After a long winter holed up in my small apartment journaling and switching between coffee and herbal tea, my doctor prescribed fresh air as my treatment. Following her advice, I stepped out into the world, and breathed in the air along with the rest of God’s creation.
I hadn’t gone far, when I turned the corner and stopped short. A girl of about 10, sat in the middle of the sidewalk, hunched over with her arms wrapped around her body, blocking my path. She was still, so still, that I wasn’t sure if she was real or a statute. My first instinct was to step off the curb and go around her. As I did, she lifted her tear-stained face from between her knees.
“I cry because it hurts,” she said.
We stared awkwardly at each other for a few moments, and I continued on my way. A few blocks away, I chided myself for not stopping to help the child. I hurried back, but she was gone. I returned home and waited for the local evening news. There was no mention of a small girl. Perhaps she wasn’t real.
That night, I slept badly dreaming about the girl. The fat tears that fell from her eyes dampened my pillow. Her words echoed in my ears. Answers. I needed to know the why, who, when and how. I needed answers.
The next morning, I woke to an illuminating brightness filling my room. The darkness of the night had disappeared. I pushed the covers aside, determined to find the girl. I followed the same route, and as I turned the corner, in the exact same spot on the sidewalk, sat the girl. Only she’d grown, she was no longer a girl, she was a teenager. I stood over her motionless body and bent to touch her. Just as before, she raised her face to mine. So close, our faces touched.
“I cry because it hurts,” she said.
She disappeared before “Why?” could escape my lips.
I stood there a long time, unbelieving what happened. Did anyone else see it? Did anyone else see a person vanish into thin air? No one seemed to notice. They all went on with their lives, hustling and bustling all around me. They only stopped long enough to look at me over their shoulders; scolding glances, questioning stares, sympathetic smiles. I’d begun to doubt my own realness, until I felt the soft, Spring breeze scoot across my cheek.
That night my dreams turned into nightmares as the girl morphed into the teenager. There on that stretch of cold, hard concrete, they confronted me accusingly, pointing their fingers at me and chanting. I couldn’t hear what they were saying. People surrounded us, and their accusations grew louder. More people came, and their chant got louder still. The more people came, the louder their voices, until they shook the ground under my feet. I sank to my knees with my hands covering my ears to block the sound, but the harder I tried to drown them out, the more violently the ground shook. I felt as though I was suffocating.
I woke suddenly with my damp pillow over my face and an awful headache. My heart pounded loudly. Too unsettled to sleep, I grabbed my journal and attempted to write. My hand trembled, causing the knuckle of my pinkie finger to smudge ink over the page. I tossed the journal aside, and reached for my phone. Normally, I didn’t touch it once I got into bed, but now, I needed the reassurance that I still belonged to humanity. I hopped from Twitter to Instagram to Facebook, scrolling through postings of faces. Faces I knew and loved. Faces I’d grown up with. Faces who told me I was wasting my time when I started writing my book, but sent hearty congratulations when it became a bestseller. Those were the faces in the crowd; the faces in my dream.
I lay with my face turned to the window watching as the light vanquished the dark shadows. With the victory complete, I responded to the victor’s celebratory request to partake of the spoils laid at my feet; another bright, sunny day. I followed my usual route, and resumed my journey into the surreal. There was the teenager, now a woman.
She was not seated on the concrete, but stood waiting for me. She held out her hand to me and I took it. As we strolled along, I told her my story. My parents were good, loving, kind, hard-working people who did the best they could for their large family. I received praise, admiration and support, yet, I somehow got lost in the mob. As a child my mother explained away my behavior as moodiness. I’m not sure when it happened, I think I was ten, but I started living through their eyes. Sure, there were expectations and rules. I didn’t mind them really. I liked getting good grades in school, and the order and stability that reigned within my household. But feelings and dreams, somehow, they became synonymous with treason. I was scolded at school for daydreaming, and at home, my mother lectured me.
“Life is real,” she said. “The sooner you understand that the better. Life is a roof over your head, and food in your belly and clothes on your back. Life is doing all that despite somebody holding you back because of the color of your skin. Life is hard.”
She nodded. “Yes, life is hard, but that’s not why I cry.”
“Then why?” I asked.
“I cry because it hurts,” she replied. “It’s that simple.” She stopped walking, and turned to look at me.
Standing there struggling to form a rebuttal, a woman with a small child approached us. She hugged the child close as she passed us, and I heard the child ask, “Mommy, why is that woman talking to herself?”
My friend had disappeared, but in that brief moment in time, her simple response helped me understand why I cry. I cry because it hurts:
To hide who I am
To not be the best, most authentic version of me I can be
To not do what I love
To be too afraid or ashamed to ask for what I want or need
To live in someone else’s shadow
To abdicate my life and dreams
I stopped reading and looked out into the audience. From the podium, I scrolled through the faces; there were so many like me who wanted to know why they cried. There was the harried young mother with milk stains on her shirt, a middle-aged woman whose expression I saw every morning in the mirror, a man with a toddler on his lap, whose head swiveled every time a new arrival came in, and two tattooed teenagers who’d managed to pry their thumbs from their cellphones. I’d written this for them. To let them know I understood. To tell them they were not alone. I cleared my throat and continued.
I cry because not being true to yourself hurts.