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For Nikolai

Nikolai Muchegian died in November 2022. I didn’t know he had died until five months after it had happened, actually. I just thought he didn’t want to talk to me anymore. He and I don’t have any pictures of us together, but he was an important part of my life and my growth since the moment I met him. I guess I’m writing this essay as a recording of my memories, to supplement the missing photos. His death was a shock to me, and I suppose that this essay is some sort of eulogy. I’ve never lost somebody like this before, and it is… uncomfortable at best, and terrifying at worst. I wish I could’ve gone to the funeral or even knew where he was buried. But I don’t, and so I cope.

He Superliked me on Tinder during the summer of 2019— that’s where we met. His profile said that he only used Superlikes for stewardesses, and I pointed out to him that I’m most certainly not a stewardess. We chatted and exchanged Instagram handles. At the time, I was a marketing intern at a small jewelry company. I don’t know what he was doing. He was involved with and thinking about Anton’s Dumplings, at the very least. He was definitely not a big fan of Anton himself, from what I remember. He always seemed paranoid about somebody being out to get him, whether it was Anton or anybody else. I remember that he was also making the Balancer logo at that time— I wasn’t sure what it was for but told him it just looked like a smooshed snowman. Over Instagram, while he wouldn’t say much, he’d often ask for pictures of me and from my day— while superficial in some respects, caring enough to see pics from my day was sweet in its own way. It makes sense, though— I was just a pretty girl on the Internet. He once described me as the fairy that lives in his phone. He eventually started properly telling me about his thoughts and ideas, and somehow or another, we ended up genuinely writing to each other a lot, and often. I remember that the first time we ever met in person, he picked me up from my neighborhood in his car— it was that silly Tesla that coaxed me into coming out. He messaged me, asking me if I had ever been in a Tesla, and I said no. He eventually ended up picking me up and we listened to music in his car as we drove into deep Brooklyn. It was really funny to me that when he first pulled up, he stepped out of his car to say hello and I immediately went, “Why are you getting out of the car? We’re going to the beach!” as I pulled open the passenger door and hopped in. I guess I trusted him, or at the very least, liked him enough to not mind being murdered by him.

I think he once introduced me to his friend Kevin briefly. I don’t remember much about Kevin other than that he had an oddly shaped head and was staying with Nikolai at the time. This friend also used my photos to catfish people on Tinder at one point— I remember that much. I even had a friend on the west coast text me at one point, asking me if I was going by a pseudonym on Tinder in California! Nope, it’s just some man LARPing as a pretty blonde girl. I do wish I got to meet some of Nikolai’s other friends. Now that he’s gone, I don’t even have anybody with whom I could talk about how fantastic he was. However silly it sounds, I find myself connecting to some of the “sources” who described Nikolai in the articles about his death.

Nikolai was smart and loved what he did. And not in a selfish way, but in a passionate, warm way. He had the kind of affection for and knowledge of computer science that I’m only now beginning to understand and resonate with. But I am now unbelievably grateful that he saw my desire to learn years ago and decided to indulge it— he nudged me here and there when I needed it, and without him, I don’t think I’d be where I am now. That summer we met, I told him that I wanted to code my own blog, and he said I could if I put my mind to it. I’m not sure if I’d describe it as him having held my hand through the process, but he was certainly there for me when I needed a nudge here and there. He pointed me to Github Pages and to Jekyll, and that was more than enough to get me started. And now here I am, having finished my computer science major at a prestigious college in record time and now working as a software engineer in the fintech industry. Nikolai would even take time out of his busy day to help me with my homework sometimes once I started taking the classes. The man often talked about magic and being a computer wizard— and at first, I thought he was being just silly and trying to entertain himself, but considering everything I’ve learned about science and engineering and computers in the past two years, largely inspired by him, I’ve realized that he had a point. I like to think of the Heisenberg quote, “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.” It honestly reinspired my dedication to God.

