After the procedure, I called my best friend, Arthur, and we drove to the pizza place 20 minutes away to redeem my free voucher. We had the restaurant all to ourselves, him in his Christina Aguilera T-shirt and me picking at my nail polish. A vaguely Italian song chimed in through the speakers.
I admitted I had lied on the questionnaire. I’d been tested for HIV a week earlier and knew I wasn’t a risk. Still, I felt guilty. I’d closeted myself on that form. I had betrayed all the queer activists who paved the way for me to be openly gay. Marsha P. Johnson. Sylvia Rivera. Harvey Milk.
“It’s so weird they make you choose,” Arthur said. “You can either save three people’s lives or you can check that you’ve had sex and let them all die.”
“I kind of wish I was cool enough to tell them I’m gay,” I said. Arthur kept his eyes on his pizza, his mind somewhere else. “Like, as an act of revolt?” I continued.
“I don’t know.” He looked up. “It sucks either way.”
I imagined a little boy named something devastatingly cute, a name only a kid can pull off: Max. As an adult, he will go by Maxwell, but for now, he’s just Max. He has a gap tooth and freckles, the kind of kid you can see on the cover of an off-brand box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. He has a rare cancer, so rare his parents are considering an experimental treatment that requires huge amounts of blood. We share a blood type.
“Sorry, Max,” activist me would say. “Can’t help you. I’m making a political statement.”
Back on campus, it was still too early for my night class, so I made my way to my favorite quiet spot on the third floor of the cafeteria to read. Usually I have no trouble lugging my body up three flights of stairs, but this time I was nauseated. I gave up my original plan and saddled myself into the nearest seat. At the table next to mine, an athletic couple studied silently from a mess of books and papers laid out before them, the man pausing every few minutes to take a gulp from a Herculean gallon of water.
An icy shiver passed through me. Rubbing my hands for warmth, I noticed that they were a shade lighter than usual, and suddenly they shifted into a blur and I couldn’t discern what color they were at all. I stood up to go to the bathroom, hoping I could make it to a stall before throwing up.
Sometime later, I woke up on the floor crumpled up in a ball and blind. I could hear two girls exchanging words next to me, but we were separated by a wall of black.
“He’s waking up,” one of the girls said. “You passed out,” she told me. “Are you okay?”
I closed my eyes, figuring it wouldn’t make much of a difference because I couldn’t see with them open.
“Don’t go to sleep!” a voice ordered, shaking my arm.
“You’re probably dehydrated,” someone else speculated. A redhead blob gradually came into focus.
“Can you bring me water?” I asked. “Please.” I didn’t want to be too demanding.
Was it worth it? If denying the truth about myself really saved someone’s life, yes.
I once heard that people regularly die choking alone in restaurants. So as not to bother anyone, instead of asking for help they rush to the bathroom, pretending they’re having a run-of-the-mill teary-eyed, claw-at-your-neck coughing fit. Once free of everyone’s stares, they can die in polite peace. People don’t want heroes. We want to be able to save ourselves. I closed my eyes again.
A third girl came up to me with a cup of water. I snatched it from her hands, but within seconds she took it back.
“Actually, if you’re dehydrated, you shouldn’t be drinking water,” she said. I assumed she was premed. Or maybe I was already dead. Limbo: an infinite series of white girls bringing me water and taking it away.
The paramedics arrived, took my blood pressure, and confirmed I was dehydrated. They told me I needed water.
“Have you had any?” one asked. I looked at the still-full cup resting on a table too far away for me to reach.
They plugged me into an IV. An Evil-Dead quantity of blood squirted out of my arm. The paramedic wiped it with a tissue.
“Why did you donate blood? For the movie tickets?” he asked.
Partly. But don’t forget that I’m a selfless hero.
“Was it worth it?” he asked, not waiting for me to answer.
I leaned my head against the wall and felt the cool liquid from the IV travel through my veins, a million microscopic glasses of ice water splashing along the insides of my limbs, gradually waking up my body.
I wondered whether he would report my fainting episode to the blood bank. Would this make my blood bad? I thought about Max. Was it worth it? If denying the truth about myself really saved someone’s life, yes.
“You have two options,” he told me. “You can go to the hospital or you can stay here and drink a lot of water.”
I calculated, half-conscious, that I could probably survive if I stayed. This wasn’t my first time fainting. A few months earlier, while staying at my mother’s house, I had sliced my thumb trying to open a can of tuna, then passed out. I woke up a few hours later in her bed. Not sure what to do, she had simply dragged my body to her room and resumed cooking dinner.
“I’m really poor and have really bad insurance, so I think I’ll just stay here,” I said.
“You will almost definitely pass out again if you stay,” he countered.
Then why even give me the option? Is this some kind of fun game paramedics play — put the patient in a life-or-death situation, ask them to choose death, then force them to live anyway? I thought I had a shot at making it on my own. There was a water fountain a few feet away. I was lucid. I said out loud, “I’m lucid,” figuring that anyone who can remember the word lucid must be so.
“I think I’ll stay,” I repeated.
He shook his head. “We’re taking you to the hospital.”
