Chapter 23: Balance: ฿285
His father’s grave, one of many in a tightly packed row of headstones, looks mostly the same, if a little worn from a few months worth of built up grime due to heavy rain. Not that Arthit had been expecting any different, seeing as, well, the dead can’t rise up and make a significant mess to clean up. It’s a quiet morning, though, perhaps because most people visit during weekends rather than a Thursday morning.
After shooting Kongpob and M a quick text saying he wouldn’t be in school that day, but not to worry themselves, he’d turned his phone off, packing into the back of a tuk-tuk with his mother towards the cemetery. Neither of them had exchanged a word over the course of the entire journey until they’d seen the familiar faded green gates come into view from the back of the rickety vehicle.
Every time they’d visited other relatives before, Arthit had mostly felt empty, bowing out of courtesy to generations of people he’d maybe met once before, and never in close proximity. That had changed two years ago when his father had suddenly collapsed in the living room, a meaty hand clutched to his chest.
Arthit stands to the side as his mother rubs a damp cloth over his father’s photograph, as well as those of a cluster of relatives, including his paternal grandparents and a great uncle he’s never met. Arthit scans his gaze over the rest of the epitaph. The inscription on the terracotta marble is in golden Chinese lettering, and while he can pick out the character that’s a transliteration of the family surname, everything else is still a mystery to him. His father’s monochrome picture stares almost mockingly back at him, his larger-than-life grin, slightly tanned complexion, and slicked-back hair an optimistic image of the man he’d grown up with.
On either side of the small gravestone are two small stone vases, one with wilting flowers from the last time it had been visited (a few months ago), and the other empty. Between them is a small pit of sand, half-burnt joss sticks still wedged firmly in the dirt. He assists his mother in pulling them out and discarding of the flowers into a small plastic trash bag. She takes out a few fresh new sticks of incense from her bag, clicking the lighter over them a few times before a waft of smoke trails its way through the air around them.
They both bow, paying their respects.
“How are you, tee rak? Oon and I have come to visit you,” Arthit’s mother is sitting on her heels now, a picnic blanket laid out underneath them so they don’t scuff their knees. “Are you still eating well? Don’t forget to eat vegetables as well,” she chuckles, crows’ feet forming in the corners of her eyes, her skin thinner than it used to be, though she’s no less beautiful. “If you’ve already reincarnated, I hope you live a good life full of fortune and that you get to achieve your dreams.”
She bows again in a wai, before turning to smile warmly at her son. It’s the same few things she’d said the last time they were here during Cheng Meng Festival, and the time before that on his father’s birthday, and one year ago, on the first anniversary of his death.
“Oon, do you have anything to tell your father?”
Does he? Arthit swallows, thinking hard about her question. There had been so much that had happened since the last time he’d visited, so much that had changed about his daily ongoings. And yet, he hasn’t ever felt a sense of yearning or interest in sharing anything with his father before.
All his recollections of interacting with the man as a child had been of being helplessly dragged around Chinatown, blindly eating their fill until they couldn’t move, or crouching in the corner of his room listening to his parents argue over money behind the door or, the last few times, over his hypothetical interest in boys.
“Hi, Por,” he starts. “I hope you are well and have reincarnated into a good life.”
He raises his hands to wai, but then pauses a moment before putting them down again, exhaling a sigh through his nose. Instead, his hands curl into fists in his lap as he contemplates his next words.
“Por, I have something to tell you,” he finds himself saying. His mother turns her head sharply towards him, brows creased in confusion. “I know that…you always wanted me to become what you called ‘a real man’, whatever that means. And in many ways, I failed you,” he laughs bitterly, the memory seeming entirely ridiculous now. “You said I was too weak, too sensitive, and…that real men don’t cry, or feel, or care about what others feel. They don’t get upset when others push them around…or write birthday cards for other boys. But that’s not true.”
