Chapter 17: Balance: ฿501
The next few days see a clear, indescribable shift in Arthit and Kongpob’s friendship.
Well, it had gradually been shifting since the day it had started, just a little over a month ago, but Arthit thinks that something is definitely distinct about how they’d been interacting since the incident with John.
Had it really only been a month? Perhaps it’s because the long hours at school on almost a daily basis bring them into frequent contact, but Arthit almost feels like a year has passed since Kongpob had first spoken to him and struck up their ridiculous transaction deal. Or maybe it’s because it truly had been years that Arthit had been keeping his friend in his peripheral attention.
He’d first noticed the change when Kongpob had started texting him every ten minutes or so on Sunday evening, and they’d talked almost endlessly about everything and nothing at the same time, until Arthit had finally yawned into his pillow while typing out his message goodnight a little past midnight.
Then, they’d met on Monday morning for their usual tutoring session, and Kongpob had brought him congee with an egg cracked into it, just the way Arthit likes it. He’d also proceeded to deliberately get questions wrong, giggling when Arthit would get frustrated with him for messing around.
On Wednesday morning, Kongpob had decided to sit in the chair next to him at their library table rather than across from him, and Arthit had stumbled through trying to explain the homework to him, his cheeks incredibly flustered and his heart beating a mile a minute with the way Kong watched him with such close intent.
Frankly, Arthit doesn’t know what he’s supposed to think about all of this.
Sure, he’d like to believe that the indubitably handsome boy returned his own hypothetical feelings, but it’s always hard to tell with someone like Kongpob, who is naturally polite and generous. He could say the same about M and Tew, who, in the last few days, had seemed to adopt him into their small group, engaging him in mindless chatter about their respective hobbies during recess. Tew, in particular, seems to go out of his way to come over their classroom just to hang out with the other three, and always stops to talk to him about something or other if they happen to run into each other in the corridor.
So, yes, Kongpob is indeed incredibly kind to him and looks out for him, but if his other friends are an example, it would be silly of Arthit to assume that Kongpob’s attention towards him is anything unique.
Still, he finds himself daydreaming more often in class, his chest tightening and cheeks warming a little every time Kongpob turns around to make silly faces at him when the teacher isn’t looking, or stops to smile at him when he’s handing out materials to the whole class. He finds it, dare he say, kind of cute.
As he works on a task that’s been given to them in English class that he only half understands, he begins to wonder what having Kongpob as a boyfriend would be like. Surely, any person would be so lucky to have someone so understanding and patient, even if he’s got no culinary common sense whatsoever, is incredibly annoying and pushy, and makes attempts at jokes that sound like something out of a made-for-television romcom.
He silently chuckles to himself as he thinks of Kongpob driving someone mad with his corny lines, mindlessly doodling on his worksheet, already having sort of given up half way.
It’s only as he hears slow, tentative footsteps moving towards him that he realises what he’s doing, and hurriedly makes an attempt to scribble out what he’s drawn, but the piece of paper is already plucked off his desk before he manages to cover it fully.
Teacher Lynn frowns in disapproval as she scans her eyes over the worksheet, until her gaze falls onto the bottom right corner, where he’s just been scribbling. She pauses, inspecting the doodle a little more closely.
His cheeks flush, mortified with the knowledge that she’s seen it. He slowly raises his eyes to look at her, fearing the worst.
But she simply raises her eyebrows and glances between him and the drawing several times, before settling the worksheet face down on the desk again, giving him a tight-lipped smile.
“Please stay focused on the task, Arthit,” she says ever so quietly.
“Yes, Teacher Lynn,” he manages to sputter out, eyes silently thanking her, before she’s moving away quietly back to the front of the room.
He thanks the stars that it’s in English class that this has happened, or he’d probably have wished for the floor to swallow him whole, as most other teachers would probably have drawn far more unnecessary attention to the matter.
