By Andrew Roe
I know blood. The types, the variations of color and presence and absence. It’s what I look at all day long, the way an accountant looks at numbers, the way a butcher looks at meat, the way a painter looks at paint.
Phlebotomist: It was a job that paid well after I graduated from high school, a path that did not require a college education, that also got me out of my parents’ house (a mother, a stepfather, no siblings). And it was the first thing I was ever actually good at. So it stuck (ha ha). Then I just kept going.
Arms, veins, skin. I don’t see faces anymore. The people I see are not people. They are arms, veins, skin. I sterilize. I draw the needle. Insert. Extract from them what I need. Next.
Because I’m good, I take it personally if I miss the vein, if it takes more than one attempt. The rest of the day, and sometimes beyond, will be tainted by my mistake. I can’t let it go.
Phle-bo-to-mist: A lot of syllables, too. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, either.
When my coworkers have patients with thin veins or they’re having an off day or they have someone with tremors from Parkinson’s, they call me in.
“She’s our Terminator,” they say, and before the patient realizes it, it’s over, I’m out, I’m gone, who was that gangly frizzy-haired woman in the white lab coat?
That was me.
“Stab ’em and tag ’em,” my coworkers like to joke, but I don’t.
The lab has its regulars. Lots of people getting chemo who need their blood monitored on a recurring basis. Even with them, with these sad, old, bald men and women, I keep my distance. I can’t. I just can’t.
Today, I have a full schedule of appointments and the waiting room is also overflowing with walk-ins. An army of wheelchairs and walkers out there. Complaints about the lack of seats and space and the outdated reading material: copies of People and Sunset and Oprah from three, four years ago. A lone plastic plant in a large pot occupies a corner, like it’s being punished, a dunce plant. That universal smell common to all waiting rooms: sterile, chemical, mortal. I call out the name of my next patient. I read names all day and don’t remember a single one. Male or female, I don’t even notice. The patient follows me back into one of the exam rooms. Sits down. Rolls up his/her sleeve. Arms, veins, skin. Sometimes trying to make small talk, but more often that’s not the case. I put out a pretty clear vibe.
But it’s hard not to notice the particularities of this patient. He—yes, the patient is male—is young, and that’s fairly uncommon. He has long shaggy black hair, presumably dyed, reluctantly combed. Black t-shirt, black jeans, black backpack slung over his shoulder. A floral tattoo blooms on his left forearm. Pasty vampire complexion. He looks like he could be in a band, or wants to be in a band, or should be in a band. And he’s lanky, lean like a tree out in the desert. He slouches in the chair, crosses his arms, and stretches out his legs, crossing his ankles as well, like he’s the smartest kid in class and isn’t having any of it.
He’s talking, too.
“So this is what you do, blood,” he says.
“Pretty much,” I say.
“Nine to five, dealing with blood,” he marvels, looking around, surveying the order, the minimalism of the exam room. “That’s cool.”
“I don’t always take my meds.”
“Oh. Why not?”
“I don’t like to be predictable.”
I rub his non-tattooed forearm with an alcohol swab, find the vein, massage it gently, noncommittally, with my thumb.
“This won’t hurt a bit,” I say, which is more than I usually say.
“I bet you say that to all the boys.”
He smiles, and I can tell this is somewhat of a rarity for him, rare like an eclipse or a Nick Drake album. As a result of the smile, his mouth seems pained, and so the expression quickly disappears, back to the neutral, safe.
Then we’re done.
“That it?” he asks.
“Cool. I’ll see you next week.”
That night I dream about the patient who looks like he could be or wants to be or should be in a band. I don’t remember what he says or does, or why here’s there. But he is there. He is in my dream. He has crossed over.
My coworkers at the lab are almost all women. Older than me, harder than me, although lately I’ve been feeling like their hardness has been rubbing off on me—you know, the osmosis thing. They complain about children and husbands, boyfriends and celebrities. Someone or something is always disappointing them. It’s their default state.
