Tuesday, July 18, 2000

In/Exhale - February 3, 2001 - Part IV

February 3, 2001 - Part IV

Jon was practically vibrating, standing next to Vicky on her parents’ front porch.
“How much caffeine have you had today?”
Jon bounced up and down on his toes. “Don’t ask.”
Vicky frowned. “You can’t keep doping yourself up with coffee. Eventually, you need to sleep. My parents are going to wonder why you’re so twitchy.”
Jon leveled a Kai-worthy glare her way. “Do you want me to go?”
“Yeah, because that would look so wonderful for me if I did this alone.” She sighed and remembered that in addition to sleeping even less than normal, Jon was under a lot of stress. He was worried about work, worried about her, worried about the baby, worried about Kai--they still hadn’t made up for their fight Thursday--and that was on top of the growing burden of anxiety and guilt that had been festering over the past few months. “Promise me you’ll take a sleeping pill tonight and get a good eight hours.”
Jon continued to bounce in place, like he was trying to keep warm, though she knew it was nerves and way too much stimulant.
“And that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook for calling your father.”
Jon’s glare intensified. She’d never seen an expression like that from him, and he looked so much like his brother in that moment it was spooky. “He’s not my father.”
Vicky opened her mouth to correct herself when the door opened.
“Sweetie! So good to see you,” Peter, her father, said with a big smile, hugging her and practically carrying her in the door. The Gregory men tended to be tall, broad, and heavy, and her father was no exception. He was just a hair taller than Jon but probably weighed twice what the more slender man did. He had a bushy salt-and-pepper beard and a full head of dark hair that had resisted graying despite his age, and although he could be stern and gruff, he had a jovial demeanor that leant him an air of a young Santa Claus. “Jon,” he said next, his voice shifting an octave lower and offering Jon a firm business handshake. To Jon’s credit, he hid any discomfort in his face even though Vicky caught him subtly shaking out his hand and muttering something under his breath about being lucky he wasn’t a surgeon.
Vicky had to stifle a laugh as she stripped out of her outerwear.
Peter pounded Jon on the back, making the thinner man stumble. He let out a hearty chuckle. “Come on, I’ll get you a beer.”
Jon didn’t mention that he didn’t really drink, just recovered, stripped off his coat, and looked pleadingly at Vicky for a moment before following Peter toward the garage where Vicky knew her father had an extra fridge fully stocked with his favorite beer.


