Much to the disappointment of Prae’s curiosity, Kongpob doesn’t stop by Arthit’s cart again for the rest of the week. When she finally can’t curb the need to know more without raising suspicion, she texts M, who simply informs her about the added basketball practice they have with their upcoming game.
To the untrained eye, it would seem that she had an unhealthy obsession with her neighbour’s budding (read: painstakingly slow) romance. But Praepailin hasn’t seen her friend smile so much since they were small children, and she firmly believes that Kongpob plays a major role in this occurrence.
All throughout middle school, she’d listened to him talk about a boy he named ‘SuperKong’ and how since the day he’d witnessed his hero stop a group of rowdy boys from pushing one their classmates into the school pond just to make her shirt go see-through, Kongpob had become his idol to whom he wanted to be a loyal, if rather pathetic, sidekick.
Even though they’d gone to different schools, she’d become accustomed to sitting with him at his dining room table doing homework and eating their dinner together until their respective parents got home.
Arthit’s father, a man larger than life both in size, volume and presence, would often joke about the two of them getting married in the future, making both of them equally uncomfortable.
“I don’t want to marry you, Arthit,” she’d told him plainly one day as she watched him draw a cape on a stick figure, the back of the two-dimensional fabric adorned with a large letter K.
“I don’t want to marry you, either,” he’d replied, somewhat amused at the sudden announcement.
“I…think I want to marry a girl one day,” she’d said, just loud enough for him to hear. She’d looked at him, eyes searching his for any sort of reaction. He’d paused to comprehend what she’d meant, then slowly nodded with a small smile.
“Okay. I guess I should tell Mae to make Por stop joking about us, then.”
“Thanks,” she’d smiled back. Then, she’d watched as he’d shaded in the scrappily drawn cape with the edge of his pencil. “Do you want to marry Kongpob?”
“Wh-what?” he’d sounded startled.
“Well, you like him, right?”
“He…doesn’t even know me. How could I like someone I’ve never spoken to?”
“Just asking,” she’d shrugged.
“I just think he’s cool and he’s not mean like the other kids,” he’d clarified. “Besides…Por would never let me, anyway. You know he doesn’t like it when boys like other boys,” he said this last part in a much quieter voice.
Prae had nodded, recalling a particular disturbance in the night, courtesy of Arthit’s parents very loudly arguing about how his father had refused to sell food to two men because he’d seen them holding hands. I can’t believe I married someone like you!, she’d heard his mother scream at some point.
For as long as she could remember, things had always been tense in her neighbours’ apartment. Throughout the years, she’d watch Arthit bend over backwards to make his father happy, whether it be accompanying him on his frequent bingeing sprees around the market, learning how to ‘cook like a man’ on an open fire, or hiding empty beer bottles in the dumpster behind the next building before his mother got home and found them. He would do all of this, if only to keep some semblance of peace in the household.
As far as she knows, the man had never laid a hand on either his wife or son, but she and her parents knew that his jolly demeanour was reserved only for public settings, disappearing as soon as the apartment door closed and he’d had enough liquor in his blood that he would air his misdirected grievances.
After Arthit moved classes, his father had drunkenly shouted at his mother one night during the summer, blaming her for coddling their son and turning him into one of those sissy boys who writes love letters to his classmates. No wonder he’s a fucking queer!
Prae could only pretend not to hear his hateful words, trying and failing to focus on helping her own father chop hundreds of scallion stalks in their tiny kitchen, silently shedding tears for her friend who was probably crying twice as hard into his pillow.
The man’s voice could have shaken the entire building and after several moments of subsequent silence, a young, scared and crying Arthit had come banging on Prae’s door begging her parents to call an ambulance.
There’d been no more shouting after that.
Prae thinks it’s fate that Kongpob has re-entered Arthit’s life, like life’s reward to him for enduring his past troubles, and while she won’t say that she’s glad his father is gone, it’s certainly an obstacle that Arthit doesn’t need.
But she also knows there’s some deep-seated guilt in her beloved friend. While he resented a lot of the things his father had inflicted upon him and his mother, he felt as though his death had been at least partially his fault, despite his mother’s insistence that there was nothing wrong with him even if he did like a boy.
All that said, the last two years had seen much weight—both literally and figuratively—lifted off of Arthit’s shoulders, even if he’s still crawling out of his reluctance to trust new people.
It’s with relief that Prae watches a familiar pink and white jersey come into view, sparking a light that had once been lost from her friend’s eyes.
“I feel like I haven’t seen you in forever,” Kongpob pretends to pout, shifting his duffel bag to rest behind him. He’s being melodramatic, of course, but he can admit, if only to himself, that he’s more than happy to fill every spare moment he has in Arthit’s presence.
“We had lunch together, like, seven hours ago.”
“Yeah, but I missed coming here and talking to you,” he says, eyes scanning the grill as he inhales the sweet aroma of the sizzling food, which provokes a loud rumble from his stomach, one that can be heard even over the bustling traffic behind him.
