I Don’t Cry, I Cried

I don’t cry, save onions. Be it what it may -vaccines at the doctor, James Cameron’s Titanic, beautiful music, a lost pet, joy, anger, hope, hopelessness- my eyes remain dry. Aside from their physiological function -to lubricate the eye- my body seems incapable of producing the saline laced dew.

In my eyes, the inability to cry out of emotion is not a marker of masculinity or even any form of fortitude. In fact, I have always thought the opposite. This is why though perhaps odd, I have always expressed insecurity in relation to my not crying. It has to lead to me feeling robotic, a suppression of my humanity. This had lead to the incredibly ironic phenomenon of me feeling the tiniest bit jealous when comforting a crying friend.

Some have offered me the consolation that to not cry is simply a genetic trait like any other physiological phenomenon. Some don’t sweat, others have runny noses. But emotional tears are an altogether different sort of bodily fluid. They are the physical manifestation of our emotions, our consciousness, and our humanity. There are no other species that shed emotional tears. The conundrum has produced a multitude of explanations. They are plentiful, wildly varied, and as old as Judaism.

The Old Testament describes tears as the by-product of when the heart’s material weakens and turns into water. In the 1600s, a prevailing theory held that emotions heated the heart, in turn, generating water vapor in order to cool itself down. This ‘heart vapor’ would then rise to the head, condense near the eyes and escape as tears. In 1985 biochemist William Frey popularized the idea that crying removes toxic substances from the blood that build up during times of stress. Charles Darwin declared emotional tears “purposeless.” Even today, the biological-evolutionary function of emotional tears remains unclear. What is apparent, however, are emotional tears’ importance in the human experience.

What bothered me about my inability to cry was not so much the nonexistence of the act itself but moreso an indication of a flat emotional experience. Crying is the result of emotions becoming too great to keep inside. Tears are the texture of our emotional curve. Thus not crying did not feel like a character trait. Rather, it suggested the scary thought that my life had not yet had a visceral enough experience as to bring me to tears. Not crying was not living.

My strange victory came on the evening of March 12th, 2020. A little over a month ago on January 28th, I had arrived in Paris for a semester abroad. Though I had the privilege of being relatively well-traveled -even having been to Paris-, I had always wanted to live somewhere abroad rather than simply passing through. I wanted an experience with no temporal end date in mind. An experience long enough to become numb to a place’s landmarks and sensitive to its detail. 

By the end of the first week, I was curiously comfortable in my new environment. Through awkward obligatory first-week icebreakers and monotonous multitudinous welcome-presentations, I had managed to accumulate a handful of familiar faces. By the second day, walking down Rue De Rivoli, one had noticed me and a moment later invited me to walk with them to dinner. Niceties turned into conversation, and the beginnings of friendship formed.

Moreover, coincidence gifted me a second favor. In almost comical levels of stereotypical romance, my girlfriend had also chosen to study abroad in Paris that semester. Thus we found ourselves in love, in Paris, sarcastically mocking the whole situation all the while. As it turned out and unbeknownst to me, the group of people whom the familiar-face-turned-future-friend was taking me too included none other than my Elizabeth! 

Meaningful friendships were made, iconic sights seen, cobblestone roads wandered, caloric food eaten, and unimaginable wine drunk. The classes I was enrolled in piqued my curiosity, some even involving venturing into the city to study it’s very architecture. The stage was set, these 4 months would no doubt be the most memorable days of my college experience.

The same day I landed in Paris, Director-General of the World Health Organization Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus landed in Beijing to meet President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China. He was there offering assistance for a new virus outbreak known as COVID19. At the time the virus was a relatively local phenomenon, something that the average global citizen may have heard one morning on the news on their way to work. As is obvious, this quickly changed. 

COVID19 spread, and spread fast. By February 27th, a few short weeks after the beginning of the semester, NYU Florence had sent all students home due to Coronavirus scares. France’s first few confirmed cases a few days later quickly became hotspots, and checking the number of confirmed cases every morning became a sick ritual.

Almost as fast as the virus spread, our confidence in a full semester abroad shattered. By March 4th, NYU gave us the option to go home. The possibility of being forced to leave Paris was sprinkled into every other conversation. Concerned undertones now perpetuated tri-weekly calls with parents. A consensus was reached: It was only a matter of time. 

March 10th was the last day I saw my professors in person. NYU had chosen to hold classes remotely while allowing, for the time being, students to stay in Paris. This meant students now took their classes on zoom, either live or via recordings on their own time. Students saw an opportunity: travel to neighboring countries during the weekday for a cheap trip, and take classes in Lisbon remotely, egg tart in hand. 

