Giving Blood

“Would you like to give blood?” was the last thing that Seth wanted to hear, coming out of the cafeteria Saturday afternoon. It wasn’t just that the stupid red cross girl had asked him after every meal of every day this week, not seeming to get that ‘no’ the first time implied that the subsequent answers wouldn’t change. It was the test in French that he had failed earlier in the week, and that there was nobody to blame for it but his own non-foreign-speaking self. It was his roommate, who snored in his sleep with bare-chested gusto. It was how he very, very badly wanted to curl up to a good book and grumble like a crotchety old man when anybody interrupted him.

Karma was broken though, and the girl, with her silly-looking, fake nurse’s cap perked up as soon as he was through the glass doors to the cafeteria, chirping: “Would you like to give blood? You could help save a life!”

He tensed—lips pursed, eyebrows raised—and gave her a look normally reserved for telemarketers and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

He had told her, of course, that he had been to Europe recently, and couldn’t, and that he had a blood disorder, and that his blood pressure was too low. As far as he knew, none of these things were true, but he didn’t know for absolute certain, except for the Europe one, and so consoled himself that he wasn’t really lying, he was just speculating.

He wouldn’t have really cared if he was lying, though.

Blood drives, he knew, were good things in a general, academic sort of way. This didn’t help Seth like them any more. He didn’t like the idea of getting stuck with a needle and then bled, like a pig. Maybe he was just prejudiced against people without enough blood—did that make him a bigot?

He wasn’t much more worried about being a bigot than being lier though.

He gave the brainless pretend-nurse a patient smile, and said “no thanks, I’ve already given blood.” It would have been very easy to get snide with her, which was the reason he was careful not to. Besides, if she couldn’t remember the countless excuses he’d already given, she probably wouldn’t realize that he was lying now, too.

The mismatched furniture of the student center had been pushed together and out of the way to make room for the cots, where people sat still, doing nothing while they bled for cookies and juice.

Instead of walking through the cots, like a sensible person, Seth took the long way around, crawling about and through stacked furniture when he had to, until he could just reach his bag from the coat rack around an upended couch. He snatched it—it was slim, like a briefcase—and slipped out of the building with a rush of soccer players, preparing to head out via bus to an evening game.

Seth wished them skill before turned off their path, heading to the English and Languages building.

There was an office there, where Seth made a habit of taking over on any evenings when French tutoring wasn’t already occupying the space. Him and Catherin, the French tutor, had an informal competition going to see who could get there first each day. The loser of the nightly competition normally ended up conducting business in a small, but comfortable, nook in the first floor hall, with a couch, a few folding chairs, and a vending machine. The winner got the office, which had a desk and a chair that spun.

If he ever happened to win firm dominance over the space, he might ask her to dinner one night, and sometimes he hoped that if she won, she would do the same. It might help his French grade, after all, and she was pleasant, for a foreign-language person.

Today Seth got there first, which surprised him—he was running late, and Catherin was normally more punctual than competitive. Not one to have mercy on a rival, he sat down at the desk and turned his chair so that he could see out the door to smile presently when Catherin walked by and pretended to ignore him.

Meticulously, he set his briefcase bag against the far leg of the desk, removing from it a stack of papers about a quarter inch thick, and a red pen. He uncapped his red pen, which was the kind with the long, needle-like nub and the clear bit of plastic in the middle acting as a window to the watery ink sloshing around inside. Thus far, it’s the only red ballpoint he had found that worked properly without petering out after the first few markings.

Licking his forefinger very lightly before turning each page, he leafed through the sheets of paper, idly considering what his project for the evening was going to be. He had started a new poem earlier in the morning which could already use some trimming, but there were other, older projects that needed observation before he lost all passion for them.

Finally, he selected an old essay, which he had originally thought to send in to NPR’s This I Believe, but couldn’t because it had been twice as long as the requirements allotted. He had pared it down considerably, but still had about one hundred words too many.

He pulled the two paperclipped pages out and spread them in front of them, so he could see both at the same time. He read the entire thing over without making a single mark. Then he reached down and drew a single strait line across the title of the essay, I Believe in Self Control, because it didn’t sound good on his tongue. He was thinking about what might work in its stead when the door opened.