He makes quick work of covering up the doodles with probably twenty layers of correction tape on both sides of the page, before forcing himself to work on the remaining questions, although his mind is on literally anything other than defining relative clauses. Despite that literally nobody else is paying any attention to him, he still feels his entire face redden and his back prickle with sweat.
Get it together, Arthit. It’s just a crush.
Maybe he’d pack his things and move to the countryside, and live a solitary life in a wooden cottage, surrounded by only rice fields and grassy hills, nothing to remind him of his embarrassment and nobody to see him blush even if he did.
Yes, right now, that sounds like a fine idea to Arthit.
His plans of rural hermitage, however, are utterly ruined when Kongpob keeps smiling at him at lunch, flashing perfect teeth and crinkling his eyes into the shape of Arthit’s favourite cashews. But he can’t help but smile back, completely taken with the way Kongpob talks animatedly about a comic book he’d bought, entertaining Arthit’s protests that Kongpob’s favourite character isn’t actually heroic, but rather just likes the attention.
At some point, he swears that Kongpob leans his foot against Arthit’s ankle under the table, but he tries to brush it off as an accident, Kongpob probably having mistaken his bony calf as the table leg.
And when afternoon rolls around, Arthit is mentally exhausted from his micro-dissection of every tiny moment between them, and is somewhat relieved to finally have a moment to himself, shoving out the tornado of reeling thoughts out of his head and instead replacing them with the routine task of grilling, flipping, marinating and bagging skewer after skewer.
Kongpob hadn’t come to the cart all week, mostly because the finals game would be on the coming weekend, and his practice sessions now ran late enough that it left Kongpob fatigued in every muscle, barely only having enough energy to call himself a taxi home, despite it being far more costly than the bus.
He would still text Arthit on the ride home, though, often apologising for not being able to come visit him, and then proceeding to whinge about basketball practice, then winding into various other things until they’d both exhausted just about every topic they could think of while simultaneously doing their homework together over the phone.
Arthit knows he shouldn’t think too much of their increasing time spent together, and yet he almost feels an itch whenever half an hour has passed without a single message, fidgeting and fighting the urge to send something completely random and follow up with oops wrong chat lol just to get any sort of reply.
It’s almost like déjà vu to him when he drops a raw skewer at the sound of his voice.
“Shit!” he whispers, tossing the fallen skewer into the trash can behind him before turning back around to glare at the offender.
“Sorry,” Kongpob grimaces apologetically. “You could deduct that from my bill.”
“Maybe if you stop sneaking up on me like that, I wouldn’t drop so many skewers.”
“Don’t be mad,” he pouts jokingly, exaggeratedly puffing his bottom lip out. Arthit rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling.
“I bet you use that face on everyone.”
“Is it working?”
“Shut up, you’re so annoying,” Arthit makes no attempt to even scowl. “What do you want? And I thought you had practice today?”
“Four of the pork, two of the beef. Mae hasn’t cooked tonight, so I thought I’d get food on the way home instead.”
“You could just order a Hawaiian pizza,” he says mockingly.
“I could, but someone would never let me hear the end of it.”
“It’s not my fault you have weird taste buds. Next time, you should let M and Tew order.”
Kongpob just smiles, fiddling with the strap of his duffel bag.
“Will you be there? If there’s a next time, I mean.”
Arthit bites his lip and shrugs noncommittally, eyes focused on brushing marinade.
“I won’t invite John, if that’s what you’re worried about. If I haven’t already said, I’m sorry about—”
“Kongpob, it’s fine.”
“No, it’s not. If I hadn’t invited him, none of this would have happened,” he scratches the back of his neck. He knows he’s been harping on about how sorry he is, but he still feels awful every time he thinks of Arthit’s distraught face as he’d bolted down his driveway. “I just feel bad because it’s like I keep bringing you bad luck or something.”
“What? That doesn’t even make sense.”
