Thomas and Niko in the City of Trees

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Chapter 12

The girls come over that night. No one’s touching anyone. We’re all just lying in the grass looking up at the sky. We all got a little high earlier, but there wasn’t much to go around and it’s already wearing off. The sunset is fading to dark. Thomas’s elderly neighbor still hasn’t come back. Ever since his family took him away, his half of the duplex has sat silent and mostly in the dark, except for a lamp that comes on automatically in the evenings. I’m looking in through those dark windows now. The lamp lights up his living room in kind of a gloomy way. All I can see are a bunch of old books and magazines on shelves.

“How come no one calls it a spliff anymore?” Madison says to Lexie.

“They still do, as far as I know,” Lexie says.

“Why don’t you call it that?”

“Shit, Maddie, I don’t know. I guess they call it that in Britain or something.”

“Oh.”

None of us is exactly dumb, but Lexie’s the only one you’d go out of your way to call intelligent. Yeah, I know, we’re all smart in different ways and all that bullshit, but Lexie is different. She and I will be talking about something sort of deep, and then she’ll accidentally take it to a level I can’t grasp. I say she does it accidentally because she’s usually pretty careful about not making me feel stupid. Anyway, she’s not with me for my brains. One bonus is that I don’t make a habit of overthinking things. She likes that. She says it balances her out. She also likes that I’m a hard worker, and that I have a nice body. Not as nice as Thomas’s, but still above average.

Madison is the dumbest, for sure. I’m not even saying she’s that dumb, it’s just that she doesn’t think too deeply about anything. It’s simply not a strength of hers. She’s also easily the most kind and genuine person lying out on this lawn tonight. I’m tempted to say those two things go hand-in-hand.

“I’d move to the UK,” Thomas says suddenly. “I could learn rugby.”

“When?” says Madison.

“I don’t know. After college.”

“What would you do there?”

“Play rugby,” he says.

Madison sighs. Her breathy voice is perfect for sighing. “I don’t think I could ever live that far away.”

“No one said you had to.”

There’s a pause. I realize Madison is sitting up. I’m not sure how long she’s been that way.

“It would be nice,” she says, “if you could at least pretend we’ll still be together then. I’m tired of being the only one who thinks so.” Then she stands up and walks away. She’s going around the house toward the front yard.

Thomas gets up and goes after her.

“He’ll make it right,” I say. “She’s always being so romantic about that stuff.”

“She’s not wrong,” says Lexie.

“I know,” I say. Suddenly I’m feeling nervous, and I don’t know why.

“She’s the normal one.”

“That’s true,” I say. I try to laugh. “We’re the ones who are strange.”

“What do you mean?”

I lift my head off the grass and look at her. “I don’t know. Just that we’re not quite as romantic as her, that’s all.”

For a moment I’m worried she’ll keep pressing me for whatever shitty, half-baked thought I’m trying to birth into the world. But she doesn’t. She just lays her head back in the grass and stares up at the night sky.

I don’t know what the hell Thomas says to Madison to make up for it in front of his house, but by the time Lexie and I come around to join them, they’re just laughing and being all handsy and shit like that. Then they spend all day together on Sunday. They hang out every evening that week, too. Each day, Thomas waits to text me until late in the evening, after she’s gone home. He doesn’t say much about what they get up to, so don’t ask me. I don’t even want to guess. As for Lexie and me, we spend a lot of time getting baked after work, and then having a good time. Sometimes that means sex. Others it means just talking about crazy shit or taking a walk outside and looking at the scenery. It turns out to be a nice way to pass the week, if I do say so myself.

Anyway, it’s Friday now. Madison and her parents got an early start over to Idaho Falls for the weekend. They left this morning. I’ll be dropping Thomas and his dad and brother off at the airport tomorrow. Lexie must have sensed that I’m wanting to hang out with Thomas before he leaves, because she makes dinner plans with her parents downtown and doesn’t invite me.

I eat dinner at home and tell my mom to have a good shift. I’m walking down Cole Road in the heat and the cars are roaring by, and I’m just thinking about how fast the season’s slipping away. By the time Thomas gets back, we’ll be a month in. That’s halfway, since I’ll be leaving for school early. I’m doing some kind of international student orientation at UBC. It takes place the first week of August.

Thomas meets me at the front door. It’s been a long time since that happened.

“My dad’s such a fucking bitch,” he says. He walks out past me. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”

I ask him what’s wrong but he doesn’t answer me. We get in his car and he starts driving that way he does when he’s in a mood. It always makes me feel anxious. “I can’t believe I have to spend a whole week with him,” he says. “It’s going to be hell.”

“Are you going to fucking tell me what’s wrong?” I say. I’m getting annoyed at him. He practically goes missing for six whole days and this is how he greets me?

“He says U-Dub is too expensive.”

“I thought they were giving you a lot.”

“They are,” he says. “More than BSU, that’s for sure. But it costs a lot more to go there. The difference is still pretty big.”

