At first we thought it was only a spider bite, and a vicious one at that.
“Let me take a look at it,” my boyfriend Chris had said after we arrived back at his place from Friday night drinks at one of our regular bars a couple weeks before my twenty-eighth birthday. By that point, a hot pink spot behind my knee had swollen so much that I couldn’t easily straighten out my leg.
“I knew I shouldn’t have popped that blister,” I whined as I pulled my jeans down to my ankles and flopped face-first onto his bed.
While working from home that afternoon, I had idly scratched at a bump behind my left knee. Twisting my leg in one direction and craning my neck in the other for the optimum vantage point, I noticed what appeared to be a whitehead hanging out on top of my skin like a cap on an old-timey wax bottle candy. With no hesitation, thanks to a closeted penchant for pimple-popping, I squeezed it open and oozed all of the liquid I could from the broken skin. But when I reached my hand back down to the same spot a couple hours later, the bump had ballooned into a miniature molehill that felt as though it could be swarming with fire ants. Clearly, I hadn’t happened upon a clogged pore packed with solidified sebum but the festering crime scene of a nocturnal spider attack—or so it seemed.
“That bite is fucking huge, babe,” Chris opined, gently running a finger over the inflamed area. “I’m sure it’ll be OK though. It doesn’t look infected or anything.”
That was all the reassurance I needed to promptly forget about the throbbing pain engulfing my knee and proceed to have the kind of ravenous, flailing sex that in all likelihood looks like the kind of scene that Lena Dunham would direct. You feel like your body might explode from so much stimulus. I’m talking about the We’re Crazy About Each Other Sex that happens after those initial nakedness nerves have worn off, and neither party is internally body-snarking themselves about unmanicured pubes, flabby bellies, or whatever else we’re supposed to be ashamed of. A few months into dating, Chris and I had apparently transcended even that and were now testing the wild waters of That Enormous Spider Bite On Your Leg Is Kind Of Disgusting But We’re Really Going For This Anyway Sex, followed by deep, satisfying sleep.
A week or so later, after another angry bump had appeared, this time on my hipbone, Chris told me he loved me.
From the outset of our relationship, Chris stood well above the type of guys I had unnecessarily grown accustomed to. For years I had been drawn to men who quickly grew distracted and disinterested as soon as I began to open myself and reveal signs of wear and tear. But with him, there was none of the self-inflicted struggle or second guessing. At times when I assumed that, just like the rest, he wouldn’t call or notice that my mood begged attention, my phone would light up, or he would take my hand and ask how I was feeling. And every time, I was OK; sometimes, admittedly, not-so-subconsciously testing the extent of his attention and affection. If I wasn’t dolled up and doling out jokes, would he like me just the same? What I would learn through our staph-infected love story, punctuated by a pus-ridden period of bacterial overgrowth, was that the answer was—unbelievably, considering those previous descriptors—yes.
“Is that too much?” he immediately asked after uttering the L-word, as if ready to sweep the words into a dustpan if need be.
“No, I had hoped you were going to say that,” I responded and then returned the sentiment.
And I meant it. So much so in fact, that when I had to embark the following weekend on a birthday trip to visit my sister in Baltimore that I had planned when Chris and I had first started dating, and I was too nervously cynical to divine us both catapulting into love, I was immediately saddened by the separation, even if it was only for a long weekend. To give us something to look forward to during the ensuing nights alone, we made plans to cross into more untrodden relationship territory: phone sex.
“I can send you some naked pics in the meantime?” I asked semi-despondently on the way to the airport.
“Oh yeah, definitely do that,” Chris replied not-so-despondently.
But whatever mild melancholy I had harbored before departing Chris metastasized into full-blown panic when, less than twenty-four hours into my jaunt to the Charm City, better known as That Scary Place Where They Filmed The Wire, I discovered—you guessed it—a third supposed “spider bite.” Only this time I suspected that it was something more systemic than a flyby arachnid attack. Making matters more awkward, it surfaced on my right ass cheek, directly on top of my tailbone, better known as The Unavoidable Spot That Strikes a Chair Whenever You Take a Load Off.
Pants around my ankles yet again and heart rate anxiously accelerated, I yelled for my older sister Anna to come into the bathroom to diagnose the inflamed sore.
