I watch her juggle a pile of vials, the bundle of bags, and the self-adhesive labels all at once.
The labels seem to jump into place, the movement so smooth it looks like a magician's illusion. And her illusion comes from the same place the magician's does - years of practice, years and years.
"How long have you been doing this?" I ask as she marks the enormous vein off from inside my left elbow.
She pauses, concentrating on perfect alignment of the needle, perfect angle, perfect depth.
"Eleven years," she says in a severely clipped but perfectly intelligible Chinese accent. Everything about her is utilitarian. Every movement exactly what is required and no more or less. Her hair is cut brutally short, glossy black peppered with gray, her face lined with care or maybe worry.
"That's a good stick," I tell her as she tapes down the lines.
She looks a little surprised, grunts a "Thank you", and then tells me "Relax now, squeeze gentle every ten second."
She presses a foam stress ball into my hand and turns to deal with a beeping machine. I can see the whites in the eyes of the girl seated next to me. She's watching the blood shoot down the plastic tube and begin the first trickles into the first bag.
"Don't look," I say to the girl, but she's transfixed. She'll probably end up with the back kicked out of the chair by the time she's done, layed out in the recovery position, with the nurse telling her to breathe normally and relax.
Nightmare visions, now, of having to lunge off of my chair to catch her if she pitches forward into the aisle, both of us going down in a tangle of needles and hoses and blood.
The utilitarian nurse catches my eye, jerks her head slightly towards the girl, and then gives me a thumbs up.
"I watch very close. No problem. You relax, squeeze gentle every ten second."
I nod and squeeze the ball.
The pieces of paper I have to look at tell me that anyone who's spent time eating raw beef in the prisons or old folks' homes of a former Soviet nation can't give blood.
And anyone who's had a dura mater transplant can't either. I am, at this, more fascinated by the idea of a dura mater transplant than anything else. But there are a whole bunch of other people who can't give blood, including frequent travelers to apparently random countries.
Nor, it seems, can bisexual, gay, or queer men who have had sex since 1977.
I laugh at this a little. The volunteer holding the clipboard and directing traffic has been checking me out since I got on the bus.
"Hey man, have you seen this?"
He looks over, smiling.
"Can't let any gay blood contaminate the regular supply. You know what'll happen, right?"
He laughs and rolls his eyes. "That's just something left over from a long time ago. Most people don't really care, I think they just keep it in writing there to avoid rocking the boat."
"Yeah, sure," I tell him as I put the binder back on the desk. "You've never seen a were-homo then, huh? You put gay blood in a straight man, and he'll turn gay under the full moon."
He looks shocked, then laughs with his hands over his mouth. "Oh my God, that's the funniest thing anyone has ever said in here. I'm so going to tell everyone I know about that. Oh my God. Do you have Facebook?"
I tell him I do not have Facebook. I do not tell him the story I really want to tell him, about having to sneak Greg's boyfriend into Greg's funeral and wake, masquerading as my designated driver, because Greg hadn't come out to his family before getting his guts blown out in a shitty war. Greg died in a hospital surrounded by strangers, and any deathbed confessions were not passed on with the body.
Brave enough to do two tours. Brave enough to jump in front of enemy fire to save friends and civilians. Brave enough to die for his country.
Too scared to tell his family he was gay.
Greg lied his ass off and gave blood anyway, as I suspect many do. And nobody can tell the difference. It all gets screened for everything these days, anyway, so the practical difference is zero.
I've heard before about how politics keeps the bullshit wording in place, and how it's better to not rock the boat. Now just where was it that I heard "Don't ask, don't tell" before?
While waiting for the results of my bloodwork to come up on the thoroughly overloaded and ancient networked medical information system, my doctor chuckled and asked if I wanted to hear something funny.
We had been discussing the importance of yearly or at least biennial HIV and Hepatitis tests, and how few people get them despite being cheap or even free.
She tells me, "One of my friends' daughters, any time she goes on a first date with someone, she suggests they go to a movie or whatever but also that they give blood first. So they'll go and have the date or whatever, and if the guy refuses to give blood, he just automatically doesn't get a second date because she feels very strongly about it."
"Well, if the date goes well enough and she decides to see him again, well, before she's ready to sleep with him, she'll suggest they go give blood again. And if they get there and he can't give blood, she won't sleep with him, because it means they found something she doesn't want to be exposed to!"
We both laughed, then, and I told her I was going to tell the story to everyone I know.
"It gets funnier the longer you think about it, doesn't it?" she asked as somewhere, tubes unclogged and an ancient machine rattled to un-death.
Blood is a funny thing. Despite carrying it around all the time, most people have never really experienced what it's like.
Everyone's cut themselves, sure, and some have been injured enough to be alarmed at the apparent amount of blood. But you'd be surprised at how little you really bleed, even from something that leaves a nasty flap and requires stitches. Mostly it seems like a whole lot because it tends to get all over the surface of the handfuls of tissue or towel or whatever you happen to have at hand.
But these are not large amounts of blood. They are just small amounts of blood spread very thin.
When you learn about blood, or have your blood drawn, or get a transfusion, they talk about blood in terms of "units". But the truth of it is, you've got enough blood in you to fill a case of beer. And if life drinks eight or nine of those cans, the party's over and you're not getting up in the morning.
When first confronted with a large amount of human blood, most people are immediately shocked by the color of it. It isn't really, but seems to be the brightest thing you've ever seen in your life. I suspect there is a part of the brain that is caught very deliberately by the color of human blood.
The other thing that gets people is the smell. I have known people to vomit from the overwhelming odor of human blood, even if the sight alone doesn't bother them. It's something like the smell of a half pound of hamburger mixed with a handful wet pocket change, held right under your nose.
And the feel of blood is something you don't ever forget. Slick and sticky. It's motor oil mixed with Elmer's glue.
I remember, vividly, being a child at a museum. The tour guide is explaining that the reason we aren't allowed to touch anything is because no matter how much we wash our hands, we can still leave dirt behind when we touch things. She tells us to put our hands together and press them together very tightly. Then rub back and forth, as fast as you can. What seemed like forever later, we parted our hands to find little pills of skin and oil and deeply ingrained dirt.
As I remember, I'm staring at my boots, covered in blood up to my elbows, arm hair slicked down, shirtfront drying stiff. I press my palms together very tightly. Then rub back and forth, as fast as I can.
When I open up my hands, the little black pills have been replaced by long burgundy ropes of congealed blood. I think to myself that they will probably turn into scabs if I watch them long enough, and then I vomit.