The Middle Years
A special chapter that peers into the early days before Kongpob met Arthit.
December 12th, 2011
Arthit has a favourite cubicle in the third floor bathroom.
Granted, every cubicle in that particular bathroom is an apt choice, but in his opinion, the one at the far end with the frosted window is the best, being slightly roomier and with ample lighting to read his newest Snoopy comic. Not exactly a bench at the park, but still a far cry from the hazardous school cafeteria nonetheless.
According to some silly myth that had been borne of theories following the release of some popular wizard movie Arthit had never seen, school bathrooms are prime real estate for crying ghosts.
It’s funny, because the only one who regularly occupies the stale, cold space at the end of the corridor is none other than Arthit himself, and he’s certainly alive and breathing.
It’s also not funny at all, because as far as his classmates are concerned, he may as well not be.
He’d taken to bringing his packed lunch in here each day ever since one of the ninth graders had unceremoniously flipped his lunch tray with a loud smack and a delighted cackle, decorating the front of Arthit’s shirt with watery brown stains.
Look, Porky shat himself!
In front of his sceptical mother and to the apathetic teacher on duty, he’d claimed it was a mere accident, that he’d been walking from the lunch line to his table and tripped on his shoelace. She’d pursed her lips in suspicion when he’d asked to pack his lunch instead, but reluctantly agreed on the basis that it was more cost efficient for them.
When Prae had wrangled the truth out of him, however, he’d insisted he was fine, begging her to not to tell Por, lest he cause a scene at the school, or worse, take it out on Mae again. The last thing he needs is to draw any more attention to himself, as if the tightness of his shorts around his thighs and the hole in the toe of his shoe isn’t enough to set off a wave of snickers across his entire class.
Well, except for him.
The boy stumbles into Arthit’s peripheral attention one day when a spontaneous racket rumbles from outside the frosted window of his lunchtime dwelling. While it’s not at all out of the ordinary for him to hear the odd peal of laughter or smack of a ball against the backboard of a hoop, the desolate bathroom overlooks only the school pond, hardly a spot for anyone to loiter unless they have a particular affinity with turtles and lily pads.
“W-what are you doing?”
“A little bird tells me that you’ve done some…growing over the school break.”
It’s a sinister, unchaste voice Arthit knows and fears well, the same one that mocks his mere existence as soon as he enters the school grounds, and peering over the ledge of the windowsill, the sight of the burly ninth-grader confirms his suspicions.
The tyrannical, skin-headed bully is surrounded by a posse of decidedly smaller boys, a vicious hyena leading its pathetic pack. They crowd around the pond — or rather, a girl who Arthit recognises to be from his own class. Fang (he thinks her name is) has her arms clutched around the front of her shirt, gripping her shoulders and arching further and further back in a fearful tremble as the domineering cluster of boys surround her, cornering her until she’s just a sudden yelp away from falling into the mossy water.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Excuse m—”
“What are you so shy for? You were so eager to show your friends earlier,” one of them sneers at the trembling girl. “Surely, you don’t mind showing us, too.”
Arthit gulps hard, not wanting to assume, but dreading their intentions. From his own run-ins with liquids and white shirts, he can’t foresee poor Fang being backed towards the tiny pond turning out any way other than — well, Arthit would rather not think about what that would mean for his classmate.
“I-I don’t—please, I need to go now,” Fang’s meek reply has Arthit’s own heart thudding in his ears from the sheer stress of witnessing the scene.
He momentarily contemplates fetching one of the teachers, but if his own fruitless attempts at seeking assistance from the school had been any indication, little is likely to come of it.
If I could find a way to distract them, then she could get away.
The pond is about a twenty-foot drop from the window, and Fang’s foot had been treading the pebbled edge, threatening at any moment to slip from beneath her.
Arthit backs away from the window, clambering down as quietly as possible from the toilet lid. Being in a toilet, there’s not a whole lot at his disposal for him to conveniently plonk down into the water. A roll of toilet paper? A bar of soap?
No, it would be a blatant giveaway as to where the disruption had come from, not to mention that he doesn’t want to accidentally kill the turtles in the unfortunate case that they swallow either of those things.
