After the Super Bowl I shot my dog and was fired from the NFL. By the following winter I had lost all my money and friends and was roaming the earth homeless and hated. No longer a football star, I was seen as a hulking, dog-killing monster with a deformed and hideous face. I was beaten so badly by the people of a town in New Jersey that I nearly died. Cold, bruised and wretched, I came to rest in a hole.

When I regained consciousness I found myself in total darkness. Feeling around, I discovered I was in a tiny room whose only egress was an air duct near the floor. I squeezed my bruised body into the duct and crawled until I reached a metal wall. A thin space between duct and wall allowed me to slide out. I stood in a small alley. What I had thought was the wall was an industrial-size Dumpster. I shoved it against the opening of the duct to seal off my hiding place. The sky was dark. I saw streetlights in the distance.

I ventured out from the alley and found a sleeping town with strip malls, mom-and-pop shops, a few apartment buildings and family homes with small green lawns. The license plates of parked cars told me I was still in New Jersey. A clock on a bank said three A.M.

Skulking in the dark, I avoided being seen by the few people who were out at that hour. From Dumpsters behind convenience stores and restaurants I gathered loaves of bread past their sell-by date and containers of half-eaten chicken fried rice. I climbed back into my air duct before dawn and pulled the Dumpster up against it before I retreated to my pitch-black enclosure, an empty closet or laundry room whose doorway must have been sealed off at some point. I ate and slept.

I woke, crawled out of my hole in the wee hours, foraged for food, returned to my hole and so on, for many days and nights until my sleep was disturbed one evening, earlier than I was accustomed to waking up, by the inhabitant of the apartment whose disused closet I had made my home. Before then I must have slept so soundly in my wounds that her movements had not disturbed me. I saw a pinprick of light about chest-high on the wall between the apartment and my dark little space—a tiny hole. I stood up, hunched over awkwardly, and put my eye to the hole. The inhabitant was a young woman about my age, very small, with a grayish complexion and tiny needlelike features, the sort of person who, if I had condescended to notice her at all when I was a football star, I would have disdained and thought ugly. The apartment she lived in was small, with dingy beige walls not painted for many years, and cheap, worn, secondhand furniture.

I observed the woman that evening and many evenings after, from the time she came home until she went to bed. She made a simple meal of chicken or fish or hamburger—all of which came in shallow Styrofoam dishes wrapped tightly with transparent plastic—and ate it with a wilted salad, or a frozen vegetable that she invariably overcooked. She never made phone calls, so I did not hear her voice. She did not appear to own a TV, radio, computer or smartphone. After dinner she remained at the dull wooden dining table of her one-room apartment beneath a lightbulb suspended from the ceiling and covered with a plastic shade. She stared at something I could not see and wept silently, shoulders shaking, her tiny needlelike features bunched together in anguish. Then she stood up, cleared and washed the dishes, changed into her nightgown, climbed into bed, turned out the light and went to sleep.

Mine was a lonely life, but not as lonely as when I’d been in the NFL and had an entourage of friends and a constantly changing roster of beautiful women to have sex with.

Her routine remained unvaried for at least a month—though my sense of the passage of time during that period was vague. My routine changed in that I became better at foraging for healthy food—thank you, NFL nutritionists, for teaching me about a balanced diet. I thought often about leaving fresh organically grown vegetables and quinoa salads in the refrigerator of my new housemate, but I sensed that would frighten her, and not only did she seem to have enough emotional disturbance in her life already, but I had come to look forward so much to watching her nightly routine that I did not want to risk disrupting it. When she arrived home my heart rate increased. When she ate dinner I sighed at the blandness of her food. When she cried my heart swelled with sadness. When she climbed into her bed, whose headboard was directly below the hole through which I spied on her, I got tired, lay down on the closet floor and slept for an hour before rousing myself for my nightly excursion into the world. During the wee hours I now not only foraged for food, I also exercised. I did push-ups and pull-ups and crunches, I ran five miles and did yoga and qigong. I did not exchange a word with anyone and no one ever saw me up close. Mine was a lonely life, but not as lonely as when I’d been in the NFL and had an entourage of friends and a constantly changing roster of beautiful women to have sex with. I wouldn’t say that I was happy during this time of living in the closet but I was less unhappy than before, despite having to shit between parked cars.

