Part 1: Chapter 5
Content Warning: Non-graphic mature content
Arthit might be perplexed by Kongpob’s insistence on making everything infinitely more complicated at every turn, but he isn’t totally dense. He knows very well what the core of Kongpob’s intentions are, behind all the teasing and the constant vying for his annoyed attention.
Every so often, especially when he’s toed the line a little too far and Arthit’s irritated scowl distorts itself into a pained expression of genuine hurt, Kongpob steps back. And then there’s tenderness in his apology that squeezes at Arthit’s chest and thrums in his ears…then a single dimpled smirk or a seemingly harmless flirtation with some poor, unassuming girl who tucks her hair behind the rosy shell of an ear, and Arthit’s spirit turns sour like forgotten milk.
If only it were jealousy. Arthit thinks that if he could explain his vacillating disappointment away with something as simple as that, he might spare himself hours of lying awake at night and scrolling through old messages until his eyes turn red trying to hypothesise a cohesive train of different meanings from a single emoji after a simple correspondence, or a supposed hidden message in an ominous set of ellipses that has no succeeding message.
There are days on which the subtext presents a moment’s careless slip of concealed infatuation that feed into Arthit’s lucid fantasies, and others when an angry tear slips into the pillowcase because obviously, the blushing yellow smiley face with hearts is silently mocking him.
Some nights, if Kongpob hasn’t somehow managed to tick him off that day, he allows his heavy lids to slip shut and starved imagination to run frivolous and wild, until the entire surface of his skin is prickling almost painfully with heated frisson followed by washes of cold sweat. If he thinks hard enough, he can almost feel the moist imprint of eager lips against his chin and neck. Once in a while, the urge is so strong that he has to grasp desperately onto the edges of the bed frame to physically restrain himself from reaching past the waistband of his boxers or flipping over to rut into the mattress.
And then there are times when his attempts prove unsuccessful, and he ends up with both his fingers and stomach sticky with release and his breath rasp and heavy against the quiet of the dark living room. Then the soft thrum of Ah Ma’s snoring from the bedroom rapidly replaces his greedy fantasy with muffled tears of panic and shame. He frantically wipes and cleans and scrubs away any evidence of his moment of weakness, then turns away from a photo frame of four faded faces on the windowsill, trembling under his quilt until he’s physically too tired to stay awake any longer.
No, jealousy would be easy to understand. What he struggles with is the question of the boy’s sincerity, even if it makes little difference to how Arthit chooses to go about his days, cementing in every brick in his endlessly unfinished wall to replace the ones that Kongpob so effortlessly removes.
It’s better he keep his distance anyhow.
Except now, of course, the source of his torment is in such dangerously close proximity, and Arthit can feel his palm growing clammy in Kongpob’s firm clasp, a hold on both his hand and his foolish, foolish heart.
They’d been walking for almost ten minutes, mostly aimlessly, since they’d left the police station. Neither of them had spoken, Arthit’s attention hyper-fixated on their joined hands (and the complementary hypothetical scenarios in which the handcuffs aren’t present), and Kongpob pausing every so often to contemplate an interesting sign or readjust his backpack.
Holding hands had actually proven fairly effective in reducing the amount of friction and bruising from the handcuffs, although the synthetic fuzz is still itchy against his sweat-slick wrist. Just as Kongpob had hypothesised, however cheekily, they’d received significantly less wide-eyed stares since they’d linked hands, aside from the occasional smile meant as some sort of performative act of approval at the implied relationship.
There isn’t one, of course. Arthit reminds himself of this as he finally pulls his hand out of Kongpob’s, the hard metal once again clanking against his bony arm. He can still feel the imprint of a warm hand in his palm.
“What’s wrong?” Kongpob turns to face him, brows furrowed at the sudden separation.
“I’m…” Arthit peers into the small restaurant they’ve stopped outside, mouth watering slightly as he eyes the diners’ dishes. He hadn’t had anything to eat since dinner the previous night, and his hunger and dehydration only serves to exacerbate his dull, thudding headache. “Can we…get some food?”
Kongpob nods, his own stomach grumbling.
Friday, June 5th, 2020
📍 Gluay Maai Si Daeng, Koh Samui
“One kai jeow moo sab, please,” Kongpob flashes a polite smile at the waitress, who takes the menu from him.
“Alright…” she says, scribbling Kongpob’s order on her notepad. “And you, Nong?”
“Uh…a pad kra pow,” he nods a timid thanks. It’s what he always orders the first time he visits any of these canteen-style places; his universal point of criteria for determining whether or not he likes a restaurant’s food. Still, he always reads through the entire menu, just for good measure (and to complain about the prices).
For as long as he remembers, Kongpob had always had a habit of eating the same few things almost every meal, too. Always plain, boring, food that one could easily make on their own at home, with an iced coffee, or the grape-flavoured drink with aloe chunks that they have at every vending machine on campus. Not that Arthit had paid special attention or something. He knows what Tutah eats and drinks on the regular, too…curried fried rice and…lime soda?
Okay, so maybe he doesn’t know, but then again, Tutah eats most things.
“Anything to drink?” the waitress shoves her pen and notepad in her apron pocket.