“I think you mean that your stomach misses my food,” Arthit raises an eyebrow, a slightly amused smirk on his face.
“What can I say? The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” Kongpob shoots right back, although he’s only half-joking. His remark, however, earns him an exaggerated gag from Arthit.
“Please, save that crap for desperate girls when you’re in university,” Arthit shakes his head. “What do you want?” he points his chin towards the grill.
“I think I’ll take five of the beef, actually. Could do with the extra iron and protein.”
“That bad, huh?” Arthit lays out the skewers, subtly watching as Kongpob pulls his arm across his chest, tugging it in with his other hand to stretch his shoulders and triceps, still slightly moist with sweat. He gulps, and forces his gaze away to check on another customer’s batch of skewers.
“The finals are next weekend, so Coach Pak is being extra tough on us lately,” he says, rolling his shoulders back to loosen his sore muscles. “I’ve also had to stay up late to get homework done, too.”
Arthit nods, taking a written order from yet another customer as Kongpob continues talking, before she heads towards an open area behind him with fold-out tables and plastic stools.
“But I’m going to try and get as much done tonight as possible.”
“I thought you said the game was next weekend?”
“It is, but we’ve got a short practice again tomorrow morning,” he sighs heavily, before perking up slightly, remembering something. “Actually, the team are coming over to hang out for a bit tomorrow after practice. Do you…want to join? We’re just going to order pizza and play video games.”
“Uh…” he starts, but gnaws at his lip in hesitation. His mother would most likely have no issue with him taking a few hours off again, but the thought of being in the company of so many new people is far from appealing to him. “Maybe not. I don’t really know them.”
“Well there’s really only six of us, and you already know me and M,” Kongpob says lamely, knowing he’s not making much of a case.
He realises that it’s a far stretch, asking someone as emotionally reserved as Arthit to be around even more new people, but he thinks it doesn’t hurt to ask. After all, even though the idea of other people dividing his time with Arthit sparks an inexplicable tightness in his stomach, he’ll take what he can get.
“I, uh…” Arthit slowly stirs his marinade, the thick, syrupy liquid forming a whirlpool in the pail. “I’ll ask Mae and get back to you.”
“Yeah, okay!” he smiles slightly, nodding perhaps too enthusiastically. The corner of Arthit’s mouth turns up just slightly at seeing just how excited Kongpob is. He mentally scolds himself, though, for thinking that someone like Kongpob would ever even think of him that way.
Not that that’s what I want, he thinks. Not that it matters, anyway.
“Um…aren’t your parents going to be home?” he asks absentmindedly, brushing extra marinade onto Kongpob’s order. He’s not sure he can deal with another run-in with Kongpob’s mother just yet.
“Nah, my parents usually go to these fancy business brunches on Saturdays. But Shin should be around.”
Right. With the way Kongpob’s mother seemed to pamper him with exquisite meals and fancy cars, Arthit finds more reason yet to not even consider whatever delusional thoughts he might be having about developing romantic feelings for this boy.
That, and the the terse, serious look on her face when they’d sat in the principal’s office as the man had informed Arthit that this lady had proposed that he move to the other class. He nods again, and, satisfied with the glaze to grill mark ratio on the skewers, gathers all five of them off of the wire rack and shoves them into an open paper bag.
“Here,” he says. He looks back up, finding that Kongpob is already eating in front of him. “Don’t you have to go home? It’s almost 8PM.”
“Oh, sugar!” Kongpob drops the one finished skewer stick back into the bag. “You’re right.”
Arthit can’t help himself and actually breaks into a wide smile, laughing softly.
“What? What’s so funny?” Kongpob looks up, mirroring Arthit’s dimpled smile.
“We’re not at school anymore, Kongpob. You can say ‘shit’.”
Kongpob rubs the back of his neck, slightly embarrassed, but he’s smiling sheepishly.
“I’m just not used to it, okay?”
“Go on, say it. You know you want to.”
“Say ‘shit’,” he exaggeratedly mouths the word for emphasis.
“No, I’m not going to—”
“Say it!” Arthit is grinning now, clearly teasing.
“I…” Kongpob runs his hand over his face and sighs, squeezing his eyes shut. “Fine……..shit.”
It comes out just above a whisper, but Arthit grins proudly at Kongpob’s flushed face, for once breaking his usual composure.
“There we go. Was that so hard?”
“P’Arthiiit,” he whines slightly. “I’m leaving now.”
“Next time, we’ll work on getting you to say ‘fuck’.”
“Bye, P’Arthit,” he ignores him, waving as he heads down the street. Arthit watches after him, and as he’s about to turn his attention back to the cart, he catches sight of Prae’s wagging eyebrows and shit-eating grin. He rolls his eyes and sticks his middle finger up at her.
He’s definitely not telling her about tomorrow, not if he can help it.
05/09/2014 – ฿40