At first glance, Isak looked almost human. I found him splayed against the rocks after a winter storm on one of my daily walks along the shoreline. But as I got closer, I realized he was neither human nor any other animal that I knew of. He resembled one of those sponges that live on the seabed. No eyes, mouth, or limbs. Only a lump of dark flesh—the size of a child—wheezing in the biting air of the Arctics.

I don’t know why I brought him home with me instead of throwing him back into the ocean. But it wasn’t out of neither malice nor pity. Maybe I did it for the same reason I walk for miles every day in the exhaust of the highway—before I can cross the road—only to reach an ocean that I hate.

After a week of living with me, Isak revealed his first secret.

“Are you okay?” I said and tapped the glass of his tank with two of my knuckles. The fish food I had sprinkled into the water before going to bed had sunk to the bottom, untouched. I wouldn’t touch his wet and sticky skin, so I put on disposable gloves before picking him up—his body like wet jelly—and sat him on his square of the couch. I carefully removed the gloves, threw them in the garbage, and said, “You hungry?”

No reaction.

I prepared a bowl of seaweed and using a fork I dangled it in front of him like bait. I wasn’t sure how he ate, considering he didn’t have a mouth to neither speak nor chew with.

What a waste of life, I thought as I picked up the bowl to put it back into the fridge.

“I could put you anywhere and you wouldn’t even care or notice, right? You’re not even capable of happiness.”

First his body pulsated and the sound of bubbles popping emanated from deep inside him, then flash of blue ran through him—bright like neon—from top to bottom. I dropped the bowl and it shattered against the floor, seaweed spilling everywhere.

“Do it again,” I said, ignoring the broken glass. I poked him with my fork. “Do it again!”

No reaction.

I sighed. “You know, we’re all looking for something, and it’s always happiness. But you? You’d die if I didn’t stop you from drying out on my couch.”

I picked up a spray bottle I had filled with water mixed with a marine salt mix. I squirted the salty water over him. The mist of it made his dark and oily skin glisten, but he still didn’t react.

“Let’s go for a walk,” I said, and retrieved the wheelchair from the hallway. I put on disposable gloves and placed him in the chair. “There’s a nice view of the ocean from the sidewalk. I can’t stand being in here much longer.”


Psychologists say that your first memories say a lot about you. They reveal who you are, they say. I don’t know how true that is, but my first memory is as clear as a mirror.

It was winter and me and my mother were fishing from a boat in the ocean. My mother caught a fish but when she stood up to reel it in, she slipped on the wet floor of the boat. She hit her head against a metal railing and fell unconscious into the freezing water. I screamed for her, but she didn’t react. She drifted away from me, slowly, in her life vest. Later they found me alone in the boat, with no voice left. They found her a couple of hours after that, still floating, frozen to death.

I can’t really recall any other memories of my childhood since that day at the ocean. They are intangible, like watching scenes play out through a window clouded by steam—only shapes and movements. The only thing I know with certainty, like a finger revealing a sliver of what’s behind the foggy window, was how I’d feel. Or rather, what I didn’t feel. It was an absence. Something I later recognized as an absence of happiness.



My apartment was so close to the ocean I could see it from my window. But a highway ran like a river separating me from it, and there was nowhere to cross it for miles, unless you wanted to risk being turned to pulp by a car. On my side of the traffic were apartments on apartments beneath the wall of a mountain range. On the other side the freezing arctic ocean.

Another two weeks passed, and I started my days by asking if Isak was okay. According to a website about taking care of people with severe intellectual disability, that was important. I didn’t understand why. It wasn’t like it mattered to him. I had also tried to google what he might be but found nothing. We were alike in that regard. I didn’t really know what I was either, except that I was a contradiction.

“Are you okay? I said when I entered the living room. The smell of salt and seafood in my apartment had permeated me and my clothes. People walked in circles around me on the sidewalk, and quickly changed their mind about sitting close to me on the bus. But apart from the smell, my life was pretty much the same.

I picked Isak up and put him in his chair and rolled him into the bathroom for his morning bath. Using a cloth, I scrubbed him down. He loved the water, and a firework of colors shot through his body as he chuckled. Soon he was laughing. A primal laugh. As if the only thing happening inside his mind at that moment was laughter. If there were a hundred billion synapses in his brain, then he was laughing with all of them.

His laugh was his loudest secret. And I wished he would be quiet. Another contradiction. Because why would I take care of someone I didn’t care about? Why would I upend my life and home for someone who was a constant reminder of my greatest loss? Perhaps through keeping him alive, he gave me a feeling of control—something I had always lacked, but always sought.

After his bath, I rolled him in his wheelchair to the kitchen table.

