Thomas and Niko in the City of Trees

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Chapter 3

So it’s a couple hours later and I’m just sitting there on Lexie’s bed, and she’s pulling on my arm a little, which is usually a sign that she wants some attention from me, and all I can think about is how this whole thing with Thomas will go down.

Like, will he calm down about the whole stupid thing after a day or two, and then we can just go back to being normal friends? I really hope so. He’s been mad at me before, but on all of those occasions, I’ve pretty much known why. It’s usually related to me being an asshole in one way or another. This time, even though I’m thinking in through, even though I’m trying to be as honest with myself as I possibly can, I just can’t see how I could have acted any differently. If I am partly at fault, then I don’t know what to say sorry for. I don’t even really know what the hell went wrong. It is quite the quandary, as you can see.

“What’s wrong?” she says.

She really does care about me. I’m not sure what to say, so I keep it simple. “Thomas is pissed at me.”

“Why?” She looks kind of bored, to be perfectly honest with you.

“We had a moment at lunch, out by his car.”

“A moment?”

“Yeah, like, he asked about you and me, and we talked about it a little, and it got weird.”

She no longer looks bored. “What did you tell him about us?”

“He just asked if we had done it before. Like, all-the-way done it.”


“I hope you don’t mind. I told him we did.”

She’s playing with this little plastic toy horse her grandpa gave her before he died. She keeps turning it over in her hands. “I don’t mind.”

“Anyway, he got a little weird about it. I think he’s nervous about stuff with him and Madison.”

“She keeps asking him about it.”

I turn to her. “She does?”

“Yeah. Why, what did he tell you?”

“He wants to,” I say. “He says he’s waiting for the right time.”

“Yeah. I think she’s waiting for that, too. I bet they’re both nervous.”

“They deserve each other,” I say. I think this is a pretty clever thing to say, but Lexie doesn’t even seem to hear it.

She looks out the window. “I miss my grandma already. I wish she could’ve stayed longer.”

“Maybe I’ll meet her next time,” I say. She seems happy that I said it.

We go to the window and crack it open and smoke up. I’m feeling kind of blurry and her skin starts feeling really soft as we lie back down on the bed. I keep touching her skin, especially her pale collarbone, because it just feels so nice and soft.

“Niko, if I ever see you smoking again, I swear to god…”

The air is thick. I can see the individual particles of it swimming around the room. I can feel them bouncing off my skin. My shirt is off.

“What do you call what we just did?”

“That’s different.” She’s just talking, but the words sound like notes in a song. “That’s from the earth. No chemicals.”

We’re not wearing any clothes.

It’s the next morning and I wake up in my own bed. Lexie tried to get me to stay since her parents are both away, but I was kind of worried about my mom. It turns out she was fine, but lately I keep getting this feeling like something’s about to go wrong.

I text Thomas to see if he’ll come over and help me look at her car. He says he’ll come right over. Thomas is really good for stuff like that.

“It’s still a good car,” he says when he opens the hood. It’s already hot and he’s wearing a shirt without any sleeves. This will sound so weird, but I like that his armpit hair looks exactly the same as the hair on his head: black and straight. I think it just brings everything about him together, in a way. I know that’s a weird thing to say, but it’s true. He’s looking extra big this morning. I bet he got up and worked out. I’m kind of proud of him for doing that on a Saturday. He drags his toolbox along the ground. “I’m fucking terrified about finals,” he says as he looks down at the engine. “What year is this thing? Ninety-six?”


“Cranks but doesn’t start? I can already tell you it needs a new distributor cap. That’s about the only thing that goes wrong on old Civics. At least ones of this vintage.”

I like that he used the word “vintage.” I ask him how much.

“Probably about a hundred and fifty.” He looks at me for a second. “Want to split it?”

“What the fuck?” I say. “It’s my mom’s car. Why the fuck are you going to pay for it?”

“Just offering,” he says in kind of a slow, quiet voice. He pauses. He’s just standing there looking down at the engine. “I thought maybe you could help me study. Then I would pay half.”

“I’ll help you study. But you’re not paying for shit. I’ll be picking up more shifts in two weeks. Marlon says he can give me thirty hours a week this summer. I’ll get by until then, easy.”

It seems like I’ve convinced him. We get in his car and drive to the auto parts store.

“Yesterday, that was fucked up,” he says completely out of nowhere as we turn right on Fairview. “Sorry I got mad about it.”

“It’s fine,” I say.

“You and Lexie hang out last night?”

I told him we smoked up.

“And you didn’t call me after?”

“You were being a little bitch,” I tell him. He laughs at that.

We pick up the part. I pay with my debit card. Thomas says if it doesn’t fix the problem we can always bring it back, which makes me relax about the whole thing quite a bit. Well, we get back to the car and it takes Thomas about half an hour, and I’m just standing there like an idiot holding his tools for him.

