Chapter 25: Balance: ฿206
Kongpob sometimes feels like a stranger in his own home. He’s acutely aware of how his friends tend to react upon seeing the mansion for the first time — jaw drops, eyes glazed over with wonder, whisper-yells of what the hell? — and if he’s being honest, it’s a little daunting to him at times, too, even if he’s lived in it his entire life. Perhaps the fact that his parents mostly use the common space on the ground floor for entertaining business guests has something to do with it, but Kongpob can recall being told off for leaving his backpack on the marble floor, where the zipper details could scratch it.
Now, the oversized house exudes an aura of foreboding as Kongpob toes off his shoe and sock quietly (well, as quietly as is possible with the clatter of his steel crutches) in the front hallway, although he thinks it might not be because of the sheer magnitude of the living room. Unlike other days, when he would come home to mostly silence, or his mother cooking up a storm in the kitchen, there seem to be voices coming from the living room. One is distinctly his mother’s, the unmistakably calm tones murmuring in a low voice. The other is his father’s.
Are you still at school? Can you come home right away? Your father is home, too. We…have something to discuss with you.
He’s not sure he could have thought of anything to ask even if he’d wanted answers. The fact that his father is home at this hour, and not, for once, cooped up in his soundproof study and neck-deep in paperwork, only serves to exacerbate Kongpob’s anxiety. He begins to conjure up the worst possible outcomes, still stood behind the wooden partition structure behind his parents, who are whispering something to each other. Kongpob can’t make out anything coherent from their hushed conversation, but whatever it may be, it doesn’t sound pleasant.
Maybe an elder relative had fallen ill. That would be a rather arbitrary thing to be called home for, though, given that aside from his immediate cousins and aunts or uncles, Kongpob can count the number of times he’s met his extended family on one hand.
Or perhaps, then, something had happened with his father’s company, which would explain why Por would be home at this hour of the day, and out in the living room, no less. But what would that have to do with Kongpob on such an urgent basis? Had something gone so horribly wrong that would affect all of them?
Then his mind reaches into a part of his worries that he’d been trying to suppress for some time now. Maybe his father knew. Maybe someone had seen him and Arthit on the rooftop that day and reported them to a teacher, who had called his parents. This hadn’t been how he’d wanted to have that conversation with his father, and now, the mere prospect of having to face his potential rejection leaves his face pale and—
“Kongpob? What are you doing just standing out here?” His mother has come around the partition to find her son simply staring holes into a pair of his father’s leather shoes. “I thought I heard someone come in. Come on, we’ve got something to talk to you about.”
She places a hand on his back, gently pushing him into the living room, where he meets his father’s usual, polite business smile. He greets him with a wai before his mother pushes him to sit between them, like a scared live octopus he’d seen on those Korean travel and food documentaries, squirming on a plate with chopsticks hovering over its tentacles.
“Is…everything okay?” He glances back and forth between his parents, sensing some nervous rigidity in their expressions, particularly in that of his father, who, despite his properness, is usually still composed and collected. Now, he seems to struggle for words. At the very least, Kongpob observes hopefully, he’s not frowning.
“Your Por and I…we received a phone call earlier,” his mother starts, her expression terse. Kongpob feels the blood about to drain from his entire body. This is it, he thinks. He’d been caught, and now he would have to explain his actions to his parents. “I’m not sure how to tell you this, exactly, but, uh—”
“Mae, it was just a kiss, I swear! We didn’t do anything else. It’s not even against the school rules!” It all comes flooding out like lava, an oncoming disaster in its path. Or at least it certainly feels that way, as Kongpob realises what he’s said and can only think of all the different ways it could possibly end in his untimely death.
“What?” Both parents narrow their eyes in confusion now, his father especially perplexed by his son’s sudden outburst. “What kiss? You kissed someone? Did you get a girlfriend and not tell us?”
“Uhhh…” Kongpob stammers, willing for the sofa to swallow him whole as he registers his major miscalculation of the situation. He looks to his mother desperately for help, but she’s simply buried her face in her hand, shaking with muffled laughter. “Maaae!”
“I’m sorry, but it’s just that with everything that’s happened today, that’s…that’s wonderful, Kong,” she smiles, wiping actual tears from her eyes before ruffling his hair upon seeing his anxious, sulking expression. “I’m assuming it’s Arthit.”
“Arthit?” his father says, and Kongpob freezes again. In the almost twenty-four hours that he’d been with Arthit, he’d already begun to construct different scenarios in which he would tell his father about his relationship with a boy.