The only guy is Salvador. Sal. Rumor has it that he’s either gay or vegetarian.
“Could he be both?” someone once asked.
“It’s possible, I suppose,” someone else said. “Anything’s possible this day and age, which you could say is one of those Catch-22 deals. Could be a good thing, could be a bad thing, anything being possible. Depends on your life view.”
“Hell. You know what I mean.”
“No. I don’t know what you mean.”
“Well I’m not going explain it now, not here.”
And like most conversations at work it eventually drifted off to another topic, someone started talking about something else, the phone rang, there was an emergency, a sample got mixed up, the UPS guy came, something. And the now-dead conversation never got resolved.
During the week that follows, I find myself thinking about the new patient way too frequently. Why? I wonder. Why this person? He’s probably a year or two younger. Several inches shorter than me. Mildly reminiscent of an actor whose name I can never remember. Not someone I would ever conjure in my mind.
But he doesn’t come that week. I return to my apartment at night, carrying him home with me. The heat arrives. Temperatures hovering near one hundred. Fires farther north, one in Santa Clarita and another in Santa Barbara. One evening I visit my mother and stepfather, my monthly trip to Norwalk, a short drive from Whittier. The house is smoky, cough-inducing, cluttered. Often you have to move something if you want to sit down.
My mother tells me, in great detail, about her latest urinary tract infection. She explains how she had called her Internet company to complain about a recent price increase and now she believes they are purposefully slowing down her Internet service. Randall can’t enjoy his nature videos as much anymore. There’s lag. The videos help him fall asleep at night.
Toward the end of the visit, after we’ve also covered ailing family and annoying neighbors, she informs me that she will not, as planned, be retiring next year. She can’t afford it. She’ll be working at least another five years, maybe more.
“I may never retire at this rate,” she says, lighting another cigarette. “Randall’s 401(k) has been practically wiped out. The bills aren’t going anywhere, we’re not going anywhere. Just so you know: There’s no nest egg here. Don’t be counting on that. Just to be clear. We don’t live in that kind of world anymore. You work hard all your life and this is what you get.”
On Friday, it’s a coworker’s birthday. We have cake, sparkling cider. Primarily middle-aged people holding paper plates and using plastic spoons because they are no more forks. I haven’t told anyone my birthday. And they never ask.
My last patient of the week says she’s afraid of needles. Without realizing it, I put my hand on her shoulder. The patient is a woman. I notice.
“This won’t hurt a bit,” I say. “Promise.”
My annual job performance review: I am highly skilled. I am admired by others. I am seen as a potential leader. Coworkers value my input. They would also like to see more of this, for me to be more communicative, less solitary. We are a team, after all. It would be nice if I embraced that more. I sign a piece of paper, agreeing to all this. It’s the same as last year and the year before, the same as it’s been the past six years. Except that now I get an extra vacation day per year.
I call out his name the following Tuesday afternoon, and he’s there this time. He takes a seat in the exam room. My hands trembling. Why? How am I going to do my job and extract his blood?
“I missed you last week.”
Had I said that? Had I meant missed as in our paths did not cross as expected, or missed as in missed, longed for, was disappointed by his absence?
“I told you I don’t like to be predictable. Ouch.”
“Last time I didn’t feel a thing.”
“Sorry. I’m trying another vein.”
“Do people usually watch?”
“Watch the needle go into the arm, accept the pain, embrace it, or look away, close their eyes, pretend it’s not happening?”
“I never really noticed.”
“You could run with that: ‘There are two types of people in the world, people who watch their blood being taken out of them, and those who look away.’”
“There. All done.”
The last time I didn’t find the vein on the first probe was over a year ago, my streak ended.
“Are you from here?”
Another first, asking a patient a personal question.
“No, I’m from somewhere else. The other side of the country. I came here because my grandmother lives here and it was Los Angeles and I had expectations and I needed somewhere to go. I didn’t realize Whittier was Whittier.”
“Not what you expected?”
