I’m laying flat on my face, waiting. For what? I’m not sure. All I know is that my friend told her not to hold back. I can hear him in the background, “Look, it’s the cups!” I want to hit him, but then again, I did agree to this. Sure enough, I hear her light a flame and then a SHLOP. About a three-inch circle of my skin is now bulging inside a glass cup. It’s a very strange feeling. Not unpleasant, though.
I shouldn’t have spoken so soon. My masseuse, if that’s what you call someone who does the things that she will eventually do to me, takes a purposeful grasp of the cup and pulls it back towards her with great force.
“Ahh!” I suddenly became aware of each bone in the back of my ribcage as the glass cup scraped against them. This was not pleasant. It actually really fucking hurt. As my friends laughed at me in the background and my masseuse/dominatrix punished my back, I began to ponder what would happen next. This was, after all, only the beginning.
As a constant skeptic and believer in science, I’m quite dubious of traditional Chinese medicine’s benefits. I find it hard to trust a system that relies completely on the concept of chi, or energy fields within your body, that is not supported by research at all. Equally so, not a single study on cupping has turned up a shred of evidence that it actually helps you. Then what about all of the anecdotes that suggest the contrary? There was only one way to find out.
“Dude, she’s getting out the needles.”
“What do you mean, ‘Yeah, man’? You knew this shit was going to happen.”
“Do you want her to stop?”
“Well, as long as they’re clean, I want to finish this.”
WHAP WHAP WHAP. She smacked me on the upper back just next to my left shoulder blade, then a series of angry bee stings followed. I didn’t pull a Nick Cage and scream, but I did do that sucking-in-air-through-your-teeth noise that is commonly uttered when any reasonable person encounters a needle.
“Oh, my god!” my friend squeaked. My face was resting over a hole in the table so I could lay completely flat, but I would later see her hands gripping her mouth in amused horror in the video we filmed of the process.
SHLOP. The cup returned, this time over my freshly bleeding circle of needle punctures. Much to my alarm, I could actually feel the blood flow increase and the wetness of it on my skin. My friends, of course, enjoyed confirming this.
“Holy shit, it’s literally squirting into the cup! It’s like a fucking horror film!”
“Please don’t say that. And someone, anyone, please hit Nick. I will give you 10 yuan later.”
I sort of resigned myself to the situation and began to relax. I incline my head a bit to see her open another needle, which elicited two reactions: 1) Awesome, they’re single-use needles and I’m not going to leave here with HIV, and 2) how many fucking times is she going to bleed me?
“Nick, like seriously, this is the last one. I don’t care about the video anymore. How many is she going to do?”
“Usually it’s all over. The back, the legs, the arms.”
“What? No fucking way. Just no. That’s not happening today. Or ever.”
“Haha, no it’s only two. Calm down, man! This is a once in a lifetime experience! You should be enjoying it!”
I sigh out of relief and exasperation at Nick. But, as soon as the sigh leaves my lips, I sharply inhale it back in as I receive more smacks and more needles. And now, I’m filling up two glasses of a 2014 vintage, dark red Seth.
Ran Ran, the masseuse, announces that she will now remove the cups, and everyone gathers around—my friends, the three cameras we have filming and even the other staff at the parlor—waiting with morbid excitement.
“Oh my god!”
“There’s so much blood!”
“Wa-sa!” (Chinese staff)
The wet PLOP and the feeling of the blood running freely down my back before it is quickly mopped up by Ran Ran almost made me gag. Then, she urged me to look at the cup. My face turned white and I immediately buried my head back into the table. The entire inside was painted an opaque, bright red.
“That’s fucking awful. I don’t need to see the other one.”
“You shouldn’t drink so much,” the masseuse says upon examining my blood.
“Can I get up now?”
Ran Ran smiled devilishly. “No.”
She revealed something that looked like a giant candle wick and lit it. The room immediately smelled like what couldn’t be described as anything else other than weed. It was wormwood. Other than its use in the production of absinthe, I didn’t really know anything about it or how it was going to help me at the moment. But, I did have one thought.
“Wait… She’s not about to cauterize the needle pricks, is she?”
“I’m not sure.” This time I raised my head to see Nick’s response, and he seemed genuinely ignorant to what was about to happen to me, which was worrisome as he’s a regular here.
I lay my head back down. It was like a haunted house equivalent for the body. Instead of not knowing what would pop out from around the corner and scare me next, I had know idea what sensation lay in wait to pounce on my nervous system in the future.
The wormwood, however, was actually quite pleasant. Ran Ran hovered the smoldering end just above my skin, moving it down the length of my spine. The heat felt nice.
“Turn over,” she half-asked, half-commanded.
I obliged and felt a dull ache in my upper back as I lay down. I could tell Nick knew something.
“What happens now?”
“Dude, she’s about to smack the shit out of you.”
I shouldn’t have been so aloof. This was the climax. The part that would bring the most entertainment to my friends, the most pain to me, that Nick had secretly been waiting for the entire time. That’s after I was cut and bled.
Ran Ran gently outstretched my right arm so that my elbow was resting on the table and she was holding my hand and forearm. She massaged the skin inside the crook of my elbow, raised her open hand and brought it back down on the area with such speed and force that I could only look at everyone else in the room with my mouth agape in surprise.
She did it again. And again. And again. Each time it became less of a joke and more painful. After ten slaps, I uttered a feeble, “Wait.” I tried to pull back, but she slapped me again. “Stop, stop, stop.” WHAP! “Fuck!”
“Relax, relax.” Ran Ran had a calm smile that seemed, to me, to be hiding some enjoyment she was getting out of this. Whether it was because she genuinely thought she was healing me, helping me or that she’s just a sadist, I’ll never know.
WHAP! “Okay! Wait! Stop!” I jerked my arm away and cradled it as my friends continued to laugh hysterically. She pulled it back.
“Relax. There’s something inside of you. I need to get it out.”
“I know! There’s bones! And blood! And stuff that’s supposed to be in there!”
WHAP! WHAP! WHAP! She delivers a series of three short smacks that resulted in the worst pain I’ve felt in a long time. I yelped like a girl as everyone slapped their knees in a fit of laughter. There were tiny dark spots forming in the area, which could only be broken blood vessels. WHAP! WHAP! WHAP!
“AHHHRRRGH! Please stop! Please…”
“I’m finished. You can get dressed now.”
I collapsed on the table, breathing rapidly, adrenaline pumping, flight or fight mode fully engaged.
“Go fuck yourself.”