Kongpob is fortunate enough that he’s able to keep most of his childhood memorabilia in his room without it overtaking the entire space. From finger paintings done in kindergarten, to photo albums of school plays he’d been in in primary school, to toys that had been the bane of his teachers’ existence throughout the years.
Among the several storage bins nestled under his bed, he pulls out one that he knows houses most of his possessions from middle school. Immediately, he’s hit with an array of different items that had been the forefront of his tween years.
First, a shoebox filled with Magic: The Gathering cards that he’d once been obsessed with trading, but now barely thinks about. Then, an old iPad 2 that’s gathering dust. It doesn’t work anymore, but he just hasn’t bothered to take it in for recycling. There are also several issues of sports magazines with Tom Daley featured in them (he’d greatly admired the young athlete’s sportsmanship during the 2012 Olympic season).
But none of these are what he’s looking for. The entire bottom of the storage bin is lined with random trinkets and cards given to him during those three years, the pieces of paper neatly bound together with elastic bands. He hasn’t read all of them; they’re usually some variation of the same thing: Happy Birthday Kong! I hope you like the [insert baked good] I made for you! or Kong, I’ll cheer for you at tomorrow’s basketball game! Su su na! as well as You’re so handsome and I like you so much!
He’d certainly been flattered by these cards, if a little awkward and embarrassed by the attention, but somehow, he’d never been drawn by any of them enough to seek out their senders. Not having much of a sweet tooth (he’s more drawn towards savoury snacks), he’d usually share whatever perishable desserts he was given among his friends, something that had been greatly appreciated by M and Oak, who would happily chow down on brownie after cookie after cupcake.
Contrary to what many of his classmates think, Kongpob had not been the center of attention of ‘every single girl’ in the school. The cards were usually written on the same four or five sets of cutesy, colourful stationery, indicating it had probably just been a small group of friends who’d somehow agreed on their collective admiration for him.
And so the one card he’s looking for stands out to him easily in a particular stack of birthday cards from eighth grade. He’s almost nervous, trembling slightly as he pulls the elastic off of the stack, pulling the plain, once-white notebook paper from the stack. At the time, he’d not thought much of it, having received a good forty or so cards that day from both his admirers and friends. But now, he’s looking at the tattered, crinkled piece of paper and his heart sinks at what M had told him earlier that day.
“I don’t know if you’re going to like what you hear.”
“Just spit it out.”
M had crammed his lips together, trying to find the right words to properly explain the situation without freaking his friend out beyond necessity. He knows that Kong is the type who gets sad when baby birds fall out of their nest in documentaries, let alone by the thought of something happening to a person he now suspected was more important than Kongpob had been willing to admit.
“You know how you used to get a lot of cards and stuff from girls?”
“Um….yeah. I guess.”
“It was on your birthday. A bunch of girls were leaving cards and gifts on your desk throughout the day, as expected. And then…” M had trailed off, fiddling with the paper straw wrapper between his fingers.
“And then…?” Kongpob had pushed, eyes widening expectantly. M sighed.
“It was lunch — or recess, I don’t remember exactly — and you weren’t in the classroom at the time. Barely anybody was. But I think Arthit thought that nobody would notice, so he left you a card, too.”
Kongpob had blinked in thought. Apart from the random girls, various other classmates — both male and female — had left him generic birthday cards as well.
“Okay, but why is that—”
“I was coming back to the classroom with about five or six other guys when he was doing this, and…they saw. A bunch of other kids were coming back, too, because the break was almost over. They…they took his card and announced that Arthit had written you a love letter to the entire class. He tried to get it back but those jerks started throwing it around to each other and saying all sorts of awful stuff to him.”
Kongpob had felt the blood rise to his face, clenching his teeth and tightening his fist around the material of his shorts.
“It was awful,” M had continued. “They called him a bunch of names that basically said he was fat or gay, and then rumours and name-calling started from there. Then the teacher was coming, so they put the card back on your desk like nothing happened. Arthit had run out crying before you even got back to the classroom. I reported the whole thing to the vice principal after school, but things didn’t work out the way they should have.”
Kong had known that kids in middle school had found any reason to be cruel to whoever they’d decided their target was (and it changed constantly), and had deliberately tuned himself out to any of it, refusing to partake and instead focusing on school, basketball, and his small group of friends who, although by no means perfect, were good people. But now, hearing that he’d been the reason for kids targeting Arthit, he wants nothing more than to go back and give those jerks an earful.
M had watched his friend, who was visibly seething and upset.
“This is why I didn’t tell you, and probably why he hasn’t, either. I figured he wanted to put that in the past without you having that image of him now that you’re actually friends.”
