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Personal Essays

Credit: NASA

It’ll End in Tears

Everyone has a talent, something they do better than most anyone else. For some, that may be solving complex problems. For others, it may be performing an athletic feat. For me, it’s crying.

I cried all day last Friday. I cried because I thought Obama was going to lose and I cried because I thought New Orleans was doomed and I cried because people didn’t care and I cried because one man in particular didn’t care enough about me and I cried because I fear I will turn 40 in a lonely city with a dying tabby who uses a walker just to get to the litter box and my parents will die one day and also, and also, I’m out of Kleenex.

“Well, wait a minute,” my mom said when I told her these things, flopped on the bed in my room like the 15-year-old I felt like. “I’m not exactly dead yet.” She took my hand in hers. Her hand is cool, soft, delicate. She ran one hand across my clammy forehead. “You’re crying about things that haven’t even happened, baby doll.” (She calls me “baby doll” sometimes. I have no idea if this is weird.)

But on the day that McCain announced he had chosen a female vice-presidential candidate, on the day that New Orleans issued a mandatory evacuation, these things felt inevitable and awful and the sheer breadth of their inevitability and their awfulness ripped open inside me as I drove back to my parents’ home, where I was visiting for Labor Day. I walked in the back door, tears streaming down my face, and as the dog danced around me, and as my father sat at his old creaky computer trying to make it work, and as my mom frosted cupcakes for a tea party on Sunday, a tiny smear of chocolate batter across her right cheek, I entered and said, “I can’t talk right now, Obama’s going to lose,” and stormed off to my bedroom. It was like the scene in the movie where the girl slams her door in tears because the Beatles broke up, and you think: That scene never happened, no one ever did that. Only I was doing it right then, that moment, that scene: Obama’s going to lose, New Orleans is doomed, and I am going to die alone.

My parents are patient with me. I appreciate this about them.

When I say that I cried all day, I mean that I cried for approximately two hours, and then a tiny bit later at dinner, and then at the bar—just a few poignant sniffles, really—but by the end of the day my eyes were red and swollen, as though bee-stung, and my back ached and even a day later my neck was sore because I do think, in the throes of one particularly fierce seizure of sadness, I pulled a muscle.

I say this not to concern you with my mental health. My mental health is fine, thanks. “Crying is good for your immune system,” my mom (who is a therapist) always tells me, which is a factoid that is a mystery to me: like, I don’t even know what it means or where it comes from; she might have learned it from the DSM-IV, and she might have learned it from Oprah.

No, I bring this up to do something I don’t normally do, and that is to brag. To brag on my own unique capacity for tears. Because I am, simply, the heavyweight champ of crying. My ability to cry is so staggering that I might very well be one of the most crying-est people on this planet. I could compete in the Olympics of Crying and at least score bronze. I am the Miles Davis of crying. Because I do it not only so well, and so often, but also in so many ways: on the couch, curled in a ball; at the restaurant, one tear slipped down a cheek; at the coffee shop, shreds of Kleenex beside me in an anxious, wadded ball; in the bathtub, in the car, on the subway, quiet and loud and all the in betweens, I will bring you tears, and they will be swift and earnest and sweet. Once, in college, I sat at a keg party chain-smoking and crying about another boy who didn’t love me enough, and a male friend, who had lost the ability to cry years ago, looked at me and said, “It’s like crying is your superpower.” He said it with the kind of awe you reserve for athletes and musicians, people who might have just been born with it, you know what I mean? As I wiped my wet nose with the sleeve of my hoodie, I conceded that he had a point. It’s like, my face makes water. My face is magic.

Crying is not generally seen as a sign of strength. I do not, however, think it is a sign of weakness. It is, for me, a sign of other things endemic to my personality: my sensitivity, a thick blue streak of depression, a short fuse further shortened by too much red wine and pilsners on consecutive nights, and a deeply naive and wrongheaded belief that the world is fair, or should be. It is a sign that I crave understanding, that I feel frustrated by my own shortcomings, that I have an uncommon devotion to worst-case scenarios and sadness because, more than anything, it is a sign that I am a drama queen.

“It’s like crying is your superpower.” He said it with the kind of awe you reserve for athletes and musicians, people who might have just been born with it, you know what I mean? But what is the accurate response to a world that seems to be incalculably and inexorably slipping from your grasp? What is the accurate response to the realization that Americans might not care about the poor and the downtrodden after all, that a beautiful and damaged city could drown, that the man you wanted to spend your life with and grow old with until you were both stooped like candy canes and using a walker to get to your litter box—what is the response to the revelation that he does not love you? Or cannot, or will not? It seems utterly rational to cry about these things. It seems appropriate. It’s good for my immune system (or something).

By the way, did I tell you that the man I’m talking about lives in New Orleans? That I thought we would live there together? Here is what I see: An adorable shotgun house in the Bywater, painted some eccentric color, and on Sundays we would invite all the guys from the station over for a backyard barbecue (while the cat naps in a slice of shade cast by a magnolia tree), and I would drink mint juleps but he firmly believes that beer is the only proper accompaniment to steaks on the grill, and the next morning, still foggy from all the bourbon, I would turn to him in our bed and say, “Did I perform Britney Spears songs while wearing a blue wig last night?” and he would smile, and wink at me, and say, “That’s my girl.”

I should also tell you he is a cop. I should tell you that when people evacuate prior to a category 3 hurricane, cops stay put because their job is to protect and serve. (Can you imagine? If that were your job description?) And so as I watched CNN on Sunday night, as Hurricane Gustav inched anxiously toward New Orleans, I cried because I thought he might die—the levees buckled, the mighty Mississippi surging forth, swallowing a town whole, and I might not even get a call because who knows if I’m on that list anymore, that ugly call list of loved ones every cop writes up.

“Oh, baby doll,” my mom said, digging the Kleenex out of a drawer, “he’s not gonna die.” But you can’t promise me that! Because I used to cry that he would leave me, and he would say, “Oh baby, I’ll never leave you,” but he did anyway, and the thing about being paranoid, about catastrophizing is that sometimes you are right. (But also, the thing about being paranoid, about catastrophizing is that you probably should not be married to a cop.)

Even if he didn’t die, however—and, OK, chances were slim—I cried because people had the faith in New Orleans to rebuild their homes there, plant trees in a yard devoured by the storm, followed their hearts against logic, against history, because logic and history would tell you to get the fuck out of there, to stop putting your faith in a city below sea level, run by government with IQs sometimes below sea level, and so then I started crying about Obama again because I think if he doesn’t win, my heart will just scab over (and maybe, considering my flood of tears, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing).

“He’s not going to lose,” my friend Robert told me Friday night at the bar, as I was poignantly sniffling. “Sarah Palin is a right-wing nutjob. She doesn’t believe global warming is man-made.”

“If we held the election tomorrow, maybe Obama would lose,” Robert continued. “But in November? No way. This is a Hail Mary. And the thing about a Hail Mary is that it almost never, ever works.”

But, of course, we can’t know. We can’t know if Obama will lose until November, at the very earliest. We can’t know if New Orleans is doomed, even after that angry, swirling magenta starburst disappears from the corner of the CNN screen and the slavering media redirects its jaws to a story about Sarah Palin’s teenage daughter being pregnant. And I can’t know if I’ll die alone until I die, alone, and anyway isn’t that what the poets tell us—that we all die alone? So fine, fuck it, I’ll die alone and so will you and we can cry about that or we can laugh. And actually that is one thing I love so deeply about New Orleanians, that they understand pain. Because you can cry about it, yes. But at some point, even pain deserves its own joyful parade.