“Philly Phlebotomy” by Elaine Paliatsas-Haughey

In 1989, the old building of St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children is a faceless, beige, concrete slab, blended in among industrial-flat structures in a North Philly ghetto. Though a wide city street divides the building from its chain-link, fenced-in parking lot, the road seems narrow, probably because of my age; at thirteen, all I know is that I’m traveling down this street to have blood work drawn and that there’s no turning back.

Dad’s driving me into Philadelphia for the first available phlebotomy appointment of the day; this way, I can make it back to the South Jersey suburban school that I attend afterwards. Neither of us is awake enough to talk at 7:30 am, so KYW News Radio, which is barely audible, buzzes in the background. Dad negotiates morning traffic over the Ben Franklin Bridge, heading towards the silent street where the blood lab is.

After parking in a lot, protected by barbed wire, we lock and slam the heavy doors of our light-blue Ford Fairlane. We hurry across the street with heads down and hands shoved in our pockets because it’s cold, and we don’t want to be late. That would mean having to wait for a lull in the line to get a turn.

Standing in the narrow elevator corridor, I notice that it has two sets of blue elevator doors, facing each other, as well as a list of office numbers by floor on the wall in front of us. We stand in this stark box, lit by the overhead fluorescent bulbs, long enough for one set of elevator doors to rumble open, and we board.

On the third floor corridor, we are still silent and make our way to the cardiology office where the phlebotomy lab waits. After we arrive, we sit on metal frame chairs with plastic, plum seats in the waiting area. They are uncomfortable, but not so much so that Dad can stay awake; he rests his eyes until his chin is propped on his chest, and he breathes deeply until he is snoring.

Dad’s deep phlegmy snores, from the exhaustion of a six-day-a week, ten-hour-a day, diner cook’s schedule and twenty years of cigarette smoking, embarrass me, but not so much that I would wake him in the office. Most times, we are the only ones there, with a few early bird staff members sporadically passing through. Dad’s own snores or Mary, the phlebotomist, calling my name wake him.

Mary is Nefertiti. A golden goddess of long, red, and manicured nails, perfectly painted full lips, and a piled pyramid of braids upon her head. I marvel at her glow and am drawn in by her quick, playful humor.

“You sleeping in my waiting room?” she starts in on Dad, as we pass through the doorway. I settle uncomfortably into the phlebotomy chair.

“No, no. Just resting my eyes,” Dad laughs back.

As they banter, Mary attends to the labeled syringes, alcohol swabs, and adhesive bandages on her counter. I roll up the sleeves of my sweater and the shirt underneath. Anxiety coils tighter in my stomach, and my breaths become short and shallow. Then, Mary turns to me, straps the tourniquet around my forearm, and presses her lacquered and bejeweled fingers into the crook of my arm, coaxing up the vein she needs.

“You’re shaking, baby. Calm down,” she says and turns back to her counter to glove up and attach the first syringe to the needle.

This particular morning Dad stands by me his hands folded before him. His huge interlocked fingers like ten proverbial-breakfast sausages, bound in cases of work-rough skin.

Mary turns back again with the needle cocked ceiling ward, “Just a pinch, baby. Look away.”

I turn my head toward Dad, but look at the floor instead. He shoves his right index finger in front of my pained face.

“Here, bite down,” he says in his Greek covered English.

My watery eyes look up at him in confusion and surprise. I’m shivering from the sterile cold and my own infectious fear. He knows I’m going to cry when the phlebotomist sticks me.

I close my eyes and barely touch my teeth to his finger. Sharp, fine metal pierces the blue, ripe vein in my arm. I clench my teeth into the pacifier of his finger, wanting really to scream. In the darkness of my head, I feel Mary clip off and clip on syringe after syringe until she’s filled all that has been requested.

The needle is extracted, and I release my jaw’s grip and sob.

“Ow!” Dad jokingly cries, and wags his finger wildly, “You got me good.”

I look up, cheeks tread with tears, and smile briefly. Embarrassed, I wipe my face and look at the floor. Mary plasters a bandage over the throbbing vein.

“The vampires got you,” Dad laughs, and Mary smiles.

We thank and say goodbye to Mary, heading back down the hall to the elevator.

“Is it bad?” I worry out loud that I have punctured my dad’s skin.

He says, “Nah,” but digs his right hand into his coat pocket and places his left hand on the back of my neck as we enter the elevator.

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Elaine Paliatsas-Haughey is The City Key’s Creative Nonfiction editor.  EPH is a writer of small important things, and is currently working on a memoir about the year she waited for her heart transplant between 8th and 9th grades. Her other publications include  “Whore Tie,” about her immigrant grandfather, and “Blood Bath,” a dark-themed, fairy tale about Elizabeth Bathory.   “Whore Tie” was published by Philadelphia Stories and Blood Bath by Philly Flash Inferno.

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