Through teary eyes, Can watched Tin’s taillights as he drove away. Sobs began to heave from his chest. He couldn’t understand how Tin could drive away from him like that. Can stumbled over to the curb and sat down to wait. Tin would come back, he felt sure of it.
When Can finally managed to get control of his emotions, he wiped his face with his shirt sleeve and looked around. The shadows from the buildings had grown long; blanketing the street with shade. He realized he had been sitting, waiting for Tin to come back, for a very long time. He stood up with a sigh and began to walk towards the bus stop.
He felt as if he were walking as slowly as Ai Good spoke, but he didn’t seem to have the energy to walk quicker. As he approached the bus stop, he could see that some vendors had set up food carts nearby. He reached into his pocket and withdrew his wallet. He quickly counted his money and approached the cart that had pork grilling on skewers. He was in line to make his order when the smell of the cooking meat reached him. His stomach contracted at the smell and he felt sick. He hurriedly stepped out of line and walked on to the bus stop. He sat on a bench to wait for the bus and turned back to look at the food cart. Many people had ordered from it and he could see them happily eating the pork. He scratched his head in puzzlement. He didn’t understand why his stomach had reacted the way it had.
Once his bus arrived, he boarded it and took a seat next a window. He watched the scenery flash by his window without really seeing it. He kept remembering the sight of Tin’s face when he pulled Can’s hand from his wrist, telling Can he did not want to be just friends. Can felt tired. More tired than he had ever felt in his life.
The sun had sat by the time he arrived home. His mother and his sister were at the table eating dinner.
“You’re late,” his mother said, tapping at his place at the table. “Hurry before it gets cold!
Can took his seat at the table and reached for a serving bowl. His stomach clenched at the sight of the food, but he knew his mother would worry if he didn’t eat. He dipped up a small portion and placed it on his plate. He forced himself to eat a bite or two, and then became aware of the silence at the table. He looked up to find them both staring at him. “What?” he asked.
“You can’t be serious!” Ai Lay exclaimed. “That tiny bit of food on your plate! Who are you?”
“Are you feeling unwell?” his mother asked.
“Uhh…maybe a bit. It was very hot today,” Can answered and then looked back at his plate. He forced himself to eat a few more bites.
He sighed in relief when they finally left the table. Can quietly dumped the rest of his dinner into the trash and cleaned up the supper mess. When he finished washing the dishes, he dried his hands and turned off the kitchen light as he walked out. His mother was watching one of her favorite Thai dramas, so he was hoping he could make it past her unnoticed. No such luck though. She paused the screen and called to him, stopping him at the foot of the stairs.
“You cleaned up and washed the dishes without being told, and without an argument! Being too hot from the sun does not cause that! Something is not right with you. What is it?”
“Ma!” Can objected, and even to his ears he could tell his voice lacked conviction. “I am just tired, and had too much sun. I am going to take a shower and go to bed. I will be better tomorrow.”
His mother nodded. “Alright, we will see how you are tomorrow.”
Can sighed and climbed the stairs up to the second floor of the apartment. At the top he had to catch his breath. He felt like there were about a million more stairs than usual. He wondered if maybe he was actually coming down with something. He was in shape and always alert. Just because Tin had told him that they weren’t going to be friends shouldn’t cause him to feel sick and weak.
After his shower he went to his room and flopped down on his bed. He could hear the faint sound of music from Ai Lay’s room. He decided to play a game on his phone. After a few minutes, he realized he was bored, and shut off the game and went to FaceBook. He looked at Tin’s page first and saw that he hadn’t updated his status. He searched his friends’ pages and found that most of them were vacationing—either with friends or family. He read their statuses and liked their pictures, and then shut off his phone. He stared at his ceiling for a bit, lost in thought.
Around 10:00, he began to fret over his promise to send Tin a ‘Sweet Dreams’ sticker every night. He didn’t know if he should send it since Tin didn’t want anything to do with him, but it was part of the deal for the loan. If he didn’t send it, he would be going back on his word—something that he couldn’t do. This internal debate lasted for about a half hour, until he finally uttered, “Oiii!” and pressed the send button on the one he had selected.
He laid his phone down next to him on his bed and waited with bated breath to see what Tin would do after receiving it. He checked his phone repeatedly and finally, about forty-five minutes later, he saw that Tin had read it. He half expected for Tin to text him back and order Can to leave him alone.
After a few tense minutes, Can lay back against his pillow-padded headboard with a small sigh. At least he knew that Tin hadn’t blocked his phone number. And even if Tin hadn’t responded to the sticker, he had read it. Can felt like these were good signs. Even if it was for no other reason, Tin was not preventing Can from honoring his debt. Can frowned slightly at this thought. He still didn’t understand why Tin was so adamant about not being Can’s friend.
He must have fallen asleep because suddenly he was dreaming about Tin’s car driving away. He wanted to run after Tin but his legs wouldn’t move. He woke up with a jolt, sweat running down his back. He wiped his hand across his face and dismissed the wetness around his eyes as sweat. He reached for the glass of water he kept next to his bed and took a big drink. The lump in his throat seemed to ease a little.
He could hear nothing but silence in the house. His mother and Ai Lay had gone to bed. He tossed and turned for a while before giving up on the idea of being able to go back to sleep. He crept out of his room and down the steps to the lower level. He went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. He didn’t see anything inside that appealed to him so he retreated to the living room. He sat on the couch and stared into the darkness for a while. He felt fidgety and claustrophobic.
He went outside and lay on the bench in front of his door. He stared at the stars circling the sky above him. He tried to push all thoughts of Tin from his mind, but the memories of their time together kept coming back to him. He shook his head in disgust at himself. He thought of how stupid it was that he was allowing the fact that Tin didn’t want to be his friend to impact him as much as it was. So what? He had lots of friends. And up until only a few months ago, he hadn’t even known that Tin existed. And then when he first met him, they had been enemies, so that time didn’t even count. It took a while for them to become close. He took a minute to calculate and realized they had only been on good terms for a very short time. All he had to do is go back to the life he had before he was close to Tin. That wasn’t so difficult, he assured himself with a smile.
He closed his eyes and allowed himself to relax a bit. He listened to the wind blowing through the trees nearby and it soothed him. He was drifting towards sleep and randomly thought how the wind sounded as if it was whispering secrets to the leaves. Whispers mixed with sighs and light moans. Suddenly his mind raced back to the night at Tin’s when he had been invited to watch a movie that they never actually got around to watching. He sat up quickly and shoved that thought out of his mind. His heart was racing and he had broken out into a sweat again.
He got up and grabbed his shoes from their regular place outside the door and pulled them on. He hurried over to the gate and let himself out. He began to run. The streets in his neighborhood were dark and quiet, so he headed towards the lights of town.
He ran all through the narrow streets filled with other people who were also not able to sleep. He passed many food carts and restaurants and the smells from them sickened him. He ran so far and so fast, his thoughts couldn’t keep up with him and he felt a bit of peace.
Hours later, as dawn was beginning to streak the sky, he arrived back home. He took his shoes off and placed them back in their regular spot and crept into the house. His dog, Gucci gave a low whine at the sight of him.
“Shh, Gucci! Ma will be up soon. She will let you out,” he said, giving the dog a scratch behind his ears. He made his way into the kitchen and downed two glassfuls of water without taking a breath. Then Can hurriedly dashed up the stairs and into his room without making a sound.
He stripped off his sweaty clothes with disgust. He knew he didn’t dare take a shower, or he would wake everyone and there would be questions. He was exhausted and looked longingly at his bed, but he knew he was too sweaty and gross to lay down on it.
He rummaged quietly through his closet and found his old sleeping bag. He hadn’t used it in years. He spread it out on the floor and slid into it. He closed his eyes and allowed his body to relax. He was aware of the smell of his own sweat, but there was nothing he could do about it.
His mind whispered to him, in Tin’s voice: “Next time, please warn me not to kiss you when you are sweating. It’s salty.”
Can rolled over onto his stomach and wrapped his arms around his head. “Shut up! Stop remembering!” he scolded himself.
