Illustration by Anna Chamberlin

This piece received first place in the fiction category of the 2024 Wallace Prize.

I won’t deny that it did take a while for me to get used to him. The first time I met him was at a dinner party. We were sitting across from one another, which I think may actually have been a strategic choice on the part of Tabitha, my old college roommate and the hostess of the party. She knew I was single.

He was wearing a button-down shirt and knitted vest—very college professor-looking. And of course the glasses, which I only found out later were actually non-prescription; he wears them so that people know where to make eye-contact.

And I’m sure it would be disconcerting for most people looking across the table at their dinner companion and seeing the Monet print on the wall behind them, and watching their utensils move without apparent hands to move them, the fork lifting the chicken off the plate seemingly of its own will.

But the fact of the matter is that, as a nurse, I spend my days with plenty of people who have some part of them about which they are very self-aware—a scar or a malfunctioning limb, for instance. So at that dinner party, I already knew the proper etiquette with such people: look at their eyes; don’t stare when you think they can’t see; engage with them as people, not bodies. In other words, treat them the way they want to be treated, instead of selfishly satisfying your sick human curiosity.

So that’s what I did with Simon. I didn’t even look to see if the chewed food was visible as it slipped down his throat. (It isn’t, by the way. It disappears when it gets past his lips.)

For these reasons, I like to think that he was comfortable with me from the start. I’m not sure, but I think he was giving me looks across the table. I liked the sound of his voice when he talked: mellow, with clearly enunciated “d’s” and “t’s.”

After dinner, Tabitha brought out Pictionary, which she knew was my favorite—we played it all the time in college with the girls on our floor when we were stressed out over exams or presentations. Simon’s glasses were aimed at me as the teams formed. So I took the first leap: “Want to be my partner?”

“I would like that,” he said.

We won before any of the other teams could even make it past the first corner of the board. Clearly, we were on the same wavelength.

Simon walked me to the Subway that night. I remember it was a little disconcerting, standing with him in the dark, his voice and the flash of the street-light on his button-down the only indication that he was there beside me. He moved silently. I couldn’t even hear him breathing, really. I wondered how hard it must be to live like him—to walk down a street at night hardly noticeable—and then, if someone did notice you, to be stared at relentlessly until you were out of sight, to feel their eyes on you, searching for your neck or hair and finding only jacket, pants, shoes, and glasses. And then during the day, only those stares, endlessly, people whispering as you walk by, maybe little children even daring each other to go up and see if their hand would pass through you. Some people look at you and scream. Others faint dead away. And they only know you’re there in the first place because you put on clothes that morning like everyone else, trying to maintain a sense of normalcy, when going outside with nothing on would maybe allow you to walk down the sidewalk blissfully anonymous like every other person in New York City.

When he asked me for my number, I gave it to him.

We met in the corners of cafes, in dimly-lit bars, in parks on the very edge of Manhattan, the swings at the bottom of the pier on the Lower East Side. He liked to go to places without many people and I accommodated him. We talked for hours on end over the littlest things: my feelings on scrubs, a slide he loved as a kid, our mutual love of Ethiopian food.

Our relationship wasn’t physical at first, just shared company. I had a hard time initiating anything since I didn’t want to grab the wrong thing or touch the wrong place. And I hated that I couldn’t give him physical pleasure—he had likely gone so long without it, and he deserved it from someone. It didn’t have to be me, just someone. But it was me, and I was willing to give it to him. I didn’t know how to approach him about it. Luckily I didn’t have to; one night after sitting on the couch for a few hours and reading together, I felt him touch my cheek. I turned my head and he kissed me.

That night, in the bedroom, I wasn’t sure what to do. When he took his clothes and his glasses off, I had a horrible moment where I felt like I was just sitting in the middle of my bed, naked and alone, illuminated by the wall lamp, aroused for no real discernible reason, and yet fiercely perceived by something I couldn’t see. It felt like every wall in the room was looking at me with lust. And then I saw the impression of his knee in the blanket, felt the mattress shift beneath me and his body stretch over me, his hands lifting my arms over my head.

