My mother was an artist. She’s known primarily for one body of work: a series of black and white abstract photographs. The photographs are made from microscopic slides of teardrops that have been enhanced, enlarged, and printed. She shot the series over the course of two decades, starting when I was five years old.
“Tear landscapes,” she’d called them. Emotions extracted and made physical through captured light, their complexity flattened into images of formal beauty. Saline hills of textured silver, cloudy capillary veins, and torrential shadows mingled with ripples of blinding white—they’re all mine. Those are my tears.
On my way to work, the morning trains were delayed for nearly an hour. The plate glass doors on the subway platform had jammed again. Commuters had bottlenecked the safety barrier and forced the doors open trying to cram themselves onto the train. The city had only just installed the barrier last year.
When I finally made it in to the office, a stream of new photos was waiting for me on my computer, ready for editing. It was a new luxury property that the firm had just finished furnishing for a wealthy client: a sprawling craftsman-style estate tucked away high up in Aspen. Vaulted ceilings ribbed with exposed rafters. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows filled with a view of snowy white mountains. For a moment, I lost myself, staring into the bright white. I tried to imagine the cold. The only time I’d ever seen snow was three years ago when Ileena and I had gone on vacation to Antarctica.
I pressed the tip of the pen to my screen and began removing imperfections from the photographs. I darkened speckles of sun damage that marred cherrywood rafters, scrubbed out distracting power outlets from white walls, cloned rows of books on custom shelves, and erased home appliance hubs from empty rooms. The final product: another gleaming house of impossibilities.
The days are long and hot in the city.
I imagine our borough must have been beautiful once, at least before summer began to sear outside of its season. It’s easy to conjure an image of the past: old brick and brownstone buildings, flat-roofed, narrow, with carved facades, all interconnected and painted in warm colors on a block lined with trees. Now, the brick is brittle and crumbling, the trees yellowed and dry.
At a certain time of day, just before sunset, the walk home from the train stop turns into one long stretch of light. The red sun bears down on the sidewalks, soaking grey into orange. Some days, it gets so hot that I can feel heat of the cement through the soles of my shoes while sunlight burns into the crown of my head.
A few years ago, when, like everyone else, I developed cortical cataracts, walking down our block was a painful task. Until I was able to save enough money for the surgery and requisite pair of replacement lenses, I spent whole months wading through a world far too bright and out of focus.
My mother’s creative process was simple. Whenever something made me cry, I rushed to find her so she could collect my teardrops in a tiny medicine dropper. As she squeezed the liquid onto a glass slide, she would ask me what had happened, what I was feeling exactly. When I was much younger, she helped me put words to my feelings. It was a comfort, at times, her affirmation as soothing as the antiseptic she would swab on my scraped knees and elbows. Eventually, as I grew older, I came to recognize these feelings on my own. And even though they were mine, they didn’t always feel that way.
Tears of disappointment, humiliation, physical pain, heartbreak, guilt, fear, rejection, grief—once printed on paper, they all displayed different formal qualities. My mother named each piece after me: Celine 1, Celine 2, Celine 3 ... Quickly, patterns began to emerge and certain landscapes appeared again and again with great frequency. In my mother’s eyes, these repetitions contributed to the overall cohesion of the series.
I was rarely alone in my sadness. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I began to yearn for privacy. When my first girlfriend broke up with me, I shut myself in the bathroom and cried into a towel. My sobs disappeared into the terrycloth, the soft fabric soaking up all the evidence.
When I finally emerged from the bathroom, my mother was waiting outside the door with an expectant look on her face. “Your eyes are red. Have you been crying?” I would go on to cry again later in the evening, once I’d confessed to her that I’d been seeing a girl, not a boy.
Picture after picture, year after year, I watched as every personal, uncontrollable reaction was frozen, blown up, mounted, and deconstructed at length. I was afforded no emotional privacy. A few times, I tried lying about my reasons for crying. This never worked—my deception was eventually revealed in the glossy photo paper, spelled out in beautiful archival ink.
In time, I taught myself to control my tears. As I got better at it, my mother’s body of work grew thinner.
I came home to drawn curtains and Ileena sitting in the dark at her desk. The curves of her face were lit by the glow of her computer screen.
“Did you get another job?”
Ileena nodded. “They need it by tomorrow morning, so you’ll have to have dinner without me. Sorry.”
I bent down to kiss her cheek. “What is it this time?”
“Insurance claim. A guy got his eye and nose clipped by a postal drone.”
I leaned over her shoulder. Ileena tilted her screen down.
“Sorry,” I said, knowing she’d have to spend hours sharpening, cutting, and splicing video clips of the same graphic scene. Cases like this always involved footage gathered from several different cameras. A long night lay ahead of her: she would be forced to witness the violence over and over in great detail, from different angles.
“Do you want company? I could sit with you,” I asked. I looked over at her computer. “It won’t bother me.”
Ileena turned to face me. “It should.” I looked at her. A fine line tensed between her eyebrows. She shook her head. “That’s sweet of you. It’s just—it’s horrible and I’ll only feel worse if I make you watch it, too.”
