I glanced up from my phone and noticed her. Walking back to a booth by the wall, her skinny jeans and spring toboggan were headed to where he was seated. Delicately holding a hot latte in her right hand, her arm crooked at a right angle so the foamy meniscus stayed in place as she moved, she walked in a straight line toward the table, set the drink down, and crumpled into the wooden bench as tears came. It was a silent cry, the kind borne of a deep, prolonged ache.
He seem uninterested in comforting her. His right thumb scrolled incessantly on his phone as he tried hard to distract himself from her emotion. Maybe he didn't know what to say. Fear of saying the wrong thing often leaves us mute. In a world where messages blare, silence can be foreign and unwelcome. So, we'd at least rather fill our mind with clutter and diversion when the time comes to say something and we can't, tongue tied by hesitancy. Doing so comforts us, a selfish act given that the moment calls for us to at least speak an awkward "I'm sorry" or to try to say so with our eyes. Directing them to a tiny screen gives us the illusion at we're doing something. What a terrible something it is to do in moments like these.
He finally offered her his left hand, even if it was propping up his phone while he scrolled. His long fingers engulfed hers. Still no eye contact. Wanting desperately to connect with something human, she glanced around the room, her eyes darting and looking for an anonymous match, someone who could offer a shared humanity for half of half of a second so that she didn't have to feel so alone in this instant in a place so crowded. What she needed she couldn't find in what was seated just 24 inches across from her. She needed more than a hand to hold; she needed a meaningful connection. Anything - a hand, a tissue, a shirt sleeve - could dry her tears. She needed something to comfort her heart.
Maybe someone died. Maybe she was yelled at by her mom or dad or teacher or boss. Maybe she didn't get the job or she missed the bus or she missed her dog. I would never know what made her sad to the point of public tears. But I did know that her sadness couldn't - and shouldn't - go unnoticed.
My daughter can now recognize facial expressions well. When watching a movie or looking in a book, she can determine if someone is happy, sad, mad, or scared. When she sees it, she names it. A simple "She's sad" lets me know my daughter can empathize because she has memories of times when she, too, was sad.
That's what happens when we see a downtrodden face in another. We're transplanted to a place and time where we were in their toboggan and we do know what made us cry or frown or despair. And, just as we wanted touch or eye contact or engulfing, we still work hard to not overcome the abyss between two sad strangers. Rather than offer a sympathetic glance or a soft touch or a kind word, we return to small screens and tap away, hoping that something else will come to comfort them, just as our own hands distract us.