Working at my family’s hockey rink during my college years, I got to see a lot of blood, most of it from superficial cuts to the face that looked gory until cleaned up. Though I never had even a basic first-aid course, I got so good at applying bandages that players often told me later how much the emergency-room staff had admired my work.
No matter how much blood I had to wipe off a hockey player, it never really got to me. I wasn’t one to fall apart so easily. But then my dad would walk into the office with a cut for me to dress. He would sit down on the worn wooden bench, his face and hands covered in oil from having worked in the compressor room all day, and show me a gash on his hand or arm. He had probably injured himself hours earlier, but he would always wait until the job was finished before he would ask me to patch him up. The sight of just a drop of his blood made me tremble. Bloody hockey players were a dime a dozen, but I had only one dad.
Kathy L. Abbott
I was twelve when I started menstruating. I stared at the bloodstained toilet paper in disbelief, then searched in vain for the blue box that my mother had pointed out to me on the bathroom shelf months before.
When I couldn’t locate the box, I went to my dresser drawer for the kit the nuns had handed out after we’d watched the grainy filmstrip in the sixth grade. I found the elastic sanitary-napkin belt, but the lone pad that had come with it was long gone. I’d practiced putting it on so many times that the ends had torn, and I’d discarded it. I stood there holding the stretchy belt with nothing to attach to it, sticky blood between my legs. Then I ran to find my mother.
She was outside smoking a cigarette and having a rare moment of solitude in front of the chicken coop.
“I got my period,” I blurted out.
“Oh!” she cried, blushing.
“I can’t find any pads.”
She jumped up and went into the house, where she dug through the bag of rags she kept on a hook.
“You’ll have to use a rag, just like I did as a girl,” she said.
I was mortified. How could I wear a bulky rag held in place with safety pins?
In the bathroom I stood rigid as my mother pulled down my bloodstained cotton underpants, knelt in front of me, and attached the pins to each side of the folded rag. The top of her head brushed against my pubic hair as she stood up. “When you change the rag,” she said, “rinse it out in the sink, and put it in the wash basket. I’ll buy you some pads as soon as I can.”
If it had been up to me, I’d have buried the used rag deep in the trash, but my mother never wasted anything.
For two days I was excused from chores, and I sat around reading books and feeling as though I had a pillow between my legs. Later I overheard my mother whispering to my father that the reason there were no pads on the shelf that day was that they couldn’t afford them. My mom had been using rags herself to save a few dollars.
The thought of my mother wearing rags during her own periods so that I could have store-bought pads made me want to help. I started saving my baby-sitting money to buy boxes of sanitary napkins, which I left where I hoped my mother would see them, so she would use them, too.
Mary Potter Kenyon
I came back from Latin America with some kind of illness. Since I was broke, I went to the local free clinic, where I’d worked as a home-health aide, helping people with late-stage AIDS to die with dignity. (In 1993 a dignified death was about all we could offer.)
Before the clinic nurse drew my blood, she asked if I wanted to be tested for HIV. I agreed, though I didn’t think I needed to be tested; I’d been negative the last time and had had only safe sex since then.
A week later I came back for the test results. I knew something was up when they ushered me into a quiet room with a solemn-faced counselor. He told me I was HIV-positive.
I was silent for a long time as I tried to figure out who might have infected me. I’d had a few fleeting encounters, but they’d all been safe. There was one man who’d kept buying me drinks and then convinced me to go home with him. We’d had protected sex, and I’d spent the night. I’d been really drunk; maybe I’d blacked out and he’d taken advantage of me.
The counselor accompanied me to make a follow-up appointment, and then he left me with a handshake and a wan smile of commiseration. It was a smile I would see a lot.
I spent the next few hours wandering around a bookstore, looking for self-help books about living with HIV. Instead I picked up a volume of Anne Sexton’s collected poems. I remembered having read her The Awful Rowing toward God while I’d been studying to be a Catholic priest. Doubting God had been my guilty pleasure back then. Standing in the bookstore, I read: “God went out of me / as if the sea dried up like sandpaper, / as if the sun became a latrine.” I was now in that boat with Sexton, and my doubt turned to fury: Why had God done this to me? I had been a Catholic Worker, gone to jail for peace, taken care of AIDS patients. What kind of cruel joke was this? Was it because I had left seminary? Was it because I was gay?
