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The Selected Road

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On a Friday, halfway through afternoon practice, Win notices sitting in the stands a woman wearing a white dress with her hands clasped on top of a large lilac purse. She’s off to the side by herself, removed from the usual cluster of students who turn up to watch swim practices. She’s studying all the swimmers with keen interest, but no one more than Team.

Win doesn’t say anything to Dean about her, since she’s not causing a disturbance, but her presence makes his shoulders tense.

He’s seen photos of Team’s family before, and—after a trip to his locker to double-check some of those photos on his phone—he’s sure she’s Team’s mother.

In the month since Team drove them out to meet his parents, Team claims that he’s only been in contact with his mother a handful of times. He says they’re both scrupulously avoiding touchy subjects, so it sounds to Win like Team hasn’t told her why he left without introducing them to Win.

Which might explain why she’s decided to show up unannounced.

(Presumably unannounced.)

Dean nudges him with his elbow and asks, “What’re you looking at?”

Win shakes his head. “Nothing,” he says. To keep Dean from suspecting anything more, Win locks onto Team instead and focuses the way he should. He’s satisfied to see that Team’s sorted out his hand movements from the start of the drill, lunging faster and more cleanly down the lane. Determined not to let his attention slip back toward the stands again, Win zeroes in on Mew and immediately finds three reasons to go over and be a pain.

He senses someone tracking his every step.

When practice ends thirty minutes later, Win sneaks a glance at the stands, but Team’s mother isn’t there.

He’s still thinking about her as he pulls his club jacket on, wondering why she’s on campus and if she’s outside now waiting to see her son. Under normal circumstances, Win would ask Team what he wants to do for dinner, but he can’t bring himself to pretend that he didn’t see anything. Team hasn’t said a word about his mother paying him a visit, so he must not have any idea she’s here. And if that’s the case, Win has to tell him.

As he’s steeling himself to do just that, Team pinches the back of Win’s jacket and tugs. “Hia,” he says, “I’m hungry.”

The guys with lockers on either side of Win’s shake their heads.

Win ignores them both and turns around to face Team, bracing his back on his closed locker and twisting the hem of Team’s shirt around his fingers. “Can’t have that,” Win says with a smile. “What do you want to eat?”

Team says, “Barbecue,” with absolute certainty. Even his eyes glaze over.

Amused, Win takes a piece of Team’s hair between his fingers and says, “The way your pupils just dilated, I think I’m jealous.”

Team rolls his eyes. “Cut it out.” He pushes Win’s hand away with the slightest amount of force, his lips curving.

To Win’s left, Low says, “It reeks over here,” and fans the air around him.

To Win’s right, Gin says, “Wow, thanks for inviting me, guys, but I’m going to go back to my dorm to eat by myself,“ and closes his locker with a sigh.

Tone flat, Win tells Gin, “Sounds like fun,” and then gives Low a face as he slings his arm around Team’s neck. He leads the way out of the locker room with a farewell shouted to the other members over his shoulder, and Team masks a laugh under his breath.

The sun went down during practice, but the cloying heat hasn’t lessened much. Team asks if Win wants to go to one of the restaurants they already know, and Win suggests they find somewhere new. While Team runs a search on his phone, Win steers him around obstructions and potential tripping hazards. Campus seems to be deserted, but only once they’re in the parking lot and there’s no sign of Team’s mother does Win slip his arm free and reach into his bag for his keys.

Behind them, a woman says, “Teerayu, wait,” and Win freezes.

Later, Win will only remember this day in fragments. He’ll forget everything leading up to the moment he saw Team’s mother for the first time, and then what he’ll remember after that will be divided by gaps. The influence of worry, he’ll think.

(Fear.)

“You were afraid, hia?”

“Yeah.”

Staring at Team’s mother in the moments before Team says a word to her, Win thinks about risk.

He’ll be graduating from university soon, and the nuances of Team’s training will be completely out of Win’s hands. Their chapter of swimming together will reach an official end, and without that commonality between them, their dynamic will evolve into something else. Win knows it, and he thinks Team knows it. Whether it’ll be a good evolution or not is yet to be seen, and Team’s family will influence it—whether or not Team wants to believe they will.

Win and Team can choose the road to walk, and they can choose whether or not they want to walk it together, but they can’t choose the obstacles that block their way.

And someday, Win will remember this moment.

The haze forcing his mind blank.

The profound knowledge in Team’s mother’s eyes.

The silence next to him.

The urge to take Team’s hand.

The moment he decides not to.

They decide on a nearby café.

Public.

Bright.

Well-rated.

(Quicker than a restaurant.)

(Safe.)

Team’s mother drives him in her car.

Convenient.

(They have to pick their battles.)

Win takes his motorcycle.

(He has Team’s helmet in case they need to leave.)

They choose a four-sided table.

(A booth would take more time to get out of.)

They order drinks.

They sit in silence.

(They wait.)

“So, what happened next?”

“You remember.”

“I don’t remember it the way you do. Listening to your version is more interesting.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I didn’t know you were thinking about exit routes.”

“Well, I had no idea what was going to happen.”

“I couldn’t tell you were that scared. I thought you were fearless that night.”

“Good. I was trying to fake it.”

Her nails are clean and short, painted with umber nail polish.

(They wait.)

She asks about the club. Win answers.

She asks about school. Team answers.

(They wait.)

She orders cake. Team asks for water. Win makes the order for two.

(They wait.)

She thanks Win for his tutoring. He demurrs.

She compliments Team on his latest meet. He smiles.

(They wait.)

She comments on Win’s motorcycle. Team defends it.

She hopes Team is sleeping well. Win confirms it.

She pays.

They leave.

“It was pretty anticlimactic. Why were you so scared? She’s always loved you.”

“Because I didn’t know you’d talked about me to her already, goofball.”

“I just told her about swim practice sometimes. I didn’t talk about you that much.”

“She sent me a cake on my birthday, like, two weeks later!”

“Okay, okay, whatever.”

“And don’t pretend you weren’t nervous, too.”

“Pfft. I was not.”

“Uh huh.”

More than anything else, though, what Win will most clearly remember from the day of meeting Team’s mother is this:

Closing the door to his dorm room and slumping against the wall. Meeting Team’s eyes as Team toes off his sneakers. Raising his arms just as Team comes to him. Shutting his eyes and holding Team tight as Team rests his forehead on Win’s shoulder and exhales with a shudder.

In a few minutes, Win will remember that Team didn’t eat. That neither of them did. That they should have something for dinner even though it’s past ten o’clock.

They’ll eat instant noodles together. They’ll shower together and use more water than they would have by showering separately. They’ll lie in bed entangled. They’ll sleep. They’ll wake up refreshed.

But the clearest memory of all will still be this:

Win pressed against the wall in the dark with Team breathing against his skin, holding together in the liminal space between fear and release.