I cried during the interview. I think that’s why they gave me the job.
I used to cry easily, and I couldn’t always say what had caused it. It seemed to happen especially when I tried to resist it; my eyes filled with tears.
Something changed, though, after I started working at the crying room. Now that I work here, I don’t feel the need to shed my own tears; my sadness is done for me, and other people’s sorrow has become a mirror for my own. It’s therapeutic, I suppose, although my days here are long and conversation is rare.
It’s already December, and since the crying room grows busy at this time of year, we extend opening hours to cope with the demand. The week before Christmas is our most hectic, when the queue extends out of the front door and down the street. From outside, it must look like people are waiting to be admitted to a bar or restaurant, some sort of fashionable place where people come in order to be seen.
The crying room is near the Kings Cross train station. It’s convenient and close to the city, which makes it easier for the office workers, who patronise the room most. Our busiest times of the day are before and after work, but it’s a different type of peak hour in here. There are no clocks in the crying room. Instead time is measured by the flow of people in and out of the room; people move like water, arriving and leaving in swells. Movement is slower in this room; days are measured in feelings rather than by time. People speak a secret language with their bodies, the slow, systematic language of grief, as though they’re mechanisms that have come here to unwind.
This week, I’m on the early shift. The doors open at seven. I’m not used to getting up this early outside semester, but I’ve started to like it. I wake up to starlight, but by the time I’m out of the shower the stars have dissolved completely, disappearing in the sunlight.
When I arrive, the crying room smells of lemon. Not real lemons, but an artificial scent masquerading as the real thing. I find it comforting, that clean aroma, erasing all trace of the previous day so that each one feels new. I fill the water cooler and make sure there is a box of tissues on each desk. We go through about a thousand tissues per week; a figure I calculated once on a slow day.
The room is run mostly on donations and government grants, which is why the organising committee tends to employ university students like me. We’re smart enough to follow instructions, but we don’t need to be paid as much as people who already have degrees.
There’s an anonymous donation box at the back of the room too. There’s no minimum contribution. On average, people donate five dollars per visit, but there are days when people surprise you.
I once found a cheque for five thousand dollars in the box. I had to count the zeroes to make sure I wasn’t imagining the figure. I thought back over who it might have been. In some small way, in some gesture or signal, I figured that whoever it was must have given themselves away. Everyone needs a witness to their good deeds; it’s shame people are determined to hide.
That day there had been a man wearing a suit, finely cut and tapered to the waist, the fabric smooth and taupe, like the fur of an arctic seal. He made eye contact with me as he stood to leave. Before I found the cheque, I thought there might have been some silent message coded into his gaze. I wondered whether the tissue box at his table was empty, but when I checked later I found it was more than half full. When I thought back on that look he gave me, I thought maybe what he wanted was reassurance: that in giving his money away, he had done the right thing.
I’m experienced now; I can pick the first-timers from the crowd. They walk in slowly and blink the room into view. Sometimes they look frightened, as if they’re unsure whether or not they’ve come to the right place. What can be misleading is that nobody actually looks distraught here: people just sit alone and cry to themselves. If you saw a picture of our patrons bent over their tables, you might think they’re in a study group, all diligently at work. Some people need other things to help them cry: objects, photographs or letters. Others take a seat and get started right away. They have the focus of athletes, heads down, bodies taut, determined to outrun their grief.
People don’t always believe me when I tell them that as many men as women patronise the crying room. On the whole, though, men and women take different approaches to crying. It’s a fact I’ve learned since being here—that men cry louder than women. Some men cry in loud, bracing sobs, while women tend to take small sudden sips of air that sound stifled and polite, like a hiccup or a sneeze.
Nobody’s supposed to speak in the crying room. Sometimes, when people come here for the first time, they smile at other patrons, or try to converse. Some people have this urge to plug the silence with words. It’s my job to take those people aside and explain the rules.
Some people stay and cry for hours, and if they’re still here at closing time they have to be asked to leave. That’s why I prefer not to work the late shift. It feels rude to interrupt people midway through their tears.
