LIKE AT SUPERCUTS
A comedy, with blood test.
Free to everyone, today. Just because I feel like it.
Support still welcome. Just in case you feel like it…
LIKE AT SUPERCUTS
Raising his hands to wipe his cheeks, Thomas caught sight of himself in the rearview mirror. That, at last, made him laugh.
Had he actually asked that question?
Oh, yes, he had.
“So...Doc...if we went for additional surgery and more aggressive chemo, would I still need the bi-monthly blood tests?”
The sound that burst from his throat now wasn’t laughter, but at least it wasn’t sobbing, either.
Drying his palms on his pants, he checked his distraction pile: the six year-old Brian-Blasting Crosswords book he only brought out on blood test days, and that never blasted his brain enough; the psychotic-neighbor thriller that hadn’t even proved sufficiently distracting to get him to sleep last night; the Discman he’d found in a drawer a few days ago, couldn’t believe still played, and immediately set aside for this morning; the folding case of CDs he’d spent all of yesterday selecting. Music he still liked enough to hum, but not enough to care if he ever heard again, given that he probably would associate whatever he picked, from this moment on, with the next half hour.
The next half hour: the first glimpse of needle, still in its sterile wrapping, on the metal tray alongside all those shiny glass vials; the cinch of rubber tube around his bicep, tightening hard, chasing his terrified veins toward the surface of his skin like fish fleeing octopus tentacle right into octopus teeth; the cool, wet cave kiss of cotton swab across the crook of his pinioned arm, which Thomas had long ago decided was the actual worst part; the condescension of another bored med tech muttering, “See, guy? Already done,” when it fucking wasn’t, not even close, when there were still multiple vials to fill but the tech had finally understood that Thomas really might keel over in the chair.
Grabbing Discman and case, he got out of the car stood, started to shut the door, and spotted the Pop Tart pack half-buried under the crossword book, foil glinting like a vein of silver. Brown Sugar Cinnamon, a flavor he despised, except that he now associated it with the moment afterward, with being done, sitting safe and shivering in the driver’s seat with the heater blasting terror-sweat off his face and his arms crossed tight against his chest and the cotton wad strapped into the fold of his elbow, where Thomas would leave it for at least the next three days, minimum. As protection. Also so there was no risk of accidentally looking into the hole.
The Pop Tarts were his reward. The signal that life was restarting.
Also—though he’d never actually done this, not yet—they were his ejector seat. Escape route, in case he decided he just couldn’t do it this time. SO sorry. I was starving when I got up, and I forgot I was meant to fast, and I just ate them automatically, you know? Guess we’ll have to reschedule...
The wrapper rippled as he shut the door, as though waving to him. Which made Thomas feel pathetically grateful, almost to the point of tears. He watched himself lift a hand. Wave back to his Pop Tarts.
See you soon.
Squaring his shoulders, dropping his teeth into place behind his lips like a portcullis, he marched up the clinic’s stone steps, straight down the narrow outdoor hallway to door 261. Diagnostic Lab. Appointments Only.
The knob, when he grabbed it, felt slick, as though someone had just sneezed on it. Or bled on it. The blood saturating the balled cotton, leaking down the arm to the fingertips...
His teeth didn’t so much grind as bounce as he kicked through the door. Was he smiling? It felt, for some reason, like he was trying to smile.
If he had been, it was pointless. The woman behind the Plexiglass at the appointment desk never even looked up from her computer screen. Didn’t turn in his direction, just opened her mouth as he neared proximity, as though motion-triggered.
“Referral papers, proof of insurance.”
For one wild second, Thomas felt his whole body unclench, positively flap right there in the lobby like a flag in a gust.
“I forgot my card,” he said, somehow refraining from throwing his arms in the air and dancing. Because he really had. Had in fact left not just his card but his whole wallet home. He’d been too busy digging for Pop Tarts.
“No problem, you’ve been here before, right? Phone and date of birth and doctor’s name?”
Thirty seconds later, he was squashed into the farthest chair from the reception desk, next to the empty fish tank, filling out questions on a clipboard. His answers to some of them had changed, now. Have you ever been diagnosed with...check all that apply...
Presumably, the fact of these changes should have troubled him. Frightened him. Instead, the checkmarks he made just seemed to float on the paper like little hovering gnats. Distant. Alien. Nothing to do with him.
