Thomas and Niko in the City of Trees

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Chapter 18

Just like that, a wave of the magic wand and there’s only two weeks left. I fly out on August 4th, a Sunday morning that will look just like this one. No need for a meteorologist to predict the weather around here. Sunny, hot, dry, repeat. Yesterday was a rest day for Thomas, so I didn’t bother him much. Toward the end of the day we did start texting each other quite a bit, which amounted to a barrage of old inside jokes and stupid emojis that doesn’t bear repeating here. But it left me missing him like crazy, in kind of a preemptive way, and I fell asleep in a pretty emotional state.

Now that a new day has dawned, I jump back in and ask what he’s up to.

“Not sure,” he says.

“Can I get a ride to the airport?”

He sends about fifty questions marks.

“I mean on the 4th. My mom says she can’t. She asked if you could.”

“What the fuck, don’t scare me like that dude,” he says. “Sure.”

“Thanks.”

“Fucked up that your mom doesn’t want to be there though.”

“What do you want me to say?”

“Nothing dude.”

I go pour myself some cereal. I’m doing everything as quietly as I can so I don’t disturb my mom. As I eat, I sit there and watch some dumb shit on my phone. When I’m done, I text him again. “So can you hang out today?”

An entire hour later, he says, “I don’t know, man. My dad has me helping clean the house. It’s boring as fuck.”

“Let me know if you want help.”

He doesn’t say anything back, which honestly doesn’t bother me all that much. An hour or two later, I go on a run. I shower and then start thinking about what I’m going to pack, when the time comes. Early in the afternoon, I get another surprise text. This one is from none other than the OG herself, Ms. Nolan. It’s written a little bit like an email, which people her age just love to do for some reason.

“Hello, Niko,” it says. “I hope you’ve been having a great summer. I figured I would try and catch you before you leave for the Great White North. Time got away from from me, and now I find myself heading down to Nevada to visit my mother tomorrow morning. I’ll be staying there for a couple of weeks. Is there any chance you’re free for dinner at my house tonight? If so, let me know and I’ll text you my address. I hope to hear from you.”

I spend a couple minutes thinking about what to say, partly because it seems like such a bizarre thing to do all of a sudden—visiting a teacher at their home, eating a meal with them, the whole thing. Obviously I’m going to say yes. I just don’t want my response to sound like complete trash.

“Hi Ms. Nolan,” I type. “Yes, I’m free for dinner at your house tonight. Please let me know what time and where to be. I’ll look forward to it.”

She sounds happy in her reply. And just like that, I’ve got some evening plans that I couldn’t have predicted in a million years. You should see me, standing in front of the mirror deciding what to wear, thinking about what kind of smart or clever conversations we might end up having. Anyway, you can bet I shut that shit down fast. Going into a situation with particular expectations in mind always seems to get me into trouble.

She lives in this small, well-kept house in kind of a shabby neighborhood off Maple Grove. It takes me about half an hour to walk there. I ring the doorbell and when she opens the door, she smiles in a very genuine way, tells me she’s missed me and gives me a long hug. I’m pretty taken aback by that. As always, she’s super quick with her movements. I see her brown eyes scan the street over my shoulder.

“Where’s your car?” she asks.

I’m still feeling a little nervous, so all I do is shrug.

She invites me in. “Did you walk here?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you live nearby?”

“Just off Cole, near Fairview.”

“That’s not close at all. I could’ve picked you up.”

The way I see it, I’d definitely rather walk than ride in a teacher’s car. Just taking my first steps into her home is strange enough. A car ride sounds to me like some next-level shit. Her house is simple and functional. She has a lot of books, and not so many pictures of family or anything like that. She’s got a couple cats, too, which makes me feel more at ease. My mom and I had a black one named Wilbur for a couple years, but he ran away when I was ten. I’ve always liked cats quite a bit.

I have a theory about what happened to Wilbur. He used to follow me far out along the banks of that canal. I think he set out on his own one day and got about as far away as he’d ever been. Then I think he stopped, glanced back in the direction he came from, and right then and there, decided he was never going back. That’s all anyone has to do.

Ms. Nolan is being such a good host that I’m feeling kind of unworthy of the whole situation. She has me sit at her small kitchen table, then brings me a salad with arugula and some other stuff in it. I’m really glad I ended up reading a few of the books she had recommended. It turns out we have quite a bit to say to each other. Soon I’m feeling completely comfortable, since it feels exactly like all of our old discussions in her classroom after school. Once we’re done eating, she starts asking a few of the hard-hitting questions—how I’m feeling about going away, if I’m doing okay at home, all that. I knew this shit would happen sooner or later, and I came prepared. With Ms. Nolan, honesty is always the best policy.

I tell her that I’m feeling nothing but excitement about leaving for school.

“That’s great to hear,” she says. “I hope you and Thomas find a way to stay close.”

It’s the first she’s brought him up, and for some reason it’s pretty jarring hearing her say his name. I can’t help but feel a little suspicious, like she somehow knows everything.

“We’ll be okay,” I say.

“It’s quite a bond the two of you have. Friendships like that are rare.”