One evening the woman I lived with came home very agitated. She placed on her dining table a thin, rectangular object inside a brown paper bag. She sat in her little wooden chair at the table in front of the object and stared at it. She stood up and paced around, landing occasionally on her bed, or by the small window whose view I could not see from my vantage, or in front of the fridge, and then back to the dining table. She moved the object to her bed, hastily made and ate her drab dinner, did not linger at the table afterward, did not cry, but cleared and washed the dishes and went to bed earlier than usual. She did not immediately turn out the light as I had seen her do every night until now. She sat with her back against the headboard, holding her knees, rocking slightly and staring down at the parcel beside her. She did this for a long time, then placed the parcel on the floor beneath her bed and turned out the light. I became sleepy as I usually did, but lying on the floor of the closet, I heard her tossing about restlessly in bed on the other side of the wall. It took her—and me—hours to fall asleep that night. I ended up missing my nightly foray out of doors, and we both woke up the next morning exhausted, cranky and, in my case, hungry.

The following day was miserable for me. I had not eaten in more than 24 hours, I could not go outside for fear of being seen and brutalized, and I did not want to violate what had become for me the sanctified space of the young woman’s apartment, so I spent the whole day in the small dark space that used to be a closet and now was my home, ravenous and unable to sleep. As the light began to wane in her apartment I knew she would be home soon. The muscles of my legs, which all day had felt tight and cramped, began to loosen and relax, and a general state of ease and well-being supplanted the angry and sorrowful thoughts that had taken root in me that morning. She walked in the door and looked around the place with quick movements of her head as if she knew someone was watching her. With her coat still on she sat abruptly at her table and remained immobile for some time, as if in deep meditation or a quandary. She stood up, made, ate and cleaned up her dinner more hastily than usual. Again she did not cry but rushed into her nightgown and sat on the edge of her bed, staring down at the brown parcel next to her. Her hands reached toward the parcel and drew back, several times. Finally she opened it, a lion tearing apart a gazelle. Inside was a book, a hardcover without a dust jacket. No title on the cover that I could see. She put it back down on the bed and sat next to it, rocking back and forth slightly, eyes squeezed shut. Her breathing was fast and on her gray cheeks two faint pink spots appeared. Finally she climbed into bed and opened the book to page one. I was in a good position to see the page she was reading, but my eyesight had been compromised in the beating I’d received, and the print was small, so I was unable to read it. From the bright page with its unintelligible markings, my gaze wandered to the top of her head, thinly covered with dull brown hair; to the room, with its old worn carpet and yellowed walls dully illuminated by her bedside lamp; to her shoulders, covered by the threadbare nightgown and heaving up and down with her quick, labored breaths. After what could not have been more than 10 minutes of reading she threw the book on the floor. She turned off the light and, despite her apparent effort, was unable to sleep for several hours.

Hungry and weak, I tiptoed out into the night, retrieved my food and returned to my provisional home without jogging or doing calisthenics. After eating I fell asleep, angry with my companion for disrupting the routine that had helped me regain my equilibrium. But I was awakened soon after by a banging noise. I peered through the hole and in the brown light of dawn I saw her, still in bed, fighting off an invisible assailant. She woke with a start, looked around and launched into a particularly intense fit of her silent weeping. I felt now like an ass for having been angry with her. I didn’t understand the significance of the book, or why she seemed to be forcing herself to read it, but I sensed she was deliberately undertaking a difficult labor, and I respected her for doing so.

