Strapping Up, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Latex

We have come to visit my grandma. After eating more than our combined body weight in cake we’re in the garden.

‘Where’s that tree we planted together when I was little?’ I ask in a whiny voice, as my sister has a surreptitious cigarette behind the shed.

‘What, your tree?’ says my grandma, darkly. ‘It got the blight.’

I hear my sister sniggering. ‘Figures.’

Two days later I am having Serious Thoughts. I have not been very sensible of late. The sheer lunar pull of dark clubs and the sketchy men found therein have overwhelmed me, these past months. I have been a woman of primarily horizontal easement, but a small boat tossed in the waves of rum and mad, rampant desire, looping around poor unsuspecting blokes like a wisteria, giving little/no thought to protection, and having a thoroughly good time. But the day of reckoning is now upon me. The ailing tree’s merely a symbolic confirmation of what I’d suspected all along: that somewhere down this yellow brick road I have managed to pick up every STI under the sun. I am positively bucolic, I can just tell. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. I am fucked.

The problem, I think, is my coil. Knowing I won’t get pregnant has allowed me to spread my proverbial seed far and wide, safe in the knowledge that there won’t be any frantic pissing onto a stick any time soon. Added to this is absolute condom-mutiny. I hate the fuckers, and can truthfully say I could count the number of times I’ve used them on two hands. If I’m in a relationship, once I know the boyf’s clear I’ve always decked myself onto the pill or, a couple of years ago, went and got the IUD. Of late my method of STI-prevention has consisted of a muttered ‘Are we cool?’ which, I am now savvy enough to understand, will only ever be met with a glazed, uncomprehending grunt once you’ve got your respective kits off. It’s that bleary, ‘I’ve-not-got-a-clue-what-you-just-asked-me’, cunt-struck expression that sent me into histrionics. I have no idea who I’ve been sleeping with. I have been a total blunderbuss.

All of a sudden I am feeling extremely dicey. My palms are sweaty, my arms feel strangely weightless. I have Googled symptoms I don’t have, consulted medical websites, been on forums. By 11am I have almost certainly got HIV. I have descended into full-scale panic. What goes around has come around, and it is time to face the music. The weasel under the cocktail cabinet has finally reared its horrible head. I will be swinging from the rafters by midday. I will perish, covered in sores, clutching a bottle of gin in a gutter at the bottom of Holloway Road.

After calling the flatmate in a blind panic, we dash to the GUM clinic after work. We’re going to save the full screening for later in the week when we have appointments, but are about to have a rapid walk-in HIV test. Flatmate snorts with laughter after peering over my shoulder to see our identically-ticked boxes, then sulks when I snap at her. This is a serious business, and certainly no time to discuss evening plans: she wants to go to a Red Hot Chili Pepper-themed karaoke night in Dalston. I explain as patiently as I can that, if I have HIV, there will be no karaoke. There will not even be a sniff of Dalston. We have been two of the silliest girls in England, I say, wreaking SATURNALIAN CHAOS through Islington, and it is time to pay the price dammit. Flatmate yawns and takes a GUM clinic selfie.

When the smiling nurse comes out and calls my name, I leave my brazen flatmate cheerfully slurping a Snapple and lol-ing at Hello!

‘We’ll just need to discuss your sexual history first,’ says nurse.

I blink at her. The clock seems to be ticking very loudly. The table with the stirrups beckons. There is lube on every available surface, speculums everwhah. I’ve never minded sexual health tests in the past because I’ve never felt awkward a) getting semi-naked or b) discussing sex. But now, knowing myself to have been so deeply irresponsible these last months, I am physically cringing.

Ten minutes pass. I am in throes of panic so extreme, I want to confess my whole sexual saga, from first kiss to backseat cinema handjob to hogtying and rimming and accidental-and-then-on-purpose anal. I want to lay it all out on the table for her, and am in the midst of describing a night spent with someone I affectionately refer to on my list as ‘pest control man’.

‘Pest control?’ The woman looks alarmed.

‘He killed rats,’ I say, weakly, ‘he was a rat-catcher’. That is, and was, and ever shall be all that I know about him.

‘What you have to understand,’ I say, leaning forward, ‘is that it’s been a rather busy few months. I am not some sort of greedy comeslut’ - her eyebrows have literally disappeared into her scalp – ‘What happened was that I had a really bad breakup and I was dead miserable and moved abroad and was too sad to have any sex and wore nothing but a woollen cardigan with holes in it for three months -’

She interjects. ‘How many people would you say you’ve had unprotected sex with?’ 

‘- and then I came home and wanted to shag ALL THE MEN and so I did but I’m rubbish at condoms and I kept getting really drunk and I think maybe what I really need is CLOSURE because above all it’s important to MOVE ON, right -’

The nurse looks beside herself.

Finally, we get down to business. She pricks my finger, draws some blood out and puts it in a dish on the table before us. I literally blanche. ‘I find out now? Like, right now?’

‘Oh yes,’ she says breezily. ‘We’re looking for one big blue dot. That means it’s negative.’

We stare at the solution, which changes colour as a dot starts to form. For one, terrible moment I see a second one and tell her so, but she explains that it’s a speck of dust. I ask her to check this, three times.

‘Sorry,’ I say, almost crying with relief. ‘Obviously these rather louche sexual habits don’t sit too well with, you know, extreme hypochondria.’ She laughs – thankfully, tells me she’s never heard anyone say ‘louche’ in a sexual health clinic before and advises a ‘stiff drink’, which advice I do of course take.

Well, I have learned my lesson. There are no bats in my belfry, and I am very lucky. ‘No. More. Mischief’ as my mum would say. The next time I find myself in flagrante I will, to rather inappropriately quote the Boy Scouts, be prepared. There will be no more fannying about, no more bareback frolicking. As one of my bezzies said recently, ‘use your vagina as you would your liver –don’t put it in situations where it can do nothing but say, oh, fuck it then’. I will no longer court temptation only to be unhorsed with an STI when it’s least expected; I will not be standing, wankered in a field shouting, ‘MY KINGDOM FOR A SHAG’ any time soon. I have quaffed the bitter medicine of fear and, by God, it was a hearty dram.

- ZA