The Uncomfortable Exposure of Crying in Public

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

There is a girl crying in this Starbucks, & I am the first person to notice.

I pass her on my way to the restroom, taking my purse but leaving behind my jacket & computer & various empty cups. I'm scanning the faces of the people sitting near me to see if anyone looks like they might rob me - whatever that means - & I've decided to risk it, that my bladder cannot wait. I hope that by making eye contact with a kind stranger, someone will feel obligated to speak up should they see my belongings being stolen in the 60 seconds it takes me to pee.

The old man sitting next to me is wearing massive headphones attached to a clunky, old-fashioned-looking machine, a recording device of some sort. He would get tangled up in those cords before he could ever walk away with my stuff. The old man next to him is gregarious & friendly & walks with a cane; it would take him, too, some effort to rob me. Next to them is a middle-aged women deep in a book & with her a young woman in her early 20s who was, just moments ago, engrossed in a GRE study manual.

She's not reading anymore. Now, she's holding her iPhone very close to her face, & she's crying.

She's trying not to cry, actually, & I know from personal experience that she's about to fail miserably. The pursed lips, the furrowed brow, the red cheeks, & the telltale watery eyes all give her away, as does the embarrassed look on her face, the fixed focus on her hands so she doesn't have to look up & face the prying eyes of strangers like me. She's trying not to cry, but she's going to, & no one else has noticed yet.

I think about what I might be able to do for her. How can I make her feel better, less alone, comforted in some small way? I think about all the times I've been that girl almost-crying in a Starbucks, or in the grocery store, or on the Metro, or somewhere else where crying doesn't belong, simultaneously wanting to go unnoticed & for someone to tell me everything will be OK. I think of all the times I've been that girl actual-crying in private, in my apartment or my car, balancing the desire to reach out to a friend for help & comfort with the need to appear perpetually self-possessed & unfazed. I think about what it feels like to be a disastrous mess in the midst of a world full of other people who never seem to be & how sometimes, you feel desperate for some sort of reassurance that you are a regular human being & that your feelings are OK to feel, even if they happen by accident in public.

Ultimately, I decide there's nothing for me to do that won't be terribly awkward or make it worse for her. When I return from the bathroom - unrobbed, by the way - her waterworks have begun, her mother has noticed, & eventually, she composes herself in the bathroom before the two of them link arms & walk out the door. End of story.

But I hope that the next time I start to cry in public, I think of her, red in the face, & how I felt, a helpless stranger watching it happen. And I hope I remember that we are never alone.

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