Perhaps he would introduce him at their graduation, so that at the very least, he could argue that it hadn’t at all affected his grades. Or on his own birthday, so that his father couldn’t make a scene in front of guests. Or maybe he’d deliberately allow his father to catch them holding hands or kissing so he wouldn’t even have to say the words aloud. The possibilities were endless, but none of them had come anywhere close to an accidental blurting less than a day later. Such, though, as Kongpob has come to discover in recent months, is life.
There’s a long, drawn-out pause in which both he and his mother exchange a look of shared panic. “Isn’t that your maths tutor’s name? Your classmate, right?”
The boy nods briefly, still holding his breath.
Kongpob can’t read his father’s expression, and holds his bated breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop. His father’s brows are knotted and lips pursed in thought. Kongpob watches his shoulders rise and fall slowly before the man begins to nod.
“Right. Well…” the man trails off, avoiding his son’s gaze.
“Kong…we just want you to be happy,” his mother takes his hand, looking pointedly at her husband, who still has yet to give any sort of indication of his thoughts. “He makes you happy, right?”
Kongpob nods fervently, noisily sniffing. “So happy.”
“Then we’re happy, too, aren’t we?” his mother smiles warmly, still speaking mostly to her husband, who forces a ghost of a smile with the faintest singular nod. The elder Sutthiluck remains silent, rubbing his palms along the length of his trousers.
The tension in Kongpob’s chest remains, and it’s as though a wall has now been placed between the two of them. A part of him is relieved that the man hasn’t outright thrown a fit or disowned him, but his silence, too, speaks volumes. He would have to count his blessings for now.
“I…” Kongpob tears his gaze away from his father’s stiff posture now. “What was it that you wanted to tell me so urgently? Who called?”
His mother’s smile fades now, and she clears her throat before sighing deeply.
Arthit☀️: everything ok?
Arthit☀️: let me know
Arthit☀️: ok…i guess u’ve gone to bed
Arthit☀️: just wanted to know if u wanna do anything tmr morning
Arthit☀️: good night ^v^
Kong☕: Oh gosh, sorry! I was charging my phone and forgot to turn it back on.
Kong☕: I’m fine, mostly. I’ll tell you more soon, if you’re going to bed now.
Kong☕: I have to go somewhere tomorrow, so I probably can’t come over.
Kong☕: But I’ll call you, I promise. Or I might come by after?
Kong☕: Either way, I’ll call you.
Kong☕: I miss you already.
Kong☕: Good night ^3^
The sky clouds over with a thick, murky grey the next morning as they make the long drive to the rehabilitation centre. It starts with a few sparse, heavy droplets splattering like pellets on the windshield, then a steady shower, and then like thick, syrupy glaze over a dense sponge cake. Kongpob himself had not gone down this particular route in over two years, and the slurry of rainwater on the window of the passenger seat makes it difficult for him to pick out anything that might have once been familiar.
He knows his parents have been to visit his sister occasionally. Every now and again, he would hear his mother murmuring over the phone with the doctors, checking on her progress, or discussing different treatment options. Other times, his father would go out driving in the middle of the night after receiving a call that Namtarn had once again escaped the facility after ripping out her IV drip and feeding tube.
They aren’t coming this time, though.
Two years had passed since she’d so much as sent him a text or called to say Happy Birthday. Two years since he’d read her favourite novels to her at her bedside. Two years since she’d unceremoniously slapped the book out of his hand and screamed What the fuck do you know? You’re just a spoiled child! You’ve always been Mae and Por’s favourite. Just fuck off!
And so he’d kept his distance, all hope of seeing the light in her eyes again fading with every passing month that they didn’t speak.
“She wants to see you, Kong,” his mother had told him. “I know…I know she wasn’t the kindest to you the last time you went to visit her, but I think she’s trying to make things right. What do you think?”
What did he think? It had taken most of the rest of the afternoon and much of the evening, lying flat on his back in bed, still in his uniform, for him to come to a decision. He’s still reeling from his father’s less than enthusiastic response to him having a boyfriend, and now, he’s a mere twenty minutes away from seeing his sister again. What would she look like? What would they even talk about? Would she lash out at him again?
“What’s on your mind, kid?” P’Shin breaks the into the tornado of Kongpob’s thoughts, eyes still on the road, squinting through the windshield wipers. They turn a particularly sharp corner, splashing the side of the car as it dips into a large puddle. Kongpob turns to look at him, but glances down in his lap again.
“Nothing, just…” he sighs, shaking his head. “A lot is going on, I guess.”
