Thomas and Niko in the City of Trees

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Chapter 13

The house is quiet the next morning. I think everyone is sleeping in. Thomas held me for most of the night. We’re parted now, but the second he wakes up he sort of reaches for me, so I slip back into his arms. We’re bare-chested. I can feel him through his underwear, pressing against my hip. Just like that, we’re both settling into the reality of what’s come to pass. I’m telling you, there’s no more pretending, no more attempts to explain away what we’ve done.

“Are you doing okay?” he asks.

“Yeah.”

He squeezes me a little. “Just making sure.”

“Who knew you could be so caring?” I say.

“What are you talking about? I’m super caring. Always have been,” he says. “Shit, dude, I’m the fucking provider.”

I laugh.

He kisses my neck. “Nikola,” he says in a voice so soft it’s breaking in and out. “Last night was good, right?”

“Yeah,” I say. Don’t ask me why I’m suddenly fighting off the urge to cry. “It was really good, Thomas.”

An hour later, we’re all sitting around the kitchen table having breakfast. Even Thomas’s dad sits with us, which he basically never does. He’s served us all this crab congee from the night before that he reheated. It’s pretty good. He and I make eye contact and he smiles. Then he looks at Thomas.

“If you want to go to Washington, send them an email now. Say you will go.”

Thomas looks up. “What?”

“I’m telling you to email the school in Washington now. It’s rude that you have taken this long to decide.”

Thomas doesn’t say a word. He bumps the table getting up and our bowls and spoons clatter. He goes straight back to his room. He brings his laptop out and scoots his bowl aside. For the next five minutes he’s just furiously typing, backspacing, checking everything over. Then he takes a breath, holds it in, hits send. Classic Thomas, all about that drama. “I’ll tell BSU later,” he says.

“You will tell them now,” says his dad. “They will give your space to someone else.”

Thomas scowls and goes back to typing. When he’s done, we’re all kind of just looking at each other.

“Congratulations,” I say.

“Yeah,” says Alfred. “Congratulations.”

Thomas looks at his Dad. “Why did you change your mind?”

His dad blinks once and says, “Your mom would say go to Washington.” Slowly, he gets up, takes his empty bowl over to the sink and starts rinsing it. He’s quietly humming to himself.

It’s a big deal for Thomas’s dad to bring up his mom like that. The whole moment feels so joyful and significant that I can’t wipe this stupid grin off my face to save my life. I guess I have my own private reasons to be happy about it, but we’re all pretty excited. It’s times like these when I feel almost like a member of the family. Almost. I find myself really wishing I was getting on that plane with them. But like I told Alfred before, that’s their thing. It’s not something I’m a part of.

In another hour, Thomas steers the old Lexus up the ramp to the departures deck at the airport. I’m sitting in the back seat next to Alfred. We all get out and I help them lift their bags from the trunk. I give them hugs and Thomas holds onto me for an extra half-second before letting go.

“She’s yours for the week,” he says. He’s talking about the car.

“I’ll just park it at home.”

“You better not,” he says. “Come on, show her a good time.”

I laugh. I’m waving as they go through the sliding doors. I sit down in the driver’s seat. I don’t drive very often these days, so it all feels strange at first. I pull the shifter back a few clicks and the car rolls slowly forward. I take the center lane down off the deck toward Vista Avenue. And then it’s just another bright, hot, wide-open day.

I drive downtown. I don’t really have a plan. I figure I’ll call Lexie, since she’ll take my mind off being alone. But I don’t do it right away. I manage to steal a free parking spot by the library, and then I’m just walking north on 8th. I’m passing beside some of the arts district buildings when I remember an old hangout spot from a few summers ago. It’s this forgotten fountain with six spitting cats all lined up in a row. The whole thing is wedged between two of the buildings off 9th. Thomas and I used to sit on the stone ledge next to it and trail our fingers through the cool water while we talked about whatever came to mind.

