I knew Nick in high school, which is kind of like saying I knew him in a past life. Maybe we were pharaohs or Greek Gods, art dealers with coke habits, incestual lovers, vegans. Or maybe we were just ants. Whatever. What I mean is, I knew him before I knew him. He was an extension of me before our introduction. There are people like that. People you meet and think: Well, shit, you’re a constellation of every person I’ve ever known. Like the florist lady on the corner of Ratteen is the Channel version of my mom—she reminds me to eat my greens and to avoid meth and valium and guys named Richard, Mark, or Dean—and my 9th grade teacher was just a reincarnation of my drunk Uncle Gary. Every day I see, meet, love, fuck, hate, smell someone who reminds me of someone else. People are eyes and noses, arms and legs, of the same petri dish. No one is actually individual, just like no one or nothing is special. Everything has already happened. That’s why history repeats itself.
Growing up, I was obsessed with loss. I collected milk cartons with pictures of missing children on the sides and licked my scabs clean. I thought I was a cat because everyone treated me like one. My parents, siblings, teachers, friends. It all started with Nick. He always wanted a pet, and his parents wouldn’t get him one, and I loved him, so I filled the void. When Nick took my virginity, I screamed. I wasn’t expecting to feel anything, but I did. I felt everything and nothing at the same time. It was immense and scary and holistic and as exciting as watching beige paint dry. I knew nothing would change about me. I couldn’t be saved by getting penetrated by someone who only thought of me as an animal. Nick cupped my mouth with his sweaty hand and told me to shut up and think of good things, so I thought of all the missing kids. I wondered if their parents had given up on them or if they were still out looking; still taping outdated pictures to street posts and inside restaurants and on interstate billboards, if they could afford them. My biggest fear was getting kidnapped. Adult-napped. Even now, I clench dollar-store mace and avoid being alone in the dark. I tried Krav Maga but couldn’t commit to it fully. The teachers were hard on me and the students laughed. Maybe it’s because part of me has always been submissive. Like my mother and her mother and the mother before her.
Nick’s eyes were coal black in his childhood bedroom that night. I’d been waiting for so long to become a woman, but I couldn’t even enjoy it. He looked like a missing person to me. Groaning and grunting and pleading. I didn’t doubt that he’d disappear one day. That he’d erase himself from me. And then, he did, just like I said he would. He disappeared from my life, completely, until I saw him scanning bread loaves and sticks of butter at the grocery store on 96th Street. It had been eight years. Nick was wearing a hairnet and a Communist pin, but his eyes were the same. Coal black and mean. He reminded me of the Nick I once knew. And the Nick I dated and the Nick at my office and the Nick I met at a bar in Kentucky. There were so many versions of him now. It was hard to feel anything for the one in front of me.
I’d gone to the store looking for a sense of humor. I had also just run out of chocolate chip cookie dough and needed it for my Family Guy marathon, where I could watch actors play exaggerated versions of themselves and their characters and their friends. My ex-boyfriend took my router, so I was mooching off the neighbor’s router. I couldn’t buy a new one because that would mean that I’d accepted another person’s swift exit from my life. I wanted whatever I chose at the store to select me, to choose me, but I found Nick 1 instead. I asked why he went missing. He said it was because I stopped watching him. I left the gate open, and he ran away, as fast as he could in the opposite direction. It all made sense to me then. I understood how those mothers felt, the mothers of the missing children. They only turned away for one second and their lives changed, completely.
Nick asks me to grab a drink with him after his shift, but I can’t. He’s not the person I lost. He wears hairnets and scans bread. At home, I swipe right on a bunch of losers on Tinder and throw all the milk cartons I’ve collected in the dumpster. Looking at the hallow faces, it’s obvious: I’m all of them, and they’re all of me.
Gabrielle McAree (she/her) is from Fishers, IN. Her work appears in X-R-A-Y, Berkeley Fiction Review, Reflex Press, Reckon Review, Versification, and elsewhere. She's on Twitter @gmcaree_.