“You really want to be touched now?” my wife Lauren asked me from her side of our bed.
The hard-on tenting my shorts collapsed.
“I guess not,” I said and turned away from her. I picked up the thriller The Terror of Living from my nightstand. I opened it, but I didn’t read.
That day, Lauren had come home from work at 5PM. It was the summer after grad school, a month after our wedding, and I had been home from my landscaping gig since noon. Often the only person I spoke to the whole day was Lauren, and that night she said she wanted time to unwind, alone.
Before turning off her light, Lauren reached for my hand and said, “I don’t know how to say ‘no’ without making you feel rejected.”
I pulled my hand away as if I needed to turn my book’s page. Lauren rolled over to go to sleep. When I turned off the light, I moved to the edge of my side of the bed.
In the morning, I brought Lauren her coffee. I wanted to apologize about making her feel like I was pressuring her. I didn’t know how I could tell her that if I didn’t ask for sex, then it felt like we never had sex during the week. As I passed our bathroom I noticed a hand mirror on the counter.
In our bedroom Lauren was putting on her clothes. She was frowning as she pulled up a skirt. I set down the coffee on her dresser.
“Do you need the car today?” she asked.
“All yours,” I said, “I don’t want to ride my bike because…” Lauren said and motioned between her legs.
The previous week we had sex one time and it was wild. It was the kind of sex I wished we had everyday. She had come home and taken off her pants immediately. I had a cold sore, but had gone down on her and then she put me in her mouth. We were like two snakes swallowing each other’s tails.
Thinking back on that afternoon, I said, “That’s not how it happens,” but I wasn’t sure. Didn’t the majority of people have the cold sore virus while genital herpes was different? I had taken sex ed more than a decade ago and all I could remember was the other public school students’ laughter over words the teacher said and then their silence when the teacher displayed images of infections.
“It’s just that it hurts and I don’t know what it is—”
“—I’ll look it up,” I said and let Lauren continue to get ready.
I read that cold sores (herpes simplex) are “very common and seem to present no serious risk to your general health.” I knew my cold sore had activated with reduced sleep, stressing over applying for teaching positions, and working in the sun.
The description for “herpes genitalis” began with the same name as herpes simplex. I thought there were two types of herpes: one: causes cold sore on the mouth; and two: causes genital sores.
Then I read:
“A similar virus causes cold sores in the mouth and is responsible for about 15 per cent of the cases of herpes gentialis, usually as a result of oral-genital contact.”
I kept reading that the symptoms manifested in pain around six days after contact. The pain emerged as blisters. The blisters would break and then expose raw skin. Outbreaks could last up to three weeks.
Why did the write-up include “could”? Did that mean there was a chance the virus could exit? Or did it mean that the virus could stay? The symptoms list noted the virus could spread into the bloodstream and infect internal organs.
I wanted to read “cured by…” and then some sort of drug, but the “treatment” section only listed how to accelerate healing. It suggested taking warm baths. Or putting ice packs on the area. Would I now have to interpret Lauren taking baths as meaning no sex? Would I need to keep count of the ice packs in the freezer and assume that when one was missing that meant our sex life was frozen?
I went back to our bedroom to tell Lauren that the information wasn’t helpful. I still didn’t know the difference, if any, between herpes.
“You should call the doctor,” I said. “We caught this early.”
“I know,” Lauren said. “I want to make sure you’re protected.” Lauren motioned to my crotch.
“I’m sorry,” I said, sitting on the edge of our bed. “I don’t want you to be hurt.”
Only a month before we had said our vows. We hadn’t used the traditional phrasing, “In sickness and in health.” We had pledged to “…have tenderness in strength, and yet find strength in tenderness itself.”
“I love you,” Lauren said.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
I didn’t understand how cold sores caused this. Hadn’t we had sex when one of us had cold sores sometime during the past four years? I didn’t understand how Lauren could love me if I had caused this. I didn’t understand how she could ignore her pain while wanting to keep me safe.
Michael Jackson crooned the lyrics to “I Want You Back” on the overhead speakers in the women’s clinic. Kids set up blocks in the corner and then toppled them onto the carpet. While watching over them, their mother fed an infant under a breast-covering shawl.
