On one of the cross-streets between the train station and where I used to work, there is a woman who sits and cries.
I saw her every day, sitting on a bench or a stoop or huddled against a wall, designer knock-off handbag clutched under her arm, regrowth-marred blonde hair hanging like spaghetti, crying with a paper-crumpled face.
The first time I saw her, I was running (literally – boots slapping pavement, suit-wearers launching themselves out of the way) late for work. She startled me, bewildered me, and I wanted badly to stop. Feeling hopeless and heartless, I continued hurricaning on my way. Someone else will comfort her, I let my city mind assure me.
As I sent emails and made photocopies, the crying woman dribbled from my mind. Her despair was replaced with Important Things – deadlines and requests and cups of coffee to be made.
The next day, as I hauled my hood over my head for insulation, her sobs swirled and spiraled like stream from a hot cup of coffee. She watched me as I trekked past. Her wet eyes followed me. I could feel them burning, judging, shaming. She knows I am a compassionless person. She knows I have no soul.
The despair of the crying woman’s life began to permeate my own, soaking everything and leaving a dampness that persisted for weeks, everything I did wet with her tears. When bad things happened – when I missed my train, or when I got food poisoning, or when I rubbed blisters all over my feet and had to hobble like an octogenarian – I rationalised that at least I wasn’t driven to sobbing on a city street. Nothing could ever be as bad as that level of all-consuming misery.
My mind sketched high-contrast lithographs of the world ending, of everyone dying and the city falling in on itself.
The day I was slated to finish at that job, I resolved to confront the crying woman. Perhaps we could cry about it together. She sat in the mouth of a laneway, inconspicuous yet unmissable. The lines in her face deepened as I approached, her features folding in on themselves and wringing out more tears.
“Why are you crying?” I vomited. She lowered the hand that was held to her mouth like a 1920s film star and extended it toward me, imploring, demanding, pleading.
“D’you have any spare change?” she slurred. Her voice, like her face, was wrapped around itself, punctured by fold lines and tears. She breathed smoke and petrol. Her paper skin was kindling. The fire rushed to my face, filling my cheeks with red and steaming away all the water. I choked out a “No, sorry” and tripped over myself as I turned away.