Icy wind whips Kongpob’s scarf as he darts down the alley, fingers fumbling to slide into thick, brown gloves. He’s tired and full and ready for a rest.
His steps slow as he passes their corner but don’t stop. He doesn’t stop anymore.
Since the first flakes of snow fell on the city, he’s given up his vigil. No more does he linger at Mae Lek’s, his feet don’t beat the path to the bus station where he last saw Arthit either. He’s content now with his memories of their short lived romance. Even if the memories of Arthit still linger on his skin.
The images will play on repeat when he’s alone and lonely in his tiny single bed. Sometimes, he falls asleep with Arthit’s name on his lips, sometimes he wakes up grasping for his hand. But he’s accepted now, he’s gone for good.
Kongpob has to.
Work distracts him. He takes every hour he can and only rarely finds his feet carrying him to Chinatown, bathed in neon light and strung with tiny lanterns for the winter months. When he’s there, there’s a cavern in his chest that slowly fills with warmth from the steaming noodle broth, with the chatter from the myriad of tiny stalls that have sprung up selling Christmas gifts, with the explosion of memories that assault his senses. He breathes better when he comes here, like his lungs need this place to truly let him exhale.
He gulps it in, then leaves for home where his mother rocks in her chair and calls out his father’s name and begs him to take her home.
He’s thinking about it.
There’s little that holds him here now.
Arthit’s path brings him to the Greyhound at last. There’s a bus already thrumming, the engine turning over as the driver welcomes everyone on board and Arthit clutches at his ticket, at the dirty, torn strip of paper that will see him to the next destination.
One more step closer to the place his heart calls home.
Burrowing into his seat, he rests his forehead on cool glass and a bright smile floods his mind. Kongpob’s teeth, milk white and evenly spaced, his lips curved around them, moist and shining. In his memory, a pink tongue darts out and wets them again and Arthit groans against the window and wishes he were already home - with Kong.
He wakes when the bus lurches to a halt and he recognises his next stop. Grabbing his bag, he slides down the aisle, clambering over knees and feet designed to trip him on his way. He thanks the driver quietly, then wearily steps down and into the arms of the sister who he hasn’t seen in years.
She’s generous with her words, chattering about things he’s missed in her life and tells him how she’s heard him singing on the radio and how proud she is and asks is he thirsty and is he tired and is he hungry and does he want to go to the old place for breakfast like they always did?
Arthit’s head hurts, so he nods and lets her her guide him by the hand. He eats a plate of pancakes, piled high with fruit and whipped cream; the coffee is strong and bitter like he remembers and nostalgia floods him, his difficult youth and his journey since then. For a moment, he wishes he could go back in time and tell himself that things will work out.
Because they will work out.
There’s his song and his contract with the record label and Kongpob. Always Kongpob. He hopes.
At her home, his sister bundles him into her bathroom and asks him to wash away the bus dirt and he revels in the heat of the water pouring from the ceiling above him. He’s been on buses for six days running now, travelling place to place, making money quickly to pay for the next journey in between.
He’s sung in bars and restaurants, in clubs and at shows, waited tables for tips and washed dishes. And every night he’s clambered the steps of another bus and travelled a little closer to home. To Kongpob.
In his sister’s guest room, he settles on the cloud soft bed and wonders what Kongpob is doing now. If he still thinks of Arthit like he thinks of Kongpob.
And he hopes.
His sister flops on the bed beside him and stares at his face, tracing the lines that are curling at his eyes and the sharpness of his cheekbones.
“You grew up,” she says, surprised.
“I did.” He agrees.
“Are you in love?”
“I would wait a thousand tables, I will travel a thousand miles. I will walk through blizzards and climb mountains. I will scorch my skin in the blazing sun. I would give up my guitar..”
“So you are. In love. Tell me about him.”
For such a short acquaintance, Arthit has a lot to say. He describes Kongpob like a poet, dances around the fact that he’s late arriving home and lets his sister think what she wants about his promise.