It’s a scramble of a scavenge as his eyes rummage the entirety of his immediate surroundings in pursuit of anything he can sacrifice, before they land on his lunch box, perched open on top of the water closet.
He grimaces. If his father were here, he’d get an earful about how wasteful it is to play with food. But there isn’t much other choice. Carefully, he plucks a warm piece of look chin moo out the container between two chubby fingers, and to nobody but himself, Arthit decides that the circumstances justify themselves enough to be exempt from horseplay.
The narrow gap of the open window that he’d been peering through is just wide enough for him to stick his fingers out. And then he waits, for the perfect moment.
“No! Please, just leave me alone!”
Fang is in tears now, and Arthit can make out her desperate whimper for help just loud enough that he almost lets go of the meatball right then and there.
“Oh, I’ll let you go, as soon as you show us what you’re hiding,” Tum edges nearer, pulling at Fang’s wrists to remove them from her chest as she struggles in his grasp. “I’ll show you mine if you show me—”
The spherical pork lands in the water with a quiet splash. So quiet, in fact, that the boys below don’t even notice that it’s happened. The interruption to Tum’s taunting instead comes from one of his minions, who taps him on the shoulder with panicked urgency.
“What’s going on here?”
Arthit, who’d ducked down as soon as he’d dropped the meatball, as though bracing for an explosion, clamours back to the windowsill at the sound of the familiar voice.
Fang immediately slips away in the other boys’ distraction, scrambling behind this other boy for protection. The boy — Kongpob — furrows his brow at the gaggle of gobsmacked boys, who, if previously contemptuous in their stance, are now tucking their proverbial tails between their legs.
“Fang, Kru Pat is looking for you,” he turns calmly to the girl, who is all but grateful to slip away.
“Yes, I’ll get going!”
And then she’s scurrying back towards the main courtyard, her short bob flapping with necessity from the sheer speed at which she’s moving.
“Everything okay here?”
Arthit knows where he’s heard that voice before. From his seat in the corner of the school auditorium, every third Monday, the soothing timbre of Kongpob’s voice lulls him into a soothed slumber, no less because English is not exactly Arthit’s forte.
Kongpob, Arthit decides, sounds cosmically more captivating when speaking Thai. He’d never seen anyone carry themselves with such quiet command, especially in the face of the likes of Tum and his pack of violently insecure bootlickers, and especially for an eight-grader.
The boy even has politely drawn features and broad shoulders to match his impressive demeanour, and Kongpob now pulls a tight smile.
“In that case, there’s no reason to be hanging around the girls’ bathroom then, is there?”
There passes a few seconds during which a flurry of exchanged glances wash over Tum and his squires, and then, without a word, they dodge past Kongpob, leaving with a hurriedness to match a house gecko across the ceiling.
And then there remains only Kongpob, who watches the boys leaving for a few moments before surveying the area one last time, and, when Arthit least expects it, looking straight up at the window.
He gasps, then scrambles back to the floor again, the tiles on the wall cool against the prickling moisture down his neck and back. His heart hasn’t raced this much since he was small enough to fit under the dining chair as a hiding spot, and the nervous sweat accumulating in his pits only exacerbates the rush.
Ten achingly long seconds, until he can no longer hear the echoes of his own hyperventilating in the empty bathroom.
When he finally dares peer his large, wary eyes back over the tiled windowsill, the coast is clear leaving only the inhabitants of the pond to feast on the only evidence of his presence. Kongpob has left.
And so, too, has Arthit’s breath been taken.
“You don’t understand, Prae, he was like a superhero!”
Prae snorts, tucking her pencil behind her ear, huffing as she loosens the bow around her collar. “How are any of the boys in at your school superheroes? I thought they were all horrible to you.”
“They are, but Kongpob is just…he’s different.”
Arthit bites into a stick of moo ping, eagerly recounting that day’s events to his best and only friend as they lay out their homework on the wooden dining table. He starts with Maths, working through the problems with swift ease as he rambles about his particularly eventful day to his best and only friend.
“And he’s in your class?”
“I’ve never heard you mention him before.”
“There are like, fifty other kids in my class. I don’t mention them. What’s your point?”
