Thomas and Niko in the City of Trees

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Chapter 10

At the risk of sounding over the top, I feel like I’m sort of trapped between two worlds right now. That’s not the way I want to feel in what should be a chill moment with Thomas. He’s moved to a spot in the shade at the top of a grass embankment, and my god, it’s just a beautiful summer day. I don’t even know how to describe this day to you. Anyway, that’s one world. The other is inside the mall. The girls are going to meet us by the food court in fifteen minutes. I don’t ask him if he’s ready to head inside. It’s clear we both want to be out here.

The car smells like old dried-out leather and our seats are reclined a little. We’re both on our phones, but we’re not paying attention to them. I couldn’t tell you what the hell is on my screen right now, even though I’m looking right at it.

Thomas sets his phone face-down on the center console. I look up at him. He’s just looking back at me with these sad, dark eyes. His expression reminds me of somebody trying to call up some memory from a long time ago, if that makes any sense. I look down. His strong legs are really filling out those shorts. Black hair sprouts from his knees and gets thicker down toward his ankles. I guess what I’m trying to say, and what I’m slowly realizing as I feel this out, is that I’m completely fucking into him, and I have been for a long, long time. If we’re talking about ways to explain away this shit, to pretend, to defer, then I’ll let you know now: I’m out of options. I’m just too tired.

This is it. I look back up at him. His eyes have stayed fixed on my face this whole time. He’s trying to read me.

I know I was just talking about the two worlds, but in this instant, that’s wrong. There’s only one. The desire pulling me toward him now isn’t the kind of thing you can pretend away. It can’t be reasoned with. I lean in and he meets me between the seats. Our lips crash into one another’s, joined for the first time since that night in his room.

We’re just clamoring for each other. That’s the only way to describe it. We’ve got our hands all over each other, pulling, scraping, trying to get as close as possible.

I know I’ve said some shit about Thomas’s car, but damn, that thing has a big back seat. I don’t think I’ve ever paid attention to it before, but as we’re climbing over those front seats and tumbling onto the rear cushion, I realize just how little is standing in the way of what’s about to go down. We’re lying across it, and I’m on top of him, kissing him pretty deeply, and he has both arms hooked around my neck, pulling me into him, and you know I couldn’t fight that shit if I wanted to. He’s tearing at my shirt, tugging it inside-out, up over my head. He reaches up and feels all over my chest. He unbuttons my pants and pulls them down to my knees. My underwear goes with them, and that’s it. I’m out there, right in front of him. I kick off the rest of my clothes and pull his shorts and underwear down. I look at him. He’s as hard as I am. Maybe harder. I take in the sight for as long as I can while he’s pulling his own shirt up over his head. Then he comes back with that classic aggressiveness I know so well, dragging me towards him. He scoots himself down, grabs me at the waist and forces me deep inside his mouth. He’s gagging and all that, and I keep trying to pull back a little, but he keeps pulling me back in. All that pleasure is heightened by the fact that the wet, soft warmth surrounding me is him. It’s Thomas’s mouth. No one else’s. I try to warn him, but he doesn’t seem to hear me. I let go in his mouth.

Slowly, finally, I feel that first wave start to fade. I pull back from him. His own jizz is all over his chest. Jesus Christ, I’ve never seen so much jizz come out of one person in my whole life.

We recover quickly. We’re just peering out the wide-open windows, and I’m saying a silent prayer of thanks that no one saw what we were up to. I reach over the front seat and get some napkins from the glovebox to help him clean up. Then we’re frantically putting our clothes back on. And then it’s over.

We get settled back into the front seats. He’s looking away from me. I grab my phone, but I just hold it in my lap. I look out my window. My god, this day. The leaves on the trees. They’re just so incredibly green, fluttering in the breeze.

“Fuck, that was a new one,” Thomas says.

Somehow, he still manages to catch me off guard, even now. I’m pretty fucking sure he’s talking about the part where my dick was in his mouth. Jesus Christ. I don’t know what to say back to him, so you know what? I don’t say anything at all.

“Sooner or later, this shit was going to happen again—we knew that,” he says. “How are we supposed to know it’s what we want if we never let ourselves try it?”

We’re both still kind of sweaty and breathing hard. I look him dead in the eyes and say, “Like we don’t fucking know it’s what we want.”

He just scoffs and looks away. He’s annoyed because he knows I’m right. But he’s right, too, about what he said before. Of course this shit was going to happen again. My crazy brain was just counting down the days until I ran out of strength to resist. Maybe that part wasn’t clear to me before, but it is now.

