After a perfectly uneventful day at the office and a brief stop at the local video store, George Himmelman entered his apartment to find a large crowd gathered in his living room. He would have assumed it was a surprise party, planned by Caitlin, his fiancé, but the somber tone of the guests, along with the fact that George’s 31st birthday had come and gone, implied otherwise. And what was his mother doing there, weeping into her highball next to Mr. Himmelman? Surely something dire was afoot if his parents, who had communicated with each other only through attorneys since The Scandal, were now together in the same room in violation of numerous orders of restraint. Could it be that someone had passed? But who? Everyone George knew or cared about was present. There was Caitlin, her hair pulled back so tight it stretched the skin on her forehead and lifted the tip of her nose to expose her nostrils. There was Arthur from Philadelphia, George’s best friend, staring at the floor and fidgeting uncomfortably as was his habit. There were George’s secretary and colleagues from the firm; the minister from his church; the family lawyer; Roderick and Charla from the club. Even Maria, the family maid and owner of the only spare key to George’s apartment, sat in the corner of the room, muttering a prayer in Spanish as she fingered a set of rosary beads.
“What’s going on here?” asked George, tucking the bag containing the videos he rented under his arm.
“Can you please sit down?” asked Caitlin. Her being the first to speak revealed that she was most likely the organizer of the event. “Your friends, family and I have something we’d like to share.”
“I can see that,” George replied. “And I’ll gladly sit down when I know what this is all about.”
“Please understand,” said Arthur from Philadelphia. “This is no easier for us than it is for you. But we felt that if we didn’t intervene now, things might get to the point where we could no longer stop you from destroying yourself.”
So that’s what this is, George realized. An intervention! He had heard of interventions before but had never actually seen one in the flesh: the strange combination of family, friends, and acquaintances; the us-against-you ambiance of the room; the obvious planning that had gone into it all. The only thing George couldn’t figure out was why? What pattern of behavior had he established that warranted such an intrusive measure? Sure, he thought, I enjoy a cocktail now and then, but I’m hardly an alcoholic. And whatever experimenting I did with drugs all came to a halt when Caitlin informed me she disapproved of activities that could jeopardize her father’s political ambitions. George didn’t gamble, so he knew that wasn’t it. He didn’t engage in homosexuality, though he had always suspected Arthur of certain proclivities. He ate in moderation, spent in moderation, worked in moderation. In fact, in every way he could conceive at that moment, George Himmelman considered himself the Goldilocks of all things, his only addiction being a strict adherence to moderation itself.
“Though I have no doubt of your honorable intentions,” George assured his uninvited guests, “I cannot think of one thing in the world I’m addicted to that would in any way require your taking such a drastic action on my behalf.”
Roderick from the club stood and took charge of the room. “You’re not alone,” he asserted. “It wasn’t long ago that I was in your position, being confronted by the people I love.” His wife, Charla, nodded at his side. “It’s natural to feel defensive and embarrassed. But with the right treatment and support, you can overcome this, George.”
“Overcome what?” George asked, masking his indignation as best he could. “Seriously, now. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
His father groaned as if to indicate the whole event was keeping him from some more urgent engagement. “You might as well come clean so we can get this over with, George.”
“Get what over with? What are you talking about? What in God’s name do you people think is wrong with me?”
“Oh for Chrissake,” his mother blurted out. “You jerk off too much!”
“Dios mio,” said Maria, crossing herself, as the room grew silent.
My God, George thought. Is that what this is about? Too much masturbation? George knew he enjoyed his daily dalliance with himself, but he never, in a million years, considered that his sessions had become so frequent as to warrant an intervention. He had never even heard of a masturbation addiction. He had always believed (as his health teacher back at Philips Exeter had taught) that masturbation did not cause blindness, hairy palms, or any other maladies. He believed that, apart from abstinence, it constituted the safest kind of sex there is. So what was the harm if he did masturbate a bit more than most? Which, in his mind, he did not. And who were these people to tell him what he could and couldn’t do on his own time by his own hand? And how did they know what they knew? George thought he had always taken the necessary precautions to ensure his masturbatory life was a secret, hidden away from all around him. Who or what gave these people the idea that he was too prolific in his practice?