Anyway, I find it, and I’m sitting in the secret little shaded place beneath some overgrown plants, doing that finger-trailing thing for quite a while. Jesus Christ, I bet I’m sitting there for the better part of an hour. The cats are just spitting away. At some point I look at my phone. It’s ninety-six degrees out. I’m not planning to go home anytime soon, so I walk down to a corner gas station and buy myself the biggest sports drink I can find. I don’t even look at the label.

Anyway, I never end up calling Lexie. I spend all afternoon just joy-riding alone in Thomas’s car. It’s his domain. It smells like him. And besides, I’m getting kind of an unexpected thrill from putting my hands on that wheel. I hit up every place you can think of: Meridian, Kuna, Nampa, Caldwell. I swing back up through Middleton, Star, Eagle. Those are all suburbs to the south and west of this town. I bet I went a hundred miles. It’s only as I go to fill the tank that I remember why I don’t own one of these things. That shit is not cheap, let me tell you.

I get home around four and my mom’s still asleep. I’m just sitting there on the couch minding my own goddamn business, looking through my phone or some shit. I’ve got my back to the hallway.

Her scream cuts through the still air: “Where is he?”

I jump about a foot off that couch. She’s just screaming and screaming. She’s right behind me. I’m on my feet. I’m looking her dead in the eyes, but she’s not there. I do what I’m supposed to. I keep my distance until I’ve assessed that she’s not violent. I think she’s coming to. She notices me in a flash. I go over to her.

“Where is he?” She grips my arm. “Where is he?” She’s repeating the question over and over.

“He gone,” I say. “He gone forever, Mom. Remember? He was gone a long time ago.”

She’s standing still and quiet as she recognizes her surroundings. She breaks down into this long, howling kind of sob. Her back is against the wall and she slowly slides down. She sits crumpled on the floor.

I sit down next to her and rub her back. “It’s okay,” I say. “It’s okay, it’s okay.”

If you were to come across a situation where a kid was getting his helpless ass beaten by some piece-of-shit grown man, what would you do? I bet you’d help the kid. I would. But there’s another thing I would do, in addition to that. I would find that kid’s mom, and I’d ask her show me her own bruises before they faded away. I’ve come to believe a mother has a basic instinct to protect her kid. If she’s a good one, she’ll turn in the offending man. That’s what mine did. But I’m here to tell you this: From the first blue and red flickering lights in my bedroom window that night, to the final police interview a week later, my mom kept her long-sleeved turtlenecks in heavy rotation. At the time, I believed I was the only one. That’s what I told the cops. But as you get older, you get wise to this kind of thing. Six years ago, she valued herself too little to report her own victimhood. That’s the long and short of it. And six years later, she’s still suffering.

You want to know what men do? They accuse women of being too sensitive, of being crazy and hysterical, when most of the time it’s the hysteria of men that’s behind all of this madness. Hysteria caused by their own insecurities over masculinity, power, sexuality—ask me to go on and I will. I don’t believe myself to be particularly woke about the matter, but I’ve lived enough of a life to understand how this society works. I’ve read enough to have gained some vocabulary. And besides, if I ever start forgetting which of the sexes still has all the power in this world, which one gets to run around doing whatever the hell it wants at the expense of the other, I just go to the nearest mirror, and I take a good, hard look.

I guess it should come as no surprise that I’m feeling pretty guilty as I’m texting Lexie later that night. She asks me if anything’s wrong and I tell her no. Something about Thomas being six hundred miles away is making me feel that guilt now more than ever. It’s like, now that he’s been removed completely from the situation, I’m left standing alone, vulnerable, hyper-aware of all this shit I’ve done.

I’m just self-medicating now, dragging out all the usual excuses. I’m still young. How am I supposed to know what I want? Maybe I am hurting someone, but not in any way I haven’t been hurt before by someone else. These are the things I tell myself, and I’ll be the first to admit it’s a bunch of grade-A bullshit.

I don’t know what the hell Lexie and I are doing. We meet up the next day and smoke up in her room. It’s taking a little more these days for me to have a good time. Lexie says that’s normal. But Jesus, it’s like the annual hemp festival in here. I don’t know how the hell her parents don’t notice. Maybe they don’t care. I’ve never bothered to ask about it.

