Categories
2020 Essays

Andrea B.

PETALS

While my body was still pulsing with private pain, you sent me purple flowers. In a translucent fuchsia vase, tinting the water the color of blood, hardly concealing the wounds of the twisted, severed stems. I turned them again and again, there on the edge of my desk, to face the pink daisies instead. But between every daisy and rose, blushing with plump rouged cheeks, hung the lilies, drooping their jowls, bruised with the permanent purple.

*

I have long loathed the murky fusion of red bleeding into blue. But it circulates through me now. Seeps into my stomach, my vessels, my nerves, dyed dark by the violet-blue pill that dissolves down my throat every night in the blackness just before sleep, and stains my fingers—stains the rest of my life—as if with an inky tattoo. A brand seared onto the body, marked as purple, impure.

*

What is the meaning of purple?

*

Someone asked when he saw your flowers. They signify death, he guessed, misinterpreting the purple scarf of royalty hung from the cross at Lent. Which also can symbolize mourning, I later learned. Penitence: an apology.

*

I’m Beyond Sorry, said your card with the bouquet. And I wondered how far it extended, what could be beyond. (I’m sorry a thousand times, you wrote a hundred days later. As if the enormity, the perpetuity of your contrition could not be contained in the thin black lines of the text.) A single letter—an initial in uppercase—opened and closed your note, as if you were too ashamed to sign, or to assign, either of even our first names to this circumstance, this word.

*

Herpes. I say the word now to semi-strangers on second dates, after pale rosés, or lime-green daiquiris, or old fashioneds as golden as the candles on the tables lighting up our smiles. And it suddenly sours the drinks, a drop of purple poison, and spreads to our paralyzed lips, falling as silent and blue as the middle of the night, which this man is now no longer hoping to spend with me.

*

On my last night in the blue sheets of your dark bed, when you tore off my dress and the invisible infection of your skin spread silently to mine, you took the garnishments out of your tumbler of rum in the bar afterward and tossed the tropical purple blossoms, the bendy magenta straw, and the pale paper pinwheel onto the table between us like funeral flowers strewn onto a grave. The way I had tossed away the purple squares of the condoms you always resisted, after you had shown me the tender skin, on the inside of your arm, where the red prick of the tests, you had said, resulted in clean white.

*

Your STD status doesn’t make you “clean” or “dirty,” a post by Planned Parenthood proclaimed, long afterward, bold black text in a blue-and-pink box on my phone. An orgy of opprobrium occurred in the blank white space below. Would rather be on the “clean” side of the spectrum, a woman said. Some other man snarled, as if directly at me, That herpes certainly didn’t come from somewhere clean.

*

I scrub my hands now after I touch the pink petals of my vulva so that I do not transfer the scarlet of its sores to my own lips, eyes, buttocks, thighs. A part of my body has been disconnected from the rest. A flower severed from its stem.

*

Sometimes I fantasize the flower deliveries down at the front desk of my downtown Chicago office building are for me, from you. But you only sent that one delivery. And while the deliveries of the disease will continue repeatedly, unpredictably, like surprise red blooming bouquets, the purple vase remains your final gift—before your final trip, when you left me, despite the diagnosis, to find a new life, a new love, overseas. On your earlier international excursions, you had always brought gifts afterward: a patterned blue coin purse from a market in Israel, the herpes from a bed in Ukraine. And from Croatia, from Portugal and Spain, the gifts were—like our attachment, like your presence here with me—ephemeral: A round of creamy cheese. A pot of lavender-infused honey, the golden liquid tinged with the faintest imagined purple. A block of soap.

*

Now when I wait for the whirr of the automatic soap pump in the office bathroom, I do not meet my colleagues’ eyes in the mirror above the sink. Have I contaminated the faucets, the stalls, even the copy machines? I asked myself the first morning I returned to the cubicles after the initial uprising of the virus on my skin had subsided at home.

*

I don’t want to infect your house, so I won’t see you anymore, I texted my mother, who had throughout my childhood stretched her bladder until her kidneys crystallized rather than risk public restrooms, with their STDs, herpes. The very virus I would now transport into her upstairs powder room, which she would later have to sanitize with sharp blue powered bleach, eradicating the infection she would imagine was still living invisible on the white ceramic slabs.

*

How long can herpes live outside the body, off the skin, I asked the Internet. And in the conflicting statistics on my screen, as I searched for reassurance for my mother, my coworkers, myself, I decided to believe the briefest estimates of only seconds, flashing by like lightning white.

*

How quickly the blue blanket on your thick mattress pad was replaced by the antiseptic paper sheet on the gynecologist’s narrow bed. I see a herpatic lesion, the doctor stated. Clinical. Definitive. Irrevocable. Ending the life I had. Pleasure inevitably punished, per the preachings of puritanical politicians. Sex-positivity subtly negated, despite progressive society’s celebration of free love. It had a price after all: undesirability. I stumbled down from the table and staggered down the hall, behind a tall, muscular couple, likely finishing their first appointment on the way to a new life, its colorful promise outlined in black-and-white in the ultrasound room across from the lab. Where I fell to a bench to await the maroon tube, to test for other punishments—hepatitis, HIV—while they walked out into the city, into the rest of their lives.

*

One in six people, I chanted the mantra to myself, numbering off the pedestrians as I shuffled through the city’s sidewalk crowds. One, two, three, four, five, six: one of these people has genital herpes, I said, quoting the CDC statistics that had darkened my glowing phone on those first black nights afterward. Until I realized I was the one in every six.

