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On Foreskin

“It’s not just because of the Jewish tradition.  Studies have shown that boys who aren’t circumcised…”

Andrew and I roll our eyes at each other as Linda’s booming voice attracts the attention of the other diners at Tra Vigne.  She doesn’t notice, of course, and goes on citing pseudo-scientific studies and facts to defend her decision to circumcise our 10-month-old nephew.  Our sister Catie flicks a crumb of bread at me across the white tablecloth and shoots Andrew a playful frown.  She knows how we feel about her longtime girlfriend; we try to pretend it’s all in good fun.

For my part, I’m desperately trying to convince myself that my new boyfriend, the first boy to love me, won’t realize what he’s getting himself into and flee back to England.  This is his first dinner with my large, opinionated family, and he’s been very quiet so far.

My mother has noticed his silence, and takes advantage of a rare moment of silence while Lindy takes a bite of her dinner to attempt to guide the tirade into a multi-player conversation.

“Guy, what do you think?  Is this a common debate in England or is it something only the Jewish community does?”

I bite my tongue and hold my breath.  I’m trying hard not to be so dominating, to let him speak for himself, but it’s difficult to watch my young (eighteen to my twenty-one), shy Guy blush and try to hold his own.

Guy abandons the venison he’s been lavishing so much attention on and clears his throat.  We’re all watching him.  Even my nephew has stopped slamming his spoon into the edge of the table for a blissful second.

“Well, um, actually it’s not really done in England, except for religious reasons, whether Jewish or Muslim…”

I breathe out.  Maybe this will be ok; after all, if there’s one thing Guy is great at, it’s intellectual debate.  

“I think foreskins are just gross.”

My 35-year-old kindergartener of a sister has decided to weigh in.  I turn to look at her.

“Catie, could you please refrain from using the word ‘foreskin’ while we’re eating?”  My face adds: and while you’re at it, maybe in the future we could hold off on the cock talk until my first real boyfriend knows you a little better?  Her face betrays no understanding.

“Seriously, dude.  Couldn’t we have kept this in the abstract?  Sick.”  Andrew has set down his fork with a disgusted look.  His girlfriend shoots me an amused but sympathetic glance and reaches for her wine glass.  She seems perfectly happy to have a new person for the family to focus on.  To her right, my father furrows his brow and sinks deeper into his Blackberry.

Linda, meanwhile, has started talking again.

“Well, for us, it’s not just a religious thing, and it’s not about American convention either.  We’re not just following the pack, here.  We’ve discussed this at length, and circumcision is the best option for our son.  It’s mostly about cleanliness.”

I feel Guy sit up very straight.

“Actually, that’s a common misconception, that foreskins are unhygienic.  As long as men clean themselves properly, they’re usually fine.  There’s also a risk of decreasing a man’s sexual pleasure later in life.”

I’m staring at him, open-mouthed.  This is the most he’s spoken to anyone but me since we started dating.  And he just said ‘foreskin’ and ‘sexual pleasure’ in front of my family.  I want to sink under the table, but he actually seems to be enjoying himself.  His face is still a little red, but his voice is steady as he continues:

“Generally, in the UK, circumcision is viewed as an unnecessary surgery, which removes a large number of nerve endings in a very sensitive part of a man’s anatomy.”

Linda refuses to back down, as usual.

“Well, according to everyone I’ve talked to, that’s a completely inflated viewpoint.  My brother’s a doctor and he says–”

“So?”  Catie is leaning across Guy, her gaze fixed solidly on me.


“Is he?”

I look at Guy, confused.  Linda has finally shut up.  The whole table is watching us.

“Um… what?”

“Is he circumcised?”

“What, Guy?”

She nods.  The table erupts.  While I’m spluttering something about not knowing for sure, the rest of my family is leaping to Guy’s defense.

“Jesus Christ, Catie, what the fuck?”  Andrew is trying to look appalled but the corners of his mouth are twitching.

“Catherine!”  My mother looks genuinely shocked, as if she didn’t bring this socially handicapped woman into the world.

“Really, Cate, for God’s sake.”  My dad pushes himself back from the table and crosses his legs.  His face scrunches up even more, and he slips his Blackberry into his breast pocket.  He leans around my mother’s back, searching for the waiter to bring us more wine and interrupt this unsavory conversational thread.

Even Linda looks shocked, so much so that she’s gone silent.  Catie is giving us all her wide-eyed what’d I do? face, but the giggles are starting to bubble up from her throat.

Finally, Guy speaks up.  Clearly, I can’t answer the question sufficiently, so it falls to him.

“No, I’m not.  And I’m glad.”

The tension eases as my family and I realize that maybe this kid doesn’t scare so easy.  I think to myself that maybe the worst is over, although I know that’s wishful thinking.

“See?” Catie wheedles, “he’s fine with it!”

I just sigh and focus on drinking my wine.

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Wonderful story Anne.

Wonderful story Anne.

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Thanks, Michael! I really appreciate that.