The Sound of Emptiness
by Elie Axelroth

Abby is seated cross-legged on the zafu, staring into the eyes of Quan Yin, the goddess of compassion. Said to observe the cries of the world, she is pictured in an antique red and gold silk thangka hanging above the altar. In front of Quan Yin, a small table is covered in red velvet and there are fresh flowers on the table, a stick of patchouli burning in puffs of blue haze, and an offering of apples and pears in a dark-colored ceramic bowl. Abby leans over and runs the edge of a wooden mallet around the rim of a brass meditation bowl, and the bowl begins to sing. The lingering resonance never fails to remind her of the two years she spent teaching English to school-children in Tashigang, a small community in eastern Bhutan, on the edge of the stark, snow-capped Himalayas. She can still picture the steep terraced hills and dried rice stalks fashioned into stupas. Red chilies hanging under the eaves to dry. Round-shouldered women hauling buckwheat in woven baskets. Where mountains and streams are sacred, and the wind is infused with the echoing of meditation bowls and drums and horns, and prayer wheels turned by river water. Abby lifts the mallet from the rim of the bowl, but it continues to sing and she can feel the vibration inside her chest.

The meditation bowl was a gift from an old man, a shopkeeper in town, his name was Karma, and he had an impish smile that exposed his remaining teeth, broken and discolored by the betel nut he chewed. His two grandsons were in her class and she’d come into the dank, crowded shop numerous times to purchase beaded bracelets and hand-woven scarves and other colorful trinkets to enliven her one-room mud-walled house. Just before returning home, she’d gone into the shop to make some last minute purchases; he must have seen the sadness in her eyes.

Tong ha ha,” he’d said. “In Dzongkha, it means the sound of emptiness. Like an empty pot that clangs with a dull thud.” He tapped his palm with his index finger to demonstrate. “Tooonnngg… Tooonnngg…” Then he wrapped the meditation bowl in newsprint, handed it to her, and he’d bowed with his hands pressed together. His eyes were dark and watery, and he pulled the robe-like gho around his waist and tightened his kera.

“And the empty space in your heart,” he’d said. “Like a sorrowful good-bye.”

Abby draws in three deep, cleansing breaths and focuses on the cool air flowing in and out of her nostrils, ingesting the musky flavor of the apples and the incense and the subtle bouquet of calla lilies. May I be blessed with love. May I be blessed with joy. May I be blessed with peace. Pulsing streams of green and blue light drape over her body, and a deep quiet settles into her chest and down her arms and legs. Her breathing slows and she can feel her mind begin to empty of the circular thoughts that regularly plague her monkey brain. A chattering of senseless rage. Just as she’s swirling in the light, a piercing ring startles her, and her body recoils, her breath tightens in spasm. Let it go, she thinks, taking in another centering breath. Let it go.

But it’s the phone ringing. Jeffrey is leaving a voicemail, and the urge to listen is irresistible. “Those goddamn aquamarine ceramic dogs. And your precious collection of Buddha statues.” Abby pictures his contemptuous sneer, his narrow eyes. “I’ve done you a favor. Packed everything in boxes. I’m tired of looking at your crap. You can collect it from the front porch. Preferably before garbage pick-up on Wednesday.”

Abby reaches toward the phone to delete the message, but instead, she presses the save button. Closing her eyes again, she takes in a deep breath that she holds for a count of seven. On the out-breath, she pictures a soothing, warm breeze, hoping for the return of the light and the emptiness.

But she’d allowed herself to be interrupted during her meditation practice and the remaining time on the zafu dissolves into composing a scathing email to her pending ex-husband. You asshole, you never respected my spiritual practice… Let it go… Just breathe… May I be blessed with love… And Jackie. She’s pissed at Jackie, who has a habit of lapsing into a quasi-authoritarian tone, dismissing Abby’s opinions with a well-timed sound bite. Yesterday afternoon, Abby was putting the groceries away and accidentally dropped an apple, cringing as she watched it roll across the kitchen floor. There must have been something about the ease with which the apple slipped out of her hands. A waxy Pink Lady, she retrieved it, smoothed the skin, hoping to rub out the blemish. “I bruise easily,” she’d observed, cautiously replacing it underneath the other apples and pears and bananas in the wooden fruit bowl on the counter.

