Thomas and Niko in the City of Trees

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Chapter 2

I can walk home from Thomas’s house. It only takes about fifteen minutes, and I’ve done it for years. I recently found out what it means to be a latchkey kid. I read about it in a book. I guess in a way I was one of those, except I didn’t spend much time locked up in the house. Instead I roamed around this whole area. When I was a little kid, I was asked more than once by an adult if I was lost. I had the good sense to say no, of course, but I was always a little confused and caught off guard by the question. I get it now. Baby Niko must have been quite the sight. These days, if I saw some little six-year-old screwing around the Barnes and Noble parking lot alone, I’d be concerned, too.

I mentioned before that I live off Cole Road. It separates our neighborhoods. The road itself is fairly lifeless, but there’s more going on if you go down by the mall. We spend quite a bit of time at the mall. It’s called Boise Towne Square Mall. We go downtown, too, but you can’t get into any of the places there when you’re underage. It’s not too hard for us to get our hands on booze when we want it, but I’m still looking forward to the day when I can walk up to the bar and order something for myself. I don’t know anyone my age who isn’t looking forward to that.

I’m not sure where my work ethic comes from. My mom is lazy as hell and I can only assume the same of my dad, though I don’t know him personally. At school, I become this whirlwind tornado thing that slips around from class to class just getting shit done. There’s this thing that clicks in my brain every time I’m presented with a challenge. Go. Do it now. Just figure it out, get it done. I have always been that way. Thank god for that. It’s my ticket out of here, I can tell.

I get home just before nine. My mom is watching some dumb show on Netflix. The volume is so loud I can’t even say hi to her. I would have to yell for her to hear me, it’s that’s loud. There’s this little cake from Albertsons sitting on the table. I don’t quite know how to describe the relief I feel when I see it. I wasn’t offended the year before when she forgot. I really wasn’t. What bothered me was all the shit that followed—her remembering, crying, telling me how horrible of a mom she was and then giving me a look that demanded I tell her she wasn’t. I told her she was a good mom and she just kept saying no, no, there’s no way to fix this. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done. I’m the worst mom. I would say she wasn’t again. She kept going on about it for days until I got really tired of the back and forth. Finally I snapped and accused her of making the whole thing about her. It was true, but I shouldn’t have said it. We didn’t talk for a week after that.

Anyway, the cake is there, and I’m so happy to see it, because it makes everything so much simpler. I cut two pieces from it and put them on plates, grab to forks and then I bring one to my mom. She thanks me and says Happy Birthday and all that over the noise of the show. She says, “I should have cut you a piece, not the other way around.” Then she goes back to watching her show.

I eat my piece in about three bites because I’m starving, and then I eat one more. I look in the fridge for something with protein since I worked out with Thomas, but the boneless chicken breasts I bought are gone. I ask my mom about that. I have to yell, which has me annoyed right out of the gate.

“I think those were expired.”

“How could they be expired? I bought them two days ago.”

“I cooked them.”

“Then where are they?”

“I burned them.”

Jesus Christ. At least we’ve gotten to the bottom of this one. “How’d you do that?”

“I left them in the oven.”

I look in the trash beneath the sink and find all four of them: big lumps of coal. They even melted a hole through the plastic bag. “You should’ve let them cool down before you threw them away,” I say.

“What?”

I give up. We live right behind a fancy organic grocery store. They cost more there but her car isn’t working right now and I don’t want to walk all the way to Albertsons. I still can’t quite believe she did it for the cake. I’ll try to get her car going on the weekend. Thomas knows quite a bit about how they work.

It’s fully dark outside. I’m really loving this warm night. There’s kind of a breeze and it slips through the branches and new leaves of all the trees around here. There are mostly young maples and oaks in this area. I like trees quite a bit, and one good thing about the city is that there are plenty of them.

Anyway I get the chicken and even buy some broccoli and steam it up once I get home. I’m trying to look after myself and my health. I offer some to my mom but she doesn’t want any. I have homework to do before bed and convince her to turn down the TV so I can focus on it. It takes me almost two hours to get through all of that horseshit. I work at the kitchen table. I have a math test the next day so it takes me a little more time to get ready for it. My mom is still watching TV when I’m done. I do the dishes and turn off the light in the kitchen.

“Night, Mom,” I say. I kiss the top of her head. She doesn’t say goodnight back. But I know she hears me. I know she’s going through some mental health issues right now that make interacting at a conversational level pretty overwhelming. I’ve put some thought into it and I can see how it would feel to be in her position. So I don’t push it. She’ll be up late, but that’s okay. I have a white noise machine in my room that helps me sleep.