Can came awake as quickly as he had fallen asleep. He checked his phone and saw that he only slept for about three hours, but it had been a deep, dreamless sleep. He found a neutral “Good Morning” sticker and sent it to Tin. He didn’t fret about it like he had the previous night. He knew that Tin had seen it and had not demanded Can to stop. It was, after all, a part of the loan agreement they had made. He put his phone down beside him and resolved not to check to see if Tin had read it. His resolve lasted less than five minutes. He opened his messages and saw that Tin had already read it. He sighed and felt his muscles relax.
He slid out of his sleeping bag and rolled it up. He put it back in his closet and then opened his bedroom door and listened. He didn’t hear anything so he knew that his mother had gone to work and Ai Lay had left for school already. He grabbed some clothes and headed for the shower.
Later, after showering and dressing for the day, he went downstairs and into the kitchen. There was a faint smell in the air from the breakfast his mother had cooked earlier. He found a note on the table telling him she had left him a plate of food in the refrigerator.
He opened the refrigerator and pulled out the plate his mother had left him. He uncovered it and his stomach shriveled at the sight. He sighed and popped it into the microwave to reheat it. At the sound of the microwave’s buzzer, he took out the plate and put it on the table. He sat down in front of it and just stared at it for a bit. He knew his aversion to food wasn’t normal. He also knew that he had to eat or he would become ill.
He scooped some of the food onto a spoon and lifted it to his mouth. The texture of the food on his tongue felt disgusting and the food tasted like cardboard, but he forced himself to eat it. It seemed to take forever for him to manage to chew it and swallow. He managed a few more spoonfuls, but had to stop when he felt the food gather in a big knot in the pit of his stomach. He was afraid it was all going to come back up.
He scraped the food left on his plate into the trash and covered it with a few wadded paper towels so no one would see it there. He rinsed his plate and then went into the living room. He sat on the couch and stared into space for a while.
Gucci wandered over and lay down at Can’s feet. The two of them stayed that way for a while. The eerie silence got the best of Can. He jumped to his feet, startling Gucci. “Come on, boy! Let’s play fetch!”
They played together for a while, and then Gucci seemed to lose interest in the game. Can got the leash and took him for a long walk. When they returned to the house, Gucci drank all the water in his bowl, plus more, after Can refilled the bowl. Gucci then circled around his favorite spot on the floor, flopped down, and fell asleep. Can watched him sleeping with a touch of envy.
Can felt restlessness creeping up on him again, so he grabbed his football and some chalk and headed to the college football field to practice. He ran a few laps around the track, and then, with the chalk, he drew spots on the track to represent where the cones would be.
He practiced his drills as the sun grew lower in the sky. By the time it was fully dark, Can had gone to the field and had been practicing shooting into the goal. When he could no longer see well enough to judge the distance, he gathered up his things and headed home.
Late in the night, when he gave up the hope of sleeping, he snuck out of the house again and ran through the town. Again he returned home as the first streaks of dawn were lighting the sky. He crept up to his bedroom and unrolled the sleeping bag on the floor, and fell immediately into a deep sleep.
He kept to this schedule for the rest of his break. His mother worried and fussed over him, but he reassured her that he was not ill. He told her that he was training hard so that when the break was over and football resumed, he would be a better player. She gave him a doubtful look but seemed to accept his explanation. She would, however, reach over and feel his forehead and check the glands in his neck from time-to-time.
His friends began arriving back at the campus in preparation for the new semester. They would call him or message him and ask him to come hang out with them. He would always answer that he couldn’t because he was too busy. In truth, he didn’t feel much like being social.
He didn’t like treating his friends that way, but the only time it really bothered him was when Pond messaged him, asking if he would help with moving Ae into Pete’s apartment. Can messaged back that he was sorry but had already made plans that he couldn’t get out of. Pond sent him Pete’s address, just in case his schedule cleared and he could make it.
He went out for a run and found himself across the street from the address Pond had given him. He hid behind a tree and looked at the building. If all he had to do was carry boxes in, he could have done it. But he knew that there would be times that his friends would take breaks and want to talk and catch up. He gave a deep sigh. He wasn’t up for talking. He crept away in the opposite direction from the apartment building. He felt overwhelmed with guilt and shame for not helping with the move. He didn’t have the energy to run, so he walked home, very slowly.
When he finally got back to his house, his mother had already arrived home from work. She and Ai Lay were happily chatting as they set the table for dinner. Can entered the house and slumped down on the couch. Gucci wandered over and lay down at Can’s feet with a sigh. He and Can had played hard together that afternoon and it was obvious that the dog was worn out. Can leaned over and stroked Gucci’s head.
His mother called him to the table, and as the two women shared stories from their day, Can pushed the food around on his plate. Whenever his mother looked in his direction, he would take a big bite of food and pretend to enjoy it. Eventually, the others finished their meal and left the table. Ai Lay excitedly left the house shortly after to spend the night at a friend’s house. Can cleaned up the dinner mess and quietly slid the uneaten contents of his plate into the trash. It was becoming his standard routine. He washed the dishes and then went upstairs to take a shower.
After his shower, he went into his room and dropped down on his bed. He opened his phone to his FaceBook app and began to watch the stories of his friends. He bolted up in shock when Pond’s story began.
“We are having a party at Ai Tin’s!” Pond shouted into the camera. Music was playing in the background and Pond panned the camera around the room. Can could see Ae and Pete sitting close to each other on the couch. Ping and Pond were lounging on the floor. Bags and containers of food were placed on the table in front of the couch. Tin was in the background, speaking to a man who was partially hidden by shadows. The only thing Can could see clearly of the man was his green pants.
Can quickly grabbed a screenshot of Tin and the man, and then exited the app and shut off his phone. He laid it next to him and he sank back against the pillows.
“ Ai Tin’s?” he whispered the question to himself. That wasn’t Tin’s house. Can had been to Tin’s house and it was a mansion. This place looked like a small apartment. Can scratched his head in confusion.
Questions buzzed around in his head. Had Tin moved? Why were Can’s friends at Tin’s place? Especially Ae! Tin and Ae had bad blood between them! When had Tin and Ping met? And most importantly, who was the man in the green pants?
Can pondered these questions until he made his head hurt. He got some headache medicine from the bathroom and called “Goodnight!” to his mother. He went back into his room and picked up his phone. No one from Tin’s party had updated their story. Can checked the clock and saw that it was around the time he usually sent Tin a ‘Sweet Dreams’ sticker. He found a basic, common one and sent it. He shut off his phone and climbed into bed. He didn’t expect to sleep, but he hoped that lying still in the dark would help his headache.
Unexpectedly he did fall asleep and soon he began to dream. He found himself walking through the hallway of a school that wasn’t familiar. He looked at the students around him and saw the uniform of the International College. He reached up to his throat and felt that he wasn’t wearing a necktie. He knew that he was in the wrong place so he began to frantically search for the exit, but he couldn’t locate one. The crowd of students walked on relentlessly and pushed him forward with them. Suddenly, up ahead, the crowd parted a bit and he could see Tin. Can tried to turn away, but the crowd was unyielding. He jumped to the side, pressing his back firmly against the wall, and allowed them to walk past him. Up ahead, he could see that Tin had also stopped and was leaning against the opposite wall. He was talking to a guy that Can couldn’t see. Can stood on his tiptoes to try to see over the heads of the students walking past him. All he could see of the other guy was his shape and his pants. The pants were green. He felt a sinking feeling in his chest. He knew that was the guy from Pond’s story.
Can watched as Tin tilted his head and gave the guy in the green pants a slow smile. Can’s stomach clenched at the sight. He knew what Tin was planning on doing since Can had seen the same smile many times before.
Can tried to scream Tin’s name to make him stop, but all that came out was a tiny moan that was drowned out by the mass of students that separated them. Can watched in dismay as Tin began to move his face closer to the guy.
Can again tried to call out, and hearing himself making no sound, he began to shove his way through the crowd. He soon realized there were too many of them and they were too strong. He was powerless to push his way through them. He took a deep breath and right before Tin’s lips made contact with the guy’s lips, Can screamed.
“Ai Tin!!! NO! Don’t kiss him!!! It’s supposed to be you and me! AI TIN!!!!!!!!! AI TIN!!!!!!!!!”
He felt a shaking on his shoulder and looked around and saw that he was in his bedroom. He was sitting upright in his bed, his covers tossed on the floor. His mother was shaking his shoulder with fear on her face.
