Chapter 20: Balance: ฿397
Arthit would be lying if he’d said that the crowd, even denser than last time, didn’t make him even a little anxious. But the bulk of his jitters don’t stem from the fact that the bleachers lining the court are packed with his classmates, their parents, his teachers, and their rivalling counterparts from the opponent school.
No, he’s a bundle of nerves because, unlike the last game, he doesn’t have Prae as his human shield, and he would have to spend over an hour sitting next to Kongpob.
It’s one thing for them to talk on the phone for hours or start a seemingly endless chain of texts about almost nothing, broken up only by the fact that Arthit has to put his phone down to work. The physical barrier set by a phone conversation allows him a little more security in saying whatever is on his mind, knowing that the other can’t see his reactions. It’s a whole other thing to consciously spend time together, just the two of them, in front of hundreds of people.
Perhaps he would just try his best to focus on the game itself, and less on the fact that he’d essentially asked Kongpob on a date (even if the boy himself doesn’t seem to be aware of it).
Yes, that’s what he’s here for. Basketball.
He spots Kongpob almost immediately as soon as he weaves his way past a group of students from the opposing school. Granted, it’s not that difficult to pick out the one person in the entire crowd who’s wearing a walking boot and a holding a pair of crutches between his knees.
It’s also the first time he’s seen Kongpob in something other than his uniform or basketball jersey. Instead, he’s opted for a white, short-sleeved button down and faded grey shorts. Somehow, even in an attempt to dress casual, he still looks so put together, much to Arthit’s agony.
“Hey,” he says, slowly taking a seat in the empty space that he assumes has been left for him. It’s only just wide enough for him to sit right next to him, the sides of their thighs gently pressed against each other. It makes Arthit all too self-conscious, a warm tingle permeating through the right side of his jeans, and a subconscious awareness of a total stranger on his other.
“Hi,” Kongpob’s shy smile mirrors his own, and they don’t say anything more for a moment. Instead, they watch on as the bleachers opposite them slowly fill up, and the referee wheels out a large digital clock, currently blinking with a row of zeroes.
Arthit can feel his hands getting clammy with the silence. They’d not really spoken much since he’d bolted out of A&E the previous night with hurried words of departure.
“I, uh, I’ll be right back. I just need the toilet,” he quickly tells Kongpob, who just nods, placing a single crutch beside him to reserve the spot.
Arthit quickly washes his face, patting his cheeks firmly to wake himself up from whatever stupor has caught his tongue and rendered him unable to to speak to Kongpob.
Their brief hug in the hospital yesterday had only served to further consolidate whatever Arthit had been feeling whenever he would get lost in his Kongpob-centric daydreams. Warm hands on his back, a chin hooked comfortably over his shoulder, the unique smell of his slicked-back hair. Often, these daydreams resulted in him falling into bed at the end of the day, a furious blush creeping into his face, ears and neck as he groaned at his predicament.
He’s now also almost certain that whatever he’s feeling is at least a little bit mutual. He hadn’t even managed to convince himself at first, but with time and his hyperactive analysis of every moment, he’d slowly come to accept that it was, in fact, possible for someone to like him that way. And yet there are times when he still holds out doubt.
One moment, Kongpob would say things that were obviously (cringe-inducing) attempts at flirtation, or deliberately sit closer to him than absolutely necessary, or he would catch Kongpob staring at him. The next, he would gaze distantly with sadness in his eyes whenever they were near each other, or he would simply become completely oblivious to whatever (admittedly very subtle) advances Arthit would feel brave enough to make.
Receiving approval, however embarrassing, from Kongpob’s mother had eased his worries only a little. What if, even without the obstacles that most other same-sex couples faced, Kongpob still didn’t choose him? What if they were both mistaking their mutual admiration for something more? What if Kongpob didn’t even like boys, and his friendship was merely just that – friendship? What if-
No, he has to stop before he bolts out and ditches the game altogether.
Patting his face dry with a paper towel, he quickly slips out of the bathroom just as a few others from the other school are coming in, laughing about something or other. He’s almost back at the bleachers, just turning the corner of the school garden, when he quite literally bumps into someone.
“Sorry,” he mumbles before looking up.
“Hi, Arthit!” the boy in front of him is wearing the school’s team jersey.
“Oh, hi, Tew,” he nods back with a smile of his own.
“Yeah, I’m sitting with Kongpob.”
Arthit is aware that Tew has been gradually finding more and more ways to appear in front of him lately, and he isn’t entirely sure why, or if he’s okay with it. But the boy seems friendly enough, and doesn’t seem to be bothered by any of the rumours concerning him, so Arthit finds no reason to be on edge about the whole matter.
“I thought you might like these,” Tew holds out several things to Arthit.
