Needles

Mandy Bishop had heard a good bit about acupuncture over the years. She was, after all, fifty-four and the Chinese therapy had been somewhat in vogue for most of her life. There was a place offering it just down the road. Her own mother in the back woods of upstate Pennsylvania had tried it for pain in her knee and an uncle in Ohio swore by it for his back pain. The idea had floated around in Mandy’s head for years, though it hadn’t yet occurred to her to use it for her migraines.

She was hesitant to try anything new at all. That sort of thing took bravery and audacity, attributes she didn’t feel she possessed.

When she looked in the mirror, she saw that her physical characteristics seemed to express this accurately. Short of stature with stubby legs, she presented with the demeanor of a reticent and loyal secretary.  Her breasts were small, her neck short and she wore her hair in an understated pixie. Her complexion and hair were pale of hue and the clothing she wore mostly pastels or neutrals.

People criticized her for being timid and wishy-washy, especially Julia who was at times brash and fearless, which might be why the two of them had been friends for so long. Mandy could live vicariously through Julia’s adventures and outrages while Julia got her needed Zen from Mandy. Though possibly Mandy only imagined she was imparting Zen to others, which was shown to be the case one morning when Julia called to ask her if she would want to go swimming at an area pond, followed by a picnic lunch.

“I’m feeding these people’s cats while they’re away and they said to feel free to use the pond,” Julia explained.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” said Mandy. “Definitely not.”

“Why?” said Julia, her voice suddenly frosty.

Mandy floundered for a believable excuse. “Well, I haven’t had a bathing suit on for years. I don’t even know if the one I have still fits.”

“You’re a size ten, right? So am I usually. I’ll lend you one of mine.”

“I think I’m a twelve now. I wear a large.”

“So do I half the time. I’ll be right over and bring two different suits and you

can-“

“It’s not a good time,” mumbled Mandy.

“Why, what’s going on?”

“Um, Pete’s sister and family are stopping by Friday and I need to start cooking.”

Silence. “I thought you said Terry and Bill were in Maine right now.”

Mandy’s mind did cartwheels. “Did I? Well…they’re supposed to be back. I mean we planned this-“

“You said they went for a month. Two weeks ago.”

Mandy didn’t know how to worm out of this one.

“All right, as usual you don’t want to do anything new. I swear, I think you have agoraphobia or something. Seriously, Mandy, you might consider seeing a shrink.”

Mandy felt a stirring of fury, not enough to actually express it, not that she would anyway.  It filled her with a feeling of impotence when someone needled her like this. “You know I’m not very physical,” she mumbled.

“I know that,” snapped Julia, “but for crying out loud, I’m not asking you to swim laps! This is just relaxing in the water, like in a big bathtub. I thought you could use some relaxation since you’ve been complaining about your headaches more. It’d be just the two of us, no one to see you in the suit but me. Plus cute little kitty-cats to pet. Adorable kitty-cats!”

“I don’t think so,” said Mandy.

Julia clamped up; Mandy literally heard her teeth hit each other, followed by an upsetting silence. All conflict made Mandy extremely uncomfortable. “You know how I am,” she finished lamely.

“Well, I’m going without you,” snapped Julia. She hung up.

With lips tight, Mandy grabbed her purse and car keys and headed out to the grocery store. She seemed to remember Alan saying he’d be home early and he liked his supper the moment he walked in the door. Being several years older than Mandy, he had retired from his teaching job and now worked as head guard for his son-in-law’s storehouses. Mandy was laid off from her own job seven months ago and had found nothing since, not that she’d looked very hard. She enjoyed being home and as long as her unemployment compensation lasted, she was content. Besides, she had a lot to do around the house. Her divorced son Rich was living upstairs free of charge and other than doing his own laundry, he didn’t lift a finger to help with anything.

“Why don’t you tell Rich to contribute what he can?” Julia had asked once. “Anything toward the food would help, or running the sweeper now and then or doing some of the shopping for you!”

“It’s useless,” Mandy said. “Alan always sticks up for Rich; he’s his favorite and can do no wrong.”

“But why don’t you tell him he has to contribute? I don’t see why you put up with this crap. Like holidays  – you do all that work and the kids and grandkids come and no one bothers to bring anything. Why?”

Mandy felt herself shrivel up inside when Julia or anyone talked like this. She knew why she did things the way she did but it seemed too complicated to explain. No one wanted to listen anyway. She had tried once with her aggravated daughter Crissy.

“I don’t see why you always take shit, Mom,” Crissy complained a couple of years before after Mandy agreed to let Alan’s parents move in while the father was sick and the woman who usually looked in on them was away visiting her daughter. “You’re like a willing slave! Dad just goes on with his life as usual while you’re the one who rushes home from work or takes days off to wait on Grandma and Grandpa hand and foot. He should be the one doing this, not you!

