Chapter 9: Balance: ฿775
“No! Why are you doing this to me?”
Kongpob whines as soon as Arthit writes out the equation on a scrap piece of paper.
“I’m not the one doing this to you,” he rolls his eyes. “This is from the homework due on Wednesday, which you said you needed help with.”
Kongpob wonders why he’d ever asked to be tutored in Maths in the first place.
Because you need to get into engineering school.
Right, of course.
“Fine,” he sighs. “How do I do this?”
Arthit shakes his head in exasperation, pulling the paper towards him again.
“You know how to add up regular fractions with different denominators, right?”
“Kind of? You multiply the numerator in one fraction with the denominator in the other fraction…then multiply the two denominators to get the new one?”
“Exactly. So based on your understanding of that, which algebraic equation do you need to solve first?”
Kongpob blinks blearily at the page. Perhaps it’s because it’s still early, but the numbers read like an alien language to him. Of course, it really isn’t that difficult, but for whatever reason, his brain doesn’t really want to digest it. He’s trying his best though, at the very least so that he’s not wasting Arthit’s time.
“Great. And the other one?”
Arthit seems genuinely pleased that he’s managed to quickly catch on to this one part. Their session last week had ended in Arthit grumbling about how Kongpob needed a chip inserted into his brain, not a tutor. But seeing him pleasantly surprised makes Kongpob want to try even harder, if only to witness more of his friend’s softer side.
“And then the two denominators?”
“Okay, then add up your two numerator values.”
“So the fraction should read…”
Arthit squints at Kongpob, who’s just watching his reaction.
“Are you sure you actually need my help? You’re not just pretending to be bad at algebra for some twisted joke, are you?”
Kongpob just shrugs and puts his pencil down.
“Somehow when Teacher Danai explains it, it always goes in one ear and out the other. His voice is…to put it nicely, very…soothing.”
Arthit smirks at this. Their Maths teacher, while an indubitably kind and patient man, seems to lack any enthusiasm for life, an attribute unfortunately reflected in the monotone of his voice.
“Why are you trying so hard to up your grade anyway? Are you really doing that badly?”
“I’m getting a B. But I’m looking to apply to engineering programs in university, so I need at least an A minus. Not that useful excelling at English in engineering school.”
Arthit blinks, nodding thoughtfully.
“I’m looking to get into engineering, too.”
“Wow, at least buy me dinner before you try to follow me to college,” Kongpob jokes, and Arthit narrows his eyes in a glare.
“I’m just teasing,” Kongpob laughs as he works on the next question. “So…why engineering?”
Arthit shrugs. “I like seeing how things get developed from small plans into real products. Especially in factories.”
“Yeah, like those robots that kiss the conveyor belt to make those chocolates!”
“Yeah,” Arthit chuckles at Kongpob’s example. “Something like that. But more like…everyday things. Home appliances, and that kind of thing.”
“Like an electric grill?”
Arthit nods. “Something like that.”
“Why don’t you use one at the stall? Isn’t it easier than using charcoal?”
The paler boy seems to ponder this question seriously, pursing his lips in thought.
“Well, firstly, it would consume a lot of electricity, and then I’d have to crank the prices way up to cover that. We have a gas grill at home, but the flavour you get just isn’t the same. I mean, too much charcoal smoke exposure and eating too much chargrilled food would probably give you colon cancer eventually, but if I can figure out a way to get the taste without the side effects, then-”
He cuts himself off, shaking his head as he realises that he’s rambling.
“Uh…never mind, it’s stupid. I don’t plan on grilling pork forever, anyway.”
Kongpob is completely fixated.
“No, I think that’s great. I wish I had a legitimate reason to study engineering.”
Arthit raises an eyebrow inquisitively.
“Do you not?”
“My dad’s company works with a lot of factories that supply parts for commercial products. So, I’m kind of expected to take over one day,” he sighs outwardly, shading in a square on the grid paper in front of him.
“But…it’s not what you want?”
“Not really? I mean, I don’t know. I’ve still got time to think about what I actually want, I guess. But my parents expect me to do engineering. I just don’t really have the right kind of skill set for it, I don’t think.”
Arthit says nothing, simply watching Kongpob as he talks, the usual bright and slightly pushy demeanour fading from his face. It’s a little unsettling, seeing the boy so unsure of himself.
“Anyway, sorry. Don’t mean to make this all weird,” Kongpob shakes his hand as if to brush the topic away. “Back to algebra.”