He reaches next to him, grabbing his mother’s small, bony, work-worn hand. She’s trembling, a lump caught in her throat. Despite the rather unusual greeting, she doesn’t stop her son from continuing.
“Por, I…there’s someone at school. His name is Kongpob,” he smiles mostly to himself. “And, well…I really like him. A lot,” he adds quietly, and he feels his mother squeeze his hand back. “And he’s taught me that…I can be all those things you disapproved of, and still be worthy of someone’s love. I’m sorry that life didn’t go the way you’d hoped, but I wish…I wish you’d had someone to tell you that it was okay to be sad, or that your failures were just temporary obstacles,” his voice is firmer, angrier now. A stray, hot tear runs down his cheek. “Because you weren’t the only one hurting, Por.”
He grips his mother’s hand tighter now, exhaling sharply through trembling lips.
“Not everyone is going to accept me. I’ve understood that for a long time. But I am so tired of being unhappy just to please other people, including you. I’m tired, Por. I just want to be happy.”
Arthit takes a few more deep breaths before pressing his forehead into his joined hands, concluding his greeting. “Rest well, Por.”
Kong☕: Is everything okay?
Arthit’s phone pings with a message as soon as he turns it on a little past noon, as he and his mother enter the apartment. He almost feels a sense of relief, having gotten his thoughts off of his chest, even if his father would never really be around to hear them.
Arthit☀️: i’m fine, don’t worry
Arthit☀️: tell u more when u come over later
Arthit☀️: ur still coming over right?
Arthit☀️: stop texting at school!
Kong☕: I’ll see you later! 😊
He smiles, pocketing his phone as he joins his mother in the kitchen. She’s pouring two glasses of cold water from the fridge, pushing one glass towards him across the fold-out table in the corner.
“Thanks, Mae,” he says. The icy liquid is a welcome refreshment from the sticky humidity.
She simply smiles, then pulls out a stool from under the table, joining her son as they sit by the window, the patterned grating forming a shadow on the tiled floor.
They don’t usually open up shop on this day, at least not the grilled pork cart, but his mother has decided that she’ll at least work the evening shift at the drinks stall.
“Oon,” she reaches out, stroking his hair once before allowing her hand to fall to his cheek as she admires her son’s features. “I’m glad you said what you said today.”
“You don’t think I was disrespecting the dead or something?”
She scoffs, erupting briefly with laughter at his remark.
“That stuff is only true if you believe it.”
He gulps down the rest of his water, allowing it to trickle through him, cooling his insides, too.
“Mae, how do you stay so positive when we visit him? Even after how he was so terrible to us?”
His mother mashes her lips together in thought, eyes searching his for a few moments before heaving a sigh.
“Oon, you can be hurt by what someone has done to you, and still miss the parts of them that made you happy. I don’t want us to be angry anymore, do you understand?” she rubs a thumb at the nape of his neck, the hairs still prickly from a recent haircut. “I don’t want you to hang on to that memory of him for too long. You said so yourself, you should be happy.”
Arthit brings a knee up to his chin, picking at a tiny scab. He nods after a while.
He should be happy.
“Mae,” he says, just loud enough for her to hear. “Kongpob is coming over today.”
“Oh? Should I close up shop earlier then?”
“Sorry, I’m just teasing,” she giggles, squishing his cheeks between her fingers. “Go on, then.”
He pulls his face away, scowling slightly.
“You said before that…if anything changes, that….you want me to tell you,” the words come out slowly as his glance falls onto the faux wooden veneer of the table. “Well…something might change today.”
His entire face heats up, awaiting her reaction. When he looks back up, his mother’s expression is soft, a small smile on her face.
“Thank you for telling me,” she rubs a thumb over the spot he’d been picking at, soothing away the spot of blood that’s formed. “And…I hope it works out. He’s a nice boy. Cute, too.”
“Maeee,” he rolls his eyes as her grin widens. “Stop it,” he shakes his head.
He agrees with her, though.
“Just promise that you won’t let this get in the way of school, okay?”
