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Medicine

This is a story that started off as a confessional letter. I lived in China during my early 20s and until now haven't wanted to write anything about it. "Medicine" appears here as an excerpt from a novel-in-progress about those years.

by Ottessa Moshfegh
Dec 1 2007, 12:00am


Illustration by Groucho Boychick


This is a story that started off as a confessional letter. I lived in China during my early 20s and until now haven't wanted to write anything about it. "Medicine" appears here as an excerpt from a novel-in-progress about those years.


In China there was a honey man on the corner of my street who sold his honey in old Coke bottles set up on a box full of bees. He also sold dried-up honey pellets. I knew if I ever ate them I would live forever. They have things like that in China: magical cures.

One spring my boyfriend and I took a trip to the southwest. We visited an ancient stone village called Lijiang. We saw a sign hanging on a tree at the foot of a long road that said "Herbal Specialist, World Famous, 5 KM." We rented bikes and went down the road. It was a road that cut through a valley with lush hills on either side with neon pink and golden flowers. When we neared a little wooden house there was a painted sign that said "Doctor."

We got off the bikes.

A little man came to the door and motioned for us to come inside his house. He did everything with practiced grace and spoke perfect English. "These are my Trapper Keepers of letters sent to me by people who have been cured by my herbal teas." He motioned to a wall full of bookshelves stacked with binders. "Feel free to look through them." Then he left us in there to look around while he went into his laboratory. We could see him sniffing leaves and mixing potions, dotting magic serums into test tubes with a glass eyedropper. I took a binder off a shelf and read a letter from a doctor in Los Angeles. The letter said that the doctor's patient had failed to be cured by chemotherapy, but had recovered from thyroid cancer by drinking the herbal tea he had brought back with him from China. The doctor requested more tea and gave his address. There was a check for 500 dollars paper-clipped behind the letter. It was dated 1989.

When the little man came back into the room, he closed the door to his laboratory behind him. "The land here is special. Things grow here nobody understands. Scientists come here, they want to study it. But they end up just going home. Some things, you should just come and go, you understand. Now," and he looked at me. "Say what the trouble is."

I wished my boyfriend would go away.

"I have scoliosis. The feeling of being loved never penetrates. Being alive is irritating. I can't come without thinking of the porn in my dad's closet. I feel bad for wanting the easy way sometimes. I don't think anything is really real. Everything hurts."

He took my pulse and stared at my eyeballs. Then he looked at my boyfriend.

"And you?"

"Sometimes," said my boyfriend, "I get a rash."

"Wait here."

He came back with two little plastic bags of powder. He put mine in a black bag and my boyfriend's in a red bag.

"Make yourself a tea. For the girl, don't put any honey in yours. Here is my address. If it works, write to me and I'll send you more. No charge. But if you want to donate to the upkeep of the land, you can give me some money right now."

We gave him 200 kuai.

I never drank the tea.

This one time at the end of my last summer in Wuhan, I went to get a foot massage. I was depressed the day I went, hungover, and I missed my boyfriend. The next best thing to love was a foot massage. So I went to a more expensive massage parlor on the corner near the lake by the big university, upstairs, and got a peaceful private room, with a cozy chair and a TV remote covered in plastic wrap. I had tea and grapes served to me by a teenage girl in a long traditional silk dress with a slit up the side to her ass. I was very excited and relieved to be there. The city was so hot and dirty that summer.

Then a man came in, wearing a suit. He took off the suit-jacket and shuffled in a wooden pot of boiling water. He introduced himself as a doctor and gave me his card. It said he was an expert in Chinese medicine. I was in good hands. He put some magical medicines into the boiling water and I put my feet in. I was wearing a skirt. He dipped my feet in and out carefully and dried them and put creams on them and propped them up and massaged them and wrapped them in silk towels and propped them up and unwrapped them and dipped them and massaged them over and over again. Then he worked on my calves.

It was heaven.

He got to my knees and it was labored, gristly work. He got to my lower thighs and it was tense there, I had a lot of pain. Then he got to the upper thighs, I began to sweat. He looked at me in the face. I was worried he might go into my underwear, he was very high. He moved my skirt up away above my hip, if you can imagine this, and massaged my hip. He was basically inside my underwear there. Then he moved to the inner thigh. I weighed maybe 100 pounds then, and he could hold my inner thigh in his hands, and wriggle my flesh between his fingers very skillfully. He went higher and higher until my underwear started. I was sweating.

I looked at him. He was very serious about what he was doing.

I decided to hell with it, and looked up at the TV. I took hold of the remote control. Then he did this. He went over the underwear. He used his fingers over the underwear, are you understanding this? He worked for a few minutes. Then he used just one hand and used another hand to put a cool towel on my forehead. Then he put that hand over my mouth. I would tell the story later to my boyfriend in a way that made the whole thing into a story of accidental misunderstanding. But that was not the case. I settled back into the chair a little more. He went under the underwear, and I leaned up against him. I was kissing his arm. He held my face against his heart.