I want to be invisible. Ronnie wants to be invisible. We found a way.
Ronnie and I are scheduled to give a talk in front of a large audience in the Bell Labs auditorium in Holmdel, NJ. The audience will be packed with geeks and brainy types from a number of locations around the country but mostly from New Jersey and New York. They are, by education and disposition, a critical lot and the question-and-answer period after such presentations is often characterized by interrogatories intended to show how much cleverer the one asking the question is than the one who must answer. It’s the kind of silly contest that “smart” people like to play. The only prizes are small cuts and tiny bruises resulting from vain attempts to polish one’s ego.
Ronnie and I really know our stuff but we are, like most people, terrified of public speaking. We did not sign up for this gig. Without consulting either of us, Wayne, our Department Head, volunteered us thinking it would be a good experience and that it would garner us exposure that may benefit our careers. I don’t know where Wayne gets these ideas, outside of projecting his own desires onto us, but neither Ronnie nor I are seeking professional advancement, we just want to have fun both on and off the job.
Ronnie is not my girlfriend. She is a friend who happens to be a female. Until I met Ronnie, I never thought this possible and I’ve come to treasure it for the gift it is. That’s not to say there’s no physical attraction or carnal desire. It’s just that we don’t want sex to get in the way of our friendship. We also both have partners and don’t want to jeopardize our existing relationships. Our partners wouldn’t understand our closeness but then we don’t tell them. Sometimes, even we don’t understand how special it is. Perhaps subliminally testing our resolve and conceivably hoping we would fail, on one business trip to Cleveland we shared a room. Returning to our room after dinner, we put on pajamas and laid in the double bed talking and passed the night without any of that “funny stuff” (interesting euphonism). We woke up feeling good about ourselves and with a strengthened friendship.
As soon as Wayne told us about the presentation, Ronnie and I agreed that we were not going to be up on the stage giving the talk. We decided to put together a slide show with a recorded sound track that we will operate from the back of the auditorium. Only after the presentation is finished will we go in front of the audience and take questions.
We prepare our presentation working at Ronnie’s apartment. We create the slides, place them in order, and using a cassette tape recorder (talk about old-school!), lay down a soundtrack to accompany each graphic. At the end of each slide’s dialogue, Ronnie clinks a wine glass with a spoon indicating we should go to the next image. As we drink the wine, speak our parts, and clink the glass, the presentation comes together as smooth as the Cabernet.
The big day arrives and we give the talk. Nobody sees us, we are invisible in the back of the auditorium facilitating the presentation. As soon as we finish, Ronnie and I go on stage and field questions with an uncanny felicity and poise that astounds us both. Later that evening, celebrating our success over dinner, we toast our collaboration. A few days later, as a token of our friendship, Ronnie provides me with an 8 x 10 photo of herself and tells me that this is how she wishes me to remember her. Why she wants to be remembered this way and why it’s important, she doesn’t say.
Within the year, she is dead from cancer at the age of thirty-four.
Now, some forty-five years later, I stumble across the photo while searching through old papers and I am brought to tears. I recall our presentation. I remember her laughter, her smile, her kindness. I think back to our many conversations about the struggles we both had with romantic relationships. I recollect that night in a Cleveland hotel room, both of us lying in bed honoring our commitment to “just be friends” while laughing and crying together. From what source we were able to exercise such self-control remains a mystery. It may be that we found restraint to be a genuine spiritual value that proved a blessing for both of us.
Each and every event in our lives happens only once and cannot be repeated. Looking back, it's almost a cliché to say that I could have been a better friend and it’s hard to imagine a case where this isn’t at least partly true. But a sadder truth is that I seem to unwrap the gift of people’s existence in my life long after they have left the party. Or, unwrapping the gift in their presence, I don’t fully realize what it is.
Ronnie listened like nobody had ever listened to me. She possessed a softness in her face and voice that could quiet any disturbance boiling inside me. Our conversations remain among the most honest person-to-person exchanges I have ever had. From Ronnie I learned, or began to learn, to deeply appreciate the kindness of others and that sincerity is the most important requisite for human relations.
Over the course of my career, I had the opportunity to speak in front of many groups both large and small. I still speak on rare occasions and am still very nervous. I continue to pretend that I am invisible and Ronnie, who has now mastered the invisible, is there with me.
This is just a short story and a brief acknowledgement that the dead do live on in our hearts and memories, their contributions to our lives inscribed on our soul. In a world that seems to prioritize transactions over relationships, it’s important to remember and feel the goodness of good people. By caressing the past like rubbing a stone, I bring the dead back to life. It takes little effort. Suddenly they are there, right next to me. Perhaps they are never really far away or perhaps they never really left. We have the capacity to walk with angels. Ronnie is such an angel and I wanted to tell you about her. I have kept my promise to remember her, not only as she was then, but as she is now.
You would have loved her.