I would take all his finals for him if I could.

The car starts right up. It has a nasty exhaust leak that makes it sound awful, but that’s not new. All I can think is how happy my mom will be that she doesn’t have to walk to work. I think it makes her feel a lot more confident when she can drive around town like a normal person.

I don’t want to invite Thomas up, but his hands are all dirty from fixing the car. So of course I have to. He comes in after me, and I can tell by the dumbass way he’s stepping around that he’s feeling pretty weird about it. He hardly ever comes into my house.

While he’s washing his hands I go knock on my mom’s bedroom door. She says I can come in. She’s sitting up in bed, on her phone. She actually looks fairly rested.

“Me and Thomas fixed your car,” I say.

Her face lights up. I don’t remember the last time she looked so happy. “How did you do that?”

“New distributor, or something. Thomas knows all about it.”

“How much did it cost?”

“It’s crazy,” I tell her. “The part was only twenty bucks.” I don’t even hesitate telling her the wrong amount. I’m sure you can see why it’s for the best.

She insists on paying me back. She’s actually pretty adamant about it. She has me go over to her dresser and take twenty dollars from her wallet. I’m surprised she has cash in there, to be honest. I can tell she’s feeling good about the car, and about paying me back. She gives me a big hug and squeezes me tight for a long time. I start feeling emotional out of nowhere, but luckily I don’t tear up or anything. I tell her to try and take it easy, and then Thomas and I leave the apartment.

Thomas’s dad has a really good job out at Micron. That’s why they moved here. It was right before his brother Alfred was born. They could have a better house if they wanted to, but his family has always been very modest in the way they live. His dad would probably still be driving the old Lexus if Thomas hadn’t gotten his license. And the car he upgraded to is a Honda Odyssey from 2008. That’s a minivan. Some people just don’t need to drive a nice car to be happy. It’s a sign of modesty, and I have a lot of respect for that. I actually aspire to be that way quite a bit, even though some of my actions might indicate otherwise.

Anyway, we head over to Thomas’s house. There’s a whole pizza left over from the night before in the fridge. Thomas drags it out of there and we just sit at the kitchen table eating it. Alfred comes out of his room and sits down with us. Their dad is in the backyard mowing the lawn. He used to only mow the half that was on their side of the duplex. He and the neighbor used to fight about where the borderline was and there would occasionally be this dumb strip of long grass going down the middle of the yard which neither of them would admit was theirs to mow. But the neighbor is getting old, and he fell down last Christmas, and it took eighteen hours for someone to find him and help him up. Ever since then, Thomas’s dad just mows the whole thing and doesn’t say a word.

“What do you guys want to do today?” Alfred asks.

“Nothing with you, dumbass,” says Thomas.

I think it’s nice that Alfred wants to hang out with us, but I don’t feel like butting in. “When do you want to study for finals?” I say.

Thomas looks down at the table without blinking. “Not on a Saturday, that’s when.”

“Let’s go walk around downtown, then.”

I’m kind of surprised when he perks up at this idea. “Maybe the slide’s open,” he says.

We’re getting ready to leave and Alfred’s just sitting there on the couch. “You coming or not?” I say.

“Sure,” he says. He’s super happy to be invited, I can tell.

We’re in the car and Alfred is kicking the back of Thomas’s seat, which really pisses him off. “This is why I don’t fucking let you come,” Thomas says.

Alfred stops kicking. The windows are down. The traffic on Fairview is just creeping along for a while. There are some faint waves of heat coming up off the parking lots, distorting the light. That’s the kind of thing you only notice at the beginning of the hot season. It’s all new again.

We take the onramp to the 184 and warm wind rushes in through the windows. Thomas puts on Kendrick and we sing along. Alfred is pretending he knows the words, which I secretly think is the greatest fucking thing. We’re downtown in a matter of about eight minutes and Thomas pulls into a garage off of Main.

We walk over to see if the slide is open, but it’s not. Thomas doesn’t seem too disappointed by it. They have the fountains going again though, over in the Grove. Alfred walks a few paces behind us, like he’s our pet or something. We’re just standing there watching little kids play in the fountain, and Thomas’s hand brushes mine. He instantly jerks it upwards like he’s about to smack me with it, and looks over with a threatening face. It’s all a joke. Thomas buys us all ice cream. I don’t feel that guilty about accepting this time because I know his dad puts quite a bit of money on his debit card every month, and anyway, it’s just a one-time thing. We stand there, all of us really still, eating our ice cream on the corner of 10th and Main. The cars just float by like they aren’t even on the way to anywhere. Thomas wants to see if the Record Exchange has this new album he’s waiting for, so we go over there. He picks it up. Outside, he holds it high above his head. He’s still wearing that sleeveless shirt. He does a victory lap halfway down the block and then comes back.

