by Russ Lopez
One Saturday morning, Tomás discovered he was invisible. He didn’t just open his eyes to see he lacked a visible presence; the details of his situation only became clear while he slowly woke up. The first clue, which he missed, came when he picked up his phone, held it up to his face, and it didn’t recognize him. Tomás wasn’t alarmed because the facial recognition feature never functioned properly. But he was an optimist and he constantly tried to use it in the vain hope this would be the time it worked. But once again, he was disappointed.
Not yet perceiving his condition, Tomás put on his watch. But when he glanced down at his wrist, he saw neither the watch nor his arm. Startled, he ignored the obvious, simplest explanation for this and instead blamed his hangover. He had downed a few too many beers last night. It had been a rare evening where Tomás and his girlfriend found a babysitter for their son and went out like old times. The restaurant had been empty, strange for a Friday night, so the group let loose and drank quite a lot as they danced and sang along to the jukebox. Now paying the price for his intemperance, he rubbed his temples to address his headache.
The enormity of his visibility problem hit him when he leaned over to pull on a pair of shorts and couldn’t see his legs. Alarmed, he put his hands out in front of him only to discover there was nothing there, either. Terrified, he jumped up as he looked down, but he saw no chest or belly. In full panic, he felt for his dick, and though he was glad it was still there, its invisibility made him queasy. By now he was leaping and waving his arms in front of the mirror on the back of the bedroom door, making the entire apartment shake but producing no effect in the glass. Trembling and barely able to speak, he ran out to his girlfriend who was in the kitchen feeding Travis.
“Catalina.” His voice was a high, unnatural pitch. “Am I invisible?”
“Oh, please,” she dismissed his worries without even looking at him. “You’ve only decided to declare that you are invisible now because you don’t want to go to my mother’s tonight.” The partial truth of her accusation briefly distracted him. He and Catalina’s mother didn’t get along if for no other reason than she constantly reminded him that he wasn’t good enough for her daughter. Tomás didn’t take the woman’s complaints seriously but still didn’t like going to her house.
“No. That’s not it,” Tomás complained as he used his fist to thump his chest, the sturdy sound offering scant reassurance that he existed. “I don’t want to be invisible. I want people to see me.” He started rubbing his hands over his body as he spoke, trying to find a physical presence in the feel of his warm skin and thick dark hair. But as the weight of his invisibility pulled him down, he began to doubt himself. Are the unseen even human? he wondered. Do they cede control of their lives when they are overlooked by everyone? Me, not they, he reminded himself. He was one of those people.
Catalina, realizing at last that Tomás was upset, tried to be sympathetic, but she was not the type to coddle someone just because they were invisible. “I don’t even have to look at you to know you are here, mi amor. I can smell you a mile away.” Realizing that was not very comforting, she tried again. “I can sense your footsteps even before I hear them.”
That didn’t make Tomás feel better. “I can’t believe this is happening. Why me? Why now?” He tried to keep his tone upbeat so as not to alarm Travis, but his voice kept cracking.
Catalina swallowed hard before answering, wanting to make the truth less painful. “You’ve always been invisible, or at least you have since I met you. But so what? We all have our problems. Just as we all have our good qualities.” Despite his invisibility, Catalina thought there was a lot to love about Tomás. He was faithful, hardworking, and kind to her and the baby. There wasn’t anything that being visible could add.
Frustrated, Tomás began to get ready for his part time Grubhub job. Being invisible had no effect on Tomás showering, he always closed his eyes to keep the shampoo out. But he missed looking at his dick, which now that he couldn’t see it made him realize it was big part of who he was as a man. He had always loved his dark brown skin and though he often regretted his lack of muscles, he still thought he was pretty good looking for a short skinny guy. But no one could see that now. Lost in his miseries, Tomás discovered shaving was difficult because he lacked a reflection in the mirror, though he didn’t have much of a beard anyway. When he cut himself, he didn’t see any blood.
Wearing nothing but a towel – not that Catalina or the baby noticed – Tomás sat down in the kitchen to call his brother to complain. Ramón was unsympathetic. “Of course, we always knew you were invisible when you were a kid. Anyone could see that just by looking at you. But no one wanted to talk about it. You know how our family is. The house could be on fire and our parents wouldn’t say a word because they would be embarrassed. ‘If the Anglos discover our house is burning down, they’ll complain about how irresponsible Mexicans are.’ Same with you being invisible. As long as no one pointed out your problem, we could pretend we were a normal family. Dignity, Tomás. We may have been dirt poor, but we were proud. Your being invisible threatened all that.”
Years of resentment colored Ramón’s words. “There were other reasons for keeping quiet about your problem. It wasn’t easy on us. We had to work hard to hide the fact you were invisible from you. It created a lot of stress because no one knows how to raise an invisible child. I remember Tía Frida telling her boyfriend at the time that we didn’t talk about you being invisible because we all felt sorry for you. ‘Pobrecito Tomás,’ they would say behind your back. ‘Everyone is always tripping over him.’ To be honest, we were afraid of what you might do if you discovered you were invisible. You weren’t the most emotionally stable teenager.”
