The summer I move to Portland I start answering personal ads. The real paper and ink kind from the back of the alt-weekly newspaper. I do this out of curiosity and for other reasons. I do not know many people in town yet and I guess I am feeling a little alone.
These dates are interesting, but otherwise not very good. I meet nice men, ugly men, lonely men. They are the kind of men who grit their teeth too hard when they smile. I don't go on any second dates.
I start thinking that I might stop reading the personnel ads. They're making me sad. But then I read an ad that says, "Claude Rains seeks Gloria Stuart." It reminds me of a black and white movie I saw late one night on the television. I like this one so much that I answer it and one Saturday night in late August I go out to meet the invisible man.
For the date, I wear the sort of things I usually wear when I'm not at work. Ripped tights, a black cotton shift with no shape to it, and heavy army boots that make my feet feel connected to the ground. It is chilly for August and I put on a man's woolen suit jacket that hangs to my knees. I don't try to look too pretty for first dates. I think it makes for unrealistic expectations. I bike over to the bar and my helmet crushes my wiry hair against my forehead. I lock up my bike with a good thick chain and head inside.
The invisible man doesn't have much of a face on when I first meet him, but I recognize him right away. He sits in a corner booth, drinking a beer. His whole head is covered in pale bandages and a pair of round, dark glasses cover where his eyes should be. He wears a long coat over a grey suit. I start towards the table and he holds out a gloved hand.
"Are you Rivka?" he asks. I see his face move underneath the bandages. A small amount of beer foam clings to the slit over his mouth.
"Yeah," I say. I shake his hand and feel long solid fingers through thin leather. "So, what's the deal?" I ask as I slide into the seat across from him. A short row of battered pinball machines flashes at me behind the invisible man's bandaged head. They provide most of the bar's light.
"The deal?" he says. His gloved hand is still on mine. He looks down at our fingers and then slowly pulls it back.
"You a vet? You burned all over or something?" I say, rapping my fingers on the table. "You hiding from the mob? Or the F.B.I?" I've never had good manners. Sometimes people like it. Not always, though.
"N-n-o," says the invisible man, making the word much longer than it needs to be. His voice is muffled by all the bandages, but I can still hear him fine. He threads his fingers together and rests his chin on top of them. The light from the pinball machines flashes behind his head and makes me think of halos.
"So?" I say.
"I had hoped it was clear from the ad," he says.
"So, you mean it," I say. "You think you're the invisible man."
He tilts his head to the side and flips his palms up so that he's holding his chin. "I'm an invisible man," he says.
I pick some dirt out from under my fingernails while I consider this. "Okay," I say. "Why don't you tell me about that." I signal the bartender for a beer.
The invisible man's real name is Bartholomew Gone and he used to be a physicist.
After the bar we go back to his place to listen to records. I'm curious what sort of place an invisible man lives in, but it's not just that. I like the invisible man. He talks in a low, muffled voice that reminds me of an ocean that goes and goes.
The invisible man lives on the top floor of a nice apartment building with a neon sign. The furniture inside looks like it came from a few different garage sales, but it is all very clean. The invisible man takes off his long coat and hangs it over the door. He keeps flipping through stacks of vinyl, putting something on the stereo for a few songs and then swapping it out for something else. He walks back and forth across the room. The invisible man is tall and thin, and his shoulders curl forward under the fabric of his coat. I sit on the couch and shrug out of my jacket. I feel like something important is about to happen.
The invisible man puts on Stop Making Sense and holds still. He looks up at the ceiling. He is holding his chin again. "Your jacket made me think of them," he says.
I smile at him even though he's not looking at me. The Talking Heads don't yell as much as the people I normally listen to, but they are jerky in a way that I like. David Byrne sings about buildings and food.
When the invisible man finally sits down on the couch I am so wired up that I kiss him right away. The bandages scratch my lips. His tongue slips out from between the bandages and into my mouth. It feels real enough.
I loop my fingers under a strand of the bandages and pull until they start to come loose. His dark glasses come off and are lost between the couch cushions. "Stop," says the invisible man, but he doesn't move away. He lets me unwind the bandages from around his head while he grips his knees with his hands and breathes hard through his mouth.
I pull the last of the bandages off him and throw the wad of fabric across the room. I look straight through the place where his head should be and out through the window. There's nothing there. Something in me breaks a little and I make a sound like "ah". My spine feels hot. I reach out both hands and feel for his face.
"Ow," he says as my palm runs into the bridge of his nose.
"There you are," I say. I find his mouth and kiss him again. I haven't been this excited about anyone in a long time.
"You wouldn't like me so much if you could see me," he says. He smiles and I feel his cheeks jump under the palms of my hands.
I run my fingers along the edge of his crooked teeth. I feel his long nose and far-set eyes. Deep creases curve around his mouth and smaller lines run across his forehead. There are small, scratchy patches of hair on his chin and upper lip. "I think I would," I say.
I don't have sex with the invisible man on the first night, but I do sleep next to him. He wears striped pajamas and dreams with his unseen hands resting on my hips. In the morning he makes black tea with loose leaves from a tin. This is the kind of tea I like. A steaming mug hovers in the air in front of me and I take it from him and drink it while lying against the headboard of his bed.
I don't do this. I don't sit in men's beds and drink tea. Most often I sneak out in the middle of the night and then don't answer my phone. But somehow I have been gentled. The presence of the invisible man makes me feel like I am better person than who I am.
The invisible man lies besides me in bed in his striped pajamas and asks me about myself. He asks me where I'm from, and what I did before I came to Portland.
