Real Men

All his life, Todd had been taught not to cry.

“Be a man!” His father urged. “Real men don’t cry.”

He insisted upon it when Todd’s mother died. When they lost their house to bankruptcy. When Todd’s sister ran off with a no-good lowlife who abused and used her, then left her scrambling somewhere on the streets until Todd and his father lost track of her.

He insisted on it when Todd’s girlfriend broke up with him, when Todd lost his football scholarship due to a freak car accident and had to drop out of school, and when Todd’s dad himself was lying on his deathbed, dying of liver failure, a smuggled jar of vodka hidden in his briefcase.

And so Todd did not cry.

Not when his wife left him. Not when his business partner ran off with all their money. Not when the bank foreclosed on his pride and joy–the first apartment he ever bought. Not even when he failed rehab and was left on the streets.

Instead, Todd rolled with the punches. Did what he had to, to survive. Hustled a little. Stole a little, here and there–just the basics. He wasn’t a kleptomaniac. He got into fights in bars, sometimes. Queued up at local soup kitchens and homeless shelters when he had absolutely nothing left.

That was where he saw the boy.

He was a scruffy looking child, maybe ten or so, about Todd’s age when his mother passed away and his dad’s drinking binges got worse.

The boy had dirty brown hair and his clothes looked as if they were too big for him and hadn’t been washed for ages. He was sitting in the parking lot behind the soup kitchen, leaning into the brick wall and sobbing into his arms as if his life depended on it.

Despite himself, Todd was curious. Something about the boy’s coloring or frame, perhaps, reminded him of himself.

“Hey, kid. Whatcha crying about?”

The boy looked up, and Todd was slightly stunned by the boy’s blue eyes, which shone with tears. He had seen those eyes before–years ago, in the mirror. They were his mother’s eyes.

“Dojo died,” the boy choked.

“Do-what?” Todd said.

“Dojo, my dog.”

Todd suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. The kid was crying over a dog? Didn’t he know there were more significant things in life?

“Dojo was my best friend,” the boy continued, wiping his nose on his sleeve. “He’s been with me as long as I can remember. When Mom lost her job and we all had nowhere to sleep, Dojo stayed with me. And now he’s go-one!”

The boy’s voice broke at the last word and he started sobbing afresh.

“Look kid,” Todd said. “Stop crying. Hasn’t anyone ever told you real men don’t cry?”

The boy’s head shot up so fast, Todd was afraid he might snap his neck. “That’s a lie!” the boy shouted.

Todd was surprised at the kid’s vehemence. “Who told you that?”

“My mom,” the boy said. “She said only brave men cry. Weak men hide their emotions and pretend they don’t have any. Weak men drown their sorrows in booze and drugs and beat their wives and kids until they have to run for their lives, like my dad did to my mom and me. Real men don’t do that. Real men face themselves.”

Todd staggered away from the boy as if he had been struck. He blinked, looking at the child’s face, still tear-stained, but full of intensity and confidence. Then, he turned and ran.

The soup kitchen would be opening its doors in a few minutes, but somehow Todd wasn’t hungry anymore. He ran until he found himself passing the dumpster behind a local grocery store. Then he stopped, and sank against the wall.

Something clinked, and he realized that he was still clutching the bottle of vodka that he’d been drinking that morning. He stared at the bottle as if he was looking at an alien thing. It was the same prop he had seen his own father use over and over to escape his own emotions, he realized. He had leaned on the bottle like a crutch after his wife’s death, neglecting his own son and daughter, drinking himself into an early grave.

So why was Todd using it?

With a roar, Todd hurled the bottle away from him, over the wall where he heard the bottle shatter as it hit the side of the dumpster.

Then he put his face in his hands, like the boy he had met earlier, and cried.

He cried for his broken dreams, for his broken marriage, for the people he had lost, the opportunities he had missed. He cried for the lies he had told himself, the wreckage he had made of his life. He cried for his mother and his father and his sister. And he cried for himself.

As he did, something strange happened.

The tears dripped through his fingers and splashed to the ground, one drip at a time. As they did so, a puff of smoke emerged, and each teardrop morphed into a transparent figure. It took Todd a moment to realize what was happening, but when he did, he slowly lifted his head in amazement.

There, in front of him, was a hologram-like figure. Anna. His ex-wife. She reached forward, a kind look on her face, and touched his cheek, though he could not feel it.

“Thank you for weeping for what we once had,” she said with a sad smile, and then disappeared.

The next figure was his sister, Lainey, her mahogany-colored hair tied in her usual ponytail. “Thank you for caring about my suffering,” she said, holding out her hand. A single teardrop glimmered in the center of her palm as she, too, faded away.

Then Todd saw his mother, as he remembered her, giving him that familiar loving look. “Thank you for missing me,” she said. Todd almost felt the kiss she planted on his forehead as she vanished from sight.

Next, Todd saw his father, no longer sallow and bloated as he had been when he died, but in the prime of his life. “Thank you for loving your old deluded dad, and being there when it was his time,” he said in his usual gruff way. He clapped a ghostly hand on Todd’s shoulder, then he, too, disappeared.

The last figure took Todd some time before he recognized him: It was himself.

Todd watched in amazement as Hologram-Todd walked up to him, hands in pockets, then knelt to look him in the eyes. For the second time that day, Todd was looking into a pair of shining, intensely blue eyes.

“Hey,” Hologram-Todd said. “Thanks for freeing me.”

Todd blinked as his hologram self faded into nothing, just as the others had. For the first time in his life, he realized, he had finally faced himself.