“Water is fine for me,” Kongpob tells her, holding up the jug on the table with his free hand.
Arthit had been perusing the drinks page (and mentally shaking his head at the ten-odd layers of stickers that each read a larger number than the one beneath it), but quickly closes it upon hearing Kongpob’s response. After all, it would seem rather rude to order a drink with his food if the person paying doesn’t get one, too. Everything on the menu is stupidly expensive for what it serves anyhow, he decides, what with the restaurant being smack in front of the ferry pier and packed with tourists in the peak season.
“And a nomyen for him,” he hears Kongpob add, to which he’s unable to protest before the waitress is walking away with their order.
“Why’d you do that?!” Arthit says, incredulous.
“Well, you wanted one, didn’t you? I saw you looking at it in the menu.”
“If I wanted one, I would order it myself.”
“But you didn’t.”
“Well, I didn’t want one!” he says, a little louder than necessary, drawing in a couple of stares from neighbouring tables. Arthit feels his face flush, and groans, reaching for the jug and pouring the water over the single chunk of ice in his glass. Trust Kongpob to look for any way to tease or blackmail him with some sort of incriminating piece of information, in this case his affinity for the sickly-sweet beverage that Bright often calls a “Pink Cassis for children”.
“Okay…” Kongpob’s grin fades, and he scratches his nose awkwardly. “I’ll ask her to cancel the order, then.”
“What? No, they’ve probably already made it.”
“So you’re going to drink it?”
“No, you ordered it, so you’re going to drink it.”
Kongpob pauses, narrowing his eyes slightly. “I’m not drinking it, Arthit. Don’t be ridiculous,” he says after a moment.
“Well, I’m not drinking it, either, so—”
“Pad kra pow, kai jeow moo sab, and a nomyen,” their waitress returns with both plates on one arm, and the icy pink drink in the other hand, placing them one by one on the table in front of them.
“Thank you,” Arthit’s voice shrinks again in her presence, and he politely gives her a wai.
It’s quiet again as she returns to the cashier, leaving both boys staring at the condensation dripping off the side of the glass and darkening against the bright yellow paper placemat.
“Just have it, Arthit,” Kongpob finally says, sounding tired. “Please? If it’s the money you’re worried about, I don’t care. See it as, I don’t know…compensation for having to be stuck with me in this mess.”
And then he picks his fork and spoon up, breaking off a piece of the omelette to scoop up with his rice. Arthit watches him for a moment, trying to detect any hint of jest in his voice, but leans back in his chair when he finds none.
He doesn’t mean to be difficult; he really doesn’t.
After all, he’d been the one to set the endless guessing game in motion, more often than not setting himself up for embarrassed frustration when he’s wrong.
Unnerved by Kongpob’s unusual silence, he gingerly reaches for the glass, slowly bringing the straw to his lips. The sweet fragrance is comforting, quelling some of the dehydrating fatigue he’d been feeling since they’d woken up.
Aside from their turn-taking urination debacle and an awkward several minutes of avoiding each other’s stare in the mirror as they brushed their teeth with the last drop of cheap toothpaste in the homestay’s bathroom, neither of them had had much opportunity to go about their morning the way they normally would. The drink, though, brings Arthit a sense of calm and normality, the first since they’d woken up next to each other.
Their arms dangle between them as they sit adjacently at the small, square table, the pink fluff conveniently hidden under the plastic tablecloth.
Arthit picks up his own spoon, mixing in the spicy pork and string beans in with the rice. It’s a bit dry, and there isn’t anywhere near enough basil for his liking. They’d not been away for more than a few days, but suddenly, he already misses Ah Ma’s cooking. He notices that Kongpob seems more relaxed now, his ever-present polite smile faintly evident even as he chews slowly.
“Why didn’t you get a drink, though?”
Kongpob swallows his bite, then pushes some rice around his plate.
“I don’t order drinks other than water if I’m not familiar with the place,” he explains.
“That…makes no sense.”
There’s a pause, then Kongpob looks right at him, so suddenly that it almost takes Arthit aback. His gaze falls back on his food again before he speaks.
“A lot of places, especially in tourist spots like this, use food colouring in their drinks. It’s usually not a big deal, but…I don’t risk it anymore.”
Arthit pales. It takes him a few seconds, but when Kongpob’s explanation sinks in, it effectively numbs him into silence as his mind pulls out a sobering chill of a memory from an archive he thought he’d locked away for years now.
Of a cash box stuffed to the brim with bills.
Of an argument echoing down an empty hallway.
Of a pile of paper wrappers.
He remembers now, why he’d walked away, why he’d added a thousand more rigid layers to the wall, over which he now only peeks over with a periscope. The sweetness of his favourite drink quickly sours on his tongue, no longer bringing him satisfaction.
Kongpob watches him process all of this, and forces a small smile, before returning to his food. Arthit’s breath feels tight in his throat.
“Oh,” is all he manages to squeak out, before he begins stuffing his mouth with rice and spicy pork, chewing for the sake of something to do other than continue this particular line of conversation. It seems that his unspoken apology is quietly understood, but his six-year-old guilt sprouts afresh. He tries to push it down with another loaded spoonful, this time biting straight into a chilli seed.
It tastes like pink milk.