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