The next several nights were the same: agitation, a hasty meal, nightgown, hesitation before the book, 10 minutes of reading, lights out, a poor night’s sleep that I felt compelled to watch over, my quick foray into the world, her dawn nightmare, tears and off to work, or wherever she went during the day. I was so concerned for her that my own daytime sleeping was poor as well. We were both tired all the time now. Though I fought against this, my respect for her was waning. She had a goal, her attempts to achieve it were unsatisfactory, but she was doing the same thing over and over again. I’ve found, in life, that if you want to achieve something, you need a plan, and if your plan is not a success, you make another. I realized I would not be able to help her unless I knew what her book was about, so the following night, during one of her brief periods of fitful sleep, I crept out into the world, and in addition to gathering my usual vegetables, fruits and grains, I broke into a toy store and stole a children’s telescope. I slept poorly that day, not, as on previous days, because I was concerned for her or annoyed with her, but because I was excited about being able to read her book with her, for the 10 or so minutes she could bear to read it.

She reached under her nightgown and began slowly to touch herself.

When she arrived home she looked different. She had had her hair done and was wearing a new satin purple dress with a somewhat abstracted floral print, not a beautiful dress—she had terrible taste, even someone on a budget didn’t have to buy a dress like that. She also appeared calmer than I had seen her in days, maybe ever. She ate more slowly than she’d been doing, and at bedtime she put on a new nightgown—yellow, also ugly—which she’d evidently bought that day as well. She still paused on the edge of her bed before picking up the book, but her movements were more deliberate. She climbed into bed, turned on her bedside lamp and commenced reading. I brought my telescope up to the hole and read also. The book was evidently a novel narrated by a young woman. On the page my roommate was reading, the young woman spends an afternoon shopping, first for clothes, then for food. Then she is walking down the street thinking of her job and some minor problems she faces there. She arrives home and a man is sitting on her living room couch. She refers to him only as “he.” She is frightened when she sees him, runs into her bedroom and closes her door. He is much stronger than she, and forces the door open, though she is holding it shut with all her might. He chases her around the room, grabs her, yanks her clothes off and throws her on the bed. She is frightened, but also aroused. I hadn’t had a clue what she was reading, and would never have guessed it was this. I was appalled; this was not at all who I thought she was, or who I wanted her to be. She read for longer this time—until the sex between the narrator and “he” was over, the narrator deeply satisfied. Rather than throw the book to the floor, she put it down calmly next to her on the bed, opened to an especially sensational page. Then she reached under her nightgown and began slowly to touch herself. I couldn’t believe it, I didn’t know what to feel or think, I was numb, and continued to watch her through my telescope. Her movements became bigger and faster, her whole body involved now, her legs bent, her feet pushing against the mattress. A fury overtook her, and when she reached her climax, she uttered a long shout. Both my hands on the telescope, I climaxed too, having heard, for the first time, the sound of her voice. She wept again, with sounds this time, not in anguish, but in relief, or so I imagined. She turned out the light and fell asleep. I sat in the closet for an hour experiencing many and various feelings, and then went out into the night. Trying to calm down, I ran for hours until finally I exhausted myself. I didn’t have the patience to eat my usual fruits and grains and vegetables, so I broke into a health food store, stole a few protein drinks and guzzled them. I came home to my closet and slept so hard I didn’t hear her wake up and leave the apartment. I continued to sleep all day, like someone’s well-cared-for pet cat.

When I woke up I knew what had happened the previous night. At some point, probably after she bought the book but before she bought the dress, nightgown and haircut, she’d figured out that I was in her closet watching her. And she liked it. I didn’t know if she knew my identity, but I suspected she knew at least that I was a man. I associated sex with the miserable life I’d left behind and I hadn’t been ready, the night before, for the boldness of her performance, or my reaction to it, but the following night I eagerly awaited her arrival.

She had another new dress on, red this time, and again ate her dinner slowly and deliberately, to tantalize me, which she succeeded in doing. She put on another new nightgown—she always changed into her nightgowns after her shower, in the bathroom, where I couldn’t see her. She climbed into bed and picked up the book tonight with no hesitation. She had not once, in the time I’d known her, glanced up toward the hole in the wall through which I observed her. In bed, she began to read, and so, in the closet, with my telescope, did I. The book was banal. He rammed her up against a car this time. I was sure a scene on a horse was next. That didn’t matter. What mattered was her excitement, and her dedication to her task. I realized now that she’d known I was in there before she bought the book, that I was the reason she’d bought the book, that all her fear and hesitation and seeming anguish in relation to the book was to do with shyness or embarrassment about performing for the eyes of a stranger who was watching her and whom she could not see. I appreciated how courageous she was and how dedicated to pleasing me, which clearly also pleased her.