#


Margaret, Vicky’s mother, was in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on dinner. She barely looked up when Vicky entered. “Oh, good. You’re here. Stir the gravy for me, would you?”
Vicky knew better than to argue with her mom, so she obediently went to the stove, grabbed the whisk, and did her best to keep the gravy from clumping. “Smells good, Ma.”
“Of course it does. It’s your grandmother’s roast lamb recipe. Of course, it never tastes as good with the stuff you get from the butcher as when you butcher it yourself.”
Vicky also knew better than to touch that one. “So, uh, thanks for having Jon and me over for dinner. I would have been happy to have you and Dad over at my house. I feel bad that you went through all this trouble.”
Margaret saddled up next to Vicky as if to check if she was stirring sufficiently. “It’s Jon’s first dinner with the parents, and it should be at the parents’ home.”
“Uh, where is that written? Besides, Jon met you both at Thanksgiving, and my memory could be wrong, but I’m almost 100% certain he ate dinner while he was here.”
Margaret waved her hand dismissively as she snagged spices and shook them into the gravy as if on autopilot. “That doesn’t count. We weren’t even at the same table. After you first introduced us, I don’t know if I spoke to him at all the rest of the day. Didn’t he leave early?” Margaret said that last part with a hint of irritation, then grabbed the whisk from Vicky’s hand and took over, whisking a bit more enthusiastically than Vicky felt was necessary.
“Uh, yeah, there was an emergency,” Vicky said, keeping things vague. “He is a doctor, remember?”
Margaret sampled the gravy and frowned. “I think it’s missing something. Do you think it’s missing something?”
“I haven’t tasted it. How can I know if it’s missing something if I haven’t tasted it?”
Margaret huffed and rolled her eyes. “The question implies that you should then taste it and give me your opinion. Really, Victoria, do I have to spell everything out for you?”
Vicky sighed, found a spoon, dipped it in the gravy, blew on it and then took a taste. “It seems fine to me.”
“‘Fine’ isn’t good enough. That’s the problem with you; you’ve always thought ‘fine’ was sufficient.” Margaret added some onion powder and stirred some more. “And we wouldn’t need this dinner if you’d brought him for Christmas the way I’d asked you to.”
Vicky’s shoulders fell. Not this again. “I told you, Ma, that he had a family thing. That’s why he couldn’t come.”
“He told me his parents were dead.” Margaret tasted the gravy again. “Ah, better. Still not your grandmother’s, but nothing to be done about that.” She shut off the stove, then beelined for the ovens, pulling one open and checking on the roast.
“They are. But he has a brother.”
“So? He could have brought his brother here. We had plenty of food.”
“He couldn’t bring his brother here, Ma. We’ve had this entire conversation before.”
“Well, I still don’t understand. What, is this Jon perfectly capable of doing the things with you that a man and a woman shouldn’t do together outside of marriage,” Margaret said as she used a baster to spread some juices over the finished-looking lamb, using the longest possible innuendo ever, “but he can’t possibly spend such an important holiday with you and your family?”
“Oh my God, Ma, that’s not it!”
“Don’t you take the Lord’s name in vain in this house, young lady,” Margaret said, finishing with the roast and moving to the next oven to check on the rolls.
“Jon, his brother and I spent Christmas Eve together. I cooked; we had a nice, quiet evening, and then Jon and his brother spent the next day alone, which is what they both wanted.”
“Jon’s brother isn’t Catholic, is he? Is that it? He’s one of those atheists who think two bacteria rubbed against each other and boom, suddenly we have daisies and sharks and people?”
Vicky pinched her nose. Tonight was off to an even worse start than she’d anticipated. “Ma.”
“Is Jon even Catholic? Did he lie about being confirmed because you told him to?”
“No, Ma--”
“You’re unbelievable! It would be so much better if you had just been honest with me--”
“Ma! Jon’s brother was sick! Very sick! He only got out of the hospital like, two days before Christmas Eve. He wasn’t up to the whole Griswold Family Christmas!”
“What?”
Vicky let out a long breath. “Jon’s brother isn’t Catholic, but Jon is.”
Margaret took off toward the other end of the kitchen, shaking her head. “I didn’t realize our family was so horrible you have to compare us to a movie about a bunch of lowlives! Like our Christmas is a trip to the state fair!” Margaret crossed back to the oven with the roast and pulled it open. “Oops, sorry, no corndogs here!”
“Ma, if you had been sick like Kai--Jon’s brother--was, you wouldn’t have wanted to be around all these strange people--”
Margaret let go of the oven door and it closed abruptly with a loud thump. “What I’m hearing from all this is that this Jon character doesn’t care about family, and if you two are as serious as you claim, then we’re his family, too. He must be perfect for you, since you don’t care about family, either.”
