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I was a kid who never quite fit into the world, and as a consequence, I knew that sensation of the incoming flood far too well, when you knew it was coming, the rush and roar and heat of it, when all you can do is surrender, because the dam's already burst, and it's just a matter of time before you're swept away.

"Mr. Wall," said Mrs. Marcellus, a particularly cruel and thoughtless first grade teacher in my school, "Am I to take it that we're going to be blessed with another of your fine performances?"

I was standing there, humiliated, having been dressed down for slipping ahead in my reader in front of the whole class, and the jeering, giggling, lurching masses of those ugly, awful grins of twenty kids who also failed to understand a thing about how I worked, and who I was meant to be in this world, were hot enough to feel like the late afternoon sun in a Maryland summer.

I stood, and burned in the glare.

"No, I am not," I said, jutting my jaw out defiantly, and proved myself wrong almost immediately, dissolving into the choking gales of desperate tears.

"Well here we go," said my horrid teacher, rolling her jaundiced eyes. "Bring on those big fat crocodile tears, Joseph, and show the whole class what a great big baby you can be."

Even then, even lost in a moment where I felt like I was the only one of me there'd ever be, and the only one who'd ever know, I knew she was wrong.

In my household, my father cried. My father cried, and cried over things as simple and overt as the lilting, tragic melodies of Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé suite, and he was a strong, limitless man who shared those tears easily, and shared why we cry, too.

"Son, if you listen right here," he said, counting out the measures as we sat in front of a pair of tweed Advent speakers, "this part is about the romance of a man who never existed, but if you listen to the way the composer wrote the music, he carries us along, so we feel what we're meant to feel."

"If it's a romance, why does it sound sad?"

"It's Russian. Russian music always sounds a little sad."

"But if he's in love, why is it sad?"

"There's sadness in everything, Joe-B. Sometimes you can be happier than you've ever been and still feel a little sad. Sometimes, you can feel sad because something is so beautiful it's just too much to bear."

"Things can be like that?" I asked. It was all a mystery to me.

"You'll know better when you've seen more of the world."

He was right, of course. I have seen so much more, and it's easier to make me cry than ever. These days, though, when I reflect on the running commentary of a foolish, mean-spirited teacher, I feel sad, too, but for her.

"How long shall we expect to enjoy these great big gales of tears, Mr. Wall? The entire class is waiting for your interruption to end, so that we can continue on the assigned lesson in our readers."

"You big baby," whispered the nearest, meanest kid, with a snicker, and even then, I knew that I was anything but. I'd seen my father cry in his headphones, silently conducting his Kijé , and there was no one stronger in the world, no one smarter, no onebetter. Even then, even when I was just a kid, I knew who I was, even if I couldn't explain how I got that way.

When my niece was coming up, my sister once commented, finding that she was crying frequently, how like me she was. "She's just...tuned in, like you always were," she said, and I nodded.

"An eleven, yep."

It's my own little code for that sort of hair trigger heart, being the kind of person who's always turned up past the ten on the easy feeling scale.

Of course, I didn't always want it. When it was a movie day, on those special days, I always sort of wanted them to run Pete's Dragon for the hundredth time, rather than spool up my favorite film, The Red Balloon, a film I loved so much I never wanted to see it again, because it was just so playful, and magical, and terribly, terribly hard when it took the turns that were most familiar to me.

The film would chatter along in the projector and I'd recognize the familiar streets of a Parisian neighborhood that no longer exists, and barely did even then, and I'd feel that electric static of familiar twinges up my spine, because I loved that film, loved that boy, loved those streets, loved that balloon, and I knew what would happen, because it always happened.

I'd see myself as a quiet French boy, see myself finding the balloon, find myself in the kind of chaste love with the balloon, and the chase, the charging, terrifying chase, and the moment when the bad kids stoned the balloon, finishing it off with a stamping foot, and all the air would leave the room. I'd sob very, very quietly, a skill you learn when you cry easily, and try to look away, but then...well, then, all the balloons in Paris would come flying, and it was too much to bear, too beautiful and sad and wonderful and everything, and I'd desperately wave to the teacher to ask to be excused to use the lavatory, because if I opened my mouth—

If all the balloons in Paris came to me, why would that be sad?

You just don't understand such things until you've seen the world. Sometimes the things that make you cry the hardest, even when you've seen them again and again, are the ones that most remind you that life is a kind of glorious agony, where nothing is either good or bad, but some impossible mixture of things. I cry when the dogs die, when love's not enough, when I see myself up there, living out some parallel of my own life, even though it's all just a story, told for the purpose of entertainment and enlightenment.

It's all just a story, so why am I crying?

It was just so confusing. Sitting in a movie theater in the city, with my parents flanking me, I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, annoyed by the damned mimes in ape costumes, enraptured by the futuristic space station and the moon and the giant space ship, so lovingly rendered, and when Dave Bowman pulled the little glass blocks out of Hal's brain, accompanied by that steadily slowing monologue, I caught myself at it again. Distracted by the baffling remainder of the film, I wiped my tears and sat through it, until the lights came up in the theater.

"Dad? Did Hal die?"

"I think so, though it's hard to know what happened in that movie."

"That was sad, but I don't know why I was sad because Hal was mean."

"It's sad when any thinking being dies, Joe," my father said, and he was right.

"Why was the computer mean?"

"I can't say."

Still, when I sing "Daisy," I tend to slow down at the end.

I took a decade off, though, after my father died, because I'd cried enough, and I watched movies that didn't take me to those places. I can say with some certainty that I have probably seen Romy and Michele's High School Reunion more frequently than the film's editors. Sometimes you just don't want to be sad anymore, and there's a world out there dedicated to dampening those lonesome feelings so you won't have to hurt. There's always Ernest Goes To CampErnest Goes To Jail, and Ernest Scared Stupid, and hell, didn't I watch enough depressing subtitled French films in the nineties? Can't I just escape it all for a moment?

Until you fall in love with someone who's lost someone, and who wears it on their sleeve as raw and open as a wound, and then it all comes flooding back, the rush and roar and heat of it, and you find that you've finally grown up enough that it's not unbearable, the other side of that boundary between life and death, love and loss, and kindness and cruelty. You sit in a packed theater with the guy who opened the floodgates, even as you feel, deep down, that it's almost over, both in the film and there, in the world, watching Ennis and Jack and thinking, "why the fuck did I have to see this movie with him, of all the fucking people in the world?"

"Jack, I swear," Ennis says, smoothing out the shirt that's wrapped around Jack's shirt in the closet in his trailer, and you sob, audibly, and go completely salt-blind as the tears come, knowing that the guy next to you is crying over someone else, someone who came before you and who you'll never be, and that's how things are, being grown up in a complex, impossible world.

Here comes eleven, you think, and it's not so bad now that you're a grown, middle-aged man. Here comes eleven. How lucky am I to know this feeling? How lucky to know this world.

In the mercury lamp glare of the parking lot to the movie theater, you don't say a word, but even though you know it's all just a fantasy, you half expect to see all the balloons in Paris coming your way, to carry you away from it all, and let out a laugh that's not entirely a laugh.


"Nothing. Thought I saw all the balloons in Paris for a second."

He rolls his eyes. You find the car, and your taillights disappear in the night, where the credits ought to be, if life were really like that.

If only.

© 2011 Joe Belknap Wall


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January 2013

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