A short story about how holistic living isn’t rainbows and sunshine.
Jack was a terrible roommate. But, I wasn’t moving in with Jack. Faith had extra room for rent and I liked her. My first semester of acupuncture school started in a week and I needed a place to live. Faith liked me enough to knock $75 dollars off the monthly rent. Jack explained that he teaches English in Japan and that he would be moving back in another six weeks. I liked him at first. I didn’t know he would be such a dick. I spoke as much with him as I did with Faith as they showed me around the new oversized cape house. A wispy gray cat named Meadow following along.
After the tour, Faith offered tea. We talked about the things we shared in common. We are both vegetarians. We love cats. We are both interested in natural medicine. Faith is a slender Chinese American woman. She looked like she stepped off the cover of Yoga Journal. She worked as a physical therapist. In her free time, she practiced Ashtanga Yoga, Animal Communication, and Feng Shui. Jack stood about six feet tall and has dark circles under his eyes. He tells me with pride that he is a musician, a Shakuhachi flute player. This is why he chose to teach English in Japan, but a death in the family brought him back to the US for a few months.
We made communal meals together in the kind of roommate situation I always wanted. Faith concocted a salad dressing in the Vitamix blender. Faith blended a whole tomato with Bragg’s Apple Cider vinegar, olive oil, and some kind of yellow flakes that smell like cheese. She explained that the flakes are full of B vitamins. She sprinkled more of the nutritional yeast flakes onto the end of the large kitchen island. A tortoiseshell cat named Nutmeg woke up from her nap and started to lick the flakes off of the countertop.
Over dinner, Jack told me stories about the people he knew on the West Coast; Earth First activists who save old-growth trees by living in them for months at a time. He was proud of his friends who had demolished Wal- Mart Construction sites or lumber mills. All this was new to me and I was riveted.
“Do you guys have a wok, by any chance?” I asked on my second evening as Faith and Jack’s new roommate.
“I don’t,” apologized Faith.
“Elizabeth, if you buy a wok and I will cook us dinner tonight,” Jack volunteered.
I loved this cooperative plan. Faith and I set off to a local Asian Market and returned with a new wok. I felt triumphant as I handed the wok off to Jack. I sat down at the kitchen table and thumbed through my notes from my first class in Chinese Medicine Theory.
“Yin and yang are interchangeable. Yin and yang are always relative. Yin is the dark side of the mountain. Yang is the bright side of the mountain,” I read aloud.
Jack nodded at me and washed carrots.
“I have to make a list of yin and yang opposites before my next class, like black and white, or day and night,” I explained.
“How about penis and vagina,” Jack replied. He was right, but his bluntness startled me.
“Um, yeah, that works.”
“So, are you going to help me with this?” demanded Jack.
“Sure?” I say confused by the mixed messages. I put my textbook aside and joined him at the kitchen counter. I washed and chopped the celery and kale. He grabbed some frozen peas from the freezer and started the rice cooker. We cooked and ate together in relative silence as the sunset behind the Blue Ridge Mountains. After the table was clear I retrieved my textbooks. Faith went to her bedroom to read the latest book by Jane Goodall. Jack practiced the Shakuhachi flute in the living room.
“Sorry, if my flute playing is disrupting you,” Jack says after a long song or many short songs strung together.
“It’s not distracting me at all. I like it.”
“Hi, Elizabeth. This is Guinevere from The Avenue Day Spa. We have a position for a new massage therapist to join our team. Can you come in for an interview on Wednesday?”
I groaned listening to the message on the answering machine. It was Thursday.
“Um, Jack? How long has that message been on the answering machine?” My question interrupted Peter’s flute practice.
“A few days. I’m sorry. I should have told you.” Jack shrugged and returned to his flute playing.
Faith and I rolled cucumbers, avocados, and sticky brown rice with flat sheets of nori seaweed. I am eager to impress her as we prepared to host a potluck dinner. She told me stories about living in communal housing in Seattle and San Diego. The San Diego household, she explained lived by a raw food philosophy. They sprouted mung beans in mason jars, dehydrated apple puree into fruit leather, and soaked cashews to blend into creamy desserts.
Cashews aren’t cheap. I had to ask what raw foodists do for a living. It sounded time-consuming and expensive. I tried to imagine raw food bus drivers, teachers, lawyers. Now that I was on a student budget again, I wondered how important it is to eat all organic. Isn’t it important to eat fruits and vegetables whether they are organic?
“Most of my roommates were sales reps for health food companies. They distributed products like microgreen algae or reverse osmosis water filtration systems.”
The words “microgreen algae” stuck in my head like pond scum. Jack walked into the kitchen rubbing his eyes. It’s past noon on a Sunday. He patted a white cat with deep blue eyes roosting on a stack of Faith’s patient charts on a corner of the kitchen table.
“Great party last night at Stoney’s house. You know Stoney, right? He’s into microgreen algae?” Jack yawns, throwing a chopped banana, strawberries, and avocado into the blender. It looked like an enticing fruit salad. Then he poured soy milk over it and flipped the switch. The pretty fruit salad transformed into green-brown sludge.
“And I met this girl named Missy. I’m going out with her this week. She’s your age, Elizabeth, but she is really mature.”
Jack slugged down his camouflage smoothie. He set the cup in the sink, filled it with water, and walked out of the kitchen to start flute practice.
A few hours later guests arrived for the potluck. Faith and I scurried around putting out plates and silverware. We showed guests where to place the dishes that they brought. I met some of Faith’s physical therapy patients, and her fellow yoga students. Jack invited some musicians from the open mic scene.
Jack impressed Faith’s patients — well-traveled retired women. They find him as compelling as I did two weeks ago.
“I speak five languages,” he bragged.
“Do you?” the women swooned.
