On the fifth and final morning of the silent meditation retreat, the people talked.
For five days I’d floated about the Santa Sabina Retreat Center in San Rafael in an almost soundless bubble. Even though I was there with more than fifty other humans, I hardly noticed their existence. As per the rules, we ate our meals in silence. We made no eye contact when passing one another in the hallways, or while strolling meditatively around the fragrant gardens surrounding the former mission. I had a roommate in the small upstairs room overlooking the outdoor eating area, but her presence held the weight of a tissue. We never so much as smiled or nodded at one another. I heard her whenever she came into the room or went out. I listened to the rustle of her body as she dressed, or tried to gain comfort beneath the polyester sheets at night, but I didn’t affix meaning to the sounds. It was as though I was bunking with a ghost.
On the final day, just as I was beginning to pack up my clothes and toiletries, the vow of silence was officially “broken” and the bubble burst open. I closed the window, but it did not stop the unrelenting patter of voices from seeping up, like the smell of cooking grease, from the garden below. Wanting to hold on to the peaceful state I’d attained during the previous five days, I pushed my way through the clusters of chattering huggers without so much as a backward glance.
As I walked toward the bus stop a little over a mile away, sweat began to pool beneath the shoulder straps of my backpack, making them slide off my slick skin. I thought about stopping and putting on a shirt with sleeves; instead I looped my thumbs under the straps and trudged onward. A man watering his slaked garden waved to me and said, “Hi.” Having no hand available, I lifted my chin in greeting then looked away, concerned he’d think me rude for saying nothing. For not returning his wave.
So much for letting go of my stories, I thought as I headed downhill. I’d just paid a lot of money to sit in silence and eat tasteless vegan food so that I could learn how to quell the incessant fear, the self-doubt. I’d meditated for hours at a stretch. Listened intently to the dharma talks. Practiced self-compassion. Equanimity. I thought I GOT IT. Finally understood what it truly means to LET GO. To live in the moment. To be mindful.
So why the fuck was I worried whether or not a chin nod had been enough?
“Ugh,” I muttered, stopping mid-stride, surprised by the sound of my own voice. I hadn’t heard myself speak in five days and hearing the guttural grunt hit the air sort of repulsed me. I wondered what it would be like to stay silent forever.
When I reached the transit center I was relieved that no one else was waiting for the airport shuttle. I unloaded my pack onto the concrete bench, sat down next to it and looked at my phone, making a conscious effort to not take it out of airplane mode. I still wasn’t ready to engage in the noise of life. I wanted to linger in my quiet cocoon for as long as possible.
When the airporter arrived, the driver emerged and opened the baggage compartment. I smiled at him, tossed in my pack and climbed aboard. Given that I get massively bus sick and needed to be able to look out the window, I immediately grabbed the front seat to the right of the driver’s seat.
Once settled I glanced backwards, stunned to see that I was the sole passenger. “Yes!” my inner voice shouted, excited that I would have yet another hour of calm. I slouched back and stared straight ahead, regarding the landscape’s constantly shifting motifs with a renewed sense of wonder. The gas stations, markets and malls, with their brightly-colored signage, dazzled my eyes. The mottled greens and browns of the trees and hills and empty fields relaxed me at first, but then I found myself fixating on the precariousness of their borders. How long would those interstitial swatches of nature be able to stave off the ever-encroaching development surrounding them? If I were to pass by this same stretch of highway in two years’ time would that field of wild poppies instead be an In-N-Out?
I shook my head, blinking back my cynicism. Five days of learning to let go of fear should not, I vowed there and then, go to waste. I needed to stop dwelling in the past and worrying about the future. I needed to stay present. Mindful. Observing without the need to name or care. Open awareness, Lisa. Open freakin’ awareness.
I sighed, slapped my feet up against the metal divider in front of me, and breathed deep.
“You on your way home or are you going on vacation?”
The bus driver was speaking to me. He was asking me a direct question.
I panicked. My mind raced. Did I dare say, “Um, I’ve taken a vow of silence?” Wait: I could write it on a piece of paper: let him know I was mute. I fumbled into my purse, feeling around for a pen and pad of paper, acutely aware of the seconds ticking by. What was the reasonable amount of time one should allow to lapse before having to answer a simple question? I had no idea but I was certain I’d exceeded it.
