Shanna Germain

At twenty, I started working the HIV
ward, midnight to morning. Left my husband
sleeping, mouth-open to the air, to 
drive through the dark body of the city. 

Every shift, the warning about infections.
Me sliding on booties, disposable 
gown and gloves. Even through the mask,
you could smell decay, the way viruses 

swept through bodies. I did what was needed: 
held hands through double-gloves, took blood 
or confessions when I could, told off-white lies 
to thin cracked lips that knew the truth.

Once, a year or so into it, I stuck 
myself, pointed red end of an IV needle 
left in a lab coat pocket. So small a thing 
it almost didn’t hurt going in, only 

leaving, small pop and smear of two bloods mingled. 
I put the wound to my mouth and sucked before 
I thought. Fear rising, rinsed my tongue with soap,
spit someone’s dark blood into the white scrub sink,

then gave my own blood to one of the other nurses 
to be tested. At dawn, I roused my husband awake 
with my newly tainted tongue, let him slide bare 
into me, as though nothing was between us.

I tell this all like it was an accident:
someone else’s lab coat, a needle forgotten
in a white pocket, three seconds of married 
passion so strong my lips did not say, at risk.

But no. This was after I caught the cliche
of my life: his red scrawl across receipts hidden
in a desk drawer, the smell of lilacs in 
his sleeves, the cleaving across the bedsides. 

The things we do in fear are the things we don’t 
say. Hidden and rampant as a hotel room stay
on a credit card, or a string of genes 
in a coat of protein, destined to repeat.

About the poet: 

Shanna Germain is a poet by nature, a short-story writer by the skin of her teeth and a novelist-in-training. Her poems and short stories have appeared in publications such as the Absinthe Literary ReviewAmerican Journal of NursingBest American EroticaMcSweeney’s and Salon. You can see more of her work on her website,

About the poem:

“This poem came about because I was thinking of all the things that we do to protect ourselves, not just in the medical field but in life. Not just healthwise, but also to protect our hearts, our souls. And how easily that can all be undone–by someone else’s actions or by our own. And how we live with those repercussions after. Or don’t.”

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