Vicky tapped her foot repeatedly on the floor, trying to control herself, but she couldn’t. Not with that. She leaned into her mother’s face, since Vicky towered over Margaret, jabbing a finger because it was better than punching her, which is exactly what she wished she could be doing instead. “You know nothing about Jon. Nothing! He would do anything for the people he cares about. Anything. He’s like a father to his brother, and he would never abandon Kai when he needed him most. He wouldn’t force his brother to marry a girl he didn’t love just because he got her pregnant. He wouldn’t force him to stay married even after they lost their baby, even though they were miserable together. He wouldn’t tell Kai that his baby was rotting in hell because he was never--” Vicky’s eyes filled and she blinked, pausing to try to keep them from spilling over. “--Because he was never baptized. And if it happened again, Jon wouldn’t care if his brother was Catholic or not or if the girl was. He’d just be happy about a new baby joining his family. The family he actually cares about.”
Margaret said nothing. They just stood there staring at each other, Vicky breathing hard but managing to reign in her tears, sniffling a little.
The kitchen door opened and Vicky could hear her father and Jon talking, mid-conversation, and then both men seemed to realize something was wrong.
They both spoke at once. “Margaret?” “Vicky?”
Vicky sniffled again, swallowed, reached up to wipe any stray tears from her eyes before she turned around with a forced smile.
“What’s wrong?” Jon said, taking a few long steps to be at her side in seconds. He gripped her shoulders and looked her over, his eyes lingering a little longer on her belly before returning to her face.
“Nothing. Just take me home.”
Jon nodded and knew better than to ask any other questions, just stepped aside and began leading her out.
“Where are you going? It’s rude to leave when your mother’s gone through all this trouble for dinner,” Peter said, apparently trying to salvage the situation as best he could.
Vicky paused and gave her dad a kiss on the cheek. “I’m sorry, Daddy. I’m suddenly not feeling very well and I’d like Jon to take me home.”
Margaret had a lost, faraway look. “So it is happening again,” she said almost as if to herself. Then she finally looked over at Vicky. “I suspected, but I prayed it wasn’t true.” Now Margaret looked wounded, like Vicky getting pregnant out of wedlock twice was a personal affront.
“What are you talking about?” Peter said in his stern voice, irritated that everyone else seemed to be in on the topic except for him.
Jon was standing behind Vicky and slightly to the side, his hands on her shoulder and arm as a show of solidarity. He gave her a squeeze, and she knew Jon would support her in whatever she wanted to do here. If that meant storming out, he’d follow her. If it meant holding her ground, he’d back her up. God, she loved him.
Vicky straightened, slipped her arm around Jon. Took a breath. “Jon and I are having a baby.”
It was a good thing Peter hadn’t been holding a beer, because he would have dropped it. He looked over at Jon, as if the man had betrayed him. Then the look turned murderous, and it wasn’t only directed toward her boyfriend, but at Vicky, too.
But before he could say anything more than a growl, Margaret, completely nonchalant, asked if he’d please help her take the roast out of the oven since it was heavy. It was totally bullshit, since she’d likely put it in herself to cook it, but Margaret was the queen of the diversionary tactic, and if it worked in Vicky’s favor this time, who was she to question it?
Peter looked between Vicky and Margaret several times before finally obeying his wife and removing the roast from the oven, setting it on the island.
“Perfect. Vicky. The rolls?”
Vicky glanced over at Jon, who clearly had no idea how he was supposed to behave and was standing there a bit like a goldfish out of water. “Ma.”
Margaret was transferring the lamb to a cutting board. “No point in letting dinner go to waste. You’re here, we’re here, food’s here. The rolls? You don’t want to burn them like your sister. Vivian always burns her rolls.”
Under other circumstances, Vicky may have laughed at that, but instead, she cast a sympathetic look Jon’s way and grabbed a towel so she could do her indicated job.
“This needs to rest a few minutes. Peter, why don’t you open the wine and pour for everyone. Have Jon help you and Vicky and I will be right out with the food.”
Vicky had time to look at Jon’s terrified eyes before Margaret ushered him and Peter out the door again. “Ma--”
“Rolls. And don’t just dump them in the basket, Victoria. You know better. Use a towel to keep them warm.”
Vicky sighed and obeyed. She didn’t like the idea of Jon alone with her father, not when Peter had looked like he was ready to tear Jon limb from limb for knocking up his daughter. It didn’t matter that she was in her mid thirties.
“They’ll be fine,” Margaret said as she poured the gravy into a gravy boat. “Your father knows this is your fault anyway.”
“What?” Vicky sputtered, and she nearly dropped the rolls all over the floor.
Margaret’s only emotion was a look of disdain for Vicky’s near clumsiness. “Please. No way that man seduced you. He may be smart but he’s no Casanova.”
There was truth in her mother’s words, but Vicky was still incensed on Jon’s behalf. She ended up taking out her frustration on the bread, nearly throwing the rest of them in the basket.
“So when are you due?” Margaret asked after a few minutes as she began slicing the lamb.
“End of June,” Vicky said, holding the basket of bread like it would protect her somehow.
“And the sex?”
Another comment Vicky could have done so much with, but now wasn’t the time. “A boy. We’re having a son.” Vicky couldn’t help the pride that slipped into her voice when she thought about her baby.
“At least this Jon of yours did one thing right. Girls are far more trouble than they’re worth.”


