THE CRYING RETREAT
The Crying Retreat was never envisioned as a moneymaker, and in fact it only started turning a profit last year, a small one at that. No one is getting rich off the retreat, and no one needs to. I see that our operation is being lampooned by a pseudonymous chat-room habitué (“Some hucksters in Wisconsin run a so-called ‘crying retreat’i…”), which is precisely why we’ve refused press and attracted guests strictly through word of mouth. (By the way, Jdog24, it’s not necessary to apply quotes to a word or phrase modified by so-called.) To outsiders, I’m aware, the retreat must seem curious at best, reprobate at worst. Our aversion to publicity might add an air of cultishness. So be it. I’ve grappled with these issues and have tried to follow my heart. If this thing with Jessica precipitates the retreat’s demise, I think it’s fair to say that on the whole we had a good run.
Jessica’s nocturnal leave-taking was doubly unfortunate because this year was going so well, some tension between Hank and me notwithstanding. We had, it seemed, as Hank had it, “found our groove.” The culinary classes I took last winter had borne fruit, sometimes poached, drizzled with bittersweet chocolate sauce, and served alongside mascarpone cream. To prepare something so fine that it inspires very close to sexual noises of approval is a pleasure this former connoisseur of frozen Salisbury steak entrées never expected to know, even if some of the noises were shammed. On Monday there was laughter on the pickleball court, weeping in the trigger hut, a warm if unconvincingly extemporaneous toast from Mike, returning for the third consecutive year. The poolside thermometer loitered in the upper eighties, and once I found myself kicking and splashing the warm water, admiring the calendar sky, laughing for joy like a child. By Tuesday, the retreat’s fourth and traditionally most demanding day, this year’s Crying Retreaters, to my pleased eye, had developed genuine camaraderie as well as genuine respect for one another’s privacy, permitting the mix of fraternity and hermitry crucial to a retreat’s success. One must feel among friends, like the proverbial or literal shoulder on which to cry is ever close, and also that the shoulder won’t shrug in judgment should one choose to weep alone in one’s room or during a private session in the trigger hut.
Around Tuesday night’s campfire, the bat-ridden air smelling of pine or diethyltoluamide, we told tales of parental neglect and transgression. I moved into the smoke’s path and let my psychic and reflex tears mingle, while Mike sat on a log bench and addressed the group. “He was dropping me off at the airport,” Mike said, his words partially obstructed by incipient tears as well as s’mores, “and I told him I loved him, and he just sat there staring at the steering wheel. I waited for him, but … [sobbing inhalation] … he didn’t say anything.” Mike shook and his crest fell. Hank put an outsize hand on Mike’s back: “That’s right, man, let it flow. We’re all here to let it flow. We are a nudist colony of the psyche.” Lorraine, a homeopath, crouched toward Mike with a medicine dropper in one hand and a volumetric flask in the other, and was able to suck up some teardrops from Mike’s cheeks before being wanly swatted away. Hank picked up his bruised Martin and began a throaty rendition of “Cat’s in the Cradle,” really digging into the choruses. Jessica muttered, “I hate this song,” but perhaps I was the only one to hear or agree. Jessica had not exactly participated in the campfire exercise. When it was her turn to speak, she offered only, “Once my mom hit me.” I found her taciturnity and possible cynicism irritating and inhibiting, but no one else seemed to mind. By the song’s last refrain, most, on Hank’s command, were singing along. Hugging, patting, and more crying followed. “How does it feel to be human again?” Hank said, tapping the body of his guitar. Most of the guests cheered.
As I left to turn in early for the night, Mike was chasing fireflies around the badminton court, and Hank was booming, “This is it, folks! Make no mistake!” When I got up to urinate at a quarter past three, passionate, animalistic sounds were leaking from Hank’s bedroom, where Hank’s parents once slept in twin beds. I listened at the door and heard Hank, quoting Rilke (I later determined), say, “O tear-filled figure who, like a sky held back, grows heavy above the landscape of her sorrow.” Then, I’m nearly certain, someone was spanked with a pickleball paddle. To get back to sleep, I was forced to masturbate, ejaculating into one of the balding lemon hand towels monogrammed for Hank’s mother.
