“I wish I could cry.” He felt like his insides were filled with stones, holding him down, making it impossible to breathe. If he could just cry like the way he did when he was a little boy, the stones could come out, he would feel hollow inside for a while, but lighter again. Other than happy moments, he hadn’t been able to cry for years. He just continued to fill up with those stones. He could be full of them and sit at the bottom of the ocean. You can’t crush stone even with the weight and pressure of the entire black ocean rising up above you.
The last time he remembered crying was when he was 17, watching the Fox and the Hound with Suzanne in her basement. With her parents upstairs, the two of them sat under the same blanket, thin and frayed, smelling a little like cat urine. They had movie evenings like this before, where usually they passed the time kissing, how many thousands of different ways to kiss as the movie played in the background. He didn’t even remember which ones they had seen together. There was something about this movie though that hit him a different way. Not long after it started, Nick felt something break inside of him. The tears filled his eyes and a dam burst someplace inside, they kept coming, running down his cheeks. He couldn’t stop them. He wept and Suzanne watched him with astonishment, eventually taking him into her arms and just holding him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. Laughing between tears he apologized and tried to wipe them out.
“There’s no reason to be sorry. Are you okay?” She just kept holding him.
“I just can’t stop.”
“You don’t have to.”
That night after the movie was done, he felt so empty, like all the poison of his life up until that point had been drained out of him, like a boil. Suzanne never mentioned it again unless he brought it up. For his birthday, she bought him the VHS of the Fox and the Hound, which he never had the courage to play again. Certainly not alone.
He never cried like that again. Not when his grandparents died, not when he had to euthenize three of their dogs when he was married. The stones started filling him then. Sometimes his eyes would well up with tears of joy. Anything random could set it off. A television commercial or the kids smacking the tv screen when they were toddlers.
Then there were moments like that Valentine’s Day, when he sat alone on the quad, his back up against a pine tree outside the building where he worked. It was a clear, mid-February day. In Colorado, winter takes a break for a few weeks and returns in full fury at the beginning of March. Usually around Valentine’s, the temperatures climb into the sixties or seventies. The grass is dead and the color of honey, but insects begin to buzz around. For a few days it feels like a rumor of summer.
He sat staring into the distance, feeling the weight of so many stones that had gathered in his heart—his marriage, the stress of his job and how it never seemed to be enough, and the debts that kept building, the opportunities for his kids being missed over and over, his solitude, the friends he could no longer talk to without being criticized, the beginning of estrangement from his parents. A student approached him, walking straight towards him across the grass. He watched her come closer, figuring she was just another campus crusader. Oftentimes they stopped to talk with him about Jesus or attending one of their services. He was still young looking in those days. His early thirties. They were eager to put butts in pews.
“Hello!” the young lady said when she approached.
“Hi,” he said. There was a feeling inside that made him wonder if his wife was somehow watching. She wouldn’t like him talking to a pretty college student. The girl was blonde, with her hair braided into two long braids. She wore overalls and rubber rain boots. Yellow with red flowers painted on the sides.
She sat down across from him and reached into a bag she was carrying. She handed him a Reeces Peanut Butter cup. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” she said. She offered him the candy, which he took reluctantly.
“Thank you,” he said. He held the candy bar gingerly, like a baby chick.
She beamed and offered her hand to shake, which he took. Her hand felt small in his palm. The skin was soft and smooth. He could smell her shampoo. His heart fluttered a little bit. He couldn’t remember the last time he had touched another adult like this. It felt more like a hug to him than a handshake. He was touch-starved, alone, and that touch felt like glass cracking all the way up the length of his arm to his chest.
“Thank you,” he said again, feeling tears welling up into his eyes.
“You looked like you needed to be someone’s Valentine.”
She stood up and continued on across the grass, leaving Nick holding that peanut butter cup. When she was gone, he was still holding the candy and he heard himself sniff. He let out a single sob and two tears rolled down his face. He couldn’t tell if they were happy or sad tears. Maybe one of each.
He unwrapped the candy and took a bite. Maybe the girl was an angel, he thought, and he could keep the gift she had given him safe inside himself. The chocolate and peanut butter were the best and freshest he had ever tasted.
Nick thought about last year when he and Holly would stay up late texting each other. He was still nursing the wounds of the end of his last relationship: Kate. Love in the Time of Covid was the working title of that story. Over the years, he and Holly had their run of flirtations when either of them was single or in close proximity at least, but mostly they talked about things. Hopes. Burdens. Dreams. The 500 miles between them were a deterrent for romance, though nothing was impossible. He had always thought she was pretty. Curly hair and heart-shaped face which always seemed to carry that sweet smirky-smile.
When Kate left, Holly was the first person he told. He didn’t know why. He just had to reach out to someone as his heart was shattering into pieces. They hadn’t talked for months other than the occasional hello or checking in on each other. He liked her posts on Instagram and Facebook too and watched her daughters grow and the sweet smile she always wore. Summer under lock down passed easily when they filled the nights with long conversations. They listened to each other about everything. They never flinched.
“Have you ever read the book, Wild by Cheryl Strayed?” Nick asked her one night.
“Yes! I love that book!” Holly said.
“I just started reading it again. I read it at the beginning of my divorce.”
“It is incredible.”
“She’s just so honest. Raw,” he said.
“And that scene on the beach—“
“Oh jeez,” he said. “I know what you mean. I like the movie and the book equally but for different reasons.”
“Oh yeah? Please tell me,” she said.
“That whole area is beautiful, but you never see that in the book. Just the journey of discovery in herself. The movie at least shows us the scenery.”
They decided to read the book again together and when they were done, a few weeks later, they watched the movie. They texted back and forth as the movie played, talking about each scene as though they were there. That was a moment Nick’s tears were happy.
In the nights he was reading the book, it was hard to get through it as quickly as Holly had been reading. He had to stop and scribble down notes of what he was feeling, putting into words the things he wanted for his own story which were demanding to be told. Cutting as deep as he could. Sometimes he felt himself on the verge of tears. This time sad tears. Something deep inside coming up that he could do nothing to stop. Like a whale rising from the deep blue towards the surface, about to take a breath.
A year later, Holly was gone as well. Their paths diverged, with each of them going where the other could not follow. Her absence left another weight in his chest. Another stone to pull him under.
He watched Wild again, alone. Trying to feel the way he felt when they watched it together. A completely different person now than he was even a year ago, when they were both starting out on an amazing journey together as close friends. Then something more. Back when she let him in. Back when she was pretty instead of beautiful. Now he took his place among many others and she lost sight of who he was. Maybe even herself. Now he was just another in a long list of names to be forgotten. He knew well how it felt to be lost.
He remembered how deeply that movie cut him. How he wished he could write anything that honest. How the nights reading that book (one of the only ones that he read more than once) were often start and stop, with him reading a chapter or a few pages and drawing the courage from that to write from places so deep that it was better than crying. Cathartic.
He sat down again to write. The words fell into the pages of that leather bound notebook she had given him, scratched out onto the heavy gauge paper in scribbles of black ink, manifesting what his heart told him. He couldn’t cry anymore. Never again would it be like that night of watching the Fox and the Hound half a lifetime ago. His tears were the ink from his pen now, falling onto those empty pages.
Gradually, he felt the weight of the stones begin to lighten.
Copyright 2021 Clinton A. Harris