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Like growing mangosteen

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Tian wakes up to the sound of rain.

Phupha is already gone, his side of the creaky bed neatly made. Only a short strand of hair on the pillow reveals him ever having rested there. Tian picks up the hair, twirls it between his index finger and his thumb. Always the last one to go to bed and the first one to wake up, sometimes he wonders if Phupha sleeps at all.

Tian studies his hand. There’s still dirt under his fingernails from planting flowers with the kids the day before. He hopes the roots can take the pouring, but Phupha says no to worry—they’re strong underneath the soil, all living things.

The hair has fallen and vanished into the crinkled sheets, but Phupha’s presence still lingers in the room: the sound of water dripping into a plastic bucket placed below a fresh leak in the ceiling, the incense stick beside the bed still faintly fragrant, the pile of Tian’s clothes on the chair carefully folded, it’s all in Phupha’s handwriting. Tian’s heart aches a little—to have found someone so sincere, and for them to say you deserve every bit of it.

Tian picks up a long-sleeved shirt, breathes in the scent of laundry detergent before putting it on. The fabric is a bit worn-out around the collar, but he likes the comforting softness of it. The rainy season in the mountains is chillier than in Bangkok, its clammy hands gluing to skin like damp clothes, but he’s getting used to it now, though his bare toes still curl in the morning.

The rain is different, too, somehow, louder but quieter at the same time. It’s never fully quiet in Bangkok when it rains, tires screeching or an ambulance wailing cutting through even the thickest fog. The noise had never bothered him much in the past, but after experiencing a life in the village he couldn’t have helped noticing it.

He doesn’t think he could go back to it now. Doesn’t think he could fit in the clothes in his old closet, the old shapes of him imprinted on the busy streets. He knows his mother finds the house too quiet without him there, can hear the hurt in her voice even as she tries her best to hide it, but even as the thought of being a bad son still nags at the back of his mind from time to time, he’s come too far to yield to it.

Instead, he steps outside into the rain.

To his surprise, Yod greets him with all the enthusiasm of a dog that’s been earnestly waiting for its owner as soon as he gets out the door.

“Good morning, Mr. Tian! Let me offer you a ride!”

“Thanks, but I can walk,” Tian declines politely. The school is only a short walk away, and relying on a personal driver while the kids arrive on foot would feel reprehensible somehow.

“I don’t think that would be very wise, Mr. Tian, unless you’re planning on teaching a pottery class” Yod says, pointing at the mud on his shoes.

Reluctantly putting his umbrella down, Tian follows Yod to the jeep. These acts of generousness still make him feel conflicted sometimes, like he should be proving himself more not to get coddled.

“You should’ve seen the mud last year. We were cut off for several days after a landslide. Chief got really irritated when he couldn’t mail your letter. Hurt his foot kicking the jeep and everything.”

“He did?”

“He never told you? Well, I’m telling you now. Good to have you back. Not a day too late. It’s not America, but this village needs you, I’m telling you.”

Tian smiles. “It’s good to be back.”

“Never thought you’d end up staying when you first sat in that seat, tell you the truth. Good thing you did. The guy after you, had to take him back the very next day. It’s not for everyone, that seat.”

“Can I ask you something? Have you lived in the north all your life?”

“Me? I’m not a well-read man like you, Mr. Tian. Where would I go? Sell fruit in Bangkok? I don’t think I’d like it there very much. A lot of traffic over there. Think I’d get homesick. You ever got homesick in America?”

“All the time. They didn’t even have sai ua there.”

“No sai ua? I thought America had everything.”

“Yeah well, not everything. Not the things that matter, anyway.”

Yod lets out an amused hmmm. The rest of his response is cut off by Phupha’s stern voice through the walkie-talkie calling for his men to assemble. Tian looks out the window, cranes his neck. The rain has turned into a drizzle, enveloping the lush mountains with fog like steaming kettles. Tian opens the window to hold out his hand, welcoming the cool breeze.

