Thomas and Niko in the City of Trees

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Chapter 11

Thomas says something before we fall asleep that takes me by surprise. He kind of touches my shoulder before he says it. That’s him letting me know he’s serious. “I’ve been thinking about what my dad would do if he ever found out.”

He put on one of his dad’s old records earlier. Maybe that’s why. It’s Led Zeppelin. He flashed me the cover as he was putting it on, and it showed a painting of a man with this big bundle of sticks on his back. The music is playing softly. Anyway, I’m thinking about what Thomas is trying to say. This shit is coming up too often lately, where he’ll say something and then I have to figure out where the hell he’s going with it. “Has he ever said anything about it before?” I ask. “You know, about people like that?”

“A few times. He’s still hitting up that Chinese Baptist church every Sunday, if that tells you anything.”

“I thought he stopped going.”

“He did, for a while. Now he’s going again.”

“So you’re saying he’s against it.”

“I don’t know what I’m saying, man. Fuck, it’s like it’s worse, somehow. He said something once, a few months ago.” Thomas pauses. I can tell he’s trying hard to remember. “Freddie and him and me, we were all having dinner. Freddie made some dumbass comment like, ‘If I was gay, I’d probably be better at picking out shoes.’ You know how that kid can’t fucking shut up about his shoes. And then my dad just froze. He acted all weird and looked at Freddie and said, ‘Gay isn’t real.’”

The story stops dead. I’m not sure what my reaction is supposed to be. I look up at Thomas.

“Can you believe that?” he says. “I mean, it’s the worst thing someone could say.”

“I guess,” I say. “It is Papa Chu though.”

“I don’t give a fuck who it is. Think about it, man. He’s saying it’s not real. He’s saying this whole group of people, this whole identity some people have—it doesn’t fucking exist.”

Thomas is being irritating as hell right now. I was the one who told him not to use the ‘F’ word a few months back. And suddenly he’s the champion of the cause? Fuck off. Anyway, I’m still not sure what to make of this stuff he’s telling me. The thing I want to know is, why is he so concerned with what his dad would do if he found out? That’s not part of any plan I’m aware of. I want to get to the bottom of it, so I ask him point-blank, “Are you thinking about telling him?”

He shoots me the definitive Thomas glare. “Are you fucking kidding me? Not in a million years.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“Nothing,” he says. “Jesus, dude, there’s no problem.” He’s mad at me now, just like that.

He’s being such a little bitch. I’m not the one who brought all of this up. “Okay then,” I say.

He looks over. “No one can know about this. Never. You’re the only one who can ever know.”

“Fine,” I say.

“What?” he asks. He’s super angry underneath, I can tell. “Were you fucking thinking of telling someone?”

“No.”

“See?”

I look the other way. I even turn so my back is to him. I know that will bother him. I spend a long time like that, just staring into his open closet.

“What’s wrong?” he finally asks. He sounds a little calmer now.

Fine, Thomas, I’ll fucking be the one to say it. “I just want to know what that means for you and me.”

“It doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “This thing we have going on—there’s no way it could ever lead anywhere. You know that, right? It’s not an option. It never was.”

I’ll tell you what I’m thinking right now. I’m thinking that I’d really like to know what makes him so inclined to say all of this shit out loud. It would be nice to understand why it’s so goddamn necessary to put into words the things we both already know too well. This is another grade-A Thomas move, if I’ve ever seen one. He’s got me right where he wants me. There’s nothing I can say to argue. To tell you the truth, I don’t even disagree with what he’s saying. But what’s the point of making everything so explicit? I swear, I’ll never understand it.

We pretty much leave it at that. He falls asleep before I do, and I get pretty annoyed that he’s lying there just snoozing away after a conversation like that. But soon I’m too tired to care.

At some point in the middle of the night, I’m woken up by his movement. He scoots over so he’s right next to me, shoulder to shoulder, then turns on his side so he’s facing me. Slowly, he reaches his arm around me. I feel the weight of his bicep settle across my chest. He pulls himself tight against my body, tips his head forward and his forehead comes to rest against my cheek. He hugs me so tight it’s actually painful. And then he starts to cry. It’s so quiet and soft that I never would have noticed if his whole body wasn’t mashed up against mine. For a long time, Thomas has privately been the emotional one between us. No one is aware of that but me. I don’t always know why he gets so worked up, but this time I’m fairly certain of the reason. It’s enough to make me cry, too. I’m feeling his tears on my collarbone, and I’m thinking about everything we’ve been going through lately, and I just can’t hold it in.

That’s the thing about situations like this. We’re all staring reality straight in the face. We know our limitations, but like a bunch of pathetic losers, we’re still hoping for some other, impossible course of events to go down. The idea of Thomas and me, it’s a really nice one. Thinking about it working out somehow…it just fills me with a kind of joy I’ve never experienced before. But each of us has plans, places we want to go. Jesus Christ, matching up those plans and those places with our legit relationships is hard enough. But the shit he and I have going on right here? This just can’t happen, not in the long run. Tell me I’m wrong.

