It’s a typical day in Kongpob’s life. He wakes up, eats leftovers from the night before, showers, dresses and rides a bus for forty-five minutes to a job he hates.
“Sir, have you got this in size 12?” The customer coughs loudly which irritates Kongpob further, why can’t they wear masks if they’re sick?
For a moment, he longs for his old life, when his whole family lived together at home in Thailand and people were polite and respectful and didn’t cough in your face.
Since moving here, he has found himself swept into the jarring western culture in some ways, but in others, he remains true to his roots. It’s the only way he can survive. Continuing to cook or buy the food of his youth, following the customs of his religion as much as he can, while still adapting to the more hectic world he now resides in.
It’s a whole new experience, one that Kongpob has been living for the past three months and one which he is going to be living for the foreseeable future.
He has no choice.
It’s the end of his working day when Kongpob steps out of the strip mall and heads down an alley into Chinatown. Here, he can find some of the foods he often longs for, the ones his sister often scarfs down when they chat over Zoom. He can bask in the neon lights, written in his second language, one he recognises better than the English he’s forced to spend the majority of his time conversing in. He can even find Thai people at some of the stalls and catch up on gossip from back home.
And more importantly, it’s also where he’ll find Arthit.
The young man has become a fixture in Kongpob’s life since they met two months ago. Every evening, when Kongpob finishes work, he heads down Arthit’s alley and urges the young man to put down his guitar for an hour and join him for dinner.
Five days out of seven, Kongpob is successful. On the other days, Arthit refuses, citing the need to earn enough before he can stop singing.
On one of these days Kongpob gets take-out (not in plastic bags tied with elastic bands, but in white polystyrene, squeaky and smooth), and watches Arthit for as long as he can, before leaving a portion of food for him as a tip and heading home.
While it’s always amazing to listen to Arthit perform, the days when they don’t share dinner cramped together at a tiny table at a ‘Mom and Pop’ restaurant with plastic chopsticks and a peeling laminated menu, he feels less satisfied.
He misses Arthit’s company, his conversation, wild stories of his days playing on the street, stories of long treks cross-country on Greyhound buses to get to gigs, the fascinating musicians he’s met and played with, the bizarre hostels and homes he’s stayed in.
He misses sharing his own memories, heated streets, blazing sunshine, the towering house his whole family shared. With Arthit, he can talk about anything.
On the days without Arthit’s knees knocking into his own beneath a formica table, Kongpob feels loneliness creeping in and has to stifle the urge to tell his Mother that he wishes they never came here and that he really wants to go home.
But today is a good day. Arthit has already latched his guitar in his case and is seated on the wall next to Ma Hom’s Royal Duck Restaurant, eyes flickering back and forth down the busy street.
As Kongpob watches him from a distance, his friend sweeps a hand through his long fringe, pushing the strands backwards to reveal a smooth forehead and perfectly plucked brows.
One time, Kongpob had teased him about his eyebrows. They’re so perfect that he thinks Arthit must spend hours combing through them and tweezing out unwanted fur. But his friend insists he doesn’t and that he was just born with the perfect brow.. it’s a bone of contention between them. Much like Arthit’s obsession with Kongpob’s perfect English diction.
As he stares at him, Kongpob wonders how much longer these dinners are going to continue. Arthit has already mentioned a few times the summer of gigs he’s lining up, stretching the coast of California from San Fran to San Diego. Well, provided he makes his quota - enough for a one-way bus ticket, food and supplies, maybe a hostel or two instead of old friend’s floors.
And summer is around the corner.
To Kongpob it all sounds heavenly (apart from the fact his friend will be leaving). Arthit doesn’t do nine to five and never will. He’s not born for the confines of retail or office work. He's a rolling stone with no home, breezing from one place to another, settling briefly before the next adventure piques his interest.
Often, Kongpob wishes he could be the same, with no ties to hold him here, no restrictions to keep him in New York where he’s a nameless face in a crowd which will never change. But he knows in his head it’s not going to happen, no matter how much his heart longs for it.
Today though, he has Arthit’s company, and he’s going to enjoy him.
The curl of Arthit’s mouth develops to a smile that crinkles his eyes as Kongpob nudges his toe with a battered black work shoe.
“You’re late!” Arthit points out, hand curling around Kongpob’s wrist and lifting it to show him on his watch.
“The train was delayed in a tunnel, something about trespassing.. the usual.” Kongpob shivers a little as Arthit’s fingertips stroke his pulse point, but then his friend drops his wrist and nods towards the end of the alley.
“Right, trespassing, that’s New York I guess. Noodles or Rice?”
“It’s bloody annoying, that’s what it is. Have you been waiting long? I’ve been craving Pad Thai all day.”