Prae watches the boy chew on his afternoon snack, his plump, rosy cheeks holding the food inside them for longer than seems absolutely necessary. True enough, he’s never brought up any of his schoolmates, other than the ones who give him a hard time, but Arthit isn’t the type to speak excitedly of anyone, either. She frowns at him in thought, observing his atypical chirpiness.
“Nothing, I guess,” she shrugs after a while. “Just be careful.”
“He was so cool,” Arthit continues, brushing off her warning. “He was all like, There’s no reason to be hanging around the girls’ bathroom then, is there?” He exaggerates a hair flip, tilting his chin up in mock confidence to mimic Kongpob’s supposed machismo. Prae chuckles, entertained by the theatrical imitation. “And then Tum and those other boys just scuttled away like cockroaches! I would never want to be on Kongpob’s bad side.”
“Have you ever even spoken to him?”
Arthit scratches the side of his face, pausing in the middle of a problem, suddenly stuck.
And truthfully, he doesn’t know if he ever wants to. You should never meet your heroes, Por always tells him. What if, in the moment’s bravery, Arthit decides to actually talk to Kongpob, and it turns out that he is, in fact, just like all the others? What if he’d merely witnessed a single act of kindness?
“It’s better that way anyhow,” he tells Prae. “He would never notice me in a million years.”
But even superheroes need guardians, Arthit decides, and if he can’t fight alongside him, then he’ll happily cheer form him on the sidelines.
Of course, Arthit very soon comes to learn that his newfound hero is somewhat the object of affection in the eyes of a signifiant portion of the student body.
As with many other things, he seems to always be the last one to be in the loop on all things that his peers have been buzzing about for some weeks, or even months. Sometimes, it’s a video game for a console that Arthit doesn’t own, or a TV series that can only be streamed illegally on some website that 100Mbps just can’t handle (and in any case, he doesn’t have time to watch).
Other times, it’s gossip about their teachers, like how their art teacher had divorced her husband and started a relationship with their maths teacher, only to abruptly leave the school two months before the summer break. Or when one of the seventh graders had dared open their homeroom teacher’s desk drawer in search of a pack of chalk, only to find dozens of pair of white plimsoll shoes (all worn and of different sizes) stuffed to the brim.
The former, he’d overhead by mere chance when he’d been in the toilet of the boys’ changing room, where he’d planned to stay throughout the entire P.E. Lesson. The latter had been announced in assembly, their principal warning students of the consequences of such pranks (although nobody owned up to it, only stirring up further curiosity).
But when it comes to his classmates, Arthit admits that he mostly returns their lack of heed towards him, content to fade into the background. Despite his conspicuously round frame, he manages to remain relatively unspectacular, escaping comments about himself as he waits to be the last to leave the classroom at lunch, and rushes to be the first to return.
He knows they still talk. But that doesn’t mean he has to subject himself to hearing of it.
Nevertheless, his newfound favourite pastime has brought him to the conclusion that he isn’t the sole constituent of Kongpob’s support network.
From the other side of the classroom, Arthit watches as he chats calmly with another boy in their class, another person that whose name he doesn’t particularly recall, if only for the fact that he’s never stuck his fist or insult in Arthit’s face before.
Arthit only has one real friend, but as far as he can tell, Kongpob is far more relaxed around this boy than most others, otherwise pasting on bewilderment when someone (usually a girl) stops by his desk, interjecting themselves into the conversation to ask him something or to hand him a well-meaning gift.
Most times, it’s sleek, brand-name stationery, all of which Kongpob accepts with a polite smile and a bow of his head. Other times, his desk is piled with barbecue-flavoured corn puffs from the convenience store down the road (Arthit knows exactly which one; it’s the only one along Yaowarat Road that sells the specific flavour). The word that it was Kongpob’s favourite had somehow gotten around when he was seen nicking a few kernels from a classmate’s portion during recess one day. Kongpob doesn’t eat any of the gifted snacks, though, Arthit observes, instead pushing them over to his friend when he thinks nobody is looking anymore.
Arthit frowns as he turns away, staring out of the window again. He has nothing to offer the boy, what with how he doesn’t receive any allowance, and he’s afraid to ask, lest he see the anguished crease between his mother’s brows again.