The butler hums in acknowledgement, but he withholds any further comment, instead waiting for Kongpob to elaborate for himself. He always does, even if he always puts on a front of wanting to remain vague and mysterious.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been back,” the boy says after a delayed sigh, as per Shin’s preconceived notions. “And I have no idea what I’m going to say to her, or why she wants to see me after so long. I thought she hated me, P’Shin. She hasn’t tried to contact me all this time, and the last time I saw her, she—well, you know that part.”
The windshield wiper is doing little to alleviate Shin’s blurred vision, but perhaps he’s taken this route so many times in the last six years that he really could navigate it with his eyes shut. Still, he squints as they come to a stop at a traffic light before turning slightly towards the young boy.
“Haven’t you ever said or done something you didn’t mean? Hurt someone you didn’t mean to?”
Kongpob doesn’t respond, simply staring at the glovebox in front of him for a while. Eventually, he nods. Too often his need to uphold virtue lands him in a scrape where he misunderstands a situation, or sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong.
“The way people react to something isn’t always a reflection of how they truly feel. It may just be our deepest fears and worries speaking for us, which doesn’t always turn out well. And then we feel ashamed and don’t know how to fix it. Once you squeeze the toothpaste out, it’s hard to put it back in.”
Still receiving mostly silence from the boy, Shin narrows his eyes as the traffic light turns green, and the car wheels slosh through more puddles. Kongpob rests his elbow on the windowsill, staring in the blurred side view mirror at his own reflection.
“You think she’s trying to fix things?” he finally says as they pull onto a road just outside of the city centre, just as the rain begins to ease up. He can now make out sparse houses distributed along the road between clusters of forestation.
“I do,” Shin turns briefly to give him a small smile, wrinkles forming in the corners of his eyes, his skin thin and freckled both from age and prolonged exposure to the sun.
There’s a response constructing itself in Kongpob’s head, but it dies on his lips as the sight of a familiar gravel driveway comes into view.
It’s as though no time has passed within these walls. Warmly lit, with floral and scenic paintings on faded beige, the occasional motivational poster disrupting the flow of store-bought art. You are your own worst enemy, one says. As Kongpob registers his name at the reception, another greets him with the words Just because your path is different, doesn’t mean you are lost.
The common area, really just a large room with a cluster of old leather sofas and a plasma screen in the corner that’s playing a rerun of a 90’s lakorn, is mostly empty. There had been a time when Kongpob could at least vaguely recognise most of the people who would nod at him when he walked past. Not that it makes too much of a difference now, most of them still staring blankly out the window at residual drops of rain merging together into one, or huddled up on a sofa talking to each other in hushed tones.
Kongpob feels his knees and hands go a little numb, struggling to curl his fingers around the strap of his messenger bag as his eyes search for her room. And turning the open-air corridor overlooking a grassy lawn, he sees it. Another poster just next to the door that reads Live. Laugh. Love. He recalls having groaned or rolled his eyes at it every time he’d seen it before, but now, it mocks him in return, as if privy to his unease.
He contemplates turning around and running back to the car, never to return again. And he very well would if it weren’t for the fact that his ankle is still immobilised in the confines of a clunky walking boot. He’d forgone the crutches that morning, deciding that, in fact, they served little purpose other than as a clunky nuisance to carry around. But as the fates would have it, the boot skids in the slimy condensation left by humidity on the floor of tile corridor, and he stumbles in the doorway, startling the person inside to attention.
When he finds his balance, looking up, his eyes meet with a face he’d almost forgotten. She looks…well, she looks different, is all Kongpob can really think. Her frame, as it always had been, is still small, but it’s no longer exaggerated by almost paper-like skin over jutting bone. Much of her once-matted hair has grown back, and it’s pulled back into a slick ponytail up and off her face. There’s colour to her previously sunken cheeks, reminiscent of how he remembers her in the more carefree days of their childhood. He’s still planted in the doorway as she blinks several times, before she’s shuffling off the bed by the window, pulling the upholstered chair next to it so he can sit.
After several seconds, he finally shuffles over to the chair, pulling his bag over his head and placing it on the ground. Namtarn shifts back onto the mattress, tucking her legs together so that her ankles overlap in front of her. She chews at her bottom lip and breathlessly pores over how her baby brother has grown so much in what feels like simultaneously no time and forever all at once.
The pregnant silence stagnates between them for several moments longer, neither of them daring to look each other in the eye. Instead, Kongpob directs his stare at the terrazzo-patterned linoleum floor, one corner of a tile having broken off to expose the concrete foundation underneath. In the midst of his meticulous examination, his sister speaks.
