Thomas and Niko in the City of Trees

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Chapter 8

So word gets around and about twenty-five people show up. Owen’s older brother works at Urban Brewing and supplied a keg, which ends up being a pretty big windfall. We all chipped in and Thomas and I went down the hill to Garden City to pick it up. Anyway, it’s getting close to ten now, and everybody’s having a good time. I’m standing in the kitchen next to Lexie, and we’re arguing with Garrett and some girl from Borah High that he brought with him.

Lexie is well into her third whisky-coke (she hates beer) and she’s the one steering this ship, so goes the phrase. “You know what, Garrett? Fine,” she says. “If you really want to believe they’re all just out there choosing to sleep in the cold, choosing to eat food out of a trash can, I guess I can’t force you to open your eyes.”

“Why the fuck else would they be out there?” he says. “They have places they can go. There’s open beds in the shelters all over town.”

“Let me tell you what you’re going to do,” she says. She’s kind of sloshing her drink at him. “You’re going to put the words ‘homeless’ and ‘mental health’ into a search and read some of the articles that come up. And then you’re going to come back to me. I’m won’t waste my breath arguing with someone who has decided not to inform himself.”

Garrett kind of scoffs. “Yeah, I’ll look it up sometime.”

“I fucking bet you will, Garrett Landon.” She’s poking him in the chest with her index finger.

I’m loving this moment. He’s looking at me now, saying, “You have anything to add to the debate, Savic?” I tell him Lexie’s saying enough for both of us. Meanwhile, the girl Garrett brought with him doesn’t seem to have much of an opinion about anything.

The so-called debate dies off and Lexie and I go into the living room. Thomas has music playing so loud from his bedroom that it fills the whole house. A few people are kind of dancing around in there. Alfred’s standing in the hall with a cup of beer in his hand, which is a sight to see, across from this girl he seems pretty interested in. Two of his other friends showed up and they’re playing Switch on the couch. Driggs and a girl named Chloe are talking to Owen and his girlfriend, this Junior whose name I don’t know. Three other guys from the football team are here. Thomas and Madison are nowhere to be found.

I get the sense already that the energy is building. The music gets turned up another tick. The air-conditioning must not be running because it’s hot as hell in here. I go back into the kitchen and open the window over the sink. I open the door to the backyard. Lexie grabs my arm and escorts me out onto the lawn. We’re just acting dumb and dancing around on the grass for a while. It’s another warm night. The light from the moon fills every inch of the backyard.

We go over and lean against the storage shed. Lexie moves in and kisses me. She finishes her drink and spins in a circle, looking around in every direction. Her eyes land back on me. “Where did Thomas and Madison go?”

“I was wondering the same thing,” I say.

She smacks my chest. “I bet they’re at it again. The floodgates are wide open now.”

“What are you talking about?”

She stops moving. She looks right at me. “Thomas didn’t tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

“They finally did it—last night. They went all the way. Madison texted me this morning. Can you fucking believe how long it took?”

“No,” I say.

“I can’t believe Thomas didn’t tell you,” she says. “Jesus, what do you guys even talk about?”

I sort of laugh. It’s a good way of hiding my surprise. “Not much, I guess.”

Lexie is already over it. She’s pulling a joint from the front pocket of her jeans. “Quick, before anyone comes out and sees us,” she says. “I didn’t bring enough to go around.”

I’m happy for the distraction, and after Lexie takes in some of it, I have a turn. I inhale just as Thomas and Madison make their grand entrance into the backyard.

They really do make a stunning couple. If Madison is a prude, then she’s a gorgeous one, and I guess some people might say Thomas is a lucky man. But the truth is, he’s not lucky at all. It’s not called luck when the universe thrusts two people together like Barbie and Ken. They were made for each other. They’ve been the on-paper darlings of that dumb school since the beginning. I would know. I was there on all those crisp Friday nights, screaming his name from the stands, fully aware of her presence on the sidelines, cheering in full uniform, standing closer to him than I ever could’ve hoped to. Jesus Christ, Lexie’s right—considering those odds, it’s amazing how long it took them to get it done.

