Monday, February 20, 2017

Those Who Get STDs Together Stay Together?

I’ve been doing stand up and, naturally, my set leans heavily on sex and feminism. The first couple times I got onstage at open mics, I was compared to Eve Ensler—something I would usually take as a compliment, but somehow felt like an insult when the audience consisted of a bunch of dudes. The MC at one mic commented after my set, “What a nice, romantic story. Very Nicholas Sparks.” He was joking of course. I had just finished telling the crowd about my date with the self-proclaimed “female orgasm expert” with whom I had some of the most mediocre sex of my life in the back of his roommate’s van behind the Urth Cafe. I ended the story with, “Spoiler alert: I didn’t climax. But he sure did. Because, you know, he’s a man.” I guess the MC was implying that, because I think some guys are both bad and arrogant lovers, I’m not a romantic. I guess I come off as cynical. Have I become irreversibly jaded about men?

I had just started seeing someone whom I had known, as casual friends, for a long time. We had sex without a condom, so in my usual post-coital panic attack, I immediately went to get tested. The problem with me is that I’m a hypochondriac but I’m also bad at using condoms, so I get tested a lot. On Saturday afternoon, after returning home from hiking and brunching with a friend, I received in my email inbox the results of some of the previous week’s tests. It said I had tested positive for syphilis. I had been tested since my last unprotected sexual encounter and hadn’t had sex with anyone since this new guy, so I was pretty convinced he was the one who’d given it to me. 

Syphilis sounded to me like some pretty medieval shit, so I started looking up the symptoms online (mistake). What would initially start as sores and a rash on your genitals and the inside of your palms could, down the road, turn into blindness, insanity and death. I discovered that syphilis is rampant and has become a national health crisis due to budget cuts to STD prevention clinics

I considered not telling the guy right away, as I knew he was on his way to spend the weekend at a music festival. Part of me didn’t want to ruin his weekend, but the bigger part of me thought that if I had to suffer with this news, then so should he. He was appropriately embarrassed and apologetic when I called to tell him. He contacted the last girl he’d had unprotected sex with only to find out she had also tested positive for syphilis after they’d been together and hadn’t told him. He offered to leave the festival to come be with me, but the clinic was closed for the weekend and there was nothing for us to do but wait, so I told him it was fine, to try to forget about it and enjoy the festival. Meanwhile, I agonized, my imagination spinning so far out of control that I got online and searched, “if I have syphilis, do I have HIV,” which autofilled immediately in the Google search bar, telling me I was not alone in my irrational fear.

Finally, on Monday, we both made appointments to get treated on Wednesday. As I was leaving for my appointment, I received on my doorstep a lovely bouquet of wild flowers from the guy.

At the clinic, they took my blood again and I was called in to see the counselor. She informed me that I was the first ever cisgendered, heterosexual woman to ever test positive at their clinic. "Can I get a medal for that?" I joked. Then I got called in to see the doctor who said that syphilis infections were up 400% in Los Angeles that month. Then he told me that I didn’t have syphilis, it was a false positive. The guy also tested negative, he too didn’t have syphilis. Turned out the girl he'd fucked before me had gotten it from the next dude she'd been with after him. He was enormously relieved and immediately his whole demeanor changed. He felt understandably let off the hook, and wanted to celebrate. I was also relieved, but still felt emotionally hung over from four days of escalating fear and paranoia, and was slightly annoyed at how quickly he was able to bounce back. I was headed to The Comedy Store to see a friend perform, so we went to Saddle Ranch for (gross) burgers, and when he didn’t offer to pay the bill I became irrationally angry and disappointed. I felt emotionally raw and in that moment like I wanted to feel taken care of. It's the oldest story in the book, but I just wanted him to read my mind and know intuitively what I needed. We usually split the bill—which was fine, I’m a modern woman, whatever—but I felt like after this scare he should've at least offered to pay for dinner.

I didn’t like this version of myself. I had been single for five years, I was used to taking care of myself, codependence made me sick, and I didn’t like feeling like I was relying on someone else. My sudden unexplained grumpiness caused him to leave rather than come to the show with me. I texted him afterwards that I was upset that he hadn’t offered to pay after this whole ordeal. He said he thought I should have bought him dinner as he felt I had been really harsh with him over this syphilis scare and then I hadn’t apologized enough when it turned out he hadn’t given it to me after all. Maybe he was right, I didn't know. All I knew was that I hated this kind of lovers’ quarrel; I had successfully avoided it for so long. Was I really going to morph into this needy person when I liked myself so much more as a single woman not reliant on anybody else? On the phone the next morning, in a moment of impulsive frustration, I said that I thought this wasn’t going to work between us. I felt that my heart had hardened—did I even believe in relationships anymore?

Getting an STD with someone is traumatizing, and it can bring out the worst in people. Sometimes this makes a relationship stronger, and sometimes it tears you apart. Although it turned out we didn't have syphilis after all, I think the whole ordeal made us realize we didn't like each other that much in a crisis. Perhaps he saw it coming. When we first found out we didn’t actually have syphilis, he jokingly asked if I was disappointed that now I didn’t have a legitimate reason to break up with him. I laughed and rolled my eyes, saying that no, I was happy to not have it. But I did wonder what made him ask that—was he reading something into my behavior that even I wasn’t aware of? Was I really trying to sabotage this? Why? Was I protecting myself? From what? What I liked most about this guy was the lack of games, his openness about the fact that he liked me, that I never felt like I had to play it cool. He always texted back, he appreciated my jokes, and—perhaps most importantly—he wasn’t afraid of my angry feminism or my history of sluttery—both things I talked about with abandon on our very first date. Perhaps more than any guy I’ve dated since my ex, he seemed completely undeterred by my brashness. I didn’t have to pretend to be demure around him, I could say things like, “are you having a stroke?” when he couldn’t remember something I said, and he didn’t get offended. Throughout the syphilis scare, I realized I wasn’t just worried about my own health, I was also worried about his—and that felt like something new.

Just before I reconnected with this guy, I'd said to a couple friends in all seriousness that maybe I was just going to be single forever, and that was okay. I liked myself single, I had forged a whole identity around being an unattached woman. I didn’t know what me in a relationship looked like anymore. And I was scared of how being “coupled” might change me for the worse. I didn’t ever want to be in a codependent situation again, it was important to me that I maintained my autonomy. Was that even possible in a relationship? I didn’t know. A lot of the women I admired were single. Was that a coincidence or was there a reason? Was there something in me that wasn’t meant to be inextricably linked to another person? And was this view somehow limiting me from experiencing something potentially great? Could a relationship ever be something that actually fed me emotionally and creatively rather than distracting me from my life and my purpose? I decided that, for a relationship to be worth it, I'd have to like being with this person better than being by myself. Because being by myself was actually pretty good.