As soon as they’re in the car, Kongpob leans forward from the backseat to hand a bag to the driver, a man probably in his forties.
“Not only do I have your favourite for you today, Shin, but I’ve also brought along the chef,” Kongpob grins, nudging Arthit, who’s sitting on his left.
Shin turns around, looking at Arthit, who’s slightly flushed.
“Well, it’s nice to finally meet you, Arthit. I’m a huge fan of your work. My compliments.”
The boy chuckles awkwardly, but returns the acknowledgement with a simple wai.
“So you’re Arthit!” Tew says, a wide grin on his face as he bites hungrily into a skewer.
“I…you know me?”
There could be a million different reasons why this boy he’d only vaguely recognised as someone on Kongpob’s basketball team would recognise him.
His previous weight? His rumoured sexuality? The cart? What, exactly?
“Yeah, you got the top Maths score last year! Man, I thought you’d beat me just by a point or two, but even I couldn’t be mad when I saw you had a 98.”
He heaves a gentle sigh of relief, nodding awkwardly at the indirect compliment.
“Arthit, you’re tutoring Kong, right?” M says from the front seat.
“Erm…yeah,” he mumbles quietly as he buckles himself into the seat.
“You got room for another student? My mother keeps telling me to get one, but honestly, university students charge so much these days.”
Arthit pauses for a moment, seriously considering M’s offer. One hour of tutoring would equate to about seven or eight orders at the cart, and with how slow things were, especially on Monday afternoons, he would be earning more than he would be sweating behind the grill.
Kongpob seems to interpret Arthit’s silent calculation as hesitation, and after a few moments, replies M with mock nonchalance.
“Oh, I’m sure Arthit is too busy with his job at the cart. He’s already coming in early mornings to tutor me.”
Arthit looks up, meeting Kongpob’s gaze in quiet confusion.
“Uh, actually, I’ve…been wanting to cut down on working at the cart,” he says to M, without tearing his eyes away from Kongpob’s puzzled expression. “It’s our senior year next year, and I need to still be making money while cutting down my hours anyway.”
Kongpob is downright gobsmacked with how Arthit is saying so many words at once, not to mention in the presence of unfamiliar company. He tries to catch M’s gaze in the rearview mirror, but only sees Shin’s eyes focused on the road.
“Well, great! I don’t know if I can pay you the market rate, but I think I could give you 350 an hour.”
“Ooh!” Tew pipes up, finishing his last skewer. “I might want in, too! If we do group sessions, could we get a discount? 300 each?”
“Oh, um…well, I’m only charging Kongpob 250, so—”
“What? Kong!” M snaps his head around to look at his friend.
Kongpob, still bewildered by the entire exchange happening around him, shrugs vaguely.
“I did try to tell him, but he wouldn’t let me pay him more.”
M shakes his head and maneuvers himself to turn further in his seat to look at Arthit, much to Shin’s annoyed concern.
“Okay, listen, Arthit, as your friends, it is our duty to not let people walk all over you. If you’re down for tutoring me and Tew as well, we’d be happy to pay you 350 each. Right, Tew?”
Tew nods in agreement, tapping at Kong’s arm in search of compliance. Arthit, however, is too busy wrapping his mind around how M has just said as your friends, so casually, as if it goes without saying. Was friendship truly this…simple? And if so, where had they been all his life?
“P’Arthit?” Kong says gently, nudging him back to attention. “Are you okay with that? It’s okay if you’re not, I know you’re busy and all—“
As M reaches out for a hesitant high five, and Tew begins to chatter about something mundane, Kongpob watches Arthit out of his peripheral vision. Surely, he should be glad that Arthit is able to earn more, and also that he seems to be more receptive towards other people. But the thought of having to share Arthit’s time among his friends leaves him irrationally disappointed.
He remains quiet for the rest of the ride.
