Thomas and Niko in the City of Trees

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Chapter 17

It got to a point halfway through senior year where I was desperate to fill up a little free time, so I asked Ms. Nolan for another book to read, and she lent me a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I was pretty skeptical at first. The previous book she lent me was called Middlesex, and I was so moved by it that I just couldn’t see how some crazy kids’ book could measure up. Well, it didn’t. But there is a scene in it that has stuck with me ever since.

It happens when Alice goes with this character called the Gryphon to visit another character called the Mock Turtle. This whole situation with the Mock Turtle is what I couldn’t seem to get out of my head once I read it. First of all, the Gryphon tells Alice that the Mock Turtle is sad without having anything to be sad about which, believe me, I can relate to. Not much is said about the place the Mock Turtle lives, so I guess my imagination must have filled in the gaps. All it says is that he’s sitting up on a little rocky ledge all alone, and I pictured that ledge along the shore of this endless gray sea, with these wisps of fog hanging low over the water. The water itself is still, just barely lapping at the edge. I didn’t care very much for the back-and-forth that goes on between the Mock Turtle and Alice and the Gryphon, but I was straight-up struck by the way they leave him: all alone again in that vast quiet space, just singing sadly to himself for eternity. It occurred to me that he must be the most isolated character in the whole story, and suddenly I envied him. Who knows where hell I got a feeling like that from—maybe I wasn’t in a particularly good mood at the time. But I ended up holding onto that place I imagined for weeks, even months after I finished the book. Even now, I still feel this occasional longing for my own solitude in a vacant landscape next to a quiet gray sea. I don’t know where you’d have to go to find a place like that in the real world. Maybe somewhere in the U.K., where Lewis Carroll—that’s the author—is from. But I wouldn’t be surprised at all if, like pretty much every other place in the book, it can’t actually be found in reality.

Anyway, guess where I’m wishing I could be right now? It’s not really that I’m feeling upset about anything. Truth be told, I’m not feeling much. I just want to be alone. After work I borrow my mom’s car and drive out into the desert. I shut off the engine and radio and sit up on the roof. The metal kind of bows and pops beneath my weight. I stare out into the emptiness, listening to the sounds of the evening, trying to focus on the distant horizon and be present and all that. But it’s just not doing it for me.

The sun gets low and I start driving home. I get a text from Thomas asking if I’ll come over tonight before his schedule gets crazy. I drop off my mom’s car. She’s off work tonight, so I doubt she’ll need it, but you never know with these things.

I’m walking quickly between my house and his, just to ensure that I have enough time with him. Dusk is turning to dark all around me. The warm wind kicks up and rustles the branches and leaves of the trees. It makes everything feel alive.

I enter the Chu household and find Alfred on the couch watching a movie. He nods his head as I pass. Damn, this kid is the king of silent greetings. I go into Thomas’s room and close the door.

“What’s up?” he says. He’s at his desk, so I lie back on his bed and stare at the ceiling. He’s reading about music again. He never quits with that stuff. One time he talked to me about rare time signatures for half an hour. Anyway, I lie on my back for a while, and he just keeps on reading, like it was all my idea to come over and interrupt his quiet evening alone. I prop myself up on my elbows and ask him to turn around. He spins slowly in his chair to face me.

“What’s the plan?” I say.

“Just thought we could hang out. Things are going to get crazy tomorrow.”

“I know.”

He’s just staring me up and down for a minute. “When the fuck did you get so tan?”

I shrug. “Just happened gradually, I guess.”

“Jesus, dude.”

“Nothing compared to you.”

He laughs. “I know. I look like I’ve been working the fields.”

He has this thin white t-shirt on. He’s kind of flexing a little. He knows I’m watching him. My god, he’s looking huge tonight—and it’s true, his skin is getting very dark. I think he’s secretly proud of that complexion. His dad is always trying to get him to stay out of the sun, but he won’t do it. I swear, by the time he gets up to Seattle, he won’t look like anyone else around.

“When do you leave?” I ask.