I spent the night with a friend who had worked at the clinic with me. When I arrived at his house, he and his male lover held me for a long time while I cried. They invited me into their bed that night — not for sex, just for closeness — and I lay with them for a while but couldn’t sleep, so I moved to the couch. My days of sleeping with other people were over, I thought.
The next week I returned to the clinic for my follow-up appointment and a second blood test. The nurse dropped the vial of blood and wiped up the spill with some water and bleach. The fumes made me nauseous, and when he stuck me the second time, I fainted. I came out of it shaking and sweating and thinking that this was what I would have to face for the rest of my short life: constant needle sticks, clumsy nurses, the reek of bleach, and coming out of faints covered in sweat.
Another two weeks later I was back at the clinic for the results. The receptionist sent me to the office of the medical director, who knew me. I felt ashamed: Shouldn’t I have known better? How could I have been so reckless? But the medical director’s eyes showed no judgment, only concern and some other emotion I couldn’t read.
“I have some unfortunate news,” she said, then quickly added, “but good news for you.” She told me I was not HIV-positive after all; the test result had been a false positive. She apologized, saying it was an incredibly rare occurrence. From her manner, I guessed she thought I might sue the clinic. But I was jubilant. I had been released from my death sentence. At the same time I realized that many others, equally innocent, still had to serve theirs.
I’d had a crush on John for about a year when he came to my house for a party. It was one of the first warm nights of spring, and we all decided to drive a couple of miles outside of town to drink some beer in the woods. The line of cars wound along the gravel road through the forested hills. I drove close behind the car John was riding in, wondering if he would notice me, be attracted to me, like me.
We reached our destination, a clearing near a creek, and before long we were all a little drunk. (As high-school sophomores we weren’t experienced drinkers.) Everything was great until John started causing problems.
John came from a tightknit, religious family, and he had come to this party only because I’d urged him. When he got drunk, he started to berate himself for sneaking around behind his parents’ backs. Another boy told him to shut up, but John wouldn’t, and the two of them exchanged punches. John got hit in the mouth, and his lip started bleeding, and he started crying, and . . . well, it put a damper on the party.
As the person who had invited John, I volunteered to give him a ride home. Once we were in my ’56 Chevy and away from the group, he started in once more about how bad he felt for having broken his father’s trust. He swore he would never do it again, but, as for that night, he didn’t want to let his parents see him drunk. I suggested we go park by the river and talk while the alcohol wore off.
I pulled into a spot hidden by trees, shut off the engine, and turned to face John: I had him alone in my car! In the dark! I brushed his bangs back from his glasses, and he thanked me for taking care of him in his “state” and apologized for having been an ass and having ruined the party. I said I thought everything had worked out perfectly, because I had wanted to drive him home. We gazed at each other without speaking. Then he said he wanted to kiss me, but his lip was bloody. I told him it didn’t matter.
My first kiss tasted like blood — salty and metallic — and I loved it.
In February 1969 I was an eighteen-year-old “newbie” experiencing his first of 544 nights in Vietnam. After three hours of sleep the other recruits and I were roused in typical army fashion: all lights on and much unnecessary screaming. I spent the day waiting in line: for field gear; for paperwork; for vaccinations and more vaccinations.
At evening chow time a staff sergeant burst into the mess hall and, in his best staff-sergeant voice, demanded, “Everyone with O-positive blood, raise your hand.” I raised mine. (I later learned to be more circumspect in my response to the demands of sergeants.) “Come with me,” he ordered.
After a short jeep ride he deposited me at the entrance of a field hospital. Inside were three gurneys. Two held lifeless bodies covered by sheets that were saturated with blood. The floor was awash in gore. My memory says a quarter inch of it, but now I wonder if that’s possible.
On the third gurney a Vietnamese man writhed in pain. “Three VC got caught in a firefight outside the perimeter,” a medic explained. “We need to keep this one alive.” He took my blood and sent me on my way.
I often wondered whether the wounded Viet Cong soldier had made it. I hoped so. I thought of him as “my” VC.