“Not the L.A. in my mind. That’s for sure. Suburbs are suburbs. I could be anywhere here.”
“There’s downtown Whittier, the older part. That part’s a little different. They got brick buildings and stuff.”
“All I see is Chevron, Starbucks, McDonald’s.”
“What would you like to see?”
“Something that’s not this.”
When we’re finished, Trevor—that’s his name, Trevor—asks if he can stay a while.
“Here? In the exam room?”
“Yeah, here with you. For a few more minutes. It was so quick.”
“Well, OK. Just a little while, though. There’s a waiting list.”
“A lot of people need to have their blood taken. Job security, right?”
“Are there ever times when you just don’t want to go to sleep?”
“What do you mean?”
“When you know you should shut your eyes and sleep but you don’t? You just keep reading or watching TV or whatever, or thinking, and somehow it makes you more alive than you usually are, during the rest of the regular day?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“I’m on one of those jags right now. Not sleeping much. Thinking a lot. Making progress in a bigger picture way. Do I need to go now?”
“All right, he says reluctantly. Until next time, Sylvia.”
“How did you know my name?”
That’s right. I wear a nametag.
Later, getting close to my last scheduled appointment of the day, I call out the name Mary Hornbach. An older woman shuffle-walks toward me. She is white-haired and fragile like balsa wood. Liver spots have fully colonized her hands. There is no going back.
“They want to start me on radiation again,” she confides as I prepare her. “But my white cell counts have to be higher. I don’t know if I can do it again, the radiation. It feels like your bones are being ground to dust.”
“Me too. I just hope the counts stay low. Do what you can, OK?”
I take her blood. Whatever Mary Hornbach wants, she should get. I hold her hand and tell her I hope the counts are low, too. I’ll do my best.
A few months ago, we were instructed to call patients clients. You didn’t help a patient. You helped a client. This was after the lab was purchased by a larger company, VitaCorp, spurring rumors of layoffs and closures. The speculation has since died down, though, and no one calls patients clients.
There is a wraps place, California Wraps, a chain, two blocks away from the lab and decent, and once a week, on Wednesdays, I go there for lunch instead of bringing it and consuming my yogurt and carrots and leftover tamales in the break room. I order the same food, drink the same drink. Habits are comforts. And my comforts are rare, so I try not to feel too guilty about them. Because it’s still blazingly hot today, I drive.
He’s sitting on the sidewalk, crisscross-applesauce, camped out to the left of the entrance, writing in a notebook, his backpack open and leaning against him, outfitted in his usual uniform of contrarian black.
“Hey, it’s the blood girl. I almost didn’t recognize you without your white jacket. Do they make you wear those?”
“It’s not optional.”
The Radio Shack next door has closed, which I didn’t know about until now. There’s a note posted in the store window, thanking customers for their twenty-three years of support.
“I get it,” he says. “The jacket gives a certain effect, for sure. All official, all medical-ly. You interested in buying me lunch?”
We go inside California Wraps and I buy him lunch. He devours a Corleone Italian Wrap, chips, a chocolate chip cookie the size of a small baby’s head. I offer him the rest of my Sea Breeze Salad, and he eats that, too.
“Do you want to know why I’m coming in to have my blood drawn?”
“It’s up to you.”
“That’s OK. You don’t have to.”
“Everything’s boring. Especially the truth. But the truth is, I’ve got this rare blood disease, one of those one in a million deals, lucky fucking me. I found out last year, before I moved out here.”
“I have to get transfusions every once in a while. It’s called PNH. Stands for paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria.”
“Basically my red blood cells break apart like prematurely, and there’s hemoglobin in my pee. And so one of the dangers of that is, is blood clots. Thrombosis. The shit I’m learning. It can also mess up your bone marrow.”
He pauses, which is something he doesn’t do often. I notice a trace of little-boy-ness still informing his face, or at least I can picture him as a boy, riding his bike, swimming in the summer, bliss in his world-greeting expression before something else took over.
“Sorry. That’s kind of heavy. And here we are just eating our lunch on a Wednesday afternoon.”
