Behaving Strangely In The Name Of Love

A short story that humorously considers the lengths many men will go for love…

by: R. B. Miner

When we heard Dennis was still going through with the procedure, none of us could believe it. He’d broken up with his fiancée the month before, and as we understood it, she had been the entire reason for it. We tried to make sense of everything amongst ourselves at brunch one day. For whatever reason, it didn’t seem like something we could simply ask Dennis about.

“Maybe you can’t just cancel,” Valerie suggested. She snapped a piece of overcooked bacon in half. “They’ve got a special guy for it, you know.”

“Jesus, Valerie,” Leonard said, “no one can force you to get an operation. Besides, they don’t use the special guy for adults. They’ll do Dennis’s in a hospital.”

Mohel, I thought. The special guy is called a mohel.

“Then why’s he throwing this weird party next month?” Valerie asked.

Leonard looked thoughtful for a moment, then shrugged.

“Going away party?”

We all laughed.

“It’ll be prettier,” Zelda said. Leonard and I perked up at this. Zelda was exceptionally pretty herself, and whether or not we’d risk ruining our friendship for a chance with her, we were always interested in what she thought was attractive. “Maybe he’s doing it for the next girl.”

“Do most girls like it better?” I asked.

Zelda, Valerie, and Kathy all shrugged, their way of confirming without seeming overtly shallow. Dennis didn’t seem the type to care. He had, after all, done quite well with women to this point in his life. I remained quietly skeptical about his motivations.

“Still,” Leonard said, “it seems like a risk.”

“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Kathy said.

“I’m not talking about the surgery. I mean if he’s doing it to make some hypothetical girl happy. It’s one thing to have it done by your parents when you’re a baby. But what does it say about a guy who would do that to himself as an adult? Sick, right?”

“I think it’s sweet,” Zelda said. We groaned, the men especially loudly. “What? It’s not romantic to make sacrifices for your partner?”

“But they’re not together anymore,” Leonard said. “The wedding’s off.”

“Maybe—” I began. The sun escaped from behind a cloud to reveal that I was sitting just outside the shade of our umbrella. I shielded my eyes with one hand. “Maybe he still wants to convert.”

Everyone seemed to consider this for a moment. Dennis, in spite of a Catholic upbringing, had not been to church since he left his childhood home, as far as I knew. And while that probably meant faith hadn’t been important to him before, it also meant he wouldn’t be undoing any sacrosanct bonds by embracing Judaism. I’d grown up with a Jewish mother and a Lutheran father, and though neither religion had ever taken hold in me, I’d had moments in my adult life when I wondered whether it might have been comforting to have bonded myself to one.

“You’re telling me,” Leonard said, “that you think he’s going to let someone cut off his dick to convert to the religion of a girl he’s no longer marrying?”
“Part of his dick,” Valerie said. “And it’s not ‘someone’ doing it, as you so rudely pointed out to me. It’s a doctor.”

“We assume,” I said. Everyone looked at me. The sun was bright, and I worried sweat was bleeding through my shirt. “What? This weird, hush-hush party he’s throwing doesn’t reek of something oddly performative to you? You know Dennis. Would any of you put it past him to hold an adult bris?”

Again, the rest of the table seemed to be processing the idea, their faces frozen by the effort of calculation. Valerie’s expression changed first. She looked like she might be sick all over her eggs benedict.

“Oh, God. The party is at The Stable. I love that place.”

“Come on,” Kathy said. “It’s not a bris. Maybe it’ll be an unveiling, though.” She paused and tapped the tip of her nose with one finger. “I would like to see the new version.”

Leonard nodded.

“Me, too.”

“If it’s either of those things,” Valerie said, “I’m never eating at The Stable again.”

We all agreed, though I only did so for the sake of the joke. I’d seen and done much worse things in the oversized, single-occupancy bathrooms at The Stable over the years. That was the appeal of the place; nobody went there for the food, despite what Valerie had implied.

The conversation eventually shifted course, some collective awareness working to preserve the mystery of whatever Dennis had in store. None of us wanted to guess exactly right, else we inadvertently ruin the reveal.

