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Crying In Restaurants With Sarah Hepola

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS
Crying in Restaurants
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In May of 2006, I was mugged at gunpoint in New Orleans. I was in town for a wedding, walking through the French Quarter with two friends when I felt a tug on my purse and a sharp blow to the left side of my head. I thought, almost comically, that a brick had slid off one of the awnings we walked underneath and thwacked me upside the head. It was something else: Black male, approximately eighteen, lean muscular build, almond-shaped eyes that I could later identify, holding a gun whose barrel glinted in the yellow streetlight.

This story gets much, much happier. I promise. See, it’s not a story about being mugged, though that is an interesting story. It’s a story about what that violence led to, and how it turned out to be wonderful.

We were mugged walking back to our hotel room from a bar, the night before the wedding. My friends and I decided to bail early (early being a

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little after 1am) because we have a tendency to blow out at these things, let four drinks turn into ten. We were walking down Royal Street, a street most New Orleanians would confidently describe as safe, when the whole thing happened. People always ask if I was scared, but the strange thing is how I wasn’t afraid at all. I’m not being brave here; I just felt hypnotized. Hypnotized, but also hyperaware, like I could hear the rush of blood in my own veins. But I wasn’t afraid, and I didn’t cry, which is odd, since I cry at so many less significant things. I cry so often that I tried to cry, just assuming it was what I needed to do, but it was nothing more than a pantomime. My face crumpled, but no tears came.

Later, when I was back in New York, I did get scared. And this surprised me, because muggings are so commonplace that you assume they are no big deal; white-noise crime. But later, I will think about the size of the barrel, its proximity to my face. Later, I will grow uneasy when someone walks behind me. I will flinch when anyone runs past. Later, I will stand in the interminable lines of the social security office, the DMV, I will cancel all my credit cards and write off a a cell phone, $60 in cash, and a darling pink tote silkscreened with the image of Dolly Parton, and all of that is annoying, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that later, I will think about dying, and think about my friends dying, and sometimes cry in the bathroom, fistful of wet Kleenex, all of which I will be reluctant to mention because, let’s face it, three tourists mugged in the Quarter? No big deal.

The police showed up soon after we called. Not much later, a detective arrived. He was in his twenties, good looking, dressed in a suit

A year later, the detective and I will meet again, and we will fall in love.

that made him appear dapper, like he stepped out of another era. My friends and I joked about the handsomeness of the detective — a distraction, a little levity — but we didn’t pay attention to him, because other things crowded our minds. Like how to fly home without IDs. Like the lump on my head, which had grown to the size of a lime, something I could cup in my palm.

But a year later, the detective and I will meet again when I fly to New Orleans for this case, and over the following six months, we will fall in love — a totally bizarre, unlikely event. And some people think this proves that everything happens for a reason. And some people think this proves that love finds you at the most unexpected times. And maybe what it really proves is that people like to embroider meaning onto totally bizarre, unlikely events. But I think it proves that even one of the worst things that happens to you could, somehow, lead to one of the best.

At the time, I wasn’t having the best run of things. It wasn’t terrible, but there were a lot of nights I finished a bottle of wine when I only meant to drink half, and I seemed to be hop-scotching around a series of adorable man-children who didn’t know what they wanted, other than to drain a six-pack of imported beer and screw. Of course they wanted more than that — so did I, badly, though neither of us knew how to go about it. And the thought had occurred to me, without much sadness, that the most meaningful connection I would ever have would be with my cat.

It seemed unrealistic to hope for anything to happen with the investigation. This must be true for most armed-robbery victims, but in post-Katrina New Orleans, shit was bad. A mugging in the French Quarter spoke of some new brazenness or desperation. The week after I got back, I read a story in the paper about a New Orleans woman found in her Ninth Ward home, dead and undiscovered for nearly a year. So no, I didn’t think anything would happen with the investigation. Even after my friend’s purse was recovered. Even when, eight months after that, the detective sent me a photo lineup for identification. (Eight months later? Does anything move slower than justice?) Even after I identified the kid — after sleeping on it for five days, replaying the moment while I kicked the sheets and made sure that what I felt was certainty. Because I could not conceive that, two months later, the DA’s office would pursue this case, flying me down one weekend in April 2007 for a pretrial motion, and I would testify in a court filled not with a jury of my own peers but with hardened boys in baggy orange jumpsuits, staring at the ceiling and disinterested in my testimony because it had nothing to do with them.

        

  

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Well, it had to do with one of them. He sat slumped in his chair at the desk beside the defense attorney, legs kicked out underneath the table. He looked exactly like I remembered him. "A good-looking kid, lean, muscular build, almond-shaped eyes." And when I described him like that to the judge, keeping eye contact with the kid as I did so, he winked at me.

I don’t know if that’s what made me cry on the stand. It could have been a lot of things, because the ordeal was so intense. I tried to remain poised, unruffled — tourist mugged in the French Quarter, no big deal — but inside, I was beginning to hemmorhage. What upset me more than the wink was the way the defense attorney twisted my words, yanked them out of context, a year after I had spoken them. That wasn’t the order you gave us at the time, that wasn’t what you said it that night, don’t you think you should have mentioned that before now? It felt unfair, and although I don’t cry when I’m scared, I do cry when I’m frustrated. I lasted through forty-five minutes of that cross-examination, and at about the forty-six-minute mark, my breath turned to hiccups, a tear torpedoed onto the witness stand, the bored boys in jumpsuits suddenly took interest, and someone wearing a tie was dispatched to get me a Kleenex.

It was awful, that hot purple ache in your throat that feels like a fist squeezing. I wanted to be unshakeable in front of that kid; I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing how he’d wounded me. I didn’t want to look weak, vulnerable, but what can I say? I guess he won. (By the way, he won the motion, too. But I promise things get better. I told you this wasn’t a tragedy.)