The morning crowds are different. They’re more business-like and determined; I admire their discipline. They come in, cry hard in the time they have, and leave again in order to make their way to wherever they need to be. The afternoon crowd tends to linger; they take longer to get started and remain here after dark. I get the feeling, with some of them, that they prefer it here to wherever else they need to be.
Today my manager, Louise, is here. She’s responsible for setting the rosters and keeping on top of inventory, though I prefer it when she’s not peering into the crying room through her office door. Somehow, I feel more comfortable when I’m not observed.
‘Hi, Susie,’ she says when she arrives. She speaks with an upward inflection, as though every statement is a question, and every answer I give is submitted to her to be vetted and approved.
I can’t explain why, but Louise reminds me of my older sister Allison. Sometimes they seem like the same person in different shapes. It’s not that they look the same, but Louise has a similar way of seeing me as my sister does. The way she doesn’t look at me so much as appraise me, as though trying to make up her mind about whether or not I might embarrass her one day.
It was Allison’s birthday two weeks ago. She doesn’t live in Sydney anymore. I see her only occasionally when I can make the trip down to the coast on the train. After work one day last week, I bought a card from the bookshop near the crying room. It had an owl on the front, with large, surprised eyes and small alert ears.
I went into the post office and wrote in it with the ballpoint biro attached to a string. I had to press the pen firmly into the cardboard to make the biro work. Dear Allison, I wrote. Happy Birthday! I hope you had a great day! I couldn’t think of anything else, so I wrote, Sorry I couldn’t be there! And I wrote my name, followed by two x’s. But when I read the card back to myself I saw I’d used too many exclamation marks. I pictured her reading it and I knew exactly what she’d think; she’d think my message sounded fake. So I didn’t send my sister the card. I took it home and left it in my bedside drawer.
When I told Allison about my job at the crying room, she said it sounded depressing to sit around all day watching other people shed tears. She asked me why I couldn’t find work instead at a café or a bar. There must be something, she said, closer to where you live. Sometimes I think that’s her way of showing me she cares. Whenever I tell her something about myself, she cuts it up and dissects it, handing it back to me to show all the ways that it is wrong.
The truth is I don’t find my job sad at all. It would be sadder, I think, to know these people had nowhere to go.
I live in a shared apartment in Dulwich Hill. One of my flatmates is a student from China and says her name is ‘Cathy’, though her mail is addressed to ‘Pei-yu’. Sometimes I only know she is home because I hear her talking on the phone through the walls in Cantonese. The words sound hard and contorted, as though she is speaking of things that hurt to be said.
The other girl comes from Norway and her hair is a colourless shade of blonde. Whenever I talk to her, there is a delay between when I hear the sounds she makes and when those words make sense. Since the start of summer holidays, she’s stayed out every night past twelve. I admire her ability to make friends. Sometimes I watch her and wonder what it is about her; how it is she is able to slide so easily in and out of other people’s lives.
It’s much harder for me. There’s Harriet, but I’m not sure I can really describe her as a friend. Harriet took pity on me one day between tutorials when I was eating my homemade sandwich in the hall and asked me to join her with two of her friends at the university café.
Since then, I’ve seen a movie with her and we’ve had coffee a few times after class. When I’m with Harriet, I sometimes wish I wasn’t always looking behind me to gain some sense of who I am. I’ve told Harriet all sorts of strange facts about myself. I’m not sure where they came from, these things I’m in such a rush to disclose. Once I told her I used to play oboe in my high school band. Sometimes—although I didn’t tell her this—I still take my oboe out of its case and hold my lips to the dry reed. I let the air blow softly through it, so that I can hear the shape of the notes but not their sound.
Harriet has long brown hair cut at angles so sharp it swishes around her shoulders but never touches them. Her smiles are frequent but limited, like perfect curves dispensed from a machine. I haven’t called or texted Harriet since semester ended three weeks ago. Harriet has lots of friends anyway; she talks about them as though they are shiny objects lying around in drawers.