“I don’t think that’s a spider bite,” she responded after peering closely—and for the first time, and with a sisterly nonchalance-—at my bare buttocks. “That looks more like a staph infection to me.”
“A what?” I cried back, incredulous. Though well into my adulthood, the only concrete “facts” I knew about staph infections were that they bred in college dorms and locker rooms, a close relative to jock itch, athlete’s foot, and mononucleosis.
“I could very well be wrong,” Anna continued, attempting to ease my escalating hysteria. “Maybe it’s just a pimple?”
I looked back in the mirror at my terror-stricken face and began to gingerly hoist my panties and jeans over my ass, which was already pulsating with warmth from the raised bump. For the remainder of the day, as I toured around the hometown of John Waters’s pencil-thin mustache, I attempted to ignore the possibility of having a staph infection boil on my ass, striving to wish it away as it were, but when I woke up the following morning there was no mistake that something was wrong. Terribly wrong. Anna was right: the spider bite was no spider bite at all. It was a full-fledged boil, a hallmark staph infection symptom that radiated sharp pain throughout my derriere whenever the least amount of pressure grazed it, like the lingering echo of a bare-palmed spank.
Too miserable to hoist myself out of bed, I grabbed my phone from the nightstand, curled up tightly in a fetal position on my left side to let the boil hang out in the open air, and texted Chris the awful news.
“No phone sex for me tonight. I have a staph infection.”
“Those spider bites weren’t spider bites at all. THEY WERE STAPH BOILS.”
For the next half hour, my phone rested unresponsive, and my mind started dialing up the worst-case-scenario of what was happening on the other end of the line: understandably unable to recover from the knowledge that a bacterial boil was blooming on my beloved butt, Chris’s interest in me was swiftly waning like a detumescing penis in a cold shower. He was probably in Atlanta clutching his phone just like I was, only horrified at the thought of our sexual congress, which he was currently resolving to never call back into session.
Then finally, my phone trilled, and it was Chris calling to offer his condolences and learn the gory details, which required me to piece together the words “boil” and “my ass” and “hot-to-the-touch” all in the same unappetizing sentence.
“Uh oh,” he responded.
“I popped something that looked like a blister on my knee last night, and it’s been painful as shit this morning.”
“Oh fuck,” I responded eloquently, recalling that Staphylococcus sneaks around frat houses and whatnot so nimbly because of its highly contagious nature. “You probably have it then.”
An hour later and on the eve of my birthday, I sat at a dismal urgent care facility in suburban Baltimore, texting back and forth with my boyfriend about our mutual staph infections.
“Don’t Google image staph boils!” he warned.
“Too late. I’ve already watched a YouTube video of one being lanced… Kind of awesome.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
As I sat on an exam table, naked except for a hospital gown, a misanthropic nurse asked me to show her my boil. And so I carefully removed an antibiotic ointment-doused Band-Aid from my right butt cheek and bent over the exam table like some sort of red-cheeked baboon in heat.
“All you can really do is just wait for it to burst and drain,” she declared after briefly peering millimeters to the right of my crack.
“Oh, well, that sounds pleasant,” I said with a chuckle, attempting to lighten the stoic mood in the exam cubicle.
The nurse practitioner continued scribbling down my prescription, frowning at the pad of paper in her hand.
“How long should that take?” I persisted.
She shook her head. “Probably a few days, depending.”
On the way to the drugstore to retrieve my meds, Chris texted me to confirm that his respective urgent care physician had likewise diagnosed him with staph, thus, on the upside, giving us yet another thing in common alongside our mutual loves of cooking and fucking.
And speaking of sex, I took the news of my staph infection as though it was some sort of incurable STD that I had contracted from a forgettable one-night stand and passed his way. Maybe because it had been such a long time since such a good thing had come along, I was irrationally terror-stricken not that the antibiotics wouldn’t rid my body of the unwelcome bacteria, but that Chris would never recover from seeing me in such a state, boil-ridden and blubbering. It felt as though my body was karmically manifesting whatever emotional sickness I had harbored from past dysfunctional relationships in order to steer this wonderful guy clear of my baggage.
“You think this staph infection is disgusting? Wait to hear about her all of her childhood-related neuroses!”I could hear the ass boil snarling at Chris.
