I’ve become a better, not worse, crier over the years. Growing up hasn’t made me cry less, now that I’m all ‘grown-up’ and a really big boy. Au contraire, I cry–roughly defined as ‘tears in the eyes’ or ‘lumps in the throat which leave me incapable of speech’ even if not ‘sobbing’–more. There is more to cry about now, more to get the tear glands working overtime: more memories, more days gone by, more nostalgia, more regrets, more friends gone, never to return, more evidence of this world’s implacable indifference to our hopes and desires–for ourselves and ours. I cry in company–sometimes, when I’m trying to tell a story and realize I cannot proceed; I cry when I’m alone; I cry on my couch when watching a movie. And just to make sure I’m a genuine New Yorker, I’ve cried on the subway. Once.
A dozen or so years ago, I was making my way through a long-postponed encounter with Anna Karenina. I knew what fate held in store for Anna; the novel could not provide me with novelty–far too many had written about Anna’s death. But even then, I pressed on; Tolstoy is a rich and rewarding read regardless of foreknowledge of plots. As I did so, and as I approached Anna’s terminus, I found myself, as I often do, on a train, tome in hand.
By now, Anna’s physical and mental decline had begun; her love with Vronsky is contaminated by anger and bitterness and jealousy and mutual recriminations. She is sleepless and anxious; she has lost home and has not found another. She is an exile, at home, in society; her precious child may no longer be hers. The walls have come down.
As Anna’s fate approaches at the station, as I realized I was finally in the presence of the denouement whose contour had revealed to me by busybodies like myself–chattering away about the novel’s presence in their lives–I felt myself overcome by a curious and complex mix of emotions. Perhaps I felt pity for Anna; perhaps I sensed I knew how she felt–torn between a home that could not be hers ever again and one that was promised her but could not be. Perhaps I was horrified by the thought of a human being taking their own life–the most devastating of its possible resolutions. Perhaps, suddenly, I was afraid for this woman, for what she was going to do to herself. Perhaps I sensed the desperation that was hers was ours too, that her actions were not mysterious aberrations but entirely explicable.
So as Anna falls, as she is consumed, as her life comes to an end at–where else?–a train station, tears sprang to my eyes. I closed the book–a chapter had come to an end–and leaned back in my seat. I closed my eyes for a second and looked up to see a man sitting across from me, gazing curiously at me. I stared back, blinked furiously, and put my book away. I would not, and could not, read for a while.