Even though he was wearing sunglasses, I could tell he'd been crying. Hard.
The man got off his bicycle, unstrapped his helmet, and walked into my local coffee shop in the Toluca Lake section of Burbank. He sat down at a table in the corner and commenced the kind of loud sniffling and deep breaths that little kids use when they're trying to calm down. Audible, gulping sounds.
The coffee shop was sparsely populated -– just me and my laptop, plus a few staff members staying busy in the open kitchen and behind the counter. I think they were too far away to hear him, and too preoccupied with their own work to notice him.
So there I was with my battered Macbook, staring at the keyboard and wondering if I ought to say something to him. I focused on the missing keys (volume control and delete) and tried to appear engrossed in my work. I was supposed to be writing sexy things for a sexy novel about sexy people, and this dude was not exactly aiding and abetting my quest.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him take his sunglasses off and wipe his tearstained face with a napkin. He was wearing that dorky-looking gear that dedicated cyclists wear -– all Spandex and bright colors.
I found myself picturing different scenarios.
Scenario 1: I left him alone and we both went about our business.
Scenario 2: I approached him and he rejected my presence in no uncertain terms ("Fuck off, interloper!")
Scenario 3: I approached him and he rejected me, but in a kind Southern California way ("Oh, thanks, hon, but I'm good. Love your skirt!")
Scenario 4: I approached him and he turned out to be a madman who would pull me into his crazy world with a rapid-fire and only occasionally coherent monologue about his feelings.
Scenario 5: I approached him and he gratefully and graciously accepted my offer of a listening ear, telling me what was going on, and creating an opportunity for us to have a really nice human interaction that would leave us both feeling better afterward.
I flashed back to a time I was flying JetBlue home to New Jersey from Portland. I was 20 years old, in love with a boy who lived across the country, and in the midst of a descent into crippling agoraphobia. Terrified of the plane, of the trip, of being out of bed -– and deeply ashamed of my irrational fear-– I sat there and cried.
I was pretty out of it –- I'd taken some Xanax and some Tylenol PM in an attempt to sleep through the trip (terrible combination, don't try it), and I was woozy and essentially unaware of my surroundings.
Then, as if by magic, a wad of tissues appeared in front of my face. It took me a moment to realize that there was a smooth, feminine hand with long, lacquered nails proferring them.
I looked up into a sweet, smiling face augmented by immaculately applied makeup. Had she not been in civilian clothes, I would've taken her for a flight attendant.
"Here you go," she whispered, and I took the tissues, embarrassed but relieved. "I know how hard it is to fly and cry."
"Y-you do?" I sniffed, wiping my face.
"Oh yes," she said. "I'm a flight attendant. On a different airline. We have bad days, too."
All I could think to say was, "Why are you flying JetBlue? Can't you fly for free on your own airline?"
She grinned. "Oh, my airline is gross," she said.
I giggled a little, and thanked her. Then she disappeared, and I never saw her for the rest of the flight.
That gesture of generosity meant so very much to me. Any embarrassment I felt rapidly dissolved into gratitude. After a brief spurt of grateful, I'm-so-touched-by-this-moment tears, I dried my eyes and went about the important business of writing in my journal (no wi-fi on the aeroplanes in those days, kids.)
But in the coffee shop, I was not looking at a crying twentysomething girl. I was looking at a crying middle-aged man. And while I would've felt reasonably comfortable approaching a sobbing young woman, I was more wary of talking to a man. It wasn't a safety issue, exactly; we were in broad daylight, and there were a few people nearby in case something untoward were to occur. And he didn't seem dangerous –- on the contrary, he seemed broken and sad.
I guess I worried about approaching this fellow because it would acknowledge his public display of weakness, and my understanding is that dudes, in general, hate displaying weakness in public. Or they're at least socialized to believe that it is incredibly wrong and goes against the universal bro code.
So I turned back to my computer and busied myself with my writing assignment. He wiped his eyes, stood up, and ordered a coffee. He drank it quickly before hurrying outside, mounting his bike, and pedaling off.
I'm not sure I made the right choice.
What would you have done?