Forty years ago I stood in the center of a crowded room with a nervous smile on my face. It was lunch time, and the office canteen was packed with noisy colleagues in a festive mood.
Decorations and a sumptuous buffet table lent a festive air to the gathering, which was a farewell party for me.
I had prepared what I thought were some appropriate remarks about how rewarding my five years had been working with the people who surrounded me. Never good at public speaking and a shy person by nature, I dreaded the attention that was being lavished on me at that moment. I hoped after I delivered my speech, which had been scribbled on the back on an envelope, that the crowd would disperse and I could somehow melt into the milling throng of well-wishers.
My work was in Southeast Asia with an international organization, and it had been interesting and rewarding. I had been told, via performance reports, that I had carried out my duties in an exemplary manner and, as a reward, I was being offered another assignment with greater responsibility in a neighboring country. Now was the time to end this chapter of my life and move on with the dignity and satisfaction gained from a job well done.
Unfortunately — in my view — the farewell formalities stretched out into quite a production, with a procession of speakers singing my praises. The final speaker was my secretary, an intelligent, attractive young woman with whom I had had excellent professional collaboration and a friendly personal rapport.
I should add at this point in the story that it was an open secret in the office that I was gay. While not openly or officially “out,” circumstantial evidence — unmarried, 38 years old, never seen dating a female — and well-documented rumor had established my sexual orientation as fact. For years, heavy hints had been dropped by colleagues on almost every possible occasion, that my secretary, also single, was lovely and “eligible.”
Knowing that I liked poetry and was a great fan of limericks, my secretary had cleverly crafted her farewell speech in the form of a “roast,” a limerick poem, full of biting humor and, as it turned out, a bit more insight than I had bargained for. As she proceeded with her speech, which bemoaned my lack of interest in pretty girls, the verse suddenly deteriorated into sexually-laden innuendo ending with what was meant as a comically plaintive lament, “And Sam OglesBY never flirts with ME!”
As the crowd roared with laughter, stamped their feet, and shouted cat-calls, I stood frozen and red-faced, humiliated to my very core. This was not the kind of send-off I had envisaged. After what seemed an eternity, the crowd fell silent, focusing their eyes on me. Did they expect a response to that damning limerick ? For better or worse, I had no reply. With my head slightly bowed and a tight smile on my face, I silently exited the room.
Sam Oglesby is a writer living in New York City. He worked for many years with the United Nations in Asia.