“In a month, yesterday.”

Somehow I had it in my head that he was staying in town a lot longer than me. But that’s less than week after I leave. I don’t say anything, just roll over on my stomach. I bury my face in his blanket and sheets. I breathe in.

“These correspondence practices are shit, compared to the real thing,” I hear him say. “I need to go up there and get practicing with the team. I’m dying down here.”

I lift myself, crawl over and scoot up against his headboard. “I’m excited for you.”

“Thanks.”

“I’ll find somewhere to stream the games.”

“If you want,” he says. He’s doing his best to sound bored.

“Of course I do.”

He’s giving me the strangest look. I decide to take a page from his book and cover my face with a pillow. I feel him slowly climb onto the bed and crawl over to me. He grabs the pillow and pulls it aside. His face is about a foot away from fine. “What are you getting up to, Niko?”

“Hmm? Nothing.”

He moves in a little closer. Our lips are just about touching. “Is it too soon?” he whispers.

“I don’t know.”

His palms rest on each side of my shoulders. I find myself sort of boxed in by his forearms and biceps. He’s got one knee planted between my legs. I watch that beautiful face flush with blood, staring at me expectantly. The heat is coming off him in waves.

I swear to god, sometimes I still can’t believe it’s all real.

He moves in another inch and kisses me. He’s all soft and tender about it, like he’s taking his time remembering the way my lips feel against his. He pulls back. “Damn, you need to shave.”

“Do I?”

He cocks his head to the side. He’s thinking about it. “Nope.” He moves in again, turning back into that playful, ferocious kid I grew up with with. He’s really letting me have it, getting his tongue involved and all that. He pulls my t-shirt up over my head, then his own. I always have to hold my breath for a second or two when he does that. I reach out and feel his chest. He straddles my waist and rides me a little bit. I ask him what he’s up to and he says he’s just playing around. I tell him he should slow down or I’ll lose my shit.

The TV turns off in the living room. We freeze. There’s not a lot to worry about, since Thomas’s family doesn’t mess around with closed doors as a rule, but still, we wait until he’s shut in his room to be sure the coast is clear.

We strip down to nothing. I can’t get enough of the sight of him naked. It’s like it’s all brand new to me, every single time. He returns to his position on top of me. I warn him again that he needs to back off or it won’t last. He just laughs, scoots down and takes both of us in one hand. We barely fit in his grasp. He starts pleasuring both of us at the same time, just like he would pleasure himself alone. That shit only takes about ten seconds. At the end of it, I’m pretty lost in the afterglow. I realize slowly that I’m covered in both our jizz. He gives me a couple more small kisses and leaves to grab an old t-shirt. He insists on cleaning me up himself.

All night, we drift in and out of each other’s arms. We wind up pretty close when my alarms goes off in the morning. I have to push him off of me.

“So early,” he says. His voice is super deep and scratchy.

“I know.” I’m just sitting on the edge of his bed for a minute. “I should probably shower before I go.”

“Niko?”

I look over my shoulder at him.

“We need to be careful not to get too attached.”

Instantly, I’m wishing he hadn’t said it. Don’t ask me why—I just don’t believe it’s something that needs to be said out loud. But this is Thomas we’re talking about, after all.

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” I say, “with you being so busy and all that.” I hope I don’t sound bitter. I figure it’s early enough that he’ll probably just assume I’m tired. “Good luck at practice.”

“Thanks,” he says. He grabs his phone from the nightstand. “Two more hours of freedom.”

“Use that shit wisely.”

He smiles at me, throws his phone on the floor and pulls the blanket over his head.

Before I know it, it’s the end of the week. Time just starts slipping away, even more than it already was. I go through a couple days where I’m feeling anxious about that fact, but then I let it go. I’m spending most of my evenings going on runs or working out in my room. I even purchase my own personal vat of protein powder, which I hope to get through before I leave. I read a couple of books Ms. Nolan recommended to me. Whatever time I have left over usually goes to some blend of Netflix and porn. And you know what? After a while, I start feeling content with the solitary lifestyle. Maybe it’s because I know it’s only temporary.

