Jonah didn’t believe in God until he discovered Nikki Bryce’s Instagram.
He still remembers the photo that appeared on his explore page. She posed on a beach, a violet bikini on her golden, hourglass figure, while strands of strawberry blonde framed her freckled cheeks. According to Nikki’s caption, she was vacationing in Turks & Caicos. Jonah had never left the country, but he knew Turks and Caicos was the type of island set as computer screen backgrounds. The type of island in movies and music videos, a place that looks too flawless to exist naturally. The blue-diamond ocean looked like cubic zirconia compared to Nikki’s almond eyes, piercing into the camera like she held secrets. That’s when Jonah knew perfection exists, but only some higher power could create such phenomena.
Jonah set Nikki as his phone’s wallpaper and plastered her photos across his bedroom. Nikki accompanied Jonah as he brushed his teeth, worked his graveyard gas station shifts, visited his mother in the psych ward, and ate Chinese takeout. With Nikki in his life, the bad days were no longer so bad. Jonah smiled at customers while he pumped their gas and didn’t even flinch as he plunged clogged toilets. He wished he’d found her a year ago; she would’ve consoled him after he discovered his father’s body dangling in the closet. Jonah concluded Nikki was more than God’s gift to the world: she was God’s gift to Jonah.
Jonah and Nikki’s relationship wasn’t one-sided: Nikki fascinated Jonah. Not because she was exceptionally talented, but because of her mystique in spite of this. She wasn’t a musician, athlete, movie star, or some other famous professional. She wasn’t a runway model, either — she stood no taller than five feet and three inches — and she didn’t amass her one and a half million followers by way of her words. Her captions consisted of emojis (the unicorn, lightning bolt, purple heart, and rose were her favorites, as these were the four she incorporated the most) paired with a pithy three words, such as “good vibes only” or “no bad days.” Yet the less she revealed, the more Jonah wanted to know: who was Nikki Bryce?
Jonah could never tell how Nikki was feeling. She wore the same expression in every photo. Plump lips pouted, chin tucked and cocked left (this was her good side, as all of her photos were taken on her left) and eyes slightly squinted beneath her doll-like lashes. Sometimes her fingers ran through her long locks or her palm cradled her angelic face. What was Nikki Bryce thinking?
Jonah liked to pretend he knew. His bedtime ritual consisted of scrolling through her profile and imagining the telepathic messages she sent per image. At a nightclub called Studio 60 (Jonah concluded this was her favorite spot as she spent many weekends here) she sported a black leather dress and heels that may as well been stilts, but she prayed for Jonah to rescue her, tuck her into bed, and cook blueberry pancakes the next morning.
In Nikki’s gym selfies, her hair French-braided and skin glistening with sweat, she’d ask Jonah to spot her while she squatted, and afterwards he’d massage her sore muscles. She posted often with her Siberian Husky named Cody, and Jonah visualized strolling through the park, one hand holding the leash and his other in Nikki’s. The three would play frisbee on a field until Nikki and Jonah laid their backs in the grass and guessed the cloud shapes.
Jonah played the game until he drifted to sleep, in which he’d conjure the aforementioned scenarios in his dreams.
Sometimes Jonah wondered if Nikki would manifest into his reality. As intensely as he craved her, he didn’t want to risk rejection. If he never tried, he’d never know, and if he never knew, he’d never hurt. Ignorance is bliss, answered Jonah’s mother when he asked why she hid that he was a twin. Jonah never would’ve known his brother died during childbirth if his uncle didn’t slip the secret at his father’s funeral. Jonah didn’t thank his uncle, because he agreed with his mother. He didn’t need to know. Jonah avoided potential hurt like an allergy.
Girls like Nikki Bryce didn’t settle for guys like Jonah. In another life, maybe he’d be the muscular, seven-figure-income suitor to whisk her off to some tropical island, where they’d swim with dolphins and drink salted margaritas. But for now, Jonah was content with calling it what it was: a fantasy.
Saturday night gas station shifts were the longest, but Jonah lived vicariously through Nikki’s Instagram stories. Tonight, she polled her followers whether she ought to wear a leopard-print mini dress or a strapless white one, both with her signature six-inch heels. Jonah voted for the white dress; a loud print would distract from Nikki’s beauty. She also recorded herself curling her hair and applying makeup. Nikki was so engaging with her followers, sharing intimate moments like real friends. Jonah’s heart melted like candle wax. Nikki Bryce was as beautiful inside as she was outside.
“Could I get a pack of Marlboros?” Jonah looked up to a tall, shaggy-blond haired guy wearing a Gucci belt. He looked familiar, but Jonah couldn’t recall why. The guy grabbed a pack of spearmint gum and pulled his visa out of a matching Gucci wallet. Jonah placed his phone onto the counter and turned for the cigarettes.
“Is your phone background Nikki Bryce?”
Jonah’s face flushed scarlet. He rotated slowly and slid the cigarettes toward the guy. “This type okay?”
“That’s fine.” The guy eyed Jonah like he was a hamster in a pet store. “You have a crush on her?”
Jonah wanted to disappear. He stared at the cigarettes and gum as he scanned the barcodes. “You can swipe your card,” he mumbled.
“I know Nikki Bryce,” the guy said, smirking. “A few months ago, my fraternity brother in Miami hosted a club for his twenty-fifth birthday. She and her friends were on the list and ended up hanging with us all weekend.” He inserted his card into the machine. “Nikki was alright. Nice girl. Kind of boring, except when she was drunk or high. Her friends had to carry her out of the club because she threw up in the bathroom sink. Oh, and she doesn’t look like her pictures, either,” he said, motioning towards Jonah’s phone.
Jonah felt his lo mein churning in his stomach. The guy ripped open the cigarette pack and leaned over the counter. “She and her friends are just high-class escorts. Those Instagram models? They live off their sugar daddies.” He grabbed the pack of gum and snickered, shaking his head. “Anyway, have a good night, man.” The guy sauntered out. Jonah stared at his phone screen until tears blurred his vision, disfiguring Nikki into an unidentifiable shape.
Nikki ended up wearing the leopard dress and hoop earrings larger than Jonah’s wrist. She posted a photo in the club’s VIP booth, sidled beside a rapper, his hand rested on her knee and her leg crossed around his. The camera’s flash shined into her ocean eyes, but they no longer felt enchanting. They felt vacant. Like a sea, impenetrable, meant to be admired, but never understood. Jonah tried to imagine what she was thinking. But for the first time since he found her, he had no idea. As he zoomed into her signature expression, he realized he never did.