This short story was first published on The Whistling Fire in May of 2011. I wrote it a very long time ago. The story was conceived during my fist residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts where as a new student I felt invisible and overcome by all the light on campus. During my final residency and with the help of classmates we made a short movie about an invisible student on campus. Suzi McCarty, Steve Lindstrom and Justine Curley Cohen and others helped me to make it. Fittingly enough, the movie was recorded over when a friend taped my graduating lecture, which I've never viewed. Today I realized that The Whistling Fire had also gone dark. Invisibility is indeed a damnable sort of a thing and it also has it's upside. Do you see what I mean?
Clare Bowdy sat at her kitchen table with a pad of paper and pen and made a list of the dozen or so experiments she conducted over the past few weeks. What’s meant by experiment is a little test involving just Clare, not scientific so much, but a test which either supports or disproves Clare’s theory that she is invisible.
Fountain: In this experiment Clare stood for ten minutes in the little decorative fountain at her workplace. What’s meant by workplace is that god-awful institution where Clare shows up every morning to perform various clerical duties for eight hours, excluding a lunch hour and two fifteen minute breaks. Men’s Room. In this experiment Clare used the Men’s room on the tenth floor of the Lennox Building, which was the first time. The second time she used the Men’s room on the ground floor, an active locale. Borrowing. What’s meant by borrowing is stealing. Otherwise honest, Clare viewed this as an essential component of her experiments. She borrowed from the Barley Independent bookstore, The Collected works of Christina Rosetti. She borrowed from the corner drugstore, a tin of mints and a lipstick. Office Crazy. What’s meant by crazy is that Clare crazily moved her chair to the center of the office where she sat for four hours reading a book of borrowed poetry. Grocery check-out. Movie Theater. Clare theorized about her invisibility when a bank teller closed his window and light while Clare stood next in line. This followed a series of other mishaps. Clare didn’t think she’d always been this way only that over time, she’d been disappearing. If the results of her investigations hold true—well then—she is invisible. What’s meant by invisible is unseen. As far as the rest of the world was concerned Clare Bowdy did not exist.
There were things, things that Clare had been unaware of previously. For instance, invisible people don’t pay for theater tickets or bus fare. They don’t bother about their appearance. A good deal of money can be saved on toiletries and clothing. Perhaps the most wonderful epiphany was Clare’s realization that other people weren’t ignoring her. They simply didn’t see her. This made Clare radiate with a sense of self-confidence. There were other things. Invisible people don’t have to show up for work. Clare did show up because work was an excellent time-pass. What’s meant by time-pass is something to do, not work so much as other things, like rerun the crazy experiment, or go through a co-worker’s desk or pocket-book. Clare became concerned over her recent plunge into such shocking behavior. And so she decided to research the effects of invisibility. What’s meant by research is she rented three movies: The Hollow Man, The Invisible Man and Memoirs of an Invisible Man.
In two of the movies the central character went mad. A correlation between invisibility and lunacy arose, and why not? Clare felt her own devilment. On Thursday, she’d peppered Miss Timoney’s eggs. On Wednesday she gave a group of boys the finger. Memoirs was her favorite of the movies. It was a funny love story in which Darryl Hannah falls for the unseen Chevy Chase. Clare admired this character’s make-the-best-of-it attitude. In the movies the invisible characters were missed. No one missed Clare. All of this study brought Clare to no definitive conclusions except that invisibility may cause psychosis. Clare pondered this idea as she sucked the skin of a popcorn kernel lodged between her teeth – previews of another Chevy Chase film played on the television.
The best thing about invisibility was seeing it. Previously people’s seeming disregard of Clare seemed a kind of condemnation. As if not looking at her was another way to stare at her in mockery. What’s meant by mockery is disdain. At least, this is what Clare means by mockery. Clare no longer waited timidly in lines; she cut them. She sat in the cafeteria near the most interesting people and eavesdropped on their conversations, even throwing in her two cents now and then. Life became rich with a new sense of passion and freedom. Clare Bowdy knew who she was—and she accepted herself.