Three months later I was pulling perimeter guard duty at Dau Tieng base camp. Most soldiers did their best to avoid guard duty, but I liked it. It was the one time when I could think and maybe find some peace amid the incessant pounding of outgoing artillery, the stench, and the heat. I was sitting atop my bunker, trying to get a glimpse of the stars beyond the incandescence of overhead flares, when the truth came to me: “My” VC had been kept alive only so they could force him to tell whatever secrets he’d possessed. After that, he had been allowed to die.
I was a newbie no more.
I am white, and my brother is black. I am the biological daughter of our parents, and he was adopted at age one. The summer I was nine and he was eight, we were living in rural New Hampshire. My brother was the only nonwhite person in the entire town, and the racial makeup of our family made us celebrities of a sort. People were either openly hostile to us or strangely fascinated. Some did us favors and offered generous gifts. I was still teasing apart what these reactions meant.
My brother and I were participants in a social experiment not of our making, and this made us as close as, if not closer than, most blood siblings. I believed that he had won out over all other possible brothers on the planet to become mine.
One hot summer morning my brother and I were playing together. I was weary from the heat and irritable from hunger; breakfast had been delayed for some unfathomable adult reason. My brother ran outside into our backyard — perhaps to get something for us to play with — and I locked the storm door behind him. In my mind this was all part of a game.
My brother came to the door, tried the handle, and said to me through the glass, “Let me in.” I giggled and taunted him, and his face clouded over in anger. He pulled on the door, but it wouldn’t budge. His eyes were now blazing with rage, and though he was a year younger than I was, he was bigger and stronger. I didn’t know what to do: if I let him in, he might hit me; if I didn’t let him in, he’d grow angrier still.
While I was debating, my brother pulled back his fist and punched straight through the glass. Shards flew everywhere, and so did blood.
I opened the door, and my brother staggered in — stunned and bleeding all over the floor and both of us. He looked at me with confusion, and I screamed for our mother.
The next hour or so was a blur of tourniquets, frantic telephone calls, wailing sirens, my brother strapped to a gurney, and then the ambulance speeding away. After he had gone, the house was eerily silent, and there was blood everywhere — pooling and staining and smelling as if it didn’t belong outside his body.
I spent the rest of the day alone in my room in a state of terror and guilt. That evening my brother was brought home. I was both relieved and anxious, and I wondered if our relationship could ever be repaired.
I sat in the family room and waited to find out if my brother wanted to see me. After a while he came and sat down, and I nervously apologized and asked how he was. There was a long silence. Then he replied, “Yeah, you shouldn’t have locked me out. . . . But look at this! I’m going to have a really cool scar!” He lifted his bandages to show me the row of stitches on his arm. He’d severed an artery and lost nearly a quarter of his blood. “I could have died, but I didn’t,” he said proudly. My fears that our bond had been broken were allayed, and I asked him for every last detail about his experiences in the hospital.
I imagine now that having been locked out must have been a visceral and subconsciously symbolic experience for my brother. The possibility that he might be rejected for being different was probably always in the back of his mind. But in the more than thirty years since that day, he has never once blamed me or tried to make me feel guilty or any less his sister. And I still feel blessed that he, of all possible brothers, is mine.
As a labor-and-delivery nurse for almost twenty years, I can tell you that, when babies come, there is always blood. I know the metallic scent of it and the feel of it on my gloved hands: simultaneously slick and sticky.
I was at work the morning my sister called to tell me that our father had committed suicide. There had been no signs of depression, no cries for help, just a few financial troubles. He’d gone to the barn and shot himself in the chest after having had his morning coffee and taken out the trash. I booked a flight home for the funeral. Because it had been suicide, there was an autopsy and a speedy cremation. I never got to see my father’s body.
When I arrived at my parents’ farm, I went to the barn where my dad had taken his life, and I dropped to the straw-scattered floor and searched for his blood. All I could find were the three butts from the last cigarettes he’d smoked.
My brother found me there on the dirt floor, touching spots of oil from the tractor that looked a little like blood. I asked him where the blood was, and he told me he hadn’t seen any. We held each other and cried.