In one hand, a pack of roasted seaweed, and in the other, a bottled honey lemon drink that Arthit has never personally tried, but has seen enough times on television to recognise its supposed magical powers to unite lovers, cure illness, and resolve any conflict.
“Oh, you didn’t have to,” Arthit breaks into an awkward half-smile, but Tew still holds the refreshments out to him, so he takes them with a small nod of thanks.
“Um…good luck? Or is it bad to wish someone good luck before a game?”
“Coming from you, it can only mean good luck,” Tew says warmly, reaching out to lightly squeeze Arthit’s shoulder. Arthit stiffens a little, not uncomfortable, but not accustomed to the gesture. The corner of his mouth upturns in a tight-lipped smile. “I’ll see you later, then.”
And then Tew is jogging back towards the open-air court, leaving Arthit behind the bleachers with the snacks in hand.
Kongpob immediately notices the food and drink when Arthit returns.
“I thought you went to the toilet? Where’d you get those?” he says, amused.
“Oh, uh, Tew gave them to me,” Arthit settles back onto the bench. He holds the bottle out to Kongpob. “You want some?”
“Wait, Tew gave them to you?” Kongpob’s expression morphs from amusement to something unreadable to Arthit. “Why would he give you snacks?”
“I don’t know,” Arthit shrugs. “He asked if I was coming to the game yesterday. I guess it’s just his way of being friendly.” He gently waves the bottle in front of Kongpob’s face, but the boy gently presses his hand away.
“No, that’s fine. He gave it to you.”
Arthit senses a shift in his tone again, falling back into their previous silence. He unscrews the cap and takes a sip for himself. Indeed, the cold drink does help soothe the slight dampness forming on his brow from the outdoor heat. Perhaps he should’ve worn shorts instead of his usual jeans. He places the bottle on the floor between his feet, jokingly hoping that it lives up to its on-screen reputation.
“So….how’s your ankle doing?” he peers down at Kongpob’s cast covered foot, the toes sticking out of the plaster, and a large black walking boot wrapped around the entire lower half of his leg.
“Better,” Kongpob’s smile returns, fiddling with one of the velcro straps. “It did really hurt for a while before they wrapped it up, but now it’s mostly just kind of numb.”
“How long will it take to heal?”
“The doctor said four to eight weeks, so it’s not too bad. Inter-school basketball is over for the semester anyway. If we win this game, we won’t start practice for playing against other provinces until next semester.”
“It’s a shame you’re missing out on this final,” Arthit says, an attempt at being sympathetic. “After all that time you spent practising.”
To his surprise, Kongpob just shrugs.
“I’m not that bothered by it. To be honest, I really only joined the team because M really wanted to try out when we were freshmen, but he was too scared to go by himself. I like it enough, and it’s good exercise, but it’s not that big of a deal to me.”
“Well, why don’t you do something you actually enjoy?”
“I don’t really even know what that is,” Kongpob gives a short laugh. “And anyway, it means I get to hang out with you outside of school.”
Arthit looks down, a smile creeping onto his face. He knows he’s blushing, but it somehow doesn’t bother him anymore that Kongpob can see this.
“Thank you, by the way. I know I should’ve called my mother, or an ambulance, but I was just-“
“I get it,” Arthit looks up now, nodding. “It’s fine, really.”
He’d not forgotten how his friend’s mother had mentioned Kongpob getting upset over his own misunderstanding, but Arthit imagines that Kongpob doesn’t know he’s aware of the entire situation, nor that his mother had essentially given them the green light should anything develop between them. But he’s not quite ready to talk about it just yet.
“Well, let me buy you lunch. It’s the least I can do.”
And Arthit can’t do much to stop his insides flipping, slightly giddy with excitement. He decides not to ask if it’s a date, lest Kongpob misreads his tone again and thinks he’s joking.
“Yeah, okay. I’d like that,” he smiles shyly, and they simply look at each other, until a whistle sounds, indicating the start of the game.
Kongpob finds it more than difficult to concentrate on what’s happening during the game. Surely, he’s watched and played in enough games to comprehend the gist of what’s going on even without giving his full attention, but all he can register for most of the game is what—or rather who—is next to him.
Every time Arthit takes a sip out of the freaking bottle, all he can think of is how Tew had been the one to give him the drink. Kongpob can’t help but think that he could have been the one to give him that. He could pamper Arthit if he wanted to.
But you didn’t.
Yes, but I could.
Yes, but you didn’t.
Kongpob ends up not being able to enjoy the game very much at all. He has no right to be so possessive, really. Arthit can be friends—or more—with whomever he pleases, and he can drink whoever’s gifted refreshments he wants. And honestly, out of all the people who could be interested in Arthit, Tew is far from the worst.
Really, Kongpob should care a whole lot more about such a significant game, but instead, he finds himself far more preoccupied with the way Arthit plays with the loose threads stretched across the rips in his jeans, how he pokes the tip of his tongue out in concentration whenever there’s a particularly tense moment in the game, and then breaks into the brightest smile when the home team makes a basket, his fingers curling into a subtle fist pump.