It was Catherin, who had broken the unspoken condition of the unspoken competition, and opened the door while he clearly had control of the office. She was panting and out of breath, though, and her freckled cheeks were flushed, which was something that normally only happened in Seth’s imagination, and so he decided to forgive her.

“I’m about to go into an exam for French Regional Dialects,” she said, and looked horrified. “I forgot a pen.”

Seth looked up at her over his glasses, capped his and held it up. “Do you mind red?”

“Anything,” she said, and he handed it to her. “Thank you so much, Seth,” she said as she leaned out the door, pulling it closed with her. “You’re a life saver!”

Seth watched her disappear, and tried not to sigh. She really was an exquisite person. He thought for a moment about her panting, and began to think for a few moments more. Then, without so much of a shake of his head, he thought the word nepsis so crisply and cleanly that he might as well have said it out loud. Nepsis, he thought again, all images of panting and freckles fleeing. Nepsis—the control of thoughts.

Repeating that mantra, he reached to his suitcase, and pulled out another red pen—he always kept three of them on him at all times. Well, two, now, but he would quickly replace the lost one.

For a moment, he glared at the title, before writing in above the scratched out title, “I Believe in Nepsis.”

And then, because he realized that the title would require an in text definition and explanation, as well as a reworking of a few examples (which would add no less than thirty words, when he already needed to drop so many), he wrote next to it “Consider in an alternate draft.”

Then he proceeded to read the rest of the text a second time, very slowly. Each time he stumbled upon an unsatisfactory word, he would grimace like a carpenter seeing a poorly made joint, and his pen would sweep down like an angry bird. After an hour, the pages was littered with angry, red scratches, livid and sharp, like blood on the paper.

————————————-

Some quick notes about this piece, it has nothing to do with Artifice, first off. Secondly, it is pseudo-autobiographical, in that I modeled the beginnings of Seth’s character off of my own habit of correcting what I write with a red pen and my unfortunate phobia of needles, which keeps me from even considering giving blood.

As a note: I have heard the words nepsis used by many an author, but I cannot find it in any dictionary. I think it might be a foreign word that a few of the more learned authors out there talk about from time to time. In light of not having a formal definition, I’ll supply one. Nepsis is the discipline of controlling one’s thoughts—and is no small task to accomplish.

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2 Comments

  1. chughes said,

    July 28, 2007 at 9:47 pm

    What i like about this is its linear quality. It’s pretty straight forward and basic which sheds light on the character of Seth.

    Here are some suggestions:
    i think that the red ink should be something other than angry. Angry red abounds in writing. Maybe it could be insistent? Vicious? Merciless or accusatory?

    i had trouble with the use of Karma in this story. i’m not totally sure, but karma has to do with fate or destiny and, given the context, i’m not sure that is what was broken there.

    “Him and Catherin…” should be He and Catherin.

    i also think that some of the adverbs can go. You don’t have many of them but they tend to take away from the surrounding words. For example:
    “…he thought the word nepsis so crisply and cleanly that he might as well have said it out loud.” The word nepsis, a word i’ve never heard before and has a pleasing look and sound, is diminished by the use of crisply and cleanly. Consider, “Nepsis came to mind, so crisp and clean, he wondered if he said it out loud.”

    i hope this is helpful.
    ~christine

    Thanks so much, this was amazingly helpful.
    Yes, adverbs and adjectives are the bane of my existence as a writer. I was raised by a number of poor English teachers to believe that the more mass description a piece of writing has, the better it is. You should’ve seen this before the first edit—it was messy.
    The Karma bit was easy to miss—basically, karma says that if a whole bunch of bad things happen to you, something good is bound to happen eventually, and if a whole bunch of good things happen to you, something bad will happen before too long. There’s a whole bunch of other implications, but that’s the basic jist of it. I’ll re-work that bit, to see if I can make it clearer, but if not I’ll cut it.
    Thanks for everything else—I’ll take it into consideration when I rewrite.
    ~DK

  2. Cameron said,

    July 29, 2007 at 5:25 pm

    …and is no small danger, either. Seth ought to be careful in his pursuit of nepsis–he may lose himself.

    Hmm… wasn’t thinking about it like that when I wrote it, but that’s a very interesting idea. Maybe there’s something more than a short story here—but then, there always is, isn’t there.
    ~DK


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