Dr. Ou is holding a jar of my urine up to the light. It must be your first water of the day, and she will know if it’s not. Mine is a deep, buttery yellow with tiny floating specks, like a Christmas snow globe. As she turns the jar this way and that, she tsks-tsks.
“Heavy! Too much fat dairy.”
She flips the jar over and back again and a droplet slicks down the side. Her eyes fix on the inch-high head of foam that’s formed in my little pot of gold. “Too much sugar!”
The other patients in the office–a skinny, balding man and three eager-looking women–are pretending to read old magazines from the coffee table.
“Too much sugar make diabetes if not careful,” Dr. Ou warns. I park my eyes in her black, feathered hair. We’re off to a great start.
From behind a mahogany screen in the corner, there’s a rustling sound.
Dr. Ou stands up. “Be right back.”
I now understand that the woman who went before me, the irritating one who said she ate brown rice, lentils and beet juice, had a reason to be smug. Her urine was like Evian. The heat from everyone’s gaze is redding up the back of my neck, but I shrug it off. I’m a grown woman, not a naughty child.
In Dr. Ou’s waiting room, there are colorful Chinese prints covering the walls and Buddha figures on wooden shelves. It’s dusty, as if the sun’s been baking through the window for a few weeks, but then, we’re in Oakland, where high temperatures spark fires in eucalyptus trees and the pollution hangs around like a scarf. On the floor behind Dr. Ou’s desk is a wicker basket overflowing with greeting cards and photos of smiling people.
I wonder what her urine looks like.
She’s saying something in low tones behind the screen, which is followed by a long moan. A foot with pink-polished toes shoots past the screen’s edge, then disappears.
Dr. Ou returns to the desk. She feels my pulse in two places along my wrist, her dark eyes peering into mine. She studies my tongue. I hold my coffee breath.
Finally, “What kind work?”
I tell her I’m an editor for an Internet company. I write two-sentence web reviews on things like hotels and recipes. You’re not writing reviews, the CEO tells us, you’re building the best Internet Directory on the planet. Two hundred and fifty reviews a week, if I want to keep my job.
“How much time on computer?”
“Eight to ten hours a day.” Twelve, even.
“Terrible,” Dr. Ou says, looking sad. “Many my patients work computers.”
My hands are limp animals in my lap, with pinkies tingling and sharp stabbing along the elbows. I explain how sore they are from all the typing; how the aching keeps me up at night. She nods, leads me to a room I hadn’t noticed before and motions to lie on the table. Bra and pants on, socks and shoes off.
On the ceiling is a poster of the bluest lake I’ve ever seen. It is sunset and the clouds are tinged with pink and gold.
“You have acupuncture before?” Her hand is warm on my shoulder.
I shake my head; I’m afraid my teeth are going to start chattering.
“I match my mind to needles. More powerful that way. You concentrate with me.”
She unwraps the silver needles and starts with my arms. There is a pinging sound as she pops one into the area around my funny bone.
“Blue,” she croons, as a prickling runs up my tricep. She twists the needle deeper. “Tuuurn to gold.” Her voice is gentle, low. The tingling rolls into a throbbing, then mellows.
She carries on until there are needles in my chest, arms, feet and the top of my head. Short, sharp bee stings.
“Brave girl,” Dr. Ou says, patting my leg and adjusting the heat lamp over my heart.
Is that it? Pinpricks and a hot light?
On the way to the door she turns up the stereo and I hear a baritone chanting. It’s some kind of mantra that starts out quiet, then crescendos. The door closes and immediately my mind skips to Joshua.
We are having the same fight again and again, our dust and scratches causing the needle to skip. It starts out small and new (Why did you wear your fucking hiking boots to swing dance class? Or, Did you have to sing louder than Dave at the Dave Matthews concert?), but then reveals itself to be the same old baggage.
