The needles used in acupuncture are extraordinarily small, a fraction of a millimeter thick, about the same as a single strand of human hair. They push through the top layer of skin with a sharp pinch, breaking through the boundary of the body with something like an electric charge.
The first time I went to the community acupuncture clinic, it was winter, and I was heavily pregnant with my first child. He was more than a week late, and I was desperate for him to be out in the world, for the birth story I’d been writing and rewriting in my head to finally settle and take shape. I’d been terrified of needles all my life, but at that point I was willing to do almost anything to get things started. I needed to see his face, and to know who I was going to be as his mother. I was so focused on starting labor that I barely remember there being any needles. Four visits over three days, that heavy gray January — and my son arrived.
When I went back, more than two years later, it was the needles I was thinking about. The fear had returned, cold in my bones. This time I wasn’t desperate to give birth. My second pregnancy had never reached that aching overdue point. Here I was anyway, with the idea that acupuncture might help.
The clinic still looked the same — sunflower seed soap in the bathroom, and a roll of real towels that turned with a metal crank. Through the double doors, there were two large quiet treatment rooms with soft lighting, each filled with recliners grouped together in little families of three or four. A quick scan of the room revealed no obvious bellies; it was the first thing I checked for these days. I was not pregnant anymore. And yet: There was no baby. It was only my husband and our two-year old at home, the two-year old whose labor had started here, with these needles. The baby had a body, but her lungs never filled with breath. We held her but never showed her to anyone else. We said goodbye at the hospital and drove home alone.
It was late morning, and most of the chairs were empty. I walked past an older man in biking shorts taking off his shoes, a woman with short black hair lying back in a chair with her eyes closed, the line of her eyeliner visible, needles sticking out of her forehead like…