Chapter 26: Balance: ฿162
“You’re ridiculous,” Arthit grumbles feebly, lightly shoving Kongpob in the shoulder. During the last twenty minutes in which they were supposed to have been conducting their usual Monday session, they’d gotten next to nothing algebra-related done. In fact, Arthit’s mouth had spent more time attached to Kongpob’s than explaining anything to do with algebra. Somehow, he’d been adorably coerced into giving his boyfriend kisses in exchange for correct answers, each one still slightly clumsy with inexperience, and lingering a few milliseconds longer than the last. “Enough, you’re paying me to tutor you in maths, not make out in the school library.”
“I don’t know; I’m pretty content with the current arrangement,” Kongpob leans his head on his propped up arm, smiling fondly as he fiddles with the buttonhole in Arthit’s shirt collar. Being on the receiving end of this endearing attention stimulates a pleasantly warm tickle in Arthit’s chest, and he really can’t complain, aside from the fact that their alternative choice of activity is proving to be incredibly distracting, not to mention frowned upon. That, and the fact that the security guard, although snoring softly into oblivion at his usual post, is sitting a mere ten meters away from them.
“I’m going to cover quadratics now; we’ll see how many correct answers you can weasel your way through,” Arthit shakes his head in mock annoyance, then peeks into his briefcase with a relenting tut. “I left my workbook in my desk drawer,” he says, pushing up and out of his chair. He taps a finger on the open page of the textbook, then narrows his eyes at Kongpob. “I’ll be right back. Work on these while I’m gone.”
Everything Kongpobs says to him, no matter how seemingly ordinary, drips with flirtation, especially as he lightly drags out the last syllable. This earns him an eye roll that makes him chuckle.
Arthit treads as quietly as possible past the sleeping man near the library door, wincing as the steel hinges creak with age, and tiptoes out into the corridor and towards the stairs.
Truthfully, he’d brought it up to Kongpob over the weekend about how it seemed odd now to accept money from him given the nature of their budding romance, or, as he’d put it, It would be like I’m your…sugar baby rather than your tutor.
Much to Kongpob’s amusement, Arthit had murmured this with an embarrassed pout, to which he’d replied, A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. I’m paying for you to teach me maths, P’Arthit, not to be my boyfriend. Then he’d gone back to his homework, papers sprawled across Arthit’s kitchen table. Arthit isn’t quite well-versed enough in English to fully comprehend what he’d meant by the former part of his explanation, but he now confirms the latter part of it to be incredibly dubious.
While the two of them can openly joke about Kongpob’s deep pockets, Arthit painstakingly reserves a space in the corner of his mind for this particular fact, like an eyesore piece of furniture bought on a whim, shoved in the corner to hopefully be forgotten. It juts out even further into his thoughts now, especially upon his boyfriend’s recount of how his father had been somewhat listless in his reaction upon learning of their relationship. While Kongpob had simply brushed it off as his father being indifferent to most things, Arthit knew better.
Perhaps one day, Kongpob would succumb to the pressures of being the only son and the heir to his father’s company, and Arthit — the grilled pork boy who lives in a walk-up in Chinatown — would no longer fit into that picture. As exciting and new as everything is now, and the pleasant ache in his chest he feels whenever Kongpob enters his daydreams or even just looks at him, the logician in Arthit can’t help but think years ahead to the day when Kongpob might tell him that he’d had his fun, but that he had to grow up and find a girl to marry.
Shaking his head of these worries for now, Arthit heaves out a sigh and heads up the stairs two steps at a time. Students are slowly trickling into different rooms now, a few yawning into their hands, and as Arthit reaches the third floor, he hears a faint commotion coming from the classroom. It seems far too early for the usual brand of raucous play that’s more definitive of the late morning or their lunch recess, Arthit thinks as he makes his way down the corridor.
As he gets closer, he freezes.
It’s a distinctly scurrilous tone which he’d once run home in a panic after hearing it speak such ugly words in jest.