The secret to having sex with an invisible man is closing your eyes.

Our first apartment was on the Upper West Side. It was small—only just affordable between our two salaries. We shared an eclectic taste in decor: he liked busy, consuming patterns, and I liked Art Deco. The apartment became a wonderland of furniture and art. The biggest room in the apartment was the living room; we filled it with asymmetrical plant stands and a white and blue seersucker couch and, best of all, we covered the walls in stick-on wallpaper—angular gold lines zigzagged across the white background ambitiously, darting up and down the length of the wall. My mother lent us a carpet she had bought in India, a mixture of light yellows. Somehow the room worked. I liked to sit on the carpet the morning after a night shift and lean my head back against the couch, my eyes closed, letting the sunshine paint the inside of my eyelids red, listening to Simon make a delicious breakfast that I likely would not taste before I fell asleep.

There were occasional fights. I wanted children, he didn’t. We compromised and bought a fish tank for the living room. Simon didn’t care much for the fish. We would squabble over dishes.

Our largest fight took place at our favorite Italian restaurant a few blocks away from our apartment. I believe in God and Simon doesn’t, but before that night it was one of the few things we had avoided really talking about. Simon said some pretty atheistical things in the middle of his meatball and I got mad and stormed out, which meant he had to pay the bill himself and run after me and he absolutely hated drawing attention to himself and his condition in that way. I did feel bad later, after we’d made up and were lying in bed, thinking about how awful it must have been for him to run through the streets, people leaping out of his way in terror. I thought that if I was different from everyone else in a deeply irrefutable way, I might not believe in God either.

“To tell you the truth, sometimes I feel like God,” he said when we were lying in bed.

“That’s blasphemous,” I told him.
“I know,” he said, “I’m sorry.”
Then a few minutes later he said, “Because nobody can see God.”

“Okay, stop now,” I said and he really did stop.

But it was something I had wondered about occasionally. That maybe God’s biggest power—or his only power—was that nobody could see him. Would that make him the wind? Or just a bunch of atoms, something visible but invisible to us? When I really thought about it, I realized Simon’s existence was in some ways a proof of God’s existence. Simon was real, a person who thought and felt. And yet, if you weren’t looking for him, you wouldn’t find him. God was much the same way. Although that was true for God all the time and only true for Simon when Simon was fully naked.

But other than that, we got along well. Simon worked at his law firm, I spent long hours at the hospital, and at night we played board games and watched movies and talked. Simon seemed happier than he ever was when we first started dating, and I liked to think it was because he finally had someone to understand him, to appreciate him, even with the one big thing that made him different.

I started to wonder about marriage. Did I want more than our apartment, our committed monogamy? I came from a traditional family—I didn’t have a single unmarried cousin. But maybe Simon wasn’t ready for that. Yet, I wanted him to be the one to propose. 

I spoke with Jeanine about it. She was a nurse on my floor and one of my good friends at the hospital. We played good cop, bad cop with patients. I was the one who politely told you to take your medicine, who gave you a hug if you asked for it, who told you it was okay to feel so overwhelmed that you didn’t do any of the things the doctor told you to do.

There was nothing polite or affectionate about Jeanine. Her charges were disgruntled but healthy.

I knew Jeanine would give me her honest opinion on marriage, so I asked her about it when we took our lunch break together on a Thursday.

“Consider why you dated him in the first place,” she said. We were sitting together on a bench in Central Park, eating our Halal cart lunches.

“What do you mean?”

“Why did you want to start a relationship with him? What drew you to him?”
I thought back to Tabitha’s dinner party. “I thought he was smart. His jokes were funny. And he was interesting.”
Jeanine speared some falafel with her fork. “Is that all?”
“I remember wondering if he’d ever been in a relationship. Given his condition.”

“Ah,” she said, pointing the falafel at me. “So you pitied him.”

“I didn’t pity him. I felt for him. There’s a difference.”

She shrugged. “There’s a fine line between empathy and pity.”

