Over the weekend I was in Barnes & Noble with my other half, sipping a chai latte and browsing at a table of paperbacks. Out of no where, he casually asked "You might know this since you're a medical person: Is herpes simplex the same as herpes herpes?" My eyes snapped up and scanned his face as I attempted to respond slowly and calmly "Why in the heck are you asking me that?" It turns out he's reading a book about memory (Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer) and had read the story of a man who suffered severe memory loss due to brain lesions which were a result of herpes simplex. We stood there in the aisle having a discussion about human herpes, cat herpes and viruses in general. At least you can't say we're not an interesting couple, right? "I just don't want to get a cold sore that eats all of my memories", he explained. I vowed to look it up when we got home.
After I had gone off on my own to search for the works of Rumi, I was struck by how much emotion I'd felt reflexively in a split second. Obviously I don't have herpes, nor have I ever had a partner who revealed that he did. I honestly didn't truly believe my boyfriend was about to confess to being unfaithful and contracting an STD. What's fascinating to me is that my mind went crazy in those few seconds between the question and the explanation. It wasn't even enough time to have a complete thought but I had a quick flash of a genuine feeling: was my whole life about to change right there in the non-fiction section? I know there's a lot more at work here than I will ever fully understand but I find it interesting that I can have such a response to something before I even have time to think about it.
I've certainly received my fair share of surprises when it comes to romantic relationships: In high school I was dumped via a note slipped into my locker on Valentine's Day. I've been on at least two dates using match.com to which I arrived and discovered the guy's profile photo was five years old. I've come home from work to discover the guy I was dating had used my computer to send dirty messages to another girl online. And of course, I married someone who later admitted "I shouldn't have married you." Is it all of these memories (plus more, unfortunately) that combine inside my brain and create what I imagine to be a cartoon robot with flailing arms calling out "DANGER! DANGER!" at the mention of the word herpes?
One of my personal goals over the last couple years has been to become a less reactive person. I know I've made a great deal of progress but I've still got a ways to go. I guess it's just human nature for that internal alarm to go off, to signal it's time to protect oneself. I don't know if there's a way to get around it, at least for me. Maybe a good rule to follow would be: if you're going to ask your partner a random question about an STD, consider giving your explanation first!