THE MANY USES OF CRYING
When I was twelve, my father took a sabbatical and we lived in Switzerland for half a year. After my first day of school I was meant to walk back home and I took a wrong turn out of the gates and wound up completely lost. I kept looking for the hill that was near our house. Other hills continued passing as I walked and it always felt like the right one would come, but it didn’t. My panic built. Buildings and busy streets soon built up around me and I knew I wouldn’t find the hill. All the roads around me lead to unknown destinations and all of the pedestrians were locked away behind their Swiss faces and the guttural language that I could not understand. Left no other choice I stood by a street corner under a blinking crossing light and began to cry. I cried up past the people to the sky above, where someone, surely, could see that I was lost and would bring the right people to find me.
They were brought right away. A group of college students, who took me back to their cafeteria and found my uncle in the phone book. He gave them the number of our rented apartment, and they talked to my brother and thought he might be my aunt, because his voice had not yet broken. They waited with me at a long grey table until my father came through the glass doors and couldn’t help smiling.
“How did you get their help?” he asked.
“I cried,” I told him. “Now take me home. I don’t want to be here not ever again.”
After that it wasn’t easy to get me back to school. I was always sick. In the mornings I would begin to moan and force myself into believing I was sick, which would make me cry. My brother thought I was lying and was both embarrassed and mad at me. He told me to stop being such a baby.
“You can’t be sick every day,” my mother said, coming into the doorway of our room. “You’ve been home sick half this week already.”
Seeing that it might not work, I ran out into the stairwell, which was where our bathroom was. I closed the door and hoped none of the other tenants would walk up just then. I started pretending to puke into the toilet, and made loud heaving and retching sounds, which actually did end up making me vomit. When I had finished I knew I had to start crying. I came out of the door and looked up at my mother who was standing on the landing, our apartment open behind her.
“I’m sick,” I said, my lip quivering and my chin scrunching up. I broke into tears. I didn’t care if any of the neighbors could hear me or not. As I cried, the whole sad fate of my new life raced through me: forcing myself to vomit, everyone thinking I was a baby, that I was terrified of school, and that none of the children spoke my language, even though, of course, they all spoke German too, not just the Swiss German that I did not understand.
“Fine,” my mother said, “but tomorrow you’re going. It’s Saturday, so it will only be a half-day anyway.”
My crying continued until my brother was out the door. Then it calmed. The rest of my day was wonderful. I got to lie in bed and read, moan now and again to show everyone that I was still sick and hadn’t been faking. I listened to my mother and baby brother busy in the kitchen while my father typed away on his novel in the other room, dressed in his pink bathrobe with his hair in wild black flames on his head. I got to imagine my brother reaching the gates of school, where he would have to leave off thinking in English and switch to German, switch being who he was used to being. My brother didn’t mind those things at all, though. But I had to think, first I get used to things in America, learn a new language and all the sports and t.v. shows, and now I have to get used to something completely new again, and probably we won’t even stay. I didn’t like it at all. But my brother said it was fine, as we sat in my uncle’s bathtub in our swim trunks.
We didn’t have our own bath or shower, so we had to use his. “You just talk to people, and everyone is really nice.”
“Yeah,” I said, unconvincingly, so that he would keep giving me support. I ran my fingers through the grey water.
Later we took the train back from my uncle’s house. We met our parents for dinner at the small Italian place behind our building, right next to the train tracks. They served extremely thin pizza, which was really delicious, and every time a train went by, we’d have to stop talking. Our family split two pies, which wasn’t nearly enough, and when we asked for more my parents apologized, it just wasn’t possible.
“Are you going to cry now?” my brother asked.
I hit him in the shoulder and looked, embarrassed, around the table. My father smiled in the way he did when something true was revealed about a person.
“You know,” he said, “your uncle George once told me, when I was young, that crying only meant you were feeling sorry for yourself.”
“So ein wahnsinn”* my mother countered, rolling her eyes.
My father was smiling. “Well, anyway. I never cried after that again.”
I sat very still and looked at my father, whose gaze would flicker back and forth across mine, and when it caught, he’d smile, aware of what was passing between us. Every time I cried after that, I felt somehow guilty and even more childish. When we got back to the States a half year later, I tripped and fell badly on the basketball court. Small stones implanted themselves into my palms, the blood was beginning to rise, and my friends rushed towards me. It was the perfect time to cry, but I stopped, looked around wildly and bit it back, staring up at the thin clouds moving through all that blue in the sky.
* So ein wahnsinn. Trans. “Such craziness.”
Matthew Zanoni Müller was born in Bochum, Germany and grew up in Eugene, Oregon and Upstate New York. He received his MFA from Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers and teaches at his local Community College. His work has appeared in DecomP MagazinE, Prick of the Spindle, Halfway Down the Stairs, MiCrow, Used Furniture Review, RED OCHRE LiT, Literary Bohemian, Boston Literary Magazine and numerous other magazines and journals. To learn more about his writing, please visit: http://www.matthewzanonimuller.com