We finished our meal, paid, and parted ways. I knew thoughts of Dennis’s member would intrude on my consciousness regularly until the party. I had a suspicion it would do the same to the others. Maybe that was part of what he wanted.

The night of the party finally arrived. In the days leading up, I’d considered bringing a date, since it was sure to be a spectacle of one kind or another — Dennis could be counted on for that, at least, with all his money — but in the end I killed the idea. No man wants his dick to play second fiddle in front of someone they’re trying to seduce.

The hostess at The Stable directed me to the private event room at the back of the restaurant. When I pushed open the French doors, the first thing I noticed, before any individual person in the throng, were the giant gold letters on the back wall. They spelled out “CONGRATULATIONS.” For what, I still didn’t know.

Familiar faces populated the room, friends from one circle or another. There was an older generation in the mix, too, one that seemed out of place. Dennis stood talking to one of those older couples at the end of a long table. He was dressed in a dark suit, and I felt schlubby in my jeans and t-shirt. He hadn’t mentioned anything about the dress code. Next to him, stood a beautiful Black girl. Dennis slid an arm around her waist, and I said, to no one, “Huh.”

A hand grabbed my arm. It was attached to Kathy. Her eyes were unblinking and serious.

“Can you believe it?” she asked.

“I still don’t know what we’re doing here.”

Her nails dug deeper into the flesh of my arm.

“Ow.”

“He’s engaged. This is an engagement party for Dennis and a girl we’ve never met.”

The news caused no turmoil in me. It was not that I’d predicted it, but rather that I’d been prepared to be surprised. I’d known that whatever reason Dennis had for gathering all of us would turn some aspect of our lives upside down.

“I wonder why he didn’t tell us.”

“Don’t you think he’s embarrassed? It happened too quickly to be a smart decision. That, or she’s a gold digger. She’s probably a nightmare.”

More likely, I thought, Kathy’s reaction was indicative of the reason he’d been withholding, but I held my tongue. I looked at the girl again. Her arms were covered in tattoos, and she had a gold ring through one side of her nose. A far cry from his former fiancée, the mousey, circumcision enthusiast from the Upper East Side.

“I guess we know she’s not Jewish.”

“Michael,” Kathy said, “you cannot say that.”

“Don’t be dumb.” I pointed, trying to indicate what I’d noticed. “She’s got tattoos. Can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery if she’s got tattoos.”

“Jesus!” Leonard said, appearing through a wall of bodies. “Did you hear?”

“I heard.”

Zelda and Valerie followed after him, and we formed our own circle. We needed to be insulated for the moment, to digest the new information as one organism. Valerie spoke up.

“It must have happened so fast.”

Leonard shrugged. “Dennis has always trusted his gut without hesitation. Always. That’s why he’s rich.”

“Then why am I not getting drunk on his booze?” I had just noticed that I was the only one without a drink in hand. There was a makeshift bar in the corner of the room that seemed far away across the small sea of people.

“It’s so strange that we haven’t seen him in two months,” Valerie said. “Do you think he was holed up with her the whole time?

“They can’t have been doing much,” Kathy said, raising her eyebrows.

“Oh, God,” I said. “I’d forgotten about his cock.”

As though on cue, Dennis started waving at us. Kathy and I waved back. Dennis took his fiancée by the hand and led her to us. He pushed through the crowd and broke our perimeter between Zelda and Valerie, kissing each of them quickly on the cheek, then pulling his fiancée to his side once more. She stood between Dennis and Zelda wearing an expectant smile. He told us how happy he was that we had all made it. We all said, through words or smiles or raised drinks, that we were happy to be there.

There was a pause. The cause of it was obvious: Dennis had to introduce his fiancée to us before we could congratulate them on the engagement. Really it was his fault, but I still felt bad for the predicament. I offered a bridge.

“Congratulations, brother. We’re happy for you.”

Dennis reached across the circle and gripped the back of my head. He pressed our foreheads together. I felt an arm around my back, then smelled an unfamiliar perfume as Dennis’s fiancée pressed her cheek to mine. Soon the rest of the group had joined, and we stood together in each other’s arms. From the middle of the huddle came Dennis’s muffled voice.

“Shannon, meet the gang.”

