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October 25, 2013

Most. Awkward. Second. Date. Ever.

It was bad enough when Rachel Heller discovered she had HPV. Then she had to tell her new guy about her status.

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On our first date, he snatched my heart from its shroud over spicy tuna and shrimp rolls at a tiny restaurant a few blocks from the beach. I tucked my fingers into the crook of his arm and touched his lustrous brown curls. After dark, we padded onto the sand and kissed under a patient moon.

The next day, my brain roiled with conflicting visions of our future. Like waves crashing against a seawall, my desire collided with the barrier of my still-hidden illness. "This is the coolest date-and-a-half I've ever had," Mike said that evening. Just wait, I thought. We made plans to meet for dinner the next night. No question, this was when I would have to tell him. Even though HPV is commonplace, that doesn't make it palatable, especially with a cancer warning attached. He might find me attractive, but would he still want to sleep with me?

As I parallel-parked near his building that afternoon, my impending admission felt like a 2-ton anvil on my shoulders. Up in his apartment, I excused myself to go to the bathroom and practiced my not-about-to-cry look in the mirror. Then I crossed the living room and sat next to him on the couch. "OK," I said. "I have to talk to you." He nodded as my confession tumbled out. He said "Mm-hmm" a couple of times. He placed his hand on my knee. Then he pulled me close. Great, I thought, a good-bye hug. "Being nice to me now will only make it harder," I managed to croak.

But his next line surprised me: "If we don't work out, it'll be for regular reasons, not for this." Relieved, I sobbed into his freshly laundered sleeve, staining it dark and slick, marveling that this sleeve was still available for me to slobber on. He had questions: Is it uncomfortable? (Not really.) Will it ever go away? (It might, but no one knows when.) Yet he didn't judge me. He still wanted to see me—and perhaps do more than see me, I realized, by the way his lips brushed my neck later that night. In fact, the outcome that came to pass was the only one I hadn't allowed myself to imagine.

Now that we're engaged, I think of that night with Mike often. Since we're monogamous, we no longer use condoms. My HPV hasn't interfered with my ability to have kids, so the only question now is when. Yet I still remember hiding behind my hair as I told him what it meant, and how the last thing I wanted was to expose him to the same nagging risk—the risk of warts, of passing it on, of shame. I remember how my fingers toyed with the holes at the hem of my shirt. But the more I think about it, Mike wasn't looking at my tattered attire. His eyes lingered on what lay beyond it: a human girl full of worry and love, warm and vibrant and whole. He saw the person cowering behind the disease. I'm glad I finally did, too.

"HPV isn't a personality quirk I can explain away."

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