I lived in Paris one glorious and angst-ridden summer in my early twenties, and it was there that I discovered the joys of crying in cafes. At the time, I was heartbroken, having just single-handedly destroyed my relationship with my first love due to unfounded jealousy and emotional instability. What better place to mourn a lost love than on the Left Bank? I cried into café au laits and I cried into kir royales. I cried until the ink smeared across my earnest journal pages. I signed my letters "gros bisous," the last "s" smudged by a final, fat teardrop.
My heartbreak now is of a quieter variety. There is no longer a lost love, or rather, there are a handful of them. They all haunt me from time to time, though the specters are just flickers of a romanticism I rarely have time for anymore. A romanticism perhaps best surrendered and with it, a measure of the narcissism and naiveté that never served me well to begin with.
I hope to never again cry from a heartbreak like the one I suffered that Parisian summer. But even a happy marriage can't guarantee any such thing. I think often of holding my aunt's hand as we watched her husband breathe his last breath. I remember how she lay all night on the floor next to the bed. I learned a lesson about the fleeting nature of love's promises that night, as I listened to her rhythmic sobbing until the pale New England dawn came and I finally convinced her to make the call so they could come for his body.
Perhaps it was memories of that night that inspired my tears the other day, when I found myself crying in the café of a small bookstore that I ducked into out of the Edinburgh rain. Perhaps it was the report from my husband that my child is having a hard time, is missing me, is behaving poorly without me. Perhaps it was the ever-present thought that my closest friend, who died of a drug overdose a year ago, would have loved this city, and it would have loved her back, her relentlessly creative spirit.
Crying in public is something I usually reserve for museums and cafes in cities not my own. Who has time, in between work and meetings and soccer practice and grocery shopping, to stop and cry into a coffee because of some essential human loneliness? And anyway, who would cry into a ventithreeshotsugarfreevanillaskimmilk latte? There are so many control issues stuffed into that cup that there's no room left for tears.
No -- you cry into a whole milk latte, when your ankle is throbbing just slightly because you turned it by stepping awkwardly on cobblestone. You cry when the only people to witness speak another language, or at least in a barely-decipherable brogue. There's a nakedness to crying in public, an implicit invitation to others to share your pain. The anonymity of traveling lends a safety to this nakedness. It's simply not prudent to have an existential crisis at parent-teacher night. But a little breakdown on a street corner in Rome won't inspire gossip about your fragility (perhaps you're back on those pills after all), won't cause you to miss your pitch meeting, won't leave you too distraught to make dinner.
And what do we travel for if not this -- to be lifted out of our ingrained identities and to experience our humanity?
In the Edinburgh café, I was brought back to my summer in Paris. That girl's tears seem so sweet, so precious to me now. She knew everything about heartbreak and nothing at all. And though it sometimes feels like it, she is never entirely gone.