So the guy who draws my blood what do you call them? A blood-drawer? tells me I’m his last needle-stick of the day.
I say, “Nobody’s ever called me a needle-stick before.”
“Make a fist,” he says, inspecting the crook of my arm where a blue vein rises to the surface of my skin. I can’t quite grasp that he’s going to jab it, the syringe half hidden on a tray behind his back. I used to know why
veins are blue, but like most explanations, I forgot it long ago.
“After I’ve drained you dry,” he says, looking me in the eye to make sure I know he’s joking, “I’m off to the mall.” When he lowers his head, I see that his hair is thinning at the crown, and I guess he’s maybe 30, a few years older than me.
Fear makes my mouth taste metallic. The sounds in the room air streaming through an overhead vent, the wheels of his chair on linoleum are louder than they should be. I look away as he swabs my skin, feeling the icy kiss of antiseptic.
“You okay?” he asks.
“Fine,” I say, but it doesn’t sound convincing.
“Anyway,” he says, “my mother bought me a set of new sheets, and I’m going to the mall to return them. I’ve been sleeping on flowered sheets really pretty, like a watercolor garden and last week she comes over to my apartment, plops herself down on the couch and says, ‘Teddy, we have to
talk. Now don’t get defensive, but the one thing I truly wish is that . . .’
“‘Mom,’ I say. ‘You know I’m never going to get married or give you grandchildren. We had this discussion years ago.’
“‘Who said anything about grandchildren? I’ve given up on grandchildren. As far as I’m concerned, you can make love with whomever or whatever you want. Far be it for me to oppress you with my hopes. What I was going to say is that I wish you’d let me buy you some sheets that are a little less . . . feminine.'”
I ask if she was joking.
“I wish! I just stare at her from the other end of the couch and say, ‘You might recall that your husband, my father, also sleeps on flowered sheets, and that hasn’t raised any serious doubts about his manhood. And what about Denny?’ That’s my older brother. ‘He sleeps on flowered sheets, too, and according to Lisa, Denny has to shave twice a day.'”
The needle is nothing. The needle is a flea bite. But when I look down, blood is streaming into the vial. I haven’t seen that much of my own blood since my last HIV test, the red so bright and alarming, you could use it to paint a stop sign. It’s probably my imagination, but deep inside I feel a lack, something vital sucked away. I close my eyes and Teddy keeps talking.
“‘But Teddy,’ says my mother, ‘those flowered sheets were bought by women.'”
“‘And that makes it different? Listen to yourself, Mother!’ I’m pacing at this point, flailing my arms. ‘You’re being absurd. I mean, say Lisa bought
Dad a pair of lace panties, would his wearing them be okay with you because they were bought by a woman?'”
“‘Oh, Teddy,’ she says. ‘Please don’t put that picture in my head.’ She gets all flustered and tugs at her sleeves. ‘Besides, it’s too late: I’ve already bought them. The sheets, I mean.’ She reaches into her purse it’s as big as a feed bag and pulls out a package wrapped in clear plastic. ‘Just slip them on the bed, dear, that’s all I’m asking. They’re pure cotton, two hundred threads per inch.'”
The tourniquet hurts, but I’d rather feel it than the loss of blood. I ask Teddy what these masculine sheets look like.
“They look like denim, and what could be more queer than a denim bed? It’s so Village People. But mother nudges me into the bedroom and insists on helping me change the sheets, practically shredding the old ones in her zeal to strip the bed, dumping them onto the floor like so much floral junk. To get me into the spirit, she says, ‘Make the corners tight, Mister! I want to be able to bounce a dime off that top sheet!’ It was so weird to have my mother in my bedroom, barking orders like a drill sergeant. I mean, I haven’t had a man in months, but suddenly the room smells ripe with sex. I’m on my knees, stretching fitted elastic over one corner of the mattress when something occurs to me. ‘Mother’ I ask. ‘How did you know what size to get?’
“She strokes her chin, ‘I’m a very good guesser.’
“‘Plus you must have done some snooping.’ I keep the door to my bedroom closed whenever she’s over, so how else would she know what kind of sheets I sleep on, or whether my bed was a standard or a twin, a queen or a king? Anyway, she stands back and folds her arms. ‘Well, I have to hand it to myself,’ she says. ‘I looked through more sheets than you’d need in a lifetime Calvins and Wamsuttas and an entire sale table full of dreadful polyester blends and these are ideal. Try them out for me Teddy.’
“When I balk, she calls me a ‘party pooper.'”
“And?” I ask.
“I lay on my back. I lay on my side. I plump the pillow. Finally, I turn onto my stomach and stroke the sheets like I’m swimming through them. Then I tell her, in this really deep voice, ‘Why Mother, I feel more manly already.’
“Don’t laugh,” Teddy warns me, “you’ll jiggle the needle. I’m almost done.”
I still myself, and he tells me there’s a little reward waiting for me when this is over.
“‘Honestly, Teddy,’ she says, sitting beside me on the edge of the bed. ‘I had no intention of upsetting you with my little gift. I simply thought these
sheets would be more you know bachelory.‘”
Eyes still closed, I picture Teddy’s mother sagging in defeat. “Sounds to me like she wants to be part of your private life. Misguided, but nice.”
“I suppose,” says Teddy. “One thing though, my mother hasn’t sat on the edge of my bed since the times I stayed home from school with the flu.”
There’s a silence during which tiny dots flicker and swerve on the underside of my eyelids, and I think of the chaos thriving in my blood: waggling bacterium, clustered cells and maybe the thing I dread the most. If I’m negative, I tell myself, I’m never going to have sex again. It’s a resolution I’ve made before. I’ll be abstinent for a couple of months, until I’m too lonely to stand it any more. I try to stay safe, I really do, but it’s hard to guard against your own longing, not to mention depressing. I’m bound to slip, even a little, kissing despite a cut in my mouth or sucking cock without a condom. And I won’t regret it. Until the next test.
Teddy says, “I remember eavesdropping on a game my parents used to play when they had friends over for drinks. Mom would ask everyone to think of a book or movie title, then add the phrase: between the sheets.”
“Do one,” I say.
Teddy thinks. “Great Expectations Between the Sheets.” Now you, he says.
“The Prince and the Pauper Between the Sheets.”
“The Color Purple Between the Sheets.”
“How Green Was My Valley Between the Sheets”
“How to Be Your Own Best Friend Between the Sheets.”
“Eat Well and Live Longer Between the Sheets.”
I feel giddy, as though the two of us could do this forever. In the darkness I picture every kind of sheet, washed of sweat and semen and blood, flapping on an endless line. That you can put just about anything between them and make a kind of sense, or at least an interesting innuendo, suddenly seems miraculous, rich with possibility.
“You’re done,” says Teddy, and I open my eyes. The tourniquet comes lose with a snap. He presses a cotton ball where the skin has been punctured, and I hold it there till the bleeding stops. Teddy rolls his chair toward a little refrigerator and, when he opens the door, I notice vials of other patient’s blood, fates lined up in a neat red row.
“Finally my mother gave in and told me to exchange them for the kind of sheets I want. ‘Get a whole bouquet if it makes you happy.’ When I put my arm around her she said it again, but the second time she really meant it.” Teddy sets my sample in the rack, peels off his rubber gloves. He rummages inside the refrigerator and pulls out, of all things, a carton of orange juice, pouring some for me and some for himself. The picture on the side of the carton an orange squeezed of one glistening drop makes me realize how much blood I’ve given, how thirsty I am. Teddy swivels toward me. “Compliments of the clinic,” he says, “and your resident phlebotomist.”
Together we raise our paper cups.