Only when the crowd around him stands up suddenly in cheers and applause does he register that the team has won. He doesn’t even know what the score is until he actively seeks out the flip scoreboard at the side of the court.
48-46. It had obviously been incredibly close, and if the the team’s reactions are any indication, Tew had been responsible for the final push to victory.
He slowly gets up, leaning on his good foot to stand, and dazedly claps along with everyone else, trying his best to appear as ecstatic about the result as he should be.
“They won!” Arthit is beaming as he turns to Kongpob, holding an arm out, ready to catch him if he should stumble forward.
Their gazes meet, eyes lingering for a moment before one of Kongpob’s teammates comes jogging over, pulling Kongpob’s head down into their group hug.
“Oi, guys! My foot!” he awkwardly stumbles with his walking boot, but his grin mirrors theirs. “Congrats!”
“Ah, you should’ve been in it. Try not to fall into a drain next season.” M nudges at Kongpob’s cast with his own foot.
“I will,” he chortles in reply.
“Hey, we should celebrate!” Another voice pipes up, alerting Kongpob’s attention to it immediately. “Arthit, you should join us,” Tew looks straight at him with the same friendly, contagious smile.
“I, uh, well…” he glances back and forth between Kongpob and Tew. “We’re, uh—”
“Hey, how about you guys come over to my place?” M wraps an arm around Tew’s shoulders, eyeing his best friend and Arthit’s flushed expression knowingly. “I just got my hands on The Sims 4. We should create a whole household out of the team, and Kong can be the parent. And John is the basement alien who we train to paint for our living expenses, of course.”
“Oh, um…all of us?” Tew chews on his bottom lip. He eyes Arthit again, a look that doesn’t go unnoticed by Kongpob.
“I probably shouldn’t,” he says immediately, his voice as steady as he can manage, but his eyes flashing a faint green. “My foot makes it hard for me to get around, so I’ll probably just head home.”
“Yeah, and I should get back to work,” Arthit supplies, even though his mother had required no such thing of him. “Pork doesn’t grill itself,” he adds, laughing lamely at his own meek remark.
“Right, well, we can always celebrate with everyone on Monday,” M announces, before Tew can even further question their excuses. “I’ll bring a cake! See you two!”
He hooks each arm around both Tew and Lek’s shoulders, steering them away. “I’m giving you a mohawk, Tew. And a nose ring.”
“Don’t fight it! It’s your calling.”
Of course, this leaves the two remaining boys alone with each other, as everyone else around them slowly trickles out of the school grounds. Kongpob simultaneously wants to strangle M but also have his mother make him a packed lunch for the rest of the year.
“So…lunch?” Kongpob nudges Arthit gently with his elbow.
“Lunch,” the corner of his mouth turns up a little as he nods.
After several back and forth protests that they should eat something they both like, Arthit finally relents to Kongpob’s rather convincing pout and settles on a shop on the corner of one of the inner streets that sells kway chap. It’s fairly crowded, and most of the tables’ occupants are older men with toothpicks hanging out of their mouths, plucking hairs out of their chins with two coins as they peruse that day’s newspaper.
“Have you had this before?” Arthit hands him a pair of disposable bamboo chopsticks.
“Maybe? A long time ago, probably.”
“It’s similar to bak kuh teh, if you’ve ever had that. But much less herbal-y.”
“Yeah, now that you mention it,” Kongpob sips at a spoonful of the peppery broth and nods approvingly. “It’s good. I like it.”
Arthit grins, rubbing his own chopsticks together to rid them of splinters.
“You really need to get out more,” he scoffs. “By the end of this year, I’ll have you trying frogs’ legs.”
Kongpob makes a face.
“Yeah, I’m still not keen on that. But I’m willing to try anything else you want to introduce me to. Maybe…we can make it a regular thing.” He doesn’t look up, but Arthit’s sudden quietness indicates that he’d heard him.
They eat in silence for a few moments, simply enjoying their meal. It’s not uncomfortable. It’s just…quiet, hanging with a reluctant anticipation for the other to point out the white elephant in the room first.
After all, courage, especially in the hearts of young boys, is such a fickle thing.
“You know, I never thought I’d see you like this,” Kongpob says, halfway through his bowl now.
“Hmm?” Arthit raises an eyebrow at him.
“Just…we’ve been eating lunch on the rooftop almost every day. But now we’re out here in public, and you seem…comfortable. It’s nice.”
Arthit pauses for a moment, nodding slightly as he scoops up half a hard-boiled egg into his spoon.
“I guess I was overthinking things,” he smiles, a little solemnly. “I thought that everyone was still going to give me crap all the time. But…you and your friends have been really great. Especially M. So it doesn’t freak me out to eat in front of you.”
