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He first disappears just before I am born. I have no memory of it, of course, but my mom still wears it years later like a lead vest, releasing a strangled sigh whenever she hears the garage door open. When he returns, I am six months old, and he just stares and stares. Absorbing the number of moles I have and the curve of my hairline.
He has already seen what I look like at puberty, middle age, in death. He has seen the acne that will spread across my face like he has seen the bed sores that will cover the backs of my withered legs when they wheel me out the door. He knows the address of the home my grandchildren will put me in, and he knows it is not very nice. He has mapped out all the things that will happen to me if I decide to roll over in my crib the wrong way, and it is by his mercy alone that he puts his hand up and says “stop.”
He’s always making absolutely sure it’s me. In case competing timelines intersect and I am a changeling. Or he has fallen through a time hole and has forgotten he is in a dimension where he can’t be so forthcoming. He has given me passwords and fail safes, solutions to riddles, punchlines to jokes only he can resolve. Trick answers to know when I am an imposter. He diagrams decision trees, quizzing me several times a day. Why did the turkey cross the road? What makes a Brontosaurus sneeze? When does a comedian laugh at his own jokes?
He says he has met versions of myself that I would not believe. Plutocrat, ballet dancer, homeless without a shoe to my name. Not clones he says. Just offspring of wayward, inconsequential decisions, resulting in what you could be, would be, have been. He has met so many variations, he says, he has begun to wonder what makes his current iteration all that great. How can you know if the self is the truest self of yourself? I watch him tinker in the dark of the garage, hunched over, with a glow leaping over his shoulders in an embrace.
My uncle disappears again the winter before I turn eleven. My mom asks me to help gather the empty beer cans in his garage. He comes back just in time for my birthday party, smiles. Haven’t seen him since, but I still can see that grin. Now I celebrate my birthdays at a home my grandkids have put me up in. It isn’t that great, but also isn’t necessarily the worst.
What I remember of that day is him telling me he really didn’t want to miss this one, knew it was a biggie. Suggested I go for the chocolate ice cream, definitely not vanilla. Asked me if I knew the one about the priest and the quantum physicist who walk into a bar.
Stephanie Yu lives in Los Angeles with her partner Nate. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in BULL, Eclectica, X-R-A-Y, and elsewhere. You can find her tweeting @stfu_stephanie.