Clare stood naked before her bedroom looking glass. She admired her beautiful reflection in the mirror. What’s meant by reflection is what you might expect – although to everyone else she was unseen – Clare could see herself. All of her life what Clare saw in mirrors and reflected in storefront windows was fleeting and blurred – she never had a strong sense of herself. The truth is she never liked what she saw. It was as if the woman who looked back at Clare were an imposter – gray and shady – someone not to be trusted as yourself. Today Clare saw a veritable goddess in the glass – her gentle features –luminous skin –platinum hair and gray eyes – diminutive bosom and tiny waist.
“Clare,” she said to herself in the mirror, “Clare Marie Bowdy.”
It was a warm day and Clare considered the idea of going to work nude – but even as an invisible woman – she thought better of it. She donned a pair of jeans and T-shirt and headed out in time to catch the 8:15 train.
At lunch the cafeteria was noisy. A tray bumped into Clare’s but she didn’t look up from her reading. Things visible were losing her interest. She read the last line of her book, and then reread it aloud. Chewing a fry Clare pondered the line. A man coughed and she looked up.
“Excuse me—” he said.
Clare looked over her shoulder and at the people on either side of her. She stared at the man and he stared back at her.
“You were saying?”
“Reading,” Clare stammered. “You saw me?”
Clare’s stomach rumbled. She put her fry down and arranged the mess on her tray. She’d been seen. What’s meant by seen is the past participle of see.
“I watch you all the time,” the man said.
He wore a blue cotton work shirt, his dark hair a dingy color. His face faded with pockmarks. When he smiled, his teeth showed bits of burger and bun.
“Clare—” She gathered her things.
“Can I see you again?”
“Seems like—” She exited the noisy room looking back once. Drew watched her still.
She’d left work; a bus all but ran her over as she rushed to catch the outbound train. Crossing the boulevard Clare Bowdy felt her stomach deep in the soles of her shoes. She was just beginning to feel that her purpose exceeded what others could see. Even though isolating, Clare felt empowered in her new lifestyle. Now an unremarkable stranger changed everything, just by looking at her.
“How could I be so dumb,” she said out loud on the train. Clare put her hand over her mouth self-consciously. The man next to her slept, the lady across from her read the paper, a skinny kid stood holding the handrail above her, no one acknowledged this strange woman who talked to herself.
“Maybe not so dumb,” she whispered.
With the telephone at the kitchen table Clare called Becky Adam in Human Resources at the Lennox Building.
“Let’s see Clare, new hires…Merrill , Bob Raleigh, Simms…oh here … Drew, Drew Voigt. He’s an Intra-corporate courier. Extension 901. Call me next week, Honey. Want me to transfer you?”
“No. No. Thank you Becky,” Clare hung up. She sat silent at her kitchen table in the afternoon sunlight. Her latest Am I Visible experiments were consistent with her original results. No one saw her in the men’s room. No one noticed when she climbed on the Modern Art Sculpture in the courtyard. No complaints when she cut the line at the elevator. What was it Drew said? I watch you all the time.
Clare was jittery before lunch. She decided that if she saw Drew she’d pretend she hadn’t. Drew could see her if he wanted that was his business. She was indiscernible as she slipped into her usual dining spot. Directly, Drew Voigt sat across from her. What’s meant by directly is that Clare hadn’t even had a bite of her Sauer-dog.
“Hi,” he said.
She nodded in grim acknowledgement.
“You look nice. Blue is your color.”
It wasn’t. Blue brought up the grays in Clare’s complexion. It made her look washed out.
“Can I call you some Friday night?”
Clare didn’t answer. They ate lunch in silence. He chewed noisily breaking the stride of his mastication regularly with his broad smile. Clare’s bites grew smaller and smaller and with them she felt as if she were shrinking. When she was through she scrawled ten digits on a scrap of napkin and passed it to Drew.
