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Polaroid

— Catherine Wong

In my study—where I keep all the things I cherish most—there are two distinct times that I think of as the golden hour: once in the evening, when the sun picks up the dust in the air before nightfall, and once in the heart of the night, when if I’m still awake the world begins to feel slippery and narrow, confined to the cast of the lamp above my desk. Last night, I stayed for the transition from one to the other, waiting through the long fallow period of early darkness—too close to daylight to count as a golden hour, too sober—with a book. I kept the lights on in the room, watching the sky turn pale and then dark. Around midnight I grew restless and stood to sort through some of the remaining boxes and folders stacked around the periphery of the room. Eventually I came to a sheath of Sarah’s contact sheets. By then it was much later, so I turned off the lights and brought the stack over to my desk to sort through in the familiar, lonely cocoon of the evening.

Though, already—a lie. Or a set of half-truths. Lately I have grown more vigilant about the obligation I feel even when I’m alone, to go back over the past with a needle, undoing and re-embroidering. Came to suggests an accident, when I have been nothing but deliberate in the Solomonic task of dividing our apartment, parceling up the things that are Sarah’s and mine to hand over, or file away, or throw out. Lonely suggests an ache, but sometimes I suspect that I’m most at home in solitude, that for all of my years in the company of friends and lovers I have sometimes kept them around for the heightened sanctuary of calm I feel in the hours of their absence.

A couple of days ago, I called my mother’s friend, a woman whom I met the first time when I was thirteen. At the time, she lived in Vancouver, in a blue-walled apartment cluttered with photographs of her children. Her home was densely furnished, as if she had taken care to fill every open space with some token of her existence—while she and my mother embraced, I sat on the living room couch between the department store pillows, feeling suffocated. She was a piano teacher, with a few students who were studying at Juilliard or Eastman and one who had gone on to become quite successful. While we were there, she and my mother sat down at her upright to improvise a duet based on a song they thought I would remember, a Japanese children’s tune they had both learned growing up. Though I did not recognize the notes, I was startled by their ease together and their virtuosity—my mother was then an accountant at a small firm that mostly worked with hospitals and charities, and, though I was aware that she had a history before this particular life, I had thought of it as a phase that she had passed through before arriving at a more solid and well-defined present. Before we flew home, the woman gave me a stack of postcards, one of which I have beside me even now, in the top drawer of my desk. Over the years, we kept in touch—I sent her letters, mostly about the mundane dramas of schoolwork or friends, and she replied with advice and worries from her own life, writing with a candor and honesty that I now recognize as surprising. She had no daughters, despite trying three times before her divorce. For many years she sent me dresses on my birthday until I told her that I had given up on gendered clothing, and then afterwards, she sent me hand-me-downs from her children—which I imagined her taking out of their closets over the protests of her three sons.

I called her in part because we had not spoken for some time, and in part because after Sarah moved outI was fine for three days and then went utterly to pieces. By the time I left for college, we had become a form of confessional to each other: she called me after her eldest son, who had spiraled suddenly and precipitously into a depression, had tried to jump off the second floor of a nearby parking garage; she had gone to visit him in the hospital, where he had been taken after fracturing his pelvis, and she called me from a payphone in the hallway, to tell me that she felt a sense of disembodied irritation at the thought of bringing him home, where he would be even more of her responsibility. At a different low, I told her that every path I had taken seemed to be bottoming out, useless. She laughed into the phone and said that when her most successful student had played, for the first time, at Carnegie Hall, she had bought a ticket but walked out before the actual performance: she felt a sour sense of failure even just looking at the ten-foot-tall poster with his name.


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