When babies come, there is always blood. But my father had left none. He was just gone.
My friends and I often rode to Catholic school on the handlebars or fenders of each other’s bicycles. One morning I was riding sidesaddle behind my daredevil brother Cliff, who took the corners with the bicycle almost parallel to the ground. After one particularly sharp turn, the bike suddenly stopped. Something was stuck. I looked down and saw one of my new white shoes was covered with red. My heel had gotten stuck in the spokes of the back wheel and had nearly been severed.
I screamed the five city blocks home. Dad had not yet left for work, so Mom wrapped my bloody foot in newspapers, and Dad sped off with me in the back seat of our 1950 Plymouth. He pulled up to the emergency room with the horn blaring. As I was being carried in through the waiting room, there was a loud thud behind me. I turned to see my big, strong father on the floor: he had fainted.
An hour later, with my heel sutured in place and my father once again upright, we drove back through the streets of Chicago to our house. The world seemed different to me. My dad — the bold, dominant man I waited up late to hug or ask forgiveness for a wrong I’d committed — was afraid of blood.
Oakwood Hills, Illinois
As I drive through the gate of the clinic on “procedure day,” the protesters yell, “Don’t do it, Mommy!” A green-vested escort from the clinic guides me to a parking space and then walks me to the clinic entrance. My identity is checked by a worker behind bulletproof glass, and I’m buzzed in to wait for hours for my name to be called.
The Planned Parenthood waiting room is a great equalizer. The women are from every race, ethnic group, and social class. Well, perhaps the most privileged have somewhere more private to go, but the rest of us are here, along with dozing boyfriends, fidgeting mothers, and chatty and supportive friends.
I am here because I had the bad judgment to sleep with a married man. It was great sex, but the cervical cap failed. The man is not with me today. He will go about his workday as usual and have a beer with his buddy at five. Tomorrow, Saturday, he will head off for a romantic weekend with his wife.
I feel sick and weepy as each of us in turn is called to the window to fill out forms; then to see the counselor, who makes sure we are mentally stable and certain of our choice; then to get an ultrasound; then up to the window to pay (three hundred dollars, cash or credit card only); then back to the waiting area.
Finally, after three hours, I am ushered into the examining area to meet the doctor. I have chosen a “medical” abortion because it seems less invasive than a surgical one. The doctor rattles off instructions for how to take the pills tomorrow morning and what to expect afterward. “If you pass any clots bigger than a lemon,” he says, “call immediately; if you run a fever higher than 100.4, call immediately; if you have any dizziness or nausea, call immediately; if you soak more than two maxipads per hour for more than two hours consecutively, call immediately. Here is the number to call after hours. Any questions?”
I have lots of questions, but, unnerved by his rapid-fire spiel, I just tell him I am grateful that I can get a safe and legal abortion. He says he is the only doctor openly performing abortions in Nebraska, and he travels from town to town. From the look of him he is beyond retirement age. I wonder: after he retires, what will women in Nebraska do?
When I leave the clinic and enter the chill fall air, the protesters are still shouting at the entrance. One woman is carrying a child about the age of my own son. I want to scream out my car window, “Take your baby home, where it is warm!” My rage is magnified by hormones; exhaustion; and the rotten, anxious feeling I have been carrying with me for the past three weeks. No man could ever understand the panic, hurt, and anguish that a woman goes through when she is unintentionally pregnant. I swear to the goddesses that I will never, ever have sex with a man again as long as I live. No matter how great the sex might be, it isn’t worth this.
The following morning I let the four pills melt between my cheek and gum, as instructed. I was certain they would leave a bitter taste in my mouth, but they don’t.
As I feed the baby breakfast, the cramping begins: slow and comforting, like the period I was praying for. Friends call to get an update and offer to stop by. I tell them I’m fine. The weakness and nausea I felt yesterday are lifting. I sit on the floor with the baby and stack blocks, watching his face scrunch with delight as he whacks them down with his dimpled hands.
He scurries after me when I go into the bathroom. As I sit on the toilet, I say a small Please before I wipe. I look down at the tissue and see blood: rusty and coppery smelling; scarlet red in some places, chocolatey brown in others. Relief moves from my stomach to my chest, and I lean forward, place my head on my knees, and weep.