Friday, Drew called Clare and they talked into the wee morning hours. By dawn he knocked on her apartment door. Soon they’d spent hours, more like days together. Clare never mentioned her condition. They never kissed or held hands but she’d imagine sultry scenes, picture him naked in her bed. Every love scene on TV or in a book was Drew and Clare.
Certain ideas gained force for Clare. And so she decided to tell Drew the truth. That evening, Clare told the story of a nondescript-loner, a well-read and intelligent woman who discovers through odd occurrences that no one sees her. She amused Drew with anecdotes of the woman sneaking into theatres and using the men’s room. The story ended in a dangling way, What’s meant by dangling is with the same feeling as when someone tells part of a secret but stops themselves before telling the juiciest part. Drew moved to the window and opened it. He looked out into the quiet evening. Clare tried to think of another story but every clever thought she’d ever had disappeared.
“Are you the invisible woman?” He said, turning back to her.
She didn’t answer. The intensity of Drew’s gaze made Clare feel not just seen, but seen naked. Somehow they lay down together on Clare’s bed and soon they were naked and Drew’s narrow body was arching above hers. The lights were on. Their eyes were open. All of the stories and visions disappeared and the whole world became invisible. It’s another thing all together when everyone and everything else is invisible and the only thing in focus are the lips or the hands of your beloved. What’s meant by beloved is Drew Voigt.
“What are colors to a blind man? What’s music to a man-who-can’t-hear? What’s the-smell-of-a-flower to a person with no olfactory?” Drew said, smoking and leaning from the evening windowsill.
“Everything,” Clare answered, “and nothing.”
At her kitchen table Clare makes a list of the ten or so job openings that she might be qualified for: Typist, Library night reference, Night-watch person (she crossed this one out but hasn’t ruled it out), Mini-mart Clerk – Graveyard shift, Teacup girl – Midnight Espresso Café, Groundskeeper’s Assistant – Jasmine Memorial Park Cemetery.
It was three weeks since Becky Adam phoned Clare.
“Timoney wants to see you. There’s a problem with you not showing up for work recently Clare.” She spoke with incredulity, unable to accept this as the behavior of Clare Bowdy.
“Also, there’s been a sexual harassment complaint. I’m not supposed to tell you. Something to do with the men’s room…”
Clare accepted six weeks severance and several months’ medical coverage so that she might get the help that Evelyn Timoney suggested. Miss Timoney was an even and well dressed woman. Clare was glad to meet her and Becky Adam who was much heavier than Clare imagined.
“I can’t fathom you’ve worked here ten years Clare,” Miss Timoney said, “I’d have thought I’d have seen you by now. You’ll do just fine my dear.” She patted Clare’s hand.
Clare thought of kissing Drew. Each time she remembered a kiss deeper than any she imagined. She thought of how they tore at each other’s clothing, stared at each other’s bodies, made visible love – in the day light of the afternoon sun, with the shade drawn up – for the entire world to see, if the world were not so blind. And in the morning Drew gulped orange juice from a carton and wandered her apartment naked, a piece of dry toast in his hand. Such remembering took Clare’s breath away.
She didn’t need experiments, didn’t need Miss Timoney’s therapy or Drew Voigt’s love-making. The truth was no one ever saw her. Even when she looked right at them, people looked right through Clare: the bank teller, the bus driver, the man on the train who sat on her lap, the teacher who never called on her despite her waving hand. Her own parents, who discussed her dilemmas, seemingly oblivious that Clare sat on the couch listening to their every word.
She sipped cappuccino and chewed a bagel at a sidewalk café and afterwards floated across the greening bridge and up the paper street to her home. Dry leaves and crumpled foil skittered in the dust of dusk, a thin white receipt, a list written on its back, lulled among them. It had escaped the careless hand of Clare Bowdy, as she traveled unobserved through the dusty streets.