Lucinda has round black eyes, dark eyebrows expertly waxed and shaped, and straight hair that falls down her back like a waterfall. Nine years ago, when she was 19, she noticed a funny red bump on the inside of her thigh. It looked like a pimple, or maybe a blister, and it was uncomfortable.
She was dating Jonathan at the time, a man so beautiful it made her feel insecure to be with him. He was one of those men, she told me, over whom women make complete fools of themselves. They'd flirt with him even in front of her, slipping him their phone number, calling at odd hours, waiting outside of the Crow Bar, where he was a bartender. Jonathan just shrugged his shoulders, but he loved the attention. Lucinda saw how he encouraged these chicks by his shy smiles, but what she didn't know was how often he'd go home with them after work, when Lucinda was safely home and asleep. Later she would find out he'd been cheating on her during the entirety of their short relationship, which she'd thought was monogamous.
It was Jonathan who gave her herpes, but by the time she'd figured that out, he'd long fled the scene. The second outbreak for Lucinda was a year later, this time not on her inner thigh but right inside, "in my business." She still wasn't certain what it was until she flipped through a friend's copy of "Our Bodies, Ourselves" and recognized all the symptoms -- burning, itching, feeling tingly, then flu-ish, and then of course the sore that would appear like a tiny red monster, throbbing and accusatory.
She hadn't been taught anything about herpes or gonorrhea or pregnancy prevention in the small public high school she had attended just outside the Sacramento Valley. It was only public hysteria about AIDS that made her aware of condoms. Before that, she made sure she only had sex during the "safe" times -- during her period, right before and right after. Boys never talked about birth control.
Having herpes sounded awful; even the word "herpes" gave Lucinda a shiver. A sexually transmitted disease! She felt like a slut and a whore. The whole experience with Jonathan had left her bitter and angry; the herpes was the capper, the ultimate indictment of her ignorance. She began to date Patrick, a guy with many similarities to Jonathan, except that he made no attempt to hide it. Lucinda too was sleeping around, but began using condoms regularly -- "well, fairly regularly." She didn't feel the need to tell her partners she had the big H. At this point she'd done some reading up on it: They could only get it if she was having an outbreak. "And I know when I'm going to have an outbreak," she insisted to me.
Nevertheless, Lucinda gave herpes to Patrick, who "to this day" does not know who gave it to him. "I never told him I had it," she said. "Why should I?" Patrick too had given Lucinda some STDs: chlamydia, venereal warts and "something that made my pussy smell just awful."
But this was years ago, and Lucinda has reshaped her opinion. "I was so naive before," she says. "I didn't know anything. I felt really guilty, having this VD." Nowadays, outbreak or no, if she thinks she's going to have sex with someone, she tells them. Or tries to tell them. Most men have been "fine" about it, apart from one famous incident. "I'd already told him that I had herpes, and it was no big deal. Then one time we were having sex, he was just rubbing me in this weird way, pushing his dick hard on me, and I felt this weird tingly sensation like I might be starting to get it. So I told him, and he leapt off of me, practically screaming." She laughs.
But as much as Lucinda would like to demystify the whole herpes syndrome -- "the AIDS for heteros" -- she still feels strange telling her partners. "I'd say half of my friends have herpes, which I think is the national average -- something like 50 percent? I get worried that I might give it to someone, but guys seem much more ashamed of having it than girls.
"Girls aren't in denial about it, and if some potential mate responds negatively to me having herpes, they're not someone I want to be with anyway."
So why hasn't she told her new boyfriend yet?
"Well, I don't want to scare him off," she says. "I know that sounds like a contradiction. I just ... I really like him." She looked embarrassed and her eyebrows drew down in a frown even though she giggled. "We've only had sex twice. And it's hard to tell somebody. I don't have an outbreak, I haven't had one in almost a year. I mean, am I really obligated? Obviously, I'll tell him soon. It just hasn't really come up yet."