Two months ago, I desperately needed money. I hadn’t had steady work in a long time, and I’d pounded my small financial cushion into the ground with breakfast tacos. I had just started working at a retail store in town (go give the new Urban Outfitters in the W some love and tell ‘em Ralph sent you), but on one particularly broke Tuesday when I paid some bills and had an eight hour shift cut, I started to feel despair creeping in. This is it. I am moving back to Chicago where I will live in my parents’ basement and my radiologist sister is going to ask me what the hell I was thinking moving to Texas without a job. Nice try, loser.
One of my girlfriends, Michael, had texted me a week or two before about going to sell plasma and I wrote it off because ew. At this point, though, I’d already folded t-shirts for money after getting my masters degree—why not also open a vein? First snag: I’m a rookie bleeder having never given blood before, but like I said, I was desperate. Second snag: When you sell or donate plasma, one of the screening questions for men is, "Have you had sex with a man since 1975?"
I don’t know why I ever struggled with the ethics of lying about sex to sell my blood juice. Yes, the end user of the plasma bares the full risk, so I understand screening questions. But first of all, people lie about having recent tattoos or piercings all the time (spend two minutes in the lobby of the donation center), which is a risk for blood borne pathogens. And they do not ask if I have other STIs that might increase my risk of infection. They don’t ask if I’m circumcised or even if I’ve had unprotected sex, just sex with a man. Fuck you; pay me.
So, now Michael and I are going to sell plasma. I’m not terribly effeminate, but I haven’t gone to a building where, in order to get in, I’ve had to renounce my sexuality since getting confirmed. Going into an explicitly straight place where I am explicitly not welcome is unnerving. I butch it up. I am Ralph, not Ralphie. I do wear nail polish, but it is black. At the donation center, Michael explains where I go, what to say (“no” to literally every question they ask for the next 5 hours), and I still feel sick about what I’m doing. It’s my first confession all over again, when I made a choice not to talk about which deadly sins I was committing.
At the donation center, I will be called into a soundproof cube to fill out paperwork, have my blood pressure taken and then I will actually have a blood test. I am anxious, and I spend the time studying my fellow heterosexual ne’er do wells. The couples do not make much eye contact with each other or, in fact, anyone. The women with amazing nails and purses are so bored that they flirt for hours with the security guard who is a horrible troll (and whose cell phone ring is the Sanford & Son theme song, the only blessing for citizens of the donation center).
I get bored enough to forget that I am living a lie, so Michael and I start entertaining ourselves by whispering catty things about our neighbors. I remember him telling me that his first time donating he plumb forgot to pretend to be straight and he read a play called The Homosexuals while his plasma pumped out of his arm. He is my hero.
My hetero mettle is tested for the first time when I am called into my preliminary interview by a 6’2”, blonde Midwesterner with a doorframe for a body and the largest hands and Adam’s apple I have ever seen on a human. I begin to sweat immediately. He is so funny and so kind that my ego receives the same boost it does from flirting. I am so in love with my blonde plasma jockey that when he takes my blood pressure, I am not surprised to learn that it’s a little high. I have to go back to the waiting room to be called in again by someone less gorgeous, and I pass with flying colors.
Hours after my phone’s battery has died, I am called in for the actual interview where I will officially become a gay, HIV-negative liar. My Catholic guilt is bubbling, and I sweat through my t-shirt again. The physician is a kind, youngish woman who talks to nervous poor people all day, every day. She takes my N.Y. driver’s license and asks when I moved to Texas. When I answer honestly, she tells me that her friend got a traffic ticket for not changing her ID to her Texas address. I establish myself as a known liar and enemy of the state when I confess that I once lied to a police officer who pulled me over about when I moved to Austin. She laughs, and I panic about what else I will accidentally confess.
My body is pouring sweat on the pleather examination table. She starts asking the 3,000,000 screening questions, and I suddenly get more self-righteous than I have ever been in Church. I weigh admitting defeat in Texas against telling this woman that I am gay and she works for a company of bigots.
She asks, and I lie. I’m instantly ashamed of myself. This is really not a huge deal, but I am a known drama queen and going back in the closet for $20 stings. She maybe reads all or some of this in my face and admits that that the gay question is extremely outdated and discriminatory, but the forms have never been changed. She throws bureaucracy under the bus, and I silently thank her. Given the personal compromise and the amount of time I spend there, it is definitely not worth it, but I take their money and put my next appointment in my calendar.
After 45 minutes squeezing my hand while a needle carries the blood out of my body, I take my goodie bag of gummy lifesavers, my plasma debit card and head to my hoopty with N.Y. plates. My elbow pit will be bruised for a full week, which is alarming because I never bruise ever.
But on my way home, I buy groceries and worry a little less about my immediate future.