It took three days for the doctors to be certain, but the tear duct removal surgery was ultimately declared a success.
“You’re going to make a full recovery,” Jessica’s psychiatrist said from her bedside. The psychiatrist was a fatherly figure—with white hair above a pale papery face and a broad belly resting above his tight black belt—and his rumbling voice soothed Jessica where she lay prone in the hospital bed. At the sound of his voice, she stopped searching for a familiar face through the bandages layered over her eyes.
“I’m so proud of you,” the psychiatrist added, but Jessica was too drugged up to properly enjoy the praise.
“This is going to open a whole new world for you,” he went on, and Jessica closed her eyes under the bandages and tried to imagine it.
Jessica’s psychiatrist had been the first person to tell her about tear duct removal, but the surgeon was the one who sold her on it. Jessica had been hesitant to go visit more doctors at first, but her psychiatrist had urged her to give the approach a chance, and so Jessica checked herself into the heavily air-conditioned office and then let herself be weighed and measured in the beige back room with the long paper-covered bench. When he entered, the surgeon was wearing a white coat and a stethoscope, and he handed her a pamphlet before he even said hello.
“You’re Dr. Remnan’s patient,” the surgeon said and then checked her chart to confirm this. “Good to meet you.”
Tear Duct Removal Surgery—or TDRS, as he referred to it—was a radical new approach to combatting depressions just like Jessica’s, the surgeon explained next.
“Think of it like a radical mastectomy,” he said, settling back into his chair. “We’re cutting through to the source of the problem and removing it like the cancer it is.” He talked with his smooth pale hands, gesturing to the pamphlet when she asked questions, or else rubbing the bald spot that shone through the thin layers of his gray hair as she spoke.
“Yes,” he told her in answer to her concerns about side effects, “We have treated cases just like yours—women stricken by uncontrollable crying fits.”
Jessica looked down at her lap when she heard that description of her current existence.
“You don’t have to live like this,” he added, “crying on the subway, sobbing in your therapist’s office. It’s not the best use of your time. And studies have found that smiling has a positive effect on people’s moods. Not crying will have the same effect.”
Later, Jessica would try to carefully weigh the pros and cons, but she knew she would go through with the procedure when the surgeon finally looked up from her chart and said, “You don’t ever have to feel sad again.”
Now, a year later, that same surgeon was standing over Jessica as a nurse pulled back the layer of bandages that had swaddled her face for most of a week.
“Looks good,” he said, surveying her eyes from above. He turned to the nurse next, with a question about the patient’s pain levels. Beside him, Jessica’s psychiatrist jostled for a view.
“Wonderful,” he said, peering at her face, and Jessica smiled at him. “Look, you’re smiling already.”
Jessica blinked, and the surgeon turned back in time to see her wince.
“Ah, yes,” he said. “That might be painful for a while. There’ll be a bit of an adjustment period.”
“What will?” Jessica asked, blinking again and feeling her eyelids scrape along her eyeball.
“Blinking,” the surgeon said. “But don’t worry, we have eye drops you can apply—ones with a blend of water, salt, and other minerals. They’ll function just like tears.”
“But without the crying,” her psychiatrist hastened to add.
“Of course,” the surgeon said. “No more crying, and no more sadness.”
For the next several days, Jessica’s surgeon and her psychiatrist continued to monitor her progress in the hospital and to declare her tear duct removal a success. Jessica always hurried to agree. True, the eye drops did not work exactly like tears—she had to apply them every 3 to 5 minutes for them to effectively lubricate the inside of her eyeball—but her doctors’ enthusiasm about her recovery made Jessica feel like not only the surgery, but her whole new life was a big improvement.
“It’s an incredible transformation,” the psychiatrist said at the end of one of Jessica’s evaluations. “Not one tear shed. You’ll be able to catch a train home from work without weeping, have a night in alone without sobbing, to live a normal life, with normal reactions.”
This time, Jessica was sober enough to enjoy his praise. She’d taken steps to fix herself. She was not moping about as she’d done before—wallowing in loneliness and low self-esteem, alienating possible friends and potential dates with her emotions.
“You’re cured,” her surgeon said a week later when they released her from the hospital with a two-week supply of eye drops and a note for her boss about her extended absence. Jessica carried the gallon tanks to her car, squinting against the sunlight. Blinking still hurt, but there was joy welling in her chest, and she smiled to herself when she realized that that emotion could not bring her to tears.
That night, Jessica walked around her apartment—closing the dirty blinds to block the light from the fire station across the street, shutting the door to her former roommate’s empty room, adjusting the radiator in case the building’s heat was turned on—and then settled into bed for her new routine. In the hospital, a nurse had shown her how to prepare the face mask that would enable her to open her eyes the next morning. The mask Jessica had chosen was a friendly pink when dry, but a dark bloody red when she finished soaking it in the tear substitute and prepared to settle it over her face. When it was secured, blocking out the rest of the light from the flickering streetlamp just outsider her window, Jessica settled back into her bed’s warm embrace and began her nightly imaginings. Years before, just when she’d started seeing him, her psychiatrist had given Jessica exercises to do before sleep, and he’d told her to keep them up even after the surgery—to be sure she always imagined the success she wanted to manifest.
“I’ll go into work tomorrow,” she told herself, “I’ll give my boss the doctor’s note, and he’ll say he’s glad to see me—that he missed having me in the office. And there will be someone new at work—even just a temp—and they will smile at me as we pass in the hall.”
Jessica could picture all this so perfectly, these tiny interactions she would manifest for herself now that she’d had her surgery.