“Cantaloupe! Wake up! You are having a bad dream,” she said, still shaking him.
Can gulped a couple of times and then nodded at her. “Yes, I was. I’m sorry I woke you.”
“You were screaming. I was afraid something had happened to you!” She reached over and felt his forehead and then checked for swelling in his glands. Things she had been doing very often lately.
“I’m fine,” he assured her. “It was just a bad dream. I can’t even remember what it was now. What did I say when I was screaming?”
His mother gave a slight shrug and then bent over to pick up the covers that were on the floor. She was spreading them back on the bed while answering, so Can could not see her face. “I don’t know. I was asleep when I heard you. I ran in here right away to see what was wrong. It was probably a visit from your old enemy. Do you remember when you were very little, how you used to have nightmares about a monster in your closet?”
“Yes, I remember. He didn’t want to be locked in there and I didn’t want to let him out,” Can answered while reaching for his glass of water on the bedside table. He could see that his hand was shaking and was glad his mother was too busy fixing his covers to notice. “I was afraid of him, but I opened the door so he could get out, and I never had that nightmare again.” He drank some of the water and then replaced the glass on his table and lay back on his pillow.
His mother spread the covers up over his chin and then folded them down again with a smile. It was a game they had played when Can was very young. She leaned over and kissed his forehead. “That is to chase away all the bad dreams! You might be too old to believe that now, but it always used to work.”
Can gave her a small smile. “I’m sure it still works.”
She walked to the door and switched off his overhead light. “If the kiss doesn’t help and a nightmare comes back, tell yourself: ‘My mother loves me, no matter what, and she always will!’”
Can gave a small laugh, “Okay, I will remember that!”
She gave a small bob with her head, “Good, because I mean that!” she said. She left the room, closing the door behind her.
Can sighed and closed his eyes. The image of Tin leaning toward the guy with the green pants flashed brightly in Can’s mind. He flipped over on his stomach and buried his face in the pillow. He had lied when he told his mother that he didn’t remember the dream. He had remembered every bit of it and it was still very vivid in his mind.
The worst part about the dream was that not only did it feel real to him when he was having it, but also that it was something that was possible to happen. It might have already happened at the party.
Can moaned into his pillow and felt a tiny bit of relief. He gathered the pillow closely around his mouth and screamed out the hurt of these thoughts. He screamed a few more times, and then to his surprise, he began to cry.
He didn’t try to stop his tears, and he thought he probably couldn’t have stopped them, even if he had tried.
He awoke the next morning surprised to realize that he had cried himself to sleep. His throat felt raw and his eyes were swollen, but he felt a bit better than he had. He even ate the breakfast his mother prepared for them. He didn’t enjoy it—the food still tasted like cardboard and felt like a knot in his stomach—but he managed to eat enough so that his mother’s face relaxed a bit while watching him.
Can felt exhausted the entire morning. He sat on the couch and barely moved a muscle. In the afternoon, Ai Lay returned home and spent what seemed like hours jabbering away at Can about her time at her friend’s house. Can couldn’t focus on what she was saying, but he found she was happy with him just nodding every once in a while.
Their mother finally interrupted Ai Lay’s monologue to announce she was going grocery shopping. She invited Ai Lay to go with her, but Ai Lay declared she was in need of a shower and ran up the stairs. Can’s mother turned her gaze at him.
Gucci chose that moment to drop his ball at Can’s feet. “Uh…I have to play with Gucci! It is my last free day before the next semester starts and I won’t have as much time to exercise him.”
“Fine! Fine, I will just go by myself,” she said as she gathered up her purse and car keys. “I hope you are finished exercising Gucci by the time I return so you can carry in the shopping bags!”
Can nodded, “We’ll be back.”
He and Gucci played fetch in the yard for a while, and then Gucci ran to the gate to signal Can it was time to go for a walk. Can shuffled into the house for the leash. As he was hooking it to Gucci’s collar, he said, “Let’s make this a short one today, okay? I don’t have much energy.”
As soon as Can opened the gate, Gucci sprang into a run, dragging a reluctant Can behind him. Gucci led them around their usual route a few times and then Can directed them towards home. He could feel Gucci’s confusion, since they usually spent much more time on their walk.
“Sorry, boy!” Can panted, “I have to be home in time to help Ma bring in the grocery bags.” It was only partially true. Even if he hadn’t been expected at home to help, he would have cut their walk short. He felt weak and tired. He reached up and felt his forehead and glands like his mother had been doing. He detected no fever or swelling.
Once they reached home, Can led Gucci into the house and put fresh water into his bowl. Then Can went back outside and lay down on the bench. He pulled out his phone, disregarding messages from his friends, and went directly to his photos. He looked at the screenshot he had made of Tin and the guy in the green pants. As soon as he saw it, his dream returned in full force. He blinked back tears that came at the memory, and turned his phone off. He didn’t want to look at it; didn’t want to even think about it. Of course his mind didn’t pay attention to him as it continued to dwell on the picture and his dream.
Luckily his mother arrived home shortly after, so he didn’t have too much time to brood on it. He got up and hurried to open the gate to let her drive into the driveway.
He closed the gate behind her, and by the time he made it to the car, she had already parked and shut off the engine. She got out of the car and showed him a large bag from a take-out restaurant.
“I thought it would be nice for us to celebrate your new semester starting,” she said with a smile. “Hurry and bring in the bags so we can eat before it gets cold!”
It took him two trips, each one with him loaded down with bags, to be finished with the groceries. He sat them down on the counter, next to his mother who was putting things away, and turned to leave the kitchen.
“Not so fast! Help me put these away!”
Can grunted but started unloading the first bag he came to.
“You know, I have been very worried about you. This sickness with no symptoms frightened me,” she said. “I even feared it could be ‘love sickness’.”
“What?!!! No! Of course not!” Can objected in a high-voice. He cleared his throat, “Why would you even think that?”
His mother visually scanned him quickly and shook her head. “You are old enough to have it. And the symptoms fit. I knew a girl when I was in school who had it. And just like you—she didn’t sleep, didn’t eat, but was always moving. Couldn’t sit still. She started to lose a lot of weight. It was very scary.”
“Well…what happened to her?” Can asked through dry lips. He had been surprised by the conversation they were having and in spite of himself, he was interested.
“I don’t know. One day she just left the village and never returned. Anyway, I am not worried about you having ‘love sickness’ now. Now I think it must be some kind of virus because I saw someone that looks like he has the same symptoms, so it must be going around your campus.”
Can was trying to feign disinterest in the ‘love sickness’ story and was again pulling cans and boxes out of the bags. “Who did you see?”
“That nice IC boy who had lunch with us. Ai Tin? That’s his name, right?”
Can froze, his hand was clutched around the last can, posed midway out of the bag.
“P’Tin! You saw P’Tin!” Ai Lay excitedly rushed into the kitchen. Can knew for her to be there so quickly, she must have been hiding nearby to avoid helping with the groceries.
Their mother handed Ai Lay the bag of take-out food. “Here, set our places at the table. We are almost done putting away the groceries, and I will tell you all about it over dinner.”
Finally Can and his mother finished putting away the groceries and joined Ai Lay at the table. Can removed the cover from his take-out tray of food to discover one of his favorite meals. As the smell of the fish, vegetables, and rice hit his nose, his stomach seized up into a tight, miserable ball. He felt his mother’s eyes on him, so he quickly opened the accompanying sauce package and poured it on his dinner. He then picked up his spoon and scooped up some of the food and placed it in his mouth.
He heard a small sigh of relief from his mother, and then she began to speak. “I had only been in the store for a few moments when he came in behind me. He recognized me and greeted me as if we were friends. He is such a sweet, well-mannered boy!”
“Was he alone?” Ai Lay asked brightly. Can watched as her face fell a bit when their mother answered her that he was.
“Yes! And that is so sad, too. His own mother should have been there with him. He told me that he had just moved away from his family home and into an apartment by himself.” She turned to Can, “Remember when I told you that I watched on Thai Dramas how difficult it is to be rich? This was the perfect example of what I meant. Your friend might have a lot of money, but his mother wasn’t there to help him buy groceries the first time.” She shook her head and took a few bites of her dinner. After a bit, she continued. “Since she wasn’t there. I helped him. Oh, I am getting ahead of myself! Ai Lay, we will be keeping the bags he gave to us.”
