The Art of Drawing Blood

For months the American Red Cross had been calling my cell and home phones. I ignored them, silencing the phone each time I saw them on caller ID, assuming they wanted money. I made a mental note to make time to donate blood instead. At least I make my own blood.

Last Friday afternoon I answered the house phone absentmindedly.

“May I speak with Betty?” a woman asked.

“This is Betty.”

She sounded almost relieved, as though she’d been tasked with tracking me down, and quickly launched into a breathless sentence that began with thanking me for my past three donations and, well, they were now critically short on B positive blood – would I mind coming in as soon as possible to give them a pint?

She didn’t use that word “pint,” but that’s about how much they take.

I was caught off guard – no one had ever called to ask for blood – but as I’d been meaning to do it anyway I said sure and a few days later, found myself laying back in a donating chair at the Santa Ana, American Red Cross. My blood drained from me in a healthy flow as I chatted with the phlebotomist.

She had a Spanish accent – is that what it’s called, when from someone’s English you can tell their mother tongue is Spanish? – and her voice was high and girlish. When I presented her with my driver’s license, she read the DOB and squealed, “Happy belated birthday!” and it was a nice way to begin. She was short, about 5’2″ with mousy brown hair tied in a haphazard ponytail and the pear-shaped body that seems to afflict many middle-aged, lower-middle class women who work in healthcare, but she moved easily, lightly, between the low divides that separated the donation area from the canteen from the small offices in which you answered very personal questions about your sexual history. She left me in the room for several minutes while I clicked a rapid succession of “no’s” and returned just as Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” came wafting through the clinic air. She sat down and began reviewing my responses, moving her shoulders up and down to the Gaga’s voice.

“You like this song,” I observed.

“I do,” she said smiling, “I just love dancing.”

She brought warmth to the cold, sterile clinic air. Though I consider myself a blood-donating veteran, she made me feel at ease much more quickly than other phlebotomists had in the past. She took my temperature, read my blood pressure, pricked my finger and nodded approvingly at my iron levels, all with a sure but soft hand. All the while, she asked what I did on my birthday.

I told her about dinner with my friends at Orange Hill, followed by a late showing of “The Great Gatsby”.

“Orange Hill!” she said, “I’ve always wanted to go there!”

“It’s nice,” I shrugged.

She had intended to take her mother there for Mother’s Day, but the older woman preferred brunch at Las Brisas and her daughter conceded.

“But I’ve always wanted to go to Orange Hill again,” she said wistfully, “I went there maybe twenty years ago, and it was so beautiful. The view…”

By now we’d walked to the donating chairs, all of which were empty except for one occupied by a middle-aged Asian man wearing headphones and staring almost comatose into a small TV screen attached to his chair. The chair she motioned for me to take had no digital amenities, but I had a feeling that our conversation wasn’t over. The donation area felt even colder, as these blood donation centers counterintuitively are (unless there’s been some study that blood flow quickens in cold weather?), and she asked if I’d like a blanket.

“Sure,” I said.

She came back with a bright red fleece blanket with a character from Disney’s “The Incredibles” stitched onto a corner. It was the boy Dash, who could move at lightning speed.

“There,” she said, draping the blanket over me with a maternal air, “Now you’re ready.”

She came around to my left, tied my arm with a blue rubber strap and began swabbing the skin with two cold iodine swabs. The color of the iodine – dark and foreboding like blood itself – has always mesmerized me and I imagined that for the faint of heart, watching the phlebotomists swab the puncture area with a blood-colored substance doesn’t exactly quell the growing squeamishness. I always force myself to watch the needle though, so I can temper the pain I think I’ll feel. Mentally it’s torture, but it’s never that bad aside from knowing that there’s a needle in your arm. It’s uncomfortable, but in a vague, can’t-put-your-finger-on-it-way. Less a rock in your shoe than that strange feeling of unease you get when you’re about to be very very sick. Though I will say, the needle does seem to grow slightly in diameter with each donation.

