Lettin’ It Out

Luis had not cried in fourteen years. Sure there were times when his eyes welled up—when he stubbed his toe, or hit his funny bone, or once when a stray lacrosse ball hit him square in the forehead while he was watching his little brother warm up—but not since he was a child had Luis even come close to shedding a tear in sadness. Because of the length of that drought he remembered every detail about the last time: he was eight and his grandfather was about to die. His grandfather’s death was imminent and unavoidable like the changing of the seasons, and talked about just as frequently by Luis’ parents, although in rather hushed and deferential tones.

Exactly one week before his grandfather passed, Luis’ father sat him down at the kitchen table and told him that the old man was in the hospital, had pneumonia, and may not recover this time. Being an inquisitive child—and an argumentative one at that—Luis had challenged his father that pneumonia was not bad at all, and that his grandfather would recover quickly on a diet of orange juice and chicken noodle soup just as Luis had done the previous fall. Luis’ father had laughed softly with solemn mirth, a contradiction that only an experienced and understanding parent can pull off well. “No, m’ijo,” he had answered gently. “While you are young and have a strong immune system, your abuelo is old and weak. Being sick is much more serious for him”.

Five days later Luis was called to the phone by his mother. His grandfather had regained his voice enough to call from the hospital and wanted to speak to his grandchildren, first Luis’ sister, Marisol, and then Luis. His grandfather told Luis that he loved him very much and he wished that they could sit in his garden and watch the hummingbirds one more time, and when Luis told him they would again soon, there followed such a long silence on the other end of the line that Luis thought the old man had hung up. When he spoke again, his wavering voice was husky with emotion and he told Luis to be nice to his sister and to do as his parents told him. Luis mumbled his affirmation and silently handed the phone to his mother, then walked back to his room, shut the door, and curled up on his bed. The tears came without any warning and Luis cried and cried with the intensity of a child who is only beginning to understand the enormity of his own lack of understanding. He cried silently, in case his mother or sister was listening at the door, but his body shook with the violent sobs and he did not breathe normally again for many minutes. Even after the tears had dried, he continued laying in his fetal position, his mind just as blank as the white wall behind his bed.

For many years, Luis did not think of that day as a pivotal moment in his life—in fact, he did not think of it at all, for it was a shameful event to him. He never cried in school, or when he argued with his parents, or even when he broke his collarbone playing soccer. Luis was not a fighter or a bully, but subconsciously he began to think of himself as a tough guy who was never crippled by sadness or burdened by tears. It was not until high school graduation when, surrounded by so many of his friends who were choking back tears of sadness and letting flow tears of happiness, Luis realized that he could not summon a single tear even if he wanted to.

He tried to remember the last time he had cried and slowly, out of the shimmering depths of his memory, came the phone call with his grandfather. Had that experience forever dulled his emotions? Could he no longer cry? Luis had never taken notice of this possible problem before because it never had been a problem: his male friends thought he was tough and his inability to form meaningful emotional connections with his girlfriends was not exactly atypical of high school romances. When he invariably broke it off with his girlfriends and they would burst into tears or call him a week later sobbing, he thought it only natural that his eyes would stay dry. Crying was a girl thing. But as Luis matured and headed off to college (events which he viewed as intrinsically linked, most likely because he had seen too many cheesy coming of age movies), he began to see his lack of emotion as a potential deficiency.

When his dog died during his first month away, Luis was sad but did not cry. When his girlfriend who he had picked up on the second day of “Welcome Week” before classes even started, dumped him the very next week, he was hardly affected and certainly did not cry. He didn’t even mind that they still had Math class together and he had to see her every morning for an hour and a quarter. His first real relationship in college would not happen until the beginning of his sophomore year, after he had switched majors to International Relations and fell head-over-heels in love with the teacher’s assistant in his international theory class, a girl two years ahead with the most beautiful blue eyes that would positively glow when she talked about her passion for overcoming injustice in third world countries. They dated that whole year and Luis was heartened to know that he was still capable of having real feelings. He never cried because she never made him sad, but he felt so happy when he was with her and knew that this was his first taste of real love. Then in May she graduated and told him that she was moving to Paraguay to work with indigenous communities and although she loved him, it would be better for them both if they broke up entirely. Luis was devastated—but he did not cry. He could not cry. He had driven her to the airport the week after graduation and had kissed her one last time as she shouldered her heavy backpack, but even seeing her bright blue eyes well up with tears was not enough to elicit the same reaction in his own soft brown eyes. That summer had seemed longer, darker, and drearier than any before, and when he returned to school in the fall, it was with the submission that he was incapable of true sadness. He accepted this fact and learned to live with it.

Then one winter night, almost a full year out of college, Luis was driving home when a woefully sad song came on the radio. He had heard the song many times, but turned up the volume to properly listen to the words for the first time. The lyrics were so sad that Luis could hardly imagine the singer was really feeling all those things he was singing about—a girlfriend leaving him, a father not understanding him, no one appreciating him. Luis thought about being sad and wondered why he had never tried to make himself sad before; not to focus on the one issue that was bothering him at any given time, but to try and make himself sad just for the sake of the feeling. He made himself feel happen fairly routinely, following a method that he had learned way back in grade school where you list on your fingers as many things as you can think of that make you happy and as many people as you can think of that make you happy. Why had he never done anything similar with sadness?

So Luis thought of all the things that would make him sad. He considered what would happen if his parents died, or his sister, or his Aunt Marcie. He imagined getting that news over the phone and then having to call up the surviving relatives and pass on the news. He tried to imagine his best friend getting in a horrible car accident and what he would have to tell his mother. Luis felt sadness welling up from within him, but rather than push it back down as he always had, he unclenched his jaw and let it come up. In the darkness of his car he relaxed his face and let it show the sadness that kept pouring out, the strange waves of viscous feeling that washed over him the more he thought about these terrible what-if’s. And suddenly he was crying. He was so surprised to feel the warm tears on his face that he had to put a hand to his cheek to make sure he was not imagining them. Luis laughed out loud, the choked laugh of the girl who has cried so long that she does not even know why she is crying any more, and then the tears came out even harder. They streamed down his face and his body shook with sadness or happiness, he was not sure.

“This is so fucked up,” he said to his reflection in the dark passenger side window and finally the flow of tears petered out until he was just hiccupping wetly. His throat burned and his eyes stung, but inside Luis felt so good. So good! Thinking those awful thoughts and feeling that leaden sadness like a weight in his stomach had felt so terrible, but now he could hardly believe how good he felt—light, euphoric, effervescent. Is that what he had been missing out on all those years?

When he pulled into his driveway he saw his roommates bustling about in the well-lit kitchen, joking with each other as they made dinner. Luis pulled the sun visor down against the windshield and then popped the top light on, carefully wiping his cheeks with his sleeves and checking for any puffiness around his eyes. After a minute, Luis exhaled sharply, gave himself one last look in the mirror, hitched a smile on his face, and hopped out. There was no reason to let anybody else know that had happened.

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