The Blood Essay

Lying as survival for gay blood donations

Harrison Cook
Nov 26, 2019 · 8 min read
Illustration by Kyle Griggs

BBefore my blood jetted into the clear tubing, exiting at body temperature, fogging up the inside of the plastic; before the phlebotomist whipped out his iodine to sterilize my arm, before he fished for a vein, before I lied during the screening, before I knew blood as warning, weak points, and damage, before the Orlando shooting, before sleeping with him, telling Mom I slept with a girl, before I knew my blood as the universal donor, I knew my blood as a taker of sorts, starting with the torsions.

The doctor says, Even though you don’t have anything down there, while strapping on a rubber glove for the palpitate and cough, we have to check. You’re ten at your scheduled physical and you have no clue what he’s talking about.

We’ll be outside, Mom says, Just talking. She bites into ‘talking’ like it’s an animal she just caught. When they leave the room there’s an ocean sound with the door shuts — no, it’s the sound when an ear sits close to a seashell — until the slow ringing comes back to real time, as you hear Mom’s voice through the door. What you remember piecing together;

He —

He — didn’t — no

He — Did — Not — Know —

He didn’t know about the torsions.

Driving in the car, the silences gnaws at you until you ask, What did he mean when he said, ‘You really can’t tell’?

She started with the lack of blood flow, the double torsion, how both testicles side-winded on their own coils. One had gangrene. Surgeons tried saving the pinker of the two, cut you open hours after your birth, unfurled it, and waited thirty minutes for the blood to recirculate through the veins, before they took that one too. For you to live, they had to go.

It’ll take a special girl to understand someday, Mom said, And I can be there to help with that conversation.

Irretrievable loss roots around your definition of family, children, spouse. Images of abundance are laced with inadequacy. Something you believe you can never provide at the age of 10 without testicles. You start keeping secrets too.

The phlebotomist grabbed the iodine marker. When the wet tip pressed into my skin, dying my arm’s bend dark sepia, killing any germs sterile, I joked with him, If you get it on the first try we’ll be best friends.

I’m always a good stick, the phlebotomist said.

I don’t think you understand, I said, in third grade I was so fat it took healthcare professionals thirty times to start an IV.

I don’t think you understand, he said, I’m always a good stick.

X marked the spot. He took the needle and my arm forgot it’s an arm.

The testosterone your body is missing comes in a bottle smaller than a thimble. You’re twelve. The nurse rubbed the top of the bottle with an alcohol wipe. You remember that clinical smell, the crackle of the plastic coating. The nurse draws up the serum molasses slow. There’s the hard-plastic sound of the needle heads switching from 18 to 21.5 gauge and the cold burn of alcohol wipe on your shoulder. Your shoulder forgets it’s a shoulder, otherwise there’s a river of blood running down to your elbow. Somehow the forgetting never prepares you for the needle’s stick, stop, and infinitely slow plunge. The nurse hands you a gauze square. You dot the red pearl.

When the shots turned from monthly to weekly, you remember Mom asking, Do you think you could give yourself the shot? She sits at the kitchen table, bracing her head in the ‘L’ of her hand, her elbow pinning a pile of bills.

I can try, you remember.

The loaded needle hovers above your thigh. No matter how many times you count up or down from ten the arm with the needle doesn’t move. Your body won’t willingly hurt itself. We can try again next time, the nurse says. There is no next time. The nurse showed you all the steps, so you try to administer a shot at home. You try the other thigh this time and it still hangs there above your thigh.

For God sakes, Mom says. She rips the needle out of your hand. She takes another alcohol wipe, spreads the fabric across your thigh, and goes for it. She tries again. And again. Again, but the needle never breaks your skin.

You’re the one who used to be the nurse, you remember. Mom administers the shot, until the last drop, pulls out the needle, gauze, caps the needle, and throws it down on the table.

She says, Don’t make me do that again.

When Mom walks away, you look at the needle on the table, pointing at you, and you realize, there will always be another needle, another shot, another trail of blood.

The navy Red Cross tents divided the room into camps and cells. The phlebotomist took me back to one of the compartments for the screening. He’s dressed in the usual hospital scrubs. Wild chest hair curls around the line of blue V-neck. His beard matches his brown hair. He grabbed my finger and I don’t even notice the prick. It jarred me from that lull of looking at him. The phlebotomist took my finger again and squeezed a ruby drop onto a small paper strip for analysis.

The machine blinked. Your iron levels are good to donate, he said. He left me to take the survey at my own honesty. There was the question have you had sexual contact with a man in the past twelve months? My eyes dart between the two boxes. Yes is on the right. No is on the left.

Left to right to left again. It’s a yes or no answer, and my finger forgot it’s a finger.

You pull out the condom living in your wallet. The plastic wrapper pulls your donor card to the floor.

Donor huh? He asks.

Kinda, you remember.