“So what’s the deal with them, anyway, huh?” the leering voice snarls.
“Go away, John. This isn’t even your classroom.”
M sounds irritated to say the least, and Arthit swallows, pressing his back against the wall just outside the door. He’d been in a similar position before, although this time, he listens far more intently, willing himself to remain calm as he breathes soundlessly through his nose, even as his heartbeat thuds loudly in his eardrums.
“Wait till Coach hears about Kong the cock sucker,” John laughs, and Arthit hears a series of subsequent clapping noises and muffled snickers, probably John’s insolent lackeys egging him on. “His foot won’t be the reason that he’s off the team next year.”
“Fuck off, John.”
“What’s wrong, M? Why are you sticking up for those fags? You one of them?”
“Nobody owes you any sort of explanation. Just get out of my face.”
“Which one of them is the girlfriend? I bet it’s Arthit. He even skips P.E. like a girl on her period.”
More discordant grunts of agreement, and the scrape of a chair.
“I’m out of here—”
A loud slam. Arthit sucks in a gasp as he hears M cry out in pain. His hand trembles, and as much as he doesn’t want to see whatever is happening, he forces himself to peer in from the corner of the classroom door. John has M shoved harshly against the display board at the back of the classroom by the front of his uniform shirt, and his two friends pin M’s arms on either side of his head. A few other classmates in the room watch the scene with wide, fearful eyes, none of them daring flinch, lest they be targeted, too.
“Where do you think you’re going, Kathawuth? You’re not going to tell on us, are you?”
“You clearly don’t think you’re wrong, so why would you be — augh!”
Arthit claps a hand over his mouth as John slaps M in the face, effectively silencing his retort. The entire left side of his head is marked with a faint red shadow of where John’s hand had struck. Suddenly, breathing seems like the most difficult chore, and Arthit feels like he might empty the contents of his stomach at any moment. He knows he needs to get help, but his feet are numbly planted to the ground like they’re wedged in concrete.
He looks up and to his right where the voice is coming from, and he’s almost hyperventilating at this point, his shoulders and chest heaving as quietly as he can physically manage, and his skull feels too large for his scalp. His vision is somewhat blurred by hot tears that have sprung to his eyes to soothe the unblinking ache, but he can just about make out Teacher Lynn’s frizzy mess of curls.
“Is everything alright? Why are you—“
His mouth opens, trying to form words to help her understand what has him so cripplingly shellshocked, but instead, he gapes at her like a fish out of water several times before he resorts to pointing vaguely to his left at the classroom door. Painfully blinking the tears out of his eyes, he turns, staring after her as she rushes into the room, just as another resounding thwack! echoes in his ears, followed by a loud groan of pain.
“What is going on in here?!”
You could almost hear a pin drop.
She’d never shouted like that before. Even in her strongly accented Thai, her anger cuts through the commotion like a heavy axe. Her eyes seem ablaze as she takes in the scene before her, M’s bloodied nose as he groans into a pile on the floor, John’s raised fist, and the stunned faces of the other students. Arthit stifles his gasp, wanting desperately to go over to his friend, but too scared to disrupt the tense confrontation.
Their English teacher marches noisily towards the back of the room, not even caring to take her shoes off as she pushes past John and the other two boys, crouching down to examine M’s face before pursing her lips in a sharp exhale.
“Can you look at me?” she says gently. “M, look at me.”
He stirs a little, weakly pushing himself to sit up before dopily trying to focus his gaze at her. Relieved, she turns to Arthit.
“Arthit, please take M to the medical room once he can walk.”
He nods shakily, still seemingly unable to form words.
“You three,” Teacher Lynn stands now, speaking in a low voice through gritted teeth as she narrows her gaze. “Principal’s office. Now.”
John’s previously smug grin is now replaced by a look reminiscent of a scared puppy, eyes wide and struggling to find any means to defend himself because right now, there truly is nothing that could possibly paint him in any positive light. She’d seen everything.
