Chapter 29: Balance: ฿38
True to M’s word, the damage caused to the school grounds by the flooding had been fairly minimal. A few fallen potted trees, some rainwater welling in the corridor gutters, a few fallen branches off the trees surrounding the basketball court.
The school custodians can be seen dotted around the campus clearing away the last of the debris, and as Arthit walks up to the entrance, he can’t help but pause in amazement.
There, where a gaping hole had once been, a fresh slab of cement sits over the drain, never to hospitalise another unsuspecting victim again. Or perhaps he should be thankful, as Kongpob’s accident had been such a significant catalyst in hurdling them in the direction that had led them to where they are. He wouldn’t change a thing. Well, alright, except for the part where the boy had unfortunately been injured.
As per usual, the classroom is sparsely filled in the early hours, only about twelve or students leaning over their desks or sneaking a peek at their phones before the bell rings. Somewhere along the line, Arthit had stopped feeling disgruntled at the thought of having to haul himself out of bed every morning. Even now, as he yawns into the back of his hand at his desk, he can’t bring himself to be particularly bothered by his hazy current state of mind.
He’s deep into his usual routine of ingraining himself into a chapter of the Peanuts volumethat he’s read at least a hundred times, and Charlie Brown has made yet another self-deprecating remark. Perhaps he would get a mediocre grade for choosing a comic strip for his book report presentation, but frankly, it’s the only reading material in English that he knows well, and if he has to hear yet another presentation about the same book they’d been assigned two years ago in required reading, he will gladly saw his own ear off.
A familiar voice alerts him out of his stagnant reading. Kongpob leans against the wall by the desk, briefcase still clutched to his chest. By now, about thirty more of their classmates have filed in, the chatter having increased to a mild hum around them.
“Hey,” Arthit smiles, closing the book.
“You’re not going to bookmark?”
“I’ve read this so many times, I could describe each frame to you without even looking.”
“I believe that.” Kongpob nods, then breathes a short laugh. “You know, just two months ago, you were telling me to stop talking to you and that we weren’t friends.”
Arthit raises an eyebrow, folding his arms in front of him now.
“What’s your point? That you won me over, or something?”
“No, although now that you mention it, I really hit the jackpot.”
“Kidding,” he laughs. “I just mean that I was reminded because I saw you reading that book.”
“Uh huh,” Arthit rolls his eyes, although he’s smiling.
“You’re not presenting until next week, right?”
“Yep, Monday. Are you doing yours today?”
“Yeah,” he unclasps his briefcase and pulls out the printed report. “It, uh….it took me most of yesterday, but I think I’m ready.”
“Well then, I look forward to pretending to understand what you’re saying.”
Kongpob simply grins, and places his paper down. He almost reaches for Arthit’s hand, before the latter quietly clears his throat, his gaze shifting to the forty or so other students in the classroom. They’re distracted by their own conversations and preoccupations, but just a passing glance; one fleeting moment of observation could set off a chain reaction of whispers.
Following his line of vision, Kongpob’s breath shortens for a moment with realisation, and his former mischief dissolves into distracted disappointment.
A part of him had known all along what Arthit had meant when he’d said that hiding sucks. He’d known, and yet he hates it with a burning passion. Others could shout about their first loves from the mountains or exchange unabashedly smitten stares across tables of crowded cafes. The jealousy leaves a bitter taste that he can’t wash down.
But he doesn’t want to put another person’s safety in danger again, especially not Arthit’s. His mind wanders to the contents of his upcoming presentation, and he swallows at the potential risk he’s about to take.
One day, he reminds himself. One day I’ll hold your hand, walk you home, kiss your cheek in broad daylight, and nobody will even blink.
For now, he sighs, retracting his hand.
“You’ll do great,” Arthit reassures him softly, as if sensing the shift in his demeanour. Then, he looks down at Kongpob’s report. As if reminded of an inside joke, he suppresses a smile and turns the paper towards him, picking his pencil up off the desk.
“What are you writing?”
