By Tom Gliatto
Updated August 18, 2003 12:00 PM

At 10:15 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 2, as Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck‘s very bad week was just a few hours short of its end, J.Lo was still flashing the 6.1-carat pink-diamond engagement ring from Harry Winston that Affleck gave her last fall. Missing, however, was the 31-year-old fiancé who’d been glued to her elbow in the days leading up to the opening of their first movie together, Gigli. Surrounded by a party of seven, Lopez, 34, was dining at Dolce Enoteca, an of-the-moment L.A. restaurant that counts Ashton Kutcher among its backers. Offered the use of a private dining room, she instead opted for a power booth on the outdoor patio, where she ordered fish and salad. “She wanted to be seen,” says one observer. And she was—”laughing and smiling all night; so sexy, so beautiful.” Rising to leave at midnight, she nodded and smiled again to gawking patrons and headed out to a restaurant club called Shelter. Where she really wanted to be seen. “She was dancing in the middle of the floor like you wouldn’t believe it,” says one fellow partyer at the club. “Spinning and dancing, with her arms in the air.” And looking to that upraised left hand, the clubgoer noticed: “She wasn’t wearing the ring. She never had it on.” Then, moving away from the dance floor, she was overheard saying to a friend: “I’m so tired of all the drama, drama, drama.”

And who could blame her? In the course of a matter of days, the country’s two top celebrity lovebirds (nickname: Bennifer) suddenly found themselves up to their beaks in guano. The massively hyped Gigli, a violent romantic comedy about a Mob enforcer and the lesbian hit woman who switches teams to be his girl, opened Aug. 1 to gleefully scathing reviews—the Los Angeles Times declared it “nearly as unwatchable as it is unpronounceable”—and a dismal opening-weekend gross of $3.8 million. Advance buzz about the film had been awful, but even braced for a flop, the couple probably never dreamed that “gobble, gobble”—Lopez’s vulgar come-on in the movie—could inspire so many turkey puns. The critical slams made Affleck “feel like we were caught in the eye of a storm,” he told Variety columnist Army Archerd, but even he conceded that the film was a botch. “We tried to fix it,” he said. “But it was like putting a fish’s tail on a donkey’s head.” A source close to Lopez figures she’ll just shrug it off: “It didn’t do as well as she hoped. She’s moved on.”

Gigli, however, wasn’t the only bomb that dropped on Bennifer last week. Just before the film opened, the National Enquirer appeared with a sordid, bizarre tale that purported to detail—boy, did it detail—the actor’s night out at Brandi’s Exotic Nightclub, a Vancouver strip joint, on July 17. The club’s owner and members of her staff told PEOPLE that the tabloid’s most lurid allegations are false, as do reps for both stars. They say the couple are just fine. Affleck may even have considered the strip club visit an innocent, unofficial bachelor party, according to a source. Which means the wedding date, as yet unannounced but dangled before the public like a gold carrot, is on. “They’re still together, and they are getting married,” says one close Lopez source, who adds, “Jennifer knew before-hand that he was going to the club.” Even so, the one-two punch of the movie and the tabloid has tarnished the image-conscious golden couple. Also, if any of the tabloid’s allegations of Affleck’s behavior stick, wonders a Lopez acquaintance, “how do you get over it? Either you change the relationship, or it becomes something you can’t live with.”

The club visit came just hours after NBC’s Dateline aired an hour-long interview in which Affleck and Lopez cooed, cooked and discussed their wedding plans. On hand with Affleck at Brandi’s were Christian Slater, 34, his wife, Ryan Haddon, 32, and Hollywood’s perennial party girl, actress Tara Reid, 27. Joining in the fun were four strippers—Felicia, Portia, Coco Rio and another known only as “the Hungarian.” According to the story, some of the club’s strippers then accompanied the actors to the home Haddon and Slater (who’s filming a movie in town with Reid) are renting nearby.

The story was met with vehement denials. Affleck’s publicist Ken Sunshine admits the star visited Brandi’s but calls the rest of the story “absolute garbage.” Reid says the tabloid’s sources “are totally making it up. It’s just a bunch of girls making s—t up to get attention.” Actually, two of the strippers say something did happen—but nothing out of the ordinary for a night at Brandi’s. Affleck and his guests crowded into a small VIP lounge to be entertained by the four nude dancers, says Coco Rio. “But he definitely didn’t touch us,” she says. “There’s a strict policy.” Club owner Brandy Sarionder claims she watched the entire performance on a video monitor. “I was joking that we should put a J.Lo song on. It was funny, he got a dance after he was on TV declaring true love.” Says dancer Felicia: “He asked if I watched the news, then said he was excited about getting married.”

One of Sarionder’s partners, Cameron “Watt, says the party left at 3 a.m. The next day, Affleck called in sick to the set of the thriller Paycheck.

According to Sarionder, at least one dancer accepted $100,000 to talk (an Enquirer official acknowledges that the tabloid sometimes pays sources but refuses to discuss details) and she herself was offered $2 million for any videotape of the encounter (she says none exists). As the story was beginning to surface, Affleck—working in Vancouver since April—hopped on a flight to Winnipeg to visit Lopez on the set of Shall We Dance?, a romance she’s filming with Richard Gere. One local man watched them together on the set, close to midnight, looking very much in love. “She was talking to him,” says Clifford Flatfoot. “She’d lean over and once in a while, she’d give him a kiss.” On Aug. 4, the day after Paycheck wrapped shooting in Vancouver, Affleck and Lopez were reunited in Los Angeles. While driving through town that day, they both “looked glum” when glimpsed behind the windshield, says one witness. Spotted again one day later, only now solo behind the wheel, Affleck was asked by a PEOPLE reporter how his relationship with Lopez was going. “It’s great,” he said. “Fabulous.”

Some sources close to Lopez’s circle aren’t so sure. If Affleck really misbehaved, says one, “she will not react well.” But another acquaintance thinks Lopez may be too much in love with Affleck not to forgive or forget any indiscretion. After a turbulent relationship with P. Diddy and two failed marriages (the first was to model Ojani Noa in 1997; the second to Cris Judd ended in 2002), “she’s so into Ben that she’s gonna do whatever she needs to do to make this work.” Not helping matters are the breakneck schedules of the two stars, who have spent most of the summer in two different Canadian cities, with at best only weekends to be together. “They are in love, but by nature they’re both workaholics,” says a source close to Lopez. Even though he spent Aug. 4 with Lopez, that night she headed for LAX wearing a purple track suit and hopped on a plane. She’s now back in Winnipeg on the set of Shall We Dance? “Ben and Jennifer’s way of life is so strange,” says a friend of hers. “It’s the life of a gypsy—the separations, the two careers. She works 14-hour days. Boy, is it hard to get paired up in Hollywood.”

In the end, only they know if they have the stuff to make it last. “When you see the way he looks at her, his eyes light up,” says Lopez’s friend, songwriter-producer Cory Rooney. “He’s got that ‘you complete me’ look. And she’s the same when she looks at him.”

So they haven’t broken up? “No! Lord, no!”

She’s not giving back the ring? “She’ll never part with that ring, are you kidding me? And if, God forbid, something does happen…she ain’t parting with it.”

True to form, hours after her nightclubbing she arrived for a photo shoot with the ring sparkling on her left hand.

Tom Gliatto

Kwala Mandel and Jason Bane in Vancouver, Alexis Chiu, Marisa Laudadio, Elizabeth Leonard and Brenda Rodriguez in Los Angeles, Lorna Grisby in Winnipeg and Elizabeth McNeil, Natasha Stoynoff and Diane Herbst in New York City