FICTION: Calculated Risks

Alex was terrible with words. He got caught up in the syntax of his emotions, his green eyes growing wide and round during high-intensity moments. Charlotte learned how to read whatever confession he couldn’t say in how he looked at her, his face pink and mouth half-open, or in how he looked away. She liked to think she was one of the few people in the world who knew him well enough to grasp what he couldn’t say. Sometimes she was wrong, but she knew him better than either of them had expected her to in the beginning.

A lot of things went unsaid between them: qualifications, confessions, and the random truths that didn’t need to be stated. They never talked about what they were to each other but it was understood that they lived independent lives, no matter whatever internship or stranger’s bed that might lead them to. One summer she worked in Chicago for a local news station while he studied ancient engravings in Cairo and they went an entire three months without more than a few texts. When school resumed in the fall, there he was again.

Alex would never admit that he’d built a home beside her but she knew it in how his defenses tumbled as soon as he walked into her dorm room. He would swing his backpack full of textbooks off his shoulders and dump it on the carpet before collapsing on her bed spread-eagle, his sneakers carefully off the duvet. Charlotte was usually working with her back propped up against the headboard, and he would grope around the bedding for her waist with one hand and then drag himself closer, his head pressing against her stomach. “Hi,” she always said, peering down at him as she raked her nails through his buzzed hair. There would be a mumbled response and then his lips against her upper thigh, her stomach, her elbow.

They also hadn’t talked about what would happen when they graduated, but that was another unsaid agreement: her family lived in Queens and he wanted to study with an archivist at the City University of New York. He was one aspect of graduating college that she didn’t worry about—they would be together in the next step of adulthood. What that might look like didn’t keep her up at night. Sometimes trust meant assuming everything would work out the way it was supposed to.

All of this wasn’t to say that they never talked, or that they never talked about the things that mattered. They talked about his chilly, demanding parents and her investigative journalist ambitions, her collection of vintage posters and his favorite historical time periods. They binged new TV shows and frequently had to restart episodes because he’d been pontificating about the lighting. Alex taught her to drive his beaten up Honda in an Arby’s parking lot, laughing hysterically when she forgot which pedal was which like a typical city brat. They agreed to never again speak of the dent she left in his bumper from reversing into a lamppost, but they talked about a great deal of things.

Charlotte told him about herpes on that first walk back to her dorm, whenever the hell that was—two years ago? That night, she saw him across the party and saw him seeing her. She formulated the words before introducing herself because that was how this worked now: informed consent and prevention methods and all that jazz. Back then she felt like attraction came with a checklist.

Alex was flirty without being aggressive, all subtle confidence and wry humor. He was careful not to loom over her, a sturdy but unintimidating six-foot-two, and he focused on what she said despite the familiar cacophony of the party exploding around them. There was something reassuring about that, how he decided on her. His laugh boomed at all of her jokes but his quiet smile struck her hardest.

That night they stepped through fall leaves, his hand hovering just over the small of her back. She told him that she had genital herpes and if he was uncomfortable with that, she would understand. The words were sticky in her mouth but he shrugged it off as he guided her around a muddy patch of the baseball field. “Doesn’t something like 90% of the population have herpes?” he asked, and that was the end of that conversation. There were condoms in her desk drawer and in his backpack. If he hesitated that night before having sex with her, she didn’t see it.

Charlotte always felt like he made up his mind about her at the party—any obstacle that followed was irrelevant to how she smiled over the rim of her red party cup.

When they talked about that night later, much later, he confessed to having looked up transmission statistics on his phone while she was in the bathroom. It was a calculated decision, made once and never revisited. He felt he made the right one—he didn’t say that part, but she read it easily enough in how he sometimes fell quiet and kissed her shoulder.

They did talk about herpes from time to time: what testing they’d had since, and if he could please pick up more condoms at the health center because she was running out. They didn’t talk about how she got it or if he worried about contracting it too. She adored that it didn’t take up much of their time or energy. No agony, no judgment, no justification. She loved him for it. Not for accepting her despite her STI, but for being the type of man who didn’t let things like that define people.