Stepping into the Sutthiluck mansion, Arthit immediately feels out of place, like a candy ring pop among 40 carat diamonds. Every inch of floor is a warm, triana yellow marble, and he cautiously notes the living room chandelier, which looks simplistic in design, but is probably worth more than his entire apartment and the cart combined. All the furniture is sleek, modern and sophisticated, but not stiff and unwelcoming. That being said, he still feels like he’s tarnishing the place just by being here.
“It’s really something, isn’t it?” Tew whispers, noticing his awestruck expression. “I had the same reaction the first time I came here.”
Arthit nods in concurrence as M and Kongpob toe off their shoes in the front room. Tew begins engaging him in small talk, mostly about school and their least favourite teachers, all to which Arthit gives simple, but polite responses, nodding and smiling where appropriate. Kongpob had been right; Tew is nice.
Meanwhile, Kongpob grabs M’s arm sharply as they speedwalk further ahead down a corridor past the living room.
“What was that, M? Since when do you need a tutor?” Kongpob whisper-yells once he’s sure they’re out of earshot of the other two.
“Dude, why are you freaking? I thought I was helping your boy out.”
“He’s not my…boy!”
“Not yet,” M says, wagging his eyebrows, a gesture that’s met with a scowl.
“What if he’s not ready for that kind of…social exposure?!” he gestures vaguely, still trying to keep his voice down. “You know he’s had trouble being around new people.”
“He seemed fine to me,” M shrugs, raising an eyebrow. “Maybe you should give him some credit. I don’t think he would so readily agree to it if he weren’t comfortable.”
“I know that! I just mean…like…I don’t know!”
“Right, you’re making perfect sense,” he snickers for a moment, revelling in Kongpob’s exasperated expression.
“M! What do I do? Should I join your group session?”
“Oh my, someone’s jealous,” M smirks in satisfaction. “Don’t worry, I’m not trying to come on to your little crush.” He peeks behind them, where Arthit is nodding briefly and smiling at something Tew is saying. “I can’t say the same about Tew, though. They seem to be very chummy.”
“What?” Kongpob turns to look, too, eyes wide but trying not to be too conspicuous.
“Oookay,” M grabs him by the arm before clapping his hand on his friend’s back. “You need to chill the fuck out, Kong. I’ve never seen you like this. It’s hilarious, but you’re not doing yourself any favours here. Just…relax, and go talk to him…I don’t know, maybe flirt a little.”
He shoves Kongpob backwards slightly, and the boy stumbles a little before he plasters an embarrassed grin on his face as he comes face to face with Tew and Arthit.
“Um, Tew, you and M can go set up in the den first,” he says hurriedly, waving vaguely behind him.
“Yeah, sure,” Tew shrugs and slings his arm around M’s shoulders as they babble on about their video game stats, effectively leaving Kongpob alone with Arthit, standing in front of the kitchen door.
As the other two voices die down, they stand in the doorway, just looking at each other, small smiles creeping onto their flushed faces.
“Hey,” they say at the same time, before bursting into soft chuckles.
“Um…you’re awfully quiet today,” Arthit remarks, raising an eyebrow. “No clever comments? Not even one?”
“I’m just…kinda tired, I guess.”
Don’t be weird, Kong, just…go with it. He motions for them to enter the kitchen, and heads straight for the fridge, both to get himself some water, and to hide his face as he cools his particularly warm cheeks.
“Here,” he says, handing Arthit a bottle. “Unless you want something else?” he adds hurriedly, opening the fridge again. “We have soda, iced tea, one of those yogurt drinks, orange ju-“
“Water’s fine,” Arthit takes the bottle, nodding slightly. “Thanks.”
“Right, okay, well…”
He scurries over to the overhead cupboards, grabbing several bags of crisps, and then pulls open a drawer, taking out a pizza takeout menu.
“You have a preference for pizza toppings?”
“Um…not really,” Arthit shrugs, unscrewing the bottle cap. “Just…no pineapple.”
“Ah, so you’re one of those people,” Kongpob smiles easily for the first time that day, leaning against the counter.