I looked at him, helpless. He was, as expected, focused on the road ahead. Did he just shrug? Had I insulted him? Slighted him with my cold shoulder as I had the man with the garden hose?
“Home,” I said, the word creaking out of me like sludge through an old pipe.
“Cool. That’s one place I’ve never been.”
He was heavy-set with large, jowly cheeks and bright friendly eyes—eyes I saw for the half a second he glanced over his shoulder towards me.
Was that enough? Had I provided the sufficient number of replies to appease the politeness gods? Could I now return to wrapping my mind with cotton-batting?
“What do you do in Vermont?”
“I write books,” my mouth said before I could stop it, knowing my statement would inevitably lead to perpetuated curiosity. Had I said “seamstress” or “bank teller” or “dental hygienist” I might have stopped the convo in its tracks. But no; I said writer which meant, of course, he was going to ask—
“What kind of books do you write?”
I subtly dropped my chin down to my chest, resigned to the cessation of stillness. “I’ve published two novels and a memoir so far.”
“Memoir, huh? You wrote about your own life?”
Option 1, wherein I have a good chance of putting this thing to rest: “Yeah, it’s about how I hated my life so much I ran away and then realized running doesn’t make you hate your life any less.”
Anticipated reply to Option 1: “I’m sorry,” he says, changing lanes and growing quiet because no one in their right mind wants to engage with an angry bitch.
Option 2, wherein I am a bit more gentle: “It’s about how my family and I moved to Bali.”
Anticipated reply to Option 2: “Whoa! Bali. What was that like?”
I went with Option 2, and after he asked me what that was like, I told him it was great and not-so-great and then I threw in a short anecdote about my daughter’s bamboo bedroom getting overrun with biting ants every night, quickly cutting to the chase by acknowledging how happy I was when we finally escaped back to the United States.
“I’m definitely going to read that book.” He shifted in his seat, whether from excitement or to inject some blood flow into his large bottom, I wasn’t sure, but I felt all at once drawn to the man’s warmth and enthusiasm. Enough so that I chucked my vow of silence into the seat behind me and said, “I’m Lisa, by the way.”
“Hi, Mike. How long you been a bus driver?”
“Five years, but it’s just for money. What I really want to do is voice work.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, voice-overs, like in commercials and documentaries and stuff. I’ve been taking classes in the city. I mean, sure, I’d love to be a real actor, but this is pretty fun.”
“Why don’t you be a real actor then?”
He looked back at me and smirked. “Um,” he said jerking a thumb in his own direction.
Did Mike think that because he was a hefty guy, it was a forgone conclusion he’d be barred from the sphere of visual entertainment? I didn’t buy it. “What? What’s stopping you from trying?” I said, pushing at the delicate edge of his obvious insecurities. “I mean, you’ll never know unless you give it a go, right?” I almost added, “Television and movies are teeming with bodies of all shapes and sizes,” but that felt patronizing so I kept quiet.
He laughed. “Nah. I mean sure, I wouldn’t mind being in front of the camera, but my voice, you know, my voice is where my power is.”
His baritone voice was indeed powerful. Rich. The more I listened to him speak the more I felt—I don’t know—soothed. Here, I’d been wallowing in the purity and pricelessness of inner stillness, but now I wanted more sound. More of Mike’s sound, anyway.
“I can be anybody with my voice,” he continued, wanting as much as I did, to face me so we could engage in a real tête-à-tête. I could tell it was both annoying as well as probably uncomfortable, for him to keep twisting to his right.
“And driving this bus, you know, I meet lots of different kinds of people and that helps.”
“It, um, well. I live alone and when I’m not driving or taking classes I spend as much time as I can in nature. I go camping a lot. But sometimes—not all the time mind you—someone sits where you’re sitting and we get to chatting and I discover something new. Someone new. I hear their voice, like your voice, the sound of it, the way you pronounce things. Every voice is like a new story to me. A new world of sound.”
