s gotten worse.” Kai didn’t respond, and Jon saw his brother’s eyes were closed, frowning. He looked sick. “Kai?”

“Couldn’t take Phenergan, either,” Kai said in explanation, and Jon could hear Kai swallow, as if he were trying not to throw up.

Jon’s voice turned crisp. “They didn’t give you anything for nausea?” No wonder Kai was talking crazy. He was in pain, his brain was a little low on oxygen, and he was probably nauseous and dizzy from the Mexitl on top of everything.

“Jon.” Kai paused a long while. “If I pass out,” he said slowly, “don’t let them admit me. Please.”

Jon smoothed Kai’s forehead. “Kai.”

“I want to go home.”

Jon sighed. “I know. How about a deal? If your diastolic gets up to 65 and stays there within the next two hours, I’ll take you home. If not, you stay the night until they get you stable again.”

Kai lifted his free hand to his chest. “Fine.”
“And I’ll get you something for the nausea that won’t affect your blood pressure.”

#

A few hours later, Vicky ran into Jon when she stepped off the elevator. "Jon?"

He had his hand in his hair, and that faraway look in his eyes he always got when his brain was working through a tough problem, like puzzling out a particularly tricky diagnosis or treatment plan. Normally, she found it sexy as hell, but now it just made her chest ache for him.

It took her a few tries to snap him out of his reverie, and she suspected he'd been standing there several minutes, multiple cars coming and going without his even noticing.

"They're overnighting him. Transferring him to the medicine unit now."

Vicky pulled Jon into the elevator and hit the button for the sixth floor--pulmonology, where Jon's office was. "When was the last time you checked your sugar? Ate?"

Jon leaned against the back wall of the car, his face twitching when he noticed the floor she'd chosen--medicine was on eight--but said nothing.

Alone in the elevator, Vicky eased closer, wrapping her arm around his. “It’ll take them time to transfer him. In the meanwhile, you’ll eat, take your shot, and we’ll talk about something that has nothing to do with Kai or medicine. OK?”

Jon sighed, then pulled her closer. They were alone in the elevator, but at any moment, the car could stop, exposing them to colleagues, patients, visitors--anyone--so Jon’s motion took her by surprise. He held her close to his chest, then kissed the top of her head.

She managed to pull away from him enough to meet his eyes, but before she could say anything, he kissed her. Slow, deep, but surprisingly sweet. They clung to each other for a moment, and in that instant, they could both forget they were in an elevator, that Kai was sick, that maybe they were a bad idea, and just sink into the sensations of tongue against tongue, lips against lips. Vicky’s heart continued to beat out a staccato rhythm against her chest as Jon pulled away just before the bell dinged and the car slowed to signal their arrival. How could they have made it up six floors without the car stopping once? Vicky could feel her cheeks were flushed, and Jon’s gray eyes had brightened somehow, if only fleetingly. His face betrayed just the hint of a smile as he stepped away from her.

“Thank you,” he whispered just as the doors finally opened and they were no longer alone.

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



7 comments:

  1. Awesome!!! Can't wait for more!

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  2. I love Jon and Vicky. He's in just as much pain as Kai is so I'm glad that he has someone to fall back on, to make sure he doesn't fall apart. Now Kai needs someone he can trust, can cling to.
    Thank you for this chapter!
    -A.K.A.

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  3. Thank YOU for a new wonderful chapter!

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  4. And with that deep kiss, he unburden a little bit of his troubles . . .
    A shared kiss -- bridging the gap to communicate emotions, thoughts and primal heat.
    Wonderful!

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  5. Lived 90/60 as my normal in my teens and twenties. Self-imposed restriction. Glad they keep better tabs on Kai.

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  6. Ahhh I love this chapter! My favourite part is "Jon tended to helicopter" - so concisely funny and witty. Poor Kai - he barely gets back in the game before he has to leave. Love your beautiful story and thank you for sharing it with us.

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  7. Please don't stop writing or posting this great story. We all know that you cannot please all of the people all of the time, but it seems that the positive comments easily outnumber any negative ones. I totally 'get'your writing nature and style and appreciate that are willing to share Kai's day to day life with us.

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