Ai Lay squealed and clapped her hands at the announcement; Can was shocked to hear his mother agreed. “But we don’t take charity!” he sputtered out his objection.
“It is not charity! He sent those bags to us to thank us for being so nice to him that day at lunch! You certainly weren’t! Never have I seen such a display of bad manners. And from my own son! Luckily, Ai Tin knew that your behavior was your own and not reflective of the family! Besides, it would break that poor boy’s heart for us to reject his gifts. I just know it would. He is all pale and pinched-faced, just like you are, and I didn’t want to make him feel worse. It must be an awful virus.”
Can felt a drop of sweat roll down his back. He wondered if Tin looked ill because of what Can had said to him, or because of staying up too late entertaining the man with the green pants. He felt a wave of irritation sweep through him. At that moment, Ai Lay said, “Oh! Poor P’Tin! I hope he feels better soon!”
Can scratched the spot behind his ear that always itched when he was irritated. “And where has been your concern for your brother?” he asked sharply.
“You can have concern for more than one person at a time, Cantaloupe, and I am sure Ai Lay does!” his mother said, sharply. “Now, back to my story—unless you two have lost interest?”
Ai Lay quickly assured their mother that she was all ears—dying to hear every bit of the story. Can grunted his consent.
“After I thanked him for the bags, we began to go down the first aisle of the store. He confided in me that he didn’t know how to shop for groceries, and what was worse—he doesn’t know how to cook! I took him right away to the pre-cooked food section and explained to him that all these meals needed was to be heated. As we walked along, I pointed out some of the foods that we like, and he always took my suggestions. When we got to the cleaning products section, he told me that he needed things in that area too, and like with the food, he didn’t know what to buy.” She paused and smiled, “He truly is the sweetest boy! He used his phone to take notes when I explained how to clean certain things and what products to use. After we were finished with what he needed, I went about with my shopping. I expected him to leave, but he didn’t. He walked along with me as I shopped. He even helped me put the bags into the car when I had finished.”
“He just walked with you while you shopped?” Ai Lay sounded aghast.
Their mother laughed, “Well, of course not! We chatted the entire time! He asked about you.”
Ai Lay squealed again and clasped her hands together. “He did?!!”
“Yes, and Gucci, too!” Their mother turned to look at Can. “He mentioned that you were supposed to help a friend move into an apartment, but you didn’t show up.”
“Oii!” Can uttered sharply. “That’s unfair! I was asked to help but I had already made plans. I explained that and said I couldn’t help!” Can darted his eyes away from his mother and down to the tray of food in front of him. His jaw dropped when he saw that it was empty. Somehow he had managed to eat the contents of the tray during his mother’s story, without realizing he had eaten any but the one bite he had to appease his mother.
“I hope it was something important that you had to do. Your friend needed help and you refused,” his mother scolded.
Can shook his head, “He had lots of others to help; and it would have been rude to cancel plans I had already made with another friend.”
She raised her eyebrows a bit and after a second, she nodded. “Yes, it would have been rude. I guess you did what was right.”
Soon the conversation turned to Ai Lay and how much fun she had while staying with her friend. She began to discuss the plot of a movie they had watched, and Can excused himself from the table.
He went upstairs and took a long shower. Then he went into his room and gathered up his uniform, backpack, and supplies he would need for his new classes. He dropped down on his bed and picked up his phone. It was still too early to send Tin the nightly ‘Sweet Dreams’ sticker. He put his phone on the charger and then lay back on his pillow. He stared at his ceiling and mentally counted how many supermarkets and smaller grocery stores there were between the one near his home—the one his mother shopped at—and the campus. He didn’t know the exact number, but he knew there were quite a few.
He pondered what the chances were of Tin being at the same grocery store at the same time as Can’s mother. It didn’t seem probable, yet it had happened. He closed his eyes and pictured the story his mother had told he and Ai Lay about shopping with Tin.
Ai Lay was beating on his door. “P’Can! Wake up, lazy brother! Did you forget to set your alarm? Wake up!”
Can got up from his bed and clumsily shuffled to the door and opened it. “What’s going on, Ai Lay?” he snapped at her.
“You overslept! If you don’t make it to the bus stop soon, you will have to walk to school!”
For a split second, Can thought she was pulling a prank on him, until he noticed that she was dressed in her high school uniform and saw that the hallway outside his door was filled with early morning sunlight.
He reached around and massaged the back of his neck. His head was throbbing with pain. “Okay, thanks for waking me Ai Lay,” he mumbled.
She squinted through her glasses at him. “P’Can? Are you ill? I know that Mama has been worried over you, but I didn’t think it was anything. You are acting strange! Thanking me instead of yelling at me for waking you up? This is not normal!”
Can gave her a small smile. “I am fine. Slight headache and shocked that I slept so late. Go on now! You don’t want to be late to school on my account.”
She gave him a nod, but still studied his face for a few moments before turning and darting down the stairs. “Mama left you some breakfast on the table,” she called as she reached the front door. “Bye!”
Can gathered up his uniform and took it into the bathroom. He got cleaned up and dressed for the day, and took two headache pills. He went back to his room and took his phone off the charger. He shook his head when he realized that somehow he had slept for over 12 hours. He couldn’t remember ever sleeping that long. And it hadn’t helped. He felt more tired now than he had before he slept.
He hurriedly picked a ‘Good Morning’ sticker and sent it to Tin, and then realized with shame that he had not sent a “Sweet Dreams” sticker to him the night before. He had fallen asleep before he could, but that didn’t feel like a good excuse for breaking his word. He felt overwhelmed with guilt but then brushed it aside. He doubted if Tin had even noticed.
He went to his closet and withdrew the box that he kept hidden there. He pulled some money out of the box and counted it carefully before putting it into his wallet. He replaced the box and then grabbed his phone and backpack and left the room.
He found the breakfast his mother had left him and he dumped it into the trash and rinsed the plate. He gave Gucci a good scratch behind his ears and then let himself out of the apartment. He made it to the bus stop with time to spare.
His morning classes passed in a blur. In between them, he met up with his friends and listened to their stories about what they had done over the semester break. He found, as he had with Ai Lay, if he nodded every once in a while during the stories, people were content. Sometimes, if it were a friend he was especially close with, he could see questions in their eyes about the new, quiet version of Can. When he noticed those looks, he would put on a smile or do something silly to make them laugh. He found it exhausting and by lunchtime he wanted to go home. Of course he couldn’t. He still had his afternoon classes and football practice.
He sighed as he picked out a small fruit salad and a glass of juice. He paid for them and then headed across the room to the regular table where he sat with his friends. Some of them were already there eating. He could see Ae, Pete, and Pond easily. There was another person there, seated across from Pond, but Can couldn’t see his face.
When he got closer, the hidden person stood up, looked at Can approaching, and then walked away in the opposite direction. It was Tin. Can couldn’t imagine why Tin was in the Thai Program’s canteen. Or why he had been sitting next to Ae at the table. If Can’s hands hadn’t been full, he would have scratched his head in confusion.
He sat down across from Ae and Pete, and beside Pond.
“Well…If it isn’t our friend…um, sorry, forgot your name since you have been ghosting us since semester break!” Pond said sarcastically. He peered closer at Can and drew back. “EESH…speaking of ghosts, what happened to you? You look like death!”
“Ai Pond!” Ae scolded with a shocked voice.
“Sorry, but he does!” Pond answered Ae and then looked back at Can, “Have you been ill? When you said you were busy and couldn’t help us move Ai Ae, I figured you were doing something fun. I feel bad now for resenting you while I was carrying all Ai Ae’s stuff!”
Can forced himself to swallow the bite of fruit in his mouth. “I’m not sick,” he said to Pond and then turned to Ae. “I’m sorry that I wasn’t there to help you move.”
Ae smiled, “It’s okay, Ai Can. We had enough people helping.”
“You will never guess in a million years who helped us!” Pond said, turning again to look at Can. “Ai Tin! And…I know you won’t believe this…but he is really nice once you get to know him. After we were done, he invited us to his apartment for dinner and a movie. It was great!”