I tell the invisible man that I don't believe in the past. I'm here now and it's like I've always been here. Tomorrow I'll be somewhere else and it'll be like I've always been there.
Instead, I let him ask me questions like, "What do you do?"
I tell him that I paint.
"What kind of paintings?"
"No, not like that. I don't have the spark. I paint houses. I specialize in interiors." This is true.
I think while the invisible man dumps the used tea leaves in the trash. Then I tell him that, to supplement my income, I sometimes deliver small packages of drugs on my bicycle. This is also true.
The invisible man sits back down on the bed. "Is it dangerous?"
"Not if you're smart," I say. "I'm smart."
The invisible man starts talking about places to eat breakfast.
"I would like French toast," I say.
The invisible man puts his bandages back on and we head out onto the street. He leads the way. I will follow him anywhere.
When we do start really sleeping together, it is very good. It's exciting not to see him. I listen to the constant sea sound of his voice when I touch him. I read his hipbones with my fingers. I get to know the taste of his sweat and spit so well that I can sniff him out in the dark. But I can't see him. That's the one thing I can't have.
When the invisible man takes off all his clothes he is very hard to see. We use masks so that I can keep track of where his face is. Without them I feel disoriented. I fuck paper demon faces and disembodied surgical masks. I come looking up into the smiling werewolf face of Richard Nixon.
I am very happy.
I tell the invisible man things about myself, because he likes to learn them. I don't tell him about past things, but I do tell him about things that are true now. I tell him that people always think I'm Russian, but my parents are really from Lithuania. I tell him that the only people who don't think I'm Russian are actual Russians. I tell him that I am twenty-three years old. I tell him that I don't have a driver's license. I tell him that dogs are my favorite animals and that terriers are my favorite dogs because even when they are small they kill rats. I say that I like painting houses because sometimes while I do it my mind goes very still and I don't think about anything at all.
I tell the invisible man that sometimes I eat entire plates full of raw green vegetables with my hands and my teeth and absorb their life essence. This is why I'm still alive. I like oysters, too, I tell him.
The next night the invisible man takes me out for oysters. He pays for the whole dozen. I complain about it, because I have hard-earned money from painting houses and delivering drugs on my bicycle and I can pay for things too. But the invisible man waves my blue debit card away and just tells me that he received a very big settlement from the company he was working for when he had his accident. I'll give him that. At least I'm not invisible.
I stop smoking and start smiling all of the time. One of my bosses is worried about me.
"What's wrong with you, Rivka, huh? You in love?"
"Well, I hope not," I say. And I take the package from him and get on my bike.
When I have been seeing the invisible man for about a month he sits me down on his couch and tells me that he is in love with someone else.
I roll off the couch and onto my back on the floor. I feel like an animal that has been hit by a bus. Roadkill, with all my guts spilling out. I hadn't expected to ever feel like this.
"This whole time?" I spit at him from the floor. "Has it been this whole time?"
The invisible hand has his gloves on so that I can see his hands wringing at each other.
"Let me explain," he says. "Please don't cry, Rivka. Please, don't."
"I'm not crying," I say. Water keeps running down my nose and I don't know where it's coming from. "I'm not."
"She was my fianc , before. She couldn't deal with things after the accident. But she's had time to think. She wants to get back together."
"Where?" I say. "Where is she? I'll punch her in the face. I'll fight her for you. I'll win."
"Canada," says the invisible man. "That's where I'm from, originally. I came to the states to get away."
I lift my head up from the floor and then let it thunk back down again. "Canada," I say. "Canada is a useless country. I'll punch Canada in the face, too."
"We're going to get married," says the invisible man. I stop making words. I roll back and forth on the floor and keen like something dying. His bandaged head stays turned towards me, empty space where the eyes should be. The bandages around the eyes are wet.
"Don't you fucking look at me," I say to the invisible man.
"I'm not," he says. It's impossible for me to tell.
As I lie on the floor I think that I should be like St. Sebastian. I should stand up, all stuck with arrows, and be beatific. But I'm not a man or a saint and I keep lying on the floor. I say things that I shouldn't. I grind up words until they're sharp and stick them between his ribs. I tell him that no one will ever love him. Not the fiancé, not anyone. I am really talking to myself, though. I know that if I can't keep the nearly nothing invisible man that I'll never get to have anything at all. I leave at two in the morning when I run out of things to say.
I didn't have my bike with me that night so I have to ride the bus back from his apartment. I try to make my face as hard as a mask. I don't want to cry on the bus, but water keeps running out of my eyes anyways. I squeeze them shut and wish I had some bandages.
The invisible man calls me on a pay phone when he is halfway to Canada. I only pick up because I don't recognize the phone number. His voice comes to me through distant wires.
"Don't hang up," he says.
"Fuck you," I say. I don't hang up.
"I believe you," he says. "I believe that you would still like me if you could see me."
"I do see you," I say. "I see you."
The line clicks shut. "Goodbye," I say into the quiet mouthpiece of my phone. "Goodbye goodbye goodbye."
I often think about the invisible man. Sometimes at night I spread my maps out on my floor and trace imaginary routes north. I dream about fetching him back. What is worse, though, is that I am thinking backwards. I think about my early days with the invisible man, when I thought that I would get to love him. I think about turntables and tea until that dying sound rises in my throat and I have to stop and not think about anything at all.
I do this with other men in the room. They watch me spread out the maps and they don't say anything, just furrow their brows and look blank. When we're in bed I close my eyes and pretend they're not really there at all.
I start smoking and scowling again.
"There's our Rivka," says my boss. "She's back with us again." I nod at him, because this is true. He hands me a package and I get on my bike and go.