There’s some debate as to whether the first Crying Retreat was in ’97 or ’98, which is why this year’s T-shirt reads, “In the Pines in ’09: The Twelfth (or Thirteenth) Annual Crying Retreat.” In ’97 it was just me in a rented cabin near Duluth. In ’98 Connie—we’d just reunited—joined me, and the name (“Crying Retreat”) was born, though looking back on that week, I’d say it was as much an ill-inspired romantic getaway as a psychological experiment or, as Hank likes to call it, “a withdrawal happening.” In ’99 there were six of us (same facility, larger cabin), including lumber heir Hank Wachtel. A nagging Big Chill vibration descended on the first two days, but things got rather profound on day three, and we knew we were on to something. That night Hank suggested relocating the retreat to his family’s “compound” in western Wisconsin.
Let me further explain the retreat’s origins. At some point a few years after I went on Sanguexa (in late ’93 or early ’94), I came to suspect that I was no longer capable of crying. There was nothing seriously wrong with my tear ducts. My eyeballs felt dry and itchy from time to time, but chopping onions, for instance, or riding a bicycle over a bridge on a windy October day, had the usual effects. Emotional tears, however, eluded me. At appropriate times I would feel the need to cry; I would even feel the normal physical indicators of imminent tears. But it was all tease. I turned to my usual stimuli, namely Clarence Carter’s 1970 single “Patches,” the horse-beating dream in Crime and Punishment, and a photo of Connie (then in her “Constance” phase) in cheerleader attire (Halloween ’91). No luck. It’s a terrible feeling to be on the prolonged verge of a physical response, to suffer all the tension yet savor none of the release. Most if not all of us have knelt before a toilet awaiting vomit that won’t emit, or felt the cruel tickle of an elusive sneeze. But one can easily escape those limbos, with a finger down the throat or a deep sniff of black pepper. The person who can’t cry and wants to, who isn’t deliberately or unwittingly suppressing tears in the name of stoicism, propriety, machismo, or what have you, feels shackled, stymied, self-estranged.
As I guess I’ve revealed above, it wasn’t hard to infer that my problem was Sanguexa-induced. Often one goes on antidepressants because one feels “out of control,” so it follows that the pills, if effective, can come to seem like tyrants. (I know that I, every night before bed, take a certain Jacobinic delight in subjecting my bifurcated Sanguexas to a guillotine-like pill cutter.) Soon enough I learned that my lachrymal impotence (a better metaphor than Hank’s “constipated crier,” tears having more to do with pleasure than purgation) wasn’t unusual. According to one study, summarized before on this rarely visited, late-to-the-party blog, twenty-five or perhaps it was twenty percent of men and fifteen or perhaps it was ten percent of women are unable to cry while being treated with Sanguexa. Now, this side effect can strike people on other antidepressants. And it can be a symptom of depression itself. These matters are complicated and I’m not a diagnostician. As I remind guests of the retreat in writing co-written by a lawyer friend of Hank’s, I have no psychiatric training. I don’t even like to read psychological books, psychological novels included, though I’ve skimmed a few. (The same is true of Hank, who I’m sure has done even less skimming.) I’m simply a so-called depressive with a few opinions and limited access to a very nice summer home.
Wednesday morning I found Jessica on an underused patio, listening to an MP3 player and painting some sorrowful landscape in acrylic, dramatically attempting to use her tears as a thinner. She wasn’t wearing a smock, and had dripped or wiped red, brown, and gray paint all over her horizontally striped shirt, stretched arrestingly over her large, foundering breasts. I asked her if she’d studied art. She took off her headphones and I repeated the question. “Does it look like I’ve studied art?” she said. “It looks like you might be self-taught,” I said after a pause. She went on painting. After about twenty seconds she said, “I’m sorry, I guess I’d rather be alone.” Most of the guests prefer Hank’s company.
Later as I was making dinner and dessert, Hank came into the kitchen and grabbed a fistful of cookie batter with unwashed hands. I gave him a look. “You all right?” he said. I asked if he’d been seducing the guests. “This is my home, brother,” he said, and strolled back outside, licking his fingers.
“I feel heavy,” Jessica said that night at the dinner table, around which a few of us were lingering a good half-hour after the last torte plate had been cleared, “like the way a dead body is heavy.”
“You know,” Hank said (Jessica didn’t look up from her plate), “you can always go back on if it’s not working or you’re scared.”
