She takes me into the living room, which has been made over completely into an altar to the son. An altar of the son — she tells me I can touch the flag, by way of introduction, which she has mounted on a pole, with the eagle on top, and she has the helmet, the badge, the letter from the fire chief, and a photograph of him with his arm around a woman that she explains is his fiancée, and a pair of boxers she salvaged from his childhood bedroom, and a set of metallic adornments, a dog tag with his father’s name on it and a watch, that were retrieved and given to her and which she held at his funeral, and I understand, while holding and touching and nodding at the mountain of fabric and metal, the way that the sacrament can become the body, and that what is not flesh can be made flesh again, in the hands of the faithful and desperate. I set up the lighting, but at the last minute she stands up from the chair, and refuses to be part of the frame. I take a series of portraits of the son, as she has assembled him. After they are developed I send her a manila envelope containing the best prints and then I throw the rest away. I keep the negatives — I do not like to court the irreversible. But there is no avoiding the fact that it is a 9/11 altar, and it has no place in an exhibition without her in the picture anyway, and I do not want to touch the subject of 9/11, on which I have nothing new or of any relevance to say.
Another woman, in Harlem — brings her wife to the shot. We sit for an hour in the living room, talk about God. They laugh at my damnation. Come on, I say. That’s funny to you? I’m can barely make it through August here with goddamn climate change. They smirk. You could still convert, they say. You haven’t died yet. They pose on their bed, in a yellow-walled room with a mattress, and a radiator, and stains on the sheets. They pose with their backs to each other, kneeling, and their arms linked to each other from behind. When I ask what intimacy means to them, because I believe that being blunt about our intentions comes through best in these pictures, they lean into each other, still looking at the camera, so that the backs of their heads touch.
Once my girlfriend asked me if I kept in touch with any of the women that I photographed. Why, I said. Are you jealous? She had accused me in the past week of being an ice queen, though she put it more delicately — sometimes I know that you care, she said, but I also think we might need to learn to speak each other’s language. I self-censor when I’m around you, she tells me. There are things that I could say, but I think that they would make you uncomfortable. Once at the very start of our relationship I text her love ya for making my bed in the morning and she tells me later that she has been thinking about it for almost eight hours and I take a step backwards and stare at her like a startled deer, I say, it’s just a phrase, and after that she doesn’t tell me what she is thinking even when I ask her. She rejects the phrase ‘ice queen’ when I ask her if that is an accurate summary of what she is saying. She also rejects the idea of jealousy, not for others but for herself, because she is open to all configurations of relationships and she believes jealousy is something that should be talked through, cracked open, and moved beyond. But she also has the password to my phone. There’s nothing radically intimate about reading my WhatsApp messages, I tell her. I don’t even read them, she says. It’s the possibility of reading them that is radical. And you gave me the password, she said. When what I was asking you was if you wanted to talk about what you did that day.
No, I tell her, truthfully, about keeping in touch with my subjects. And I don’t even know if I’d recognize them if they came to an exhibition. I’m bad with faces. It’s already hard enough finding someone to let you in for an hour. I don’t need them to let me in on the rest of their lives.
The woman that wanted me to photograph her in her living room, in the translucent bodysuit, told me while I was posing her that, one woman to another, she had bought the bodysuit for a boyfriend who had turned out to be extremely bad news, and after he knocked her up and started ghosting her on everything and couldn’t even come to the clinic to hold her hand, to be accountable for ten minutes for his own cum, though she knew he was still checking her Insta, she considered throwing away the bodysuit, but she liked the fabric, and the way it fit her in the mirror, and held her in at the middle, and especially knowing that he was never going to see it, and no one else, to be perfectly honest she had started checking herself out in it almost every night. I’m here, I said. I’m seeing you in it. Yeah, she said. But it’s for your artistic vision or whatever. It doesn’t count.
The day after she leaves me, the girlfriend wants to meet me in Washington Square Park to drop off some of my things and leave on a more positive note, and while we are standing in front of each other breathing on our hands to keep them warm, she texts me a long, angry essay that takes several minutes to send, and she wants me to read the essay in front of her while we are both there. Why don’t you read it out loud to me, I say, so that the tone and inflection isn’t lost in the medium of text, and she just gives me a look. She has a bag of my things, including some Christmas presents that she had started wrapping and doesn’t want anymore. When I am finished reading, she asks me if I have any questions. I have spent the morning reviewing gallery copy that I have no real creative control over, which is supposed to be printed on all of the pamphlets that will introduce the exhibition, and which I have already sent back several times for misspelling all the names of the girls in the Vietnamese thruple. One of the paragraphs in the text message essay is about my refusal to bend any part of my schedule around her, even though I would drop everything to meet my college friend in Chinatown while in the middle of a shoot. So you do read my WhatsApp messages, I said. And also, you know how hard it is to find Jason. And he was just out of rehab, for God’s sake. She sniffs at me. That’s not even a question, she says, it’s a statement. I guess I don’t have any questions, then, I say. I try to shake her hand before we go, but she turns her back to me, and marches out of the park.
Of course the only subject who comes to the exhibition is the woman with the altar. I had not invited anyone to the opening, not least my subjects, but she says she Googled my name when the prints came in the mail, and it came up, and she sent an email to the director of the space, and also, she had heard there was an open bar. Well, I said. I think it’s cash, actually. I apologize for not including the pictures I had sent her in the exhibition. I had to make some cuts, I say. It’s a small space. We’re in a room uptown that also doubles as a community center. It has nice bones, the building, but it’s also too old for central heating and everyone is clutching their partners or drinking to keep warm. She has one of the pamphlets in her hand, which she is stuffing into a handbag. It’s ok, she says, I put the pictures you took up in my bedroom. But I can see why he wouldn’t have fit in.
She asks me how I’m getting on, these days. I don’t know, I say, the usual. Do I have any holiday plans? I’m staying in the city, I tell her. I recently moved apartments. I have a few roommates now, maybe we’ll put something together for a holiday dinner. She tells me her daughter is coming in from San Francisco tomorrow. I didn’t know you had a daughter, I say. Yes, she says, thoughtfully, I guess I didn’t mention her. She’s a physician. She’s often on call. It’s hard for her to visit, and I’m getting too old to feel safe when I fly. Well, she says, I’ll let you get back to your own exhibition. I just wanted to see all the homes in one place. Yeah, I say. I owe it to all of you. Thanks for letting me in.
Catherine Wong studies computer science and cognitive science at MIT in Cambridge, MA. Their fiction has appeared in publications including Bayou, Shenandoah, Chicago Quarterly Review, and The Cimarron Review.