Chapter 21: Balance: ฿361
It’s the second time that Kongpob steps foot into Arthit’s apartment, but the first that he’s seeing his room.
Unlike the rest of the place, the walls of the small room are painted an off-white. In the corner, a single bed with faded cartoon-print bedding, worn soft from years of use, and tucked under the bed frame, a collapsible bed tray and a cluster of plastic storage containers. A small wooden desk by a large window that overlooks the inner street that the building is on, although the surface of the table is piled with a variety of seemingly random objects that would make it impossible for one to feasibly spread any work out onto it.
By the door, there’s a chest of six wide drawers, the paint on the metal knobs chipped off in parts, and with sporadic scratches and light dents in the wooden paneling. Kongpob takes in every detail, eyes scanning over the titles among a small stack of Peanuts comics, the corners of certain pages dog eared, and a couple of the covers curving at the edges from being repeatedly being bent backwards. Clearly, they’ve been well-loved over the years, unlike Kongpob’s pristine collection of manga volumes, the spines of which he doesn’t even dare to crease.
“Hey,” Arthit says, stumbling in through the door frame, his jeans and t-shirt in hand. He’d gone to the bathroom to change into something more comfortable, an oversized T-shirt and soft cotton shorts that came down to the knee. He drapes the jeans over his desk chair before sitting on the edge of his mattress. He looks over to where Kongpob is still standing, tilting his head sideways to read each of the titles. “You can sit if you want,” Arthit gestures at the chair.
Instead, Kongpob makes his way over to the bed, sitting himself next to Arthit and leaning his crutches against the wall near the headboard.
A faint echo of his mother’s cheeky comment pops into Arthit’s mind, and he finds himself subconsciously bringing his knees together, his feet overlapping one another.
Realistically, he knows nothing will happen. Not really, anyway. They’re both young and inexperienced, and besides, their game of push and pull will probably see them silently pining for each other for some time to come. Still, the fact that the boy he likes is sitting next to him, on his bed, makes Arthit slightly giddy with excitement, even if it outwardly manifests itself into a look of constipation.
“You’ve got a lot of those comics,” Kongpob remarks, still looking over at the ten or so volumes stacked on top of the furniture.
“Yeah,” Arthit follows his gaze, shrugging lightly. “I’ve had those for a while. Prae’s father gets them for me every year on my birthday.”
“Your families must be close, then.”
“Yeah. Our parents were busy working a lot, so Prae and I kind of looked after each other growing up. Prae’s parents used to run a small bookstore, but then e-readers started getting popular and they had to shut down. Her Por saved a lot of their remaining stock, though, and he gives them to me one by one.”
Kongpob smiles as Arthit looks on fondly at the tattered books.
“Why the Peanuts?”
Arthits pauses for a moment to consider the question seriously. “I relate to every kid in that universe on some level or another. Except maybe Lucy,” he adds jokingly.
“Which one do you feel the most like?”
“Truthfully?” Arthit gives a short laugh, to which Kongpob nods. “Snoopy.”
Kongpob raises his eyebrows, incredulous.
“Out of all the characters, you relate most closely to the dog?”
“He’s a bit lazy, likes his food, gets a bit moody sometimes and…” Arthit sighs, almost whispering his next words. “…he engages in fantasies because…the real world is lonely sometimes.”
Kongpob’s features soften, and they allow the quiet to engulf them for a short while. Eventually, Arthit clears his throat, looking up from his fingers, which he’d been picking at to distract himself.
“So, uh…tomorrow’s the first group session,” he supplies, trying to redirect the topic. “I don’t know if I can really teach three people at once.”
“M is right, though. You’ll get to make three times as much in a third of the time. And you’d be helping us while getting your own homework done, too.”
Arthit suddenly thinks of the conversation he’d had with Kongpob’s mother in the waiting room. He knows a thing or two about trying to be the dutiful son, but Kongpob never talks about his personal struggles. Perhaps he doesn’t think he has any worth speaking of, being the rich, good-looking, popular kid.
“Do you actually even want to go into engineering?”
The question brings Kongpob’s gaze directly towards him, his face crossed with mild confusion, before he looks down again.