“I know you keep saying it’s fine, but I feel like I’ve inadvertently dug up so many things you’d probably rather forget,” Kongpob sighs, realising that that’s exactly what he’s doing right now. “Like the birthday card, and reminding you of that incident, and then the whole John thing…damn it, I’m doing it again. Sorry.”
“Kongpob, stop apologising. It’s really okay.”
“So—” he cuts himself off. “Right.”
Arthit squints his eyes at him for a moment. Does Kongpob truly believe that all of this is his fault? He tries to push down any nagging thoughts that guilt might be the reason why Kongpob is so nice to him. If there’s any possibility of something happening between them, he needs to bury any doubts once and for all.
“Kongpob,” he starts, serious now. “I know I’m maybe not always so upfront about this kind of thing…but…if not for you, I would still be eating lunch alone in a toilet cubicle, and…I would probably end up with Prae as my only friend for the rest of time. You didn’t start the rumours back then, and you’re not responsible for what comes out of John’s mouth. If you’re looking for forgiveness, then you have it, not that you had anything to be sorry for in the first place. So please, stop apologising, because…I’m…really grateful.”
He gives Kongpob his order along with a small, tentative smile, aware that the tips of his ears are probably reddening from having said so much. Kongpob’s expression softens in return, seeming to finally accept the weight of his words. Then, his mouth morphs into a smirk.
“You know, I’ve always wondered,” he says teasingly, and Arthit can already feel himself groan internally. “I know they were rumours…but…was there any truth to them?”
“What, that I was overweight? Yes, I was,” Arthit immediately retorts, deliberately dodging what he knows Kongpob is trying to get at. Despite the rally in his tone, the question has nagged at Kongpob for a little while now, even before he’d come to terms with his own feelings.
“You want to see photos? I was almost 200 pounds.” he makes a show of pulling out his phone to scroll through his camera roll.
“You know that’s not what I mean,” Kongpob grumbles, and becomes quieter. “Did you…you know…have a crush on me back then?”
Arthit sighs in exasperation, knowing he’s not going to drop the subject without an answer.
“Honestly?” he says, looking him dead in the eye. “No, I didn’t.” He thinks he imagines it when Kongpob looks slightly disappointed. “I…admired you a lot. You stood up to assholes like John when nobody else would. So I wanted to be friends with you. That’s it.”
And it’s the truth, although he can’t say the same about the present.
“What’s wrong with me that you couldn’t possibly have had a crush on me?” Kongpob pretends to pout before puffing his chest out a little and tossing his hair back. “I’m charming, handsome, and—”
“Get out of here, I’m busy.”
Kongpob just laughs, and playfully blows him a kiss as he walks away, to which Arthit wrinkles his nose in mock disgust, catching the air kiss and tossing it behind him.
This boy would be the death of him.
11/09/2014 – ฿36
Kongpob finds his mother in the living room when he gets home, watching one of those ridiculous, melodramatic lakorns in which there’s at least one instance of suspected incest and a pregnancy scandal.
“Hi, Mae,” he flops down onto the sofa next to her, leaning his head on her shoulder like he’d always done as a child. She smiles fondly at her clingy child and ruffles his hair before lightly shoving him off of her.
“Yuck, you’re all sweaty,” she chuckles. “And you smell like…is that barbecue?” She leans closer to him, sniffing his jersey before raising an eyebrow skeptically. “Have you been eating street food again?”
Kongpob grins sheepishly, aware of his mother’s disapproval, but is surprised when she simply shakes her head, barely fazed.
“I knew there was a reason you’ve been insisting on coming home on your own lately. Just don’t eat too much deep fried or salty food, or you’ll get mouth ulcers.”
“I know, Mae,” he says. “I only had some moo-ping.”
“I can make that for you at home, you know.”
“I know. But Arthit makes the best moo-ping in Chinatown,” he smiles, pulling his legs up onto the sofa. Not that he’s tried any other of the stalls selling meat skewers, but he strongly believes in his statement.
