The Kind of Girl Who Gets Herpes

This is an excerpt from my micro-memoir LIFE RUINER about the intersection of herpes and abuse. To read the rest — and more essays about hookup culture, casual sex and intimacy — join my Patreon community here.


I woke up early on the day of the Spring Fling concert with a strange sense of wrongness. Blinking at my alarm clock, I vaguely registered that it was 7 a.m. Weak sunlight dribbled through the blinds.

I felt the wrongness again: an itch, a tenderness where none belonged. My hand groped under the sheets to find raised bumps on my labia. They seared at my touch and I hissed at the pain.

Fear laced through me. This was bad. This was very bad at a time when I had everything to lose. The sores emerged like a physical manifestation of my fear that life was too good to be true.

Thankfully I was alone; Blake had slept at his dorm. I got a hand mirror from my closet and tried to see my vulva, awkwardly crouching by the window in the patchy sunlight. The spots looked like angry red pimples with white, glassy heads.

It’s a rash, I told myself. It’s nothing.

I called the student health center. The nurse asked gently if I’d been using protection. I said I used condoms religiously. She asked me if the bumps could be from shaving—irritated follicles, or maybe ingrown hairs. I said no, I didn’t shave down there.

“What about new underwear? Did you buy new underwear and wear it without washing it first?”

I frowned and thought of the trip to Aerie that Leah and I took the last time we were too lazy to do laundry.

“I guess so? But not recently.”

The nurse asked if I’d been exposed to anyone with an STI. I didn’t know how to answer that question.

No?

No.

Of course not.

She booked me an appointment for an examination in two hours. As I waited out the clock, I sat in bed and churned over every choice I’d made in the last year.

What had they taught me in high school sex education? None of the people I’d slept with fit the stereotypes that my volleyball coach-slash-wellness teacher prattled about.

Was it the sweet aspiring banker who said my name during sex like a prayer?

Was it the gorgeous playboy who calmly informed me of his most recent STI test results when we took a break for water?

Could it have been Jules, who wrote me a love song when we were still teenagers?

How long could STIs hide in your system before you showed symptoms, anyway? This had to be something else, an allergic reaction or irritation from my period. I walked around in wet underpants yesterday after making out with Blake at the library. Maybe that backfired and this was a messed up yeast infection. Goddamn it, I was so smart about this sort of thing.

The real question, the question that terrified me: What would Blake say? What if he came over drunk after Spring Fling and wanted to have sex? How long did it take for STI test results to come back?

The nurse practitioner at the clinic did not need to wait and consult my test results. She took one look between my legs and winced. “This looks herpetic,” she said in a level voice, like she was diagnosing me with the flu.

The drop ceiling was that off-white, speckled plaster of office buildings and claustrophobic classrooms. I stared at its pocks and felt one chapter of my life end, and another begin.

Herpetic. Genital herpes.

She had a lot of pamphlets for me, so many goddamn pamphlets because herpes has no cure and pamphlets are meant to reassure you that “lifelong” does not mean “life over.” I didn’t want to read them because I knew they wouldn’t tell me what I wanted to know, which was how Blake could possibly love me now.

What would he say when I told him? What would he do? Would he even speak to me again, or would he just walk away and pretend we’d never met?

I didn’t know how to have that conversation, especially not with someone I’d only known for three weeks who readily admitted he had a temper. There was no way for me to know how long the virus had lain dormant in my body, just waiting to spring up and tear my first chance at happiness to shreds. I didn’t care how long I’d had it, or how many exes I would need to call. All I cared about was Blake.

He trusted me. He chose me. He ignored my colorful reputation and my history with his fraternity. Was this how I repaid him? Fucking genital herpes?

I limped to the nearest pharmacy. As I waited for them to fill my prescription for Valtrex, I called my mom. When I told her I had bad news, she asked me if I was pregnant. I told her no, it was worse. “I have herpes.”

“Oh! Okay. I love you.” I could hear the shrug in her voice. “Do you need me to come get you? I’ll get in the car right now if you want me to.”

Soon after, my dad sent me a text message that he loved me. He didn’t mention herpes, but my mom must have called him as soon as we hung up. Good news traveled fast.

Leah was similarly unfazed when I got back to our apartment. I burst through the door, softball-pitched my bag of Valtrex on the love seat, and yelled, “I have herpes! I am a cautionary tale! A diseased slut!”

My roommate tutted as she fetched me a cold Diet Coke. Glenn sat at the counter in front of a field of rolled cookie dough, ready to be cut into hearts.

“Hi Glenn,” I added. He waved, bemused and without comment.

“Honey, you’re not a diseased slut,” Leah said, returning to the kitchen to preheat the oven. “You’re you.”


I wanted to tell Blake in person, but I needed to let him know that I wouldn’t be joining him at Spring Fling. I took a Diet Coke and a plate of fresh cookies into my bedroom, and then I texted him that I wasn’t coming.

He called me right away. It was clear that he’d been drinking, and his voice was tight with panic. “Are you going to end this?” he demanded to know over the thundering bass of the concert. “Did you sleep with someone else? Tell me what’s going on now.”