Unlike the skin on his left arm, which had tightened again under his shirt, seemingly crawling over itself in an attempt to roll into a ball.
Behind the Plexiglass, the lab hummed. Thomas couldn’t see any patients, but med techs in white coats kept passing in and out of the reception area, grabbing charts, calling out jokes, flirting with the woman who’d checked Thomas in. Calling her “Baby.” Maybe that was her name. The woman didn’t look up at them, either. Once, though, Thomas caught her smiling into her computer screen.
A cheerful crew, this one. Happily wiping blood off surfaces. Properly disposing of sharps. Sterilizing surfaces and tray tops. Disposing of bodies.
“Mr. Putman?” called a voice from across the waiting area, and Thomas startled, flung up the clipboard like a shield and smacked himself in the chin with the dangling pen.
The nurse—med-tech—standing in the open doorway might have been five feet tall, looked younger than 25 but wore pince-nez she had to have inherited. The lenses curved past the corners of her eyes, reminding Thomas of fighter pilot goggles. The eyes themselves were deep brown, too big for that face.
“Oooh!” came a chorus of voices from back in the lab.
At me, Thomas thought, heart hammering. At this poor woman, because they remember me, they know what I’m like, they drew lots, she lost, and now...
“I haven’t finished,” he burbled, waving the clipboard and smacking himself again with the pen.
“Well, finish,” said the woman, and didn’t go back into the lab. Stood there staring at him with her mouth flat and the hand that wasn’t holding the door on her hip.
Thomas glanced down at the sheet. The check marks had stopped floating around, settled into their boxes. Apparently, he’d answered more than he’d realized. Everything, in fact. With a whimper, he signed his name.
When he stood, the woman locked those eyes on him like handcuffs and beckoned him forward. Amazingly, Thomas felt himself moving. He watched his own hands lift, holding out the clipboard like a first-grader presenting homework to the teacher.
The only thing that moved on the woman was the eyes, which directed him to the desk. He watched himself pass the clipboard back under the Plexiglass partition to Baby.
“Bueno,” said the med tech. “For a second there, I thought you were going to be one of those crazy ones. Scared of a pinprick.”
Her words came out with that Santo Domingo lilt, the consonants sliding into and over each other like running water. Hypnotic, and with an undertow. An accent he always recognized, thanks to his college roommate’s girlfriend. The fact that he recognized it always made Thomas pathetically proud, for no good reason whatsoever. He was through the door and past the med-tech before he realized he’d left his Discman in the waiting room.
“Wait,” he said, grabbing the door as the woman swung it shut. “I have to get my—”
“Agueda, could you keep an eye on this man’s...what is that?” She was speaking to the receptionist. To Baby.
“I think it plays CDs,” said Agueda, pulling a nailfile across the little finger of her left-hand and frowning.
“They still make CDs?”
“I need it,” Thomas burbled. “It helps me—”
“Oh, boy,” said the med tech. “Over here. We’ll have you exsanguinated and on your way before you know it.”
From the hallway behind Agueda’s desk, laughter exploded. Not at him, surely not, they’d already been laughing. As he passed, he saw them, three other med-techs in open white smocks clustered near the wall of files. Two had Styrofoam coffee cups. The third, a guy, had rubber tubing flung over his shoulder like a vein he’d just ripped out.
The guy locked eyes with Thomas, glanced at the med-tech leading him, then back to Thomas. Slowly, he shook his head.
“Dude,” he said.
In sympathy? With his med tech? Or with him?
Behind the guy who’d spoken, the other med-techs raised their coffee cups, then burst into more laughter.
“Shut up,” said the woman behind Thomas, directing him toward an open door on the right.
“Make sure you’re actually looking this time, Valeria.”
“We’ll keep the smelling salts handy.”
“Pendejo,” snapped Valeria. Thomas’s med-tech.
She accidentally bumped into him, because he’d stopped moving. Hadn’t meant to. Apparently he also had flung out his arms and caught the doorframe of the room into which she was steering him, and now he was clinging at the room’s entrance like a first-time skydiver at the moment of no return.
Except this wasn’t his first time.
Wouldn’t be his last, either.
Wouldn’t even be his last this month.
