The sound of Lyle's crying floated through the open windows of the flat next door and entered our house like a desperate stranger. It was our first house. We had just started our family, a time of swerving emotions for any couple. Lyle's weekly crying spells were alarming, especially at first, but after a while we got used to them, and they added a benign turbulence to the air.
Lyle's cry was more of a moan than a sob, although he could light it up with a shriek depending on the day. Dots of silence signaled breaths. Between wails, I imagined him gathering in wind from the four corners of his first-floor apartment only to return it to the room in great, mournful heaves. For whatever reason, Lyle cried mostly at dusk.
There may have been clinical depression going on, but whenever we'd see Lyle out in the yard he seemed stable enough, even happy. We became friendly in the way neighbors become friendly, enough so to ask him about his crying from time to time, and take the opportunity to see if he was okay. "It's cool," he'd say.
From what we could tell, Lyle's crying was driven less by crisis than by coping. The kind of cry, like a good laugh, that did exactly what it was supposed to do - provide a rhythm-restoring shock to the heart and psyche.
This winter I thought about Lyle when I realized it'd been a long time since I last cried. From out of the blue I suddenly felt the need to do so myself, but didn't have any related emotional toggle to flip. We've had the usual tensions this winter, but nothing, you know, to cry about. The weird thing is that while I couldn't pinpoint a trigger to cry, I knew I'd feel better if I did it.
Weeks passed. Wanting a good cry and not getting it is a sad thing in and of itself. Laughter relieves smaller problems, releases them like birds freed from their cage. However, I was carrying around vague woe. Laughter holds no truck with sorrow.
If you think of your soul as a house, laughing cleans out the garage. Crying cleans out the attic.
My need to cry became the proverbial watched pot. I'm not self-conscious in a meta-macho way about talking of this, because I see crying in the same way Lyle appeared to see it: just another hammer in the emotional toolbox.
Men who cry send confusing messages to a culture that generally would prefer they not do so. I'm not a product of that mainstream, at least where crying is concerned. My father could work up a good set of tears, although his were more of the sentimental variety.
That kind also comes easy to me. If the house lights in the East High auditorium come up unexpectedly during a choir performance, you'll see my face, as sodden as a dish sponge. Sentimental cries help one work through the melancholy of the moment. That's not the cry I needed this winter.
The cry I needed finally came one morning in January. It arrived on the heels of some rough news related to a family member. The cry took hold of me immediately after a string of phone calls related to the matter, phone conversations that required me to hold it together while my fears rose against the weak embankment of my composure.
My 17-year-old daughter, Maggie, emerged from the bathroom to the sight of it. I looked up at her through a gauze of tears. Her look of complete understanding and calm was love personified. She went about her school-morning business.
I remained in the bedroom. There truly is a fine line between pain and pleasure, between laughing and crying, and I was touching that line, pressing my entire body up against it. The lift of the full-bodied spasms almost tickled. One triggered the next and caused me to exhale uncontrollably, as though receiving blows to the stomach.
The sound of my own voice in this state was unsettling. None of the tones were familiar, yet they were coming from my mouth. I heard a pleading rasp in my weeping, no doubt related to the painful core of my sadness: an act of unfairness. My body became looser, rather than more rigid. It reminded me of what happens when you stretch right before a swim. The tears flowed violently.
Beyond that, all I remember from the episode is alternately standing and sitting, wondering how and why I was moving at all. And I remember coming out of it, heated up inside to an incredible warmth. My mind was filled with pure nothingness, a glorious vacuum, as though I could fill it, if I wished, in the very next second with anything I wanted. This was the important part, I realized. The clean slate generously given to the sufferer.
As if from far away, I heard Maggie close the front door with a soft click. The bedroom radiator hissed as it filled its belly with steam.