28. “Rub You the Right Way,” Johnny Gill


Puberty. One minute you’re 14 going on 15. Then it’s your birthday and you open a present and suddenly you’re aware that there’s a new perception of you. You were always just a kid. Presents had been fun. But now you’re turning into an adult. Or some scrawny, embryonic, grease-and-pimple-faced facsimile of one. And presents could be a little something other than fun.

For that birthday, my mother’s Floridian friend Roseanne sent me a bottle of Chaps cologne. A couple years later, she got me this giant-voiced Johnny Gill CD. Despite this thumping song about rubbing and stroking, it was not Johnny Gill that first really made me aware of my burgeoning pubescence. Not consciously, anyway. It was, begrudgingly, the cologne.

I asked for the CD – I loved (and still do) late-80s/early-90s R&B so much. I hadn’t asked for the Chaps. I never would’ve thought to ask for cologne. Men wore cologne. But somehow, even back then, I knew it wasn’t just a gift. It was a message. You’re not a kid anymore. So put the G.I. Joes away and get with the not being a kid anymore already. I think I asked for the CD a couple years later – something I wanted – because I was afraid of being blindsided again by a surprise dose of reality.

I loved Roseanne. Unfortunately that’s past tense. Cancer took her not too many years after this gift. She was a single mom with a cool son a few years older than me. She was kind of like my mom, only, I don’t know… hipper? I remember driving with her in the car once when I was around 15 or 16 and watching her tap her fingers on the steering wheel to the beats of pop radio. I thought that was so cool. To be an adult and to still feel the music like that. To this day, I can’t stop my fingers from dancing on the steering wheel. Or anywhere else for that matter.

Roseanne reminds me of everything I loved about Florida as a kid. It was America. It was the same but different, like she and my mom. It was hot and sunny. There were palm trees. It was eating Fruity Pebbles, which we couldn’t get at home, in her kitchen when we stayed there. It was the beach, even though I didn’t like it as a kid. And she reminded me of my mother’s years as a Beach Blanket Bingo teenager in 1960s Fort Lauderdale. (Way back in Post No. 14, I hinted that that could be a whole other post.) With her surfer dude boyfriend who went on to become a model and who really could not have been named anything other than Chad. And he was. I hear the high school rally song my mother taught us: “Hurrah for Norland! Hurrah for Norland! Someone in the crowd’s yelling, ‘Hurrah for Norland!'” Go Vikings! That Norland Vikings beach towel, white and maroon, that we used through my childhood! I had more school spirit for my mom’s high school than I ever had for my own. I thought her stories were hilarious as a kid, but now I’m envious of her Beach Blanket memories and the best friend she had for over 30 years, even though they lived the last 25 or so more than 2,000 km away.

But let’s not forget Johnny Gill in all this. That voice. I’d tell my sister that his was my favourite male voice. That is, until I discovered Otis Redding a few years later. But it was something. Dude had range. Dude had power. But he could also be so delicate on songs like “My, My, My” and “Lady Dujour.” I could just imagine the woman he’s singing to melting into a puddle of romanced goo at the sound of his voice.

I tried wearing the cologne for a while. The smell reminds me of my high school uniform cardigan, which began to smell like Chaps. And as much as that was the “message” gift, and it made me aware of something I couldn’t stop from happening, ultimately it was Johnny Gill’s voice a couple years later that made me think growing up and being a man might actually be cool.

Of course, I was by no means ever the lothario I imagined him to be. Not even a little bit. But it was fun to imagine the hyper-romance of it all. So thanks, Roseanne, for nudging me to put down the G.I. Joes, even if it wasn’t through the vehicle you expected. I became a man. I’ve just never been good at the not being a kid anymore. And, frankly, that rubs me the right way.

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