The sun set long before we parked by the ruins of the sanitarium from which our town draws its name. The view of Sanitaria Springs was spectacular but we hadn’t come to admire the landscape on that cold March evening. Like most teenagers, Chase and I came to make out. As soon as the truck was in park and the engine was shut off, Chase took me in his arms and kissed me gently. Our kissing always started off like that, slow and gentle but building in passion and intensity. Unfortunately that night we hadn’t been kissing for more than a minute when I started to groan in discomfort.
“What’s the matter?”
“My tooth is killing me,” I winced and rubbed my jaw.
“Yeah, I have a dentist appointment tomorrow.”
“Do you want to keep, you know…” Chase started and even though it was dark I could tell he was blushing.
“I’m sorry but it really hurts,” I apologized.
“It’s okay,” Chase sighed.
“I’m sorry you’re disappointed…”
“Kale, I’m not disappointed,” said Chase. “I’m just sorry you’re not feeling so good.”
“Yeah. We can still do this though,” I chirped and put my arms around Chase drawing him close.
“It’s not as good as kissing you but I’ll take it,” said Chase. He nuzzled my neck and made me giggle.
“Seriously though, thanks for understanding. Hopefully Dr. Hanks can fix this tomorrow.”
“I love you Kale,” Chase gave me a squeeze.
“I love you too,” I hugged him back.
“While we’re out here maybe we can talk about something that’s been on my mind,” said Chase.
“You mean coming out?” I rolled my eyes in exasperation.
“Your family knows, my family knows and their okay with it,” said Chase.
“Yeah but what about school?”
“What about it? Sasha and Alec seem to be doing fine,” Chase argued.
I turned and stared out the window when Chase mentioned Alec Kutsenko. Why did he have to bring Alec up? The very name filled me with dread. It wasn’t that Alec was a bad guy or anything; it’s that I know what happened to him. I saw it with my own eyes.
I met Alec for the first time last fall when the school board merged our two high schools in order to slash the budget. He seemed nice enough but was known to be something of a smartass. I avoid people like that. I’m naturally shy and I go out of my way to fly under the radar. Exposing myself to the antics of the class clown would draw far too much unwanted attention. I had a couple of classes with Alec and was really surprised to see him in the locker room after swim practice; he didn’t come off as the athletic type. He wasn’t a swimmer, he’d gone out for the football team and we shared the locker room with them and the cross country guys in the fall.
Alec got involved with Sasha Buchanan, the photographer for the school paper and another figure I avoided. Sasha was a nice guy too but he was also openly gay. I was afraid if I got to close to him people would figure out my secret and I just wasn’t ready. Apparently some guys on the football team didn’t like Alec getting chummy with Sasha and started hazing him. It got so bad at one point they held him down and beat him with a belt until he was a bloody mess. If Sasha’s brother, the head linebacker, hadn’t intervened when he did I don’t know what would have happened to Alec.
Alec was a brave guy; I give him a lot of credit for that. He didn’t let the abuse he suffered keep him down or keep him from dating Sasha. But every day after practice I’d see the angry welts on his back and buttocks in the shower room and wonder what kind of inhuman monster inflicts that kind of pain and humiliation on another person. It scared me half to death. I wasn’t big or intimidating. I’m a 5’7” 125 pound swimmer and soccer player who some of those football guys could have bench pressed. Chase wasn’t much bigger than me and neither of us had a giant brother to protect us. In fact, I had two younger brothers and feared not only what might happen to me and Chase if we came out but also Robin and Jamie.
As much as I love Chase we didn’t see eye to eye on this issue. He’s a charming, bubbly, extrovert where I’m a shy, quiet, introvert. I’ve never been very popular with the other kids at school. Because my parents have money most of the kids seem to mistake my shyness for snobbery. It’s a miracle I’m with Chase and I credit his boldness. He decided he liked me and wasn’t going to let anything, even me, stand in his way. I remember our first kiss like it was yesterday.
“What did you get for number 8?” I asked Chase as we sat in a quiet corner of the library going over the history tests we’d gotten back last period.
“Battle of Hastings,” Chase smiled dreamily. He’d been doing that a lot lately, staring at me like some kind of lovesick school girl. I have zero instincts when it comes to flirting, he was my best friend, I had no idea he wanted more.
“Crap, I don’t know why I put Waterloo,” I groaned.
“It’s funny when you do that?”
“Do what,” I replied without looking up from my paper.
“Furrow your brow and get all serious. It’s cute.”
“Cute?” I turned at stared at him. “You think I’m cute?”
“Sure,” Chase grinned.
“You know that’s not something one guy usually says to another, right?
“Then this is probably real taboo,” said Chase as he leaned in close and kissed me on the lips.
I sat there for a moment in stunned disbelief while he watched me with his mischievous grin. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about kissing him before. We’d been friends for years and I’d always thought he was adorable; he often played the starring role in my fantasies. I didn’t think anyone knew I liked boys and couldn’t figure out how Chase had learned my secret. I thought I’d been so clever at hiding my feelings.
“What the hell are you doing?” I demanded.
“Shhhhh, you’re not supposed to be so loud in the library,” he giggled.
“Yeah well you’re not supposed to kiss your best friend in the library either!” I exclaimed in a loud whisper.
“Not even when you want your best friend to be your boyfriend?”
“Chase, I’m not gay. I don’t even…” I started. Even though he’d kissed me, put all of his cards on the table, something inside me felt I had to keep up the hetero façade I hid behind.
He rolled his eyes, put his hand behind my neck and pulled my face to his. I looked around nervously to see who might be watching but we were completely alone. He kissed me again only this time he held his lips against mine for a long time. Eventually my resolve faded and I melted into him like cheddar on a grilled cheese. From that day forward he was mine and I was his.
“So what do you think?” said Chase, dragging me away from the happy memory and bringing me back to earth.
“Look Chase, I’m just not ready,” I sighed. “I wish you’d stop pressuring me.”
“Babe, I’m not trying to pressure you, I’m trying to show you off. I love you Kale and I want the world to know it.”
“You have no idea how much that means to me. I just need more time.”
“Ok, but will you at least think about it?” Chase pleaded.
“I will, I promise.”
“You’ve promised before,” Chase pouted.
“I know but it’s not like I haven’t given it any thought. I’m just not there yet,” I sighed.
“I understand. How about we give it a month or so and talk about it again?”
“That’s fair,” I agreed.
“Ok then,” Chase smiled and snuggled close.
I always thought Chase’s Chevy Silverado was an odd choice for him. It cracks me up to see him hop out of it; it’s so big and makes him look so small. I was grateful he’d driven that night though. Thanks to the split bench seats we were able to cuddle under the blanket he keeps in the back seat and talk about more pleasant topics for the next hour. When it started to rain we decided it was best to head home before the truck got stuck in the mud. Even though it hurt like hell, I managed to kiss Chase goodbye when he dropped me off.
“Well Kale there isn’t anything wrong with your teeth,” said Dr. Hanks at my dental appointment the next afternoon.
“You’re kidding? My tooth is killing me,” I whined.
“You don’t have any cavities, the x-rays are clean, no root issues. That is a damn fine mouth,” Dr. Hanks smiled. He’d been taking care of my teeth since they came in.
“How can I have a throbbing toothache and there be nothing wrong?”
“Might be referred pain,” Dr. Hanks mused as he rubbed his chin.
“Sometimes other problems can manifest themselves as tooth pain,” said Dr. Hanks.
“So what’s wrong with me then?”
“No idea, but if you have your mom make an appointment with your pediatrician he might be able to figure it out.”
