My penis came out at work.
I was at a meeting, just a regular old meeting, and there it was in all its five-and-a-half inch turgid glory. One minute we are all sitting around a conference table listening to Anne prattle on about the SWOT analysis, the next minute my engorged penis was poking straight up out of my chinos.
Part of that was my fault. When it came out, I could have kept my lap under the conference table and then probably only Toniqua and Beth on my right and left respectively would have noticed. However the newfound freedom of my penis surprised me, and I rolled my Herman Miller Aeron Chair back and reclined, bringing it into full view.
It took a few moments for all my co-workers to see what happened, but one by one they looked up from their agendas and Blackberries to my naked penis. At first, Anne kept talking at the Smart Board about needing to drill down with our vendors, but finally she noticed everyone’s distraction and then she too stared at my inflamed penis.
At first, reaction was mute. Literally. We all sat there in pregnant silence. Summer in Philly on the conference call line had no idea what was going on.
“Hello? Are you there? Have I been disconnected?” She said from inside the three-legged spaceship-like conference call phone in the center of the table.
“No, we’re still here,” I said.
Seconds in the shape of minutes passed. My co-workers sat slack-jawed, vision fixed. Finally,
“Robert, why is your penis out of your pants?” Michael said. I appreciated him calling out the elephant in the room. Michael was the only other man there and is young and gay, so he’s probably more experienced with this sort of thing.
“What? What’s going on? Did I hear Michael say ‘penis?'” Summer in Philly said.
Needless to say, the meeting was over. SWOT just didn’t seem as important as before.
I was, as one might imagine, traumatized. I felt ashamed and humiliated. There was an investigation. Human Resources talked with everyone. No one knew how it happened. There were no witnesses. Strange, given there were ten people in the room, not counting me or Summer in Philly. Ten people, ten highly paid professionals, not one able to offer the slightest insight into the event. Curious, isn’t it?
They sent me to the doctor, who found no injuries and nothing wrong with me physically, thank God. We considered various medication options, but I decided that was unnecessary, and I’d just have to tough this out on my own.
I went on paid leave. I stayed home, doing nothing but watching TV. I felt so alone. For the first time I actually missed my ex-wife, who left me last year for her female yoga instructor. I wandered around the house in my Zubaz, eating Vienna sausages out of a can and playing with my ex-wife’s cat, Puff.
How does anyone recover from something like this? My career likely in ruins, my reputation in shambles. Thirty years in the business, thirty years of doing what I’m told, always being a company man, all to be summed up as the guy whose penis came out at a meeting. I called a lawyer I saw advertised on Dr. Phil, and she thought I had a good case. Lost earning potential for the rest of my life, distress, that sort of thing. But it didn’t feel right. I didn’t want to sue. Those are good people where I work, and being not only the guy whose penis came out at a SWOT meeting but also the guy who sued the company — well, I’m just not that guy.
I decided instead to suck it up, be a man and soldier through. After two weeks, I returned to the office. There was no party for me at lunch, and no card that everyone signed. Instead, we had an all-day team building exercise for the entire unit, with Summer from Philly on the spaceship phone again. The facilitator, Tiffani from “Achieve!” Consulting, a corporate coaching firm specializing in conflict resolution, was a bit out of her element with this. There was no conflict, no problem with the environment, just and unfortunate incident we needed to put behind us. We did Meyers-Briggs, brainstorms, and trust building exercises. We talked about the corporate culture and how the workplace has changed. Most of my co-workers are young, so they had little to offer on that score. The manager, Mary, who is old as dust, being the exception.
“When I started here in the late seventies there were no women in the office other than secretaries. I had to fight for everything I ever got. Now my unit is all women, except for Robert and Michael, and he’s gay. No offence, Michael,” she said.
“None taken,” Michael said.
I was next.
“It has changed, hasn’t it, Mary? I remember smoking cigarettes at my desk. I used to go on three martini lunches with the boys. I can’t remember the last donut I’ve seen around here. Now it’s yogurt cups and lattés, an aerobics class in the morning and walking clubs in the afternoon.”
“How do you feel about change in the gender balance, Robert?” Tiffani said.
“I’m so glad the world has changed. You have no idea. How could we have excluded the talents of half the population? It’s nuts when you think about it. In this world, we need to be accepting and welcoming of everyone, young and old, male and female, gay and straight alike. I wouldn’t go back to the way things were for nothing,” I said.
I could tell they liked my comments. Next, we formed a circle and began sharing our feelings. My co-workers’ responses surprised me. Several of the women who were at the SWOT meeting said they felt upset and angry and violated. Even Michael felt rattled, which made no sense.
“Robert, how do you feel about what you just heard?” Tiffani from Achieve! Consulting said.
I thought about it a second.
“I feel bad about how the unfortunate incident hurt my co-workers. Here I’ve been so busy thinking about myself and all I’ve gone through that I hadn’t considered how it impacted all of you. I am so sorry. I have nothing but the utmost respect for each and all of you as professionals and as women and gay men. To think I may have had a role in making you feel, as you say, disrespected, attacked, diminished, raped, disappointed, embarrassed, upset, saddened, angry, molested, or otherwise uncomfortable at the SWOT meeting, well, I just feel horrible.”
A tear rolled down my cheek.
The only sound heard was the hum of the HVAC. I continued.
“And I would like to say, as hard as this has been, I am willing to put it all behind me now. I think I need to move on and look to the future. This is a business, and I accept that I need to be professional and that we have a lot of work to do,” I said.
My co-workers murmured their concordance, heads nodding. I felt so supported. I felt fortunate to have such a great team around me. I pushed my chair from the table and lay back in full recline, arms outstretched like Rio’s Christ the Redeemer.
The room fell silent.
“Robert, your penis is out,” Tiffani from Achieve! Consulting said.
I looked down. There it was, all swollen and purple and pointing due north. No one said anything; we sat frozen.
“Hello? Is anyone there? Did I hear ‘penis?'” Summer in Philly said.
William E Burleson’s short stories have appeared in several literary journals, most recently in The Milo Review, Parable Press and the new anthology, Cosmic Vegetable. He has just completed his first novel, The Avenue. In non-fiction, Burleson is the author of Bi America (Haworth Press, 2005). For more, visit www.williamburleson.com.