I exhale. They come up to us and Thomas punches me in the shoulder. I just look at him, and he looks back for a second or two.

Madison reaches for the joint. “Do you mind sharing?”

“For you? Are you kidding?” Lexie hands it over.

Madison takes a small puff and just casually passes it to Thomas. I think everyone is expecting him to decline, so it’s to everyone’s surprise when he brings it to his lips and inhales. He passes it back to me, but I’ve already had a lot, so I give it back to Lexie.

I’m just looking over at him for a quick second. My head is already buzzing. “There’s a first time for everything,” I hear myself say.

He looks at me with what I’m tempted to call a twinkle in his eye. “Fuck yeah, dude.” He looks back at Madison. He keeps his eyes on her. He’s doing it because he’s supposed to.

We’re standing there with stupid grins on our faces for what feels like a long time, but it’s probably only a minute or two. Another group comes out of the house and they have weed with them too. We go over to them, and I don’t want any more, and neither do Lexie or Thomas. But Madison of all people lets Driggs hold that larger joint right up to her lips, and she inhales deeply this time. I know she’s probably riding high over this latest development with Thomas, just scaling walls and ready for whatever bold new adventure comes her way, and all that. I’m happy for her.

We go back inside and now pretty much everyone is gathered in the living room and kitchen. Thomas goes into his room and drags the speakers over so they’re facing out the door. He puts on a club music playlist and dims the lights a little. Then he picks up the coffee table and carries it back to his dad’s bedroom. Who knew he was such a good host? I spot Alfred with his three friends over by the door and they’re all looking a little drunk. Thomas comes up beside me and he’s looking at them too. “I’m going to tell them to ease up a little,” he says, then goes over and talks to them. If they’ll listen to anyone in this whole entire house, it’s Thomas.

Anyway, basically everybody starts dancing, even though some are a lot shyer about it than others at first. I’m in a tight little group with Lexie and Madison and Thomas. I’m not feeling that high, but I do notice the beat moving through me like it’s taking up actual physical space in my body. I stay fascinated with that sensation for a while.

If you want to know whether or not Thomas and I are making eye contact during all of this, the answer is yes. I remember back to that night in Winstead Park and I’m thinking about how he accused me of looking at him too much. Well, maybe I was. I don’t remember. Either way, he’s the one doing all of the looking now. He’s the one trying to catch my eye, over and over, and I let him have it a few times. I look back at him with an expression that I’m pretty sure is full of desire. I’m letting loose. I don’t have any control over it.

He asks Madison if she wants another drink and she says no. He goes to the kitchen comes back with two full cups of beer. He gives one to me. I take it from him and drink a third of it in one go. He’s buried in his for so long, I bet he downed more than half.

Man, I can burn through a lot of time dancing, especially when I’m not sober. I have to be careful, otherwise an hour or two goes by and I barely notice. A while later I look at my phone and see that it’s almost midnight. I look around and see some new faces. People have trickled in as the hours pass. Everybody’s getting comfortable now. I see people who don’t know each other having intimate conversations. Owen’s managed to balance a lampshade on his finger and he’s spinning it like a basketball. He catches my eye and gives me a big smile. Owen and I have always had a pretty nice back-and-forth. For starters, he’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever known. Like me, he has a refugee background, only his family came from Congo. Also like me, he was born here. But he’s got a big family, including an older brother and sister and a cousin or two. All of them were born over there. He’s the baby. His family’s always teaching him about these cool Congolese cultural things. My experience is pretty different from his in that way. My mom and I are all alone, and she hardly ever says anything about Bosnia. My dad is allegedly also Bosnian, but like I’ve said before, I don’t know him.

I go to the bathroom at some point and when I come out, Thomas pulls me into his dad’s room. It happens so fast, I barely know it’s him at first.

He closes the door and fucking asks me how my night’s going. The music sounds blurry, just pounding through the wall.