“Ok,” I sighed.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” said Dr. Hanks as he offered me a lollipop.
“Seriously?” I smiled.
“Like I said, there isn’t anything wrong with your teeth. A little candy isn’t going to hurt,” the dentist patted me on the back and chuckled as I left his office.
The house was quiet when I got home. Dad wouldn’t be home for a few hours, Robin had lacrosse practice, Jamie was probably playing at a friend’s and mom was probably running errands. I was supposed to be at soccer practice but missed more than half of it because of my appointment. I thought about going out back and playing with Casey, our Golden Retriever, but opted for a nap instead. I’d felt tired all day despite getting a good night’s sleep after Chase dropped me off.
“GET UP! GET UP!” Chirped Jamie’s high pitched boy soprano as he jumped up and down on my bed.
“Jesus! You scared me half to death,” I exclaimed as I shot up in bed and clutched at my chest.
“Mom says to get off your lazy ass and come downstairs for dinner,” said Jamie.
“Yeap,” Jamie smiled.
“Jamie?” I drew out his name.
“Well, the get up and come down to dinner part,” Jamie grinned. He’s 12 and has decided that everything sounds more dramatic if he throws in a swear word. It drives my parent’s nuts.
“Yeah, that’s what I figured,” I rolled my eyes as I grabbed Jamie in a headlock and led him downstairs.
“Gross, your pits reek,” Jamie protested.
“Shut it squirt. My pits smell fresher then you right out of the shower,” I teased. I looked at my bedside alarm clock before we left the room and couldn’t believe I’d slept for 2 hours. I still felt exhausted.
I released Jamie at the bottom of the stairs and shoved him towards the dining room. He stuck his tongue out at me but when I threatened to grab it he sucked it in and ran off to take his seat. Mom, dad and Robin were already seated and the roast was on the table.
“I was wondering if you two were going to join us,” said dad.
“Sleeping Beauty didn’t want to get up,” Jamie giggled.
“I got up as soon as you jumped on my bed you little…”
“Jamie, what have I told you about sneaking up on people?” said mom.
“Um, not to,” said Jamie.
“So why do you…” Mom started.
“Cause, it’s funny,” Jamie stuck his tongue out at me again. Mom rolled her eyes in exasperation. Jamie really is a good kid but of the three of us I think he’s the one who’s turning mom’s hair gray.
“Anyway, Kale, did you see Dr. Hanks today?”
“Yeah, he says I need to go see Dr. Suddeth.”
“For a toothache?”
“That’s the thing, he examined my teeth, took x-rays and everything but there’s nothing wrong. He said something else might be causing the problem and masking itself as tooth pain,” I explained.
“Alright, I’ll make you an appointment in the morning,” Mom agreed.
“Can you make it for some time in the morning? I don’t want to miss practice again.”
“Oh but missing class is ok?” Dad grinned.
“Maybe not for the other kids but I already know everything,” I teased.
Dad laughed and that was the end of it. We ate dinner, Robin talked about his upcoming lacrosse game, Jamie got in trouble for saying 'bullshit' and when it was over I went back to my room. I didn’t have any homework that night and went straight to bed. Normally I’d stay up late reading, watching TV or texting Chase but I was beat.
The next morning was utter chaos. Sometime in the night our power went out and no one woke up on time. We have four bathrooms but with 4 people trying to shower at the same time we quickly used up the hot water leaving none for Mom. I had to rinse the shampoo from my hair with cold water and my teeth were chattering when I returned to my room to dress. Things didn’t improve when I went downstairs for breakfast. Everyone was scrambling about trying to get something to eat so I just grabbed a banana and tried to stay out of the way.
“Kale, I called Dr. Suddeth’s office and he’ll see you at 4:00pm sharp,” said Mom.
“But mom, I have practice,” I whined.
“I’m sorry honey but it’s the only time he had available.”
“Ok,” I grumbled. “Come on Robin.”
Robin’s 14 and a freshman this year; we ride to school together each morning. We grabbed our backpacks, headed out the door and jumped into the BMW SUV mom passed down to me when she got her new car. I love my car! Sure it’s a hand me down from my mom but it’s still sleek and sporty for an SUV and the BMW pedigree fit my inner preppy to a tee. Robin didn’t say much on the ride to school, he rarely does. Like me my little brother isn’t a morning person. When I pulled into a parking space at Columbia High we grumbled a subdued, “See you later,” then set out on our separate ways. At least we would have.
Robin opened his door and I heard the squeaky groan of a door in desperate need of some WD-40. I knew it wasn’t my car; it’s practically brand new. Before I could ascertain the source of the squeak there was a loud clang and Robin swore, “Dude what the fuck? Pay attention.” I jumped out of the driver’s seat and ran around to Robin’s side. The driver of some rusty shit heap had parked next to us. He and Robin had opened their doors at virtually the same time and now the two of them were bent over inspecting my car for damage.
“Sorry. I was in a hurry,” said a familiar voice but I wasn’t sure who it belonged to until Robin moved aside to reveal Alec Kutsenko.
“Robin, go to class.”
“But he…” Robin started.
“I’ll take care of it,” I assured him. Robin shrugged his shoulders and took off to join his friends leaving me alone with Alec.
“Hey man, I really am sorry about your car,” said Alec.
“Are you sure? I mean my car’s a piece of shit and any new dings just give it more character but yours is pretty nice,” said Alec.
I took a cursory glance at the scratch on the silver paint but wasn’t concerned about it. I wanted to get Alec away from me as quickly as possible. As it was people were already starting to stare. Sure, they were interested in the accident but the frightened gay guy inside me felt himself being pulled kicking and screaming toward the closet door with every moment he spent in Alec’s presence. It was stupid but then it wouldn’t be an irrational fear if it made sense, would it?
“It’s fine, don’t worry about it,” I closed the door and hit the alarm button to lock it. I started to walk towards the building but Alec caught up with me.
“Aren’t you in my history class?” said Alec.
“Um, yeah,” I replied but refused to meet his eyes.
“I’m really sorry about your car dude.”
“I said not to worry about it.”
“Ok but if you change your mind…”
“Oh um, my friend’s waiting for me over there,” I interrupted when I saw Chase coming towards us. “Uh see yeah.”
“Is he the jealous type?” Alec smirked.
“What?” I glared.
“I don’t want him to see us together and get the wrong idea.”
“What are you talking about?” I demanded.
“You know what they say, never rub another man’s rhubarb. See ya,” Alec trotted off with a spring in his step leaving me staring after him with my mouth hanging open.
“What were you doing with Alec?” asked Chase when he joined me. He doesn’t know why Alec makes me nervous, just that I’m uncomfortable around him.
“Nothing,” I shook my head to clear the encounter from my mind. “He banged my car door with his. It’s nothing, how are you?”
“Great. Is your tooth better?” Chase smiled wickedly. I knew he couldn’t wait to put his lips against mine because the feeling was mutual.
“'Fraid not. Dr. Hanks said there was nothing wrong.”
“But you’ve had this toothache for…”
“Yeah, it’s weird,” I agreed.
“So what do you do now?”
“I have an appointment to see my doctor at 4:00.”
“You’re going to miss practice again?”
“I know, coach is going to be pissed.”
“Forget him, what about me?” Chase pouted.
“Um, what about you?” I was a little confused.
“Watching you change is the best part of my day,” he wiggled his eyebrows seductively.
“You know you’re a complete and total dork, right?”
“Yeah but you love it and you know it,” he grinned.
“Maybe,” I blushed.
