You learn about the multiverse theory from your Facebook feed, when a story about it appears above a photo someone posts of your best friend from high school. It’s unexpected, that photo. He’s in his forties, like you, and he looks almost the same as back then…and yet, not. It takes a moment to pinpoint: His smile doesn’t reach his eyes. He used to smile with his whole body, his eyes most of all. Not now.
His sadness makes you wonder, and the multiverse theory makes you think about worlds in which you tried to kiss him. You would have done it on the last day of summer, at the lake, before you went off to college and he went off to the Marines and you never saw each other again.
In one world he doesn’t even kiss you, but pushes you away so hard that you land on your ass, and he says, “What the fuck, man?” before he gets in his car and drives away. His eyes burn you then, and you, having ridden to the lake with him, walk home alone. An hour and a half. In the dark. You never see him again.
There’s a world where he still doesn’t kiss you but just says, “What’re you doing, man? You drunk?” You say yes, you are, though you’re not, you’re electrically sober, and he drives you home, and you never talk about it, and you never see him again.
There’s a world where he kills you. Several, even. In many, his eyes seem dead to you. In some it’s an accident. Often, he’s immediately remorseful. In many, he confesses. In a few, he doesn’t get life in prison. In a handful, he walks free because…well, gay panic. A couple, he gets the death penalty.
In one, you are never found.
There’s also one where you kill him. That world may be the worst.
In the subset of worlds where he does kiss you, the possible outcomes lie on a continuum from awful to awesome, with most falling somewhere in the “it could have been worse” range.
In all of them, you discover he’s a good kisser.
In a handful of them, you do more than kiss. You discover that, straight or not, he still lets you go down on him. In a smaller set, he goes down on you, too. He closes his eyes and you wish he’d open them, so you could see. Some of them end badly, and there are tears. Sometimes it’s you crying, sometimes him. Sometimes both. In most, you never see him again.
Toward the right side of the continuum are the ones where you go all the way, upshifting from kiss to naked in the backseat with breathtaking speed. In one, after he comes, he says he can never do this again with you, that this isn’t who he is, and that he’s so, so sorry. He says he still cares about you and hopes you can stay friends, which you do, writing letters through basic training, but eventually you drift apart after the gap between letters lengthens to the point where one of you eventually stops, either you or him. You hear about him occasionally from your friend Paula, who doesn’t know what went down and wonders why you went from best friends to nothing. You don’t know what to tell her, so you say nothing.
There’s a multiverse slightly removed from that one, where the letters continue and you see each other off and on, and when he gets married ten years later, you go to the wedding. In this one, his smile reaches his eyes, and you’re glad, really glad for him.
There’s another version where you see him again at your twenty-fifth high school reunion; you, still single, and he, recently divorced and out of the Marines, get shitfaced on Jim Beam and, wouldn’t you know it, get naked in the back of his car. Again. A different car, a nicer car, but again. You both wake up there the next morning, hungover and aching, and go back to his hotel to clean up, and are never apart after that.
In the best of all multiverses, when you stand in front of him at the edge of the lake, he kisses you back, and you proceed to lose your virginity in the back of his car with all of the earnestness, awkwardness, and embarrassment that only eighteen-year-old boys possess, and after he comes he looks you in the eye and tells you he loves you.
In every multiverse, you love him.
If those other ’verses were accessible, you’d pick the best one and go there now. But they’re not; they’re forever shut off to you, only glimpsed dimly. You get this one ’verse, this one life.
And in this version of the multiverse, you’d settle for at least telling him how you feel. Just for it to be known. That would almost be enough.
Jeffrey Ricker is the author of Detours (2011) and the YA fantasy The Unwanted (2014). His stories and essays have appeared in Foglifter, Little Fiction, Aftertastes, The Citron Review, UNBUILD walls, and in the anthologies Foolish Hearts: New Gay Fiction, A Family by Any Other Name, and others. A 2014 Lambda Literary Fellow and recipient of a 2015 Vermont Studio Center residency, he has an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. Connect with Jeffrey at his website.