I stare at the row of rails below, waiting for the familiar rumble to come through the tunnel, the sound of another hollow day beginning. The pin on my nametag has worn loose, causing the badge to lie askew on my chest with my photo at a slant, as if perpetually asking a question. Only now do I realize my name is misspelled. I want to ask myself, indignantly, how none of my coworkers could have noticed, but the truth is no one has spoken to me long enough to notice.
The Metro arrives. Impatient passengers thrust onto the train the moment the doors open, shouldering through those getting off like they’re stalks in a cornfield. Those departing push just as forcefully, banging bags into elbows and suitcases into knees. I wait, letting them sift around me. It’s exactly like the rest of my life. I am a colander. People run through me.
All the seats are taken when I squeeze on. I grab a pole and the Metro tunnels through the earth the same as ever. Some occupants read newspapers, or books, or their laptops, the same as they always do. Some stare blankly at feet. A few talk, but most are quiet.
Everything is the same as it is every day.
That is until a woman, younger than me, in a baggy coat with oily hair, sitting a few chairs diagonally across, begins to cry.
I notice it just as it’s about to happen. Her lip does its first subtle quiver. Then her chin scrunches, as if a giant sculptor had thumbed the soft clay of her features. Now the sculptor balls up her entire face. She lets out a small sound. Then she is full-blown weeping right here on the Metro in front of everyone.
We ignore it.
The elderly man on her left clears his throat and stands. No hurry, like he wanted to all along. He shuffles over to a map on the wall. The teenaged girl on her right wanders over to a pole, hooks an arm around it without looking up as she jabs at her phone. No one else reacts to the incident occurring diagonally across from me. They squirm a little, cough, but otherwise continue with their iPods and paperbacks.
I don’t blame them. It’s embarrassing, watching her twist up her face like that, cry those fat tears like that. What a scene she’s making, as if I don’t have problems too. Doesn’t she know where she is? Doesn’t she know everyone can see? Doesn’t she care?
She doesn’t, and I hate her for it.
Over the years I have lost this ability to cry, like one loses baby teeth or the color of their hair or the density of their bones. Osteoporosis of the soul.
It’s not like I haven’t tried. When my mother finally succumbed to that long, hard sickness, I sat in the front pew at the funeral and knew I was supposed to do it. Show some kind of feeling. I had it, but the tears wouldn’t come. I pushed and pushed like trying to turn myself inside out, but the tears wouldn’t come.
This woman’s tears flood out of her effortlessly while my fists tighten at the ends of my too-short sleeves. I hate her for this shameless display. I hate her for this lack of self-consciousness. I hate her for this freedom.
One time I watched a movie about a dog. The owner had hit the dog with his car by mistake. Was hugging its neck and sobbing. I watched that part again, captivated by the actor’s face. All the contortions, like a worm shriveling in the sun. I watched it several times and then went to the bathroom mirror to copy the actor. Maybe if I got the procedure right, then everything I had pent up inside me would find its way out. But all that happened was I looked like I was taking a big shit.
Constipation. That’s what it feels like. Jammed up like logs on a river. I watched a documentary about that once—those early days of transporting lumber via waterways. How when the logs jammed up, the workers would pull this or that log, and when they pulled just the right one, the whole mess would explode in a torrent of wood and water. That’s what I need. My just-right log.
The woman on the Metro carries on, until something startling happens. Another woman, with spiraling curls like a curtain of moss, walks over to the crying one. She sits beside her, wraps her arms around her. Just like that. The crying one lets out a sob, covers half of her crushed-clay face. Her body tenses at first, but soon it gives up her weight to the other, gives up and gives in. The second woman doesn’t speak, doesn’t ask what’s wrong, doesn’t say shhh or don’t cry or it’s okay. Doesn’t make any sound at all. Just holds her.
Just lets her.
She doesn’t pry for reasons. She doesn’t soothe it away, hush it down. She doesn’t try to fix it, to stop it, to judge it, to hide it. She just lets it. Lets it. Lets it.
Maybe she knows it’s not about the reason. Sometimes there is no reason. Sometimes you’re walking to the train stop or the post office or the store on the corner, and it hits you. You stumble, your balance thrown off just a bit. Your mind is pulled to it by the centripetal force like this speeding Metro. Your insides hang askew like your faulty name badge. Off-center, off-kilter, just off.
Sometimes it makes sense. It comes when you’ve caught too long a glimpse at the photo of your mother when she still had all her hair. It comes when you realize the people you work with every day still don’t talk to you long enough to notice the misspelling right there on your chest.
But other times it doesn’t make sense. It hits you when you’re laughing. When you’re having fun, or supposed to be. It hits you when you’re watching your niece on the carousel. It hits you when you’re blowing out the candles on the cake your sister made for your birthday. She and her husband and your niece are all smiling, wondering what you’ve wished for.
Maybe you tell them. I don’t. It would hurt them too much.
So no, there isn’t always a reason. But they expect one. I wish I could explain it. Please tell us, they say. Why are you sad?
I don’t know. I just am.
For the first time in my life, I am watching someone besides myself have this uncontrollable, illogical feeling, and also for the first time in my life, I am watching someone not ask why.
Maybe all this time it was okay I didn’t have an answer.
I watch the woman crying, and the other woman letting her, and I don’t hate them anymore. I am thankful for them. For her honesty. For her acceptance.
Surrendering to the motion beneath my feet, I approach the two. The crying one looks up first, cheeks wet and shiny. The other turns her head, meets my gaze through her mossy curls. I want to say something. That I understand. That I’m grateful. But what was jammed behind my eyes is now jammed inside my throat. The words do not come. Yet the curly-haired woman seems to know. She looks at me in a way that feels deeper, vaster, more seeing than I have felt in years.
She reaches out a hand.
Just then the Metro stops, throwing me off balance. I hit a pole with my shoulder. The doors open, and in an instant I’m swept away by the mass of departing travelers. Their bulk pushes me onto the station platform. The train doors shut. I lose them.
But it’s okay.
Because today, something has happened.
My just-right log has begun to budge.
Shannon Noel Brady writes because one day she sprung a leak and stories poured out. Her work has been published in Gingerbread House Literary Magazine, Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal, Jersey Devil Press, Vandercave Quarterly, and more. She can be found at snbradywriter.wordpress.com, on Twitter @snbradywriter, or up in a tree.