“I could have done something, M. I should’ve read all those cards. I could’ve—”
“Kong, there’s nothing about any of this that was your fault. There’s nothing you or I could have said or done. Those assholes just wanted a reason to be even meaner to him, and they should have been the ones to be punished, but they got away with it.”
Kongpob now stares at the crumpled piece of paper in his hand, willing himself to just open and read it. He sighs, already worn out from the day, and slowly unfolds it.
He doesn’t know if he feels more sad, angry, or guilty upon reading Arthit’s card. And more prominently, he still has so many questions, most of them surrounding who had done this to his friend, and why Arthit had been the one to have taken the brunt of the matter instead of them.
Instead of putting the matter out of mind, he puts the card into his bedside drawer, shoves the storage bin back under his bed. Then he crawls under the covers and doesn’t sleep.
As a turn of events, Kongpob barely touches his food the next day at lunch. Mae has made one of his favourites; a sticky rice dumpling wrapped in a bamboo leaf, with extra green beans and minced pork. However, he’s now absentmindedly poking the unwrapped dumpling with his chopsticks, lacking any usual appetite.
Arthit says nothing at first, and slowly, quietly (and still somewhat hesitantly) works through his own lunch, but all the while, he’s intermittently watching Kongpob sigh and glare at his untouched lunch. Not even the comfortable breeze nor the particularly sweet scent of the jasmine bush they’re sitting next to is successful in lifting his usually cheery companion’s mood.
Finally, the quiet gets too much even for Arthit. He swears he can even hear the rustling of leaves in the lemon tree across the rooftop, and the buzz of chirping cicadas are like the aural manifestation of a migraine.
“K-Kongpob,” he says, gently bringing the boy in question out of his daze.
“Um…I meant to ask. Did something happen yesterday? I mean…you seemed fine yesterday at lunch. But then you’ve been kind of…I don’t know…” he gestures vaguely. “…since after school.”
“It’s nothing,” Kongpob forces a smile. “Just some stuff on my mind.”
Arthit nods once, eyes still darting from side to side, unsure of how to proceed. He’s not usually the one to carry the conversation, and he’s struggling a little for words.
“I…” he scratches his thumb with his index finger. “Do you like…want to talk about it?”
This is how friends work, right? You try to be helpful and ask about what’s troubling them? Arthit bites his lip. Kongpob looks at him, brows furrowed a little.
“I mean, like…you know, only if you want to. It’s not like I have anybody else to tell.”
Kongpob seriously contemplates if he should bring up the topic at all. He’s only just made small steps towards getting Arthit to trust him enough to eat with him, and he doesn’t want him to scurry back into his shell by saying something wrong. But another part of him is dying to know more.
“Arthit,” he starts. “I’m…sorry if I never noticed you in middle school.”
“Wh-what?” Arthit is a little startled, probably not having expected this to be the subject of Kongpob’s apparent turmoil.
“I’ve always mostly kept to myself and never really talked to anyone other than, like, the three or four friends I had.”
Arthit snorts, shaking his head.
“What are you talking about? You were so popular that even kids in the grades above us worshipped the ground you walked on.”
“It doesn’t mean I was friends with all of them.”
Arthit narrows his eyes, somehow sensing more to Kongpob’s cryptic statement.
“A lot of kids back then were complete jerks. Some of them still are. I’m just fortunate enough that I was never on the receiving end of their nonsense. But I wish I’d paid more attention to what was happening, and maybe we could’ve been friends, and I could’ve-”
“Wh-what are you on about?” Arthit stammers. “Do you….do you know something?”
His breath becomes short, and his entire body tenses. Kongpob immediately set his chopsticks down, eyes alert for the first time.
“Sorry, I just-”
“You know about the birthday card,” he realises, his voice coming out clipped.
“Arthit, I don’t care about that. I’m just saying that-”
“No, of course. I knew there had to be a reason you were being so nice to me.” Arthit shakes his head, standing up now, hands shaking as he packs up his lunch box. He almost sounds…angry. “I don’t need your pity, Kongpob.”
“That’s not what this is!” he stands up, too, coming around the other side of the table to stand in front of Arthit.
“Then what is it?!” Arthit’s eyes are wide with incredulity. “You’ve never had a reason to talk to me before, and now that you know about my past, you feel sorry for me. I’m not some charity case, Kongpob. I’ve done just fine all on my own for years and I can do just fine without you now!”
He makes for the rooftop door, but Kongpob grabs him by the wrist, pulling him back sharply to look at him. There are angry tears welling up in Arthit’s eyes, and Kongpob softens his grip a little.
“I know you’re not a charity case, and I’m not pitying you! I just want to be your friend!”
“Why? Why on earth would you want to be friends with the gay fat kid who nobody talks to?!”