I seldom feel particularly understood, accepted, or heard by… well, anybody. I don’t think Nikolai and I were necessarily kindred souls— or maybe we were— but if we were, maybe then we would’ve worked out better as a couple— or maybe by nature of being kindred souls, we never could’ve worked out— but he made me feel much more normal in my own head. And now that he’s gone, I’m becoming quite sober to the fact that I cannot fathom anybody ever being able to replace his presence in my life. Like me, he was chronically online. Probably more, considering that when we were closest, I was still in college and didn’t have the flexibility or mind space to necessarily indulge in the kind of lurking and shitposting he indulged. But he was funny and charming, at least over text. In person, though, I could always tell he had so much on his mind. The gears in his mind were nearly always churning quite loudly and I guess it sometimes made it hard for him to connect with me in person the way we did over the phone. That intensity honestly resonated with me but also made me worry sometimes about him. There’s a mental toll on maintaining such heavy trains of thought for days or weeks or months on end. But our shared autism, obsessive tendencies, and lack of a filter made me feel like he and I were maybe birds of a feather.

That summer with him was fun, and he later told me that I had helped him at an especially low point in his life. I feel deeply happy about that since it clearly meant a lot to me as well. I ended up going back to school, but we kept in touch. He and I spoke and texted a lot during quarantine. I suppose that when lockdowns were enforced, and only our online avatars were the ones capable of socializing and we weren’t limited by geography or physicality, he and I ended up wanting to provide for each other the virtual company and the mental stimulus that only another human being impart. It was sweet. He was really sweet to me then— I still have our text conversations on my old phone from that time. I saw him a couple more times throughout the years and they were fun— with him living in Florida, and then later in Puerto Rico, there weren’t many opportunities to see him. He often invited me down to his new place on the island, but for some reason or another, typically related to my family, I always said no.

We’d still call and chat sometimes in the past year or two. I remember us getting on the phone and we’d talk. At one point I could hear that he was outside, and I asked him where he was going. He told me he was outside on a stroll— the ocean was only a 20-minute walk from his house. He asked if I could hear the ocean in the background, and I don’t remember if I could. He was living in Puerto Rico for more than a year at that point, and he told me about how obvious it was that the beach was getting smaller as the months went by due to rising sea levels. Later hearing that he got taken away by the riptide broke my heart and felt all too real. He was a confident guy and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he walked too close to the edge of the beach and overestimated how safe he was at the point where the sand met the ocean.

The last thing he sent me was a series of texts— one of which was a photo of a Lego set he made. He wrote that he liked the symbol of creativity. I’m not really sure what he meant by that, but it was about 12 days before his body was found on the shore of San Juan. It worries me that in the picture he sent me, there was a little Lego figurine in the river of the tree he had made. I even asked about it when he sent the picture to me, but he never responded. I’m not sure why. I just assumed he was busy. By that point, it seemed like he was fairly on-and-off with his ex-girlfriend and I worry that he got caught up with the sort of people on the island and sorts of ideas regarding his lifestyle that weren’t good for his mental health. It makes me wish I could’ve been there for him more.

I messaged him again in November, trying to see what he was up to, and see how he was doing. Again, he didn’t respond— and note that I typically describe myself as an angry girl; I’ve certainly got a temper. Due to the lack of a response, I decided that he must’ve not cared about me anymore and that he was done with our friendship. I felt hurt— and this sort of thing from men typically doesn’t phase me, but this time it did. I deleted our chat from my phone; with the context of time, I now recognize that this shows how much I actually care about him, regardless of whether or not I was willing to acknowledge it at the time. And now I know that he’s just gone and couldn’t have gotten back to me even if he wanted.

I’m mad because I find most people disposable, but Nikolai wasn’t. I think the world— or at least I— needed him and his charm and intellect and personality, and it’s so deeply unfair that he’s gone now. Nikolai shaped me as a person and was the cause of the first spark that inspired my love for computer science. The terms “a fun fuck” and “mindshare” are forever in my vocabulary due to his use of them, and his ambition rubbed off on me, and because of him, I discovered a deep appreciation for geeky graphic tees. I so deeply hoped that maybe he and I could go on more adventures in life, or at least vicariously live through each other. It was a life cut short. There was still so much to do… But God decided that this was the way it was meant to be, and so it is. In the worst moments of mourning, I’m afraid that I’ll end up getting caught up by the ocean too. I keep bouncing between different stages of grief, but I know that in the end, there’s nothing for me to do but to feel grateful to have ever gotten the opportunity to meet him and adore him in the first place. And maybe write an essay about how much I miss him.