The phlebotomist was a young woman — not the type whose age imparts a lack of skill or experience, but instead an intense, concentrated energy. Or at least that was my hazy impression through the surgical mask, face shield, bouffant, and oversized blue lab coat, which made it downright difficult to pick out any of her individual features. From Monday to Saturday she found veins in the arms of New Yorkers inside this converted synagogue. In a year, she thought, I’ll be back in a real hospital.
This morning my left cephalic vein was her target. She moved instinctually from point to point, the muscle memory of a thousand interactions identical to this one guiding her. Her loose lab coat fluttered about her arms, trying to keep up. I was tense, sweating, feeling a little nauseous under my cloth mask. She hardly noticed. She uncapped the needle, screwed in the syringe, and tied a tourniquet in one liquid motion, and I thought about a conductor I’d seen at Lincoln Center back when we were still allowed to do dangerous things like go to the orchestra.
“Just so you know, I sometimes faint when I see — “
“Nothing to worry about,” she said.
The cold steel went in clean. The initial pierce stung, but it was the sensation that followed — how straight and solid and unyielding and unnatural it felt against my hapless flesh — on which my attention settled.
“I don’t feel so hot,” I said.
“You’ll be fine,” she said.
She advanced the catheter, widening her bulls-eye puncture. A trickle of black-red blood dripped down my arm, settling in the crook of my elbow. My stomach flipped over once, twice, three times. I suddenly felt a great sympathy for balloons and waterbeds — things whose insides could be set loose by a wayward pinprick.
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Just this tiny bit,” she said, holding up a green-topped tube.
My vision started to narrow. I could hear a faraway rushing in my ears. The tube was half-full of my blood. She pulled one end of the tourniquet and it miraculously undid itself, like a magician’s silk knot. I felt my bicep spring free and my stomach turned over again. The tube was three-fourths full.
“Feeling ok? Want some juice?” Having fulfilled her goal, she warmed.
“You’re my fifth one today who turned white then green then gray. Everyone is just more anxious, I guess. Drink this. Don’t get up until you’re steady! You’ll get your results in twenty-four hours. If you have questions, call that number they gave you.”
She was nearly to the door by the time I unglued my tongue from the floor of my mouth.
“What if I’m pos-”
“Remember,” she said, seeming to read my mind, “We don’t know what these results mean yet, so don’t go getting all reckless. And drink that juice.”
A day later I met Ella and Kelly in Central Park, at a picnic table next to the reservoir. They were silently scrolling through their phones, following digital breadcrumbs to determine their own recent movements. From across the table, I spotted a handwritten chart with three columns. I strained to read the upside-down words.
“But you said on the phone, we shared drinks, correct?” Ella’s sudden interjection broke my concentration.
“Yes! We did.”
“Are you positive?” Kelly broke in.
It dawned on me they had rehearsed this part.
“Yes. Positive. Absolutely. I remember because I ordered a boulevardier and you didn’t know what it was, and you insisted on trying it even after I told you that you wouldn’t like it and then you tried it and hated it,” I said.
“Oh right, I do remember that,” she said, a little deflated.
It was hot and my upper lip was beginning to sweat under my mask. Kelly opened a black leather journal, smoothing January flat to the table. Over her shoulder, Ella considered the blank page for a moment.
“Here,” she pointed.
“On the 11th. Your birthday party.”
“You think it happened then?”
“No, we think it happened after then because otherwise we all would’ve got it.”
Kelly flipped to February, then March and April, speeding through the year while chewing her nails. They exchanged dark looks.
“You see this?” Ella spun the chart around to face me, right-side up. At once I saw the chart was actually a list of names on the left, with all the people that person saw and on what date, listed on the right. She jabbed the middle column with her pointer finger. My name was circled in thick black ink. Sweat dripped into my mouth.
“You are the only person who saw me, her,” swiveling her finger to Kelly, “but not Henry, after the 11th but before New York went into lockdown.”
“So it must’ve been you,” Kelly interjected again.
“Not that it matters or anything.” We just thought you should know.”
“Yeah, we thought you should know. And a contact tracer called Kelly last night.”
“I wasn’t expecting it, it was just like, out of nowhere, so I told them too.”
“We told them everything.”
“They might call you, just so you know.”
“In case they call you.”
My phone buzzed inside my bag.
Geena Ianni is a Tri-Institutional MD-PhD student in New York City. She is currently completing her PhD at Rockefeller University, where she studies the neuroscience of social behavior.