The last time, we were at a red light on El Camino, on the arid span along the Peninsula that’s peppered with gas stations and pawn shops and hamburger places. The light flipped green and I held my breath. The shift on the Jetta had recently broken between first and reverse and stupid California was full of hills. Joshua was trying to jam it into gear as impatient assholes started to honk. We rolled back towards a BMW. Just before impact, the Jetta lurched forward into the intersection, almost tagging a red SUV, as Josh floored the gas.
“Correction,” he was saying, “the real problem here is whether you can actually make up your mind about anything. You like your job, you hate your job; you want to stay together, you’re moving out. You have a crush on this guy, that girl. What the fuck’s it going to be?”
The hook-shaped scar under his eye–the one he got falling off a stage goofing around–had gone white. I glared out the window. My eyes were watering from the air-conditioning. I pictured shaking the Magic 8-ball on my desk at work. Reply Hazy; Try Again.
On the other side of the door there’s the clink of tea cups, murmuring voices, a phlegmy cough. Dr. Ou’s laugh. I stretch out like a cat and try to align my breath with the chanting. In-one-two-three-and-hold-four-five-six-and-out-seven-eight-nine. In this morning’s meeting, my arms had ached so badly I could hardly concentrate on the dead link report generated for Hobbies and Travel Agencies.
I uncurl my fists and will my ricocheting brain to rest. This has to work.
I see Dr. Ou–or Dr. “Ow” as my friends call her–for two more years. Sometimes for several visits a month or not at all for weeks. She never calls me by my name; it’s usually “beautiful baby girl” or “little girl,” or once or twice, “Kathy.”
Whenever I ask how she is, it is always the same: she is good.
She shrugs. “I have good life. Nice husband, good children, good work. I am lucky.” She asks me what’s happening.
I hold up my jar of urine–it looking decidedly less snowy–and say, “Too much butter and I still need more water but look! Less sugar now.”
Or, “I’ve been steaming pears for my asthma and eating less chocolate.”
She’ll laugh and point to a pimple on my chin. “Still too much cheese.”
“I know, I know, but I need to get my protein from somewhere!”
A half laugh, half snort. “You Americans and your protein.” She gestures to where my rear end is squeezing out the side of the chair. “You have plenty protein!”
Weeks after our first visit, I tell her I’m starting to hate my job. Working on computers, soul-destroying meetings and corporate two-steps. Dr. Ou nods. But, I ask, who could want more than a dot.com job in San Francisco’s SOMA district, with stock options and champagne Fridays?
Then I mention that I’m thinking of leaving my boyfriend.
She stops, a needle mid-transit to my back. “How long together?”
“About six years.”
She sets the needle down, moving stray bangs out of my eye and tucking them behind my ear.
“Why break up?”
I want to try living alone, I say. Maybe do some travelling. I’ve had a boyfriend since I was sixteen and now I’m twenty-eight.
Dr. Ou gazes out the window. Then, sounding proud, “I didn’t marry until thirty-five. I have career all that time. Then I marry and have two children.”
A tear slides down my cheek and plops onto the paper. My chest is starting to ache. Dr. Ou makes everything sound so simple. Good work, good husband, good kids. Well, good for her, but leaving is anything but simple. Because it isn’t the obvious that holds us together–listening to Selected Shorts on Sundays while making brunch; walking on the beach at Tennessee Valley; that time we went to Sonoma for my birthday and he pulled a stuffed, three-foot basset hound and champagne from the car and later drank the cool, pale liquid off my skin. It was him polishing my résumé and insisting I ask for my worth; disliking the people I needed him to; his brown eyes softening whenever they settled on me. And, his admonition that whatever–whomever–I chose in life, I should commit fully because it was only in the holding back that I could get hurt.
Dr. Ou sighs and caresses my forehead. “Baby girl. Just go easy way. Take long, long time to make friends and very short time to break. Just go easy.”
Between appointments, I map out questions. How did Dr. Ou decide on a career? What does she do outside of work? How can she always be happy?
