Before It Was A Needle

by Katherine Abbass

Once Molly had explained to me her ancestry, things started making more sense. I knew there were freshwater leeches and saltwater leeches and that they, unlike snakes, really were slimy to the touch. Her parents wanted her to be a doctor, of course; medical history tells us that leeches were used to extract blood from patients. The sensation isn’t even too bad. I went swimming in a lake once and got a leech stuck to my ankle. I think if it were smaller, I wouldn’t have even noticed. But it had a good hold on me and nobody could pull it off with their fingers. We were having burgers and fries for lunch at the beach that day, so my uncle Marty grabbed the saltshaker off the picnic table and doused my ankle with it. The leech shriveled up immediately and fell off dead like an old scab. If I had better ears, I swear I would’ve been able to hear it crying out.

What is it with blood? was my first thought. I met her in a junior-level Gothic lit class. When I tried to find common ground with her by confessing I hadn’t finished Dracula, she told me she’d read it for fun three summers ago. We talked through to morning, the first time we hung out. Idling in the driveway with the sunroof open to welcome a million mosquitoes in, Molly watched, indifferent, as they feasted on her – the bites would barely show. Leeches leave a Y-shaped mark on the flesh of their hosts once they’re done feeding and Molly left raspberries on mine. In the late morning, I’d stand to watch them darken in the mirror. Then I’d wrap my neck in a scarf and go.

It was unnerving to read that some people call leeches parasitic. Freeloading houseguests. Taking up residence in their host’s life and stealing nutrients at the poor bugger’s expense. I wondered if the word was synonymous with “toxic”; it reminded me of my last relationship. “You give too much,” friends would say. “You shouldn’t leave the door open.” But leeches wouldn’t take blood if they didn’t need life and I felt like I had a lot of both to give.

Molly fainted at the sight of blood. An inconsistency. She’d scoff when people would say, “You are your mother’s daughter.” This was just because of the dark hair; her mother worked at the Dynalife lab in town, paid to ‘poke’ people all day. “Isn’t it more of a ‘prick’?” I’d asked. When I was tested for lactose intolerance, they had to use baby needles. The collector left bruises on the insides of my elbows and the tops of my hands. Molly’s mother frowned and said, “When I do it, it’s a poke.”

So before it was a needle, it was a leech. And I was thinking about this when I dropped Molly off the other day and she sat in my car talking about how much she loved the sound of her own fingernail flicking against the edge of her tooth. Leeches can have teeth, but they do fine without them, too. The medical ones usually have tons and tons, tiny and sharp. Some leeches are all gums, though that doesn’t make them any less carnivorous. From the looks of it, Molly’s gums held 32 of your most basic human adult teeth. They were long and white and the two front ones sat in an overlap, creating a ridge for her fingernail to flick. She flick-flicked like that and I started drumming the dashboard to create a band of the two of us. But she didn’t like my beat and didn’t thank me for the ride. That night, I drove home drained.

If my uncle Marty hadn’t forced the leech off with salt, it could’ve stayed sucking for a while. I don’t know of a leech that fills up in less than twenty minutes. What’s supposed to be reassuring is that they aren’t with you forever; they leave the dinner table once they’re full. I wanted to ask what Molly took from me, but the answer was too obvious. One evening she came over for spaghetti and meatballs and stained her white shirt. The stain kept an ugly orange even after the Tide to Go. I stared at it for the rest of the night and thought about it even after her shirt came off, that ochre mark beating like a heart from its place on the carpet.

Once a leech’s victim is bitten, they can bleed for hours. This is what I’m thinking of when Molly gets out of the car at 9 p.m. and starts up the walkway to her front door. I’m planning the details of when I’ll see her next, knowing she won’t think of me until I do.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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