Sometimes I think about calling her; I think about suggesting we go out to another movie, or meeting for brunch, or something else casual like that. But I know how it is with Harriet: she doesn’t mind me, but I can’t escape the feeling that when I’m with her there’s somewhere else she’d rather be.
A woman has been coming to the crying room for the past three days. I first noticed her because of the way she holds her hands to the edges of her face when she cries, as though it might break down the middle.
She looks about my age. She wears T-shirts and jeans, and she has that tentative look about her, as though she’s yet to make up her mind about the type of person she wants to be. On that first day, I thought she looked kind and uncertain, someone I might be able to be friends with if only I knew how. It’s just, I don’t know how people go from not knowing someone to knowing them. What do people say to each other that moves them from being strangers to becoming friends? Maybe it’s the type of exchange that happens without words.
When she came in again today, I asked her into the interview room. That’s the rule in the crying room: if someone comes in more than three days in a row, we’re obliged to administer the questionnaire. Some of our regulars have learned to stay away for a day or two each week in order to avoid this particular rule.
When we had our training, they devoted an hour to the subject of ‘professional concern’. Our only job, we were told, is to determine whether or not these recurrent visitors would benefit from counselling. If so, we give them the list of recommended counsellors. Our responsibility, we were told, ends there.
I ushered the woman into the interview room. I turned on the light and there was a moment when we stood together in darkness before the room went suddenly bright. I saw her cuticles were wounded and torn.
I’ve practised the face I wear in these moments in the bathroom mirror at home, where the light is fluorescent and doesn’t tell lies. I’ve learned to fashion it into the face of a person who looks as though they are ‘professionally concerned’.
I told the woman I’d seen her here for the past three days. She nodded and made no effort to disagree. But before I could say anything else, the young woman started telling me why she was here. Not in general, but in the detail of it: the things I’m not supposed to know. Her best friend had died three months ago. It was cancer, a leukaemia that invaded the marrow of her bones. I held my hands up between us like a barrier between the words and me.
She should have been more upset at the time, she said, instead of now when there is nothing she can do. She should have paid more attention to her friend; she should have told her what their friendship meant to her. She had assumed her friend was too young to die. Now what she feels is a tremendous sense of guilt and a detachment from the things around her as though her life belongs to someone else.
‘She was just such a good friend,’ she said. ‘You know, one of those people in your life you could say anything to?’ And she looked up at me and I could tell she wanted me to give some indication that I understood how she felt. But I had no words to offer her, even though that was all she wanted from me: kind words to pass from me to her, a sentence that was thoughtful and carefully aligned, like a row of buttons covered in silk.
Instead I reverted to what they had taught us in our training. And so what I told her was I thought she would benefit from counselling. I pushed the piece of paper across the desk, the one with the names of the psychologists printed alphabetically in a list.
She took the paper and held it carefully at the corners, then nodded and extracted herself from her seat. She moved out of the interview room and I followed her. I understood, as she left, that she didn’t feel consoled so much as reprimanded, and I knew she wouldn’t come back. She would walk around carrying that terrible sorrow with her, but with no one to take it to and nowhere else to go.
The woman moved carefully between the tables, turning her body sideways to navigate through the spaces, so that she wouldn’t bump anyone else’s desk.
I thought for a moment of my own sister and the only time as an adult I’d seen her cry. My niece had been three months old and she hadn’t been getting much sleep. ‘I feel like I’m unravelling,’ Allison said when I arrived, holding her fingers to her eyes, pressing back the tears. Later she apologised and told me she blamed the hormones for her ‘stupid tears’.
What I wish I’d told my sister when we spoke about the crying room was that I didn’t pity these people for coming to this place but admired their ability to make something out of what they feel.
Through the windows, the afternoon sun is sheer and catches on the wet faces of the people sitting at their desks. For a moment, their pale skin is washed with light and they remind me of miners in a cave, with a small circle of light above them to illuminate each face. I think of the clink, clink, clink of sharp metal implements, chipping away patiently at cold, dark stone.