“That’s all right. I’m glad you told me.”
“Have you ever been to The Knight’s Inn?”
“It’s a bar. They do music there sometimes. Rebel Yell is playing there tonight.”
“It’s a Billy Idol tribute band. The guy sounds just like Billy Idol.”
Had I said cool? Yes, I had.
“I need to get going. And I’m sure you’ve got blood to take. Maybe I’ll see you there? Thanks for the food and everything. I’ll pay you back.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I will. I’m good for it.”
“I saw you writing something. In a notebook. When I first saw you.”
“Lyrics. Or a poem. I can’t decide which. Maybe it’s both. I just like to write shit down.”
Yes, I’d said it again.
The sign actually says Ye Olde Knights Inn. The singer for Rebel Yell is well past fifty, also weighing at least fifty pounds more than Billy Idol. Wearing leather and sneering and jumping around on the small stage like a spring continually coming unwound. What is obviously a wig, blonde and spiky. He could be Mexican. But his voice is just like Billy Idol’s. He’s got that down. At the bar I order a vodka tonic. Then another. I guess it’s my drink, because it’s always what I order at bars, even though I’ve never made this concerted, seemingly important decision. I find myself wondering: Had he been waiting for me in front of California Wraps or was it a coincidence? Purposeful or random? Fated or pure chance? And can you ever know the difference? I don’t see any sign of Trevor, and I wait and sip, sucking on melting ice cubes, at the bar, at a table, talking to no one, and when the band starts playing “White Wedding” for the third time I leave.
“I’m sorry,” Trevor says when I draw his blood again. “I went to take a nap and then I fell asleep. I’d been up a long time. I’m really sorry. How was Rebel Yell?”
“He sounded just like Billy Idol.”
These past weeks I’ve gotten to know his blood better than anyone else’s. It’s velvety red, full bodied, hypnotic. I hold the vial and examine it longer than I do the other vials, the other blood I contend with every day. What can it tell me? What can it show me?
He notices me staring, and I feel my cheeks and chest surge with my own variation of red. I label the vial, sign the paperwork.
“I don’t think I can stay at my grandma’s anymore.”
“Maybe. Maybe San Francisco. Maybe Portland. Somewhere where there’s more soul. It’s not really my grandma’s place, per se. It’s her storage space. Storage America on Whittier Boulevard. A few months after I moved out here, she fell and broke her hip. My parents had to put her in a home and so all her shit had to go into storage and I had to move out. So: Storage America. Did you go to school for this? I keep meaning to ask.”
“There’s training, a certification process.”
“And you get the white coats.”
“Maybe you can get me one some day.”
Everyone at work receives an email. About half of us are instructed to go to conference room A, the other half to conference room B. There’s been talk of naming these rooms for years, something more original and catchy than the first two letters of the alphabet, but no one has ever come up with anything. So: A and B.
“My name is Gloria Jenkins,” says a woman we’ve never seen before, “and I’m your HR representative for VitaCorp. The rest of your coworkers are in another room, being told of some organizational changes. If you are in this room, if you are here now, you are not affected by these changes.”
Gloria Jenkins continues to talk for another five minutes, offering details and reassurances and guidance on how to interact with our affected coworkers, and when she asks if anyone has any questions, none of us asks any.
People in conference room A have kids, families, houses, responsibilities. I have none of these things. Yet I am in conference room B. Salvador, Sal, gay or vegetarian, or both, is in conference room A.
We disperse without comment. We get back to work, take more blood, because there is always more blood, empty glass vials waiting to be filled.
But he doesn’t show up the next week or the week after that, and I am—what? Forlorn. A word I’ve never used to describe myself before, and maybe never will again, but it feels right at the moment: Yes, I am forlorn.
People come, people go, entering and exiting our lives, beckoning us, whispering here, whispering there, and it’s up to us to listen or not listen. There’s the belief that we are nothing but atoms (or molecules) adrift in space, and everything is random. This seems right to me. So anytime we collide with another atom (or molecule), and there’s impact, definite impact, definite touch, we should be grateful, there should be gratitude for and acknowledgement of this small—that is, large—miracle. This also seems right to me.