Besides, what would even be the point? What would someone like Kongpob ever want anything to do with the likes of him? Forget being friends, Arthit doesn’t think that the boy would even be able to recognise him outside of the school grounds.
Nobody does. After all, he’s just the ghost in the third floor bathroom.
Kongpob is rich, Arthit learns several weeks later. Or, well, his family is wealthy.
For once, he pays full attention at the monthly assembly, nodding in agreement with Kongpob’s scripted speech, which he delivers with sheer sincerity and gusto that Arthit believes and concurs with every word, even if he only understands a handful of them.
If only he could possess such an air of confidence and poise.
Of course, though, one quick glance down at his waistline and a gravy stain from months ago that hasn’t quite faded suggests to Arthit that, as his classmates frequently remind him, he isn’t built for that sort of presentation. Despite having skipped lunch, accidentally on purpose leaving his lunch in the fridge before leaving for school, he’s still full from yesterday’s street binge.
Por had been in a mood again, and drawn the eyes of the entire student body as he’d boomed out My son! at the front gates as he’d been leaving school. Today, we feast like kings! Arthit had groaned, but forced a tight smile as his father pushed him along by the shoulder blades, practically skimming bowls of soup out of stirring pots and snatching skewered meats off of grills as they zoomed past the regular stalls.
As far as parents go, Arthit hates to admit that he feels a little safer around his mother, although he’d witnessed her fair share of wrath when Por had left a scatter of Chang bottles under the bed. He doesn’t talk about their fights even to Prae, although he’s certain that she can hear (and feel) every word from across the hallway. In fact, it’s almost inevitable that the entire building can hear his father’s thunderous voice, even when he’s not shouting.
Arthit isn’t embarrassed, no. More like apologetic.
Kongpob’s mother, on the other hand, is far from anything that anyone would have to apologise for. It’s clear from whom the boy inherits his grace. Arthit watches with wonder as the pretty, blue-blazered woman is introduced onto the stage as the chairperson of the PTA.
Khun Malee Sutthiluck will now present the awards to the students with the highest-earning stalls from our Spring Fair.
Large, embroidered ribbons alternating in navy and amber to match the school’s colours passed over with a gentle handshake and a warm smile for the student photographer, the next image to surely make the latest feature on the homepage of the school website. Her kind eyes crinkle at the edges the way Kongpob’s do, each with their own matching dimple at the point of their chin.
Only those with money and power become board members, Arthit knows. Por had told him such plenty of times whenever he would come home with the latest edition of the school newsletter, tutting something rich, bored housewives and property hoarders.
“Kongpob is different,” he blurts in spontaneous defense what he’d told Prae to his own mother when she recounts stories of PTA members at other school using their positions to their children’s advantage. She pauses, putting down the skewer in her hand.
Arthit’s ears tinge red at the shells, and he looks away and straight down at his homework, the tip of the pencil snapping in surprise. He’d never intended for her to find out about his newfound admiration. What if Por found out?
“Um…just someone at school.”
“Oh? Did you make a friend?”
He shakes his head.
“He doesn’t know me,” he says, twisting the pencil into his Snoopy sharpener, determined to drill a hole through the back of the dog’s head. “But he’s nice.”
“You haven’t talked to him?”
“No. He’s very popular.”
His mother smiles gently, wiping her hands and placing one on top of his to put an end to his aggressive skull puncturing.
“Do you want to be this boy’s friend?”
Arthit fidgets with the eraser on the end of his pencil, turning it over to draw a small circle of pink dust on the page and pondering the possibilities. How nice it would be, to laugh with him at recess, to share a bag of corn puffs in the courtyard, to learn about his secrets and tell some of his own. How nice it would be to be a loyal confidante to the respectable SuperKong, to be the hero’s trusty sidekick, to never have another hot lunch tray flipped down the front of his shirt again.
How nice it would be, if he turned out to be right.
He nods in response to his mother’s question.
“Then you should let him know.”