I tried to remind myself that Jeanine’s bluntness was the reason I had started this conversation in the first place. “I wanted your opinion on whether or not Simon and I should get married. I didn’t ask you about Simon as a person.”

“And what I’m saying to you is you need to make sure Simon is the right person before you even start thinking about marriage.”

“Simon is the right person,” I said.

She put down her fork and gave me a supremely patient look, one I’d seen her use on tough-customer charges but never on me.

“Okay, what?” I asked.

“I don’t mean this in an offensive way,” Jeanine said, “but you are a carer. You care about people, you care for people. That is the reason you are in this line of work. But when you care for someone—I mean in the sense of taking care of them, not in having feelings for them—there is something implicit in the relationship between the caregiver and the care-receiver where the caregiver has the most power. The caregiver is not the one who needs help, who needs kindness. Rather the caregiver is so able that they have the capacity to help the care-receiver. And again, I don’t mean this in an offensive way, but I have known you for a long time, and I know that you get a high off of caring for people because it makes you feel good about yourself. It’s one of the things that makes you such a good nurse. But the reason you started dating Simon is that, in a subconscious way, his condition makes you feel superior to him, and you like that. And I don’t think that makes him the right person for you to marry. It would be like marrying a patient.”

She closed her styrofoam container and stood up. “I had to get it off my chest,” she said. “You’ll thank me later.”

She began walking away toward the exit to the park. I wanted to say something to make her realize how much she had hurt me, to make her turn around and come back and apologize or say that everything she had said was a joke. Instead all that I managed to yell after her was: “I am not a carer.” It sounded pathetic even to my own ears.

Jeanine had created a twisted version of reality in which my entire career and personality was built upon my need to feel above everyone else, a world in which my self-aggrandizement drove everything I did. She made it seem like I became a nurse to feel better about myself, instead of helping people. All I’d ever wanted to do was help people for their own sakes. And giving me such a motive overlooked all the hard work I’d put into becoming a nurse: my long nights of studying for tests in nursing school, my weeks spent volunteering in hospitals to fulfill my “field” requirements, the hours I spent explaining systems and procedures to other nursing candidates who didn’t understand the material as well as I did. My night shifts, my day shifts, patients yelling at me for simply being in the room—Jeanine hadn’t considered any of that.

Not to mention this apparently completely selfish part of me that had caused me to form a relationship with Simon out of supposed pity. Pity! What about love? What about romance? Yes, Simon was different. Yes, people sometimes ran away when they saw him coming down the street. And yes, maybe there were moments in which I found pleasure that I was the one holding his hand when all those people were running away. But that was because of how much I loved him, not because I wanted to be his caregiver.

I switched my shifts for a week to avoid Jeanine. The patients suffered for it; it meant they either got good cop or bad cop. It took another two weeks for me to forgive her enough to speak with her again, and another month before we resumed our friendship—albeit a slightly less intimate one. I did not bring up marriage again.

Nor did I bring it up with Simon. I became distracted by a strange thing that started happening at our apartment. It was only strange when one understands my nighttime routine. Usually when I came home after a day shift, I would drop my bag by the front door, wash my hands in the kitchen, and then sit for a moment in a white wicker chair placed at the entrance of the living room. After catching my breath, I would stand up and head to the bathroom for a quick shower before heading across the hall into the bedroom. Simon was almost always sitting on the bed reading a book when I got home. Our bedroom was his quiet space. Then we would have dinner together.

The strange thing was that, about once a week, when I came in and sat down on the wicker chair, stretching my legs out and letting the aches and complaints of the day fall from me, I began to feel a tingling sensation all over my body. It was as though I had just emerged from an ice cold bath. Shivers would run up and down my spine, light and awful like spiders’ legs. My brain felt claustrophobic, trapped in my skull. The sensation was thoroughly and singularly unpleasant and would last until I got into the shower.

Looking back, I wonder why I didn’t stop sitting in the living room after work. But what I have to remember is that most of the time, everything was normal—the wicker chair was still the relaxing refuge that I was so used to. Most of the week I thought I was just imagining it, but I would get home one night and the sensation would come back just as strongly as before.

