A little respect (column)
My mother said Dr. Saleem was a gifted surgeon and she was delighted I was dating his only daughter. My dad described him as “an old school A-Rab who would change me from a colt to a filly if he caught me fooling around with his little girl.” The year was 1972.
Ours was a Romeo-and-Juliet-like romance (except we didn’t like each other enough to kill ourselves). Ginny Saleem was a cheerleader for my town’s arch rival and I was the co-captain of my high school’s football team. I can’t remember how we met. I do remember that her Dad didn’t like me — he told his daughter that I had “bad intentions.”
Even though Ginny (unlike Juliet) never cared for me enough to do herself harm and her father thought me a weasel in heat — her little brother Joey was a big fan. After all this time, I remember little about our relationship but I remember Joey well.
He had to be about 9 years old, 8 years younger than Ginny. He had olive skin, an angelic face with green eyes. Whenever I would pick up Ginny for a date he would engage me in conversation. I’d want to get away from the suspicious glare of her old man and sullen looks of her Mum but Joey would pester me with questions and small talk. His sister told me he would cut out any newspaper clippings where I was mentioned and hang them in his room. I gave him an old track jersey that came to his knees, Ginny said he slept in it.
After I heard that Joey was often bullied at school and had few friends I tried to be a little nicer but mostly I just wanted to be alone with his sister.
Per usual for high school romances of that era our dates consisted of movies, cheap food and parked cars. So when Ginny called one Saturday afternoon from cheerleading practice telling me her parents were going to Boston to see a play, and her brother was spending the night at a cousin’s house, I told her I’d be over. She said if I got there first to let myself in.
Though my memories of that time are cloudy, what happened when I entered that house is not. Ginny’s car was not in the driveway but I assumed she was home because I heard Aretha Franklin blaring from the stereo, “R.E.S.P.E.C.T … Find out what that means to me, R.E.S.P.E.C.T. take care … TCB.” I headed into the house looking for Ginny but instead came upon Joey, lip syncing and dancing in front of a living room mirror wearing his sister’s bra and underwear. (Don’t ask me how I know they were hers.)
He looked terrified. He shut off the record player, turned to me and said, “Are you going to tell Ginny?”
I can’t say I wasn’t shocked. I was raised in a white bread, French-Irish-Catholic family. According to my faith at the time, what I saw was, if not a sin, certainly improper. But, on the other hand, I was there to, hopefully, ‘“sin” with Ginny so who was I to throw stones.
“Are you going to tell Ginny?” he asked again. “No,” I said, “I’m not going to tell anyone.”
I can’t say I was a particularly enlightened, moral or even a kind person back then. But in a flash of understanding and empathy, that was not to resurface in me again until my late 20s, I added, “You are a really good dancer.”
We both heard Ginny’s car pull into the driveway — I told Joey that I’d stall his sister while he put her stuff back.
Ginny Saleem dumped me not long after that for a guy who owned a car with a working heater. I’d like to think even if we continued dating, I would never have told her what I saw that day. If Joey wanted to share, that would be his call.
In truth I had mostly forgotten about Ginny and Joey Saleem. But the entire Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner thing brought it to mind.
We are a flawed species. Not because some of us choose partners of the same sex, feel more comfortable dressing and acting like a different gender than that we were born but rather because we allow society tell us that how we were born is wrong.
I can only imagine the fear and shame Joey felt being raised by stern, American/Middle Eastern parents in a world where what was expected was much different than his inclination. And it is particularly sad that it has taken society this long to even consider that what is deemed “normal” is at best subjective.
The only difference between Joey and me was genetics. One of us was born with a desire and ability to be what society expected the other was forced to hide who he was. What we did have in common was a love of sports, Aretha Franklin and, of course, a fascination for his sister’s undies …
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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