When I spoke to Jody on the phone she encouraged my confidence in her acupuncture services because she used the word “evil” when I mentioned “cancer” and “chemo.” Last week, I had … a vision? I don’t want to say the word “vision” because it makes me think of Dirty Steve in Young Guns warbling out at half-speed, “Did you see the size of that chicken?” I was dozing off at any rate, and I imagined without trying (okay, call it a vision if you want) that chemo was a lanky woman in a cheap feather boa leaning on an elbow, flicking the nails on one raised hand together, looking back at me with her brows aslant in mock pity. I’ve worried that my animosity toward the chemo might manifest itself more deeply, might make my body resist the work of the chemo every two weeks. So I’ve been trying not to see chemo as evil at all, but when Jody made the connection I thought, this is the acupuncturist for me.
“How about January second?” I asked her. “Do you have anything then?”
“Oh no no no no no. Too busy. Everyone wants to come have acupuncture for the New Year.”
“Oh,” I sank with the phone on the sofa. The “oh” might have even registered as a sigh, a static burst in Jody’s ear on the other end of the line. “I’ll call another time then.” I really wanted January 2 because that’s the day before chemo treatment number three, which I’ve heard was an optimum time for acupuncture.
Then Jody blurted out before I could disconnect, “What about nine in the morning?”
“On the second?”
“Yes yes yes.”
When I hustled across the parking lot this morning in my pea coat and scarf and knee-high red boots, I expected to fling back Jody’s office door to a full room. There wasn’t anyone except Jody, poised to answer her own office phone that never rang, her hands folded expectantly over the receiver in its cradle. I told her I had an appointment, that I was a little early. I thought she might need to look me up on the computer that didn’t seem to exist on the sparse desk, so I gave her my name. She nodded.
“Remind me why you’re here,” she said, sitting straight in her swivel seat, her hands on the phone, her shoulders taut under a white lab coat.
“Oh! Yeah. I’m currently undergoing chemo for breast cancer. That’s why.”
“Why are you so smiley and happy?” she asked, sitting back in the chair, her fingertips leaving the phone. “You have cancer!”
My open, silent mouth framed a circle, and somewhere in this circle, skirting the void, was that old joke of Mel Brooks’: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” The “I” and “you” in that quote seems immaterial to me. I come from a long line of morbid vaudevillian would-bes, anyway, a grandpa, for instance, who liked to say, “I don’t buy green bananas these days,” with a poke of an elbow in the nearest set of ribs. Maybe that’s why I was smiling, because this was so unfunny it was funny, because in my mind chemo is played by Carol Burnett from Annie.
Jody didn’t look like she had a sense of humor, though. Her brows were in a permanent knit as if everything in the world – from the plastic areca palm to the acupuncture pamphlet rack to the phone – was on the verge of exploding. She proceeded to tell me about some lady upstairs with breast cancer oof. Then she wanted to know my entire story, from annual visit to mammogram to biopsy to oncologist and how long they gave me to live because she was sure it was three or five years, and I was thinking, shouldn’t we get a move on before your onslaught of post-New Year patients get here? But Jody came around the desk to sit with me in the waiting room and listen.
“I’m going to live old enough to hold my friend Andrea’s teeth in a jar in the old lady home for artists. We’ve made a pact,” I explained.
And when I told her how chemo will shrink the tumor so it can be, as my surgeon says, swiftly and elegantly removed – like Sean Young from the Oscar red carpet or something – Jody reaches into my sweater to assess the lump for herself. There we sit in the waiting room. My boob in Jody’s hand. Now do you see why cancer is funny?
“Oh yes,” she says. “Good size, the lump.”
She tells me about her years practicing gynecology in China, and I learn more than I need to know about her sister’s vagina which she shapes with forefinger pressed to thumb, exactly the way that I shape a deer with antlers while playing shadow puppets with the Firecracker. All this time, they were really vaginas.
Then a half hour later Jody puts hands to knees to rise.
“Well?” she looks back at me. “Are you just here to look pretty or you want acupuncture?”
So into the apparent acupuncture room we went. No special robes. No tinkly music. A table. Something that looked like a microwave. That was it.
“Pants off. Socks off,” she said with a flip of her hand.
When I was stretched bare-legged on the table, Jody told me how I needed a second opinion. Maybe a third. Because she was convinced I needed to dispense with this whole chemo nonsense and have a full mastectomy because I was going to die in three to five years. Somehow her sister’s vagina was the reason. There was a long story, anyway, about IUDs and cancer and radiation and loose stools. “When she has to make pooh, she has to make pooh, you know?” And then, “These long legs! Your husband must love you. But get a second opinion. And a third.”
She opened a package of acupuncture needles like fumbling with a box of Mike and Ikes at the movies, an audible rip finally issuing forth. I made a point not to look at the size of them, being somewhat needle-phobic. And when she began, pushing my sweater hem up and out of the way, tapping a needle into my stomach and then turning it three times, I’m thinking, Good God, I thought this wasn’t supposed to hurt. Everything I’d read said it wasn’t. But it did when Jody drove one in. Each and every one. When she hit a nerve around my ankle, I winced and said, “That one really hurts.”
“Oh,” she said. “That’s just the bad chi wanting out.”
And when she twisted it three times, it felt like all of my insides were winding tightly around it and I feared I might run out howling into the cold parking lot, half-naked and bristling with needles. She held my feet in her hands for second and asked, “Are they always so cold?” And before I could answer, she screwed a needle into the bottom of each one. “There,” she said. “Better.” She gingerly patted the tops of my curled toes and moved around to scoot something closer to the edge of her cart, some kind of box from which she unwound tiny jumper cable pinchers.
I’d researched electroacupuncture, and that wasn’t at all what I signed up for, but before I could protest, my legs were dancing by themselves on the tabletop.
“Oh, oh too much!” she said, adjusting the dials.
Then my legs danced only a little. The bottoms of my feet throbbed with tingly pops I swear I could hear.
“Good for your energy,” Jody said, bending the neck of an ultraviolet lamp to hover inches from my stomach. “Good for your digestion.”
And then she left me to answer the phone that finally rang.
Okay, I thought, this is going to be great for my energy, which is why I’m here.
And I tried not to think of the digestion part and Jody shaping her sister’s slack colon with both of her hands about twenty minutes before. Instead, as electricity sizzled down my limbs from pin to pin, I thought of Frankenstein’s monsters zapping to life in the James Whale films my friend Duke and I had just critiqued for Halloween only one month before my diagnosis, when monsters were just monsters on screen.
Thirty minutes later, Jodi returned to remove the needles and tell me again how and why I needed a second and third opinion. She made me promise her I’d do it. She made me promise I’d come back. She seemed so lonely, Jody, in her empty acupuncture office. I felt badly for making promises I was going to break.
“Get dressed,” she said, with another flip of her hand as if she knew this too, the door falling shut after her.
And when I leaned to reach for my jeans I noticed that my stomach had a sunburn splotch and she’d left two pins in — the ones in the bottoms of my feet. I’ve had two recurring panic dreams in my life. In one, I’m holding all of my own teeth and not in a jar but in bloody fistfuls. In another, I’m pulling shards out of my foot soles. At least these are slender needles, slender at their points. At least I could imagine, as I cringed to pluck one needle free, that something dark slipped loose too, loose into the room, Chemo Carol slumping over the armrest of a chair, or maybe, maybe even cancer.
I left the two needles, thick on the ends as bolts, rolling across the cart top.