Let me warn you now that I’m pretty bad at introductions. If you want to get a sense of me from a paragraph or two, good luck. It’s not that I think I’m complicated or anything. Not compared to anyone else, anyway. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned after eighteen years on the planet, it’s that nobody—and I mean nobody—can be figured out in two paragraphs. There’s a rhythm to these things, a certain dosage of time and circumstance spent with someone before you start to get familiar. And even then, whether you really capital-K-Know them is anybody’s guess.
I figure a story has to start somewhere, so the day I turn eighteen might as well be it. Here’s the thing nobody told me about turning eighteen: Everything stays the same. I guess I should have known. Granted, there are plenty of things you can do when you’re eighteen that you couldn’t before, but unless some life-altering event coincides with your birthday, you’re probably going to feel the same way you always did.
I could see that being a double-edged sword for many people. It certainly is for me. There are plenty of bullshit facts about my life that I wish I could change. I’ll admit that. But there are just as many things I wouldn’t give up in a million years—take my friendship with Thomas Chu for example.
Thomas Chu is my best friend. He turned eighteen exactly one month before me. He bought a pack of cigarettes with six dollars and the law on his side. We stood at the edge of school grounds where it’s almost allowed and smoked four of them. I asked him whether it was illegal for me to smoke, since I was still seventeen at the time. Thomas said you only have to be eighteen to buy them. You can smoke them at any age you want. That sounded like utter bullshit to me and I went to look it up on my phone, but my favorite teacher Ms. Nolan told my English class a few days earlier that she missed the time when we couldn’t look everything up every minute of our dumb lives. She said it was more peaceful back then. That got me thinking a lot for some reason. So I had been trying not to use my phone as much for looking things up.
I remember Thomas turning to me just as I slipped it back into my pocket. The breeze caught his straight black hair and sent it kind of twirling in a way that made me hold my breath for half a second.
“That’s right, put it back,” he said. His voice is kind of hoarse because he’s always using it up. Thomas yells like a maniac no matter what game he’s playing. Last fall it was football. You should see him—we used to play on the same team in junior high and his voice would just be going full-force the entire time, no matter what the hell was happening out there. I didn’t really make the cut for football once we got to high school. Thomas likes to say my heart was no longer in the game, and you know what? He’s probably right. Anyway, I decided track and field was a better fit. I went out for it last fall, and this spring.
“Nobody can see us here,” I complained. “Everybody left already.”
“What difference does it make?”
“I want to be seen smoking a cigarette,” was what I said. That’s the kind of thought I would normally keep to myself, not say out loud. But with Thomas, I’m usually more open about the stuff I’m thinking. Usually.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about vanity. I believe myself to be a vain person. I’m trying not to be too hard on myself about it, because I would wager that a majority of people around me are also vain. Vain people like me want to be seen smoking cigarettes. I’ll explain why: In this dumb school, even if only five people saw us smoking at the edge of the parking lot, word would get around about it, and then we would be the two boys who smoke on school grounds. Who the hell cares what side of the chain fence we were actually standing on? And then I would get asked in the hall, “Do you smoke? I heard you and Chu smoked on school grounds.” And I would say, “Not as a habit,” and just walk away. I don’t need to tell you what kind of a badass statement that would make. Think of it like this: I’m repping a particular brand of person—one who occasionally shrugs off the rules. I find it’s not all that hard to stay on-brand, and besides, it really pays to curate your public image in a place like this.
Anyway, all that happened a month ago, and now I’m the one who’s just reached legal age. Thomas asks if I want a ride to go buy cigarettes after school and I tell him it would be a waste since he still has sixteen left in his pack.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “I don’t know where I put them, though.”
“They’re in your glovebox.”
“Oh yeah,” he says.
Thomas drives his dad’s old maroon Lexus, which sounds pretty nice until you see it. It’s from 1990, a year that was covered in the third-to-last chapter of our US History textbook. That’s right: Two entire chapters’ worth of historical shit has gone down since that bag of bones rolled off the line. I guess it must have been nice back in the day. Nowadays it’s pretty run-down, and the engine sounds like a jet and a meat grinder had a baby whenever he gets on it.
People always make fun of Thomas and me for spending so much time together. There are plenty of rumors that we’re into each other, which isn’t true. It doesn’t get to me much, but it bothers Thomas quite a bit. I’ve told him before that he should just ignore it. I’ve warned him that making a big thing about it will only fuel the fire. He understands the concept, but he just can’t seem to get himself under control.
“It fucking annoys me so much,” he’ll say. One time, he said the following: “If I were a fag, fine. I’d march around and fly the flag. But I’m not.”
We were in his messy bedroom, just lying on his bed, looking up at the ceiling fan.
I grabbed him by the shirt. I made him look me in the eyes. “I don’t know where that word came from,” I said, “but you can’t go off saying it.”
