Étouffée, Brute?

“What are you doing down there?”

Since we sat down, not five minutes have gone by without Dwight’s hand dropping into his crotch to scratch. “What?” he says now, guiltily pulling his hand back up to play with the silverware.

Dwight picked out the restaurant—he said he had a craving for Cajun food—but we might as well be at McDonald’s for all the attention he’s paying to the atmosphere or the cuisine.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to avoid looking at my dinner. Just because étouffée sounds good—virtually anything sounds good in French (grenouille as opposed to “frog”; foie gras rather than “fat liver”)—doesn’t mean it will look appetizing on the plate. As a matter of fact, the first time I tried étouffée—on a trip to New Orleans—I had no idea what I was eating. Truth be told, every time I order it I have no idea what I’m eating. Étouffée is basically a blob of indeterminate seafood drowned in so much dark sauce that identification of the underlying meat is nigh impossible. Typically it’s crawfish, but it could just as easily be crab.

“Is that what this is,” I ask, picking a sliver of meat up with a fork and examining, “crab?”

Dwight’s whole expression falls. Bingo.

“Where did they come from?” he asks, now that the crustacean’s out of the bag.

Crabs are more an annoyance than a health hazard, I remind him. In this day and age—when, in the words of Bette Midler, “you fuck the wrong person and your arm falls off”—crabs are hardly worth worrying about.

Unless you’re in a relationship. Dwight and Ryan haven’t had a formal monogamy conversation yet, but the assumption has clearly been made. And then, the other night, he suddenly felt a little itch. And then another one. And another.

On the way to the drugstore, he realized that he probably wasn’t the only one. As Julie Andrews once sang, “Nothing comes from nothing. Nothing ever could.” So Ryan is probably scratching away right now, as well. The question is whether Ryan started scratching before Dwight.

“How do I explain this to him?” Dwight asks, his hand darting back under the table.

“How did it happen?”

“I have no idea,” he says.

“Really?”

He thinks for a minute and suddenly the realization comes into his eyes. He puts his head in his hands. “There was the massage,” he says quietly.

“Massage?”

“Yeah. I went to this new masseur and … well, I’m not sure he changed the sheets. I might have picked them up from his previous client.”

“So? Tell Ryan that.”

Dwight looks up at last, but the expected smile has become a grimace. “Well, that’s not all.”

“Happy ending?”

He nods.

“I don’t think you can get crabs from someone’s hand,” I say. “It was the sheets.”

But that’s not the point. Even if he’d gotten the little critters completely innocently, the crabs per se are not the issue. The issue is that he’s had sex, of even the most passive and benign sort, with someone else.

There’s only one way to save him from the guilt. “What makes you think,” I ask cautiously, “that Ryan didn’t give them to you?”

“Ryan?” Dwight says in a tone of dire disbelief. “He would never.”

I tilt my head at him—nudging with my eyes.

“Would he?” Now his grimace grows more strained. I can see the thoughts playing out on his face (Dwight’s neuroses have always been quite expressive): Since they started dating, he hasn’t been with anyone else (not counting the massage—who counts a massage?). So Ryan must be the source. But that would mean that Ryan’s been with someone else. When could that have happened? Why would that have happened?

Suddenly, thanks to a tiny creature he can barely even see when he manages to yank one off his skin and slide it onto his fingers, Dwight is questioning his relationship—questioning his lover’s faithfulness, questioning what the parameters of their relationship would or should be in the first place.

“Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions,” he says. “Maybe he just picked them up at the gym.” It’s Kubler-Ross time, and he’s already reached the bargaining stage.

“It’s best not to talk about it,” I tell him. “Just slather on the RID and be done with it, pretend you never noticed a thing. Ryan can do the same, and then it will be an unspoken secret—your version of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’”

Actually, I know a lot of couples who live by that motto—not militarily speaking, of course. In the old days people might have used the expression “what you don’t know won’t hurt you.” Until it bites you in the crotch.

“Well,” I say, “you can always just wait to see whether he mentions it. If he accuses you, then you’ll know he’s innocent. And if he doesn’t say anything …”

“How does that help me?!”

The perennial question of monogamy: would you rather feel betrayed or guilty? Because one day, no matter how you slice it, you’re going to be on one side or the other of that conundrum.

Dwight got his answer later that night. He met Ryan for a drink and neither of them said a word about their microscopic friends. But on both sides of the table, the scratching went on.

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