To my knowledge, Thomas only has one practice on Saturdays and nothing going on Sundays, so I’m all but certain I’ll hear from him over the weekend. But I don’t. Who knows what the hell his excuse is. I guess he just didn’t feel like talking. I text him Sunday night before bed asking him about his weekend, and all he texts back is, “I squared things up with Madison.”

I send him a couple of question marks.

“Her and I talked yesterday. She reached out and we got coffee downtown. She’s doing okay.”

“Did she say much about the whole thing?”

There’s a long pause, and then he says, “She said at least it was you, and not some other girl.”

“Okay.”

“She said Lexie and her have been pretty inseparable.”

“I’m glad they have each other.”

“You might expect her to drop you a line at some point.”

“Lexie?”

“Yeah.”

“Is that what Madison said?”

“No, that’s just the impression I got.”

That next week, on some bullshit Wednesday evening, I book my airline ticket. After the extra baggage fees and all that, it ends up being expensive as hell. But believe me, it’s the best money I ever spent. It’s literally my ticket out of here. I burn through an hour or two studying the flight times, the different gates and my route through the airport in Seattle during my layover. I read about customs and everything you’re supposed to do and say, since I’ve never been out of the country before. I read over my study permit, which I applied for back when I first got my admission letter. I look through my passport, which is only about six months old, just checking to make sure it all looks the way it’s supposed to. It’s still early in the evening and I’m feeling fidgety, so I walk to the Ustick branch of the public library to print off the tickets. They don’t even need to be printed, it just feels nice to put everything together in a folder. By the time I get back, my mom has already left for her shift. It’s all right, though. I wasn’t totally ready to tell her anyway. Still, I find myself wishing I had someone to share the moment with.

I wish Thomas hadn’t said that thing about Lexie contacting me. Even as I read the words, I knew they probably weren’t true, but I guess it still gave me a little hope that something might go down. Anyway, I think if she was going to reach out the same way Madison did to Thomas, she would have done it already. I know it’s selfish of me to expect anything at all from her, but still, I can’t help feeling a little jealous.

Thomas and I text back and forth a little on Thursday night. I tell him all about buying the ticket and it’s clear he’s trying to work up some excitement for me. He’s just so fucking tired. He says football practices are going well, but they’re insanely rigorous, and he can barely stand up by the time his half-shift at work ends in the evening. Personally, I think it sounds like a horseshit way to live, but it seems to suit him well.

When my phone goes off the next evening around six o’clock, I fully expect a text from him. But that’s not what I get. Instead, Lexie’s name shows up, and you’d better believe I’m surprised. Jesus Christ, I could wake up with a third arm and I wouldn’t be this surprised.

“Hey Niko,” it says. Then another comes in that reads, “How are you?”

“I’m okay,” I say back.

“I’ve had a lot of time to think about things.”

“Okay.”

“I’m still not completely over it.”

“I know.”

“But I wanted to check in.”

“Okay.”

That’s all she says. I’m sitting there at my little desk with my phone clutched tight in my hands. She’s not saying anything else, and soon I’m feeling pretty goddamn inclined to throw it out the window. Instead I type, “Can we meet?” and hit send.

It takes her another minute to get back to me. “Yeah. I’ll come by?”

“I’ll meet you outside.”

So I’m just kind of slumped at the bottom of those concrete steps for a while, until finally her little car rattles up into the visitor spot. She doesn’t look all that unhappy behind the wheel, which gets me feeling hopeful. Just seeing her face again is enough. That’s all I need. She gets out and gives me the shortest hug I think we’ve ever shared. She asks if I want to go for a walk. Instead of leaving the apartment complex, we venture deeper in, all the way to a back fence, which we climb over. There’s a little dirt lane that goes along the canal behind it. She’s already familiar with this spot because I’ve brought her here a few times. As for me, I’ve been coming here on my own since I was five years old.

