Invisible Until We're Not

Selma Carvalho

The plan was to start from Minneapolis and drive north—maybe up to Duluth, maybe even all the way to the Canadian border. We didn’t know how long it would take, but we didn’t care. He and I were young.

I pulled open the glove compartment, and the McDonald’s vouchers Gaur had shoved in there tumbled out. Gaur and her kids lived on vouchers. Gaur had a voucher for everything—for toys, for clothes, for perfumes—wherever we went, she’d fish out a voucher from her bag that she’d cut out from the weekend papers or someone had given her. I called her the voucher lady, and that was cruel. There’s no shame in living on vouchers. Gaur lived in the apartment next to me. A lot of Indian families lived in that apartment block, and the women would all meet in the mornings to do their puja together or cook together. The smell of their daily ritual of cooking had seeped into the hallway carpet, turning it into a spice trail of peppercorns and cloves, and the smoke from burning onions and garlic lurked about like a fugitive trying to avoid the vents of fire alarms. I was never invited; I was polluted. I drank wine and ate meat. I wore jeans and swore.

But Gaur was different. Gaur and I sat most evenings at her apartment watching Judge Judy scream. Gaur had enormous breasts, which she loved to show off in tightly-fitted cotton salwars, but other than that she was dark and plain, and she smelt of pickles. Her children were plain, too. There was the girl, twelve, really dark with buck teeth which the dentist had said would require braces; then the boy of eleven, rail thin like a Dickensian chimney sweep; and the younger girl of six, a needy child who wrapped her tiny body around my legs, demanding my attention as if her own mother’s reserves had run out. They were really plain.

Still, Gaur spoke of them incessantly while she drank milk tea and munched on spiced peanuts. Gaur would grin, her teeth reddened with the chilli from the spiced nuts, and tell me how the boy had aced his math test and the older girl was going to be a model. Then she’d stick her packet into the sofa fold, wipe her hands on her salwar, pull out an album, and show me pictures of when her kids were younger; tots grinning from snowbound driveways, kissing fast food mascots at shopping malls, or waving from park swings. There was a man in the pictures in those days; Gaur’s husband who’d left her to live with a white woman.

“Bad woman, real bad woman,” Gaur told me “Has two kids. Drinks and smokes. Don’t know why he left me.”

Then she’d hold her breasts, push out their dark gelatinous goodness as far as she could, laugh a deep throated laugh, and say, “He like this. Yeah, he like it very much. Don’t know why he left. That woman flat. Nothing up there; like you. You know something, I tell you something now: His mother even don’t know. If she know, she kill him. That bastard. Maybe soon I kill him.” Sometimes Gaur would cry, then dry her eyes with the sleeve of her salwar, and pad into the kitchen to return with more tea, milkier and sweeter.

I’d sit on Gaur’s brown sofa watching the blue light of the television spread its gloom over her Goodwill furniture, her Dollar Store kitsch, and the plastic toy bins, and listen to her talk. I never let on that I hated those kids, and I hated Gaur, too, for never having visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art or the Guthrie Theatre or Barnes & Noble or watched CNN. “Books?” she’d scrunch up her nose, “I don’t have time for books. I have three kids.”

Still, Gaur and I were friends because I didn’t have any other friends in Minnesota, and I resented her for that, too, because if I’d had other friends, if I wasn’t so lonely, I’d never be friends with Gaur. We’d arrived in Minnesota in 2000 and rented on the outskirts of Minneapolis. And our apartment didn’t have any furniture either except for what came with the rental—the fridge, the stove, and some white plastic blinds.

“Ready?” he asked, backing up the old Toyota.

“No wait, I haven’t left a message for Pam,” I suddenly remembered.

The car came to a halt.

“Go then.”

I got out of the car and ran up the stairs to our apartment, looking this way and that before opening it. I dialed Pam’s number, and it went straight to voicemail.

“Pam, I won’t be in on Monday; you’ll have to manage without me. Which shouldn’t be too difficult.” I laughed nervously.

Pam was the director of the local food shelf program where I helped out. The blacks and whites who came there always mistook me for being in the queue, and they’d look most surprised when I appeared, officious and authoritative, behind the counter.

The blacks spoke of Jesus and how everyone was going to be judged at the Second Coming of the Lord. The whites looked embarrassed while I filled up brown paper bags with canned foods, sugar, pasta, diapers, and sometimes sanitary napkins. Pam said that people forget being poor means women not being able to leave their homes to go to work because they were on their periods. Sometimes we’d give them money for gas or the bus fare. That’s what being poor does to you, really: It disables you; it robs you of the power of movement.

