Thomas and Niko in the City of Trees

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Chapter 7

Look, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have done it. I’m just saying maybe we should have been more realistic about what we knew was going to happen. My mind is still just doing backflips over the whole thing.

Would you believe it if I told you Thomas and I slept peacefully in his bed all night long with two feet separating us, the same as we’ve done for twelve whole years? Well, that’s exactly what we did. Picture him and me, best friends just keeping that childhood arrangement alive for yet another night like nothing happened. I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried. And when I woke up in the morning, and everything was just so goddamn familiar, it actually took me a second or two to remember. Once I did, and I looked over at him and he was still sleeping, I had this crazy, warm feeling wash over me. I guess you could call it euphoria. I felt a strong desire to reach out then and put my arms around him, but of course I didn’t actually do it. All of this has been such an unpredictable shitshow, who knows what the result of that would have been.

I stood there beside his bed for a good minute or two, though. I was trying to decide if I should leave without waking him up, which I normally wouldn’t have any qualms about. This time I decided it might not be the best idea. I said his name softly and he rolled over and looked up at me.

“I’m going to work now,” was what I said.

He gave me this kind of shy smile that make me feel really good about everything and said, “See you later on.”

Well, now it’s back to reality, and I’m standing in this dumb little booth, and I need a little time to process all of this, you know? And I know he does too, no matter what he says, no matter what kind of one-eighty he’s made in the last couple of days.

The good news is that he’s texting me back—he was the first to say something, actually. It’s not like I was really worried about that, though, since he seems to have completely moved past his whole doom-and-gloom phase. It helps me get through the day, along with the fact that my prison cell is now air-conditioned.

The first thing he says is, “How did you sleep?”

“I slept well,” I text back.

“No regrets,” he says.

“No regrets.”

We’re just sort of texting about nothing for a while. And then I say, “We need to keep this under control though.”

His reply comes in right way. “No fucking shit.” A pause. “We can’t just go and do that shit whenever we want.”

I type the words “The girls” and then just stare at my screen trying to figure out how the hell I’m going to finish that thought. And then I give up and hit send. I’ll let him deal with it.

“I know,” is all he texts back.

Things go quiet between us for a while. As I’m serving cars I keep opening our message thread and it just looks so sad and pathetic they way we left it. We’re the ones who are pathetic, is what I’m trying to say. A while later, determined, I pick my phone back up and type, “You know it counts as cheating right?” But I only put the words down on the screen. I don’t send them. I look at them for a little while, and then I erase them. Half an hour later, I write them again. Then I erase them again. I’m the craziest piece of shit. I wish I understood myself better sometimes.

It’s getting close to four. I’m just cleaning up some stuff and throwing a few rags into the laundry bag when that beat-up old Lexus just grinds up and lurches into a parking space nearby. Thomas gets out and he’s wearing the red variety of his famous sleeveless shirt. He wipes the sweat from his forehead and comes over.

“Did you work out without me?” I say.

“No. I thought we could, if you want to.” He folds his arms on the little order counter. “Hey, so I was thinking we should actually quit doing that other stuff, for now.”

“I agree,” I say. And It’s true. I do agree. He’s exactly right. Look at all of this other shit we have going on right now. That kind of behavior is totally incompatible with either of our situations, and we both know it.

“Like, actually fucking control ourselves,” he continues, “and not just say we will.”

“We’ve been friends for years,” I say. “So I mean, we know what it’s supposed to look like, just being regular friends who don’t do that stuff. We’ll go back to how it was before.”

“Exactly,” he says. “Man, I knew you would think of the perfect way to say it.”

A straggler pulls up in a white Buick. It’s a sweet old lady with a mile-long order. Thomas waits in his car until I’m done. I close up the place and go over to his car. I get in and shove some stuff in the back seat. We go back to his place and run through our whole routine in the garage. It feels so good to be working out with him again, I’m telling you. And when we finish and he pushes his protein on me, I accept that shit. I’m like a new man.

I know this might be hard to believe, but we go the whole rest of the week just being normal friends, like before. The thing about Thomas and me is that we care about our friendship more than anything. I’m hanging out with Lexie too, on and off, and things are going pretty good for us. Damn, that girl loves to smoke weed. You should see her. Now that summer has arrived, she’s really relaxing about a lot of things. She gets a job as a cashier at a store called Lazy Afternoon that mostly sells crafts and shit like that. She tells me she can do it with her hands behind her back.

