Every month, I collect my blood in a bowl. Blood is supposed to be red, but what I catch in the bowl is nearly brown or purple in places, a thick bruise in the blue-patterned porcelain. It smells sickly sweet. I like how it smells, like a blooming flower about to rot. I don’t know if it would smell that way to other people.
I have no plans for the blood. At the end of each month, I wash the bowl clean. I don’t keep it in the event that one day it is necessary, a ready hemorrhage replacement. I keep it to satisfy a morbid curiosity, to know my body and its insides. David Bowie stored his own urine in his refrigerator. It’s possible he drank it. Who was more human than Bowie?
The blood teaches me nothing, like biting my nails teaches me nothing. The waste of my body is just that. There is nothing to gain. I collect it anyway. I stare into the bowl for a long time, as if I could divine some meaning. I might read my own blood like tea leaves.
When it is not filled with blood, the bowl is empty in my medicine cabinet. It serves no other purpose. I don’t store anything else where my blood has been. If a visitor to my medicine cabinet were to ask about its purpose, I would say that it holds stray bobby pins.
I started collecting my blood simply because I wanted to know how much there was. I wanted to see it all in one place, so I could know what my body was capable of losing. I kept doing it because I needed to know if there were changes.
No one has ever asked about the bowl, and I have never told anyone that I collect my blood. I have wondered if other women do this, if other women are slow to throw away parts of themselves. Or maybe I am the only woman on the planet who thinks this way at all. I do not know.
My mother always thought that dirt was a good thing. Proximity to the dirty or gross would only strengthen immune systems and resolve. We attended chicken pox parties, played outside without coats long into New England falls, picked our noses and ate what we found. My sister ate dirt from our backyard because I promised her a dollar.
As grown women, we are healthy like pack mares. We rarely catch colds and our periods come on time like Swiss clocks. We are tall and slightly overweight and if we have children I have no doubt that they will slide from our bodies with relative ease. We are plenty capable.
I don’t imagine that my mother or sister keep bowls of their blood. For one, they both live with men. These men are generally good to them, but there is not enough room in their lives for secret bowls of blood. I live alone, in a single room. Each wall of my studio apartment is only eighteen feet long, a tiny square of living. It is unforgivingly small, but there is no one to be offended by my blood. I don’t even have a cat to knock the bowl to the floor.
I live alone and so I rarely talk to anyone. I live alone and I freelance from my apartment, and so whole days can pass in which I don’t speak to anyone. I don’t avoid people; I have friends that I see frequently. I will work from coffee shops when my apartment seems forbiddingly small or when the music in my speakers has gotten too sad. I walk the neighborhood every day, checking the thrift shop for furniture and the bookstore for books and the main avenues for new ventures. I see the same people every day. We rarely speak.
Few people have ever visited my apartment. When they do and I am collecting, I move the blood bowl to a place they won’t find — beneath my bed, or tucked behind the toilet on the tile floor. I once put it on the highest shelf of the kitchen cabinet, but I worried it might be mistaken for a useful snack bowl. It has yet to be discovered.
I am anxious about most things. I don’t take pills, I avoid alcohol, I try to eat good foods. I don’t believe I’m crazy. I think that everyone is anxious. It is a condition of the modern world. Other people feel it; it leaks from their pores and eyes like a kind of pollution. Perhaps we are always on display. Perhaps we are trying to do too much.
I haven’t made new friends in years, and I no longer intend to. Dating is laughable. I worry the freelance deluge will run dry, that I will lose the ability to pay my rent. My mother’s health could fail; I would need to move back out to be with her. She believes in dirt but not in clutter. I would need to hide the bowl from her, and this frightens me. It is one thing to collect my blood for my own fascination. It is quite another to need to do it and need to hide it.
This month, the blood in my bowl is different. It is December, and not as cold as it should be. I am ready for a long, hibernating winter, and yet the temperature hovers near 40 degrees and it rains. My blood has always been darker and thicker than expected, brown and purple and viscous like honey. There are often small dark clumps like tiny beans, intact tissues, according to the Internet. I like these. They are my insides.
December is warm and rainy and the blood in the bowl is thin like oil and bright red like Heinz ketchup. It is cartoon blood, the stuff of props departments or Halloween stores. It didn’t come out of me this way — then, there were tissues. Now, there are no tissues. When I dip my finger in it, the liquid all drips away, back into the porcelain bowl. It smells metallic, not like the sticky sweetness I had known before. When I lick the tip of my finger, it tastes too much like nothing, like sugared water. It is too much like what people think blood is; it couldn’t have come from me.
I stare at the cartoon blood and I am deeply troubled. It isn’t mine. It wasn’t bright and slicked when I dripped it from the foldable silicon cup I use in lieu of pads or tampons. Then, it was dark and fell to the porcelain bowl in a single thick glob. This is not that blood. I want to cry, but I can’t cry over my missing blood. I don’t need it, it serves no purpose. Still, my throat is tight and my mouth is dry. I tip the bowl to the sink and wash the thin crimson liquid down the drain. I clean the bowl and replace it in the medicine cabinet.