“You must be kidding,” George laughed. “This is a joke! I hardly ever masturbate!”
It was Maria’s turn to speak. “Please, Meester George,” she said. ” I washa you underwear since you twelve year old. Some-a-the-time, they-a so hard, I scractha myself on you boxer short.” As if she were showing the jury exhibits A through F, Maria proceeded to hold up several pieces of George’s soiled laundry, evidence for all in the room to see of the crimes committed against cotton.
“Fine,” George responded. “I play with myself more than the next guy. But there’s nothing chronic or dangerous about my habit. I mean, at least I’ve never done it in public and been arrested like Arthur.”
“There’s no reason to lash out,” said his best friend.
“Can’t you see your friend is trying to help you?” asked Caitlin. How unlike her to defend Arthur, thought George. Normally, she can’t hide her contempt for the guy. Perhaps they bonded over their plan for my humiliation.
“How many times has it been?” asked Roderick. “How many times today?”
“Just once,” George said. “This morning in the shower.”
“Are you sure?”
George suddenly remembered an incident that occurred earlier in the day while he was eating lunch with a client. A waitress had walked by wearing a tight-fitting black skirt that inspired an interruption in the meeting and a brief sojourn to the restroom.
“Okay twice,” George admitted, but no sooner had he spoken then he remembered another incident at work, wherein some spam arrived in his inbox advertising a new porn site that, as the email stated, “Could not be missed.” And it could not be missed! After clicking the link, George told his secretary to hold all calls so that he could shut the blinds and do some quick handiwork into an outdated report.
“Three times,” George admitted. “But that’s highly unusual for me, and hardly enough to demand an outpouring such as this.”
“But it’s only six o’clock,” slurred his mother. “The night is young.”
“I’m not going to masturbate again tonight, Mother!”
Roderick asked him what it was he was concealing under his arm.
“What? This?” George asked, referring to the videos he was holding. “I just rented some new releases.”
George’s father took the tapes from his son. He read the titles out loud.
“Sodomania volumes one and two.”
“It’s a biblical epic,” George replied.
The phone rang. The answering machine picked up for all to hear.
“Hi, George,” said a woman’s voice. “This is Misty calling. It’s time for my seven o’clock spanking. I thought you were going to be there, Sweetums. Now you’ll have to call me back. I do charge for missed calls. And punish! Meeow!”
By Roderick’s experienced estimate, George was due to masturbate once to the dirty phone call and at least once to the videos. The evidence gathered from George’s hard drive indicated the possibility of at least one more session on top of the other two. Adding those together, it was safe to assume that George planned to abuse himself at least three more times before going to sleep, at which point the total for the day would be closer to six or seven – a number surely indicative of compulsive behavior.
“You have no right to search my hard drive,” George said. “That’s a violation of my privacy. I could have you arrested.”
“Can’t you see we’re doing this for your own good?” said his mother. “We don’t want you to end up a sickened pervert like your father.”
“Masturbating,” George protested, “does not make me a sickened pervert!”
“It does when you do it seven times a day!” cried Caitlin, and for the first time, George caught a glimpse of how his onanism affected the people he loved.
“Sweetheart,” he begged, “is that truly what you think of me? You think I’m a sickened pervert?”
“I think you’d rather make love to yourself than me,” she replied between sobs. “You’re always telling me you’re tired or have a headache any time I make an advance. And yet, I can see it’s not that you don’t have drive.”
The truth was George could not remember the last time he and Caitlin had sex. And usually, when he did make love to her, it was only to place in his memory a mental photograph of what she looked like naked so that he could later recall that image for the purpose of masturbation.
“Of course, I’d rather make love to you,” George lied. “But masturbation is a separate pleasure. It’s about exploring my own body as opposed to yours.”
“Horseshit,” his mother snorted, throwing another splash of gin in her drink.