“No peeking!” he curls his hand around the page, pointing the eraser tip in mock warning at Kongpob, who shrinks back. He looks down smugly again, writing as neatly as possible at the bottom of the second page. Then, satisfied with his work, folds the document in half and tucks it into Kongpob’s open briefcase.
“P’Arthit,” Kongpob laughs, trying to undo the clasp, only to have his hand swatted off of it. “What did you write?”
“Nothing. You’ll see later.”
“You didn’t draw anything vulgar, did you?”
“You’re right, I drew a penis on your homework. Now go back to your seat. Class is about to start.”
He’s effectively silenced when the bell rings, leaving him with no choice but to return to his seat, but not before stealing one more sceptical glance between his closed briefcase and the boy smirking at him, an oddly gratifying sensation from someone who’d once only scowled in his direction.
“…and…I very like this book. It is interesting. It have the good people and the bad people. Also have many colours. It is good. I like it so much. I give 100 marks. This is end of my talk. Thank you.”
The boy bows, pushing his thick glasses up the bridge of his nose with a proud grin as he holds up a shabby, faded library copy of Elmer the Elephant, likely something he’d wrangled out of his infant sister’s hands that same morning. Following several excruciating moments of deeply uncomfortable silence, Teacher Lynn clears her throat.
“Yes, uh…thank you, Oak. That was…well, thank you.”
She gives him a tight smile as he returns to his seat, immediately shoving his illustrated book into his desk drawer, likely to become one of many crumpled, forgotten items. Her eyes widen in disbelief at her own words before making a few carefully supportive remarks on her clipboard: Try to choose a book with a reading level that is more appropriate for your age. Happy to offer some suggestions if necessary.
Frankly, she could dismiss less than perfect grammar and pronunciation. After all, not everyone is linguistically inclined. That being said, it’s about as constructive a comment she can make, given the bespectacled boy’s heinous track record of idleness and last-minute preparations.
“Kongpob,” she looks up, slightly relieved. She gestures to the front of the classroom, the space awaiting him. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Kongpob gulps a little, nodding as he pulls out his report and book from his briefcase. He’d stayed up an extra hour going over each and every word again and again, just to make sure it said exactly what he wanted it to. Despite always having always performed well in English, he didn’t particularly like the attention that public speaking drew towards him. There were also certain expectations of him from his peers, not to mention that it would make for a third of their semester grade. He could only hope to not disappoint.
Most of the class is zoned out, struggling to stay awake after listening to what was possibly the twentieth presentation of that week. As Kongpob eyes wander around the room, he can see maybe only ten or so of his classmates watching him intently, including M, who shoots him a subtle fist pump, and Arthit, who appears equally nervous, lips mashed together behind clasped hands.
This could go well, or it could go so terribly, terribly wrong. But he has nothing else.
After several moments, he sucks in a deep breath, eyes fixed on the paper in his hands.
“Good morning, everyone. Today, I’d like to talk about a book that has become very important for me in these past months. I first read this book two years ago after I borrowed it from my sister. She told me that it had helped her through some difficult times when she felt that she couldn’t live up to people’s expectations. I…didn’t really understand it back then, partly because the language was quite difficult for me.”
He pauses, licking at his bottom lip, which has gone dry.
“The Danish Girl is a novel by David Ebershoff, and is a fictional retelling of the life of a Danish painter named Lili Elbe. Elbe was born as Einar Wegener, a…a man with a wife named Greta. The primary focus of the story follows….it talks about….”
Kongpob pauses, scratching at an invisible itch on his face. He steals a glance at M, who nods once in an attempt to prompt him onwards, although the giant gauze plastered on his face is somewhat distracting from his overall expression.
“It…One day, Greta is supposed to do a painting of one of her friends, a woman called Anna. However, Anna is unable to attend their session on time. Greta still needs to finish the painting, though, so…so she asks Einar to dress up as Anna and model the pose for her. Anna…arrives later and sees Einar…uh…dressed as a woman, so she names him ‘Lili’.”
Either nobody understands a word, or they’re too tired to care, but contrary to Kongpob’s prior dread, there are no hushed whispers or disparaging snickers muffled behind hands.