“No, of course not.” I sat at my desk, my cellphone pressed to my ear. Leah paced outside my bedroom, fussing with the linen closet.

Blake had left his Yankees cap on my desk. I turned it over in my hands.

“What then, do you have AIDS? Are you pregnant?”

I didn’t know how to de-escalate him when he got worked up, so I kept to the level voice I used on the radio. “No, Blake. We’ll talk later, I promise.”

He flipped from hostile to blasé in seconds. “Well if you’re not pregnant and you don’t have an STD, then I’m not that worried.”

Fuck. I couldn’t lie. He’d be angry later that I lied, even if only temporarily. “I got a diagnosis,” I choked out. Fat tears began to slide down my cheeks. “I want to talk about it in person. Please, Blake.”

“A girl I care about is crying on the phone. I can’t just go about my day.” Blake’s voice was low and soothing. The background noise softened as he cupped his hand around his phone. “What’s going on? You can tell me anything.”

For a brief moment I thought everything might be okay. What a sweet thing to say, a girl I care about. He was worried about me, worried about us. Maybe he would drop everything and come over and wrap me up in a big hug. That’s what I would do if our roles were reversed. I couldn’t think of a single thing that would make me not want to be with him.

“I have herpes,” I said. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know. I just found out. I didn’t know.”

I don’t remember what he said first. There are only weird splinters of memory driven too deep under my skin to remove. It had finally stopped raining outside. My bedroom window was dirty. Some of the plastic blinds were bent at the edges. His voice was all fear and acid as he called me a whore.

And, later: “I guess this is what I get for falling for a girl like you.” An insult tossed off so casually, so precisely designed to gut me.

After I hung up on him, Leah came into my bedroom slowly, the way a mother would. She settled down on my bed and asked, “What did he say?”

I looked at my bitten fingernails and repeated some of our conversation. I felt like I’d been slapped. Shame curdled with hurt in my throat. I didn’t want this to be my life.

“He has a right to be mad,” I reasoned. “I might have given him herpes. He didn’t sign up for this.”

“He doesn’t get to talk to you like that,” Leah said. “There’s no excuse. And you don’t know that he didn’t give you herpes.”

But that wouldn’t do. That wouldn’t do. The impulse to defend Blake swarmed up in me like a sickness, or a call from the divine. She didn’t understand who he was, that he was scared and young. She didn’t understand that he was such a sweet person, that he’d been hurt so much by this world, that he wasn’t as strong as I was. He had mental health issues, demanding parents, he was under so much pressure. He was drunk and shocked, and couples fight, don’t they?

Wouldn’t anyone be mad if they were in his shoes? His anger was justified and I understood his reaction, even if pain and disappointment throbbed in my throat.

I believed in him. I had limitless excuses. It made sense when you thought about it, the editor-in-chief of the sex magazine. The aspiring feminist pornographer. The older woman, his sensual rebound. There were people this happened to and people this didn’t happen to, and it was clear to everyone involved exactly who I was.

“Ella,” Leah said again. “You didn’t do anything wrong. These things happen. It’s just herpes.”

I texted Blake that I was going home for a few days.

He called me immediately. Tearful panic replaced his fury.

“Please don’t go, Ella,” he said, and I started crying again, this time in relief. “Please stay. I need you. I need you to take care of me.”


I knew Leah was right. These things did happen, and it was an accident, and there was no one to blame. My life wasn’t a Fox News broadcast; this wasn’t karmic punishment for my so-called promiscuity. Yes, I’d had more sexual partners than the average 20-year-old. Yes, I wrote erotica and got in trouble in high school for wearing a Real Sex Ed Saves Lives pin in my yearbook photo.

But I was careful to use condoms and get tested for STIs at my annual check-up. While I’d slept with more than one total stranger, most of my sexual partners were friends who I trusted. No matter what the voice in my head told me, I was not a damaged, ruined skank who would never be lovable or fuckable ever again. A herpes diagnosis didn’t mean I was damaged goods.

I knew all that, but I didn’t really believe it. Not yet. The shame was too fresh. My body was in rebellion, feverish and constantly dehydrated from the Valtrex. The sores continued to multiply until l had roughly a dozen red, angry craters on my labia. It didn’t just burn when I peed, it felt like I had swallowed glass.

Relief came when I sank into a warm bath full of Epsom salt, but I still had to go to the library to work on finals. Most of my professors agreed to grant me extensions, but one insisted I turn in my research project by his original deadline. I bit my lower lip until it bled and kept a full canister of Extra Strength Tylenol in my backpack. Wearing pants was agony.

It’s hard not to hate yourself when your own body disgusts you.

After Blake’s initial explosion, we didn’t fight again. He learned from that terrible phone call that there was only so far he could push me – if he raised his voice, I would end the conversation, no matter how guilty I felt doing so.

Instead he let out his anger in malicious slivers. He started arguments in public in a low, barbed whisper. During a long study session together at the library as I looked for erotica collections for my senior thesis, he spat, “Look me in the eye and defend your precious hookup culture now.”

At dinner in the student center, he referenced the conversation we had about slut shaming when we first met. “Remember that box you were afraid I would put you in? It’s hard not to now.”