They quickly file into a line with their heads hung low, not even daring to look at Arthit as they’re ushered out of the classroom by an invisible leash.
As soon as they’ve left, Arthit takes a moment to find his footing again, and sprints towards M, stumbling between desks.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers, because it’s the only thing he can think to say right now. “I’m so sorry,” he says again, pulling a pack of tissues from his pocket with a trembling hand and extracting one. M simply grunts in acknowledgement, groggily taking the tissue and holding it to his nose to prevent more blood from dripping. He seems to be regaining his composure now, the initial dizziness wearing off enough that he blinks at Arthit wearily.
“I can walk now,” he nods, still wincing at the sharp pain in the bridge of his nose. With Arthit’s assistance, he manages to push off of the floor, and with an arm thrown over Arthit’s shoulders, they make their way out of the room.
M has a giant ice pack held to his face, the otherwise squishy blue gel in the plastic packaging still solid from being fresh out of the freezer. He winces at first at the sudden sharpness of the cold, but after a few seconds, the relief from the piercing ache in his nose is a welcoming sensation.
The entire time since they’d entered the medical room, Arthit had sat staunchly in a plastic chair in the corner while the school nurse tended to M, checking for any signs of severe injury beyond bruising and external bleeding as he yelped and squirmed at every prod and press.
“I think you’ll be just fine,” the nurse had smiled warmly at him while cleaning up the rest of the blood with a cotton swab. “But I’m going to inform the office to call home. You should still have that looked at in hospital.”
Arthit is uncomfortable, to say the least, being around nurses. Especially school nurses. The annual school visit to the local clinic for his health checkup had always gone the same way; they’d check his eyesight, tell him to hunch over to check for scoliosis, measure his height, make notes of his pubertal progress, and then weigh him. The only difference was that Arthit would always be asked to stay behind an extra ten minutes to be called into a private consultation room, where a nurse practitioner would lecture him on how he had to do regular exercise and eat healthily, and show him the wretched colour-coded food pyramid yellowing under its laminate, the image etched into the back of his mind like a recurring nightmare.
That hadn’t been the absolute worst part, though. That would have been coming out of the consultation room to see his classmates laughing among themselves or glaring at him in disdain, knowing exactly why they’d had to wait for him before boarding the bus back to the school. Even now, any medical establishments make him squirm, but an emergency is an emergency, and especially after Kongpob’s trip to the hospital, he knows he doesn’t have room to be selfish with his own apprehensions.
It’s almost 9 AM now, and Arthit suddenly remembers that he’s supposed to be in class, and that he’d simply left Kongpob at the library. He must be worried out of his mind. Right now, though, Arthit is still struggling to process what had just happened. Being bullied is not at all foreign to him, but middle school tomfoolery had mostly consisted of having his belongings taken and destroyed, receiving cruelly crafted remarks, and always being the last to get picked for P.E. teams.
Thankfully, he’s never been physically hurt, but he feels a twinge of secondhand pain just looking at the faint purplish bruise forming around M’s nose and left eye. It had happened because of him, because M had been trying to stand up for him.
“Stop,” M interrupts his ruminations, his voice a little nasally from being swollen. He shifts himself up to sit cross-legged on the narrow stretcher. “It’s not your fault.”
“He punched you because you were defending us,” Arthit sighs lamely, gripping the edges of the stool and scraping them along his fingertips in an oddly comforting scratch.
“No, he punched me because he’s an asshole,” M corrects him firmly, before flinching again at the soreness.
“Does it still hurt badly?”
“Not sharp pain, just….a lot of soreness,” he replies. “Nothing a doctor can’t fix. Although I hope it does heal properly; can’t afford to have my dashing good looks go to waste.”
Arthit huffs a laugh, relieved that M seems at least well enough to joke around.
“By the way…don’t tell Kong about this. You know how he gets.”