“Name a song,” says Lexie.

I think about it and say, “Mirrors.”

“Are you talking about the JT one?”

I nod.

“I haven’t thought about that one in a while.” She’s slowly rolling her head back and forth on her pillow. She’s super into the way it feels, you can tell. “I never liked it that much.”

“I did,” I say. “It’s his best one.”

“I didn’t know we were speaking in terms of his entire catalogue.”

“We are.”

“I always liked that What Goes Around song,” she says.

“It’s a good one,” I say. “But it’s no Mirrors.”

I’m just lying really still on her bed when I realize it. I’m sore down there. I’m sore where Thomas went inside me. I rarely visit the dark side of being high, and this isn’t exactly one of those moments, but I will say that my insobriety is not helping the situation one bit. I feel that soreness like a presence. It kind of starts to get a mind of its own, and then it spreads, pulsing, radiating waves up into my chest. I tell Lexie I have to get outside and she’s sympathetic about it. I’ve gotten anxious one or two times before, and she’s been really good about calming me down.

We’re walking around her neighborhood. I can still tell I’m sore if I focus on it, but it feels far away now, and my attention span isn’t long enough to hang onto it. Lexie’s neighborhood went up in the nineties. It’s called Bayhill and it’s just south of the school. It’s a dumb name because there aren’t any bays around here, just a small river and a bunch of mountains and desert. It used to be known as kind of a rich-kids’ neighborhood, but the houses are getting older now and there’s nothing all that special about them. Anyway, we go to Milwaukee Park, which is just an extra cluster of old baseball diamonds adjacent to the school grounds. Lexie says we should go walk closer to the school and I tell her I’d rather stab myself in the eye than set foot anywhere near that place. So we’re just messing around, ducking in an out of old rusty dugouts. We go into one that’s shaded by a maple tree and it’s sort of cool and dark in there, so we rest for a while on the bench. Lexie climbs on top of me. I lay my head down on the worn, greasy wood. She’s kind of riding me a little through her jeans. We’re just playing. I look up at the ceiling and see all kinds of messages etched into the paint. A lot of them are names and years like “Andrew Furlough ’98” and shit like that. But I’m looking in this one corner where a string of words stands out a little bolder than the others, and I tilt my head so I can read it better, and it says the following: “It’s all just a game.” And I’m wondering if someone was writing about baseball, reminding people not to get too worked up or act unsportspersonlike or whatever. But something about the phrasing makes it seem a little more big-picture than that. Everything we’re doing, all of life, it’s just a game. I like it. It kind of reminds me of what Thomas said the other night.

By the time we wander back near Lexie’s house, I’m feeling pretty clear in the head. The only problem I’m having is that I’d kind of rather be alone right now. I’ve spent most of the day with Lexie, and for some reason, I’m just not into being around her at the moment. But clearly she’s not feeling the same way, so I figure it’s in my best interest and hers to keep a thought like that to myself.

“Let’s take Thomas’s car out,” she says once it’s in sight.

“Out where?”

“I don’t know—anywhere you want to go.”

“I don’t want to go anywhere.”

She gives me a look, and I know I better get enthusiastic about all this pretty quick. “What about your car?” I say.

“I don’t want to go in my car. Thomas’s car is more fun.”

I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about. Maybe it’s because she wants me to drive and feels weird about asking me to drive her own car, since I never have. “It’s not good on gas,” I say.

“It’s fine, I’ll pay,” she says.

So we’re headed south on Milwaukee. Where we’re going is anyone’s fucking guess. I’m sitting in Thomas’s seat, and Lexie’s sitting in mine. Thankfully, she’s in a mood where she doesn’t care to talk about much. She just turns up the radio and she’s singing along to Ariana like nobody’s listening. You really do have to love her for that.

