September 8, 2000 - Part II
Kai sat in his car, his fingers fumbling to attach his handsfree device to his phone. He couldn’t seem to get the plug into the jack. His mind swirled with conflicting, powerful emotions. His amateur sleuthing had served only to tell him Renee didn’t live on campus, and he wasn’t sure what to do next.
For one, saying goodbye--forever--to Becca should have been cathartic, but instead, he felt sick, the meager lunch he’d eaten threatening to leave his stomach. Not being able to find Renee, or even talk to her (every call had gone straight to voicemail) didn’t help. Becca was gone. Renee was gone. And he’d stupidly pushed Nikki away. A small part of his brain argued he wasn’t thinking straight, but the rest of him battled against it, blending with his fears over his health, his doubts and his uncertainties until his skin practically tingled from the irrational war within himself.
He managed to get the earpiece in one ear and hit the speed dial, taking a few breaths to try to steady himself, but he still felt a heaviness in his gut that wouldn’t resolve easily.
“Jake. I fucked up.”
"What'd you do now?" Jake said with a laugh.
“Becca,” Kai said simply, as if that would explain everything.
"We kissed.” Kai sucked in a harsh breath. “I’m pretty sure Renee saw.” A blur of curly hair jogged across the parking lot, and his heart sped its beat, but as she drew closer, he realized it definitely wasn’t Renee. Too tall, the hair too long and too light.
Kai sighed. "Considering she ran off and isn't answering my calls, fine. She did. I'm totally fucked. Is there any way I can fix this?" Kai decided hanging out on campus was only going to make him crazy, so he hurriedly backed out of his spot, heading toward Main, not quite ready to go home, but not sure what to do with himself either.
Jake was quiet for a long moment, as if thinking. Finally, he said, “It could be worse. It's not like she walked in on the two of you having sex. You might be redeemable. . . . Wait, let me visualize that. . . ."
“Fuck, Jake.” Kai braked hard at the final stop sign before Main. “You're imagining me having sex?!"
"Don't flatter yourself. I'm thinking Becca and the new girl. . . . And maybe that other chick. . . ."
Traffic was beginning to pick up--as much as traffic in Jonesville ever did, anyway, as Kai squeezed onto Main heading away from his apartment. "Glad you’re taking this seriously. I call you for advice and you're turning my love life into a lesbian porno."
"Hey, lesbians are hot. I'm just pointing out some missed opportunities in your life.” Jake chuckled. “Man, if things had been different in high school, you'd have dozens of little bastards running around.”
Kai gripped the steering wheel tightly. "Yeah, the girls were just throwing themselves on the strange kid who didn't talk and had more hardware than a Menards."
Kai zoomed past the courthouse, noting the sky was darkening, suggesting the thunderstorm would hit any minute. "Jake. It's OK. Bridge under water."
Jake laughed. Hard.
Kai's brows furrowed; he sighed. "I got the idiom wrong, didn't I."
"I think you were going for 'water under the bridge.'" Jake grew serious. "You still think in ASL when you're upset."
"You know my brain's like the rest of me: fucked up." He frowned as he passed the deli where he’d met Renee the other day, where they’d kissed, where everything had seemed so wonderful, if only for a fleeting moment. An unexpected surge of emptiness overtook him, and he had to swallow hard and focus on the road.
"You are fucked up," Jake acknowledged, and Kai could almost see his eyes smiling. "But you must really like this girl."
"HOT-NECK," Kai said, I’m crazy about her, barely resisting the urge to sign the ASL idiom, even though Jake obviously couldn't see. "I was going to come clean . . . about my MLS."
"Becca always did have impeccable timing," Jake muttered. "So the kiss . . . ?"
Kai paused at a red light as a bolt of lightning pierced the sky in the distance. "That was all her.” It was. Just because his body and mind disjoined for an instant didn’t mean anything. In the end, he’d pushed her away. That’s what counted. Right? “I'd agreed to meet her because I needed to move on. I think she did it just to fuck with me."
"That definitely sounds like her."
