The crybooths were all over the city, at least the nicer parts of town. Through the café window, Carolyn and I watched a pair of men in teal vests wrangle a damaged booth from the sidewalk and wheel it into a truck labeled Tidal Longings. A minute later a pristine unit was bolted in its place, the plumbing affixed for self-cleaning, the solar panels gathering whatever light still fell during these murky times. Gleaming things, the new booths, and you couldn’t help but feel a little bit reassured even if their regenerative claims were dubious and they occupied an inordinate amount of sidewalk space. This particular crybooth was aquamarine. Each company’s was branded a different color to distinguish one startup from the rest, each slot on the color wheel carving out its niche for the broken-minded. Some booths were sunflower yellow for optimists, some sewage brown for customers harboring no illusion that a crying session could relieve us permanently from our suffering. Customers were loyal to their brands.
“What’s your color?” I asked Carolyn.
“Gray-blue,” my sister replied, pushing crumbs across her plate into a neat pile. “Foggy Skies.”
I nodded, picturing her tucked into a Foggy Skies booth with a Bic pen and a mangled notebook of poetry, sobbing out whatever new injustice had drifted through her mind or across her screen that day. I didn’t have a brand, though I had a few prepared for casual conversation: Before the Dawn, Sanctuarial. They were lies, though. I couldn’t cry. Carolyn said I was blocked. My ex-wife Jackie said I was blocked. Ads on billboards and the internet said I was blocked, that I was emotionally constipated. Maybe they were right, but I couldn’t help but wonder if it was the opposite: maybe we were just fine, all of us, despite the Difficulties. A heresy, I suppose, as I was the only person I knew who believed it, and I never tested my hypothesis, except with Carolyn. We’d meet for coffee every Sunday after our mother died, talking about this and that, but mostly the crybooths that had spread across the city, as if they were evidence of the damaged state of the world, its obvious decline, and how incapable people were of coping with it. We talked about how she cried and how I couldn’t. We examined the damaged tissue of my soul, diagnosed my ailment as if we were back safe in my pathology lab. But each afternoon my test results were inconclusive. A blank chart, or random data points. We had no idea why I couldn’t cry.
“I can’t get past the egotism,” I suggested as a thick-bearded, trim man slipped into the newly-installed booth, careful not to spill his coffee or knock his laptop bag on the door as it sealed shut. “The show.”
“What show? Everyone’s crying in private.”
“Are they? Or are they only lacrimating?”
“You and your terms.”
“Shedding basal tears. The composition of tears varies greatly depending on the nature of the crying. Emotional tears serve to rid the body of certain stress hormones. But are they really emotional tears?”
“Who are you to dispute someone’s feelings?”
“Fair point, but I can dispute the degree, the drama.”
“Oh sure, it’s histrionics,” she said, folding her arms — dramatically, I might add.
“I wouldn’t use that word.”
“We’re all crazy women, right?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You may as well have.”
“It’s an industry, is all. These companies want us to suffer. To keep us suffering, so we’ll swipe our credit cards at their booths.”
“They provide a service. Don’t you remember what it was like before? Don’t you remember the shame of revealing any emotion except anger in public? How hard it was to walk down the street or sit on a park bench and sob when you needed, the way you needed…” She could read my skepticism. “Of course you don’t.”
“Do you still cry about Mom?”
She drained her coffee and stood up. “Of course I do.”
“Why don’t I feel it too?” She stood up to leave, but I knew neither of us wanted the morning to end this way. “We’re still going to the dedication, right?”
“That’s what we agreed.”
Our mother’s church had decided to name a room in her honor — a brass plaque above a doorway, no doubt — and there was a dedication scheduled for next Sunday. Neither of us wanted to go. It took us years to admit the fact, but our mother was a self-centered woman. Community leaders lauded her for championing the neglected, but all the while she was neglecting Carolyn and me. How else to explain my sister’s poetry, or my clinical mind? Our mother had died a year before, and though the rites of her passing were well behind us, there was this one last hurdle to leap. We had to face her very public image, to agree with it, to believe it, smile — and maybe shed some tears.
She stopped, slumped her shoulders, tapped her breast, her thoracic cavity. “If we go, will you really be there? Or will you retreat into your head, like you always do?”