I hated missing practice. The truth is it’s the best part of my day too. I love sneaking peaks at Chase as he changes. He’s so blond and cute and perfect. Every time I see him I think about how lucky I am to have him in my life, how fortunate I was the day he kissed me and refused to be rebuffed by my feeble protests.
When school got out I hopped in the car and drove across town to Dr. Suddeth’s office. I had to wait for half an hour before seeing the doctor but once I was in the examining room things went pretty quickly.
“From what I understand you’ve been having toothaches and your dentist sent you to me?”
“Yes, Dr. Suddeth. He said that sometimes other problems can mask themselves as tooth pain,” I explained.
“Right, that’s what Dr. Hanks called it.”
“Well I’ve certainly heard of it but I can’t say I’ve ever encountered it,” said Dr. Suddeth.
“So you can’t do anything?”
“I didn’t say that but without knowing exactly what we’re looking for it’s hard to decide on a course of action so we’ll start with the works. We’ll do a physical, take some x-rays, draw some blood and go from there,” said Dr. Suddeth.
“Ok, that sounds good.” I was glad we were at least doing something. I was getting really tired of the constant toothache.
“Go ahead and strip down to your underwear and Shirley will bring you a gown. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
When the doctor left I took off my sweater, button-down and jeans. I crossed my arms over my chest and shivered in my socks and boxer-briefs. When the nurse came in I blushed at my state of undress. She smiled and handed me a hospital gown. As many years as she’s been with Dr. Suddeth she’s probably seen hundreds of boys in their underwear and could care less about what I had on display. Still, I slipped the gown on quickly and tied it around my neck.
Dr. Suddeth came back in, took my temperature and blood pressure, then grabbed my balls and made me cough for him. Next I was given a series of x-rays, blood was drawn and before I knew it I was tying my shoes and heading home. I still had no clue what might be wrong with me but Dr. Suddeth promised to call and go over the results of the tests after he had a chance to analyze them.
I returned to school the next day and during our morning break I sat with Chase on the mall where we sipped hot chocolate and tried to stay warm. Winters are cold and wet in Sanitaria Springs; a mist hovered over the campus making everyone feel damp and miserable. A few minutes before the bell was supposed to ring my cellphone started chirping. I didn’t recognize the number at first but soon discovered Shirley’s voice on the other line.
“Good morning Kale, Dr. Suddeth asked me to get a hold of you and have you come into the office right away,” said Shirley.
“Oh, is everything ok?”
“He didn’t say honey, but he’d like you to come in right away.”
“Ok, the thing is I have soccer practice after school and I’ve missed a lot could we…”
“Right away means now. He’s holding an appointment for you as soon as you can get here,” said Shirley.
“Oh, uh, ok I guess I’ll be right there.”
“What’s up?” asked Chase.
“That was my doctor’s office. He wants me to come in, now.”
“Did he say what was wrong?”
“I talked to his nurse. She didn’t know anything.”
“Are you ok? You look a little pale,” Chase asked gently.
I wondered how he could tell. My mother’s family comes from Northern Europe and, along with Dad's black hair and blue eyes, I inherited her Nordic pallor. My dad’s accused me of haunting the house with my whiteness more than once.
“Yeah, it’s just, well, why would they have me come in right now if there wasn’t something wrong?”
“He probably wants to cut out early. You know doctors, he’s probably got a tee time he doesn’t want to miss,” Chase smiled.
“Chase, its freezing.”
“Ok, so he’s got a lunch date than. I’m sure you’re fine.”
“Yeah, well, I better go by the office and check out.”
When I got up to leave I looked at Chase and felt this dreadful feeling, like I’d never see him again. I wanted to hug him and kiss him and tell him I loved him but there’s no way I could do it while surrounded by hundreds of other kids. Instead I mouthed, “I love you.” He smiled for me and then I had to go.
I didn’t have a note from my parents so I just went to my car. I made a mental note to get a note from the doctor’s office so the attendance secretary wouldn’t bust me for ditching when I returned the next day. I was nervous as I drove across town and called my mom to let her know what was happening. Mom said Shirley had already called her and that she and Dad would meet me at the office
“So does anyone know what’s going on?” I asked when I entered Dr. Suddeth’s lobby and found my parents.
“Shirley called and said the results of the tests are in and Dr. Suddeth wants to go over them with us,” Mom explained. Dad sat stoically which meant he was nervous too.
“Oh shit, what’s wrong with me?” I asked with a touch of panic in my voice.
“Kale, everything is going to be fine,” said Mom, putting a comforting hand on my shoulder.
“But he wouldn’t call all of us down here if there wasn’t a problem.”
“It’s going to be alright son,” said Dad, speaking for the first time.
“But…” I began but was interrupted when the door opened and Shirley called us back to the doctor’s office.
I’d never been in Dr. Suddeth’s actual office before. I’d always seen him in the exam room. The walls were covered with his many degrees and that gave me some comfort. Clearly he knew what he was doing. We only had to wait a minute before the doctor strode in.
“Hello Kale, Mr. and Mrs. Kirkwood,” said the doctor.
“Doctor Suddeth,” Mom nodded.
“So what’s wrong with me?” I blurted out nervously. Mom and Dad each reached out and put a hand on my shoulder.
“We’ve uncovered a pretty serious situation so I won’t beat around the bush. Kale, I think you’ve had a heart attack,” said Dr. Suddeth.
“What?” Mom, Dad and I exclaimed.
“The results of the blood test we took yesterday came back and showed a high concentration of cardiac enzymes. That’s typical after a patient has had a heart attack,” the doctor explained.
“But, but that’s impossible. I never felt anything!” I sputtered.
“It was probably minor and probably happened while you were sleeping,” the doctor continued.
“Doctor, how is this possible, he’s only 16,” said Mom.
“That’s the problem. Kale is in otherwise excellent health. I suspect there is something blocking his coronary artery.”
“So what do we do?” asked mom.
“Kale needs to go over to the hospital right now. They’ll perform a cardiac catheterization. It’s a procedure in which they use a tiny fiber optic camera to look inside his heart. If they find a blockage they might be able to repair it with a shunt. However depending on the severity of the blockage he might need an emergency bypass.”
“Oh my God,” I replied breathlessly.
“I can’t stress enough the importance of taking him to the hospital the moment you leave this office. He’s already had one heart attack. If the problem isn’t corrected the next one could come at any time and, well, it could be fatal. I’m sorry.”
“What do we do?” said mom. She was the most calm. Dad had gone quiet again and I felt like I was on the verge of a total meltdown.
“I’ve called ahead to Binghamton General. They have a cardiologist standing by to do the cardiac cath. That shouldn’t take more than half an hour. They’ll find and map the blockage and if he needs surgery they’ll take him straight into the OR.”
“Oh my God,” I sniffled.
“Kale, I know this is scary,” said Dr. Suddeth. “But this is a standard operation and you are in otherwise great shape. I’m sure you’ll come through the surgery without any trouble. Ok?”
“Yeah, yeah, okay,” I answered weakly.
“It’ll be alright,” the doctor patted me on the back and then turned to mom. “But he needs to go right now.”
I blinked and the next thing I knew I was in mom’s car speeding down the highway. I couldn’t even tell you how I got from the doctor’s office to the backseat. I felt my heart pounding in my chest like I’d played two back-to-back soccer games. It scared the hell out of me. Was it getting ready to burst right then and there?
“Kale, it’s going to be alright” said Dad, reading my expression through the rearview mirror.
I sure didn’t feel like everything was going to be alright. I was confused and afraid and desperately wanted to make this all go away. I felt so helpless and out of control. Call me a control freak but the complete and total loss of any modicum of control over the events taking place shook me to the core.