She doesn’t try and convince him to stay. But she presses some notes into his hand and tells him to buy Kongpob a pretty present and then sees him to the bus and hugs him goodbye.
Arthit squeezes her tight and tells her he’ll bring Kongpob by to see her one day and she grins and tells him he’d better.
Then the bus pulls away with a splutter of exhaust and Arthit rests against the window again and watches the miles tick by.
Kongpob hears the song, but doesn’t believe it. He hears it again and begins to wonder. The third time, he stops. He puts down the shirt in his hands and stands rapt at attention, words flowing across his skin and settling in his anxious wrinkles, making them smooth over and melt away.
He feels light as a feather, he throws back his head and laughs and a customer stares at him in surprise and then joins in. Kongpob records every lyric in his mind and locks them inside. Then he pictures Arthit, face intent as he scribbles them down on the back of an old tattered comic or ancient receipt, scrambling to mark his thoughts on the page. Maybe in the back of a swaying van after a gig, maybe backstage during one, or late at night when he’s lost in his thoughts, thinking of Kong.
He listens to Arthit sing about love and lets the words shower his heart clean. Listens to Arthit’s memories of their love. Hears about sunlight pouring through a window and fingers tugging at his hair and lips sliding over skin and a whispered promise. There’s a lyric about kissing his love goodbye as exhaust fumes frame their bodies and a drawn out wave and a heartbroken gasp and tears flooding a greyhound bus.
And it’s them. It’s their story. Arthit hasn’t forgotten him, forgotten them. He’s just on his journey and maybe he’s still coming back. He promised Kongpob he would.
Promised to come home.
Kongpob dashes for their corner when his shift ends, elbowing his way through the narrow, crowded streets, smile bright and excited, heart thudding in his chest in the rhythm of Ar-thit, Ar-thit, Ar-thit.
It’s like icy water dropped from a great height when their corner is still. No battered black guitar case, no overturned fruit crate, no Arthit.
He turns sadly away, something inside of him stretching and threatening to snap. There’s a tightness in his chest and disappointment in his heart and he closes his eyes and lets tear tracks warm his frozen cheeks. He thought.. because he heard it today.. thought it was a sign.
He’s rubbing at his eyes when a voice calls his name. He whirls on the spot, excited, to find Mae Lek gesturing to him.
“Kongpob?” She calls and he forces a smile, adrenaline fading to nothing, “Can you help me? The rice bags all fell down and I can’t do it.. I’m not strong now, I can’t lift them.”
He follows her down the alley, past their corner, to the overturned cart, white bags spilled and blocking the way. Methodically he bends his knees and lifts, straining to build a pyramid of rice sacks, Mae Lek looking on in wonder.
Her gasp of surprise comes at the same time that the sack in Kong’s hands turns feather light and he twists around again and warm brown eyes meet his and there’s a smirk of a well-worn smile and wonder written across the whole of his face.
And Kongpob’s heart races. It’s Arthit! He’s come home!
Kongpob’s own gasp is swallowed by soft lips, and then his fingers are scrambling desperately to hold Arthit close, to feel him, warm in his arms and here with him and home.
Mae Lek calls out a greeting and trundles away with the cart, but they barely notice, so wrapped up in each other’s eyes. Arthit’s are saying a thousand things at once and there are more promises written in their depths and Kongpob gasps again.
Drawing away his head, nosing at Arthit’s throat and nuzzling into his neck, Kongpob traces his hands over his arms and back and waist.
“Is it really you?”
“I promised I’d come home. I’m here..”
Icy wind whips around them and snowflakes gently fall, but still the lovers stand by their corner and whisper promises into each other’s skin.
And years later, when Arthit’s songs are played around the world and he flies from country to country, lighting up the stage with his smile, he always returns to Kongpob, always meets him back on their corner where everything started, and come rain or shine they kiss and he whispers, “I’m home.”