The needle was in. She gave me a soft stress ball in the shape of a pencil to hold and asked me to squeeze and release.

“That’s right,” she said, nodding encouragingly, “Squeeze and release, squeeze and release.” She patted my shoulder and then looked at me expectantly.

“So, how was the food?”

I looked at her for a minute.

“At Orange Hill! For your birthday! Was the food good?  What did you eat?”

This is what I ate. 

I was holding my breath and let it out with an unintended whoosh. Breathing now, I told her I ordered lamb, two friends had fish and the rest steaks.

“Ooh,” her eyes widened, “I love steak. What kind? New York Strip?”

Filet mignon, I said, and this weird thick cut I’d never seen before, called Chateaubriand, meant at Orange Hill to be served for two. I tried with one arm to explain how the Chateaubriand was served. The waiter had rolled it up in a cart – an unappetizingly large lump of meat sitting on a hot metal pan – poured alcohol on the pan, lit a blazing blue fire that seared the meat a final time before he sliced it in half and served it with a baked potato.  

She loved this and I think, had already made up her mind to order it on her next visit to Orange Hill.

“I like it when they cook for you at the table, like a show, you know?”

She searched for the restaurant that specialized in this and to which she liked to take her kids for their birthdays.

“Hana Bana? Banihanana…?”

“Benihana,” I said.

“Yes!” she clapped excitedly, smacking her lips, “Benihana! I love that place! The cooks are so talented,” she imitated them, tossing an imaginary shrimp head into the air, “and the fried rice and the miso soup. I looove the miso soup.”

“You like Japanese food?” I began to think of restaurants I could recommend her but stopped when she shook her head.

“No, I just like the miso soup. I don’t understand Japanese food, the sushi?” She made a small circle with her thumb and forefinger, to show me exactly what she thought of it, “It’s so small! It’s like nachos and salsa for me, you know? Like a snack, I can’t get full off of it.” 

I burst out laughing, but she wasn’t done. 

“I can eat a whole California roll but it’s never enough and even if I have two bowls of the miso soup…it’s just not a meal! It’s not a meal!” 

I nodded, wondering if she knew that Japanese food consisted of much more than just California rolls and miso soup, (if the former could even be classified as Japanese food), and was about to ask her where she ate Japanese food when she became excited about some memory. 

“Oh but you know what, I do like those rolls with the Philadelphia Cheese. That to me, is like the best.” 

I nodded, debating if I should tell her that the “sushi” she adored was a very American, very bastardized version of “Japanese” food. Our conversation reminded me of an experience I had while visiting the home of my college roommate, who was from a small, mostly white suburb of Connecticut. Her parents had kindly taken me to an Asian buffet, hoping I could tell them if it was “authentic” or not (it was, if only that it was owned by the suburb’s sole Chinese family). Standing in line for walnut shrimp, the kind that’s deep fried and tossed in mayonaise, I overheard an elderly woman recommending it to her friend. 

“That shrimp is divine,” the woman said, “The Chinese are so creative. They put some kind of special cheese on it!” 

I chuckled at the memory and became only vaguely aware that the needle in my arm was throbbing. This was the best way to donate blood, with a good lighthearted woman who knew her way into a hard to find veins not to mention keep the donor talking and thinking about other things. 

“Where are you from?” I asked, turning the conversation away from food. 

“Mazatlan,” she said. 

It sounded familiar, and I asked if it was near Playa del Carmen, a beautiful Mexican beach town I’d once “studied” abroad in during a summer at community college. 

She shook her head and immediately grabbed a paper towel and drew a poor but understandable map of her home country. 

Mazatlan is in Sinaloa,” she said, pointing to a point in the middle of Mexico’s west coast, “Playa del Carmen is in Quintana Roo, aaaalll the way on the other side, near the Gulf of Mexico, by Cancun. It’s so beautiful, right?” 

I nodded in agreement. I had heard similar things about Mazatlan and she confirmed this. 

“Oh yes, it’s beautiful too. Also a beach town, with tourists… my mother still lives there so I gonna take my kids there for two weeks this summer. They gonna speak their Spanish because they don’t speak it with me no more at home!” 

