Nisha is abandoning Lauren to move in with her boyfriend, Tim. She tells Lauren this in the crowded furniture store, where they wait for a free lecture about feng shui. A white paper plate loaded with sweaty cheese cubes and wet grapes rests on Lauren’s lap. A few of the grapes are punctured, their gelatinous insides exposed, leaking out like they’ve been stabbed and left for dead. Nisha’s lap is empty. She glanced at the food and said she wasn’t hungry.
The flier Nisha brought home to their apartment last week read, Change your environment; change your life. Like something out of a fortune cookie. Nisha said, “You should come with me.”
Before Lauren can respond to the news, the Feng Shui Guru stands and begins. He is short and tan, and his bald head gleams like an apple. He tells them that chi is the energy humming in all things, from a gust of wind to the atoms vibrating in place in the most static of objects. Nothing is really still, he says. Only chi moves differently in different objects and spaces. The goal is to arrange their homes so as to balance their chi.
For instance, pillows absorb chi, causing it to stagnate. This is why padded cells are effective in sedating people. Slow chi is fine in a bedroom, he says, where the purpose of the room is to invite rest, but bad in offices, where there is work to be done. You can feel stuck, like being trapped in cement.
Nisha takes notes in a leather-bound notebook the size of her palm. It’s new, this notebook. It’s not her exercise notebook (blue), not her meal planning notebook (red), and not her awards-and-other-opportunities notebook (yellow). This notebook is green. Lauren doesn’t know what green stands for.
When Nisha said she wanted to wait a while longer before deciding whether to renew their lease, in case a better opportunity came along, Lauren hoped she meant a better apartment, not a better roommate.
Lauren whispers, “You think I’m stagnating your chi?”
Nisha says, “What? This has nothing to do with you. Shh.” A moment later she leans over again. “This is about moving forward in my relationship with Tim.”
Lauren says, “You’ve been dating like two months. How can you know already that moving in together is a good idea?”
Nisha says, “I didn’t know you when we moved in together.”
The university computers randomly spit their names out three years ago, for freshman-year room assignments. Otherwise, they never would have crossed paths. Nisha reminded Lauren of Gina, the new girl who moved to town the summer before junior year of high school. She didn’t know anybody when she moved into the house next door to Lauren, so for two months, they were friends, even though Gina had shiny hair and wore expensive jeans and knew everything there was to know about music and fashion. Nisha’s areas of expertise are art and design and diet and exercise. There isn’t a single subject, no matter how obscure, that Lauren feels confident enough to claim as her own. She doesn’t have a disposition that lends itself to connoisseurship, and thus far in life, this has not served her well.
That Nisha and Lauren lived together for nearly three years was a miracle brought about by Nisha’s ex-boyfriend Lars. He broke up with her spring semester of freshman year, and Nisha was a wreck. It was the only time Lauren ever saw her lose her balance. Nisha cried for two months straight. Lauren held Nisha in her arms, listened to the same words over and over. She never said, enough already. She never said, get over him. She never said, be strong. Nisha’s friends Claudia and Jen said all those things and more. They said, “Bitch, put on something sexy and go get laid.”
Not Lauren. She fed Nisha. She did her laundry. And when it was time to finalize living arrangements for sophomore year, Lauren took care of that too.
College is not the panacea for all the social ills that television shows and movies had led Lauren to believe it would be. Instead, college is like that children’s book Are You My Mother? Only instead of searching for a mother, Lauren is searching for something more enigmatic. Call it wholeness. Call it composure. Call it serenity. And unlike the baby bird in the story, she has yet to find what she’s looking for.
Or more precisely, she’s yet to claim it for herself. She knows what it looks like, this inscrutable thing. It looks like Nisha.
Nisha says now, “Anyway, it’s been six months. And it’s intuition. I feel it.”
“It’s fast,” Lauren says.
“Says the woman who stutters if Geoff Dwyer so much as asks to borrow laundry detergent.” Nisha elbows her, then goes back to looking serious, pretending to listen.
Lauren fumbles around Nisha’s friends Claudia and Jen as well. They’re like a fun house the way they unsettle her, knock her off her feet. When she told Nisha this, Nisha scrunched up her eyes the way she does when they watch scary movies, as though Lauren’s life were a gruesome scene she didn’t want to watch anymore.
Lauren always knew this day would come, just like she knew it that summer with Gina, but sometimes, she allows herself to hope.
She wonders if the Feng Shui Guru is right, if everything comes down to chi. Nisha’s living space mirrors her life: everything is neat and clean and attractive. The same goes for Nisha’s appearance. Then there’s Lauren: poster corners curling, too many tchotchkes, pants loose where they shouldn’t be and tight where they shouldn’t be, lip glosses that Nisha says bring out the orange tones in her skin. When Lauren tries to mimic Nisha’s style, the results are always sad, like the decorations at a junior high dance.
The Feng Shui Guru says now that too many mirrors or too much light makes chi ricochet like a pinball. Frantic chi makes people sick, he warns. Especially bad is fluorescent lighting, because the spectrum is distorted, denying the nutrients people require from sunlight and delivering instead a plethora of dis-ease: eye strain, headaches, fatigue, and so forth. He says television has a similar effect. There is even a word for all of this: mal-illumination.