“Mae, I haven’t even told him yet.”
“Right, like he’s going to say no,” she looks at him pointedly.
“He might,” he suddenly realises. “He might just see me as a good friend.”
“And would that be such a bad thing? To have Kongpob as your friend?”
No, he thinks. It wouldn’t, but it doesn’t stop the nagging feeling of wanting more.
Arthit spends an extortionate amount of time in front of the bathroom mirror after his mother leaves the apartment.
While he’s never cared too much about the more minute details of his appearance, having only ever paid attention to the overall size of his body, he’s lately found himself nitpicking at just about every tiny flaw.
Right now, after a particularly hygienic shower during which he’d actually used his mother’s conditioner for the first time, he’s peering at a painful zit that’s forming right above his eyebrow, as well as scars from older breakouts scattered across his forehead. It’s apparent to him now what Prae means when she says My pores are huuuuge as he inspects his nose so close up to the mirror that his breath creates brief patches of fog on the glass. Now, he’s hyper aware of his warm breath reflecting back onto his face, and wonders if it smells alright.
Maybe I should brush my teeth, he thinks, before grabbing his toothbrush and the tube of Fresh Spearmint toothpaste out of the wall holder above the sink. As he vigorously brushes, he stares at himself in the mirror, wondering when he’d begun to even care about these seemingly mundane details of appearance. Does it matter if his skin is clear or not? If his hair is an appropriate shape and length? If he smells of lavender or of citrus? What does anyone care if his breath is fresh or not?
Alright, so that last one might have less to do with Arthit’s self-esteem and more to do with Kongpob’s impending arrival within the next half hour or so. Arthit might be getting a bit ahead of himself, but he supposes that it doesn’t hurt to be prepared. He’d prefer not to have his potential first kiss be one during which his breath still tastes of the blood sausage and pork intestines he’d had for lunch.
Satisfied that he’s scrubbed the finest molecules of plaque and dirt off of his teeth, he spits the toothpaste into the basin, and rinses his mouth out with a cupped handful of water.
Exhaling sharply through pursed lips, he takes another look at himself, scanning the upper half of his body from head to waist. He grabs the toothpaste again, and dabs a tiny blob of the white substance over the spot over his eyebrow before wiping his finger on a towel. It’s then that he catches sight of his own torso.
Arthit hates the mirror, to be perfectly honest, especially after a shower, when he’s stark naked. His eyes fall on his abdomen, the skin a little looser there, his fingers grazing over fine lines slightly paler than his skin where stretch marks are etched in vertical lines around his navel. The pattern continues under his arms, over his hip bones, and behind his calves. Perhaps he should start doing some basic bodyweight exercises to fill out the skin with muscle rather than what had previously been there. Not that Kongpob would be seeing him with his shirt off any time soon, he doesn’t think, but it still makes him self-conscious to think of being looked at in that way.
He wraps his arms across his front now, exiting the bathroom so he no longer has to stare at himself. Instead, he tries to draw his attention to his small selection of clothing. He’s at home, so it wouldn’t make sense to dress in full street attire, but he doesn’t want to look too sloppy and like he’s just rolled out of bed. Eventually, he settles on a plain black pair of basketball shorts, and a grey T-shirt that somehow makes his shoulders look broader than they are.
At exactly 4:30 PM, he hears a knock on the door, sending Arthit’s heartbeat into hyperdrive, and his hands grow clammy from the mere thought of what the rest of the afternoon could bring.
Here goes nothing, Arthit sucks in another deep breath before pulling back the latch.
“Hey!” Kongpob’s familiar smile greets him as soon as the door opens. He holds up two drinks in hand; a pink milk and a lime soda. “I brought these.”
“Hi,” Arthit finds the corners of his mouth turning up slightly, stepping back to let Kongpob in. “You…you didn’t have to. The drinks, I mean.”
“Well, I’ve already bought them, so if you don’t want it, I can drink both,” he grins teasingly, settling the drinks on the coffee table as they enter the living room.