It was the one question a Jehovah’s Witness never wanted to hear: “Will you accept a blood transfusion to save your life?” I was regaining consciousness on the floor after having passed out at the doctor’s office. The team of healthcare professionals who had been working to revive me told me I was hemorrhaging and asked me again if I would take blood to survive. My eyesight was blurry, and everything sounded distant and distorted. They warned that there wasn’t much time.
Seven months earlier I’d stopped attending services at my Jehovah’s Witness congregation after years of disagreement with the fearful and judgmental belief systems I’d been taught as a child. But I hadn’t been “disfellowshipped” or shunned by my family, so I could still return to the faith. I’d been trying to figure out what I believed, and now I was being forced to decide where I stood on the Witnesses’ doctrine about the sacredness of blood. (Witnesses will not assimilate the blood of another, even at the cost of their own life, because of their leaders’ interpretation of a few Scriptures.) Though it seemed ridiculous to trust in a deity who wants his followers to bleed to death, I just couldn’t accept the transfusion. I was too afraid of what judgment would befall me. I decided I would rather die.
Fortunately I lived, and that event helped me realize the power that the beliefs we are taught as children have over us.
Later that same year my brother underwent a dangerous heart operation without a blood transfusion. Before his surgery I tried to convince him that, since we had the same blood anyway, God wouldn’t care if he took some of mine, but my brother said he could not take a transfusion. As I sat in the waiting room, I grew more and more upset over how rigid humans can be. I wanted to scream at my family and friends, “Don’t you see how silly this is? You are the only ones who care! There is no big reward waiting for you up there somewhere because you refused a blood transfusion!” But I didn’t.
I’m not fearful anymore, nor am I one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. If I ever need another blood transfusion, I will accept it and be thankful.
Angela Wilson Sherrill
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
My first menstrual period and my mother’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer both arrived in the summer of 1972. Mom had been my best friend and caretaker my whole life, and now it was my turn to care for her, as much as I was able. My older siblings had long since moved out, leaving just the two of us. One morning I awoke with crimson-stained underwear. Months earlier my mother had shown me where the pads and belt were kept, but that was it. Now, because of her illness, I had to deal with my period myself.
When, after five days, my period had not subsided, I wondered if perhaps I was bleeding to death. Looking at my exhausted mother, I knew I could not burden her with my concerns. I wondered if there were bigger pads available, because the size I had wasn’t enough to hold all the blood that flowed from me. I saw clots and couldn’t remember if I should expect them. I had to change my pad every hour or so.
My mother moved back to her hometown in Connecticut to receive treatments at a hospital there, and I had to stay with my father and his wife, who lived nearby. My sister, who was out of college for the summer, would also be in town. My period had been going for three weeks by then and was still flowing as strong as ever. I would take two pads, remove the protective plastic lining from one, then place them together and attach them to the now-worn belt.
When she was released from the hospital, my mother moved in with her best friend, whom I’d grown up calling “Aunt Margie.” One day Margie’s husband let me use his riding lawn mower to mow their lawn. I was thrilled to be trusted to drive the mower, and when I was done, I ran into my mother’s temporary bedroom to tell her about it. She immediately asked if I’d had my period. I wondered how she knew, until I realized I was covered with blood from waist to knees. I’d run out of pads by then and had resorted to using toilet paper safety-pinned to my underwear.
Mom told my older sister to go buy me a box of pads and get me a change of clothes from my father’s house. Then she told me to take a shower and clean myself up. In the shower I watched the blood mix with the water and swirl down the drain.
When my sister came back, I attached the pad to my underwear with safety pins while I stood in the shower, the dark red blood still flowing down my legs. I wondered again if I was dying.
Out of the bathroom, I sat on my mother’s bed, and she hugged me and told me I would be OK. She told me she would be OK, that everything would be OK.
My mother died within a week. Several days later my seven-week-long first menstrual period abruptly ended. My mom was wrong: I was never OK after that.
Lee E. Ha
The carpet in my childhood bedroom still has a bloodstain on it beside where my bed once was. The stain is seventeen years old, and no amount of scrubbing can get it out.