Kongpob feels a sharp pang in his chest.
“Is it so hard for you to believe that someone might genuinely like you for you?”
Arthit stares right at him, eyes glistening wet.
“Yes,” he says, his voice low. “Yes, it is.”
He pulls his arm away, and the steel door swings behind him, leaving Kongpob to press his hands to his face, fingers pinching the space between his eyebrows in an attempt to stop himself from shedding his own tears.
Arthit almost tells his mother to take over for him when he glints someone in their school uniform coming towards the cart. He can’t deal with Kongpob at the moment. In fact, he’s not sure if he ever can. He’d received at least thirty messages from Kongpob in the hour since school had let out, all variations of I’m so sorry and Please just hear me out, and eventually, Arthit had put his phone on silent.
It’s now almost 6PM, and despite knowing that there isn’t basketball practise today, he’s still anticipating the possibility that Kongpob might show up after school.
But just as he’s about to untie his apron, he realises that it’s not Kongpob who’s approaching the cart. It’s his friend, also on the basketball team, and in their class, although Arthit thinks he sits at the other side of the room. M, his name is?
“Hi,” the boy says. “Arthit, right?”
Arthit blinks a few times before nodding once, then pulls his gaze away again. He takes a few shallow breaths.
“Can I, uh, get you something?”
His classmate bites his bottom lip, eyes scanning the grill.
“I’ll get four of the pork and two of the beef.”
He watches as Arthit works, deftly moving behind his familiar workstation. When his order is on the grill, Arthit still doesn’t look up at him, instead choosing to stir something in a pail.
M exhales heavily. This is more a challenge than he’d initially thought. But if this is the kid his friend has taken a liking to, then he would try to make an effort, too.
“He likes you, you know.”
Arthit lifts his questioning gaze to his classmate, who looks, for whatever reason, somewhat nervous.
“He talks about you sometimes,” the boy continues. “He says you’re some sort of genius. And that he likes talking to you,” he notices Arthit’s suddenly tense expression. “Don’t worry, he hasn’t told me anything personal. He’s not like that. But…he was already trying to be your friend even before he knew about the card. I just thought you should know that.”
Arthit says nothing, continuing to stir the pail of sauce. He can’t figure out why Kongpob’s friend is here, or why he’s telling him all of this, but his stomach clenches with his classmate’s words.
“Arthit, we go to school with a lot of complete shitheads. Kong may have a bit of a hero complex and he’s a bit pushy and too impulsive for his own good, but he’s not one of them. He doesn’t really befriend just anyone, so obviously he thinks highly of you if he’s going out of his way like this. He’s one of the good ones, trust me.”
Kongpob may have sent M here in his place, knowing that Arthit would probably not want to talk to him. Which means M probably knows about their deal, too.
He starts to say something, but then M cuts him off.
“He doesn’t know I’m here,” he clarifies, as if reading Arthit’s thoughts. “And I didn’t tell him about the other stuff. He only knows about the card and that those jerks never got punished.”
M sighs, looking straight at Arthit now, who’s putting the skewers in a bag.
“That’s ฿36,” he says, handing the food across the counter.
His classmate sets two ฿20 bills down on the worktop.
“You should join us for lunch sometime,” M says as Arthit hands him his change. “I’m sure Kong would love to have you there.”
Arthit presses his lips together, glancing up briefly at the boy in front of him. He doesn’t know what to make of this interaction, or if he should even believe a word that’s come out of his mouth, but he’s not about to have this conversation with someone he barely knows while he’s at work.
“I’m M, by the way,” M offers a small smile and a nod of his head.
“Yeah, I know,” Arthit responds for the first time since M has approached him.
His classmate nods again, and heads down the street. After M leaves, Arthit pulls his phone out of his pocket again to wake the screen. There are 45 unread messages now, the most recent one having been sent about half an hour ago.
Kong☕: Please talk to me. I’m sorry.
Kong☕: I shouldn’t have brought it up.
Kong☕: I really wasn’t pitying you.
Kong☕: I honestly like hanging out with you.
Kong☕: I just want to be friends.
Kong☕: I didn’t know anything until yesterday.
Kong☕: Please, P’…how can I prove it to you?
Kong☕: I shouldn’t have pushed M to tell me, I’m so sorry.
Kong☕: Okay, maybe you need space.
Kong☕: But I just want you to know that you’re not your past, and you’re not your troubles.
Kong☕: I want to be your friend because I think you’re smart and funny and honestly more down to earth than most people we go to school with.
Kong☕: I was upset because I hated knowing that people were judging what they don’t know about you.
Kong☕: Even if you never want to talk to me again, you should know that.
Kong☕: Either way, I’m sorry. I messed up.
Kong☕: I hope we’re still friends.