In the general run of my life, I no longer have a lot to cry about. I know now what and who are important to me, and I take care of those things and people at least fairly well. There is always plenty of room for improvement, and there is always plenty of stress, but I’m not in a mess as I often was in my twenties and thirties. I have mellowed, and life is good, as they say.
A couple of weeks ago, Bruce came home after a long day and week at the office. The usual Florida summer weather pattern was setting in, and the dark sky threatened. Bruce often arrives home exhausted by problems at work, and he stretched out on the bed to unwind for a few minutes. I propped myself on a pillow beside him.
Our conversation was desultory. It started with nothing much and ended back around in the same place. We kept wondering what to do with our Friday evening, one of the few we usually take off, but one for which we had no plans. We had both done a lot of running around that week, and, though we kept feeling as though we should do something, neither of us really wanted to. Before we could even begin to rally, the thunder and lightning began. The fat raindrops pelted the skylights and windows. We floated on the bed in a pool of cozy yellow light surrounded by violent wind and blackness.
“What should we do?” Bruce asked. “I can always just go out and get something and bring it back.” I knew he would make the valiant effort, but he sounded tired.
I got up to feed the kitties. He let me rattle in the kitchen, not noticing that I had conceived a plan. While the cats ate, I sliced up a nectarine and an apple, then some cheddar, Gouda, and rosemary goat cheese, and piled it all up on a plate. I brought it back to bed, and said, “Let’s just stay right here. We don’t have to do anything.”
Immediately, I could see the burden of entertainment and provisioning lift from Bruce’s face. We settled in for the evening, just reading, doing a crossword puzzle, playing Angry Birds on the iPad, and talking. The storm rumbled on and the rain pattered down. And we talked, as too often we don’t really have time to do. The room relaxed, and all evening the coziness of being there together with the world held at bay by the weather allowed all our usual irritations to give way to the sensation of closeness.
At one point, one of us mentioned the unsightly three bags of mulch that had sat at the end of our driveway for a year and a half. We were finally getting around to planting the gardenia that we’d been given for our wedding and that had languished for two years in its pot in spite of our best intentions, and we were glad the ugly bags would soon be gone. “No telling what’s underneath those bags by now,” I said.
“Probably your passport,” Bruce answered, referring to the fact that three days before we were supposed to leave for our honeymoon in the U.K., I had realized my passport was missing. There’d been a bit of an ordeal in getting a new one and joining Bruce in Scotland a day late for the start of our honeymoon. The fate of the lost passport remains a mystery.
We’ve had a lot on our plates the past three years–lost passports, brain hemorrhages, and other things–and all of that came pouring out in those moments of relaxation and silliness. I chuckled in response to the idea that the passport could be in one place we certainly hadn’t looked for it. … And then Bruce laughed, and then I started in, and then we couldn’t stop. My cheeks began to ache, and we kept on laughing. We laughed til both of us had to wipe away the tears.
As so often when you laugh til you cry, it was set off by something trivial and absurd, but it tapped into the fact that after the last few crazy years, we were having a lovely, cozy, quiet moment. The oxygen of laughter flooded us, and our bodies had this near-sexual release of laughing and crying at once. It was a great moment, even beautiful, though we won’t put it down in the annals as important.
I haven’t made a study of the phenomenon of laughing til you cry, and experts don’t know much about it. Most times it happens over something trivial and so people don’t remember the details. The specifics of its instances don’t stay with us the way traumas do. But I do think that it often involves the sense of intimacy and closeness that Bruce and I had the other day. It seems to involve a sense of protection from a world outside, the creation of a safe zone for silliness.
I remember only two other specific times laughing until I cried, though I know I have done it many other times, too. One was at a potluck Thanksgiving dinner held one year by my friend Umeeta. It was a gray and unwelcoming November day in Pennsylvania—the kind of weather that makes you want to stay under the covers. And it was a holiday weekend in an abandoned college town. I hardly knew any of the other people there—only Umeeta and, slightly, her girlfriend, Kim. Now I don’t even remember who the other people were. What I remember was that there were six or seven of us, all with the end-of-term hanging over our heads, and that we had a fabulous meal, with not only the traditional American fare, but a wonderful vegetable curry and dal that Umeeta had made. After dinner, we sat around the living room—mostly on the floor because they didn’t have a lot of furniture—and told funny Thanksgiving stories. Then Umeeta put on a Bollywood movie, a tale of frustrated love that rose to quite melodramatic heights. Umeeta has an infectious laugh, and she got us going. And we laughed and laughed until we were all hiccupping and the tears were streaming down our faces. Total strangers, but we had been brought close in that warm living room.
Not long after, when I was still in grad school, I remember laughing with my then-boyfriend, Tad. Tad and I liked each other a lot, but we probably already knew that we weren’t compatible long-term. We spent a lot of time at the house he shared with two roommates and many parties filled with people I mostly didn’t like. In that group, most everything was public, and they shared partners as well as too much information. Tad’s roommate had an ex-girlfriend, still “friend,” who called him every day as she sat naked in her bath and told him all about it. This group of people also probably knew Tad and I weren’t compatible, and they watched us as though we were a TV show, as though they owned Tad (a main character), and I was an interloper (a guest star). But when we would spend a weekend at my townhouse, away from prying eyes, Tad and I really enjoyed each other. Tad was smart and funny and accepting of human foibles, my own included.
One spring weekend, we found ourselves undressed in my second floor bedroom, though it was late in the morning. I loved that bedroom because there was a birch tree right outside the window and when the sun flowed through the leaves as they danced in the breeze, it lit up the bedroom like a flickering river. Tad and I sat on the rug on the floor, examining each other’s bodies, just playing. But when he got to my toes, he exclaimed over how funny my toenails are—little moon-like crescents, he said. My toes have always embarrassed me—they are short and stubby and not at all elegant. But Tad made that all okay—he enjoyed my funny little toes and their even funnier toenails. He sat running his fingers over them and laughing. How could I not laugh, too? We laughed until we gasped and sobbed. Finally, I slapped him on the behind and we went downstairs for some lunch, and I would send him on his way, back to his friends, my enemies.
So maybe there is something also about a sense of a break in the battle, so to speak, about finding a moment of peace and pleasure amid challenges and strife. In the laughter that makes us cry, there is some tension relief. For even now, as mellowed and generally happy as I am, I know that the devil will eventually come through the door again. Bruce and I laughed because he said something amusing, but we laughed til we cried because that humor came up in contrast to a life in which we are often too harried to share some fun. The salty can certainly intensify the sweet.
Here’s “Laugh Till You Cry, Live Till You Die” from the 1976 album Flow Motion by the German band Can.