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Bleeder: A Memoir

Shelby Smoak
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 199
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    I am Caucasian, five foot eleven, have sandy brown hair, blue eyes, and am a tender slip of bone. And I am at the hospital.

    A coming-of-age memoir for modern times,Bleederis the incredibly compelling tale of author Shelby Smoak. A hemophiliac, Smoak discovered he had been infected with HIV during a blood transfusion at the start of his college career. This devastating and destabilizing news led Smoak to see his world from an entirely new perspective, one in which life-threatening illness was perpetually just around the corner. Set in the 1990s along the North Carolina coast,Bleedertraces Smoak's quest for love in a world that feels increasingly dangerous, and despite a future that feels increasingly uncertain. From the bedroom to the operating room, and from one hospital to the next, Smoak seeks out hope and better health. Winner of a PEN American Center award for writers living with HIV, Smoak, whose work has appeared in numerous journals and magazines, constructs this unforgettable story of life and love against insurmountable difficulties in breathtaking, tightly drawn prose.

    eISBN: 978-1-60917-355-5
    Subjects: History, Public Health

Table of Contents

  1. BLOOD
    (pp. 1-12)

    I am Caucasian, five foot eleven, have sandy brown hair, blue eyes, and am a tender slip of bone. And I am at the hospital.

    I am here because I have hemophilia; because my blood fails to clot normally; because I was a boy who received a defective X chromosome from his mother. Of course, it is not her fault, for until I was born, she didn’t know she carried the defect. In fact, I am the only proof of it.

    In 1974 when I was two, an unusually large bruise developed across my back and refused to heal. My...

    (pp. 13-20)

    August 1990. Although I have decided to attend college, it has crossed my mind to forgo my education and do other things: to travel while I’m still healthy, to see Rome or Venice or Paris or London or Bali or any of a host of places that one wishes to see before they die…. Or perhaps, instead of tiring myself out with world travel, I should do nothing other than read books at poolside and let my mind slip away from this reality. How much of my life should I change? How much should I adapt to HIV? Or perhaps,...

    (pp. 21-30)

    December 1990. It is a familiar scene: the hospital examination room. Here, I wait for Dr. Trum and my six-month checkup, which I have fit in over the holiday break. I twirl my fingers round, lean my head against the wall, and pretend to sleep, but can’t, so I read posters on the wall—one a diagram of the HIV virus.So that’s inside me,I think as I study the blue cell and those broad red arrows that mark HIV’s path of invasion. It is as a military map: the Visigoths crossing the Danube, the Germans the English Channel....

  4. ANA
    (pp. 31-40)

    January 1991. Ana was my first, my only. It happened in a musky garage where beetles scuttled across concrete walls to tango with the cobwebs, where musical instruments lay strewn and disregarded, where dust motes floated in the phantom evening light from outside. My high school friends and the band we jammed in long since retired for the night, Ana and I reclined on a mattress, on a sultry night in June—my birthday.

    “Are you ready?” she whispered, coiling her shaven leg around mine, knowing this was my first time.

    I unrolled the condom just as my more experienced...

    (pp. 41-44)

    Summer 1991. Ana and I sprawl onto one of our parents’ couches every evening and, when we are alone, we shed our clothes and press our desire until we are shaking with pleasure. Then we settle into familiar spoons and twirl fingers in the dark.

    “Oh, I’m going to hate when summer ends,” she says. “It’s so great having you here every day. It’s spoiling me.”

    “Me, too.”

    We kiss and kiss and Ana slips her hand to my hips to see if I’m ready again.

    During the day, however, I work at a sub shop. I earn minimum wage...

    (pp. 45-50)

    September 1991. Ana and I have been seeing each other every other weekend since school resumed, but that’s getting harder to manage. I’m busy; my workload has increased threefold; consequently, I’m in the library every evening and now need the weekends for study.

    Tonight, I recline in my favorite chair—the one tucked against the large window that stares out upon the campus walk—and my heavy bookbag rests at my feet, yet instead of reading my coursework, I thumb another medical journal in the hope of understanding more about me. In college I’ve learned about research, about finding answers...

    (pp. 51-58)

    February 1992. Another cold winter morning. At 6:00 A.M. rowing practice began, and now, at 8:30, I eat breakfast in the school cafeteria, enjoying a Belgian waffle with syrup. And later when I pedal to my nine o’clock literature class, my nausea comes on suddenly, and, having little time to react, I lean my head over the bike frame and throw up in the landscaped median. It is over quickly and is, thankfully, only witnessed by one student. I smile to him, wave that I’m okay, and continue to class. But before going, I splash water on my face in...

