Dec 9, 2014

Family Photographs

In this photograph, his hair is lighter. Grey, maybe. It's hard to tell. He is sitting in a cheap plastic chair at a round table by a pool in a hotel in Bangkok. He wears mirrored sunglasses and is holding up a coffee mug, a toast to the photographer.

He wears sandals and slouchy black pants and a short-sleeved button-up shirt with a pale green fern print. The print is of ferns. Ferns. When I knew him, he wore blue jeans and long-sleeved button-up shirts in solid colours. Never ferns. But a pack of cheap cigarettes lies on the table, and I am grateful for this one familiar thing. 

He looks small. He was never a big man, but he looks small. The darkness above his upper lip could be a moustache, could be a shadow. I seem to remember him having a moustache, but I honestly can't remember anymore. He is smiling. 

When things were at their worst, I came home one night and found him in the backyard in front of a sooty metal trash can, burning photographs. What are you doing? I cried. What are you doing? as the photographs blackened and curled, permanently erasing his presence from our history. 

One day I came across a cardboard box of negatives, and there he was, colour-reversed, in their first basement apartment together, Brylcreemed hair slicked back. There he was, standing in front of the magnolia tree with my mother on their wedding day. Cradling me proudly in his arms, a tiny wrapped bundle. Holding me on the potty. Pictures as familiar to me as the story of the Three Little Pigs. He hadn't destroyed himself entirely. I don't know if his salvation was deliberate or an oversight. I like to believe it was the former.  

I keep the photographs now. I have boxes of slides, of negatives, of film cartridges, of CDs. I have copies on USBs and copies on the computer. I develop the images and put them into albums and tell the stories. He gave me this.  

I can't see his eyes because of the sunglasses, and he has changed his name and finally made his way across the ocean. He lives in the Nuanpranee Guest House and shops in street markets and eats mango with sticky rice and practices calligraphy. He wears sandals, and shirts with ferns on them. But his hair is still slicked back and he still smokes cheap cigarettes. He sent me this picture. And he is smiling.