There’s a game I play when I’m just on the edge of tears, and if I start early enough, it tends to keep them at bay. It’s best used right at the moment when that lump forms in your throat as you’re struggling for air, while you’re trying to spit out a comeback or explain yourself, in front of the person causing you to feel this way.
When I’m right there on the verge of waterworks, I pick a memory. Sometimes it’s this time when I was eight, and suddenly I’m watching my younger siblings fight over the spotlight on the stage we made out of the top of our toy chest, both belting out their best toddler renditions of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Occasionally it’s one of the times I played hide and go seek in the dark with my cousins, when the youngest of the group actually touched one of us, but instead of declaring, “You’re it!,” said, “Oh, that’s just a statue,” and continued the hunt while the rest of us shook with laughter, trying to keep quiet so we wouldn’t be caught.
When I’m feeling strong enough, I choose a memory of an almost boyfriend. I pick the day that we woke up to the sun streaming full force into the pre-war windows of his Washington Heights apartment, when he asked me if I ever got nostalgic. Before the full sentence left his mouth and hit my ears, I was already grasping at the details — the precise way his moppy hair fell to one side, and the smile lines he wore so well — because I knew I was in the middle of making a memory that I’d want to use someday. In fact, it’s the one I often use when a new love interest lets me down — when I’ve been stood up or abruptly dumped, and want to play it off like none of it touches me, like nothing hurts. Big girls don’t cry — not in public, anyway. They come up with tactics to save face, to make you feel like your actions are insignificant. They don’t give their power away.
Every now and then, of course, the game fails — like when I’m watching a movie and an unexpected scene brings me from zero to sobbing, faster than I can muster up the time when I was ten and my father surprised us by bringing home a tiny puppy in a shoebox. Or when a confrontation with someone I love catches me so off guard that even the memory of the day my mother disregarded the errands she needed to run, pulled into the parking lot of a playground, and let my siblings and I play to our heart’s content, can’t quell the tears from arriving so fast that I actually flinch in surprise when I feel them hot on my face.
Does anyone else play this game? It’s not the sort of thing you can ask a person, outright. Regardless of how well you know someone, asking them what they do to keep themselves calm and collected is the kind of thing that always feels out of bounds. And aside from the incredibly awkward ask, once you give your game away to someone, the next time you’re fighting off tears, they’ll know that you’re playing. They’ll pay extra close attention to your reactions when you’re being let down or hurt by someone — and the game doesn’t work as well when you have an audience that’s in on it.
But I’m letting you in on this game of mine, because I know how bad the fight to stay composed can be — when all you want to do is break down, to fight back, to disregard the public space you’re in and act on everything you’re feeling at that very moment — while the consequences of your potential outburst still seem far away and irrelevant. The next time you find yourself in that place, take a breath, save some face.
Pick a memory.