Through tears, Thomas surveyed the room in front of him. Cell, except minus even a bed. Which made me it even more prison-like. A solitary confinement chamber. Waterboarding center.
There was a green plastic chair, with that nonsensical back rounded on either side the way no actual human shoulders rounded. Sterile counter top, sink, stool, metal tray with the vacuum-sealed needles and vials carefully packed away, just out of sight, the rubber tubing coiled in a corner of the tray next to the brand new, unopened box of cotton swabs, the whole tableaux scrubbed down and sterilized. Nothing to see here.
“Come on,” said Valeria behind him. She didn’t actually push—at least, Thomas didn’t feel her do that—but here he was in the room, folding into that chair, his shoulders molding to the rounded corners and squeezing around his banging heart like cupped palms over a butterfly.
“Roll up your sleeve.” She was at the sink, snapping gloves over her hands, settling on the stool. All business. So fast.
His plan, coming in, really had been to set a new behavioral standard for himself. Assume a more stoic attitude that would lead to new routines that would make him better at this, or at least at compartmentalizing it, so the whole experience didn’t haunt him for weeks ahead of time and days afterward. Because if he didn’t, he would always be in the midst of either anticipation or aftermath. Those glorious, seemingly endless stretches of time between tests—what he’d spent his life until this morning calling his life— were spent, now. Gone. As unimaginable as July afternoons when he was six years old.
“I can’t,” he mumbled.
Wrist-deep in the box of cotton swabs, other hand already sliding through the coil of tubing like a snake-handler, Valeria glanced up at him, or toward him, anyway. Behind the pince-nez, her eyes glinted. Dark, yes, but not only brown. Tiny specks of green glinted in there like mineral deposits.
“You can’t.” She withdrew her hand from the swab-box. Without cotton ball. “You want me to do it?” She sighed, pulling over another green plastic chair. “Which sleeve?”
“I...” Helpless—paralyzed or hypnotized (except, if you’re paralyzed or hypnotized, can you blush?)—Thomas glanced down at his arms. Between them, Valeria’s white-gloved finger appeared, twitching subtly toward one, the other, like some kind of voltage reader.
It took Thomas a second, and another stolen glimpse at her face, to see her mouth moving. To realize she was actually chanting to herself.
One potato, two potato...
“Goddamn it,” he snapped, startling them both, almost ripping off a button as he shoved up his left sleeve. “You don’t have to laugh at me. I know it’s funny to you.”
He didn’t mean to look up, just didn’t have anywhere else to look, certainly not at his arm, so bare, helpless as a stretched chicken neck in the oblivious seconds before the chop, except not oblivious. But because he did, he caught the curve of Valeria’s mouth. Surprising in its softness, in the fact that it curved not up but down. Toward gentle frowning.
“It’s not funny to me,” she said. “I understand.”
“But I do.”
“If you did, you couldn’t sit in that chair for a living.”
“I can sit in this chair. Just not in yours.”
With a flick of her wrist, she flung the tube around his bicep and tied it off, quick and hard as a ranch hand roping a steer.
“Too tight?” she asked, but not like she was asking, and turned for the box of swabs. The tray of needles.
Before he could stop himself, Thomas glanced at his arm. Saw his veins—his pathetic, traitorous veins—leaping to attention. Practically vying for the privilege.
“I was already like you,” Valeria was saying. “Even before.” Vacuum-sealed plastic popped and rustled as she unpeeled it from the little needle. At least the sound got Thomas’s eyes off his arm, up to her face again. She was smiling, now. Still softly, though.
“Okay, maybe not quite like you.” She looked right in his eyes for a second. Her smile was not at him, but it was for him. With him. “It’s funny. All my life. I can watch someone’s head explode, no problem.”
“You’ve watched someone’s head explode?”
“In a movie.” She rolled her eyes, which glinted behind the pince-nez. “I can watch anything. Dismembering. Stabbing in the retina. Spiders pouring out of mouths, snakes running up and down inside skin. That shit cracks me up.”
Gripping the side of his chair with his not-captive hand, Thomas shook his head hard, half-convinced he was dreaming. Except for the tightness around his bicep.
“Also,” Valeria continued, “I am great at my job. I am the best at my job.”
“Meaning you’re not going to kill me?”
“Meaning I just swabbed your arm and you didn’t even notice.”