I discover she sings every Wednesday with her friend Dr. Chan; goes ballroom dancing with her husband on the weekends; and hires a cook to do grocery shopping and to prepare her family’s meals. (Diet very important, she says. Difference between healthy not healthy.)
Six days a week she swims at a local pool and, every morning she prays in her garden.
“In my temple,” she says. “No one go there but me–my husband and children know it is private.”
She tells me that when she was four years old, she almost died. A healer in the mountains above Shanghai cured her with acupuncture and herbs, and from then on, she knew she would help others in the same way.
Often there is food on her desk–bags of dusty green things, nuts, fruits, cakes; they are gifts from other patients, better patients than me who have successfully navigated the Chinese food aisles and are now showing off. I want to give her something too, something clever and perfect that she doesn’t already have. So I bring a silver angel to hang in the large bay window. The angel is in mid-flight and there are two crystals hanging from her hands. Her wings are a pale green gossamer and studded with rhinestones. Dr. Ou hangs it up immediately and stands back, admiring the light that glances off the little ornament, making the bright room brighter.
Leaving her office, she always says, “Don’t worry–be happy.” The words are printed on a small square of paper posted on the wall behind her desk. There is a smiley face drawn under it. And in that moment, nothing seems more possible.
One day I tell Dr. Ou that I have finally moved out on my own. I’m lying on my stomach; arms angled back, the white paper dry against my face.
She comes to the head of the table once the needles are in, leans close. “OK. What happened?”
I left the house we shared in San Carlos, I say, to a one-bedroom in Mill Valley. The landlord and her Akita live upstairs; I will rent the basement apartment. I don’t mention how Josh, tired of my waffling, had set up an appointment for me to see a house in Marin. How, on countless nights, I’d been coming home late, smelling like wine and other people’s smoke, and instigating rough, anonymous sex, like strangers fucking in the back of a bar.
“We’re still friends,” I say. “It’s just that I’m not ready to settle down yet. I mean if I were, he would be good.”
Before putting a needle in my stomach, she slaps it. “You eat too much.”
It’s hard to eat well when you work all day and come home tired at night, I tell her. Dr. Ou smiles indulgently while she pulls and twists my fat.
“Okay, but break up fat at home. You very young–you still have time.”
She tells me to cough. I do, and she hits me lightly on the spine with her fist while withdrawing the needle. My chest sounds hollow.
“Baby girl.” She takes out the remaining needles and rubs my back.
In the front room, four patients are waiting. I feel guilty.
“About our next appointment–”
She holds up her hand. “Don’t worry, just call.” From a metal filing cabinet she takes out two tiny black seeds, drops them on a piece of tape and presses it behind my right ear.
“This one,” she says, pinching hard, “for when you crave sugar.” I feel an ache along the edge of my ear. “And this one for feeling sad.”
My lunch hour has become two and a half and I’m trying not to speed. Traffic is aggressive and I feel the calm start to slip away. Just before pulling onto the Bay Bridge, the stream of cars and trucks and buses slams to a halt. I glance over at the spindly metal structures George Lucas says inspired Star Wars. How did something so ugly ever lend itself to a thing of beauty?
A layer of rust-colored smog hangs over the city. My plastic cubicle is in that haze, dotted with inspirational quotes and horoscopes, in a room full of editors tapping on glowing boxes. A media sweatshop.
The bridge sways almost imperceptibly and I try not to imagine what all of us look like suspended in our shiny metal boxes, each alone but collectively hanging over the icy water. A plane cuts the sky towards Hawaii, a white cross flying to paradise. Four years earlier, Joshua had finagled us first-class tickets to the Big Island, and we snickered when the flight attendant asked if we were on our honeymoon. We were way too evolved to be getting married.
I massage my arms; everything feels sore. Yet it’s as though I’m cupping me in the crook of my arm, holding myself tighter than before.
