10 Years Infected: A Woman Living with Genital Herpes

Melanie was a whore.

Everybody at the Carmike Theater knew it. It was one of those immutable truths at the Carmike Theater on Shawnee Street during the summer of 2006, an unspoken acknowledgment among the coworkers that followed behind rules 1) the floors will stay dirty no matter how many times that the tile has been bleached, and 2) the box candy is always expired. Eying her ‘Seduce Scarlet’ shade of lipstick and the matching streaks of red on her cherub cheeks, the concessionsists whispered this truth behind her back in between tearing ticket stubs and scooping stale popcorn. Anytime, Chad or Brittney caught a glimpse of her triquetra tattoo on her breasts through the button gaps of her white shirt that seemed to always be two sizes too small, the whispers grew louder. I ignored them, shutting out their fashion commentary in favor of listening, a little too intently to one of the three songs that played on the overhead speakers on repeat.

“Can’t she wear a shirt that fits,” Brittney asked on more than occasion, still fuming after learning that Melanie had given her number to her boyfriend. It didn’t matter that Melanie, at the time, didn’t know the guy wasn’t single – she still got the blame.  

“Guess it doesn’t bother her,” I responded, outwardly saying nothing against my friend but inwardly agreeing that another shopping trip was needed if Melanie wanted to keep her job.

The doorman observed this truth on their smoke breaks when they watched her change out of her plunging necklines and ripped black cut-out jeans with fishnet lining into her uniform from behind the pollen encrusted windows of her Honda Accord. Greedily, their eyes soaked in a flurry of mismatched pink bra straps and yellow lace thongs that contrasted with the deep olive tone of her skin. Everyone once in a while, the lust veiling the irises thinned, disrupted by a flash of a camera phone; they wanted to snap a pic of Melanie’s voluptuous curves and save it for later. This task was easy to accomplish, especially, if it was Eric who was on trash duty. He boasted once that he had twelve photos of Melanie in a compromising position and that he should start charging when he showed his friends. I caught him once, outside peeping around her car in the parking lot, and, to my shame, did nothing but roll my eyes at his juvenile behavior.

The managers bitched about this truth, frustrated that every other week the schedule had to be altered, shifts jostled, and days off stripped away as the other concessionists, both boys and girls alike, begged to not have to work with Melanie. “Ashley, can you switch your opening to a close; can you work Tuesday instead of Wednesday; do you absolutely need Saturday off?”  These were common questions for me during that summer. I took the shifts without complaint. “Yes, I need the money.” I would say, or “Sure, I don’t have plans that day. I can work.” I worked three weeks straight in June, reached nearly twenty hours of overtime, and Melanie’s bank account dwindled.

“Fuck Jennifer,” Melanie often said about the assistant manager, her almond eyes aflame with indignation. “My schedule’s always jacked up because the bitch thinks I slept with her boyfriend.”

“Did you?” I would ask, not really wanting the answer because, in the back of my mind, a small voice always answered yes. But I would never let the word squeak out of my lips – that’s not what friends did.

“Hell no. Me, her and Brandon played strip poker one evening after work, and the guy is like 4 inches max. What use would he be?”

“T.M.I., Mel”  A common phrase I used when speaking to her, a phrase as casual hello and goodbye, a phrase that was first coined between us when she was describing her first time. Most friends painted an image in burry watercolors when talking about sex, not Melanie. She used schematics so that I could know what to expect when my time came around – giving the best advice ever: pee first and always brush your hair beforehand to avoid knots once the deed was done.

Melanie was right of course. Jennifer had judged Melanie to be guilty to the moment she saw them flirting by the ice machine in the backroom back when school was still in session. Jennifer wasn’t the only employee who thought that. But what Jennifer and the rest of the theater gang, myself included, didn’t know was that the crime would not be committed until mid-July and that Brandon was far beyond an innocent victim.

Stories of Melanie’s sexual exploits ran wild at the Carmike. The theater lobby reeked of them as though the rumors had taken root in the carpet and then mildewed, producing an odor that was strong enough to overpower the smell of the artificial butter that dripped down the extra-large tubs of popcorn. Starting with Kelsey at the ticket box, and moving down the grapevine from concessionists, to management, to even maintenance, each story became more exaggerated. In the morning, Melanie was dating a graduate student at Armstrong University. By noon, that same graduate student was now married and cheating on his wife with Melanie, and by the time, the theater locked its doors at night, Melanie was now having a threesome with that same graduate student and his wife. The fact that she had never met an Armstrong student in her life didn’t really matter, and neither did the fact that she, at age 19, had only actually had two sexual partners before working at the Carmike – both steady boyfriends from high school.

Ultimately, only a few people questioned why our friendship dissolved after the Fourth of July weekend.  Even less were surprised when she got fired on July 18th, 2006. No one was shocked when they heard she had contracted genital herpes – customers included. Because Melanie was a whore, and everybody knew it, even me… even her.