#


To say that dinner was awkward was an understatement. Margaret had apparently instructed Peter at some point to be civil and pretend the revelation in the kitchen hadn’t happened, and so he was doing his best to make small talk with Jon, but the two men had nothing in common.
“So, Jon, did you catch the Iowa State/Kansas State game earlier?”
Jon paused in cutting his meat and looked over at Vicky as if for help. “Uh, I don’t really watch sports,” he admitted.
Peter laughed. “You’re joking, right?”
“I work a lot. I don’t usually have time for TV.”
“There’s TV, and then there’s sports,” Peter said. Most of Vicky’s male relatives ate, drank, and breathed anything that involved men competing against each other, especially if there was violence involved. Her father hadn’t gone to college, but he was a rabid fan of Iowa State, especially basketball and football, and also a huge fan of the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bulls, since Iowa didn’t have its own professional football or basketball teams. In fact, this dinner wouldn’t even have happened on a Saturday night typically, because normally her father would be planted in front of his TV watching college sports regardless of the season.
Jon nodded, apparently not sure what to say to that.
“So, what kind of hours do you work if you don’t have time for TV?” Peter asked.
Margaret was eating politely, staying mostly quiet, but Vicky didn’t miss the evil eyes she cast her way when she knew the men weren’t looking.
“Uh, well, I usually work twelve-hour shifts, but sometimes they can go longer if I’m covering for someone or there’s an emergency. There are times I’ll pull eighteen or twenty-four hours on, eight off, for a few days in a row.”
Peter nearly choked and swallowed some wine. “Damn, boy. One of Vicky’s cousins is a doc but he works nine to five, four days a week.”
Jon smiled politely. “What kind of physician is he?”
“Allergy? Maybe? I dunno.”
Vicky could tell Jon was uncomfortable, especially since he wasn’t used to her family dynamics with all the passive aggressive shit her mom was doing, making them go through this dinner like they didn’t have a huge storm cloud hovering over their heads. “I’m a hospitalist. I mostly treat inpatients, and I specialize in critical care. So I start my rounds at seven in the morning and if I’m lucky I’m out the door by seven in the evening.”
“Critical care? What is that, like ICU?”
Jon nodded. “I treat everyone from preemies to geriatrics, but most of my patients are children and teens.”
Vicky worked her hand into Jon’s under the table to give him her wordless support. “Jon takes care of a lot of really sick kids, Daddy. He’s helped a lot of people.”
Jon blushed a little and squeezed her hand back.
“Huh. Well, I suppose I can’t blame a guy for not catching the game if he’s saving some little kid’s life.” It was almost like Peter had forgotten what had happened in the kitchen. As if he liked Jon, even if they were like polar opposites. Peter was a blue-collar, worked his way to the top, sports loving, beer drinking boisterous man’s man. Jon was intellectual and serious, socially awkward and quiet. But both men loved their family with a fierce intensity. Maybe Peter saw that in how Jon treated Vicky, in how he looked at her. Maybe, Vicky hoped, Peter cared more about her happiness and the fact that she had a man who loved her and would provide for her and their child than the teachings of the Catholic church.
“Amazing how he could find the time to get you pregnant,” Margaret said, under her breath but loud enough everyone heard her. “I suppose it only takes a few seconds.”
Peter cleared his throat.
Jon dropped his fork. His face had turned scarlet, and he dipped his head.
Vicky let out a frustrated sigh. “Ma!”
“What?” Margaret said, feigning innocence. “I was just making an observation.”
Silence, painful and thick, descended, the only sounds the scrape of forks on plates and the occasional, “Pass the rolls.”
Finally, Jon cleared his throat and spoke to Peter, clearly making an effort, “My brother and I watch basketball or football together sometimes.”
Peter perked up at the opportunity for some conversation he could get behind. “Oh? What does your brother do?”
“Uh, he’s a student.” Jon cleared his throat. “He’s several years younger than me.”
“Oh? High school or college?”
Jon laughed nervously. “Oh, college. He’s not that much younger. He goes to JU.”
“Does he play?”
Jon took a long drink of water, and Vicky felt a little guilty for making him carry the weight of the conversation. It was clear Jon wasn’t sure how to handle that question. Not that Jon was embarrassed to admit Kai had a disability, but the whole evening was already so tenuous, it was possible he wasn’t sure how to tackle that question easily.
“Because I go to a game every now and then,” Peter added, seemingly oblivious to Jon’s hesitation.
“Kai’s not on a team,” Vicky said, jumping in. “He’s kind of a lone wolf,” Vicky explained. She also didn’t think Kai was very competitive, from what she knew of him, but decided that might come off as negative in her father’s eye, and she didn’t want to risk Peter thinking less of Jon by extension. If she could at least have her dad on her side, that would be a huge help in getting her mom to at least stop being such a bitch.
Jon squeezed Vicky’s hand as if in thanks. “Yeah, he swims quite a bit. He’s got enormous endurance,” Jon said, relaxing a little, the pride evident in his voice the more he spoke about his brother. “But he’s not on the team or anything.”
It was clear from Peter’s face that he was curious why Kai was so “against” going out for one of the university’s sports teams, but he decided to let it go. He looked like he was about to say something, smiling in the way he always did when he was about to relate a funny anecdote, but he never had a chance to speak.
“So I notice that’s not an engagement ring.”
Vicky’s stomach fell and she immediately cradled her left hand a if to hide it. She’d worn the infinity-symbol ring Jon had gifted her for Christmas every day without fail since. And even though she was grateful he hadn’t proposed, she wore it on “the” finger. Because it was a promise, even if it didn’t have the strings of a wedding band or engagement ring.
“Margaret,” Peter said, though his usual intensity wasn’t in his voice.
Margaret was frowning in clear disapproval. “So I’m assuming I don’t need to worry about not being invited to the wedding, since no one will be.”
“Ma--”
Jon laid his hand on her thigh, offering her his wordless support. When Vicky glanced over, he nodded to signal that if she wanted to just get up and leave, he would support her, and she loved him for that.
Vicky took Jon’s hand, brought it to her lips and kissed it.
He smiled at her, that sweet, gentle expression that softened his beautiful eyes and he reserved only for her. That look that told her how much he loved her. “Vicky and I are committed to each other, and to our child. We don’t think we need a piece of paper to prove that.” And God, she loved him even more for saying that.
“A marriage is more than just a piece of paper, but considering how your first turned out, I’m not surprised you’d find a man who has about as much respect for the institution as you do,” Margaret spat. Then she suddenly stood and started gathering up plates.
Jon looked a little pale again, and he was waiting for Vicky to give him some indication of what to do, poor thing.
“I’ll take care of her,” Vicky assured him. “Talk to my dad. I promise I won’t leave you long, and then we can go.”
Jon kissed her, laid a hand on her stomach just for a moment, and smiled again. He obviously wasn’t thrilled about the whole situation, but he loved her enough that he would apparently go through hell for her. He reached for her left hand and fingered the ring, looking down at it and then up into her eyes, nodding, as if to say that despite their arrangement he would marry her if that was what she needed.
Vicky wanted to stay with him, but the longer she left her mother to her own devices, the worse it would be. “I love you,” she said, giving him another peck before rising and heading into the storm.


#


Peter encouraged Jon to follow him and leave the women to their own devices, showing Jon into what had to be his study. Jon had to admit it wasn’t at all what he would have expected, but he had to remember the man did own several car dealerships around the state, and he actually did a lot of business from home, he’d explained when Jon first arrived, even if he’d kept his study a secret at first. It was a spacious room, all dark and masculine yet classically and tastefully decorated. Jon suspected Margaret’s hand in the carefully chosen paintings and furniture, but a drink cart and the random sports memorabilia on the shelves reminded Jon that this was still Peter’s space.
“I noticed you didn’t drink much of the wine at dinner, but can I tempt you?” Peter asked, gesturing with a bottle of Scotch.
Normally, Jon would have declined, but after the last couple hours, he could use a little something. He’d just make sure to sip it and check his blood sugar at his first opportunity. “Thank you, neat, please,” Jon said.
Peter poured them each a couple fingers, then offered Jon a glass and gestured for them to sit in two of the armchairs in front of his desk. He nursed his drink for a long moment, not saying anything right away, and Jon honestly wasn’t sure where he stood so he kept silent. Finally, Peter took a good sip of his drink, let out a satisfactory “ahh” and looked over at Jon. “Well, that could have gone worse.”
Jon let out a nervous laugh. “I’ll take your word for it.”
Peter drank more of his whisky and sighed. “That’s right. It’s just you and your brother, right? Well, take it from me. I love my family, I love all my children, but sometimes . . .” He shook his head.
Jon nodded. Took a tiny sip of the Scotch. This was good stuff. Far better than anything he’d ever had before.
Peter smiled, evidently seeing Jon’s appreciation on his face. “Margaret is like a mother bear. Very protective of her kids. And she’s also more Catholic than the pope, so . . .” Something that looked like regret crossed his face. “Vicky’s never been like her siblings. And we haven’t always treated her fairly. I can see how happy she is, and it makes me realize how unhappy she’s been all these years. I know she wants this, even if she hasn’t exactly gone about it the way her mother and I would have liked.”
Jon shifted in his seat. Took another sip of his drink, uncertain where this was going.
“You’re a good man. I have a talent for reading people. One reason I’ve been so successful. Can’t sell a car if you can’t tell what someone’s like after only a few minutes.” Peter finished his drink. “What I’m trying to say is Margaret won’t get over this easily or quickly, but I can tell that you’ll take care of my little girl. Even if she’s not such a little girl anymore.”