“I don’t know,” he says finally. “I’ve never thought about it, I guess. It just always seemed like the most natural option because I have to take over Por’s company one day.”
“Is it because you’re the only son?”
Kongpob laughs briefly. “Actually, Por really wanted my eldest sister to take over, but she’s more of the creative type. She’s one of the curators at the National Museum.”
“I see,” Arthit twists his mouth to one side. He doesn’t think he should ask about his other sister, given that the last time, Kongpob had quickly brushed it off. “But you don’t want to take over?”
“It’s not that I have a problem with it,” he says slowly. “I just don’t really know what I want, but doing what’s already available to me feels too easy. Like I haven’t done anything to earn it.”
Arthit simply watches him quietly. It’s the first time he’s seen Kongpob appear so…vulnerable. Not at all like the kind, heroic boy he’d put on a pedestal when they were younger, nor the annoyingly confident flirt he’s grown accustomed to. He’s just…another kid.
“What about English? You’re pretty good at that, right?”
“I like it,” Kongpob nods. “But only because I’ve had some decent teachers.”
“Teacher Lynn once called me a sausage. I don’t know what that’s about,” Arthit brings his legs up on the mattress to sit Indian style. “Is it supposed to be a physical comparison?”
“It’s an alliteration,” Kongpob snickers. “Like, silly sausage. It’s just what she says when you’ve done something careless.”
Arthit thinks it sounds strange, and still doesn’t quite get it, but he shrugs in defeat.
“Whatever, she’s weird. I don’t dislike her, though,” he shakes his head, recalling his doodling incident that could have been far more embarrassing. “Anyway,” he turns to look at the boy beside him again. “You still have time. I’m sure whatever you end up deciding, your mae will support you.”
“I know,” Kongpob sighs noisily. “But for now, engineering doesn’t seem like the worst option ever,” he smiles briefly. “We might even end up at the same school.”
Arthit rolls his eyes.
“That’s what it is, isn’t it? You just can’t stand not being around to pester me,” he says teasingly. “Besides, who says I’m applying to same schools as you?”
Kongpob just looks at him, barely reacting. His breath becomes shallow and his brows pinch together, wanting only to appear sincere in his expression. Perhaps this is it, he thinks. Maybe I’ll tell him.
But as a few more agonisingly slow seconds tick by with no words forming in his mouth, he says the next best thing on his mind.
“I just know that I want you in my life after we graduate.”
It’s Arthit’s turn to grow quiet now, gulping as he meets Kongpob’s intense stare, eyes shining with the reflection of sunlight pouring in through the window. For a moment, he almost swears that the boy’s gaze flickers downwards, which sets his heartbeat accelerating like a windmill right before the worst of a storm.
And then Kongpob’s phone rings.
The alarming interruption catapults both boys out of their enraptured game of Don’t Blink. Arthit clears his throat, immediately standing up and pretending to tidy the contents of his never-used desk while he hears a stammered H-hello? behind him.
“Um…yeah. I’ll come down now. Just give me a minute,” Kongpob says emotionlessly into the phone. “Yeah, okay. Bye.”
Arthit rubs his slightly damp palms on the back of his shorts as he turns around to face Kongpob again.
“You leaving now?” he says, eyes darting around the room.
“Yeah, Shin is parked on the main street.”
“Okay,” he nods repeatedly, as though ceasing to do so would force him to acknowledge what he thinks had almost just happened. “Um, I’ll see you out.”
Then he’s swiftly making his way out of the room, his bare heels hammering in muted thuds on the floor. He stands awkwardly near the front door, and then curses himself when he remembers that Kongpob might need help with his foot.
He makes to go back towards the room, only to almost knock Kongpob over as they collide at the bedroom door. Arthit stumbles backwards, face completely red now.
“Sorry,” he sputters, turning around again, seeing that Kongpob had not, in fact, required his assistance. He pretends to look for his guest’s shoes, before remembering that he’d told Kongpob not to bother, what with it being a hassle with his walking boot and all. Caught in yet another awkward state of fumbling, he fiddles with the lock on the door before finally managing to turn the knob enough times to unlock it, then pulling it open.
“Um…do you need help getting down the stairs?” He still doesn’t look up.