“I was such a lazy little scuz back then,” Melanie confided to me years later, via Skype, from the comfort of her apartment in Portland, Oregon. Over ten years passed since we last spoke. Her almond eyes and olive skin remained the same. But her trademark red lipstick matching blush was gone. Her wavy brown hair had been stripped of the streaks of purple and blonde that she wore in her theater days. Her waistline was a bit more extended, her belly more curved and much more concealed.

She had traded her black plunging tank tops for fitted tees which now lined her closet – no more Hot Topic jeans and spike necklaces could be found. Books and movies were piled on her desk. Dirty clothes and baby dolls littered her bedroom floor – she was a mother now. Though bags now resided beneath her eyes and wrinkles pulled slightly at the corners of her mouth, she looked more like the girl who moved three houses down from me then she did when we worked at the theater that summer.  

Melanie’s story is one you’ve probably heard before. She was raised not far from El Paso Texas, the daughter of Cuban Immigrants. Her mother, Ana, was steadfast Catholic and a school teacher while her father worked at an auto repair shop. Melanie was the eldest of two children; her brother, Marty was only one year younger than her. After losing her dad to booze and ‘loose women’ to quote her mother, Melanie’s parents divorced. Ana remarried Chris, another teacher, and another Catholic, and had a second daughter – Maria. Though her parents went to Mass every week, Melanie (or Mellie as her mother called her) wasn’t really religious except for the occasional interest in paganism.

By the time Melanie moved into the neighborhood, she was all baby fat- and acne, wearing black just to piss off her stepfather who said it was an evil color. We use to hang out, watching Charmed together or playing video games while she made empanadas. Her mother used to brag that nobody could make empanadas like her Mellie, and she wasn’t wrong. Melanie obsessed over medieval history and homeopathic remedies. She, even, bought me my first incense burner (I still have it actually). By about 15, she lost the flabby weight around her hips and grew 2 cup sizes. By 16, Melanie was wearing heavy makeup, and going boy crazy – dating only because her parents forbid it.

 “I was just so happy to be done with high school, to be free. I thought I could do what want ya- know?” A sheepish grin formed as she thought about the old days, but the grin vanished almost as soon as it had appeared. Her voice lightened, barely breaking a whisper when Melanie said, “I guess I should have known that it would happen.”

The ‘it’ that Melanie alluded to happened on July 7th when she had taken a drive with two guys from work and ended up catching an STD – excuse me, STI (to use the politically correct terminology) as if the Center for Disease Control’s removal of the word, disease, also removes the stigma associated with the term. Newsflash – it doesn’t. Melanie made that clear. Of course, I had heard the story. But the version that floated around the theater after she was fired sounded like the beginning of a bad sex joke: Melanie, two guys, and an alligator. Apparently, they caught the gator fishing or something. Melanie wasn’t too clear on that part – it was already in the back of the truck when she met up with them. What I didn’t know was that the whole affair lacked a crucial element of consent. After an afternoon of getting wasted, Melanie found herself in the truck with both of them, clothes coming undone and she wasn’t exactly wanting to go through with it.

“I didn’t think I had much of a choice. I couldn’t get out the car. I didn’t want to make a scene so I just closed my eyes and got it over with. I don’t remember saying ok, but I don’t remember saying no either.”  Melanie confessed that she never told anyone that part. She didn’t see it as rape and didn’t want to be a victim. “I didn’t see the point in speaking up – no one would believe they would just ‘well what did you think was going to happen.”  As she spoke, bile rose up from the hollows of my throat as I realized, to my horror, that at that age I might have said that too – I’m glad she didn’t tell me then.

“When did you find out that you had contracted a disease?”

“Not for a few days. At first, I thought I had a UTI. I thought it would just blow over, that if I ignore it, maybe jug some cranberry juice for a few days, and then everything would be fine.”

“But it didn’t.”

“No. There were days that I couldn’t even walk, the pain was so bad. It was like my crotch was on fire. I finally went to the doctor.”

“Was it a hard to explain what was happening?”

“No, it’s not that. I just hate doctors. Every time you go to the doctor, it’s like an interrogation. Are scrubbing the area? What soap do you use? How many breakouts did you have in the last month? How is your menstrual cycle? Is it heavier when you break out? Does make you break out? What kind of razor do you use? Don’t use lotion. Don’t use lubricant. No matter, what answers you give them – you always get the same look from them, the look that says if you can’t be trusted to take care of your own body because you got yourself into this mess.”

“Wait, shaving cream can cause a breakout?”

“Yeah dude, Nair is the fucking devil. Also, caffeine. I’m now strictly an herbal tea girl. Not gonna lie, sometimes it sucks. I pass by Starbucks jonesing for a Macchiato that I can’t have. Ok- sometimes, I get one anyway – but fuck it, I’m the one who has to deal the pain. Naturally, I leave that part out when dealing with the doctors’ inquisition.”

“How did you feel when the doctors first told you about your condition?”

“My condition? See phrases like that are the fucking problem. I have a disease, let’s just be straight about it. We don’t talk about STDs in the country. Fuck, we don’t talk about sex in this country. Maybe, if we had more honest conversations about sex – with our parents, with our partners, maybe I wouldn’t have this…” she paused, using her hands to make air quotes as she finished… “Condition.”

