It Took an STD Scare to Get Me to Leave a Dead-End Relationship

Thanks for the wakeup call, chlamydia.
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Wendy Escobar
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Thanks for the wakeup call, chlamydia.

One Saturday afternoon, I lounged in bed, waiting for something to happen. I had recently left my job, a position that kept me occupied on weekends, and I didn't know what to do with myself. I've never been good with unstructured time.

I had been messaging Fernando* about possibly going to a party when suddenly, my phone rang and I felt a sharp pang of dread. Although we had known each other for over a year, the only conversations we had ever had on the phone were short and expected — never more than brief calls asking to be buzzed into my building. We had just been texting; I couldn't imagine why he would be calling me now.

I answered.

I never thought I'd be on the receiving end of a phone call that includes the phrase "you should probably get tested." He had been to the doctor and they suspected he had chlamydia. I asked a handful of questions, anticipating only half-truths and uncertainties, which is all I had ever really received from him. He wouldn't get the test results back for two weeks. They had already given him antibiotics just in case.

When Fernando and I first met, I was in a long-distance relationship with a man who would be a perfect partner for someone who wasn't me. We had gotten together right before I went on a research trip to Latin America for two months.

So many hours spent gazing out the window while my boyfriend told me about his workday. I could have been learning to tango.

So many hours spent gazing out the window while my boyfriend told me about his workday. I could have been learning to tango.

​When I returned, it began dawning on us that our relationship wasn't destined to exist beyond the honeymoon phase, but we had invested so much energy into keeping it alive while I was gone that we had fallen into a sunk cost trap and, gritting our teeth, stayed together. Fernando began coming to my apartment to work on class assignments, and I began speaking to my long-distance boyfriend less and less. One day, it dawned on me that I never really thought about him. Immediately after we took our ailing relationship off life support, I began seeing Fernando.

I barely knew him, but suddenly we were spending all our time together, usually at my urging. Rather than pausing to sift through my emotions about my breakup, I carried with me all the unresolved feelings I had for my ex. As such, I experienced a surge of unexplainable affection for this stranger that was never fully reciprocated or grounded in reality. I ignored all the obvious signs of him being neither a good partner nor a good friend and we continued to see each other.

When I think of our courtship, I can't help but recall all the times he criticized my personality and appearance. Rather than simply ending a bad entanglement, I internalized his remarks, and despite never feeling quite at ease being around him, I made him a constant in my life. 

If only Salvador had given me better feedback on my thesis research, I wouldn't have had to seek out other study mates.

If only Salvador had given me better feedback on my thesis research, I wouldn't have had to seek out other study mates.

While the content of Fernando's call caught me off guard, I had no reason to be surprised. When I would ask about other women, he would answer my questions with exasperated sarcasm. I should have been even less surprised when he subtly tried to imply that perhaps I had been the one to give him something.

After getting off the phone, I spent the rest of the day frantically researching low-cost STD clinics and symptoms. It proved to be a fruitless endeavor since many STDs don't present quite as colorfully and obviously as Google Images would have you believe. One day later, I walked out of a walk-in clinic $125 lighter (had the doctor not taken pity on me and my lack of insurance, I would have ended up spending over $300).* Five days later, I almost wept with relief when the clinic called and told me my results were negative.

Thank you, people of CityMD, for this amazing gift and now, souvenir.

Thank you, people of CityMD, for this amazing gift and now, souvenir.

During those five days, I tried to recall every passing ache and irritation I had experienced in the preceding few weeks, searching for a sign of something that had gone amiss. Even though I was facing a very easily curable infection and had already taken the antibiotics necessary to combat it, I worried and worried.

Fernando and I had never communicated honestly and even after spending days and nights together, I very rarely felt relaxed around him. Early on in our relationship, I fainted on the train. I still have a scar inside my mouth and under my lips from my teeth cutting into my face during the fall. Fernando waited with me for a little while on the platform and then left me to make my dizzy way home alone because he wanted, he said, to avoid rush hour traffic on the train despite having nowhere else to be. I should have taken that as a sign that he was not someone I couldn't rely on for anything, but I continued to see him.

Rather than accept that we just were not right for each other and were never going to be anything other than occasional friends and lovers, I allowed myself to feel like I was either not enough or too much for him. I spent too much time trying to hold my tongue and not be "difficult" so I could attract a man for whom I only had mixed feelings. Was that really so much better than being alone?

Ultimately, what was most upsetting about this episode wasn't the fear that I had contracted an STD. I was upset with myself — more than anyone else — because I had taken unnecessary risks for someone who only viewed me as a diversion, temporary warmth until something better came along. When friends have told me about having unprotected sex with men they don't know well, I've implored them to get tested. While I make it a point to get regular STD tests, I illogically felt immune from really believing that I could ever contract anything since I knew my partner beyond the confines of an awkward first or second date.

As far as life lessons go, $125 was a small amount to pay to obtain peace of mind and the ability to move on from something stagnant and unhealthy. I'm grateful that it happened when it did because this situation had gone on for far longer than it should have. We were both just lukewarm enough towards each other that it likely would have quietly continued. Two weeks after the phone call, he told me he tested negative. Since then, he's reached out to me occasionally to hang out, usually at night, but I've been busy every time.