Even before his gaze leapt back to his elbow, Thomas knew it was true. Could feel that horrible not-quite-coldness, now that she’d pointed it out. Think of it as a dog lick, another med-tech had told him once, cheerfully, before bruising the crook of his arm so badly while digging for the vein that Thomas had refused to look at the mark for a month.
More like the drool of the Dragon of Death as it opens its mouth, Thomas may or may not have actually told that person. Before or after he started crying.
This time, his arm almost looked severed from him. Veins bulging. Skin so thin, like all skin. Being alive is like whipping through a wind tunnel wrapped in crepe paper, he’d announced to a stoned girlfriend once, after a college bio lab. A fluke of blind luck. A matter of time.
“Well, I’m noticing now,” he muttereded. He felt rather than saw Valeria lean forward, and jerked straight in the chair. As straight as this chair allowed, anyway. “No. Fucking put that needle down. Hang on a sec.”
“The thing is,” said Valeria. She might have leaned back, but Thomas didn’t think so. She was still poised there, awaiting her moment. Patient as a circling hawk. “Like I said. I’m great at being in this seat. But not so good at being where you are.”
“I’m worse than you. I was even before what happened.”
In astonishment, in disbelief, Thomas gurgled. Somewhere in the gurgle were words.
“It’s true.” Valeria shrugged. “Happened when I was nine. I had to have all these eye operations. All because the quack doctor my family could afford fucked up the first one. That’s what I learned, much later. One whole year of my life, I could barely even see. Another one, I saw double. My dad used to say, My little Valve’s so smart, she didn’t repeat fourth grade. She did two fourth grades at the same time.”
“Hilarious,” Thomas managed.
“It actually was when he said it. He was hilarious,” Just from the way she sounded, Thomas knew her dad was dead. And that his daughter had loved him. “Anyway. It was all too scary, you know? All of it. I really thought I was going to be blind my whole life. I know my parents secretly thought so, too. I could hear them talking about it at night when they thought I was sleeping. Our apartment was the size of this room.”
Unexpectedly, she did sit back then, pursing her lips. Behind the pince-nez, she blinked. Thomas felt his spine relax, but his arm stiffen. A brand new sensation. As though he were a violin being tuned. Terrifying and fascinating in equal measure.
“In the end, it was all too much, you know?” she continued. “Way too scary to think about. My eyes getting cut open, I mean. So I focused all my terror on the I.V. Not even the tube or the drugs in it, but the moment it went in. I just...I didn’t want to be attached. I started having nightmares about the needle. By operation number four or five, my parents had to bribe me to get me to lie still. Ice cream sundaes. Extra trips to my tia’s ranch up by Bakersfield.”
Her lips had never come un-pursed, and now they emitted a loud breath. “And then, for the very last operation, I met the Bitch.”
Thomas saw her slide subtly forward, and actually thought about saying nothing. Letting it happen. As a reward, if nothing else; this woman really was trying.
“Not yet,” he heard himself say, and felt disappointed in himself yet again. Positively ashamed.
If she’d really been going in for the stick, or was even paying attention to him anymore, she showed no sign. Her gaze hovered near but not on him.
“I can’t even see her face. I don’t know if I ever saw her face. In my head, she’s that Cuckoo’s Nest lady. Nurse Ratched. In my head? That’s her face.”
“I’ve met her, too,” murmured Thomas, and actually almost smiled. That earned him a sort of smile back.
“There’s a lot of her. She’s everywhere, man. That’s how I dream the Bitch’s face. But I remember her voice. Like a old record scratched completely to hell. No music left, just dust and scratches. Arm!”
At the command, Thomas’s arm leapt in its socket like a dog called to heel. He closed his eyes, sucked in breath.
Opened his eyes again. No needle. Just Valeria, still talking.
“That’s all she said. No how are you, dear? No what’s your name? No it won’t hurt. Just arm. I started to squirm. I remember my mom going, Sssh, sssh. Her face I remember, all right. I mean, I could see two of it, so I got a good look. She was flashing so hot at the Bitch, I can’t believe that woman didn’t melt right there on the spot. Like the Wicked Witch of the West, just, splat. But...she was tired, too, my mamá. I remember how tired she looked. And sad. And scared. That was almost enough, you know? I wanted to please her. I wanted to do what she wanted. I closed my eyes and squeezed my little fist like I’d learned to, and if the Bitch had kept her bitch mouth shut... But she didn’t. She tied me off—”
“I don’t want to hear this,” said Thomas.