“We all do,” Jackie said. She’d barely looked up from her morning coffee and the stack of test papers she was grading. “You might as well throw it out. Who’s going to eat it now?”

“I will.” Abby scrolled the apple around in her fingers to avoid the soft, brown spot already surfacing on the dented skin. Accentuating her point, she took a conspicuous bite, but it was the worst combination of mushy and sour, and she furtively spit out the wadded clump into a paper napkin and tossed the rest into the compost underneath the sink. The worms and grubs will churn it into dirt, she thought, as if this had been her pre-planned strategy all along.

Abby lectures in Asian Philosophy and Buddhism; Jackie is tenured faculty in Gender Studies. They’d met at a university brown bag: Feminism Takes A Hike. Jackie had introduced the speaker—a sour-looking intellectual from Boston with a buzz cut and a pear-shaped waist. In her introduction, she’d touted Dr. Hill’s research, seminal work on the intersection of the labor movement of the 1930’s and childrearing practices. A kind of retrospective Rosie the Riveter with a stroller. Despite Jackie’s eloquent introduction, Abby found the lecture contrived, tedious. Of course, who was she to criticize, given her own admittedly esoteric writings on 7th century origins of the heart sutra.

Soon after the brown bag lecture, she and Jackie ran into each other at a local café, chatted over a late-afternoon coffee that rolled into beer nuts and drinks at the bar down the street. Jackie was irreverent, even a bit dramatic, rough around the edges. “Marcie Hill? Boring as hell,” she’d said. “Never met a detail she didn’t like.”

Abby laughed for the first time in months, suddenly realizing how restrained and cautious she’d become. Jeffrey was a full-professor in economics, but he was dull-headed and pedantic. His idea of a conversation involved lecturing without notes. She and Jackie started having lunch together on campus, bonding over a combination of university politics, and the uphill battles they both fought for recognition.

“When I die,” Jackie said, “I hope it’s in one of those insipid curriculum meetings. The passage between life and death will be so indistinguishable as to go unnoticed.”

One night, after a particularly seething argument with Jeffrey, Abby unceremoniously walked out of the house with an electric toothbrush and her zafu, and called Jackie who was sympathetic, offered her a couch to sleep on, and regaled her with tales of her own break-ups and missed opportunities.

The entire first three weeks of the semester, they spent evenings talking late into the night with a bottle of wine, and parallel stacks of tests and quizzes left ungraded.

“Think you’ll ever go back?” Jackie asked.

“I can’t imagine. He’d have to completely alter himself.”

Abby thought Jackie was flirting with her. She lay awake until morning, her body on fire, and a sudden awareness she was attracted to Jackie, imagining Jackie was the yin to her yang.

The next evening, she cooked dinner—spicy spring rolls with peanut sauce, cashew chicken and basmati rice. Over mango pudding, she reached out to hold Jackie’s hand.

“Nope. Uh-uh, no way,” Jackie said. “You’re disentangling from a marriage, and you’re vulnerable, and I swore I’d never be anyone’s first again. Remember Claudia? Took me a year and a half to clean up that mess, and it was only because she glommed onto some other unsuspecting victim.”

Abby could feel her eyes fill with rejection.

“Don’t look at me like that. You’re a wonderful, sexy, smart woman and some guy is going to treat you the way you deserve. It would never work between us.”

But it did work. Their intellectual discourse and playful bantering spilled over into passionate love-making. If Abby was baffled by her sudden retooling, it was a matter of only casual speculation by her friends—most of whom taught in the English or Gender Studies Departments. (She only wished at least one of them would register surprise, saying something like: You? No way.) She discovered there was even a term: lipstick lesbian. Could she suddenly be lesbian at 35? Without having known? No inkling at all? Her friends made assumptions: that she was bi. That she’d been closeted for years. Probably closeted even to herself. For what it was worth, she thought maybe they were right, maybe she’d been oblivious to her own needs. But that meant she was finally backfilling the hollowed space in her soul.

