It was the fall of 2002. Newly graduated and away from home for the first time, I drew myself a hot bath on a rare night at home. Sinking into the depths of the murky water, (I was living with my brother after all, it’s not like the bathtub was actually clean), I leaned back and started daydreaming.
My boyfriend of a month was coming down to visit me that weekend. Boyfriend. Hmmm. Was that entirely accurate? We weren’t officially a couple, but it felt like something more. We hadn’t even had sex yet, which was somewhat atypical behaviour on my part. ( I had always thought it was ridiculous when characters on TV talked about “taking it slow” and “waiting.” To me, “taking it slow” should refer to foreplay, not needless mental and physical torment.) But I hadn’t seen him in three weeks, and we’d finally have the chance to spend the night together.
I mused these thoughts over, carefully shaving my legs. The countdown had begun. It was Monday. I sighed contentedly, a smile on my face.
And then I saw it. It was red. It was scabby. It was huge. It looked like ringworm. And it was located suspiciously close to my genitals.
I jumped out the bath, trying to calm my fears. Eczema, perhaps? (I’ve had eczema since I was born, and I’m one of the lucky 10% of the population who hasn’t outgrown it, as the doctors always assured my parents I would.) But that just didn’t seem right. I never get eczema anywhere except on my hands and face, and this wasn’t itchy. More than anything, it burned. Maybe it was just ringworm. Hell, considering how close this new affliction was to my nether regions, I would be happy to discover that it was just ringworm.
Worried, I went to bed. "It will be gone in the morning," I told myself.
I woke up the next day, forgetting about my new red scabby friend. It wasn’t until I jumped in the shower after work that night, that I discovered that my new red scabby had multiplied and populated my entire pubic bone with his offspring.
The boyfriend called that night. “I’ll see you on Friday night? I’m looking forward to seeing you,” he said, “And Danny’s gone for the weekend. If you want, we can stay at his place, since his bed is bigger,” he added suggestively.
It was dire times. And dire times call for dire measures.
I called my mom.
I told her I had a rash, carefully omitting its centre of origin. “It’s probably just your laundry detergent, and stress from moving,” she assured me. “Wash your clothes with a different kind of detergent and I’m sure it will go away.”
By Wednesday, the scabs had spread up above the waist of my jeans. Each of the scabs was about the size of the quarter, except for Scabby, who was about the size of a piece of salami. Apparently he was the commander in charge of the army of red blotches taking over my body.
I officially started to freak out. I convinced myself that I was going to die of some weird sexually transmitted disease and avowed to myself that I would never be promiscuous again. The next time I had sex, I would be married! Or dead! (Not that you can have sex while dead, but this the rash prevented me from rationalizing and realizing that the corpses don’t choose to be involved in necrophiliac activity.)
“Andrew, I need your help,” I pleaded my brother. “I don’t have a doctor in the city, and I don’t know what to do.” I pulled up my shirt to show him the Christmas tree shape the spots had begun to form across my ribs and back.
“Uhhhh,” Andrew said, worried, “I’ll take you the Medi-centre.”
When we got to the Medi-centre, we were told the wait was 4 to 5 hours. “You might as well go home, unless it’s an emergency,” the nurse at the desk told us. The line-up was winding out the door and onto Jasper Avenue.
On Thursday morning, I woke up to discover that my nipples had been the latest victim of the red rashy terror. What was next, my face?! And Scabby was still alive and well, terrifyingly close to my genital region, changing shades and starting to turn white at the edges. Here I was, just moved away from home, eighteen, falling in love, about to see my new boyfriend for the first time in three weeks (not to mention potentially be nude in front of him for the first time ever) and I was covered with a rash that could only be generously described as marginally more attractive than genital herpes.
Andrew took one look at my stomach and the look on my terrified face, and got on the phone with his doctor. My brother is usually of the quiet persuasion compared to me, but I heard him raise his voice. “She needs to get in to see someone today,” I could hear him saying aggressively, “this is her only day off work and it can’t wait. . .I know, I know. I know you aren’t taking any new patients, but this is an emergency. . .” I began to sob. The rash had officially become an “emergency.”
That afternoon, thanks to my brother, I went to my doctor’s appointment. “This doctor is actually retired,” the receptionist told me, “but came in since we are really busy today.”
When the doctor walked in, I suddenly understood by what the receptionist meant by retired. The guy had to be at minimum 80 years-old. His hair was white and barely there, his hands and face were wrinkled, his voice wavered when he talked, and his couldn’t hold himself steady.
“Where did the rash start?” he asked me after examining the tree mosaic on my ribs.
“Ummm, here,” I said shyly, pointing to my hip bone.
“Can I see it?” He looked equally nervous and afraid. (Yes, I’m sure that in 40 years of practicing medicine the guy had seen plenty of weird shit, but that really doesn’t make anticipating and seeing a possible STD on a young girl any more appealing.)
I pulled down my skirt and panties. He glanced quickly.
“Okay, you can pull them back up. I’ll be right back.”
He left the room. I watched the clock. 2 minutes passed. Maybe he had to pee? 5 minutes passed. Hmmm, maybe this is so horrible they have to get a specialist to handle it? 10 minutes passed. Maybe the sight of my malformed skin killed the old guy? 20 minutes passed. I’m dying of AIDS! Oh mother!
God and I were starting to make a solid deal when the doctor finally re-entered the room, holding a lofty textbook in his arms. With shaking hands, he sat down silently and turned the pages. He pointed at a picture. (Shit, he had to give me a photo illustration? I’d see myself in the mirror before. Really, this was unnecessary. I wish he’d just tell me that I’m dying and that I’ll never have sex ever again and get on with it!)
“It’s pityriasis rosea,” he told me. “It’s a virus. It starts with a large area of skin called the Herald patch, and works its way up the body forming a Christmas tree shape. It's not contagious. It’s pretty rare, but I’ve seen it a couple of times before. But your case is particularly severe.”
“So, how did I get it?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Nobody really knows what causes it.”
Great. “So, how do I get rid of it?
“It will go away with time,” he told me. (I was relieved. Maybe it would be better by tomorrow? The boyfriend would never have to know!) “It should be gone in about six weeks,” he continued, before finishing with the best part, “eventually, the rash spots will turn scaly and white, and then fall off.”
So, I didn’t have an STD. That was a bonus. But my entire body, including my genital region, had been infiltrated by some mystery rash with no known cure only a week before my long-distance boyfriend, who I was going to have sex with for the first time, was coming to visit? How was I going to explain this? Better yet, how was I possibly going to pass this off as sexy?