“What about Robin and Jamie?” I sidestepped Dad’s statement.
“There’s no sense in telling them now,” said Mom. “We’ll pick them up after school and bring them over to the hospital.”
“Is there anyone you want me to call?” said Mom.
“What do you mean?”
“What about Chase?”
“Absolutely not! I don’t want anyone to know about this!”
“Kale, if the shoe was on the other foot wouldn’t you want to be there for him?”
“Yes, but this is different…”
“How do you figure?”
“Damn it, Mom, I’m on my way to have fucking heart surgery would you just let it go?” I exclaimed.
“Kale, I know you’re upset but don’t talk to your mother like that. She’s only trying to help,” said Dad.
“I know, I know. I’m sorry mom, I’m just…I’m sorry,” I sighed.
“It’s alright. Just try and relax,” said Mom.
I know mom was only trying to help and that keeping organized, calling friends and relatives, was her way of maintaining when she was probably as terrified as I was. But I didn’t want her calling Chase or my grandparents or anyone else. It’s hard to explain my emotional state. I was scared but mostly I was ashamed of what was happening to me.
What kind of 16 year old boy has open heart surgery? I’ve always been somewhat small and I’m not muscle bound by any means but now I’m facing something that could kill me, something that was coming from my own weak body. Every teenager, even me, carries around with them this sense of invincibility but mine was crumbling around me. I felt weak, small and pathetic and my biggest fear, even more so than dying, would be for Chase to see me like this, to see me as unworthy of his love and affection.
That’s when I started crying. It started as a few tears running down my cheeks but soon developed into a tsunami of emotions. I was so afraid. I didn’t want to die and I hated how all of this made me feel. Mom turned around in her seat and took my hand. It was the best she could do from the front seat but it helped me to calm down.
When we pulled up to the hospital dad followed the signs pointing toward the cardiac unit where we found an orderly waiting for us with a wheelchair. I got out of the car and took a few steps but the hospitals brick façade made me feel like a traitor being led to the Tower of London for his “haircut.” The wheelchair might as well have been a medieval torture device. Iron Maiden eat your heart out! My legs started to wobble and I would have fallen if dad hadn’t caught me around the waist.
“Ok?” said dad.
“Yeah,” I nodded, and then let him help me into the wheelchair.
The orderly guided us into the hospital and pointed us toward the reception counter where my parents needed to fill out the insurance paperwork. I started to panic when my parents stopped but the orderly kept going.
“Mom,” I called out.
“It’s alright Kale, he’s just going to take you back and get you settled. Daddy and I will see you in a few minutes, ok?”
“Yeah,” I nodded meekly.
“Relax partner. We’ll get you all set up,” the orderly smiled and I settled back into the chair.
A moment later I found myself in an ordinary looking hospital room where the orderly handed me a gown and told me to go into the bathroom and change. When I came back I handed him my clothes which he placed in a dry cleaning bag before telling me to get in bed. A nurse arrived and pulled the gown down to my waist. She quickly set about attaching electrodes to my chest and then connected them to a heart monitor. Finally she put an IV line into my right arm before helping me tie the gown back in place.
“Calm down. This is all standard procedure. Nothing to worry about,” the nurse smiled as I started to shiver from fear.
“Standard for you maybe,” I muttered.
The nurse smiled, patted my leg and then disappeared.
It felt like I waited there by myself for a long time but it had to be my mind playing tricks on me. Eventually mom and dad came in but before we could say much a doctor in blue scrubs and a white lab coat walked in with a stethoscope around her neck and her hair pulled back.
“Hello, you must be Kale Kirkwood,” she smiled brightly.
“Yeah,” I nodded. “These are my parents.”
The doctor shook hands with mom and dad but she directed all of her comments directly at me. That made me feel a little better. It was my body after all and I appreciated that she was talking to me and not over me.
“I’m Dr. Branson,” she introduced herself. “I’ll be performing your cardiac cath and if need be, your surgery. Did Dr. Suddeth tell you how this procedure works?”
“No, not really,” I replied.
“In a few moments we’re going to take you to the cath lab. You’ll be given a local anesthetic and then I’ll insert a tiny fiber optic wire into your wrist. We’ll thread the wire through one of your blood vessels and into your heart. Once inside we’ll see if we can get a look at what’s going on in there,” Dr. Branson explained.
“Local anesthetic means I’ll be knocked out, right?”
“No, you’ll be awake for the procedure.”
“Oh my God,” I blurted out.
“Don’t worry, I promise you won’t feel a thing,” said Dr. Branson. “I need you awake so I can have you take breaths when I need you to.”
“Ok,” I sighed.
“I’ll give you a few minutes with your parents and I’ll see you in the lab.”
“Thank you doctor,” said Mom.
“If anything happens to me, will you tell Robin and Jamie I love them?”
“Of course we will Kale,” said Dad. “But you heard the doctor. Everything is going to be fine.”
“Yeah but just in case, I want them to know.”
“I understand,” Dad nodded.
“And mom, Chase, if I die tell him…you know.”
“You can tell him yourself when this is all over. You’re going to be just fine honey,” said Mom holding back her tears.
“Hi there, ready to go?” said an orderly as he stuck his head through the door.
“Ready as I’m going to get,” I sighed.
The orderly and his partner came into the room and unlocked the wheels on my bed.
“We love you honey,” Mom called out as they led me away.
When we arrived at the cath lab I got up on the table and an anesthesiologist began to administer the anesthetic through the IV which had been installed earlier. Almost instantly I started to feel numb. It reminded me of the one and only time I’ve ever been drunk. The time I accidently drank the adult punch at dad’s office Christmas party. Dr. Branson came in a moment later, she made sure I was comfortable and then the procedure got underway.
I felt my right arm being stretched out but I couldn’t bring myself to look. The sight of blood makes me queasy and I didn’t want to throw up on the doctor or her team while they were threading sensitive and possibly sharp medical equipment through my veins.
“Alright Kale, we’re going to insert the catheter now. You’re going to feel some pressure but be sure and let me know if you experience any pain,” said Dr. Branson.
“Ok,” I replied dreamily. The anesthetic was really doing a number on me. I felt like I was floating.
“…and we’re in,” said Dr. Branson. I didn’t feel a thing.
“Alright Kale, take a deep breath and hold it.”
I did as I was told and just when I didn’t think I’d be able to hold it in any longer the doctor told me to breathe out. This went on for another ten minutes and was the only thing keeping me awake. The medication they’d injected into my IV had me on the verge of sleep.
“We’re almost done Kale…oh,” said Dr. Branson, snapping me back to attention.
“What is it?” I asked nervously.
“Take a deep breath for me.”
“What did you find?”
“Deep breath, Kale,” Dr. Branson ignored me.
I took another deep breath and held it, annoyed to have my question dismissed.
“…and there it is. Wow.”
“Please, what is it?” I pleaded.
“I’ve found the blockage,” said Dr. Branson. “I’ve never seen a blockage this severe in a patient so young.”
“Oh my God,” I started to panic.
“Kale, it’s alright. We’re going to take you into surgery shortly and when you wake up everything is going to be fine,” Dr. Branson assured me.
“Can I see my parents?”
“I’ll talk to them and tell them what’s going on. We need to prep you for surgery right now.”
“Ok,” I whined.
The next minutes passed by in a blur and before I knew it I was lying on the operating table naked as the day I was born. Someone put a sheet over me with a large opening over my chest. An incredibly bright light came on overhead and as I squinted to see, a masked figure with kind eyes and delicate features put an oxygen mask over my face.
