After our second date, I thought about the warts. I hadn’t checked for them for a while.

              In the shower, standing under the hot water, I bent my knees a little, parting my thighs, and pressed my fingers between my legs. Between my labia, and over the smooth skin there, then deeper. I felt carefully for hard little bumps, barely distinguishable from any other bump there. Once a doctor told me that vaginas are naturally bumpy.

              Not succeeding in finding anything suspicious, but still not convinced, I tried to see. Bent in half in the shower, the water ran down my neck and into my eyes. I couldn’t see anything at all. I wasn’t flexible enough to stick my own head between my legs, which is normal, I think.

              Out of the shower, my skin soft from the water, I started picking again. First my toenails, then the usually-hard lumps of dried skin on the heels of my feet. My feet had different spots of particularly thickened skin, a history of blisters mapped on my soles.

              Perhaps this was the problem: because I was gross. I sat on my bed and pulled at the skin on my feet. Gross how I picked at pimples, or dug around in my ear, or pulled skin off my lip until it bled.

              I scratched my scalp until there was a buildup of old product and shampoo underneath my fingernails. I dug it out with part of an earring, smeared it on my fingertips to inspect, then wiped it away.

              Even though it was summer, I’d stopped wearing sandals because I was embarrassed by my feet. The scabs and the patches of red, raw skin. All the time now, I was a little bit on edge.

In the end, I was the one who texted him first.

              The evening after our second date, I’d tried using my phone camera to have a proper look but had accidentally taken a burst of photos. Even then I couldn’t get a good view, just close-up pictures showing pinkish-red folds of flesh. They were so close that you couldn’t really tell what they were, but I deleted them immediately. Scenarios flickered in my mind where I texted them to a friend—or even him—by accident.

              I’d decided early on that I wasn’t going to play it cool or try and manufacture some excuse to text him. Rather I’d just be straight up, clear with my intentions: Hey, how’s your week been so far?

              There was a small ulcer forming on the inside of my right cheek. My tongue was relentlessly probing the bump, trying to feel the shape, flatten it back into the wall of my mouth.

              He texted me back: Hey, what’s up, good to hear from you. My week’s been okay, how about you?

              I thought about my shitty week, my annoying boss, and decided he wouldn’t want to listen to my moaning. I composed a chirpy response.

I bought a mirror from the pharmacy. Later, at home, after my shower, I toweled myself down and pulled on my pyjama top and a sweatshirt. If I had to be half naked, I wasn’t going to be cold. Leaving my towel on the floor, I hopped onto my bed, smoothing the duvet out beneath myself.

              Three pillows propped up were just right to lean on. This wasn’t my first rodeo, but it had been a while. My bedside lamp wasn’t quite bright enough to do the work. I sat leaning against the pillows, tucking my tailbone under, and rounding my spine a little. Had to position myself just so. Legs apart, turned out, knees bent, hips tilted back.

              Once I read in a girl’s magazine that all women should familiarise themselves with their vulvas, for situations exactly like this. I never did. If anyone else did, no one talked about it. I propped the mirror up. With my other hand, I turned on the flashlight on my phone, angling it so it didn’t blind me. It was all a bit awkward because I needed a free hand to part my labia, so I had to hold the mirror and my phone in the same hand.

              Fucking hell. I didn’t even really know what I was looking for. It all just looked like flesh to me. I wished I had a magnifying glass. I peered closer, twisting the mirror and my phone to get a closer look.

              And there, on the right-hand side was something suspicious. It was a relief to find something. Three small bumps, sitting in a row.

              The next step was straightforward: make a doctor’s appointment, get it checked out.

              Everything would be fine.

We had our third date the day before my appointment. There was an expectation, now that it was the third date. So I thought I should tell him. In the interest of full disclosure.

              He said, ‘You’re not that kind of girl,’ after I told him. I wanted to punch him.

              We were at a bar I’d never been to before. ‘Look, it’s fine,’ is what I said instead of punching him. ‘It’s probably nothing. I just thought I should let you know. It was a big deal once, and yeah, maybe it’s flared up again, but at the same time maybe—’ and here I added in a light laugh, ‘— maybe I’m just paranoid? Better to be overcautious. It’ll be fine.’

              I had thought we clicked. I thought he was a lot like me. Halfway through the first date, I’d slipped away to the bathroom and texted my friend: He’s so much cuter in person.

              ‘So—sorry, let me get this straight.’

              I nodded. I was still deciding if I was upset by him or not.

              ‘You had—these things—a year ago, and now you’re worried they are back?’ He too was avoiding the word that made my tongue curl and blacken.

              ‘Yup.’ I sipped my beer.

              ‘And—so you’re, what, going to see a specialist?’

              ‘Just a regular doctor. To get them to check. No big deal. Then they can treat them.’

              ‘So—for the meantime, I mean, for us,’ he blushed.

              I blushed too. He wanted to talk about the sex that we could possibly be having.

              ‘Well, yeah, I mean, protection isn’t 100 per cent,’ I was staring into the depths of my beer. ‘So we should just hold off. For now. See what happens. Not to presume we were going to—but if we were—just hypothetically.’

              ‘Yeah, of course.’ He smiled. God, he had a good smile.

Before we left the restaurant, I went to the bathroom. I stayed on the toilet a little longer than I needed to, scrolling through my phone, my tights crumpled around my ankles. When I left the cubicle, I was alone in the bathroom. I peered close at my reflection, little flecks of mascara clumped in my eyes. I picked at the black specks and flicked them away, and left without washing my hands.

              He held my hand on the bus back to his house.

              I stayed over that night. It was fine to stay, so long as we didn’t have sex.

