A Full-body Cry

The UMD Romano Gymnasium men’s lavatory can handle a lot of traffic if it needs to. A small entryway opens into a room of eight or ten sinks and a couple big mirrors; that room adjoins one with five or six stalls and as many urinals. Those numbers might be a bit off but you get the gist; it’s a fairly big space. Every surface except the ceiling is porcelain, glass, metal, or ceramic.

For a few minutes on a June or July weekday afternoon in 1996 I occupied one of those men’s room stalls. I was working on the UMD student grounds crew while on summer break from studying for my master’s degree in English. We were mowing grass or planting flowers or doing some other grounds-crewy thing close to the Sports and Health Center that day.

I was in the M.A. program and doing the on-campus job because they were available and I’ve never been clever or courageous enough to be what I actually want to be. That’s a whole other essay. Not really, though. It’s part or most of every adorable little essay I’ve written and will write. My navel brims with mesmerizing regret, and I feel compelled to type it up publicly.

Pretty sure I was in the furthest stall on the left. It felt most private to me. Privacy in such situations is quite important. Until just before I was ready to leave, I was the only person in the whole place. All the hard surfaces kind of harshly amplified even the most-subtle movements I made.

As I reached for the stall-door latch, I heard what sounded like someone trying to run through the main restroom door instead of open it. Thud! (human skin and muscles and bones banging into wood) Whoosh! Slam! (wood on tile wall) Slap-clomp-shuffle-sqeak! (shoes on tile). Heavy ragged high-pitched human gasping—as if whoever it was had run far and hard while carrying something heavy before crashing through the door, taking a few steps left, then turning right into the room of sinks and mirrors.

UMD’s men’s basketball program was hosting a youth camp in the Romano. The gym doors had been open when I walked by on my way to the restroom. I’d peeked in to see what kinds of drills UMD coaches and players and some local high-school coaches were putting participants through. I went to a few football and basketball camps and clinics as a kid. I remember them fondly and miserably. I was an anxious, uncomfortable kid.

The giant accordion doors dividing the main gym from a small ancillary one were open, and four courts of what looked like elementary and middle-school boys were scrimmaging. Ten active players on each court. Probably 20 or more waiting on the sidelines to get in the games. Lots of shoes galloping and squeaking, high-pitched yells to pass or shoot, referee whistles, and leather balls pinging and slapping against hardwood, tempered glass, and metal.

Based on what I’d experienced in similar situations, I knew it wasn’t odd that a kid might need to book it from the gym to the restroom, or that when he got there his entrance would sound more rumble-thunderous and frenetic than measured. I expected whoever had just barreled through the door would take a quick leak while trying to catch his breath, maybe or maybe not wash his hands super-fast, then barrel back out.

But after the initial entry there was a pause. Four or five seconds of silence.

Then a huge inhalation and a catch in his throat. Then a short, constricted, gurgling exhale. Another huge intake and catch. Another one of those labored exhales; more like a painful pressure release than a part of actual breathing. The sounds were unmistakable—to me, at least, as someone who had done and heard the same thing a few times before—as a human being expending all their energy on trying not to break down into a full-body cry.

I sat back down as quietly as possible. I’m tall enough, especially in work boots, to see and be seen over the stalls in that restroom. I wanted the kid to have all possible privacy. I could hear him shuffling or pacing a bit, and I didn’t know where he’d roam. My plan was to wash my hands and leave as quickly as I could if he went into a stall, but he never left the sink room.

Eventually he let out two big sobs and swore a fat mouthful of furious swears. Took a few breaths. Sobbed for a few seconds. Swore some more. Sobbed. Did all that in waves for a couple minutes, then eased into deep breathing, sounding like he was trying to steady himself.

Pretty soon he’d have to get back to the gym. I wondered if he’d been obviously crying before he left. Did he screw up a play—flub a pass or miss an easy shot? Get yelled at by an adult or made fun of by a peer? Had his brain or body been hurt in some way he couldn’t let anyone else know about? Was he overcome by a wave of unexpected homesickness? What if he just hated the whole basketball-camp deal, and some mundane thing happened in a game that pushed him past the point of being able to keep it in?

In summer of 1981 or ‘82, when I was about the age I’m still projecting onto this boy, I went to a janky football camp somewhere in Ohio. I wasn’t the youngest kid there. It was for boys 9-18. During an after-lunch free period one day, while all the other boys were in a common room having fun, I just laid in my bunk feeling a sadness I had no idea how understand. Maybe some of them weren’t actually having fun.

One of the camp counselors, a college player, popped into the bunk room to grab something from his bag. “Hey, man,” he said when he saw me, in a voice I remember being quite kind. “You wanna come hang out with the rest of the guys?”

“No,” I remember saying, my voice barely not cracking. “But thanks.” I might have been reading a book or a Sports Illustrated. It’s difficult to overstate how much I read when I was a kid.

The kid in the UMD restroom didn’t sound anxious or depressed. He sounded pissed. Or maybe he didn’t. I often make the mistake of explaining other people’s actions by understanding them through my feelings, and in that echoey restroom situation I heard lonesomeness, rage, sadness, confusion, and just raw pain. I’ve cried my own heaving, disconsolate sobs. A few times in elementary school and junior high. Once at 16. Once at 20. Maybe that’s what was going on with that kid. Or maybe his team lost and he was one of those competitive people I’ve never understood, and losing filled him a fury he needed privacy to release safely.

After calming down into sniffles he did take a leak. He did wash his hands. And he left.

I opened the stall, washed my own hands, and went back to work.

He’s probably about 30 now.

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