“Sorry. How did you feel when the doctors first told you that you had contracted genital herpes?

“I kept wishing it had been AIDS, at least aids could go into like remission or something; this was like a different kind of death sentence, a big neon sign that said I was always going to be alone.”

Melanie’s fears were, unfortunately, well-founded. Over the last decade, she has lost three jobs once her employers found out that she had a disease. Most of her friends abandoned her, and her mother disowned her. “I had no one to talk to. I felt like a criminal. My life just sort of spiraled.” Tears pricked the corners of her eyes as she described the isolation, the pain, and the loneliness.

A pang of deep guilt settled into my bones as I listened. I did this to her too. The death of our friendship didn’t come from a single killing blow. There was no fight, no screaming match, no single incident where I said ‘that’s it, I’m done.” We just stopped talking, end of story. One day, I simply didn’t answer the phone – a pattern that persisted until the end of July. She would call, and I would ignore. The process repeated until the calls ended.

The spiral started at the theater – the first job she lost. “I eventually convinced Eric to get tested. He came back negative. Brandon refused to get tested and even tried to get a restraining order against me for harassment.” Melanie told Jennifer, the assistant manager, and Brandon’s then fiancé, that she should get tested just in case. Instead, she was fired, mocked, and ultimately shunned. Two years ago, Melanie discovered that Jennifer had, in fact, contracted the disease, meeting her online at HSVLIfe.com. Through the messaging board, Melanie learned that Brandon had infected her and at least 15 different women while they were together.

“Did you seek counseling?”

“I did once. I was told me to call a herpes dating hotline, to confine myself to others who ‘had my problem’ or to just stop having sex altogether. That’s their idea of treatment – containment. They’re only worried about preventing the spread of the disease, not about helping you live with it. I didn’t just need help with my love life – I needed someone to talk to, but I figured if I met someone online who had been through this too – we could share it together. So, I called this hotline, even created an online profile so that I could date safely, and you know what I found out – most of the people on these so-called safe sites are women. It’s like men never get it – which is total bullshit.”

To me her story is personal but to others, she is just another statistic. According to the CDC, over 14 million Americans are infected with Genital Herpes, carrying either the HSV-1 or HSV-2 strains of the virus. This translates into roughly 1 out of every 6 Americans, ages 14-49, being diagnosed every year. Genital Herpes has been the most common STD in America since 1992 and to date, there is still no cure. When diagnosed, patients are encouraged to inform all of their sexual partners within at least the last year of sexual activity; it is also recommended that they join online communities to help them find appropriate partners in order to decrease, spreading the disease. Websites like HSVDating.com or MPWH saw their subscribers increase by almost 12% in 2017, according to polls taken by the CDC. However, Melanie’s complaint about the female majority on these sites is valid. The CDC estimates that women make up at least 61.8 percent of subscribers to online HSV sites and at least 45% of hotline callers identify as women. Infected men are more likely to go unreported; this makes using dating sites for heterosexual women difficult.

‘It’s impossible to date. I mean, you meet guys and you tell them that you have herpes because that’s the safe thing to do, the responsible thing to do, and they’re like hey babe it’s ok cuz you know they want to get laid. But the moment they see a break-out, they freak out. Every time they have an itch or a discoloration, they’re calling you, blaming you and suddenly they’re too busy to see you. Men are such fucking babies about that shit.”

“How did you cope with it? Living with a disease?”

“I started a blog. I wanted to find other people like me who had been through what I had been through and see how they handled it.  Maybe by sharing my story, I could help them. Basically, the same reason I agreed to this interview or whatever you want to call it.

“Did it work?”

“Not at first, not really. I mean, for a while I was just kinda writing an online diary. Writing about my breakouts, about the doctors, bitching about men … you get the picture. But eventually, people started messaging me and joining my blog. And finally, I realized that despite how I felt I wasn’t alone – not in having this disease or in having no idea how to deal with it. With every new follower, I started to feel like part of a community. I got involved politically, trying to convince Congressmen and other officials to fund research to fix this disease and treatment plans. I met my, now, husband on this blog.

“I’m glad things are going well for you.”

“I’m glad we talked, keep in touch.”

“I will,” I promised and I meant it.

At age 31, Melanie has been living with Genital Herpes for over a decade. She has not spoken with her mother since the incident occurred. Avn declined to comment on her daughter’s life, stating only that Mellie is a gone while the stepfather asked me not to mention that whore’s name. “She’s not a whore,” I told him plainly, something I should have said much sooner, years sooner. Ana still lives three houses down from my childhood home. I gave her, Melanie’s contact information, but it seems to Ana that once something is broken, it can’t be fixed.

Yet, despite that, Melanie is doing well. She is currently employed as a housing inspector for MCS and a part-time student, working to getting her B.S. in Accounting. She has been married for two years and has a 13-month-old daughter named Danny. Her blog title reads: Over Ten Years Infected And I’m Still Here.

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