Soon after, she officially moved into Jackie’s house. Divorce papers had already been filed and it was just a matter of waiting for the judge to sign off. There were no kids to divide up and only a modicum of art work and furniture, books, garden tools, cleaning supplies, nothing she really cared about, except for Quan Yin and the brass meditation bowl. Her two years ensconced in Buddhism, she’d learned about impermanence and non-attachment. Losing a marriage and a houseful of possessions seemed a trivial price to pay for happiness.

In the afternoon, like thieves, she and Jackie sneak onto Jeffrey’s porch to pick up the remaining boxes. Jackie accuses her of acting the obedient wife in the face of his demands. “It’s your stuff,” she says, refusing to whisper. But Abby is relieved just to be out of the marriage, and she doesn’t want to face Jeffrey and the rage he’ll inevitably hurl in her direction.

Back at Jackie’s, they sit on the living room floor sorting through old textbooks, wall-hangings, the aquamarine ceramic guardian lions Jeffrey mistook for dogs. Jackie picks up the ceramic lions and a photograph of Abby in front of prayer wheels spinning along a roadside; she arranges them on the mantle. “An homage to your previous life,” she says.

“What does that mean?”

Jackie smiles. “You mean you didn’t have a life before me?”

Of course she hadn’t sprung to life like Athena from Zeus’ head. Fully formed and armed. But Jackie has a way of questioning her sudden lane-change as she calls it. “You’ll go crawling back,” she’s said, more than once, no matter how often Abby reassures her she has no intention of reconciling with Jeffrey—or any other man for that matter. “That patriarchal division of the sexes,” Jackie says, “there’s a cost. But you know how to manage it.”

Her session on the zafu the next morning is icy, her concentration scattered. She’d received an email from a student pleading for a grade change, vaguely threatening suicide. It enrages her to think a student might stoop to that kind of manipulation. Go ahead. Do it… The few times Abby thought about killing herself—not that she would act on those thoughts—but the few times a plan occurred to her, she imagined making sure to create a mess for someone else to clean up. Slash her wrists in the bathtub. A single car accident. She pictures driving along the coast, her hands suddenly torquing the steering wheel and the car masterfully careening off the highway, flying over an expanse of wild mustard, Manzanita bushes, spidery trails. Two disquieted hikers might look overhead, watching as she crashes onto a sandy patch just short of the cliff, the car erupting into flames. No mistaking her intentions, she’s left a note on her desk.

Abby cringes, clutching the blanket around her shoulders. Breathe. May I be blessed with serenity…

Abby’s mother, Caroline, descends upon them for a visit, purportedly to support her through a messy divorce—which isn’t all that messy—and now this fling or mistake or experiment… with a woman. She lives in Toronto in the house where Abby grew up with a wide front lawn, elegant maple trees, a separate guest house, a gardener, and a lifetime membership at the country club where she plays bridge and volunteers on the women’s auxiliary.

Abby is in the kitchen fixing hors d’oeuvres on a flowery platter, arranging sesame rice crackers and warmed brie and a French raw milk cheddar she’d bought that afternoon at the new fromagerie in town. Her mother is out on the deck with Jackie, weaving family fabrications. She likes to brag that she and Abby’s father are approaching half a century together, as if endurance is something to admire. “But it hasn’t been easy,” she says, “all those years of his drinking. Until he finally got sober.”

Abby brings the platter out to the deck along with a bowl of lightly salted edamame and another of mixed nuts. She holds her tongue, certain two cocktails before dinner every night doesn’t exactly qualify as clean and sober. Still, her mother is probably right—he has cut back, and that’s likely an improvement.

Caroline lifts her glass of chardonnay in a simulated toast. “But we couldn’t be happier now that you kids are out of the house—for good.” Her mother’s own drinking is disguised underneath a saccharine-sweet charm.

Abby smiles, her lips curling up stiffly at the ends.

Jackie has a beer and they clink their glasses together. Abby, who’s decided it’s best to keep her wits about her, is drinking soda water with a twist of lime. She looks at her glass, but declines to join in.