Whether he’s referring to their mutual pain in the backside’s tendency to undertake heroism to the point of almost irritation or his slightly overbearing compassion, Arthit isn’t sure. His sweet but slightly dramatic boyfriend should at least be informed of this particular instance, though.
“You know he’ll find out eventually, right? Everyone in that room saw what happened,” he reminds him. “You two sure like to keep things from each other.”
“What, like the fact that you two finally got together and haven’t told me?”
Arthit almost chokes on his own breath for a moment before the pink rises to his ears.
“How did you—“
“I’m not blind, Arthit,” M looks at him pointedly with his one exposed eye. “You two came in after lunch last week with your mouths all red and swollen, and I know for a fact that Kong doesn’t eat spicy food, so I’m pretty sure his lips were preoccupied with something else entirely.”
If Arthit had been blushing before, he now wishes for the nurse to bring him an ice pack of his own. He clears his throat, choosing instead to stare at his scuffed shoes, one of the frayed ends of the laces draped onto the floor. M may be playfully teasing him, but the way he falls quiet afterwards suggests to Arthit that there’s an inkling of hurt in being left out of this particular piece of information, especially given that he’d played a large part in reinforcing their friendship to begin with.
“He wants to tell you,” Arthit says after a beat. “He’s just worried.”
“I don’t know…things changing. That we might make you a third wheel…or something.”
If not for the numbness in his face now, M might actually laugh out loud. Instead, he settles for an amused smirk.
“Kong is too….Kong to ever do that. Unless you two start making out in front of me all the time, I promise not to act like a whiny attention-deprived baby.”
“Duly noted,” Arthit nods, still slightly embarrassed.
M puts the ice pack down for a moment to look at him properly.
“Thanks for getting help. I…I know it was hard. But I don’t know what else he would’ve done to me if Teacher Lynn hadn’t walked in then.”
Arthit blinks a few times, genuinely surprised at M’s expression of gratitude. He’d always thought M to be relatively carefree, the level-headed one. But Arthit has come to truly appreciate the manner in which he’d become a fiercely loyal and unfailingly supportive friend. His friend.
“You spoke up for me back then, and at Kong’s house, and again today. It’s the very least I could’ve done for a friend.”
They exchange a small smile, an unspoken consolidation of mutual understanding. They fall into a comfortable silence, and M sighs with relief as he places the ice pack back on the bridge of his nose.
The door to the medical room swings open, smacking into the wall behind it with a loud clatter. Kongpob is lightly panting as he looks back and forth in alarm between his best friend and his boyfriend. “Oak told me you were here, but he didn’t say— M, what happened to your face? Oh gosh, that looks awful! Does it hurt? How did this happen? Who did this to you? Do I need to—“
“Kong, I’m fine,” M chuckles now, swatting Kongpob away as he fusses over him.
“Arthit? Are you hurt?” he hobbles over now, eyeing him up and down a few times in panic to check for any injuries.
“No, I’m completely fine,” he grabs Kongpob’s shaking hand that’s turning his shoulder to look at his back. He gives it a firm squeeze, and the boy pauses his frantic search for nonexistent injury for a moment to stare down at their joined hands, then back up at Arthit’s face, then at M, then back at their hands.
“Wh…” Kong mouth falls open slightly, still dumbly fixated on his own hand in Arthit’s.
The latter of the two stands now, chewing on his bottom lip. He lets go of Kongpob, glancing between the two best friends knowingly before grabbing hold of the door handle.
“I’ll…let you two talk.”
These past few visits to Arthit’s stall, Kongpob has taken to simply inviting himself behind the grill, taking his spot in the plastic stool to Arthit’s left. At his side, as though he’s belonged there forever. Today, though, he remains stood across from his boyfriend, staring distractedly at the grill until the residual heat begins to dry his eyes out, and he blinks out of his daze.