Can had been in the process of taking another bite. He changed his mind, and lay down his utensils. He picked up his juice and drank a bit of it. He knew he was expected to make some kind of comment, but he didn’t know what he should say, so he said nothing. He looked at Pete and saw the boy look back on him kindly. Can sighed. He really wanted a moment alone to speak to Pete, but he had no idea how to request it.
Pete raised an eyebrow slightly and gave Can an almost indecipherable nod. “Ai Ae,” he said, turning to his boyfriend next to him, “Do you think we could get more to drink, Krab?”
Ae looked at Pete for a moment and then darted his eyes at Can for a quick glance. “Ai Pond! Come help me get refills on the drinks!”
Pond looked down at his cup. “Mine’s fine. I don’t want another.”
Ae sighed in frustration. “I need you to help me carry the other three though! Come on!”
Pond got up and followed Ae away from the table. He was grumbling. “Seems like someone as strong as you could carry three little cups!”
As soon as they were out of earshot, Pete looked at Can. He gave a small smile and a bow with his head, “Krab, Ai Can?”
Can frowned, “How did you…? Never mind. I have money to make a payment to Ai Tin. I can’t…err…I won’t be seeing him today. I was wondering if I could give you the money and you could give it to him. Will you?”
Again Pete gave a small bow with his head, “Krab! I will have to have Ai Tin’s permission to receive it though.” He pulled out his phone from his pocket. “I will send him a LINE, Krab?”
Can bit his lip, and then nodded. Pete tapped out the message and then sent it. Can was taking another bite of his lunch when he heard a phone signaling an incoming message. He looked up at Pete, who checked his phone that he had laid on the table in front of him. Pete shook his head “No”.
With a suddenly pounding heart, Can reached into his backpack and pulled out his phone. He turned it on and saw there was a new LINE from Tin. His finger was shaking as he clicked it open and read:
“The debt is owed to me, not to Ai Pete—so payments must be made to me, not to Ai Pete! Meet me in the IC Common Area after your last class. I have a late class, so get there quickly.”
Can read the message twice before turning off his phone and placing it back in his backpack. “He wants me to give him the payment. Thanks though,” Can said. He stood up and slung his backpack strap on his shoulder and then turned and walked away. He inadvertently left his lunch remains at his place at the table. He walked by Ae and Pond, as they approached the table with the drink refills, without noticing them.
“Seriously,” Pond said, “I’m worried about Ai Can! He looks terrible and is acting so odd!”
Pete smiled gently at Pond. “I have a feeling that whatever is ailing him will be fixed soon; maybe even today.”
Can wandered outside and sat on a bench. He stared at the grass in front of him and saw a raised tuft. He nudged it with the toe of his shoe. The thought of seeing Tin again filled him with anxiety. He wished Tin would have just let him give the money to Pete.
He was lost in thought when he felt someone touch his arm. He blinked and turned his head to see who it was.
“Ai Can! Seriously! What is wrong with you today? I called your name about a thousand times!” Pond was looking at him with grave concern.
“I’m okay,” Can said. He glanced down at the grass in front of him and discovered, while he had been lost in thought, he had gouged a hole with the toe of his shoe. He felt panicky seeing it. He knew it must have taken a while to do that. “Ai Pond! What time is it?” He grabbed his backpack from the bench and hastily pulled it onto his shoulder.
“It’s almost time for class. We’ll need to hurry!” Pond said.
The two of them walked as quickly as possible, since running was prohibited, to the building that held their classes.
Can and Pond didn’t share any of their early classes, but they did the two after lunch. Can sat in a stupor during them. Pond took double notes and gave Can a copy of them after their last class.
Can’s hand was shaking as he took the notes from Pond. In the LINE he had sent, Tin had told Can to hurry after his last class and Pond was making him late.
“Ai Can, will you let me take you to the emergency room? I am very concerned about you. I know you say that you are okay, but you’re not!” Pond said, blocking his path.
“I’m okay, Ai Pond. I just have something I have to do. I have to go!” Can said, and although it was against the rules, he set off on a run towards the IC Common Area where he was to meet Tin.
He slowed to a fast walk as he approached the area. He knew that Tin would be in the covered area since he hated the heat. He entered the pavilion and scanned the area quickly. He located Tin on the far side of the area. He was standing near one of the pillars, with his hands in his pockets and the strap of his backpack over one shoulder, looking at Can. When Can’s eyes met Tin’s, Can felt heat sweep across his face and his arms break out in goosebumps. He shrugged it off and hurried over to Tin.
Can had his wallet out of his pocket, and the money in his hand, as he reached Tin. “Here,” he said, offering the money to Tin.
Tin slowly removed a hand from his pocket and accepted the money. “I will admit that I was surprised that you even bothered to make a payment. You haven’t been keeping your word.”
Can’s jaw dropped in surprise. “What? Yes I have!”
Tin tilted his head and examined Can through cold eyes. “Really? I believe our agreement was for you to message me every morning…”
“I have!” Can interjected.
“A sticker is not the same thing as a message. However, I was willing to accept that change. And then…last night you didn’t even bother to send me our agreed upon ‘sweet dreams’ sticker.”
“I…well, I was…uh,” Can stammered. He didn’t want to tell Tin that he had fallen asleep shortly after sunset. Even he didn’t think that was a good enough excuse so he knew he wouldn’t be able to convince Tin.
Tin frowned. “I am not asking you to explain why; I am just informing you that you have broken your word. You owe me one.”
Can’s heart fluttered at the sight of the coldness in Tin’s eyes. Even back in the beginning, when they hated each other, Tin’s eyes had never been cold. Can gulped and then nodded.
Tin gave a slight nod and turned his head to look at the students nearby, still standing in groups and clusters. No one was moving towards their classes yet. “I was with your mother yesterday, did she tell you?”
“Yes. She said that she helped you shop for things for your new apartment. Congratulations on that, by the way,” Can mumbled.
Tin slowly turned his eyes towards Can. He gave Can a hard, cold grin that looked almost like a snarl. “I have a joke about my apartment. Would you like to hear it?” He didn’t pause long enough to allow Can to answer; instead he continued on, “That last day, I told you that I wanted to take you someplace quiet to talk—I had just signed the lease on the apartment and I wanted to show it to you. And the really funny part of this is…I had an extra key and I was going to give it to you. Isn’t that hilarious?”
Can couldn’t think of an answer for Tin, but he most assuredly did not find that ‘joke’ to be ‘hilarious’.
“In fact,” Tin continued, “The conversation that Lemon heard was me speaking to Pete about apartments. Pete offered to show me his and to see if there were any available in his building. Turns out, there was. I’ve had my first party there already. When Ae moved into Pete’s, I helped with the move and then had everyone over to my apartment for dinner and a movie. You see…I have the living room set up to be a home theater. Comfy sofas, freezing cold air conditioning…well, you know what I mean. If you had bothered to show up, you could have seen it for yourself. Of course, you were much too busy to help your friend move though, weren’t you?” He paused and then turned his full attention on Can. Staring at him, unblinking. “Your mother says that you have spent all your semester break training for football. She says you are working constantly. I guess that is what kept you from helping your friend move and kept you from honoring your word to me last night. You need to tell your ‘lovely P’No’ to give you a break. You look like shit.” And with that, Tin turned around abruptly and walked away.
Can stood there, gaping, staring at Tin’s retreating back. He hadn’t had much of a chance to speak during that meeting, but he wouldn’t have known what to say anyway. As he quickly ran over what had just happened in his mind, it suddenly occurred to him that Tin’s eyes had changed from that icy, cold look one time during his monologue. They had flashed with rage when he said “lovely P’No”. Can reached up and scratched his head. P’No? He hadn’t seen P’No since early in the semester break. He wondered if Tin had. Something about P’No had made Tin furiously angry. Can intended to find out what it was.
He left the pavilion and hurried over to the football field. He ran into the locker room and changed into his practice uniform. Then he went to find P’No.
When he got to the field, he could see the other players sitting on the bleachers or goofing around in the grass. He knew that meant that P’No, P’Champ, and P’Type must not be there yet, or they wouldn’t be acting that way. He scanned around the field to make sure, and he didn’t see his seniors anywhere. He turned his attention to the track. He felt the need to run. To run away from the memory of the coldness in Tin’s eyes when he looked at Can, and that horrible snarl he had used in place of a smile.