“No, that’s okay,” Kongpob says, almost sullenly. “I can manage with just the banister.”
Arthit goes into another nodding marathon, partially hiding behind the large wooden door now.
“I’ll…see you tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Kongpob looks down at his feet, his shoulders still raised by the crutch pads under his armpits. “I’ll text you?”
“Sure,” Arthit smiles meekly as Kongpob shuffles his way out of the door, met with a tight-lipped smile in return as the boy turns to slowly his shuffle his way down the steps, grabbing onto the banister and lowering himself down each step onto his good foot.
Kongpob doesn’t text him that evening.
Instead, he lies awake for most of the evening, replaying the moment he’d almost confessed his feelings over and over again and mentally berating himself.
One would naturally be anxious about the matter, what with the consequences that could ensue as a result of his recklessness. M had been right – he often acts too impulsively and sticks his nose into places they don’t always belong, mostly because he assumes he knows what he’s doing.
It really isn’t as easy as just having his feelings unrequited. If only it were, Kongpob thinks that he could eventually move past the awkwardness of getting through his final year of high school with them being in the same class and then never have to deal with it again. No, it really isn’t so simple.
To tell Arthit how he feels would almost feel like betrayal, like he’d only gone to the trouble of helping him and gaining his trust because of some silly (but painfully intense) crush that might eventually pass. The thought of breaking Arthit’s trust and unintentionally sending him spiralling back into self-inflicted isolation makes Kongpob’s stomach churn. Trying to be anything more than his friend right now would seem selfish.
But I like him so much, he stares at the ceiling, trying to breathe through the ache in his chest. And he can’t be sure, but even the prospect that his feelings might be returned gives him a whole other world to worry about. Aside from their closest friends, and hopefully their parents, Kongpob doesn’t know if he can bear the idea of having to hide from the rest of the world.
For now, he takes one last look at the ten or so photos of Arthit he’d taken during one of their tutoring sessions, with the excuse that he was taking pictures of notes for reference. Most of them are of Arthit glaring at him and reaching out to try and take the phone from him.
Then he turns his phone off, rolls over in bed to face the window, and stares until the sun comes up.
Arthit finds that M is particularly terrible at algebra.
The four of them—himself, Kongpob, M and Tew—are all seated around the single picnic table on the rooftop, their textbooks and paper spread around them and their various lunch trays and containers wedged in wherever there’s any remaining space.
“Wait, so x multiplied by x isn’t 2x?” M is scratching his head. “No wonder I’ve been getting stuff wrong the entire time…”
Arthit doesn’t comment on this seemingly obvious epiphany, but he’s still biting back a laugh.
“Here, now that you know it’s x², do those first, and I’ll look over them when you’re done,” he points to a set a questions on the open page of their textbook. “If you still don’t get it, you can ask Kongpob. Right?”
Kongpob, who’s been quiet the entire time, faintly colouring in the squares on his grid paper like a chess board, doesn’t respond. M raises an eyebrow expectantly.
“Kong,” M taps his pencil on the table in front of Kongpob, who finally looks up.
“You spaced out.”
“Oh, uh…” he puts his pencil down, his face still unreadable. “I’ll be right back, I just need to use the bathroom.”
He picks up his crutches and makes his way towards the steel door
Arthit watches after Kongpob curiously, unsure of how to react. Contrary to what Kongpob had said before he left his apartment on Saturday, he’d not received any word from him, even in the form of asking about homework.
“What’s his deal?” Tew says, his eyebrows pinched.
“Whatever,” M brushes it off, sensing that Arthit has now become quiet, too. He knows that he’ll have to mediate somehow, but not in front of Tew. “Maybe he’s just tired. Walking around with crutches like that is probably exhausting.”
They resume their studying, Tew nodding enthusiastically as Arthit talks him through a question on algebraic functions. It’s actually past what they’re being taught in class, but if Tew is already doing well with the current material, then he should be doing something more challenging. M on the other hand…well, he’s a different story.
“Wow, you’re really good at this, Arthit.” Tew smiles at him as he finishes talking.
“Not really,” he laughs awkwardly, a little self-conscious. “I just like it more than other subjects.”