On the night of March 11th, I had called my parents persuading them to let me stay in Paris for as long as NYU would allow, despite a compelling argument on the contrary bolstered by advice from my CDC epidemiologist aunt. I slept soundly with the knowledge I might have a few weeks left in the city of light, though it only took only those 10 hours for that hope to evaporate.

3,828 miles away, the sun was setting over DC. President Trump, in an unexpected address, declared a “complete shutdown” of flights from Europe. The next morning I woke up with a text from my parents with a one-way boarding pass attached for a flight scheduled to take off in 32 hours.

Humans: irrational, hopelessly hopeful, and idealistic to the point of their own destruction. The distance between our objective and subjective realities is perhaps greater than any other species. That morning of March 12th, ‘leaving Paris’ did not cross my mind. Rather, it was a clustered amalgamation of hurried logistics, bucket list items, and some semblance of a last day plan with Elizabeth. Though the predicted prophecy had prematurely manifested, I psychologically pushed it back, preserving a few more precious hours of sanity.

Two months compressed into a day. Breakfast at La Cafeotheque, Van Gough at Musée d’Orsay, views from the Arc De Triomphe and later from the Eiffel Tour of it, dizzying Monet panoramas, the Grand Palais’ enormous glass ceiling, nostalgic conversation over French 75’s and jazz at Harry’s New York Bar became a rapidly written flipbook. The day was a crystal clear blur, a perpetual instant. The illusion, however, soon came to an end. My time was up, it was time to say goodbye. 

But there were no goodbyes. All of my familiar-faces-now-turned-close-friends were understandably absorbed in their travel plans, some even already gone from Paris. Like a novel with the last chapter torn from it, there was no closure. The status of our ability to remain in Paris had changed so abruptly that last time I saw these friends, two days ago, we were blissfully discussing possible cities throughout Europe to visit.

I bring with me a growing collection of polaroid photos of people important to me to hang on my wall wherever I live. It had come time to take all 63 down. One by one I peeled the double-sided tape from the wall, a face falling to the floor with each. The air turned stiff, my throat became dense, and tears with an altogether different chemical composition then those shed when chopping onions ran down my face. One hypothesis holds that higher protein content makes emotional tears more viscous making them stick to the skin more strongly and run down the face more slowly, making them more likely to be seen by others. However, there was no one whom I was shedding these tears for.

If perhaps a decade from now I found myself nostalgically reminiscing with a friend and was asked to recall some of the best stretches in time I had ever experienced, I would have no trouble imagining my answer beginning with “well during my sophomore year when I studied abroad in Paris…” Time not yet had and never to be recreated felt ripped from me. The Paris I had was gone. The ‘with my friends in my 20’s, learning about gothic cathedrals by day and exploring them by night, responsibilities small enough as to plan trips the night before leaving, sipping red wine in a café on a Wednesday night to prepare for tomorrow’s test,’ Paris. There was no gradual drift in trajectory, not even a quick turn, but rather a pointed right angle. These were tears of loss, tears of sudden change, and tears of distress. 

Yet these were complicated tears. Yes, they were tears of selfish sadness, but they were also tears of relief. I don’t cry, I cried. The texture of my emotional fabric had at long last turned three-dimensional. Automatic, indifferent, merciless, tears. Try as one might, true emotional tears can never be produced on command. Thus what followed was potentially the strangest weep in the history of human crying: tears triggered by sadness, and sustained by comfort. There was understanding in the tears. They made clear a sensation previously perceptible yet indefinite in form: being at the mercy of one’s own body. 

As it turns out crying, at least the operation itself, isn’t particularly anything to be jealous about. However, its meaning lies far outside the simple act. For thousands of years, humans have tried and tried again to conjure some specification to separate ‘us’ from all other species, the soul and consciousness being the leading candidates. However after numerous 19th-century experiments failed to observe anything escape the body seconds after death, and an increasing amount of data to suggest that we are not as unlike other animals as we may have once thought, these claims have thus far proved irrelevant. Perhaps I will add to the impasse by offering another logic into the mass mix: to cry is to be human, and to be human is to cry

I have come to the conclusion that life is like a sheet of newspaper used during a toilet paper shortage: it is much, much better crumpled then stiff. Whether positive or negative, excitement or grief, confidence or fear, understanding or confusion, life’s emotional fabric is better textured. Visceral experiences are the grooves-and we had better want them, for it is in those deep areas within our sensations from which emotions grow from. 

So me, the eternal optimist, has come to believe that instead of seventy-one days lost to fate, it is in fact the hundred tears -each a drop of my humanity found- that should be counted in my mental memory bank, and maybe I’m better for it. 

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