“Kale, I need you to start counting backwards from ten for me,” a woman’s voice coming from the masked figure.
This is it, it’s really happening. This is real, I told myself. Deep down some part of me hoped this was all some sort of terrible dream but it wasn’t. They were about to cut my chest open and stop my heart.
“10…9…8…7…6…5,” I faded out.
Once I was unconscious the doctors went to work. They set about repairing my damaged heart and I dreamed.
I found myself alone at Columbia High walking down a dark hallway. The florescent lights were out and the only light available came from the setting sun filtering through the windows. I was wearing a sweatshirt and track pants. That, combined with the lighting, suggested it was just after soccer practice. I wandered the hall wondering where my teammates were when I heard a muffled cry.
The sound came from the boy’s locker room at the end of the hall. I didn’t want to go down there but I felt drawn to the locker room like a moth drawn to a bug zapper. The closer I got to the door the louder the muffled cry became. There was also the distinct sound of leather cracking against human flesh. My hands were shaking as I pushed the door open and stepped into the dark locker room.
The windows in the locker room were all high on the walls as though it had been built in a basement. There was far less light here but I could make out the body of a naked boy lying on the cold tile at the end of a bank of lockers. Despite the lack of adequate light I could see angry red welts on the boys back and buttocks, some of them looked to be weeping but I knew it was fresh blood running down his legs.
“Alec?” I called out, remembering what happened to the kid from the football team.
I didn’t want to get any closer to him but I knew I had too. He was in pain, there was no one else around and if I didn’t help him I was just as evil as the people who’d hurt him.
“Alec?” I called again once I stood at his side. He didn’t say anything, he just continued to weep, his body shaking with sobs.
“It’s alright, I’ll help you,” I whispered soothingly.
I knelt down and put my hand on his shoulder. He sobbed again but slowly turned his head. When his face came into view I recoiled in horror. The hair was blond, the eyes were pale blue. This was not Alec Kutsenko.
“Chase?” I hissed in disbelief.
He looked at me with tears streaming form his eyes and said, “Behind you, Kale.”
I turned in time for a giant in a football uniform, his face hidden in the shadows of his helmet, to seize me by the collar and hoist me to my feet. “You’re next faggot!”
My eyes snapped open but I was too weak to sit up. I tried to breathe but felt something in my throat constricting my airway. I reached up to pull whatever it was away from my face when a soft hand grabbed my wrist and gently, but firmly, pulled it away.
“Ah, ah, ah, don’t touch that,” a nurse smiled down sweetly.
I tried to speak but couldn’t form the words. The nurse seemed to know what I was thinking.
“You’re in the recovery room Kale. Your surgery went fine and the doctor will remove the breathing tube soon. Just relax,” said the nurse.
I was asleep again the moment she finished speaking. The next time I woke up the breathing tube as gone leaving my mouth as dry as the Sahara. I looked around the room and found a heart monitor next to my bed. All my vital signs, heart rate, pulse and blood pressure looked fine. I mean there weren’t any alarms going off, I wasn’t flat-lining. The door opened and another nurse came in. She was different from the nurse in the recovery room, I didn’t recognize her.
“Ah, we’re awake,” she smiled.
“Yeah,” I rasped.
“How do you feel?”
“I’m thirsty. Can I have some water?”
“I thought you might be. Let’s try some ice chips first, ok?”
I nodded my head and she fed me some ice chips. They melted as soon as they hit my tongue and my mouth instantly absorbed the moisture.
“Where are my parents?”
“They’ve been watching over you since we brought you in from recovery. They went to the waiting room to check on your brothers just before you woke up. Would you like me to get them for you?”
I nodded my head again and the effort was exhausting. The nurse ducked out and it seemed as though I blinked and she was back with Mom and Dad.
“Hi baby,” Mom sniffled and put her arms around my neck. Dad hugged me too.
“Hey Mom, hey Dad,” I yawned.
“How are you feeling champ?” asked Dad.
“That’s ok. Dr. Branson said you’d be exhausted,” said Mom.
“Yeah. Can I see Robin and Jamie?
“Sure, I’ll get them,” said Dad.
Moms eyes were red rimmed and moist as if she’d been crying. For the first time since this started I put my feelings aside and thought about what she and Dad must be going through. You bring your children into this world and you have hopes and dreams for their future. It can’t be easy to wake up one morning and learn your son’s life is in danger. Parents aren’t supposed to outlive their children.
“Are you ok?” I asked.
“I’m fine sweetheart. Don’t you worry about any of us. You just concentrate on getting better.”
“I’ll be ok,” I yawned. “Dr. Branson said everything went fine. You’re going to be here for a few days and you’ll have to rest at home when they release you but in a month you’ll be good as new,” said Mom.
Dad came back with Robin and Jamie. Robin looked as though he’d been crying but Jamie had his typical smart assed grin across his cute little face.
“Geez Kale, you look like shit,” said Jamie as he skipped over to the bed.
“Jamie…” Mom started.
“Shut up and give me a hug,” I grinned.
Jamie laughed and put his arms around my neck. Robin stood back with his arms crossed and his head down.
“You too,” I stated once Jamie let me go.
Robin was reluctant to step forward so dad gave him a gentle shove. Robin put his arms around my neck and I felt his tears falling on my skin as he let out a gentle sob.
“I’m ok,” I whispered in his ear.
“I know,” Robin whispered back. “I was really scared I was going to lose you. I love you, you know?”
“I know, I love you too Robin. I’m sorry I scared you.” It was a tender moment in our relationship. We aren’t the kind of brothers who use the 'L' word often, but when we do say it its heart felt. When we were little Robin was my playmate, now he’s my oldest friend. I love him.
“Come on boys,” said Dad. “Let’s get out of here and let your brother get some rest.”
“The doctor told us not to stay long, that you need your sleep, but we want you to know we love you very much and we’ll be here when you wake up,” said Mom.
“It’s ok mom. You guys need your rest too. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Do you want me to call Chase?”
“Not yet. I’m not ready yet.”
“Ok,” said mom. She kissed me on the forehead and then left to join dad and my brothers.
When my family left I went back to sleep and didn’t wake again until morning. That’s when I found another unpleasant surprise waiting for me.
“Good morning,” Dr. Branson smiled when my eyes fluttered.
“Hey Dr. Branson,” I yawned.
“How are you feeling this morning?”
“I was kind of out of it when I woke up yesterday. I feel more alert now.”
“Excellent. Your surgery went fine. You’re in great physical shape. I should have you out of here in no time.”
“I know you probably explained it already but, well, I was scared and wasn’t really paying attention. What actually happened?”
“You mean with the procedure?”
“Well the good thing about an open heart bypass is that while it’s a serious and delicate procedure it’s also fairly straight forward. As soon as you were asleep I made a six inch incision in your chest. Once your sternum was exposed I cracked it and used a rib spreader to open you up. While I was doing that our surgical resident cut open your leg and removed one of your veins.
"I cut open your pericardium, the sack that holds the heart, and the anesthesiologist applied a medication directly to the organ which stopped it,” Dr. Branson explained.
“Jesus, my heart was stopped?” It was a stupid question but it’s a powerful thing to think about. My heart, the organ that pumps blood throughout my body to sustain my life was turned off like a cheap generator you might pick up at Home Depot.
“That’s right. We have to stop the heart in order to bypass the blockage or you’d bleed out. With your heart stopped we connected you to a bypass machine; that’s what pumped blood for you while we repaired the damage. To do that we took the healthy vein that was extracted from your leg and used segments of it to restore normal blood flow.”