“No, I know, I know,” she said. (And perhaps there was a third “I know.”) “I want to stick with it.” She didn’t look good: sometimes her expression seemed in response to bus exhaust; her black hair (some prematurely gray) was apparently hypersensitive to chlorine; there was a raspberrylike blemish on her lower lip; her eyes often bore the same dread I must have shown the last and final time Connie asked me to sit down for a serious talk.
Hank, who during this year’s retreat wore his bent straw hat even indoors and after sundown, and who seemed to be affecting an avuncular jocularity not seen in years past, smiled and said, “Well, we want you here either way. Especially on the pickleball court with that backhand slice of yours.”
Thursday morning Jessica didn’t show up for breakfast and her car was gone. Nothing disconcerting there; some guests go into town to eat, though we do ask that they inform us in advance, so we don’t prepare too many, for instance, sausages. Jessica, a vegan, wouldn’t have been eating those anyway, of course. She announced her dietary specifications on the first day of the retreat, about an hour before dinner, hurrying me to the nearby town’s better-to-avoid grocer for extra supplies. “Didn’t we send you an Alternative Meals Request form?” I asked. I’m a record keeper, so I had her nailed there. “I’m sure you did,’ she said, “but, I don’t know, this spring was really hard on me, and I just couldn’t seem to keep track of anything.”
“Were you losing your keys a lot?” Hank asked. “I can never keep track of my keys.”
“Not really,” Jessica said.
By dinnertime Thursday Jessica still hadn’t returned. Hank and I poked around her room. She’d left most of her things. Her clothes were mainly upper-tier vintage (’60s and ’70s), but there were also two pairs of newish, close-fitting jeans that I later tried on but couldn’t button, and a colorful cotton blouse by a currently active and saucily named Bay Area operation. Hank held up a pair of her underwear, black. “She doesn’t wear thongs,” he said. On Jessica’s bedside table were earplugs, an empty bottle of carbonated water, a Malcolm Gladwell book not by Malcolm Gladwell (I can’t remember the book’s title or author), Cesare Pavese’s The Moon and the Bonfire (I borrowed it), and, I thought momentarily, a suicide note, which proved to be a highly mundane to-do list-turned-bookmark.
On Friday, Jessica still absent, there was a sun shower, inspiring some capering on the croquet course from Mike, who sloped his face to the sky and did jazzy things with the yellow mallet. I, however, was on edge. When Hank and I were alone in the manorial kitchen, I said, “Do you think we should call the police?”
“No,” he said, “I don’t see why we would.”
“Well, so we could file a missing person’s report. Because she just went off a powerful antidepressant and was seriously despondent when last seen.”
“All right, man, I’m hearing you. Powerful. Seriously. Look, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If a customer left a bed and breakfast a few days before they said they were gonna, do you think the owners would rush to involve the cops? Maybe she’s just impulsive. Wasn’t having a good time, decided to go home.”
“Come on. She left all of her stuff,” I said.
“Not all of it. Nothing all that valuable. She took her iPod,” Hank said.
“I couldn’t find it.”
“I don’t think it was actually an iPod. Some kind of knockoff.”
“Well, I meant iPod as in, uh—”
“—a generic term?” I said.
“Yeah, I mean, who fucking cares—”
“Well anyway, she’s not answering her home phone,” I said. “I tried twice this afternoon.”
“Did you leave a message?”
“The first time I did.”
“Jesus, man,” Hank said. “I wish you would’ve talked to me before doing that.”
After arguing with Hank, I drove into Porter, the nearby town. Porter is among the unfortunate small towns that doesn’t even rate a Dairy Queen, and must make do with one of the soft-serve-and-hot-dog also-rans. Theirs is called Creamy Barn. It’s really not so bad. By the Creamy Barn dumpster I saw a dead sparrow (finch, possibly), not yet picked over, and though I’m rarely sentimental about such things, I felt tears come on at the sight of the bird, and in the spirit of the week didn’t repress them, letting the Creamy Barn cashier puzzle over my watery face. On the way back to my car, I draped a napkin over the bird.