As I waited for Lauren’s gynecologist to call me back and give us the diagnosis I thought back to the last time we went to the hospital.
The pain had come in waves over Lauren’s stomach. She curled up on our bed. I asked her where it hurt, exactly, because I thought she might have appendicitis. When Lauren indicated her left side, low at her hip, I knew it wasn’t that.
“It’s like cramps,” she said. “But I’ve not started my period.”
The previous month Lauren had gotten an IUD because she didn’t like the hormones in pills. I started considering that she might be pregnant. Lauren could still feel the IUD’s strings inside her, so it hadn’t slipped out, but it could have born deeper.
Instead of learning about how an IUD might burrow into a woman’s body, I read that the pain Lauren described might be an ectopic pregnancy:
“A fertilized egg develops in the fallopian tube. The placenta attempts to attach to the surrounding tissue, but it can’t hold on that long and so it tears and causes internal bleeding. The pregnancy cannot continue.”
I understood the connotation. It wasn’t that the pregnancy should not continue as if the pregnancy was risky, but possible. Rather that the pregnancy was a threat and needed to be aborted.
We called the ER and I knew what to say so the hospital staff would see Lauren immediately: “She’s got insurance and needs to be seen for stomach pains.”
The hospital’s wood laminate crackled as I walked next to Lauren being pushed on a gurney by an orderly. I held her hand and gave it a squeeze. She had taken off her engagement ring.
We had been planning a wedding, not expecting a pregnancy. I had come from a family that believed abortion was murder and Lauren’s mom—who got pregnant with Lauren as a teenager—had decided to keep her. Lauren and I had discussed abortion before, and while we thought it was an important choice and necessary option, we didn’t know if we could do it.
In the ultrasound room, the tech wore heart-printed scrubs. On her finger, a diamond stud shimmered from the fluorescent lighting. The tech wielded a baton-sized plastic stick.
Lauren clenched my hand and I scrunched my eyebrows. I couldn’t believe where, or how far, that stick would be stuck. The tech shook her head and smiled.
“Most of this is the handle,” she said.
Lauren’s grip on my hand eased. I helped her off the gurney and into a chair with stirrups. The tech gelled up the tip of the baton and then positioned herself between Lauren’s open legs. The baton disappeared under the taut gown.
The tech explored inside Lauren. I wondered if the screen in front of us would show a baby. I couldn’t call it a fetus and I knew Lauren wouldn’t. We watched the abyss of bluish gray static.
“Chris,” a woman in white scrubs called me to the back of the woman’s clinic. I hoped the doctor would give Lauren and me the same news as we had received at the ER. That it wasn’t what we thought. Lauren’s pain had been an ovarian cyst, so maybe her pain now was just a rash that would also absorb back into her body.
The doctor pointed me to the last door on the left.
I walked down the hallway remembering that before dating Lauren I had broken up with a woman who told me she had herpes. I was too much of a coward to stay with that woman. I had called the woman to break up by telling her I couldn’t handle it.
“It’s definitely it,” Lauren said.
“Did she test you already?” I asked.
“She basically looked and said, ‘It’s a classic case.’”
I told Lauren I still didn’t want to believe it. Had we never had sex when one of us had cold sores in four years? Both of us were clean and had only been with each other. Weren’t we? Hadn’t we?
I was mad that I’d never heard about this in sex ed. I didn’t want to accept that in our closed loop of marriage we could contract an STI. I hated doubting our exclusivity.
“Hopefully this is the only time,” Lauren said. “I just don’t want you to get it.”
I was crushed by Lauren’s selflessness. Even though she was in pain and it was my fault, she cared about protecting me. All I cared about was that I hadn’t been informed, that I felt ignorant, and that I didn’t know what to do.
“There’s antibiotics,” Lauren said. “We will make it.”
“We will make it” was the motto we had come up when we moved for me to attend grad school. That had been another unknown and Lauren had come with me. We didn’t know what was next now.
I gripped my hands together and felt the ring on my finger. I spun the silvery band. The ring was made of cobalt—a brittle, magnetic element.
At our wedding we had pledged that, “You shall not walk alone.” We were yoked. We could only plow forward together or away alone.
In the exam room, I echoed Lauren, “We will make it.”