The next day, Thomas and I are just hanging out in the parking lot during lunch. Thomas has done a lot of things to turn the tables in his favor. That’s not easy to do in this school, especially when you look the way he does. You have to remember that we’re talking about Boise, Idaho. You might already have guessed there aren’t a ton of ethnically Chinese people around, but even so, you’re probably still picturing too many. I bet there are about thirty students in this school of Asian descent. That’s out of more than thirteen-hundred total. I’m not that good at talking about race, so I’ll just say that, in general, students who aren’t white have to fight harder for respect around here. Thomas is a popular guy. Between the two of us, I’m the underdog in that sense. I’ll admit it. But he’s made his rise to prominence look super easy, when the truth is that it was never easy. You should have heard the names kids called him when we were younger. Two years ago, he almost got expelled for hitting a kid who called him a word I won’t say here. But then the administration reconvened, and after what Thomas described as a super whispery meeting, the issue was dropped. You can bet there were a couple of racist assholes in that room who would’ve loved nothing more than to send Thomas home for what he did. But sometimes it’s all about the optics, which clearly were not looking good by that point.

These days, he’s so jacked that I doubt anyone would say any kind of slur to his face. He’s pretty obsessed with his workout routines and supplements, and he’s always trying to push his protein powders and shit like that on me. I tell him I don’t like the way they taste, but they actually taste pretty good. I lie because there’s no way I can afford supplements like that, and accepting all his offers would start to feel like charity after a while. I’m sure about that. So I’m not even going to go down that road.

So Thomas and me, we’re just bullshitting about something out in the parking lot when out of nowhere he goes, “What do you and Lexie get up to? You know…in private.”

When I was younger, I always kind of thought this was something we would talk about when we got girlfriends. I had even looked forward to it. But we never do. We talk about so many other things that it has started to feel like a blank spot in our friendship that needs filling, if that makes any sense. Maybe Thomas feels the same way. Maybe that’s why he’s bringing it up now.

“We do different kinds of stuff, I guess,” I say.

“Yeah?”

“I mean, we mess around quite a bit. At her place, usually, when her parents aren’t home.”

“Stuff like what?”

I laugh sort of nervously. I can’t remember the last time I was nervous around Thomas. “Everything,” I say. “You want specifics?”

“Have you gone all the way?”

“Yeah, two or three times.”

“Two or three?”

“Three.”

“Oh.”

I pause, then say, “It hurts for her, so we have to take it slow.”

Thomas seems to think that one over for a while. “She’s tight, then.”

“Yeah. And, I mean…” I just let the words kind of drift off. I think Thomas knows what I mean. Even though Thomas and I are so close, and best friends and all that, we’re both shy about body-related stuff. It’s weird. I’ve seen the dicks of half the guys in this school, just from being in the locker room. I’ve probably spent longer than I should looking at them, if I’m completely honest. But it just so happens that Thomas and I haven’t ever had PE class together. Just by chance. I think there were a few moments when we were younger, but I didn’t let myself look. I bet I wanted to look. But I just didn’t let myself.

So I haven’t ever seen Thomas’s dick post-puberty, is what I’m trying to say, and I don’t think he’s ever seen mine. And right at this moment, I know he knows what I’m implying. It’s not that I’m humongous—just larger than average, probably, and that is not information that I’ve ever shared with him.

“You’re a bigger guy, is what you’re saying.”

We’re leaning against his dad’s old maroon Lexus and I turn so that I’m facing it. God knows why I chose today of all days to wear sweatpants. I fold my hands on the roof, all casual. I’m getting hard. The car window is warm against my chest. “That’s none of your business,” I say. I don’t say it in a serious tone.

“My business is yours and yours is mine,” he says. It’s kind of a weird thing for him to say in the moment, to be honest. Maybe he’s quoting some show we watched together but I can’t think of what it’s from.

“So what have you and Madison done?”

“I told you she’s kind of a prude.”

He has told me about that before, but I was never sure what the hell he was trying to say. “So you haven’t gone all the way?”

“Not yet,” Thomas says. There’s no kind of tone in his voice that would let me know how he feels about it.

“Have you told her you want to?”

Thomas scratches the back of his head. “I kind of suggested it a while ago.”

“And what did she say?”

“I mean, I think she’s up for it.”

“So what are you waiting for?”

He just reaches over and slaps me on the back, which is such a Thomas thing to do. “Just got to make sure it’s the right time,” he says. “I want it to be special for her.”

