I used to live above this bar on Dundas Street.
One night I was getting home late, a little drunk and very sad. I was in the midst of a mini-breakup and suffering from some acute loneliness, throwing out drunken prayers to the Gods of mirth and madness for absolution.
As I was locking up my bike, a woman, clad in leather and smoking a cigarette came up to me and began flirting. Well, flirting might be too nice a word. Does flirting involve gruffly grinding the front tire of my bike, while cajoling me to go get us a drink before last call? Though as a Northern Ontario rube who lost his virginity after a superb karaoke rendition of “Rebel Yell,” this brutalist mating ritual was a winning one.
We slept together that night, an affectless, transactional experience. At one point, she cryptically asked, “Oh honey, you don’t know what this is do you?” To which I could only sheepishly shake my head. She was right. I felt like I had stumbled into a parallel sexual reality, one with rules and manners I would be forever too prudish and uncool to understand, where only well-oiled men like Billy Idol can comfortably reside. She left near dawn. We never saw each other again.
A few days later I was riding my bike when I felt some discomfort and, upon a later search, some raised areas on the lower half of my body. Not having a doctor, I made an appointment at my local clinic and was seen to by two women. One, an experienced nurse-practitioner and the other, a fresh-faced nurse trainee. The trainee, who took the lead on the appointment, had an absolutely perfect mixture of youthful sweetness and a steely determination to prove that she was ready for whatever this job was going to throw at her.
“And Mr. Foisy, what are we seeing you about today?”
I timidly responded, “I, uh, have some bumps down below that I need looked at?”
Calmly and without hesitation, she asked, “Is it on your penis? The shaft of your penis?”
“No, it’s on the, uh,” I trailed off before gesturing vaguely.
“Testicles. Is it the testicles?”
The problem was I had no idea what to call the area I was there to talk about. Sure, I knew the colloquial terms, we all do. We know exactly what one is talking about when we talk about this spot. But I always thought of it as a official nameless area, a strip between netherworlds that the overlords of proper nomenclature would rather pretend not exist much less name. But I realized, as specificity was of utmost importance, the colloquial would have to do.
“It’s my taint. I need you to look at my taint.”
“Oh OK, the perineum.”
So that’s what that’s called at least.
I undressed in the calm-blue room, put on that pathetic little gown and hopped up on the table on all fours as they began shining a light and poking the area in question. Within a few moments they had a diagnosis.
“Mr. Foisy,” each syllable clanging with the weight of some awful, life-changing news, “You have have herpes.”
The words smashed around in my head. Herpes. Herpes. Herpes. It flooded its way through every crevice in my brain. All memories, dreams, reactions, plans, rationalities; vanished by a single block of inky, horrific Caps-locked letters.
They took a swab to be sure. In a daze, I got dressed and sat down as they consoled and explained the situation to me. They told me, most importantly, how common this was. So many people have gotten this diagnosis and continued on with their life. They explained how the flare-ups would work and what drugs I could take to help. They gave me papers with extra information and directed me toward a website in case I had any more questions though the only question I was interested in at the time was how to kill myself painlessly.
The truly awful thing you catch with herpes is the shame. I understand why the nurse emphasized how common the virus is. Upon leaving the clinic, I immediately felt separate from humanity. I had a shameful, horrific secret that if it were to be discovered no one, stranger or loved one, would tolerate my presence. I would be exiled from all communities; loveless and dumpster diving, permanently on the run from shadowy men in anonymous vehicles and anonymous haircuts who hoped to track and capture me. Herpes is an abstract horror for most. It is a punchline, an insult, a dark wish suitable only for your worst enemies. It is the bedbugs of sexual intercourse.
Around when I was first diagnosed, I was talking with an acquaintance who had just been diagnosed with testicular cancer. I asked him which would he rather, the herpes or the cancer. He had a hard time deciding. That is the power of the stigma. Sure cancer might kill you and even if it doesn’t the recovery will be a hell sometimes seemingly worse than death. But at least when you tell people you have it they call you a hero. When you tell people that you have herpes you’re lucky if the worst thing they call you is a godless pervert before grabbing you by the collar of your shirt and tossing you out the saloon doors.