“—and wiped that alcohol across my arm like she was throwing a bucket of water on a car hood. Then she just—”
“Really, Valeria. I’m going to puke all over this—‘’
“—stabbed.” With a violent downward swing of her hand—the one without the needle in it—Valeria jabbed the air. Hard enough to kill it. “Straight down, right as I jerked. That’s why she missed.”
Keeling sideways, Thomas stayed upright only because at some point, he’d apparently locked his ankles around the chair legs. Even so, he couldn’t seem to get his ass all the way back down in the seat, and his whole body rippled and flapped like a luffing sail. “I need a basin,” he managed. “Seriously. I’m going to—”
“Did you know there’s a artery there? Right there?”
His vomit caught in his throat, anyway. Also his breathing. In the moment, that seemed like a bargain he could live with. Why don’t ears come with plugs, he wondered? Or veins with spigots? And what in fuck is wrong with this woman?
“You seen that Monty Python sketch?”
All rational thought ceased. Hope dawned. He was dreaming. Definitely, he could live with that. “Do you want me to ask you for an argument? Are you talking about the one where—”
“The one with the guy playing piano? And then the lid drops and chops off his hands? And he lifts up his stumps? And they just start spurting?”
Dream, reality...from that moment on, they all gushed from him. Emptied him of themselves. Himself.
“I swear to God, there was a moment where we were all just looking. My mamá. Me. Even the Bitch. I also swear to God, she said, ‘Oops.’ Probably right after I jerked again, much harder, and that needle just tore through my arterial wall and broke off.
“Then I commenced bubbling. Man, I mean, I still remember it as spurting, like that piano player. Like my clothes, the sheets, the Bitch’s face, everything just coated red. I was a one-girl serial killer crime scene. Blood freakin’ everywhere, I mean everywhere. Don’t ask me how I got away from everyone, that nurse had tire chains for fingers. But I did. I got up. I got past her. I was screaming so hard the whole hospital came running. That’s how I remember—that’s what I see in my head—but I was seeing double, so maybe it was only half the hospital. Whoever they were, they weren’t fast enough. I got past all of them. Right down the hall, the arm with the broken needle in it out to the side like the wing on a crashing plane, see? Screaming to beat the band, waving my arm around and spraying so much blood, they have must been cleaning for months.”
“Stop,” whispered Thomas. “You have to stop.” His skin erupted with clamminess, as if he’d just flipped inside out.
“They had to tackle me, in the end. Some Black doctor tackled me. He was nice. Got me on a gurney, held me down real gentle and sang to me while they all came racing with all kinds of surgery-grade gauze and antibacterials and adhesive. Even so, I was still pumping all over him, all over those sheets, because it turned out that when the tip of that needle broke off...”
Thomas did feel the prick when Valeria made her move. Of course he did. But he didn’t say anything. Couldn’t, first of all; he was afraid of what might happen if he opened his mouth. Also, now he was seeing double, or really more split-screen, himself melting into this chair in this room on one hand, and screaming kid-Valeria covered in red and being sung to on a gurney on the other. Gritting his teeth, he stared at the cabinets as they spun over adult-Valeria’s bowed head.
“What did he sing?” he croaked. “The doctor holding you down.”
Needle discarded, first vial already at his arm, Valeria never stopped moving, didn’t look up. But she answered immediately. “I only heard for a second. I passed out pretty quick. But it was ’Le Freak.’”
For a second, that made as much sense as anything else in the last three hours of his life. Then it didn’t. “But—”
“Hold still. Worst is over.” She squeezed his arm.
“The fuck it is. That song doesn’t have any words.”
“It has words. ‘Freak’. And ‘out’.”
“It’s not even a song. It’s a wiggle.”
“It’s God’s wiggle.” First vial on the tray, Valeria had the second already in place. Thomas could feel the glass cool against the stinging place, the opening in him. He was always taken aback by how dark his blood looked. He also always looked, he realized. It wasn’t blood that bothered him. Or even the monsters that really were loose inside him, now, and would probably kill him, someday. It was just the prick, and the prelude to it. So ridiculous.