Contrary to his mother and Prae’s advice, Arthit makes no move to progress the state of his hypothetical, purely one-sided friendship. He’s pretty sure that Kongpob doesn’t even know of his existence within the class, let alone his name. And if he did, it would more than likely be some vulgar iteration of Porky, or the fat kid with the fat dad.
Make no mistake; he mentally rehearses hypothetical dialogue between the two of them every spare moment he gets, almost so he can hear Kongpob’s voice and see his friendly face standing before him in his own room. Kongpob is the imaginary friend he never made up in his early childhood, and the closest thing he has to social acceptance at school.
And yet the mere sight of the person he bases his illusions on fastens the chain on any pseudo-confidence he exhibits when whispering his secrets to his bedroom wall and reading his comics aloud in hushed tones to the jacket draped on the back of his chair.
Because there’s security in isolation and imagination, isn’t there?
When one has nobody to celebrate with, holidays pass with an uneventful blur, and Arthit finds himself scraping red-stained rice paper off the door that blesses the home with peaceful entrance and harmonious exits a few weeks after the Lunar New Year celebrations have desaturated Yaowarat Road of the sweeping washes of red lanterns and golden dragon costumes.
He’d peeked into the little crimson envelope that Mae had given him the morning of the first day, then hurriedly stuffed it into the shoebox at the back of his wardrobe. There’s nothing he’s really saving the money for, but…just in case. In case things happen, or he has something he needs to buy.
But the folded banknote is forgotten as quickly as it’s hidden, only to resurface in Arthit’s consciousness when he looks up from his desk one morning to find a small crowd clustered around a desk near the middle of the classroom — namely, Kongpob’s desk.
It piques his curiosity, but any attempt to peer at what’s happening would just draw unwanted attention to himself, and so he waits for the group to disperse, watching out the row of windows in the corridor for their teacher. When the astute woman does eventually arrive, dozens of pairs of shoes shuffle with urgency back to their respective desks, some darting apologetically out of the classroom to return to their own.
Good morning, Kru Paga.
Pretty paper, boxes of expensive, assorted candy, and chocolate roses form a small hill on top of Kongpob’s desk, and a few scatter the tabletops of some others in the class. It resembles what Arthit imagines to be Cupid’s crimson-and-fuscia upchuck, and certainly brings an uncomfortable grimace to Kongpob’s face. He flashes Kru Paga a wry smile before opening his briefcase to quietly tractor the gifts into its open mouth.
Arthit suppresses a grin when one of the foil-wrapped chocolates clatters to the ground, leaving Kongpob with an slightly embarrassed grin that reaches his eyes as he crouches to pick it up.
As expected, Kongpob eats none of the treats, choosing a quiet corner of the playground to sit with his best friend, who scarfs down sweet after sweet, laughing about something Arthit can’t hear clearly from the third floor corridor.
And after lunch, as Arthit has just settled back into his seat, being the first to return, he hears their voices wafting from outside the window.
“Any plans for next week?”
“Probably the same as every year. Dinner with my grandparents, P’Gift will come over for cake, and then I will go to bed just like any other day. You’re welcome to come over the day after, though. Mae will definitely cook enough to feed an orchestra, so—”
Kongpob’s gentle laughter strikes up a warmth in Arthit’s chest, and he wishes he were the one making him smile. How nice it must be, he thinks, to have birthday rituals.
Birthdays had always been much of quiet observation for him, too, the only gifts he receives being another Peanuts edition from Prae’s parents. Por had fired up the home grill on year and made an extortionate assortment of honeyed meats and spiced seafood, which had then made a daily appearance in both his and Prae’s lunchboxes over the course of the following week or so. Never again, though. The man had never been much for words, emitting a simple You’ve grown, son with a single nod, before proceeding to fill his mouth with rice so he doesn’t have to elaborate.
Of the rituals he does partake in, though, he only looks forward to one.
Not that anyone at school knows, but his own birthday precedes Kongpob’s by a mere four days. He likes the thought, wondering what it would be like to hear Kongpob call him P’Arthit. It’s silly, given that it’s barely even a week apart, and so he dismisses the brief musing.
At home, as the clock strikes midnight, there’s a quiet knock on his bedroom door, followed by a familiar shuffle of his mother’s slippers and a slow dip in the side of his mattress.
