I’ve been stressed lately, but I haven’t cried. It’s been a stressful year.
The whole year has been a damn mess, which I should have seen coming because after a bottle of Malbec on New Year’s Eve, I announced to a room full of friends and strangers that this was going to be my year. Then I convinced myself I had a disease, broke my foot, had to pay for breaking my foot, had two surgeries, and now I’m looking for a place to live. I’ve been stressed, but I haven’t cried. If you had told anyone that who has known me for any period of time before I moved to Washington D.C., I think that would surprise them a lot.
My second semester of my senior year of high school, Mr. Loope gave me a D+ (but like, honestly, what’s the difference between a D+ and a full D, am I right?). It also happened to be the same day that we were set to be let out of first period early for a graduation assembly. I sat at my desk, reading over the notes he’d written on my essay, which included, “Sometimes you take metaphors and stretch them too far.” Little did he know, stretching metaphors to the point of exhaustion would become the basis of my personality and sense of humor for the rest of my life. I asked him after class what I could have done differently, because I was the pretentious asshole who questioned anything less than a B+. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that I could have written better.
On the way to the graduation assembly, I spiraled. If an extended metaphor got me a D+, I had no idea how I would ever be able to, say, go to college or buy a house, or live, really. So as my classmates filed into the auditorium, I took a hard right and burst into Ms. Freels’ class, which was a freshman Art I class. I blasted through the children and ran into the darkroom, leaving a trail of bitch baby tears that would make even Joni Mitchell reconsider the definition of a river. Ms. Freels followed me in and said, “What is going on with you?” Between dry heaves, I explained that I was an embarrassment for being a practically grown man, crying in a darkroom because graduation was coming up, and that’s when she said, “Justin. People don’t cry because they’re taught not to. So you just stay in here and cry, because you’re not going to have to pay for therapy like the rest of us later. You’re getting your feelings out now.”
It was super strange to me that people didn’t just cry. I cried through the majority of college. I cried when I broke up with my college girlfriend and then I cried when I got outed at a campus party while I was gone during Mother’s Day. I cried essentially every thesis meeting I had with my advisor, Summar, and I cried after my last final of senior year. Crying was practically my version of America’s past time, and I struggled to understand why other people didn’t embrace it. I finished out my college career, and if I remember correctly, my touchy feely liberal arts college all joined hands on our final day and we cried together. I may be getting that wrong, but I’m feeling pretty confident that’s exactly what happened.
When I left college, I moved up to Washington D.C., and for a while, it was a blur. I cried driving up the interstate and at one point, literally turned around and started driving home. But then I turned around and got settled into my apartment with the two guys that I decided to move in with. After weeks of searching and
dropping beers down people’s backs serving, I finally landed a job at a public relations agency. That’s the whole reason that I wanted to get my degree in communications. The creative writing degree that I passed up didn’t seem as lucrative, but with a master’s in communications, I would go on to work at an agency and end up on some 30 Under 30 list at, like, 28. I had a plan, and if I could just keep that plan in working order and dry of tears, I’d be fine.
If anyone else were telling this story, it might have gone that way–however, moving to a new city, enrolling in graduate school, and taking a job at an agency that was much busier than I expected caught up to me very quickly. My boss clearly hated me–correction: my boss clearly hated most people. Babies. Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. Old women who offer you cookies. Everyone. She expected a lot, and I’m not sure if I was shell shocked by working a full time job that didn’t involve balancing glasses of IPAs or that I was actually having trouble keeping up, but I was stumbling. Hard. Like Jennifer Lawrence ascending the stage to collect her first Oscar stumbling. After a long day before, I came into work to find two packages sitting in my chair with a pink post-it that read, “We need to talk. –E.” I immediately knew what had happened. In my rush to get to class on time, I had forgotten to deliver two packages the day before.
I walked to her cubicle and she said, “Let’s go for a walk.” It seemed nice. I thought that maybe my screw up had opened up a very human side, as she asked me about my day and how things in D.C. were going and how school was. But then we sat down in a very public lounge space, and in a matter of seconds, we went full-on Katie Couric/Sarah Palin. She got straight to the point very quickly:
“What happened with the packages?”
“I forgot to deliver them. I’m so sorry.”
“But why did you forget?”
This was the first place she lost me because, like, why does anyone forget anything? Malice and a desire to sabotage my next day at work? I’ve never understood questions like that, but I played along.
“I don’t know. I think it’s because I was in a rush to get to class.”
“But why were you rushing?”
“I was trying to get to class but also make sure that everything was taken care of. I forgot.”
“But how could you forget?”