“I’m only saying it to you,” was his reply, as if that made it better somehow.
“Well I don’t want to hear it.”
He got really quiet for a while after that. I think I confused him a little.
He worries too much about the whole thing. Both of us have girlfriends. Mine’s name is Lexie and she’s in all AP classes. We had a moment when we met. Most people in this school already know who they’re going to know by the beginning of senior year. But Lexie and me, we’d both somehow missed the fact that the other existed until that first day in McClellan’s class. I remember it clearly. For some reason our desks were so close you could hardly drop an eraser between them. Lexie cracked jokes that I’ll admit went a little over my head, and she could twirl three pens at once, all the way around her finger and back again. Both of these things impressed me a great deal. I’m not too sure what the hell she saw in me, but anyway, things really clicked between us. It made sense that we should get together. So after a while, that’s what we did. She and I hang out a lot after school, and the best part is, she gets along well with Thomas’s girlfriend, whose name is Madison. They’ve become pretty good friends since we all started hanging out together.
This is exactly what I was saying—how I have a lot of good things going on in my life. But it doesn’t stop me from constantly devising plans to get out of this dumb town. Thomas and I used to talk about what city we would run off to if we could. Seattle or Portland are the default edgy answers if you’re from the area. Everybody who believes themselves to be edgy wants to go to one or the other, even though few people have made actual plans. Many will stay in-state and go to the university up north. Even more will stick around town.
Two types of people will stay here: the people who are too afraid to leave, and the die-hards. Madison is a die-hard. She’ll say, “Boise actually has a lot going on. Everyone’s talking about it these days. Even the Seattle Times posted this story about how it’s growing up as a city and…” She’ll go on forever like this if you don’t change the subject. Lexie and I always share a look when she talks this way.
Madison will stay here, for sure. I’m actually worried Thomas will stay because of her. He has a football scholarship to U-Dub all lined up, if he wants it. There’s money on the table if he stays here, too. I don’t know what he’ll do. Both schools want him so bad, they let him keep thinking it over way past the deadline. His indecisiveness is getting ridiculous at this point, if you ask me. Every time I think about him staying here, I start getting really, really sad all of a sudden. I’m not sure why, except that we’ve spent so much time over the past couple years talking about getting out.
That’s the thing. I am getting out, and Portland and Seattle weren’t good enough for me. I’m headed north. Vancouver. I’m just that edgy. The university up there called my name and I have the grades for it. That might be all I have, but it’s enough.
Anyway, Thomas and I leave the school around four to smoke. When I say “leave” I mean that we stand just inside that knee-high chain marking the edge of the parking lot. Not a lot of students smoke these days, so it makes for a significant episode, and this time more people are around to see. Lexie is going home to be with her grandma who is in town visiting from Salt Lake. She’s not ready for me to meet her grandma, and I’m relieved about that.
She’s driving down the row of cars toward us now. Her windows are down. When she sees Thomas and me smoking she hits the brakes and her dumb old car sort of lurches forward.
“Jesus, Niko, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
The car behind her honks.
I pretend I don’t know her and she gives me her we’ll-talk-later eyes. She speeds out of the parking lot.
“Niko, my boy, today you’re a man,” Thomas says, giving me a big slap on the back. He’s about two inches taller than me, at an even six feet. Lately he’s been showing me the particulars of his workout routine in his dad’s garage. His arms are quite a bit larger than mine, but I’m working on it.
“I don’t feel any different,” I say.
There are no clouds in the sky. It’s getting hot. Welcome to your typical late-spring day around here. I’d say more, but there’s nothing remarkable about this place. The school looks like a cluster of gray and tan boxes.
We each have two. Another senior called Garrett Landon comes over with his typical swagger and smokes one. Then we close the carton and put it back into Thomas’s glove box, and put the matter to rest for a while. We ditch Garrett, and Thomas drives me to his dad’s place. It’s a three bedroom duplex off of Cole Road with a shared backyard. We walk in and find Thomas’s little brother Alfred on the couch playing Switch. Thomas tells him to leave.
“Why do I have to leave?”
“Fuck you, that’s why. We want to play.”
“You’re such a little bitch,” says Alfred as he walks out of the room. I like Alfred. He’s in the ninth grade and doesn’t take shit from anyone, not even his older brother. His voice recently got low and he’s already almost as tall as Thomas. But he’s way skinnier, and his face is more angular. They barely even look related. They have this kind of back and forth where they say all kinds of mean, filthy things to each other but there’s no malice behind the words. It’s kind of a beautiful thing to watch. I hardly ever see them fight for real.
Their mom died of stomach cancer almost four years ago. She was kind of a second parent to me in a way, since my mom can’t seem to get her shit together most of the time, and my dad is not in the picture, so goes the phrase. I cried about it a lot when she first died. Thomas hardly showed any emotion at first. I tried to hug him and get close to him for comfort but he would just push me away. Then, about three months down the road, he started crying all the time out of nowhere, and got super honest about everything he was feeling. I think that was an important time for him in his life. He kind of grew up out of it and became something more than he was before. I don’t really know how to describe it. Every year we light candles for her.
