Unwanted Heroes was much longer before my editor got his hands on it. A number of chapters were cut because they do not directly move the plot along. They seem to have something in common – my desire to show the many facets of San Francisco. I would like to share then with you over the next few weeks.
There is nothing here that spoils anything in the book – which probably vindicates the editor’s decision.
Chapter 5 continued:
We enter a small shop in a side alley.
His receptionist, a young Asian-American woman, hands me a form and I write about my allergies and pay thirty dollars. With perfect timing, a door opens behind me and I turn.
“This is Doctor Li”
Dr. Li smiles. His face is deeply lined with age and the small man moves slowly over to shake my hand. But his firm grip leaves no doubts of his vitality in my numbed extremity.
Dr. Li shoots a short question in Chinese to my friend. His assistant translates and Julie replies that she is doing really well. Thank you. This is translated back and there are smiles all round.
“He doesn’t speak English?” I ask apprehensively, and for some strange reason, whispering.
“He doesn’t need to,” replies his assistant warmly. “Dr. Li embraces Traditional Chinese diagnosis.”
“But how can I give him information?”
She turns and shoots a few sentences to him in Chinese. Dr. Li nods and smiles at me.
“I just did,” she informs me. “Do you want to explain whether you feel the damp heat rising in the morning or evening?”
“I err, I don’t know,”
“Precisely,” she says, smiling victoriously. “Good luck.”
Julie pushes me in and also wishes me luck.
“Aren’t you staying?” I ask in near panic.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate, though I’d like to watch him sticking the needles in. Maybe he’ll let me do a few?”
I close the door on her sharply and turn to face Dr. Li.
He smiles serenely and indicates for me to sit on a massage table covered with a white sheet. He rolls my sleeve up and slowly checks my pulse. His eyes seem to glaze over, but the occasional tut and uh-huh reassures me that he is discovering profound truths about my condition.
I look around the room. There are a variety of brass instruments that hang from red string, a chart of the human body indicating what I assume are acupuncture points, some Jade Buddha statues and, I am relieved to see, a bonsai tree by the window.
After a few minutes Dr. Li takes his hand from my arm and examines my face closely. He sticks his tongue out, indicating that I am to do the same. I stick mine out apprehensively; years of social etiquette training chastising me. As a kid, I was punished for such behavior and now I am being encouraged. I glance around, expecting Ms. Thornbridge from preschool to intercede angrily and send me to stand in the corner.
“Good, good,” Dr. Li beams. “No tongue now, all good.”
He picks up a clipboard and squiggles on it. Doctors, the world over, have different methods and medicines, but share the same inability to write legibly.
“Sex good huh?” Dr. Li asks enthusiastically. “You sex good?”
I swallow hard. Doctor or not, I am British. “Yeah, no complaints except for frequency.”
“Aaah,” he nods.
“You understand me?”
He nods sagely. “No understand, bit. Sex good, not much, like most men. Morning, is good?” He makes a sign with his hand as though encompassing a firm penis, a rather flattering one at that.
“Yeah, I often have an erection in the morning. This is normal, no? Frustrating, but normal.”
“Oh yes, yes.” He nods again.
I haven’t a clue what that means. He points to a vase of flowers near the bonsai.
“This make up-chi?”
“Sometimes. Also dust,” I make a motion as though I am wiping dust off of the massage table. And cats, but only sometimes.” I repress the urge to meow.
“Then,” he wiggles his nose, “go up-chi, up-chi, up-chi…”
“Yes, that’s right.” I nod, earnestly wanting to be a part of the charades.
“Good, good. You know Chinese medicine?”
“I know you stick needles in people,” I make a piercing movement and it makes him laugh. He then demonstrates, reassuringly in a far more delicate fashion. “That’s much better,” I say feeling reassured, “and herbs.” I point to a picture of some root that looks a bit like a man.
He looks as well. “Herbs, yes. Ginseng, good for man and sex.” He again makes the sign of holding a penis, the size of which would have facilitated ginseng’s extinction centuries ago.
“You know chi? Tai Chi?” He makes a slow martial art move and I recall my extensive Karate Kid movie experience. I nod. I actually did study some Tai Chi in London. He smiles and points at the picture of the human body. “Chi flow through body … like blood … no chi, dead. Slow chi, not good, too much chi, no good. Understand?”
“Now, you do up-chi, up-chi. Chi come up, understand?”
He bursts out laughing and his whole body shakes. “I make joke. Up-chi, up chi. Only joke I make in English. Make to every patient. Up-chi!”
He laughs. So do I. This guy is about to stick needles in my body, I will laugh at his jokes.
He makes me take off my shirt and trousers and lie on the massage table. I brace myself for the piercing. After seeing Marathon Man at a tender age I have harbored a deep fear of dentists and the dentists, for their part, always seemed willing to play the part. Why do they feel obligated to say: “this isn’t going to hurt now,” about five seconds before you scream?
But his needles are gentle and I hardly feel them. He must stick a dozen needles in from below my knee on the inside of my leg, on my arms and my face. I can see one sticking out below my check bone and it is a bit freaky. But he is smiling all the time and asking: “Is good? All good?” And, I admit, I do feel all-good.
I feel especially all-good when he burns something that looks like a smudge stick and smells of pot. He holds it over various parts of my body and I feel a deep heat envelope me from within. I wonder if I run the risk of arrest if I leave here and walk pass a policeman with a keen sense of smell.
After a half hour or so, the needles are out and I am dressing. He writes something and then escorts me out. He talks with his receptionist and she conveys that he is giving me an herbal formula. I need to take it to one of the herbalists, who will make up the formula and tell me how to prepare it and when to take it. I am to come back to see him in two weeks.
I turn to the doctor and find myself slightly bowing. I speak slowly and deliberately as I thank him.
“No problem,” he replies in fluent American. “It was a pleasure to meet you.”
He returns to his office leaving the receptionist and Julie both laughing. I feel like an idiot.
I take my friend’s arm, desperate to leave. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
The receptionist answers: “The doctor thinks the treatment is more effective that way. Also it makes for a far more enjoyable for him.” She laughs again.
Julie opens the door for me and then bows most reverently.
“Welcome to America.”
Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.