“Wow,” it wasn’t a profound statement but it expressed my awe at all the work that had been done to save my life.
“Like I said, a serious procedure but straight forward,” said Dr. Branson. “Now, are you having any pain this morning?”
“My chest feels sore.”
“It will probably feel that way for a few days. As I explained, we had to crack your sternum in order to get at your heart so that’s naturally causing you some discomfort. We’re giving you IV pain killers and I’ll prescribe pills when you’re discharged. Just before you woke up I gave you a pain killer called Toradol and now I’m going to remove your chest tube.”
“Sometimes after surgery fluid can build up in the chest cavity making it difficult for your lungs to expand and contract. This is perfectly normal and we install a chest tube to remove the excess fluid,” she explained.
“There’s a tube in my chest?” Maybe it was the medication but I still couldn’t wrap my head around the fact there was a tube draining fluid from my body.
Dr. Branson reached around and untied my gown. She pulled the gown down to my waist and that’s when I saw it for the first time. Running down the center of my chest was a 6 inch incision closed together with stitches. The incision was angry, red and raw against the backdrop of my pale skin. It was hideous to behold. I looked like Frankenstein’s monster, a mish-mash of parts held together by tight stitching. Then the doctor removed the dressing covering the chest tube and exposed it so she could remove it.
“Oh my God,” I gasped.
“It’s alright,” Dr. Branson assured me. “Take a deep breath and hold it.”
“I can’t,” I panicked.
“You can’t breathe?”
“It’s awful,” I sniffled.
“Kale, you need to calm down and tell me what’s the matter.”
“The incision, it’s terrible.”
“Oh, that,” the doctor nodded. “It’s still fresh but I promise it’ll heal.”
“But it’s never going to go away, is it?”
“Well, no I’m afraid it’ll never fade completely. I made the stitching as tight as I could and if you apply vitamin E to it when you go home most of the redness will fade.”
“Ok,” I whined.
“It’s alright,” she patted my shoulder. “Now, take a deep breath.”
I did as the doctor instructed and within a few seconds the chest tube was out, the opening was sealed and my gown was retied around my neck. She said a few more things but she may as well have been Charlie Brown’s teacher for all I could understand. I wasn’t paying any attention, all I could think about was the hideous reminder of this ordeal I’d carry with me for the rest of my life.
As soon as Dr. Branson left the tears I’d been holding back came running down my cheeks. I was so embarrassed by everything that was happening. It made me feel weak and small and I’d just come face to face with the indelible stain of my experience. How was I ever going to shower after soccer again? I couldn’t stand the thought of all the other boys seeing this thing running down my chest. It was a neon advertisement of my own weakness.
Then there was Chase. Sometimes when we were making out we’d take our shirts off. One day he’s going to want to have sex with me and the minute my shirt comes off he’ll be reminded of my inferiority. The worst part is I know I’m the one with the problem. Chase isn’t going to care about the incision and the scar it’s going to leave behind but I do. All of my emotions felt confused, conflicted and wrong. Fortunately the medications I was on were powerful enough to knock me out for another nap.
My parents came by a few hours later but they didn’t look like they’d slept much so I sent them home. They would have stayed all day but I knew they’d need their rest as much as I needed mine. One thing Dr. Branson had made clear to me was that I’d need my support network once I was released. I didn’t want Mom and Dad to be too tired when I needed them most.
It was just after noon and after finishing my heart healthy, salt and taste free, lunch an unexpected visitor arrived.
“Hey,” said Chase as he stuck his head through the door to confirm he had the right room.
“What are you doing here?” I exclaimed. I crossed my arms over my chest. I wasn’t pouting, I felt the stigma of the incision the moment I saw my boyfriend and crossed my arms in a feeble and irrational attempt to conceal it.
“Awww, I missed you too,” Chase rolled his eyes as he crossed the room to my bedside. “I called your cell and your house but…”
“My mom told you I was here?” I demanded.
“No. I was at school this morning and ran into…”
“Robin,” I practically hissed.
“Hey, he was upset and when I asked him what was wrong it all sort of came tumbling out so ease up a little,” Chase chastised me.
“Yeah,” I sighed.
“I was worried too you know? Most people call their boyfriends when they’re going to have surgery or at least call afterwards.”
“I’m sorry. It’s not that I didn’t want you here, it’s just…” I trailed off.
“Kale, I love you, I really do but you need to learn to start letting people in.”
“What do you mean?”
“I know you worry about things and sometimes things scare you but you shouldn’t shut out the people who love you.”
“Anything else?” I pouted.
“That’s the end of the lecture for now,” said Chase as he took my hand. “Are you ok?”
“I guess so, the surgery went ok.”
“So that’s it then?”
“Well they bypassed the blockage and the blood is flowing normally now,” I explained.
“When are they going to let you out of here?”
“In a couple of days, then I have to rest at home for a couple of weeks before I can go back to school.”
“That’s not so bad. I can pick up your homework and bring it over after soccer practice.”
“You don’t have to do that. Robin can…”
“Sure, Robin could do it but I want to help. Let me do this for you, ok?”
“Ok,” I sighed.
“That’s another thing. Don’t be so reluctant to let people help you. You can’t do everything yourself,” Chase scolded albeit gently.
“Yes mother,” I rolled my eyes which made him chuckle. “Does anyone else know I’m here?”
“Yeah, pretty much everyone.”
“Damn it Robin,” I swore under my breath.
“Lighten up grouch,” said Chase as he leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead. “I’ve gotta get home for dinner or my mom will have a fit but I’m going to come by after school tomorrow.”
“No buts, I’m coming.”
“Ok,” I sighed again.
“Yeah, I love you too,” Chase rolled his eyes.
“You know I love you. It’s just…”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s some internal Kale problem, whatever,” Chase teased. “See you tomorrow.”
After Chase left I tried to pout in private but my soccer coach visited followed by a couple of friends I was surprised to see. Chase was right. I do worry about things and I do let things frighten me but I can’t help it. It’s not like I want to be afraid all the time but how do you overcome your fears when sometimes everything scares you? It was a question I continued to wrestle with the rest of my time in the hospital and when I got home.
They released me two days after Chase’s first visit with explicit instructions to rest, build my appetite back up and keep an eye on my incision least it become infected. My mom took detailed notes on everything the doctors had to say and I paid particular attention when Dr. Branson explained post-surgery depression was common and not to worry if I felt overly emotional in the next few weeks. I seized on that thinking maybe all my issues about the surgery and the irrational shame it made me feel might fade in a few weeks.
The whole family was there when my parents brought me home, my brothers, both sets of grandparents, my aunts, uncles, cousins the house was full. I hadn’t wanted any of them to know what happened to me. It seemed like such a private thing not something I wanted the world to know. I didn’t want anyone to pity me or think of me as some pathetic little sick boy. I was already annoyed with Robin for putting the word out at school and the first thing I did was focus my emotions on him and tear him a new asshole.
“Did you call everyone and tell them I was coming home today?”
“No, Mom…” Robin started.
“Because you sure did a bang up job telling everyone at school,” I snapped.
“I-I’m sorry,” said Robin. “I didn’t think you’d…”
“Typical, you didn’t think. Sometimes you’re so stupid I can’t believe we share the same DNA.”
“I’m sorry,” Robin sniffled. “I was worried about you and…”
“Just stay out of my fucking business,” I exclaimed and pushed past him.