They set off down the alley, Arthit shouldering his guitar, feet taking them on a well worn route straight to ‘Baan Pad Thai’. As they ascend the steps into the tiny room, Mae Lek bustles over and Kongpob gets to flex his mother tongue at last.
Other than his mother, no-one he knows well here speaks Thai, so he loves to engage the street food sellers in conversation as often as he can. It’s been his therapy since the day he arrived.
He chatters away as she leads them to her best table, the one under the portrait of the King, the one that has the real-look rose in a blue ceramic vase and a carved wooden box that holds chopsticks, forks and spoons.
At this table, the table when Mae Lek’s father is always seated to eat, there’s even a napkin dispenser with a frieze of elephants etched into the side. Mae Lek always seats Kongpob here.
“You brought your friend again,” she grins, and Kongpob has to gently reprimand her, smile neatly in place.
“Yes, Friend! That’s it.”
“What is she saying?” Arthit asks, “Is she teasing us again?”
Arthit laughs, unperturbed. “I love this lady! Have you ever actually told her how I feel, the dozen times I’ve asked?”
Kongpob shoves a hand into Arthit’s shoulder and hisses at him, trying not to laugh.
“I speak English boy, remember,” Mae Lek grins, “I know you love me! Now, noodles?”
Both men nod and she bustles away, but not before she’s offered Arthit her hand and he’s bestowed the wrinkled skin with a kiss.
“Seriously, she’s the best. I’m going to miss her.. and her noodles.”
“Oh.” Kongpob tries to be nonchalant as he reaches for the bottled water and pours them both a glass over ice, even as his hand shakes. “You’ve decided then?”
Arthit takes a slug of his drink and then locks his eyes on Kongpob’s, “Sorry, I was about to tell you.. well, no, I’ll be honest, I was putting it off..”
Kongpob laughs lightly, trying to cover the awkward silence. “I was expecting it. Don’t worry too much.” Then he tips half his glass down his throat and accidentally inhales instead of swallowing.
When his coughing fit subsides, Arthit removes his hand and returns to his own side of the table, shuffling his chair as close as possible until their knees are knocking together beneath it. Kongpob misses the warmth that had seeped into his skin where Arthit had thumped his back.
“Are you okay?”
“You sound so American, Kong, ‘I guess’! It’s weird with your perfect pronunciation..”
“Hey, come on, we’ve discussed this. Don’t start in on my English, Arthit, or we’re having an in-depth debate about the razor sharp edges of your eyebrows!”
Arthit eyes him speculatively, face serious before he nods briefly and then changes the subject.
They end up discussing some obscure band that Arthit adores and who have asked him to be their opening act for six dates on the west coast, next week.
With every mention of the coming dates, Kongpob’s appetite vanishes until Mae Lek scolds him and he’s forced to fork some of his noodles into his mouth and fake a ‘mmm, arroy,’ until she’s satisfied.
“So, how long will you be gone?”
Arthit mumbles around a mouthful of noodles and Kongpob frowns, “Seriously you could have been speaking Thai and I wouldn’t understand you. What was that?”
“I don’t want to tell you.”
Kongpob’s eyes widen and he hasn’t got a response this time. Arthit sounds serious. And he sounds sad.
They finish their noodles in the single awkward silence they’ve shared since the first day when Kongpob had invited Arthit to sit with him at his table when he’d spotted the musician hovering in the centre of the restaurant, looking lost.
It had turned out to be one of the best decisions of Kongpob’s life.
Maybe even the greatest.
After, when Arthit has paid (it’s his turn, he insists) and Kongpob has greeted Mae Lek, they walk the streets, Kong nervously wondering what to say next.
But it’s Arthit who breaks the silence, “Kongpob? I’m staying in a hotel tonight. I treated myself since I spent most of yesterday in Times Square and the tourists tip so well.”
Kongpob hums in response as he weighs up the merits of beef or chicken noodles for breakfast tomorrow.
“It’s a small room, but you can see downtown out of the window and they have a small breakfast spread in the morning.”
Kongpob nods again, picking up a cup noodle pot from the stall they’re at and trying to decipher the Chinese characters when he hasn’t read them properly in a while.
Suddenly, Arthit grips his arm above the elbow, forcing him to drop the noodles, and tugs him away and down a narrower alley, away from the crowds.
“Kongpob?” He asks earnestly, pushing him lightly against the smooth concrete wall, covered in graffiti and artist’s tags. “The thing is.. I booked the room for two.”
Kongpob stares at him. They’re about the same height and from where he’s pressed into the solid brick, he can look straight into Arthit’s eyes and see how they have widened enough to make his point. Kongpob has to look away from their intensity.
“Are you asking me..?” He fumbles.
“And you want to.. with me?”
“I do. I have for a long time.”
Kong swallows hard and then meets Arthit’s eyes again. All at once, they look fierce and honest and gentle.. and very hopeful.