Kongpob manages to catch up to Arthit before he even enters the isolated bathroom at lunch.
“P’Arthit!” he whisper-yells, as if anyone else might be around to hear them.
The boy whips around to look at him, slightly startled.
“Uh…hi,” he finally says after a beat. “You’re…here again.”
“Actually, I was…wondering if you want to go somewhere else.”
Arthit’s glance wavers, clutching the straps of the plain grey and blue lunch bag in his hand.
Kongpob doesn’t miss his panicked expression, and retracts his thoughts a few paces, trying to parse his next words so as not to scare Arthit off.
“There’s a sort of…garden on the roof of the main building. Nobody goes there, but it’s actually quite nice. There are a few tables. And a basketball hoop,” he watches his friend’s face morph from anxious to puzzled. “Anyway, I kind of want to eat lunch there today, and you’re welcome to join me if you want.”
Kongpob waits a few more seconds, and seeing no response from Arthit, he nods with a tight-lipped smile, and slowly begins to walk away towards the back stairs of the main building. It’s as he’s reaching the second floor that he hears tentative footsteps following closely behind. He pauses, looking down over the stair railing to see Arthit cautiously peering around them as though he’s not supposed to be in the building at all, and he’s about to get caught for trespassing.
When Kongpob finally pushes open the metal door to the rooftop garden, he inhales deeply, breathing in fresh, open air. The entire rooftop is covered with various potted plants, ranging from flowers, to plain greens, and a few larger pots holding lemon trees and tomato plants.
Arthit is in awe. He walks around, taking in his surroundings. It’s certainly far more pleasant, and warmer than the echoey, tiled bathroom he’s used to.
Kongpob grins at Arthit’s fascination, and swings his legs over a bench at one of the tables under the shaded part of the roof. After a few more moments of visual exploration, Arthit joins him at the table, placing his lunch bag on it with a clatter.
“How do you even know about this place?”
Kongpob chuckles, opening his lunchbox. A baked salmon fillet on a bed of wild rice pilaf. If Arthit is curious about his rather bougie meal, he doesn’t mention it.
“I used to help out with the student council last year, and sometimes they lay their posters out here to dry after painting them. I really liked the vibe, so every now and then I come up here during lunch to hang out alone or take a nap if it’s too loud in the courtyard. I also come here sometimes after school if P’Shin is stuck in traffic on the way to pick me up.”
“My family’s butler, although he’s more like a family friend at this rate.”
Arthit snorts, shaking his head. Such a prince, he thinks. Kongpob digs a spoon into his food and begins eating. Arthit still hasn’t taken his lunchbox out.
“So…what’s for lunch?” Kongpob glances at the linen bag on the table.
Arthit blinks a few times before taking the thermos out of the bag and unscrewing the lid. He peers inside.
“Basil pork with rice.”
Kongpob nods, and chews on a spoonful of his own food.
“Sounds good. Did you make it yourself?”
Arthit shakes his head, still not picking up his own utensils.
“There’s a guy who runs a nearby stall who gives me my choice of whatever he has left at the end of the day for lunch the next day.”
“Really? That’s nice.”
There’s a quiet that dwells between them again, but Arthit still makes no move to begin eating. Instead, he watches Kongpob chew and swallow each bite, his tongue darting out occasionally to lick at the corners of his mouth.
I can do this, he thinks. It’s just Kongpob. Just one spoonful. Just to test the waters.
Arthit slowly picks up his spoon, exhaling heavily, before picking up just the right rice to minced pork ratio, one particularly crunchy-looking basil leaf nestled in the bite he’s compiled. He stares at it a moment, as though it might come alive and start laughing in his face.
Slowly, he lifts the spoon to his mouth, gulping, and watching Kongpob, who seems to take no notice. Arthit knows that he’s feigning his lack of attention, but he’d be lying if he weren’t not at least a little warmed at the thought of Kong wanting him to feel comfortable enough to eat in front of him.
Stop faffing around and just do it, he scolds himself internally.
Before he can argue with himself further, he’s sticking the entire spoonful in his mouth, and pulling it out just as quickly, his lips closed as he holds the food in his mouth. Kongpob merely breaks off another piece of salmon with his own spoon and scoops it up with a dollop of his rice before mindlessly shoving it in his mouth, chewing like it’s no big deal.
Tentatively, Arthit begins to move his jaw, chewing his own food and trying to focus on the flavours: salty, spicy, earthy, and with just the right amount of plain rice to balance it all out. Finally, he decides he’s chewed the one mouthful enough for it to be as mushy as baby’s food, and swallows it all in one gulp.