Anyway, I’m just going through the motions, and before I know it I’m back out in that area south of the airport where Thomas and I went a couple of days ago. All the windows are down and the warm air is just whipping through. I slow down and pull off to the side before the road turns to dirt. We’re still a few miles from where Thomas and I ended up. I shut off the engine. There’s endless flat brush plains all around us.

“So nice to get out of town,” says Lexie.

I look at her. Jesus, I can’t think of a single thing to say all of a sudden. I bet I have the dumbest look on my face.

“What’s wrong?” she asks.

“Nothing,” I say. And then it happens. My phone goes off.

“Is that Thomas?” she asks. “How’s his trip going? Wait—let me pretend I’m you.” She grabs my phone.

Of course it’s Thomas. No word from him for a day and a half, and he chooses now to reach out? Jesus. I only saw his name, not what he’d written, and now she’s looking real hard at the screen, like it’s the most riveting goddamn thing she’s ever seen. I realize suddenly that he could have written anything. My heart is in my throat. I’m sweating. We’re in brand-new territory now, and Thomas just might be dumb enough to have said something that could fuck over this entire situation.

Goddamn, Lexie’s probably studying that screen for only a second or two, but it feels about a thousand times longer than that. “Awww,” she finally says, all long and drawn-out. She turns the screen towards me.

There’s just one little blue bubble that says, “I miss you.”

“Why do you guys have to be so cute?” she says.

I take the phone back into my sweaty hand. I type, “Just hanging out with Lexie. I miss you too.” I hit send. I turn to Lexie and say, “It’s too hot out here. Let’s drive somewhere else and find some shade.”

“Wait,” she says. She looks all around her. “I like this spot.”

“It’s a hundred fucking degrees outside.”

“Not it’s not,” she says. “It’s ninety, tops.”

“It’s a figure of speech.”

She reaches over and starts pulling my t-shirt up over my head. I’m not exactly fighting her or anything, but I’m not really helping her out, either. Anyway, she manages to get that thing off me in about ten seconds.

“Making me do all the work, I see,” she says. Jesus, she sounds super turned on by that. She cups one of my pecs in her hand.

I look slowly over at her. I say, “Guess so,” and I feel myself smile. She comes at me and starts kissing me in a really messy way. This is normally the part where some version of myself gets pretty into it and starts kissing her back. I swear to you, I’m searching all over for that person, and he’s just not showing up. I pull back from her. It’s not the kind of kissing I can pretend to be into when I’m not.

“What’s wrong?” she asks.

“Nothing,” I say. “Can you stop asking me that?” It feels like she’s been asking me that all goddamn day.

“Sure,” she says. “We can do something else.” She looks deep into my eyes and says, “Why don’t we get right down to business?” She puts her hand on my crotch, and my involuntary reaction is to grab her wrist. But I don’t grab it hard, and I don’t pull her hand away. Maybe I was going to, originally, but not now. I’m letting her feel me a little through my shorts, but I’m probably a million miles away from getting hard. She’s down there starting to do her thing, and I’m just glancing around the car. Every corner, every surface of it reminds me of him. I smell the air, and under all that dried-out leather and baked plastic and dirty carpet lies the faint but unmistakeable scent of his cologne. Maybe even a little bit of his sweat after practice. Jesus Christ, I’m telling you, it’s all coming apart at the seams.

You know what I do next? I reach out kind of dumbly for the door handle, and I fucking extricate myself from the situation. I walk ten feet across that empty road. By the time I turn around, Lexie’s standing on the other side of the car, looking at me over the roof. She’s not moving.

“I’m sorry about that,” I say.

“I’ll ask you one more time,” she says. “What’s wrong, Niko?”

“I don’t feel well,” I say.

“Do you need me to drive?”

“I think so.”

We swap places in the car. I put my shirt back on and Lexie moves the seat forward. And then we’re just driving in silence.

A few minutes later, she turns to me. “Did you get too hot? We’ll can find somewhere shady, like you said.”

“I don’t want to,” I say.

“Well, what do you want to do, then?”

I look over at her. “I just need to be alone right now.”

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