On Saturday morning, I try to sleep in but it doesn’t work out. Veins of sunlight stretch across my sheets, the heat of the day already beginning to assert itself. My apartment is quiet, except for the occasional footsteps above me: a couple that goes to the gym together, who shop at Trader Joe’s together, whose names I don’t know. It’s disconcerting to live so close to them, only a few feet away, and not know who they are. They once had a party and Guns and Roses blared until 2 a.m., “Sweet Child o’ Mine” playing over and over, as if the song would provide a vital clue if it was played enough times.
After lying here for an hour, I give up and get out of bed. Laundry, errands, other weekend occupations await. I will call my mother to tell her I won’t be coming over and Randall will answer and there will be that long pause as she dramatically walks to the phone, all this effort on my account. I will hear the lighter spark, ignite. I will not ask why I wasn’t allowed to attend birthday parties when I was child. I will not ask why Randall or how come she doesn’t talk to her sisters. I will allow her, temporarily, her platform to voice her latest disappointments and grievances. She is like an isolationist country that knows no other way to be.
“Hi,” I say to the guy working at Storage America.
“Can I help you?” he replies in a voice that clearly does not want to help me or anyone else.
“I’m looking for someone. He has a storage space here. Or his grandmother does, and he’s kind of staying there, or living there, I think.”
“You mean Vampire Guy?”
Storage America Guy looks like he just woke up, even though it’s 2:30 in the afternoon. A giant can of Rockstar Energy Drink is within reach on the counter, behind which he stands, tall enough to be a basketball player, a long E.T. neck and a significant slouch.
“The payments hadn’t been made in months,” he says. “We had to kick him out. Plus it’s like illegal to live in a space anyway. So we locked him out and then he got all jacked up about it and threw a stapler. Legally the stuff is ours if you don’t pay. You sign that shit away. But people don’t read the fine print when they sign the agreement.”
“He was just living in there?”
“The owner doesn’t give a shit. But then sometimes he does. It’s hard to figure.”
“Did he say where he was going? Did he leave anything behind?”
“Whatever’s in the space. Like I said, he was locked out. You can take a look if you want. Take what you want. We’re getting rid of everything tomorrow.”
The smell inside the storage space hits you hard: musty and farty, that of a trapped body slowly secreting its regrets. Trevor had laid out a sleeping bag toward the back of the space, which is roughly 12-by-12 and overrun with boxes, an old dresser, a hanging mirror, a few framed paintings (boats, ocean, sunlight), a stack of photo albums, a vacuum cleaner, rolled up throw rugs, garbage bags full of clothes and shoes and household appliances. All very old and grandma-y, so I assume everything belongs to his grandmother. Next to the sleeping bag (you have to skirt the left wall to reach it) is a line of prescription bottles, three in all; I pick them up one by one: something for his red blood cells, but also Abilify and Wellbutrin. Inside the sleeping bag I find a notebook.
I flip through the notebook, one of those spiral ones like you use in high school. The pages are filled with doodles and sketches, ramblings and descriptions. One entry narrates his trip from Pennsylvania to California and describes the people he encountered along the way—a diabetic out-of-work farmer named Norm, a woman named Vanessa who claimed to be related to Dick Cheney—and another outlines an idea for a movie. It takes place in the future, and it’s about a young man who refuses to take the pill that everyone in this futuristic society is forced to take, and after the description there’s a line in all caps, underlined, that says: HAS THIS ALREADY BEEN DONE BEFORE? SOUNDS FAMILIAR. NEED TO CONFIRM. IS IT EVEN POSSIBLE TO HAVE AN ORIGINAL IDEA ANYMORE? HOW CAN YOU TELL, VERIFY? ALSO NEED TO CONFIRM. On one of the last pages, I read this: “Went to the blood place, met a girl.”
