“Oh, stop crying already.” It’s twenty years ago, but I remember the exact tone of my father’s voice, equal parts impatience and disgust. To me, crying is something that happens, not something I can decide to do or not do, so his command makes me burn with all the anger of which a nine-year-old is capable, which is a frightening amount. But there’s nobody I can tell about any of this.
It’s eighteen years ago. I am auditioning for a play that our church group is putting on. The woman in charge has me read a line or two in front of everyone. I’m profoundly self-conscious, but I do it anyway. She takes me aside later and asks if I’m okay. Even though she’s someone I know and like and trust, I can’t say something as simple as That was really hard for me, because as soon as I open my mouth, I feel the danger of tears — not just a trickle but an explosion. So I say, Yeah, it’s nothing.
When she goes away, I wonder for the first time: why is it that whenever I try to tell someone what’s wrong, the tears dam up in my head until it’s a choice between silence and total breakdown — even when it’s something small? What’s wrong with me?
It’s thirteen years ago, my first year of college. I’m standing alone in my dorm room and facing for the hundredth time the feeling of separateness: I don’t fit in here, don’t fit in anywhere, and it’s somehow all my fault. By now I should have learned the rules, but it’s too late to start.
I start to cry, and then, disgusted and impatient, I yell at myself: Stop it. Stop crying. I slap myself in the face two or three times, because sometimes that helps me stop. Soon I stop.
It’s nine years ago, my last year of college. I’m in Sal’s room, confessing to him how alone I am, how separate, what a fake and a poser and a general failure at being anything that anyone would recognize as a human being.
I hate the way my voice is starting to shake, I hate that the tears are coming. I must sound so pathetic. I can’t stand for him to watch me anymore, so I get up and run out. I catch a glimpse of his face, but I can’t look for too long. Nobody should see this.
It’s five years ago. I’ve gotten together the necessary money and resolve, and I find myself at a campground in rural Virginia, participating in the 27th Journey Into Manhood weekend — still in disbelief that I’ve subjected myself to such manifest kookery, still wildly expectant, still wondering how I’m going to explain this one to my friends.
I watch other men scream and howl, weep and claw at the ground, come face to face with the things they never let themselves feel before. When it’s my turn, I do it too.
The weekend is over, and I feel as empty and fresh as a new wineskin. For the next few weeks I keep bursting into tears at unpredictable moments. I don’t mind. It feels good to cry; it feels clean.
It’s nine months ago. I am on the porch, spilling my guts to my roommate S.: how living here with him and C. was supposed to was supposed to be my chance to finally be normal, and how it all went wrong instead. How I’ve got to move out because I can’t control my fears, my feelings of exclusion, my jealousy. I apologize for my tears, which are flowing freely now.
He looks at me and says, Hey, come on. It’s me.
So I blow my nose and we keep talking. Soon I’m feeling at peace, like the reservoir is drained, no more pressure left behind the dam. He gives me a hug and, because by this time it’s past two, I let the poor bastard get some sleep.
It’s three days ago. I am sitting around the kitchen table with two good friends. We’re drinking cheap beer and leftover wine. We all have to get up in the morning, but nobody feels like leaving.
It’s hard to believe how easy it is to talk with them, how much we have in common, even if the specifics differ. I tell them how it used to be for me; how it still is for so many men I know; how I would have once given anything for a night like this; how grateful I still am that such nights are not only possible now, but practically commonplace.
At one point I notice that I’m crying, but that’s okay — that is what people do when they are very happy or very sad.
Next moment we are all laughing again.