That love went in the pile of things they never talked about too. It was easy to imagine the deer in the headlights look on his face if she ever said it out loud: “Alex, I love you.” Most of her previous partners were chatty to a fault, their affection bubbling from their lips in so many proclamations. She had heard their speeches and their apologies, collected their broken promises. The words were worry stones in her pocket, rubbed smooth on the nights they didn’t text back or came over late. Words were easy and ultimately cheap.

Alex never ran late, never bailed at the last minute, knew how she liked to be kissed and made the bed when he slept in after she left for class. He copy-edited her papers whenever she asked. He was there, a constant in the young adult chaos.

She felt safe assuming he already knew how she felt, anyway.

Another night, another assignment. She was working on a big essay for her senior communications seminar, the kind that required her to have a million open tabs on her browser until her laptop ran slow and burned her hands.

Around 9:30 PM, Alex barged into her bedroom with his usual lack of grace: door bumping the wall, backpack hitting the floor, body collapsing into the mattress. He smelled like dust, fresh off a study binge at the library. There was a table on the top floor that he liked, tucked in a poorly lit corner of the Feudal Studies section. She’d stumbled across him there one afternoon a few weeks after they’d begun sleeping together, and for a terrifying moment she thought he would shrink away from her in the context of his everyday life. It was a stupid fear; he’d never been anything but kind. His face lit up to see her clutching a stack of books in his forgotten nook of campus. That felt like ages ago.

Charlotte hit save on her paper and slid a hand down the neckline of his sweater to scratch his back. Alex hummed as he nuzzled his nose against her jeans. “Take a break,” he said. His voice was drowsy and impossible to say no to.


Alex relinquished his hold on her waist so she could push her laptop onto the windowsill and let the catch on the curtains fall. Then she sank back into him, wrapping his arms around her like a quilt. His lips found the back of her neck. They lay like that for a while, exhausted and close. A party flickered to life a few floors below, the soft thud of bass rising up from the basement. Charlotte loved spring on campus, how the air smelled, how the weekends regained their color. She felt no desire to leave this room or this bed—it was enough to be cradled by Thursday evening with her friend’s arms around her, the heat of his chest against her back.

Alex’s fingertips teased the waistband of her pants. Charlotte smiled. She lightly rocked her hips back against him and his grip on her stomach tightened, pulling her closer. Sleepy Alex was one of her favorite Alexes, especially in bed: he wasn’t rushing to get to class or check his email, wasn’t fucking to get off or burn energy. She heard him gasp as she molded herself to his body again, weaving her fingers through his over her stomach. This Alex was all hers, quiet and open.

Charlotte twisted her body around to look at him. He was smiling at her the way he’d smiled at her so many times before, like it was a relief and an honor to see her face. The way she felt about him—the way she felt so much for him—hit her once again with the pleasant rush of a summer thunderstorm. “Hi,” she said. His eyelashes were so long up close.

“Hi,” he said.

There was little mystery to each other’s bodies anymore. A long slice of a scar ran up her left hip and he squirmed when she touched his legs a particular way. Kiss her neck and she writhed, bite his ear and he cut his nails into her shoulder. But tonight they were gentle, only pulling off clothes when they got in the way. They were both in the mood to be lazy.

Later Charlotte would wonder if that was the real reason why they didn’t use a condom, if they were just too lazy to sit up and dig protection out of her desk drawer, but she didn’t think so. It was more like they were ready to not care about it anymore. It didn’t matter in the warm shadow of how they felt.

Alex traced her folds and found her wet. He looked at her with eyes much more alert than a few moments ago, and she nodded, her hands cupping his face. Their underpants joined the rest of their clothes at a lump at the bottom of the bed. He was hard and ready against her, the soft heat of him slick with her arousal. She waited for him to reach over and grope for a condom wrapper, but he didn’t, and he waited for her to ask him to, but she didn’t.

It never occurred to her to want that before, to want to this bare, not even before she was diagnosed. It didn’t seem even remotely worth it when she was younger, her head full of terrifying health class slides and cautionary tales, but of course that was because she didn’t actually know what condom-less sex would be like. And after getting herpes, well, the idea of fucking without a condom was at best irresponsible, at worst dangerous to someone she cared about. That’s what the speeches about I’ll understand if you’re uncomfortable were for, and the statistics, and the brochures, and the are you sure conversations before and during and after. Alex was the only one who hadn’t required a cost-benefit analysis of This is why you should still want me. Alex made his decision a long time ago. And he’d decided on her.

