This was in January. I was bar hopping with a friend when he approached me. I was wearing a black dress with purple and gold fishnet stockings. We had met before, knew a lot of the same people. We were hitting it off and after a couple drinks, we decided to go dancing. He followed my friend and me to the next bar and one thing led to another. He asked for my number at the end of the night. I was surprised when he texted the next day. We saw each other casually a handful of times throughout the next few weeks. It was reassuring to know my heart could still beat the way it used to.
It was late on a Tuesday night in February when I got his text. I hadn’t heard from him all night when suddenly, I have herpes. My ex-wife didn’t get it and hopefully you won’t either. I wondered how to approach this. It would be the first time I would have to expose my secret. Even though I hadn’t even so much as kissed this guy I didn’t question the timing of this message. Since I’m being honest, I actually jumped off the couch to tell my roommate the news.
I felt a sense of relief, this would be less complicated than I expected. Then I responded. Well actually, I have it too. When I found out I didn’t take it very well. You’re the first person I’ve told. No response. I slept on it. Suddenly, it’s eight o’clock the next night. There was still radio silence. I sent him a message wondering why I hadn’t heard from him after telling him something so personal. His response was that he was going to hang out with his friends and we would talk later. Fuck that. Don’t bother. See you around.
I laid back on the couch. Felt myself sink. When I woke up the next morning I felt hungover, although I had only managed to have one glass of wine. I got through the rest of the work week, but by the weekend I felt unable to face the outside world. I closed the curtains and grabbed the comforter from my bed. I found myself back on the couch, the glow of the television an attempt to distract me why I was unhappy.
A couple months go by and I heard nothing from him. Randomly, he sends me a message wanting to rekindle our friendship. I laugh out loud when I first read this. And then I think about it. Sometimes people come back into your life for a reason, I told myself.
Later that week I met him for a drink. He bought me a margarita and we walked outside to sit in front of the bar. He asked me how I’ve been, about my writing. The way he looked at me made me think he was interested in the answers. But neither of us mentioned the unspoken. After a few more drinks and casual conversation, he mentioned that he drove here in his mustang. A 1968 mustang the color of maroon. Let’s go cruising, I said. It was barely ten o’clock at night.
There was a Black Sabbath tape in the deck. I asked him to turn it up as I let the smell of the interior distract me from the other words I could not say. I rolled down the window and the air was warm. It hit my face and my hair was flying. I felt myself smile into the black night.
We ended up at a different bar. It was quiet and no one else was there. There were motorcycle helmets on the wall black, red, silver. The silver one had flecks of sparkle that kept getting caught in my eye. We stayed for a beer and continued to not talk about it.
The next time we saw each other was over dinner. The smell of fried fish and French fries stayed on my clothes on the drive back to his house. We stopped to pick up beer and then settled down to watch the sun fall with a portable record player on the back patio of his house.
After a while, we were throwing around the Frisbee. As it started to get dark he decided to build a fire. He piled the lonely branches into the center of the pit, the smell of scratched matches swimming down my throat. And then there we were, standing around a fire in the middle of June. He wanted to know what I had been writing about for my graduate program.
“Well, it’s interesting you mention that,” I said.
Since we were finally alone and not in a public space, I realized this was the perfect moment.
“I want to write about what I went through about two years ago. I remember when I got that call, finding out I had herpes. It was one of the worst days of my life.”
There was a moment of silence. The fire was tall, roaring as if speaking the words for me. His face was glowing in the face of the flames and staring at the ground.
I’ll tell you what I know. He had gone over to his ex-wife’s house to work something out. Somehow she got a hold of his phone. Somehow she knew I had been hanging out with him. In a jealous rage, she had sent me the message thinking it would scare me off. Until I replied.
My beer had fallen to the ground when he told me this. My knees like water.
“So, then you don’t have it?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I didn’t know how to tell you.”
“You should have tried,” I said. “Do you understand how this made me feel?”
My hands were entangled. I could feel my heart move. I was going to fall onto the grass but his hand touched my shoulder and pulled me around.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
He was repeating himself until I could find my human breath. The fire was already gone. We walked over to the patio and sat down. We continued to talk until it was late and I was exhausted.
It was after midnight. There were the four feet standing on the crooked cement path in front of his house. The blackness of the night highlighted by the yellow glow of street lamps. Before getting in my car and driving home I had to ask him.
“Does this make you think less of me?”
“Absolutely not,” he said. “It’s not who you are.”
Who am I? In that moment I realized I was the one who had been looking at myself as if wearing a florescent sign that read ‘I have herpes’ attached to my forehead. While I struggled with his disappearing act, I eventually realized this had been more an act of self-acceptance than anything else. Trying to define who you are through second-hand validation can be defeating. I’ve since moved on. So now, let me tell you what I’ve learned. Make sure to take notice in the way people handle difficult information. It will tell you what you need to know.