Hank, I should concede, has been a good partner for me. He’s charismatic where I’m standoffish. He’s the one who leads the pickleball tourney and curates the Trigger Hut Film Festival, indulging my complaints over Pay It Forward and Brian’s Song. He’s the rainmaker of our partnership, the one from whom our words of mouth invariably trace their etymology. He’s experienced, I guess, at drawing a crowd, having been a successful Minneapolis concert promoter in the early ’70s, the only real job he has ever held. (Before the advent of modern antidepressants, Hank turned frequently to cunning prodepressants such as alcohol, and was not judged to be a fit leader of the family business.) If we wanted to, we could expand the retreat considerably. Instead, we hold just one eight-day session per year, in June or July, and space permits us only ten guests, who pay rates only moderately higher than those charged by regional B&Bs and boutique resorts. Again, no one is getting rich off the Crying Retreat. But Hank brings in most of our small numbers, and I appreciate that, though I’m sometimes uncomfortable with his rhetoric, particularly his facile insistence on the “dehumanizing” effects of Sanguexa, or, as he sees it, the dehumanizing effects of Sanguexa and all its cousins. Hank is too eager to lump Sanguexa in with other psychotropics, and has lobbied, with increasing and almost threatening ardor, for admitting all non-crying antidepressant users on a first-come, first-book basis. So far I’ve prevailed in restricting the retreat to those who can document current Sanguexa use, but Hank has called for further debate. On some level I dislike the exclusivity nearly as much as Hank does. (Born into an exclusive world, Hank takes pains to appear the consummate democrat.) The Crying Retreat, however, took shape and remains built around Sanguexa’s unique withdrawal, unique in that the vast majority of those undergoing sudden discontinuation of the medication experience a sporadic and strange kind of weepy euphoria, in addition to, sometimes, inconsolability, dermatropic eruptions, and dreams of rare beauty and unity. Hank’s psychedelic analogies I suppose are apt: Quitting Sanguexa hastily, like dropping acid, is probably imprudent, but you might get something out of it, and if you’re going to do it anyway, at least be smart about where, when, and with whom you do it. And doing it around people who aren’t also withdrawing from Sanguexa, in my experience, is all but impossible.
Friday over dinner Hank said, “Well, I heard from Jessica this afternoon.” I looked up from my duck rillettes, glaring at Hank for not giving me the news before the others. “She wouldn’t fill me in on the details and I didn’t pry,” he continued, “but the long-short is that a family emergency came up and she had to drive back to Milwaukee. It must have been something pretty bad, ’cause she left behind some of her things. Lorraine, you might want to wash her bathing suit and return it to me. She asked me to mail her stuff back home to her. Anyway, it sounds like things are settling down, and she hopes to come back next year. So.”
I suppose I was more relieved than concerned, even before the part about things “settling down.”
That night I pressed Hank for more info and found that Jessica hadn’t contacted him at all, though he had packed her marooned belongings in a television box to be sent to Milwaukee, as soon as Lorraine returned the swimsuit. I said something in the realm of “What the hell is going on?” to which Hank answered, in a stern whisper, “I don’t want to alarm the guests.”
I had no more strength for Hank. I walked around the grounds, waving flies away from my hair, killing time till the start of my trigger-hut session, delayed on account of Mike needing extra time to “regain his composure.” On the hut’s steps, he smiled appreciatively. “I had an aha moment in there,” he said, and might have wanted to elaborate. I pointed to my watch and went inside.
A recently and inexpertly restored Eames lounge chair and ottoman sits in the center of the trigger hut, on a small American folk-art rug featuring scenes of butter churning and wheat harvesting. On the hut’s western wall is a small library, mainly featuring Romantic and some Sturm und Drang poetry, Dickens novels, and photojournalism anthologies fringed with orange Post-It notes marking notable images of children in distress. The trigger hut has a state-of-the-art stereo and a plasma TV, watercolors by Hank’s late mother, a few hunting trophies. I dropped with some violence into the armchair, remotely put George Jones’s “A Good Year for the Roses” on automatic repeat, and pulled out Maxwell’s wallet-sized third-grade photo (he just finished the fifth grade, but Connie never sent me last year’s photo, and I prefer the blank expression from the third-grade portrait to the following year’s phony smile). By the song’s third pass I was lying on the floor. I’ve long understood Jones to be a wizard of pathos, but on that night the man’s voice entered my air-gulping mouth and made my supine body shudder and tingle with what I feel forced and embarrassed to call orgasmic Weltschmerz. The tears came in voluptuous spasms. To luxuriate in the tangible evidence of my sadness is what I wait all year for. After the tears stopped, I did poorly remembered yoga poses for about forty-five minutes, when Lorraine knocked to signal the end of my time.