“How was the drive?”
Hearing her voice sounds to him like charging up his old iPod and pressing play on the last song he’d paused on. He clears his throat, finally lifting his head to look at her directly. Her fingers wring the material of her sweatpants, and Kongpob can’t help but notice that her arms are free of the self-induced bleeding welts that he’d once winced upon seeing. In their place are faded, brownish-pink scars where the scabs had healed. He also notes the lack of a tube taped to her arm, only the facility’s in-patient tag around her wrist.
“Why’d you ask me to come here?”
Namtarn nods, knowing well that her brother had never been one for small talk, regardless of how polite they’d been raised to be. She sighs sharply, mashing her lips together.
“I owe you an apology,” she starts, resting her elbows on her knees. “For the way I behaved the last time you were here…and for not calling all this time. I’m sorry.”
Kongpob swallows, her somewhat meagre apology leaving a bitter taste in his mouth.
“Why?” it comes out almost as a whisper, but then grows firmer with each word. “Why didn’t you call? You couldn’t even send me a text, or pick up when I tried to reach you. I—“
“I was so embarrassed, Kong,” her voice trembles now, her eyes shining with tears. “I said some horrible things to you that you didn’t deserve, and I couldn’t take them back.”
“But you still meant every word, didn’t you?”
“No!” she shakes her head rapidly, grabbing for his hand. He sucks in a breath at the contact, soft, cold, clammy hands on his wrist. “Never. I was just angry…but not with you.”
“It doesn’t change anything, P’,” his own voice begins to shake. “You don’t know what it’s like at home. I was never their favourite. If anything, it’s always been you. You could commit murder and they would say She’s just going through a difficult time. Me? I’ve been having dinner alone almost every day for five years because Mae and Por are never home! Mae cooks all your favourites and leaves them in the fridge for me. Por barely even comes out of his office. You know they want me to take over Siam Polymer? It should’ve been you, P’Nam! You were always the one with the talent, but I-I don’t get a choice anymore. I don’t—”
She pulls his head into her shoulder as he weeps through his words, the rest of his sentence muffled into incoherence. He gives up. Not even a minute had passed since he’d sat down, and he couldn’t even be mad at her any more than he could be at their parents. She’d always had that effect on him, even if he’d tried so desperately to shove it away in a storage bin of its own to collect dust along with other memorabilia under his bed.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers into his hair, her own tears seeping down. “I’m so sorry, kiddo. I should’ve known. I shouldn’t have run away. I should’ve tried harder. There’s no excuse. I’m so sorry.”
They stay like this for a few more minutes, another thousand words of remorse murmured as Namtarn strokes his hair to soothe his choked sobs. When he finally pulls out of her grasp, he makes quick work of wiping at his face, as though suddenly embarrassed to have cried in front of her. He sniffs a few times, swallowing as he regains his composure.
“You…you look well,” he says with a tight smile, his voice still strained.
“I’ve been trying really hard this time around,” she says, taking one of his hands in hers again. “I want to come home soon. I want to see you graduate.”
Her face is earnest, and while she looks the healthiest she’s been in a long time, Kongpob still holds out reservation, having heard some variation of these exact words before.
“What changed your mind?” he asks anyway. She smiles, although it seems a little sad.
“I…there was a guy,” she rolls her eyes, slightly blushing. “His mother used to occupy the next room. He came into my room one day and asked to borrow the remote control for the AC. And after that, he would stop in every time he came to visit.”
Now, this is a side of his sister that he’s never seen before. Kongpob can’t help but smile, too, amused by her sudden shyness.
“So…where is he?”
“Well, nothing ever happened. And his mae got discharged a few months ago,” Namtarn sighs, although she doesn’t seem particularly upset. “I don’t know. He was cute. We talked. But it wouldn’t have gone anywhere, not with how I was progressing.”
She’s quiet for a moment, playing with the end of her wrist tag, so old now that her name has almost completely faded.
“And it made me realise that I’d let so much time pass me by,” she continues. “I never finished school. I never had a part-time job. Never had a boyfriend. I missed meeting P’Fang’s baby. None of it was because other people didn’t like me, or because of how I looked.”
“I’ve always thought you were beautiful,” Kongpob says, mostly because it’s true.
“Save that for when you’re trying to chase after someone,” she chuckles, shaking her head. “What about you? Is there anyone you like? And what happened to your foot?”
