Chicago Portrait no. 37: Herpes in the Botanical Garden

Image for post
Image for post

First I went deaf. No one told me to expect that. It’s very common during the first outbreak apparently. I woke up two hours late because I could not hear the digitized church bells I’d programmed for 8:15.

The right side of my head felt like it was jammed full of steel wool and wet insulation. The ear was just a useless mass hanging off the side, with no sensation in it. I saw a bird hopping on my sill, but no noise was produced when it opened its mouth.

Next was the tingle. It’s the tell-tale sign. It was a hot, barbed feeling that began in my Cupid’s bow and then radiated out in spiky waves up to my nose and down to the cracks of my mouth. Heat began attending the pain. A lump of flesh was slowly elevating above the rest of my face. By the time the bright crimson ball formed below the skin, I knew what was happening.

Then the fever came. 102 or so. I did not sweat but my whole face got hot. The campus wellness center was just down the street. Everyone in the lobby was bundled up in thick parkas that had gone dingy with years’ worth of train filth. I turned my head away from humanity to hide the bright beacon of sickness on my face.

The nurse practitioner shined a flashlight on my mouth and clicked her pen. A gloved finger pressed against the colony of white pustules sprouting in a spiral at the center of my upper lip.

“Yep, you have herpes.”

They dropped their gloves in the trash and applied a liberal layer of antibacterial foam to their cracked hands. I sobbed but did not receive the hug I’d hoped for. The NP gave me a wide berth. I’d always read that herpes was common and not a Big Deal but their actions seemed to belie that.

My prescription was $30. The pills were large, salmon-colored, and chalky. I dry-swallowed one at the bus stop and it caught in my throat. I was supposed to go to a conference at Northwestern that day. I changed my plans.

The CTA took me north to the boundary of the city. At Howard, a cemetery of century-old gravestones marked where Evanston began and Chicago ended. A tree on the outside of the cemetery had a plastic wreath and a wooden cross nailed to it. “Julio” was written on the cross in unsteady Sharpie. Next to the makeshift memorial, a streetlamp was bent. Julio was painfully close to the safety of the cemetery when a passing car struck him dead in the night. I doubt very much he is buried in those scenic, historic grounds.

At Davis and Church I waited beneath a glass awning for a twice-hourly PACE bus to arrive. My stomach felt spongey and full. I had not eaten yet that day. I often felt full and bloated back then, even if I’d gone twelve or sixteen hours without eating. I often aspired to not eat at all, but usually failed. None of this had anything to do with herpes. One is often advised to feed a fever but all I had on me that day was herpes medication and a stray banana slowly blackening in my bag.

The PACE bus was immaculately clean and cushioned. The upholstery was bright blue with a jazzy orange and purple geometric pattern. It reminded me of the shuttle that takes tourists from the airport to Disney World, and from Disney World to the airport. On the way to Disney they play music and cartoons. They play nothing on the way back home.

The PACE went north for many miles, up Chicago Street, which only becomes Chicago Street after you’ve left Chicago. When it’s in Chicago, Chicago Street is called Clark. The bus passed Northwestern’s ivy-covered campus, and the classically styled mansions that house its donors and administrators and sorority students. It drove on, through the woods and along the Purple Line tracks, until it reached the terminus in Wilmette. It drove past a dock full of bobbing sailboats, then cruised down a hill abutting a golf course. At some point, the bus took a left, carrying me west and leaving the lacy white exterior of the Baha’i Temple behind me in the distance.

The final stop was at a residential street corner, where a red-roofed mansion towered over tall hedges. There were no sidewalks or walk signals. I waited for the traffic to thin then ran across the road.

Image for post
Image for post

The Botanical Garden was massive but almost entirely dead at that time of year. Inside I learned that the rotting corpse flower only bloomed when temperatures rose past 90 degrees. The English gardens were dull and drab, the walls browned, the vases empty. The peninsula of fruiting plants was bare, save for a decorative pumpkin made of fiberglass. The bee’s houses were utterly still.

My whole face throbbed and stung. The NP had told me not to touch the wound, but I had never resisted popping a zit once in my entire life and that was not about to change. I wanted to watch my skin extrude many streams of yellow-white pus, and feel the pressure change as poison seeped out of me. I wanted to feel fluid, hot and infected, as the virus spread and filled every available pore. I put on winter gloves to stop myself and walked past the Bonsai garden. With every step my face felt a painful subterranean sting.

I crossed a bridge to the island of North American foliage. A circle of perfectly creepy birch trees reached for the sky. I stepped inside their circumference and sat at a damp bench. They hid me from the entire human world the way no scarf, ointment, or makeup could. I followed the peeling alabaster surfaces of the trees up to the partially obscured winter sky and prayed. I wanted to feel and be completely different.

The prayer was not about the herpes, but the herpes was not far from my mind. It hurt too much. My lips were hot and ugly. The bright sores on my face twinkled with viral, almost electrical pain.

My lips had always been his favorite feature. He said they were cute and wry and perfectly kissable. He never had much to say about me that was positive so I had cherished that compliment.

I looked up at where the branches marred the sky and waited to feel better. I was there a long time, until a gardener came by and startled me. My eyes had gone as red as my lips.

I never told him that he had infected me, or that I had infected him, or that in all likelihood there was an unending and incurable sickness embedded in his spine, lurking and waiting for some weakness to take advantage of. I never warned him that someday an opportunity would present itself and the herpes would rise up and cleave a big red welt into his skin.

But when I saw him lurking outside my office, I did wash off my BB cream and give the wound a little squeeze, to make it bloom and darken so it could not be denied. When I spoke to him I jutted my chin out, forcing him to recognize my sickness. I like sickness when it is so intense that it cannot be denied, like a bloody eye or a burst lip or a tree covered in bright fungal warts or an evening of unceasing thoughts of death. When a problem is unambiguous, I find it oddly comforting. I’ll take deafness and bright yellow pus over a dull ache any day. I prefer debilitating madness to mundane dysthymia. I liked it better when he was objectively violent rather than unsettlingly calm. When it’s clear there’s a problem, I can be sure I’m not making things up.

I knew that if he saw my open, seeping wound he would finally stop trying to kiss me. He would stop following me up Sheridan whenever I tried to take a walk. He would not dare to pin me down and press his groin to my torso or his lips to my open mouth. He would finally be repelled enough to control himself. I had tried smoking, getting a facial piercing, and yelling, but none of that would make him go away. It took a lush overgrowth of herpes to accomplish that.

That first bloom of herpes was many years ago. I only ever had two visible outbreaks. Both of them coincided with times he was in town. The virus will never leave me; I know it lingers, dormant and waiting in my back. I still feel the telltale tingles in my lips from time to time, a sprout begging to be watered. But I’ve learned to apply a generous layer of Carmex, to numb the pain to something below awareness. The tendrils of the virus shrink and curl up on themselves. They hide deep inside me until the time to grow comes back again.

Written by

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store