“What, the kind of person who actually knows their way around food, as opposed to someone who can’t even fry an egg?” Arthit retorts teasingly as he, too, leans slightly against the marble top island in the middle of the enormous kitchen.
Flirt a little…but how?
Kongpob grins and dares himself to step forward, an eyebrow cocked challengingly. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but whatever his face is doing seems to be masking whatever his stomach is trying to communicate with its incessant flipping and clenching.
“I’ll have you know that I make a mean bowl of cereal.”
“Let me guess, you do milk first, then add cereal?” Arthit takes another step closer, head tilted as he dons a smirk that’s far more confident than what’s more accurately reflected by the rapid thudding in his chest. He doesn’t know what’s gotten into him, but he just…wants to get closer.
Kongpob takes this as a good sign, and his voice lowers to just above a whisper.
“Is there any other way?”
The gap between them narrows further yet, and Kongpob suddenly forgets the anxiety of his realisation from earlier that day. All he can think about right now is his excitement at potentially making his recent dreams a reality.
“Well, you see,” Arthit inches forward just the tiniest bit, their bodies a little more than a forearm’s length away from each other now, close enough that he can almost feel the warmth radiating off of Kongpob’s chest, and their eyes lingering on each other in way that makes Arthit’s hair stand on end. He swallows slightly. “You’re supposed to pour however much cereal you want first, and then—”
“Hey, Kong!” a too-loud voice resounds from the other end of the kitchen, and the two boys spring apart so fast that Arthit almost curses as he stubs his heel on the edge of the counter.
Grimacing in his temporary pain, he turns to see three other boys, who must be the other members of the team having just arrived.
“Oh, hi, John,” Kongpob clears his throat, his face slightly pink from their proximity just moments ago. Had that really just happened? He mentally shakes his head, nodding in acknowledgement of his new guests. He must not have heard them come in. “M and Tew are in the den. We’re just…um,” he grabs at the open paper menu on the counter. “….ordering pizza.”
“Who’s your friend?” John leans against the doorframe, eyeing Arthit, who has his arms straight along his sides, fingers curled into anxious fists.
“Uh, this is Arthit,” Kongpob says lamely as Arthit briefly nods in John’s direction. If he remembers correctly, M and Kongpob had spoken poorly of this member of their team the last time, and he’s not sure if he wants to associate with him more than he needs to. “He’s in my class.”
John continues to eye Arthit for just a moment more, a sly smirk forming on his face.
“I’ll leave you to your…pizza then,” he remarks, a hint of something indetectable in his voice. He pushes off the door frame, the other two boys following him towards the den.
It’s quiet for a moment, neither boy daring to look each other in the eye.
“Um…is, uh, pepperoni okay?” Kongpob says, eyes pretending to focus on the menu in his hands. “Or maybe the four cheese…” he trails off, simply looking for words that his eyes catch sight of. His mouth feels dry, and he can barely feel himself breathing.
“Y-yeah…that’s fine,” Arthit mumbles, wiping his clammy hands on the back of his jeans. He pauses before grabbing the few bags of crisps off the counter. “I’ll…go take these to the den.”
Without waiting for a response, he slips out of the kitchen, his footsteps muted by his socks as he follows the raucous laughter coming from down the hallway, where he presumes the den is. He stops briefly, leaning against a wall to process his thoughts for a moment.
He isn’t entirely sure, but it seems as though Kongpob might have just…flirted with him. Or perhaps he’d just been teasing again, and they neither had the barrier of a table nor a food cart between them this time. He sucks in a breath, reassuring himself that the latter was more probable.
As he gets closer to the den, he hears shooting sound effects from the TV, and one particularly loud voice that he’d just heard a minute ago, and then his own name. He pauses just outside the doorway, trying as much as possible to remain quiet despite the crinkling packets in his arms.
“So what’s with that Arthit kid?” comes John’s sleazy voice.
“He’s hanging out with us today,” M simply says.
“Because…that’s what friends do?”