I placed a dish of pickled ginger and wasabi in the middle of the table.
“I entered the renowned Koto Shakuhachi flute competition in Japan. And I won.” Jack bragged.
“Did you?” the women exclaimed.
It was almost 9 pm when I got home from a study group.
“I don’t want you bringing her here, Jack!” This was the first time I have seen Faith upset.
I could tell that Jack was apologizing, even though he stopped speaking English. They continued their argument in Mandarin. I tiptoed around the kitchen pretending to be invisible. I poured rice puff cereal and soy milk into a bowl and lugged my heavy backpack upstairs.
Moments later Faith stomped up the stairs and slammed her bedroom door.
Jack resumed his flute playing.
In the morning I found Faith at the kitchen table working through a pile of patient charts. She made apologies for her fight with Jack. Faith is the kind of person who has a hard time hanging up on a telemarketer. Kicking her ex-boyfriend out of her house would never cross her mind.
“Yesterday, I had made lunch for the two of us. He didn’t tell me that he had plans with Missy and that she was picking him up. I felt embarrassed like I am his Chinese wife who takes care of the home while he goes out with other women.”
“He ate my spaghetti sauce. It would have been nice if he replaced it with a new jar.” I admitted to Faith.
“Oh, I’ll get you some more sauce,” she promised.
“Jack ate the sauce. He should be the one to replace it.”
Faith confided Jack’s track record of being a difficult roommate. He told the Seattle house that it was more important to him to be a great artist than to be a good person.
After Faith and Jack left Seattle they moved to Hawaii. He practiced the flute and taught students and Faith supported him. A year later they split up. He moved to Japan and she moved to San Diego to live with raw foodists. She seemed to like it there. I asked her why she moved back to the east coast.
My question surprised Faith. “Don’t you know about the healing vortex here in the Blue Ridge Mountains?
The word “vortex” immediately made me think of a toilet bowl.
Faith didn’t think Jack would be around this long. He didn’t exactly come back to the US because of a death in the family. He came back to fight his sister for a larger share of the inheritance.
I couldn’t breathe through my nose and I felt like I had a fever. There was no thermometer in the house. I tried to study medical terminology between naps. A sleek black cat got between me and a heavy textbook. The cat won. I picked up a smaller book, Snow Falling on Cedars. Jack’s flute playing was the perfect soundtrack to the Samurai scenes. I fell asleep, woke up, read a little more, then fell back to sleep again. After twelve I managed to get out of bed and go down to the kitchen.
“Sorry if my music is keeping you from resting.”
I finally got that Jack’s apologies didn’t mean anything.
“It’s okay,” I grumble, mixing sticky red miso paste with cold water to prepare a bowl of soup. “A friend is coming over later with ear candles to help me breathe again.”
“You didn’t ask me if you could have people over. How am I supposed to practice my flute playing?
“We are not having a party, Jack. I am getting a treatment. We will be out of your way.”
“You know the rules, Elizabeth. We agreed that we wouldn’t have people over unless we all discussed it first.”
I didn’t know what to say or how to reason with Jack. “It’s not a party. We won’t be in your way.”
Jack whined, “I need to practice my flute. You don’t respect my work. No one respects my work.”
“What do you mean I don’t respect your work? I have never complained about your flute playing and you play all the time whether anyone cares or not.”
“Yeah, well, you come home from class every day and lecture me about things I already know. In fact, I learned them years ago.”
I would have laughed if I wasn’t so annoyed.
“I am not lecturing you, Jack. I am sharing what I learned and I am trying to make conversation.”
“You know, I pay more rent than you do. I should have more say in what goes on in this house.”
“When are you moving out, anyway?” I huffed back upstairs.
I found a car parked by the garage that I did not recognize. Someone locked the front door. Our house was the last house on the top of a foothill. We never locked the door. I fished around for my keys that I had already tossed into my backpack. As I entered the house I could hear music coming from upstairs and a woman giggling. I set my bag down on the kitchen table and fished my cell phone from the front pocket of my backpack. There is a voicemail.
“Hi Elizabeth, it’s Jack. Listen, can you not come home for a few hours after class? I will grant you a favor. Whatever you want.”
I left the house locking the door behind me. I started the ignition and drove down the steep dirt drive to the main road along the river. I headed south but I didn’t know where I was going.
I left my car in the parking lot of a pharmacy with an old-fashioned lunch counter. I walked the quaint main street. I passed a ceramic studio. An artist co-op was well stocked with rustic looking birdhouses. A boutique sold jewelry with semi-precious stones and other things that could open one’s chakras.
I dropped my textbooks at an empty table in a high-end coffee shop. The bakery case was full of elaborate cakes, pastries, tiramisu, and giant cookies. I munched on a chocolate chip scone encrusted in rocky sugar and enjoyed my first cup of coffee in months. I thought about my acupuncture teachers who only drank loose teas. Coffee, according to Chinese Medicine, can weaken the Spleen and agitate the Liver. I didn’t care. The latte was strong but creamy and sweet. I considered ordering another one. I still had half of a scone left and I need something to dunk it in.
My phone rang. It was Jack. “Hey, Elizabeth, you can come back now. I would appreciate it if Faith didn’t know about this.”
“Gee, thanks. I will be back in a little while, but first I want to discuss the favor that you offered.”
“You said you would grant me a favor. Whatever I wanted if I didn’t come home.”
“But you did come home. We heard you come in the house.” He
“Fine, I’ll tell Faith that Missy came over.”
“Ok, anything. Please don’t tell her.”
“Cook dinner tonight. By yourself. Wash all the dishes. By yourself.” I ordered.
“There’s more?” He charged.
“Want me to tell Faith?”
“Okay, Okay…What is it.”
“None of your fucking flute playing for the rest of the night.”