Thomas’s job starts next week. He’s a shop assistant to a mechanic in West Downtown. He did it last summer, too. He’s all over that kind of stuff.

My mom starts showing up around the house a lot again. She’s brought a bad mood back with her. I mostly avoid her, but sometimes I get the sense that I need to talk to her and make sure that nothing too serious is going on. It’s Saturday afternoon and we’re both at home. She’s in the living room and I sit down on the chair next to her. I turn down the TV and she slowly turns to look at me.

“Everything okay?” I say.

She’s just kind of reading my face for a while. “When was your high school graduation?”

“A couple weeks ago,” I say.

“But you just finished.”

“I know,” I say. “They do it before. But it’s contingent on passing your finals.” She never even asked me how my finals went. She’s always taking it for granted that I do well on that stuff.

“Why didn’t you tell me, Niko?”

“It’s not a big deal,” I say. This is going to be a bad one, I can already tell.

“Of course it’s a big deal,” she says. She’s still putting on the calm front. “A mother should go to her own son’s graduation ceremony. Don’t you think so?”

I’m already feeling pretty exasperated. I wish there was something I could do to keep my nerves under control in these situations. “I don’t have an opinion on it,” I say calmly.

“Of course you do,” she tells me. “I’m sure everyone else’s mom was there. I’m sure it made you feel terrible that I wasn’t there.”

She’s wrong. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t have gone at all. The only reason I attended and walked is because all my friends did, and it would have looked super weird to them if I didn’t show up. The point is, I didn’t want to be there, so why would I care if I my mom showed up or not? I take a breath. “If I wanted you to be there, I would have asked you to come.” I know right after I say it that I didn’t choose the right wording. I can be so goddamn stupid sometimes.

“How could you do that?” she says. She’s not even looking at me. She’s lying on the couch, looking at the wall. “How could you go and do that, and not even think to invite me?”

It just doesn’t even make sense, what she’s saying right now. The school sent out invitations to every parent. I remember exactly what the envelope looked like when it came in the mail. I brought it in from the mailbox and set it on the kitchen table. I left it on the top of the stack. I know she saw it. I know she opened it.

You have to understand, I didn’t bring it up with her at the time because of the way all of those conversations have gone in the past. First she’ll run through a series of excuses, and then, at the very end, say some shit like, “But no, really, I should go,” and then I’ll say okay, and then she’ll just start going through all those excuses again, and finally I’ll say something like, “You know what, mom? It’s really okay with me if you can’t make it. I promise, it’s okay if you don’t want to go.” I’ll dress it up for her. I’ll get really convincing about it. Because I know that will make her feel much better in the end about not going.

She’s always doing this stuff. She’s always saying things that don’t quite work with reality. I’m so sick of it.

“If you cared about me at all, you would have invited me,” she says.

“I care, Mom.” She’s getting me pretty worked up inside. “You know I care.”

“Times like this make me wonder,” she says.

That’s it. She’s triggering me like you wouldn’t believe, saying something like that. I do her the biggest favor I possibly can in that moment: I get up and leave. I stomp back to my room like a child and throw some shit in my backpack, then unplug my phone from the wall. I walk right out the door without saying another word to her.

The thing is, if I had stuck around, I probably would’ve ended up saying something hurtful. I can’t do that to her. She just doesn’t have the tools to handle it, if that makes sense. Every now and then I catch myself thinking that if I do talk back, it’s because she deserves it. But the truth is that no matter what kind of dumb shit she says to me, the woman has clothed and fed me for years. We’ve lived in that dumpy little two-bedroom apartment my whole life. Can you believe that? I’ve always had a place to call home, because of her. In return, during moments when she’s being like this, the least I can do is not mouth off to her. No matter how tempting that can be, it’s always better to walk away, to refrain from saying some dumb shit of my own that I know I will later regret. I don’t always succeed, but today I pulled it off.

I’m walking pretty quick, winding my way out of the apartment complex. I get to Cole and just stand there on the corner for a while. Man, I can’t even tell you the number of times in my life I’ve stood on this street without a plan in the world. The maple trees lining it are kind of gently shuffling around in the warm breeze. The leaves are still new and practically glow this intense green. It’s such a beautiful sight.

I walk absentmindedly to Thomas’s house. His dad left this morning on a business trip to Salt Lake. I imagine he’ll be down there for a few days. Alfred’s lying down in the middle of the front lawn, looking up at his phone. He’s wearing these bright red Jordans that he finally bought last month after saving up for half a year. He’s so proud of them.