Arthit doesn’t even argue with him this time, pulling out his phone to make note of the transaction. He doesn’t really want to waste his nervous energy on such trivial matters.
18/9/2014 – ฿36
“So…where were you today?” Kongpob settles next to him on the sofa, perhaps a little closer than absolutely necessary, but Arthit isn’t complaining. The mere fact that their knees are touching makes his hands a little jittery, and he has trouble forming a coherent enough sentence to respond.
“I…went to visit my dad’s grave,” he finally says, looking up to see Kongpob’s sympathetic expression. “It’s been two years today.”
Kongpob nods slowly. “Do you miss him?”
“Honestly?” Arthit lets out a short laugh. “Not really. And I know that sounds bad, but…he…was not exactly someone I looked up to.” He takes in Kongpob’s look of confusion, and shakes his head. “It’s complicated. He had his own shit going on, but he often took his anger out verbally on me and Mae.”
“Arthit…that’s…I’m sorry,” Kongpob places a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it gently. It sends a tingle down Arthit’s back, and the hairs on the back of his neck to stand on end.
“It’s fine, I’m mostly over it now,” he shrugs, and Kongpob retracts his hand. “Tell me about school today. How was it?”
“Boring,” Kongpob huffs sulkily.
“Because I wasn’t there?” Arthit teases, nudging him with his elbow.
“Maybe,” comes the shy response. “Oak, uh, got his phone confiscated again so he and M spent most of lunch today talking about a new DOTA update or something.”
“That’s…a game, right?”
“Yeah. I have it on the console at home, but I don’t usually play unless people come over.”
Arthit nods, not really paying attention to what he’s saying, but rather focusing his gaze on how Kongpob’s natural expression is that of a soft smile, and how he always blinks gently, as though with purpose. When he realises he’s staring, he quickly looks back down at his lap.
He doesn’t know where to take the conversation from here and get to where he badly wants it to go, so he simply chews his lip, praying that Kongpob will say something else that can offer him a segue.
“Oh, um, by the way…” Kongpob squints at him, slightly amused.
“You….uh, you have a little…” he bites back a smile, looking straight at something right above Arthit’s line of vision. “Is that toothpaste?”
“Shit,“ Arthit whispers harshly, becoming flustered, and begins searching for a tissue.
“Here, I’ve got it,” Kongpob chuckles in amusement, reaching up to swipe at the white blob with his thumb. In a moment’s panic, Arthit grabs his hand, pulling it away from his face.
They both look at each other now, their joined hands falling slowly back down between their laps. The two boys stay like this for a moment, eyes boring into each other’s, as if daring the other to blink. Not breaking their gaze, Arthit gulps, his slightly cold and damp hand hesitantly shifting over Kongpob’s to lace their fingers together.
It’s Kongpob who looks down first, eyes wide with bewilderment at the sight and feeling of their clasped hands, as if he can’t believe what he’s seeing. Arthit watches him, hyper-focused on every flicker in his eyes and the pinch forming between his brows. He feels his heartbeat pulse so strongly that it pounds erratically in his ears, and he swears his nose become slightly numb. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see the two cold drinks on the table, forming wet rings of condensation as the ice melts.
Please say something, he thinks, Please tell me I’m not the only one.
“Arthit…” Kongpob finally says after almost a minute. His gaze remains on their linked hands. “I’m scared.”
“I know,” he whispers back, the numbness now spreading toward his forehead. “So am I.”
“I thought I was going insane. I’ve never felt like this before. I just never thought I would…”
“I know. Me neither.”
Their eyes meet again, and Arthit sees Kongpob physically swallow, unsure of what to say next.
“Do you think we shouldn’t?” It kills him to ask, but he has to know.
“I’m scared,” Kongpob says again, more slowly this time. “That there are people who want to hurt us.”