Mandy had to admit that she did feel resentment over losing hard earned vacation days and besides, she was tired. Her in-laws were exhausting with their pill schedules and special diets. Sometimes she felt strange urges to do something violent, but this was not a thing she’d ever admit out loud, almost not even to herself.

“Your dad can’t miss work,” she said. At the time, he was still teaching at the community college.

“But you can, huh? Even though last time you took off, your boss told you not to push it. That sounds pretty ominous to me, yet here you are pushing it again. And why are you paying for everything out of your salary while Dad just goes his merry way, like planning that trip to Italy. What the hell? And you’re not even going?”

“He asked me to go,” said Mandy, “but I don’t want to. He’s better off without me. He knows the people in the group.”

Clearly exasperated, Crissy shook her head. “You’re a bad example for your daughters, Mom.”

That was below the belt and Mandy felt tears sting her eyes. “Really, Crissy,” she said.

“I’m serious. You set an example of a woman who lets everyone walk all over her. You’re afraid to try anything new, go anywhere, do anything at all and just end up being a slave. You’re a martyr! Mom, what do you think this teaches me and Karrie? Not to mention Rich. Part of the reason Emily left him was because he’s nothing but a big lazy lump and you’re the one who made him like that!”

It was like someone had punched Mandy and immediately her hand rose to press on her forehead right in the spot where her migraines usually began.

“People are the way they are for reasons,” she said feebly. “Maybe it’s just my temperament. But things were different when and where I grew up. We were strict Catholics and girls were expected to behave in a certain way. We got smacked or worse if we didn’t. My parents were only second generation Americans. You’d be different if you’d grown up in that place and time, Crissy, believe me.”

What she hadn’t explained was that the few times in her life when she had expressed strong emotion, someone had knocked her back into her “place” with words that were smarter or more educated than those she could think to say. And any time she’d attempted to defend herself, they’d accused her of being “overly sensitive” and told her to “stop it and act like a lady.”

“Whatever,” Crissy replied, her tone contemptuous. “This is now, Mom, and there’s no reason to keep on like you are. No one is going to censure you or smack you around if you stop being a total wuss.” She got up and left.

Just like that, a migraine came on and put Mandy out of commission for two days. It was a wonder that the world went on without her but somehow it did. Her in-laws took their medicine and made themselves meals, though a few of these were old cans of soup from the cupboard Mandy had forgotten were in there. Way too much salt in them for her father-in-law’s blood pressure but to hell with him, Mandy dared to think.

But now, contemplating the issue with Julia and the swimming, she felt all the humiliation of that former confrontation with Crissy. A bad example for her children – how that had stung. And her son expecting his wife to be like his mother? Was that true?  Of course it was true, how could she have been so stupid as to blame Emily for everything?

Three glittering C shapes formed in her vision, an ocular migraine this time if she was lucky (no pain) but if not, a classic one and she’d be on her back again for hours. She sighed deeply and wondered if life in general was worth the trouble.

Alan would expect something for dinner, but she couldn’t think about it right then. When she felt a familiar heaviness in her forehead and slight nausea, she knew this migraine was going to be the common variety and popped two Excedrins before dizzily climbing into bed. The phone rang far away but she shut her eyes.

“Another headache?” someone asked, sticking his head in the doorway – must have been Alan, but she only worked it into a dream, something about guns going off.

When she got up the next morning, she decided that maybe she’d had enough. Since her GP had never been able to do much for her headaches and she did not want to see a neurologist – God only knew what horrors they’d put her through – she found the nearby acupuncturist online and called to make an appointment.

The office was situated in the acupuncturist’s house, a green cottage surrounded by a pretty little garden. Kim was a slim young woman in her early thirties who appeared faintly Asian though her coloring was Scandinavian. Mandy had the zany thought that possibly the woman had once looked totally Caucasian but that her association with her profession had lent her an Asian cast in the way that long married couples eventually resembled each other. Kim wore her thick dark blond hair in a low ponytail fastened with an intricate silver barrette and cloisonné earrings dangled from her ears.

“First we talk,” said Kim. She motioned to a chair and opened her laptop. “Chinese medicine is very different from Western, a completely different system,” she began. “I want you to tell me everything that bothers you about your mental and physical health.”

There was something about the young woman that triggered in Mandy the urge to blurt things she wouldn’t admit to anyone else, and before long the acupuncturist had a fairly good picture of Mandy’s migraine pattern along with her habit of tip-toeing through the world.

Kim looked at Mandy’s tongue and listened to her pulse.  She said, “When a woman grows older, her Yin can wane, causing an imbalance based on vacuity and an overload of heat in the body. Your case is more complex though. Psychological factors have caused you to suppress emotion, creating years of stagnated chi, which also can generate heat, in turn promoting your terrible headaches.”