“Hi, Mae.” He shifts himself to sit up and then makes space for her to sit beside him. She cosies up against his pillow and brings his head to rest on her shoulder, playing with his hair.
“How are you?” she says, because it doesn’t get asked often enough.
I’m fine. He’s about to give his default response, but in a moment’s impulse, stops himself. Instead, he looks up, meeting his mother’s curious gaze.
They could talk, couldn’t they? She’s the wisest person he knows, even if he doesn’t like worrying her with his troubles.
“Hmm? What is it?”
“I’ve been…thinking about something,” he starts, taking his time to consider his succeeding words. His gaze dances about the room, looking something to adhere to until it’s enticed by the warm glow of the street light just outside his window. “About how…some people have, like…a spotlight.”
“Like, they’re the centre of attention. Everyone likes them and, I don’t know, throws flowers at their feet or something.”
“I see…” she raises an eyebrow, intrigued. “What about them?”
Arthit rubs his nose in thought.
“Most of us don’t have spotlights. We’re just…in the audience.”
“I suppose so, yes,” she says after a moment. There’s more to her son’s spontaneous analogy, though, she thinks.
“So…like…do you think those people notice things…outside of that spotlight? I don’t…I don’t know if they would just see their audience as…like, a dark blur. Sorry, I know I’m not making much sense.”
“No, no,” she smiles. “Like everyone is part of the same mass. And you want to be noticed?”
Yes. Wait, no. Maybe? Arthit debates his answer, pulling his sleep shirt a little lower over his belly.
“Not…not really. No. I just—I have things that I want them to know. Even if it’s not from me.”
“All nice things, I hope.”
He nods fervently. “Of course.”
“Then,” his mother takes his round face into her hands. “You just have to trust that they can feel it. Because you know what shines brighter than a spotlight, Oon?”
Arthit blushes, pulling his face away and rolling his eyes at the cliché, but nods.
“Spotlights always find a new person to shine on, and the curtain falls on even the most dazzling of stars. But the sun…the sun shines on everyone, every day,” she ruffles his hair. “It shines especially hard on Yaowarat Road, around three in the afternoon, to be precise.”
He lets out a chuckle at her attempt at a joke, and cosies back into the round of her shoulder.
“I’m ready now, Mae.”
“Yeah? Alright then,” she sniffs the top of his head briefly. “I can’t believe you still want to hear this story after so many years. But I hope I have many more years to wish you goodnight on your birthday.”
“I’d like that, Mae.”
She smiles as he shimmies back down under the covers, then takes a deep breath, reciting a tale she’s told thirteen times since she’d brought her tiny bundle of sunlight home in her arms.
“Well, it all started fourteen years ago. Actually, it was potentially one of the worst times to have a child, your grandmother would tell you if she were still here. The Thai baht was at an all-time low, people were losing their jobs left and right, and the entire population was struggling under the collapsing economy. Business was slowing down by almost a half, and your Lung Dear lost his job after the elevated road project was scrapped the previous year. He lived with your father and I until he moved abroad when you were four.”
“I remember that.”
“You were still so young back then. Anyway, he told me we were absolutely mad for trying to have a child in such trying times. And he was right, but I was already nine weeks pregnant when the crisis hit. We made do with savings for months, but by December, we were almost rattling the remains of the piggy bank. You weren’t a very active baby in my tummy, but I talked to you every day. One day, your father came home and he was so tired, Oon. He’d picked up part-time work at the Lotus in Seacon Square. I won’t ever let our son go hungry, he promised me. He was so excited to be a father, you know?”
Her voice is tinged with nostalgia as she pulls the quilt up to his shoulders with fondness.
“I went to the temple that day. I prayed. Not for money. Not for a miracle. I prayed that we would overcome whatever obstacles stood in our way, and that you would always have someone to love you. But then, just as I’d finished my prayer…my water broke. I was taken to the hospital, where a very sexy nurse—”
“Mae…” Arthit whines softly, trailing off with drowsiness.