“And he doesn’t want to pay?”

“He says it’s all about return on investment. He says I’d be paying more for the same outcome. I tried to explain all the benefits of going away for school but he only cares about the fucking bottom line. Jesus, I don’t know why I’m surprised.”

I pause. At least his crazy-ass driving has calmed down a little. “So what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.” He’s reached that point I know so well, where his anger tips toward sadness. Believe me, this is textbook behavior for him. “I have no idea what I’m going to do,” he says.

I figure I’ll try and cheer him up. I say, “Damn, your week with Madison really made you want to leave this place.” Then I laugh to show him I’m only joking.

“Fuck off, man,” he says. He’s smiling. “It has nothing to do with her. I always wanted to go. You know that.”

I didn’t know that, and he hasn’t always wanted to go—not for sure, anyway. But I don’t want to argue with him about it now.

“Fuck, dude, all this bullshit with my dad is making it more appealing than ever.”

“Whatever fucking gets you up there,” I say.

He likes that. He glances over and punches me in the shoulder. “So why the fuck does a guy like you want me up there so bad, anyway?”

“We’ve already talked about it,” I say.

“I know, man.” He grabs my knee and shakes it. “I know, I know.”

Basically everything immediately south of Boise is full-on desert. Thomas takes a road called Orchard as far south as it goes, then turns on another called Pleasant Valley. That road becomes dirt after a while, at which point it just chills, stretching like a long thin snake out into nothing but sand and rock and sagebrush. I can talk some shit about the landscape south of town, but we do have some really nice memories out here. Last summer, Thomas and I went out hiking around and found this narrow ravine with a creek at the bottom. We hung out down there together, dunking ourselves in that little stream until it got so late we could barely see our way back out.

Right now these rolling, brush-covered plains are so beautiful I can hardly believe it. I’m thinking a lot about my plan. I guess I’ve got a lot of feelings for him deep down, and if I don’t start showing them…well, I don’t want to be the reason we miss some hidden opportunity both of us is either too stupid or too afraid to see. His elbow is on the center armrest. I sort of link my arm with his and take his hand in mine. He jerks just a tiny bit as I do it, but then he relaxes again. He’s just driving along through the desert with one hand at twelve o’clock and the other holding mine. He’s getting some calluses on his fingers and palms from working in the shop. I’m feeling the roughness now. It’s the greatest fucking thing.

So we reach a spot at the base of a rock hill that’s about as far away from anywhere as either of us is interested in going. The roar of the engine dies. It gets quiet really fast out here. I hear a killdeer doing his thing, but that’s it. Nothing else.

The sun is getting low, but I bet it’s still over ninety degrees out. I brought along a water bottle and I share it with him. We’re just sitting up there on that big rock, facing west, watching the sun go down. The sunset isn’t all that pretty since there are no clouds in the sky, but I still like it.

“Pretty fucking romantic, huh?” he says.

“Yeah,” I say. I don’t laugh or anything. I want him to know that I’m taking the moment seriously.

And then you know what he does? He takes my hand. He holds on to it tight. You’re probably thinking it’s not that big of a deal considering all the stuff we’ve done leading up to this. I don’t mean to undermine all that. That shit was hot as hell and we both know it. This is just a different kind of moment, him taking me out here, the gesture beneath it all. It don’t care if you believe me or not, but this is a bigger deal to me than anything that came before it, and that’s all there is to say.

Thomas turns and says, “I’ll miss you when I’m gone.”

“It’s just a week,” I say.

“I know.”

Maybe he means later, when we both go off to school. Maybe he’s thinking of a time when he’s in his new dorm, making all kinds of new friends, and I’ve become someone he knows from somewhere else, someone from his past. I look over at him. I look at his perfect nose and sad eyes. I watch his jet-black hair move around a little in the hot breeze. “We’ve been friends since we were just little kids,” I say. “How the fuck did we not know?”

“We knew,” he says. His voice is low and rough. “We just weren’t ready for all this.”

I’ll give credit where it’s due—he’s right. He keeps reminding me, over and over, just how long we’ve spent knowing.

“I shouldn’t have fucked her,” he says.

“Doesn’t make any difference.”

“Yes it does.”

“So what?” I say. “It’s done now.”

“We did it again,” he says. “Wednesday night. We’ve done it three times now.”

“I figured you did,” I say. I really did. It’s not a surprise to me.

“Giving her that kind of attention, it doesn’t feel right to me. Feels like I shouldn’t be doing it to her.” He pauses. He’s thinking really hard about something. Then he says, “Feels like it’s meant for someone else.”

I would be easy to claim that I’ve never thought about it before now. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past few weeks, it’s that I can’t always trust myself to report honestly about those things. I’m sure the thought of him doing that to me, even if it was just a flash, has crossed my mind. Multiple times. Anyway, now I’m giving myself plenty of time to picture it. The thing is, I’m not afraid to be bold. If I’m not clear about what I want right now, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life. I squeeze his hand. I say, “Who’s it meant for?”

