A Short Story of Fleeting Love and Everlasting Loss
Inspired by Bon Iver's song Blood Bank.
The room was filled with people in reclining chairs, their arms rubbed with sterilizer and needles prodding into their veins. I watch as the tubes turn from clear to red as it fills up with blood, filtering it into a plasticized polyvinyl chloride bag. Walking around the room everyone had a different reaction to having their blood drawn. Some were sitting perfectly still watching the blood move from arm to tube, as if they have been doing this all their lives, while others were closing their eyes in disgust towards the crimson liquid that was escaping their veins. A few people were squeezing their fist so hard their knuckles were turning white and the tourniquet look as if it might snap. I tug at my hoodie to cover the bandage in the crook of my arm. Some part of me loved the blood bank. Not in a sadistic way that loved the act of voluntary bleeding – it gave me some strange joy to see that every person bled the same shade of red.
Out the corner of my eye I see a woman looking wobbly as she stands up from the chair. The doctor is too busy writing notes into his tablet to notice her struggling. I walk over to her to ask if she needs any help. "I'm fine," she insists, her voice so quiet as if she doesn't want me to hear her words. She stumbles forward and I catch her, helping her stand upright.
"You need to sit back down, I'm going to get you some chips or something." I say guiding her back into her chair. She nods weakly and gives me a smile with her mouth closed. I jog over to the free snacks and grab a bag of greasy chips, a chocolate caramel candy bar along with a bottle of water.
I set the food in her lap and open the bottle of water for her. With a shaky hand she takes a couple of sips as I tear open the bag of chips. After a few gulps she reaches for the chips and I can hear them crunching in her mouth. I kneel beside her chair and watch her eat. Fucking creep, I think to myself as I look at her wiping crumbs from her full pink lips. She probably thinks I'm so weird staring at her eat, I tell myself. But I can’t take my eyes off her even if I wanted to. She was beautiful. Ethereal even. Her hazel eyes, black hair just past her shoulders, she had skin like beach sand with freckles and moles peppered all over her. I start to count the freckles on her face unconsciously. This is getting weird Justin, knock it off.
"Um...?" She says waving a hand in my face.
I shake my head and look down at the floor, "Shit," I mumble.
"What was that?" She ask crumbling the chip bag and throwing in the trash can beside her.
"N—nothing, it was nothing, uh—do you need this right now?" I said holding up the chocolate bar, way too eager to open it for her.
She shakes her head but takes the bar anyway, "I think I'll save it for later." She sticks the bar into her mustard yellow fabric purse. "Thank you though. Thanks for helping me out, Dr. Whatever surely wasn't about to." She laughs a little and I laugh far too loudly. It wasn't even funny, what am I doing?
"Who are you?" She asks looking me up and down. "’I’m Emma."
I stick my hand out robotically to shake her hand—You're trying to flirt, not close a business deal you idiot. "Uh, my name is Justin." My voice cracks in the middle of my name. She laughs and shakes my hand and wow her hands are soft and I'm trying to ignore the feeling overwhelming embarrassment washing over me. Looking at her I wish I had dressed better—not that anyone dresses up to donate blood, but the way her jeans clung to her hips, the oversized sweater falling from her shoulder and beat up black converse she wore looked effortlessly put together. I had thrown on my black hoodie and grey sweatpants. I hadn't even bothered to brush my hair.
She bites at the bottom of her lip and lets go of my hand after what felt like forever and her touch lingers there. A man passes by us with blood bags hanging from a metal bar. "That's mine," she says pointing at the bag second to last from the front.
"How would you know?" I ask her squinting my eyes in confusion.
"Oh, I don't. I just like to put a name to the bag. It's a little thing that eases my nerves when I come here. I hate giving blood."
"Then why come if you hate it so much?"
"Because it makes me feel good. Not physically, clearly as you just saw," she chuckles slightly. "Mentally. I love knowing I helped someone by just simply donating a piece of me that I’m lucky to have so much off. "
"That's kinda fucked up," I say and I immediately regret it when the words leave my mouth, but it’s true, so I keep talking. "Y' know? Donating blood to people because it makes you feel like a decent person. It’s defeating the purpose of giving blood just to give."
She shrugs and rolls her eyes, "Who cares? Regardless of my motive, maybe someday a 7-year-old kid will be hemorrhaging blood from a car accident and is gonna be saved by my blood. That's awesome, and if it makes me feel something then so what? Not everyone is a saint."
