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The Perks of Herpes
We were naked. He was hard. I’d always considered this moment the best time to disclose, because rejection seemed less likely when the possibility of a good lay was hot-breath close. Though maybe once we’re naked, it’s too late.
I shut my legs and stacked my knees to one side. “I have to tell you something,” I said.
Prefaces, everyone knows, are never good.
“What?” he asked.
I took a breath, let it out. I hate this part, I said to myself, possibly aloud. And then, definitely aloud: “I have herpes.”
Silence. The word had to be chased with something.
“But before you freak out,” I said as casually as I could, “let me tell you about it.”
“The transmission risks are tiny,” I started, and they are: about 2-4 percent from woman to man, depending on condom use. My risks are likely even lower; I got genital herpes from oral sex, and HSV-1 is even harder to transmit to a partner’s genital region. “And one in four or five people have it, even though most people don’t know since a standard STI test doesn’t test for it,” I said.
Silence. Wasn’t this dirty talk?
“It’s much harder for a woman to give it to a man, and to my knowledge, I’ve never given it to anyone,” I finished.
In short, herpes hasn’t had such a significant impact on my life. Except for having to have this conversation. I thought if I kept it light and perfunctory, his reaction might not be so bad.
Ever since I had said the word, his hand had frozen on my stomach, started to sweat. It was the only body part in the bed getting wet. He reclaimed his hand and rested it on his chest.
“Oh,” he said.
I knew from experience to back out first. I untwined my legs and sat up, hopped off the bed, and picked up my underwear. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I’m going to go.”
“Wow, um,” he stuttered. “I mean, thanks for telling me. You’re a good person, obviously. I’m not sure I would have done the same in your shoes.”
“No?” I asked, just as surprised at his honesty as he was at mine. “Then I’m glad I’m going.”
I snatched the bra he had struggled to free and the top I lustfully tore off minutes ago. This was always the weirdest part: negotiating a leave. I’d worry about how to escape this foreign part of Brooklyn later.
“Well. Bye then,” I said, stepping toward him, him, a body shellshocked on the bed. A hug? Do I shake his hand? I took a step back.
“Should I go with you?” he asked, motionless. “Do you know how to get to the train?”
I got it two years ago. Just another house party hookup, with a casually consistent partner for whom I felt nothing. There was no sex that night, and I was practically a virgin.
Still, I had always been boy crazy, craved penetration from the moment I first learned how good a finger felt. But sex? What did I know of sex? The single unit of sex-ed at my private high school consisted of a PowerPoint presentation given by a dance teacher, whom none of us presumed to have ever been screwed in her life. Images of worst-case scenario, untreated venereal diseases were projected on the whiteboard, and we girls let out disgusted squeals. This is what happens when a penis meets a vagina, the presentation seemed to scream. I’m never having sex, I remember whispering to my neighbor, who, wide-eyed, nodded in agreement.
Pictures of the clap danced in my head whenever I had penetration to consider, even in college. So I made a sort of ill-informed compromise with my sexual cravings: everything but. Until nearly the end of college, I still hadn’t had a dick inside of me, but I’d had plenty of tongues.
Like he had many times before, the boy from the party went down on me. It was rough, and it was hot.
Right away, the scene of the crime was burning, sore, but nothing I hadn’t experienced before. But then the next morning, it was swollen and worse. On the third day, panicked, I called up my college’s health center to book an appointment.
“What will you be coming in for?” the receptionist asked. I may have been paranoid, but his was the young, frat-boy voice of a student.
“Um, for women’s health,” I said.
“Can you be more specific?”
“Well…” I started. This wasn’t the time for delicacy. “My clitoris is really sore and inflamed.”
“Oh. What time can you come in today?”
The exam room was sparkling and sterile; the stirrups cold. The nurse, a bespectacled woman with short hair and a slight waddle, delved into the center of my spreadeagle. A few latex-fingered pokes later, she emerged. “Well,” she said lightly after I had tied my paper gown, “it looks like someone was a little overzealous down there!” I thought she might give me a high-five.
“Do you think I have an STD?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” she said. The symptoms don’t usually pop up so fast. This would surely go away in a few days. “Come see me again if things get worse,” she said, shooing me out the door.
That night, I told my roommate my wild fear: that I had herpes. “You don’t have herpes!” she squealed emphatically. “There’s no way. You’re too pretty to have herpes!”
Overnight, a crop of red sores invaded me. Hysterical, I called my nurse, who ordered a cab for me. “Is there someone you could bring with you?”
My roommate waited outside. I could barely spread my legs in the stirrups this time — partly from the pain, mostly because I didn’t want to hear what I knew was coming.
The nurse took a half-second look and sighed. “Well, it looks like you do have herpes, you poor thing.”
“But I didn’t even have sex!” I wailed, tears streaming down my face. “What am I going to do?” The nurse tried in vain to console me: patting my hand, then giving me an awkward hug. Finally, she told me I needed to calm down so I wouldn’t scare everyone in the building.
