Sarah Slappey, Yellow Touch, 2018. New Now New York.
Written by Jemimah Wei
Most people don’t like being defined by their profession but not the Chiropractor. She runs her own private practice and can often be heard saying, proudly: “I’m a chiropractor!” Her party trick is being able to eye your back and immediately gauge the degree of your spinal curvature. It’s as good a business card as any. The Chiropractor’s daughter finds this embarrassing. “Stop randomly volunteering your opinion on people’s spine,” she says. “It’s so rude.”
Her daughter’s form teacher has mild scoliosis. 23 degrees curvature. When the Chiropractor ends off a parent-teacher conference by performing a free assessment of the teacher’s posture, her daughter stops speaking to her for a week.
Teenagers are embarrassed by everything, so the Chiropractor does not take this to heart. She is very good at what she does and does not subscribe to this modern idea of false humility. Why should she be ashamed of her work? Chiropracty is an act of providing meaningful care. Spinal degeneration is progressive and there is no known cure. But by facilitating proper alignment, the Chiropractor can protect the delicate neurological system of anyone she touches, arresting the process of decay, and offering them immediate comfort. This direct line from action to consequence is incredibly satisfying. Her clinic, located in the heart of New Brunswick, has over eight hundred five star reviews.
One day, she knows, when all her daughter’s friends are crippled by lower back pain, her daughter will understand how much of an advantage she’s had, growing up in an ergonomically-oriented house. Everything will click into place, and she will be grateful for the Chiropractor’s foresight. As someone who became acquainted with ache at a young age, the Chiropractor is patiently waiting for this day to come.
When she was a kid, the Chiropractor and her mother were bounced around the houses of different relatives. They slept together, pretzeled up on the floor or on thin mattresses, trying their best to be as unobtrusive as possible. Today, the Chiropractor is obsessed with beds. Latex, innerspring, memory foam — she’s tried them all. She sleeps on a luxury California King, which comprises a mix of supporting coils and pressure-relieving memory foam. She’s bought the same mattress for her mother, who sleeps in the next room, and for her daughter, who, in a bid for independence, has recently moved out of the Chiropractor’s room and into the basement.
The Chiropractor was slightly hurt when this happened, but she tried to remember that she’d promised never to deny her daughter the space she herself had lacked growing up. Besides, it’d been a long time coming.
Call it an occupational hazard, or a mother’s protectiveness. Whenever they are together, commands spew forth uncontrollably from her lips. Sit straight. Don’t hunch. You’ll thank me in ten years. She knows how irritating this is, but she can’t stop. In fact, she suspects that her daughter slouches on purpose now, just to piss her off. There’s something spiteful about her posture. Something unkind.
Look, she tells herself, you can’t control your daughter’s body anymore. She’s her own person, you have to let her go. But when the Chiropractor sees another Chinese teenager with black hair on the train, hunched over a book, she almost slaps her back.
Sarah Slappey, Yellow Touch (detail), 2018. New Now New York.
Here’s a secret. The Chiropractor was cruel as a child too. She blamed her mother for all those nights they had to sleep with their bodies pressed up against each other. Why did they have to live like this, invisibly but prominently marked by hardship? Why did her peers keep a wide berth from her growing up, as if this condition were contagious? Oh, the Chiropractor was full of rage, a rage that flowed down the path of least resistance and seeped into her mother’s body. She allowed her tongue to fly loose, her temper to flare indiscriminately. She saw her mother suffer from her unhappiness, and felt pleased.
The Chiropractor has since worked on her anger issues both alone and with a therapist. She no longer has these violent outbursts, and some years back, had a tearful heart to heart with her mother, where they forgave themselves and each other for having to endure a circumstance that wasn’t their fault. Today, the Chiropractor will recommend therapy to anyone who can afford it. It’s life-changing, she swears.
Yet, here is another secret. Of late, her mother’s memory has started failing. Her posture has regressed, her muscles recalling a time past. So, ever since her daughter moved into the basement, the Chiropractor has begun sneaking into the next room, standing above her mother’s shriveled body as she sleeps. Studying the way her mother’s body contorts unnaturally, curling up like a tadpole in the center of that humongous California King, as if she is still knotted around the young body of the Chiropractor.
Mother, she wants to say. We’ve outgrown that, remember? All that is over.
Every morning, she gently releases the tension in her mother’s back, running her fingers down her mother’s vertebrae, every night, her mother’s body buckles back into itself. The Chiropractor stands there in the dark, watching, for as long as she can bear it, then slips back into her own bed and does deep breathing exercises until she falls asleep.
Her daughter and mother seem to have no problem with this degeneration, they sit together at the breakfast table spooning sugary cereal into their mouths and making faces at each other. Why is the Chiropractor the only one terrified?
One last secret. Every Wednesday, the Chiropractor takes a two-hour lunch break, and walks to the art gallery near her clinic. To call it an art gallery is generous, she knows. It’s really a community center with a makeshift art wall in the back, drawings from kids or old people tacked up with pushpins.
This art wall is the passion project of Michele, the Italian caretaker. He looks about eighty, though she cannot be sure. She’s tried asking, but he doesn’t speak a word of English. Still, whenever the Chiropractor appears, his crinkled face lights up with joy. She brings him a fish sandwich each Wednesday, and they sit next to each other on the bench across from the drawings, very close, but not touching.
“I’m a chiropractor,” she says, gesturing at the wall. “I’m tremendously successful.”
“Grazie,” Michele says, happily, unwrapping his sandwich. His back curves at 31 degrees. He is probably in moderate pain, a pain so constant that he’s become habituated to it.
“My mother can’t stop showing off to all her friends,” she continues. “My daughter’s a chiropractor! My daughter’s a chiropractor! It’s honestly embarrassing.”
If one day, the Chiropractor stopped coming, would Michele worry about her? Maybe, maybe not. She studies his posture, the way his torso collapses into itself once he settles on the bench. For a moment, she’s tempted. Really tempted. But then she sits up even straighter, and turns back to the art.
“The best thing for you at this stage,” the Chiropractor says, abruptly, “is pain management.”
But she doesn’t offer him a solution, nor does Michele know to ask for one. The Chiropractor and Michele sit side by side, eating their fish sandwiches, gazing at all the amateur drawings. She allows herself the full two hours, and then returns to work.
Jemimah Wei is a writer and host based in Singapore and New York. She was recently named a 2020 Felipe P. De Alba Fellow at Columbia University, a 2021 Standiford Fiction Fellow, and is a Francine Ringold Award for New Writers honouree. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net anthologies, received support from Singapore’s National Arts Council, and appeared in Narrative, Nimrod, and CRAFT Literary, among others. Presently a columnist for No Contact Magazine, Jemimah is at work on a novel and three story collections. She loves to talk, and takes long, excellent naps. Say hi at @jemmawei on socials.