Thomas and Niko in the City of Trees

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Chapter 19

I really hate being hungover at work. Trust me, I’ll avoid it at almost any cost. And yet here I am, propped against the edge of the serving window in a beat-up pair of sunglasses, sipping water, doing all I can to fight off these waves of nausea…so I guess that’s just some bullshit life throws at you from time to time.

We slept all night by the water. The mosquitoes never came—a miracle by any measure, if you ask me. My neck and left shoulder are killing me, due to the six hours of drunken slumber spent on my side. The whole reason I stayed on my side was, it got cold after the first hour or two, so I kept an arm around him just as he kept one around me. That’s about the only reason we didn’t freeze our asses off.

Let me be honest with you for just a second: Last night sort of felt like an ending. From the curious chain of events that transpired to the crazy vibe of that entire pitch-black scene—all of it held this air of finality in my mind, especially upon reflection during my long walk to work. An ending to what, exactly, I don’t fucking know. That’s what I’m trying to figure out during my shift, which slows down so much by late-morning that I’m tempted to close up early, go home and sleep the whole thing off. Man, Marlon would just kill me if I did that. Maybe it’s the hangover, but I’m feeling a little feverish, and the window unit seems to be having trouble keeping up with the heat outside. I lie down flat on the concrete floor, listening carefully in case any rogue vehicle happens to pull up to the window.

After a few minutes of studying the cobwebs that span the wood beams of the ceiling, I fish my phone from my pocket. There’s a fresh text from Thomas that says, “I can’t believe you stayed with me all night.”

“You would’ve frozen to death if I didn’t.”

“Doubt it.”

“What’s up?”

“I want to know if you’re okay after what we did.”

“I’m fine.”

“Did I hurt you too much?”

“I would’ve said so if you did.”

“Okay. So you’re good?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

He takes a long time typing his reply, which finally shows up as the following: “It’s just that I would understand if you didn’t want to do that anymore, seeing as I want to stay just friends. I know I can’t have it all.”

I think on it a minute. “I could’ve said no.”

“Could you though?” He follows it up with a winking face.

“Shut the fuck up.”

“We’re good then?”

“We’re good,” I reply.

You want to know the truth, Thomas Chu? We’re better than we’ve ever been. Last night, you were clear with me, open and honest, and whether or not I agree with you is beside the point. You’ll get nothing but respect from me, for boldly knowing what it is you’re after. You’ll always have my respect, Thomas, no matter what becomes of us. I got a strange feeling back when we first started on our walk. I sensed that, for better or worse, a confirmation would soon arrive. And now, with a clearer mind, I realize what it was that came to an end last night: a hope that I’d be calling you mine in this new life I’ll soon embark on. No boasting to newfound allies of my handsome, all-American football-star boyfriend just south of the border. No discovering the thrill and the agony of saving ourselves, our bodies, for some future moment in time when we could be alone together again.

Look, I know the image is overplayed, but I start thinking back on all that quiet hoping like a little flame that got weaker and weaker before suddenly going out. No quick hiss, not even a pencil-thin trail of smoke—just dark, silent and still.

Don’t tell a soul, but I fall asleep for a whole hour on the cool concrete floor after that. I sleep so deeply that when I wake up, I’m confused, completely unaware of my surroundings. I’ll never know if any customers showed up while I was out, but I guess if they did, it would rank pretty low on a list of all the bad things I’ve ever done.

On Tuesday morning, I wake up to a long text that Lexie sent the night before. It reads, “I wanted you to know that I’m leaving tomorrow. I’ll be staying with my aunt and uncle in Philadelphia for ten days, then taking a train to New York. My mom thinks it would be a good idea for me to get out of here early, and I agree. I still catch myself thinking of you and me a lot. So many moments we shared no longer seem legitimate. Madison feels the same way about Thomas. She and I decided those memories have not become meaningless, they just mean something else now. If they are no longer comforting, at least they are educational. I don’t mean that as a burn. I just want to be clear about the effects of what has happened. I will always care for you, Niko. Please do not reply to this text. I’ll know you’ve read it, which is all I want from you right now. Best of luck on your adventure. I’m excited for my own. I promise to check in someday soon, from the other side. Until then.”

I read it through three or four times. It’s a good thing she specifically asked me not to reply, because I would have tried, selfishly, to comfort her. It wouldn’t have worked, of course. It wouldn’t have been anything she needed to hear. Because it’s impossible now for me to make her feel better about what I’ve done. That is my greatest punishment of all.

Thomas asks me if I’ll come over after work. I’m pretty surprised, since we’ve been seeing so little of each other during the week. Once I get over there, I witness first-hand just how much those two-a-days have been breaking him down. He looks kind of dreamily up at me from his bed as I enter. He’s curled near the end of his bed in a near-fetal position with an overstuffed pillow beneath his head. There’s a massive bruise on his arm and he’s sipping on an oversized water bottle.

