Thomas and Niko in the City of Trees

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Chapter 6

For the whole entire weekend, Lexie and I hang out. And I mean it—other than going home to sleep, we’re around each other all the time. When you’re a couple, it’s expected that you spend a lot of time together, and I’m feeling pretty good about making up for my recent absence. We have a lot of fun just smoking up, avoiding her parents, and doing some other things I won’t mention here. It’s the first time since Thomas quit talking to me that I’ve managed to forget about him.

Lexie is golden. After Thomas, she’s my best friend in the world. Her insanely long hair, the way she throws her hips back and forth in an absent kind of way whenever music’s playing, all of it is just so enchanting. She’ll do the hip thing with her back to me, just going through her jewelry box as I’m lying there on her bed. The sunlight pours in through her open window after passing through the tree branches outside. It makes this complicated, shifting pattern on the floor that I could stare at for hours on end.

She passes Madison’s updates along to me. Madison says he’s just going through some stuff and he’ll be fine. I don’t ask for any more information than what Lexie shares with me.

It’s Sunday night when we finally decide we’ll do our own thing for a while. I’ve kind of been itching to check in with my mom, anyway. I get home around seven and she’s not there. She usually doesn’t leave early for work, so I text her. She texts back and says she’s running some errands first. She normally spends a lot more time at home than this. I’m starting to wonder if she might be seeing someone. Don’t ask me if that would be a good thing or a bad thing. I have no idea.

I kill time for an hour or two. It gets dark outside. It starts raining, of all things, but I guess it’s technically still spring. I didn’t even notice the clouds coming in.

I’m just lying there on the couch, about to put something on TV. I’m not really feeling much of anything, if I’m honest. All of a sudden my phone goes off, and I look at the screen and it’s a text from Alfred Chu. It says: “Thomas is messed up. He won’t come out of his room. He’s been in there all weekend.”

“Madison said he was fine,” I text back.

Alfred texts: “I don’t know. He seems messed up to me. Our dad just brings food in to him and that’s it. He’s got our dad thinking he’s sick but I think that’s some bullshit.”

What the hell. I call him up. His greeting is just comically deep over the phone.

“Alfred, buddy,” I say, “he really doesn’t want to talk to me right now.”

“He doesn’t want to talk to anyone. But I know he’ll talk to you. I know he will, if you try.”

“I doubt it. We’re uh…we’re having some problems right now.”

“Please, Niko. Something’s wrong with him.”

Shit, the kid sounds serious. “Try to put him on,” I say.

“He’ll kill me if I open his door right now. He’ll kill me if he ever finds out we talked. Can you please just come over? I’m scared, Niko. I’m scared he might do something.”

I can hear the kid choking up a little. Fuck. “I’m coming over,” I say.

It’s insanely warm outside, but it’s raining kind of hard. On the way over, I’m just thinking about all the things I could possibly say, but I can only come up with one thing. It’s not so much something to say, but just an attitude. I’m not going to let him take this friendship away. I’ll do anything, say anything I can to make sure he doesn’t.

I’m pretty soaked by the time I arrive at the Chu household. I let myself in and take off my shoes and go straight back to his bedroom. I open the door and find him in bed, on his phone. I think he’s pretty surprised to see me standing there. I’m dripping wet, too, which sort of makes the whole thing appear more dramatic than I want it to be. He doesn’t exactly act like he wants me to leave. He doesn’t do much of anything at first, except turn so he’s facing away from me. I roll his desk chair over so I’m kind of sitting next to him. He has his back turned to me. He pulls his blanket up so it’s almost covering his head. His hair is greasy, but he’s looking all right.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” he says. His voice sounds calm, but I have no clue what the hell he’s really thinking.

My problem is that I can’t think of what to say, now that the moment has finally come. It feels like a lot is at stake, and I’m suddenly wondering if this was a terrible idea after all. “Don’t you miss hanging out?” I say.

I just let the question rest there for a while. I hope he’ll say something back, but a long time goes by and he doesn’t say anything.

“Fuck, Thomas, I miss you so much.”

At this point, you need to understand that I’m not afraid to lay it all on the line. I’m feeling like I don’t have a lot to lose. Just knowing he’s right here, listening to everything I’m saying…it’s all starting to be too much for me. I know he can hear me getting emotional. “I’ll do anything…” I’m looking at his big muscly shoulder, peeking up above the blanket. Goddamn. “I just need you to talk. Please.”

“You know why we’re not hanging out.” He rolls onto his back. I’m surprised to see him teary-eyed. “Fuck, man, you know what all of this means. I know it’s not just me. It’s both of us.”

I’m feeling like it would be so easy for me to say the wrong thing. But I want to be clear with him. “Are we still pretending it didn’t happen?”

He shakes his head. “No.”

“Then what are we doing?”

“I don’t know.” He slings an arm over his face. “I’m just feeling so fucking guilty, man.” He’s crying a little. “Later that night, that thing I did to you when I was drunk. I remember. That was so fucked up.”

