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“Invisible” McKinleyville, CA, 2005

Updated: Aug 2, 2022

I cross the lawn and approach our next-door neighbors to introduce myself to a group of three guys drinking beers on the front porch. My wife Danae and I had just relocated to the area for me to begin graduate school, and I’m excited to meet some people in our community. “Hi,” I say, “I’m Matt, your new neighbor.” There’s a slight pause before one of the guys says, “Well, welcome to the block Matt. I’m Chris. This is my house and these guys are my mooches. Wanna beer?” I accept and am soon ensconced on a deck chair with a cold Coors in hand. We go through the usual introductory chit chat, and I find out that Chris is a cabinet maker and his two friends also involved in construction trades. Tony, a middle-aged man to my left, points to the youngest member of the group and says, “Well, Andy’s not actually in construction. He just slaps paint on once we’re done doing the real work.” Andy frowns, but the ribbing is good natured and the energy pleasant. I tell the guys I’m there to study to become a teacher but don’t mention I’m entering a graduate program in English. Academia is looked upon with suspicion and scorn by some, and I choose not to apply this label to myself. Instead, I mention that I used to do indoor/outdoor painting for a living, and soon I’m bullshitting with Andy and telling him about the time I accidentally dumped five-gallons of paint off a roof onto an Italian restaurant’s awning. At one point, Chris’s four-year old boy comes out and sits on his lap while we talk. Chris is tender with the child, ruffling his hair, and allowing him to interject exciting details about the snake he and his mom found on a walk that morning. Before I excuse myself from the group, I ask Chris if I can borrow a stud finder. “You bet,” he says, “follow me.” His garage is a masterpiece of neatly organized, high-end tools, and I whistle in appreciation. Chuckling, he says, “I tell the wife they’re all for work, but there might be a toy or two in here. Let me know if you need anything else.”

I ask, “But won’t that make me one of the mooches?”

He smiles and says, “You bet. But I’m used to it.”

That night, pictures securely hung thanks to the stud finder, I tell my wife about the encounter. “I doubt we’ll be best friends with them, but they were extremely nice. Maybe we should have them over for a BBQ or something . . . I like the idea of knowing our neighbors.” She likes the plan, and we continue unpacking and settling into our new home.

The following Saturday, I’m getting ready to mow the lawn, when I notice that Chris and his buddies are back on the porch, and I decide to invite them over for burgers later. However, before I can walk over to offer, I see a Hispanic man cross the street and approach Chris in much the same manner I had a week earlier. The man says, “Hi, I’m Manny from across the street. I’ve seen you around but haven’t actually introduced myself yet.” I glance at Manny’s house, notice a meticulously maintained flower garden, and wonder how long he’d already been in the neighborhood. Chris, after an uncomfortably long silence, says flatly, “Okay.”

Realizing that this is the only response he is going to get, Manny continues, “I wanted to ask if you have an extension cord I can borrow? Mine is about three feet short of reaching the back fence, and I need to run some tools for a gate we’re building . . . I’d run to the store to get one, but I’ve got a friend helping me and want to get it done before he has to leave.”

Chris slowly shakes his head and says, “Nope. Don’t have one.”

This is, of course, bullshit, and after another uncomfortable silence, Manny says, “Okay. Sorry to have disturbed you.” Chris’s only response is a slight nod, after which Manny turns and walks back to his own house. Suddenly realizing that I might be noticeably eavesdropping should they look toward the shrub dividing our lawns, I begin to wheel my lawnmower toward the far side of the house. Before I’m out of earshot, however, I hear Tony say, “Damn Chris, that was a little cold.” In an icy tone, Chris replies, “It’s bad enough I have to deal with them at work all day long—I sure as shit aint gonna lend them my personal tools on the weekend.”

Thirty minutes later, the grass cut, my pale skin already turning pink with a sunburn, I’m wheeling the lawn mower back to the shed when I hear Chris call out, “Hey Matt, you want’a’beer?”

I don’t. And, there are a million excuses I could make for turning the offer down. Instead, I call back, “sure” and, a minute later, I’m back on the porch with the group of guys. As I drink my beer and go through what now feels like perfunctory banter, I find myself wanting to shrink out of sight lest Manny see me and associate me with the group. I wonder why I had accepted the offer. When my drink is done, I turn down a second and politely excuse myself, the original idea of inviting them to a BBQ long dismissed.

That evening, I tell Danae about the conversation between Chris and Manny and what Chris had said immediately after. Her face flushing with anger, she offers a few choice words about the group of guys before storming off to make a batch of brownies to take over to Manny and his family.

As pots and pans clatter in the kitchen, and I sit alone in the living room, I think about the fact that I hadn’t told Danae I’d hung out with the guys after Chris’s exchange with Manny. Instead, my choice remains invisible. For fifteen years. Until now.

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