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The Phlebotomist
by Joyce Carol Oates

Outside the medical clinic, a soft explosion of (blinding) light. The sky had been overcast when she’d entered the building two hours before, now she fumbled to put on dark glasses. Her eyes felt raw and moist as newly cracked eggs.

For a moment she was disoriented. As if she’d been inside the featureless beige brick building for an incalculable period of time. Had she left something behind in the waiting room? In the oncologist’s office? She rummaged in her handbag. Had she lost her keys? Her cell phone?

As so often in this past year she searched frantically in her handbag to reassure herself that she hadn’t misplaced keys, cell phone, wallet . . . No: She had not.

But had she driven to the medical center? Alone?

And where had she parked their car?

No one in sight, no one awaiting her. Evidently she’d driven herself.

It should not have felt strange, to be alone here. For after all, she was alone; and alone is a state of being you carry everywhere with you.

Seeing now, on a walkway leading to the parking lot, a lone figure, male, in dark green scrubs, smoking a cigaret in quick urgent puffs. His hair would have been shoulder-length and straggling but was tied in a loose rakish knot at the back of his head.

A medical worker, smoking! Just outside his place of employment.

The man had to be defiant, she was thinking. Or just brash. Or—oblivious.

She was pondering how she might avoid this person without attracting his attention when, as if aware of her thoughts, the man with the tied-back hair turned, his eyes moving swiftly onto her.

Did he recognize her? She recognized him.

The phlebotomist who’d drawn her blood earlier that morning after two phlebotomists, both women, had failed to tap into a usable vein. She recalled his plastic ID badge, his name began with M.

Has he been waiting for me?—the naive thought came to her like an arrow shot at random.

Such thoughts came to her from time to time. Rarely logical thoughts, more often implausible, improbable. Arrows shot at random in her direction.

She was hesitant to approach the phlebotomist. She wasn’t in a mood to encounter anyone just now, even casually, impersonally, in passing.

She recalled, too: This medical worker had been the one to call her name from the doorway of the oncology waiting room, summoning her to the blood lab which was preliminary before seeing her oncologist. Reading from a clipboard he’d mispronounced her name—“Matt-son”—with an equal stress on both syllables—while her name was “Matheson”—stress on the first syllable.

So that, when he’d first pronounced the name, she’d allowed herself a childish moment of relief—No—not me!

Frowning, the (masked) phlebotomist had glanced about the waiting room, in a louder voice repeating: “‘Matt-son.’”

She’d risen to her feet. Of course. Had to be her, escape isn’t so easy.

Now, outside the clinic, without the sturdy white surgical mask he’d been wearing, M__ appeared older, coarser-skinned than she would have expected. Attractive in a sulky-sullen way; a spoiled prince, humbled in dark green scrubs like an ordinary worker. His jaws were heavy, his dark eyebrows met bristling at the bridge of his nose. The rakish tied-back hair was smoke-colored, beginning to recede at the uneven hairline.

His eyes were liquidy-dark, warmly alert. Striking eyes, beautiful eyes. She’d noticed those eyes as he’d leaned close to her knotting a tourniquet tight around her upper arm, instructing her to make a fist.

She’d noticed, but had looked quickly away. Closed her eyes. Not wanting to see the needle sinking into the vein at the crook of her arm, and not wanting to meet the gaze of the phlebotomist, at such close range.

She was not sure if it was distressing, or if it was flattering, how readily the phlebotomist recognized her outside the clinic. She’d removed her mask as soon as she’d stepped outdoors and was wearing oversized dark glasses now, which obscured half her face. But she supposed that her face—ivory-pale, with high cheekbones, a full lower lip—was striking, at a casual glance. If one didn’t look too closely at the fine white lines at the corners of her eyes and bracketing her mouth.

She did dress with care, in subdued yet expensive clothing, when she saw her oncologist at the medical center at six-month intervals. Recalling the end of Kafka’s The Trial, that the condemned are advised to try everything, must leave no effort, however futile, untried, to forestall the inevitable.

Still, she’d have liked to think that, in the blood lab if not the oncologist’s examination room, she was anonymous: invisible.

And that, outside the blood lab, a kind of protocol was observed: a medical worker didn’t “recognize” a patient.

“Hey: H’lo!”—the phlebotomist lifted his hand in a jaunty greeting.

Too late to turn aside. “Hello . . .”

Wanly she smiled. It wasn’t within her power to be rude to another person, for such rudeness required a stronger will than she possessed.

“So—how’s it going?”—daring to put this cliche-question to her. As if they were old friends and such familiarity was natural between them.

She resented it, this intrusion. Tall looming male, all but blocking her way to the parking lot. But if she left the sidewalk to cross the lawn that would look very odd indeed.

For essentially, the phlebotomist’s question was in code. He knew she’d had an appointment with her oncologist after the blood lab so he was asking her—Good news today, or not-so-good?

Liquidy-dark eyes brimming with sympathy. Or something like sympathy.

It wasn’t likely that she was going to tell a stranger intimate medical facts. And if she did, to what purpose? She’d avoided confiding in even close relatives, even her husband when he’d been alive, the details of her long-term condition.

Stiffly she murmured what sounded like a grudging All right.

“Okay. Good.” He nodded, gravely.

These were mere cliches, lazy habits of speech. She knew. Yet the phlebotomist smiled at her as if her reply was a genuine relief to him.

She had to concede, M__ had drawn her blood with exceptional skill. With her small veins she’d become a connoisseur of phlebotomy over the past seventeen years. Though he was a large man, bearish, with large hands, and might have been clumsy. Though she didn’t really feel comfortable with a male phlebotomist, and had been dismayed by the sight of him. Where the first two phlebotomists had caused her to wince with pain, and left the soft insides of her arms bruised, M__ had found a usable vein in his first try.

No real reason to be fearful of this man. Not in bright daylight like this, the medical clinic just a few steps away.

Other patients would surely be leaving the clinic. New patients would be arriving.

“Cigaret?”—the phlebotomist held out his pack to her.

“No, thank you!”—she had to laugh, the offer was so brash, ridiculous.

But then, the medical worker in his dark green scrubs didn’t hesitate to smoke just outside the medical clinic.

“You’re thinking—what? Cancer patients don’t smoke?”

You could see that M__ was an affable fellow who enjoyed laughter and appreciated the opportunity to laugh. Yet, M__ was also the sort of fellow who enjoyed correcting others.

“Or, you disapprove of smoking?”

She felt her face blush, M__ was looking at her so intently. As if inviting her to acknowledge he’d entangled her here against her will; he’d maneuvered her into an awkward and aimless exchange, and that was funny; for it was clear she wanted only to push past him and escape.

“Smoking isn’t a good idea for anyone, I think.” Disliking the primness of her voice, wishing that M__ could know that this voice wasn’t essentially her.

“So true, ma’am!”

Ma’am. She was experiencing that frisson of something like dread or panic associated with medical situations in which a stranger, in clothing indicating a subordinate status, leaned very close to her, to take her hand or her arm, to inject something into a vein, or to affix electrodes to her chest, abdomen, ankles, or to insert her bare shivering breast between the metal plates of the mammography machine, in anticipation of sudden, speechless pressure/pain.

Cannot help how you steel yourself for pain. The surprise of pain, and the fear. . . .

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2023. The Phlebotomist by Joyce Carol Oates

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