Pressing down with the vial but moving nothing else on her body, Valeria started humming the song. Not the lyrics. The guitar part. Humming wasn’t even the right word, not for the sound she was making. It was more like ticking. Woodpecker against tree trunk. Living thing against other thing.
“Dee-de-dee-dee-doot-deet, doot-deet, doot-deet.”
Thomas couldn’t help it. He threw in the words, right where they went. What choice was there? You heard that guitar part, hit that last doot-deet, you chanted. As inevitable and unfightable as blood rushing to an opening.
Doot-deet. You chant.
“All done,” Valeria said eventually, before she actually was but close enough that Thomas didn’t bother protesting. By the time he’d let go of the guitar rhythm, felt anchored enough in his chair to straighten, Valeria had strapped a cotton ball over the wound with a bandage and yanked his sleeve down for him before turning away.
By the time Thomas got his cuffs buttoned, which took enough concentration to calm his nausea, make him feel as though it might be safe to speak, she’d already stood. She was labeling those vials of red-black liquid that until a few seconds ago had been him, and was now just a record of him. She was no longer humming, and didn’t glance around as he wobbled to his feet.
He opened his mouth, but realized he had no idea what to say. Did he want to thank her? Did she deserve thanks? Or an apology?
“Hold on, you need to initial these.” She still didn’t turn all the way around as she passed him the vials one by one. They felt weirdly warm in his hands. But not like they’d once been inside his skin, part of his hands. “Agueda has apple juice boxes at the desk if you’re feeling faint.”
A sudden, astonishing thought struck him. He stared at the top of her head. The dark hair pinned up, the pince-nez ballooning off the bridge of her nose. “Is any of that even true? What you just told me?”
For answer, she handed him another vial. Went on filling out his chart. Form. Whatever.
His next question bubbled out before he could stop it. “Next time, can I request you?”
At that, she finally turned. Expression not just unreadable but on its way to blank. As if she’d never even seen him. “You mean, like at Supercuts? Hey, if you do, I’ll tell you what happened when they tried to take my wisdom teeth.”
Not until he’d reached the parking lot did he remember his Discman. He almost decided to leave it, already didn’t want to go back in that office for any reason, ever, certainly not any more than he was going to have to for the rest of his days. However many those were. Less than he’d hoped, it seemed. Though maybe not.
“Dee-de-dee-dee-doot deet,” he hummed, and returned to the waiting area. There was an old couple in there, now, holding hands. Looking scared. He tried smiling at them, but they didn’t look his way. Neither did Agueda behind her partition.
Then he was back in his car, unwrapping his Pop Tarts, inhaling that smell. The scent of freedom. Or, in actuality, the smell of the moments when he was far as he would ever be from the next morning like this one. Which wouldn’t be so far, any more.
Still. A good smell. A sweet and happy smell, stretching all the way back to his childhood. To summer afternoons, with nothing in them but summer and afternoons.
For the first time since he’d left the doctor’s office, he let himself hear that guy’s words. The ones other than “bi-monthly” and “test”.
It’s going to involve some changes. To your diet. Your exercise regimen. If we absolutely have to, and I don’t think we will, not for a long time...
The beginning of the process, from now on, of prolonging his life. To his relief, nothing about any of that scared him. At least, not today. It was like as his own father had said, two days before he died.
“To me? It’s just like having to go home, you know? The way you always knew you would. At the end of a really good vacation.”
Meaning being alive at all. That was the vacation.
Unconsciously, automatically, Thomas put a hand to the crook of his elbow, pushed the cotton ball down over the wound, the veins back into their grooves out of sight beneath his shirt and skin. This, he realized—the way the entire rest of his life vanished on these mornings, as though sucked into a black hole in his arm—was as much a part of what he hated about blood tests as the physical shit. The tying off, the alcohol swipe. The prick and sting.
Except it wasn’t. Not if he was being honest. He mostly just hated the physical shit.
He would try to hate it less. Probably wouldn’t. Not even with Valeria as his personal pricker.
He was just going to have to live with it. Puke or faint if he had to. Replace the batteries in his Discman. Pack Pop Tarts. Ask Valeria out next time. See if she laughed at him then. Keep being himself for as long as there was such a thing.