HPV. Now that’s something you can hold onto. Something you can’t let go. You can give it away and give it away, but it’s always gonna be there, in you, with you, a tiny testimonial to your fascinating life. And after the texts stop and the stress shits subside and you’re already sweating the next dude, you will have retained one real, actual answer to your most burning questions:
What the fuck happened?
What did it even mean?
Who’s ever gonna love me?
Papillomavirus. The Human one.
HPV: it’s what ya get. Chill though, it’s the cancer-causing kind and not the wart-causing kind, so it can be our little secret.
Or maybe you should tell Face Tats that he isn’t as wholesome as he looks?
Yes, this is what you will do. You’ll get in your car and drive to his home, where you’ll whisper gently, lovingly, that he has — unfortunately and through no fault of his own — given you HPV.
You will do this today.
The first thing folks wanna know is what exactly the tattoos are of. This is always the most embarrassing part of the story. Dating a guy with a face tattoo makes you adventurous; admitting that you allow yourself to be diddled by a manchild with both a scythe and hatchet etched permanently into the flesh of his face renders you an unreliable narrator. “It’s more subtle than you’d think,” you explain, and in fact you mean it. Each weapon edges elegantly from his temple down his short jawline, two ink sideburns framing the leary blue eyes, crooked nose, and jumbled mouth at the center of his beautiful mountain-boy head.
But it’s no matter. You’ve already outed yourself. Scythes and hatchets are not cool: they are the stuff of Dungeon Masters and LARPers. And you, you are no longer the wild-hearted manic pixie dream girl running fast and free with a misunderstood bad boy. You are instead exposed as your own manic depressive fever dream, someone who can account for herself only with excessive exposition and too much laughter. You are simply a lost girl sleeping with a lost cause. You are thirty-two years old.
But you’re more than that.
You have two degrees from relatively impressive public universities; an inoffensive, hip-enough career; a close-ish relationship with your loving, redneck family; a satisfactory number of genuine friends; and a cute studio apartment that you pay for on time, each month.
On paper and off, you do okay.
Still, the most significant achievement of your early adulthood has been coming to terms with what you do and do not give a shit about. The second category is infinitely more expansive than the first and includes: marriage, home ownership, bearing children, regularly checking your mail, pictures of food, pictures of cats, being someone’s boss, home decoration, washing your car, television, hosting get-togethers, running, board games, IPAs, and crafting. Especially crafting.
And what do you give a shit about? Wouldn’t you like to know.
Like, just what given shit compelled you on that first date to exit the stall, slide back his little baggy of blow, and sit down beside him? And now, even now, what shit need or shit motivation or secret shit vibration has got you pretending that this little HPV shitshow could possibly end well?
One day, months from now, you will speed through red lights to your apartment, but Face Tats will already be gone. He’ll be riding shotgun in another woman’s car, his trash bag of belongings in her back seat. And you will beg this car-less, careless man to please just talk to you.
This afternoon, though, you have resolved to speak with him about Human Papillomavirus.
You throw on a sundress, grab your purse, and head out, braless, into the daylight. It’s not until you’re in the parking lot of your apartment that you realize that your car isn’t there. This, you recall, is because you are a grown-up, and grown-ups don’t drink and drive. Hardly ever. You start walking toward the bar.
You’ve walked this route so many times before that you’re barely conscious you’re moving. The trip takes 15 minutes when sober and 20 when hungover. When drunk, it disappears all together.
On this particular day, the trip will take 20 minutes. It’s spring, and you walk slowly. You admire the wind-chimes and the lawns. You hum. You see a very old lady in a garden across the street, tending hydrangeas. When you wave, she waves back. You consider maxing out your 401K.
But you don’t consider for long. Soon your mind returns to Face Tats and HPV. You imagine what he’ll say and how you’ll respond. You examine your motives for telling him, and as your body continues along its path, you try to be honest with yourself. Eventually, you arrive at the corner with the cooperative preschool, where you will turn left.
First, though, you stop to watch the kids on the playground. They dart and shriek like drunks on fire, and you conclude that innocence is inherently unknowable. Once it recognizes itself as such, you reason, it’s no longer innocent. Remembering innocence is like remembering thought before words.
You fantasize briefly about sharing this profundity with Face Tats; but you know you won’t. He would only think it pretentious. You have not yet admitted that this is because he’s not very bright. Instead, you dim yourself. You turn left.
You pass under Tourist Tunnel, cross the street, and arrive at the bar. Your car is where you left it; and so, unfortunately, are your keys. You search your purse one last time, then begin retracing your steps homeward — where you will find your keys still in your door.
No one calls it Tourist Tunnel, by the way, except you. You call it this because suburbanites from Newnan to Acworth pilgrimage here to shoot their selfies, engagement photos, and rap videos against the backdrop of authentic, city-sanctioned graffiti. And indeed, as you walk back through it, you pass a dad photographing a group of girls in formal dresses. You wonder then if Face Tats went to prom and whether his date was pretty. You pray that these young girls in their satin and their rhinestones will be different than you.
You emerge from the other side of the tunnel, and you’re back at the preschool. The playground is empty now, the kids inside. You still remember being in preschool yourself, disappointed with your mother. She couldn’t paint pink hearts on your tiny fingernails like the moms of the cool girls. Already, at four, you were competing with other women. You sigh. You wonder if it’s possible to escape the hell of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, when your very consciousness was forged in its ignoble flames. Then, you wonder if you’re prettier than Face Tat’s prom date. You turn right.