I went to bed alone. Once or twice, I woke in the middle of the night to find the cold blue light of Ileena’s monitor flickering under the bedroom door.
I felt Ileena climb into bed hours later, close to dawn. The sheets rustled as her figure curled away from mine. I felt her body tense into a hard comma.
Her work takes a toll on her, but the way she absorbs pain—taking it fully into her center—is a conscious choice. I don’t understand why, but she prefers it this way.
The 6:00pm train was more crowded than usual. There was hardly any space to move with all the other bodies pressing against me from every direction. The collective smell and the heat of everyone around me was unbearable. I felt someone’s sweat stick to my bare shoulder. Rough nylon from a backpack rasped against my left arm.
As soon as the bell chimed and the train doors slid open, there was a collective panic to get off the train. More people were gathered on the platform behind the safety barrier waiting to get on, allowing only a slow trickle of frustrated passengers through to exit. The air was thick with impatience. I could hardly breathe. An elbow jammed into my side.
I pushed my way past the plate glass doors. Behind me, the bell chimed again. Metal wheels started to grind along the rails as the train picked up speed. A scream pierced through the noise. I turned around.
A man had slipped off the platform just as the safety barrier had begun to close, his body caught between the heavy glass doors. He was stuck. The upper half of his body had made it past the barrier while his legs dangled off the edge of the platform. The crowd scattered. People shouted. I looked up at the time screen. The next train was due in two minutes.
Several people struggled to push the doors open while others tugged on his arms. Neither would budge. The man clawed desperately at the concrete, his face flush and tight with panic. I watched, frozen in place.
The train came barreling through, crushing the lower half of his body against the platform. I couldn’t see the extent of the damage from where I was standing. I pushed my way closer.
I crouched down and held his hand. Others called for help. I sat with him until the life left his eyes.
When it was over, I turned my gaze up to the newly arrived train. A sea of faces was pressed against the subway windows, staring down at me. Ileena’s was among them, her eyes wide in shock.
Taped to our fridge: a photograph of us, me and Ileena, taken during our trip to Antarctica. Directly behind us: multicolored international flagpoles and farther in the distance, fields of snow that dip down into the ice quarry. Off to the left, you can make out the brilliant blue ridges of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet dipping sharply into the ocean.
In the picture, we’re both wearing protective eyewear. The sun reflects off the curved, black lenses in sharp white stars.
It gets harder and harder to recall the wondrous cold of that week. I can feel the memory steadily melt away as more time passes, just as the southern glaciers lose more of themselves to the sea each year.
As witnesses to the accident, Ileena and I both had to stay behind to fill out paperwork for the police and the Transportation Authority. We didn’t get home until late.
I stripped off my clothes and climbed into bed. I lay on top of the comforter. Ileena followed me into the bedroom and switched on the light.
“Are you okay?”
I shielded my eyes from the ceiling lamp. “Could you dim the lights a little?”
The lights went down and I felt the bed dip slightly as she sat down beside me.
“Are you okay?” She asked again.
“I think so.”
“Didn’t you see him get—” She stopped. “What happened, exactly?”
“I didn’t see it happen.” I hid my eyes behind my forearm to block out the warm glow of the bedroom light. Ileena shifted impatiently on the mattress. The sheets were starting to smell musty; they hadn’t been washed in a few weeks.
“There were a lot of people on the platform. And even more of us trying to get off the train. I guess he got caught in the safety doors,” I said. “Then your train came.”
Ileena sniffled. “You were holding his hand.”
I nodded. “Actually—sorry—could you just turn the lights off?”
“It’s too bright in here. My eyes hurt.”
The room plunged into darkness and seconds later, I felt the bed dip again. I sat up into sitting position and crossed my legs.
“Everyone had cleared the platform. They were all screaming. A lot of people ran for help. I just sat with him until help arrived. He couldn’t really speak and he looked really scared.”
Next to me, Ileena began to cry softly. I didn’t tell her about the blood that had stained the man’s lips, how his teeth had been clenching from the pain.
“I told him to keep breathing. I tried to tell him not to panic.”
I flexed my fingers in the dark. His hand had been so sweaty. If he hadn’t been holding on so tightly, his fingers would have slipped from my grasp.
“I didn’t get his name, even though his ID badge was clipped to his shirt.” I looked up at Ileena. I could barely make out her face in the dark. “And he was wearing this locket around his neck.”
I paused. Ileena made a wet sort of sound.
“It’s funny,” I continued. “I guess I’ll always be curious about what was inside.”
I realized almost as soon as I’d said it that I should have kept the thought to myself. Ileena straightened her back. “What?”
“Nothing, nevermind.” I didn’t feel like talking anymore. “What about you? What did you manage to see?”
“His back was facing me and then I saw you. I was so surprised to see you there, it took me a while to recognize you at first.” She started crying again. “There was just so much blood from his waist down …”
“You shouldn’t have looked.”
“I didn’t really have a choice, Celine. I was practically shoved up against the train window.”
“It’s okay. I just wish I hadn’t seen any of it.” She took a shaky breath.
“I know, I’m sorry.” I lay back down on the bed. “I did, you know, see him die.”