There’s this short pause where I’m looking down and the table, sort of in agony. It’s the kind of feeling I’m not always so good at hiding, and she’s especially good at picking up on.

“Everything okay with you two?” she asks.

I look up at her. “Yeah, we’re all right. Just a hard time for us.”

“I’m sure it is.”

I realize it’s too late to abandon ship. It’s like I’m pulling some kind of ripcord each time I say this shit out loud. I truly long for a time when I can bring it up like it’s no big deal. But if anyone is worth telling, it’s Ms. Nolan. “Thomas and I started getting closer than regular friends do. We start having…uh…these kind of sexual experiences together. Don’t worry, we ended things with the girls over it, so that shit’s all over—that stuff, I mean. It’s all over.” I take a breath.

She just keeps gently nodding and smiling at me, like I’m telling her my weekend plans.

“Anyway,” I continue slowly, “we got closer than we’ve ever been. We really care about each other. But he says he doesn’t want to be my boyfriend. Not right now, anyway.”

“Maybe that’s for the best.”

I’m kind of surprised she’s being so blunt. I’m not sure what to say. “Yeah…maybe.”

“It’s the kind of scenario most of us only dream about—falling in love with your best friend and finding out the feeling’s mutual.”

“I know.”

“There’s a lot of energy behind that.”

I sigh. “It really feels that way.”

“If it’s meant to be, it’ll sustain itself. You know that, right?”

“Yeah,” I say. But the truth is that I don’t know anything about it. All I can do is hope she’s right.

It feels like she can really sense my pain. Those kind eyes of hers are sort of full of concern. “I don’t want you to go thinking you’ll lose him, if you let it rest for now,” she says. “In my experience, that’s not how relationships work.”

I’m tempted to ask her what exactly her experience is. I don’t know anything about her life—not really. I just know how she feels about things, which is only part of what makes up a whole person, if you think about it. But I don’t ask her. I just try and listen. If what she says is true, if relationships really can be put on hold, then maybe this won’t be the last chance I get.

I don’t stay too late. It’s probably around eight o’clock when she mentions how early her flight is the next morning, and anyway, I was raised to know better than to outstay my welcome. But I do ask her one more thing before I go, since I’ve been having so much trouble putting it out of my mind. “How would you take it,” I say slowly, “if someone told you they were expecting big things from you?”

Ms. Nolan gives me this crooked little smile I’ve only ever seen a few times since I’ve known her. “Just between you and me,” she says, “I’d tell them to go fuck themselves.”

Man, she gets quite a laugh out of me when she says that.

Later on, I’m just minding my own business, walking east on Fairview and chasing a pretty long shadow, when I get a text from Thomas. It’s like clockwork, I’m telling you. It’s amazing how I can go days at a time barely talking to anyone, and then suddenly I can’t get a moment alone.

“I’m sorry for not texting you back earlier,” he says. “I really wanna see you tonight.”

The apology is the part that surprises me. I honestly hadn’t taken any offense. “It’s fine,” I say. “I want to see you too.”

So I get to his place and find him in his room, as usual, in the middle of his bed with his arms and legs spread out like he’s ready to make a snow angel. He’s got the stereo turned up and some kind of ethereal eighties-sounding music completely fills the room. His football shit is strewn around everywhere, just plastered in grass stains. I know for a fact he heard me come in, but he’s pretending he didn’t, just lying there with his eyes closed. Jesus Christ, he’s the weirdest person sometimes. I ask him what the music is and he says, “It’s Deep Breakfast,” as if I’m supposed to know what the hell that shit is.

He gets up and turns it off. “Sorry for ghosting you earlier.”

I shrug.

He looks at me for one or two seconds. “You want to go somewhere?”

“A drive?”

“I was thinking we’d walk somewhere.”

“Sure.”

We start walking without any thought to where we’re headed. That’s a quintessential aspect of our friendship, right there. Most of the time it turns out we had the same destination in mind anyway. Tonight is no different. We say very little as we journey west, skimming the edge of the school grounds before passing it by completely. The sun is down by the time we get to McMillan, and the unlit vastness of the nature reserve spreads before us like the great rift. There’s a second where I’m leaning against the wooden fence, feeling like if I enter the void that lies beyond it, I might never come back out again. I’m not messing with you—that actually feels like a real possibility.

So when Thomas starts leading the way towards the entrance, I actually hesitate for half a second before following him. Let’s be real—I’m only pretending I have any scrap of real agency left. The truth is that tonight, I would follow him anywhere. We wind between the brush, then follow a side trail that drops steeply between a dense pocket of small trees. We reemerge into the black night near some cattails and tall grass at the edge of the water. I look up into the cloudless sky and realize there is no moon. He disappears into the black just a few feet in front of me. The sound of his feet crunching along the gravel path is the only way for me to know he’s there. I follow him farther in. We make our way into the marsh on a small wooden footbridge and stop where it forks. I watch the outlines of his form as he sits, and I sit next to him below the rail, right next to the edge of the water. His phone’s flashlight bursts to life like a tiny sun. He sets it face-up on the wood and our surroundings glow in dim white light. He pulls that infamous metal flask from absolutely nowhere and offers it to me.

