The last serious guy I dated I knew from junior-high school. He’s the one who took two years to say, “I love you.” We started talking through Facebook initially and then quickly moved over to texting. We hadn’t gone on a date yet, but we were hot and heavy in text-land. Eventually, I texted him, hinting at the news. “This is fun, but I don’t think you’re going to want to have sex in real life.” When he asked why, and I was evasive, he begged me to tell him. So I did. Turns out he did date me (when I wasn’t breaking up with him every other month) for almost three years.
I thought he accepted the herpes, but our sex life was filled with surgical gloves, condoms, and no oral love for me. No matter what kinds of alternatives I suggested, he refused. My self-esteem eroded a little more, but hell, I couldn’t blame him. Ironically, I found out later, when I talked to the woman he had an affair with the last nine months of our relationship, that he didn’t give her any oral love either. So it wasn’t the herpes — just him being selfish. That made me feel better.
In the end, it was best that I busted him for cheating and ended it. He fit the pattern like all the rest — unemployed for the first six months we were together, arrested the first month we were dating for an outstanding warrant (unpaid speeding ticket), destroyed financially, me bailing him out with loans… But, hey, he was smart, too. They all were. And all of them had potential. When they did work, they could make more money than me. But what made me date them in the first place was that they all accepted the imperfect me, the infected me.
Recently, I was talking to a close male friend of mine. He has herpes, too. He’s been dating someone long term, and he often wonders if he should leave the relationship. He stays, knowing he should go.
“Why do we do this to ourselves?” I asked. “I think we stay with people we shouldn’t be with because they accept the fact that we have herpes. And in our warped minds, we think that’s reason enough to stay. The thought of starting over, having that humiliating conversation, even once more, is just too much to deal with.”
“You know,” he said, “I think you might be on to something.”
Even though I see my pattern now — low self-worth, fear of being rejected, dating men identified by my friends as “not good enough” — I’m still not sure how many more times I can have the conversation. I know I deserve a good guy who has similar dreams and passions, is smart, employed, pays his bills, and most importantly, hasn’t spent time in the clinker, but starting a relationship is precarious enough without throwing a sexually transmitted disease into the mix.
Not too long ago, I considered submitting an essay on having herpes to my writing workshop group, but quickly changed my mind because the thought of letting my writing teacher see the essay was horrifying. See, I had been harboring a serious crush on my teacher for five months. He’s everything I’ve always wanted in a man: soulful, compassionate, brilliant, funny, responsible, humble, and an incredible writer. He has a girlfriend, though, so we can’t date, but I’ve decided he’s the new standard of man I’m going for. No more non-functioning guys. Only good-hearted, transcendent, pays his bills, creative, witty types.
I just have to remember that before I was diagnosed, when several men I dated admitted they had herpes, I accepted it. I didn’t walk out when they told me. And the guy I end up with, he’s not going to walk out either. He’ll know the diagnosis doesn’t define me. It isn’t even an inconvenience when you don’t have symptoms. It’s just part of being human, I guess.
And if I find myself terrified to have the conversation one more time, struggling to find the words, I’m just going to save myself the stress and send him this essay instead.