She retrieved her pistol, stood in the middle of the room, aimed.

Within five minutes of opening the book she was touching herself, and there was one clear course of action for me—what she had been waiting for me to do and what I had wanted to do without knowing it. I am very big and very strong. I burst through the wall next to the bed and was on her before she knew what was happening. She screamed. I’d expected her to but her scream did not arouse me as I’d thought it would. She thrashed about beneath me and tried to punch me but couldn’t—she is half my size. “No! No!” she cried. I thought this was playacting but I didn’t love her voice as I had the previous night, and I just couldn’t get going. She was crying, and I looked at her face, those little bunched-up pointy features, and saw real suffering. I had made a terrible mistake, worse, I felt, than any I’d made in my life. I retreated to the far corner of her apartment, sat on the floor, put my head in my hands and said “I’m sorry” over and over. From somewhere she produced a pistol, and walked slowly toward me, aiming it at my chest. “Get out!” Her face and her voice betrayed such pain that all I could do was weep.

“I don’t imagine you’ll ever believe me but I had no intention to hurt you. I made an awful mistake. I thought you knew I was there when you were reading. I thought you wanted me to.”

“What? Where?”

“In the little space that used to be a closet, behind your bed.”

“What space? You get out of my house now! Get out! Get out!”

She wept too, bitterly. I removed my head from my hands. She was standing over me now. I saw that she was weeping because she wanted to shoot me but she couldn’t. I wished she could.

“I’m going, I’m going, and I’ll never come back, I promise. I only hope that you can——”

“Don’t you dare say it.”

“——that you can manage not to let my mistake continue to hurt you. It’s not…. I’m not worth it, I’m just a fool.”

“You’re a lot worse than that,” she said, and kicked me in the back as I left her apartment through the door.

I spent the next two hours in the bushes across the street from the front of her building, waiting to see if she would call the police. She didn’t. I then roamed around aimlessly for the rest of the night, imagining the terror and anguish she must have been feeling, alone in her room, and also knowing I had no idea what she was feeling, or who she was, or why she had behaved as she had during the months I’d watched her. These were, I am certain, more thoughts about another person, and more yearning to know another person, than I had experienced in my life. Accompanying them was the knowledge that I would never know her, could never go back to her apartment, could never try to find her outside of it.

But I could try to do one nice thing for her. I hunted up the supplies I needed, fell asleep in a bog at the edge of town, woke up and returned to the closet through the air duct in the alley, which luckily she had not secured. I set about repairing the hole I’d made in her wall, and plastered and painted my handiwork to match the rest of the room as best I could. Then I returned to the closet to await her reaction. She came in that evening, saw the new wall and stared at it for a long time. She shuddered. She made dinner, that same lousy dinner she always made. She was back to wearing her drab clothes instead of the new ones, and her hair had lost its shape. There are no other words for it—I loved her. I wanted the best possible life for her, even though it would be a life without me. When she had cleaned up dinner, she went to the small table beside her bed, retrieved her pistol, stood in the middle of the room, aimed it at the tiny hole in the wall through which I peered at her and said, “You’re in there, aren’t you, Madame Bovary?”

“Madame who?”

“Oh, you’re not a big reader? I thought you were.”

“You knew I was back there while you were reading?”

“No!”

“I thought you knew——”

“So you mentioned in our last conversation, the one after you tried to rape me.”

“That’s not what I was doing, I promise! I don’t want to hurt you!”

“You mentioned that as well.”

“I’m so sorry.”

She stood silent for a long time. “The weird thing is I believe you.”

“You believe I’m sorry?”

“And the other stuff.”

“God, I’m an idiot.”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll go now. I just wanted to repair the damage I’d done. To your wall.”

“You wanted to see me too.”

“Okay, yes. But I can go now.”

“I’ve had a very messed-up life.”

