The house is empty again, save for the cleaner who comes by twice a week for basic maintenance. She’s pushing the vacuum cleaner back and forth along the living room carpet, and as Kongpob shuts the bedroom door behind him, the blanket of whirring noise fades in a gentle hum.
In the stale silence of his room, he begins attempting to make a start on his homework, taking over ten minutes just to create a document with the words Book Report at the top, and yet another ten minutes to think about which book he should do his report on. After an infuriating half-hour has passed in which he’s done nothing more than either staring at the blinking cursor or reading the Controversies section on some B-list actor’s Wikipedia page, he pushes himself out of his chair in an irritate huff and flops backwards onto the bed, arms stretched out on either side of him.
It’s too quiet.
So deafeningly quiet and yet every What if and I can’t and I have to bounces off the edges of his skull and thrums with the desperation to escape, only for his mouth to stand guard at the gates of his mind. Nobody could know.
Nobody would care to know.
Or at least that’s what he tells himself. After all, everyone seemed to count on him to be their one they turned to in any given situation; to fix, to remedy, to fight off any obstacles that might come their way, to be the dependable one that nobody had to worry about.
He turns his head to the side, and his gaze falls on a row of framed pictures along his dresser, backlit by a strip of LED lighting plugged into the wall near the floor. The first is of the whole family of five, crowded around a birthday cake as his infant face screwed up in agony from almost burning his heel, having wriggled around so intensely in his mother’s arms that he’d stuck his foot over the candle flame. There are a few of just him and his parents, wide smiles as he’d toddled through parks, waved goodbye to his father on the first day of school, accepted first prize in a national English speech contest in eighth grade. And then there’s one of him and M, arms around each other’s shoulders in their middle school basketball jerseys after an inter-school tournament.
Kongpob thinks that he might not have survived the last few years without his best friend. It didn’t matter how trivial his problems seemed to be, M had unfailingly listened and offered his thoughts completely free of judgement, but was never afraid to smack him with the truth when necessary.
Who do you call when the one person you usually turn to is the very reason you need someone to call? He cannot suppress the mental image of John hurting his friend—his brother in every way but blood—while M had refused to fight back, defending him and Arthit down to the last second. Their chat in the medical room after Arthit had left them alone had left Kongpob with a type of guilt and shame that he’d never felt in M’s presence before.
You could’ve just told me, you know. I already knew, anyway.
I know. I was just scared.
That I would judge you?
No. That you would think I’m replacing you.
I know you think Arthit hung the moon and all, but I’m one of a kind, if I do say so myself.
That you are, M. That you are.
No, he can’t trouble M any further than he already has.
He’s about to drift off into a headache-induced slumber when his phone buzzes next to him.
Mae: Are you home yet?
Mae: I’m going to be back soon
Mae: Could you get the pack of whelks out of the freezer?
Mae at least means well, but she’d become so deeply invested in filling her daily schedule with mindless errands and anything she had the skill set to busy herself with, that Kongpob can’t recall the last time she’d taken him out to lunch, just the two of them, just to spend time together for no reason.
And Por…well…it’s best not to delve into that. He’d be surprised if his father even knew which grade he was currently in, let alone care to hear of anyone’s troubles if they didn’t concern his work, his younger daughter, or the stock market.
He types his response out quickly before tossing the phone above his head, curling into a ball on his side as he stares at the lightly billowing curtains at the window, framing a picture of orangey-pink hues fading into the deeper shades of the early evening.
In through the nose…out through the mouth.
His exhale never quite makes it to the end of its whisper, his throat tightening with a choking sob, and before he realises it, the grey quilt beneath him darkens with the wetness of fresh tears. His arms prickle with goosebumps as a cold shiver passes through him, and he buries his face into the covers in an attempt to stifle the sound of his embarrassing crying session.
He feels the bed begin to vibrate slightly from above him, and almost turns it off until he sees the caller ID on the screen, alerting him to sit up, quickly wiping the moisture from his face and nose.
“Uh,” he sniffs again and tries his best to clear his throat of any signs of his blubbering. “Nothing much. I was trying to work on the book report.”
“You already asked that.”
“Well, you’re not telling me the truth.”
Kongpob sucks in another deep breath. Perhaps it had been foolish of him to think that Arthit might not have even an inkling of what’s on his mind. After all, they’re in somewhat the same boat. But he doesn’t want Arthit to worry. He’d unknowingly dragged his boyfriend back into a place of darkness to face his past demons yet again. How could he have thought he was ready when he couldn’t protect those closest to him? Why couldn’t he have fallen for a girl? Was this the price to pay for something that made him so happy?