Ramón paused to give Tomás time to feel guilty. Then he released a lifetime of anger. “There was also a lot of self-blame involved, too. Your invisibility made Mom and Dad’s lives miserable. No parent wants an invisible son. An invisible daughter would be a relief, it would keep the boys away. But a son? No. People associate invisibility with poor moral hygiene. Some blamed our diet. ‘Spicy food is bad for you,’ the Anglos always tell us. Others said we were cursed by God. Everybody said it was bad parenting.
“A lot of people were cruel while others were simply afraid,” he said. “Traumatized by your appearance, Tío Jackson went to church every Sunday to pray he would never have an invisible son. Señor Hidalgo would cross the street whenever he walked by the house so he wouldn’t get infected by whatever got to you. The worst was when we were out in public, people would look at you and jeer. Every time, Tomás. That’s what you did to us. We didn’t know how to handle the contempt they threw at us. There are no support groups for the families of the invisible. The unseen don’t even have a patron saint. That says a lot about how the church feels about your kind.”
“Great. All my life, people around me were staring at me for being invisible.” Tomás fought the urge to cry.
Ramón attacked again. “Despite everything you did to her, Mom loves you the most because she feels sorry for you. Her poor baby, the invisible one, needs more hugs than the rest of us. ‘You have to protect Tomasito because no one can see him. I worry what is going to happen to him after Papa and I are gone,’ she’s told me countless times, always in tears. You ought to apologize for causing her so much distress.
“It’s not all bad,” Ramón continued. “A little invisibility makes you much easier on the eyes. You were never that good looking, anyway. You’re too short and too dark to rely on your looks. The only reason you’ve dated so many pretty girls is because they can’t tell what you look like. Use it, bro. Go out and find more ladies. Maybe if you had more sex, people would be able to see you.” That was Ramón’s answer to everything. Their mother constantly prayed to the Virgin of Guadalupe, their sister always consulted brujas and fortune tellers, and Ramón repeatedly lost himself in the pleasures of the flesh.
“I’m not worried about getting laid. I have Catalina. I am not looking for other girls.”
“Maybe not now, but you will later. Face it. What woman wants to date an invisible man? She can’t go out in public with you. What is Catalina going to tell her friends? ‘This is Tomás. He is invisible but he drives a real nice car.’ No, bro. You are on borrowed time with her.”
Frustrated, Tomás hung up. As per custom, Tomás would watch Travis to give Catalina time to bathe, sleep, or simply take a break from having to keep an eye on the baby. But as Tomás picked him up, Travis cried and reached out to Catalina. Of course the baby wants his mother, not him, Tomás told himself as he worried his son was rejecting him because he was invisible. Babies always prefer their mothers to their fathers. “Being invisible doesn’t make me an unfit dad,” he said out loud. But what if someone called Child Protective Services because they thought the baby had been left alone? Tomás was beside himself with fear as he played with his son for the next hour.
When Catrina was ready, Tomás handed Travis back to her. As upset as he might be, he couldn’t dwell on his invisibility because he had to get to his part time gig delivering restaurant meals. He needed the money and so he pushed aside his worries and signed on that he was available for deliveries. Within minutes, he had accepted an order and was at the restaurant. As he grabbed the bag of sandwiches, he realized that in all of the thousand plus meals he had delivered, the restaurant staff had never acknowledged his existence. And except for complaining about how long they had waited, neither did the customers. That was the fate of all gig workers, he sighed. Meal delivery is perfect for the unseen because if you weren’t invisible when you started that kind of job, you were when you finished.
As he sleep-walked through multiple deliveries, Tomás acknowledged that Ramón was right. He had been invisible when he was a child. The evidence was clear. Teachers never called on him, for example, and as long as he didn’t ask questions, make noise, or get into trouble, no one paid attention to him. He was always the last one picked in gym, always an afterthought in math and English. Tomás had gone through high school without a single teacher, administrator, or staff person talking to him. Then he realized they insisted he be invisible. The teachers who didn’t want him in their classes, the administrators and guidance counselors who were bothered when he approached them, and the gym coaches who preferred to concentrate on the athletes and found him a distraction, all of them wished, when they thought of him at all, that he was invisible. It’s no wonder he was unseen.
Spiraling in his misery, Tomás saw he had inherited his invisibility. He had long ago noticed that people often treated his parents as if they were invisible. It wasn’t just store clerks who ignored them and the bored doctors who examined them as if they weren’t there. He remembered his mother crying when she found out that the Anglo women she worked with were paid more and the frustration his father felt because he could never get a promotion or raise. As far as the Anglo world was concerned, they were all invisible. Tomás only differed from them in that he knew he was unseen. Others, equally invisible, didn’t have a clue. Unless you look for signs, it is easy to be unaware that no one sees you.
Though he was invisible, Tomás carefully combed his hair and put on a nice shirt for dinner at Catalina’s mother’s house. As usual, Catalina’s family talked about him as if he wasn’t present. “Did Tomás ever buy you a new air conditioner?” Catalina’s mother asked, ignoring that Tomás was sitting between them. That was her way, rude as it was. Or maybe the innocent answer was that since she couldn’t see him, she didn’t realize he was there. Tomás went with the kinder motive.