I hated complaining about physical or mental problems like this to Simon. Nothing that happened to me even seemed bad enough to complain about in comparison to what Simon had to go through just by walking down the street. The only person I did describe the sensation to was Tabitha, who told me she had felt something similar when she was pregnant. She recommended I take a pregnancy test. I assured her it was extremely unlikely that I was pregnant, but I took a test anyway. It came up negative.

I considered asking Jeanine, but decided against it.

But I did start to feel a little bit like I was going crazy. While riding the bus home, I would become anxious about whether or not I would feel the sensation. Would it happen today? Nursing was a stressful job, and I was tired of that stress remaining until I was in my apartment’s bathroom, feeling safe knowing that Simon was in the bedroom waiting for me. On the bus, I would try to imagine the moment I would come into our bedroom, fresh and clean, my hair still damp, and then Simon looking at me, taking off his glasses, pulling me down onto the mattress and making love to me before cooking dinner for us both.

The paranoia built regardless. One Thursday, as I sat on the wicker chair watching the light fade out the window, my skin prickling, the hair on the back of my neck standing up, feeling like I was being stuck with one thousand tiny needles, I realized I had had enough. I didn’t care if it made me seem crazy, but I was going to get to the bottom of this.

I looked all over the room. Nothing. I stood up and walked to the bathroom. I closed the door almost all the way, leaving it open just a half inch. I turned on the shower, and, still standing on the bathroom floor, I pulled the shower curtain along its rail, the curtain rings squeaking their metallic protests. And then I wedged myself between the sink and the door and looked through the crack.

For a minute, nothing happened. I began to seriously consider booking an appointment with a psychiatrist. And then I saw the bedroom door across the hallway open and close by itself, which meant that Simon had left the bedroom, naked for some reason.

Except then I heard the telltale groaning of the springs beneath our bed, which meant that Simon had just clambered onto the bed. Which meant that he had not in fact been leaving the bedroom; he had been entering it. Which meant that he had been standing naked in either the kitchen or the living room, because this was, as I stated before, a small apartment.

I turned, heart beating, undressed, and stepped into the shower. I leaned my head against the cool tiles and let the water run over me.

Could it be true that the entire time this sensation had been because, somehow, my body unconsciously was aware that Simon was in the room with me, naked, silent, watching me, without letting me know that he was there? Of course the feeling that someone’s eyes are on you always carries with it a vague unpleasantness. But the awful sensation I’d been feeling in the living room was more than that.

I remembered the atmosphere in the room the first time we had sex—that terrible, aching loneliness, feeling like my very presence on a bed was an excuse for everything around me to look at me lasciviously. Feeling helpless, trapped, weak. The sensation I had been feeling in the living room was very similar to how I felt then. And Simon had been in the room with me then, even if it didn’t feel like it, about to join me on the bed. So was it really him in the living room? And if it was him… why had he been doing it?

I tried to assure myself that I was overthinking things, that today was a fluke. Maybe Simon had been in bed waiting for me, naked, and then decided to take an Advil in the kitchen. But then why hadn’t he told me he was in the kitchen when I came in? And really, why would he be completely naked? His feet got cold easily; wouldn’t he at least put on socks?

It seemed impossible to me that Simon would use his condition to do something that he knew was wrong. After all, he tried so hard to be normal, to maintain friendships and go to work and get exercise and watch movies in an actual movie theater. Though he had never told me so explicitly, I was sure that he had thought to himself many times that if someone gave him the opportunity to wake up one day and be visible, he would take it in a heartbeat. His condition was his weakness, his medical problem. Wasn’t it?

My stomach was churning, my head throbbing. I grabbed onto the curtain railing for support. I needed to get out of the shower before I slipped and hurt myself. I turned the water off, got out, and toweled myself dry, taking deep breaths and trying to clear my head. There was only one thing to do in this situation.

