Thomas and Niko in the City of Trees

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Chapter 16

My legs are pretty tired by the time I get close to home. I’ve just done so much goddamn walking. Maybe it was the three-hour nap I took in the middle of the day, but I’m having some trouble shaking this surreal feeling. I can hardly remember the end of my conversation with Owen, nor making up my mind to leave the park. I do remember specifically asking him not to tell anyone. If anything about our discussion offended him, it was that. He must not have liked the implication, because his response was to say I know him better than that. I really don’t, but whatever. I end up feeling quite a bit of gratitude towards him by the time I’m entering my neighborhood. He’s given me some peace of mind, which you can probably guess is something I’m a little hard-up for at the moment.

My mom is up. She’s looking pretty put together, even though it’s still a long time before her shift starts. She’s sitting up on the couch, watching one of her shows. She looks happy to see me, and even pauses her show to say hi. I lean down and kiss her on the top of her head. It’s just a little thing I do when she seems like she’ll be receptive to it. I can usually tell when she’s having a good week, and I figure this must be one.

“What happened to you?” she says. She’s talking about the way I smell and my appearance, which I’m sure has reached a new level of disheveled.

“I was camping with some friends,” I say.

“Well, go clean yourself up.”

“I will.”

Her eyes catch mine before I go down the hall. “Are you doing okay, Niko?”

The fact that she’s asking just makes me so happy, I could cry. “I’m doing fine, Mom.”

I go and shower, then collapse on my bed. I’m lying there in nothing but a black pair of underwear. I spent plenty of time soaping up, getting myself clean and fresh, but after all that, I don’t feel any different. I turn on my side and think about who in this world I could talk to, if I needed to talk to someone right at this moment. It turns out I don’t know very many people. Not really. I think about my last year ever of high school, and this complete wreck of a half-season that has followed.

I guess I’m thinking about a lot. It’s crazy to me just how messed up everything got. I keep trying to reason my way through it, but I get so overwhelmed so quickly that I have to back away, let it fade to static and tell myself everything will turn out all right. I did all this for him, but somehow he’s still not someone I really want to see right now. I’m angry at him. I’m angry at both of us, for not even trying to imagine how it was all going to feel afterwards—how he and I would feel about each other. I want to believe it will work out. Life finds a way, and all that. But right now, it feels an awful lot like I’ve lost everything. That’s what gets me crying. I start crying like I haven’t in a long time. I’m crying because I might not talk to Lexie ever again. I’m crying because my friendship with Thomas Chu will never be the same, a fact that no longer seems exciting or good.

For at least half an hour, it seems like all I can do is cry. Everyone says you’ll feel better if you let yourself do it, and you know what? Everyone’s right. I get this strange sense of peace afterwards, even if I’m no less confused than before. Just fuck it all.

The next morning, I’m back in that little coffee shack like none of this bullshit even happened. Not a word from Thomas has landed on my phone. That’s fine—I haven’t said a word to him, either. I can’t speak for him, but here’s what I’m thinking: We did a bad thing. We let it go on for too long, and now we’re paying for it. It doesn’t feel even remotely right to get together and celebrate anything. Shit, it hardly feels right to talk to each other. That’s our punishment. We got exactly what we had coming.

I work my entire shift holding tight to this mindset, but by the end of it, I’m kind of longing to hear the familiar rumble of that old Lexus pulling into the lot. I’m wondering how it would be if he showed up, what the hell he might come up with to say to me. Personally, I wouldn’t feel the need for us to say anything. I’d be happy just to see him smiling and waving from the driver’s seat, shoulders bare and tanned brown. He could drive away after that and I wouldn’t care. It would be enough just to know he’s doing all right.

When I’m about halfway home, I make up my mind that if I’m so goddamn worried about him, I should just check in. So I send him a text that says, “Are you doing okay today?”

My phone starts buzzing, which scares the shit out of me for some reason. He’s calling. I happen to be walking past an alley and I turn down it because the road I’m on is loud as hell. I pick up the call.

“Could you just come over?” is the first thing out of his mouth.

“Sure.”

“Okay, see ya,” he says, and then he just ends the call. Just like that.

I show up at the Chu household about fifteen minutes later. All it takes is a brief walk up that lush front lawn to get me feeling a little better. I have to use my spare key to open the front door. It looks like no one else is home. I go back to his bedroom and find him in bed with a pillow over his head. He lifts it, takes one look at me and lets it fall back over his face.

“The neighbor died,” he says.

“Who?”

“The old man through the wall. He’s dead. That’s why he never came back.”

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“It’s fine,” he says. “None of us knew him that well.”

I turn his desk chair around so it’s facing the bed and sit down. “I had to unlock the door,” I say.

“My dad probably thought everyone was out of the house this morning. I didn’t tell him I was skipping work.”

“Have you been in bed all day?”

“Mostly.”

I wish I could see his expression. It’s hard to get a read on things through that stupid pillow.

“How is everything?” he says.

“Shitty.”

“Same here.” Finally, he throws his pillow aside. He sits up and looks me in the eyes. “What was it like when you told her?”