Arthit tightens his clasp on his hand, gently rubbing the pad of his thumb over Kongpob’s, as though in understanding. It had never been about shame, or whether one felt the same as the other. It had never been about reputation, or the tutoring, or the stupid deal. That would be too easy.
No, this is about fear.
“I’m scared, too,” he chews nervously at his bottom lip. “But I also think that…hiding sucks. Take it from someone who ate lunch in a toilet cubicle for three years.”
Kongpob smiles at this, and Arthit responds with a small one of his own.
“Yes, there are shitty people out there who don’t get it,” he continues. “But there are also the super annoying people in our lives who will pester us into feeling comfortable in our own skin.”
“I mean it, Kong. I spent so many years hoping for everyone’s approval and that they would see me for who I am rather than just the fat kid, when honestly, they just don’t matter. They don’t. We have our parents, we have Prae, and M, and even Tew. They’re…like, our garden rooftops. And you have me. I know that up to this point, it’s mostly been you looking out for me, but I’m here, too. And if anyone tries to hurt you because of this, I won’t—what…what are you doing?”
He blinks rapidly, slightly startled by the sheer proximity of Kongpob’s face all of a sudden. They’re so close that the tips of their noses are almost touching now, and Arthit thinks he might have forgotten how to breathe.
“I want to kiss you,” Kongpob whispers, lashes fluttering slowly as he brings his gaze down to Arthit’s mouth. “Is that okay?” He looks back up into his eyes now, brown swirls of chocolate tinted with dark hues of desperation. His breaths grow shorter as each second passes.
Yes, Arthit thinks.
But he makes no verbal response, instead tentatively angling his head forward so that their lips meet softly, hesitantly in the middle. It’s merely a single, gentle press of their mouths, both of them holding their breaths for several seconds, but it fills Arthit’s entire body with a tidal wave of warm tingles. It exceeds all his expectations, despite the simplicity. If this is how good kissing someone you like feels, Arthit can’t comprehend how anything else could possibly make his heart swell more than this very moment. He doesn’t dare open his eyes, in case it’s just another incredibly vivid dream of his, and he might wake up from it.
As far as first kisses go, Arthit thinks his is pretty perfect.
Kongpob pulls away first, his smile growing wider as he slowly opens his eyes. Arthit bites back a smile of his own, his face and ears hot with not embarrassment, but the pleasant warmth of shyness.
When they finally manage to brave looking at each other again, they both burst into soft, nervous laughter, barely able to suppress their grins.
“Does this mean…you’re my…boyfriend now? Wow, that sounds weird to say aloud.”
Arthit rolls his eyes, his cheeks still slightly pink.
“Don’t go announcing that to everyone. They’d question my sanity.”
“P’Arthit,” Kongpob pulls their hands towards him, pouting in jest. “I thought you said you wouldn’t let anyone hurt me.”
“I won’t,” he says firmly, softening his expression to convey sincerity. “You do a good enough job of that yourself, falling into exposed drains and such,” he can’t help but add.
“You’re cute when you’re feisty.”
“Oookay, time for you to leave.” Arthit gets up, pulling him up by their still-joined hands and walking them towards the front door.
“But I just got he—” Kongpob pauses, pulling his phone out of his pocket before sighing upon reading the notifications on his screen. “Actually, no, you’re right. Shin is waiting for me downstairs.”
“I’ll uh…I’ll call you later?” Arthit scratches the back of his neck with his free hand.
Kongpob beams at him with a toothy smile, one that Arthit knows for sure is for him.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, P’Arthit.”
Arthit merely nods, a slight smile still lingering from the excitement of their kiss. He finally lets of of Kongpob’s hand, watching almost fondly as his boyfriend—well, yes, it does sound strange to say—awkwardly shuffles down the steps, occasionally turning around to grin and wave at him.
When he disappears from view, Arthit can’t suppress his smile any longer, clicking the door shut and sliding down against it so he’s sitting on the floor.
Arthit☀️: i kissed him 🙂
Prae🍐: i’m coming over