I don’t tell him how my night’s going. I say, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

He doesn’t even ask what I’m talking about. He might be drunk, but he knows what he’s guilty of. “I don’t have to tell you everything that happens to me,” he says.

“That’s a big deal, though.”

“I know.” He’s not looking at me anymore. “I was going to.”

“Well, you should’ve known I would hear it from Lexie if you didn’t tell me right away.”

“So what’s the big deal?”

“I wanted to hear it from you,” I say.

“Why?”

I think about it for a second. “I don’t know, I just did. I don’t have to fucking explain all of my feelings to you, Thomas.”

“Fuck you, neither do I.”

I pause again. For a quick second I sort of forget what we’re arguing about. I’m just looking at him. I don’t take my eyes off of him. I make him look at me. “Come on, Thomas, why the fuck didn’t you tell me?” I just can’t let it go. “We went and got ice cream. You had plenty of time.”

“I didn’t want to talk about it,” he says. He’s looking at me like he’s kind of lost. “I’m sorry. I should’ve told you.”

I’m just standing there. Despite being kind of drunk, I’m feeling a little vulnerable here in the middle of the room with nothing to lean up against.

Before I know it he’s pulling me into a hug. “I don’t fucking know what I’m doing,” he says. “This situation’s kind of fucked up.”

I feel his voice more than hear it. “I know,” I say. His hands start exploring my back. They move down, and then he pulls us both together at the waist. He exhales against my neck. His body feels so good up against mine that I start to ache. Jesus Christ, I want him so bad. “Thomas,” I say, careful to keep my emotions under control. “Why’d you do it with her now? Why now?”

He starts softly crying into my shoulder. I feel his body shuddering against mine. “Everything’s just so fucked up.”

We part. He’s looking at me expectantly, as if I can give him some kind of assurance right now, which I cannot. He’s looking exasperated, to be honest, and he’s still got tears in his eyes. “I don’t want to be this way,” he says.

“Well good luck changing it,” I say. I’m praying no one opens that goddamn door.

“What about you?”

That’s one big, scary question he’s asking me. Maybe it’s better that I’m drunk. Who knows what I might say? “I wish I wasn’t,” I tell him. “But I am.”

“Fucking say the word then.”

“Fuck you,” I say. “Why don’t you say it?”

For a second I think he’s about to. That would be the surprise of the century, right there, let me tell you. But then he sort of starts to break down again. “I can’t.” He’s drunker than me, I can tell. “How long did you know you were like this?” he asks.

I tell him forever.

“Me too,” he says.

Good, I’m thinking to myself. We’ve had our moment. We’ve established that through some freak coincidence, we’re both saddled with the same affliction. Would you fucking look at that.

“I’m not ready to deal with this,” he says all of a sudden.

“Neither am I.”

“They’re both out there. Right through that door.” He’s pointing at it like I don’t know what a fucking door is. Sometimes, for Thomas, it’s all about the drama.

“I know,” I say.

He goes into his dad’s bathroom and leaves the door open. I can hear him just pissing away in the toilet.

“I’m going back out there,” I tell him.

“Yeah,” he says. “Whatever, man.”

I join back up with Lexie and Madison and some of the other people they’re talking with. Someone turned down the music and not as many people are dancing. They ask me if I’ve seen Thomas and I tell them no. Madison goes to look for him. If he tells her we were talking, that’s fine. I don’t care about having my story straight anymore.

Lexie and I go into the kitchen and she makes herself another drink, and I get myself another cup of beer. A bunch of people have sort of migrated outside, so we go back out there. The music is just softly bleeding out onto the lawn. For just a second I imagine the fallout if someone were to call the cops on us. I’d probably get charged with underage drinking. I could lose my scholarship. My heart is thumping in my chest. I start planning my escape route. Since I practically grew up in this neighborhood, I know the network of backyards pretty well. I could get myself over the fence without too much trouble. I could hide out in any yard of my choosing and emerge safely onto another street. At that point I’d just casually walk home. I tell myself to calm the fuck down, and I take a good long drink.

