It begins with a slight prick. Almost imperceptible, but I know it’s there because I’m watching, waiting for it to latch on. It cups its mouth onto my skin and forms a U on my finger with its body, and as it eats, it ripples like a throbbing vein. Tess had to leave the room during the first few treatments but now she’s addicted. She likes to name the leeches and recite eulogies before the nurses deposit them into a coffin of rubbing alcohol on their way toward the hazardous waste. The leech that’s currently at work on my knuckle is called Doug, after the father that left when she was four.
Tess wants to bring our son along to see the leeches in action – a suggestion I may have considered if I were in better spirits – but I’m certain that whatever memories he might have formed in his three years prior would be blanched out in favor of this, and I don’t exactly want his first recollection of me to be in a hospital bed as these brown, writhing creatures fill up with my blood.
A nurse enters the room just as Doug falls off my hand. Tess picks him up with large, square gauze and holds him out with a frown. “A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others,” she says, and then hands Doug over to the nurse.
“That was nice,” the nurse says as she drops him into a cup otherwise used for urine collection.
“It’s from the Wizard of Oz,” Tess says with a shrug.
“One more and we’ll call it a day?” The nurse fishes out another leech from a cup on the bedside table, this one a third the size of the satiated Doug, and guides it toward my fingers with her gloved hands. Its body flails and arches away.
“Maybe she’s not hungry,” Tess says.
“This one’s a she?” I say, although I’m not sure why. I couldn’t care less which gender she assigns.
“Betsy,” she says. The alcoholic sister she disowned two years ago after Betsy stole and crashed our car for not the first, but the second time.
The nurse covers my hand with clear dressing, leaving a hole on my ring finger just large enough for the leech to attach, then drops the leech onto my hand. We watch as it slithers uncertainly over my thumb, then back toward the hole.
“We’ve got contact,” the nurse says.
Tess lets out a puff of air. “God, I hated breastfeeding.”
The nurse gives her a strange look and I think about explaining but decide to remain silent. “We’ve got contact” is Tess’s saying, or it was when Ryan was an infant. He had what they call “poor latch-on skills” and “contact” would sometimes take up to thirty minutes. Eventually she gave up the cat and mouse game and switched to formula. She said it wasn’t normal that a child would refuse his own mother’s nipple. Said it made her feel like less of a woman.