“Breakfast,” I said and dangled a clam in front of him. It had been almost a week before Isak had revealed his beak. Whether it was because he had become surer of me, or because he was starving, I didn’t know—and didn’t really care. I kept him alive, nothing more, nothing less.

“You know,” I said as I scooped out another clam. “There are three levels of happiness.” Raising one finger, I continued, “One, an immediate and direct sensation of pleasant feelings. Two, an understanding that you won’t always have these pleasant feelings, but if the good things outweigh the bad in your life, then you’re happy. And three, where even that isn’t good enough, and you must spend a lifetime to reach your inner and true potential of a human. And then, and only then, are you happy.”

With precision Isak snatched the clam with his beak and gulped it down. How was still a mystery, he hadn’t revealed any eyes yet.

“Of a human is the keyword there,” I said, waving my hand in front of his face, as if to check if he was conscious. “Which is to say, something you’re not.”

I gave him another clam. In response Isak hummed enthusiastically.

“Exactly,” I laughed, despite myself. “The pleasant sensation of being fed. Not much unlike the happiness that the clam you just devoured once had.”

After breakfast I brought him back to the living room. And that was his living room in its most literal sense. That’s where he spent almost every waking minute—just being alive. I loathed being his enabler, but at the same time, I couldn’t stop.


Most people want to be happy. And most people are. And if they’re not, they deceive themselves to think they are. Then there are those not able to conjure that amount of self-deception.

There is a story about a lottery winner and a car crash victim. The story is short and to the point: One man won enough money to not have to work a day in his life again, and the other man lost his ability to walk. When asked a few years after both the win and the accident, they both rated their happiness to be a seven on a scale of ten.

A thing is not real before it is released out into the world. You’re not in love before you’ve written it down in your diary, or better yet, said it to the person you love. You’re not angry until you’ve thrown a glass shattering against the floor or called your mother a whore and your father a cunt.

The first time I tried to say—out loud and only to myself—that I was unhappy, the words got stuck in my throat; they turned to plaster in my mouth, and the more I tried to get rid of the words to release them to the world, the heavier they became.

It’s another contradiction to say that absence can be amplified—like louder silence—but that’s what happened. Day by day since my mother’s death I have increasingly lived in an anechoic chamber. Listening to my own heartbeat.

My own nothingness.


The days were a routine now for me and Isak. I kept his tank clean, took care of him, and we walked along the shoreline, separated by the never-ending line of cars and exhaust. With time Isak had two emerald eyes the size and shape of eggs.

And now, protruding from his once limbless body were two long and slender arms, like tentacles, but without suckers.

“Are you okay?” I said as I entered the living room. “Oh, those are new.”

I put on disposable gloves and grabbed one of his arms. “Pleased to meet you,” I said.

Isak’s flesh turned purple, the colors swirled on his dark skin like the way water does when mixing it with a used paint brush. He hummed a tone which I had learned meant that he was happy. Or rather, content—his limitation on happiness.

His arm coiled around mine and he waggled them from side to side, laughing his primal laugh. How he could laugh, being what he was, annoyed me.

“Breakfast before your bath then?” I said.

I had arranged living snails for him instead of the soggy frozen ones on one of my walks along the ocean. I never brought him there, the wheels on his chair wouldn’t get over the rocks. Besides, the ocean was only for me. Being so close to the waves breaking in the surf—but never touching the water—made me feel good, despite the memories it provoked. Piercing one snail with a fork I led it to his beak. He snapped one, shell and all, and with a crunch he chewed once and swallowed. I pierced one more, but he was too eager and tried to use his newly revealed arms to grab the fork on his own. He accidentally hit his cup of water and tipped it. Water splashed over the table and poured onto my lap.

“Fucking imbecile!” I shouted, and quickly mopped away the water with my hands. “You know what? Every minute you are alive is a fucking mistake. How do you contribute to the world?”

Still mumbling curses, I packed away breakfast and dried up the rest of the water with a cloth and sat Isak back down on my couch. “Where you fucking belong,” I said.

Isak buzzed loudly, like a radiator gone warm, and different hues of red and purple shot through him erratically.

“Hey!” I snapped, still worked up. “Calm down!”

Isak started swinging from side to side, still buzzing.

I raised my hand, and Isak squealed beneath my palm. He whirred and a flash of crimson consumed him, then faded, and bloomed again. The color throbbed like a heart, and his body shriveled as if preparing for pain. It wasn’t the first time someone had raised their hand at him. Maybe he hadn’t been washed ashore after a storm after all. Maybe he had been left there by someone. Someone who didn’t want him. Maybe another thing we had in common.

Slowly I let my hand fall.