He’d left the medical room after M’s mother had arrived, both relieved that his best friend now knew (or, well, he’d already known) about his relationship and troubled by an unsettling tension in his entire body to the point of a dull ache in the back of his neck. It had been building there for a while now, but he’d narrowed it down to falling asleep at a strange angle. Now, the ache spreads to his temples, and he’s not so sure it’s something he can stretch his way out of.
When he’d returned to the classroom, over half the class were whispering behind their hands, although there was no laughter nor disparaging or disgusted looks thrown his way. Even so, Kongpob had felt immense dread creeping up his back. This was not a few callous remarks made in the presence of his closest friends in the privacy of his home.
The entire school would know by now. He’s sure of it, because apparently, he’d shut himself away from gossiping mouths for so long at the expense of Arthit, and now that he’s on the receiving end of hushed remarks, he has an inkling as to why victims so seldom speak for themselves.
Arthit’s seat had remained empty, only his bag on the table that Kongpob had brought back from the library, increasingly concerned when the boy had disappeared for the remainder of their session. Kongpob had returned to his own seat, staring at the open page of his planner.
He’d put a question mark next to 7:00 – Algebra.
“Um…how did the meeting with the principal go?”
He asks now because after Arthit had been called to the principal’s office, they hadn’t spoken or even seen each other until towards the end of the last period, when Arthit had finally returned.
“It…was good, all things considered,” Arthit thinks back on the somewhat interrogative meeting. Déjà vu, he can only call it. It had been starkly reminiscent of the last time he’d sat in the principal’s office, although last time, nobody had been physically hurt. There was also the factor that both his mother and Kong’s had been present last time, and that he’d barely spoken a word. “He asked a lot of questions about what I saw and heard, like whether I was involved, why I was outside the classroom, and so on.”
Kongpob nods, and while he makes no further comment, Arthit doesn’t pry, doesn’t ask. He’s not so good at asking the right questions, nor saying the right thing. A few moments pass and there’s still no verbal response from his boyfriend.
“I…feel bad that M took the fall of both of us,” Arthit continues, still watching for any sort hint of a reaction from Kongpob. Sure enough, there’s a momentary pause in his wavering gaze on the grill, but soon, he’s looking down at this feet again. “But at least he’s mostly fine…and because Teacher Lynn was there to witness, it went pretty smoothly….John and the other two got suspended for a week and it’ll go on their permanent records, so there’s that.”
Another nod, and Kongpob’s jaw visibly clenches at the mention of John’s name. Arthit is running out of ideas now. Are you okay? seems like the dumbest question to ask, mostly because he already knows the simple answer, and frankly, because he’s not sure he’s entirely in the right mind himself. But the last time he’d seen Kongpob this quiet, it had been because of guilt. He’d thought it was silly of the boy to bear the weight of that responsibility, especially when he hadn’t even been aware of what happened.
He hadn’t understood then. He does now.
“Do you….want anything to eat?”
Kongpob seems to snap out of his distraction, looking up at Arthit properly for the first time since he’d arrived at the cart.
“Food…do you want any? Or are you not hungry?” Arthit wipes his hand on a small towel. “Tew told me you didn’t have lunch.”
“I…yeah, okay,” he licks at his bottom lip, chapped from anxious gnawing. “Four of the beef.”
Arthit forms a tight-lipped smile in response, then pulls four ready-made skewers off the grill and into a bag, which he hands over to Kongpob.
“Don’t forget to actually eat them. You’ll get sick if you don’t eat.”
“Okay. You going home now?”
“Alright…well…I’ll text you later?”
He wants to reach over and take his hand. Pull his head into his shoulder. Give him the kisses for correct answers he’d wanted. Anything to ease whatever it is they’re both feeling.
But they can’t, not here.
For now, Arthit settles for a lingering gaze for the thousands of words left unspoken and physical affections unfulfilled.
Even as he watches Kongpob climb into the passenger seat of his family’s car, he has a sinking feeling that their conversation has only just begun.
22/9/2014 – ฿32