    (pp. 59-66)

    September 1992. Junior year. Another heat wave has left the coast, dragging its humidity across the southern sands; now the temperature peaks in the high eighties instead of the nineties. I swim in the Atlantic where the water is cool enough to enjoy and not yet cold enough to prohibit entering it. I let the waves buoy me and allow the tide to tell me where to go.

    Last night Ana had called and said that she had found a ride to Wilmington for the weekend, and I suddenly felt a greater distance between us than our geography, for I...

  9. SUMMER 21
    (pp. 67-82)

    May 1993. Mom, Dad, and I arrive at my summer residence in downtown Wilmington. It is an enormous house set on a small lot with the neighboring homes bearing in upon it from the sides. We walk in and up the stairs guarded on the stout banister by carved owls, and on the top landing, we follow the slender hallway to where it spills onto a petite balcony; the backyard unfolds in summer green and is bound on three sides by a uniform wooden fence painted in colonial white, a landscape that momentarily transports me to another time.

    We retrace...

    (pp. 83-94)

    September 1993. I pedal through dusk, my bike gliding swiftly along the campus’s flat sidewalk. Crickets chirp. Cicadas sing. The fall wind blows and puffs up my loose-fitting shirt. And the fading sun makes silhouettes of trees whose outlines I steer over as I coast. The evening sunbeams flicker through the longleaf pines as a strobe light, and I squint when my eyes water, loosening my grip on the handlebars to swipe a hand over my eyes; and when I can see again, it is too late. My front tire jams into a pine cone the size of my forearm....

  11. LUNGS
    (pp. 95-98)

    January 1994. I drive to my appointment at the Hemophilia Center and marvel at the piles of snow along I-40. As I swish through thawed patches of slushy roadway, melting winter surrounds me: the sun softens the frozen ground with its feeble heat; the wind loosens powder from the barren trees; and the winter birds caw above the white earth, quieting only when they light in frigid puddles for a drink.

    At the clinic, we go through the familiar motions.

    “Today,” Dr. Trum then says, removing the tongue depressor from my mouth and bringing my visit to a conclusion, “I...

  12. EARS
    (pp. 99-108)

    March 1994. Pollen mists through the air. A pinch of green dusts cars, flours the trees, and sifts upon the college lawn, only made airborne again when a strong breeze unsettles it. Allergic to it, my ears are strangled by fluid. I hear the world as if in a large vacuum, and the noise sounds thick and distant, while speech in a crowded room is impossible to discern. Voices have the low cadence of an immutable rumble.

    When I phone Chapel Hill, the Hemophilia Center sets up an appointment with an ear, nose, and throat specialist. A week passes. Then,...

  13. YACHTS
    (pp. 109-114)

    May 1994. As college graduations go, mine is no different: full of fanfare and celebration and the excitement of another rite of passage achieved. I cross the stage—the sun smiling overhead—and accept my B.A. in English. And then my family, Kaitlin, and I lunch at a restaurant overlooking the Wrightsville inlet. Dad and Mom chime their wine glasses and toast me, and later they pass me cards filled with green bills; my life after college begins. As we part, Mom squeezes me and effuses about how proud she is of me; she yanks a tissue from her purse...

    (pp. 115-124)

    September 1994. At the end of summer, New Hanover High School in downtown Wilmington hires me to assist with mentally handicapped students. Dad is happy that I sign insurance forms, Mom that I have a “real” job. And on that first day, as the students arrive, I stand in the doorway and shake hands as I am introduced by the classroom teacher, Mrs. McRae. Those returning from the year before already know the teacher, the classroom, and the school, but a few are as new to this place as me. They walk slowly, drop their shy heads low and—often...

    (pp. 125-130)

    January 1995. The holidays have come and gone.

    In my apartment, with nothing but the winter’s howl outside, I brew endless cups of coffee, prop my feet up on the couch, place a cold compress on their swelling, and I read. I glance up. The light outside darkens and a lone branch brushes against my window in a frigid breeze. Sleet falls and patters against the glass, the rooftop. I draw my blanket around me to keep winter from freezing all of me.

    In spring, the crabgrass grows high; the buttercups open and reveal their hidden anthers; and the azaleas...

    (pp. 131-140)

    June 1995. Coming upon the Deluxe Café—a favorite coffeehouse of mine—I order a regular and I read of young Werther’s sorrows. They are not mine, for coffee is making me happy again. Today, I feel the precious balm of solitude; the youthful summer warms my heart and stays off the sadness of my lonesomeness.