I read online that menstrual blood is not donatable. It is, in fact, not blood enough — it is packed with tissues and other dead matter, and contains such a small amount of actual blood as to be useless. This seems like a horrible oversight to me. Such blood shortages in hospitals and yet perfectly good blood is turned away.
Someone must have replaced it — a thief in the night making off with my blood and leaving dyed sugar water in its place. David Bowie thought someone wanted to steal his urine. I am O negative, the universal donor. I would have given someone my blood if they had asked. I have no use for it. I don’t know why anyone would want it, but it is not theirs to take. It is mine.
In January, it snows only once, and nothing sticks to the pavement. My apartment is on the ground floor, my windows at street level. Normally in January, the snow piles against their frames at least six inches high. It usually feels like I am somewhere other than the city. It is a comforting reminder of the world. This year, there is no accumulation.
I go to the hardware store and buy a padlock for my medicine cabinet. The man who helps me takes extra special care; he probably imagines I am locking someone away from pills. I don’t tell him that I am keeping an imaginary stranger from my blood. I know how that sounds to me, so I can imagine how it would sound to him. He rings me up with a strange smile, his mouth shut. When I get home, I find a small screwdriver that I didn’t pay for in the bag.
I lock the medicine cabinet all the time, even when the porcelain bowl is empty. I try not to feel like I am locking up something precious.
That month, I deposit my blood in the bowl, same as ever. No one comes to visit my apartment. It is a slow month anyway, all holiday recovery in which everyone keeps to themselves. I lock the cabinet all the time.
When I open my cabinet the next day, my blood is cartoon blood again. The cabinet has been locked, no one has entered, I have not left. There can be no blood thief, unless I slept through a stranger entering my one-room apartment, entering my bathroom, and picking the new cabinet lock. It is impossible, and yet the bright blood stains the porcelain, swishing lightly with the moment of my hand.
I consider the first instinct of every young woman living alone. I want to call my mother. She has always had the answers. But she doesn’t know about the blood collection. She certainly wouldn’t understand the dire nature of the situation. Why do you need the blood anyway, she would say. I would tell her that I didn’t know, that I don’t need it. Still, it is not for others to take. It is mine. I don’t call her.
I pour out the fake blood, lock the medicine cabinet again against the ghosts. I go for a walk to clear my head, leaving my coat behind. The street is cold, wind snapping through my thin sweatshirt. I walk laps around the elementary school at the end of the block. I’ve heard it said that those descending into mental illness can’t see the spiral, that the voices or hallucinations seem like authentic, unquestionably real experiences. I think this is probably a load of horseshit. I’m 26, I live alone, and something is happening to the bodily fluid that I collect in my medicine cabinet. I am aware of how this looks to others. This is why I haven’t mentioned it to anyone else.
When February comes, I blame the bowl. Perhaps the blue porcelain is the problem, perhaps some chemical compound has leaked from the bowl and into my blood. I bury it in the bottom of my trash bag, even though it was still perfect. I don’t want the trash pickers to find it and keep it, thinking it was valuable or safe for food. I replace it with a white enamel ramekin, smaller but with steep sides.
I resolve to keep an eye on my blood this month, so that I can know what is happening to it. I take the padlock off the medicine cabinet door, leave it swung open at all times so I can see the small white ramekin. I leave the bathroom door open too, shifting my couch two feet to the left so that I can see directly into the cabinet. When I lay on my bed, I lay only on the left side so that I do not lose my line of sight. I do not go out. I have groceries delivered, and when the man comes, I insist he come right to my apartment door. He wants to place the groceries on my counter but I barricade the entrance, my feet planted wide.
The first night that I place my blood in the bowl, there is no change. I do not sleep, drinking tea and sitting up in my bed like a first-, second-, and third-watch sentry. There is a book open in my lap, but I don’t read it and I don’t get tired. It occurs to me that I could move the ramekin to my bedside table, that it would be easier to keep an eye on from there. But I don’t want to keep the blood safe. I have no use for it. I want to catch the thief in the act. I watch and I wait.
On the second night, I am tired. I had planned to keep constant watch until my five days of collecting was over, but I now realize this is foolish. The Internet says that five days awake would likely kill me, or at least put me in the hospital. I don’t have the willpower required for that kind of inevitability.
I stay committed to the second night, during which I’ll formulate a Plan B. I shut off all lights so the blood thief will think that nothing is different. I arrange myself in bed, with tea, sitting up as if I’m expecting an audience, and I wait.
When the doorknob turns near dawn, I am ready for him. I don’t move at all, and I try to breathe like a sleeping person would. I had locked the door, same as always, but it opens and the light from the hall leaks in anyway. The chain is no longer across the frame. I have no weapon. I didn’t think to stop or catch the thief — I only wanted to prove that he was real. The heaviest thing within arm’s reach is my tea mug, long empty.
