In his ground-floor office on Ninth Street, Frank McCloud, LAc (licensed acupuncturist), stood next to me, staring off into space as he took my pulses. Thin and straight, he incarnated health and longevity. Walking in, I expected a preliminary medical interview, but instead he directed me right onto a treatment table. The gentle koto music in the background (Japanese) didn’t quite jive with the scrolls on the wall (Tibetan) or the silk jacket he wore (Chinese), but the general Asian effect was soothing.
“You said on the phone that the pain is in this area.” He gestured with his free hand to the lower right corner of my abdomen.
I’d gotten McCloud’s name from Michael, who’d sought acupuncture after his neck injury. Michael had warned me Frank was a wizard at reading pulses and would lay my soul bare in the process.
“There’s some liver stagnation and a wiriness in the pulse, of the kind that can be put in motion by emotional issues.” He glanced at me.
“I’ve been a little tense recently. I’m in a muddle about something— can’t make decisions.”
“And I’m feeling a kind of guardedness in the nervous system, at a deeper level that goes really far back.”
“Far back in time. Childhood. Probably related to your upbringing. Or the way your particular organism received that upbringing.”
“Ah.” As my body lay there, an indiscreet traitor, I remembered how, when my mother drank, I used to brace myself for whatever “eccentricity” might follow.
“Whatever is happening now is connected to very old patterns.” He pressed his fingers deeper into my wrist.
“I’m looking into that with a therapist,” I said, meaning “end of subject.” Raking over things with Sandra once a week sufficed.
“I understand,” he said. “Well, let’s get things moving.” He pressed the lever of a dispenser and caught the paper-wrapped needles that fell out. “I use disposable needles, the finest that are made.”
I stared up at the ceiling, then closed my eyes. He hiked up my pant legs and sleeves, then moved around me, palpating my arms and legs for tender spots. I barely felt the pricks as he inserted needles. He deftly unzipped my pants, folded and tucked the open flaps inward, targeted a few points on my belly.
“Your mind will feel a lot calmer after this. Maybe you’ll be able to make some of those decisions. Or change some of those patterns.”
“For the moment, if you could just focus on your breathing, on bringing it down into your belly…”
He turned the light down and left the room. It was hard to focus on my breathing when my mind was in perpetual flight, but gradually, pinned to the table like a giant butterfly, I fluttered into stillness and drifted deeper.
Leaving Frank’s office an hour later, with Chinese herbs in my bag, I noticed that not only was my pain gone, but my mind felt clearer. As I walked back to my apartment, I found myself—for the first time, really— thinking about my dad’s business and where I might take it. I had the beginning of an impetus to make something new of it—and of myself, in the process.
But a day later, my mind gave in to its craving for intense feeling by gravitating back to Michael. Zoning out with acupuncture was fine and good, but part of me didn’t want to be calm. My system craved imbalance and disruption, extremity and intoxication—the elation when the forest blooms, the chaos of the sky at sunset, the sea of spuming feeling.
So I asked Michael to come to my apartment for the first time since I’d moved in. I went home a little early and changed outfits several times, finally choosing a ten-year-old plum sweater with a V-neck that I associated with Michael. Maybe I’d worn it that night when Ben was studying and Michael and I went out to see Teacher’s Pet with Doris Day and a weathered but still irresistible Clark Gable. I hadn’t worn the sweater much, as though wanting to preserve it.
At seven, Michael walked in with a bag of Chinese takeout and set it on the dining table. “Here you go,” he said. As he took off his leather bomber with the fur collar and looked at me, I felt as though we were two magnets of the same pole, kept apart by a force field. If one of us flipped around, we would come together violently.
“That top looks familiar,” he said. “It’s very old,” I said.
He cleared his throat. “Okay, let’s eat.”
I brought out the old Woolworth plates my mother had given me and he put the little white boxes out on the table. He had ordered two of my favorite dishes, vegetarian mu shu and prawns with snow peas, and two of his, hot-and-sour soup and Szechuan eggplant. Wondering whether he’d remembered my preferences, I realized I was remembering his. We started eating. I loved the way he bent over his plate, focused on flavor.
“Wow, this is good,” he said, then looked at my sweater again. “You wore that top the night we went to see Teacher’s Pet at the Medical School film society.”
“Did I?” I said innocently. “You have a good memory.” Suddenly I was embarrassed by just how deep the V was.
“That was a fun evening—the crowd was pretty raucous, wasn’t it?” The student audience, men and women alike, had whistled and jeered every time Doris, in a pencil skirt, swung her hips around for Clark’s benefit. But it was the moment afterwards, in Michael’s car, that I remembered best. So did he.
“We had some kind of deep conversation in the car, didn’t we?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “We had a lot of deep conversations.”
“You were wondering what was going to happen with you and Ben after you graduated—”
“At that point I was planning on moving back into the city to look for work and wondering whether a commuting relationship with him would work—” I was finishing my undergraduate work at Yale, but Ben needed to stay on to write his doctoral dissertation.
“Wondering about commuting—” he laughed at me. “I know, life repeats itself. I repeat myself,” I said.
“I remember telling you that your relationship with Ben would be like a Möbius strip—it would keep going infinitely.”
We’d sat for a while talking before he started the engine. He’d torn a long narrow strip of paper out of a notebook then had gone into his explanation:
“Okay. Here’s your strip. Now we put the two ends together to make a loop. But first you flip one end over like this, 180 degrees, before you attach it. Am I doing this right?” He held the two ends together between thumb and index. “And then what you’ve got is really a one-sided circle of paper.”
“It’s a metaphor, don’t you see?” he said. “For you and Ben. Let me show you.” Brushing my leg, he fumbled for a paper clip in the glove compartment, then clipped the ends of the strip together. Taking up a pen and resting the twisted donut against his knee, he began a line that he continued until it had covered both sides of the paper and returned to its starting point.
“Isn’t that cool?” he asked. “I think your relationship with Ben is going to be like this Möbius strip. Every time you feel you’ve gotten to the end of it—emotionally or sexually—you’re going to find yourself back at the beginning, with the feeling of things being new.”
I stared at the Möbius strip. “I hope you’re right,” I said.
“You’ll be together forever—unless of course he works himself to death first.”
We sat in the dark car, considering each other. Quietly my eyes penetrated the gloom to feed on the eyes I knew to be a warm brown, the thick black hair that made a widow’s peak just left of center on his broad forehead, the discreetly sensual mouth. Quietly I felt him examine me in turn, and not so quietly I repressed an impulse to lean toward him and change my future. Then he turned the car keys in the ignition, and the moment was gone.
JESSICA LEVINE’s stories, essays, poetry, and translations have appeared in many journals, including Green Hills Literary Lantern, North American Review, The Southern Review, and Spoon River Poetry Review. She earned her Ph.D. in English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Delicate Pursuit: Literary Discretion in Henry James and Edith Wharton (Routledge, 2002) and has translated several books from French and Italian into English. She lives in the Bay Area. Her website is jessicalevine.com.
Adapted from The Geometry of Love, by Jessica Levine, Copyright © 2014 by Jessica Levine. With the permission of the publisher, She Writes Press.