“Did you skip work tonight?” I say.

He nods, then slowly closes his eyes.

I sit down noisily on his desk chair, straight across from him. “What’s up?”

“Oh, not much. Just thought we could hang out, and…I don’t know…” His voice sort of trails off.

“Maybe you just need to sleep.”

He opens his eyes. “You don’t know what I need.”

I pause. “So you called me over just for that? Are you serious?”

He sits up. “What? No, dude. Of course not. Did it ever occur to you that I might just want you around?”

“I don’t see why,” I say.

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“I just don’t know what we even talk about anymore.”

He lies back down. “We talk about stuff.”

“Not like we used to. The only thing keeping the conversation going now is reminiscing about old times.”

He crosses his arms. “We used to talk about football. A lot. Even after you stopped playing. We never talk about it anymore. You don’t even ask about my practices.”

“That’s because I don’t like football anymore.”

He looks offended right after I say it. I watch him think it over. Gradually, his face softens again. It’s amazing how fast he gets over certain things. “All right dude, look.” He heaves himself back up to a sitting position, tucks a foot under his leg. You can tell the whole motion goes completely against his will. “If you could tell me one thing right now, without being worried about what I might think, what would you say?”

I decide I’d better go all in. I can already feel a wave of emotion starting to form, so I figure I should try and get the words out before it arrives. “I know I need to let go of us being together—I know that. But Thomas…” I look him dead in the eyes. “It’s the hardest fucking thing I’ve ever had to do.” Then you know what I do? I lean forward on the chair and bury my face in my hands. I hear him repeat my name a few times, but I stay frozen like that. The simple act of sitting up, of facing him and the world again—I just don’t think I can do it.

I feel a thud through the floor as he climbs off the bed. He kneels down beside me, puts his arms around my shoulders and sinks his head into my neck. “Come on, man. You act like it’s forever or something.”

“I don’t even…I don’t know what the fuck that’s supposed to mean.” I’m really struggling to get the words out. “How do I know it’s not?”

He sighs against me. “All I said was that I need to be alone at this point in my life. That’s all it is, I swear. Why can’t you trust me?”

“Why can’t you trust me?” That’s right, I turn his words back on him. “You know how I’d support you. And you know I’d leave you alone when you needed to be alone.”

“It just wouldn’t be a good fit. Not right now. I’m not ready for it.”

Slowly, I lift my head out of my hands. He’s just lightly kissing my neck. “Thomas,” I say, my voice still shuddering, “You can’t kiss me like that anymore, okay?”

I watch him stand up, then back away. He has the saddest look on his face. It’s a look that tells me he knows exactly what he’s giving up. Suddenly, he reaches over me and grabs his laptop from the desk. I’m just kind of hunkered there in the chair, wondering what the hell he could possibly be up to. He sits cross-legged in the middle of his bed with the computer in his lap. He’s just typing away, keeping to himself like I’ve dropped off the earth or something.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m writing a contract.”

“What for?”

“For us.”

“What does it say?”

He doesn’t answer. He spends another minute or two just hammering away, and by the end of it, I’m getting a little annoyed. Then he hands me his laptop.

The contract says: “I, Thomas Qingyu Chu, hereby promise to share a place of residence with Nikola Ivan Savic for the entire duration of the Summer of 2020.” He’s even left two empty lines below where we can sign it.

I look up at him. “I like this.”

“Thought you would.”

“You’re serious?”

“Fuck, dude, how could I make it any more serious? Check it for errors. I can’t have you backing out on some bullshit technicality.”

I laugh, give it a once-over, then send it out to the printer in the hall. As I step back into his room with the paper, I say, “How’s it going to work?”

“We’ll get an apartment.”

“In Boise, or up there?”

He shrugs. “We’ll figure it out. I promise.”

You’d better believe we both sign that shit. Then we print out a second copy and sign that one too, so we each have our own. I fold mine and put it into my wallet for safekeeping.

I start losing him not long after. He manages to drag himself off the bed one more time to give me a hug. He hangs on for a little while. It’s clear he’s not quite ready to let me go. But he does anyway, and I take a slow, steady walk home, feeling pretty much on top of the world.

What can I say about the next few days? They come and go. I work, and I work out. I try to expand my mind by reading books. The sun blazes outside my window and everything’s fine. My mom’s being touchy as hell, but what else is new? She’s just trying her best in this crazy world.