“What? He was! Anyway, he took very good care of me and made sure I was comfortable the entire time. Your father, on the other hand, was in such a panic when he arrived, that the doctors suggested he wait outside the delivery room lest he fainted. He still did, of course. And seven hours later, life gave me my miracle.”
She finishes with a light scratch to the crown of her son’s hair, gazing towards the orange glow in the window.
“Any wishes for your fourteenth birthday?”
But as she looks back at her now-fourteen year-old son, he’s already fast asleep, each breath deep and heavy with peace. His mother sighs, the corners of her mouth upturned as she brushes his too-long hair out of his eyes.
“Good night, my warmest sun.”
When Prae walks into the Rojnapat apartment with her briefcase full of that day’s homework tucked under her arm, Arthit is frowning at his open notebook, not having written a single thing.
“You can pout all you want but the homework won’t complete itself,” she remarks, sliding into the chair adjacent to him.
“I know,” he grumbles, picking up his pencil and tapping the page with the eraser. “I just can’t focus.”
His neighbour looks at him sideways, then tilts her head.
“Did something happen at school?”
“No,” he replies sullenly. “Never mind, let’s just do homework.”
“Okay,” she says simply, arranging her various notebooks on the table, careful not to mix them up with Arthit’s near-identical ones. “Anything new with SuperKong today?”
“Not really,” although he brightens at the mention of Kongpob, something that doesn’t go unnoticed by his friend. He doodles a small stick figure at the corner of the page, pencilling in a cape that he’s become accustomed to drawing in his spare time. “It’s his birthday tomorrow, though.”
“Oh,” Prae pauses, about to write the date on a fresh page. “Are you going to get him anything?”
“I don’t have anything to give him. It’s mostly girls who give him stuff, anyway.”
Arthit twitches his nose, now adorning the cape with a large K.
“So? Boys can give each other presents. It doesn’t have to mean anything.”
“Por says that only girls give each other gifts as friends. If they give a boy a gift, it means they want to marry them…or date them, or something.”
“I give you gifts ever year. I don’t want to marry you, Arthit,” she says plainly, copying out the word refuse over and over down the page in loopy handwriting.
Arthit lets out a snort, deeply amused.
“I don’t want to marry you, either.”
She knows this already, of course, but Arthit still thinks it necessary to say aloud, as if to affirm that Por’s incessant teasing about Prae becoming his future wife is just that — a joke. He returns to his sketch, adding in few fluffy clouds and several rays of a sun peeking from behind them.
“I…think I want to marry a girl one day,” she cuts through the quiet with just a whisper. The look she sends him when she lifts her head from her notebook is one that Arthit is unfamiliar with, but he, of all people, knows fear when he sees it. It hasn’t occurred to him before, given that they hadn’t really talked about crushes up to this point in time. Then again, as Prae so often put it, people at school suck. He holds her watery stare for a few more moments, then slowly nods with a small smile of reassurance.
“Okay. I guess I should tell Mae to make Por stop joking about us, then.”
“Thanks,” she sucks in a sharp breath, as though relieved, and smirks as he colours in the cape in faint strokes of his pencil. “Do you want to marry Kongpob?”
He near-chokes on his own spit.
“Well, you like him, right?”
Arthit sputters, struggling to form anything coherent for several seconds. Is that what Prae had thought all this time? Granted, to his knowledge, he’s never had romantic (?) feelings for anyone before, but it all seems rather unlikely to him.
“Don’t be ridiculous. H-he…doesn’t even know me. How could I like someone I’ve never even spoken to?”
“Just asking,” she shrugs, as if she’d merely asked him what the time was.
“I just think he’s cool and he’s not mean like the other kids,” he clarifies, although she hasn’t pressed further. “Besides…even if I did, Por would never allow it, anyway. You know he doesn’t like it when boys like other boys,” he says this last part in a low mutter.
Prae blinks, then peers at the drawing that now has two eyes faintly dotted onto the sun.
“You should write him a card. It’s not really a gift, but you can still wish him. It’s friendly.”
He considers this for a moment, then bites his bottom lip. It’s not a bad idea, although he’s not really one for words, and has no idea where to start.
“I’ve never written anyone a card before.”
“Not even your Mae?” She raises an eyebrow incredulously.
