“Have you been sexually active lately?” inquired my allergist, a nervous guy in his mid-sixties. He called two assistants, unflappable women who winced when I removed clip-on shades to display Rudolph red eyes crusted over with green oozing pus. Yes, I was a Christmas present wrapped in contagions.
I related the week’s events, which included an especially relaxing restorative yoga class on Tuesday. I just didn’t understand how I could get sick when I was so zen.
Thursday, I woke up leaking salty tears. I thought I had allergic conjunctivitis. The urgent care doctor agreed with me and sent me to work with a note and a local antihistamine; allergic pink eye is not contagious. Saturday, each blink felt like skin against concrete. Yet I soldiered through two innings at a Brooklyn Cyclones game, crying like Nosferatu in the blinding sun. Monday, I sat in front of my paranoid allergist and his hypochondriac team who held on my every word.
“I started dating someone recently,” I admitted. “Three weeks ago, I had protected sex one time -- after six years of total abstinence. Is my karma that bad that I would get an STD in both eyes and nowhere else after one encounter?”
“Did you have oral sex?” he asked in a monotone. I tried not to gag while looking at the flakes of psoriasis on his collar.
“Wouldn’t I have an infection in my throat?”
“True,” he said, scratching the patch of skin above his ear.
“Did you get semen in your eyes?” an assistant asked. “This looks like gonorrhea.”
“What?” I screamed. “Do you mean, did I got the clap by having ocular sex? I don’t even know what that is.”
Then I backtracked to Tuesday’s yoga class. I remembered using an eye pillow. Unable to find a tissue to wrap it in, I slapped the bean bag over my peepers and fell into a deep trance in viparita karani. Yeah, yeah, I had read the Elle article about ringworm and staph infections that live in the porous surfaces of sweaty mats.
But mindfulness made me feel invincible to germs, right?
My allergist shook his head. “Those studios are petri dishes for resistant infections,” he warned. He sent me to the ophthalmologist in his building for immediate care. When I met her a few minutes later, she also inquired about my sexual activity.
My discharge had the milky quality of a gonorrheal infection. Not to worry, she said. If it
was GC, short for gonococcal, we would treat it. To make me feel better, she described patients with pubic lice on their lashes. OMG!
I felt relief after an icy cold eye wash over the sink. She prescribed antibacterial cream to apply to my lids before bed and antibacterial drops to use four times a day for 10 days. No swimming, no eye makeup, no contact lenses. If I didn’t respond right away, she suggested I go to an infirmary to scrape a culture from my cornea. That sounded dreadful.
I saw noticeable improvements after the first dose, but I was still contagious and had to wash all my bedding and towels, following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocol. I called off three days of work -- which might have been nice -- but I couldn’t kiss or pick up my cats. Conjunctivitis can spread to pets just like it can to other people.
Sex was certainly out of the question. Not only did I feel disgusting, satya compelled me warn my sweetheart, “Guess what, honey,” I said on the phone. “We both might want to get tested.” He said he felt nauseated. His heart raced. “Please be better,” he said before offering
an awkward goodnight.
When the ophthalmologist called check on me, I asked if I could have gotten pink eye from an eye pillow. She said it was likely, especially when I described how they lay in a dark warm basket like eggs in a nest, a tempting toy for children in the lobby. “Children are notorious spreaders of germs,” confirmed Dr. Philip M. Tierno, Jr, Professor of Microbiology and Pathology at NYU School of Medicine.
In our email exchange, Dr. Tierno said, “There are several organisms that can ordinarily cause pink eye, some are bacteria (like Hemophilus influenza, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Moraxella sp), others are viral in nature. Unlike GC, those microbes can survive well on inanimate objects like a yoga mat that was dirty.”
“You likely did not have a GC [gonococcal infection],” he assured me after I explained my one sexual encounter vs. the eye bag in the yoga class. “GC doesn't survive in the ambient environment. So if the person has GC they got it by some form of sexual encounter with a person but not a mat.”
Had I known, I wouldn’t have gone through the process of telling my new boyfriend. We both got tested and shared our negative results in a mature fashion. But after so much clinical talk, the spark was gone, especially since mild symptoms continued for more than a month after treatment. Could a summer romance outlive an eye gonorrhea scare? Our flame died without applause, or rather, the clap.