“Don’t feel guilty for that,” I say. “You didn’t know what the fuck you were doing. I’m not worried about it.”

“I knew exactly what I was doing,” he says. “I was going after what I wanted.”

He’s making me super uncomfortable now. It’s not that I don’t feel the same way. I’m just not ready to be so bold about it all.

“I’m asking because I need to know,” he says slowly. “When did you realize you had feelings for me?”

I’ll tell you this much: I don’t think I’ve ever been so caught off guard by one single question in my whole life. I’m just looking at him, alarmed, with nothing to say. Do I actually have feelings for Thomas? God, my mind is such a messed up place, I’m telling you. The proof is all there. Of course I do. I envy him now, because he’s able to say aloud something I’ve barely ever let myself think about.

He’s still waiting for an answer, and I still don’t know what to say. I think about it as hard as I can. “When you were on top of me the other night,” I say. “That’s when I knew.” I can hardly believe the words are mine.

He’s looking at me now in the strangest way, like he doesn’t know me very well. I’m freaked out by the expression on his face, to be honest. But he seems to compose himself a little. He looks back up at the ceiling. “Well I knew a long time before that.”

I’m pretty shocked to hear him say it.

“That’s how I know it’s never going away,” he says. “The older we get, the more I feel it.” He turns to me again. “Now do you see why we can’t hang out anymore?”

“No.” I just say it. “No I don’t, Thomas. Fuck, now that it’s all out in the open, don’t you think that’ll make things easier?”

He thinks on it a minute. “I don’t know.”

“What’s our other option? Never seeing each other again? Come on,” I say. “That’s so fucking stupid.” I stop talking and he’s just looking at me. His face is so beautiful. I know what he’s trying to get me to say. I know I’m not the best a being honest with myself, and he can see right through it. He won’t look away. He wants me to say I’ve always known. Well, fuck you, Thomas Chu. I’m not going to do it.

“I thought I could handle not seeing you,” he says.

I look him up and down. “And now look at you. Fuck. What a mess.”

“Shut the fuck up,” he says. But he can’t hide his smile.

“Let’s just do our best,” I say. “We’ll see how things go.” The ambiguity of the whole statement is hilarious, I know, but what else am I supposed to say?

“Let’s hang tomorrow,” he says. “You have work, right?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I’ll come by after.”

“Cool,” he says.

I’ll tell you what, the next day, I’ve got all the time in the world to think about things, sweating all day in that coffee shack. It’s called “Spill the Beans” if you can even believe that horseshit. Jesus Christ. To make matters worse, it kept raining most of the night. Now it’s sunny again and humid as hell. Marlon texts to tell me he’ll have the window unit in tomorrow. I’m not sure I’ll make it.

The rush is mostly over by ten, and it will only come back a little after lunch, so I’m standing there thinking about what we talked about the night before. I guess Thomas’s main worry is that something will happen again. It seems sort of unlikely to me. He has a lot of self-control, at least for most things, and so do I. I’m looking at pictures of him on my phone. I do that a lot. He’s one of the most photogenic people I know. There’s one from when he was swimming with his cousins last summer. He has his shirt off. I just stare at it for a while. I don’t know what to do. I decide it would be a good idea right about now to stop looking at those pictures.

Outside of the shack, it’s just full-on summer. The puddles have mostly evaporated away. I’m situated in a part of town where a lot of refugees have moved in over the years. You get to see all kinds of people going in and out of the Winco, just getting their groceries. Even though I complain about this job a lot, it’s not like it’s the worst way to spend the day.

I get off work at four and go straight to Thomas’s place. Alfred is sitting on the couch in the living room. I can tell by the way he’s looking at me that things are already much better. The way that kid was talking the night before…all I can says is I’m just happy he doesn’t have to worry anymore. I go into Thomas’s room. He’s at his desk reading about some band on Wikipedia. I lie down on his bed. It’s really pretty crazy how normal everything feels again.

“How did finals go?” I say.

“Don’t ask me,” he says. “I don’t fucking know.”

“You think you did okay, though?”

He turns his chair around. “I think I did all right. Probably would’ve been a lot better with your help, but I didn’t fuck them up too bad.”

I don’t know why I feel so relieved. They’re not my grades. I’m such a dumbass sometimes. “Can you believe it’s all over?” I say.

“Not really,” he says. ”Doesn’t feel the way I thought I would.”

“I know.”

“I don’t miss it yet,” he says. “Not at all.”

“You thought you were going to miss that shithole already?”

He grins. “No. I guess I’m just surprised. Feels almost like I never will.” He’s just sitting there shaking his head. “Feels kind of far away now.”

“I know,” I say. “The great world is unfurling before us.” I have a habit of just throwing out shit that sounds like something I would read in one of Ms. Nolan’s books. Sometimes it’s a direct quote, but usually it’s just a string of bullshit like that. Thomas used to think it was annoying, but he’s been getting a little more artsy these days, and I think he’s starting to like it.