I left the witness stand as the detective took it. As I passed him in the corridor, I remember feeling an extra twinge of misery that

There’s something romantic about talking to someone on the phone, even if it’s the romance of 1983.

he saw me this way. That morning, as we drank a cup of bad coffee and made each other laugh just to lighten the mood, I had taken such pride in my composure — me, the one always crying in restaurants. But here I was again, red eyes and runny mascara.

I went to the women’s bathroom, locked myself in the stall and cried.

It was the kind of crying that feels like vomiting. Or screaming. Or an orgasm, except that kind of ecstasy was the furthest thing from my mind. I didn’t even sit on the toilet; I just stood there, face covered with slimy hands, bent over close to the plastic toilet-paper dispenser. I don’t know how long I was in there. Twenty minutes? Five? When I finally emerged, I discovered a woman in the corner, silent and worried, waiting for the right time to ask if I was okay.

The defense attorney was earning his paycheck that day. Outside the courtroom, I could hear a cross-examination as grueling as mine. There was yelling, and repeated objections, and I thought at first that Nick might actually be losing his temper on the stand, but that was before I learned that Nick is one of the calmest people I know. Oh, that’s his name, by the way: Nick. I’m going to stop calling him "the detective" now, and this is pretty much the moment I made that switch in my real life, too.

Nick looked beat when he came out of the courtroom. "Some cases are better than others," he said with a sigh. And then: "Come on. Let me take you to lunch."

I don’t know how to explain what happened next. Or maybe I don’t want to. It’s funny, because I feel like I’m always falling in love with strangers — the friendly guy at the bodega, the scruffy delivery boy with a messenger bag — but the idea of romance with Nick hadn’t even occurred to me. Because he was a detective in New Orleans, and I was a writer in New York, and I knew exactly the parameters of what we were doing at that moment: we were just two people, joking away a bad morning.

A week later, I sent him a gift. I wanted to thank him for lunch; I also, probably, wanted to make sure he didn’t forget me. Two weeks after that, he sent me a card. I wrote him a letter. He sent me a book. We started talking on the phone — for hours at a stretch, like we were middle schoolers confined to our bedroom. Our second phone conversation lasted three hours. And we didn’t hang up. His cellphone battery ran out.

  

        

  

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There’s something romantic about talking to someone on the phone, even if it is the romance of 1983. I could feel close to him without the fear of actually being close to him. I never had to worry what I looked like, if I was blushing, never had to feel preoccupied by what I was wearing, by a body that stubbornly refused to do what I wanted. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if we had lived in the same city. Would we have stumbled drunkenly into bed and scared one another to opposite sides of the room the next day? Could we have ever gotten to know each other in the same way if we hadn’t been confined to opposite sides of a cellphone signal, 1,300 miles apart, nothing to do but rummage through every story we have, one long conversation in which every fifteen minutes someone said, "Oh oh oh"?

There was one thing we couldn’t talk about — my case, which limped its way through the courts for six long months. The preliminary motion was lost, but the assistant district attorney filed an appeal, which we won, and one and a half years after I was mugged — and about two weeks before I planned to see Nick in person, not for the first time but sort of for the first time — the kid who mugged me pled guilty. He got fifteen years. It’s a long time. And it’s a bad trade for two purses and about $150. But like I said before, the worst thing that happens to you could, unexpectedly, lead to the best.

Anyway, I flew down to see Nick soon after that. I already knew I was in love with him. But that was so cuckoo, so entirely bananas, that I thought I must be mistaken.

I don’t cry in restaurants much anymore. I cry in airports.

How could you love someone before you even kissed them? Before you even held their hand? I would try to dig up the old catastrophist in me, rooting around for possible dealbreakers: What if he was bad in bed? What if he had the Eagles on his iPod?

Try as I could, I never was able to drum up the old shrieking, familiar angst. Maybe I just knew it would work out. Maybe I had calmed down with age. Maybe I had finally realized that the people we love do not come perfect and fully formed to us, that part of the fun is to shape each other and learn from each other. And you know what? Nick does have the Eagles on his iPod. And turns out, I think that’s totally adorable.

I don’t cry in restaurants much anymore. I cry in airports, where it’s just as hard to hide. I cry in bed, too. Not because of fights we have (we haven’t had those yet). I cry for silly, random reasons. I cry because my cat is going to die one day, before I’m ready, and life without him feels unfathomable.

"This is such a stupid thing to cry about," I say.

"I actually think it’s a pretty good thing to cry about," Nick says.

I cry sometimes that Nick will be taken away from me. Not that he will cheat, or break up with me, but that he will somehow be ripped from my life. It is hard for me to love something without worrying that it will somehow leave. So I have nightmares that I get sent to an internment camp. I have nightmares that I am trying to board a train to his place but it never stops, just keeps passing me by as I stand on the platform’s edge, waiting indefinitely.

We are lying in bed one morning — my leg draped over his side, his hand running along my bare thigh. "I keep worrying that you’ll go away," I say.

"But I just got here."

"I know." I start to cry but it’s softer than it used to be, less barbed. The tear from my cheek drips onto his back. "It took you a long time."

"Is that bad?"

It isn’t bad. "It was just lonely for a while."

I don’t remember what happens next. Maybe we have sex. Maybe we drift off to sleep. Maybe we lie there, not saying anything, and he turns to me and kisses my damp cheek, and I run my hand through the soft, short crop of his hair, close my eyes, and sigh. I do know one thing: Whatever happens, I stop crying.
 



  

        

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sarah Hepola has been a high-school teacher, a playwright, a film critic, a music editor and a travel columnist. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, The Guardian, Salon, and on NPR. She lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
©2008 Sarah Hepola and Nerve.com