Love & Sex

Crying in Restaurants With Sarah Hepola: One writer remembers her rougher dinner dates.

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Two hours before my first kiss, I cried in a Wendy’s booth across from a nineteen-year-old college dropout. We were heading to a party — whose party, I did not know — and I was slurry with Peach Schnapps, or Bacardi Rum, or whatever cough-syrup crap I was pouring into my Cokes that summer. I was thirteen. It was a confusing time.

"Are you crying?" the college dropout asked, dipping his French fries in a squirt of ketchup.

"Uh-uh. No." I pretended to have a scratch on my chin, a scratch on my nose. A scratch anywhere, preferably one that leaked fluid.

The college dropout had shaggy blond hair and spoke like someone who was permanently stoned. Perhaps this was because he was permanently stoned. "Wait — you are crying," he said.

I shook my head. For some reason, even as an adult, this is an argument I think I can win.

But it was hopeless. A tear slipped off my chin and went splat! in my baked potato. We sat there for a while, him dipping his square burger into the ketchup, my face dripping with tears as I raked a fork through sour cream and chives. The good patrons of Wendy’s — accustomed to such nuisances as screaming babies and stray fingernails in their side salads — began to stare. And the more they stared, the worse my crying became.

"I don’t understand why you’re crying," the college dropout said finally.

No one ever does. Sometimes, not even me.

In this case, I did understand. It had do with being uncorked by booze. It had to do with being thirteen. Mostly, it had to do with nursing a giant crush on the nineteen-year-old college dropout, whom I wanted more than Frosties and French fries. It had to do with the complicated adolescent algorithm churning away in my head, the one which indicated that he didn’t like me, or didn’t like like me, or liked my older cousin instead — none of which was based on actual evidence. But when did a thirteen year old ever need that?

Crying in a restaurant is like needing to fart in church. The more you don’t want to do it, the worse it gets.

He offered me a handful of napkins and a sip of his Coke. Blech: whiskey.

This was the first time I cried in a restaurant, and it would not be the last. Over the next two decades, I would cry in so many restaurants that sometimes I would know the floor tile and the bathroom stalls better than the menu. I never wanted to be like this. (Please understand I never wanted to be like this.) But crying in a restaurant is like needing to fart in church. The more you don’t want to do it, the worse it gets.

It may surprise you, by the way, to learn that I was not always a crier. For a glorious, hard-won spell of approximately six years I was known as a tough kid who sucked it up and knocked out girls’ teeth on the soccer field. This was the influence of my older cousin, a foxy tomboy who believed in arm-wrestling with boys and flipping off strangers. She distrusted tears — no, she pitied them, much like she pitied people who actually liked school or read "for fun." That disgusted her. And she spent her summers transforming me into a miniature version of herself — slutting up my wardrobe, spiking my bangs, ripping away my John Irving books and replacing them with trips to the mall. This hardened me. More than that: It intoxicated me. I worshipped my cousin, and I feared her, because her rage and her ego were so foreign to me. We didn’t have much in common, save for a bloodline and a button nose. And eventually, despite the afternoons at Chess King and the lessons in Aqua Net, I would prove a total disappointment. I loved to read. I was an honor-roll student. Above all, I was a crier.

That night, at the Wendy’s, my tears came on so fast that they shocked even me. I was like a gunshot victim who saw the blood before she felt the pain. What is this liquid? How did it get on my face? It happened because I was sad, and drunk, and lovelorn, but I also think it happened because I had so much to say and no idea how to say any of it. I was a shy kid, a fact that surprises friends of mine who struggle to complete a sentence whenever I’m on a loudmouth tear. But back then, I was practically mute. I wanted to explain that I liked the college dropout. That I hoped he didn’t think I was too young for him. That I hoped he might kiss me, and if he did, I hoped I could figure out how to do it right. Instead, what I said was, "Do you like my cousin?"

He said, "I dunno, maybe."

And the next thing I knew, the baked potato was blurring beneath me.

I learned that making out with someone can leave your neck and face smelling like old cheese.

There is a rap on us criers that we are just master manipulators. We just want to get our way. And our grand spectacle of emotion, guilt, and self-hatred — the waterworks! — is nothing more than a toddler’s temper tantrum. Maybe. Look, I don’t know. But this indicates that I have some grand agenda whenever I weep. That I want a better birthday present or a trip to Ibiza. Sometimes, when I cry, it’s because I’ve lost sight of what I want. And I feel so ripped up between what I want, what I thought I wanted, what other people want, and what I want to want that it’s like this twelve-car pile-up.

But wait a minute. I actually did cry once when I didn’t get a birthday present I wanted. I was turning sixteen, and my boyfriend was a darling and hapless seventeen year old who kept asking me what I wanted. But what I wanted was for him to read my mind. What I wanted was something spectacular and glittering and unspecified. And so I shrugged and told him it didn’t matter, which is one of the great lies that teen girls perpetrate on teen boys, along with, "Yes, of course I just came."

Anyway, he did buy me a present. He wanted to get me something "I could use." So he bought me a twelve-pack of Coors and a gift certificate to the Gap.

"I love it!" I said, as a tear rolled off my nose and landed on a pull tab.

I cried a lot in that relationship. Actually, I cried a lot in every relationship I’ve ever had. And this is a series about the times I’ve done that. Specifically, about the times I’ve done that in restaurants, where I can’t escape, where everyone looks but pretends not to, where my misery has unspooled so often, so painfully, and at such premium prices.

Most people’s relationships end in tears. Somehow, mine actually start with them.

Like that night at Wendy’s. Later on, at the party, the college dropout and I made out in the hallway. Like I told you, it was my first kiss, and it taught me a lot. I learned, for instance, that making out with someone can leave your neck and face smelling like old cheese. I learned that a guy might stick his tongue in your ear, that it might feel like a fat slug. I learned that when this happened, I might moan like a porn star instead of saying "Ew, I wish you wouldn’t do that," which is exactly what I was thinking. I learned that when someone says you should call them the next day, they might never return your call. You might never see that person again, even though you cried in a Wendy’s because you were afraid he didn’t like you, and because you were thirteen, and and because you were pumped full of Blueberry Schnapps, or Bacardi Rum, or whatever was in the liquor cabinet that night.

Oh, and I learned something else. I learned that if you want a thing very badly, and you don’t know how to ask for it, it sometimes helps to cry.