#


Vicky practically curled up in the passenger’s seat of Jon’s car when they finally escaped her parents’ house. She had a hand on her belly and looked exhausted.
“Are you OK?” Jon asked, concerned. Peter had apparently given them his blessing, but Jon still had no idea what had gone on in the kitchen between Vicky and her mother once dinner ended. All he knew was that Vicky had looked wiped and the woman had said almost nothing as they walked out the door.
“Just tired.” She offered a weak smile. “Take me home?”
Jon nodded and backed out of the driveway, glancing over at her every few seconds just to reassure himself she was OK. He wanted to ask her if she was hiding anything from him, if he should check her blood pressure, but he didn’t want to smother her. Vicky wasn’t going to do anything to risk the baby, so if she said she was just tired, Jon had to trust her. He let out a strained breath. “Your father’s OK with us. Just so you know.”
Again, an attempt at a smile. “He likes you.”
Jon laughed nervously. “Apparently.” Jon shoved some hair off his face. “He invited me and Kai to any Saturday basketball party of his we want to come to, my schedule permitting.”
“Wow. He doesn’t just invite anyone to those things. But you know you don’t have to go, right?”
Jon let out a long breath. “I’ll go if I need to. It won’t hurt to have an ally in this family. Speaking of. How’d things go with your mom? Do we have to flee the country?”
Vicky shifted and stretched out for one of his hands, linking her fingers in his. “She’s not happy. Very disappointed in me, shocker. But she’s willing to forgive me if we’ll both go to mass every week and go to confession, the whole thing. It’ll mean things will be civil and we won’t be banned from family functions, but neither of us will be her favorite people. Honestly, it’s probably the best outcome we could have hoped for.”
Jon nodded, even though in the dark Vicky may not have seen it. He was quiet for a long moment. “I haven’t been to church since before Kai’s surgery.”
“I know,” Vicky said softly. “We don’t have to do this if you’re not comfortable with it. I mean, I can go. That might be enough.”
“No. Maybe I’m wrong to be angry at God. Kai is alive, isn’t he? Maybe it wouldn’t hurt. For our son’s sake. He’ll need his family, and maybe . . .” Jon didn’t want to say it. That maybe if they went to church, maybe their son would be born healthy.
Vicky squeezed his hand. “Yeah. Maybe.” She sighed softly. “I don’t even know if we’ll be able to baptize him if we’re not married.”
“We’ll get him baptized, one way or another, OK?” Jon pulled into Vicky’s driveway and hit the opener for the second door. He drove into the bay, closed the door, and killed the engine. He was about to take off his seatbelt when Vicky stopped him. “What? You don’t want me to stay?” Had he done something wrong? Said something he shouldn’t have?
“I love you so much for tonight. I do. But I need to go inside, take a long bath, and fall asleep while watching the cheesiest rom-com I can find. And you should go home, call your adoptive father like you promised you would, make up with Kai, take some sleeping pills and get a good solid eight hours.”
“I feel like I should be taking notes, Ms. Bossy,” Jon teased. “I don’t know if I’m ready to deal with Kai.”
Vicky pulled Jon’s hand to her mouth and kissed it tenderly. “You haven’t spoken to him in days. At least try to talk to him. If it ends disastrously, come back here and spend the night. But the sleeping pill is not negotiable either way.”
Jon sighed, but he couldn’t help smiling. He couldn’t remember the last time he had someone who actually looked after him the way he tended to everyone else. “Deal. But promise me you’ll check your blood pressure, and if it’s abnormal, you’ll call me. OK?”
“Promise. But I’m just tired. OK? Battling with my mother drains me.”
“I love you,” Jon said, leaning forward to steal a quick kiss. “You sure you don’t want me to come in?”
“Positive. Go, and call me in the morning.”