At work we have one publishing deadline after another. We are producing massive quantities of content for Microsoft and its expectations are growing every month. It’s been nine weeks since I’ve seen Dr. Ou and my hands are much worse from working nights and weekends. I’ve begun dropping staplers and coffee mugs, and using my knees to help hold the steering wheel. Still, getting my chi tweaked seems hard to justify when the company’s stock is only days from going public.
That Monday, I call in sick to my boss. I want to say, “Sick and tired,” but I don’t. I need to clean my house and buy groceries and pay bills, and I didn’t have time over the weekend. Everything takes longer now with my arms the way they are. I start with the sink full of dishes and the phone rings.
It’s Dr. Ou. “Long time no see.”
“I know,” I say and start to cry.
“Come in,” and she hangs up.
When I get to her office, Dr. Ou is sitting at the desk with a patient. Her face lights up with a huge smile when I walk through the door. She comes over and hugs me.
The angel in the window spins slowly. I hear Dr. Ou asking the patient if she is pregnant. She is holding the woman’s wrist in her hand. The woman is surprised but pleased. I lean in to catch her answer.
“Maybe,” she whispers. “I’m not sure yet.”
“I think yes,” Dr. Ou says.
When I’m settled on the table, Dr. Ou asks about Joshua.
“We’re still broken up,” I say. Except for the dinners, hikes, and sleepovers.
“Hunh.” She’s chewing something small with her front teeth, worrying it back and forth. “Does he have other girlfriend?”
“No,” I say. Then, “I don’t think so.”
“And you other boyfriends?”
“No. Well, not really.” We make eye contact and start giggling.
“Silly girl. You should come karaoke.” She heads to the door and turns back. “Those arms puffy.”
A couple of weeks later, I drive to Dr. Ou’s after work. When I walk in, she’s reading a card and holding up a photo. She hands over the picture.
“I help make this baby,” she says. “Three years they try before they see me, then–like that!” She snaps her fingers. In the photo is a smiling woman with her chin tilted up. Next to her is a man with stylish glasses, holding a laughing baby. The baby is wearing green overalls and one tiny sock. Dr. Ou takes the photo back, gazing as though the baby were her own.
We head to an area of Oakland that is deserted and dark. Nothing is open except for a liquor store bathed in an eerie white glow. A handful of men loiter out front as if it were a warm Saturday in July. Dr. Ou slows down her Mercedes on the next block, where as far as I can see, there is no earthly reason to stop.
“We here.” She swings the car over to the curb. I follow her to a dirty metal door that is attached to an abandoned-looking building. She knocks.
A minute later, locks are undone and the door opens a crack. A man peeks out and pulls the door wide. We walk through a macramé curtain, the cool beads tinkling, and I hear the locks clicking back in place. There are couples and small groups talking quietly and flipping through songbooks. I’m the youngest person there and by far the worst-dressed. Nobody is drunk or goofing around.
We join some of Dr. Ou’s friends at a table along the side.
“You are Dr. Ou’s patient?” Dr. Chan asks.
“Yes, I’ve been seeing her for awhile now. What do you do?”
“Doctor,” she says and turns back to the stage.
The first act is on. A woman with long shiny black hair stands center stage in a short, red dress. She sings a sad song in Chinese and it’s so quiet you could hear a nut drop. When it’s over, there’s a huge round of applause, warm and familiar, and I gather this is a regular act.
Dr. Ou and Dr. Chan go on next and perform something that rings a bell but I can’t place. Dr. Ou sings alto while her friend hits somewhere near soprano. Each knows her part and I can tell this too must be a weekly performance. A waitress circles, taking up scraps of paper.
When Dr. Ou returns, she pushes the songbook my way. “Choose something and we go together.”
“Oh, no, I’ll just watch. Really!”
“No,” Dr. Ou says, jabbing a finger at the page.
Minutes later, Dr. Chan and Dr. Ou are standing with me on stage, a hot spotlight shining overhead. The bar is dark, punctuated by bright, oval faces. I’ve chosen Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” They move their lips, more humming than singing, and wait for me to take the lead.