That night, it’s just Thomas and me in his room. It’s probably around nine o’clock. His door is closed.

“We should text the girls,” he says.

“Sure,” I say. I had already been going back and forth a little with Lexie, so I ask if she wants to come by. I like how I don’t even specify that I mean Thomas’s place, she just assumes. It’s been that way for a long time now. It turns out she and Madison are already together. They’ve started doing that quite a bit lately, hanging out on their own. I’m glad being friends is working out so well for them. They say they’ll be over in about half an hour.

Thomas puts on the record he bought earlier. He’s been getting really into music lately. A few months ago he dragged his dad’s old stereo out of storage in the garage and set it up in his room. It was the kind of move that has hipster vibes written all over it, but I don’t think Thomas could ever actually become a hipster.

The music sounds kind of experimental to me and there aren’t a lot of lyrics, but one of the songs has this nice beat that gets us both up off the bed for some reason. Thomas is a better dancer than he would want anyone to believe. At all the school dances he pretends like he’s just messing around, doing it ironically or some shit like that, but the truth is that he is naturally very good at it. I bet he practices alone in his room.

Anyway, suddenly we’re kind of dancing and just fucking around in the open space between the foot of his bed and his desk. I get really brave and pretend like I’m grinding up on him. I know that will mess with him quite a bit. He laughs and shoves me toward the bed, hard enough that I pretty much fall onto it. All I can say is, everything is happening really fast. I go to get up, but he pounces on me, holding me down. He’s just wearing basketball shorts and I can feel his junk through them, against my hip. I kind of squirm around, but he’s stronger than me and I know that if he really wants to keep me there, he can. I only use maybe half my strength to try and get out of it, because really, why would I even try at that point?

I’m on my stomach. He has his arms wrapped around my chest. It comes to me as this wave of realization. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve always kind of known. Maybe this is how it feels to suppress something. Maybe it’s like when people have those recovered memories that I’ve read about, where your mind suddenly acknowledges something hiding in your subconscious—some shit like that.

The fact is: I want Thomas Chu, my best friend in the world, to keep holding himself close to me like this. His body is so sweaty and hot that it’s pretty much steaming, and that heat is all around me now. The music is still going. I can feel his dick pressing against me more clearly now, because it’s hard. Thomas is hard. And so am I, and I’m already about to lose my shit. What the fuck is wrong with me?

He’s moving against me. I move against him. That’s all it takes. He makes a weird sound like he’s about to say something but he can’t get the words out, and then I feel something wet against my back. That’s right. And guess what? I immediately jizz inside my pants.

The song is still going. Neither of us moves right away. We just lie there breathing in and out, and he’s still on top of me. Then he stands up really fast. He goes over to the stereo and I hear a banging sound. The music stops.

“Fuck man,” he says. “What the fuck.” He’s angry. I can hear it in his voice.

That’s all he says. I can’t get him to say a word while we clean ourselves up. His jizz is on the back of my shirt. I tell him I’m going to need another one and he goes over and tears open a dresser drawer. He throws the new shirt in my direction without looking at me. Then he’s just standing there holding a fresh pair of underwear.

Suddenly he says, “Can you fucking get out of here while I change?”

“Give me a pair,” I say. “I’ll change in the bathroom.”

“Why do you fucking need to change?”

He wants me to spell it out for him. I swear to god, Thomas can be so stupid sometimes. I just look at him. I wait for him to look me in the eyes. When he does, I say, “Because I came too, you idiot.” I state it clearly. I’m not going to be the one who’s afraid right now.

He’s got the strangest look I’ve ever seen on his face. I don’t know if I would call it relief, or shock, or disgust. Whatever it is, I guess it’s a good indication of how fucked up everything is right now.

I’m standing there in the bathroom, just giving myself a good, long look in the mirror. I change, and when I pull my pants back up around my waist, I find myself face to face with this intricate red Chinese knot, hanging from a hook on the door. Thomas’s mom put them up all over the house years ago.

I start crying. I keep it really quiet. I don’t make a sound. It goes on for a minute or two, and then I stop. The girls will be over soon. Thomas is really good at putting on a face, and so am I. I go back to his room. I lay myself down on his bed and stay still. He’s over at his window, staring out at the backyard. He turns back after a while and looks at me.

“Not a fucking word,” he says.

“Are you kidding? Never.”

We nod at each other. It feels like the kind of pact that can only be made between good friends. We’ve gone through a lot of shit together, Thomas and me, and through it all our friendship has stayed intact. What the hell am I saying—it has stayed strong. Gotten stronger. Strong enough to get through another day, even in the face of this. I’m sure about that.

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