I’ve told you before that Thomas’s mom died in the month of August. It happened on the 8th. Each year on that date, his family drops everything to mourn her death. I’ve heard all of kinds of opinions about what a tradition like that is supposed to look like. A lot of people seem to have the idea that celebrating someone’s life is better than continuing to be sad. Well, the Chu family doesn’t see it that way. It’s a pretty somber affair. Anyway, I’ve known all summer that I would be in Canada by the time the date rolled around. I had already made peace with the idea of not being included this year. So you can imagine my surprise when, on Saturday at noon, Thomas invites me over the next day to do the whole thing one more time around.

“It’s not the 8th,” I reply. “It’s not even August yet.”

“Does it matter?”

“I don’t know.”

“She would have wanted you there.”

“Okay.”

He tells me I can show up whenever I want. He says they’re going to start things around ten in the morning. I figure it’s best to give them some time to themselves, so I don’t leave for their house until around ten-thirty.

I walk in on one of those scenes where you can immediately feel the weight of it all. The air is thick with grief. Alfred’s stuffed himself into the corner of the couch. His eyes are red. Thomas is sitting upright on the middle cushion with his hands folded, looking solemnly at the floor. Their dad stands with his back to me, a hand against the wall for support. Everyone seems lost in thought. But slowly, they all turn to look at me. Thomas’s dad motions for me to go over to the little area they have set up. It’s just a card table with a large photo of her in the middle, propped in a wooden frame, surrounded by flowers picked from the yard. She planted the bulbs of some of them herself, not all that long ago. Four large red candles are lined up among the flowers. Three of them are lit. I grab up the matchbox, take one out, strike it, then light the last candle. I pause for a minute or two and look at the photograph. She’s alone in it. It’s an impromptu one they had done in a studio during a family shoot. Her eyes and her smile are so bright and healthy and full of life that for a second, it feels impossible that she’s gone. “Thank you,” I whisper to the photo.

This next part might seem a little weird, but you have to remember that I’ve done this for a few years now. I bow for a few seconds to show my respect. Then I say out loud, “When I first met you, I was a very small, very scared little kid. I don’t think I even knew how scared of the world I was. But you knew.” I clear my throat. “You held me in your arms once, like I was one of your own sons. It only happened one time, but I still remember. We were watching an old movie at night. I was really nervous as I approached you and looked up into your caring eyes. When I reached for you, you didn’t even hesitate. You helped me onto your lap just like I had seen you do with Thomas and Alfred many times. You wrapped your arms around me and held me. I was seven years old. Maybe I was getting too big for that kind of thing, but I just wanted to know what it felt like.” Slowly, I run my fingers along the edge of the frame. “Anyway, I’ll never forget.” I bow again. And then I completely lose it. I have to brace myself against the table to stay on my feet, I’m crying so hard. Then I feel someone’s big arms surround me.

“It’s all right,” Thomas whispers in my ear. “It’s okay.”

I feel like I could sink so deep into his embrace, I might just disappear forever. I look at her face one more time. She looks so young in the photo—younger than I ever remember her being—and so much like him. I thank her one more time, just in my head this time. It’s because of her that his arms surround me now.

After lunch, Thomas and Alfred and I are lying in the shade under the oak tree on the front lawn.

“It feels different every year,” Thomas is saying. “Not any less sad. Just different.”

“That’s true,” I say.

We’re mostly just going on about nothing. Alfred stays quiet the whole time. Finally, Thomas punches him in the arm. “What’s up, Freddie?”

“Not much,” says Alfred.

Thomas sighs into the hot, dry breeze. “I can’t wait to fucking get out of here.”

I don’t say anything back, but I swear to god I was just thinking the same thing.

“Don’t rub it in,” Alfred says.

“You’re not ready to leave,” says Thomas. “You’re too young to feel the way we feel about it.”

“Fuck you. I want to get out of here, too. When can I come visit?”

“Never,” says Thomas.

Alfred scoffs. “You think I don’t know anything about the world.”

“Yeah? Tell me what the fuck you know about the world.”

I kid you not: Alfred sits up, looks back and forth between us and says, “Probably more than you want me to know.”

I look at Thomas. He glances at his little brother and pauses for a second, casting a strange, blank look out at the street. Then he says slowly, “You don’t know the half of it, Freddie.”

“Thought so.” And then, without another word, Alfred gets up off the grass and walks into the house.

I’m still looking at Thomas. “What the fuck just happened?”

“I’m not too sure.” He’s just drumming his fingers on his chest. “But if he knows about us, he’ll never tell. That’s just not his way.”

Anyway, it’s not like there’s anything we can do about it now, so we just keep lying out there on our backs, staring up into the green glow of that tree. Suddenly—and don’t ask me how—I’m not worried about a thing. Not one thing. And today could be any other summer day, from any other year of our lives.

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