FICTION: The Most Invisible Mexican by Steven Arciniega

She called me fat. This wasn’t anything new or even the first time she had done so. To be honest with you, she didn’t actually say the word fat.

“I told my husband that you looked like you had put on some weight. That your vest was looking a little tight,” is what she actually said. “Your wife must be a good cook.”

Regardless, I had to force a smile and give her one of those slow, ha-ha-types-of-laughs. The type of laugh you perform in the face of someone you’re greatly annoyed by and possibly dislike. The act was hard for me to perform, as what she said attributed mostly to her age. At least that’s what I had come to believe.

Bev was over the age of reasonably seeing and hearing well – a double force of what happens to us over time. She volunteered her time by playing the obscurely placed, obnoxiously loud piano of the lobby I worked in. A true saint. Twice a week, for the past seven years, she sat and pounded out “music” at maximum volume, only mere feet from my desk. The lobby contained scuffed tilted floors, and wide, inviting spaces. A master of amplifying even the smallest of sounds, the lobby surged with foot traffic on a near constant level. Frustration had become a part of the job description.

Bev’s claim to the “piano master throne” was a working knowledge of some five hundred songs. Like a $9.99 per month music service you thumb open on your phone, Bev claimed she could queue up and play any one of these five hundred songs on demand.

“Bullshit,” I said to my coworkers. “Absolute bullshit of the highest order. All of her songs sound the same. Seriously.”

This was true. The reality of her piano repertoire really did consist of the same ten songs. These were often, if not always, played in the same order. The mystery of passersby not catching onto her tricks has and will always baffle me.

“What a lovely job you have, sitting here, listening to this wonderful music,” they said.

“Just one of my fantasies come true,” I said.

The notes she played were composed mostly of musical score or theme songs. It’s a Small World. Love Story. New York, New York. Even the theme from Doctor Strange Love that sounds like the theme from Tetris. The way in which she played, however, tainted these songs with a high sheen of saloon music from a B-Rate Spaghetti Western – maybe even a D-Rate one, if there is such a thing. Seven years straight. Twice a week. Your continued prayers are a blessing.

I don’t know what business Bev had talking about me to her husband but that’s just how things in my life seemed to go. The thought of being special enough to be talked about at home, crossed quickly over to annoyance, shadowed by bitterness. Though she wasn’t wrong about my vest being tighter. It was. Had I gotten fat? I’m not sure. I hate scales. They’re cold and archaic, often used to send people into fits of fantastical rants on how they should be living their lives. And I’ve always been bigger than your average Mexican. Five-feet-eleven with broad shoulders. Long arms like E.T. It had taken me years to become comfortable enough in my own skin, that I could take my shirt off while swimming. This was a fact Bev’s words slowly shifting out of my perspective. I did notice how elongated my neck looked. Maybe it was the florescent lights in the restroom or the angle at which I was viewing my face. Or maybe it was something that came with age – ugliness or perspective. As life goes on, maybe things don’t look as-pretty-as originally thought. I wondered what she saw through her thousand-year-old eyes. Obviously, she saw me as fat and felt inclined to tell the entire world about it. But that wasn’t all.

“One of my relatives is married to this guy… he’s a little darker,” she said, getting closer as if to whisper launch codes. “He’s one of those Hispanics, if you know what I mean.”

Yes, dear Beverly, I know exactly what you mean. Check my last name. Look at photos of my grandparents, my parents. Note the darker-than-the-deepest-parts-of-space black hair that encompasses my head, my arms, or the tops of my knuckles. Take heed of the extremely little Spanish I speak, yet over pronounce words when ordering dishes containing carne asada or papas. Ask me – I dare you, I beg you – about my childhood summers, where my Dad would come home and turn off the pleasing kiss of the air conditioner. One of his many attempts to instill within my brother and I, the hard-as-nails work ethic.

“If I’m out in the heat working away, you can’t sit here and enjoy my AC,” he said. We were ages eleven and thirteen, cursed with the dreaded three-month summer vacation sanctioned by the public-school system.

