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Plasma (essay from writer's group)

This room smells of warmed-over nothing: the air conditioning has not quite caught up to the summer heat that is still in my hair. My perfume of myrrh and leather is out of place here in the echoing pale stained lobby where people with a little spare time and not enough money sit waiting to sell their blood.

Strictly speaking, I don't have to be here. Not like some of the people here. This is bills and gasoline to some people. This is spending money to me, a little extra money under the table so I won't feel guilty about spending money on myself. It wasn't that way a few years ago, when I didn't have enough energy for a second job, or enough money to quite make all the ends meet. I got used to going, and just never stopped, not even when work started to actually pay the bills. It helps people, anyway. There are all sorts of posters up about how much good we are doing. I'm sure there are a lot of people who would keep coming even if this was harmful.

Today is a happy day with a converation echoing around the room: a couple talks quietly while she rustles the newspaper. Two girls barely out of their teens chatter in a mix of English and Spanish, and cover their mouths and giggle at a guy in a basketball jersey. One man in business casual and a tie talks on his cellphone loudly enough to be heard over the noise of the perpetual movie. An older woman sits alone, half-watching the screen. A name and a number come over the loudspeaker, shrill and scratchy. She gets up and walks to the screening booths.

I will be going in there whenever my name is called. They'll check to make sure I haven't been doing anything risky, weigh me, make sure I'm not marked by another plasma donation center, and check my blood to make sure I have enough red blood cells and a few other things. Then I'll get to sit and wait some more, and finally go in to the donor floor. Then they'll swab off my arm, stick a great huge needle in my vein, and pump my blood into a centrifuge. All the equipment that touches my blood is completely new and disposible, so I'm not worried about contamination. The plasma, the clear fluid that the red blood cells float in, is lighter and floats to the top of the centrifuge, and drips into a collection bottle. The red cells are returned to me when no more plasma can be spun from them, and the cycle repeats until the collection bottle is filled, a certain amount according to donor weight. I can give almost a whole liter.

It's hot outside, so hot that 80 inside feels so cool and refreshing, just cool enough to let the bus-and-sidewalk sweat dry without chilling. Several people sprawl lengthwise, feet up on a row of blue plastic pipe-frame chairs tied together with white cable-ties.

Coming week after week, you get to know faces, personalities, occasionally names and stories. I haven't seen Ken for a while, the outrageous ponytailed wheeler and dealer who said he once metalsmithed a lead box according to an ancient Sumerian design. He doesn't believe himself, but he thought he could make a buck or two, and he wasn't scared like some metalsmiths would be. The client never picked up the box, so he still has it. He offered to sell it to me. I declined. He knew his Sumerian legends, though.

The man sitting quietly with his Walkman is blind. He already donated and he's waiting for his ride. He smiles a lot when people talk to him. There's a cop in the lobby. They started having a police presence a few months ago. There used to be fights. Now, there aren't so many, because some people don't want to be noticed when there's a cop around. Today the cop is the older man who reminds me of a retired teacher who works with me. The last time I was here, it was the younger man whose hair is still mostly black. This cop is chatting with one of the waiting donors, probably about cars or sports or politics or shop, the conversations that men of a certain age don't think women can participate in.

The telephone is always ringing. This room is never silent. A staff member in a disposable blue lab coat answers the phone over and over and over again as she pulls files out of the shelf against the wall. I know my file has to be up there already, waiting in line with the rest of the other donors.

The wait is short. That's my name coming over the speakers. Time to go get screened and give my plasma. Time to bleed.
Gone away, gone ahead,
Echoes roll unanswered.
Empty, open, dusty, dead.
Why have all the Weyrfolk fled?

Where have dragons gone together
Leaving weyrs to wind and weather,
Setting herdbeasts free of tether;
Gone, our safeguards, gone, but whither?

Have they flown to some new weyr
Where cruel Threads some others fear?
Are they worlds away from here?
Why, oh why the empty weyr?

-- "The Question Song", Anne McCaffrey
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