“Well, still. What else are you interested in?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, like, other stuff you do outside of school and work.”
M keeps his head down, trying to concentrate, but Tew’s unfounded interest in Arthit piques his interest. Still, he doesn’t say anything, choosing instead to listen.
“Um,” Arthit puts his pencil down to pick up his lunch box, mixing the rice around with his spoon. “Reading? And cooking, I guess.”
“What about sports? Or video games? Do you play any?”
Arthit knows Tew’s just being friendly, but he still finds it awkward to explain that he can’t exactly afford either of those hobbies.
“Not really,” he settles on this, scratching at his knee.
“If you ever get some time off work, you should come play with us,” M speaks up now, saving Arthit from combusting with discomfort.
Arthit is silently thankful. They resume working, until M catches a glimpse of his watch.
“Shit,” he mutters, quickly gathering up his things. “I forgot that I was supposed to be on corridor duty for the last quarter of lunch.”
“Wait, you’re a prefect?” Tew scrunches his nose up in disbelief.
“Oh, screw you,” M shoots him a look of disdain. “See you guys later.”
As M disappears down the stairs, Arthit briefly notes that Kongpob still hasn’t returned from the bathroom, leaving him alone with Tew.
“Well, I guess we should pack up, too,” Arthit replaces the lid on his lunchbox and begins gathering his things together as well as Kongpob’s.
“Yeah, thanks for today.”
Tew makes to tidy up his own materials, too, shuffling his papers into a tidy pile.
“Hey, Arthit,” he says, as they stand up from the picnic table.
“Can I…can I ask you something?”
He pauses in his movements, looking straight at Tew for a moment. He seems nervous, mashing his lips together in a thin line. Arthit nods in response.
“I…uh, I was wondering if…maybe you want to, I don’t know, hang out sometime…just the two of us.”
Arthit’s mouth falls open a little, his heart beating erratically. He’s not sure, but he thinks that Tew might be…asking him out?
“I think you’re great,” Tew says. “And maybe this is weird and you don’t like boys, but I thought I would ask anyway. But if you don’t, and it’s uncomfortable for you, then—”
“We can hang out,” Arthit interrupts him.
“We can?” Tew smiles nervously.
“Yeah, of course,” he scratches at his neck just below the collar. “But, you know…like, as…friends,” he adds slowly, trying to brace himself for any negative reaction from Tew. “I’m flattered…but I just don’t…you know…s-sorry.”
The boy takes a few quiet moments to absorb Arthit’s words, before nodding in acceptance. He looks back up, his smile a little sad.
“It’s Kong, isn’t it?”
“Wh-what?” Arthit sputters, almost choking on his spit. Had he just heard correctly?
“I don’t know, maybe I’m just reading too much into it,” Tew gives a short laugh. “At first I thought you guys were just close friends…but so much makes sense now. I was hoping that John being a dick last time was just that, but…there’s something there.”
“We’re not…he’s—we’re just friends.” Arthit fails to form coherent sentences. His face is hot with embarrassment, and suddenly, his entire face feels numb.
“But you like him.”
“I…” Arthit swallows, looking at the table. “Please don’t tell anyone.”
His voice is quiet, almost a begging whisper.
“Hey, no, of course not,” Tew says quickly, as if it’s the most obvious thing. “I mean, I’m disappointed, but clearly my silly crush is nothing compared to what you guys have.”
“There isn’t anything—”
“But there will be,” he smiles again. “Anyway, thanks for the session. Don’t worry, I’m not going to be weird about it or anything. And don’t feel like you have to avoid me, either.”
The corner of Arthit’s mouth curves up in a small smile, nodding.
“I’m still taking you up on hanging out, though,” Tew chuckles as he picks up his books and turns to walk towards the door. “Oh, hey, Kongpob.”
The aforementioned boy is simply standing in the doorway, brows furrowed as he moves his glance between Arthit and Tew, but he doesn’t say anything.
“I…I’ve got your stuff,” Arthit says, holding the books up, then side stepping past Kong into the stairwell, deliberately avoiding his look of confusion. “Let’s go, class is almost starting.”