              I tried to keep still in the bed next to him, hyperaware of all my limbs, the discomfort in my neck, my arm going to sleep. He was definitely asleep, his breathing even. I kind of wanted to roll over. His pillow was too flat under my head and there was a small green light glowing somewhere over by his desk. I could feel the beer still spinning round in my head and wished I could get some water, but I was trapped under his arm, and the house was unfamiliar. My mouth ulcer was stinging a little and kept rubbing against my teeth. I closed my eyes, tried counting to 100, got distracted, tried counting backwards from 1000, got distracted again, started at 100,000. Eventually I must’ve fallen asleep.

The next day, taking the elevator up to my floor at work, I could still smell him on my skin. I hadn’t showered and felt filthy. Secretly I was enjoying the scent of him on me. I wondered if anyone would notice I was wearing the same clothes as yesterday. It was perfectly fine to wear the same sweatshirt two days in a row anyway. I’d just keep it on all day so no one could see I was wearing the same shirt. Not that it mattered.

              I poured myself a coffee from the pot. It was bitter. It would probably worsen my ulcer.

              Someone rang and told me they couldn’t send a fax—our fax machine was broken. I told them I’d fix it, while thinking, send an email instead, you troglodyte. There was a pain in my back curving away from my spine. A line drawn in nerves. My hands shook a little from too much coffee.

              I fixed the fax machine and called the man back.

At 11 a.m. the mail arrived. There was nothing good in it. Nothing for me to do. I contemplated quitting or drinking on the job. Instead, I googled ex-boyfriends and flight deals and tried to figure out if I could pay my rent next month. I counted down until my appointment.

At 4 p.m. I followed the doctor down the hall to his office. I was reminded of my father, that same steel-grey hair. I told myself my usual mantra: he is a professional. He will have seen it all. He will have seen worse. He won’t judge.

              In his office, I tucked my shaky hands under my legs, trapping them safely beneath my thighs. I was trying to find a way to explain why I was there, without being defensive.

              ‘About two years ago I had, um,’ I said, probing for the words in my mouth like my ulcer, ‘Genital warts.’ How it hurt. ‘I had them treated,’ I clarified. ‘But I was checking.’ Here he nodded encouragingly. ‘And I’m afraid they are back.’

              He had a couple of questions, before indicating the examination—bed? Table? He pulled out the roll of paper towel, draping it the length of the bed, then stepped out to give me privacy.

              The chance to get undressed alone was one thing I was grateful for.

              I thought of the treatments I’d done in the past, staring at the ceiling, counting blasts of dry ice.

              I took off my shoes, tights, and underwear, and folded them neatly onto the chair. Climbed up onto the bed and the paper crinkled beneath me. There was a blanket folded on the edge of the bed. I pulled it across my knees and laid back.

              In my mind, I cursed the three bumps. Their fault I was here again, pretending I wasn’t pants-less beneath the sheet.

              Actually, his fault. The boy who gave it to me. He’d said he had to get treated but I was sure it wasn’t like this. He wouldn’t have worried about the doctor’s gender. If they were passing judgement. If he was a cautionary tale for their children. He definitely didn’t have to go home and get out a mirror, afraid to look. He would never suffer a speculum. He would never feel ashamed when he took his clothes off around someone new.

              The doctor returned. How did he know how long to wait? Did he stand outside counting minutes? Did he go back and talk to the nurses, say something friendly, ask about their day?

              It was a strange sensation, being nude from the waist down and still being completely dignified with the doctor. He had a light and a magnifying glass.

              He asked me to specify what I’d seen. Where it was. I didn’t know if it was the left or the right labium, because I’d looked in the mirror, and then I didn’t know if it would be his left or my left. I waved my hand around where I thought it would be. He said something about scar tissue and then told me I was fine.

              ’I’m being paranoid, aren’t I.’ I said.

              He said, ‘It is good to be diligent,’ but his eyes seemed to agree. I was kind of sorry that I made him look at my vagina. But kind of not. A weird gratitude.

              He said, ‘If it’s warts, we know. When we know, we know.’ I wished I had his confidence. ‘We really can’t mistake them for anything else. Perhaps what you saw was just a fleck of toilet paper, and you do have some scar tissue there.’

              As I left the clinic, my phone buzzed. Updates to install. He hadn’t texted me.

              There ought to be a lesson in all this.

On Saturday morning I messaged a friend:

              How long is the appropriate amount of time to wait after your third date and after you’ve stayed over at someone’s house to contact them again, if you’re the girl and you were the one who initiated the last date?

              Hah, she wrote back. Girl, you gotta let it go. Be chill.

              Not the answer I was hoping for, but the answer I was expecting.

              Rather than texting him, I opened a dating app on my phone. The deck had reshuffled and there was a new face at the front. I’d heard a theory that when you hadn’t used it for a while, they put all the hotter people at the front. I had a theory as well, that the hot guys were more likely to be assholes, so I usually didn’t swipe right on them. Fuck that theory right now though; if I was going to spend all this time worrying about a boy texting me back, it could at least be a hot asshole.

              I opened my last set of messages with him. They were from just before our last date, when we were preparing to meet up.

              Just got us a table.

              Cool, I’m 2 mins away.

              Was there any point? I’d told him. I’d done the right thing.

              I started biting my fingernails again.

Late one night in the bizarre depths of the internet, I got a personalised ad for a product that promised to smooth and replenish your feet. I googled it. A painstakingly detailed review set out how to apply the cream at night, bind your feet and dress them in the special booties. Then your dead skin would shed over the next few days, sloughing off into your socks, in the shower, in your bed.

              I thought it probably wouldn’t be suitable for me, because of the cuts patterned across my soles, [not suitable for open wounds] but I added one to my shopping cart anyway.

              I flicked away from the window before going through to the checkout. Instead, I opened Facebook and typed in his name to bring up his profile. Add friend, the page suggested. Strange. I’d thought we were already friends.