“I get that.”

Neither of us talks for a minute.

“So it hurts for her?” he asks.

“Yeah, but she’s still really into it.” I’m trying to reassure him. I don’t want to give him a reason to put it off, if it’s something he really wants. “She says it hurts in a good way.” It’s making me so ridiculously hard talking about this and I have no idea why. I pretend that the scenery beyond the car is super interesting, and keep my body against it.

He turns around and faces the same way as me, which makes me relax a little. “I wonder if I’m big enough that it would hurt for Madison.”

I think about it. “I mean, it kind of depends on Madison, too. How tight she is.”

“That’s true,” he says. He rubs himself against the car a little.

I realize now that he has probably turned himself around for the same reason as me. I bet he’s hard, too. I swear to god I’m about to lose my shit against this old-ass Lexus. I don’t know what to do. I’m kind of in a panic, if I’m honest. It feels really weird talking to him about this stuff. It feels so new and strange. It would be exciting if it weren’t so fucking scary. And it also feels mean to the girls, somehow. Like we’re not respecting them by talking about them this way. Suddenly, the right word comes to me: exploitative. Ms. Nolan would be proud. I’m getting things under control now. I think Thomas is, too. I don’t know if he knows what I know, or vice-versa. But I get the sense he thinks he might have crossed a line. Thank god for that.

I make up some dumb shit about needing to talk to Mrs. Anderson at the front desk before class, and start walking away from him. I bet he sees right through it, but he just lets me go without a word.

A couple hours later, we’re in his car, headed home from school. The air-conditioning isn’t working so he puts down the windows. He seems pretty frustrated with he whole air-conditioning thing, just trying the button again and again, feeling the vents. Finally, he quits trying. Normally, I don’t think he would give a shit about something like that.

“Can I just drop you off at home?” he blurts out.

“Sure,” I say. “Whatever.”

“Okay, thanks,” he says.

He’s thanking me, for that. It seems funny to me, so I laugh a little.

He looks over. “What?” He seems super agitated.

“Nothing, sorry.”

“If you have something to say, just fucking say it, Niko.”

“You seem a little tense,” I say. I know he will hate that, but I’m honestly not too sure what else to say.

“Fuck you,” he says.

I don’t say anything back. He’s being such a little bitch. I get that he’s uncomfortable about what happened at the car during lunch. I know that. But he brought the whole thing up. He’s driving like a maniac. He keeps getting on the gas, hard, advancing on the car in front of us, then finally backing off, hitting the brake so he doesn’t rear-end them. He’s acting kind of crazy.

“Please stop that,” I say.

He does. He calms down. We don’t say much to each other for the rest of the ride and he leaves me in front of my apartment building. He doesn’t slow down for the speed bumps on the way out, but hey, that’s not unusual for him.

I go inside. My mom’s not home. She might be working a rare day shift. I don’t remember what she has going on today. It’s Friday, so I’m not going to do any homework. I’m kind of annoyed that Thomas and I aren’t hanging out tonight, since I don’t have anything else to do and Friday nights are usually pretty fun. Lexie has some weed her cousin gave her. I realize I haven’t texted her for hours, and notice I have a couple of texts from her. I text her back and she doesn’t reply right away.

Thomas and I sometimes get into fights like that. This time, though, if feels different. It’s hard to describe exactly, but it feels like there’s something underneath all of this that goes deeper than usual. I wish I could wrap my head around it.

Her text comes in. “Why didn’t you answer earlier? I wanted to give you a ride to my place after school.”

“Didn’t see my phone,” I answer back. This is kind of a joke response between us, by this point. We say a lot of things in kind of an ironic way when we text. “What up?”

“Are you with Thomas?”

“No, he just dropped me off.”

Those little blue dots just bounce there for a while.

“Well why didn’t you fucking answer?”

“I swear, I just didn’t look at my phone. I should have. I’m sorry.”

There’s an even longer pause.

“I need you to pay as much attention to me as you do to Thomas.”

The words hit me hard for some reason. It the first I’m hearing about it being a problem. “Okay,” I say back. “Of course I will.” I’m trying to dispel the tension. She’s right, of course. I haven’t thought about Lexie all afternoon. I have no idea why, except that the conversation with Thomas sort of had me preoccupied. He was being pretty weird.

Anyway, seeing as Lexie and I have been together for more than six months now, I decide it’s time I grow up and recommit myself to the situation. I’ll show her how much I care for her. She doesn’t have any reason to worry.

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