The intervention continued well into the night, and indeed, more emotion was expressed in those hours than had ever been witnessed in the entire family history of the Himmelmans. Over the course of the evening, George learned that his persistent masturbating had held him back professionally. “Your office smells like a gymnasium,” said a colleague. “You show up to meetings sweaty, with your fly open and stains on your trousers.” It had driven a wedge between him and his future wife. “I’m tired of covering for you when people call on the phone.” George learned from Roderick that masturbation, when performed as often as it had been in his case, becomes something like a drug addiction. It is used as a sedative, where others would use alcohol, marijuana, or pills. It is used as an escape from boredom and stress. It is used as a substitute for social interaction. By four in the morning, George had broken down to the point where he admitted he had a problem. He confessed his addiction and promised he would quit his deleterious habit, if not for his own sake, then for the sake of those who loved him, cared about him, and felt embarrassed by his wayward behavior. He agreed to clean his hard drive, terminate his membership at the video club, and cut off all phone sex. With Roderick as his sponsor, George promised to join MA, participate in group therapy, and go cold turkey, rather than wean himself, off himself, gradually. George’s family, in turn, promised to support him during what was sure to be a trying period in his life. The wedding would not be postponed, and, provided George stayed with the program, the family attorney would not place his assets into a receivership. By the time the crowd in his apartment dispersed, George felt hopeful that he could make this difficult sacrifice and grateful that his family and friends had cared enough to take action on his behalf.
The withdrawal, however, as Roderick had warned, was a nightmare. For weeks, George couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t eat. He couldn’t sit still long enough to read a brief or an article in a magazine. He couldn’t even watch a movie or a television show, especially if there was anything in the content that even hinted at eroticism. To keep himself from masturbating in his office, George took on the habit of leaving his door open to eliminate privacy. If a female subordinate wore anything suggestive, she would soon find a reprimand at her desk. If it was a colleague or superior who was inducing arousal, George would mutter the 12-step mantra about a higher power until the thrill had diminished. In an attempt to substitute one addiction for another, he devoted himself to working out seven days a week but soon found that he couldn’t bear the women in the gym, especially when they wore tight-fitting, spandex shorts and midriff-exposing halter tops stretched across their sweaty bodies. And then there was the group therapy. No one had warned George that there would be women at the meetings, some of them rather attractive. He found it near impossible to contain himself during their testimonials, in which they often described both what they would wear as they masturbated and what devices they would use to achieve climax. During one session, a female addict delivered a particularly racy testimonial that described an act, taking place on an airplane, that not only violated several FAA regulations, but no doubt compromised the safety of the passengers on board. It was during that session that the group leader was forced to call a halt to the proceedings when one of the less disciplined participants dropped his pants and fell off the wagon right smack in the middle of the room.
But through his hard work, faith, and determination, George endured the harshest symptoms of his withdrawal and found himself on the road to recovery. By the time he earned his six-month pin, the benefits of his newfound self-control had become obvious to all around him. He looked younger and stronger. His clothes seemed to fit him better. He even won his first ever title at the club’s annual tennis tournament. At work, George revealed a novel and aggressive aptitude for negotiation that earned him a promotion, along with a record bonus. Maria reported that she no longer found stains on his boxer shorts, and George, in turn, noted that he no longer felt as if he had something to hide. “The new George is an open book,” he would tell anyone who’d listen. “And every page reveals a masterpiece of discipline and self-assurance.” Without having to devote hours a day to masturbation, George found that he could spend more time immersing himself in social situations. He attended church, concerts, sporting events, and dinner parties. He even organized a fundraiser for his fiancé’s father’s campaign – an event that reinforced relations with the social set Caitlin admired and also netted a few new clients for George’s firm.
On the final evening of the GOP Convention, sitting in a marquis seat between Arthur from Philadelphia and Caitlin, George remarked to both of them how much he felt like Paul of Tarsus, from whose eyes the scales had fallen to reveal a bold new world. It was a world built for men like George. Men of purpose and ambition. Men who bargained in the currency of politics and power. And in that world, there were new friends to be made, old acquaintances to be re-introduced, investments sought out, influence gained, meals savored, tasks conquered, and delights soon to be known that George never would have enjoyed had nobody intervened on his behalf. And as the convention reached its fevered pitch, George looked out from the skybox at Madison Square Garden and yelled to the President (that other great George), “Thank you, Mr. President! Thank you!” It was an expression of gratitude meant not only for the leader of the free world, but for all George Himmelman’s family, friends, and fellow Republicans. For all those good, kind folks, who worked together to make this country a place where a man like George could succeed despite the tremendous obstacles that had stood before him.
And so, with the sound of the President’s speech echoing across the arena, with chants of “four more years” echoing across the arena, George excused himself from the skybox and traversed the hallways like the prodigal son returned. And as he relieved himself alone in the bathroom, as he gathered his emotions alone in the bathroom, George took a moment and thought to himself, What a great man I am. What a great man I can now become! And it occurred to George that someday he too could lead the free world as President of the United States of America. He too could lead this great nation into the battle against terror, injustice, and social entitlement programs. After all, did he not have the credentials for just such an office? Did he not have the character and the charisma? The ability to find compromise between interests? The good sense to hire Jews to do his thinking and write his speeches? Did he not have the support of a good woman, the financial backing, and the network of connections necessary for just such an endeavor? This is what I was born to do, George realized. This is my destiny! And in that moment of rapture, as he listened to the President’s great speech echoing across the men’s room at Madison Square Garden, as he fantasized about his glorious future and the legacy he would leave behind, George heard a voice call to him — a small, feint, and lascivious voice. And that voice said, “Hello, George.”
He looked around the room to locate the source of the calling, but he could see no other there.
“You’re not going to say hello?” it spoke again.
The voice sounded familiar, and yet George could not place it. Again, he thought of Paul on the road to Damascus, hearing the voice of God call from the sky. But this voice seemed to call from the urinal.
“You look well,” said the voice.
It was then George realized, much to his horror, that his penis was talking.
“What are you doing here?” George asked.
“Why?” asked his penis. “Did you think I was a Democrat?”
“I have to go.”
“I can’t talk to you,” he said, quickly zipping his fly and making a hasty (and dribbling) retreat from the room.
George hurried back along the corridor, vowing to himself not to tell anyone what had happened. Better they don’t know, he thought. They’ll see it as a setback to my recovery. As he approached his seat, he overheard Caitlin and Arthur bickering in pointed whispers, only to become silent when they saw George near. Do they know something’s wrong, he wondered. Was I in the bathroom too long? I must show them that I’m alright. He sat down and took his fiancé’s hand in his. They smiled to each other as they listened to the rest of the speech. But for all his attempts at non-chalance, George felt more discomfited than he had in months. As much as he tried to participate in the festivities, he could not stop thinking about his penis. It looked well, George thought. Like our time apart had been as beneficial for my penis as it had been for me.
That evening in the bedroom, George had a powerful urge to make love to his fiancé. He wanted to use sex to take his mind off what had happened earlier, but Caitlin stopped him in his tracks. She told him they were near enough to the wedding that it would be better if they waited. “It will give us something to look forward to on our honeymoon,” she said. George figured that Caitlin knew something was amiss. This must be her way of punishing me for not confessing to what happened in the bathroom.
A month went by with no further incident until one night, at a Neo-Con dinner party, George heard from his penis again in the coatroom.
“I will not be ignored,” it said.
“Stop it,” replied George. “You’re making a scene.”
“All those years we were together, and now you throw me away for that trollop?”
“Don’t talk about Caitlin that way.”
“What does she have that I don’t?”
“My life is better now,” George snapped. “You have to respect that.”
A week later, while in a meeting, George got a text on his blackberry. It was his penis.
“I need to see you.”
“I can’t right now, I’m in a meeting.”
“Meet me by the playground on 59th street.”
“Over by the catholic school?”
“Just be there!”
During his lunch break, George sat on a park bench at the rendezvous spot with a copy of The Wall Street Journal spread over his lap. His penis was crying.
“Do you love her?” it asked.