"So what do I do? Renee isn't taking my calls, and I don't know where she lives, other than off campus." Just then, Kai spotted the sign for Lost Apple Books. Art would have her address. Maybe he’d give it to him?
“The Kai I know never gave up easily. Fuck, that’s probably why you’re still alive.”
“Jake.” Kai pulled into the bookstore parking lot and eased into the nearest handicapped spot as the first spattering of raindrops fell with loud splats on his windshield.
“It’s true. If you really like this girl, you can’t let Becca of all people fuck it up for you. Go after her.”
The rain increased in fury, and Kai twisted, reaching behind the passenger’s seat for his poncho. He didn’t feel like getting soaked, especially since it made the leather of his braces stink, and it took forever for the padding to dry.
“The things you want the most in life are never easy,” Jake said, half joking.
Kai sighed, finding the balled up poncho and sitting up again. “Life is never easy.”
The woman was already sitting in one of the armchairs by the window of Nancy’s Cafe, cradling a mug of something hot, pausing briefly to blow the steam off before taking a sip. Although Jon had never seen her before, he knew it was her: yellow blouse, chin-length dirty-blond hair, just as she’d described. He debated getting a coffee, but the triple espresso Ben had treated him to still hummed in his veins, and he was hoping to keep this short and sweet.
Jon pulled his hand through his hair and approached, offering what he hoped was a smile. “Megan Younger?”
She smiled, set her mug aside--tea, he could see now, the string and tag of the bag dangling off to one side--and rose. “Dr. Taylor.” She gestured for him to sit.
She was pretty, he supposed, in that bubbly, school teacher kind of way, and she apparently talked with her hands even when she wasn’t signing, he thought, zoning out as she babbled a bit about herself. It reminded him of Kai. A modest engagement ring twinkled on her left finger, but was bare of any other jewelry. So she was engaged, but not married yet. He supposed she was young, maybe Kai’s age, plus or minus a year or two.
“This is the fastest call-to-interview I’ve ever had in my life,” she finally said. Jon had called her an hour ago.
“I don’t like to waste time.”
She nodded, and seemed to shift her demeanor to mirror Jon’s seriousness. “How old is your child?”
“My brother. He’s an adult, but we were separated a long time and I didn’t really keep up with my sign language.” Jon observed how she nodded politely as he spoke, occasionally taking sips of her tea. “I understand a little. Especially if he signs slowly, but most of the time I’m just extrapolating meaning from his facial expressions and the few signs I do know rather than really knowing what he’s saying. And my signing is terrible, as he likes to remind me. Often.”
She chuckled. She was cute, Jon realized. In a little-sister kind of way. Maybe working with her wouldn’t be so bad. “Sounds like you want to increase your vocab, comprehension, and fluency. We can meet a few times a week--”
“Pardon?” She raised her eyebrows reflexively, as if the integration of her facial expressions to language were so ingrained from ASL that they carried over into her English. Just like Kai, Jon thought.
“I’d prefer to meet with you every day if possible. At least during the week.”
She nodded, twisting her engagement ring absently as she considered, lips pursed. “I can manage that. An hour every day. We’ll work on your conversation skills. ASL immersion. I’ll give you a sheet of vocab at the end of each Friday that we’ll prioritize for the next week." She smiled sweetly. “We’ll get you functionally fluent in no time.”
Kai sank into his car, tearing off his poncho and tossing it angrily into the passenger’s seat. Frustration radiated off him in waves, and he gripped the steering wheel tightly, though he didn’t start the car. The rain continued to pound and splatter, echoing the blood pulsing in his ears. Art had refused to give him Renee’s address, suggesting Kai return tomorrow, when she was working, if he wanted to talk to her.
The logical part of Kai’s brain knew it was Art respecting Renee’s privacy as he’d respected Kai’s (by not telling Renee the details of Kai’s past), but the rest of him raged. He felt completely out of control, anxious. The hot humidity in the stale car became stifling, and Kai found he was breathing harder, shoulders working. He punched the key in the ignition and turned, adjusting the fans for some circulation. His fingers tingled. He felt like he was suffocating, like his skin was crawling with hundreds of tiny ants.
