Oct/Nov 2005  •   Fiction

Tear Jerker

by Gerald Budinski

Angela picks and peels at me as if my reality were some primeval fossil to be extricated from under layers and layers of too obvious sensation. My visage, tone, gestures—certainly not the words I so cautiously dispense—none of these have meaning for her. Not even the scent that overwhelms a shield of English Leather when she corners me.

"But don't you ever worry about how you SHOULD be feeling?"

We are sitting in a restaurant having an elegant but casual lunch, and I am supposed to be exposing my soul to her and the Renoirs on the wall but not to the other penitents sipping silent soup or mouthing rustling salads in between their shameless confessions. Empowerment, inner-self, sensitivity—these people all know the lingo.

For Angela, life is a box of parts with no instructions or rather, packed with ancient hieroglyphs to be deciphered. She watches with shock and awe as my soapbox racer coasts unguided toward the finish. It isn't fair.

The built-in bookcase in her apartment is lined with books telling people not only what they should feel but also how to bear it. Oh, she does have a collection of leather bound classics in a prominent position, but I learned this is mostly just for show. The Dr. Phil's are all she has time for. I should have exited at full speed the moment I saw the books, but Angela is gorgeous and sweet and I am very fortunate to have her on my arm or across a public table and especially on the bed or couch of her fabulous apartment with a view. And she has the most beautifully expressive face that can play a full scale from tears to delight in seconds.

"You feel what you feel. You can't generate it, like emergency electric."

"Don't say 'you' as if it were general—say 'I.' Stop being afraid of saying 'I can't feel.'"

"OK, you win. I am a freak like a told you."

Among her leather bound collection is a first edition Steppenwolf, which she has read. I have told her I can make Hesse's character look like a whining wimp. How I was indifferent at my father's death when I was only ten, mirroring the attitude he had toward me, and how I felt relieved when my mother died just two years ago—a mother who at just 55 sequestered herself in a tiny hovel with three dogs and six cats, oblivious to their natural functions. When they put her into the institution, she said she couldn't live without her babies, then proceeded to prove it.

The most recent thing I made the mistake of confessing was how Tanya left me because I offered insufficient consolation following her little brother's sad demise. Angela asks, and one must answer.

Today she began the lunchtime conversation with, "Do you ever think of calling Tanya? She really needs you."

"I'm with you now. It's time to move on."

Don't get the wrong impression. Angela is no swooning damsel. She is manager over three libraries in her township, issues orders, gives lectures to visiting scholars. I was first impressed by how she got people jumping to find an obscure biography of Nietzsche. She says her family destroyed her self-esteem. My take is she lost it in a book.

"Poor thing," she says, and I have the feeling she is not talking about Tanya. Then came the question I told you about.

"I know there are times I should feel sad, but don't. Like I said, I am the Steppenwolf."

I am relieved when the panini's we dared to order arrive—fragrant herbal bread overflowing with chicken, prosciutto, and exotic veggies—along with a mincing, big-eared waiter.

"You're not a freak. It's just sad you've never lost anyone you loved enough to cry for."

"I had a dog once—or he had me. He was older."

"You told me that story."

A real tearjerker. Whitey predated me but foraged into some garbage laced with rat-poison when I was six. With my mother in denial, no one cared enough to take him to a vet. I put alka-seltzer in his water and put him on the couch forbidden to him. For sleep.

"That was sad," said Angela. "And it's sad you didn't cry while telling it, and I went to pieces just hearing it."

I take a generous, sloppy bite, just so I can earn a chewing break. But I am forced to say, "So it's sad I'm never sad. That's deep."

"No, that you've never had the release of crying."

I ignore her just as she ignores her sandwich, but it does no good. She says, "I can make you cry."

"Here, now? I doubt it."

She takes the smallest bite of some spillover from her sandwich, and her eyes begin to well up. She puts the panini down and says, "The doctor told me last week I have breast cancer and it's too far advanced to treat."

Heads around the room subtly lean, focusing a spotlight on what I say next.

Of course, this must be some sort of love test. But I have that down. Why else would I pretend to read the books she gives me, watch flicks with her like "Shadowlands," and endure elegant intimate restaurants with people staring? Of course she's at least exaggerating, but what if she's not? She moves her piece, and I must play.

Images intrude of her lying helpless, me sponging her lips and holding her hand. I could do that. But my face is frozen.

"You're just saying that to rile me."

"No, it's true." And her tears flow so freely—more than for any dog story—I have no choice but to believe. I try hard, I really do—and the thought of not having her tugs a bit, then recedes. Maybe later.

"Why did you wait till now to tell me, here in a public place?"

She covers her face and whimpers, "I thought it could be my final gift to you."

Now that was sad.