Have you ever seen a grown man cry?
I mean, really cry? Not the single tear that gets wiped away before anyone sees it. I’m talking about the body-wracking, lung-seizing, shoulder-shaking kind of crying.
I hadn’t, not before that night.
Sure, I’d seen a few guys get choked up, but they were usually always drunk and the tears were sports related.
But not that time.
He was hunched over, elbows on his knees, leaning against the brick of the building, face in his hands, and he was sobbing.
I’d just left the school, but he hadn’t heard the doors open. They took their sweet time closing thanks to the little gadgets that kept them from slamming shut, so I got a good three-second look at this man crying right in front of me. Three seconds is a really long time when you’re witnessing someone have an emotional breakdown. They were the longest and saddest three seconds of my life. Granted, it was dark outside, and he was huddled against the wall, but I could tell he wasn’t a small man. He was built. Large. Manly. And watching him cry was almost painful. I never could have imagined what would make a man like him sob.
When the door finally closed, the soft thump jarred him and I watched as his head snapped up and he finally noticed me.
I was frozen, stunned really, afraid to move or speak, hoping maybe I could spare us both the embarrassment of the moment. I didn’t know if I should continue the short distance to my car, turn around and go back into the building, or acknowledge the crying man.
He stood up fully, raking his hands down his face, which immediately and unconsciously awakened my kindergarten teacher reflexes. I reached into my giant purse and pulled out a few tissues, took the last few steps between us, and held them out.
“Here, take these.”
His eyes met mine, then traveled down to my outstretched hand, and he slowly accepted them. He used them to wipe his eyes and nose, then just let his head rest against the wall, taking deep breaths.
“Are you all right? Do you need me to call someone?” My question trailed off at the end. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do to help this crying, albeit handsome, stranger.
A few moments later, a very deep and raspy voice answered, “No, thank you. There’s no one to call.”
His answer sounded more painful than factual, as if my even asking him that had opened the wound up further. I had no idea what I was supposed to do next.
“You seem really upset. Do you want to talk about it?” Why did I ask him that? He didn’t know me and there was no reason he should want to unload his problems on me, but he was breaking my heart with his tearstained cheeks and breaths that were stuttering in and out while his lungs tried to catch up with his emotions.
His eyes met mine again, bravely, but his face scrunched up and his bottom lip found its way between his teeth. Then he started crying again.
“Oh, shit,” I whispered, upset with myself for making him cry. I hurried to his side just as he bent at the waist again, and awkwardly rubbed my hand up and down his back. I’d never known it was possible to feel so uncomfortable and so helpless at the same time. “Please, please don’t cry. I’m sorry. I’m sure everything will be just fine.” I was grasping at straws, saying every clichéd thing you would think to say to your crying girlfriend when she broke up with her asshole boyfriend, but it didn’t seem to work on this man, whose back, I noticed while trying to comfort him, was nothing but firm, taut muscle. Tendons moved in tandem as his breaths pulled in and then rushed back out.
A few minutes passed, long minutes of him crying and me offering him a gentle hand at his back. When he finally stood up, I handed him more tissues and waited for I don’t know what.
Eventually he spoke.
“My wife died a few months ago,” he murmured, his words both shaky and sad. “This is the first time I’ve been to parent-teacher conferences without her.”
“I’m so sorry,” I say honestly. It was the saddest thing anyone had ever said to me, and with just those few words, the tears started to well in my own eyes. I managed to push them back, to swallow the pinching in my throat. This man might not have needed me, but I felt as though I was supposed to help him, not cry along with him.
“I’m a mess,” he whispered, standing at full height again.
“I think you’re allowed to be a mess.”
We were both silent for another moment, standing against the brick wall, nothing but the sound of night between us, and then he spoke again.