Those girls. I don’t know what’s going to happen with them. I’ll be honest with you: When it comes to Lexie and me, I don’t think either of us actually believes things are going to last. And I’m not just saying that because I’m hoping for an easy way out, either. She’s a lot like me in some ways. She’s pretty practical about things, sometimes even more than me. We’ll talk about how it could work out, Skyping each day, or twice a week or whatever, and we’ll both get this weird, doubtful tone in our voices, like we’re fully aware of all the ways things could go south. Maybe you’re thinking that means we don’t care about each other. But we do. I’ve said a million times how patient Lexie is with me, and I’m sure I’ll live to say it again. I can be a huge pain in the ass sometimes. But I’m not the only one who’s made apologies since we’ve been together. Just like me, she constantly has a plan of her own, and it’s led her into trouble more than once.

Saturdays in the summer: Let me tell you, there’s no sweeter fruit. The way I plan out my life during the school year, I get used to a certain pace. I like things to be a little frantic at all times, and I fill out my schedule accordingly. I’m actually super into it. So I’m never quite prepared for the impossibly open-ended nature of days like this, each time they come.

You’re probably thinking a coffee shop should be conducting business on the weekend, no matter how small it is. You’d be right about that. The reason I don’t work weekends in the summer is because Marlon is of the opinion that a man of my years should have that particular time in his life freed up. So he works them for me. He did it last summer, too. He’s a strange old dude, for sure, but he’s always redeeming himself in one way or another. Last summer, I slowly learned the benefits of having those wide-open days. The thing is, I didn’t realize what I’d learned until it was all over, which means Marlon taught me something without me even knowing it. I’m not exactly prepared to call him a mentor, but if I were, I guess I would call him a good one.

Thomas and I lie there talking for a while in bed, hands behind our heads. I’m sure he remembers what happened in the middle of the night just as well as I do, but we don’t say anything about it. I also remember waking up some time later still in his arms. I don’t know if it was truly his intention to hold me like that for half the night, but that’s what exactly what happened. Maybe we shouldn’t have done it, but it just felt so unbelievably nice, and it was cold in the room because of the air conditioning, and I just couldn’t find it in myself to push him off.

“Maybe I’ll go away to school after all,” he says.

“You better.”

“Think you’d ever make it down?”

“Of course,” I say. “As long as you make it up. You’re the one with a car.”

“Only if I take it with me,” he says. “There’s quite a bit of piston slap these days. Might be the death rattle.”

“If I ever saw a car worth fixing, it’s that one.”

He looks over. “Think so?”

We get up and go out into the kitchen.

Alfred’s eating cereal at the table. “You want to go with us to California this year?” he asks.

It takes me a second to realize he’s talking to me. “Nah, that’s your thing,” I say. Every summer their family takes a weeklong trip over to San Francisco. I almost went with them the summer I was ten, and then again when I was twelve. But both times I backed out because my mom needed me to stay. I’m feeling a little weird about this sudden invite from Alfred. Obviously I’m way too old for that kind of thing. But secretly, I’d do it. Of course I would. I think it would be fun meeting his cousins, seeing what it feels like being the only white guy in the room, checking out a city I’ve only ever dreamed about, all of it with my best friend at my side. Those are the kind of touchy-feeling thoughts that go on in my head sometimes.

“Give me the cereal, loser,” says Thomas.

“Fuck you, too,” says Alfred. He doesn’t look up from his phone, just blindly scoots the box across the table.

“Excited for Capital this fall?” I say. He’s headed in just as we’re headed out.

“I already went to Borah for math,” he says. “But yeah.”

I remember those days, taking the lunch bus over from Fairmont. I almost didn’t sign up for grade-ahead math, since Thomas was still going through all that stuff about his mom. But at the last minute I did. Every other day, I’d leave that junior high for my afternoon class. It never stopped feeling like I was leaving him behind.

“Borah sucks,” says Thomas.

I doubt he really feels that way, deep down. It’s all just rivalry bullshit anyway, and Thomas doesn’t hold a grudge. Once he’s playing college football, I’m pretty sure all this high school stuff will fade into the past. “When do you guys leave?” I say.

“Next weekend,” Alfred says. “I wanted to drive but Dad says we’re flying again.”

Thomas is looking back and forth between us. He looks like he’s about to say something, but then he just hunches over and eats his cereal. I pour myself a bowl.

An hour later, we’re in Thomas’s car just cruising around town. I tell him I need to stop by my place and he asks for how long. I tell him he can wait in the car and he looks relieved.

Thomas has always been uncomfortable around my mom. I think he’s super put off by the way she lives her life. For a lot of my childhood, Thomas’s house was the place I’d run to whenever shit wasn’t good at my own. He was always the first to hear about it, my first point of contact. Things started getting messed up around age eleven, back when she was dating this guy I hated. He was a pretty angry guy. Several times during that period, I showed up at Thomas’s front door on the verge of tears. I’d hold it in until he and I were alone.