“Look, buddy, this broad has already given you staph. Do you really want to wait around see what else this anxiety-prone dame has in store for the likes of you?” the inexplicably Jersey-brogued boil on Chris’s knee might’ve barked.
Trapped in Baltimore, frantic that my boyfriend might’ve been extrapolating my bacterially infected physical health onto my emotional health, I then tried to take matters into my own hands—literally. Determined to spend my birthday boil-free, I backed, ass-first, to the floor-length mirror on my sister’s guest bedroom wall, gripping my shins and poking my head between my legs in order to get a clear view of the offending lesion. Gritting my teeth, I then positioned my hands on either side of the grapefruit-sized mass and began to squeeze like a madwoman possessed, my arm muscles quivering from the strain. Spread eagle in one of the most ungodly postures I’ve ever assumed, the festering skin broke open, and I began to force out the pus inside for a solid half hour until the pain became unbearable and my knees began to buckle.
Prostrate on the bed, as that was the only position that didn’t bring me to tears, I called my health insurance’s twenty-four-hour nursing hotline and spoke with a kindly woman named Glenda—I kid you not, the Good Witch herself—who graciously refrained from scolding me too harshly for doing what you’re really, really not supposed to do and attempt self-lancing and recommended that I chill the fuck out (my words, not kind Glenda’s), apply some hot compresses, and let the boil drain on its own.
As this self-un-help endeavor had gobbled up a good part of the last day of my vacation, Chris called soon after as he was driving home from work, asking if I was heading out on the town for any pre-birthday festivities, and I weakly responded that I would without a doubt be staying in since my ass was literally draining—and staining—everything that I sat on; I still owe my sister a couple pillows. The monthly experience of menstruation is comparatively manageable, as there are simple solutions to keep the bloody mess at bay. Should anyone ever encounter a staph infection, however, I am sad to report that boil tampons do not yet exist.
The next day, my twenty-eighth birthday, during the uncomfortable plane ride back home to Atlanta, I imagined that Chris couldn’t have been too excited to see a bacteria-infected girlfriend that evening. But instead of reacting with repulsion, he couldn’t wait to see me—his little Staphylococcus Patient Zero—as soon as I returned home.
“Get those swollen buns over here!” he texted me after I had gotten home from the airport and was primping for our date. In lieu of a sexier, body-hugging ensemble that might’ve also displayed the extra bump on my backseat “lady lumps,” I arrived at his place wearing a drop-waist dress a couple shades shy of Tangerine Tango, the 2012 Pantone Color of the Year, whose loose skirt betrayed no out-of-the-ordinary ass topography, accessorized with a vintage gold necklace and a makeup job that would’ve impressed even my mother’s Mary Kay representative. A nattily dressed chef-cum-busboy for the evening, Chris had gussied up for the occasion as well, a sharp black tie slicing down the center of his crisp white button-down shirt and his hair neatly parted and slicked back. For my birthday dinner, he served up impressive plates of crab-topped steak Oscar, roasted asparagus and fingerling potatoes, and aside from the grapefruit-sized ass boil that radiated stabbing pains throughout my groin whenever I so much as reached across the table for the pepper mill, everything was perfect as possible. Incredibly, we even managed to have birthday sex with the assistance of a pain-dulling bottle of pinot noir, a couple after-dinner whiskey cocktails, and creative positioning.
When I woke up the next morning, the boil was certainly still there, but it seemed smaller, demoted from a grapefruit down to some kind of smaller citrus. I rolled over toward Chris whose eyes fluttered open from my stirring.
He smiled and pulled me toward him.
“Good morning, beautiful,” he murmured and kissed my cheek. “I love you.”
Nestling into his chest, I exhaled, willing myself to just relax and believe it. Yes, we would never be able to un-remember that time that butt swelled up to massive proportions, and in the following month my body would act out like pouting child yet again and deliver me back-to-back urinary tract infections much to our collective chagrin, cranberry juice be damned. But finally, I had found the man who genuinely adored me, boils and all, and that is the important thing that, as our months together give way to years, I will never un-forget.
Cristen Conger is an Atlanta-based writer, a podcast co-host of Stuff Mom Never Told You, and the internet's unofficial Curator of Lady Knowledge. Her work specializes in all things women, gender, sex, and getting laughs. Not always in that order.