Sydney S. Kim


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.

“That bad?”


“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 cli