When he looks back up at Kongpob, the boy is smiling at him softly. Arthit, hands slightly clammy with nervous sweat, turns one corner of his mouth up, and Kongpob simply turns his attention right back to digging into his own food.
Arthit eats another five spoonfuls before Kongpob bids him his leave, claiming he has to rejoin his friends before they question his whereabouts.
The sun feels warm on Arthit’s pale skin, and he grins as he finishes his meal, breathing in the calming scent of jasmine. He thinks it might be his new favourite scent.
“How’s Arthit?” M asks suddenly.
Kongpob sputters and almost chokes on his drink.
“Arthit. You guys are friends now, aren’t you?”
M raises an eyebrow questioningly, smacking his friend’s back a few times as he continues to cough. Kongpob finally clears his throat enough to speak.
“Um…yeah. He’s fine.”
Kongpob flushes, and thanks his genes that he’s not prone to visibly blushing. He certainly feels it, though.
“You guys have been hanging out a lot lately. Are you replacing me as your best friend?”
He says this jovially, nudging Kongpob’s arm. Kongpob just lets out a short laugh.
“No, he’s just tutoring me in algebra. Plus…he’s actually kind of nice to be around.”
M scrunches his eyebrows together, inspecting his friend’s face. There’s a small on his lips as he says this, his gaze soft as he fiddles with the straw, dipping it repeatedly in his iced coffee.
“Yeah, he’s like a math genius or something. Somehow, when Arthit explains it to me, I just get it right away. When Teacher Danai explains it, it’s like water through a strainer. Arthit makes it easy to understand. Probably because we talk in between as well.”
“So…he’s actually talking to you, then? Like, personal stuff?”
“Uh…sometimes, yeah. Why?” Kongpob looks at his friend curiously. M shrugs, shaking his head gently.
“So…I guess he’s told you about the birthday card incident?”
Kongpob sits up straighter at this, turning now to look M straight in the eye.
“Birthday card incident? What are you talking about?”
M groans, smacking himself in the forehead.
“Never mind. If he hasn’t told you himself, he probably doesn’t want you to remember.”
“No, M. What birthday card incident?” Kongpob says sternly.
M had been hiding things from him, he knows, but if he’s going to get anywhere with his new friendship, he needs whatever intel he can get to aid him in helping Arthit out of his shell.
His friend pauses for a few moments, before sighing heavily.
“Fine. But I don’t know if you’re going to like what you hear.”
Kongpob is a little hesitant today as he makes his way down the street to the familiar yellow sign. He doesn’t know what to make of M’s information, or if he even believes it. Mostly, there’s guilt. Immense, gut-wrenching guilt.
Arthit must notice that he’s not his usual, cheery self, because he actually pauses to look at him instead of pretending to ignore him as he normally would.
“Hey,” he says. “I thought you were going to text me your order ahead of time.”
Kongpob forces a smile, but it comes out looking more sad than anything.
“Yeah, sorry. I forgot. I’ll uh…I’ll get six of the chicken, and two beef.”
Arthit cocks an eyebrow, but moves to fulfill the order quickly, if only to distract from the evident tension.
Kongpob just nods briefly again, his eyes not once leaving Arthit’s. The boy feels somewhat uneasy under his friend’s unwavering gaze.
“Um…” Arthit rubs the back of his neck, unnerved by being watched so closely that it makes his skin prick. “Is everything, like…okay?” he gestures vaguely at Kongpob. “You seem kind of…I don’t know…down.”
“It’s nothing,” Kongpob forces a thin smile. “Just a bad practice today, that’s all.”
Even if their friendship is fairly new, Arthit knows instantly that this is a lie. But it’s not his place to pry, not his place to know, so he doesn’t comment.
Instead, he hands the bag with Kongpob’s order to him, nodding as Kong mumbles a quiet thanks.
“Um…I have to go,” he says, and doesn’t look at him or say another word as he heads down the street, the usual bounce in his step distinctly missing, and his steps seemingly distracted, as he almost bumps into another pedestrian.
Arthit watches his friend curiously. What could possibly have happened since they’d last spoken that had upset Kongpob to the point that he didn’t even feel like teasing him as he normally would? Hadn’t they had some sort of breakthrough moment at lunch?
Or maybe it really hadn’t been to do with him. Of course not. That would be completely presumptuous.
Still, he makes a mental note to possibly text him later that evening.
25/08/2014 – ฿52