“Well, I’ve never met him until today. Although his name sounds familiar.”
“That’s because you don’t pay attention to anyone other than yourself or anyone else who boosts your ego.” M jokes, but there’s a hint of spite to his tone. “Arthit went to our middle school, too.”
“Really? That’s cool,” Tew remarks. “Oh, crap, I died!” he groans, before the sound of a controller clatters to the ground.
“Wait, now that you mention it….holy shit! That’s Porky!”
“Seriously, John? What are you, twelve?”
“I’m just saying, he was huge! And he wrote that love note to Kong, didn’t he? Dude, I knew he was gay. He even has that girly look about him. Is that why he’s here? Is he still pining after Kong? Oh, boy, that’s hilarious!”
“John, I swear to god, shut the fuck up, man,” M sounds increasingly aggravated.
“Arthit likes Kong?” Tew sounds confused by the entire exchange.
“Well duh, he’s like a lost puppy in those animal adoption commercials. You can’t tell me that Kong has any other reason to bring him here than pitying him.”
“I am this close to beating the shit out of you,” M’s voice is now dangerously low.
“Don’t get your panties in a twist, Kathawut,” John’s tone remains unfazed. “It’s not like Kong actually likes him back or anything.”
Arthit sucks in a breath briefly, increasingly uneased with every second that passes in which M says nothing. Why isn’t he agreeing? Why isn’t he saying anything now? Unless…
“Holy shit!” comes John’s nasally voice again. “He does like him, doesn’t he? Kong likes it up the shitter! Oh, man, this is too good! I’m—”
Finally losing all feeling in his arms, Arthit drops the bags of crisps with a noise that draws the five boys in the den to notice him in the doorway. He can’t focus on anything, his head spinning with a million different thoughts, but he meets M’s gaze for a moment. His expression morphs from surprise, to realisation, to anger.
“Arthit,” he manages to choke out, starting to get off the sofa, but Arthit is already backing away.
“I-I’ll just go,” are the only words he can force out before he’s speedwalking down the hallway.
“Are you happy now, John? Honestly, you are such a fucking jerk.”
M drops the game controller and scrambles from his seat to go after Arthit, who’s already several meters away.
But he doesn’t respond, his vision blurring everything around him, only the front door on his mind. And it’s his tunnel vision that blinds him to the figure coming out from a doorway somewhere to his right, resulting in a collision that jolts him out of his spiralling daze.
“Arthit, are you okay? Sorry,” Kongpob says, rubbing his own forehead, but Arthit is already pushing past him. “Wait, where are you going?”
He scurries after his friend, quickly shoving his feet into a pair of sandals before following him down the front drive.
“Arthit!” he finally catches up to him, grabbing him gently by the arm.
“I’m fine, Kongpob. Just…I need to go.” Arthit tries to wrangle his arm out of Kongpob’s grasp.
“What happened? Is something wrong?”
Arthit finally stops, turning to look straight at Kongpob, whose eyes are full of genuine concern. If M’s silence had been a confirmation of a highly unlikely prospect, he should feel elated right now.
His heart racing from their moment in the kitchen, the teasing that he now realises might have subconsciously been flirting, the way Kongpob had gone out of his way to help him slowly, patiently overcome his fears, the frequent visits to the cart.
He wants to believe all of it, because the lingering ache in his chest once and for all confirms for him what he’s been denying for weeks, or maybe even years.
“Nothing. I just…I have to get home.”
“I’ll see you on Monday, Kong.”
He hurries the rest of the way towards the gate, jogging several houses down the street before stopping and pulling out his phone.
Arthit☀️: mae, can u come get me please
Mae: on my way
Arthit doesn’t answer his phone or read any messages for the rest of the day. In fact, he continues to pay no regard to the incessant buzzing in his pocket on Sunday. He knows who they’re all from, and frankly, it’s not that he doesn’t want to talk to him, but he just doesn’t know what to say.
So he pushes any creeping thoughts down, busying himself with homework in the morning, and spending his afternoon fulfilling order after order at the cart.