“How long are you staying?” Abby asks.

“Oh my, Abby dear, five minutes, and I’m already a burden.” Her mother is wearing a scooped neck brocade blouse, accessorized with jade earrings and a two-toned French manicure. She flashes her freshly-whitened teeth at Jackie. “It’s so nice to meet you,” Caroline says. “You’re far more lovely than Abby led me to believe. Can I call you Jacqueline?”

“Jackie’s just fine,” she says.

Caroline straightens her blouse to show just the right amount of cleavage—more than might be expected for a woman of her age whose breasts pucker and sag. “Tell me, dear, I understand you teach Gender Studies. What on earth is Gender Studies?”

It isn’t the first time Jackie has had to explain—even justify—her chosen discipline. “Gender doesn’t really exist, it’s been constructed by society,” she says. “Even though we’re born male or female, through a subtle—and not so subtle—process of enculturation and stereotypes, we become men and women.”

Caroline sits quietly, as if she is actually listening and not planning her next gambit. “Oh my,” she says. “It sounds so complicated—and perverse. Whatever happened to boys and girls growing up and getting married and having their own babies? And commitment. All this making babies in a test tube and homosexual-everything-goes, messing around with Mother Nature. It’s awfully contrived.”

For Jackie, who is all too familiar with the range of antics and skepticism she faces everyday in the classroom, Abby’s mother presents not so much a challenge as an opportunity. She rarely takes things personally—a quality Abby admires. They’ve had many late-night intellectual ramblings about the nature of sexuality and biology and the influence of culture. Where Jackie stakes her professional reputation on the dominance of cultural stereotypes and patriarchal coercion, Abby falls on the side of biology. “It can’t all be culture,” she’d said to her. “Of course not,” but then Jackie had whipped out an impressive list of research citations from her latest publication.

Jackie’s running her finger across the top of her beer glass, as if she could make it sing. But instead, she’s just transporting the condensation around the rim of the glass. “Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers,” she says, “I’m sorry to say, Caroline, that era’s over.”

“I’m afraid you’re right,” Caroline says, wistfully. Abby’s mother peers down at her high heels as if she is invisibly rehearsing old dance steps. As if she’s heard the joke about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred did—only backwards. And in high heels.

The wind stirs. The prayer flags Abby has hung on the deck are fluttering, bits of loose thread afloat in the air. Out over the rooftops, the sun is setting, but without any clouds on the horizon, the sky is simply darkening, making it harder to discern the trees and hills off in the distance.

Caroline puts on the cashmere sweater she’s kept over the arm of the chair, and smooths the imagined crumbs from her crisply creased pants. Her blonde hair is beauty-parlor coifed and dyed. Her eyes are bright blue with thin, arched eybrows, her skin skillfully concealed with just the right layering of foundation and powder and a touch of rouge. “You have a lovely home, and look at this view.” She pours herself another glass of wine, slices off a sliver of cheese from the plate and nibbles on the end. “I must say I admire your spunk, but tell me, Jacqueline.” She pauses to take another sip, another nibble of cheese. “Do you really believe Abby is a lesbian?” She pronounces the word lesbian with great care, enunciating each syllable slowly, as if the word itself is contagious. “Not that I doubt your motives, but don’t you think it’s a bit peculiar after being married—and to such a decent man like Jeffrey.”

Abby has been listening intently to their conversation, wondering how much damage her mother is capable of doing. She is determined not to be unnerved by her mother, but Abby’s arms and hands have gone numb, and her head is clogged; she is suddenly bone-tired, fighting just to keep her eyes open. She imagines herself surrounded in white light. We have no enemies, only teachers, she intones, rocking ever so slightly back and forth in her chair. But the white light, beyond her control, gradually fades to gray, and then to a bilious shade of mustard-green. Just then, she looks over at her mother, who is casting a disdainful smile in her direction.

Jackie pops a few nuts into her mouth. She seems not to have noticed that Abby has uttered a small gasp. “You know Caroline, it’s not black and white. Sexuality is on a continuum and may even shift over the course of our lives. And wouldn’t you want Abby to be in a relationship with whoever she loves?”