This shame is frustrating because sex is cool. You get herpes from sex. Hence, herpes should be cool too—I mean you don’t get it from binge-watching anime. We live in a time of seemingly uncorked sexual liberation. This is a time of hookups, semi-casual flings, Tinder, Grindr, fuckbois, open relationships, and ass-eating. Yet the revulsion towards herpes remains. Perhaps the ubiquity is the reason for the stigma’s power. Herpes is an eternal reminder about the other side of sex. The reality of sex versus fantasy. That sex is never as simple or as casual as we’d like, that it comes with consequences and commitments. Herpes is the regret that sets in after you sleep with a co-worker, herpes is the labour conditions on the set of the porno.
The stigma is also infuriating because it’s so damn common. One in seven Canadians have genital herpes. Think about that, more Canadians have herpes than watch the CFL. And, really, which of those is more shameful?
That fateful appointment happened over two years ago. In that time my worst fears never came to pass. I wasn’t exiled or rendered loveless. I got back together with my ex, an understanding, brave woman. After we amicably ended things, I maintained an adequate romantic life that no displayed no ill effects from the diagnosis. The major difference between my life post and prior the diagnosis is that a sign that a date was going well is I would have to pause it to say something like, “Hey, this is going great just real quick though, um, I probably have herpes.”
Wait, why “probably” you ask?
So over the two years after the diagnosis a pattern developed. Whenever I was worried a flare-up had occurred I dragged my disgusting perineum into a clinic to get it checked. (Over the two years I am most proud of the nonchalant confidence I developed about showing my taint to poor overworked public health care providers, whipping it out before they were even settled, nonplussed by the change that would fall out my of quickly-disrobed pants.) During that time no other doctor told me it was herpes—instead I discovered that my taint was very susceptible to ingrown hairs.
There is a blood test that is specifically for herpes but doctors are hesitant to recommend it. This is because if the test comes negative, glory be hallelujah, you are fine. But if it comes back positive all it means is that your body has traces of antibodies from exposure to the virus. Which could mean you have genital herpes or that you had a cold sore when you were sixteen. (Genital herpes and the more common oral herpes are two different strains of the same virus, though my personal, totally not true theory, is that’s just because doctors didn’t want us to get grossed out out by the fact the world is swimming in herpes, face, genitals or otherwise).
I had asked about the test before but had gotten a variety of non-committal answers from clinicians though, in their defence, I never pursued it vigorously. Last week though after another very casual gooch show, I finally stopped beating around the proverbial bush and got the test set up. It was easy and I felt like an idiot for procrastinating for so long.
I felt like an even bigger idiot when the test came back negative.
This whole time damn time I was worried about nothing. All the casual taint showings, the days spent worrying that a sore throat was a sign that I was about to have full herpes bloom, the shame, the awkward conversations, the tight smiles in response to herpes jokes. All of it was completely in my head.
The weird thing is there wasn’t any real relief in this result. No immediate rush to condomlessly fuck with the wild abandon I pictured the other non-herped engaging in. Instead I just felt confused. Why had I waited this long? Why had I been OK with probably having herpes?
Maybe it’s because it fit the fantasy I have about my life. I’m a classic sufferer, I don’t fix my problems. Instead I get used to them and add them to my narcissistic tales of woe and failure. It’s why I didn’t have a curtain for two years. I’m a stand-up so the shame was only something I could use. It joined the long list of insecurities and inadequacies that I use to define myself. That I’m bad at sex, that I can never really satisfy a lover, that I’m a bad partner. Why not herpes to that list? Just another dark, twisted fantasy that I can wallow in instead of facing the reality that I can be better, that I can be worthy of the love people give me and that I can stop being the kind of self-destructive person who hops in the bed with the first woman grinds the front tire of my bike.
Also, to reiterate, herpes is not a big deal and no one should be ashamed of having it. You only got it because you were being cool as hell.
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This article originally appeared on VICE CA.