The notebook almost falls out of my hands. There I am. In the notebook. There. Me.
Went to the blood place, met a girl.
I was the girl in “met a girl.” I doubt that’s ever happened before, but there it is in Trevor’s chaotic, childish handwriting. It stuns me. Such a simple thing, but it’s like all of a sudden, there I am, placed in the world, seen, remembered.
I decide to take the notebook with me. Also the pills. Then I pull out the white lab coat from my purse and drape it over the sleeping bag where his body would be. I imagine the shape of his body there, inside the jacket. I imagine where he could be, right now. I’m thinking: on a bus, on a train, in a car, in motion, somewhere else, away from here, away from me.
“Thanks,” I say to Storage America Guy on my way out. “And he didn’t say what he was going to do, where he was going to go?”
“Nope. He was too busy throwing the stapler.”
“Do a lot of people end up leaving stuff behind like that?”
“You wouldn’t believe.”
My apartment darkens and I don’t flip on the lights. It is still Saturday and tomorrow is Sunday. Somehow I’ll fill the time until I go back to work on Monday. Since there are less people, there is more work. But no one complains. For so long I’ve thought of my job as a calling. But now I’m not so sure.
I turn on the Addiction Channel and it’s that show about addicts who also have the names of famous people: Michael Jackson, Tony Bennett, Julia Roberts. There’s a person about my age named Jackie Kennedy who’s confessing how she hid her heroin use from her mom for years. “I was surprised,” the woman says, “at how good I was at secrets, at telling lies. I was kind of proud of it, actually. I almost got as much of a high from that as I did from the drug.”
The notebook sits on my lap, the pills on the end table next to the sofa.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be a man, another person, but I guess that’s often the case, the cliché. Someone comes into your life and everything feels different after, skewed in a significant way, a good way. It could also be a trip, a book you read, a movie you see. Or a health scare or a family secret or a spiritual epiphany. But usually it’s a person who gets you to this place of openness and awakening and renewal, and sometimes that person continues on with you and sometimes they don’t. You are alone again but you have seen the possibility of not being alone. Just to know that I could get that close—that was enough, that was a start.
Finally I switch on the lights so I can read the notebook again. A man in a diner in Yuma, Arizona, who cursed out the waitress because she reminded him of his ex-wife. A dismissal of his parents, of all the zombies out there, the United Drones of America. He’s scared that he has this disease, this thing he’ll have to carry through the rest of his life, which will be a shortened life, a marked life. Bob Dylan is overrated. The Beatles are underrated. Squeaky Fromme was part of the Manson family. The vapor trails left behind by planes certainly look different these days, the white exhaust lingering longer in the sky, but he doesn’t believe in the conspiracy theories about chemtrails. You have to be vigilant about your defiance. It’s so easy to give in, give up.
Did he know the impact he had? Maybe he’s already forgetting me, or has completely forgotten me. But then: Went to the blood place, met a girl. Maybe—in San Francisco, in Portland, somewhere—he will think of me, wonder what if, wonder about the possibilities like I am now. There is so much that is beyond me, an ocean of mystery and uncertainty. So much water in which to swim. Or not swim. And there is no more nest egg. We don’t live in that world anymore. But did we ever?
The name on the prescriptions: T. Niederbach. I remove one pill from each bottle. The first is small, white, round, efficient; the second even smaller, a soothing baby blue, more rectangular. In my hand, they look magical. Like magic beans in a children’s story. I swallow them and lie down on the sofa, then wait for the effect, wait for the difference.
Andrew Roe’s most recent book is Where You Live, a short story collection. His debut novel, The Miracle Girl, was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. His fiction has been published in Tin House, One Story, The Sun, Glimmer Train, Slice, The Cincinnati Review, and other publications, as well as the anthologies 24 Bar Blues (Press 53) and Where Love Is Found (Washington Square Press). His nonfiction has been published in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Salon.com, and elsewhere. He lives in Oceanside, California, with his wife and three children.