A year ago my boyfriend became invisible.
I woke up early one morning to an empty space beside me, the sheet and pillow still indented from where he’d slept. I reached out a hand to see if his pillow was still warm and accidentally poked him in the eye.
“Ow!” he shouted. “What was that for?”
“Sorry.” I quickly drew my hand back under the covers.
“Whatever, babe, go back to sleep.” He hauled me up next to him, arm reaching around to anchor me to his chest, and pulled up the blankets. The sight of myself being held by air was disconcerting, breasts molded by an arm that didn’t seem to exist. I closed my eyes. It almost felt like normal; the only thing that made it different was the knowledge that if I opened them, my sight would contradict the sensation of him holding me close.
I couldn’t get back to sleep, and spent the next two hours examining the space where I knew his arm was. No matter which way I tilted my head or how much I squinted my eyes, there was nothing there to see. I traced his hand with my fingers, outlining skin, bone, and fingernails, the smooth patch of skin where he’d been hit by a hot grease spatter while making his famous applesauce pork chops for our fourth date. I listened to him breathe and felt the steady rise and fall of his chest against my back. He’s still there, I told myself. But I only half believed it.
When the alarm clock went off at 7:00 and I felt him roll out of bed, I stayed behind and stared at the photo on the nightstand, the one of us gazing into each other’s eyes and laughing, caught unawares by a friend at the picnic we’d had at the beach a few months ago. For the first time I noticed that we weren’t really looking directly at each other in the picture, our eyes just a little off center.
* * *
That evening I waited at the kitchen table for him to get home, hoping he’d be visible again when he walked in the door. At 5:52 I heard his keys jingling. The door opened, then closed. I still couldn’t see him.
“Hi, babe,” he said, and his voice came from nowhere. “What’s for dinner?” Cupboards opened and closed of their own volition as he moved around the kitchen. After every door in the kitchen had been opened at least once, there was a pause. “Let’s go out,” he said, and I jumped. He’d moved behind my chair without my realizing it. “Chinese?” I agreed because I didn’t know how else to respond. How do you speak to a man who’s become invisible?
The restaurant was almost empty, as usual. It was a tiny little place we’d discovered a month after we started dating. The lack of bustle only made me feel more conspicuous, eating dinner with an invisible man. I ordered for us – we’d come often enough to have a usual – and didn’t make eye contact with the waitress, not wanting to see her expression: puzzled, annoyed, or, worse, pitying.
When the waitress returned with our food, I was surprised that she placed his plate on the Chinese zodiac placemat in front of him; I would have expected her to put both plates within my reach. When she poured two glasses of water, it occurred to me that she probably thought I was waiting for someone. I decided not to correct her.
I only picked at my sweet and sour chicken, pushing it into my rice, the sauce staining the white grains pink. If he noticed, he didn’t comment. He cleaned his plate, keeping up a steady stream of chatter in between forkfuls. I glanced around the restaurant, hoping that the few other diners were far enough away that they couldn’t hear him.
By the end of the meal I was exhausted and miserable. I just wanted to go back to the apartment and sleep; maybe things would be back to normal tomorrow. The waitress brought two fortune cookies. I wasn’t sure why; it should be obvious by now that no one was going to join me. I supposed she had to give out one with each meal, and I’d ordered two.
He and I had a sort of fortune cookie ritual: we’d each choose a cookie, break it open, then trade fortunes before reading them. He used to say that we’d confuse the fortune cookie gods into thinking we were the same person, with the same fortune. For months I’d thought that it was the most romantic thing I’d ever heard. We’d pick whichever fortune suited us that day, and discard the other. Now it was just routine.
I felt strange swapping fortunes with him, my hand brushing his invisible one, pressing the small piece of paper into his invisible palm. The fortune disappeared as his fingers closed over it. He read first: “ ‘The lucky man is he who does not leave things to chance.’ True . . . But not exactly relevant. You go.”
I glanced down at the slip of paper in my hand. It was blank. I turned it over. There was nothing written on either side. “This one doesn’t have a fortune.”