In fact, he’s so ingrained in his familiar task of flipping skewers and fanning charcoal that he doesn’t register who’s in front of him.
“Sawasdee krab, what can I get you?” he says almost routinely, barely looking up.
“Five minutes of your time?” the familiar voice stops Arthit in his tracks, and he slowly brings his gaze up to see Kongpob’s tired, puffy eyes and brows pinched in the middle.
Arthit says nothing, deliberately avoiding Kongpob’s unwavering glance as he takes a written order from the next person in line. After placing the raw skewers down, he maintains his distraction by stirring the pail of marinade, slowly running the small ladle in smooth circles around the bottom of the container.
Always with that tone. He pauses his stirring for a moment, looking up just an inch, but not far up enough to look at Kongpob.
When he’d explained everything to Prae the night before, he’d expected her to chastise him for not trying to find out if Kong did in fact like him, but instead, she’d compiled a four-point plan on how to murder John, whom she’d never even met, and then hugged his shoulders until he’d stopped shaking.
“I just want to talk. But if you won’t say anything, then at least hear me out.”
“I…I’m busy, Kongpob,” he finally says, brushing marinade over what’s already on the grill.
“Then I’ll buy something. I’ll take four of the pork and two of the beef, please.”
Arthit realises he’s cornered now, as he can’t turn away a paying customer with no good reason. After a few shallow breaths, he sets Kongpob’s order on the wire rack, focusing on adjusting their position over the charcoals.
“M told me everything,” Kongpob says, his voice still gentle.
Everything? Arthit pauses now, gripping the edge of the worktop.
“John is not my friend, and none of us like him. I only invited him because it would have been rude to invite the rest of the team and leave him out. But he had no right to dig up your past like that, and…I’m sorry for putting you in a position where you had to be around him.”
“Well, he wasn’t wrong…I was the fat kid who wrote you a note.”
“That’s about ten times nicer than what he actually said, and you know it. I won’t tolerate people saying crap like that to or about you.”
“Why? Why would it bother you so much?”
Arthit finally looks up. Of five hundred odd thoughts swirling around in his head right now, at the forefront are two that battle between wanting to know if Kongpob truly does return his feelings, and silently praying that it doesn’t get brought up at all.
“Because we’re friends, Arthit. I’ve been telling you since the day I first came here. And that means I’m going to stand up for you when you’ve done nothing wrong.”
A wave of relief washes over Arthit’s back, and he almost smiles despite himself. He truly is SuperKong, he thinks.
“I’m not a damsel in distress, Kongpob,” he smirks slightly now. “And if you must know, I wasn’t really bothered about what he said. I’ve been hearing people call me gay Porky for years.”
“Then…why’d you leave?”
“I was concerned that you were going to order a Hawaiian pizza.”
“P’Arthit! Be serious,” Kongpob groans as Arthit chuckles in amusement. “Why did you leave if you weren’t bothered by what he said?”
Arthit sighs, dropping the skewers into a bag.
Hey, so I had an epiphany about possibly having a huge crush on you, but there’s just so much that I’m not ready to unpack about that mess, so I had to go and scream into a pillow while I figure my shit out before I’m even remotely close to facing yours, if that’s even what you feel.
That response would probably not go over well surrounded by weekend pedestrian traffic, and with a tray of white-hot burning coals between them.
Instead, he opts for the next most logical explanation.
“I…I don’t care about his words, but I…didn’t want to eat in front of him.”
Which is partially true, although certainly not what had been his first thought at the time.
“Oh…I’m sorry, I didn’t even think about that.”
“It’s fine. I kind of forgot, too, and panicked.”
He hands Kongpob his order, holding his gaze for a few seconds.
“So…are we okay?”
“Well you came all the way here on a Sunday. Do I have a choice?” he says mockingly.
And there it is, the smile that warms his cheeks and sends shivers down his spine.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, P’Arthit.”
07/09/2014 – ฿36