I nodded because she made a valid statement and pointed at a bag for myself, "That one's mine." She grins at me with all her teeth showing and I'm beaming back at her like some kind of fool. We give all the bags names and a story.
"That's Harry's, he's A-Negative, one day a surgeon is going to puncture an old woman named Hady's organ and his blood will save her from bleeding out on the table." Emma says to me her eyes wide and hopeful.
My turn. "That one's John's, he's B-positive his blood is going to save the life of a teenager named Mark who got drunk and decided it was a good idea to drive home. His parents are still going to ground him."
She frowns, "That's so harsh!"
I shrug, "Mark shouldn't have been an idiot."
"Touché," she smirks. My stomach is doing back flips, she makes me so nervous. This game is so morbid but I can see how it's entertaining for her. I wish we really did know who received our blood.
"Who would you want your blood to go?" she asks.
I blink hard at her caught off guard by her question. She looks so interested, her eyes boring into mine, lips curved into a crooked smile. I sigh. "I'd give it to my sister if I could." Her eyebrows furrowed and the curves of her lips flattened. "Julia. O-negative. She's got leukemia. She's 8." Emma stares blankly at me, blinking in what seemed like slow motion. "I'm AB-Positive. I can't donate to her." Her shoulders drop and her eyes stare down into her lap as if she can't look at me anymore. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be a joy kill, you asked for answer and I wanted to give you an honest one."
I usually never tell people I'm just meeting about my little sister. It’s always the same reaction. They tell me they're sorry, they tell me she'll make it through, they tell me to pray about it, they tell me about their uncle who beat cancer but avoid talking about the cousin that didn't. But those people were never in the room when my Julia cried about losing her long brown curls. Those people weren't there when she yelled in pain over the bruises all over her body, or when she threw up all night, or when the doctors said she only had a few months left. I was done praying, God never helped me before. I was done with false hope. I made my peace with her diagnosis. I avoided telling people about Julia because I didn't need their pity or their sympathy. But something in me told me Emma wasn't going to do that and I was right.
"So you donate blood to others because at least you're helping somebody, even if it isn't Julia?" I nod at her, but she still won't meet my gaze. Her hands move to rest on top of mine and my whole body visibly tenses up. It feels like a privilege to have her soft as silk skin against my rough callused hands. She moves her thumb up and down my knuckles and her eyes finally meet mine. "Do you want to get out of here? There's this coffee shop down the street and I—"
"Yes," I say all too excited. Her smile is back as we stand up and begin to walk outside. She doesn't let go of my hand. We decide to take my car and only then does she let go of my hand to climb into the seat and I'm forced to feel the emptiness again. We drive in comfortable silence to the coffee shop and I can't help but smile to myself and she's smiling too, and I wonder if it's for the same reason. It takes everything in me to not grab her hand. It's so close. She lays it on the console, palm up like an invitation but I don't know if I can touch her. My hands stay on the stirring wheel until we reach our destination.
The coffee shop is packed. I notice the seats filling up as the line inches along. Emma is too busy studying the menu to notice. She orders a large black coffee, something told me she would. I got a chai tea because I'm more of a tea than coffee person. She takes a whiff of the coffee and the steam fills her nostrils and she looks as if she's in heaven. After I've stirred honey into my tea, we decide to drink our coffee in the car because no seats seemed be emptying.
In the car with the heat on high we sip our drinks and I can’t believe she's in my car so close to me, just a stranger a while ago. Emma unwraps the candy bar from earlier and breaks off a piece into her coffee. It melts into the hot drink, a puddle of caramel and chocolate. She licks coffee from her top lip and I’m watching her but she smiles instead of looking away. Maybe she doesn't think I'm so strange after all. I finish my tea quicker than I had hoped to and cold air is seeping in through a crack in the driver’s side window. I’m shivering and my cheeks flush red with embarrassment—I wonder if she can hear my teeth chattering. My hands are shaking and she sets down her coffee to rub them. She is so warm, I wanted to drink her in like a cup of hot cocoa. “You should really get that window fixed, Portland’s got brutal winters. It's snowing for the third time this week.”
"What?" I glance out the window and notice snow falling all around us. Snow flakes are sticking to the ground and soon would be blanketed across sidewalks and my car.
She looks at me with a confused expression, "You hadn't noticed it began snowing?"