He takes a deep breath, “Me too.”
Arthit’s eyes soften and he grins, “Come on then.”
Their fingers lace together perfectly. Arthit takes the lead, guitar bumping against his back as they move back out into the crowded streets, only one destination in mind.
In the room, which does have a view of the skyscrapers downtown, Kongpob hesitates as Arthit drops his things and then crowds against his back, pushing his chest against the glass.
Hot air trails over his bare neck and he shivers. When Arthit lets his whole body press the length of him, Kongpob takes a shaky breath, chest expanding as he looks out on the view.
“I haven’t done this before.” He whispers.
“I have, I’ll take care of you, Kong.”
Then Arthit works a hand around Kong’s hip and turns him so they are facing. And he lifts a perfect eyebrow which eases Kongpob’s heartbeat, “Shall I kiss you?”
After, they lie tangled together, Arthit tracing patterns over Kong’s bare skin.
“Perfect,” he whispers and Kongpob feels heat rise in his cheeks.
“Even though.” Arthit cuts him off with a kiss which lasts for long, heated minutes.
“Kongpob?” Arthit’s voice is well kissed when he breaks the silence, “I want you to come with me.”
Kong’s heart clenches in his chest as his dearest wish is verbalised, as it becomes a tangible possibility in his future.
But his Mother’s voice is in his ear and he knows where his true future lies.
“I can’t.” Voice full of regret. “My responsibility is here. Mother needs me.”
“Can’t you live your own life?” Arthit sits up and slides back against the threadbare headboard, tugging Kongpob with him.
“I want to.. but it’s not that simple. My Father entrusted her care to me. I can’t abandon her, I won’t.”
Arthit’s eyes blaze for a moment and Kongpob cools them with a kiss.
“I know your future, Arthit. It’s full of exciting possibilities and adventure. Things I’ll always dream of, things I want to do with you. But it’s not my future. I have to work, care for my Mother until she is well. It’s my family duty. Please understand?”
“Then, I understand.” Arthit says, trying for a smile, “I do. I don’t have to like it though.”
Kongpob nods. “I’m glad we had tonight, at least. Thank you for this.”
Arthit pulls up a cheeky grin that doesn’t completely reach his eyes, “Mostly selfish, I’m afraid.”
“Oh really?” Kong takes a chance and digs his fingers into Arthit’s sides.
It takes a long time for them to stop laughing. When they do, they are both flushed and Arthit’s eyes are back to their sparkling selves. Kongpob’s heart skips a beat.
“If you come back..” he says and Arthit nods firmly.
“When you come back.. I’ll look for you.”
“When I come back, you’ll find me on the corner where we first met.”
“I’ll invite you for noodles. You can flatter Mae Lek.”
“I’ll be poor by then, every last cent will be spent on the bus ticket to bring me home.. to you.”
“You’re such a romantic! Will you write that lyric in one of your love songs?”
“Only for you. When I play it, I’ll remember today. A perfect day.”
Kongpob stops and looks into Arthit’s eyes and sees honesty and regret that mirror his own.
“I’ll introduce you to my Mother. You can stay with us rent free.”
“I’ll pay you with kisses..”
They never make the free breakfast spread. Instead, they make the most of every last second before checkout.
Later they meander along well-worn pathss, Arthit sucking in memories of the city with Kongpob. They walk hand in hand through Time’s square, along Broadway, around the edges of Central Park. Dip into Harlem, ride the subway back downtown and wave to the Statue of Liberty.
Finally, Kongpob brings him to the bus station, his whole body weary from their walk, heart weary at what’s to come.
The line for the bus snakes around the terminal and Arthit puts down his bag, slides to sit beside it, then pulls Kongpob to rest between his legs. He loosely holds his hands around his waist.
“I think you’re perfect.” Arthit nibbles on his ear. “I wish you were mine.”
Kongpob’s heart feels full, “I am. Always. When you come back…”
“When I come back, I’ll play you your song - In the middle of Time’s Square. We’ll eat noodles every day. I’ll teach you how to get eyebrows as wonderful as these, and we can trail the city and find out all it’s secrets.”
Kongpob twists in his hold, “I knew you plucked your eyebrows.”
There’s a beat and then Arthit’s smile wobbles and Kongpob feels his own cheeks dampen.
“I don’t want to say goodbye.”
Arthit clutches him tighter, “I heard that in Thai, the word for goodbye can be the same as the word for hello?”
Kongpob lifts his face and presses a soft kiss to Arthit’s lips. “Don’t forget me.”
Arthit grins, “Never. You’re kind of unforgettable.”
“Am I as well?”
They kiss once more, messy and desperate uncaring of their audience. And then Kongpob stands and gives Arthit a final watery smile.
“Sawasdee Khap, Arthit.”
“Sawasdee Khap, Kongpob.”