“Arthit? You mean your friend who’s also your maths tutor?”
“Yeah, his family runs a stall on Yaowarat. He works there after school.”
“He seems like a nice boy, that one,” she nods approvingly, then nudges him. “You should probably get yourself a part time job. It might teach you a thing or two about work ethic and then maybe you’ll stop leaving your socks in the front room for other people to pick up.”
“Mae,” he groans at her lecture. “I’ve already got basketball tiring me out. I don’t have time for a job.”
“Mmm. How’s your tutoring going anyway?”
“Good. Arthit is really helpful, so my grades are up to a B plus on average now.”
She nods, then looks away from the television for a moment to take in her son’s distracted gaze.
“I noticed you’ve been spending a lot of time with Arthit lately,” she remarks teasingly, and doesn’t miss his sudden shyness at the mention of this fact. “I hear you talking on the phone sometimes.”
“Yeah, well…we’ve become good friends. We do homework together.”
“I see,” she nods slowly. “I was looking through your old yearbooks earlier this week. I knew he looked familiar, although I can see why I didn’t recognise him at first.”
“Yeah…uh, he lost a lot of weight before freshman year.”
They fall into a comfortable silence as they watch one of the female characters burst into a tearful monologue about a tragic past in which she’d been kidnapped by thugs and forced to raise her own little brother on only raw corn and lemongrass. Kongpob snorts when she starts pounding on her chest in agony, shaking his head at the pure absurdity.
“I remember him, you know,” his mother says suddenly.
“Hmm?” he looks away from the screen momentarily, his brow furrowed in question at what she means.
“I don’t know if he’s told you, but…there was a bullying incident when you were in eighth grade…”
“Yeah, I know. The birthday card,” he chews at his lip. He’d thought that the topic had finally been buried after his earlier conversation with Arthit. “Wait, but how do you know about it?”
“I was the head of the PTA, or have you forgotten already?” she lightly smacks his thigh. “Usually when there are major cases like this, we get asked to offer our input as well. And, well, the parents of some of the bullies were on the board as well,” she explains.
“I didn’t know that,” he sits up now, turning to face his mother as she looks at him in equal confusion at his expression. “You never said anything at the time.”
“Well, I figured your friends would have told you by now, but I guess not,” she says, turning down the volume on the television now. “Also…I didn’t know how to bring the matter up with you…after all, the rumour was partially about you, and I wasn’t sure how you felt about the idea of a boy liking you…” she trails off.
“Mae, it was just a rumour,” his tone is defensive now.
“I know that, but at that age—”
“Wait, so you knew this whole time? And if you were head of the PTA then that means…you were also involved in the school moving him to the other class…” he eyes her incredulously, his fingers now curling with unease upon his realisation.
“Well…yes,” she eyes him sideways now, puzzled by the terse expression on her son’s face. “I specifically requested it.”
“…What?” he stands, staring down at her in disbelief. No, it can’t be… “Y-you asked for him to be moved?”
“What else could I have done?”
“Mae, how could you do that to him?!” he raises his voice, something he’s never done in front of his parents before.
“Do what? What are you on about?” she reaches for his arm, but he pulls it away harshly, his heart sinking with every breath. “Kong, calm down.”
“I can’t believe it…” he laughs bitterly. “This entire time, Mae, he thought that the bullies’ parents wanted him gone for even possibly being gay, when all this time, it was you! You wanted him gone.”
“Wait, Kong,” she stands too, now, seemingly taken aback by his accusation. “That’s not—”
“No, forget it,” he steps backwards, feeling his throat tighten up. “I’m going to my room.”
“Kongpob Sutthiluck! Come back here!” she calls after him, but he’s already bounding up the stairs two steps at a time, shaking with anger.
A few moments later, his bedroom door slams shut in the otherwise quiet house, and he falls face first into bed, willing himself not to cry.