“It’s fine. I don’t want to disturb you while you’re working.”
“I’m at home.”
“What? How come?”
“I closed up shop early.”
“You don’t have to—”
“Please talk to me.”
“You’ve been crying.”
“No, I just have allergies.”
“You’re a terrible liar.”
“Kong, please just tell me what’s wrong?”
“No, you’re not. And I know you can’t possibly just brush off what happened to M.”
“I…I’m working through it, okay?”
Arthit sighs into the phone, almost in frustration, Kongpob thinks.
“Kong…you’ve been looking out for me since the first day we started talking. You asked for help in a subject you don’t even like so that you can study something you’re not interested in so that you can make your parents happy. You joined basketball even though it doesn’t interest you so that M wouldn’t feel lonely. Now you’re acting like what happened to M isn’t a big deal, when it really fucking is because I’m not okay, and M and I aren’t even that close. But we are, or, I don’t know, at least I thought we were?”
“We are. I just didn’t want you to worry about—”
“No, when are you going to put yourself first? I just…I want to know what you’re thinking because you’re always acting like you don’t need anyone. I tried to wait for you to tell me yourself but it is driving me mad trying to guess what’s wrong and not push you. I’ve already lived my troubles, Kong. I’m not a damsel in distress. You don’t need to protect my feelings. You don’t have to be the hero this time. Just let me take care of you for once, okay?”
He feels ridiculous. For crying again, for not having spoken to Arthit sooner, for sweeping so much under the rug until lumps had begun to form.
“I’m sorry,” his voice cracks, and he has to pause before he chokes on his following words. “You’re right. I…I don’t know how to ask for help. I just feel like if everyone around me is okay and happy then…”
Kongpob rolls over onto his side again, rubbing a thumb over the damp patch that’s now feathered out in the woven material of the quilt.
“Then…everything will get better? Like, if P’Nam is finally out of the centre and takes over the company, then I don’t have to anymore. And Mae and Por won’t have to worry about her, and maybe we’ll actually spend time each other again. And Por will—I don’t know, maybe he’ll come around, or at least he’ll be distracted enough not to care that I’m with a boy.”
There’s no response, but Kongpob can hear Arthit shuffling in the background, until it suddenly stops, and the gentle rhythm of his breathing comes through the receiver more prominently.
“Arthit…what we’re doing isn’t wrong, right?”
“Of course not,” the response comes immediately. “We’re not the problem.”
He’s right, of course. Surely, something that brings him only joy, peace, and comfort; something that sends them to bed with smiles on their faces and doesn’t harm anyone else can’t possibly be wrong.
“Then why did M get hurt?”
“Because…I don’t know, Kong. Some people just want to hurt other people for no good reason and we can’t do shit about it.”
“Yeah,” Kongpob says dumbly.
“Are you having second thoughts?”
“No,” he says immediately. “It just feels like we don’t have the answers to anything. But this feels more, I don’t know…real than anything I’ve ever felt before. Which is…terrifying. Everyone at school probably knows by now.”
“Well at least we won’t be alone. We have M. And Tew.”
“And I have you.”
“Mm, well I do keep my promises,” he hums in agreement. Kongpob hears a brief clatter and a single chime on Arthit’s end. “Do you still want to talk? I have to do homework but I can stay on the line.”
“That’s okay,” he sighs. “I’ll call back later to say goodnight. Or if not, I’ll text you.”
“So…I’ll see you tomorrow?”
Kongpob glances over at the wall clock.
“Thank you,” Kongpob trails off, his surroundings now noticeably quieter. “For listening to me.”
“Sure…I mean, I can’t really help with stuff at home, but…at least it feels better to get it off your chest, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah. Okay, well…”
“Good night, P’Arthit. In case I do forget to call, that is.”
“Good night, Kong.”
He startles awake from his nap, disoriented as his pupils dilate in the darkness of his room, the only light coming from the screensaver on his laptop. He almost blinds himself as he wakes his phone screen. It’s almost midnight. He would have to stay up to finish up his homework.
For now, he makes a sordid attempt at rubbing the grogginess out of his eyes, adjusting to the darkness. Water sounds like a good idea.
The living room is dark now, too, the only light coming from the kitchen, where he heads directly as soon as he’s made his way down the stairs.