And you know what? Now that it’s happened, it’s almost like we opened a valve and released the pressure. I’m not really a fan of the analogy and I sure as hell wish it didn’t apply to this situation, but it does. All that desire starts to feel manageable again. It turns back into something we can stow away, forget about for a while. We cool off for a few minutes, then close up Thomas’s car and go into the strange wonderland that is Boise Towne Square Mall.

It doesn’t take us long to find the girls. They’re standing by the escalators, laughing and shoving each other around.

“What’s so funny?” says Thomas.

“Lexie says Markham and Driggs got ticketed last night for indecent exposure.”

“How?”

Madison can’t stop laughing. “They were peeing into one of those big planters downtown on 9th.”

I start picturing it and then I’m laughing, too. “How’d they get caught?”

“I guess the cop just showed up out of nowhere. Driggs said he couldn’t cut it off mid-stream and he was scooting himself around the tree so the cop couldn’t get a peek.”

“Driggs thinks everyone wants his dick,” says Lexie.

“So what’s going to happen to them?” I say.

“It’s just a fine. Nothing big,” she says. “They didn’t get them for being drunk. Just peeing outside.”

“Damn,” says Thomas, “pays to be white around here, huh?”

“You bet your ass it does,” says Lexie. She always has a line ready. “So we’re thinking Sephora, then Forever 21.”

“And what do we get out of that?” I say.

She gives me an ice-cold glare, but she’s smiling behind it, I can tell. “Twenty-One has a men’s section.”

“Yeah, a tiny one,” I say. I reach out and grab her hand. I can feel Thomas’s eyes on me. I lean in and kiss her. He edges a little closer to Madison.

We’re just standing in a quiet corner of Sephora, him and me. Madison and Lexie are on the other side of the store. I’m spinning a black plastic tube of eyeliner between my fingers. “Think any of these would look good on me?”

He takes it from me and puts it back on the shelf. He seems pretty quiet and reserved so I get bold and ask him what’s up.

“Nothing,” he says. “Remember that summer Mirrors came out?”

“Of course I remember.”

“I was thinking about how we’d turn it up and just fucking scream those lyrics. We knew them all, front to back, man.”

“It was the same summer as the water balloons.”

“That long ago?”

“Yeah,” I say. I’ve always been able to group together memories like that. Remind me of something that happened, anything, even if it’s a long time ago, and I can name five other things that happened around the same time. And I can usually tell you the year, because at least one of the those things will give me a clue.

Thomas is quiet for a minute. “We found out she was sick that fall,” he says.

I nod. I remember everything. She was dead ten months later, at the end of the next summer. Even now, thinking about it, I feel this huge weight around it all. Everything surrounding that time just sinks down into it, becomes a part of that darkness.

Thomas has this strange, blank look on his face. He’s just staring at the floor.

He’s in a better mood by the time we leave the second store. There’s no plan. We’re just going around the mall in a pod, taking in the sights and sounds and smells. Everything is familiar. Nothing ever changes in this place. It’s probably exactly what you’re picturing if you think of any big, modern mall. It’s gone through a few renovations since it was built and the latest concept is that everything is all white and minimal with wood accents here and there, just like a few dozen of the coffee shops around here. I’m telling you, it’s all the same. If you want different in this dumb town, you have to hit up one of the last truly authentic places, like Flying M or Merritt’s. You know the kind of places I’m talking about. I can count them on one hand.

The girls head to the bathroom and we’re waiting outside the hall. There’s a wooden bench next to us so we sit down. I’m just minding my own business when Thomas decides to lean over and whisper in my ear, “I can’t believe your jizz is in my stomach right now.”

I have this knee-jerk reaction where I turn and punch him in the shoulder, hard. Maybe a little too hard. I’m pissed that he said it. I’m pissed off that he thought it was an appropriate thing to say at this moment in time. Jesus Christ.

“What?” he says, all defensive. He’s so weird sometimes.

I try to communicate. I try to explain to him exactly what I’m thinking. “You need to understand,” I say. “If we’re doing this—if we’re actually going to fucking try and do both—“ I cut myself off, because I can’t quite think of how to say it. I take a breath. “I need to keep the two worlds separate.” God, it sounds so stupid and over-the-top now that I’ve put it out there.

He’s just looking at me for a minute. “Okay. I can do that.”