“Uh…At first, Greta finds it amusing to bring her husband out to parties as Lili. But Lili soon finds herself enamoured with her new identity, even briefly engaging in a relationship with a man she meets at a party. However, she gets sick and has nosebleeds often, especially when she appears as Lili. I think…I think that the author used these physical reactions to show how Lili struggles between her new identity as a woman and the expectations that other have of Einar. She…didn’t know that Lili would be what she truly identified with…”
He pauses again to take several deep breaths, feeling slightly less antsy now, realising that most of the class’ attention has already been numbed into tired apathy. How ironic, it dawns on him. To think that he’d once placed so much importance on how others looked at and thought of him, when he’d been his own perfectionist critic all along.
“…until she became Lili and realised…she was Lili all along. But Einar was married, and widely known as a man. However…what impressed me most about this story was not Lili. It was Greta. For me, Greta is the true heroine of the story. I don’t mean that Lili was not brave for eventually accepting herself and seeking reassignment surgery. She was. But she was sometimes careless with others’ feelings, too, as we all are at times. And I’ve come to understand just how important it is to have people around us who unfailingly love and support us.”
This time, when he lifts his eyes from the page, he looks straight at M, who holds his breath, stunned.
“Greta began as Einar’s wife, and she loved him then. That is the first kind of love she gave, and Einar trusted Greta enough to make the big decision of becoming Lili. Greta gave Lili the gift of living her life from a whole new perspective. Lili discovered romance and attraction like she never had before, and even if it wasn’t always perfect, it was real.”
Arthit only understands a portion of what he’s said, his secondhand anxiety really only registering romance, attraction, and it was real as Kongpob’s gaze falls on him. His entire face burns with a raging blush, and if literally any more than five people were paying attention, he would hide under his desk. Luckily, though, the boy returns to his speech.
“However, it’s really after Lili begins to transition and let go of Einar that we can see just how much Greta cares for her. She’s sad that she loses Einar as her husband and struggles a lot with her emotions. The quality of her paintings also get worse. But even then, she puts her own pain aside to accept Lili and never makes her feel like her happiness is unimportant. Till the very end of the story, Greta unselfishly cares about Lili’s happiness and well-being, even if she doesn’t always agree with Lili’s choices, and even if it hurt her to let Lili continue her journey on her own.
“I’d like to share this excerpt from the story. It’s from the last chapter, after Lili undergoes her final operation.
A tram called, and then the bell for a cathedral. And for once Lili stopped thinking about the misty, double-sided past and the promise of the future. It didn’t matter who she once was, or who she’d become. She was Fräulein Lili Elbe. A Danish girl in Dresden. A young woman out in the afternoon with a pair of friends. A young woman whose dearest friend was off in California, leaving Lili, it suddenly felt, alone. She thought of each of them — Henrik, Anna, Carlisle, Hans, Greta. Each, in his own way, partially responsible for the birth of Lili Elbe. Now she knew what Greta had meant: the rest Lili would have to undergo alone.The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff
“I actually don’t know a lot about the type of transition that Lili went through, and it’s not something that I can relate to, so I don’t think it’s good for me to try and speak from that point of view. But I’ve recently had many major changes happen in my own life. Some were welcome, others were not. I may not understand the exact experiences from the book, but I think that Lili and Greta have shown me something valuable. That love, in all forms, means helping each other grow in our own ways, respecting each other’s boundaries, and always being honest with each other. Thankfully, I do have a Greta in my life, but unlike Lili, I hope that I never have to part with them. Thank you.”
M is sniffling back tears, mouthing a silent Fuck you as he grins through his embarrassment. He winces a little as he wipes his nose, the swelling still sore and tender. Arthit peers over at him, mildly amused by their friend’s snivelling state, and equally touched by Kongpob’s sentiment.
Kongpob’s eyes reach the end of his report, and when he sees what’s written at the bottom in pencil, he can’t help the fluttering in his stomach.
Well done! I’m proud of you. ^3^
As traffic bustles by behind Kongpob, he tucks his briefcase under one arm, inhaling the delicious scent that not only satisfies his palette, but his heart, too.