He finally looks up, lips pressed in to a small smile. “And I don’t know,” he shrugs. “Maybe I could…join you guys for lunch. You know, like, in the courtyard.”
Kongpob would be lying if he said he weren’t slightly disappointed at the prospect of no longer having lunch between just the two of them. But this isn’t about him, and Arthit willing to take this step in his emotional healing brings him almost a sense of pride.
“Whatever you like, P’Arthit.”
“Yeah, P’Arthit, meaning that I’m older and consequently, wiser,” Arthit smirks, grateful for an opportunity to drive the tone away from becoming too solemn. “And I say that you’re going to try frogs’ legs.”
Kongpob groans, accepting that he would, at one point, be chewing on an amphibian’s rubbery limbs.
Kway chap, while delicious, leaves both boys suffering even more under the sweltering heat. It’s hardly the hottest month of the year, but the steaming hot broth, packed with the warming flavours of cinnamon and cloves had made Arthit further regret wearing jeans. More importantly, he’s deeply distracted by the faint sheen of sweat forming on Kongpob’s face, and how it masks his irritatingly handsome features with an almost ethereal glow.
“I need something cold,” Arthit gulps, turning away to swipe at his upper lip with his thumb. Yes, it’s just the weather.
“Is your mae’s drink stall open?”
“Well, one of us has to be working.” Arthit pulls at the collar of his T-shirt several times, trying to cool himself down. “You want iced coffee?”
“Nah, just something cold. The doctor said to avoid caffeine or high-sugar food while my ankle is still healing.”
“Why, in case your ankle starts getting jittery and wants to move around?”
Kongpob breaks into a soft laugh, leaning on his crutches.
“No, something about calcium absorption.”
Arthit’s mother beams upon seeing the two approaching her stall.
“N’Kongpob, how’s your foot?”
“Sawasdee krab, Mae. It’s mostly okay.”
“Is it okay for you to be moving around so much like this? What can I get you? Iced coffee? Oon, I assume you want pink milk.”
If she notices her son scowling slightly, she doesn’t comment on it.
“Actually, a lime soda?”
“I’m glad you’re safe and sound now,” she says as she begins mixing club soda into several pumps of lime-flavoured syrup with a long metal spoon. “But don’t leave your mother worrying like that again.”
“I won’t,” he looks down, slightly embarrassed. “Sorry about interfering into your evening, Mae.”
“Don’t be silly.” She squeezes the juice of a lime quarter into the drink before plopping the entire chunk of fruit in. “What’s most important is that you’re safe now.”
“Thank you,” he says, taking the drink from her. “It’s ฿20, right?”
“฿18 for soda.” She stirs some milk and sala syrup together with machine-like speed, leaving the top slightly frothy. Kongpob clumsily reaches around his crutches for his wallet in his back pocket, but when he looks back up, Arthit has already handed ฿36 over to his mother.
“I’ve got it.” He sips at the straw, intermittently diverting his gaze towards the floor. “You already paid for lunch.”
Kongpob meets his gaze, and Arthit already knows that this conversation about who’s paying and how and why isn’t over yet.
“So, what are you boys up to for the rest of the day?” his mother wipes her hands on a towel.
“I don’t know, probably just hanging out,” Kongpob turns to Arthit. “Is there anywhere you want to go?”
“Um…I was thinking maybe could hang out at my place,” he says hesitantly. “You know, because of your foot. I thought you might be getting tired,” he adds quickly upon seeing his mother’s raised eyebrow.
“Oh, okay,” Kongpob blinks a few times. “I have to leave in a couple of hours, though.” He turns to Arthit’s mother. “Thank you again.”
As they’re heading in the direction of Arthit’s building, both their drinks dangling in one of Arthit’s hands, Kongpob opens to his mouth to speak, but is duly interrupted.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Arthit rolls his eyes. “Like I really believed you were going to let me pay for you.”
Kongpob just grins at his friend’s indignation as he makes a note in his phone.
“I’m paying for yours, too,” he says, leaning over on one crutch to peer at the screen.
“Well, I owe your mother, too. I made you two lose business on one of the busiest nights of the week, and now you’re hanging out with me on a Saturday instead of working.”
“It’s only ฿18, Arthit.”
Knowing he’s just fighting a losing battle, he makes a correction in his record.
13/09/2014 – ฿36
“Rich kids…” he mutters as they keep walking.
They’ve almost reached the front of the walk-up when his phone buzzes.
Mae: Leave the bedroom door open 🙂
His face immediately reddens, and he decides not to justify the remark with a reply. Instead, he fumbles a few times before successfully putting the device back in his pocket.
“Everything okay?” Kongpob notices that they’ve stopped again.
“Huh? Oh….yeah,” he scratches his ear. “Come on, let me help you up the stairs.”