Can hurried over to the track and began to run. He ran until he heard the seniors calling the players over. He trotted over to join them. He made his way over to stand next to Ai Ae and Ai Good, and in an odd way felt some comfort by being in their presence.
Usually P’No was the one to plan the session, but this time he stood there quietly and allowed P’Champ to give the assignments. P’Type was nowhere to be seen, but that wasn’t new. He seldom showed up to run the practices.
P’Champ ordered everyone to run three laps. “Not you, Ai Can! We saw you hard at work when we arrived. I never thought I would say this…but the rest of you could take a lesson from Ai Can!”
Ai Ae gave Can a playful push against his shoulder as he walked away. Ai Good looked at Can with a small, puzzled frown before turning to join the others on the track. Can longed to go with them because his mind started replaying the cold look in Tin’s eyes the moment he stopped moving. But he was glad for the opportunity to speak to P’No without all the other guys around.
“P’No, have you seen Ai Tin recently?” he asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
P’No looked up from where he had been studying the grass and met Can’s eyes with a confused look. “Ai Tin? Is that the IC guy you punched in the mouth?”
Can bristled at the mention of that event, but quickly answered, “Yeah, that’s who I mean.”
P’No frowned as he thought. “Not lately. The last time I saw him was that day on the bridge when you were supposed to have lunch with me and Ai Champ but cancelled on us. Honestly, the way he looked at me that day, I thought he was going to kill me. He’s scary. Why?”
“Umm…no reason, really. Someone said he might have been at the bar the other night and I thought you might have seen him,” Can stumbled through his lie.
P’No shrugged and looked back down at the grass. “I haven’t been there for a while. Mostly stayed home during the break.”
Can looked down at the grass too. He was even more puzzled about Tin’s apparent rage after hearing that P’No hadn’t even seen him.
“Hey guys! I saved up some money during the break. Why don’t the three of us go out for dinner after practice? My treat!” P’Champ offered.
“Maybe,” P’No said quietly and then turned and walked towards the goal area. He sat down in the grass with his back towards them. P’Champ frowned and then turned to Can.
“Ai Can? How about you? Dinner?” He urged.
“No thanks P,” Can said, quietly. He turned to look at the track. “I’m not hungry.”
Can jogged over to the track and joined with the other guys who were running. Champ watched him for a moment and then turned to look at Ai No, still sitting by the goal. Champ sighed and pulled out his phone. He pushed the call button and held the phone up to his ear. After a few seconds his call was answered. He skipped the greeting and blurted out, “I need help!”
Can suddenly became aware of P’Type standing on the track. Can was running too fast to stop so he swerved around him.
“Ai Can! Stop!” P’Type demanded.
Can stopped and looked around. All of the rest of the players were on the field, practicing their drills. He hadn’t noticed they had stopped running.
“Come with me,” P’Type ordered and walked to the locker room. Can followed behind him.
When they entered the room, P’Type told Can to take a seat on the bench. P’Type grabbed a couple of bottles of water and handed one to Can.
“The last conversation we had, you told me that I am ‘straightforward’, and that fits. I am. That’s why I am not going to play the game where I ask you what’s wrong and you tell me that you are okay. I’m telling you right now, I wouldn’t believe that in a million years. So, let’s not waste my time. I have another person I have to talk to, too. Judging from the looks of you, my guess is something happened between you and your guy.”
Can stared at his senior for a moment and then mumbled, “I’m okay.”
“No, I told you, I’m not listening to that crap. Tell me what is going on. I might not be able to help, but at least you can get it out. You look like you are about to collapse under the weight of it. Now…talk!”
Can opened his mouth, with the intention of refusing, and instead found himself telling P’Type everything. Once he started, it all came out in a rush. When he was finished, he found that he was slightly out of breath. He took a drink from the bottle of water P’Type had given him earlier.
P’Type nodded, “Do you feel better now?”
Can shrugged and then realized he actually did feel a bit better. He nodded. “Still really confused about the P’No thing today though.”
P’Type smiled. “That is actually the easiest part of it. Your guy is jealous of Ai No. When he thinks about you and football, he thinks about him being near you. And since you spent all your break training for football…he thinks you were with Ai No. Your guy might even think that Ai No is the reason you said ‘no’ when he asked you to be his boyfriend.”
“P’No?!” Can asked in amazement. “That’s crazy, P!”
P’Type nodded. “Yes, jealousy is crazy. But look at you! You got jealous when you thought your guy was dating Ai Ae’s boyfriend…even though you were fairly sure that wasn’t true.”
“I’m not sure if I was actually jealous…” Can started.
“Did it feel like you had been kicked in the stomach?”
Can startled. “Yeah, I guess you could describe it that way.”
“That’s jealousy, Can.”
“You said that he told you he feels comfortable with you and that he can breathe. You never said if you feel something differently around him than you do other people. Do you?” P’Type walked over and sat next to Can on the bench.
Can shifted a bit and then scratched his head. “Yes,” he admitted, almost under his breath.
“Tell me about it,” P’Type urged.
Can sighed, “When I am near him…ugh…I don’t know…my face feels hot, I get goosebumps all over, and my stomach feels heavy…like I have to poop!”
“Do you like it?”
Can turned to P’Type with a scowl. “No! I hate it!”
P’Type nodded, “Well, then it’s a good thing that you will never feel it again.”
The scowl disappeared from Can’s face and his jaw dropped in surprise. “What do you mean?” he asked, as soon as he had recovered enough to speak.
P’Type shrugged, “You only feel that way about him and you got rid of him.” P’Type stayed quiet for a moment, letting Can absorb that fact.
Can looked down and picked at the stitching on the hem of his shorts. “I don’t hate it,” he said quietly.
“Mm…Can, the last time we talked, I told you that you were falling in love. I was wrong.”
Can’s head shot up and he searched P’Type’s face. “You were?”
P’Type nodded. “You aren’t falling in love, you already are in love. What you don’t understand is: love feels differently to everybody. For him, it is comfort and safety; for you it is a rush of physical symptoms. The main thing is that he only feels that way with you and you only feel that way with him. Now it is time for me to be straightforward. You got jealous and it hurt. You didn’t like the pain so you dumped him with some kind of idea that you could save yourself pain. But look at yourself! You are in misery, and you caused yourself this pain. He didn’t. You had a choice of pleasure or pain, and you picked pain.”
“I didn’t know…” Can said quietly, and then looked frantically at P’Type, “What should I do?”
P’Type shrugged, “I don’t know, but I do know that the one who broke it has to be the one to fix it.”
“It’s too late,” Can said sadly. He got up and walked over to his locker. He pulled out his cell phone and opened the picture app. Once he found the picture he was looking for, he took it to P’Type. “He already has someone else.”
P’Type frowned and took the phone from Can and searched the picture. He looked up at Can still wearing his frown, “Do you think he is dating the guy who delivered the food?”
“Look,” he said, handing Can back his phone and standing up so he could see the screen too. “See that tiny bit of orange and white on the guy’s sleeve? It is the same emblem as what is on the bags—which aren’t opened, proving they had just arrived. The angle of your guy’s arm looks like he is reaching for his wallet to pay the guy.”
Can stared at the picture and realized P’Type was right. He remembered his mother telling him that Tin had looked like he had the same illness as Can. When Can saw Tin earlier, he had been distracted by his cold eyes. He closed his eyes and pictured how Tin had looked. Tin did have dark circles under his eyes. If he weren’t actually dating the man in the green pants, as Can had feared, then maybe…maybe he was missing Can as much as Can was missing him!
Can looked at the clock on the wall. Tin’s class would be over in just a few minutes.
“Can!” P’Type said loudly, causing Can to startle.
Can looked at the clock again and then licked his lips nervously. He turned to P’Type and nodded. “Thanks P!” And then he ran out of the door.
Instead of taking the walkways, Can ran across the grassy areas to avoid zigzagging around other people. All of the running he had been doing lately had increased the strength in his leg muscles. He felt as if he were running faster than he ever had.
As he approached the pavilion in the IC Common Area, he saw several students leaving the area. Can knew that the late class was over and Tin would be leaving. He wondered if Tin still parked his car at the Science buildings’ parking lot, and if he should go there, or go to the pavilion. He chose the pavilion because it was closer.