I shake my head. "I guess I was... distracted?" It was so beautiful to see the crystal flakes rain down from the heavens but I couldn't avert my gaze from her too long. It felt like a dream, I was waiting for her to disappear. I’m grinning at her because I don't know what else to say, I can barely think straight. Her hands are running up and down mine and she's staring into my hands which causes her hair to fall into her face. Out of instinct I move my left hand from underneath her touch and brush the hair behind her ear. This is so cheesy I'm almost ashamed of doing it but then she blushes as my knuckles graze her cheeks and suddenly I want to kiss her. My hand is resting against her smooth cheek and she doesn't seem to protest it being there. Do I kiss her? I want to kiss her so badly I could explode. I'm tapping my foot out of nerves. I need to kiss her, if I don't do it now I'll lose my nerve.
Before I could press my lips against hers, she moves her hands from mine and places them on both sides of my face. Emma's body lifts from the seat and she's leaning over the console. Her face is inches away from mine and her hazel eyes meet my brown and we're kissing under the snow covered roof of my car. Her lips are as soft as her body, she wraps her arms around me and I'm being pushed up against the window of the car but I don't care because oh my God, she's kissing me. I'm scared she can hear my heart beating out of my chest. I pull away from her to readjust myself and she crawls into the driver's seat, her legs straddling over my lap. We are pressed into each other, chest to chest and I can feel her heartbeat—it's thudding just as ravenously as mine. We were kissing like it was our raison d’être and I was already dreading the moment we would have to part. We stayed like this for what felt like hours, all teeth and tongue and hands everywhere. I couldn't get enough of her, I wanted to drink her in like water. I wanted her to be closer even though we were already pressed into each other. If I could crawl into her body on the would I be close enough and even then I was unsure.
Finally she pulls away from me blushing from what she had done and I laugh because it's fucking adorable. "Justin?" She says.
"Yes, Emma?" I reply with the goofiest smile I could imagine.
"Justin." She says again, only her voice seems farther away. She repeats my name many more times and each time her sweet voice is getting further and further. I'm asking what's wrong but she can't hear me. Her body begins to fade away bit by bit, broken down into small particles materializing in front of me. The last thing to go is her lips. She says my name one more time.
Suddenly I hear monitors beeping around me and the sound of wheels against linoleum flooring. The smell of antiseptic filters into my nostrils. My eyes open to bright lights above me as I’m shaken awake. There's a crick in my neck from my head being pushed back against the wall. "Emma?" I say to the nurse with hazel eyes and shoulder length black hair.
"Who?" The nurse replies cocking her head to the side with confusion. Her name tag reads ‘Amanda.’
I was dreaming? She was a dream? I knew she was too perfect to be true. Emma was a figment of my imagination. I shook my head and tried to remember what I was doing in St. Jude Hospital. Then it hit me. Emma was a distraction from reality. She was hope. She lured me to sleep while my sister, Julia, was in her last round of chemotherapy. My mom said she didn't want me in the room with Julia because I only make her more scared because of how worried I look all the time. Mom was sitting in the room with her soothing her and I sat down outside, my feet tapping from nerves. When I dozed off, there was Emma . The blood bank always put me at ease, knowing I was helping someone even if it wasn't Jules. And Emma appeared in my twisted happy place as a ray of hope in my despair. I was focusing on her instead of crying over my sister. A beautiful distraction she was, my imaginary Emma.
The nurse told me my sister was done with her chemo and I let out a sigh of relief, only to combat it with the realization that my sister was dying and that's why she was stopping treatment. I stand up still wobbly from sleep and walk into the room. I see small children in wheelchairs, balding heads, sunken eyes and weak smiles. Julia waves at me and I scoop her up into my arms gently, careful to avoid giving her bruises. "Hey kiddo, you doing alright?" I say to her trying to mask the shakiness in my voice. "Did they give you any cool bandages?"
She nods her little bald head with excitement and shows me her small band-aids, pointing particularly at the orange one with muscular turtles on it. "I asked for the boy ones today 'cus I know you like Ninja Turtles! I thought it would make your frown turn upside down!" She was smiling so wide all her teeth were showing and I smile back just as wide even though all I wanted to do was cry and curse at God.
"I love it Jules, you're the coolest kid ever." I say lifting my hand up for a high five. She slaps her tiny hand against mine and my heart drops knowing I won't get to hold her like this forever. My voice comes out as a whisper without it meaning to, "I love you."
She presses a hand against my face, "I love you too, Justin!"