“You can’t stick around today?”
Arthit re-ties his apron strings behind him, then tucks his hand towel back in the waistband.
“Aww, are you asking me to stay?”
“Shut up. I’m just asking.”
“No, I can’t,” Kongpob says through a chuckle. “I have to go for a checkup for my ankle.”
With a nod, Arthit pulls out the notepad, now battered and the corners curled upwards from being flipped through over time. He swallows a little as he clicks his pen open. There’s a microscopic part of him, the tiniest of voices in the back of his mind that is still unconvinced that Kongpob had truly kept coming back without intentions other than to eat his fill of meat skewers.
Perhaps, now that the balance had reached the based of the barrel, he would stop coming by almost every day. He’d stop feeling obligated. He would—
He pushes the thought back into its cage and kicks the door shut with a resounding clang.
“Uh…do you want food?”
Kongpob watches him fidget with the edge of the notepad, and nods.
“Yeah. I’ll have…” He pauses, mentally running through the sum he’d rehearsed over a hundred times on the way to the cart, almost positive that he has it right. Then he says, looking straight at Arthit, “Three of the pork and three of the beef.”
He moves enough to fill the order to the hotter part of the grill, brushing more marinade on the beef for an extra glaze, just the way he knows Kongpob likes it.
“Three of the…” Arthit furrows his brow, suddenly doubting his keen for mental arithmetic. ฿5 times three…that’s 15….and ฿8 times 3 is 24….that’s…no, that’s definitely….39…? “But that’s—”
“฿39. I know,” Kongpob says.
“Kong, the balance is at—”
“฿38. Again, I know.”
Arthit stares at him now, unsure now of what his the boy in front of him is trying to achieve.
“Um…then I guess you’ll have to make up the difference in cash.”
“Oh,” Kongpob nods. “Yes, of course.”
He reaches into his pocket for his wallet, making a rather exaggerated show of peering into the opening with a deep frown. Arthit narrows his eyes, arms akimbo as Kongpob lets out a deliberate gasp, followed by a tight-lipped frown.
“I don’t have exactly ฿1. Do you perhaps have change?”
Slowly, carefully, he pulls out what looks like—confirming Arthit’s suspicions—a ฿1000 note.
“Kongpob, what are you doing?”
“I mean, I have to pay the difference, don’t I?”
His mischievous grin reaches his eyes, clearly enjoying the scene unfolding before him.
Arthit shakes his head, laughing in disbelief. “Yes, but—”
“Well? Do you have change? This is all I have.”
“Kong, you know I don’t.”
“Arthit, you mean to tell me that you run a business in which you handle cash and don’t hold enough change for ฿1000?”
He raises an eyebrow. Okay, I’ll play along.
“Even if I did, I can’t give it all to you, smartass. I’d have none left for other customers.”
“I see,” Kongpob grins. “Then…I guess you should keep it.”
“I can’t charge you that much for six skewers,” Arthit is grinning now, sticking the skewers in a paper container and handing them to Kongpob. “Here, just take them and go.”
“I can’t do that.”
He looks at him pointedly now. “What are you doing?”
“I’m not going anywhere, Arthit,” he says, eyes softening now. He holds the banknote up, then slides it across the worktop. “Skewers or not, I’ll keep coming back without proper change until you’re tired of me and never sell me moo-ping again. And even then, you won’t have seen the last of me.”
Arthit just stares at him now, mouth hanging open just slightly, breathing out words he can’t articulate. Indeed, in all these past years, the last two months had brought him more joy than anything he’d ever experienced. Yes, he would love to have Kongpob pester him for the rest of time.
Eventually, he allows the warmth in his chest and smile on his lips to take over, not even bothering to mask the flush in his cheeks.
“I guess all that math practice finally did something useful for you, huh?”
“Oh, no, I’m still going to need you to keep track for me. I’ve got a tutor to keep busy.”
“So it’s a deal, then?” Kongpob tilts his head in question.
Arthit just rolls his eyes, his smile never leaving his face.
“Do whatever you want, Kongpob.”
25/09/2014 – ฿39
24/09/2014 – + ฿1000