We play Mario Kart for a while and I beat him handily. When we’re done, Thomas yells to his brother that the TV’s free again. Thomas says we should go to his room because he has something he wants to talk to me about. I can feel my heart beating.
He shoves some neon green running shorts and other dirty clothes off the side of his bed and we lie down on it like we always do. Thomas’s room has the kind of feeling about it that all of our rooms do now. Lexie and Madison’s are the same. I don’t know how else to put it other than to say they’re expiring. They’re still children’s bedrooms, and they’re at the end of the line. For example, Thomas has a Pokemon poster on his wall right next to one of an Anime girl with absurd, barely-covered tits just dangling out in front of her. He has ribbons above his dresser from third and fourth grade track meets. His shoulder pads sit jumbled in the corner beneath a grass-stained jersey. There’s a small safe on the floor of his closet that I know has a flask of whisky inside it. I’m telling you, it’s the most ridiculous place in the world.
Anyway, we’re lying there like we always do. Thomas says, “I think I want to go to BSU.” This means stay in Boise.
“I know,” I say.
“What do you mean you know? I’ve never told you before.”
“I don’t know what I mean,” I say.
“Well, how do you feel about it?”
“Does it matter?”
Thomas sighs in a really dramatic way. He can be so dramatic sometimes. No one knows that about him but me. “You’re my best friend, Niko. Of course it matters.”
“What do you want me to say?” I say.
“Just tell me how you feel about me staying here for school.”
“You know how I feel.”
“No I don’t.” He’s getting super annoyed. I can hear it in his voice. “How the fuck could I know if we’ve never even talked about it before?”
I’ll be completely honest with you. Before now, I had no idea Thomas gave two shits what I thought of him staying. So I think I have every right to be surprised. “Could you just say what you really want to say?”
He looks over at me. “You want me to go to U-Dub.”
“I want you to do what you want to do.”
He stands up really fast and knocks one of his dumbass trophies from the windowsill onto the floor. “You’re such a fucking bitch sometimes.”
My gut reaction is to laugh. You try and watch someone Thomas’s size throw a tantrum like a three-year-old without laughing. I see him flash hot with anger. Then he cools down. I honestly don’t know what made him get that mad so fast. Now he’s just standing there, breathing in and out, looking down at me.
It’s my turn to be the rational one. I can turn it on like I’m flicking a switch. “Hey,” I say. “It’s not like Seattle and Vancouver are that close. I don’t think we’d see each other much more if you were up there.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“You wanted to get out.” I don’t move my mouth as I say the words.
“I said you wanted to get out.”
He takes a minute. He’s still just standing there, kind of looming over me. I don’t know what the hell he’s doing. “Don’t you think what me and Madison have is pretty important?”
“Lexie and I are going to do long-distance.”
“I don’t want to. I can see it working for you guys. But for Madison and me, it would be a disaster. She already complains that I don’t show her enough affection. How the fuck would that even work over long-distance?”
I admit to him that I have no fucking idea.
“How far is Seattle from Vancouver?”
“Two and a half hours,” I say. I’ve looked it up plenty of times.
It actually seems like he’s thinking about it. I realize that he hasn’t even come close to making up his mind. I know what to do in these situations. Ease the pressure. Ease off. “Hey man,” I say. “I want you to be happy, even if I don’t totally get what I want. I’ll never know you better than you know yourself. So if you say staying in Boise will make you happier, I believe you.”
He’s got these kind of sad eyes that he looks at me with. “You’re such a bitch,” he says. Then he smiles.
We go into the garage and work out together. By now, we’ve gotten used to spotting each other, and we know all about one another’s particular tendencies for bad form and whatnot. What I’m trying to say is, I like the kind of situation where two people are getting more out of doing something together than either of them would have if they were doing it alone. I think it’s actually one of the most beautiful things in this world.
The days are getting longer. It’s not dark at eight when I go to leave the Chu household. I lean into Alfred’s room and say goodbye. He looks up from his desk and gives me this awkward, silent wave. He used to be just a little kid. It’s weird how fast people grow up.
We stand out on his front lawn, facing the street. They put some new chip seal on it and dust gets kicked up each time a car goes by. The light from the setting sun floats in the dust. This is one of the first nights of the year that I would call a warm one. I’m anticipating many, many more where that came from. Just thinking about it gives me this incredible feeling of weightlessness.
“Happy Birthday, man,” he says.
I tell him thanks.
A car passes by so fast that some little rocks from the chip seal get kicked up onto the lawn.
Thomas turns to me and says, “I swear to god, one day, I’ll get out of this dumb town forever.”