Third date. Marty and I have had a great dinner, good conversation, and a couple of drinks. Now we’re back at his place making out on his couch. He’s having a good time, but my chest is filling up with anxiety with every move of his hands. I begin shaping words in my head, wondering if it’s too soon for this conversation, or maybe too late. Maybe I should have told him already. I stop the kissing and fondling and tell him I have to go home. Maybe I say I have to let my dog out.
The next day, I email Marty:
There’s something I have to tell you. I’m afraid to tell you, but I want you to know before things get physical. I have herpes. I don’t have any symptoms (other than occasional nerve weirdness), have never had a break out, and only know I have it because I had a blood test once. I take anti-viral meds twice a day so I won’t spread it. I understand if you don’t want to date me now that you know. Sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, but I have to decide if I like a guy well enough to tell. I really like you a lot and would love to move things forward, so I hope you understand.
Even though he’d been on email right before I wrote him, it took him three long, agonizing days to respond. When he did, his email was vague, and he never asked me out on a date again.
It's a familiar response. When I first got diagnosed, I had a few dates with a guy named Andrew. We were sitting at the Skylark bar drinking a beer when I told him. It was an awkward moment, and things went nowhere after that. The message was loud and clear. Ever since, I’ve been too chicken to drop the bomb any other way than email. I figure it’s fairer that way—for him. Okay, and easier for me. He won’t feel the need to lie or cover his emotions if he’s freaked out. He has time to ruminate before he responds to me — if he responds at all.
Later, if we email about it, I call it “H.” It makes me feel better. Words are powerful things. Herpes is an especially charged word, wrapped up in images of contagion, judgment, blisters, and …promiscuous sex. Of course not all people who get herpes are screwing every Joe or Jane in town, but that’s sometimes the image that’s mustered up by those who are lucky enough not to have it. In my case, I’m pretty sure I was infected by the man I was engaged to at the time. I knew he had it and accepted it. I’d known him and loved him since I was 12 years old. I didn’t care if I got it because we were getting married. But he left me three weeks before our wedding. He married another woman a month later. Years later he’d say his family was pressuring him to marry the woman he’d accidently knocked up before we started dating again. So he left me and married her instead. In the end, I wound up infected and single.
More often now, I try to call it by its official acronym, HSV 2, which stands for Herpes Simplex Virus 2 (as opposed to 1, the “cold sore” oral type). It doesn’t really help to minimize its punch any more than “ED” does for Erectile Dysfunction, though. Herpes is the joke people love to tell. Except those who have it. But we laugh anyway, because we don’t want to be found out.
Three of my girlfriends have it. And their husbands all accept it without issue. All are educated, successful men, and if my friends can marry men who have it together, why shouldn’t I be able to find a decent guy who will accept it? I give myself this pep talk often. Once, in the midst of a long-term relationship, I told my friend’s doctor-husband, “I know it took him two years to tell me he loves me, but he accepts my herpes and that counts for something…doesn’t it?”
He said, “Cathy, herpes is not a big deal. Worse case: I get it from my wife. Who cares? Is it really the end of the world?”
Although I appreciated him minimizing it, I couldn’t help but to think: Yeah, no big deal when you’ve already found your life partner and don’t have to tell every new person you’re dating.