He slowed to a quick walk as he neared the pavilion. When he entered, it took a second for his eyes to adjust to the dim interior, but when they did, he spotted Tin immediately. He was standing with a group of students with his back to Can.
Can scurried quickly along the back wall until he came to a pillar that was behind Tin. He wasn’t close enough to hear them, so he knew that Tin wouldn’t be able to hear him as he struggled to slow his breathing from the run.
He began to feel panicky. He wondered what he could say; how he could fix it—or even if it could be fixed. He knew that he had hurt Tin, and Tin had already been hurt a lot in his life by people he trusted. He began to doubt if Tin could ever forgive him.
He reached up to scratch his head and realized that he held his phone in his other hand. He turned it on and saw the picture of Tin and the food delivery man was still on the screen. Can remembered how he had felt when he thought Tin was dating the man in the green pants, and he remembered his horrible nightmare after it. The relationship between Tin and the man in the green pants had been all in Can’s mind, but one day Tin could get into a real relationship. Can knew that even if he failed, he had to try.
He knew what he could do. He bit his lip at the thought. He did owe Tin one since he missed the night before. Tin said so.
He opened up Tin’s messenger page and scrolled through the stickers. He looked for one in particular that had caught his eye before. He scrolled too fast and passed it so he had to go back. He peeked around the pillar and made sure that Tin was still there, and then looked back at his phone. The sticker was a cartoon drawing of a little bunny. His head was tossed back and he was crying. In his front paws, he was holding a red heart with a jagged rip in the middle, separating it into two pieces.
Can’s hand shook as he stretched out his finger. He drew his finger back quickly. What seemed like a thousand “What if” scenarios flashed through his mind. Not many of them were pleasant. He didn’t think he could send it. And, as if his finger had a mind of its own, it clicked on the sticker and then hit the ‘Send’ button. Can was shocked by what he had done. He quickly peeked around the pillar to see what Tin would do when he received it.
Tin pulled his phone from his pocket and said something to the people around him. They all nodded or waved and walked away. When Tin was alone, he bent his head slightly to look down at his phone to see Can’s message.
Can could hear the whooshing of blood in his ears and the strength of his racing heartbeat felt as if it were causing him to sway on his feet. He watched Tin’s back to see what he would do. And Tin did…nothing. His back remained as straight as ever. He kept his head slightly bent. There wasn’t the slightest change in him. He stayed that way for what seemed like hours, and then his right arm moved slightly.
The phone in Can’s hand began to ring. Can saw Tin spin, his phone held up to his ear, and look in his direction. Can looked at his phone in dismay and saw he had an incoming call from Tin. The ringing stopped and he looked up to find Tin storming over to where Can was partially hidden behind the pillar.
“Is this some kind of sick joke?” Tin growled as he approached Can. Can could see Tin’s eyes and they were no longer cold like they had been earlier. Now they blazed with the same kind of anger and hatred that they used to have back in the days when he and Can would fight whenever they were near each other.
Can gulped and shook his head ‘no’. “You always say I’m stupid, and I am! I didn’t know! You said ‘comfortable’ but I’m not. P’Type says it’s different for everybody, but I didn’t know that! And he said that when I felt pain I got scared and threw away the pleasure and kept the pain. And I did, because I am stupid!” He said it so rapidly that some of the words ran out together, and even he could barely understand what he said.
“Slow down, you’re babbling. Who said what?” Tin stood a few feet away from Can with a scowl on his face.
Can shook his head, “It doesn’t matter…I just…I just wanted to say that…I’m sorry.”
Tin stepped nearer and tilted his head to look closer at Can. His eyes were still filled with hate and his lips twisted into something resembling a smile. Can knew it wasn’t.
Tin reached out and ran his fingers lightly down Can’s cheek and then he stroked his thumb across Can’s lips. “That is a magical word, ‘sorry’, isn’t it? Once it is spoken, then poof! no more pain. It’s like every bad thing is erased.”
“No, I know it’s not. It’s just…it’s all I have to give,” Can said, looking up into Tin’s eyes. For a split second, Can could have sworn that the anger in Tin’s eyes disappeared. But almost as fast, it was back and it was intensified. Although the caressing of Can’s cheek and Tin’s voice were soft and gentle, the rage in Tin’s eyes was not.
“It’s really not, you know. You could give me something else,” Tin said, his voice deceptively soft and gentle. “I asked you the last time. I think it is only fair if you ask me this time.”
Can looked down at the ground. He felt his face grow hot, but he nodded. Tin had a point.
Suddenly, the days of not eating or sleeping properly, combined with the turmoil he was feeling facing Tin’s rage, hit Can hard. He felt dizzy and thought he might faint. He grabbed hold of Tin’s waist to steady himself. The spell passed as quickly as it came, so he took a deep breath and looked up. “Would you be my…” was as far as he got before Tin’ put his hand over Can’s mouth. Can blinked in surprise and focused on Tin. The rage had left his eyes.
“Shh. Don’t!” Tin said, and then surprised Can by burying his face in the crook of Can’s neck. “I was setting you up. I was going to tell you ‘no’, so I could hurt you. I’m terrible!”
Can slid his hand from Tin’s waist to his back. He rubbed it gently. “No, you’re not. I hurt you and you are angry about it. You have every right to be. I hope you know though that I didn’t do it to be hurtful. I was confused,” Can paused and peeked around to make sure no one else could hear, he whispered, “And I was scared.”
Tin raised his head from Can’s shoulder and wiped at his eyes. “I thought you said you weren’t afraid of me.”
“I’m not afraid of you! I know I can kick your ass!” Can retorted with a small smile and toss of his head.
Tin laughed softly, “Just because I never punched you back does not mean you can kick my ass!”
Can reached over and stroked Tin’s cheek, “I did get jealous of you. And it hurt. That pain scared me and that’s why I did what I did. P’Type had a talk with me a few minutes ago and made me realize that I was the one who was causing all this pain, by thinking I was running away from it.”
Tin cupped Can’s face between his hands. “You told me before if I tell you something, you will believe it. I want you to believe me on this: If you give me your heart, I will guard it with my life. I swear I will never give you a reason to worry or doubt my love and devotion to you.”
Can sighed, “I can’t give you my heart, Ai Tin. I already did. I’m not exactly sure when it happened, or even how, but you have it. It’s yours now.”
Tin leaned near Can’s cheek. Can jerked away and saw the hurt flash immediately in Tin’s eyes. “I’m sweaty. You don’t like…”
Tin grinned and kissed Can’s cheek, his forehead, his other cheek, and the tip of his nose. “I don’t care about sweat! You are here; that’s all that matters,” he whispered. He used his thumb to stroke the edge of Can’s bottom lip while looking into Can’s eyes. “Will you be my boyfriend?”
Can could see the fear in Tin’s eyes, and he felt his heart clinch up in his chest. The last time Tin asked him that question it had ended so badly. Can nodded, “Yes, I will.”
Tin studied Can’s eyes for a moment or two. “You’re sure?”
Can smiled at him. “Positive.”
Tin leaned in quickly and captured Can’s lips with his own. Instead of a sweet, gentle kiss, it was urgent and hungry. Can matched it with his response. He clung tightly to Tin for support; he felt as if his bones were melting. He felt his face grow hot and goosebumps broke out all over his body. He flashed upon the memory of his telling P’Type that he hated this feeling. He must have been out of his mind!
Tin broke the kiss and Can whined in his throat. Tin grinned at Can and slid his hand down Can’s arm. He took Can’s phone from his hand. “I want to take a picture,” he said as he turned on the phone. He leaned in closer to Can.
Instead of looking at the phone in Tin’s hand, Can looked at Tin. Tin looked away from the phone and turned his head a bit to look at Can. They stared into each other’s eyes for a moment and then they began to grin. That’s when Tin took the picture.
Tin pulled the phone back towards them and they looked at the picture. Even if the picture had been of two strangers, Can would have known instantly that the people in the picture were in love.
“It’s our first picture as an official couple,” Tin said, with a hint of pride in his voice. “I think it is perfect!”
He sent the picture to himself and then handed Can back his phone. He grinned at Can, “I think I am going to be a demanding boyfriend,” he confessed.
“I know,” Can answered with a grin.
Tin laughed, “And I expect that you will fight me every step of the way! But I hope that you won’t mind this—I don’t want us to be a secret couple. I want to tell everyone that you’re mine!”