We walk twenty or thirty feet down the lane to the bridge, which is just a big old rusty pipe about a foot in diameter spanning the canal. The water is drifting by low and slow beneath us. I bet I’ve crossed it a thousand times—maybe more. There are a couple small shade trees on the other side, all lined up against the back of an old warehouse.

Anyway, we get settled in the grass between two of them with our backs agains the cinderblock wall of the warehouse, and I decide I should let her be the one to steer the conversation. At first she’s just watching the water. Then she turns to me.

“For a while, I was so mad at you, because of how dumb you must’ve thought I was.”

“I never thought you were dumb.”

She sighs. “I just couldn’t see it any other way. I kept thinking how you must’ve known you could get away with it, because I wasn’t smart enough to find out.”

“I didn’t think I could get away with it,” I say. “I was terrified you were going to find out. Every fucking second.”

“But I didn’t.” She looks over. “You had to tell me.”

I don’t know what to say. I just give her a single nod.

“It’s not my fault I didn’t know.”

“Of course it isn’t.”

“It’s not my fucking job to be a detective. It was yours not to fuck around.”

I look down. I keep my voice low and quiet. “I know. I’m so sorry, Lexie. For everything.”

“You’d better be.”

I look over at her. She doesn’t look mad, but she’s not smiling, either.

“Anyway,” she says, “Madison made it sound like you and Thomas aren’t exactly running into each other’s arms.”

“No,” I say quickly. “It didn’t turn out that way.”

“That surprised me.”

I pause, then say, “He never wanted to replace her with me.”

She’s just studying me now. I get intimidated pretty fast when she looks at me that way. “And what did you want?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Jesus, Niko, of course it matters.”

I look away from her. I just can’t handle it. “I never thought he would replace you. I swear, I never thought of it that way.”

“But what did you want?”

“I don’t know.” I wedge my heel against a crumbled piece of concrete and kick. It rolls down the grassy slope and splashes into the water. “He said he’s worried it might ruin our friendship. Now I’m thinking maybe he’s right.”

“Niko.”

I look right at her. Her eyes are telling me I’d better answer the question she asked instead of one I made up. “I wanted him,” I say. “Obviously. I still do. I want him so bad, it hurts—and I know he wants me, too. It’s the most powerful, raw feeling I’ve ever experienced. It’s all just so messed up because we’re…I don’t know, we’ve got all these years behind us, pretending it wasn’t there…and I know exactly what’s going on with him—he’s scared.”

“Of course he is.”

“Well, I wish he wasn’t.”

“Come on, Niko, we’re all a little scared.” She pauses. “You know Madison was scared to death of losing him. She even told me a few times, before any of this came up. A lot of people break up around this time.”

“I know.”

She takes her flip-flops off and grips the grass with her toes. “Look, I know you and I weren’t destined to be together forever, even before all this.”

I give her kind of a sad look.

She bumps her shoulder into mine and says, “It’s okay. It’s probably for the best. We had some fun while it lasted.” She rests her head against the concrete. “I’m not mad anymore. I’m really not. It’s just that I really liked you Niko.” She starts tearing up. “I thought you were the sexiest guy I’d ever seen, and so kind, and smart.”

“Smart enough,” I say.

She laughs a little, through her tears. “I wasn’t thinking too much about the future, to be honest. I just knew I wanted you now.” She hides her face, which just about kills me. She wipes her eyes, then finally looks at me again. “And now I can’t have you anymore.”

“Lexie.”

She leans her head on my shoulder and takes my hand in hers. “I need to ask something of you—to make up for all this.”

“Anything.”

“If I get pissed again, and I don’t want to talk, you have to respect that.”

“Of course.”

“But there’s another thing, on top of that. I don’t know how shit’s going to play out on the east coast. I hear people can be cold over there. If I ever need a friend—if I need someone to call, you have to be there for me, any time, day or night.”

I smile at her. I’m just so goddamn relieved at what she’s saying. I’m telling you, she’s too good to me. She’s always been that way.

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