What the fuck was wrong with him?
He’d finally gotten the shadow of Becca off his shoulders, and once he got to talk to Renee, she’d understand. But why did he feel like he’d thrown everything away? With Becca, with Nikki, with Renee. Why did this overwhelming feeling of aloneness grip him, turn his stomach and make him want to tear off his skin?
His hands were shaking. Shaking. His chest tight, heart racing, head fuzzy, like he’d just gotten an epi injection. He pinched the band on his wrist, snapped it. Snap. Snap. Snap. Each pull more desperate to snap himself out of whatever the hell was happening to him. After maybe a dozen of these--he honestly wasn’t sure, his mind was too messed up to bother counting--the band broke.
“Motherfucker,” Kai swore. The past few weeks, the band had helped the anxiety, and so he never went without one, replacing them immediately whenever one broke. He tore open his glove compartment, hand blindly searching. He had to have one in here. “Shit.”
Kai jerked his hand back, noting a thin line of blood along the tip of his middle finger. He stared at the blood for a moment, squeezing it out with his thumb, his heart rate soaring. He dove back into the glove compartment until he found the source of his injury--a paint scraper he’d bought when he’d gotten the car, which he’d used to take off the myriad parking permits and bumper stickers left over from the previous owner. It was obviously sharper than he’d imagined, as his finger began to throb pleasantly.
A flare of panic filled him, and he quickly threw the scraper back into the compartment, placing his hands on the steering wheel, as if to ground himself. His breaths came in harsh gasps now, and his vision tunneled. He closed his eyes, tried to calm himself, but it didn’t work. He’d peek them open, glance at the glovebox, fingers tingling, itching to take the blade to his skin.
He needed to go. Somewhere. Home, maybe. Sit in the cold shower. Maybe take some Valium. He never liked to take it if his muscles weren't spasming, but fuck, he needed to get out of his head somehow. He felt like a part of himself were crawling around, trapped in his skull, scratching desperately for escape.
Diane pushed the apartment door open, shaking her head. She was drenched--having been caught in the downpour not once, but twice, and a headache was forming behind her eyes. She wanted to grab a glass of wine, sink into the tub, and just soak for an hour.
The smell of burnt food immediately assaulted her nostrils, and she dumped her damp bag at the door, jogging into the kitchen, her wet jeans sticking to her legs and leaving a dripping trail behind her. As she drew closer, she heard faint sobbing and sniffling, and peeking over the half-wall that divided the kitchen from their small living room, she saw Renee, sunk into a chair, practically crying into a bowl of . . . something.
The scent of overcooked food and charred spices was heavy, along with the faintest remnants of smoke, and dirty dishes and pots covered the counters and filled the sink.
Renee seemed to notice Diane and sniffled, wiping her nose with the back of her wrist, managing to spread some kind of gunk on her cheek in the process. Her hair, pulled up in a loose ponytail, was spattered with what might have been flour, frizzy from the humidity, making her look like some kind of bride of Frankenstein wannabe. It was enough to make Diane laugh, but she bit her lip. Renee only cooked--or attempted to, anyway--when she was really upset.
“I tried to make gumbo,” Renee muttered, looking around the disaster of the kitchen as if for the first time.
Diane grabbed a bunch of paper towels, wet the end, and offered them to Renee. “What happened?”
Renee just shook her head, bubbling into more sobs, so Diane stepped forward and took the paper towels, cleaning her friend’s face.
“Class with Blondie didn’t go so well.”
Renee sniffled and her eyes met Diane’s, but she didn’t say anything.
Diane sighed. “Let me guess: the kiss was a mistake. He got caught up in the moment and he just wants to be friends.”
Renee pulled a piece of the paper towel out of Diane’s hands and blew her nose, shaking her head.
“Oh, God. He wants to be fuck buddies, no strings.” Diane’s fist balled. She didn’t care if this guy was a linebacker. She’d beat the fuck out of him if she saw him. Renee had been through enough jerks.