“What are you up to?” I say as I pass by.

“Reading,” he says. He has about a million books on his phone, and he always has his nose in one of them. I hate reading books on a screen but it seems to work out fine for him.

I go into Thomas’s room and he’s taking a nap. I decide to let him sleep but as I’m leaving he starts moving around and I hear his deep, gravelly voice go, “I’m up, I’m up.” He sits up. He’s got this worn-out white t-shirt on from when he was smaller. That shit barely fits him anymore. He slowly props himself agains the headboard and gives me kind of a blank stare. “What’s up?”

“Not much,” I say. “My mom and I had a thing. I had to get out of there.”

“Fuck, man,” he says. “I’m sorry to hear that. Are you okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” I say. The truth is, now that I’m around him again, I don’t really care about anything else. “You look tired.”

He shrugs. “I ran around the reserve earlier.”

I sit down on his desk chair. “What did you get up to last night?”

“Not too much. Just hung out with Madison.” He crawls out from under the covers and lies on his back. His running shorts are riding way up his leg. “So what did you and your mom fight about?”

“I don’t know, man. She’s just giving me shit about how she missed the graduation ceremony.”

He looks right at me. “How does that work? She’s the one who didn’t fucking show up. Remember how pissed you were about that?”

“I guess so,” I say. I don’t remember being that pissed but I guess Thomas remembers it differently.

“And she’s the one giving you shit?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “She just said some stuff about it, so I got out of there.”

He takes a minute to think about it. He sort of scoffs and looks off to the side. “Shit, man.” He gets up. I’m still sitting on his desk chair and I roll myself out of the way as he goes over to his dresser. He changes his shirt and pants right in front of me. For a quick moment he’s down to just his underwear. I could probably count on one hand the number of times he’s done that before. Once he’s done he says, “How about we go get something?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, Delsa’s or some shit like that?”

“Sure,” I say. Thomas loves his ice cream, that’s for sure. He always has this low-key way of bringing it up, but I bet he’s been thinking about that little parlor ever since he ran by it earlier.

We walk, since it’s not too far away. You should see the inside of this place. It’s got the classic red and white booths, mint green paint all over the walls, the whole thing. We go up to the counter and I order first. As I’m taking out my card, Thomas grabs me by the shoulder and shoves me out out the way. By the time I recover he’s already said his order and he’s taking out his own card to pay for both of us. I just stand there, staring at him for a second. The whole thing is coming across as a pretty baller move. The good kind of baller, I mean. I get this weird little rush. He knows how to look out for me. That’s for sure.

I say thanks as we’re sitting down.

He’s just casually spooning that ice cream into his mouth. He says, “You deserve it,” and just leaves it at that. He has this goofy smile on his face.

We get back to his place and he takes a shower. Then we’re just sitting in the living room doing nothing and he says, “Maybe we should invite some people over, seeing as my dad’s out of town.”

“Sure,” I say. “The girls?”

“And a few more?”

“Sure.”

We start texting people, and before we know it, about ten or twelve people say they’ll show up. We tell everyone to be here around eight. I’m actually looking forward to it quite a bit. My attitude has changed since the last day of school. Just because I didn’t specifically plan on seeing anyone again doesn’t mean I’m going out of my way to avoid them. I still have an entire summer to kill in this town, so I might as well light that shit up.

“The best part is, the neighbor’s gone too.”

“He is?”

Thomas nods. “His daughter came to pick him up for the rest of the weekend. We can be as loud as we want.”

All right, I’m actually getting excited for this thing. “What about Alfred?” I say.

He shrugs and thinks about it for a minute. “Freddie’s old enough to learn how to party, don’t you think?” He gets up and goes over to the screen door. “Hey butthole,” he says. “We’re having a party. Anyone you want to invite?”

I can’t hear what Alfred says. I bet he’s super into it, though. A while later, he comes in and watches Thomas and me play Mario Kart. “Can two of my friends come?” he says.

“That’s what I fucking said.”

“Hell yes.” The kid looks so excited. He’s back on his phone, texting away.

All I know is, moments like this are never as simple as they seem on the surface. Part of the reason Thomas is being so nice is because if Alfred is involved, there’s no way he’ll ever tell, purely out of gratitude. It’s a genius move. But I’ll bet you a million dollars that Thomas isn’t just passing over the moment unmoved, either. His baby brother is finally old enough to join in the fun. That’s actually a big deal in the whole scheme of things, if you stop and think about it.

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