As per custom, after dinner the women stayed in the kitchen to clean up and gossip, and the men sat in the living room to watch soccer on television while the kids were sent outside to play. Now very conscious of his delicate condition, Tomás couldn’t help but notice that while the commercials were full of tall blonde women and handsome built men, none had an invisible Mexican. Actually, not a one showed a visible Mexican. Maybe all of us Latinx people are invisible. Tomás shuddered.
Fighting those nihilistic thoughts, Tomás wondered what he might do because he was invisible. There must be some evolutionary reason that invisibility exists, some positive that could result from his unseen situation. He smiled when he realized he could go to a baseball game free or take the bus without paying. There were no limits! For a couple of minutes, he grew excited at the idea he could slip into a bedroom unseen to watch women undress at night. But the creepiness of that grossed him out. He decided that if it was his fate to be invisible, he’d use it as a force for good, not evil.
Then he was seized by regret for what he was giving up by being invisible. He’d never have a picture of him and his son together, and since he couldn’t be seen, playing catch with Travis was out. Then he worried that when he needed to renew his driver’s license, he would be rejected for not being able to have a picture. Officially, he might vanish completely. First, they don’t see you, then they pretend you don’t exist. Finally, they act like you were never here, even though they depend on you to keep the world turning.
He grew angry with the many injustices suffered by the invisible. It was another example of a simple human trait being transformed into a disability. It was wrong to discriminate against the invisible, he strongly believed, and he vowed to protest that sort of treatment. A potential life’s calling appeared before him: he could become the public face of the invisibility rights movement. He’d lead protests, lobby Congress, and create unseen-positive podcasts
This revealed another possible career path. He could work really hard to make invisible people a model minority. We can’t possibly offend anyone, he reasoned. By our very nature we don’t stand out. But through hard work, he could make himself a symbol of virtue. People would say as he passed by. “Yes, Tomás is invisible. But he is very articulate.” Maybe they wouldn’t even notice his accent.
On Monday, his warehouse job failed to keep his mind off his invisibility. At lunch time, it turned out that his supervisor had long been angered as he watched Tomás go about his work unseen. As Tomás spoke to a coworker about the difficulties of invisibility, his supervisor exploded. “It’s your fault you are invisible. If you had worked harder in school, or if your parents had prioritized your education, you would be seen by everyone. But no. Rather than make something of yourself, you blame your invisibility on everyone but yourself. Other groups have made themselves visible, but only your kind are unseen today.”
That evening, Tomás’ mother came over, sensing that her baby was distressed. Always trying to please him despite her obvious annoyance with his many anxieties, she told him, “Being invisible is a gift. It keeps the police from harassing you. Same thing when you go to a store and the security staff follow you around as you shop, convinced that you will steal something. And never forget that being invisible kept my abuelo, your great grandfather, from being deported during the Depression. They were grabbing people off the sidewalks of Los Angeles to send back to Mexico. They didn’t care if you were a citizen or not. If they saw a brown person, they put them on a train and sent them south.” As always when she talked about the dead, she crossed herself. “We have long survived by being invisible.”
As the weeks went by and his invisibility deepened, Tomás tried to adjust. At first, he was happy to be able to spend less on clothes. But then he discovered that there were advantages to getting dressed even if no one could tell. For one thing, though the weather remained mild, leaving the house nude meant that he suffered terribly from over-air-conditioned buildings. The warehouse was particularly cold and Tomás needed sweat clothes regardless of the temperature outside. Tomás also eventually decided that he didn’t like flopping around when he was naked. It made him feel self-conscious, though he liked the reminder he still had a penis.
Unable to sleep one night, he got out of bed, checked on Travis and then went into the living room to collect his thoughts in the privacy of the darkness. He struggled to understand why he cared that he was invisible. Does it change anything? Would he be in a different place than where he was if he had been seen? He saw two ways forward. One would be to accept his invisibility and just go on with life. This seemed the easy thing to do. After all, since he didn’t understand why he was invisible, he couldn’t fix it. Deal with it, he told himself.
However, his gut told him he needed to fight being invisible. He had to make himself be seen, no matter what it took. He wasn’t going to be one of those passive Mexicans, letting things go until mañana. He was a take charge kind of guy. If only he knew what he should do.
Sadly, Tomás saw that there was no community of the unseen. The ultimate curse of invisibility is isolation. Each unseen person exists in their own hidden universe. There were others, that was for sure. He quickly realized that most folks in the barrio were invisible to outsiders, and they went about their lives unnoticed, unappreciated, and unwanted. Tomás almost collapsed in despair.
Then he thought about Travis, his goofy, smart little toddler who he hoped would accomplish all the things that he would never be able to do. Maybe it was too late for Tomás to be seen. Perhaps the window of visibility had closed for him a long time ago. But he vowed that he would do everything he could to make his son be seen. Invisibility would stop with him.
Copyright López 2024