Renee took in a deep breath, seeming to get herself under control. “It’s not like that,” she said, biting her lip. She explained how happy Kai had seemed to see her, how he’d invited her to talk after classes, how her heart had soared with possibility. How then Becca, his girlfriend, the one Renee had suspected he’d had all along, had showed.
“He kissed her, right in front of me,” Renee moaned, starting to break down again.
Diane pulled her into a quick hug. “He kissed her, or she kissed him?” Diane leaned back to study Renee’s face.
Renee’s dark brows knit, her mind working. “I . . . I’m not sure. It happened so fast, and I was so upset, I took off.” She nibbled her lip. “But he must have kissed her. I mean, she’s his girlfriend, isn’t she?”
“Sounds to me like an ex, from your story,” Diane said sincerely. “Have you talked to him?”
Renee shook her head. “He’s been calling me all afternoon, but I just . . . I just couldn’t. I couldn’t hear lies or excuses.”
Diane squeezed her shoulder. “I could talk to him.”
“No,” Renee said immediately.
Diane nodded, and decided to rise and start loading the dishwasher. “Then find out what he has to say in class on Monday. That way you can look in his eyes and see if he’s giving you a line about what happened. Go from there.”
Renee sighed. Maybe Diane was right; maybe she’d overreacted. But part of her was still hurt and angry for what she saw as a betrayal despite the limited status of their relationship. And part of her reveled in the confirmation that Kai really was out of her league.
Diane laughed. “Or maybe he just goes around kissing all the girls he knows. Why bother with a handshake when you can shake tongues?”
Even though Kai had to concentrate hard on the road to make it to his apartment as the rain grew blindingly heavy, his mind still hadn’t settled. He sat in the parking lot, in his reserved space, still feeling that invisible gnawing. The pain in his finger had faded, and his eyes drifted to the glove box.
His hand moved to the latch, almost as if of its own volition, pulling it open. He held his breath. His stomach felt tied in a huge knot, and it was a very real possibility he’d lose his lunch.
Or his mind.
No. He’d already lost that, he thought, pulling the scraper out and clutching it in his hand.
He could go for a swim. Or lift weights, or jack off. Something. Anything else. The rain grew louder, a crack of thunder piercing the pounding against the roof of the car. But Kai knew none of those things would help. Only pulling metal through flesh would quiet the storm raging inside him.
He was foolish and stupid to think he could attempt school, that he could have any semblance of a relationship. He could be used. He could fuck. And that was it. Not that it mattered, because his MLS was spiking--the latest attacks only the beginning, he knew from experience--and any delusions he had that the transplant had cured his FS were fading after his visit with Dr. J that morning.
How could Renee want him? Really want him? Once she learned the truth, she’d run. Just like Becca. Becca, who he’d thought understood, who he believed had loved him. Who obviously never did, he realized, thumb testing the blade of the scraper. If she had, why hadn’t she answered him this afternoon?
Just one cut, he thought, lifting his shirt and bringing the blade to his bare skin. He grazed the edge along his side, toward his ribs, feeling the threat of the cut as his chest expanded with each breath. Lightning flashed in his peripheral vision and he pressed harder, dragging the blade through his skin along the curve of his ribs, keeping it shallow. The complaint didn’t hit him immediately; not until the crash of the thunder did the sweet, simple pain begin to throb. He closed his eyes, focusing on it.
This was pain he could control.
After a moment, it faded to a dull ache, and over the next few minutes, he found himself making several slices along his sides and stomach, trying to stay in that blissful place outside himself, enveloped by the sensation of the cuts as long as possible.
But it didn’t last. Even though, because of the placement of the gashes, each breath irritated them, skin pulling and shifting with each inhalation, the restlessness, the uncomfortable itch in his brain, remained. Tossing the bloody scraper aside, he reversed out of the spot so quickly he nearly rammed into an oncoming car, the blare of their horn echoing long after he’d pulled out of the complex.
Continue to September 8, 2000 - Part III ------>
Continue to September 8, 2000 - Part III ------>