I was flummoxed, but before I could answer she gave me a halfhearted peck on the cheek and was out the door, off to cry out her frustration in a Foggy Skies booth. Or a Choppy Waters with its grumbling Eno-inspired soundtrack, or maybe even a Shriekbox — those blood-red units cranking dread metal for paying customers who beat their fists against a floor crusty with layers of imitation tear-salt. I swirled my lukewarm coffee, feeling guilty, lost. Carolyn needed more of me, wanted me to experience a genuine emotional release, for me to cascade into the soft tissue of deep memory, my right bilateral brain, as if I were inhabiting a poem. But I was no poet, I was a pathologist, and whatever negative emotions I’d developed for our mother I’d laid to rest long ago. I worked hard at it. Why all this dwelling?
I had the rest of Sunday to myself. Jackie had the kids. It was November, damp and bristling. I could see a movie, or buy new tennis shoes. Start a book, enjoy a glass of wine. But Carolyn stuck with me. And it was her image: my little sister, grown and smarter than me in a hundred unfathomable ways, tapping her chest as if inside flourished not a thankless, four-chambered pump but our life-giving souls.
What the hell, I thought, I’ll give it one more try.
The crybooths first appeared one sunny June morning, after civic leaders agreed that the Difficulties were not due to improve for several more years. The police union endorsed the pilot program after the startups demonstrated how their technology prevented misuse for drug abuse, sex acts, and loitering. PowerPoints illuminated studies showing how crime fell sixteen percent where people were allowed, encouraged even, to relieve their lacrimal glands. People were crying more than they used to, but they still needed to go about their lives for the sake of the economy. And so the marketplace fulfilled a need. If misfortune couldn’t be conquered, at least we had these public-private places to wallow in our miseries, safe from judgment or suggestion about how best to improve. And so the mayor called a press conference and ceded territory to the technology and capital and — supposedly — science.
I chose the first unoccupied booth I could find, a charcoal box labeled Misty Moonlight. It didn’t seem precisely my brand — a bit too spooky, a bit Sleepy Hollow — but I knew if I shopped for a booth that matched my mood I’d end up walking all day, mired in my usual state of emotional constipation. The crybox I selected wasn’t the newest model in the city, but it was cleaner than some I’d seen around town. I swiped my phone across the payment scanner and selected the default time of twenty minutes. The door clicked open. I glanced over my shoulder—half-hoping Carolyn would see me, see my effort—and slunk inside.
The disinfectant was reassuring, but its whiff of industrial lavender hardly enough to spur me to tears. The seat was difficult to find in the soft, dim light, just a quarter circle jutting from a corner, and in suspicion I glanced up for a showerhead, to make sure my attempt at genuine emotional expression was indeed private and not the recorded content for YouTube pranksters. But there was no showerhead, just a benign field of dim constellations, soft clouds drifting past, and a warm harvest moon. A cricket chirped from some impossible distance and a breeze mussed my hair. Impressive technology, I had to admit.
Where was I? Where was this supposed to be? The country? The moon and stars made me uneasy. I tried to settle my mind. I shut my eyes. I opened them again. I thought about Jackie, but we got along well these days. Then the kids, who would rather spend their time sobbing at friends through their devices than updating me on their college searches. I felt stupid, and was ready to abort the experiment, when I saw a little star with a halo around it. As my hand moved near, words appeared below: Need Help? I pressed the star.
What’s wrong? announced a recording, an older man, paternal. Ed Asner?
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling foolish.
You know, sometimes when I’m feeling low, I just like to lean back in the dark and enjoy the night.
“I don’t like the dark. I prefer well-lit rooms.”
Feel the calm wash over you. Nothing’s going to hurt you out here.
“You mean, ‘in here.’”
As you’d like it. This is your time. We don’t give solitude enough room in our lives, allow its healing power.
“But I’m not alone. You’re here.”
Don’t mind me. I’m just a program, here to help. You, my friend, are alone. Do you know how alone you are? That no matter how many connections we make in life, we’re all going to die — alone?
“I’m a pathologist. Of course I know. I think about it every day.”
Why’d you come today?
“I’m here for my sister.”
I’m sorry to hear of her passing.
“She’s not dead.”