And then, Thomas is standing on the roof of his house. He’s up there just taking it in, looking up at the big empty night sky like he’s seeing it for the first time. He’s such an idiot sometimes. I make eye contact with Alfred across the lawn. He has his little posse just standing around him. We both look back up at Thomas. I don’t think many people have noticed he’s up there yet. But then, little by little, everyone does. Someone yells, “Hey Chu. Get off that roof.”

Thomas looks down and freezes in place, like it’s a total surprise to him that he’s attracted an audience. But now that he has, of course he takes it upon himself to improvise. He spreads his arms wide. “Gather round, one and all,” he yells out. People quiet down. The soft beat of the club music is still thumping from the house. “I’d like to take this moment to thank you all for coming tonight.” He hesitates. You can tell he has no idea what he’s going to say next, but it just adds to the all that drama he’s going for. “Many of you know me for my performance on the field.” A few people cheer him on at this point and he puts up his hands, as if to say he’s not after their praise. “Well, I want you all to know that I am much more than that.” It’s strange, because in a way, he seems only barely aware of the twenty or thirty people watching him. “We all are,” he continues. “We are all much more than what we show on the outside.” At this point, Driggs shouts, “That’s fucking deep, man,” and a few more people cheer. Thank god he hasn’t lost them. Even in his drunken state, Thomas really knows how to string the crowd along. “With that in mind,” he shouts, “let’s keep this party alive all fucking night.” Everyone cheers now. Even I’m cheering him on. He disappears over the peak of the roof, and everyone just goes back to laughing and drinking and dancing on the lawn like nothing even happened.

Lexie and I walk around the house through the side yard. We find Madison standing on the front lawn, looking up into the branches of the big oak tree at its center. I end up feeling pretty stupid, because I just can’t figure out what the hell she’s doing until we get all the way over to her. She points up. The first thing I see is Thomas’s denim pant leg, and when I look up higher I can just barely make out his face sort of peering down at us, it’s so dark in that tree.

Madison says, “Thomas is up in the tree.”

“Are you coming down?” I ask him. He’s probably about ten feet above us.

“No,” he says.

“Why not?”

He’s quiet for a minute. “I like it up here.”

“Thomas,” Madison says, as loud as her breathy voice can muster, “you better come down or we’re going to have to send someone up after you.”

“Oh yeah? Who’s it going to be?” he says.

We all kind of look at each other. I put my hand on Madison’s shoulder. “He’s all yours.”

We give her a boost and she climbs up there and sits next to him on the branch. I can hear them talking and giggling about something dumb. Lexie walks away from the tree and sits down on the edge of driveway. I go over and sit next to her. She leans in and kisses me. I kiss back as best as I can, because I’m not feeling too well. We sit there for a little bit and she says some things to me that I don’t remember. I excuse myself and go into the house. The main bathroom is occupied so I use the one in Thomas’s dad’s bedroom. I go over to the toilet and throw up. After I clean myself up, I’m just standing in that dark, empty bedroom for a while.

People are always referring to one thing or another as a slippery slope. Whenever I hear that phrase, I actually picture somebody standing with their feet planted on some grassy hillside somewhere. And then I imagine that first little slip. For a long time, I had a pretty good handle on the way I felt about things in my life. I kept control over my emotions and my desires. That was before all of this. At some point in the last few weeks, I’m not sure when exactly, I let go, just a tiny bit. And now, no matter what I do, no matter how hard I try to get a foothold, I can’t stop that slide. It’s gathering momentum, in fact. When I was looking into Lexie’s eyes out on the driveway, I knew suddenly that my feelings for her, those true, romantic feelings, had started to fade. And they keep fading by the second—I can feel it happening right now.

I guess it all comes down to the permission we give ourselves. Permission to feel or act a certain way. Somewhere along the line, I gave myself permission to start seeing Thomas Chu in a different light, and in that moment, I came to know what true desire feels like. Now, I’m standing here all alone, and he’s all I want, and I can’t do a thing about it.

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