“Fuck yeah, man,” he says.

He puts on music and we chat about nothing while we wait for rush hour to pass. He’s always got some new shit playing. I’ve learned to be careful when I ask what’s on. I swear, this time all I ask is what language they’re singing in—that’s it. And you know what he does? He spends the next twenty minutes lecturing me on how this entire country is fucked because nobody listens to the voice of Hamed Sinno.

Eventually, we get in his car and drive around town. The air-conditioning still isn’t fixed, but that’s fine because I’d almost always rather have the windows down. Later on in June or July it’ll start getting up around a hundred degrees some days. Even then, I’ll be happy to just sweat it out with the windows down.

We’re driving though Garden City toward downtown and they’ve got all this new housing going up right and left, all along Chinden. There’s a guy sort of dangling from some scaffolding and man, I bet he has a great view from up there. I bet he’s happy he’s not stuck in a little prison cell serving coffee all day.

Anyway, we get to the onramp and Thomas jams his foot down, and the big engine just roars and the car whisks forward. It’s not all that dramatic at first, but by the time second gear gives up we’re going ninety miles an hour down the center lane of the connector. The little city skyline drifts in on the left and we start going around the curve. Thomas spots a cop at the bottom of the ramp and gets on the brakes so hard that we’re skidding, tires screaming, down that center lane. The antilock doesn’t work anymore, so Thomas is just fighting with the wheel, trying to keep the car in a straight line. Don’t ask me how that cop didn’t see us. I’ll never know.

That night, I decide to stay over at his place. We’re just lying there side by side on his bed like we normally do. I don’t know what the hell to say about what we’re doing. It’s like, we’re really liking being in each other’s company, and that’s all there is to say about it. Man, we walked around the streets and the parks for hours earlier, just talking and kind of smiling at each other every now and then. Sometimes we would look at each other and not look away for a long time. This new honesty between us, it’s making everything feel so fresh and new and exciting. It just feels so good to know that we both know, and we’re both okay with it.

“I want to change my answer,” I say. I don’t give him any context.

He looks over.

“I knew a long time ago, too.”

He looks back up at the ceiling.

“Oh,” he says. “That.”

We just keep lying there for a while. He turns on his side so he’s facing me. “What are we going to do, Niko?”

I turn so that I’m facing him, too. His eyes just fixate on me. “Remember last summer,” I say, “when we were swimming at the pond in Veterans Park? Garrett and Owen and some of the other guys were there.”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“You started working out a lot more around that time. Anyway, I hadn’t seen you with a shirt off for a while. So I guess I was just noticing how you were getting bigger, and I…” I pause.

He’s got the biggest grin on his face. “You what?”

I just can’t believe I’m actually telling him. “I had to excuse myself.”

“Where did you go?”

“To the bathroom. You know, to take care of business.”

He laughs so hard I’m worried we’ll wake his dad up. His dad goes to work super early in the morning. He quiets down pretty fast, and we just lie there for a while longer. “I wish we could’ve talked about this stuff a long time ago,” he says.

“Me too.”

It’s late. I figure it’s about time I get ready for bed, so I say something to that effect. He kind of clears his throat and makes a big deal about getting ready first. I don’t know what he’s up to. I guess he just wants to show me that the moment’s over. This is where we draw the line, and all that. He gets back, and then I go to the bathroom and brush my teeth. (That’s right, I keep a toothbrush over here. I’ve done it for years.)

Anyway, I go back into his bedroom and he’s just standing there in the middle of the floor. He looks up at me as I come in and tells me to close the door. I do so and then I go up to him. It feels like the most natural thing in the world, facing him, looking right into his eyes. We’re so similar sometimes, him and me. We’re after all the same things.

He leans in and I feel his mouth against mine. I just start kissing him, pressing my lips into his again and again. I’m full of this crazy kind of desire that I never knew existed in me before this moment. His lips are so much softer than I expected. He’s feeling my cheek with his hand, running it down the side of my neck, over my shoulder.

He has a little bit of stubble on his upper lip. Man, that’s such a turn on, let me tell you. He’s pressing his whole body into mine, and suddenly I can’t hold my ground against him. I’m not sure if he knows it but I’m losing my balance. I can’t stop kissing him. I won’t. I stumble backward, and he’s still against me, and my back just fucking slams into the wall.

We stop then. We’re holding still, just breathing in and out, standing in each other’s arms, waiting to see if we woke his dad up. After half a minute or so, it seems like we’re in the clear. There’s not a lot hiding the fact that we’re both hard. We’re each wearing these basketball shorts that leave very little to the imagination. We part and I’m just looking down at what’s going on between us.

“Want to take care of this?” he says under his breath.

I nod.

He lays an old shirt out on his bed and we both stand over it. I’m looking over at him the whole entire time, and I realize he’s just about the same size I am. I manage to keep mine mostly on the shirt, but Thomas just can’t handle himself and most of his shoots right past it, landing on the blanket. We do that shit two more times, and then we finally go to sleep.

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