by Mark Richardson
The Platonic Man cries whenever I cry. Tears will be streaming down my face and I’ll look up and he’ll be dabbing his eyes with a cloth napkin.
“I know why you cry,” I say at the Cuban restaurant with the creaky ceiling fan.
“I’m a good listener,” he answers, cryptically. It’s his favorite expression. My husband, in contrast, never listens. The Platonic Man traces the edge of his glass with a fingertip. It flows with the rhythm of the earth’s rotation. I watch as his finger goes around and around.
One day, awhile back, the Philanderer told me: “He’s a cuckold, you know that, right?” She spoke these words without expression, as if she were bringing up a new pasta recipe. She’s a classic trophy wife: blond, petite with a provocatively curved back and impossible Barbie doll breasts. To ameliorate her boredom, she sleeps with younger, unattached men, strictly for sport.
I sat down. The news hit me like a punch in the gut. In truth, the Platonic Man is a cipher, a Sphinx-like figure who never opens up about his own life, but listens with endless patience as I gush on and on about my failing marriage. Of course, I tried to research him online, but nothing revealing exists, just a work bio, educational background. Sometimes I drive past his house but can’t see inside. His wife’s kid-friendly SUV is usually parked in the driveway.
The Philanderer and I had just finished a yoga class and were drinking smoothies outside a health food store.
“So you’re having an affair. How’s the sex?” she asked.
“We don’t have sex.”
“No sex? No kissing? Nothing?”
I just shook my head.
“Then that’s not an affair.” She took a sip of her drink, frowned.
“It’s an emotional affair. Dr. Phil says that can be more impactful than a physical one.”
“Dr. Phil is an ass.”
But I think he’s right. Empathy is more addictive than multiple orgasms, at least for me. Whenever I groan or sigh, the Platonic Man is right there with me. But it’s the crying that holds us together.
We’ve established a routine, the Platonic Man and I. Each Friday we meet for a one-mojito lunch at a Cuban restaurant. This isn’t the only time we’ll get together, but we never fail to make the lunch appointment.
“I love you,” I told him one Friday, and admired the gray hair that salted his temples. We didn’t embrace or even hold hands. I couldn’t tell if he felt the same burning warmth that I did – the closeness and acceptance.
I remember the first time the Platonic Man and I cried together. My husband had moved out, bought a new home. To help me cope, my doctor prescribed Ambien. At first it worked well, but then my sleep twisted into a nightmare. Shaken awake, I slipped on some sweats, went to a coffee shop, ordered an herbal tea, and cried into the cup. A waitress asked, “Are you okay, dear?” Then I heard a noise at the table next to mine, looked over, and there was the Platonic Man, tears rolling down his cheeks. His moist eyes sparkled blue. I joined him and we talked for hours about sadness, depression. It was one of the strangest nights of my life. It was a beautiful night.
There was another time at a movie theater. Something on the screen touched my heart and the tears came like waves. The Platonic Man took my hand and cried as well.
A few weeks after the movie, my husband officially filed for divorce. “I expect equal custody,” he said, “fifty percent.”
“She’ll spend two days a week with me, three with you, and we’ll swap every other weekend.”
“No!” I could feel my blood boiling. “No, no, no. A girl needs her mother!”
“Look,” he said and turned away, “I’m not going to argue with you.”
I’m frankly shocked by how often I cry. I’ve been accused of being flamboyantly emotive, but my outbursts typically swing between flashes of fiery anger or contagious happiness. Still, for the most part, I keep the tears bottled up; it is only when I’m with the Platonic Man that they flow. I suspect that is his main appeal.
Back at the Cuban restaurant, I continue, “Mirror neurons. That’s why you cry.”
“Mirror what?” He doesn’t look up, keeps circling his Mojito-filled glass with his finger.
“Neurons,” I say, “cells that read minds. They’re what make us feel empathy.”
Puzzled by his weepy behavior, I’d gone to the library to do some research. Not knowing where to start, I described the situation to the woman at the information desk. “Mirror neurons,” she’d said, and her eyes widened. “I just read about them.” She removed a slightly chewed pencil that she’d stuck in her hair and wrote the title of a newspaper article on an index card. “It sounds like his are exquisitely tuned.”
“Italian scientists discovered them,” I tell the Platonic Man. “Just a few years back.” I recount the newspaper article, which argues that mirror neurons are the foundation for the evolution of human culture. “It’s all biology. We understand each other by feeling, not thinking. We’re just animals, really.”
The Platonic Man looks at me, his face an expressionless mask.
“Ice cream,” I say, “it started with ice cream. These Italian scientists had placed wires on a monkey’s brain, and when a graduate student entered the lab eating ice cream, the monkey’s neural network reacted as if it were eating the ice cream, too. Of course, mirror neurons are more refined with people than monkeys. And it turns out that they work for all emotions. That’s why you cry – you feel my pain.”
We sit in silence for the longest time; so long I imagine I can hear an invisible clock tick, tick. But the only actual noise is the ceiling fan spinning above us. I think about the monkey in the lab and consider whether it’s ethical to attach wires to its brain. I experience the sensation of eating an ice cream cone. I look at the Platonic Man and wonder if he’s thinking about the ice cream cone too: mint chip, creamy, delicious.
The Platonic Man never says a word, doesn’t offer a comment on my theory. That’s okay – I’ve grown to accept his taciturn nature. Instead, he takes a sip of his cocktail, and I can tell by his expression that the ice has melted and his drink is watery and unappealing.
Time rolls on. More lunches, more tears.
Then eventually my divorce becomes final and a funny thing happens: sprouts of happiness puncture my soul. At first they’re small, but they grow. Who knew that being divorced wasn’t so bad? I even enjoy my daughter-free weekends. I miss her, of course – painfully – but I also like the freedom. It’s complicated. I drive up to the city to shop and tour the museums. I practice new recipes, things that my finicky daughter won’t eat. Best of all, I give up the Ambien, become a fiend about fitness, and focus on getting healthy.
It’s going to be okay, I realize.
Now when the Platonic Man and I get together, it’s different. Sometimes I laugh and smile. Other times I’m not really emotional at all; I just want to talk about politics or what’s happening to our environment.
“Climate change is real,” I say.
We’re walking in a leafy park. The Platonic Man just shrugs, uninterested. We’re losing our connection and we both know it. It’s a warm day and the sun sits low and orange on the horizon. I muster up a few fake sobs and he looks at me, hopeful. His eyes fill with tears but they’re really just crocodiles. We’re two failed lovers engaging in lackluster break-up sex.
It seems we don’t all evolve the same way. The Platonic Man is wired so he only reacts to life’s sorrows. Who can live like that? Not me, not forever.
There is no official break up and I’m not sure who first fails to return a phone call, ignores an email. I back out of one Friday lunch. He skips the next. And then it is over – poof. Soon he and his wife move, and I never see or hear from him again.
As the years go by, I change careers, raise my daughter, and make new friends. I become involved with a decent man, a true partner, a lover. I do the things that happy people do. But there are still times when the black clouds roll in. On occasion, when it’s particularly bad, I go to the Cuban restaurant, only it’s no longer Cuban, but Mexican. On those days, I remember the Platonic Man and I know that no one will ever see straight into my sobbing heart like he did. Then I drink a margarita, look up at the ceiling fan, and feel my sadness slowly melt away.
Tears of a Platonic Man was originally published in Hobart