The Best Time I Found Out I Had HPV
by A. Tully Hall
Tom and I had been dating for about a month when the dots appeared. It was a Saturday morning and I had been lying in his bed while he showered, but when he came back into his room — wrapped in a towel but not remotely dry — he bypassed the girl and the bed and headed directly to his computer to type furiously and mumble anxiously. I watched him from across the room and waited for him to tell me what all the fuss was about. With him, there was always fuss about. Finally, I asked what was wrong.
“I found these dots. On my finger.”
“Okay…” I prompted, teasingly. No one had to tell me that Tom was a hypochondriac to figure out that Tom was a hypochondriac.
“They could be the beginnings of a plantar’s wart, which could only come from HPV,” he said. None of this is medically accurate, but I was struck. An STD had been invoked while I was still naked in a boy’s bed. This was bad.
“Did you look that up on WebMD?”
“That’s WORSE!” I exclaimed. I had never been diagnosed with HPV, and I had tried to make myself one less, one less by getting the Gardisil shot a few years prior. Still, I already had a gynecologist appointment scheduled for that week. I told him I would get checked out, and we would know. Cautiously, two panicky little people decided not to panic.
At the doctor, I relayed my whole story. Fingers and Wikipedia and all. I even told her how Tom had taken a picture of his finger and sent it to his mother, so that she could send it to the doctor-father of the mutual friend who had set us up. She shook her head. “Plantar’s warts are on your feet,” she said. I laughed, in stirrups.
I wish, for the cliché’s sake, that I could say I was not laughing a week later when the nurse called and asked me to come in for a colposcopy. But I was laughing: nervous laughter, ironic laughter. I couldn’t reassure Speckles that we were in the clear. I took the further testing to mean that I only maybe had HPV. This must have been a wishful misunderstanding.
My second time at the gynecologist’s office in as many weeks, I filled out the same paperwork. I emailed my friends that I was nervous about having a robot in my vagina, and not the good kind. I drummed my fingers on my face, probably clogging my pores. I thought about two weeks before, when my biggest relationship concern was that Tom wouldn’t take my Gentile ass seriously. I watched the soap operas that played in the waiting room. A pretty but mean-faced woman accused a large piece of man of giving her a sexually transmitted disease. The man lobbed the charge right back at her. I thought that whoever was in charge of the programming around here should really consider the audience.
When I was called downstairs, I was instructed to go to a room at the end of the hall and disrobe from the waist down. I nodded but didn’t move. “Go to the room at the end of the hall and disrobe from the waist down,” the nurse repeated. I went. When she found me, fully clothed, door ajar, I was nodding at everything in the examining room. Yes, I seemed to be saying, this is a biohazard trash can. Yes, these are gauze pads. She reminded me to disrobe from the waist down. I nodded at her like she was the scale or the big pink table.
When the nurse returned again, she began to explain the procedure to me. “You will feel three little pinches.” She pinched my arm a few times. The doctor came and explained it all again. She also pinched my arm, definitely more than three times. I told them I knew what pinches felt like. I already did not like this procedure.
The procedure was uncomfortable, but done quickly. I made a lot of awkward jokes, straight through, but no one laughed. There was blood on the speculum and I felt, just as they told me, like I had menstrual cramps. The gyno gave me pads for the bleeding, and described what it would be like when the goop they had used to cauterize the scrapes came out. What it actually looked like was cardboard baby poop. I asked when I would know if I had HPV. “You definitely have HPV,” I was told, “We just need to find out if it’s the serious kind or not.”
Out on the street, I called my mom before I got in a cab. I told her I had HPV, and she was silent for a long minute. I filled the silence by telling her that it was OK, that something like 80% of women have it (true!), and that all of my friends had it (false!), and that there were lots of ways that I could have gotten it (super false!). I told her it would be fine. She told me that she would love me no matter what. I told her that this was not a “no matter what” situation. I knew that I was right about it being OK, but I cried a little as people in scrubs walked by, probably thinking that something much more terrible must have happened.
When I got home, I vacillated about whether or not to call Tom right away. Things hadn’t been going so well with us and I wasn’t ready to break this news, but he had asked about HPV directly and I didn’t want to hide anything from him. I called.
“Hey,” I said, possibly through tears, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but I think it would be shitty of me not to tell you right away. It turns out I do have HPV.” Like my mother, he was silent. “I mean, I’ve never had to tell anyone that before so I’m sorry if I told you the wrong way, on the phone and all… “ More silence. “Look, if you don’t want to see each other anymore, I totally understand. It doesn’t have to be a big — “
“No,” he finally said, “Look, do you want to meet up later?” I said yes. He reassured me that it would be OK and we hung up. I sat on the edge of my bed and stared at the floor. Then, I wept. I thought about my mom’s disappointment. I thought about how I had given this nice guy sex cancer. I thought about how silent they both were. I thought about how nothing would even happen to him. I thought, how dare he be so silent? I thought he must hate me. I thought about mistakes I had made, and I thought about how it was probably all my fault.
Later that afternoon, I got a frantic phone call. “I’ve been running around for hours — I went all the way to this clinic in Elmhurst and I filled out all this paperwork to get tested and then the clinic closed and it was this woman’s first day on the job and she was so upset she couldn’t help me and we were both so upset.” I took this all in.
“I’m so, so sorry that happened to you,” I said, “but… I don’t think there’s a test for that.”
“What?” he asked.
“I don’t think they can test for that in men.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I don’t think that can test for HPV in men.” I said.
“For what?” he asked.
“What?” I replied.
Then, we both started laughing. Despite being the one to bring up HPV in the first place, and despite knowing that I was undergoing tests for the virus, Tom had heard my earlier admission as a statement that I had HIV. A small but important half-moon of difference.
Knowing this, his silence on the phone — a silence that made me think angry thoughts about his own unaffected health — had been patient and kind. He believed that I was telling him something that would change both of our lives, and he was measured and calm and comforting. My anxious mumbler had somehow been stoic in the face of a brand new future. A future I hadn’t even considered, but, for now, didn’t have to.
And now, it all seemed funny. It wasn’t funny that Tom had thought that he had been exposed to HIV and it wasn’t funny that we got off relatively light when others do not — but it was pretty funny that he ended up in Elmhurst, trains and trains away from home. And that he destroyed that poor woman’s day. And that he turned my vaginal problems into an episode of Three’s Company, or a risque game of Operator. It was funny we were both always thinking the wrong extreme thing. Two panicky little people, trying not to panic. Most of all it was funny how supportive he was; funny and surprising and wonderful.
Tom’s misunderstanding put my situation into perspective. HPV is not that big a deal. At least 80% of women will get it by the time they’re 50, and it’s highly treatable. I know, because I was highly treated.
In the end, I did have the serious kind. I had to have part of my cervix removed. The doctor told me that the area she had to take out was small and I said, “Thank you,” like I was terribly flattered. Finally, she laughed. Even though I had finally landed a joke, that procedure was more painful than the last, and the ramifications lasted longer. It really sucked. But when I went back the gynecologist and she told me that the area was clear, that I was fine and just needed to check back in six months, I was glad to have this neurotic person on lookout for plantar’s warts, and this pinchy-pinchy doctor to keep me safe.
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