“Mae,” he says, surprised. She’s still standing at the stove, peering at something in a large pot. He takes a deep whiff as he comes closer. “Is that soup?”
“Mmhmm,” she reaches out to card a hand through his hair, mussed from sleep. “Do you still want some?”
“Oh gosh,” he grabs onto her arm, groaning in disbelief with himself. “The whelks. I’m sorry, Mae.”
She breathes out a short laugh before rubbing at his earlobe with her thumb.
“It’s okay. I saw you were asleep when I got home.”
“You’re not mad?”
“Normally, I would be. And I was at first,” she picks up the ladle again with a pointed look, scooping up a few mushrooms to inspect them before replacing the lid. Her expression softens as she turns to face her son. “But M’s mother called earlier.”
Kongpob blinks at the bubbling broth, comfortingly fragrant with the savoury aroma of dried scallops, chicken, sea whelks, and Chinese mushrooms. “Oh.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Yes. And he very well could, if only he had any more energy to break down a second time. Instead, he gives the faintest shrug and shake of the head.
Still, he snakes his arms around her waist, the smooth material and faint scent of lavender on her knitted shirt making him feel like a small child again. His tears have dried for the time being, but he doesn’t think he’s hugged his mother like this in years. Now, cowering down to rest his chin on the back of her warm shoulder, he’s four feet tall again, attempting to flatter his way into pushing back his bed time with charmed affection. For now, this can be enough.
“Do you want some soup?” she says when he finally brings himself to let go. He shakes his head, but she ladles out a bowlful anyway. Placing the steaming bowl on a small tray, she hands it to her son. “Can you take this to your father, then? He’s in his study.”
“He needs his blood pressure meds anyway.”
She nods at the small arrangement of pastel-coloured pills in a small saucer next to the bowl. He nods, taking up the tray before hobbling his way out of the kitchen, the liquid lightly sloshing about in the bowl.
His father is deep in concentration at his desk, a crease forming between his brows as he pores over a document before signing it at the bottom. As he looks up, he catches sight of his son in the doorway.
“Kong,” he gestures at the chair across the desk from him with a brief smile. Kongpob nods in greeting before carefully placing the tray down on one of the few cleared out spaces on the desk. He pauses a moment before clumsily taking a seat in the large leather-upholstered chair, gripping at the steel armrests. Maybe he should have prepared some note cards. Or rehearsed some standard answers for potential questions. “You’re still in your uniform?”
“I fell asleep when I got home,” he says simply, eyeing the only framed photo on the desk, one of his father and sister from over ten years ago, smiles as big as their hearts were once full.
“I see, I see. Uh…how’s school?”
Kongpob’s expression tenses in mild disbelief. Surely the man hadn’t asked him to sit in his office to simply ask menial questions about his studies, when he’d never so much as asked him about his quizzes or exam results. The elder man clears his throat before nodding to himself with the nervousness of a reprimanded child despite his greying hairs. “Right. Sorry. You probably don’t feel like making small talk. You must be tired.”
“Or, I don’t know, upset with me.”
“Why would I be upset with you?”
Why, indeed? It’s not as though his father had unceremoniously always made it clear which of his children he favoured, or had all but ignored the family’s problems for so many years like proverbial elephants in the room.
The man pauses to watch his son’s humourless expression, then sighs. “Son…I want to apologise. I’ve not been paying enough attention to what’s going on with you lately, and I haven’t always taken the time to talk to you about things before.”
“You’ve been busy worrying about P’Nam. I get it,” he says, perhaps sounding more clipped and irritated than he’d initially intended.
Kongpob’s father gathers a few handfuls of papers on the desk, needlessly shuffling them into one pile and stacking them neatly to one side. From the corner of his eye, Kongpob spots the company logo embossed at the top right corner of each page. It’s the same logo that appeared behind his father’s chair on a plaque, on banners outside the company building as the family car drove through the industrial district, and events at which Kongpob would sip fizzy fruit punch in a stuffy suit with the two or three other bored kids his age.
“Your mother told me what happened to Game.”
“His name is M, Por. He’s been my best friend since primary school.”
“Right, of course,” he says, visibly embarrassed as he rubs at his stubbled chin. “How is he?”
“He got punched. Because of me. That’s what you’re trying to get at, isn’t it?”
“No, no,” he says quickly, shaking his hands in denial. He mashes his lips together to ponder his next words. “Listen, I know you must be upset with me because of how I reacted about…your friend.”
“Well, the fact that you’re calling him my ‘friend’ speaks volumes.”