I held the paper up, displaying both sides to the seat across from me.
He laughed, a loud bark that caused a family on the other side of the room to turn and look at me. I blushed. He said, “That one must mean that we write our own fortunes. I like it.”
To me, the fortune was sad, like the message was there, but no one could read it. Or that there used to be a fortune, but it had been erased. I slipped the piece of paper into my jacket pocket as we left the table.
* * *
I managed to avoid him that night by curling up in bed with a book and pretending to be completely engrossed. I heard him tapping away on the computer in the other room, working on some report for work. I decided to give up on my book and take a shower, and stopped in the doorway on my way to the bathroom. I watched as the keys were depressed in short, quick bursts –- he was a fast typist, but took his time thinking of what he wanted to say before he started typing. After a longer than usual pause, I realized he’d noticed me.
“Can I do something for you?” he asked.
“No!” I responded quickly. “I’m just going to take a shower.” I attempted a smile and could tell that I had failed miserably.
“O-kay.” The word was drawn out, and I could hear his confused exasperation. I almost stumbled in my haste to get across the living room and into the bathroom.
I took longer than usual, standing under the hot water until it ran out and I was suddenly pelted with freezing cold droplets. I dried off and got into my pajamas quickly, then ran for the bedroom and the warmth of the bed.
Huddling under the blankets, I blew on my hands then shoved them under my armpits. The mattress creaked. I felt a hand on my hip. The hand began to stroke my side and I stiffened. “Cold?” His voice was next to my ear, breath hot on my cheek. “Want me to warm you up?”
Trying to dislodge his hand, I turned to face him. It was a mistake; he wasn’t there to face. I buried my head in my hands and took a deep breath. “Not tonight. I have a headache.” He let out a gusty sigh, and the mattress bounced as he flopped onto his back.
I turned out the light and listened to his breathing. When it slowed, I got out of bed and crept into the living room. I sat on the couch and went through every aspect of our relationship, from the first time we met at Barnes and Noble to the first time we had sex to the day he moved in to when I woke up and couldn’t see him anymore. I used to be able to think back to all the little things about him that I loved, the romantic gestures, the things we’d done together, the conversations we’d had, and feel like love was filling me to the brim and any moment it would burst out, shattering me into a million wonderful fragments. And I used to think that I wouldn’t mind that, being broken by sheer masses of love.
Now, while the events and words remained, I couldn’t dredge up the memory of the emotions that I’d felt. They were all gone, as if they’d never existed. Erased.
I crawled back into bed and found his face with my fingers. I outlined its contours and tried to imagine him the way he’d looked to me in the beginning, or even a month ago. And as I traced his eyes, nose, cheekbones, mouth, I felt them becoming somehow less dense, less real. I leaned in and kissed his cheek, and my lips could hardly feel his skin.
His voice was thick with sleep. “Babe? What’s going on?”
I tasted salt and realized that I had begun to cry. “You’re vanishing.”
“No, I’m not.” He sat up. “Hey, I’m right here.” He put his arms around me, but it felt like the barest whisper, less substantial than if he were made of tissue paper.
“I love you,” he said. I could feel him becoming less solid, fading away by the second. I love you too, I tried to say, but the words stuck in my throat. Then he was gone.
* * *
A few days later, when I put on my jacket before I left for work, I stuffed my hand into the pocket and found the fortune. I stared at it blankly for a time, then grabbed a pen from the kitchen table and carefully drew a heart in the center of the paper. I studied it for a few moments, then placed it in my mouth. I rolled it around with my tongue until it was saturated with my saliva, tasting ink, stale fortune cookie, and pocket lint. Then, careful to make sure that the paper was still intact, I swallowed.
Elena wrote her first story, a picture book titled “The Dog Who Wanted to Be Rainbow,” when she was four, and has spent the last seventeen years attempting to surpass it in excellence (without much luck). A native Minnesotan, she’s currently an undergraduate student of History at Knox College in Illinois, where she spends almost as much time reading fantasy novels as she does textbooks. “Erased” is her first publication.