As Kongpob and Arthit walk down the inner street that leads to the main road, neither of them say a word. Arthit merely listens to the rhythmic clink of Kongpob’s crutches as the rubber point hits the pavement with each step.
Even as he sets up the grill, tidily distributing the coals under the wire rack and moving the flame gun over each piece, Kongpob makes no move to say anything, simply watching.
“Is everything okay?” Arthit finally says, somewhat embarrassed by being watched so intensely.
“Why wouldn’t it be okay?”
“Because you’ve been really quiet all day, and you said you were going to text me after you left on Saturday, but then you didn’t, and you haven’t said a word the entire way here, and now you’re just staring at me, and I don’t know why.”
Not that he really cares about whether or not Kongpob texts him or not, but he doesn’t like when people don’t follow through on their word, and what with the boy in crutches, he’d at least wanted to know if he’d gotten home safely.
Kongpob sighs, most of his breath coming out through his nose.
“Sorry, I just…” he trails off, eyes looking downwards. Arthit pauses to look at him a moment longer before huffing a sigh of his own and lightly fanning the grill. He pulls a tray of skewers out from the mini fridge behind him and plops it noisily on the worktop.
“What do you want to eat?” he finally says, somewhat indignant.
“Um…five of the beef.” Kongpob’s voice is distant, his mind still elsewhere.
The skewers land on the rack with a loud sizzle, thick marinade dripping onto the coals, emitting small sparks. The two boys simply watch, the aroma of the sweet and savoury flavours wafting between them.
Arthit pulls out the notepad, scribbling in the order.
15/9/2014 – ฿40
As the number of the balance gradually decreases, Arthit can’t help but recall the day that Kongpob had first proposed the ridiculous deal, and everything that had happened between them since then. How much had changed, and how now, he can barely remember what it was like still eating in a bathroom stall, or spending his entire weekend working, or never looking anyone in the eye in case they noticed his presence.
Would that all come back once the bill hit zero? Kongpob would have no reason to keep buying from him so frequently. He could try to convince himself that something more was there, that Kongpob’s friendship thus far, his prolonged stares, and a handful of flirtatious remarks are all the evidence he needs. But a part of him braces himself for the day it all comes to a crashing halt.
“What were you and Tew talking about earlier? On the roof, I mean,” Kongpob suddenly says, finally speaking of his own accord for the first time that day.
Arthit swallows, turning over a few skewers, and flushes slightly upon recalling how Tew had managed to pick up on his well-kept (or so he thought) secret.
“Um, not much. He just wanted to know how I study for tests and that kind of thing,” he says, feigning nonchalance.
“Oh,” comes the quiet response, with a tinge of surprise. “Nothing else?”
Arthit blinks at him a few times, trying to read Kongpob’s expression. He almost looks…relieved? He shakes his head in response before putting his order into a bag and handing it to him.
“So…how are you getting home?” he gestures towards Kongpob’s crutches.
“P’Shin is picking me up.”
Arthit nods, placing a few more skewers down over a particularly fiery patch of coals.
“Are you okay making it there by yourself?”
“Yeah, I should be fine,” Kongpob’s mouth forms a faint smirk. “Why, are you worried about me?”
“Ah, there’s the Kongpob I’m used to. And no, who’s worried? Just don’t want to have to taxi you to the hospital again.”
“Okay, P’Arthit,” he says, and Arthit can’t help but feel a sense of comfort in hearing the teasing tone of his voice return. “I’m going now.”
Arthit nods as Kongpob turns to make his way back up the street slowly pressing forward with his crutches. He watches after him for a few seconds, biting his lip, before calling out.
“Kong,” his voice projects from a couple of meters away. The boy turns his head to look at him, eyes wide in surprise.
“N-nothing,” Arthit scratches his ear. “Just…get home safe, I guess.”
And there it is; the wide smile that lights up his entire face with his perfect, sparkling teeth and Arthit knows that if neither of them say anything soon, he might spontaneously implode. He’s truly become the blushing mess around a cute boy that Prae had teased him for acting like.
“I will,” Kongpob calls back. “And I will text you later. Promise.”
As Kongpob rests his elbow on the windowsill of the car seat, he realises that it’s the first time that Arthit has called him Kong.