“Oh, I tripped over an open drain,” he scratches the back of his neck. He hesitates now, although it seems as though the fates won’t let him keep this information a secret for very long. “And…yeah, I’m with someone.”
She breaks into a wide grin, her nose wrinkling in mischief, and nudges his arm.
“Sooo…who is it?”
Kongpob gulps, licking his lips nervously.
“Um…h-his name is…Arthit,” he starts, and immediately locks his gaze with hers, eyes searching for any hint of disgust. Or disappointment. Her face remains expectant, though, and after a few more seconds, she rolls her eyes.
“Well? Is that it? What’s he like? Is he cute?”
“He’s…” Kongpob can’t help but smile now, too, the numbness in his hands fading with his relief. “Yeah, he’s cute. Like, really cute. Really smart, and funny, like, in a deadpan sort of way. He likes the Peanuts comics. Oh, and he makes the best moo-ping in Chinatown.”
“Awww!” she grabs his face by the cheeks and squishes his face in her hands, and it’s like he’s eight and she’s sixteen again, watching cartoons together in the living room until their parents came home from work. “My baby brother has a boyfriend! How fucking cute!”
“Oiii, P’Nam!” he pulls his face out of her grasp. “I’m not a baby!”
“No,” she rubs at his cheek with her thumb. “I suppose not. Has he met Mae and Por?”
“Just Mae,” he sniffs, still slightly congested from crying earlier. “Por…he knows. I kind of told him by accident.”
Namtarn notices the shift in his expression, her eyes narrowing.
“What did he say?”
“Nothing. He said nothing. He barely even reacted.”
Kongpob fiddles with the hem of his shirt, pulling at a loose thread. He exhales noisily, their previous playfulness dissolving into a solemn quiet. Namtarn purses her lips, then reaches to her left, picking up a shabby-looking paperback and handing it to him. He eyes the familiar book, the same one he’d been reading to her the last time he’d visited.
“Will you read to me? You never finished.”
He takes the book from her, opening up to where the tattered bookmark is wedged.
“You always read so well in English. It makes me want to go back to school. Maybe become a teacher one day,” she continues, curling into a ball on her side now.
The corner of Kongpob’s mouth turns upwards, an attempt to convince himself of the possibility of her latest ambitions. Once, she’d dreamt of being a rocket scientist, and at some point, a mattress tester. He clears his throat a little, sitting up straighter as his gaze falls on the paragraph where he’d left off.
“In the weeks before they left for Menton, Lili had begun to appear unannounced in the afternoons. Greta would leave the Widow House for an appointment. When she returned, she’d find Lili at the window in a loose dress, the back buttons unfastened. Greta would help her finish dressing…”
“You don’t think she’s serious, then?” Arthit says as he makes a note of Kongpob’s order.
20/9/2014 – ฿44
He briefly squints at the inauspicious number, but gives it no further thought. Unlike all other times that Kongpob had visited him at the cart, they’re both behind the grill this time, Kongpob watching Arthit work as he sits on a plastic stool to Arthit’s left.
“I don’t know,” he says to Arthit’s back, where a dark sweat stain has formed down the middle of his grey T-shirt. “She seems a lot better, at least physically, but it’s hard to tell with her sometimes.”
Arthit nods, handing a customer their order over the worktop, then returns to tending to his boyfriend’s order, checking for the browning edges closing in on the rosy pink of the beef skewer before turning them over. There’s a brief lull as an older man slowly heaves past with a large pushcart piled high with bags of flour, on his way to make a delivery.
“Have you forgiven her, though?”
Kongpob shrugs. “It’s complicated. I…I guess I forgive her for the way she lashed out at me, and for the stuff she said. And I logically know that a lot of what’s happened to her, to me…to our family…it’s really not her fault she feels the way she does. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt the same.”
Arthit briefly wonders if he’d ever unintentionally hurt someone in his casual self-deprecation. Perhaps his mother, although she’d never expressed any such sentiment if it existed. He looks at Kongpob now, who’s doodling squares on the notepad, eyebrows furrowed in concentration. He’d always thought that Kongpob had it all—good friends, good looks (although he’d never tell him out loud), both parents, an enormous house, never wanting for anything their peers skipped lunch to save their pocket money for.
Not a person of many words, Arthit doesn’t ask any further questions. Instead, he lightly taps the edge of the worktop to get the boy’s attention.
“Kong,” he says, to which his boyfriend looks up, eyes questioning. Arthit allows his gaze to fall down to his outstretched hand, which he offers to him from behind the cart, out of view from prying eyes. Kongpob takes it, and they exchange a small smile.