The sky is vaster here than in Bangkok, but the clouds feel closer, almost within reach.

In the last class of the day, Kalae spits out a molar.

“Congratulations. It’s a milk tooth. A new tooth will grow and take its place. But you’ll have to take extra good care of your teeth from now on, you’re stuck with them for the rest of your life. No more spare parts,” Tian says before returning to the story they’d been reading.

Kalae nods with enthusiasm, placing the fallen tooth on top of his notebook like a small treasure. Tian turns the page on his book, pinching the skin around his scar half-subconsciously: the area feels tight for a split second, a brief smart pain that has been coming and going since the surgery.

He used to think it was Torfun’s ghost remembering her home. Now, he thinks it might be his body’s way of remembering her.

Once the class is over, Kalae approaches Tian’s desk shyly.

“Mr. Seetian,” he says, awkwardly playing with his hands. Kalae is a reserved child, easily overshadowed by his rowdier classmates. Something about him reminds Tian of Phupha as a child, though Phupha seldom talks about his time growing up.

“What is it, Kalae?” Tian probes kindly.

“Do you think I could become a dentist?” His voice is smaller than usual, like he’s bracing himself for a disappointment.

Tian looks at Kalae’s face: the earnest eyes, the trembling chin, the bloody fingerprint on his cheek. It’s a child’s face. It’s a face in no way different from any face Tian has seen before: in the expensive private schools of Bangkok, at the playdates behind automated gates, in the amusement areas at luxury resorts.

It’s the face of a child who deserves a chance, all the same chances that have simply fallen into the hands of Tian like ripe fruit.

“Of course you can,” Tian says emphatically.

It’s not a lie, Tian tells himself, watching a smile bloom on Kalae’s face. It’s not a lie for Tian himself will make it so.

The air is humid after rainfall, the layers of clouds are moving in rapid streams across the marble sky. Peeling a mangosteen with both hands, Tian listens to the electric buzz of insects lurking somewhere in the shadows beneath Khama’s porch.

He’s made a habit out of visiting the village chief’s house after school. Phupha is seldom home before nightfall these days, mudslides and fallen trees keeping him busy long past office hours, and Tian likes the company.

He’d never really had to learn how to be alone before leaving Bangkok. At any given time there had been at least a housekeeper bringing him snacks or someone liking his Facebook posts. Maybe that’s why it had taken him so long to realize how lonely he had been underneath it all.

“They’re evacuating a village on the other side of the border,” Khama says with a heavy sigh, gazing at the horizon with his hands clasped behind his back. “The rains weren’t always like this. Not when Longtae was a child.”

Tian sinks his teeth into the white flesh of the fruit, thinking about Longtae in Chiang Mai and his mother down in Bangkok. She’s made her concern for him clear in their last couple of phone calls, practically begging him to come to his senses and come back home from what she in her most heated moments refers to as murderous jungle.

Come back home.

Thinking of home had kept him going in America. He’d come home to Phupha’s arms, and they’d build a life, and his mother would be accepting of his choices, and he’d use the skills and expertise he’d acquired to equip his kids with all the tools they need to face the world.

But the home that you miss is always less complicated than the real thing, can only exist in retrospect, as moments that are already gone.

Tian bites into a seed, spits it out onto the ornamental plate placed next to him, then looks up at Khama.

“Do you wish Longtae would come back to live in the village?”

Khama looks surprised, but his tone is warm. “It’s not up to me anymore, it’s not my choice. Some seeds bloom where they are planted, some have to travel far.”

Tian observes an ant circling around the discarded seed. The seed is too heavy for it to carry and won’t budge when the ant tries to lift it.

He could hold a dozen fancy degrees from prestigious universities and it still wouldn’t increase the school’s budget or buy the kids iPads to make their presentations on. He’s been attending fundraisers in the city to find financial supporters for the school, but the process is painfully slow, and even though teaching the kids is his calling, the weight of the responsibility still intimidates him sometimes.