Mandy was not up on “chi,” though she had certainly heard of it. She didn’t know if she really believed in its existence, but anything was worth a try. It was either that or swallowing some zombie-making anti-seizure med from a neurologist and that was a last resort.

She climbed up onto the acupuncturist’s table and the session began. Some of the needles hurt, not so much when Kim inserted them, but from the little twist she gave after. They were placed in what seemed to Mandy illogical locations but the acupuncturist assured her that they were in “meridians” pertinent to her particular health concerns. Afterwards, she was made to rest on the table in the now darkened room while she imagined herself resembling a porcupine with its quills standing up.

This went on for several Thursdays and though the cost was out of pocket, she didn’t care.

“How are you paying for it?” asked Julia. Mandy had been forgiven for the swimming thing and they were back to their almost daily phone calls.

“I have a little socked away that Alan doesn’t know about.”

“But doesn’t he question how much it costs?”

“As usual, he doesn’t notice what I do,” said Mandy sarcastically. “Just as long as dinner is on the table and his needs are met.”

“Did you really just say that?” exclaimed Julia. “Did I maybe dial the wrong number?”

Mandy was surprised herself. It wasn’t like her to express dissatisfaction quite so blatantly. She usually went the passive-aggressive route, though she herself wasn’t aware of it.

“Um, no, it’s me,” she said weakly. And then in a much stronger voice, she said, “You know, when I was a senior in high school, I wanted to join the Peace Corps! I sure wouldn’t call that lacking courage! I already had French in school and wanted to major in it in college and then go off to West Africa. But my mother said no, they couldn’t afford to send me to college and I’d have to go to secretarial school instead and no daughter of hers was going to go to a horrible place like that and have only God knows what happen to her and what would people say? And so I went to that stifling little ‘business’ school and ended up working for that monster Wayne Dryker then and endured his mental abuse which included constantly removing his hand from my derriere and never giving me a raise in five years!”

“I didn’t know that,” said Julia quietly.

“Well, now you know,” said Mandy.

The following Friday when Alan arrived home, he said, “What’s for dinner? Afterwards, I’m going to run over to see a guy from work – he has some books he said I could borrow and-“

Mandy cut him off. “We’re going out to eat. I just wasn’t up to cooking; it’s too damn hot. And afterwards, I want to stop at Target. I need some things for the garden.”

He looked at her as if she’d suddenly sprouted antennae. “Well, uh, I told him-”

“I don’t care. We only have one car. And unless you want peanut butter for dinner, we’ll need to go out.”

His mouth hung open a bit before he spoke. “I never once set any kind of limit on cars. It was you who said we only needed the one.”

“Whatever,” she said in the same tone her daughter used, then grabbed her purse and stood by the door. “Let’s go, I’m ravenous.”

At her next acupuncture session, which was by now her sixth, she said to Kim, “Strange things seem to be happening.”

“Strange things are always happening,” Kim chuckled as she inserted a needle into Mandy’s wrist and gave it a sharp little twist. Mandy flinched.

“Sorry,” said Kim.

“But I mean,” insisted Mandy, “that I’m saying things I don’t normally say.”

Kim moved around the table as she placed needles in Mandy’s face, hands, legs and feet. “When energies or chi surge and retreat, things happen,” she said.  “We’re dredging up years of stagnant chi and suppressed emotion.”

“Are they going to keep happening?”

“What did I just say?” said Kim, and Mandy went quiet.

The day after, she suffered one of the worst migraines she had ever experienced and remained in bed in her darkened bedroom for two whole days. Alan went out to eat and brought home soup for her but she turned away. “Just leave me alone,” she told him and forgot him as soon as he closed the bedroom door.

“I don’t think this is working for you,” Julia told her, but when Mandy reported this to the acupuncturist, Kim said, “Sometimes the effects of years of imbalances can surge before they quiet down. The Yang heat has risen to your head, but now your Yin is becoming fuller, more nourished. You’ve misunderstood the power of feminine energy, Mandy. You have also been unaware of your Yang energy. You have confused being timid and submissive with being female. Think of water, how it flows into any crevice, how it fills any hole – it seems to be passive, but remember the Grand Canyon. How do you think that came to be?  As for Yang, you have every right to express that too.”

“I am so confused,” muttered Mandy. The acupuncturist turned on Native American flute music, flicked off the overhead light and closed the door, leaving Mandy to lie unmoving while the needles performed their intrusive magic.

It came to her the following day that her life seemed purposeless. What did she do but pick up after others, wash clothes, shop for food and cook meals?  She did read books, but how was that a purpose?  It wasn’t like she used the information she gleaned from the books to contribute to the world in any way.

Her hand stopped in midair as she was reaching for the cutting board on which she’d planned to chop an onion for a meatloaf. How many meatloaves would this one make in the long line of meatloaves she had baked in her life?

