It's my birthday and I forgot something.
Twenty-seven, and six. Also, I made a mood board!
|Ella Dawson||May 15, 2019||1|
I realized something while I was getting coffee with a friend tonight. I forgot my anniversary this year.
On May 9th, 2013 I was diagnosed with genital herpes at the very end of my junior year of college. You probably know the story. It was a bad day: it rained and my body hurt and my identity imploded like a supernova inside my chest cavity. It felt like the last day of my life, like my life was over, and then for a while it felt like the first day of the rest of my life, my real life, my purpose. Herpes ruined my life and changed my life and became the center of my life as I wrote and spoke and tweeted and healed. For the first few years after I was diagnosed, I celebrated on May 9th. In 2016 I threw a party at my favorite bar and blew out a little wax candle in the shape of the number three.
It’s been six years since I was diagnosed with herpes and this year I forgot. I just forgot. I was busy with other things: on that day I gave a presentation at work about millennial financial precarity, and I called both my parents to chat, and I wore a nice blue blazer from H&M that makes me feel like an actual Young Professional. It was a really good day, one that made me feel brave and productive and valuable. I spent time with friends. I wore my new cowboy boots. I still had herpes, even made a joke about it, but it was a day like any other day. Just a Thursday.
My birthday is tomorrow—or, more accurately, in about an hour. I’m turning twenty-seven, a nice weird number that makes me feel accomplished and petrified. One of my friends just told me that his wife is pregnant and it was the first time I’ve ever asked myself if I’m falling behind in some cosmic progression of life. In some ways this last year feels like a wasted year of reacting to events without making any plans of my own, but that’s total bullshit too. Surviving is an achievement some years, getting through days and writing a few pages. I bought a new black dress for a funeral and didn’t quit my job when it got hard. I started a bookstagram account. I met some really great dogs.
May 15th, happy birthday to me. I feel closer today to the woman I want to be and have always been. My bravery was in remission but it’s still there, a burning ruby at my throat. It may be time to admit that I am more Gryffindor than Slytherin now, or an elixir of both. I am not a neat archetype. I am pulsing scar tissue, a wound healed with the occasional bleed. A writer I respect called me a “truth-teller” a few weeks ago and it was the highest praise I could imagine.
Other small victories: This past Friday I went to a party and managed to tell a number of clever, cutting jokes that made several strangers laugh. I promptly write thank you notes now, after many years of trying. I haven’t let grief mangle me, though I think of Tahlia every day. I have discovered the majesty of breakfast pie.
Thank you, as always, for reading and for being here with me. It is an honor and a great joy to do what I love for another year.
If you’d like to wish me a happy birthday, I will gladly accept your tips and spend it on cheap champagne. Here’s my tip jar.
I wrote some good, raw sh*t this year. Here are a few of my favorite paragraphs:
“The only thing I can compare her death to is if someone picked up the needle from a record in the middle of a song—no scratch, just sudden silence where there used to be a voice and rhythm and the strum of a guitar. You wonder if silence has ever been this loud before.” from How To Feel When The Good Die Young
“The only way I can explain it is suicide radio. When I feel like this, it’s like there’s a radio in my head, the dials turning themselves on too slowly for me to notice. The radio starts suggesting things, little murmurs from a familiar frequency, the host’s voice similar enough to be mistaken for my own: What if you were just dead? If you were dead, you wouldn’t have to answer this email. Dead people don’t have to RSVP or approve these Google Doc margin notes. No one asks a dead person what happened to that book proposal. The frequency is the same as a daydream, as a curiosity. You should talk to your parents about your will. Maybe they’d put your name on a bench at Wesleyan. Would you trend locally on Twitter?” from Suicide Radio
“I forgot for years that I feel shame about having herpes. That shame is not a logical thing; it is socially conditioned muscle memory. The trauma of it is fading, losing its color. That’s good, at least. I can both know that herpes is a common skin condition and feel the ugliness of that day six years ago. I can know that in another week I will feel fine and make some great jokes about outbreaks and be just a bit stronger than I was before because I’ll have survived again. But today a pretty narrative need not apply. This is between me and my body now. This young ugliness, when my skin contorts and ruptures, this is just me now.” from Herpes and Shame: Six Years Later
“I lost my virginity my freshman year of college to a man who played obscure instruments and wore vintage military jackets. He encouraged me to save myself for someone who loved me, a refrain I also heard from my abstinence teacher in high school. This musician and I were not in love, but after a few weeks of me assuring him that I would not imprint on him like a duckling if he put his penis inside of me, he finally agreed. Losing my virginity did not feel like a loss at all—it was clearly a gain, a new chapter in my lifelong relationship with my sexuality. The musician continued seeing other nice little brunettes, and I became an amateur sociologist of college hookup culture.” from Stop Calling It “Casual Sex”
And a sneak peek of a project to come:
“There is nothing less casual than casual sex with an ex-partner. That’s true if it’s a mad dash fuck or slow, honest love. Breakup sex is a beautiful lie we tell ourselves: that this will solve everything. That we will feel better and understand more on the other side. There is finality in how they taste, a scarcity in how you reach for them and pull them closer. This is it: memorize their breath and the stretch of your limbs and their sweat on your breastbone. Our desperation to forget it’s almost over is mortifying and vulnerable, but it’s a relief to endure it together.”