The flask is heavy, filled to the cap. I take three full swigs, hand it back and immediately roll onto my side. I had too much. I’m going to throw up in the water. It takes all of my will just to hold it in. Slowly, the urge passes. I look up at him. His face is lit starkly from below. The ridges of his jaw and upper cheekbones are cast in harsh light. The wells of his eyes swim in shadows. Just like that, he’s turned into a beautiful ghost.

“You okay?” he asks me. His used-up voice is reduced to a rasp as he tries to keep it low.

I nod.

He spends some quality time with the flask, then closes it and lays it beside his phone. We lie down beside each other across the wooden planks. He turns off the light and we stare up at the stars. It’s all we seem to do these days.

“I had a dream we got old together,” he says.

I think about the words. My mind rearranges them until they mean nothing. I feel his hand brush against mine in the darkness. Our fingers interlock. The warmth of all that whisky starts spreading through my chest. “I’m afraid we’re going to lose each other,” I say, “and then that won’t happen.”

“What won’t happen?”

“Us getting old together.”

“Is it what you want?”

I roll my head to the side and barely make out the soft ridge of his nose. “Do you?”

He pauses. “I don’t know. It was just in my dream.” He won’t let go of my hand.

“Say we can be together,” I tell him.

“No,” he says.

I hear him lift himself. Gradually, he surrounds me. His palm thuds against the wood near my shoulder. He suspends himself over me for a few seconds before letting part of his weight rest on top of me. He’s breathing hard. His cheek rests against mine.

“Thomas.”

“What?”

“Call me your boyfriend. Promise me you won’t fuck anyone else. We’ll save ourselves for each other while we’re apart.”

“No.”

He’s got me locked in with his body. I can hardly move. He’s hard against me now. He breathes out in a shudder and kisses my neck.

“Why not?” I hear myself say.

“I’m afraid we’ll lose each other if we do that.”

I hook my arms up around his broad back and squeeze. “I promise you, we won’t.”

He scoffs. “Don’t fucking make promises like that, dude.” He rises up to his knees. He’s still straddling me as he sips off the old flask. “Besides, that’s not the only reason, and you know it.”

“Give me another, then.”

“I told you I want to do it alone,” he says. “I’ll finally be playing for a big team up there. Come on, man, you know how long I’ve wanted this. I don’t want any distractions. Sorry to say it, but that includes you.”

“So what are we doing?” I ask, clamped between his bulking thighs, just broadcasting the question into the night like it’s meant for all the other wild creatures lurking in this place, and not just him.

“I want to take you again,” he says.

“Then do it.”

“We don’t have anything to make it comfortable.”

“Give me the flask.”

“Niko.”

“Give it to me.”

I feel the cold metal rest against my palm. What I do is, I take three more long swigs, just like before—maybe even a little more than before, and I give it back to him. I don’t get sick this time. I wait about ten more seconds, and then I tell him, “You can have me.”

I feel him tugging down my pants. I hear his breathing. He pauses for a moment to take a drink or two of his own. And then he comes back to me. I guess I’m already pretty trashed because the pain feels blunt and removed somehow, like it’s being described to me by a quiet voice in my ears. That’s where the pain gathers—my ears. They start to burn and pulsate, full of blood. He pauses when, despite all that friction, little by little, he’s put himself all the way inside. He’s so close to my face that I can see his eyes clearly in the night. They’re asking if I’m okay. I let my eyes answer back.

He makes these small movements, in and out, but that voice telling me about the pain—it isn’t so quiet anymore. I reach up and grab the bulk of his arm. “It hurts too much,” I say.

“It’s okay,” he says. “I’m already there.”

He whimpers and I feel him let go inside me. I reach down and let go all over myself.

After, we’re just sitting there in the pitch black on the wooden planks of the bridge. Our clothes are back on. His finger slowly traces a circle over and over on my knee.

“Remember when we looked in a mirror?” he asks.

“What?”

“We looked in a mirror together, for a long time, remember that? We were ten or twelve.”

“Oh yeah.”

“We kept saying how we looked so different from each other. Our eyes…our skin…our hair.”

“Yeah.”

“Do we still?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why did we look so different?”

I spend a minute thinking about what the hell he’s trying to ask me. I can’t guess how many additional sips of whisky he’s managed to sneak in the dark, but one thing is clear: He’s at least as trashed as I am. “We just did,” I say.

“Other people think we look different from each other.”

“That’s true.”

“Well, I don’t think so anymore.”

“Me neither.”

“I bet if we looked in the mirror now, we’d look the same as each other. You’d look like me. And I’d look like you.”

“I bet we would.”

A slow, heavy wind slips down into the bowl of the reserve and surrounds us both.

“Where are all the fucking mosquitos?” he says.

“I don’t know. Must be a dead year.”

“I’m so fucking tired,” he says. “Might as well stay here all night.” His voice is slurring. “Niko?”

“What?”

“I don’t want you to leave, if I stay here all night.”

“I won’t.”

“You’ll stay with me?”

I feel myself tipping to the side. His big shoulder catches me, and I sink into his warmth. He puts his arm around me. “Yeah, Thomas, I’ll stay with you.”

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