“Sure is a relief about Jessica, huh?” she said. I agreed. Lorraine turned off her flashlight. “Hank is doing a really wonderful thing here,” she said. “I think he’s some kind of prophet.”
“I might not go that far,” I said, but then laughed to soften the reproof.
I woke up early Saturday morning and drank my coffee on a lawn chair overlooking the St. Croix River. Around 9:15 Hank emerged, his face obscured by a television box. He tried to rest the box on one thigh while opening the hatch of his station wagon, but dropped the box. He cursed, looked around, saw me, and waved. Something about the wave seemed cruel, and I began to weep. I went back to my room. Too distraught to take advantage of Sanguexa withdrawal’s kindly effects, I popped a double dose. When Hank returned from the Porter post office, I stopped him in the driveway and said, “Feel better now with that box off your hands?”
“Jesus,” Hank said.
“A woman is dead, maybe.”
“A woman left early.”
I shook my head.
“You’re hysterical from the withdrawal,” Hank said. “You’re not thinking clearly.”
“I am thinking clearly. I am.”
“I don’t think so, man. I should tell you, I went off the Sanguexa last year. So I’m able—”
“Yeah, I tapered over the winter,” Hank said. “It’s great, man. I know what’s me again. I know my feelings are my own.”
“I will no longer let Big Pharma colonize my body.”
“You shouldn’t even be here,” I said.
“I live here.”
“The Crying Retreat is for people withdrawing from Sanguexa,” I said.
“That’s a stupid rule and it only applies to guests, anyway.”
“Okay, I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“What do you mean by this?” Hank said.
“The Crying Retreat goes on without you,” Hank said. “Our work here is unfinished, unfinishable.”
I packed hastily, not even bothering to quarantine the dirty clothes from the clean. Hank was weeding near the driveway as I loaded my car and got in. “We’ll talk in a few weeks,” he said. “Sadness is not madness.”
Two years ago I, like Hank, tried to terminate my Sanguexa treatment in a responsible fashion, but it didn’t work. I returned to my old sorrow, my old compulsions. After I went back on, I told my doctor, “I just don’t want to be on this stuff for the rest of my life.”
“Why not?” she said. “If you were asthmatic, would be saying, I don’t want to use an inhaler for the rest of my life?” I told her I didn’t really know much about the range of treatment options available to asthmatics. She tried to get me to switch medications, but I resisted, mainly because I didn’t want to miss out on the Crying Retreat. I didn’t explain that part to her. Probably I’m not disclosing enough for our therapy to be greatly beneficial.
I’m not a man given to supernatural musings, but yesterday, as I hunched over the steering wheel, the heat waves on I-35 looked to me like ghosts. It’s been seventeen days since Jessica left the retreat. I’ve been regularly checking the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. If Jessica slit her wrists in a motel room or some such thing in some such place, it hasn’t been properly reported. An ultimately helpful if slow-witted Journal Sentinel receptionist assures me that all obits from the print edition appear online, thus saving me the trip to Minneapolis’s newly constructed yet often fetid central library.
I haven’t been productive at work.
In the past two weeks I’ve gotten three phone calls (all unanswered and unreturned) from Hank’s attorney and two from Hank himself. I’ve left no further messages for Jessica, though I did dial her number twice last week. Her outgoing message was unchanged: “… I’ll be out of town through July 17th, but ….” It might be worth noting that it took her forever to sign and return our waiver. It’s possible that she simply hasn’t gotten around to updating her machine. Or she might be drifting, let us say in a long, old, baby-blue American convertible with an easel sitting askew in the back. It’s true that I didn’t get to know Jessica well—hardly at all, in fact—but I can see her as a kind of deep-thinking picara, searching out a new life, following her heart, just as I, to reiterate, have tried to do, with the usual mixed success.
Dylan Hicks is a writer and musician from Minneapolis. His short fiction has been published by Dislocate, the Rake, and Pindeldyboz, and has been anthologized in Da Capo's Best Music Writing 2007. His journalism has appeared in the Village Voice, The New York Times, City Pages, Spin, and elsewhere.