The First Time I Had Sex After Getting Herpes

The first time I had sex after getting diagnosed he was wearing that black blazer I loved over a white v-neck shirt. We tasted like beer and early summer sweat, finals over, medication finished. Sunlight spilled through my bedroom window and my back was against the plaster wall. I think my roommate was out; otherwise she was right on the other side listening to One Direction and worrying about me like the sister the universe knew I needed that year.

He smiled at me, really smiled for what felt like the first time in weeks. It sank into my skin, relief soothing the ever-present panic in my stomach. He was thrilled; his eyes poured over my face, my lips, my shoulders. His Yankees cap was abandoned on my desk and I relaxed into him, let him push me back against the wall. I remember his hands, or maybe I just imagine them traveling to find my hips and hold me close, press me against the proof that he wanted me again. It seemed unthinkable that he could want me now, my body ruined and foreign, invaded, repulsive.

But then again I wanted him. I wanted his firm shoulders and the smooth skin of his jaw, wanted to burn myself alive under his weight. I didn’t want to fuck—I wanted to disappear inside of him where it was safe, nestled in the warmth of his approval. I didn’t want to have sex but I wanted him to never stop looking at me like that ever again. My legs wrapped around his waist and his mouth found my neck, so gentle with me. He’d gotten the same diagnosis and I still wanted him. It shouldn’t be so strange that he could want me too.

This man must love me, I thought. This man must love me to want me after what I’ve made of him. Love was the only motivation I understood in the context of all that sunlight, his jeans sliding down his hips, my skirt bunched up around my waist. He folded his blazer over the back of my desk chair and I think I stored the useless condoms in the pink plastic container back then, right on the windowsill. We always used them despite the good they’d done us. I remember the sex wasn’t good, even as the headboard of my narrow twin bed rocked into the plaster wall and the light yellowed into evening. Not bad but not good either. Its mediocrity, its normalcy meant everything to me. First times are never great.

I think we went out for dinner afterward at the fancy-ish Italian place on Main Street because the burger joint I loved was closed on Mondays. It was a belated birthday dinner because we’d both been on so much Valtrex the night I turned twenty-one. I might be getting the dates wrong.

I know now that we had sex that night, and many nights after that, because he wanted me and I wanted him and there was barely any love involved. Life with herpes still meant desire and intimacy and men bailing for immature, flakey, misogynist reasons that had little if anything to do with STDs. On the night I broke up with him for good he was wearing that blazer again and I wanted to fold it over his desk chair, wanting him even though I hated him by then. He probably doesn’t remember the first time we had sex after our diagnosis—it took me a while tonight to churn up the details. But maybe he does. I don’t know him anymore.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

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