“It’s not a death sentence,” she said flatly. “It’s not like I’m telling you you have HIV.”
This is a death sentence, I thought. This is the end of my love life.
There are fenced-in corners on the Internet for people like me. Single with herpes? Try STDmatch.net, or positivesingles.com. This was my future, I thought immediately after being diagnosed. Over and over again, my Google searches reinforced the burning shame of having herpes. Even OkCupid had turned on my new quarantined clan. In their dating persona test, one of the questions reads “If you have any STI’s, please go here.” The link opens a competing online dating site.
If I felt stigmatized by my computer, how many hundreds of exponents worse would it be to tell someone I cared about, face to face? Disclosure sounded impossible. I’d just join a nunnery, or maybe devote my sexless lifetime to a more constructive pursuit, like academia or woodworking. Deep down, I knew I couldn’t be strong enough to take the type of rejection that I figured was in store for me. “Do I really have to tell every single partner for the rest of my life?” I had asked my nurse. She looked at me squarely, raised her eyebrows. “Yes,” she said.
I polled my closest friends, who varied in their advice. One encouraged me not to tell. The odds were too low to even consider it a big deal, she said, especially if I never have another outbreak. (I haven’t.)
It certainly seemed unfair. So many people have herpes and HPV and gonorrhea without ever knowing it. But I knew deep down that I’d want to disclose to my partners. There was no point in building a relationship, no matter how brief, on omission.
With the existential and physical crisis of herpes on my mind, suddenly, I heard everyone talking about it, the way everyone always seems to be using a word you just learned. I flipped on the TV the day of my diagnosis, and the queen from The Queen was having her royal gynecological exam. (Spoiler alert: everything down there was in proper order.) Months later, during a visit home, my father: “What’s the difference between love and herpes?” he joked one night. “Herpes lasts forever.”
Eventually, the virus that lay dormant inside of me slayed my fear of sex. I had educated myself about STIs and the medicines available to fight them; the whiteboard images of unchecked disease were erased. But disclosure was a bitch.
The first time I told a man, I couldn’t help but cry. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “Do you want to be alone? I’m gonna go.” He jumped into his jeans and out the door.
The second time, we — a different he — were stoned.
“Wait, what?” he said. “I don’t know what to say. I’m having a hard time processing this information right now. Let’s just fuck.” He was bleary eyed and hazy, the sex jabby and inhuman.
The Conversation continued to ruin my life after dark; disclosure brought the othering I had dreaded. But wait a minute! I thought. I’m still desirable. Men still eagerly come to my bed. Down there, I looked and felt the same as I always had.
Even if my male peers had been forged by the same awful sex-ed that I had, surely I meant enough to them to at least do some research before rejecting me, right?
That’s when I realized I was picking the wrong men.
Before herpes, I didn’t think about my body much. But the virus had jolted me into self-awareness. I ate better. I exercised more. I felt more fragile and powerful and worthy of careful handling than ever. Herpes, oddly, did not turn me into damaged goods. Instead, it became a filter for expendable men in my life.
And then one day at the office I met him, a tall, dark-haired, sunkissed drink of coworker water. It was an instant workplace romance.
Thanks to herpes, I took things slow, until the temptation to make things NSFW grew too strong.
We finally kissed: in his apartment, by the fish tank, his room steps away. “I have to tell you something…” I began. He didn’t know what to say, but held me tight throughout our first sleepover.
“I’ve thought about it,” he said the next day. “You’re worth the risk.” Our first real date was to the testing center, where we got checked for everything else. As we waited for our results, we giggled conspiratorially, stuffing little packets of lube from the fishbowl into our pockets.
That day I discovered the ultimate turn-on: two negative tests, and one man who didn’t care about the test the doctor didn’t give.
We had fantastic sex that night. For the first time since getting herpes, I felt like a normal girl in normal puppy love.
I moved away and we broke up. But heartened by my first post-herpes relationship, disclosing became less of a chore. I ditched the tears, shortened the speech, and started finding men who said things like, “I still can’t wait to fuck you” and “So?” My next boyfriend, to my surprise and delight, disclosed his own herpes to me.
Telling people about it still isn’t easy or fun, but it’s my own magic Hogwarts-esque sorting hat. If a guy freaks out, he’s not meant to be in my house.
Or I in his.
“Yes,” I told the Brooklyn boy coolly as I walked to his door. “I know where the train is.” I didn’t; it was the first lie I had told all night. But as I dashed down his stairs and into the night, I felt exhilarated. Here was someone I had kissed, dated, and genuinely liked. How quickly I could have fallen in love, only to find out later that he couldn’t tolerate my relatively benign disease — and that I couldn’t trust him to disclose to me, had the tables been turned.
In a world full of infinite partner choices, herpes had narrowed mine to the understanding, the open minded, the risk takers. I am now confined to partners who think my awesomeness eclipses my cellular flaw — so instead of killing my love life, herpes has weirdly deepened it.
Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing to be stuck with forever, I thought as I found the entrance to the train, stepped aboard, and headed home, alone.