When I was twelve, I started having seizures that caused me to struggle for air and occasionally stop breathing. Every night for four years my father dragged his pillow and a blanket to the floor outside my room, where he slept fitfully, ready to jump up if he heard me gasp. My mother would call the ambulance while my father frantically gave me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until the paramedics arrived and put an IV in to administer medication. One time, in their haste, they stuck my vein the wrong way, and blood spurted onto the carpet.
My doctors tried every medication possible, but nothing seemed to work. The members of my parents’ small church prayed for me. The paramedics got better at hitting the vein, but the bloodstain on my carpet was there to stay.
When I was sixteen, I discovered the cure for my seizures: marijuana. Within a week of the day I smoked my first joint, the seizures stopped. My parents and their church considered it a miracle brought about by the power of prayer. I never told them the truth.
St. Louis, Missouri
When my mother went on home dialysis back in 1970, the technology was new to suburbia. My curious friends came to see “the machine,” as we called it, but few dared to go down the hall to greet my mother in her bedroom when she was hooked up to it, even though we invited them to. I imagine it wasn’t the strange whirs and beeps that put them off, or the sight of the hulking metal monstrosity itself, wheeled to the side of the bed three nights a week by my father as soon as he returned home from teaching school. No, it was the blood: tubes of it exiting a hole in Mom’s yellowed arm, disappearing into the mysterious gallon-sized canister on top of the console, then snaking back into her arm just inches from where it had left. The tubes were warm, and sometimes I would gently curl my fingers around one to feel the hum of her life pulsing through them.
My siblings and I grew to find the macabre sight of Mom hooked up to the machine comforting: the great silver bowl cleansing her of poisons; the dials assuring us that her heart was still beating; the looping red tubes; and the way her eyes shone up at us as we brought her a newspaper, or a bit of the coffee or chocolate that was denied her the rest of the week, or a tray holding the dinner we had made for her with our healthy pink hands.
I’d joined the Peace Corps at twenty-nine for three reasons: to live abroad, to see how I liked teaching, and to help save some lives, or at least make them better.
I’d been living in Cameroon, on the west coast of Africa, for five months when I got involved with my nineteen-year-old neighbor Isabelle. She and her older brother had become regular guests at my house. We’d laugh together as I struggled to produce something dinnerlike on my kerosene stove. One evening Isabelle lingered after her brother had left, and we kissed good night. Over the next few weeks we became intimate, and she packed her suitcase and moved from her father’s house to mine.
One weekend I left Isabelle at home while I hitched a ride to the capital with a Peace Corps administrator. I was watching the fecund landscape go by through the windows of our air-conditioned Land Cruiser when a group of villagers waved us down. We saw a white man lying on his back on the ground, a dark pool of blood around the shredded knee of his trousers. His twisted motorcycle lay in the brush. “I’m bleeding to death,” he said in English. “Help me.”
We lowered the back seat and lifted him in. The man winced at each rut in the road as we sped to the nearest clinic. I talked to him to keep him conscious (while avoiding the sight of his inflamed purple knee) and learned he was a Brit on holiday, motorcycling alone.
At the clinic the doctor cleaned and sewed the man’s lacerations and asked my blood type. The Brit was down several pints and needed a transfusion before he could be transported to the capital. I was a match, so I gave a pint or two, and the man was driven off in the Peace Corps car with my blood hanging in a drip bag beside him. He was later found to have fourteen broken bones and a severed artery, but his leg didn’t have to be amputated, and his chance of walking again was good.
A few months after that, Isabelle discovered she was pregnant. Although it must have gone against every fiber of her being, she arranged to have a back-alley abortion because I’d told her early in our friendship, before we were a couple, that I wasn’t ready to start a family yet. I paid for the procedure but didn’t go with her. She packed her suitcase and left.
In my two years in Africa, the only life I saved was another white man’s. My blood courses through him instead of through a child who would have been nine last summer.
