There's no getting around it--my son is a hypochondriac. At the ripe old age of 22, Max imagines himself suffering from a variety of ailments. When his leg tingles, it's multiple sclerosis. If his hand trembles, Parkinson's. Any rash or pimple in the pubic area? Obviously an STD. Among his worst nightmares is contracting herpes--modern day leprosy to him--and no girl ever wanting to have sex with him again, no wife, no children, life over.
At 6 pm Max is in his bedroom with the lights out and the quilt over his head. It's spring break, but he's not having any fun.
"Another migraine?" I ask, peering into his room.
Slowly, Max pulls down the covers so his face becomes visible but his eyes stay shut. "Monica called." Monica is my son's ex-girlfriend, a freshman whom he'd introduced to the college comedy club where he performs stand-up. "She went to her proctologist for hemorrhoids, but the proctologist thinks she has herpes." His voice sounds like a funeral dirge. "Monica says that means I have herpes and gave it to her." He looks like he's been sentenced to the electric chair.
"A proctologist?" I interpose, ever the practical mother. "Usually a gynecologist diagnoses herpes in women. Did Monica even get a blood test?"
Vivid unwanted images flash through my mind. Were Max and Monica having sex, anal sex without a condom?
"Yes, but she hasn't gotten the results yet." Still lying flat on his back, Max finally opens his eyes and stares desperately into mine. "But the proctologist is pretty sure."
"Do you have any symptoms?" I ask, meeting his demanding gaze with my own. I'm absolutely certain if Max experienced anything resembling a symptom, he'd have told me immediately and then run to the doctor for a full battery of tests.
"You can have herpes without any active symptoms," Max observes.
I am both relieved and annoyed by this answer. Mother's intuition tells me Max is okay, and this is just another bout of hypochondria. "No symptoms so far, right?" I confirm.
From his bed, Max nods woefully.
"You and Monica broke up three months ago," I reason. It seems unlikely--although not impossible--that he gave Monica herpes. "You're in a panic," I point out in what I hope is a calm maternal tone. "We don't even know whether Monica really has herpes. And even if she does, you're not the only guy who's had sex with her."
"Maybe she gave herpes to me," he wails.
I take a deep breath and then ask. "Didn't you swear never to have unprotected sex? How could you of all people put yourself at risk."
The quilt covers his face again. "It was stupid," his muffled voice emerges through the plaid. "But Monica's on birth control."
I stand on the threshold of Max's room waiting for more.
"First Monica didn't want to have sex," my son finally says. "Then she changed her mind and just hopped on. I wanted to use a condom," he rushed to assure me,"but by then it was sort of too late."
Max goes for a blood test immediately, but the results take a few days. I can't help thinking Monica's proctologist has ruined not just Max's weekend by also my own.
"Aren't you worried at all?" Max asks my husband and me as we slog through the Fear of Herpes weekend. As always, my son's tone is incredulous when I'm not moved by his complaints about a newly suspected ailment.
"I'm worried about you from the neck up." I offer my standard reply.
"I'm worried I'm going to kill you when this is over," my husband chimes in.
Finally, after what seems like years of purgatory, Max learns he does not have herpes. He feels like a new person. We tell the new person he should wear a condom 24/7. Jubilant, Max calls Monica with the good news and learns--surprise, surprise--that her test was also negative. Monica apologizes to Max for scaring him to death and blaming him. I feel like I need an apology too, or maybe a medal. Meanwhile, the two young ex-lovers meet for coffee. Monica buys Max a pastry, and all's well for 48 hours.
While in the DMZ, Max and I go out to lunch. There's no mention of the h-word until his cell phone buzzes with a text from Monica that makes his face go pale.
"What's wrong now?" I ask from across the luncheonette table.
"You won't believe this," Max says. "Monica texted me that the herpes thing got her creative juices going. She's writing jokes about our experience and doesn't want me to use the material in my stand-up routine." A vein pulses wildly in Max's forehead. I hope he's not going to have a stroke. "Suddenly Monica is a stand-up comedian. Now she wants to compete with me and take away some of my best material for my last college show."
"You really need to talk to her." My tone is steady but firm. "And don't back down the way you did with the condom."
"I won't. But I'm afraid everyone at school will side with the poor little freshman girl whose material is being stolen by the big, bad senior boy. It's reverse discrimination," Max laments.
"This herpes experience belongs to both of you." As a mother, it's often my role to state the obvious. "Monica can't prevent you from telling your side of the story."
"But we go to a small college," he persists. "It's too weird. People will know we're talking about each other. The inexperienced comedians go on first, so I'll have to follow her. It sucks. Why can't she just let me tell the jokes as my consolation prize?"
"Because she suffered too." I smile knowingly, wanting a consolation prize of my own. "But at least you'll have the last word." Or maybe I will. Aren't moms entitled to their turn?
Labels: college, family, herpes, hypochondria, parenting, sexually transmitted diseases