Rather than responding, I sat back and stared out the window. I suddenly had a feverish urge to write a short story about Mike. About a passenger, a stranger, falling in love with Mike during the long bus ride to the airport. It would feature a woman named Julie, a sad woman in her late 40s who’s just come from a groovy meditation retreat. She signed up hoping to find happiness, as well as a lover who wore loose cotton drawstring pants and whose aura aligned with hers. After finding neither, she boards the bus to the airport. She gets on further up north, in Santa Rosa, giving her and Mike more time to get to know one another. Mike asks her about her life in New Jersey. After five days of silence, she is happy to talk. They share preliminaries. As their journey continues, the conversation grows more intimate. Mike tells her about his yearning to be something other than a bus driver. The more he opens up about his dream to become a Voice Over star, the more aware Julie becomes of her own lost desires. At one point, she tells Mike, she dreamt of being a personal coach.
No: she wanted to be a pianist, but an accident in her twenties destroyed any chance of that.
Mike is sympathetic. He tells her how sorry he is and it’s as if his voice is a warm blanket smothering the pain the of the past.
Their connection grows stronger with each passing mile and and it’s only when Julie looks out the window and notices a sign for San Jose, does she realize that Mike never exited for the Oakland airport. She’s both disconcerted and aroused by this strange turn of events.
“Where are we going, Mike?” she asks nervously.
“I’m not sure, Julie,” Mike says, “but I just decided that this is the last bus trip I’m taking. I’m thinking someplace south of the border. A nice beach somewhere sounds good.”
“Yeah,” Julie replies as she leans back against the seat. “It does sound good.”
By the time Mike pulled up to the curb and put the bus in park, I’d made a few changes to the plot, but, ultimately, I was quite pleased with myself for coming up with the idea.
I followed Mike out the door and stood by while he dragged my pack out of the belly of the bus. “So, it was nice meeting you, Lisa,” he said, adjusting his baseball hat.
“It was really nice meeting you, Mike. You know what? I’m going to write a story about a woman who boards your bus and the two of you fall in love and you don’t drop her at the airport. You just keep driving.”
Mike’s eyebrows raised, as did the corners of his mouth. “I’d sure like to read that story. But first I’m going to read your book.”
I gave him a business card. “I’d love that, Mike. Good luck with everything and keep in touch,” I said, slinging on my backpack.
Two months later I received an email from Mike:
Hi Lisa, In case you don’t remember who I am, I drove you to the Oakland airport on the Airport Express. I read your book Rash and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it. Normally when I read a book I know within the first 20 pages whether I can finish it or not. Your book had me in the first paragraph. I thought it was as well written as Jeannette Walls’s book. It just flowed so easily I felt as though I was in Bali at times.
Although i think your unhappiness and complaining was justified I still thill think Victor deserves a medal😂😂 He was getting it from all sides and I like knowing there are still people who have integrity and live by their principles.
LOVED THE BOOK . Thanks for introducing me to it.
By the way how is the short story coming?
If you remember I told you I am in the process of learning to be a Voice Over Actor and was wondering if you would mind giving me your opinion on a couple of scripts I recorded. I would be very interested to see what you think?
He sent along a photo of him holding my book.
Of course I listened to his recordings and they were really good. I said as much, and told him I had not yet written the story.
It’s been three years since I rode on Mike’s bus that hot summer day. Three years of not once thinking about our meeting, his voice, or the short story. But then, a few days ago I flashed on the memory and decided I needed to write that story because, damn, it was a good one. I sat down, started in, then hit a wall. Getting inside Julie’s head was hard. Her sadness weighed on my already too-heavy heart. Yeah: it’s been a hard year.
Instead, I Googled Mike. Turns out he did become a Voice Over actor.
I’m thrilled for Mike. I assume he will get hired by lots of companies because his voice truly is, as he says on his website, textured, authentic, and relatable. So much so that I was willing to emerge from my silent sanctum just so I could hear some more of it.
I’d tried so hard to keep out the noise of life. To reign in the chatter within and without. Yet, because I allowed myself to dwell in open awareness, I ended up finding a new—albeit momentary—friendship. Because I let go of my stubbornly-held expectations, I conjured up a sweet story about a broken woman who discovers solace in a bus driver’s song. A story that someday I might actually write.