As to how, over the seven or so years Bev had known me, she didn’t discern that I was in fact, a Mexican-American, was beyond any comprehension. It aligned with the rest of the public I interacted with on a daily basis. My thoughts about them, often wondering how they had made it this far in life, with such little working knowledge of the world around them.

“Does this building have restrooms,” they said.

No, it’s the only one in North America to not contain any. Crazy, right? Nine floors up, two basements, and not a single pot to piss in. Must be some kind of world record.

“What is this?” they said.

A sign. Do you know how to read or were you simply looking at it for the sake of getting some use out of your eyes?

“Where’s the lobby?” they said.

You’re standing in it. Please accept this Nobel for your research in obscurity.

I sincerely wish these questions were a work of fiction. But they are not. I am not. Bev is not. This job is not. Over the years, I have come to think that maybe this is just how people operate. They, like you and I, simply don’t know certain things. It’s not the crime that I’ve built up so feverishly in my head. Like how my relatives came from Mexico, which by existence, makes me a Mexican-American. There are no mind readers in this world. If you remain silent, people tend to make up their own histories about you. Like Bev’s assumption that I was fat, due to my wife only cooking certain types of food. Like Mexican. My wife, for the record, is white.

My skin is thick. It’s been crucial to my survival in this concrete fortress I call work. I can take multiple verbal punches and keep going. It’s an uncanny trait. It’s along the lines of people telling you things you possibly can’t deny. Like what day of the week it is. As if we are unable to touch the screens of our phones and see the simple, blaring fact. Or coming to terms with the rolls of your skin or our ethnicities. Even at work, where we can go overlooked or hope to fade into the background, (as if it would mean the silly questions stopped, for the love of all things Holy, let that be true!) where we come from, who we come from, shapes our identity.

Eventually, Bev walked away without any utterance of an apology or without me clarifying my ethnicity. I figured it was best to let things go, in part because I don’t think that she would understand or care to understand. Another part of me wondered if she would be embarrassed, like when others of my ethnic background approach me already speaking in Spanish.

“Sorry, I don’t speak Spanish,” I say. Shame washing over the both of us. A traitor to my own kind. Though I’ve been told on many occasions that I look more like some variation of Asian descent, than like the Mexican of my blood relatives.

“Are you Filipino,” they say, or my personal favorite, “You look like that Gangnam Style guy!”

I let the fake smile fade. The facade of who I had built myself up to be in this building, who I wanted them to see me as, slowly lowering itself with the downturn of my mouth. I didn’t like the feeling. I wanting to put it on paper, furious pen marks. Crumple it up. Throw it into the trash. Start the journey of being the most invisible Mexican all over again. But I remembered then, that my trashcan had been missing for days. Like, literally missing. It made me wonder if someone stole it, which, in the busy building I found myself in, wouldn’t surprise me. Things went missing all the time. Your patients. Your personal time off. Your will to do better than the job you have now.

It wasn’t until later when I was informed that my trash can wasn’t truly missing. It was sitting only a few feet away from my desk. Around the corner, just past the piano. An area where I don’t allow my eyes to travel. The trashcan had been used to collect vomit from some poor individual who couldn’t make it to the restroom. The restroom with the awful florescent lighting that made my face look larger than it actually is. Maybe he or she was sick of being called fat and decided to lose whatever meal to compensate for their emotional state. Or maybe they were like me. Just a regular person lost in their own head, making assumptions about how people saw them regardless of their ethnicity. Maybe they were someone getting older, with a vest that’s getting tighter and tighter. Slowly succumbing to the deafening tones of contemporary piano hits from the eighteen-hundreds.

Steven Arciniega

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Steven Arciniega has been writing character centred stories for several years, including works in fiction, nonfiction, and screenplays. His most recent works include a pilot script for a series titled 116 Elm, a semi-finalist in Screencraft’s 4th annual Fellowship. In his spare time, Mr. Arciniega enjoys traveling, taking photos, and writing about his life experiences on social media. Mr. Arciniega earned his Bachelor’s of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of California Riverside. 

If you liked Stevens work he is also on social media…

Instagram: @that1guysteve

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