You know things have hit rock bottom when you find yourself sitting down in the shower crying. Not just crying in the shower, but sitting on the floor crying. The shower floor. A place you would avoid under almost all circumstances. Where old foot and genital skin go to die. And here you are, hot tears competing with the steam of the shower above, your naked butt cheeks communing with swirls of hair, soap scum, and the residue you have just washed off the rest of your body.
It was the day before my birthday, and I was doing just this: shower-floor crying. I was with my entire family (including divorced parents) in Cocoa Beach, Florida. My grandpa had been telling everyone we encountered in the street that I was turning 82. In order to spend less time thinking about my current situation, I began reflecting on the past year. I realized that, without meaning to, this had been The Year of Crying in Odd Places.
In order to begin this annual survey of snivels, we must first recognize that there are a number of kinds of crying. Like snowflakes, no two cries are alike. There is the sob cry, the hyena-sounding-hyperventilate cry (which often turns into the gasping-for-air-and-sort-of-wishing-you’d-just-pass-out-already cry), the cry-me-a-river cry, the demure silent cry, the slightly ironic laughing cry, and the theatrical, hair-pulling, “why isn’t anyone noticing me fall apart” cry.
My absolute favorite, though, is the dry cry. Your face contorts like you need to take a shit, your mouth agape, shoulders hunched. But despite your best efforts and dramatic posturing, no moisture will squeeze out of your squinted eyes and only a low and barely audible moan escapes your down-turned lips. Dry crying is like dry heaving, both consequences of having expelled everything but the need for expulsion. It produces less than satisfying results.
Questions: Where do tears come from/go after they die? What is their salt-to-freshwater ratio? Is this propensity for tears genetic (my dad gets watery-eyed at car commercials)? How many gallons of tears do we cry in one lifetime, and should I start collecting them in rain barrels for future drought years?
After a number of strong drinks, my friend D once admitted to me that the combination of altitude, close proximity to large numbers of strangers, pressurized air and the high-sodium mush that passes as airplane food increases production in his tear ducts. He can’t help but caterwaul at bad romantic comedies on flights, a heartfelt deluge at 600 miles per hour. I have also found that airplanes, and in fact all kinds of transportation, were favorite spots for my emotional breakdowns this past year. I bawled on double-decker buses, high-speed commuter trains, short flights in 15 passenger-planes, and transcontinental flights in 747s. I wailed while driving down winding roads and again while idling in remote parking lots. Public restrooms, restaurants, libraries, hotel lobbies, and romantic dates also became sites of howling sobs and tear-stained cheeks. On other occasions, it was the cold anonymity of early morning city streets that inspired my blubbering. As I walked, I would aim my sad puppy dog eyes at passersby—grandmas and gangsters alike—and silently plead, “Will you love me? Will you take care of me?” Meanwhile, somewhere deep inside, I would calmly think to myself, “I must look so pretty when I cry.”
The most memorable public crying episode of this past year occurred in Switzerland, where I’m pretty sure the tears of every citizen turn into golden watches as they fall from red-rimmed eyes. I arrived with the snuffles welling up behind my pupils and made a beeline for the ladies restroom opposite baggage claim. I watched myself cry in the mirror with a sort of detached air (“I just look so, so pretty”). Suddenly a small voice spoke from behind a mop, the air scented with cleaning product, the words broken Swiss German: “Are you OK, darling?” At least that’s what I assumed the Chechnyan immigrant cleaning lady was asking. She might have just said, “Can you get out of the way? I need to clean the sink.” At any rate, I shook my head yes and then no and then kept crying. She smiled kindly at me. When I didn’t let up, she began rapidly pointing to the sky, alternately touching a small gold cross hung from a delicate chain around her neck and thrusting her hand upward, all the while speaking to me in her hybrid foreign tongue.
“Have faith, God, Jesus, Heaven,” I imagined she was telling me as she continued the odd gestures. “I am washing toilets in a foreign country. I watch people come and go every day. And yet I remain here, toiling away with a smile on my face, because I have faith. You don’t cry. You have faith. It will be okay. God and I promise you this.”
Then again, she could have been saying, “Go catch your plane, you idiot; leave this place. Why are you crying? You walk amongst the privileged and lucky of the world. My neck is already breaking with this hard work and soon it will be my back. So get out of here, you emotional wreck. I have no time for this shit.”
I didn’t understand her and she didn’t understand me, yet it was one of the most tender moments of consoling I have ever experienced. In fact, she seemed so adept at this interaction that I wondered if people crying in her bathroom was a regular occurrence. Perhaps I wasn’t such a waterworks freak after all.