    When I step to the counter for a refill, I notice the young girl sitting there. Her brown hair is drawn into a bun pierced by sticks that make an X behind her head; her blue eyes sparkle from the reflected light of a...

    (pp. 141-146)

    October 1995. A cool day, slow drizzle outside. As I sit going over my bills, I realize my summer expenses have sacked me. With each passing month, my debt spirals further in the red to the point that now I am virtually insolvent. I charge everything: gas; food; toiletries; household supplies; and, necessarily, my medical bills not covered by insurance. When the bills come in the mail, I line them up in order of their due dates, and when the date nears and my bank account is underfunded, I withdraw cash on my credit card to cover the shortage. And...

  18. ANKLES
    (pp. 147-150)

    February 1996. In the hospital X-ray room, the lanky technician asks me to turn my left ankle out for his photo. Tall and angular, his skin is blanched and in want of sunlight, and although his manner is courteous and professional, he is brisk and offers very little in the way of conversation as he twists me into position. He says nothing of my ankle’s size, but grabs and positions it at an unnatural angle.

    “Okay. That’s good. Hold it. Hold it.”

    He hurries off—a stick with fast legs—behind his protective shield and presses his button. Then he...

    (pp. 151-154)

    July 1996. Hot. Very hot. The sun—a hazy orb of melting heat—parboils the trees and flowers. They weep. But I rest in the cool hospital room, tired and dozing while waiting for Dr. Trum. When he enters, he startles me. I brush my shirt and shorts flat, raise my arms in an exaggerated yawn, and position myself for the examination. Dr. Trum cleans his hands and asks me to remove my socks so that he can see my ankles, and like the orthopedist, he cups the rotund left one and passes a probing thumb across its swelling. He...

    (pp. 155-166)

    August 1996. When I move to Chapel Hill, I am more alone, more depressed than I have ever been. It is as if a melancholic miasma trails me and makes a blue cloud upon my heart. If for no other reason than to leave my parents’ and to shake off the idea I have of myself as a failure—a thing reinforced by my living at home—I have moved here. A friend who went to college at UNC said it was a nice place to live. Another concurred. And after visiting, I decided it as good a place as...

    (pp. 167-170)

    Halloween 1996. I attend a party hosted by Jake, a sometimes friend of mine. Too tired and uncaring to put much thought in my costume, I purchase a mechanic’s shirt from the PTA thrift store and, as if I have spent my days rolled underneath cars, I smudge kohl upon my shirt, jeans, and face, decorating myself as a greasy mechanic.

    Jake rents an apartment that is hard to find, so by the time I arrive, the party is abuzz with laughter and swaying bodies in costume. I press through the tiny den and scan masks and made-up faces for...

    (pp. 171-182)

    November 1996. I try to reassemble my life. The grandeur of teaching seeming lost, I accept a position as a bookseller for Barnes & Noble in Durham, and more books pass through my hands than I could hope to read in a lifetime. I work eight-hour shifts and in the evenings, hobbled and stiff, I soothe my ankles in warm bathwater. I prop them on pillows and try to sleep, but they keep me awake. Often they worsen and, with the drape of moonlight around me, I mix my factor; constrict the tourniquet on my arm; slip the needle into a...

    (pp. 183-190)

    January 1997. When the new year begins, it is as any other year in winter: cold and frigid. Outside, ice freezes to the sprouts of twigs and to the sprigs of grass long since frostbitten, and the cold wind chaps the ground. Inside, my life feels frozen. I awake, eat a breakfast of cold cereal, and read a few pages of a novel; the rumble of cats is gone—their owner picked them up a few days ago—and now I am here alone.

    I let myself out into the chill morning for an appointment with the ID doctor. And...

    (pp. 191-196)

    May 1997. I begin another cocktail therapy where Viracept replaces Crixivan, and time is again measured in the eight-hour intervals my medicine requires, this only punctuated by the meals my mom prepares: breakfast becomes lunch becomes dinner. I sleep. I read. It is a soft living, an inviting picture. Yet my leg and ankle joints remain swollen, and mornings I am an ungreased machine. Arthritis having settled in, I am feeling what hemophilia does to a body as it ages. But it is not as bad as it has been, for now I am able to rest.

    My hometown is...

    (pp. 197-200)

    1998. There is but one thing left to do. I find the scrap of paper given me so long ago and dial the number. The phone rings in the receiver. She answers.

    “Hey, Maria. This is Shelby.”

    And I can feel her smile at the other end, for it is my own.

    Often I’ve thought about her and have wondered what happened, but I never called. For me, Maria was a travesty of timing. Then I had nothing of myself to share with her. I consider how my life has depended so much on timing. My factor invented the same year...