Ileena was silent.
“When he died … his eyes were still open and—”
“Stop, I don’t want to hear this.”
We went to bed shortly after. The night was uncomfortably hot. When Ileena turned to face the wall, her body left behind wet spots of sweat and tears on the sheets. The dampness encroached into my side of the bed.
What I was going to tell her earlier was that watching the life leave someone is never as obvious as people say. Instead, some imperceptible change happens—a tiny shift behind the eyes to signal that they’re really gone.
51 CELINE NO. 93
With this final photograph, Kyoh considered her Celine series complete. The composition of No. 93 is unique in that it appears to be a composite of two earlier works. The silver and white ripples that span the bottom right quadrant can be found in No. 27 and the black, dendritic craquelure overlaying the entire composition is a near perfect repeat of the patterns and marks found in No. 84. As written in her journals dating 19 November 2054, Kyoh refers to the creation of No. 27: “When Celine came home from school, I had to break the unfortunate news that Coco had been hit by a delivery vehicle. It’s her first real loss since her grandparents passed, and back then, she’d been too young to grasp the concept of death.” On 11 February 2065, Kyoh writes about No. 84: “The last batch of Celine’s college letters finally arrived. Most of the acceptance letters she’s received up until now are offering paltry financial aid packages. I’ve already made clear to her that we can’t afford her top choices (see: No. 83). But today, one of her safety schools—all the way on the other side of the country—came to her with a generous offer. I could see relief in her eyes. She couldn’t hold back this time (she’s been doing that a lot lately).” No. 93 is a significant departure from the rest of the series, owing in part to the large gap in time—approximately 6 years—between its creation and that of No.92. There are no existing journal entries that record the circumstances of No. 93, but private correspondence between Kyoh and her daughter indicates that Kyoh had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer around the time of the work’s conception.
I woke up to the sound of Ileena crying softly in the middle of the night. I turned over and fumbled under the covers to find her form in the dark. I rubbed her back and felt her shoulders trembling under my touch.
“I can’t stop thinking about that man,” she mumbled. A little over a week had passed since the accident. I said nothing and continued stroking circles on her back.
“What about you?” She turned her head just slightly, her profile becoming more visible as my eyes adjusted to the dark. “Have you thought about him?” She paused. “Like, at all?”
I watched the silhouette of her lips settle into silence before I answered. “Yeah.” My hand stilled against the fabric of her shirt. “I have.”
Ileena waited for me to continue, but I didn’t say anything more. Because I could still see him there, caught between the heavy glass doors. The glass had been so thick and clean and clear. I imagined watching him from far away, trapped and helpless to something invisible, his limbs struggling against an unseen force that held him determinedly in place.
We went back to sleep without saying more to each other. A few hours later when her crying woke me up again, I lay paralyzed next to her, pretending to be asleep.
When I came home from work, Ileena had finished moving out. She’d left behind the picture of us taped to our fridge. I removed the picture and sat on the kitchen floor, savoring the chill of the cold tile on my bare legs. I sat there for a while trying to remember the last time we were happy.
On the second day of our Antarctica trip, we’d gone on a group tour of the ice quarry. The quarry cut into a frozen lake that had remained untouched for eons. The scientists stationed there culled and carved bricks of prehistoric ice to melt down and study, observing newly revived bacterial and eukaryotic organisms as they wriggled under the lens of a microscope.
We found ourselves trailing behind the rest of the tour group because I’d wanted to see the individual ice blocks up close. I remember them being a curious greenish blue, opaque in some places, crystal clear in others. Ileena took my hand and led me towards an isolated area of the quarry where a little alcove was carved deep into an ice wall.
I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember watching words leave her mouth in white puffs of steam. Outside our little blue pocket, the wind whipped and whistled as it caught on the frozen, jagged teeth of the quarry. I hadn’t received my ocular surgery and when I removed my sunglasses, the whole world blew out into beautiful white light—the snow and the sky, the sun and the ice, the skin of her cheek and the fur lining the hood of her parka. It was something out of a dream and the only thing I could really see clearly were her eyes. I watched as tiny snowflakes formed on her black eyelashes, soft white coronas feathering around her brown eyes.
I couldn’t think of anything to say and my breath caught cold and crisp in my lungs. Heat prickled from behind my eyes and before I knew what was happening, a tear slid down my cheek, freezing slowly along the way. Ileena pulled off her gloves and pressed her hands to my face. The tears melted under the heat of her touch and she gently wiped them away. “The wind’s drying your eyes out. You should put your sunglasses back on,” she’d said, before leaning forward to kiss me.
She’d been wrong then, but I didn’t mind. I just remember how that moment felt—warm and cool all at once, her mouth melting soft on mine, lashes brushing cold against my skin.
Sydney S. Kim is a queer writer and artist based in Los Angeles. She received her MFA from the Pacific Northwest College of Art and BA from Dartmouth College. Her literary and visual work has been published or is forthcoming in wildness, Jellyfish Review, Sinister Wisdom, Eights, &Review, Publication Studio, and Social Malpractice. Her middle name is Sujin.