The Feng Shui Guru dabs at his forehead with a white handkerchief as though to absorb the toxic photons from the fluorescent lights in the furniture store’s ceiling.
During the drive back to their apartment, rain falls, and the drops sound like bits of metal clinking against the roof of the car.
The Feng Shui Guru said that chi cycles amongst five basic elements—earth, fire, metal, water, and wood. He talked about the benefits of arranging one’s environment so that one element cycles into another: water gives life to wood, wood provides fuel for fire, and so forth. It makes sense until you get to metal chi, which somehow cycles into water chi, but already Lauren can’t remember how he explained it—how from metal, you get water. It seems impossible, like Superman squeezing a lump of coal into a diamond. Only substitute a nugget of gold for the coal, and instead of crystallizing, the gold bleeds like a pomegranate.
She can’t remember other details either, like did he say to put your sofa against a wall or no? She wonders, like she does about chemistry and calculus and socializing, if there’s a gene for this stuff. You have it or you don’t. And if you don’t, you’re bound for mediocrity at best.
As soon as they enter the apartment, Nisha emerges from her bedroom with cardboard boxes, a pile of newspaper, and a roll of duct tape.
“You’re packing already?” Lauren says.
“I’m leaving tonight,” Nisha says.
Nisha takes down the silver-framed mirror in their living room. Her reflection says, “Don’t worry. I’ll still pay my half of the last month’s rent.”
With the newspaper, she shrouds her reflection, like she’s blindfolding it, protecting it from having to look upon Lauren anymore.
Lauren hears the Feng Shui Guru’s words: one’s surroundings are a reflection of who they are and where they’re going.
“Why did you take me to that lecture anyhow?” Lauren says. “You could have gotten out of here several hours earlier.”
Nisha stares at Lauren. Calmly she says, “I thought it would be informative. I thought you would learn something. Didn’t you learn something?”
Lauren says nothing.
Nisha says, “Well, I thought it was informative.” She resumes packing. She wraps the empty wooden frames from the wall, the yellow vase, the candles and their tray.
Soon the living area will be empty except for the television, the only item in the room that belongs to Lauren. Nisha grew up without one. Other than the occasional movie, she can’t stand television, likens it to pollution.
So Lauren turns it on.
Nisha says nothing, but she packs her dishes and glassware so quickly that the pieces clang against each other.
Lauren turns up the volume.
On the screen, a woman waves her arms and screams as she’s swallowed by the earth. Quicksand: but the way the sludge funnels in around the woman’s body, the hole in the ground looks like a giant, amorphous vagina. The program cuts to another quicksand scene and then another and another. The narrator says that death by quicksand is the most common television and movie trope of all time.
Soon, two men enter the apartment and carry away the sofa, the coffee table, the dining table and chairs, and Nisha’s bedroom furniture. They haul away boxes from Nisha’s bedroom that she must have packed days ago.
When the men are done and drive away, Nisha hands Lauren an amethyst-colored glass dome paperweight.
“A token of our friendship,” she says.
The paperweight is heavy. Lauren feels as though it’s meant to hold her down. Perhaps Nisha finds Lauren’s chi frantic, not stagnant. She’s trying to tether her, like a dog, keep her from pinballing off the walls and out of the apartment and behind the moving truck.
When Nisha closes the door of the apartment behind her, Lauren sits on the floor in front of the television and eats leftover spaghetti from a paper plate and drinks wine from a plastic cup.
On the television, the narrator says that characters in quicksand scenes say things like the key is not to panic, not to flail. Remain calm, and you won’t sink any further. But the truth is that drowning in quicksand is nearly impossible because quicksand is about twice as dense as the average human. The more likely dangers are secondary threats that overtake you when your movement is severely impaired: dehydration, predators, sunburn.
When her plate and glass are empty except for the stains the food and wine leave behind, she feels empty too. After all, the walls are bare; the floor is bare. There’s nothing left but the television. Mal-illumination.
The dishes are empty only because she’s ingested their contents, of course. She’s not really empty. But when she calls the number on the Feng Shui Guru’s card, he says that if she feels empty, then she is empty. It’s the same thing.
“If you feel happy, do you say, I’m not happy; I merely feel happy?” he says.
Then he says, “You aren’t just what you eat. You’re that empty plate and glass. You’re that table littered with bargain fliers and pleas to donate money to homeless cats. You’re that dirty towel on the floor and that raggedy toothbrush in a crusty cup. You’re that closet full of ill-fitting clothes. You’re that yellowing plant you keep forgetting to water. You’re that ugly tchotchke hanging on the wall of your bathroom. You’re—”
“Okay, okay. I get it,” she says.
She wonders how he sees so much. In the mirror the landlord no doubt put up to make the space appear larger than it is, her shoulders are clenched, her hair limp, her mouth etched with frown lines. Plethora of dis-ease.
She wonders what else people see just from looking at her. The way she knew Nisha was from the opposite end of the spectrum when she walked through the doorway freshman year, everything about her radiant.