Caroline looks down at her long, manicured hands, runs her thumb across the surface of each nail, checking for chips and uneven edges. Then she focuses her eyes on Jackie, long enough for the pause to feel awkward, even tense.

“Not really,” she says, her tone matter of fact. “I think you’re cute as a button and smart, but this thing between the two of you will never last.”

She reaches over and squeezes Abby’s hand. “I know my Abby, and this just isn’t right for her.”

Later that night with the dishes washed and put away and the heat turned down, her mother safely tucked away in the guest bedroom, they get into bed. Jackie puts her arms around Abby and pulls her in close. “I love you,” she says, her lips pressed against Abby’s neck, her hands looped around the small of her back.

Abby leans away and looks into Jackie’s eyes, wondering if anything has changed between them, now that Jackie has seen where she comes from. “What did you think?” she asks.

“You mean, your mother?” Jackie’s propped herself up on one arm and is running her fingers through Abby’s hair. “Even with all her southern belle notions,” she says, “I like her. You know exactly where she stands. And meeting your mother helps me understand you all that much better.”

Abby doesn’t even come from the States—let alone the South. She needs Jackie to be on her side and she can’t fathom how meeting her mother helps to explain anything at all. She wants to say: You have no idea what growing up with my mother was like, the constant humiliation, the angry outbursts. But instead she grits her teeth and manages to offer, “You were very charming yourself.”

Abby drives her mother back to the airport, drops her off at the curb, and returns to the zafu. Green and purple streams of light fan out like the aurora borealis, her heart sizzling hot. But then she watches as the display shifts and the streams of light transform into dark strands and then thick, woven ropes that spew from her body. Choking her around the neck like a noose. She feels claustrophobic and a wheezing, raspy sound percolates from her chest.

On the way to the airport, her mother had droned on about how lovely the city was and how she could understand falling in love with Jackie who was just so charming and talented and smart.

“Of course, it’s a shame, dear. Jeffrey is such a catch, throwing away your life for a few moments of misery. And I was so hoping for grand-babies.”

Abby remembers something Jackie had said to her early on in their relationship. “I love how you see the best in everyone.”

Yes, that was the goal Abby thought, to see each individual as part of the whole, as pure energy. As love. Sometimes in her meditation practice, she holds each of her friends encircled in an expanding swathe of white light.

“I don’t, not really,” Abby had said. “I’m just good at filtering what I say.”

May I be blessed with compassion. Abby focuses on the image of Quan Yin, but odd memories puncture the space: the time Jeffrey slammed the front door so hard the hinges cracked from the doorframe. He’d wanted her to get mad—as mad as he was—about what she couldn’t remember. “Now what do you think,” he’d yelled, and the walls had vibrated as if the house were merely an empty shell. She shifts on the cushion, soaks up another breath, and squints her eyes tightly closed in an attempt to shut out the intrusions. Her head is spinning. Breathe. May I be blessed with equanimity. Abby was fifteen years old when she’d come home late from a basketball game. Her mother, leaning against the kitchen sink to steady herself, was furious. “I never figured you for a slut,” she fumed, pointing an accusing finger. Her mother was drunk. Abby could still hear the ice cubes clinking, amber liquid in the highball glass.

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s that Mitchell boy, isn’t it?”

Abby was insulted. Robbie Mitchell was disgusting—a chunky, weepy-eyed tenth grader who lived down the street. She’d yelled back in that mocking, contemptuous tone of a burgeoning adolescent. “Me? You’re accusing me? You’re the one sleeping with Daddy’s best friend.”

It shocked them both. The dripping disdain in her voice, the cheekiness, unleashing her mother’s secret. She’d slapped Abby across the face, leaving a purplish welt. By the next morning, her mother was contrite, apologizing and wheedling a promise from Abby not to mention her indiscretions to anyone, especially not to her father. Given the secret she possessed, Abby knew her mother had only limited resources to rein in her behavior. She’d started sleeping around, because why not? Her grades plummeted, she lost all her friends, started smoking pot, and there were even days she didn’t come home at all. One night, needing a place to sleep, she wandered under the Finch Avenue Bridge, and crashed on an old mattress. Some time later, she awoke to two homeless men groping her, smelling of alcohol and stale urine. Managing to fend them off, she headed for home, but she couldn’t tell anyone, least of all her parents.