Damn, he’s really putting it to me point-blank. I wish I could give him a clear answer. I really do. It’s just that I haven’t been letting myself relive that particular moment—not even a little. It just hurts too much. I struggle for a minute before saying, “It felt like it was all coming through a filter.”

He looks at me for a long time. “Did she cry?”

“Of course she cried.”

“Madison cried a lot,” he says. “It got so bad at one point, I started thinking none of this was worth it. I was just searching around for anything I could say to make it better.”

“There’s nothing you can say,” I tell him.

He just nods. Man, he’s looking pretty sad. Quite a bit of time passes where neither of us says anything. He only speaks up when I shift in the chair and rest my feet on the bed.

“What happened with Driggs—that was fucked up.”

“I know.”

“It really made me stop and think about things,” he says.

“Yeah,” I say. “Me too.”

“We’ve been incredibly reckless with this whole thing. We acted like we could get away with anything. We thought we were untouchable.”

I don’t know what the hell he wants me to say. I agree. We behaved recklessly, and we shouldn’t have. But it’s all over now.

“After you told Lexie,” he continues slowly, “did you ask her not to tell anyone else?”

“Of course I didn’t—don’t tell me you said that shit to Madison.”

He pauses. “No.”

“I can’t believe you think it would be appropriate to ask anything of them, after what we’ve done.”

“I don’t.”

I’m looking at him now. I’m trying to understand. “Why are you bringing it up?”

“I just don’t want everyone finding out.”

Jesus Christ, he’s out of his mind. I’m feeling pretty defiant by this point, so I say, “Yeah, well, I told Owen already, so good luck with that.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“He found me in the park yesterday, after I was with Lexie. He kept asking what was wrong, so I just told him. I didn’t know what else to do.”

Thomas is looking at me like he doesn’t know me. “You could’ve kept your mouth shut, for one thing.”

I turn away. I’m just looking out his small bedroom window. “I needed to talk to somebody, bad. Besides, he said he wouldn’t tell.”

“Niko, listen, we can’t just go telling people like that.”

He’s making a show of being patient with me, which irritates me more than you can believe. “Why not?”

“Are you even listening to yourself? Jesus, dude, anyone could find out.”

“Like anyone gives a fuck, in this day and age.” I’m practically yelling at him now, I’m so annoyed. “Guess what, we’re not in high school anymore. All that petty shit isn’t going to matter when you’re five hundred miles away from the place you grew up.”

He glares at me, then says quietly, “My dad gives a fuck.”

Here’s the thing: Thomas doesn’t look angry anymore. He looks scared. I want to tell him his dad will get over it, but the truth is, I’m not sure he will. I know even less about the guy’s inner workings than Thomas does, which is to say, very little. I calm down, at least to the point that I’m not raising my voice anymore. I say, “We have to accept the reality of people finding out about us. We took that on the second we told the girls.”

“I don’t know what I took on,” he says. “I just know I couldn’t keep lying to Madison. Every day with her, every fucking second…it all turned into one big lie.” He pauses. He’s got this occupied look on his face, like he’s trying to rationalize through the whole goddamn thing all over again. His dark eyes land back on me. “I couldn’t stop this shit with you. I couldn’t. No matter how hard I tried.”

“Don’t call it ‘this shit’.”

He looks down. “Sorry. You know that’s not what I mean. I just don’t understand why we have to be out in open about it all of a sudden. I only wanted the girls to know. No one else.”

“Oh come on,” I say. “How many people do you think they’re going to tell?”

“I don’t know,” he says. He looks up at me accusingly. “Maybe it’s not them I should be worried about.”

“Will you fucking get over it? I told one other person. You start living your life a certain way, and guess what? People end up finding out sooner or later. There’s just no getting around it.”

“I think you misunderstood what’s going on here, Niko,” he says. He’s getting worked up. “You and I can’t seem to stop touching each other’s dicks. That’s all we know. I guess to you that means we’re both standing in the closet, just waiting for the right moment to come out. Well maybe that’s who you are, but it’s not me.”

I can’t remember the last time something he said filled me with so much anger. Something about it gets me so upset, I can’t handle another minute in his bedroom. I stand up and take a few steps toward the door, just to make it crystal-clear to him that I’m on my way out. “You’re out of your fucking mind, you know that? A completely different person called me from San Francisco last week. I don’t know who the hell he was, but he’s definitely not in this room right now.”

“Come on—don’t leave,” he says.

I pause with my hand on the doorknob. I look right at him and say, “The night of the party, when you pulled me into your dad’s room—remember that? You told me to say the word. Tell me you remember.”

“I remember,” he says. He’s got the blanket pulled halfway up his face.

“Well I’m saying it now: I’m gay. And man, you lucked out, because if I wasn’t, that shit you pulled on me at the beginning would have backfired so bad on you. Pinning me down…shoving your hand down my pants—”

“Stop it,” he says. “Fucking shut your mouth.” He’s starting to cry.

“That night at the party, you told me who you were.”

“Fuck you,” he says through his tears. “I never said the word.”