In the ambulance, I discovered that my phone’s flashlight would not turn off. I turned it around, not sure what I was looking for. A hidden magical switch that would help me in exactly this situation? I didn’t care about the phone, but I was worried the battery would die and I wouldn’t be able to call anyone to pick me up from the hospital. I had 12 percent battery left. I called my mother. No answer. Eleven percent. Again. No answer. I called my brother and went straight to voicemail. Nine percent. I called Arthur.
Later, I will find out that after my call, he rushed out of bed and ran out of his parents’ house, frantic to make sure I was okay. His mom had maneuvered into the driveway and parked an inch from the driver’s seat of his car, thinking it would be funny if she made it hard for him to get inside. Assuming he was overreacting to her innocent joke, she laughed hysterically as he flailed his arms and shouted at her to cut it out. Meanwhile, I was in the back of an ambulance plugged into an IV with a computer printing out a series of zigzag lines quantifying my life. I still think she’s funny.
I went back to trying to fix the light.
“You trying to take a selfie in an ambulance?” the new, younger paramedic riding with me asked, his voice thick with disapproval.
My eyes jumped from the tribal tattoo on his arm to the hurricane of wires coming out of mine. I kept quiet, not wanting to explain myself.
“You got a girlfriend?”
Again, I looked at my cutoffs and painted nails, obvious indicators of the type of boy I was. Was he genuinely curious about my relationship status, or was he trying to pry a confession out of me? Max, I thought. Your blood is good. Don’t let them convince you otherwise.
“There are lots of girls around here,” he continued.
I folded and told him I didn’t have a girlfriend. Not really a lie. A part of me also worried that if I admitted I was gay he would purposely mess something up. I was plugged into a lot of tubes and they all presented an opportunity for a so-called accident.
“Is my water level thing better now?” I asked.
“Your water level thing?”
“I don’t know what it’s called,” I said. “But the first paramedic told me I was dehydrated and needed water, and he kept looking at a measurement I think might have been my blood pressure. I’m not sure, though.”
“Are you premed?” he asked.
“Well, how is it?” I asked, caring less and less about the possibility of an accident.
“What kind of tests will they do on me at the hospital?” I ran up the tab in my head.
“It’s fine! I’ll just sell some more of my blood for money!”
“Are you anxious?” he asked.
“Only when I’m in an ambulance.”
It had been more than an hour since I fainted. Even so, the paramedics insisted that I be wheeled into the hospital on a gurney. A nurse behind the reception desk looked up at me.
“There’s my 63,” she smiled.
“I’m your 63,” I replied, then turned to the young paramedic. “What does that mean?”
“It means you’re her sixty-third patient today. You win a prize.”
“Like an Olive Garden gift card?” I asked. “Or free health care?”
Her eyes flashed to my hands as I fumbled with my phone. “Need a charger?” she asked.
“Yes! Thank you!”
“I’ll go get one for you,” she said, getting up from her station. She pushed through a set of double-doors. I never saw her again. Classic hospital prank.
From there, I was wheeled into an emergency room about the size of a walk-in closet.
“Do I have to do these tests?” I asked my doctor. “I feel perfectly fine. There’s no way I can afford this.”
“You look fine,” he said. “I’ll just give you another IV and you can go.”
My mind flashed back to the water fountain only a few feet away, the cup of water probably still on the table. I could have saved myself. Arthur arrived, his curly hair matted down in the back from his nap. On his way out, the doctor warned me, “Watch out. The person you least want to see is on her way.” Minutes later, an Ursula-like woman entered the room pushing a laptop on a cart.
“Name?” she asked by way of introduction. Date of birth. Social Security number. Religion? In case you die, a voice whispered in my ear.
“Health insurance card?”
“How much is this going to cost?” I asked, digging through the several-months-old receipts and expired coupons stashed in my wallet.
“I can’t tell you,” she said. “You’ll get a bill in the mail.”
But I’m right here. Let’s skip the middleman.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Well, I can tell you your health insurance kicks in after $900. After $900, you pay 10 percent.”
After $900? Ten percent of what?
“Don’t worry, though,” she said. “You’re on your mom’s insurance. She’ll pay for it!”
I smiled, doing my best impression of someone who’s got it all under control. Of course, my mother would just hock one of the diamonds she bought with her glamorous, high-paying gig at Starbucks. No worries.
“It’s fine! I’ll just sell some more of my blood for money!” I yelled, but she was already out of the room.
Arthur, who has had cancer and been through the hospital bureaucracy, explained. “Your health insurance only kicks in after the first $900. Anything before that, you have to pay.”
We waited 10 minutes. Twenty. I could hear the nurses in the reception area talking about Game of Thrones. A main character had died the night before, and they were distraught. Thirty minutes. The monotonous beeps prompted by the wire connected to my finger started alternating their rhythm. Beep. Three seconds. Beep. Sometimes two consecutive beep, beeps — no intermission. I tore off the wire, feeling like a bad-ass action movie star, except 22 years old and puny. The same tired, limping woman walked back and forth down the hallway. There was a glitch in the Matrix.
“If you don’t go to the reception area and bring me a doctor, I’m going to explode,” I told Arthur. He hurried out.