And that’s when I felt the burning starting to happen. It was a loaded question because I was rushing because I was trying to balance life away from home with school and work. Sometimes, when I’m feeling super chill and want to give the benefit of the doubt out, I like to think that there was a philosophical reasoning to this questioning, like that maybe by asking a series of obvious questions I was supposed to become a better worker, but in the end, what happened was a stream of hot tears that slipped down my cheekbones.
My boss panicked. Physically uncomfortable, she leaned back in her chair and turned her head while saying, “Oh. Oh gosh. No. Please don’t do that. Please.” Ironically, I wanted to do the same thing as she was talking to me, but I have problems with standing up to authority, so I just cried. Granted, it wasn’t a full-on cry. It was a silent cry, as if my eyes had been used too much and finally sprung a serious leak that you’d notice in your water bill at the end of the month. I kept apologizing for the crying, not realizing that by doing so, I was digging myself in a bigger hole. Eventually she asked, “Why are you crying?” but I wasn’t sure how to say that Jesus makes us all with different levels of feelings, so I just… well, kept going. In reality, I was tired and I missed home and it had been so long since I had cried that my face couldn’t handle it anymore. She took me aside and said, “Maybe Washington D.C. isn’t the place for you. Maybe you need to go back to a smaller market, like back home in Knoxville. It’s just a thought.”
I immediately stopped crying.
There’re moments–like the one in the dark room and the one above–that you don’t forget. And I remember that even though the tears were finishing their path down my face, I stopped crying immediately. I had been really lucky that I’d been surrounded by so many people who’d been so okay with crying along the way, but as soon as I got back to my desk, I googled “Men Crying at Work,” “What happens when men cry at work?” and the favorite, “Is it okay for men to cry?” Clearly, I was still verklempt. Everything led me to believe that my career was essentially over. In meetings and in general company, she would mention how I’d cried once or followed up an assignment with, “You’re not going to cry, are you?” It made me furious, and all I knew how to do was approach it from the Eminem angle: beat her to the punch.
The next day, there was a sign in my cube that said: This intern cube has been tear-free for (1) day.
She looked at me, puzzled, and I said, “Look at that progress!” The other interns near me looked on, supportively, as if to say, “Yeah, we’ve watched him… he didn’t cry at all.” She had no idea what to say because it was a bright blue sign, visible to everyone in the office, and in a way, she had become the manager with the intern that celebrated tear-free days. It did me no favors at all, but as far as I could estimate, it didn’t do her any either. Eventually, she relegated me to work on other projects with other staff members, and it was only then that I felt like I was able to prove that I actually did know what I was doing. After a few months, I finally left, and in my exit interview, when asked what I learned, I said, “I learned to never show any emotion at work. Don’t bring your heart into your job because someone will find a way to ruin it. I won’t do that again.” Apparently, that’s a really startling thing to hear when you work in HR. The HR lady asked for me to elaborate, but all I said was, “If everyone took those words and tried to ensure that no one ever said them again, I think this whole place would be better.”
I started my new job a few weeks later–the same job that I’ve had for two and a half years. At work, I usually work with movies, which is a pretty fun thing to do considering all the not-fun things that you could be doing in DC. It’s not a PR agency, but then again, I haven’t forgotten to deliver any packages, so you take your trade-offs where you can get them. After a few weeks of getting settled, I shadowed my boss in a meeting–a group of senior-level staff was being shown a short presentation on caregiving, and at the end, someone said, “The women shown in the presentation would have been here herself, but unfortunately, her mom that she was taking care of just passed.
I felt the tears well up again, and I thought, I can’t do this. I can’t do this again. A tear fell from my cheek and my boss turned around and said, “Oh, Justin, are you ok?” and without thinking, I blurted out, “I DON’T CRY AT WORK. I AM VERY PROFESSIONAL.” A couple people turned around to see where the sudden tantrum came from, and my boss leaned in and whispered, “It’s a sad presentation. It’s okay to be sad.” I breathed in a quick breath and whispered, “Well, I just want you to know that I don’t cry.”
As I continue my search for a new apartment, I can’t seem to find the tears inside me. I imagine that if I really focused up, I could probably cry, but in a strange, nearly-PTSD way, it’s as if I can’t… it’s as if the tears have been nearly burned out of me. I don’t cry at work and I don’t cry at home. The last time I cried was when Derek died on Grey’s Anatomy, which was a very real loss for me and I appreciate if you continue to respect my privacy in this continually trying time. But as for the rest of the cries… when you feel them, you have to let them out. Maybe not in front of your boss, but somewhere… because as Ms. Freels said, if you don’t do it now, you’ll have to do it in therapy–or worse, you end up writing about it and sharing it online.