Isak still pulsated red. I sat myself on the couch beside him, panting. My hands shook. But my anger was gone, and in its place was nothingness again. I started stroking Isak’s back, his wet skin cold against my naked hand. “I’m sorry, Isak. I lost myself, okay?”

It didn’t help. Isak still whirred and blazed with colors.

I tried to grab his arms, but I realized they were gone again.


Instead, I grabbed his shoulders, and locked eyes with his oval emerald ones. First the left eye faded inside its body, then the right. Shortly after, his colors were gone, and he was back to being the wet lump of dark flesh that I found by the ocean.

Together we sat in silence until the sun went down. The only sounds were the cars from the highway outside and the spray of the bottle I used to keep him from drying out.

“I’m going to tell you a secret,” I said, my voice hoarse.

I waited for him to make a noise. A hum, a murmur, a mutter—anything.

When he didn’t, I said, “I am unhappy.”

My face twisted, as if the words hurt in my mouth.

“I’m not sad. I’m a hole. A nothingness.”

I thought I heard the screams of seagulls, but most likely it was just a car on the highway braking hard.


I had spent all my adult years trying to understand—to talk about, to make real—happiness. Because what is happiness, if not the most urgent endeavor for human existence? That’s why I chose the word unhappy, because it means the absence of happiness, not the presence of sadness. It is defined by what’s not there—like a wound. Through the opening of skin and flesh—a gash or a cut—nothingness infests, and a wound is made.

But I learned that I can’t understand or talk about happiness; it’s like whispering words into a storm, writing with an inkless pen, drawing water from a well with a sieve. Only through the absence of happiness can I get a glimpse of what it is. In the same way a hole only exists in virtue of the absence of something else. And only through unhappiness can I see the outline—like the shed skin of a snake—of what happiness is. And to glimpse happiness, does not mean you can have it.

I had finally realized; I would never have it.


In the weeks following the incident I told Isak many more secrets: I had never been in a relationship, never had anyone I could call a friend, that I pushed everyone away because there was only room in my life for one person, and that was me.

Because of the comfort it gave me to share that, I grew to love Isak. But like magic, or a curse, after releasing the words into the world, they became real. And because of that, I hated Isak. Unfair perhaps, and another contradiction, but in the same way nothingness is both something and nothing at the same time, they were both true. In return for my secrets, he revealed his beak, eyes, arms, colors, and laughter again. He even started making noises which sounded like words but were not. Like bup and tada.

After breakfast we went for a walk along the highway. We spent most of the days outside now. The roof of my living room had grown mold. You could barely see anything through the windows from the dampness. Even my bed was wet to the touch, and the smell of salt and fish had become a part of my house and myself.

“Imagine a machine,” I said.

Isak hummed, waggling from side to side in his chair.

“A machine that could give you any experience you desired. It could stimulate your brain in a way that would trick you into believing you are living the perfect life. A happy life. Would you plug yourself into a machine like that?”

The ocean on the other side of the highway caught the sun, and the surface reflected the light at us in glimpses between trees and passing cars, provoking me.

“Of course, in reality you would just be floating in a tank connected to tubes that fed you, and wires that fired happy experiences into your brain. Imagine, it could give you a life. It could give you love, you could walk, swim, even fuck. You could have kids, Isak!”

Isak hummed excitedly and clapped his arms together.

“It would be impossible to feel happier in the real world than in a machine like that. Sure, it’s not real happiness, and you’re not actually experiencing it, but still…it would remove all the pain.”

Isak stopped clapping. Waves were breaking against the shore, but we couldn’t hear it over the noise of traffic. I stopped walking and placed myself on my knees right in front of Isak, holding both of his arms.

“Would you do it?” I said again. He looked at me with indecipherable eyes. I clapped our hands together and said, “What if we did it? We could do it together. Leave for something better. Tomorrow—”

Areuoookay,” Isak said.


Areuoooookay,” he said again.

It wasn’t asked as a question, nor as three separate words.

Then I realized what it was.

“Are you asking me if I am okay?”

Are you okay? The first thing I asked Isak every day. The words I never waited for him to reply to. The words you say when you hope you don’t get a real answer. The words you get asked, that you never reply truthfully to.

A minute passed, and even though he wasn’t really asking me, I eventually answered, “No, Isak. No… I’m not okay.”

We held hands in silence until I asked him for a third time, “What do you say, would you do it?”

Isak warbled and his bright colors swirled on his dark skin. His showing of happiness. I let go of his arms, got up from the sidewalk and brushed the dust from my knees, and picked him up from his chair.

I had never thought about whether Isak had a heart, but now I felt it beat against my own as I held him with both of my arms close to my chest.

“Are you okay?” I asked him, before we ran until we heard the seagull’s scream.