Now Alex was looking at her with this awed, nervous rawness, his whole body alive and wanting. She stared back, equally terrified. An entire conversation played out across their faces, a debate of risks and want and trust and desire. Should we? Is this what you…? Are you sure? She nodded an almost imperceptible nod and then he kissed her, open-mouthed and slow. When he slid into her, it was unlike anything she’d ever experienced. It was just so close.

“Oh goddamn it,” Alex stammered, the words yanked out of him. Her eyes were wet. She knew what he meant: this was delicious. He was pure velvet inside of her. She could feel every twitch and pulse in his body, even his blood surging through him if she paid attention. As her awareness of him heightened, she lost track of herself. This was heat and wet and close, so fucking close, and he stayed absolutely still until that initial amazement lessened enough for him to move without losing control.

When he was ready, he pulled out of her so slowly she thought she might scream until just the tip of him teased her. And then a thrust back inside, deeper this time. A groan tore from her lips. She wrapped her legs around his waist, the sensation so pure and smooth without the friction of latex and bottled lubricant. This was them and them alone. They were alone with the hum of campus and early spring and his nose bumping against hers and sweat dripping down her neck. Charlotte realized her eyes were closed and she opened them.

There was an expression on his face that she’d never seen before. Maybe it had appeared in flickers over the years—she recognized the shock and the desire and even the fear that came from realizing this other person mattered, that he would miss her at the end of their junior year. She recognized his wordless gasp from a handful of other conversations that had stalled out, the failed attempts to figure things out together. The tip of his nose was rosy. His eyes were the greenest she’d ever seen them, the whites vibrant even in the late evening glow.

They found a new rhythm, fragile and aware of every stroke and touch. Fuck, this was what they’d been warned against as teenagers in health class, this overwhelming closeness and wild simplicity. Even the music downstairs faded away in the wake of Alex’s sweat on her lips and the new, slick heat of his pre-cum. In Charlotte’s brain, beneath the sensory intoxication of Alex’s body, was the awareness of what this meant, a responsibility drilled into her brain by so many doctors and advice columns. Alex wanted her this way despite everything, every warning and stereotype and stigma. Alex knew her and cared about her and decided on her. She had confidence but never enough to want this, or even imagine it. He wanted her this much. He needed her this much.

“Fuck, Char, I’m so—” He didn’t need to say it, she could feel it in how the muscles in his back were tightening. He was using every ounce of strength he had to delay his orgasm but she didn’t want him to. Suddenly she knew the only thing she wanted in this world was to feel Alex come, really feel him without latex dulling the sensation. She wanted him to be the first to be with her like that. She wanted to be his.

“Please,” she said, her voice breaking. “Please, Alex, I want you to.”

“I’m sorry, I need to—”

She shushed him, wrapping her arms tightly around him. He buried his face in her neck and fucked her, each movement sloppy and frantic. She felt herself getting closer too: it was everything, the intensity of it and the new details of his skin and this heat and the grip of her around him and the insurmountable importance of what this meant. Make love to me, she almost said, the normally saccharine words the only ones that made sense right now.

Alex’s body snapped and she clung to him as he shuddered hard against her, his climax more like the uncoordinated, unpracticed orgasms they’d had together at the beginning. They were strangers who knew each other better than anyone in the world. His pleasure was infectious and her own peak caught her off-guard, the jerk of him against her dragging her under into white noise and wet ecstasy. Just her and Alex, just their trust and their love and their skin and this night, this warmth, this… When she opened her eyes again, his stare pored over her face and said everything she needed to know for sure.

They talked about condoms after a long shower and a shared glass of water: he already knew that she had an IUD, so this was something they could continue to do if they were comfortable with it. It was a question they both needed to answer, even if he was the one at risk, because she knew she would feel guilty if she transmitted, even when he made the decision fully informed. But the answer was obvious. Not only had the sex been that good, because holy shit there was no pretending it wasn’t far superior, but this was who they were to each other. They were what mattered. Anything else was secondary.

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Disclaimer: Practice safer sex by talking about your STI status, birth control and transmission-prevention methods with your partner. Learn more about how to have safer sex with herpes here.

Related Reading: My characters care about safe sex because I have to.

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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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