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.
Even though I’ve been doing the dance of herpes for 10 years now, it only dawns on me recently that I settle far too often for men who aren’t what I want or deserve because I feel like I’m damaged goods. Even though I’m educated, successfully employed, attractive, have a good credit score, and have never been to jail, I find it hard to date a man who’s my equal.
The first guy I dated after I found out was married. Not only that, I had never met him. We were both gamers on my dad’s Unreal Tournament server. A big group of us played online sniper shooting games almost every night, talking to each other over the microphone. This was during my geeky gaming addiction phase.
“Hopper” had seen my photo and was crazy about me. He was always complimenting me and turning on the charm. First we only flirted in the game—his avatar seducing mine—but soon we were chatting when we weren’t gaming. In our first phone call, I told him I had just found out I that had herpes and was devastated. I told him: “No one is going to want to date me now.” He said “I would!” That was good enough for me. Soon after, I was on a plane to Reno for a weekend romp in a cheap casino hotel on the strip. The fact that he was married, unemployed, lazy, constantly smoking pot, and a cheater didn’t even phase me. At first. It didn’t last long, though. I do have my limits. And so does my credit card. Funding our long-distance affair by myself got very expensive.
The second guy I dated after the diagnosis was my neighbor. He’d been asking me out for two years. I always said no because we could see into each other’s condos, and our balconies faced each other’s. I told him, “If we don’t work out, I don’t want to have to army-crawl my way to the balcony to have a cigarette outside, knowing you’ll be out there smoking, too.” But I’d already told him about the “Big H,” and he didn’t care. He kept asking me out anyway. Finally, I gave in. He liked me for who I was, flaws and all. But unfortunately, I couldn’t like him flaws and all: He was often angry, had creditors hounding him, had little ambition, and had a really shady past. Oh, and he smoked pot constantly, too.
I knew it was over after he blew up over something ridiculous and refused to keep our plans to take his daughter to the pumpkin patch. She was so disappointed, as 4-year-olds can be, and instead of just sucking it up for the sake of his kid, her day was ruined. I held my breath through Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year and then, thankful the holidays were over, ended it. I spent the next two years dateless and sex-free, though, afraid he’d wig out if he saw a man through my living-room window. When I finally did start dating, he was either cold to me or yelling at me. If I shut my blinds, I was shutting him out of my life. If I left them open, I was rubbing it in his face. I moved.
After that, I really wanted to make better choices. That’s where Marty came in. I quit smoking and joined eHarmony. Marty was my first attempt at dating a “good” guy after dating the other post-diagnosis messes. He had a master's degree like me, was gainfully employed like me, owned his house like me, had migraines like me, and loved animals, just like me. But my confession put an end to any romance that may have been brewing. Marty and I have stayed friends, though. Turns out we were not a good match. He’s a bit too conservative. “What? The guy I just met—your roommate—is…gay?” The look of stunned horror in his eyes said it all. Unfortunately, it took me years to realize he wouldn’t have been a good match, and I wasted some of that time longing for what I thought was a real catch, the feeling of rejection hanging on like the smell of cigarette smoke.
Another time I went on several dates with a young doctor. I couldn’t decide if I liked him enough to tell him. I always cooled his advances and declined his invitations back to his place. I was terrified to have the talk. I never did get a chance to tell him. He said he wasn’t going to start a “passionless” relationship and broke it off with me. I know he just wanted to have sex, but still, it was another failed attempt to date someone “worthy” of dating, on paper anyway.
My next strategy was to date an ex-boyfriend. We had stayed friends since we dated in our 20s, and when he admitted he was in a dating funk because he had recently found out that he had herpes, I told him, “I have it, too.” I was visiting him in Portland, Ore., when he told me, and we spent the afternoon drinking coffee on a sidewalk café exchanging our herpes stories. “Do you take meds?” “What did she say when you told her you had it?” “I absolutely hate having ‘the talk.'” While sitting on his porch later, talking about other deep stuff, I realized this guy was one of my best friends, and when we were together, I wanted to be nowhere else. During his next trip to Denver, I told him how I felt and that I wanted to date him again. He thought it was weird since we’d been friends for so long. Really, I think he didn’t trust me not to break his heart since I’d hurt him when we were younger. We made a good effort — plane trips and long weekends — but his heart just wasn’t in it. Crushed, I took a year off from men. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to meet someone new and have the herpes conversation. Again.
Finally, I joined a community called Colorado H Friends (I guess I’m not the only one that calls it “H”). Maybe I just need to date from a pool of men who are infected, too, I reasoned. All awkward conversations avoided. However, walking into a room full of complete strangers, all looking to hook-up, is just as awkward, I soon found out. When I finally got the guts to attend a happy hour, I walked in and was immediately targeted by several men. Fresh meat. The only guy there who was my age and attractive also scared me. He was shaved bald, tattooed, and pierced to the hilt. Not at all the type of guy I'd normally date. I quickly learned he was an unemployed construction worker. I didn’t see anyone else more promising, so we talked for a couple hours. At the end of the evening, he asked for my phone number. I said sure. By then, I had decided he was charming.
A couple of days in to our relationship, my new tattooed and pierced guy was arrested. His ex-girlfriend accused him of things he said he never did. I don’t even remember now what it was (maybe harassment?), but in the end, he was ordered to stay away from her for years or he’d go to jail. A couple of weeks later, while we were getting pedicures, he admitted that he had spent time in prison years before — again for things an ex-girlfriend said he did, but really, he didn’t do. He did confess to breaking into her house and destroying her fish tank, though, but that was about it. Instead of hightailing it home after that story, I had crazy, passionate sex with him back at his house. For once I wasn’t worried about being perceived as diseased, and he was a fantastic lover. The sex overrode my logic. Besides, he was smart. Really smart. And a great carpenter and dad to boot. But after a few months, when he was hanging out with his best female “friend” more than me, things got rocky. Plus, he touted the swinger lifestyle all the time, converting all of his friends, attending swinging events while I was left at home, all the while saying he was a “one-on-one” kind of guy. I got the hint.
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.