She glanced around the kitchen, which was very small in this Levittown house built in the 1950s, back when people expected less. The crazy thought crossed her mind – what if the icebergs keep melting and the oceans rise and eventually flood this area and this silly little kitchen will be underwater and the cupboards filled with weeds and fish?

She could imagine a future life and death drama going on in and out of open cupboards, some big puffed up fish with a mouth full of pointy teeth going after a pretty little fish desperately trying to guard her eggs. She picked up the knife she’d been going to use and stared at it, then set it back down. This was the afternoon when she started walking, which would lead to walks all over the area, in safe and not so safe spots, though nothing and no one would harm her.

“You’ve lost weight,” said Crissy when she stopped over one morning and plopped down at the kitchen table. “Are you dieting?”

“No,” said Mandy, giving no other explanation.

“You look healthier or something.”

Mandy said nothing.

“Anyway, Mom, would you mind watching Kaylee and Cody this weekend? Jeff and I want to drive up to the Finger Lakes for wine tasting and just some time together.  I could drop them off Friday afternoon and then when Jeff gets home-“

“No,” said Mandy. “I’m sorry, but I told your father that I want us to do something together this weekend. I think we’re going to drive to the Poconos and stay overnight.”

An uncomfortable silence ensued. Finally Crissy said, “Well, we had this planned first. I mean it’s been in the works for a couple of weeks. Since you guys don’t have any concrete plans, can’t you hold off till next weekend?”

“I don’t think so,” said her mother. “That just doesn’t seem right to me. I feel that your father and I need some time together right now.”

Crissy frowned. She stood up. “Well, in that case I’d better go see if I can find someone else.”

She stopped at the door and turned around. “I think you’re being kind of selfish, Mom. You know as a young mother, I hardly ever get any time to myself or with Jeff.”

“Really?” said Mandy. “I seem to remember raising three kids, not two. And in those days, it never occurred to anyone that I might need a rest or change of scenery. Not once.” She paused. “You might try hiring a babysitter. And please hug the children for me.”

Alan had no idea that Mandy and he were “going to the Poconos” that weekend but he was soon to learn. “I-I really hadn’t planned on anything like that,” he said. “I mean I thought I’d do some fly fishing on Rainbow Creek and –.”

“Suit yourself,” she said. “But I’ll need the car to drive upstate myself. I’ll just take a couple of good books along and-“

“By yourself?  Um…” he hesitated. “I…well, I suppose I could fish next weekend.”

“I think you could,” said Mandy.

He put up no further argument and she noticed for the first time in decades how nice his brown eyes were, how attractive the shape of his jaw.

She walked upstairs and found her son hard at a video game.  He didn’t notice her walk in. Why wasn’t he at work? He was supposed to be on second shift. She flicked the light switch on and off and he looked up, annoyed.

“What happened to work?” she said.

He looked offended. “I got laid off.”

“Why?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. They had to let some people go.”

“All of them? Every employee?”

“No, just some. I just happened to be one.”

“Well,” she said, “you’d better start looking for another position because you’re going to be paying rent and utilities. Either that or you can maybe move in with Crissy.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s time to grow up, Rich,” she said. “Get on it.”

A couple of weeks later and after a few more acupuncture sessions, Mandy took money out of their savings account, got Julia to drive her to the Toyota dealer and purchased a used RAV4 in her own name.

“About time,” mumbled Julia, who had never approved of Alan.

But Mandy said, “It was never his fault. It was not his idea to have only one car.”

“I need to stop coming,” she told the acupuncturist.

“Why?” asked Kim.

“I don’t know. Things are changing too much. No one likes me anymore.  They imagine they want you to change and when you do, they don’t like it.”

“If the river changes, so does everything along its banks.”

Mandy frowned and shook her head.

“It’s a fact,” said Kim.

“Whatever the case, it’s best if I stop.”

“How are your headaches now?”

Mandy stopped to think. “I had a mild one last week or the week before.”

Kim said kindly, “Well, whatever suits you. If you change your mind, come right back.”

The trees were turning; red and golden leaves dotted the ground. The night before the temperature had dropped to the fifties, good sleeping weather. But now the sun shone and the sky was a clear cornflower blue. Though she hadn’t checked the exact temperature, it felt hot enough for what she had in mind.

She did not invite Julia, but drove almost an hour to the property of a cousin who had inherited her uncle’s farm. They’d torn down the old farm house, drilled a new well and laid down a concrete slab for a vacation home, but had not gotten around to building it yet. Her cousin lived in New York and would have started back to work at City College where he was an instructor.

She parked the RAV in the gravel driveway, got out a towel and walked to the little pond behind the slab. Her uncle had once made a concrete ramp into the pond for easy access for swimmers. She slowly removed her clothing and, naked, gingerly stepped into the water.

“Who’s a wuss now?” she said to the sky.