In a few years, you’ll sit on the patio of the house you own, trying to remember. Trying to decipher the grotesque twist of nature and nurture that led you to ignore the red flags literally engraved into his face. You will shudder with embarrassment; but you’ll also giggle with a tenderness for yourself that you can’t yet reach.
On this walk home, however, all of your tenderness belongs to Face Tats. As we know, the Bad Boy, once anatomized, demands our tenderness. Take, for example, his drugs, sex, and rock-n-roll. Dissect these predilections and examine them. Observe how once taken apart, they are revealed as run-of-the-mill addictions — desperate acts fueled by childhood trauma and poor self-esteem, resulting primarily in diarrhea, limp dicks, and empty wallets.
But in the end, this doesn’t deter us. In the end, this is how they get you. Because one day, you’ll be walking home to retrieve your car keys, and you’ll find yourself imagining what childhood was like for Little Face Tats, with his itinerant father and alcoholic mother. You’ll attempt to untangle his pain in the dull hope that you might heal him into loving you.
You’ve ambled almost halfway home like this when you’re jolted back to consciousness by a piercing, warbling wail. Up ahead, a jogger scurries across the empty street, barely escaping a very assertive bird. Oh yes, you think. It’s that time of year again, the time when mama birds must protect their nests. Respectfully, you cross the street, stepping onto the opposite sidewalk and landing face to face with the very old hydrangea lady.
“Good morning,” you say.
“Good afternoon,” she answers. She’s small and looks up at you from beneath a wide brim hat. You watch her eyes narrow. “Must’ve been a good night,” she says.
Suddenly, you’re aware of the whiskey-infused sweat dripping down your small, braless titties. You cross your arms and shrug.
“It was a night.”
“Well,” she says, almost smiling. “You’ll figure it out.”
Back at home, you pull the keys from the knob and set out, once more, for the bar. You’re feeling less spirited now, plodding down your tree-lined street, and less resolved. Upon further reflection, Face Tats probably assumes that he has HPV. The correlation between having HPV and having face tattoos has to be high.
Jesus in heaven. You are so damn tired of thinking about Face Tats. You think about what he would think if he only knew how much you think about him. The afternoon temperature inches upward, and you pull your wet hair into a bun, putting one foot in front of the other, over and over.
As you again near the home of the hydrangea lady, you remain on your side of the street. You can’t bear to see yourself through her eyes. Rather, you watch your feet as they navigate the large tree roots pushing up through the sidewalk. Soon, you’re moving quickly, skipping easily along this path that you’ve tread over and over and over.
And like this, she catches you off guard. She swoops inches from your red, sweaty face — and you freeze for a moment, slow to register the blur. You forgot, you realize, about the bird. By the time it occurs to you to flee, she’s diving back at you. You bat her away and begin to run; but she doesn’t give up. She chases you, and before long, this bird has attached herself to your hip, to the fabric of your sundress, and she is shitting. Shitting all over you. You run faster, bat harder. You hear yourself scream, “Leave me alone, ya bird!”
You have always emitted the most banal exclamations when under duress.
Finally, she lets go — but you keep on sprinting. Until, that is, you’re flying. Hurling, actually, toward the ground. You have been launched into the ether by the wily root of a big, beautiful oak; all you can do now is await the crash.
One time, you let Face Tats put it in your butt. Then, when he’d finished, you waddled across the hall to the bathroom he shared with four other dudes. There wasn’t even toilet paper.
It will be tempting, in the future, to ascribe meaning to shit as a significant and recurring metaphor in your life, a symbol that lends continuity to the narrative of you. Truth is, though, it’s just shit.
Shit is the effect; and sometimes, you are the cause. But you’ll figure it out.
Once the tumbling ceases, you assess the damage. Bird droppings run from your hip to the bottom of your dress. Your hands, your knees, the tops of your feet -— all are scraped and bleeding.
So you pick yourself up, drenched in sweat, shit, and blood, and hobble past the preschool, where women your age are picking up their young children. You’re vaguely aware of their stares, but at present, your sole priority is preventing avian fecal matter from entering your fresh, open wounds. You hold your shredded arms out like Frankenstein’s monster and soldier, chin raised, back through that damn tunnel. And straight into the bar.
You will not be visiting Face Tats today.
When you’ve cleaned yourself up, you order a beer and sit alone in a corner booth. Shortly, you will read on the CDC website that in most instances, the bodies of people with HPV clear the virus naturally. This time next year, you will be HPV and Face Tats free.
You won’t be shit-free, but no one ever is. And time, like the words of your mother, will go in one ear and out the other. Until someday, you find that you’re clinging to both, anchoring yourself against the tiresome spiral of sentience. This is good, a good thing to do. Because then you can let go.
Once, of course, you’ve accepted this: You are your anchor. And you are your mother’s words, and you are your mother, and you are the hungover girl, who, years ago, had to run screaming, “Leave me alone, ya bird!” so that she could make it all the way here, to this moment, which is all moments.
Now, as for you and I, we are and were and will be free to seek out the all brilliant, waiting things, about which we give our shits.