The Invisible Man
“Ladies first,” Ian would always say. Although it sounded more like “Ladies fawst,” by way of a speech impediment he never outgrew. As a silly thirteen year-old girl, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t walk through the buffet line after he did or open the door on my own, or get my own drink. I vocally refused the gestures often, but never once did he accept my rebuttals. He stood firm. I remember how he towered over me; even with a slight hunch he was around six feet tall. Looking into my eyes, he maintained a half-smile, half-“try me” expression. I miss that. I miss him.
I still see him standing in the hallway of our old church, opening his arms in a limp, unconfident effort to hug me. His smitten, timid demeanor unnerved me. Depending on my mood, I would either reluctantly duplicate his gesture or I would avoid him altogether. My body language and reserve presented countless opportunities for him to deduce that I wasn’t a fervent supporter of routine hugs or standing in front of one another in silence for abnormal lengths of time. There was a nervousness about Ian that inhibited him from starting a conversation beyond “Hey, how aw you?”
When we returned home after church, I would whine about the encounter over lunch, using words like “snagged” and “caught” as if he were a sharp hook and I some fine priceless fabric. I would mock the way he parted his hair virtually just above his right ear. I would giggle about his poor spelling. I guffawed about the time the Sunday school teacher asked him to read and he pronounced, “vomit” with as if it rhymed with “omit”.
One day after church, he wanted to show me his paintings. When I returned home later, I exclaimed in exasperation, “They’re ALL sunsets!” as if he had no earthly idea how to paint anything else.
It’s a wonder our friendship actually grew. Despite my fickle bouts of coldness and his social obstacles, we were friends. I know that Ian loved the Lord, that he was enamored with the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was his favorite president, and the Newsboys were his favorite band. He burned me a CD once, and aside from thinking that the singer’s Austral accent was somewhat distracting— I actually, perhaps, sort of, kind of, maybe liked it.
We wanted to hang out outside of church, so he started coming to my ballet classes to learn how to partner. Teen-age boys would often “volunteer” for pas de deux. The opportunity to put their hands on girls without being pegged perverts was apparently more than sufficient payment for their services. Not so with Ian. He had such a bashful grip, a great source of aggravation to any ballet dancer. “Sowwy” he would say as his weak hold caused me to lose my balance and fall off of pointe. Looking back, I realized the virtue hidden beneath his failure. A virtue to which every man should look up.
During one of our last conversations he told me that he was the “invisible man” in his family. I never forgot that, and often pondered its meaning. He said he wanted to be friends always. Yet time passed, and so did he. He had a seizure in his sleep and suffocated in his pillow at the age of seventeen. He had shared a room with his brother, but was neither seen nor heard.
Ian knew who he was despite other people. He knew what it was to respect a woman, to have a servant’s heart; he knew the worth of sunset, in its vast and magnificent array of colors. He made effort and took the time. He was unassuming. What people thought of him was of no concern, people were. He wrote poetry despite academic challenges. He danced in spite of lacking rhythm. He spoke, defying the enemy of his own speech. He pressed on.
Ian teaches me even though he has left the classroom. I think of him whenever I hear the Newsboys. I am haunted by the things I never said. I wish I had told him that his friendship was precious to me. I regret avoiding him in the hallways and mocking him with a habit as natural as eating lunch. I would have told him he was not invisible. I would have asked to read his poetry, though I know that I do every day.