If his mother were in the room, he’d probably get an earful for speaking to his father in this manner, even as he addresses him with formal pronouns. And certainly before the past week, the mere thought of his silent and authoritative presence would have had Kongpob quivering in his seat. Now, though, Kongpob stares in disdain at the photo frame as the man continues.
“I’m not good at talking about or wording things like your mother is. All I can say is that your…information caught me off guard and I’m sorry if I made you upset.”
“But you still don’t approve.”
It comes out as a statement rather than a question. He wrings his hands together in his lap, still not looking directly at his father. If he does, he thinks he might cry again, and he’d done enough of that today.
“It’s not that I don’t approve, Kong. Please don’t misunderstand that,” he says slowly, powerless even with his own flesh and blood. “I’m scared and worried for you. What happened to your friend could have happened to you, too. I know you think that your mother and I favour your sisters, but that’s not the case. But I’m asking you to understand that I already have one child in and out of hospital; I don’t want to see you get hurt as well, physically or emotionally. It would—I don’t know if I could handle it.”
Kongpob meets his father’s gaze now. His eyes are glassy, with dark, sunken bags under them and fine lines forming in all the crevices of his tanned face. When had his father aged so much?
“So…you do accept us?”
“I won’t say I’m not worried for you. You should be allowed to be happy. But I want you to be cautious about who you surround yourself with. There are people who still hold out unprecedented hatred for your kind.”
“Okay, no, that’s not—you know what I mean. People who do or like things that are different from what most people would.” He sighs deeply, pouring himself some water before emptying the saucer of pills into his mouth, then gulping down half the glass with them. “Look. You can hold a grudge for whatever else I’ve done to hurt you, because I probably deserve it. But this is different. Maybe I don’t have the right words, but I just want you to know that I support you, and I’m really trying, but I’m just worried for your safety.”
One often forgets how to breathe evenly in these moments. Kongpob isn’t sure whether to laugh, or cry, or lash out—perhaps all three. But he doesn’t have to make that choice, as the faded beige phone on the desk begins ringing, diverting both their attention. “Sorry, I just have to—“
But Kongpob has already bolted out of the study as his father takes a call whose importance far surpasses anything his son is bursting to say.
Class is mind-numbingly boring, Arthit observes, or at least he finds himself actually ingrained in the assigned work, partly because he actually knows how to do it for once, and partly because even as he periodically looks up from his desk, there’s something missing from his view.
Kongpob hadn’t exactly avoided him that morning, per se. After all, he’d waited for his boyfriend at the school gate so they could walk in together, exchanging sleepy but pleasant chatter between them about nothing that mattered as they settled in for the morning. But as the classroom had begun to fill up, Kongpob had hurriedly retreated back to his own desk, not once turning around to not-so-subtly get his attention, or to pass flirtatious notes to him, or even just to give the smallest of smiles.
Even at recess, Arthit had expected to be dragged off to the rooftop to engage in their newfound routine of learning and memorising the shape of each other’s mouths, only to watch as Kongpob had nervously darted his gaze around the room before slipping away to the bathroom, and returning exactly as the bell rang for the next lesson.
All is not well, Arthit can decipher as much, and if their phone conversation had been any indication, there was nothing he could do about it other than to temporarily distract him or lift his spirits. And that’s exactly what he decides on after staring at Kongpob’s back for the last ten minutes of their Maths lesson. After everyone else has left the classroom, sprinting down to the cafeteria to grab the least disgusting meal available, Arthit takes up his lunch bag and holds out a hand to assist Kongpob out of his seat, only to be met with a confused stare.
“Let’s have lunch.”
“Oh. Okay then.” Kongpob nods, holding onto Arthit’s arm as he worms his legs out from under the desk. Arthit smiles, taking Kongpob’s lunch bag from him as he slips his shoes on.
“Which table do you usually sit at?”
Kongpob whirls around now to face him, head tilted in confusion. “What do you mean? There’s only one table on the…wait, you mean…” he trails off in realisation, suddenly lost for words. He stammers a few times before chewing at his lip. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Arthit looks directly back at him, surer than ever of what he wants. “I’m ready.”
It’s the first time he’s back in the courtyard since the day he’d first considered taking up Kongpob’s offer to receive his tuition. Back then, the mere thought of sitting with M and Kongpob had sent him into a momentary mental shutdown. This time, however, the violent pulsing in his stomach is for an entirely different reason. He grips onto his lunch bag so tightly that the webbed nylon straps dig into his fingers.