#


The lingering effects of the caffeine Jon had before dinner were nearly gone, and Jon was fading. He felt like he did during his internship when he’d worked 48-hour shifts in one of the busiest ERs in New York City. He was actually so tired that even with his insomnia he was convinced that he wouldn’t need a sleeping pill to pass out once his head hit the pillow.
The apartment was brightly lit the way Kai preferred it when Jon entered. His brother was stretched out on the couch, his head bent over a book, and he obviously hadn’t heard Jon enter. Jon tiredly stripped off his coat and hung it up, then trudged into the kitchen to test his blood sugar.
He was just finishing injecting himself when he heard Kai wheel in. His brother was wearing the cotton flannel pants and old T-shirt he usually slept in, his feet bare except for gray socks. Dark circles colored the space beneath his eyes, his expression unreadable. And frankly, Jon was too tired to try.
I don’t want to fight,” Jon signed lazily.
Same.” Kai danced his fingers along his left pushrim. “I didn’t think you were coming home.
Jon nodded. “I didn’t think I was.
Kai sighed. His face took on that hurt, scared expression it did right before he blew up or shut down. “Guess I’ll let you get to bed then. If the light bothers you, I can study in my room.” He dropped his hands to his wheels and was about to turn around when Jon stopped him.
“Wait. Wait.” Jon sighed. Nudged his chin toward the couch.
Kai nodded and pushed the few feet to the sofa, though he didn’t transfer, simply parked so he’d be able to see Jon when he sat. “How was dinner?” Kai wasn’t much for small talk, but he seemed like he wasn’t sure exactly what to say.
Jon shrugged. He didn’t feel like talking about it. And he hated that he wasn’t with Vicky right now. She’d called him not long before he’d gotten home to confirm her blood pressure was fine, but he couldn’t help the unease that settled in his gut. The farther along she got in her pregnancy, the more uncomfortable he got with her being alone. He couldn’t live apart from her much longer. Not if he was going to keep his sanity.
Kai sucked in his cheeks and nodded, like he knew he didn’t have a right to ask Jon anything.
Jon sighed and shoved a hand through his hair. Then he worked his tie loose, though he didn’t untie it completely. “I messed up, not going swimming with you. CPS got involved with the Deaf boy and I just couldn’t ignore the state tearing apart a family. Not if I could do something about it.
Kai nodded. “I know. David told me.
Jon’s brows rose in surprise.
Kai chuckled weakly. “Deaf gossip network.” Then he snapped his fingers as if to emphasize how fast news could travel. Kai sighed. He shifted his weight, almost like he was buying himself some time. “I was an asshole.” Kai took a breath. “I’m too fucking sensitive, and it makes me angry, and it’s easier to be angry at someone else than myself sometimes.
Yeah, Jon could understand that.
Dr. Miller reminded me today that as hard as the last couple months have been for me, it’s been hard on you and David, too. The anger . . . it sneaks up on me sometimes. David knows me well enough to see through me and not let me get away with it. You need to start calling me on it, too. I’m crazy, but I’m not so fragile that you have to take my shit.” Kai took a breath, like that was hard for him to admit. “I’m here for you, too. I want to do brother stuff together because I want us to have a few hours each week where we can put everything away for awhile--all the craziness and stress and worry and all of it--and just have fun. That’s one reason it’s so important to me. For me to know that I can be--that I can do normal things. That my whole life isn’t about being sick. Understand?
Jon hadn’t quite realized how much the fight with Kai had been weighing on him until he saw Kai sign that. All things he’d come to realize, more or less, but it was good to see that Kai was aware of it too. “OK. I’ll tell you next time you’re being an asshole, then.” Jon flashed a grin.
Kai rolled his eyes but smiled back. “Dr. Miller told me you found a psych hospital in Omaha.
Jon’s eyes widened, and he sighed and sunk back into the sofa. “It’s called the Harbinger Clinic. They have a drug rehab facility, one for eating disorders, and then a general psychiatric inpatient hospital.” Jon stretched out his legs and shoved his hand through his hair. “Dr. Miller was concerned you might need more inpatient care once you recovered from your infection, but we both knew that JMH wasn’t the place for you. So we started exploring our options. It’s a nice hospital, Kai. I don’t want you there if I can help it, but--
Kai held up his hands to get Jon to stop. “Do you think you could take me there some time? To see it? I hope I will get better, but I think maybe if I saw it, if I could take away my fear of going back in the hospital, that would help me. You know?
Jon smiled faintly. “Of course. Omaha is only two and a half hours away. We could make a day trip. After we know what your hearing situation is like, we can go. It might be nice to spend that time together. As brothers.
Kai laughed. “Sure. Two brothers bonding over a trip to the nuthouse.