I used to cut myself to find release from my crushing depression. I also wanted attention, although I paradoxically did my best to hide the evidence. I would cut the delicate skin on the inside of my left forearm with a safety razor. I did it in the shower, crying as I worked up the courage to drag the blade across my skin. The blood took a moment to well up in little dots, and the sharp, stinging pain was never quite satisfying somehow; in my mind’s eye I saw myself ripping my arm to shreds. I would put Neosporin on the cuts and wear long sleeves for several days.
When I told a psychiatrist about the cutting, I felt as if I were laying bare some ugly part of myself, but she didn’t flinch. In fact she asked if it helped. With amazement I said that yes, it did. She asked me how I did it, and I told her about the safety razor. She seemed surprised that I could cut myself with the blades still in the razor. I hadn’t ever considered removing them, but after that I started using naked razor blades, and then box-cutter blades. These gave me better leverage, and I could get a bit more of the ripping pain that I sought.
Years later, in a fit of rage, I grabbed a blade and slashed my arm without thinking. I watched in a daze as blood welled up and dripped across my skin: the fulfillment of my desire.
That was the last time I cut myself, but I would often imagine cutting long after I had quit. I would look at the spidery scars — and the one ugly line from that single slashing cut — as if they were artifacts that proved the existence of another era. And I kept the box-cutter blade and a tissue spotted with dark stains at the bottom of a keepsake box, to remind me where I’d been.
When I found out years later that many people cut themselves, I felt somewhat disappointed. I wanted this behavior to be mine, as personal as my scars.
In 1980 I was a fourth-year med student doing my clerkship in the intensive-care unit of San Francisco’s Mission General Hospital. Open-heart massage was often used back then in a last-ditch effort at resuscitation, and blood sprayed over the clothes, hands, and faces of anyone near the patient. More than once, when a stabbing or shooting victim arrived in the ER, I was instructed to put my hand over a pulsing wound to reduce the bleeding. I never wasted precious seconds putting on gloves or even getting a gauze pad. I’d be wheeled to the operating room on the gurney with the patient, both of us covered in blood.
In the summer of 1981 a professor of medicine showed us a strange purplish skin lesion on an otherwise tan and healthy-looking patient — a lesion, he said, that was showing up almost exclusively on gay men. It was the first of many cases of Kaposi’s sarcoma I would see.
AIDS has forever changed doctors’ relationship with blood and other bodily fluids. Today we would no sooner touch a patient’s blood than we would stick a finger into a light socket, and the dental hygienist dresses up like a beekeeper to clean your teeth.
As I walked up the stairs toward my cell, I heard the whir of an unseen motor, and my door slid open. Once inside, I pushed the door closed until the lock clicked into place. I took off my prison-issue jacket and felt wetness on my left arm: warm and sticky. My shirt sleeve was soaked with blood.
Well, I thought, that’s never happened before. I had just returned from the prison infirmary, where blood had been taken for a monthly test. The previous forty weeks of interferon shots — out of a forty-eight-week cycle — had weakened my body’s ability to manufacture clotting agent; my white- and red-cell counts were so low that the prison medical staff should have stopped treatment, but the doctors had missed this information. Quitting treatment was not an option for me. I was willing to do anything to eradicate the hepatitis-C virus from my system.
I removed my dripping shirt and saw the blood flowing freely from the needle hole in my arm. Beginning to feel lightheaded, I tried to guess how much blood I had lost — maybe a couple of pints. A little more squirted out with every heartbeat. I wanted to climb into my rack and go to sleep, but from somewhere in the back of my mind came a powerful insistence that this wouldn’t be a good idea.
Why was I willing to risk bleeding to death? In my cellblock during the previous year I had watched three men die of liver failure as a result of hepatitis C. Their bellies had swollen with fluid, and their limbs and faces had become emaciated even as they’d consumed copious amounts of calories, craving sweets all the time.
One man, Tony, refused to leave the cellblock to die at a hospital. He got to the point where he couldn’t walk and had to be brought to the clinic in a wheelchair to receive painkillers. One day I was outside watching the handball games when he was wheeled by. His skin wasn’t the usual off-yellow I had seen in jaundiced people. It was a rich, deep yellow, like a ripe banana.
Two days later I was standing in the same spot when Tony went by again. His skin had turned a blotchy green. He lasted one more day and finally died in an infirmary cell just a few feet from where I had my blood drawn once a month to monitor the progression of my hepatitis C.