Now with her name, we were able to speak our greetings and congratulations. Some of the sounds were just affectionate grunts. We didn’t worry about being heard individually — the tone of the collective noise was more important than any words. It was a nice little ceremony. It felt like enough for now.

We separated, and Kathy asked, “How did you guys meet?”

“Oh, come on,” Dennis said, rolling his eyes.

Kathy looked hurt by the dismissal. The return of the group’s confusion was palpable — how did he want us to engage with this stranger? Our closeness to Dennis insisted on a closeness to Shannon, but we had no idea how to express it.

It was Shannon who prevented a full descent into awkwardness. She nestled her head under Dennis’s chin and wrapped her arms around his waist.

“Tell them, baby.”

Dennis rolled his eyes again but acceded to his soon-to-be wife. He told us a story about going alone to the hospital for his circumcision. About the surgery and the agony afterwards. About going home to his apartment, even more alone for having lost a part of himself, and especially raw for the reminder of the fiancée he had also lost. About being relegated to the couch with an ice pack, forced to order takeout to stay fed. And finally, about the fateful order from his favorite Thai place, and the sexy delivery girl who brought him his red curry and crab rangoon.

“Oh,” Zelda said. “You’re a delivery person?”

Shannon looked at Zelda through narrow eyes. She set her lips in a tight smile and said, “I’m a painter, darling. People just aren’t buying art the way they used to.”

Zelda returned a smile so similar to Shannon’s that it must have been an intentional mimicry. Leonard cleared his throat and raised his glass towards Dennis.

“I’m just glad you gained something for what you lost.”

I wondered whether Leonard was talking about Dennis’s foreskin or his ex-fiancée. Whatever Dennis assumed about Leonard’s meaning, he seemed to appreciate the sentiment. He touched his own glass to Leonard’s, and they drank. Shannon’s gaze moved deliberately around the circle, lingering on Zelda, on Valerie, on Kathy.

“I need a drink,” I said. “Anyone?”

Zelda took hold of my arm and said, “I’ll come with you.”

“Good, good,” Dennis said. “Drink, be merry. My parents just walked in anyway. See you guys in a bit.”

We smiled as Dennis and Shannon exited the circle. She stayed close by his side as they moved. When they were engaged by his parents, our group felt free to speak again.

“Wow,” Valerie said.

“Right?” Zelda said.

“I’m just disappointed we won’t get to see the new and improved Dennis,” Leonard said. “Doesn’t seem like the sort of crowd where you just whip it out.”

“And we may never know why he did it,” Kathy said. “He couldn’t just tell us why he went through with it?”

“She’s really pretty,” Valerie said quietly. Kathy nodded.

Zelda tugged at my arm. “Be right back,” I said. We wound through formations of people similar to ours, little satellites in the orbit of Dennis’s life. Zelda’s gait had a sharpness to it, cutting angles with her feet and shoulders like she wanted someone to get in her way. But we made it to the bar without incident, and she ordered a vodka on the rocks. I told the guy to make it two. Zelda and I waited without talking. Questions flitted around my head. I didn’t want to ask any of them.

The moment she got her hand around the drink Zelda said, “Let’s down these and get another.” It seemed like a fine idea, so I agreed, but the vodka was only just cold over the ice, and I didn’t enjoy it. With our second drinks in hand, we moved back through the party. Other guests had permeated our circle, so I said my hellos to the people I cared to. The conversations consisted mostly of questions — about the engagement, about the state of Dennis’s penis, the latter subject quickly becoming the only one people wanted to discuss. They mentioned Shannon only as a matter of form, so they might be allowed to talk about the circumcision. No one I spoke to or overheard had ever met someone who’d had one as an adult.

Soon the whole room was alive with conversations about Dennis’s penis. It was hard to imagine, given the liquor flowing from the open bar and the ever-rising volume of our voices, that his parents or Shannon’s parents or some other undesirable party wouldn’t soon overhear something that would offend them.

Dennis, though, always had a sense for these things. The ding, ding, ding of a metal knife against the side of a glass cut through the clamor. Dennis climbed atop a chair at the head of the room. Shannon stood on the floor beside him, gazing upward.