Pam was like a latter-day white American Jesus, really, who performed the miracle of the loaves every day. She never turned away anyone, no matter who they were; she never judged. She was always kind, in that low voice of hers, inquiring about their lives and how they came to be in this situation, and then writing down the details and asking me to file them away. She was real tall too, so much taller than me, with shinny brown hair cut in a bob, and I guess I was in awe of her and that’s why I could never ask her to join me for a drink after work. But Nancy, the other woman who worked there, had known her a long time, and they went out for a drink on most evenings. They always asked if I’d get home safe before they left together.

Sometimes, as I was filling up the brown bags and the clients—that’s what we called them, clients—were waiting patiently, leaning over the counter that separated them from me, they’d ask me things:

“Where you from?”


“Oh yeah? I know India. How come you speak such good English?”

I’d keep my head low and shrug my shoulders; no point in letting on that there were schools that taught English outside of America and that many populations speak English as their first language.

But all the time, I tried to sound more American rolling my Rs. I spent all those empty hours between waking and the time he got home, watching American television and learning about America: about liberals and conservatives, about blue states and red states, about blacks and Hispanics, about over-achieving Asians and displaced white communities, about car theft and unpaid rent and alimony and paternity law suits, and about tornadoes and hurricanes and snowstorms and forest fires.

And then 9/11 happened, and I didn’t dare go out on the streets. It was really quiet, so quiet, I thought the world would never stir again, never breathe the sweet, pure air of innocence that had pervaded in America, insulating Americans, cushioning them from the body blows the rest of the world endured, making them believe nothing could touch them. But then I did go out, and a car drove past me, telling me to go home, and I wanted to yell back, “Wait, wait, you dumb motherfuckers, you’ve got it all wrong, I’m not that brown, I’m a different brown.” But the good people of Minnesota gathered around me and comforted me, and I realized the good people didn’t really understand either. No one really understands color gradation unless they’re remodeling houses. Sympathy and solidarity with the oppressed are so much easier than having to interpret lives, unravel histories, place their fingertips on cartographies and trace lines on them.

So he and I drove off that morning. The leaves were just turning, and quite a few of them were in the driveway, and I could hear them crunching under the wheel. But most of the leaves were still up on the trees; russet reds and yellows and golden browns daubed on a blue sky. On the streets, people were already scarce, dispersed by a clamoring wind that had swept down from the north, forcing them to shelter in libraries and malls. October was cruel that way; it could lure people outside with its streaks of sunshine, apple orchard harvests, farmers’ markets, and pumpkin pie smells wafting from small, family owned bakeries, and then just like that, it would attack them viciously with an unexpected blustery wind.

“I can almost believe in God when I see a Minnesota fall,” I said to him, placing my hand over his on the steering wheel.

His silences baffled me; sometimes they’d gather like cumulus clouds, dark and full of unspent anger. At other times, I found them reassuring, a wordless language of shared secrets. This time, I took his silence to mean only that he’d heard me. It was always a great discomfort to him that I’d lost my God soon after I met him, as if I’d tried to commit suicide. He thought it an indictment on our relationship, Morse code which when deciphered would read that I’m not happy with him.

“We should have made a reservation,” I said.

“Oh, don’t worry. We’ll get a room. Or we’ll sleep in the car,” he grinned.

The car lumbered down the road and pulled itself onto the highway, and finally we left the city behind us, and before us came up the vastness of the prairie and cornfields, some of which had harvest combines moving around slowly like drugged insects whirring away at the last of the green and yellow stalks. At midday, we stopped for lunch at a town with a few lean buildings lining the main street and a Presbyterian church whose gothic towers punctured the blue sky. Tucked in a corner of the town was a museum, a converted barn proudly displaying farming implements and tractor models, and next to the museum was an antique shop, its kindly owner sitting lonely as a tree stump keeping watch over provincial bric-a-brac gathering dust. I thought of Gaur then, and how when I show her the two Blue & White transferware plates I’d bought, she was bound to scrunch up her nose and ask, “How much you pay?” And if I told her it was $50 for two plates I could never eat off, she’d laugh, her large gums showing, and chide me, saying, “You waste money.”