But there was one time when his mom intercepted me. She pointed to a bruise on my arm, and when I shook my head she took hold of it and squeezed, just a little. I winced in pain and she said, “See? See?” Then it was just her and me in the car. I’d never seen her so furious before…her fingers drumming nonstop on the rim of that same old leather steering wheel Thomas’s hand now rests on. Anyway, we got over there and climbed the stairs and opened the front door and she just unleashed at my mom. It’s not like they were ever more than acquaintances, but anyway, they never talked again after that.

Thomas pulls the car into a space under the carport at my apartment complex and I run up for a few minutes. I peek my head into my mom’s room to see if she’s up yet, but she’s still asleep. I grab my phone charger and change my underwear and shirt.

So I get back out there and sit in my seat, and he doesn’t start the car right away. He’s just looking blankly through the windshield. “She relies on you quite a bit,” he says.

“Yeah,” I say. “I know.”

“Have you thought about what she’ll do when you’re gone?”

“Of course I have.”

“Think she’ll be okay?”

I’m finding it hard to believe Thomas cares this much about my mom’s wellbeing. He must have some other angle. “I guess I just won’t know until the time comes,” I say.

“I guess,” he says.

He drives us downtown and we park all the way at the top of a garage, on the open deck. There are only a few other cars up here. We go over to the edge and climb up onto a concrete platform about three feet wide. There’s nothing to block anyone from falling, no rail or anything. That’s probably because no one’s supposed to climb on top of it in the first place. We’re sitting cross-legged, just kind of looking out at the buildings for a while. I bet it’s ninety degrees out. Heat like this has never bothered me much.

Thomas dangles his legs over the edge. I tell him to stop, and to my surprise, he listens to me.

I only have one scar from that bad time I was telling you about. It’s on my knee. It happened because that guy my mom was dating got drunk and I gave him some lip, and he threw me outside. I fell down the concrete steps because they’re straight outside the front door, and got my knee pretty bad. Anyway, it’s a little white gash about an inch long.

I’m only mentioning it because Thomas is looking at it now. We haven’t talked about all that stuff in a while. Without saying anything, he reaches out. My shorts have ridden up and he touches my thigh, just above it. Then he grazes it just slightly with his thumb. It’s the weirdest thing, what he’s doing.

“Does it hurt?” he asks.

“Of course not. It’s just a scar,” I say.

“Oh yeah.” He laughs a little. “Sorry.” He takes his hand away.

We’re just sitting there, not saying anything for a while. Some small birds—doves, maybe—are perched out at the edge of a nearby bank tower. I look between the buildings and make out the rooftops of heritage houses in the neighborhood to the north, where the rich kids live, and then up into Boise Heights and the surrounding foothills neighborhoods, where they’re even richer.

Thomas climbs back down from the concrete ledge. I follow him. We’re just messing around, chirping our shoes against the fresh gray surface. We find some shade under a metal overhang. There’s eight or ten floors of fancy glass condos above us. But this spot we’ve found, it’s deserted.

Thomas is grabbing my arm a little, squeezing my bicep. He tells me I’m getting bigger. I’m pretty sure he’s just playing around. He’s kind of getting up in my face, and I’m finding it difficult to shrug off the attention. He’s always getting into these playful moods, but it’s starting to feel different these days. I think we both know it. There’s an instant where I freeze with my back to the polished concrete wall. It feels so nice and cool, shaded from the sun. And he comes right up to face me. He takes my hands in his and gets really close. I feel his heat and his sweat. I tuck my face into his neck.

“Not easy to resist,” I hear him say. So typical of him, offering up some stupid fragment of a thought I can’t quite pin down.

I lift my head. We’re chest-to-chest, ear-to-ear, still holding hands. I’m looking over his shoulder, out at the low, flat buildings of West Downtown. Thomas is facing the wall, practically holding my body against it with his own. He could keep me trapped like this forever if he wanted to. I let one hand go and reach up between us. I’m just feeling his big chest through his shirt.

Don’t ask me what it means to be in love with someone. I’m in no position to speak about that kind of thing. But I will tell you that this moment between Thomas and me isn’t all about sex. In fact, I don’t think he’s completely hard. I’d be able to tell if he was. And I’m not either. You might be surprised to hear that, but it’s true. I’m wondering what exactly Thomas meant when he said it’s not easy to resist. Because at the particular moment he said it, I don’t think he was talking about wanting sex. He said it himself a while ago, when we were first starting to figure all this out. He asked me when I first knew I had feelings for him—not when I realized I wanted his dick, but when I started having real, emotional feelings.

All I can say is, a shift occurs right in this moment. I’m going to change the way I treat this whole situation. No, I’m not going to come right out tell Thomas I’m in love with him. But as far as my attitude and my behavior are concerned when we’re alone like this, I’m done with pretending it’s not true.

“I’m so glad we’re together right now,” I tell him.

He takes half a step back and looks me in the eyes.

I lean in and kiss him. I’m not aggressive about it. I lay my lips against his. It’s like he knows what I’m up to, because he kisses back in the same exact way. He doesn’t even open his mouth. He’s just giving me these soft little kisses over and over. And then we part and walk slowly back to his car.

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