The girls come back too soon. A thousand and one years would have been too soon.

Maybe Thomas decides in that moment that he also needs to separate the two worlds. Not just for me, but for himself. Because for the rest of that visit to the mall, he’s acting like nothing ever happened between us. We’re kind of paired off anyway, holding hands with our girlfriends like we’re supposed to, and he leans in often and kisses her and she kisses him back. I’m doing all the same things with Lexie because we decided to relax our rules about PDA. Later on, as we’re eating and talking about nothing, and even after that, when we’re all walking around the park and the sun’s getting low in the sky, things start to feel exactly the way they always did. As I’m getting close with Lexie beneath a tree, and he practically has Madison on his lap, I swear to you there is not a single feeling of longing between Thomas and me. Not even a tiny, distant one.

Let me explain to you why we’re both able to block it out so well, why Lexie’s hand on my thigh is making me a little hard, why Thomas was able to not only get it up but finish the act with Madison the other night: It’s because that’s still a part of who we are. Until recently, it was the only life we led. And you know what? It served us well through that crazy swirl of events I’ll call our collective high school experience. If Thomas Chu and Niko Savic rose to the top of that place, it’s because they were both really good at one thing: playing the part. Sure, it’s all over now, but hey, this is a vestige of that time. What more can I say about it?

We hang out with the girls until late. We all get high in the park, and by the time I peel off from the group and head for home, I’m feeling pretty much back to normal. I’ll admit that there was this one moment when we were pretty high and I looked at Thomas and he looked and me and it all came rushing back. I’m talking about that crazy time we had together in the car. In that instant, it really felt like he was remembering too. I even wanted to believe that our brains were temporarily connected somehow, and on some level we were both back in his car again, just the two of us, reliving every second of it. But now that my mind is clear, I can tell it was all just a figment. Maybe he wasn’t even thinking about us at all.

For the rest of the week, nothing happens between us. I talk to my mom quite a bit, when she’s at home. Lately I’ve been stuck in a certain line of thinking. I’ve decided that she doesn’t have a very good sense of reality. I’ve made up my mind that her relationship with the truth is a very shaky one. I guess it helps me understand the big picture of what’s going on with her a little better. But then I had this moment on Wednesday when I was feeling extra resentful over the way she is, and I stopped (for one goddamn second of my life) to think about my own actions. I thought of this phrase: “Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.” And then I decided that I better drop whatever stone I was holding and leave her alone.

“Nikola,” she says on Friday night before her shift, “will you massage my shoulders? I’m sore from stocking shelves at the store.”

I’m willing to bet she hasn’t asked me to do that in at least five years. I even think for a minute that she’s completely lost it, forgotten what years she’s in and all that. But I go over to her anyway and I sit down on the couch, and she sits on the floor in front of me, and I massage her shoulders for quite a while until she tells me I can stop. The whole time, I’m just thinking about how nice it is when all the clutter and bullshit around us is cleared away, and I’m sitting here doing this simple action that shows how much I care about her. There’s nothing else to it, no subtext, just the scene as described. Somehow, that dumb moment with my mom fills me with so much joy that I’m still riding the wave when I show up around nine in the evening at Thomas’s house.

His dad is watching TV in the living room. I say hi and he asks me how I’ve been. I tell him I’ve been fine.

I find Thomas in his room at his desk.

“How was your chat with Papa Chu?” he asks.

“Short,” I say.

It’s got to be the least eventful Friday night of the summer so far. I’m mostly just on my phone and he stays at his desk, scrolling through some Rolling Stone articles.

I should say now that I deliberately fired off a few before I left home. I mean to say that I pleasured myself, and if you’re thinking that I was picturing Thomas while did it, you’re wrong. I didn’t let myself. I’m only telling you this to show you how committed I am to the cause—that being Thomas and me keeping our filthy hands off each other.

But that shit doesn’t work. After we get ready for bed, Thomas and I rub one out together. I don’t mean to be crude, or to make the situation sound more casual that it is. It just feels like the best phrase to use given the arrangement we’ve apparently settled on (yet another one of our stupid unspoken agreements), namely, a sort of middle ground. Half an hour later, we just can’t seem to help ourselves and we do it again. That second time, we’re lying side by side on his bed, and he’s using his left hand and I’m using my right, and our other hands are between us. Just as we’re both about to lose our shit, Thomas takes hold my hand. He doesn’t let go until we’re done.

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