“It’s doesn’t matter if you say it. It’s just a word. You’re not into girls, the same way I’m not.” I’ve been trying to put up a tough front, but I can feel the edges starting to fray now. There are tears in my eyes, too. My voice gets soft and low. “I can’t believe you’re fucking backing down now. After all this bullshit we put ourselves through.”

He disappears completely beneath the blanket.

“Oh, nice,” I say. “You’re going to keep hiding your face from me, just because you don’t like the conversation. You’re such a fucking coward.” I’m pretty sure that will fish him out again, but it doesn’t work. “You’re better than this, Thomas,” I say. “We’ve known each other too long for me to accept that this is the real you.” And with that, I walk out the door. I hear the garage door opening, so I hurry out the front before I run into anyone. I set out for home again.

Thomas calls me three times before I pick up.

“I don’t want to be your boyfriend,” is the first thing out of his mouth. I’m telling you, he’s completely forgotten how to start a phone call.

“No one said anything about that.”

There’s nothing but silence on his end for a good ten seconds. I sit down in the grass. Don’t ask me whose lawn I’m sitting on. I don’t know.

He clears his throat. “I guess I’m saying it now.”

“Okay.”

“You want me to be your boyfriend.”

“No I don’t.”

“Yes you do.”

I swear, I’m inches away from ending the call. But you know what I do? I rein it in. I take a breath, and I ask him to explain himself.

“You’d say yes, if I asked you.”

“So?”

“I don’t want to be in a relationship when I go to college. Not with anybody, and that includes you.” He pauses. “Maybe you most of all.”

“What does that mean?”

“If I lose you, then I lose everything we have. All those years. Getting stuck in the bathroom together, singing along to JT, crying over my mom being gone—all of it, dude.”

We both get quiet after he says that. Slowly, I’m starting to see his side of things. In true Thomas fashion, he’s taken his sweet time arriving at what he meant to say all along. “You won’t lose me,” I say.

“I might,” he says. “Us getting together right before college—is that really want you want?”

“I don’t know,” I say slowly. I decide I’d better make things clear. “But I do know I’m in love with you.”

“I’m in love with you, too, Niko. When Driggs found us the other night…remember what I did?”

I remember that moment and the feeling of his hand grabbing hold of mine so clearly, it’s almost like he never let go. I tell him of course I do. He’s quiet on the other end. That fucking silence between us keeps creeping back in. I don’t normally mind it, but today it’s freaking me out a little. “So what are we supposed to do?” I say.

“I wish I knew.” He sighs. “I’m not ready to tell the whole world. I’m not ready to take that official step with you—the one that everybody just loves to latch onto and call the fucking greatest thing on earth.” He pauses. “I don’t know man…don’t you ever feel like we already have each other?”

Believe me, there is such a thing as smoke-and-mirrors Thomas. I know that version of him well. But that’s not who I’m talking to right now. He’s saying these things because it’s what he really feels. I know now that even if I do have a different way of looking at all this, it won’t do either of us any good for me to try and get my way. So I say the only thing left to say: “Yeah…I do.”

“I keep trying to do everything, all at once,” he says. “I keep treating everything in my life like there’s no time left, and I better just jump in headfirst. I’ve been doing that shit since my mom died. But you know what she would say. Come on, man, you know. She’d tell me there’s all the time in the world.”

“It’s true,” I tell him. “She would say that.”

“I’ve got school coming up—and fuck, man, two-a-days start Wednesday, so I’ll have to work evenings.”

“I know.”

“There’s a lot going on in both our lives. A lot of changes about to happen.”

“Yeah.”

“Listen,” he says. “I need to get my dad off my back. I think he knows I skipped work, so I better come up with a good excuse.”

I doubt he’s bullshitting me, since his dad gets cranky about those things. “Tell him you were hungover as fuck.”

He laughs. “I’m sure that would go over well.”

I tell him goodbye. After we hang up, I’m just sitting in the grass for a while. I lie back and look up at the sky. I think it’s time to swallow my pride. Thomas is showing more maturity than I want to admit. He certainly didn’t start things off that way, earlier in his room. But he got there eventually. There’s nothing I can say to argue, to show him the right way of looking at things. It’s clear his mind is already made up, and besides, I’m not too sure I’m the one who’s right anymore.

But I keep getting this feeling in the pit of my stomach, and after thinking on it a while, I realize what’s causing it. He’s definitely right about one thing: I would have been his boyfriend. In a second. Maybe that shows I’m less mature than him, or maybe I’m just willing to trust that things will work out in the end. I trust him. Maybe I’m taking this as a sign that he doesn’t trust me back.

People have a hard time trusting others. I’ve known that shit for a long time. You can hardly blame them. There’s so much deceit going on in this world, it’ll make you crazy if you let yourself think about it too much. A great example is this lady who’s yelling at me to get off her grass right now. She doesn’t trust that I’m only here to lie down and rest. So I employ the one decent option left at my disposal in situations like this. I say sorry for bothering her, and I get up and leave. Because sometimes, that’s all you can do.

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