“What?”

“I’ve had a very messed-up life. So have you.” She was still pointing the pistol at me, through the wall. “I was trying to work through something, with that book; it was personal and private, and you violated my privacy, and you violated me.”

“Well, but——”

“You violated me.”

“I know.”

We stood there a while longer.

“You can see me but I can’t see you,” she said.

“Do you want to see me?”

“You’re pretty scary-looking.”

“I know.”

“Don’t break down my wall again.” We stood there some more. “What the hell are you waiting for?”

I went out through the back of the closet and came around to the front of the building. She buzzed me in. When I knocked on her apartment door she said, “It’s open. Come in, lock it behind you and sit down at the table.” I did. She was over by her bed, pointing the pistol at me. “I’ll just keep pointing this at you.”

“No problem.”

“You can’t ever do anything like that again.”

“Okay.”

We remained still for a full five minutes, looking at each other.

“Now get out of here.”

She kicked me again on my way out the door. This time I enjoyed it.

Till two A.M. I lay on an abandoned, half-completed highway overpass and looked at the few stars visible in a sky dirtied by city lights. Then I foraged twice my usual vegan banquet from the garbage bags behind the health food store, the problem of world hunger created and solved in miniature every night in this genteel suburb. The following evening after the sun went down and before she returned from work, I moved the huge Dumpster in the alley, bricked up the old air vent and returned the Dumpster to its place. In the dense shrubs across from her building, I sat in the dirt awaiting her arrival. In every city and town are bogs, shrubs and drab one-room homes unobserved by most citizens. We monsters inhabit them, and pass quietly along the edges of life as it is generally understood.

She kicked me again on my way out the door. This time I enjoyed it.

She arrived at her building and went into her little room. For half an hour I felt her in there moving around uncertainly, waiting for me. I rang her buzzer. She let me in. In silence I cooked our feast and we ate it. I cleared and washed the dishes and put them away. I sealed the leftovers and placed them in the fridge for her lunch the next day.

She stood up and told me to sit back down at the table in the little chair that faced away from the bed. I did. She retrieved the book and placed it on the table in front of me, open to the page where we’d left off.

“Read this aloud to me. Don’t move from the chair. Don’t turn around.”

I nodded.

“I mean it.”

“Okay.”

I heard her walk to the bed behind me. The springs squeaked. Cloth rustled.

“Begin.”

I tried to read aloud but shame and meager skills made my reading halting and slow. After a few minutes I heard her walk toward me. As she snatched the book from the table in front of me I caught a glimpse of her thin naked arm and breast. Never had I been so overwhelmed with desire. I gripped the edge of the table to prevent myself from moving. She returned to the bed, where I could not see her. She made hardly any noise for the next 10 minutes until she shouted once again as she came. A few minutes later she asked me gently to leave.

“May I kiss you good night?”

“Yes.”

I tucked the blankets around her and she offered me her cheek.

We continued to do this every night for months until one night she invited me to disrobe and climb into her bed. My enormous convex body embraced her tiny angular body. Making love with her was very much like fucking all those voluptuous football enthusiasts, and it was also like an interspecies merger with a miniature Christmas tree whose roots went down into the earth, came out the other side and extended into space for millions of miles.

Now I live here in our little room. I cook breakfast and lunch at a soup kitchen. I’ve grown a beard and wear a hat. My hair has turned white. No one where I work seems to know who I am, and if they do they don’t care, my brothers and sisters who after their meals disappear again through the cracks in the world.

I come home to her in the evening. I teach her about edible plants and fungi and she teaches me how to read and write. We have told each other a small fraction of the stories of our lives. Sometimes in the dark hours of the morning this strange, brave knight in the pathetic armor of her own skin wakes up next to me in terror. Some nights it is I who wake up in terror.

My nightmares are all the same. He is running toward me, happy to see me, and I shoot him. Not, as in real life, in a blind, drunken rage, but for no reason at all. He’s running toward me and I’m shooting him and I can’t not do it. I hold him in my arms as he dies. He looks up at me, bewildered and imploring. My poor dog, I loved him so.