Can thought about it for a moment and then shrugged, “Okay, but maybe not our families. I will tell mine soon, but, you said your brother…”
“Agree!” Tin nodded. “I don’t want him anywhere near you.”
Tin tilted Can’s face up to meet his gaze. “I got the apartment for us. I want you to move in with me.”
Can scoffed, “Ai Tin! You know I can’t afford to pay rent!”
“It doesn’t matter! I can…”
Can pushed away from him with a scowl, “Ai Tin…” he said warningly.
“Okay! Okay! But I am giving you the key I have for you. I hope you won’t leave me there alone all the time by myself. Promise you’ll come there!”
Can nodded, “I promise.”
“And…could you come sometimes when I’m not there and be there when I get home? I’ve never had someone waiting at home to see me,” Tin bit his lip as he studied Can’s face.
“Yes, I will,” Can agreed and his heart raced when he saw the look of happiness on Tin’s face.
“I saved a couple of drawers for you, and half the closet, too!” Tin exclaimed happily.
Can frowned in puzzlement. “You did? Why?”
“Because in my heart, it has always been and will always be our apartment.”
“But…I mean…we haven’t even seen each other since you moved in.”
To Can’s surprise, Tin blushed and looked away. He sighed. “Okay, when Ae moved into Pete’s apartment, I felt sure you would come to help. I was going to agree to be friends with you, because I couldn’t deal without seeing you anymore. I was willing to accept anything. And…I had been fixing up the apartment like how I thought you might like it. I was hoping you would come hang out there and maybe, in time, you might decide you wanted more than just a friendship with me.”
Can felt a huge wave of remorse hit him at Tin’s words. “Honestly, I swear, I am so, so sorry I caused all this mess.”
Tin pulled him into a tight embrace. “It’s over now,” he whispered, stroking Can’s back soothingly.
“Are you going to get revenge on me?”
“No! Of course not! You were scared. If I had known that, I would have never been angry with you. And I wouldn’t have pushed you so hard. When I found out you were jealous, I was excited and thought we would be together. I hope from now on, if you ever feel scared about something, you let me know. It’s my job to protect you from things that scare you.”
Can buried his face in the crook of Tin’s neck the way that Tin had done to him earlier. He closed his eyes and breathed in the wonderful scent of Tin’s skin. He exhaled all the stress away. When he relaxed all his muscles, his stomach gave out a loud rumble.
Tin laughed and reached around and stroked Can’s tummy. “My Can! Always hungry!”
Can shook his head, “I haven’t been hungry for almost two weeks.”
“Well, you are now! Let’s go get your stuff from the football locker room and go back to the apartment. You can shower while I make dinner for you.”
“You don’t know how to cook,” Can mumbled against Tin’s neck.
Tin laughed, “Ah! Your mother told you that, huh? It’s true, I don’t, but I can read! She said all the things I bought were basically heat and eat. And after we eat, I want you to spend the night.”
Can raised his face from Tin’s neck to look at his face. He felt his own face turning red as the heat flooded his cheeks, “Ai Tin, I…”
“Hush!” Tin scolded with a smile. “We’ve already talked about that on movie night. I know that you aren’t ready and I wasn’t meaning anything like that. I just want to hold you while you sleep and wake up in the morning next to you.”
Can closed his mouth and gave a small nod. He decided that he would wait until after dinner to tell Tin he had changed his mind about that, too.
Tin studied Can’s face for a moment and then frowned with a sigh. “I swore to myself I wouldn’t ask, but I have to know. Where were you when Ae moved? Were you practicing football with P’No?”
Can shook his head. “I didn’t see P’No at all during the break. I practiced football alone, but I didn’t spend that much time on it. Most days, and nights too, I was running. It was the only thing that helped me. But…the day of Ae’s move, I was home. I felt bad about not helping, but I just couldn’t be around people.”
“Wait a minute…are you saying that you ran at night? Alone?” Tin stared at Can in horror.
“Yeah. I couldn’t sleep. My mind just kept…” Can paused and shook his head. “It helped.”
Tin pulled Can into a tight embrace. “Please promise me that you won’t ever do that again. If something ever happened to you…”
“It didn’t! I’m fine!”
“Okay, I promise.”
Tin sighed in relief but didn’t loosen his death grip on Can. “So, it wasn’t P’No?”
“No! Nothing to do with him. He’s just a friend, that’s all,” Can assured him.
“And your other seniors?”
“Just friends, Ai Tin! You are the only one I care about. The only one I ever have.”
Tin slowly released him. He nodded, “Okay then, let’s go get your stuff.”
Tin took hold of Can’s wrist and began to walk toward the doorway of the pavilion, pulling Can along behind him. He stopped and turned back to look at Can. He took Can’s phone from his hand and said, “I’ll keep this for you,” and put it in his pocket alongside his own phone. Then he took Can’s hand into his own and interlaced their fingers. “We are going to walk together from now on,” he said.
Can nodded because he couldn’t speak. The feel of their palms pressed together and their fingers intertwined filled him with such happiness that it left him speechless. He could feel the grin on his face and knew he probably looked ridiculous, but he couldn’t stop smiling. Tin glanced in his direction and his smile matched the one Can imagined was on his own face. Together they walked to the Science buildings’ parking lot. They only dropped hands long enough to get into Tin’s car. Once they were settled, they joined hands again with their arms resting on the console between them.
They rode in silence for a moment or two, but then Can asked a question that had been buzzing around in his mind. “How did you end up shopping with my mom?”
Tin barked out a quick laugh. “I was hoping you wouldn’t ask.” He shook his head and grinned. “The entire day of the move, I was certain you would show up at any moment. When you didn’t, I felt extremely let down. The next day, I drove around your neighborhood about a million times, hoping to see you. When I saw your mom’s car, I followed it, planning on ‘accidentally’ running into you. I stayed back a bit, so I didn’t realize that your mom was alone until after I had entered the store.” Tin shrugged, “I had to say something, so I asked her if she would help me shop. She was very sweet and she helped me. I told her that I wanted things that you liked, because if you liked them, I knew I would.”
Can’s forehead pulled into a small frown. “Oh? She said she showed you things our family liked.”
Tin shook his head, “No, things that you liked. Plus she told me lots of stories about you.” He grinned, “You would hate to hear what I know about you. And it really did do some good because the kitchen at our apartment is now filled with foods you love.”
Can puzzled on this information for a bit. He knew that somehow his mother knew how he felt about Tin. He didn’t know how she knew, but he knew she knew.
Tin turned into the football field’s parking lot and found a place near the front to park. He shut off the car and reached to open his door.
“Oh! Are you going in too?” Can asked, reaching for the door handle on his side.
“Of course! I can’t wait to meet all your friends and hear you introduce me as your boyfriend! I especially want to meet P’Type. I feel like I owe him a debt.”
“I guess that means that my football team will be the first to hear about us.”
“Yes—does that matter?”
Can sighed as he got out of the car. He walked around to meet Tin who had also exited the car. “Not really, but I just feel like it should be Ai Pete who hears it first. I mean, he was the one who helped pass messages between us.”
Tin nodded. “I think he has known about us for a while. It is right that he should be the first to hear about us. At least he will know he was right about his suspicions. How about we send him our picture as a way to announce?” Tin pulled out his phone, and when Can nodded his consent, Tin hastily tapped out the message. Before sending it, he showed it to Can. Below their picture, Tin had written: “We wanted you to be the first to know that we are officially together now!”
“Mm,” Can said with a nod. Tin looked down at his phone and pressed the send button. Can stared at the door of the locker room with a frown and bit his lower lip.
Tin noticed and stroked his arm. “What is it? Is something wrong?”
“I was thinking how it was only a short time ago that I ran out of that door on my way to you, and not knowing if you would take me back,” Can said. He frantically grabbed at Tin’s tie and pulled his face down a bit and gave him a fast, hard kiss. He released Tin’s tie and threw his arms around Tin’s waist.
Tin gave him a huge smile. “That’s the first time you’ve ever done that!”
Can beamed at Tin, “I’m just so grateful that we have our happy ending!”
Tin chuckled and leaned down to kiss Can’s cheek. He whispered, “Oh no, Cantaloupe, this is not the end, it is only the beginning!”