You know, it’s hard for atheists and secular humanists to grapple with death. You might consider a church. The healing power of —
I pressed the star again, cut Ed Asner off. This was not going well, and I’d used up half my time. The point was to cry, to sob, to have a safe space to let loose all the emotions our patriarchal, consumer society repressed on a daily basis. There was no room in our busy lives for honest feelings anymore, only projection, depression, and anger. That’s what the experts said at least, the social workers and psychologists and TV journalists. The alternative, they said, was to numb out — on food, on booze, on drugs, on Netflix, on social media, on careers, on video games, on exercise, on business plans, on dating, on dinners, on sugar, on trips, on plans, on nature, on shopping, on dancing, on God, on meditation, on gardening, on sports, on music, on art, on sleep, on news, on politics, on gambling, on pornography, on opinions, on catastrophe, on shame, on fear, on anxiety. On aggression. Crying was healing. Crying was necessary. All of a sudden, crying was cool.
But just as you couldn’t deny someone’s feelings, you couldn’t pretend you were feeling things you weren’t. I couldn’t will myself to cry. I felt empathy for the suffering, but I couldn’t see them through the haze of news chatter, the personalities supplanting the newsworthy and telling their story for them, as if they were incapable of explaining themselves. Or the newsworthy concocting personalities to better dramatize their difficulties. We were surrounded by stagecraft, layers and layers of costume and dialogue, ensuring our miscommunication, ensuring nothing meaningful ever changed.
My own travails were manageable. It had taken some time, but Jackie and I had worked out the details, reached an amicable settlement. I cried, and she did too, I assume. But we did it in our bedrooms, or in our cars, like any self-respecting Midwesterners should. And then we roused ourselves, because our stricken lives still required us to show up to work. I diagnosed ailments, I solved medical mysteries. I helped people live by examining the sick and the dead, cloistered in my lab, and then I went home each night to rest.
I closed my eyes again, imagined an escape hatch in the bottom of my booth where I might disappear into a world filled with people who were aware of how miraculous our bodies were, how complicated our structures and networks, that we should be grateful we didn’t simply fall apart into goo or cease functioning altogether. That’s what I’d seen through the café window, sitting beside Carolyn: not dysfunctional people paying for the privilege to cry, but the space between our stools inside the café and the crybooth across the street, the invisible peace lingering between everything. How little real and actual danger our emotions assumed we were in. It was true, people were quite often cruel to one another, and I didn’t mean to be glib about suffering, but it really was a matter of degree, that there was so little we could control, that to let things bother us meant —
The booth suffered a hard jolt and all at once the dim light bathing my hands in a moonlit glow went black. The crickets died and the breeze stilled. I felt the crybooth tipping, and what moments before was an evening meadow was suddenly my own coffin carried by invisible pallbearers. I beat on the walls but the soundproof chamber absorbed my blows. I cried out for help but the only response was a whump as the crybooth was laid to rest, door to ground. I was trapped. I moved off on a vehicle. I pictured the booth in the rear of a truck, a hearse. I stilled my breath and texted Carolyn. The service bars on my phone were diminishing by the moment, as if I were being lowered underground.
In my faux casket, I thought about the women I loved. Love wasn’t a word I used very often. I should have used it more to keep my marriage afloat, instead of winnowing it out like finite currency as I still did so often with the girls. But even those exchanges plummeted in value as they outgrew my authority. We were good for phone calls now in which I bore witness to their superficial dramas, and I enjoyed the requisite shopping excursions and dinners that comprise the ritual of any responsibly divorced father. I loved them through that ritual: arranging our dates, driving to pick them up, signing the credit card slips. The calls, the coordination, the hugs — all were evidence of love, even if no tears were shed. Jackie called these actions routine, obstacles to check off a list, despite my insistence that they signified more. She divorced me for the routine, citing her need for spontaneity and a level of emotional expression I couldn’t provide. Fair enough, I supposed. But I wished she’d appreciated my faithfulness. In her farewell letter, she quoted a Lucinda Williams song and told me she’d met a florist named Erin.
My mother died soon after and I attended the funeral without my wife or daughters. Carolyn was there beside me though, weeping, and having only seen each other sporadically for years I committed to forging a bond with my sister that had been severed by an alcoholic father who’d died young and a negligent mother who preferred strangers to her own children. Carolyn and I agreed to meet every Sunday, sharing pastries and behaving as politely as adopted children getting to know their adult blood relatives. There was little to say once we admitted how much we loathed our mother, so mostly we talked about the Difficulties, and the crybooths, and she implored me to express myself more, and we drank our coffees. We sat together as siblings in the fog of our upbringing.
