You have one of those faces. Forgettable. Features? Nondescript. Hair? Halfway between blond and brown. In the right light, could be either. The length, also ambiguous. Maybe a boy’s, maybe a girl’s. Your height: average. Weight: ditto.
You’re the type of person who gets bumped into because people literally don’t see you. Regular acquaintances introduce themselves as if you’ve never met. It’s impossible to summon a waiter or a taxi without ridiculous gesticulations.
Your personality is just as bland. Opinionless. You’ll speak if spoken to, but just to parrot what the other person is saying. You won’t offer any insight or personal experience. Nor will you try to fill those uncomfortable pauses. Before long, the person will do that thing they all do, that thing you’ve become so adept at recognizing. First, they fidget. Then smile. But not in a happy way. It’s a sign of discomfort. Soon, their eyes and mind hunt for an exit strategy, something or someone they just realized they needed to attend to. And then, poof, you’re gone, forgotten.
Your name? Also vague. Something androgynous like Sam or Jamie or Terry. The kind people hear and instantly forget. At times, you’ve given different names during the same encounter, just to see if people notice. They don’t.
When you were young, you yearned to be noticed by teachers and classmates, but always wound up overlooked. By high school you started recognizing its merits. You were so invisible even the bullies ignored you. One day, you walked by a group of thugs beating up a kid in the stairwell, and none of them even threw out a, “Hey, whatchya lookin’ at?” or, “Move along, freak.” Even the victim didn’t bother catching your eye and mouthing help.
Another time, on a busy street, you witnessed a guy shove a lady to the ground and snatch her purse. Passersby scurried to help her. A few even tried chasing the guy. You alerted them that he had ducked into a subway station, but no one listened. They ran down the block instead.
For a while it was hard. You’d see groups of people laughing, or lovers sharing a moment of intimacy, and you’d crave human contact. The kind where you’d be looked at instead of through. It’s the type of craving and emptiness that aches—throbs even—in your heart and groin. It can halt you, make you want to collapse into a thick blob of despair, where your cells cannibalize themselves until you’ve disappeared into obscurity.
When the wave of self-pity passes, you’ll go to a convenience store, or a gas station. Something small, as a test. The clerk will watch you come in and track your path down the aisle from the convex security mirrors mounted in the corners. But within a few paces, they’re back to looking at their phone, or restocking the cigarette display.
You’ll stop at the candy, (or the soup, or the car fresheners. Whatever.) and pretend to compare prices, but the ruse is irrelevant. No one’s paying attention. You’ll pocket something and it will feel good. Then something else. You don’t even need the stuff. You’ll just do it because it feels like revenge. Revenge for being invisible.
One day, you’ll find yourself alone in an elevator. When you arrive at your floor, you’ll press all the buttons before exiting the car. The action will make you smile on the inside for the rest of the day, so you’ll adopt it as your signature move.
During your regular visits to the library, you’ll make a practice of grabbing the most popular books and retreating to a reading nook. You’ll quietly rip out a random page from each, crumple it into a ball and stuff it in your pocket.
At home, the fantasies of all the people you’ve frustrated and inconvenienced will satisfy you more than you expected. You’ll relish the idea of being unavoidably noticed while maintaining anonymity. Best of both worlds.
For a while.
When the crippling emptiness returns, you’ll walk into a public building—maybe a town hall, or a community center—and pull the fire alarm. You’ll stand across the street as the masses file onto the sidewalk, some looking scared, others irritated. Fire trucks will arrive. Responders will rush inside with their gear. Before long, they’ll filter back out, shrugging and shaking their heads. Nosy pedestrians will stop and stare. One of them will even ask you what’s going on, but you’ll be so stupefied by the attention that you’ll just shrug, so they’ll walk away.
When the kerfuffle dies down, you’ll feel better than you ever have. It’s the first time you’ve been able to witness the effects of your actions, live, in the moment, and you’ll appreciate the power your anonymity has. That realization will make you feel less hollow, less insignificant. Like maybe having done this will be enough, because now you have a starting point. A feeling you could cultivate and incorporate into your daily life. A feeling you could conjure up whenever you felt worthless. This ability could override your insipidness, make people see you as a person with value. They would seek you out, care about you, love you. This could change everything.
But it doesn’t.
You start calling 911 from pay phones to report fake emergencies. A robbery here, a car crash there, hiding in the shadows as the swarms of police and rescue arrive, waiting for those feelings of power and control to return. They do, but each time they last less long.
Soon you’re reporting things that require a whole SWAT team, like a meth house, or a hostage situation. Sometimes your calls will even make the nightly news because an innocent civilian or first responder got injured in the commotion.
No one’s ignoring you now.
You’ll wonder if being inside all that chaos, instead of just causing it, would make you even more menacing, more unavoidable. Would you finally, once and for all, actually matter?
Only one way to find out.
You go to a shady neighborhood. Start asking around about how to get a gun. You’ll get blown off at first, but you soon discover that the antidote for invisibility is cash. Before long, you’re in possession of a SIG Sauer 9mm semi-automatic pistol.
You’ve never fired a gun before, but how hard can it be?
At home, you’ll hold the gun in the mirror, imagining all the ways you could get people’s attention. Force them to see you, acknowledge you, respect you. You start carrying it outside because knowing it’s there makes you somebody, gives you confidence, feels like opportunity. And that’ll be enough.
One day, you’ll go to Best Buy to purchase a set of earbuds. The counter will be deep with shoppers, but you’re next in line. When your turn comes, the clerk will help the person who came after you.
You’d think you’d be used to it by now.
Every deep, historic wound, even the ones you thought you’d reconciled, will spring to the surface and erupt, like festering scabs, oozing a pus so toxic it will burn your skin. It’ll boil in your stomach, too, percolating up your esophagus to scorch your throat. For a moment you’ll be paralyzed. But then, like a person set on fire, the involuntary reflex to act will explode.
You’ll pull the gun from your coat pocket and wave it around, pointing it between the frozen clerk and some stunned people at the counter. But you won’t know what to say. Where would you even start? So, you’ll just stand there, while most of the shoppers continue perusing the merchandise, unaware of what’s going on.
It’ll be an off-duty police officer. He’ll rush you from the side, grabbing your gun and knocking you to the ground. His actions will be swift and fluid, and you’ll be so surprised that you won’t even resist. He’ll restrain you, then sweep you up and usher you to the street, where a cop car will whisk you away.
What you will never know is that on the same day, in the next town over, a kid will shoot up a school, killing nine and wounding many others before taking their own life. The story will fill the daily papers and news channels for a week. Your little outburst won’t register a blip on their radar. Even the people who were in the store that day will be hard-pressed to recall it.
Once again, you’ll be…
Originally published in Close to the Bone on October 1, 2022.