I needed money for gas, and my rent was due. UC San Francisco was just across the park and a short uphill walk from my cheap apartment.

I’d always take my notebook past the Rose Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers, and the tennis courts, up the hill to the sumptuous university library.

Beside my mesh metal chair at the outdoor coffee cart, a row of brightly colored flyers fluttered. The flyers advertised medical studies. The more invasive the study, the more it paid. The man at the next table saw me looking. “Don’t go for anything with a throat tube,” he advised.

The study I chose was helmed by a tiny graduate student. From what I understood, I was in for a handful of intravenous Vitamin E doses. After a 2-minute interview, I was in. I liked the idea of the medical study. I’d read recently that a filmmaker I admired had financed his early work this way. Knowing this made the study seem like an arty lark, a way for young, free people to keep themselves afloat.

Inside the study room, a huge TV blared. My study-mates lobbed advice or jeers at the daytime talk show guests between naps. I brought books, but never opened them. The Vitamin E doses made us all sleepy. We leaned back in our chairs and let the study wash over us.

Afterward, my friend Clementine drove me home. Clementine was the most glamorous person I had ever met. She lived nearby, in the Haight. Her parents hadn’t let her attend UC Berkeley, because she might meet the wrong sort of people there. So instead, Clementine skipped college and worked at a 1-800 number; a sex line. “Want a sucker?” she asked, brandishing a little bouquet of them at me.

“Hell yes,” I said. “Where’d you get these?”

“We have baskets of them at work,” she said, checking her lips in the rear view.

“Huh.” I chose an orange one, popped in in my mouth.

“Suckers; right? The clients get off on the sound.” She leveled her gaze at me. “Get that money.”

It didn’t occur to me until much later that everyone who signs up for these studies is dirt poor. I didn’t fully understand yet that I was poor, and that it would get a lot worse.

I was still feeling a little woozy. My arm was purpling up where the IV had gone in. But I had a check in my pocket. I was feeling pretty good. I felt like a hundred bucks.

Patricia Quintana Bidar is a native Californian with roots in New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. Her stories have appeared in Sou’wester, Wigleaf, Jellyfish Review, Citron Review, Barren Lit Magazine, and 805 lit+art, among other places. Apart from fiction, she writes for progressive nonprofit organizations.

Image: Red Hills with Flowers, Georgia O'Keeffe, 1937 (Flickr / Ed Bierman)

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