Gaur had arrived in Minnesota twenty years before me, as a young bride, just when the IT boom was taking off. The world felt renewed of hope; globalization and technology were going to wrench Third World countries out of poverty. Gaur had spent the first six months calling her parents, begging them to take her back to India, but they paid no heed, and eventually she’d reconciled herself to the man she’d been married off to, an IT software engineer with a large appetite for beer. He told her to go out, make friends, not to depend on him so much for companionship. But you can’t make friends when you don’t know the language, when you don’t own a car, when you smell of pickles. You’re invisible except when you’re not—like when you’re crossing the street with your salwar flapping in the wind like the flag of some hostile country; when you’re fumbling at the cash counter looking for change; when you’re at the supermarket and the sales girl is keeping an eye on you; when you’re being told, “This is America, and you better learn American.” In nineteen fucking eighty, Gaur couldn’t find a friend to save her life.

We had lunch at the local diner; we ate pork chops with apricot marmalade and drank iced tea in tall glasses and from the window watched the sunlight shimmer on the blue-veined glacial lake. After he’d paid the bill, he sat in the Toyota, and I went to the drug store.

It was large and airy; its aisles parted like rivulets of white ceramic tiles, and on their banks were stacked deodorants and cosmetics and vitamin tablets and sanitary napkins. The elderly woman at the cash counter, in a gingham uniform, scanned my items. She held a box up to read the barcode because it wouldn’t scan, and I looked away embarrassed.

“Good luck, my dear,” she said as I left because before we are anything else—Indian, American, white, brown, Presbyterian, alien—before all that, we are women.

My cell phone began to vibrate, and I dug into the pocket of my jeans, thinking it might be Pam. My heart sank. It was Gaur.

“You OK?” Gaur asked, sounding lonely.

“Yeah Gaur. I’ll see you on Tuesday, OK?”

I put the phone back and told him to move out of the car, and he did, his long legs sliding out effortlessly. Then he walked over to the other side, and I took the driver’s seat, and we drove around aimlessly. We decided not to go to Duluth after all and looked instead for a place to stay. A few miles from the main street, we came across a large Victorian bed and breakfast with rain gutters painted green and a sign outside that read, “Rooms Available.”

The door opened and a tall, thin man with a gaunt face and scanty blond hair stood in the doorway, holding his dog by its lead.

“You folks travel far?” he asked as his eyes swept over our unwashed car.

“From Minneapolis. We need a room,” I told him, still sucking on the boiled sweets I’d bought at the drug store.

“I only got the one room for the night.”

“That’s alright.”

“It’s eighty dollars.”

“That’s alright.”

“We ain’t got any vegetarian stuff for breakfast. Bacon and eggs—that’s all we got around here.”

“We eat meat. We’re Catholic.”

“Oh yah? From India?”

“Yeah, we’re Catholics from India.”

He came down the steps then and told us where to park. His dog ran circles around us, sniffing at our overnight bag that he were carrying. The man told us his name was Grant and that his father had been in Vietnam. We didn’t say Vietnam was a long way from India. It was 2002 and the world would change in the coming years. It would expand and shrink, it would embrace and collide, it would become more tolerant and more insular, and from its depths would rise global warlords and nativist kings.

The room had a huge four-poster double bed right in the middle, a table on the side with an old-fashioned lamp, and a jug of water. It felt small and suffocating, and the curly green vines creeping on the pink wallpaper looked like they were going to reach out and strangle us in the night.

In the morning, he propped himself up on his forearms and asked:

“Have you peed on the stick yet?”

I sat on the floral carpet; its ruby roses grew all around me and drowned me in their pool of red, their leaves stuck in my head, and their stems lashed out at me with a thorny vengeance.

“I’m bleeding,” I said, looking up at him.

He knelt down beside me as he’d done for the past two years and took my head in his arms and cradled it, letting me wet his bare chest. And I thought of Gaur then and hated her even more, especially the youngest of her kids who really was awfully plain.

Selma Carvalho is a British-Indian writer, columnist and author of three books documenting the Goan presence in colonial East Africa. Her short prose has been published in Indian and British literary journals. She has been short or longlisted in short story contests by Almond Press UK 2015, Exeter Writers Prize UK 2015 and again in 2017, TSS Quarterly UK 2016, and DNA-Out of print, India 2016 (7th runner up). She was featured alongside prominent British-Indian writers in the India issue of Litro UK (Oct 2016). Of Indian origin, she grew up in Dubai, spent several years in Minnesota, USA, before moving to London where she currently lives with her husband and daughter. Visit her website for more information.
Published June 30, 2017
© 2017 Selma Carvalho