I made the appointment in desperation. I’d never been to an acupuncturist before but with 13.1 miles looming ahead of me in a week, I needed to ensure that my almost healed calf-strain wasn’t going to yield the dreaded DNF (did not finish) result at the NYC Half Marathon.
I pass “ACU FeelGood” every day when I take Fable on her afternoon constitutional. ACU FeelGood sits next to “Canine Club,” a dog-grooming business that features two fat cats lounging in the front window and Carol, a squat elderly woman with a bitchin’ bowl-cut perched behind the counter reading a smutty, bodice-tearing romance novel in between appointments.
I love that this block is home to two independent, long-standing niche businesses that have yet to feel the reach of fast-encroaching neighborhood gentrification. It’s never occurred to me to patronize ACU FeelGood because frankly, from the outside it looks long abandoned and a little sketchy. But after a close friend raved about the experience she had and priced at $34 an hour, it was a far cry from Manhattan’s exorbitant prices for an hour of acupuncture. And like I said, I was desperate.
I rang the doorbell for ACU FeelGood at 6pm sharp. Within seconds a tiny older woman dressed all in white with either an amazing haircut or toupee (a la Moe from the Three Stooges but with silver hair and on a woman) answered the door. She greeted me with Romanian accented English and shuffled me inside. I barely made it three steps when she put her hand up in the sign universally recognized as “Stop motherfucker” and motioned for me to take off my shoes. She squatted next to one of two chairs in her “waiting entryway” and pulled out a few pairs of heavily bedazzled slippers. She assessed my enormous feet and gently tsk-tsk’ed as she shucked two smaller pairs aside for the giant purple rhinestone-laden slippers and motioned for me to put them on over my socks. I obliged, because she kind of terrified me and followed her into the next “area” in the acupuncture office that was roughly the size of my bedroom.
She produced a teeny-tiny folding chair that I was 96% sure I was going to break immediately, and gestured for me to sit uncomfortably close to her while she pecked away at her computer. She stopped, looked up at me and gestured to the number of electronic devices strewn on her desktop. “My iPad, my iPhone, my computer, my little tablet and the 5 o’clock news” she laughed. “That’s what I doing before you ring.” I laughed nervously as I scanned the room for evidence that I should get the hell out of dodge. I found only a smattering of what I really, really hoped were medical certifications, an old photo of a soldier and a picture of a saint.
“Tell me.” she commanded. “All family history, all disease, all cancer, all things I need know.”
I rambled off the laundry list of my family’s dirty genetic history. She sighed deeply, leaned back in her chair and shook her head. “Breast cancer. So bad. Mother. Is okay, no?”
“Yes,” I said. “She’s in remission.”
Dr. FeelGood lifted her hands in the air in what I would come to learn was a gesture of exaltation.
“And you?” She continued/accused, “You have testing, no? Like Angelina Jolie?”
I shook my head. “My mother—“
She cut me off. “You know, Angelina. Mother. Have breast cancer. Die. Angelina test. Positive.” She rubbed the air in front of her breasts. “Did surgery. Insurance cover, you know. Not beauty. For health. She beautiful now, no?” I took this all in.
“Yes?” I agreed.
“You keep testing,” she continued. “You touch yourself and then you go mammography, no?” I looked at her.
“Yes,” I decided to agree.
“And then, when you get test done and they say, ‘No gene!’ you happy, yes?!”
I looked at her again. I knew this one. “Yes!” I agreed.
“Good.” She said, nodding decisively. “Is good.”
She stood up and looked at me. I took this to mean I was to stand as well. She gestured at the other end of the room. “Go.” I walked to the end of the room and she handed me a gown. “Everything. Off. Bra and panties on. Open in back. You like on stomach or side?”
I shrugged, knowing that my smart ass mouth would betray me and I’d get bitch-slapped by this old Romanian lady if an ounce of sarcasm slipped out. “Good. Stomach.” she declared and moved off to the side to grab a dollar-store Chinese screen. She wrestled with the at-least-twice-her-size screen, in an effort to give me privacy while I changed. I already had my clothes off and was working my way into the gown while she struggled to right the screen as it tipped alternately towards her and me. She cursed in Romanian and finally knocked the screen into place. I stood there, in my underwear and medical gown from 1973, not wanting to interrupt her hard work even though I was ready to go. I heard her bustling around and then she came back to me, “Ready, no?” she asked simultaneously knocking the screen away with her foot.