These were the thoughts that drifted through my mind while my hearse — for lack of a better word — rumbled over potholes to its destination. I’d stopped checking my phone for rescue, my breath stilling at the precipice of slumber, and relaxed in my coffin. I suppose I should have been more wary of imminent dangers, of the fact I was being kidnapped, intentionally or not. But how often in life are we given the chance to contemplate our own death in such a way, to reflect on our missteps, reconsider the things that mattered? Regrets, I had a few. But what eclipsed any regrets were pleasant memories: my wedding day, the births of my daughters, my hooding ceremony, coffees with Carolyn. But these memories did not make me cry.
I lay horizontal for several hours, abandoned, waiting to be discovered in a netherworld devoid of cellular service; one couldn’t expect 5G in the afterlife, I supposed. My bladder ballooned until I repositioned myself and suppressed the cramps. I dozed, dreaming of work: different bodily tissues, cellular anomalies, test results. I awoke, pressed the star button in hopes Mr. Asner might rescue me, but he too was slumbering, or dead. His teachings resonated in my mind, however — how very alone we are at the time of our passing — and I knew I’d lied to him when I told him I thought often of death. As a practice, I didn’t think about it much at all. I surrounded myself by the signatures of death, diagnosing disease in order to stand in its judgment. As long as I could practice, I felt peace. But here, stuck in this box, was the opposite of practice. Where did love go when the tissue died away? Where was ritual when the act of love, the routine, stilled? These were the thoughts I loathed.
“Mr. Asner?” I said. “I’m done here. I want to go back.”
I said it to prove to myself I wasn’t dead, not yet, only slowed like a stream in a drought. A trickle, almost ponding, sinking into the water table.
Whether my musings occurred while sleeping or awake I’ll never know. I’d reached the limits of the dark, however, and my hip hurt where I’d tweaked a ligament playing tennis with a colleague the week before, so I was relieved when my crybooth lifted vertical and the door swung open. There in the bottom I crouched like an animal, squinting into my savior’s flashlight. A large man scooped me out and ushered me down a truck ramp into the orange glow of an impound lot. About me were dumpsters, chain link, razor wire. And crybooths: dented, busted, broken, spent like tissues. A small woman greeted me, her head covered by a hoodie drawn down by pocketed fists.
“Who are you?” she asked with a smoker’s rasp. At first glance she appeared young, but soon the rhytids about her eyes and neck asserted themselves and I guessed her in her sixties. Her larger, younger companion — her son, perhaps, or grandson? — was doughy and bearded with a red knit cap, like a seaman. Both wore fluorescent vests. The air was damp, and smelled of the sea.
“I have to urinate,” I said.
“No one’s stopping you.”
I retreated behind the truck and checked my phone while I waited for my abdomen to relax. It was 12:33 AM. No response. Carolyn must have thought my text a joke. I relieved myself and felt better, then returned to my captors. The seaman was twiddling on his phone.
“What’s your address?” he asked. “I’ll call you an Uber.”
I wasn’t interested in an Uber, or home, however. I felt like I was in one of Carolyn’s poems, a maze of baffling, disorienting language. “Where am I?”
“What’s going on here?”
The seaman glared. “Do you want to get out of here or not?”
“Wait.” I was rattled, confused, having a hard time picturing my home. It was late, but I wasn’t tired. Had I come back from the dead? Or been reborn? Or was I asleep now? I wanted to know what this place was, the mechanism beneath the shiny device. I wanted to dissect what was happening. “You didn’t know anyone was in there?”
The woman sighed, shook her head, and said to the seaman, “It’s one of those nights.”
The seaman nodded to her, pocketed his phone, stepped forward, then punched me in the face. I dropped to the broken asphalt.
“Okay!” I coughed. “Call me an Uber!”
“Too late, Question Man.”