#


Jon sat in his bed, his legs stretched out in front of him. He was wearing an old pair of cotton flannel pants and a loose T-shirt that belonged to Kai because it was cold and he’d actually get at least six hours of sleep once he took the pill he’d promised Vicky he’d take. But first, another promise. Reluctantly, Jon dialed and listened to the ring. It went on long enough Jon was convinced that--surprise--he’d be greeted by voicemail, but at the last moment, a gruff voice answered.
“Whittemore.”
“It’s Jon.” He cleared his throat. “Taylor.”
There was a pause. “Yes?” That was Harold Whittemore, V’s no-nonsense voice. It was his Manhattan, “time is money” voice. The one that said cut out the pleasantries and get to the point, fast.
“I have news,” Jon said, finding this conversation much harder than he’d thought it would be. He’d rehearsed it in his head a dozen times and yet now his stomach felt like it was tying itself in knots and he didn’t even know why. He didn’t need this man’s approval. Once he turned 25, the trust became his; the paperwork was ironclad on that, and even if Harold decided he never wanted to speak to Jon again, he couldn’t take that money back. Kai was safe.
“I didn’t think you called me to gossip,” Harold snapped, still in his get-to-the-point tone.
Jon sighed. No use beating around the bush. “My girlfriend’s pregnant. She’s due at the end of June and she wanted me to tell you. So you know. I won’t take any more of your valuable time.”
“Don’t you hang up on me until this conversation is concluded,” Harold said. “Do you have a decent lawyer down there or do I need to send one of my own? When is the wedding? Or don’t tell me you’re going to be so tacky as to elope? You need to make sure you have a solid prenup--”
“Harold,” Jon had to say more than once, inching into his angry attending voice. “We’re not getting married.”
“How very modern of you. You still need to protect yourself. The child will automatically tie her to you, and women can be very grubby. One reason I finally gave up on marriage myself.”
Jon sighed. “Not everything is about money. If it weren’t for Kai, I wouldn’t even care about it. I didn’t even want to call, but Vicky asked me to, so here I am. I did my duty. You made it painfully clear that I am not your son, that I’ll never be your son, that I’m just some two-bit hick who happens to have a brain that you paid to educate and I’ll be forever in your debt for that. So I know this child will mean absolutely nothing to you, that you couldn’t care a whit for his existence, but now you know so you can go ahead and put your lawyers to work to make sure your precious assets are protected.” Jon was about to hang up when he heard Harold protest.
“Hold on. It’s a boy? You’re having a son?”
Jon grit his teeth. “Yes.”
A long pause. “Congratulations. A son is . . . well, you’ll understand when he’s born. A gift you should treasure, because . . .” Some emotion leaked through. Jon would have been sympathetic if he wasn’t so angry. For years after his son’s death, Harold had combed the country looking for a suitable “replacement,” and had found Jon. But it was impossible to live up to the dead, and Harold never stop reminding Jon that he wasn’t his own flesh and blood. Before Jon could think of what to say that wouldn’t come off too dickish, Harold composed himself. “I’ll have my lawyers call you on Monday. Best we let them take care of this situation and not leave it up to whatever country hacks you have over there.” Then, without further preamble, he hung up.