*

I make this diagnosis 20 times a week, the gynecologist said gently, gesturing me to the tissues for my purple, swollen nose. But I could not see their faces among friends, acquaintances, fictional characters in film. Who were these secret other sufferers? Don’t tell anyone, my mother instructed, repeatedly, repeating the teachings of society. And so I was alone.

*

People don’t partner anymore anyways, you said, lying in your jeans and jacket in my bed for one final good-bye night after a hundred, a thousand of my begging messages brought you to my side. You had a ten percent chance of finding someone before this, you said. Now it is five. You think in math, in cruel computations. I think in color. And all I could calculate were the dark brown walls of my bedroom, blurry with my tears, and the black walls of my rage.

*

In the most violet, violent night, I reached again toward the white light of my phone, a bright beckoning portal to another world, the underworld, and asked it for the most peaceful of pills to transport me to black nothingness for eternity.

*

Five months afterward, the doctor told me, most patients have come to terms with the diagnosis. The herpes you left me with—a red lesion on my genitals—it will persist. Perhaps I will learn how to endure. And perhaps I will somehow understand how to erase from my psyche the scarlet stigma left on me by society. But your leaving me—it is a purple lesion on my heart. And six months afterward, it has been shown to be without a cure.

*

This is it. This is for life, my mother, when she finally saw me, said, her olive eyes sorrowing, apologizing, the way your flinty green ones never did, your tears like water on a stone. Mine mixed then with the coffee and the rum, as she stood beside me and layered them into a tiramisu as brown as the dying trees in her backyard, as creamy as her kitchen counters and her upstairs bathroom tiles.

*

The bathtub in my first apartment was periwinkle, beneath periwinkle tile. The fixture glued into the ground, unchangeable, necessitating a purple rug, purple curtain, purple towels. I started spurning purple, then, the color of compulsion. I cut it from my wardrobe, from my next home. But now, in my cabinet, lurks that lifetime supply of violet, that pill that gives me no choice but to drink of it, no choice but to think of you. Because it holds back the virus, deep in my nerves, from blooming like deformed flowers on my skin, or shedding like invisible poisoned pollen onto unsuspecting bees that would kiss my bud.

*

Men will still want to have sex with you, you said as you left. Because I was sexy, you said. And one of them did call me beautiful, once, twice, lying naked in the center of his blue-checkered bed. Until he began pulling the covers up, turning over, turning out the light. Too tired, he said. Or too high stress. Or too low testosterone. Leaving untouched each night whatever slinky skirt or lacy lingerie concealed my purple plague.

*

There is a bright blue site of promise, positivity, you texted me, too soon, in those first gray days overcast with pain. A bleak, shadowy corner of the Internet where the colony of companionless contaminated huddle together and keep their curse confined to drink and dinner dates among their own kind. But my commonalities with the men in profile on my screen extended not to interests, education, religion, politics, or even often the city where we lived—but only to our shared disease.

*

Sometimes I forget my disease, my deficiency. I dream of meeting that tall, healthy stranger strolling on the sidewalk, scrolling on the Internet, rolling past me on the train. And then I halt. Remembering he would never want herpes. Would never want me.

*

I smiled to hide the virus lurking in my nerves, to present all the kaleidoscopic colors of my expressions before I would have to reveal the darkness of my disease to the man with the purple pocket square and the gemstone cufflinks, as he reached across the white tablecloth, with its glamorous gathering of goblets and green Pellegrino bottles, and brushed my arm, posed, poised against the stiff leather corner booth in the lunchtime hush of a date at the Ralph Lauren Restaurant. But how could I blurt out such an inelegant word there? Or at high tea at The Peninsula? Where a dark-haired man rose to greet me with a kiss on my cheek, then seated me at another white tablecloth, stacked with three-tiered silver trays, delicate teacups, champagne, cocktails, which he gulped, in a frenzied fever, when he heard the word, then rushed me out to the elevator. And as we descended, he asked, Can I catch it from that kiss on your cheek? Then he left me in the cold to walk home on the black slippery streets, soaking my feet in their open-toed heels until they turned as wet as my cheeks. While in my ear, the wind howled, Leper, leper, leper.

*

It’s as simple as shingles, as chicken pox, one uninfected man reassured me. You’re making too much of it, another said, pleading for more than a kiss in my bed. I hesitated. Perhaps I was. But even with the purple condom foil tearing open, the purple pill foiling the replication of the virus DNA, one caress of skin to skin could still swell his lymph nodes, stab the muscles in his buttocks and his legs, puncture the center of his body—and of his future—with pain. The sensation like the sound of a long, piercing scream.

*

I yelled at you for hours on the phone. Shrieking, staccato shouts. Please relent, you begged. My decrescendo then, to blunt black texts, punctuated the months. Until at last you lamented, I think of you and mostly feel like the worst person ever.

*

He wants absolution, I told a friend. Don’t give it to him, he replied. And for the first time, I heard the word give in forgive. A gift I can send you, like a flower delivery, over the dark blue seas.

*

What color is forgiveness?

*

Perhaps it is the teal green framing the text box of the special messaging program I once would open to write only to you. And its purple alert light, flashing on my phone, would notify me of a responding rectangle, enveloping your texts. But now within that frame, I type no more words, no letters with their black stems, like rotted flowers, to accuse you, to remind you of me. The screen a blank—like a single white rose.

*

I buy myself flowers every so often these days. Pass the garish jumble of ready-made bouquets. The tulips. The fuchsia carnations. The dozen blood-red roses of love that I now may never receive as a delivery. And I select the potted succulent. The fragrant eucalyptus. The olive green of branching leaves.


Andrea B. lives in Chicago. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Witness, Eastern Iowa Review, Entropy Magazine, Atticus Review, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency