A few weeks ago, I was walking back to the office with Vlad after lunch, and he said to me, "Circumcision is kind of a cult, huh?"
"A cult?" I said. "How is it a cult?"
"A cult?" I said. "How is it a cult?"
The way nobody talks about it. It's very cultish. It's like Fight Club. "The First Rule of Circumcision is 'Nobody talks about circumcision.'"
I had to agree with him. I think I spent most of my life in that cult.
We moved to Texas right before my 13th birthday, my mom and I. She had custody of me during the school year, and her job transferred her to Houston, so right in the middle of the school year, in the 8th grade, I had to change schools.
It wasn't a difficult transition for me. I've always had an easy time making friends, and one of the first friends I ever made in Houston was a guy in the 7th grade named Buster.
That's not an alias. Or if it is an alias, it's not an alias that I made up. That's really what his family called him. Buster. Like Buster Keaton.
Now, Buster, though he was a year behind me academically, was a year older than I was. Exactly a year older. We had the same birthday. An unlikely set of coincidences had brought about this anomalous situation. Way back in 1965, I had insisted on starting kindergarten a year ahead of schedule, because I wanted to go to school with my best friend John, who was a few months older than I was. Buster started kindergarten on schedule at age five, but somewhere along the way he had to repeat a grade.
Buster had difficulties academically. He was self-conscious about that. He was self-conscious about a lot of things.
Buster lived with his maternal grandmother in the same sprawling apartment complex where my mom and I lived. He rarely had any contact with his mother, and he'd never met his father. I don't think he knew who his father was.
He'd met a lot of his mother's relatives, though, who were scattered all over East Texas. A fair number of these people were what I would refer to now as "the socially marginal," people who didn't have steady jobs or who lived on welfare or disability, people with addiction problems.
After I got to know Buster a little better, he confided in me that he feared that the laws of genetics would eventually pull him into the same world of poverty, addiction and mental illness that he saw so many of his relatives living in. He would talk about this fear with me over and over again. "It's embrained in my head," he would say.
And every time he talked about this fear of his, he would mention an uncle, who lived near Austin and who had a long history of animal cruelty. This uncle would shoot stray dogs, only male dogs, aiming for their genitals.
I think the reason his uncle stood out as the worst of a bad bunch was that Buster loved animals. I mean I know everybody loves animals, but Buster really loved animals. He had a dog and a gerbil and a Guinea pig and a turtle. Twice I can remember he found little baby birds on the ground. I mean little tiny birds with no feathers or anything. And he fed the little birds with an eye dropper and kept them warm somehow. One of the birds grew up and flew away. One died, and we gave it a little burial service in a field next to the Scheppe's Dairy yard on Silber Road.
I wish I could remember more about the story of the dog shooting uncle. Lord knows I heard it enough times. Whatever the rest of the story was, it left me with the impression that this uncle was clearly mentally ill and dangerous. I didn't know what a sociopath was then, but in retrospect I think that's probably what Buster's uncle was, a sociopath.
Anyway, all I remember of the story is the part about shooting male dogs' genitals, and the part that Buster no doubt considered the thrilling surprise ending. "And you know what?" Buster would say. "He was never circumcised."
The first time Buster told me that story was the first time I ever heard someone say "circumcised." I'd only ever read that word before, never heard it spoken.
When I heard Buster say that word, I felt every emotion that I'd ever felt about my circumcision. Every one of them, all at once. I felt my heart rate go up. I felt myself breathing harder. I felt the adrenaline tingle in my shoulders.
There was so much I wanted to say to Buster about his anxieties and my own. I wanted to say, "Buster, plenty of men have foreskins. Foreskins have nothing to do with why your uncle went crazy. Going crazy is a completely separate phenomenon. You know what makes me crazy? Not having a foreskin. Being circumcised makes me feel like I'm gong crazy with rage and sorrow and shame."
I couldn't bring myself to say any of that, though. I couldn't get the words past that storm of emotion going on inside of me. So I didn't say anything. Not the first time he told the story, not the second time or the tenth time or however many times he told it. I'd just sit there and wait for Buster to change the subject.
I belonged to the cult. I didn't know I belonged to the cult, but I belonged to the cult. And I followed the rules.