“We can come back another time,” Kongpob says gently. “There’s no rush.”
“No, I want to do this,” he looks straight back at him, nodding slightly. Kongpob smiles a little, holding his gaze for a few more seconds before gesturing at the table with one of his crutches. The four of them — including M and Tew — sit at the stainless steel table that had been neglected for a couple of weeks now in favour of the rooftop garden. He could do this. If not for Kongpob, then for himself.
Arthit watches as Kong opens his own lunch box, and M and Tew pick up their utensils from their lunch trays. There’s loud chatter, and random bursts of laughter from distant tables, as well as the odd cheer or groan coming from the court. Nobody is paying them any mind, aside from the occasional student from another class nodding or waving hello as they pass by.
With some caution, Arthit twists open his thermos, peering down at the pad see ew with extra chilli flakes, the way he likes it.
The others have already started eating, M scrunching his nose at the sight of his own lunch, soggy, plain rice with a side of something resembling meat floating in a slimy brown sauce, thick with cornstarch. Tew’s isn’t much better, similar in presentation, although his consists of overcooked vegetables floating in a clear, wobbling slime.
Kongpob is chewing slowly, trying not to draw too much attention to anything in particular, but both M and Tew can see him stealing quick glances at Arthit, who’s still staring down at his thermos. It’s like all of them are holding their breaths.
And then Arthit sticks his fork into the box, pulling out a piece of the flat rice noodles. As he closes his lips around his fork, he waits.
He waits for somebody to flip his tray into his face.
He waits for someone to yell Hey, Porky!
He waits for the snickers and whispers around him.
He waits for kids to steal his food from under his nose.
But it doesn’t come.
It doesn’t come, he realises, and he doesn’t realise his eyes are watering until Kongpob reaches under the table to give his knee a gentle squeeze. Arthit laughs, breaking into a grin so wide as he wipes at his own face that the others start laughing, too.
“M, Tew, that lunch is really pathetic,” he says, chuckling through his faint bashfulness and shaking his head at the gelatinous excuse of a side dish.
“It-it really is,” M uncontrollably cackles through his words, and even Tew is snorting at the way they’re all laughing at absolutely nothing, the conversation eventually dwindling down to more mundane topics, and Arthit trying (hopelessly) to answer M’s questions about their maths homework.
Under the table, Kongpob tightens his hold on his knee as he rubs the skin there gently with his thumb and lightly traces out a thank you that only the two of them understand. Arthit stiffens momentarily, but turns to him briefly with a shy smile.
“You have sauce on your chin,” Arthit snickers, handing Kongpob a napkin as he chews on a skewer. Rather than taking the napkin from him, though, he juts his chin out, waiting for Arthit to wipe it for him. “Kong…” he looks behind him briefly, eyes widening in silent gesture that they are, in fact, in public.
“But my hands are full,” the boy pouts a little, holding a skewer in one hand and the box of the remaining ones in the other.
Arthit shakes his head with a short laugh. “Then you can wait till you’re finished. I’ll leave the napkin here.” He places it on the edge of the worktop, then pulls out the notepad from the bottom shelf behind a sliding door.
23/09/2014 – ฿42
The balance is now in the double digits, he realises, and he fondly recalls the day he’d scolded Kongpob for his ridiculous attempt at payment. Now, he can’t imagine a week going by in which he isn’t filling the pages of the tattered notepad with records of his transactions.
“What’re you smiling about?” Kongpob tries to peer over his arm from his seat.
“Nothing,” Arthit tucks the notepad back into the cart before turning back to him. “It’s almost seven, you know. Don’t you think you should head home?”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“No, but I–”
He’s interrupted by a booming clap of thunder, followed by sporadic, heavy drops falling with a splat onto the pavement, gradually merging into a curtain of rain until Arthit can no longer see across the street. Colourful beach umbrellas begin snapping open around him, and Arthit is thankful that he always has his open, and that the cart at least has an extendable veranda, however shabby from years of use.
In the background, Arthit can hear a nearby vendor turn their radio up.
“…indicates thunderstorms after a week of cloudy evenings. Heavy rain is expected throughout the rest of the night and into the early morning with a high chance of flash floods in the lowlands and denser city centres. Citizens in these areas are advised to seek shelter as soon as possible and avoid driving until further notice.”
The two boys simply stare at each other now as the rain grows only heavier with each passing second, puddles forming around their feet as water seeps from under the wheels of the cart.
“Looks like you’re staying the night, then.”