He kicked me in the abdomen, the ribs. The pain spread to my fingertips, my toes, spilling out across the asphalt and dying weeds and wet cardboard littered about. The blows came in intermittent bursts, as if the seaman were tired or even bored by his task, his routine. Then a strange and intrusive memory came to me during his attack: my mother waking me up for church when I was ten years old. A cellophane-wrapped anatomy book I’d taken from the library jabbed me under my blankets. The night before, I’d paged through the diagrams of musculature and nerve systems, as if it were a road atlas, but one that drove inward rather than out, and I was plotting my escape. I’d memorized the mechanics of bone and ligament, marveling at the pure perfection of the human body as if I were beholding my own soft, inert tissues and replacing them one by one in their perfect sockets. I felt their size and weight. I felt my own size and weight, the space I took up in the bed, the school bus, the church pew. I imagined the space between us, the oxygen we shared, we seized, and transformed into body.
And then my mother slapped me fully awake. I saw her above me, her church makeup glossed over her hard face like magical thinking. Over her shoulder, on my bedroom wall, hung cursive prayers in gilt frames. A sweet Jesus to replace our father, His cross a weapon to silence and threaten us for believing we might live justly without Him. And I wanted to cry, but I was determined not to. I would not let her see me cry.
“You’re going home now,” said the old woman in the hoodie. “And you were never here. You got that?”
I sought a term for what was happening. Criminal assault? Or was I the criminal, trespassing? I grasped at terms, trying to diagnose this violence, seek a point in the attack, some end result, but like any pathogen the only point was to replicate itself at the expense of the host body. There was no legal or medical term to comfort me. This was tissue damage. This was membranes tattered, fluids leaked. Bruising, bleeding, infection. I’d witnessed it through the microscope, in data sets, but never felt it, not like this. Through a blur of tears — basal tears, physiological responses to acute pain — I spied the crybooth in the truck, its door crooked from a broken hinge, and wanted only to climb back inside, as if I might be birthed again into a gentler, less difficult world.
But this was the world. The Difficulties didn’t begin or end, and to believe otherwise was madness.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked.
“You want explanations,” answered the woman, “you picked the wrong booth.”
I took the following week off from the hospital, limping around not from my physical injuries so much as a sense of failure; despite my trials, my memory, I still hadn’t cried, not the way Carolyn wished me to. Meanwhile, our mother’s church hall dedication still loomed before us. I slept, rested, took long walks around the city, passing one crybooth after another. I sat on stoops and benches measuring the visible change of customers between the time they entered and exited their booths. I saw heads bent lower, I saw postures slacken, I saw tears. This final observation was the most surprising of my findings: that the tears didn’t cease when a crybooth door swung open, its captive released into the wild city. Customers wore the Difficulties slickly down their cheeks, on the masks they endured throughout their days. They shared their tears with strangers, or at least the knowledge that emotional tears were the physical manifestation of memory.
And what was behind my kidnapping, my attack? I researched this, too: news stories about how the companies behind the project hadn’t invested enormous capital for the rental receipts but for the ability to mine the patterns of our emotional lives. We were being dissected via the same methods of any good scientist, now by pharmaceutical companies and wellness pioneers hungry for our suffering. So I was correct in my assertion that the booths were exploitative. But I hadn’t recognized how those exploited were also using the booths, dismantling their memories for precious metals, for scrap, to do what they might with the raw materials no ruling class could deny them. They were constructing homes from spare parts, and though these dwellings might not evoke the promise of manufactured hope, they stood proudly in their living. And what was I to them, a pathologist who couldn’t cry?
Just another obstacle.
On the day of the dedication, Carolyn was waiting for me at the café, as if it were any other Sunday morning. Our mother’s church was a short drive away, which is perhaps why we’d chosen our café in the first place — its proximity to what pained us. I related my experience in the Misty Moonlight crybooth the week before, told her about Ed Asner, the seaman and the old woman. I told her about my observations that week, what I thought about the crybooths now as best I could, trying to let her know how much I cared for her and feared what we had to do.
“I didn’t see your text that night,” she said. “I was in bed. I figured you were joking, trying to cheer me up. Are you okay?”
It was a kind question, one I wished to hear but didn’t know how to answer. Of course I wasn’t okay. None of us were okay. That’s why we called it the Difficulties. And yet, here we were, together, sipping coffees, building courage. We were children again, masquerading as adults, and whether I cried or she did as we spied through the window a young woman with an infant strapped across her breast slipping into the Tidal Longings booth — it didn’t matter. We were together. We’d found each other in our weekly ritual. I stroked her back and she hung her arm on my shoulder as we leaned together on our stools. And then we gathered up our things and exited the café to greet our mother’s spirit as one.