#


Kai was still out in the living room, stretched out on the couch, reading from a thick textbook, occasionally highlighting or pausing to sign something to himself or fingerspell a word, and Jon recognized one of his brother’s study techniques he’d picked up from last semester. Visualize the information, even if it was just fingerspelling a term, and he had a lot better chance of remembering it. Kai finally caught Jon in his peripheral vision and looked up. “Is the light bothering you? I can move to my room.
Jon shook his head. “I just wanted to tell you I’m taking a sleeping pill so I’ll be out for awhile.
Kai’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.
I promised Vicky.
Kai nodded. When Jon didn’t immediately retreat back to his room, his eyebrows furrowed. “What’s wrong?
Jon sighed. Perched on the back of the couch so he wasn’t at such a height difference but where they could still see each other. Jon debated about whether or not he should tell Kai anything. Sure, he encouraged Kai to be open and honest, but there was a difference between lying and not divulging everything.
But Kai could evidently read Jon’s mood, because he closed his book, set it on the floor, and pushed against the cushions to shift his weight so he was more upright, giving Jon his full attention. “Did something happen during the ultrasound? Is Vicky OK? The baby?
Jon attempted a smile. Despite everything, Kai really did care about Vicky and the baby, and even with his memory problems and their fight, he hadn’t forgotten that Vicky’s ultrasound was a few days ago. “Everyone’s fine. It’s a boy.
Kai beamed. “That’s amazing! I’m so happy for you. Really. I know I’ve been a mess, but I’m really happy for you and Vicky. Really.” It was like Kai couldn’t emphasize his enthusiasm enough, although signing there was no doubt, since his emotions shown through. It was actually relieving to see Kai sign that, though. Especially after what happened Wednesday, with Vicky’s misguided attempt to bring Kai closer to her. “Do you have a name picked?
Jon shrugged. “I want to name him Bryan Kai, but Vicky’s not too keen.
Kai laughed. “Yeah, you’re not naming your kid ‘BK,’” Kai said, adding the sign for Burger King for emphasis.
Jon lifted his legs so he was more comfortable, sitting on the back of the couch with his feet on the cushion, Kai using his hands to move his own legs to make room. “I never thought of that. What about Kai Bryan?
Poor kid. Do you have to name him after someone so unlucky? ‘KB’ is cute, though.
Jon nodded, let out a long sigh.
“Hey,” Kai said like he’d been trying to get Jon’s attention without words and had failed. “The baby’s healthy?
Jon nodded. Clearly Kai was trying to figure out what was troubling Jon. So Jon finally blurted it out. “I spoke to my adoptive father. First time in years.
“Oh.” Kai looked uncertain, and then he finally offered, “Do you want to talk about it?
Did he? Was that the reason he’d really come out here, why he hadn’t just said good night and disappeared back into his room? Or was he stalling taking the sleeping pill?
You’ve asked me to be honest with you. To talk to you when I need to. Well, communication is a two-way street,” Kai said, using the sign for communication in a creative way to show his point. Normally, the sign was two “C” handshapes held sideways in front of the chest and moved toward and away from the body in opposite directions to mimic the back-and-forth of a conversation. So Kai did the sign normally, then tilted his shoulders and shook his head to contrast, signed with only one hand to show the talking only coming from him toward Jon, then tilted his shoulders in the other direction and showed the conversation only coming from Jon to him by using his other hand. “OK?
Jon had to smile at that. He never thought he’d see the day when Kai would be lecturing him about open communication. Maybe Vicky was right and Jon really did need to see Dr. Miller on his own. Even if it was only once a month. She clearly had helped Kai a lot. Jon nodded in a “you got me” kinda way and sank down into the cushions, lifting Kai’s legs so he didn’t sit on his feet.
Kai gave him a look that said he didn’t like Jon moving his legs but at the same time appreciated Jon doing so since he hadn’t given Kai a lot of warning and he couldn’t exactly pull them out of the way in reflex the way an able-bodied person would. Still, he reached over and guided his legs in closer to his body, almost as if to say, “Eh, I was moving anyway.” Damn, Kai was stubborn.
Jon wasn’t sure how to begin. He raised his hands a few times and then dropped them. Vicky was the only one he ever really admitted his fears and worries to. He was too much of a parent to Kai, even if he wasn’t supposed to be; he’d filled that role for too much of their lives for him to just step out of it. And of course parents were human, but Bryan would never have expressed his fears and insecurities to his sons. No matter what the reality was, he was a fortress. Kai probably got a lot of his resiliency from him.
Kai realized this wasn’t easy for Jon; who better to understand that, right? So he opened. “You and your father aren’t close, right?” Somehow seeing the sign “FATHER” alone didn’t bother him as much as the word in English in reference to Harold. It helped that Kai mouthed “adopt” on his lips even though he didn’t sign the prefix.
Jon chuckled dryly. That was a understatement. “We haven’t spoken in maybe four years?
Kai’s eyebrows shot up, and then his head dropped a little as realization hit. “Because of me.
Jon urgently waved his hand in the air, palm flat, fingers up. “No, no, no, no! Our not talking has nothing to do with you and everything to do with me.” Jon sighed heavily. He hated the look on Kai’s face right now, which said he was listening but he didn’t really believe Jon. “We got in a big fight when I decided to come out here for my fellowship.” Jon hesitated, then decided to be vague. “He said a lot of hateful things. But my trust had already vested the year before, and he didn’t own me anymore. Not that I really cared about the money. Other than paying for school, I never cared about it.
But then I got sick.
Jon nodded. “Without that money . . .” Jon wondered if his face looked as wrecked as he felt. He didn’t like to think what would have happened, even though he knew. He would have gone into debt for lifetimes to pay Kai’s hospital bills, to keep his brother as comfortable as he could, but the committee would never have agreed to list Kai if Jon was already in debt, with no real plan to pay for the surgery and all the accessory costs. One of the qualifications for being listed was you had to prove you could afford--through insurance and personal finances--at least six months’ hospital care before and after the transplant, plus the surgery and associated fees, plus at least six months of the antirejection medications. The total cost of Kai’s care for the two years’ time that included the worst of his illness before his transplant and the recovery afterward was several million dollars out of pocket.
Kai nodded solemnly.
I called him a few months after your surgery. I wanted to make amends. I wanted him to meet you.
When?” Kai looked alarmed and a little upset.
A little more than two months after. You were breathing on your own, eating, starting to talk again.
God, Jon, no wonder he didn’t want to come. I still had four months left of rehab!” Kai was clearly horrified by the idea that someone he didn’t know would have seen him as sick as he was, even if he got a little better every day.
The point is, he didn’t even return my call. That he didn’t want to talk to me or see me. I’m a disappointment, plain and simple.
If your father thinks you’re a disappointment, then he’s an idiot,” Kai signed passionately. “You don’t need him. You have me and Vicky. And David, too.” Kai glanced over at the TV, as if to check the time. “You should take that pill before it’s too late.
Jon nodded. The pill only lasted him about six hours, but you were supposed to give yourself eight at least. He didn’t have rounds in the morning, but still, Kai was right. “All right. Don’t stay up too late.
I’m supposed to take a sleeping pill too. I haven’t had a solid night’s sleep in forever. I’m just so behind at school.
You’ll catch up. You need to sleep. And thanks for listening, I guess.
Kai offered a smile. “David would make so much fun of us for gabbing about our woes like a couple of girls. But Dr. Miller is right. We have a tendency to hide what’s really bothering us so we can pretend we’re OK, and that’s not a recipe for a healthy relationship.” Kai laughed. “Damn, I sound like a motivational speaker or something,” he added in English.
Jon was surprised to realize he felt a little better. Kai was right. He’d managed all these years without Harold. Who cared what the man thought? Jon had his own family, small as it was, and the memory of his own father, Bryan, to guide him. He could do this. He’d be OK. After all, he wasn’t alone, and he didn’t need anyone’s approval.

######

4 comments:

  1. Powerful episode. Really well done.

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  2. Very well.
    I've said it before: I like it when there is hope!

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    1. I had to clarify I'm not a robot by picking the wheelchairs!
      LOL

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  3. You're right, this is a perfect Thanksgiving episode.

    I wish there was more Kai (of course) but the parts you did give us were lovely.

    I also enjoyed reading about Vicky and Jon, much more than I thought I would. You write so well.

    When you told us this was like a soap, I thought you meant it would be full of drama and a little ridiculous. Now I see a little more clearly that is an episodic story, overarching a period of time and interlocking with the stories of other characters, and I see why you are publishing it this way instead of as a novel. It would be a shame to cut out any of these precious scenes for the purpose of fitting it into a novel, or even a series of novels (IMO)

    Thank you so much for sharing this story with us!

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