I lay down on the table and she covered me up, leaving only my calves exposed. I knew from my friend’s story that at this point she would ask me my musical preferences and then let me relax while she worked. Nope. Classical piano be damned, she instead began with a brief history of her career as an acupuncturist. “Here nine years,” she said proudly. “Come from cruise ships,” she continued and I lifted my head wondering how embarrassing it would be to run home a block in a back-less medical gown. “The pay so good,” she continued. “Much better than here, but no follow patients. No prescribe Chinese herbs,’ she said. “And I diplomate of Chinese Herbology, Diplomate of Oriental Medicine. I doctor. That’s why say Dr. in front of my name, Iliana,” she reminded me as she tapped tiny needles into my calf.
“I go to Germany,” she continued “and study at military base. In Germany, acupuncturists must be doctors. So study there. Take class on military base and have to drag body from burning building. I carry dummy out of burning building for certificate!” she announced proudly tapping needles into my other calf. Suddenly both my calves felt like they’d been invited to a rave where the cocktails were laced with MDMA while the rest of my body was held back by the bouncer at the door. In the background I heard her mumbling about charging her iPad and downloading Microsoft office for “the word” and “pewer-point” and Bing “for the searching.” Okay, I thought. Just relax and tune her out. No sooner had I shut my eyes then I heard her cry out.
“Balamuc!” She yelped after tapping what I hoped was the last needle into my leg. “Balamuc mean madhouse,” she explained, in reference to what I have no idea because I wasn’t listening. “Now we do the Moxa,” she said, patting me. “Don’t worry. Burning moxa leaves but no touch you. Hold over meridians. Now I go change jacket. Moxa burning smell and already sacrifice one jacket! I go change my jacket and come back to you, yes?”
“Yes?” I whispered into the hairnet encased headrest and listen to her shuffle up the attic ladder stairs in the back of the room. I shut my eyes again. “No smoke detectors in here,” she said as she came back down the stairs. I mean, yes smoke detectors, but no batteries!” she exclaimed as if she’d pulled a fast one over Sunnyside's Smokey the Bear.
And then she was yanking my arm from the resting place and is holding the burning Moxa over it. “It no touch you, you see?” she says, holding the flaming leaves from what I assume to be a safe distance from my skin. “Sure,” I agreed into my headrest and she moved to my legs. I felt her hands pass over my legs, holding the burning Moxa and traveling the path of the needles in my legs. It felt good and oddly comforting, like my rave-going legs were cloaked in a warm blanket after a night of dancing. I shut my eyes again and relaxed.
“70 years old!” She announced suddenly. “You believe?!” I assumed she was talking about herself and know the appropriate answer is to negate her claimed age. “No!” I cry into my headrest and she cackles. This is the right answer. “Yes!” She continues. “Like Trump!” I take a deep breath. I’m in unchartered territory. Laughter is my go-to in uncomfortable situations so I laugh. “June Fourteenth, Trump birthday!” She proclaims and I flinch. Only a Trump supporter would know this, I think. I say nothing. A moment passes and suddenly she yells out, “DEMON!”
I pause again, assume and hope this is in reference to Trump and fire up the nervous laughter once more. Thank God, I thought. I’m kind of digging this freaky $34 experience and I think I’d like to come back.
A timer goes off and the doorbell rings and I hear her shuffle to silence the timer and then to the door. Her next appointment comes in and and a stream of Romanian chatter fills the room as she greets her next client. I try desperately to decode the conversation, as one does in a nail salon, when you can’t help but wonder if something is being said—a laugh is being had behind your back while your toenails are being painted. I decide no, she wouldn’t do that to me, but when she comes back she briskly announces that my time is up.
She removes the needles and in a welcome but sudden move, begins massaging my calves with hot stones. I sigh loudly as my aching calves respond to the massage and she says, “Don’t you tell me NO FEEL GOOD?!” She hollers.
“No way,” I said, “Feel good.”
“That’s right,” she says muttering and vigorously rubbing my calves. “Feel good.”
As I dress to leave she shouts at me from the front of the room, “When you come back?”
This sounds like less of a question and more of a mandate so I offer up next Monday as an option.
“That’s right.” She agrees. “You come 8pm, you stay 9pm and then you go home bed.”
She laughs uproariously and stretches her hand out to shake mine. I take her hand and return the shake. “Nice to meet you,” I said. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” she says. “You good girl. You know what good for you.”
I leave my purple slippers by the door, put on my shoes and walk outside. Once I’ve crossed the street I turn to look back at the storefront I’ve passed a million times without thought or consideration. ACU Feel Good. My calves are tingling from the acupuncture and herbs and I’m riding a fine line between relaxation and desperation.
A different desperation from an hour earlier. A desperation born of meeting the fascinating characters this city keeps tucked in its corners with their stories and skills and bedazzled slippers. A kind of desperation that makes me shut my eyes to remember all the details, race home and document every minute of the past hour. A desperation that thanks to Dr. FeelGood, now feels pretty damn good.