Blood Loss by Shelagh Johnson

I wait for her at the blood bank on Chariot Street, and I know it’s her as soon as she walks in the door. I’ve been in the waiting room for forty-five minutes, ushering people ahead of me each time a nurse calls my name, pretending to put the finishing touches on paperwork I finished ten minutes after I arrived. She hangs up her jacket and she’s wearing pale green scrubs that hang loosely from her body. The slack neckline of her top slips down and I see a slice of white skin and the angle of her collarbone. Even under the folds of fabric, I can tell that her body is slight and delicate. Her hair is pale blond, nearly white, and her face is muted, a blur of indistinct features, like a sketch of a woman that someone began and then set aside. There’s something incomplete about her and I wonder if this is what you wanted all along. This whisper of a person. This suggestion of something beautiful.

It occurs to me that she was probably with you this morning, that an hour ago, the clothes she’s wearing now were probably crumpled on your bedroom floor. I wonder if your smell is still on her skin.

I look down at the health forms in my hands, trace my pen along the curve of my name for the hundredth time, wait to hear the sound of her voice slam against me when she calls my name aloud.

Five minutes later, she takes me into the back room and I grip the forms so tightly that my fingernails punch through the paper and dig hard crescents into the palm of my hand. I don’t know what I’m here to do. Yell at her, donate blood, slit her throat, cry like a child.

She gestures to a seat next to a man who is lying back in his chair, a bulging bag of blood beside him. He’s reading a magazine like this is the most natural thing in the world, to let go of something that used to be a part of him.

“This shouldn’t be too bad,” she says to me. The skin on her face is thin and waxy, pulled taut across her bones as if it were made a size too small. She smiles, a reassuring smile that seems to inhabit her entire face, and wrinkles spring out around her eyes. I imagine the look on her face if I were to suddenly tell her who I am. I imagine sweeping an arm across her cart of needles and vials, smashing bottles under the heel of my boot, ripping the fat bags of anonymous blood from their tubes and bursting them against the walls. I picture the splatter of red against the bright, sterile white.

She rubs a swab of something cold across the stretch of my inner arm, murmurs that this won’t take long at all, and for a moment, I feel a sudden kind of tenderness toward her as her skin brushes mine. Her lips are dry and cracking and a sliver of blood shines in the corner of her mouth. I search her vague, papery face for what might be extraordinary about her. She gives me a sympathetic look and I know she’s misreading me, thinking I’m afraid of what she’s about to do. She eases the needle into my arm and, for a moment, the thoughts are knocked out of me and it feels like relief, like emptiness. The blood pushes and recedes and I can’t think of anything else. I look up at her and the kindness of her smile slides back into focus and the things she has taken from me feel more absent from my life than ever.

“It’s amazing how much we can live without,” the man next to me says. His eyes are on the bag hanging beside me that’s now growing plump with blood. I press my eyes shut but can feel the dull, throbbing rhythm in the crook of my arm where the needle is nestled inside me.

“We’re more resilient than we think,” she says. “After a little while, your body will barely even register the loss.” I open my eyes and she’s leaning over me, holding the tube between her fragile fingers. They’re small as a child’s, but bony and frail in a way that betrays their age. The tube is nearly purple with the rush of blood.

When she walks away from me for a moment, I think about the things I’ll say to her when she returns. I consider popping the tube out of my vein right then, leaving her to find my blood pooling, wasted, at her feet. I think of asking her what she has that I don’t.

She comes back over and inspects the bag beside me, her tiny hands cradling it as though it’s a living thing. She gives me a nod, as if to say, We made it, and reaches over to slip the needle out of me.

She presses a ball of cotton to my skin, like this is all it takes to heal me after she’s pumped my insides out. She looks at me with the kind of removed sympathy that’s reserved for strangers, for people who have no bearing on her actual life, and gives my shoulder a squeeze. “I’m sorry if that hurt,” she says, and then with a wink, “but I think you’ll survive.”

She smoothes a bandage over my skin to seal it shut, leaving the fluff of cotton pressing up from underneath as though it’s growing out of me, and tells me I did a great job, like I’m a child who’s been extremely brave. Then she plucks the tube from the collection of my blood and rolls her cart away, shutting the door behind her, leaving me to survive on my own.


Shelagh Johnson graduated with an MFA from American University’s Creative Writing program and currently works as an Editorial Assistant at the National Institutes of Health. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in a number of journals and magazines, including The Portland Review, Clackamas Literary Review, The Ampersand, Folio, and The Messenger. As a recipient of the Creative Writing Merit Award from American University, she was given the opportunity to work as the Fiction Editor and Co-Editor-in-Chief of the university’s literary journal and alumni magazine, respectively.

One response to “Blood Loss by Shelagh Johnson”

  1. Jan says:

    Great job with this Shelagh. In particular, I love the comparison of her physical vs emotional pain. Relief of mental anguish, as you described, is what people hope to find through self harm. It is clear you have an understanding of this.

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