At first glance I mistook her for a child. She was tiny, but it was also the way she dressed, in a short dark pleated shirt and denim jacket that made me think Catholic schoolgirl. And it was the size of the man she clung to; he was large and boyish with a drop of light brown hair that all but covered a face hung low above her mass of inky curls. The skirt, then, was fashion; they were lovers besotted with mutual affection. It’s hopeless I thought—between my nearsightedness and the head cold that’d set up shop between my eyes, all visual impressions were unreliable that week. Even under the dim fluorescence of the 50th Street subway station, the throbbing forced my normally wide-open eyes to squint.
But my ears still worked, and as I grew close I heard unmistakable sobs. My instinct was to look away, but away meant into the faces of others standing nearby, leaning against walls and the station’s blue pillars decked with black-and-white placards stamped “50”, balancing bags and briefcases as they paced and shifted their weight. They also heard her muffled chokes, and while some looked on shamelessly, others gazed elsewhere—but not for long. Her tragic song sucked them in, and soon averted eyes rose above the distractions of books and newspapers to follow the drama. The sound followed me down the platform. I pulled out my paper, but as the seconds dwindled, I found myself praying for a shrieking train to obliterate her pathetic whimpers.
Emotions are windows into the souls of others. As a witness I’ve grown immune to most;the midtown gauntlet serves up a steady barrage of raucous joy, sniping petulance and goggle-eyed wonder; such impressions usually last as long as it takes to cross a congested street. Public tears are something else. The soul is past hope—certainly past caring for matters of propriety. It’s the overheard conversation that makes me wince, a sign that certain madness (fleeting, I hope) lurks beneath our composed surfaces awaiting the instant something (or someone) pushes a button that bursts the dam tumbling us down to the depths of despair. All of us walk that tightrope, and when I see a man or woman succumb I’m reminded of my own vulnerabilities, my own bottled pain.
A few years back I was walking north on Lafayette in the dead of winter. Up ahead a young man wielding a large carryall hailed a cab on the corner of East 4th. The headlights of oncoming traffic revealed a face streaked with tears, and as I passed I heard it, that terrible cry of someone so waylaid by misery that comfort might elude him for some time to come. That face—those wails—pursued me for days. My imagination cooked up scenarios: he’d just broken up with his lover—the bag contained remnants of the failed relationship, like changes of clothes, shoes, toiletries and all sorts of other accumulated crap. Or perhaps a friend had just died and he was on an errand of commiseration, off to share his weeping with other mutual friends of the deceased. Later came the realization that these weren’t original thoughts—I was merely projecting past experience, moments from my life that’d driven me to the same show of despair on similar streets.
Unlike the man on Lafayette, the distraught girl on the platform had someone to absorb her staccato punches of exhausted breaths. I put on my glasses for another look. She was still holding on, he was still holding her up, holding her head with his large hands against the lapels of a dark gray suit, a shield against the prying eyes of strangers peering inside the open door of one’s lost resolve.