Donating blood for the first time gave me a rush I had not anticipated. I kept shouting, Take more, take everything, and the nurse kept saying, Lie down, stop jumping, you need to restore your strength. But I knew that in fact I had more strength now than ever before. I was thirty three at the time.
The next day was a Tuesday, and in the afternoon I was walking down Benevolence Ave., which, as you might know, gets the worst of the city’s traffic on weekdays. Through the sequence of moving-trucks and busses, a construction worker cried desperately in an attempt to get my attention: Hey, man—yes, you—can you lend me a hand? Please? He was in great distress, for obvious reasons, so I did. I figured, I got two; he might give it back some day, and if he doesn’t, I still have the other one.
He never gave it back. I assumed he still needed it. I never tracked him down.
A few hours after this encounter I walked over to McGintey’s a one-armed man, to meet my friend Jordan F. My left pocket felt empty—I had the habit of twirling my fingers in there—but it was the kind of emptiness that didn’t seek to be filled. When I stepped in, Jordan F. noticed the change right away. He wanted details. He was being judgmental. I said, Let me point out that I’m perfectly functional with one arm; most days I forget I used to have two. Jordan F. snorted. Most days? he said; it’s only been a few hours. It was one of those truths whose falseness you couldn’t prove. What could I do? I don’t care to discuss this further, I said. I gave Jordan F. the type of look I reserved for serious disagreements only—a frowning that makes my eyebrows touch. After a short pause he said, Alright then, raised his glass, and downed the rest of his beer. With my remaining arm I did the same, and smiled. We talked then about the blood flowing through my veins, clear and distilled—solid proof, Jordan F. said with pathos, of the human possibility to gain strength by giving. That evening at McGintey’s, we were hopeful.
Shortly after, my sister needed a kidney. Jordan F. had always loved Lulu, so I knew he wouldn’t try to stop me. He used to say when Lulu smiles armies stop fighting. Jordan F. had strong feelings about wars.
To donate a kidney, you had to belong to an organization; the organization issued a card and I was put on a database. People from around the world started contacting me, sharing stories so sad I wanted to hug the pages they were written on—a challenge, considering my situation. Still—mostly, I ignored them. I felt that I’d done my part. Jordan F. said, I’m proud of you, man, I’m proud of you. He was relieved that I didn’t forget how to be selfish.
When I got the letter from the woman in Uzbekistan, and knew Yes was the only appropriate response, I decided not to tell Jordan F. Why disappoint a good friend for no reason, I thought.
You should have heard that woman’s story. How could I ignore it? And I’d never been a smoker or anything. I was pretty certain I could do with one lung.
After that, a local paper ran a story about me; they used some woman to pose as the Uzbekistani patient in the photographs, but all in all they did a decent job. I figured that was it for my friendship with Jordan F.; if there was one thing this man despised more than wars it was secrets, and he was now about to discover I’d been a single-lung man for weeks.
Jordan F. and I had been friends since third grade; I took a sick-day to mourn this loss. But suddenly he was in my doorway. I’m proud of you, man, real proud, he said, and I realized then for the first time that Jordan’s F.’s pride is a matter independent of circumstance.
A week later my ex called. I hadn’t heard from Yolanda since I broke up with her three years before, but Lulu claimed to have seen her once in a street corner, begging for money. On the phone, Yolanda said I’d broken her heart. She needed a new one. Due to my broken heart, she was saying, and I could tell she was reading from a note, I have been rendered unable to work, degraded to panhandling. Yoli, I hear you, I said, but a heart’s no small thing. You’re not using yours anyway, Yolanda said—her first spontaneous words in the conversation. She was clearly being sarcastic, but I thought she made a valid point nonetheless.
Things continued in this manner for quite some time. But please believe me when I tell you—I absolutely wasn’t “looking for it,” as some people have suggested. All I did was try to be a standup guy, do right by my fellow humans.
The thing about charity, word always gets around. People kept finding me, and for every ten I rejected came a story I couldn’t ignore. That woman with the face-lift gone bad. She used to be so beautiful, you should have seen the pictures; the kind of face you could hang in a museum and call it art. Now, it’s true that she shouldn’t have had the face-lift in the first place, as Jordan F. pointed out. But by the time I heard her story, I figured—that is the situation; I can either help her or not. Lulu said I should do it. Truth is, she said, in this fucked up world a faceless woman is as good as dead, but a faceless man is still a man. Lulu wasn’t wrong about that; my life did not change much.
I declared a No More No policy after that; if I was asked for something I still had, I said yes. The alcoholic who needed a liver, the AIDS patient who needed my skin, the guy from Montréal who collected spleens for a living—I made a difference, you could say.
Every now and then Jordan F. would ask, Doesn’t it feel like you’re disappearing? And I would say, No, it feels like the exact opposite of disappearing. And I meant it, but it also made me feel good about myself, saying it like that, and watching Jordan F. twitch.
It was only when that last request came in the mail, the one I had to refuse, that I realized I had not been noble at all. Sure, I was giving away my organs, but it wasn’t because “helping others made me feel alive,” as I was quoted saying in some article. It was because I still had the one thing that really mattered: my manhood. I’m not proud of it, but it’s the truth.
I wish I could say that the man’s story was spurious, or unimpressive. But I cannot lie: it was a horrifying story, one of those stories that would normally have me on a plane in no time. This man’s girlfriend chopped it off him when he was asleep because she believed he had cheated. The next morning the woman who’d accused him confessed, and the girlfriend was so sorry she tried to end her own life. But like Jordan F. said, all the sorry in the world doesn’t bring back a chopped dick.
I wanted to help this man so badly my balls hurt. It was as if they were already getting ready to relocate, stretching out toward a new body. I cried, coughed, couldn’t stop saying no, no, no for hours. I sounded something like a miserable rooster. I couldn’t breathe. It was clear: I could not do it.
Both Lulu and Jordan F. were very supportive, of course. They said, Everybody draws a line somewhere, you’re entitled to your feelings. And I knew they were right. I said, Yeah, I think that’s the final straw for me; I thought maybe if I used a common expression things would start making sense. But really I just felt sad.
I wanted to be a better man—the kind of man who’s not a prisoner of his own anatomy, the kind of man who saves a life if he can, expecting nothing in return. But ultimately, I failed.
Dear Sir, I wrote. Everything you’ve heard about me is true but unfortunately I cannot help you, for if I help you it will be the end of me. I will never again be able to enter a woman, never be able to conceive a son; I will be considered a man no more (no offense). Maybe in a different time, in a different world, I wrote. I could only hope that he was smart enough to know what I meant, and kind enough to forgive.