I take a deep breath and push the heavy glass door. A bell tingles overhead to signal my arrival. No hope of sneaking out again then.
“Won’t be a minute,” calls a male voice from a door down a hallway. I know what’s in those rooms.
A TV plays grainy news footage in the corner, and a sign on the wall announces the place as registered. Yep, everything’s above board.
I don’t sit. If I do, I might end up clinging to the chair like a two-year-old having a meltdown. No, the least I can do is maintain some of my dignity. Besides, if I’m standing, it means I can run. And I should run. I want to run.
Then the man appears. He looks at me inquiringly, so I hand him the form I’ve been given. He asks to see my medical card, and checks the details against the ones on the form.
The bell sounds again, and I see another victim has arrived. This one’s a man, casually dressed. I guess that he’s in some kind of trade. He loiters near the door, waiting his turn.
“You can have a seat,” the man behind the counter tells me. “I won’t be long.”
Take as long as you need, I think, lowering myself into the closest chair. Then again, maybe we should just get it over with, before my courage deserts me. But that’s not right. My courage left me at the door.
The new arrival saunters up to the desk, all nonchalance. I’d like to see him when he goes into that room. Perhaps he does this all the time. Or perhaps other people don’t taste bile at the back of their throat when they come here.
I hear my name. My heart is threatening to beat its way through my chest wall and make a bloody escape.
“First door on the left,” the man tells me.
“First… which?” I reply intelligently.
“Go into the first door on the left,” he repeats, not unkindly. I’m sure he has six-year-olds who freak out on him all the time.
I force one foot in front of the other, and shuffle into the room. My brain is telling me to run, but I don’t think I could do it without collapsing. I can see the chair now, the bed next to the wall, the equipment. I shouldn’t look. But it’s hard not to.
“Just have a seat on the chair,” the man says, expecting a normal patient, expecting no trouble.
I’m not falling for that one again. Once you’ve tasted the cold embrace of unconsciousness and woken on the antiseptic-scrubbed lino floor, you learn very quickly to request the bed. Which is what I do now.
He looks at me, and I think he realises what he’s dealing with. “No worries,” he says. “But we’ll do the paperwork first. On the chair.”
He skirts around me like I’m a frightened cat and not just a frightened human, and gestures towards the chair. It might be a trap. Maybe I should just claw his face and run while I can. The voice in my head is soft, but firm: You have nothing to fear. You are being ridiculous.
I sit in the stupid chair, and sign my name with a shaking hand.
And then it’s time.
He asks me if I’ve had this done before. I nod. I’m going to vomit; I know it.
He asks me whether I have a ‘usual’ arm. Without looking, I point to the crook of my right elbow.
He nods and places the tourniquet around my bicep. He asks me to clench my fist, so I do. He feels the ropy life-support under my skin, and approves.
Then it’s time to get on the bed.
“Get as close to the wall as you can,” he says, so I do. I would disappear into that wall if I could.
It’s not too late to run, my head screams. I think I might cry.
He approaches with a plastic container filled with equipment. He asks me what I do for work. I tell him. I can’t breathe.
He’s still talking casually when he warns me I’ll feel a sting. I bite my lip so hard it hurts. It’s not enough. I still feel the sting.
All I can think about is the fact that I’m being drained. He’s sucking my life force through a sharp straw, and I can’t take it.
It’s over as quickly as it began. I feel the pull as the needle is removed, and oblige when he asks to press down on the cotton bud. He returns moments later with medical tape, and tells me I should keep the pressure on for five minutes.
“But you can go,” he adds, obviously assuming that I have the power of movement. I wonder what colour I am, whether he can smell my fear, how big my pupils are.
I don’t trust myself to walk, but I swing my legs over the bed anyway.
“That wasn’t so bad,” I tell him, faintly.
“I like to think I’m pretty good at it by now,” he shrugs.
“Right,” I try to smile. “Thanks. For making it easy. I’ve had some bad experiences…”
“You can go now,” he reminds me. He doesn’t want to hear my double-arm, hit-the-floor, bruises-the-size-of-tennis-balls story. I don’t blame him.
In the waiting room, the other man is sitting, scrolling through something on his phone. The phlebotomist beckons him into the room I’ve just vacated. I consider sticking around to see if I hear any screams, but my breakfast is threatening to reappear, and I just want to go home.
Hours later, every twinge in my arm makes me light-headed. I know the puncture has knitted together. I know that my blood is well-contained inside me. I know that I’ve lost only a few drops from the river that courses through me.
And still I fear.
I went alone to face my biggest phobia. I didn’t die. If only that meant I was cured.