I wrapped myself in my bathrobe and entered our bedroom, my discarded clothes held loosely in my arms.

Simon was sitting on the bed in a T-shirt and sweatpants, reading the food section of The New York Times. His glasses were on. When I came into the room, he put down his newspaper and said, “Hello, my love. How was the hospital?”

“Simon,” I said. “I want to ask you something. And I want you to tell me the truth. Can you do that?”

“Yes,” he said.

I put my clothes in the hamper, then crawled onto the bed and toward him, sitting cross- legged in front of him and putting my hands on either side of his face so that I could feel his cheeks, his mouth, his forehead.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Do you sometimes stand naked in the living room and watch me when I get home from work without letting me know you’re there?”

His eyebrows twitched beneath my fingertips. It was a few moments before he replied. “Of course not,” he said, holding my hands and moving them away from his face. “Why would you say that?”

And then, only because I was so close to him, I heard him swallow.

“I think you’re lying,” I said.

He let out a choked sound. “Oh really?”

“We’ve been together for two and a half years,” I told him. “Do you think I don’t know by now what you sound like when you lie?”

“I think you’re paranoid. I think my invisibility is starting to burrow inside your brain.”

I glared at the wall behind his glasses. “I have been perfectly comfortable with your condition the entire time we’ve been together. You know that. I have respected you and seen you as a normal human being, despite all the struggles that you have to face.”

The coverlet undulated as he moved restlessly. “Why do you always treat it that way? Like my invisibility is some sort of health defect.”

“What do you mean?”

“I love you, but you always talk about the fact that I’m invisible as though it’s something that holds me back.”

“Doesn’t it?”


“Simon, you can’t even walk down the street without people screaming.”

“Thank you so much for reminding me. Actually, and I know this might shock you, but I don’t think of my invisibility as a curse. It’s a gift. It allows me to do things nobody else on Earth can do.”

“Like spy on your significant other while you’re naked?”

He let out a long sigh and dropped his head. The sleeve of his T-shirt lifted—he was scratching his head. “It was just once, my love.”

The words floated between us, almost physical.

“It wasn’t just once, was it?” I asked him, but it came out as more of a declarative sentence than a question.

Slowly, his glasses shook back and forth.

My heart was beating so loudly that I could feel my pulse in the soles of my feet. All this time it had been him. And all I could think was… “Why?”

He turned to face me more fully, mimicking my cross-legged position. He took my hands in his. “I want to preface this,” he said, “by saying that I love you. I love you so much, and you have been so good to me. So I want you to understand what I’m about to tell you.

“When I take off my clothes and I’m just standing there in my body, it feels… I wish I could make you understand how it feels. Like I’ve become nothing, but nothing in a good way. Have you ever felt that? Being nothing?”

I shook my head.

“It’s the most wonderful feeling in the world. Like I’m the air, or like whatever is in me is also in everything around me. Like I am everything around me. It makes me feel like I could go anywhere in the world… walk over the Atlantic, go to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Nothing feels impossible. I know you think I feel powerless because of my invisibility. But it’s really just the opposite. Being invisible is a deep kind of satisfying, like stepping on a leaf and hearing it crunch.”

“But why did you spy on me?”

He squeezed my hands. “The first time I watched you in the living room was an accident, I swear.”

“Spied on me.”

“Spied on you. Whatever you want to call it. It was an accident. Ever since I was a little boy, sometimes I just feel like I’m going to go crazy if I don’t lie down with nothing on and just become nothing and full of the air and so I took off my clothes and I went into the living room and I lay down on the carpet. And then you came in. And I watched you sit down in your favorite chair, and the wicker was creaking beneath you. And I watched you close your eyes and kind of loll your head to one side. I remember your hair had come out of its bun and you pushed it back and one of your eyes twitched a little. And the way your thighs filled the seat and your toes dug into the carpet near my head.