I had only eight more shots to go to finish my treatment. Considering the horror I had witnessed with Tony, I was determined to finish the cycle even if it meant I might die sooner rather than later.
I fought back the haze in my head and held a wad of toilet paper to the crook of my arm to apply pressure. Then I put the shirt in the sink and washed it before the blood could set. I didn’t need the attention a bloody shirt would have garnered. If the authorities had found out, they would probably have taken me off the interferon.
The blood rinsed out surprisingly easily — probably because there was so little clotting factor in it. Feeling dizzy, I braced myself against the sink and watched the red wash out of the blue shirt. I kept at it until every drop was gone.
Rachel and I had been dating for two months. Her apartment was next door to mine, and we spent every free moment together. Friends said that we were moving too fast, but I didn’t care. She was my beautiful California poet who could quote Sartre and play Beethoven sonatas.
One evening we fought, and I stormed out of her apartment. About an hour later I returned and knocked on her door. She answered with her hands behind her back.
“I thought you never wanted to see me again,” she said.
“Of course I want to see you. May I come in?”
We sat on her couch and stared at the blank screen of the television she never watched. The look on her face unsettled me: a total lack of affect, muscles slack, as if she were a machine that had been disconnected from its power source. I tried to take her hand, but she recoiled at my touch. Too soon, I thought.
She listened to me talk for an hour without response, but I kept at it, certain I could bring her back. Eventually she raised her eyes to mine and asked if she could sleep at my place. Of course, I said.
We undressed in the dim bedroom. She removed her clothes mechanically and winced again as her right hand brushed her skirt. I asked to see the hand, but she shook her head, looking at me with a mixture of shame and defiance, like a child caught stealing. I stepped over to her, close enough that her hair brushed my face, and I took her hand and raised it to the light.
The cuts weren’t deep. Not this time. They wouldn’t leave permanent scars like the ones that would come later. They weren’t potentially lethal, like the bottle of Xanax that she would swallow. The psychiatric evaluations, the involuntary commitment, the diagnosis of borderline personality disorder — all these were yet to come.
I bandaged Rachel’s hand and helped her under the covers. She didn’t move unless my hands guided her. Then I kissed her forehead, dressed quietly, and left my apartment through the back door.
At Rachel’s place I found the bathroom sink stained red, a serrated knife with blood drying on its blade, the faint scent of iron in the air like an accusation.
I arrived at the public mortuary early in the morning with an observer from the UN team. Protesters were demonstrating against Haiti’s military junta, and government death squads had been brutally murdering opposition leaders. As a human-rights investigator, I had come to examine the dead bodies from the previous night.
The man whose almost-naked body lay on a steel tray had been shot at point-blank range, his hands tied behind him. In typical ghoulish fashion, his face had been skinned, and the body had been left in a trash bin. There was blood all over him.
Forty years earlier I’d been a schoolboy of seven in Calcutta, India, when a religious war had broken out between Hindus and Muslims. Since my family’s house was on the border between the two communities, we had become helpless spectators to many violent incidents. One morning a Muslim tradesman who had done some masonry work in our home was passing by, and a chance remark he made caused a Hindu youth to attack him. Five more men surrounded him and kept beating him and beating him. Finally he was still. I stood at a window and watched the puddle of blood around the body grow till it was the width of the street.
The same was true in Haiti as it had been forty years earlier in India: the world would not raise a finger to staunch the flow of innocent blood.
My high-school friend Freddy spent his freshman year tending to his terminally ill mother. While the rest of us goofed around in our spare time, he was carrying his mother to the bathroom, feeding her, and wiping up blood and vomit. She died by the end of the school year.
On the first warm day of summer, I invited Freddy to go swimming with some other boys and me at a private reservoir. I wanted to grant him a carefree day away from his house.
I led the pack of teenagers down the reservoir bank, but as I stepped into the water I felt pain: a rusty beer can had slashed open the bottom of my foot.
Seeing the blood, Freddy picked me up and carried me to the car. Then he pressed on my wound with a towel as he drove me to the hospital.
While I waited to get stitches, Freddy put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry. It will be all right.”