That is important, I said, and assured her that her kids would thank her some day, because my mother insisted on doing the same thing, taking us back to Taiwan each summer since we were toddlers. 

“They don’t really like Mexico,” she sighed, “They think it’s so hot, and you know, it’s not as clean as here,” she waved her arms as though gesturing to the spotless clinic. 

Behind her, a plasma agitator rumbled and whirred. The Asian man, still the only other donor, stared unblinking at the screen. An obese blonde administrator took a seat in her office and started clacking away on the computer. Our eyes met and we exchanged smiles. I noticed there was a miniature Oscar statuette on her desk, and various doodads I couldn’t make out from where I sat. She returned her eyes to the screen. I became aware of the other conversations going on around us – a hipster Asian guy not much older than I was talking about some concert he’d gone to and how he couldn’t wait for a show he was going to next week. Two other blood techs lounged in rolly chairs with their legs crossed and chatted in low voices, bored tones. 

“But you’re right,” she said, bending down to check on the bag, “They will appreciate it some day. And they gotta spend time with grandma, you know?” 

She has two kids – a ten year old boy and eight year old girl – with a Mexican man she met twenty years ago in the US when she came to learn English. He was from a small inland town I’ve now forgotten the name of and studied at the same school.  

“We got married back in Mazatlan,” she said.

“Your wedding must have been gorgeous.”

She nodded, smiling at the memory, “Oh it was, it was so beautiful. So so so beautiful.”

Back in Mexico she was certified as a phlebotomist and found work mostly in gynecological offices, not with a huge-nonprofit whose blood came mostly from volunteers. Her husband became a machinist, and after five years the couple decided it was time to move to the U.S. permanently, to get better jobs and raise their children. 

“It was so nice,” she said of life in Mazatlan, “The beaches, the community, but it was so humid. And here is so much better for the kids. But you know I never want them to forget where they’re from.” 

Her husband has plans to take the kids to his hometown next summer.

“I told him, ‘Yes, we gonna take them next year.’ But whoo!” she rolled her eyes, “There’s no beach there so my kids probably gonna go crazy! They complain when they’re in Mazatlan: ‘Mama it’s so hot! Mama the mosquitoes!’ but I think some day they’re gonna miss this time.”

I remembered a single childhood midnight in Taipei, when my mom, brother and I were all so hot (my mother didn’t believe in sleeping with the airconditioning on) that sleep seemed impossible. She shook us out of a sweaty stupor and whispered, “Let’s go out for popsicles.”

We ate dripping red bean milk popsicles in the guest bathroom so as not to disturb the rest of the house, my mother sitting on the toilet with one foot resting on the edge of the bathtub. It is a single memory, but a perfect representation of “that time.”

Something beeped below my arm and she came to my side, bringing up a bulging bag filled with burgundy liquid. I was finished.

I realized I didn’t know her name, this woman who liked sushi rolls with Philadelphia cheese and who believed in refreshing, yearly, her children’s relationship with their heritage.

“Imelda,” she said, bringing up the bulging bag to inspect, “but I don’t have so many shoes like Imelda Marcos.

She squeezed the bag a few times as though examining a too-ripe mango and I thought, oddly, of water beds. I looked at the bag, feeling comfortably detached from it as Imelda deftly pulled the needle out, pressed a cotton pad to the puncture and wrapped a stretchy, sticky red bandage around my arm in a big X, instructing me to avoid heavy lifting and to eat plenty of iron rich foods. I thought ahead to a yet uneaten plate of lamb chops, courtesy of cousin Andrew and felt the cold clinic air hit my legs as she lifted the blanket off me with a flourish. 

“You’re all done,” she smiled, “You did a good job.”

I smiled back, thanking Imelda for a perfectly enjoyable donating experience.

“Oh not at all,” she said, then smacked her lips, “Thanks for sharing your meal with me. I’m still thinking about that Chateaubriand.”  

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