“Por doesn’t believe in spending money on trivial things like cards.”
Prae frowns at this, but shakes off whatever comment she might have been thinking to make with a loose wave of her hand.
“Here, I’ll help you. Get some better paper first. Just plain paper will do, but not notebook paper.”
He’s enthused now, dashing to the side table near the front door and opening the slim drawer to retrieve one of several plain notepads and bringing it back with the eagerness of a puppy.
“I…never mind, this will do,” she says, tapping the page with her own pencil. “Start with a greeting.”
Dear Kongpob, he writes, carefully and tidily as possible.
“Alright. Now, he doesn’t know you, right?” He shakes his head, waiting for further instruction. “So you probably want to write something that lets him know who you are.”
“Uh…” he chews at his lip. “Do I have to write my name?”
“Well, no. But you should at least tell him how you know him.”
His lips purse in contemplation, and as Prae observes him, he begins writing.
“Is this okay?” he rotates the page to face Prae, who immediately runs a hand over her face in secondhand mortification. “What? What’s wrong with it?”
“Arthit, you sound like a stalker.”
“What would you think if someone sent you a note saying I’ve been watching you?” she mimics a thwack to the air above his head. “Start over. Try something, I don’t know. Less creepy.”
Arthit sighs, but shoves his first attempt to the side.
“Don’t say you’re a ‘fan’! He’s not a celebrity with a Wikipedia page,” Prae interjects immediately before he can write any further. “Okay. How about something more…profound or refined? Isn’t there anything nice you can think of from reading all those Snoopy comics?”
“Ooh! I know just the thing!” he beams excitedly, becoming bolder with the size of his handwriting now.
“Prae, just say it.”
“What is this quote supposed to mean? Friends come in all shapes and sizes?”
“You said to use something from the Peanuts comics!”
“I meant a general sentiment related to birthdays, not this!”
“Fine! What do you suggest then?”
“I guess…just keep it simple and straightforward.”
“I said straightforward, not boring.”
“Is this not straightforward?”
“At least make it look like you put in some effort!”
“Why’ve you squished the last two letters on the side?”
“I ran out of space.”
“It looks really wonky. The smiley face is cute, though. Maybe you could do a proper drawing?”
“Are you sure you’re okay with him knowing you call him SuperKong?”
“Do you even want him to know it’s you?”
“Hmm. Maybe you could make it sound like you’re already friends with him so he doesn’t suspect anything?”
“I give up,” Arthit groans, letting the pencil fall from his grip. “This is hopeless. He’ll probably never even look at it anyway.”
“No, come on,” Prae shakes his arm gently, pouting for forgiveness. “I’m sorry. I just want you to write something nice.” She eyes her friend’s sulky expression and sighs. “What is it that you want him to know? Aside from Happy Birthday?”
Many things, if Arthit’s being honest. To share his most mundane of thoughts, ranging from a funny poster he’d seen outside the local theatre, to how he notices that water sprinklers are always no more than three metres apart in even the dinkiest of indoor restaurants. Or to ask him his favourite colour, and whether he puts the left shoe or right shoe on first.
But if he narrows it down to the very bare essence, he knows exactly what he would say.
“I just…I think he’s awesome. And I wish we were friends, even if it’s not possible.”
Prae smiles at this, pushing the blank page back towards him.
“Then tell him that. Just write what you mean.”
Arthit exhales noisily, then tiredly picks up the pencil again, quietly scrawling out a message. Prae tries to peer over his hand, but he very quickly pulls the paper towards him. In a moment’s brainwave, he plucks a yellow highlighter from Prae’s open pencil case, make round, raspy strokes before replacing the cap.
“Can I see?”
Slowly, he removes his hand from obstruction of her view, and pushes the page towards her. To his utter surprise, she grins, nodding her evident validation.
“Arthit, it’s perfect. He’ll love it.”
“You think so?”
“If he’s as good as you say he is, I know so.”
He grins, pleased with his work, then folds it into quarters and tucks it into the front pocket of his briefcase. Even if Kongpob never knows it’s from him, Arthit is content with the thought that it may bring him the slightest warmth from a distance.
Besides, only fools fly straight towards the sun.