“More than you love me?”
“I would never ask you to choose between us.”
“Caitlin has a lot of insecurities.”
“Can’t we just do it one more time, George? For old time’s sake. We can duck behind that dumpster over where those girls are playing field hockey.”
“I can’t,” he said. “You don’t understand what it means to commit to something.”
His penis wilted in defeat. “I hope she’s worth it.”
George had never seen his penis like this. It broke his heart. “Are you coming to the wedding?” he asked.
“Do you want me there?”
“I don’t know.”
Everyone was on edge in the weeks prior to the nuptials. The election of Caitlin’s father to the senate brought a new level of scrutiny to all of their lives. Caitlin, in particular, didn’t seem to be handling it well. More than once, George found her weeping inexplicably and uncontrollably. Despite his best attempts at comforting her, she seemed to prefer the consolation of various anti-depressants mixed with regular helpings of a cheap scotch. If ever there was a time George could have used the solace of his penis, it was then, but there had been no contact between them since that day in the park. In fact, George wondered if they would ever speak again. And when he tried to contact his sponsor to discuss his confused emotions, George found out that Roderick had been admitted to a hospital upstate after botching an auto-peotomy with a cigar cutter.
And so, on a snowy New England Saturday, three hundred guests arrived at a Connecticut cathedral for the wedding of George Himmelman and Caitlin Ahern. It was shaping up to be the kind of soirée featured in Town and Country, and indeed, the family had allowed one of the esteemed magazine’s reporters to attend. Prior to the ceremony, however, George’s best man, Arthur from Philadelphia, snapped at him while they were getting dressed. It was apparent Arthur was drunk and in a foul mood, and when George asked him why he hadn’t shaved, Arthur replied, “Why don’t you just leave me alone?” George’s mother had been a problem as well, insisting that her former husband not be allowed to attend the ceremony. Eventually, a compromise was reached between their attorneys that allowed Mr. Himmelman to come provided his 22 year old wife wear flats (“The cunt can be younger than me, not taller”) and not appear at any function in Southhampton for a period of two summers, or such time as required for Mrs. Himmelman to a find a husband of satisfactory means.
But the real trouble didn’t begin until after George walked down the aisle and waited for his fiancé to follow. The string quartet repeated the wedding march several times, the audience watched for the bride’s entrance, and, as the minutes rolled by, it became obvious that Caitlin would not appear. Arthur volunteered to see what the problem was and disappeared to the back rooms of the church as the ceremony was called to a halt. It was only after another fifteen minutes had elapsed that the story began to trickle down from the bridesmaids to the rest of the guests. Apparently, Arthur and Caitlin had been having an affair in the months leading up to the ceremony. Though they tried to put their feelings for each other aside before the big day, their love turned out to be true love, and Caitlin could no longer go on with the wedding. While George stood waiting by himself, ditched at the altar, his best friend and his fiancé were escaping in Arthur’s Saab and heading west for California.
The families expertly switched modes from celebration to damage control. A top public relations executive was helicoptered in before the guests had time to leave the church. Payoffs were made on the spot. Non-disclosure agreements were signed. Buses took confused guests to Foxwoods Casino where they were comped rooms and given money to throw at the tables. The reporter from Town and Country was quickly reassigned to Baghdad to work for another Hearst Corporation publication; gifts were quietly collected to be returned to the stores from which they were purchased; the ballroom in which the celebration was to take place was dismantled; and the string quartet was guaranteed a two-year contract to play on a cruise line touring the coast of The Galapagos. In less than an hour, the Connecticut cathedral was completely emptied, except for George, to whom no one had bothered to attend. Alone, he lingered by the altar waiting for the bride who was never to come. My best friend and my fiancé, he thought to himself. You hear of things like this happening, but you never imagine them happening to you. And this on the day that was supposed to be the best day of my life.
In that moment, lonely and dire, George once again heard from a consoling voice.
“Hello stranger,” it called.
And there by the altar, in the empty cathedral, George Himmelman undid his cummerbund and re-acquainted himself, with himself.