He’s gripping my hand so tight it’s starting to hurt. “Someone.”

We watch the sun dip below the horizon. There’s some kind of strange energy in the air.

We take our time hiking back down to his car. There’s no rush. We’ve got all the time in the world. We get back to his house at ten-thirty at night. His plane doesn’t leave until almost noon the next day.

Nothing happens right away. We’re lying on his bed talking.

“I think your dad will come around,” I say.

“I know. He just wants to remind me who’s in charge first.”

“If not, let me talk to him.”

“That’s not the worst idea,” he says. “He’ll never say it out loud, but I know he’s proud of you. So proud he’d probably listen to whatever you had to say.”

“Proud of me for what?”

“Are you kidding?” Thomas rolls flat on his back and lays a hand on his chest. His eyes are just following that ceiling fan around. “I was whining a while back about somebody calling me a chink, and you know what he told me? He said, ‘True success is only achieved in the face of adversity.’ And then he told me to take you for example. You know he’s always wishing I got your grades.”

I’m just kind of looking at him. “Yeah? And what kind of adversity have I faced?”

Thomas gives me a look. “Come on, man.”

I know what he’s getting at. I’ve got nothing to say about it. “He’s proud of you, too. Even if you don’t get my grades.”

Thomas rolls his eyes. “Yeah, yeah.”

I’m sort of propped against his headboard with my knees tucked to my chest. I keep glancing down at him but he’s not looking back at me. “You know why I want you up there, right? Besides getting out of town?”

He gives me one quick glance. “Yeah.”

“Everyone says your first year of college is this crazy time. New adventures and all that. I know we’ll each have our own lives.” I lean against him a little. “I just want you closer to me. Even if we don’t end up seeing each other more often, I want to know you’re down there in that big new city doing your thing, living that new life, and maybe even thinking of me every once in a while.”

He nudges me with his shoulder. “Damn, I was planning on forgetting you.”

“Fuck off,” I say.

“Hey, I want it too.” He scoots up so he’s sitting next to me. “And I want to be able to look back and remember what a complete shitshow this summer was.”

“Jesus Christ,” I say. I’m laughing a little.

“We’re just making it up as we go along,” he says.

I like that he said it. It’s a clever phrase, coming from him. It sounds like yet another one of those lines I would come across in a book from Ms. Nolan. Anyway, we’re both quiet for a while after that. Slowly, he puts his arm around me. I kind of settle into him.

He clears his throat. “So, I was kind of wondering…” His voice has changed. “Were we trying to tell each other something earlier?”

“When?”

“Out in the desert.”

“Oh,” I say. I get this sudden rush. “Yeah, I guess we were.”

“Don’t you think it would hurt?”

“I’ve heard it does.”

“Aren’t you scared?”

“Yeah.”

“And you still want it?”

“Yeah,” I say.

He breaks loose from my arms and gets up. I ask him what the he’s doing and he says he’s thinking about it. You should see the way he’s pacing back and forth. It’s like something from a movie. “Things are moving pretty fast,” he says.

“I know,” I say. He’s exactly right. Everything’s moving fast. Most of all, the summer, this special window of time we share—it’s just blazing by.

He stops and looks straight at me. “You’re sure?”

I’ve talked before about the way I am. I’ve told you I like to act quickly—that I don’t like taking too long to think something over, in case I find some way of talking myself out of it. Well, I guess this is another one of those times, if you want to reduce it down to its simplest form. I’m not afraid. Just watch me—I’ll do anything, try anything, not to let a certain moment pass me by.

I only hesitate because I’m trying to put into words what I felt up on that rock. I’ve got to build my case. “I’m just thinking about being up in Vancouver, living my new life…” I start saying. I’m talking really slow so I don’t say the wrong thing. “What if I stop and think of you, and think of what you could have given me, and know that I can’t have it anymore because that time in our lives is over?” I’m reaching out for him. I can’t stop myself. “I think it would be the most empty feeling in the world.”

He understands me then. He’s convinced by my words. What happens next is something I’ll hold close to my heart forever. So close that revealing every detail would feel like a betrayal. (Who’s the dramatic one now?) I will say that he is more tender, more caring than I ever could have anticipated. The lotion on his dresser is his idea. It’s a good one. I’m nervous and not really thinking clearly about that stuff, so I’m grateful he knows what he’s doing. He puts me in a comfortable position. He moves in cautiously, asking many times if I’m okay. That instant he opens me up for the first time makes a perfect imprint on my memory, one I’m certain I’ll be able to recall clearly for the rest of my life. He’s quick to back off when I have trouble relaxing and feel like the pain is going to tear me apart. But then, slowly, the pain goes away, and things get good. Really good.

Everything seems to align that night. The time and the place. What each of us desires from the other. Even our release. Let me tell you now, while the idea still seems profound: If we really are making it up as we go along, then it’s truly a miracle when the outcome is as good as this.

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