by Laura Todd Carns
It is a curious thing to find yourself invisible.
You will go and wash your face like always, and nothing will seem amiss when you look in the mirror. The face that stares back at you will have changed so gradually, so imperceptibly from day to day, that you will think you are the same person. But later that day, you will walk into a room, and everyone’s eyes will focus on something just over your shoulder. The gravity of your face will no longer be strong enough to draw them in.
The day this happened to me, the room I entered was a hotel ballroom; the occasion, my niece’s wedding. Perhaps if James and I had walked in together, someone might have taken notice of him. The bride was James’s niece, after all. But James had taken his clan with him when he left, along with the blender and the vacuum and the linen duvet I’d special-ordered. I didn’t fuss. It was the cost of freedom. When the wedding invitation arrived, it was the first I’d heard from any of them in nearly ten years. Maybe now that James was dead. Widow has a more palatable flavor than the sharp bitterness of ex-wife.
And so, I walked in alone with no man on my arm whose gravity I might borrow. I was, I should clarify, impeccably dressed—a dark purple, beaded tea-length dress with a matching jacket. Hair freshly set, pearls around my neck, purple satin shoes with a sensible, low heel. The beaded dress slid across the silk of my slip as I moved, its weight grounding me. I felt glamorous. Yet, in that room filled mostly with young people I didn’t know, I drifted unseen through the crowd. I watched the gazes of the other guests skim right over me, like stones skipping across a pond. I could feel the smile turning brittle on my face, like dried-out lipstick beginning to bleed.
I perched at one of the flower-laden tables to get my bearings, heedless of the seating chart. My hand was shaking slightly as I admired the sparkle of the amethyst in my cocktail ring. I’d bought the ring for myself, as soon as the settlement check had cleared. The stone caught the light; it was certainly real. Candlelight spilled onto the back of my hand too, the light soft enough to smooth over the age spots and wrinkles. A young couple sat down on the opposite side of the same table and proceeded to gossip as if no one was in earshot.
Once invisible, some women compensate by becoming garish caricatures of what they once were, dialing up the volume on their makeup, clothes, laughter, until they’re bright enough, loud enough, not to be ignored. But as I sat there at the wrong table, I felt only relief. After a lifetime of scrutiny, its absence is a palpable thing, like sunshine on an upturned face. I let the false smile fall from my lips. I slumped back in my chair, feeling the tension slide from my shoulders. Through the fabric of my dress, I tugged at the slipping waistband of my pantyhose. No head turned.
I had learned, of course, as we all do, how to behave in the glare of the world’s relentless attention. Hands flitting over a carefully-chosen outfit—“This old thing?” Eyes cast down. Dabbing at the corners of my mouth with a folded napkin. Asking questions, making space for the voices of others. If the limelight made your blood sing, you weren’t supposed to show it. But what would one do, suddenly free from surveillance? What would I do? Not should, but what could I do?
I could stand up, and no one would notice. I could walk over to where a young woman had carelessly left her tiny sequined handbag and pop open the clasp. I could reach my invisible fingers into the bag and come out with a crisp twenty-dollar bill and a travel-size bottle of Chanel No. 5. I could slip these into my own bag and turn in a slow circle to find no one at all watching me. It would be so easy.
I drifted away from that wedding enriched by twenty dollars and a few ounces of designer perfume. What else could I get away with?
Many, many things.
Being a woman had cost me so much. Since the first day I tottered around on my mother’s high heels and twisted an ankle, I had paid. Brow waxes, divorce settlements, tampons, keychain pepper spray canisters, conference room apologies; I had spent the currency of my youth. I was owed.
It was a month after the wedding when I stood in a 7-Eleven, watching the cashier’s eyes follow two young boys around the store while I tipped a whole case of Tic-Tacs into my capacious tote bag. The next day, I walked out of a department store wearing the $400 shoes I’d been trying on after the clerk moved on to help a younger woman. Even when the alarm went off, no one saw me.
If someone had stopped me, I would have stopped. If someone ever said, “Hey lady, you can’t walk out of here without paying,” I would have paid. Because they would have seen me. But each time they failed to notice, it strengthened my resolve. This is the cost of ignoring me, I thought as I walked out the door.
Most women slip into obscurity without recognizing its gift. Such a waste. Everywhere you look, women are paying too high a price––for milk, for air, for unbruised skin. I decided to wield this power for more than petty larceny. There are larger scores to settle.
That day in the subway, it could have been anyone. The grandmother in the floral sweatshirt and white orthotic shoes. The white-haired woman, bone thin with the cane and the patent-leather handbag. Even me, standing alone near the end of the subway platform, an Agatha Christie paperback in one hand, a heavy shopping bag full of contraband in the other.
All of us heard the way that greasy-haired young man was talking to the young woman. We saw the meanness in the set of his jaw as he grabbed her arm and the habitual way she flinched. But as soon as we recognized what was happening, everyone’s eyes darted away. A woman’s pain repulses the gaze like the wrong end of a magnet. Our shame made her invisible.
Any one of us could have decided something should be done. It could have been anyone who sidled up behind him as the train approached, stepped between the couple, and caused the nasty man to lose his balance just as the train roared into the station. Or maybe he just fell. Gravity is a powerful, invisible thing.
No one saw.
Published November 4th, 2018
Laura Todd Carns grew up in Washington, DC and Gaborone, Botswana. Her writing has appeared in Electric Literature, Medium Member Features, and Mothers Always Write. She lives near Annapolis, Maryland with her husband, children, and too many pets.
Christine Rasmussen is a professional artist with a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley in Art Practice and Peace & Conflict Studies. She has exhibited in California, Texas and Vietnam and her work features in private collections across the world and the Hilbert Museum of California Art. Raised by a creative family of global nomads Christine has lived in Pakistan, Vietnam and the U.S., and has traveled in 5 continents. Her dramatic and lyrical oil paintings emote absence and longing alongside fierce, bold possibility. Based in Los Angeles, CA, Christine runs her own art business integrating all the things she loves - creativity, connection and collaboration. Follow her on Instagram @christinerasmussenart and check out her website: www.christinerasmussenart.com.