The room was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. I could hear Robin crying as I stormed up the stairs and the brief moment of relief I got from letting him have it quickly turned to one of guilt and shame. I know none of this is Robin’s fault and I shouldn’t have taken out my frustrations on him. He was simply the most convenient target.
By the time I got to my room I was crying too. Robin has always been a sweet boy. Maybe it’s a middle child thing but he’s always been quiet and reserved, not moody like me or rambunctious like Jamie. I was kicking myself for hurting his feelings when there was a knock at my door.
“Go away,” I sniffled.
Of course the knocker didn’t go away. Grandpa Kirkwood walked in and shut the door behind him.
“Look grandpa I know I shouldn’t have yelled at Robin but…”
“You’re damn right you shouldn’t have,” Grandpa scolded. “Your mom tells me you’ve had a real chip on your shoulder ever since this mess started.”
“I love you Kale, everyone downstairs is here today because they love you and you’ve got no reason to treat them or your brother the way you did.”
“I know but…”
“I’m not finished yet, young man. I know this is hard for you but you need to start thinking about other people’s feelings. I bawled my eyes out when your dad called and told me my grand baby was having heart surgery. I was scared to death for you. Do you know what a relief it was to see you walk through that door a minute ago?”
“I-I didn’t know.”
“I want you to straighten your act up or I’m going to tan your hide, but good,” said Grandpa.
“Ok,” I giggled. Grandpa never spanked any of us, not even when we were little. I think he meant for the empty threat to make me laugh once he was done expressing his feelings.
“You’re going to come downstairs and say you’re sorry to your brother?”
“Yes sir,” I nodded.
“And you’re going to apologize to the rest of the family for acting like a little brat?”
“Yes sir,” I sighed.
“Good boy,” Grandpa hugged me.
He was right. I had no cause for acting the way I had. No one was to blame for what happened to me, not even me. I’d like to say that was the end of my problems but that would be too good to be true. At least it would be enough to get me through the day.
Grandpa led me back downstairs. I could hear the muffled voices of my family and everyone stopped in their tracks when we appeared at the foot of the stairs. I could feel everyone’s eyes on me but I couldn’t meet them. I felt like a puppy with his tail between his legs after being scolded for peeing on the rug. I saw Robin sitting in the corner with my mom; she was trying to comfort him but there were still tears running down his cheeks. I immediately went over to him and put my arms around his neck before he realized I was there.
“I’m sorry,” he sniffled. “I didn’t mean to make you mad. I was just…”
“Shhh, it’s ok. I’m sorry Robin. You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m the one who acted like an asshole.”
“I’m just glad you’re home,” he sputtered and I hugged him tighter.
Once Robin was ok I, turned to everyone else but they weren’t too hard on me. A simple 'I’m sorry,' was enough to restore conversation and after a few minutes everyone was laughing and having a good time. I think they knew what kind of stress I was under and were quick to forgive my shitty little tantrum. When the party was over I graciously accepted everyone’s hugs and well wishes but the whole affair was exhausting. I went straight to bed once the last of the company left.
Life at home under my mother’s regime quickly started to drive me nuts. It began with her checking on me every 5 minutes and then I was tossing a Nerf ball around with Jamie one day and tripped. After that mom insisted I camp out downstairs in the family room so she could monitor me all the time. All I wanted was to be left alone in my room so I could rest, relax and brood about my situation but she wouldn’t have it. She was scared to death something was going to happen to me the moment she turned her back.
There was no reasoning with her and I guess that runs in the family because I was still having good days and bad. I tried to be upbeat but it was easier some days than others. I couldn’t get over the fact my body was flawed, that my heart was unsound. I hated my scar! I could barely look at it and couldn’t bear to have anyone else see it. Then there was Chase. He came over every day after school like he’d promised to deliver my homework. Mom trusted him to look after me and we would go up to my room to work on the projects he brought with him. I was happy to have him with me but eventually we took advantage of the privacy and started kissing.
Kissing Chase made me feel like some sense of normalcy was returning to my life but that was short lived. After a while my heart would start to race and it frightened me. What if I had another heart attack while making out with him? It got worse when he put his hand up my shirt one afternoon and ran his finger along my scar. He didn’t say anything but the look on his face said enough for him. His face grew pale and I could tell he was shocked by the size of the damn thing. He’s the last person I’d ever want to see it.
Eventually all the kissing and touching would reach a point where I couldn’t take it anymore and I’d push him away to stop the pounding in my chest. Chase was very patient and said he understood but I felt like I was disappointing him. I seemed to be internalizing everything. My heart, my inability to get over this stupid sense of weakness, even my fear of coming out felt like it was all my fault. I often went to sleep thinking I must have done something terrible for God to be punishing me so.
Time drags on at a snail’s pace when your world becomes limited to the confines of your home. When Dr. Branson finally cleared me to return to school I was thrilled. All I wanted to do was return to my normal quiet life. I thought going back to school would cheer me up and put all these negative thoughts out of my head but in some ways it only reinforced them. A high school is like any other small community; news travels fast. Everyone knew what happened to me and my first day back I felt eyes on me everywhere I went. People I didn’t even know would come up and ask how I was doing as if being a 16 year old heart attack victim made me interesting. I hated talking about it but it’s the only thing anyone else wanted to mention.
Robin stuck close to me, I think he was watching over me because he was afraid something might happen to me but after a few days he backed off. Chase was very supportive but every day at lunch I’d see longing in his eyes. We sat at a table in the corner of the cafeteria and sometimes he’d get quiet. I’d follow his eyes and find him staring a few tables over where Sasha and Alec sat with their friends. They laughed and joked, sometimes held hands and even gave each other the occasional peck on the cheek. I know Chase wanted our relationship to be like theirs but I couldn’t give him what he wanted and it made me feel guilty.
Two weeks after returning to school it was time for Dr. Branson to clear me to return to regular activities meaning I’d be able to play soccer again. That made me happy because I was good at it and I’d missed it more than I ever thought possible. I also thought it might put an end to some of the looks I got from people. If I was back on the soccer field then clearly I wasn’t about to break and they could go back to ignoring me. Yes, finally I’d be able to return to the comfortable shadows of anonymity.
I had a doctor’s appointment on Monday morning. Dr. Branson would do a little blood work, check my vitals and that would be that, she’d clear me to return to my active lifestyle. In anticipation of this happy event, Chase came over on Sunday to kick the ball around with me and my brothers while mom and dad were out. It had been over a month since I’d touched a soccer ball and while I was eager to get back to the game I was frustrated by the change in my skill level.
I play goalie on my team and I’m like a wall, nothing gets past me. That wasn’t the case that Sunday. Chase, Robin, Jamie and I took the ball out to the backyard and I had them take turns trying to score off me. Our dog, Casey, thought this was all for her benefit and had a blast snatching the ball until Jamie put her in the dog run on the side of the house.
Something wasn’t right, I felt…off. The ball kept whizzing past me and at one point I even tripped over my own feet. I felt like I’d lost all sense of coordination and began to get frustrated and grouchy.
“Just relax. You haven’t played for a month. It’s not like riding a bike you know?” said Chase after scoring his latest goal.
I hadn’t said anything but I guess I was making a face because he seemed to know exactly what was wrong.
“Yeah, yeah, next,” I brushed him off.
Jamie was next and set up to take a penalty shot. I never missed penalty shots! He lined up, took aim and I saw exactly where he planned to kick it. I was ready, there was no way that ball was getting past me but then it did! I was furious but Jamie was thrilled. He’s only 12 and didn’t understand how I might be feeling. Instead he celebrated scoring off me with trash talk.
“Dude, you suck,” Jamie exclaimed cheerfully.