As the noise died down, I found Zelda in the crowd, drawn by her flushed skin and the telling way she swayed on her feet. She got flirty when she was drunk, and I liked to be on the receiving end of it. I took a place standing next to her as Dennis began his speech.

“I know some of you were surprised when you got the invitation to this party. You were probably thinking, ‘What’s Dennis up to? What’s he got to celebrate, all things considered?’ Well, now you know.”

The crowd laughed politely. Dennis kept talking. He mentioned people here and there, that he was grateful and blessed, maybe he even told the story of meeting Shannon again, I don’t know. His voice had faded to the background of my awareness.

Zelda had slipped her hand into mine. Now her fingernails dug into the fleshy part of my palm. A wave of nerves crested over my defenses. I squeezed her hand. She took her focus from Dennis to look at me.

It’s true that I had been in love with Zelda for some time, though I was too much a coward to do anything about it. My inaction was couched in the rationalization that my advances would ruin our friendship, but deep down I knew the truth, that the stakes of a refusal were even steeper than that. Knowing for certain she did not love me back would bury me.

My intuition — though I guarded my conscious mind against it — knew why she had been acting so strangely. She would admit it to me later that night, as we lay naked together, I had acted as her momentary comfort, a consolation. She wept and apologized for misleading me, then admitted her love for Dennis. My heart broke in my chest, then and there.

Standing in The Stable during Dennis’s speech, I had a sense of what was coming. Zelda’s expression was a mixture of sadness and desire which never fixed its attention entirely on me. But she allowed me a moment of hope, a few hours in which I could pretend, against my better judgment, that we might have a future together.

Another ripple of laughter broke over the crowd, some punchline I’d missed, and the fire of mischief lit Zelda’s eyes. The tinge of cruelty which colored her expression wasn’t evident to me until she called out.

“Quit stalling and show us your dick!”

Dennis choked on whatever he was saying. His face spasmed as he tried to force a smile over the mask of shock which erupted so suddenly.

The room was only quiet for a moment. Zelda shouted again. “Come on, show us!” I thought she might have made herself into a leper, that I would have to usher her out of the restaurant and guard her from hurled drinks and insults, until a voice I didn’t know said, “Yeah, that’s what we came for!” Laughs and whoops sounded through the room. The next outburst was a chorus from a group nearby, demanding the same.

It was as though Zelda had tapped a collective vein in all of us. Voices rose, all clamoring for a glimpse of Dennis’s newly shorn member. We had been infected, our decency weakened by alcohol and circumstances, especially susceptible to a meanness which felt innocuous inside a mob. I’m ashamed to admit I joined in, even laughing as Dennis’s parents, red-faced and hunched against their embarrassment, exited the room. Some part of me knew what Zelda had yet to reveal, and that part was vicious. It wanted to punish Dennis for what she saw in him.

A chant grew organically out of the fracas. “Show your dick! Show your dick!” We pumped our fists with each syllable. The chanting grew so loud that the hostess poked her head through the doors to see what was going on. She retreated without trying to diffuse the situation.

Zelda kissed me among the noise. Our lips parted, and I begged her to leave with me. We burst through the French doors, then out the restaurant entrance and into the night. I followed her towards devastation, content to be spurred along by the raw excitement that had possessed me.

Once Zelda leveled me with the truth, though, I couldn’t stay in her apartment. I walked home, and only then did I think about what I’d missed. I wondered whether Dennis had done what the crowd demanded.

Kathy told me what happened, a way of distracting me from my pain after I had recounted the heartbreak that resulted from my leaving the party early. She said something changed in Dennis’s expression after a few moments, that his distress turned into understanding. The center of attention had always been his favorite place. Shannon looked to be imploring him to ignore the chants, but he ignored her.

“How did it look?” I asked.

“Exactly like you’d have expected.” Kathy shrugged. “It looked like a penis.”

Which was to say, I think, that it was disappointing.

 

Robert B. Miner is a New York City native, West Point graduate, and occupational dilettante. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in, among others, Consequence, J Journal, New World Writing, and Identity Theory. His work has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. He lives in Kansas City with his wife, two kids, and a dog, but you can find him at www.robertbminer.com.

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