And another late night in my bed, his voice sharpened into quiet steel because he didn’t want Leah to overhear him: “If you tell anyone I have herpes, I’ll kill you. You ruined my life.”

I wanted to make this work, but not at the expense of his respect for me, or my respect for me. And so I made bargains with myself. He could be angry for a while, as long as he eventually realized I was not the person who deserved his anger. There was no one to blame—I didn’t intentionally give him herpes, and I’d done all I could to be a responsible and kind sexual partner.

But anger needs a target. He was angry with me. His anger made me angry with him. I was just better at processing it.

It helped that he had apologizing down to an art. His baby face collapsed whenever I started to cry.

“Don’t you know how much I hate to see you upset?”

“Stop crying, Dawson. Did I let you down? I’m so sorry I let you down.”

“You’re an asshole, but you’re my asshole. It’ll take more than this to get rid of me.”

He was such a good person for staying with me, after all.

I thought our relationship might be over, for real this time, when he officially tested positive for herpes too. He texted me from the clinic and told me not to talk to him until he calmed down, because he wouldn’t be himself and he didn’t want to hurt me. I turned off my phone and waited.

When he finally said it was safe for me to come over, I expected a monster. Instead I found a terrified child. He lay in his bed shaking, his eyes wide and his breathing tight. I sank down beside the bed and squeezed his hand. I asked if he wanted me to go. He didn’t know, compulsively shaking his head. I crawled into bed next to him and held him tight.

In a small voice, Blake asked me, “Do you care about me? Do you really care? Why?”

At night I was feverish and the covers were too much and he kissed my sweaty shoulder and asked, “You okay, sweetpea?” He borrowed my period-stained polar bear pajama pants to sleep in and I could love this man if I let myself, I really could. He kept me sane. I stopped talking to anyone else.


School ended. My outbreak did too. When the sores healed, we could almost pretend nothing had ever happened. We eased from Wesleyan spring to New York City summer. I had a prestigious internship with a publishing house on Fifth Avenue, and he was working at a consulting firm in Midtown. On the weekends we ate ice cream in Washington Square Park. I met his family, all of them as quick and charming as he was. Blake made new sense to me as a figure on the Manhattan skyline, all black and white and sharp.

We drank cocktails on his parents’ roof, basking in city glow. I loved the soft roar of cars rushing by below us. The energy of his neighborhood made words sing in my brain. “I want to bring a chair up here so you can write,” he said, kissing the side of my head.

I decided he wasn’t like the people I had dated before. He didn’t declare his feelings in wordy proclamations and multi-part text messages. He told me everything I needed to know in how he looked at me, those long stretches of intense stares that made me feel nervous and raw and beautiful. Did he see what Jules used to see when she looked at me, or was he seeing someone different? Had I become someone new?

I relaxed into him. I hadn’t fucked up this week, I hadn’t made his face shrivel with hurt or disgust. I could be strong enough to handle him, to handle this. He collected my observations like they might be worth something someday, and he disappeared downstairs so that I could focus on my journal and pour it out. He jarred something loose in my chest, something wonderful.

I wrote: You will spend the rest of your life trying to catch this feeling in sentences and you will fail. But you will try.

Blake wanted to read what I wrote but he couldn’t make out my handwriting. Instead we curled up in his squeaky childhood bed and I read snippets aloud. Even when I was alone, I edited his ugliness out. He is an easy man to fall in love with but not an easy man to love, I wrote, instead of how hard it was sometimes.


And we were having sex again, I should mention that. We resumed our ravenous fucking as soon as my scabs fell away. Sometimes the sex was tender and emotional, eyelids kissed and hands held, and sometimes it felt like hatred. He hated me and I hated me and I loved him and he hated himself, backs scratched and teeth bared and oh fuck please.

At the end of a long day packing up books in the storage closet at work, all I wanted was for him to bend me over his desk and make me beg for it. He was happy to oblige.

“Are you going to come for me, Miss Dawson?” he asked, my wrists held tight in his hands.

I was I was I was.

Once when I lay on the floor of his bedroom, my body splayed open and soaked in our sweat, he took a picture of me. He had untangled himself to sit at his desk and drink a glass of water, and I dozed off until I saw the flash of his iPhone.

“What was that for?” I asked, aware of my nakedness as I sat up and curled my legs to my chest.

“Just for me,” he said. “You are so beautiful.”

I forgot about it, like you do when you trust the boy who won’t say he’s your boyfriend.


This is an excerpt from my micro-memoir LIFE RUINER about the intersection of herpes and abuse. To read the rest — and more essays about hookup culture, casual sex and intimacy — join my Patreon community here.

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

9 thoughts on “The Kind of Girl Who Gets Herpes

  1. Love your blogs and have similar stories! I’ve been with 3 people and am in my late 20s and unfortunately, one gave me herpes.
    Would love to know solid facts on likelihood of passing it onto someone though, I know risks are actually quite low but I find that initial chat followed by these questions, can be hard to respond as there’s so much on the internet and so much different data when actually, I’ve found that partners just want to know the chance rate of getting it themselves!

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