By her senior year in high school, Abby’s parents would have relinquished their country club membership to send her away. She managed to gain admittance to a small, pricey college on the other side of the border, took general education classes: Introduction to Sociology, Music Appreciation, History of the US Post-World War II. One day in class, her mind ticking through a catalogue of past offenses, she happened to notice a flier on a bulletin board at the back of the room. Advertising a course in Transcendental Meditation. After the introductory class, she got her own unique mantra, and then she explored other meditation practices like Vipassana, and Zen and the Kabbalah, and she took up yoga, and cleansed her body drinking a concoction of carrots and wheat grass and sesame seed oil. Winter break her senior year, she went on a month-long silent retreat at a monastery in the mountains where her mind finally went quiet in a way she’d never experienced. Even now, when her practice was turbulent or unsettling, she didn’t give up, because all the teachers she’d ever consulted told her a variation on the same theme: meditation is about focus and the breath and anything can happen, but you must get yourself to sit. Later, she visited Nepal, lived in India at an ashram and wore long, flowing skirts, listened to afternoon teachings, a red bindi painted between her eyes. After every meal, she scrubbed the kitchen floor on her hands and knees.

“Say it,” Abby says. “You think I’m just like her.”

It’s Saturday morning. They’re doing weekend chores together, cleaning up in the kitchen. Abby’s collecting dirty towels from the bathroom and the guest room where she can still smell the over-priced perfume her mother lavishly douses on herself.

“What are you talking about?” Jackie looks puzzled.

“My mother. You think she’s right. Not everything, of course. But you don’t believe I should be with a woman, that it can work out between us.”

Jackie pushes aside the dirty laundry basket and sits down at the dining room table. It’s unusual, Jackie at a loss for words. “It’s not that simple,” she says.

Abby can feel heat rising into her chest. She picks up an apple from the wooden fruit bowl and clenches it in the palm of her hand, but immediately loosens her grip, remembering how easily the brown, liver-like spots materialize out of nowhere. She feels trapped and it reminds her of the time in high school, her parents in the midst of a screaming match. She’d locked herself in the bathroom, broke a water glass and sliced into her thigh. Fascinated, she’d watched the blood trickle down her leg. Jackie noticed the ragged white scar one night after making love. “What’s that?” she’d asked.

Of course, Abby couldn’t tell her the truth. “I fell off my bike when I was a kid.”

Abby shakes off the memory, opens her eyes, and cautiously lays the apple back in the bowl. “I need to take a walk.”

She doesn’t come home that afternoon. Or night. Jackie calls a half dozen times, leaving panicked messages, “Where are you? Come home, let’s talk.”

Abby stares at the number, but doesn’t answer the phone. She is driving around town checking out apartments for rent near the university, imagining how it will feel to live alone, to construct her life without pre-ordained constraints.

The next day, she slips in the back door to pack up her clothes and books. By the time Jackie discovers she’s returned, the silk thangka of Quan Yin has been removed from the wall, the meditation bowl wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper, and the small rug and zafu she sits on are set by the door. She’s rented a one-bedroom house on the other side of town. Her suitcase is open on the bed, boxes litter the floor.

“I can’t do this,” Abby says, and then disappears into the bathroom to gather her toiletries and towels. It’s Sunday at noon, and in the distance, the church bells are chiming without end.

“Do what?” Jackie is sitting on the edge of the bed. She projects her voice enough for Abby to hear her from the other room, but the words sound hollow against the bare walls. “Talk to me,” she says. “I want to understand.”

But by then it’s too late.

Packingtown Review – Vol.6, Winter 2014/2015

Elie Axelroth retired as a psychologist to write full-time. She is currently working on a novel, Thin Places, and blogs about creativity at This is her first published short story. Elie lives in San Luis Obispo, California, the happiest town in the US.

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