Elise Petracca

by Lisa Stoiser

October of junior year marked the beginning of this fainting phase, but only that December marked my doctors tour. We started with my gynecologist, thinking that the monthly occurrence of these fainting sprees might align with other monthlies. Ironically, the blood tests caused me to faint and unfortunately, yielded no information.

We consulted a brain doctor. More tests. No results. We saw my pediatrician: “Is she anorexic?” No. Next. We went to my mother’s GP. Not anemic, either. Stress-tests, anxiety-meds, no luck. We went back to the brain doctor. He told me to stop drinking tea. (Usually, I do it anyway). He chalked it up to vasovagal syncope. I still don’t know exactly what that means, but syncope has got to be the fanciest word for fainting I have ever heard. Something somehow affects my vagus nerve—wherever that is—and renders me prone.

It starts with a churning in my lower abdomen, a little gas passing maybe. It works its way up to my throat, tightens.  It turns to my eyes; they gloss over. It sucks the color from my flesh, the sound from my ears. All that’s left is paper white and relentless ringing. Conversations turn to muted background noise. Shapes become blurred.  Blurred, and then black.

“Sip.”  A woman, fair with dark cropped hair, instructs from opposite the walnut counter. Without emotion, without explanation. Meticulous, she places spoonfuls of herbs—reds, greens, yellows, browns—atop a metal scale, careful of her dangling sleeve. The herbs, scattered like potpourri, look like miniature versions of the oriental rugs covering every inch of the shop’s wooden floors. With my bare big toe, I trace the intricate designs around my stool.

“Sip,” she says again, without turning around yet sensing my hesitation. I bring the white, handle-less mug to my quivering lips, inhaling first its warmth and then its herbal scent, its bitter flavor.

Mrs. Kim is dwarfed by the floor-to-ceiling apothecary wall that she stands before. She reaches for ring pulls, opening miniature square drawers in search of the right herb. She has this wall memorized better than a librarian knows the Dewey Decimal System.  

“Too hot?” I shake my head no. “Good. Sip.”

She reads the ingredients:

Zhi Gan Cao (licorice root)
Dang Shen (Ginseng)
Huang Qi (Astragalus root)
Huang Jin (Solomon’s seal)
Sheng Di Huang (dried rehmannia root)
Mai Dong (Opiopogon root)
Ma Ren (Sesame kernel)
Gui Zhi (Cinnamon twig)
Da Zao (Chinese date)
Wu Wei Zi (Schisandra fruit)

“Good tea?”

Tea?  I think.  I laugh.  Tea?  “Excuse me, ma’am?”


“Dr., I mean, Mrs. Kim?”


“Tea usually makes me faint.”

“Yes. This fix faint.”

“No, this might make me faint.”

“Yes, fix faint.”  

“No, make faint.”


“Make!” I slam the porcelain mug on the glass countertop. Piping liquid splashes onto my hand and into a bowl of dried herbs, contaminating them. Mrs. Kim barks words in a language I didn’t understand. Flustered and without napkins or towels, I wipe the surface dry with the sleeve of my white sweater.

Churning, then gas, my throat tightens, her barking no longer sharp but fuzzy in my ears, my hands now the color of my turtleneck.

Seeing my now-glossy eyes, Mrs. Kim yells, “SIP!” She grabs the mug with what little is left of her herbal concoction and presses the porcelain against my lips. I sip.


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