“Jamie, shut up,” Robin whispered at him.
“What?” said Jamie. “He does suck. That ball was right to him and he missed it. Hey Kale are you sure they didn’t operate on your legs? You know if you moved them a little…”
“Jamie…” Chase warned as my face got redder with each of my little brother’s taunts.
Jamie was still giving me a hard time when I picked up the ball. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I’d already blown up at Robin a few weeks ago and that made me feel terrible. I wasn’t going to relive that mistake with Jamie. Instead I took out my frustration on the ball and kicked it through a window into the family room. After the window shattered you could have heard a pin drop in the backyard. The guys stood with their mouths hanging open in stunned disbelief. I stood there with my nostrils flaring and my hands balled into angry fists.
“Oh shit!” Chase exclaimed.
“You are so busted!” said Jamie.
“Shut up Jamie,” said Robin. “It’ll be alright Kale. I’ll tell Mom and Dad I did it, it was an accident.”
“Tell them whatever you want. I don’t give a fuck,” I snapped and stormed into the house.
To say I was upset was an understatement and I’d acted like a complete asshole. I was standing in front of my window looking out at the neighborhood when Chase came in. He walked up behind me, put his arms around my waist and rested his chin on my shoulder.
“Are you alright?”
“Fine,” I huffed.
“Kale, it’s only a game.”
“Yeah, one I used to be good at before God took a shit on my life.”
“You just need a little practice is all. I’m sure you’ll be back to normal once you’re back on the field. It takes time to get back into the swing of things.”
“You’re so tense,” said Chase as he moved his hands up to my shoulders and started to massage them.
I let out a contented sigh. Despite my mood it felt good and did make me start to relax a little. I am so tired of feeling like this and I can’t figure out how to loosen up, to let it go.
“A little,” I admitted.
“Only a little?” Chase teased. “Well, let’s see if we can’t fix that.”
He turned me around and then pulled me close to him. He kissed me and I luxuriated in the silky feeling of his lips against mine. He ran his hands up and down my back and I could feel his erection pressing into me. My heart started to beat faster but I told myself to ignore it. This is the point where I’d usually push him away but I wanted so desperately to break away from these feelings that I held back.
Our kissing grew more intense. Chase needed this as much as I did. It had been a long time since we’d been this intimate. His lips were hungry for mine and as they parted I felt his tongue enter my mouth. He reached down and slipped his hand into my track pants. He rubbed slowly and gently against my package and then my heart skipped a beat. My eyes snapped open and I pulled back from his probing lips.
“Stop,” I exclaimed.
“Are you alright?”
The honest answer was no. When my heart jumped the way it had it scared the shit out of me. It hadn’t done that before and I was afraid I’d over exerted myself. I blame the fear for the next thing I said, the stupidest sentence I’ve ever uttered.
“Chase, I think I need a break from you.”
“What?” he exclaimed.
“I can’t explain it. My heart, I just…”
“Kale, the doctor said your heart’s fine…”
“I know that! But every time you touch me I feel like it’s going to pop like a damn zit!”
“S-so you want to break up?”
“Not break up, just, I don’t know, maybe take some time way from each other.”
“You know what, fine. If that’s what you want, fine,” said Chase, the hurt evident on his face.
“I just need time.”
“Kale I’ve given you time. I’ve never once pressured you and you know it. The real problem is you’re scared.”
“No shit, my heart…”
“No. Your heart is just the latest excuse.”
“Excuse me?” I demanded.
“I love you Kale but you’re the most frightened person I know. You worry about things you have no control over. You’re scared to be yourself, scared to come out and now you’re using this heart thing to push me away because if you actually let me in and let me love you then someone might find out your secret. So if you want a break, fine, take all the time you want. I don’t know what happened to make you so dead inside but I want to live my life,” said Chase. He had tears running down his cheeks as he turned and ran out of the room.
“I’m not scared!” I shouted after him.
Not surprisingly that didn’t stop him. Hell, I didn’t even believe it. I sat in my room and pouted until my parents came home and I had to explain about the window. I told them it was an accident and they bought it. Jamie and Robin backed me up so all we got was a lecture on being more careful in the future. I tried to put Chase out of my mind but that was an epic failure.
I lay in bed that night and thought about everything he said. He was right, I am scared and while I wouldn’t say I’m dead inside I can’t call what I’ve been doing living. Sometimes you have to hit bottom before you can start climbing your way out of a hole. For some people that mean’s losing their homes or their jobs and everything they own. For me hitting bottom meant losing Chase and I simply can’t allow that. If I look back on the past 10 months we’ve been dating I see myself happier than I’ve ever been. Chase has brought so much joy to my life and put up with so much of my crap. I fell asleep that night knowing I would do whatever I had to do to win him back because holding onto my fears wasn’t worth losing the love of my life over.
The next morning I slept in. My appointment with Dr. Branson wasn’t until 10:30 so there was no point in going to my first two classes just to check out and drive across town. Everything went as planned at the doctor’s office. She pronounced me free to return to my normal routine and I left her office with a spring in my step. It was good news and I decided the night before to embrace good news, not look for something negative to pout about. With the doctor’s appointment out of the way the hard part of my day was about to begin.
Resolving to fight for Chase was one thing, the actual doing it was tougher. As I pulled into the parking lot at Columbia I knew what I had to do but my stomach was in knots. All these things I’ve been holding in, the fear, the shame and the worry didn’t just vanish because I decided to get over them. They lingered in the pit of my stomach and did their best to maintain their hold over me. The important thing, I told myself, is that courage isn’t the absence of fear but rather the belief that some things are more important than fear. Chase is more important than fear and I was determined to be courageous.
It was lunch time when I got to school and I found Chase sitting by himself at a small table in the corner. I’ve never seen a sadder site then my poor beautiful boyfriend sitting their alone with anguish on his beautiful face. It was my fault and I hoped my words, words I planned to prove by deeds, would make up for the hurt I’d caused him.
“Hey,” I said as I took a seat at the table.
“Hey,” said Chase, not bothering to look up from his lunch which had gone cold.
“Did I lose you?”
“I don’t know, it sure sounds like that’s what you wanted,” said Chase.
“I don’t want that.”
“Neither do I but I don’t know what to do. You’re so scared, so angry, so unhappy lately. I don’t know what to do to reach you.”
“You reached me yesterday.”
“Chase, what I said yesterday about wanting a break from you, God I was so stupid. You were right about everything you said. I have been afraid and I need to stop.”
“So that’s it?”
“It’s going to take some time but I want to break out of this, I don’t know, funk. Will you help me?”
“Kale, I’d do anything for you but I don’t know what else to do.”
“Be patient with me?”
“I have been but…”
“I know you have. What I mean is, look, I can’t just put everything behind me all at once but will you help me take it slowly, you know, one step at a time?”
“Ok, what’s the first step?”
I wasn’t sure what the first step should be. I’ve got a lot of things I’ve been holding in and it was hard to pick any one place to start but then I looked around the room and zeroed in on Alec and Sasha. They were sitting at their table with their friends, happy as could be, and inspired the boldest move I’ve ever made.
“How’s this for starters?” I asked Chase as I took his face in my hands and kissed him gently on the lips.
“Kale,” Chase exclaimed, his jaw hanging open in surprise. “What are you doing?”
“Taking your advice and living my life,” I smiled. “What do you think?”
“I like that,” Chase smiled his special, perfect, smile.
I took Chases hand in mine and we had a heartfelt talk about the days, weeks and months to come and you know what the best part was? No one in the cafeteria took any notice at all.