The door never opens fully. The thief slides into the room through the cracked opening, no more than a foot wide. He is a black silhouette against the hall light — not tall, skinny, could almost be a boy. I can’t see his face so I don’t know where he looks, or even if he notices that I am sitting up in bed, watching the door. He closes the door behind him, and the room is total blackness again.
I am not breathing. There’s shuffling again, but not towards me. Instead, the bathroom light flicks on, and he is briefly illuminated again. His hair is long down his back, past his shoulders. He leaves the main room, shutting the bathroom door behind him. I can hear his tinkering, the medicine cabinet opening and something heavy being set on the sink. The noise is almost comforting. Like I’d imagine a lover would sound, shaving early in the morning.
As quietly as I can, I lift myself out of bed and grab the tea mug from the bedside table. The tea bag inside is dried to the side of the mug. I move towards the bathroom, trying to avoid the noisy spots in my floor, feeling like a burglar in my own home. There is still more rustling inside the bathroom, something like a bag opening.
I wait, a few inches behind the outward swing of the door. The plan is to swing my tea mug directly at his head when he emerges from the bathroom. From inside, the sound of a zipper and something being placed down, the medicine cabinet door swinging shut.
The doorknob turns and sticks a bit, as it usually does. I resist the urge to reach out and pull, help the intruder temporarily trapped in my bathroom. I wait. He jostles the doorknob, pushes on the door until it gives way. He pushes the door forward, and we appear to each other. He is startled to see me, in an old t-shirt and underwear, holding a ceramic mug in a pulled-back swing. He rocks onto his back foot, further into the bathroom and away from me. He holds up his hands, a surrender.
I consider the unlikelihood of incapacitating someone with a mug. I think about the police swarming my apartment, my mother’s insistence that I move home from the city. I imagine explaining that I had waited awake for two days for a blood thief.
“What are you doing here?” My voice sounds less measured than I would like it to. I do not sound like a woman entirely in control of the situation. I think about smashing the mug against the doorframe, creating shards that would seem more menacing than the intact dishware in my hand, as if my home is the scene of a prison fight.
He points at the medicine cabinet behind him, his body turned briefly from mine, his hands still in the air.
“What did you take? I don’t have any drugs.” I know what he is here for, but I know I can’t say it out loud to another person, even the thief.
He shakes his head. “Blood,” he says. It is simple.
I think about asking why he is here, why he has been stealing my blood through the winter. I consider asking how he even knew that I collected my blood in the first place. I have told no one. I realize I don’t care. I was right, someone was taking what was mine. There is nothing wrong with me. He is here now, and I want him gone.
“Give it back to me.” I hold up my mug in a way that I hope appears menacing, but I imagine appears only pathetic.
He nods, lowering his hands slowly. His eyes are intent on mine. His body turns slightly to the backpack on the toilet seat. Out of a top pocket he pulls a small plastic takeout container, like the kind sushi restaurants use to deliver soy sauce. It is filled with a thick purple-red liquid. I snatch it from him with my free hand.
“You won’t come back here?” I realize I shouldn’t have asked it. I should have told. I think about how difficult it would be to maintain my grip on the small plastic cup if he were to rush me now and I had to swing the mug.
He nods. I lower the mug to my side.
I step aside so he can leave my bathroom. I indicate that he can exit with the mug. He grabs his backpack from the toilet seat and rushes past, his head down. He pulls the hallway door towards him quietly and slips out, so quickly I can’t believe it is all over. I put the mug on the floor, lock and chain the hallway door. I hear the thief open and shut the front building door.
I open the takeout container, and the blood inside slides into the ramekin in a thick, whole sludge. It smells sweet. I keep the plastic container as proof, its sides stained red.
March is always colder than I expect. Still no snow, but the air is clammy, the cold sticking to my clothes. I prefer the cold, but I long for March to end and the season to change. It is the stasis I can’t stand.
My blood stays my blood. The thief does not return, and I do not wait up for him. I worry if I wait that I will tempt fate, and he will appear. It is better to live my ordinary life. I take the lock off the medicine cabinet. At the end of the month, my blood is still bruise-dark. I tip the ramekin against the toilet bowl and empty its contents. It slips from the bowl in one thick glob, hitting the water with a noisy plunk. I flush my blood down the drain, like always. It leaves a stain on the base of the bowl which I have to scrub out.
I tell no one about the blood thief. I know how it would sound, even though I have evidence. A boy broke into my home to steal my blood. He knew I kept it and he replaced it with prop blood, the kind that sprays geyser-like from bodies in slasher films. I stayed awake for two nights for him, and I threatened him with a ceramic mug. He didn’t reappear. There is nothing there that anyone needs to know.
I keep the empty takeout container through March, in case I need it. When it is clear that the thief will not return, and it is clear that I would tell no one about the thefts, I toss it in the trash. In April, May, and June, I collect my blood, to make sure it doesn’t change. It is mine, and nothing is different.
Taylor Clarke is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn, NY. She is originally from Lowell, MA.