Being the sole educator has proven to be quite different from being a voluntary teacher in a string of many. There’s no one in line to take his place. His decisions could have lasting repercussions on the kids, on their families, on the entire village, and he’s not fully sure if he’s worth the implicit trust placed in him.

“And how do you know if you’re making the right choices?”

“You have the answers in your hand,” Khama says, and Tian studies his hand in confusion, opens his palm to reveal the empty mangosteen shell.

“My wife and I planted the tree a decade ago. That’s the first harvest. It’s not a fruit for the hasty.”

Not a fruit for the hasty.

The mangosteen had always been Tian’s favorite fruit. It has a sweetness that tastes like a number of flavors yet unlike anything else on earth. He’d missed the juicy texture in the American rain.

He reaches his hand to poke at the seed on the plate, but the seed is moving now, wobbling unsteadily, carried away by an army of ants.

The twilight is a deep shade of purple by the time Tian gets home, dark and rich like mangosteen, but he can still recognize the shape of Phupha sitting outside even from a distance. His heart grows lighter at the sight, and without realizing it he has quickened his pace.

“You’re early,” he says, taking the steps in a stride before seating himself next to Phupha.

“You’re late,” Phupha says flatly, but there’s no resentment behind his voice.

“Did you miss me?” Tian teases, playfully nudging Phupha’s shoulder.

Phupha winces a little at the touch but shakes off the question, barely lifts up his shirt. “Scratch my back. More towards the middle. Yeah, right there.”

“You’re all sweaty,” Tian groans as his nails work through Phupha’s toned back in circular motions. Then his hand stops, and he leans sideways to get a better look at the bruise peeking out from under the hem of Phupha’s rolled up shirt. “What’s this?”

“Just an encounter with wildlife. I’m old, I can take it.”

“Found your grey hair this morning.”

“You have no proof it’s mine,” Phupha says, squirms a little as Tian pinches his sides.

Night has fallen, insects and wildlife whispering their secrets in the humid darkness. Tian lets his hands wander on Phupha’s hot skin before pulling the shirt down, then presses his cheek against Phupha’s back. “Promise me you won’t die.”

“Tian,” Phupha says, and Tian knows not to press further. They’ve had this conversation a hundred times before, and the outcome is always the same: that the only promise Phupha can give is that for Tian he would try to break free even from the grip of death.

“I don’t know much time I have left,” Tian says instead, lightly touching his chest. He’s seen the statistics, knows his chances of having a long life are not non-existent but they are slim. “Years. Decades.”

Moonlight floods Phupha’s eyes as he turns to face Tian. “We’ve talked about this, Tian,” he says, takes Tian’s hand in his. His gaze is steady, and his unfaltering voice pierces through Tian, reaching all the way to his rapidly beating heart. “No one knows how much time they have. Some just have to come to terms with the thought sooner than others.”

Tian nods, squeezes Phupha’s fingers. “I want you to look after yourself even if I’m gone. Get a boyfriend, someone to care for your heart.”

“I don’t want just a casual friend."

“It’s for your own sake, Chief.”

Phupha tries to hide his smile but Tian knows him well enough to know it’s there, can hear it in his voice when he says, “Since it is for my own sake.”

Tian leans closer to Phupha, stares off into the fog that has settled like a gauze. “I want to see the kids grow up. I want to grow old with you,” he says, tries to make out the blurring shapes of Phupha’s motorcycle and the black thickets. “And I want to grow a mangosteen tree.”

“I hope it can wait for tomorrow,” Phupha says, his voice low and teasing, then kisses Tian’s neck. “There’s something I want to do tonight.”

Tian lets out a sound of exasperation. “Chief, I’m being serious.”

“I know,” Phupha says, kisses Tian on the mouth. “That’s what I love about you.”

It's going to be a cold night, but Phupha’s arms tighten around Tian, strong like the roots of an old tree.