“And suddenly I had this feeling like I was the chair beneath you, or the hair on your head. And I loved you so strongly in that moment, and I think it was partly because it felt like you were mine. Like something about the fact that I could see you and you had no clue I was even there meant that you were mine in a way beyond relationships and friendship, something deeper than any of that. I know I sound insane to you. Like a creep. But I just became hooked on it, that feeling. I knew you wouldn’t like it but I… well, every so often I did it again.

“I am sorry that I abused your trust, and I’m sorry that I spied on you. And I’d also like to apologize if this whole confession has disabused you of the notion that I never take advantage of my invisibility. I don’t know that I can promise to never be naked again just to capture that feeling of nothingness, but I will promise to never do it in front of you without you knowing. I’m sure you’re very angry. It might take you time. But I love you, and I want you to forgive me.”

I sat there, reeling, his invisible hands and my own love tethering me to him. The whole room seemed to be spinning.

“I don’t know if I can,” I said. 

“Can what?”

“Forgive you.”


He gently let go of my hands and got off the bed. “I’ll go make us dinner,” he said. “What do you want? I’ll make anything you want.”

“I think I’m just going to go to sleep,” I said.


I listened to him open the door.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, and then there was the sound of the door gently closing.
I lay there on my side of the bed, barely thinking, just listening to the clinking of pots in the kitchen and the sound of somebody’s air conditioner in the air shaft outside the bedroom window. And then, unbidden, it came to me—once again I was sitting next to Jeanine on a bench in Central Park, chicken and rice on my lap, and she was telling me that I had started dating Simon because I felt superior to him.

Jeanine had been right, of course. I saw that now. When I looked at Simon across Tabitha’s dining room table, I had seen someone uncomfortable in his own unseen skin, someone who wanted to be more like me: normal, able, content, accepted, secure. And I had gotten some sort of intrinsic, primitive satisfaction from the belief that I was superior to him, that I could give him the normal relationship he’d always dreamed of. In my head, I had held the power in our relationship, a power born in cloying pity and pretended understanding.

But it was Simon who had held the power all along. It was Simon who had spied on me again and again, watching me possessively, near predatorily—and aroused, no doubt. I thought to myself that it must feel marvelous to do that to someone, to look through the one-way mirror of your body and watch someone shiver. My anger was replaced with a sizzling curiosity as I imagined the feeling of that power, a curiosity that remained even after Simon returned and lay down beside me. It kept me tossing and turning while he snored gently by my ear.

In the morning, I lay still and listened to him dress and make coffee. Before he departed he came back into the bedroom to kiss me softly on the cheek and murmur another apology.

Once I heard the front door close, I got up, dressed, and called my shift coordinator to tell them I was sick and would not be able to go to work. Then I left the apartment and went to the local hardware store and bought three small cans of non-toxic white and gold and gray paint.

At home, I undressed in the living room. The window was curtained but open and the cool air caressed my skin as I uncovered myself, removing layer after layer until it was just me— organic me—standing there in the middle of the carpet. I put down some newspaper and got to work, drawing the paintbrush dipped in white up one arm and down the other, along my legs and breasts and back. And then waiting for it to dry before applying the gold in strips, bending the lines around my elbows, slashing a streak of gold across my stomach. Touches of gray to mimic the natural shadows in the room. And finally, the last, delicate applications. A thin coat of white on my eyelids, on the insides of my ears, on the outsides of my nostrils.

The hours that remained before he came home were really hours to practice. I stood against the wall by the couch and stilled myself, inch by inch, learning how to freeze a body that longed to stretch and scratch, learning how to blend in, Galatea choosing to return to stone.

I began to feel it; the thing he had described. As though I was the room, or the breeze from the window. Less human and more a collection of textures, or even less than that. Losing myself to grow larger than myself.

And when he finally did come home, the door opening and his suit entering, briefcase dropped by the door, I closed my eyes and let him sweep his unsuspecting gaze over the living room before sitting hunched on the couch and pulling a pen and Hallmark card out of his inside blazer pocket. He began writing a letter,

My love, allow me again to tell you how sorry I am…

I stood next to him, chameleonized. Today, I was God in the room. Tomorrow, maybe he would be. And wasn’t that equality?