“And after work, I’ll get invited to go out for drinks, and at the bar, I’ll tell Becky and Julie…” she searched her mind for something to say and then revised, settling for a version of events where she went with them, drank in their circle, and didn’t come home exhausted, empty, and forgotten an hour later.
“Good,” she said aloud to herself, but she wished there was someone else to notice her efforts. She pictured her psychiatrist.
“Good imagining,” he’d say, “keep it up.”
She smiled as she went to sleep, and the mask dripped steadily into her eyes.
Jessica’s return to work the next day didn’t go exactly as she imagined, but didn’t go terribly, either. True, her boss didn’t look up when he walked past her into his office, but he did get her name right when he thanked her for his afternoon coffee. Her colleagues, too, had not exactly asked where she’d been for the last four weeks, but their silence was not unfriendly—she even got invited to drinks, when she asked Becky if it was okay if she tagged along.
It was a successful day, she told herself as she got into her damp bed, and any new problems she might have noticed were slight.
Still, she made a point of bringing up her hesitations with her psychiatrist at their next appointment two weeks later.
“I’m having a little trouble with the eye drops at work,” she confessed. “I’m finding it hard to finish projects when I have to put them in every 3 to 5 minutes.”
“You’ll get used to it,” her psychiatrist reassured her. “You’ll become a great multi-tasker.”
“What about at after work events?” Jessica asked, and tried to explain how difficult it was to have a conversation when she kept having to run to the restroom to lubricate. The second night she’d gone out, she told him, she’d even missed her colleagues leaving as she stood in the bathroom blinking up at the ceiling to get the drops to settle into place.
“Don’t get hysterical,” he replied, “You’re getting out there. You never used to do that before.”
Jessica knew that he was right. It had been years since she’d gone to drinks with colleagues or attempted to make new friends. She was doing both now, and when she came home in the evenings, her eyes aching and her shoulders tense, she always pulled herself together enough to don the plastic sheet that protected her quilt from the soaked mask that moisturized her eyelids overnight.
“Look for improvements,” her psychiatrist reminded her. “Don’t look for reasons to be unhappy.”
“I’m not,” she promised him, and then repeated his words to herself as the weeks seeped into months.
“Look for improvements,” she said when she missed picking up an important call as she scrambled for a fresh bottle of eye solution. “Don’t look for reasons to be unhappy,” she said at the end of another long night at the bar with the same four colleagues standing with their backs to her. “I’m cured,” she reminded herself as she squirmed in between the new sticky plastic sheets and donned her mask. Before too long, Jessica could proudly say that she had not cried in six full months.
“The longest I’ve gone in my life,” she told the surgeon at her checkup. He confirmed on her chart that this was true.
“Good work,” he said. Jessica beamed.
A week later, though, Jessica’s boss called her into his office for an unexpected performance review.
“You’ve missed a number of important calls,” he said before she’d even settled fully into the chair across from his desk. Her boss didn’t look at her directly when he said this—there was a low ding as email flooded his inbox—but his voice was serious as he went on. “Your paperwork is coming back damp and inconsistent. You seem to be getting a lot less done than you used to.”
Jessica stared down at her hands and blinked hard. It hurt, but her eyes were dry, and she was proud of that. Her back and shoulders ached and her stomach was clenched, but no tears welled around the edges of her eyes. She would not be weak and weepy; she was not sad or scared.
“Well?” her boss said. Jessica cleared her sore throat.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“I don’t usually ask a lot of you. I like to leave you well enough alone. But I’m not the only one who’s noticed. Becky from accounting has told me you’re always in the bathroom, not at your desk the way you should be.”
“Consider this a warning,” her boss said.
“A warning?” Jessica repeated.
Her boss looked away from his computer and raised his eyebrows. “Yes. I’ve registered a complaint with HR.”
“Oh,” Jessica said.
“You’ll want to think about your behavior,” he said, and then looked at her face more carefully. “Maybe act a little more repentant—if you want to keep your position.” His computer dinged, and he turned away.
Jessica stayed in the uncomfortable chair for another minute, but her boss didn’t say anything else. He didn’t look up, either, when she stood and left his office. She started to walk back to her cubicle but stopped just in front of it. Three years before, on her first day, Jessica had stopped in front of this same cube and almost cried from happiness. She had imagined her fresh new start exactly as she’d wanted it to manifest—the boss who said, “good morning” every day, the colleagues who smiled in the hall, and the friends she went for drinks with after hours.
Now, though, Jessica turned toward the bathroom. She walked past her own desk, then Julie’s, then Becky from accounting’s. In the bathroom, she checked that all the stalls were empty before positioning herself in front of the mirror. The meeting had gone on for six or seven minutes, and her eyes burned and ached. In her reflection, they looked red and tight. Jessica dug into her pocket for the drops she needed and tipped back her head. She blinked, though, as the first drop fell, and it splashed down her face.
“Are you okay?” a woman Jessica didn’t recognize asked from just inside the bathroom doorway, and she stepped closer as the door closed behind her. The tear substitutes trickled from beneath Jessica’s eyes and rolled swiftly down her cheeks. Jessica blinked, recognizing the new temp she’d been introduced to the day before.
“Jessica?” the woman said, and she reached out and set her hand on Jessica’s shoulder. Her eyes swept over Jessica’s face and then down to the tiny bottle of eye solution clutched in Jessica’s hand.
“Oh,” she said, “sorry,” she added and pulled her hand away. “I thought you were sad.”
Jessica stared at the temp through her moist eyelashes. The new woman hurried into the stall and closed the door, and Jessica, just too late, answered her.
“No,” she said. “I’m cured of that.”