What does ‘kinda’ mean, he asks.

Anyone can use my blood, you remember, but queer people can’t donate.

Or, you remember him saying, you donate because it makes you feel straight — you swipe your card from his palm and head for the door. He barrels after you, puts his hand on your shoulder, trying to slow you down.

You open the door, turn around, and remember saying, Keep the condom.

You wait in the Pancheros’ line with friends, when a group of men flash in. Sequins, all-fishnet tops, belly buttons exposed. They covered their faces. Running for the men’s room, they huddled together, sobbing. When they make it to the door the last one removes his hand from his face. Everyone else in the restaurant fades see-through, leaving only their cartoon outlines.

He locks his eyes with you as if we’re the only two people in the restaurant or as if I’m the only person in the restaurant willing to listen. See my fucking face, breeder? He says, This happened to me because I’m a faggot. You remember his face bloody as hamburger speaking directly to your throbbing shame.

You repay the favor by drunk calling her like she drunk called you the week before. She stands in the frame of the doorway again. You smile then she points at your boxers and laughs. You pissed yourself, she says. You look down remembering a wet spot. She laughs and helps you change into a clean pair. Laying you down on your bed, she feeds you bread, traces the weak parts of the inside of your arms until she’s fumbling for your balls. You haven’t told her.

I don’t have any. It’s the first time you tell anyone.

That’s okay, she says, they get in the way.

You really can’t tell, you remember your doctor said.

She takes your hands, sliding them in her shorts, guiding them inside her. You feel the warmth, then the open, and then her tampon.

What’s that? You ask.

I’m on my period, she says, But I’ll let you finger me. You do. She comes and leaves, but blood smell doesn’t leave your fingers even after you wash your hands.

You talk at the start of summer, eight months later. You go out for froyo. Invite her to a party she may or may not show up to.

I have another party and I don’t want to double dip, she says.

We recognize this as a date. She says, I see other people too.

What do you mean?

She never fully answered my question.

I love you kid. Remember that, hums in your ears I love you kid, as we part ways with another kiss. I love you kid, throbs as you bareback the guy you threw a condom at, the one who called you straight for donating blood, the one who doesn’t feel anything with a condom on, he’ll beg and beg until he tells you he’s allergic to latex. You open his closet and see a pack of regular latex Trojans. He’s a liar. And you lie to yourself. You fuck until your body forgets it’s a body.

Later that night, you and your friend throw a party. She shows up wearing this dress that dances like a wave of fire. She’ll come by and replace you and your friend’s drinks. The hosts shouldn’t have to refill their own glass. You’ll tap out early and she’ll tuck you under the covers again. A wave of fire shutting the door.

The next morning, you’ll wake up as she’s picking up her shoes. My friend will come up the stairs with hickeys on his neck that he won’t remember.

You’ll go over to your other friends to vent. Standing in their doorway, your given hug after hug until the TV comes on, reading 49 killed, 58 injured. Myself, my friend, and her girlfriend quiver, watching the reportage of the Orlando Shooting.

You’ll go to the vigil with your friend and her girlfriend who is also your friend. You tell yourself here you don’t cry as an ally, you cry for your brothers and sisters.

You passed out, the phlebotomist said, But, we were done with the donation. He scratched the tape at its corners from my skin. After the initial stick, the arm forgets there’s a needle siphoning fluid out and away from the body. He began the pull, the needle gliding against my vein, until the metal’s out of my body, sending pleasure squirming up my arm.

You tell yourself your donation will flood its way down to Florida.

Your test results come back negative, but you live with the weight. Lying is survival that only leads to decay. You tell Mom the girl you’ve been seeing tried to give you an STI, so you get tested.

You talk to your friend about the girl. He doesn’t remember that night. Only that she was the one who got us drinks. He thinks he was roofied but was too scared to confirm.

You’ll stop donating blood realizing the act of donation is also an act of division, subversion, for participation in a system you can’t win.

You’ll get an email from the Red Cross reading:

You saved zero lives in 2018.

You saved zero lives in 2019.

Then you get a phone call. Another phone call.

You take your card out, run it through a pair of scissors, and leave the shreds in the trash. It’s Tuesday. It’s a shot day and you have to administer it yourself. You prep, you wipe, you draw the medicine, you change the needle heads, your thigh forgets it’s a thigh. After, you feel the heart’s throbbing is something you can’t switch off.

I told Mom I lied to her about the girl I was seeing giving me an STI. She was a sexual predator and that I hooked up with a guy and needed the testing. I told her I lied because I was ashamed of liking men.

You don’t have to lie anymore, Mom said.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Harrison Cook

Written by

Writings published in Slate, Atlas Obscura, Phoebe Journal, and onstage | Deputy Editor at Guesthouse |

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Harrison Cook

Written by

Writings published in Slate, Atlas Obscura, Phoebe Journal, and onstage | Deputy Editor at Guesthouse |

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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