One Day’s Worth

This is a picture of two men. I have believed for so long that this one photo explained certain details for me. I found it loose in a box buried at the back of the top shelf of the storage closet in my parent’s old house many years ago when I was a teenager snooping around, the picture that started it all, the house that they have now emptied and put up for sale. The short, dark-haired man carrying a tall, blond man back to the car is my father, the one who raised me ever since the judge, long before I found this photo, asked me if I wanted Don as my father. “Yes,” I giggled at the bench, according to my parents. And the judge then granted it so. My father smiled and said, “How could you say no?” I had not seen this picture until my mother sent it to me, along with some others, in a package, after she and my father cleaned out their current house before moving to Chicago.

My mother took this photo, sitting in the back seat of the car, which is where my father and the other man are headed. You can tell because of how low the roof is, blocking out the upper quarter of the picture, backlit, its dark-grey cloud curving down near the corners. The dashboard and steering wheel are also obvious, as is the space between the driver’s and passenger’s seats, from where she must have held the camera. Before she sent these other photos, I used to imagine her being secretive about it, that maybe she had to, keeping it close to her belly, her shooting of what happened out in front of her, on the other side of the car’s hood and the two cars flanking hers, one crumpled, the other with a white roof, the metal seam running down the length of the car towards the accident and the ocean surrounding them all. There are no words under this photo, whereas on the other Polaroids she sent, especially the ones matching and leading up to this one, there’s writing in black or blue ink, usually the date and location, under the image.

For years I hadn’t thought much of this picture, but the image has always stayed with me. I’ve had to fill in the gaps with what I imagined happened, not knowing everything, but knowing enough to tap out a new description each time the image or the story attached to the image stumbles back to me. Looking at the other photos that came before it, I no longer need to imagine as much as I once did. Here are some old photos, Brian. I thought you might like to have them, she wrote in the letter that came inside the package from the old house. Sometimes she’s this way when it comes to the past. She likes to hint and suggest rather than be direct, as though I have the option of throwing away the photos, or that I would even consider doing so. She also wrote about the cherry blossoms blooming along the sidewalks winding along the Jefferson Memorial and the new MLK Memorial, and she said that she and my father went to a concert at the Kennedy Center one last time. Getting ready for this new chapter in our life. The movers come next week. Lots and lots of memories! We’re both very proud of my father’s new supervisor role at a digital archiving company in downtown Chicago. He’s always told me luck is nothing more than perseverance and knowing what you want, and that we should be grateful and humble, given where we came from. It’ll be a white Christmas, for sure, she wrote. My mother is sad, having to leave her friends and all that she has gotten to know in Alexandria, but she tiptoes around her feelings about the move, slow to reveal things all at once. I’ve told her that she should just let it out, get it out of her system, send it out there. “OK, B,” she says agreeably, lightly, back to me on the phone, saying how much she loves me and is proud of me, nothing else coming of it.

My mom took some heat for marrying my father. Of course I look more like her than him—in fact, a spitting image. It’s noticeable when you see us all together. I don’t have black hair or the shape of his eyes or face. I’m very much taller and broad-shouldered than him. I’ve always known this about us. My mom used to tease people she’d meet and say, “He’s from California,” and a light would invisibly turn on inside their heads and trickle down their faces. “Oh…,” they’d nod, elongating the O-sound until it dissipated, and then politely smile before stuffing their mouths with food or sipping from their red plastic cups and staring at either my father, my mother, or me, or all of us without being caught. And it’s partially true. My father’s family moved to Los Angeles many years ago when they were known as the Li’s. At some point, his father changed it to L-e-e. My father likes to say that the Koreans with Park as their last name have it much easier because they don’t have to change a thing. “Unless they want it to be French and add a q,” he’d laugh.

In a way, the other man in this photo is my father too. Biological father is the term I use now. I’ve always known my father adopted me, and it never factored much into my life except when I found out about this photo. Sometimes I had the courage to ask questions. Sometimes I didn’t want to know, just let it be, leave some unanswered. From time to time, I’d have an itch, an intense chain of questions, assumptions, but I quieted most, if not all, of them on my own. My mother would offer a few memories but then retreat, tired from recalling details. At the time I found the photo and eventually asked her about it, her first response was, “There was a horrible accident on the road that day. Your dad’s helping our family friend, Evan.” Our, meaning my mother and father; our, meaning this happened before I was born. Much later she acknowledged, referring to the photo of the two men I found, “That’s him. I know you want to know. That’s what he looks like.” And so for a while, I ended up calling Evan the sperm donor, and I reduced my father to simply Don, often throwing in for good measure that he wasn’t really my father. I postured these things in front of my friends or with girlfriends. I was seventeen then, which doesn’t excuse it.

You can tell in this photo that neither man wants to be in that space any longer than they have to, not so much because of who they are in relation to each other, but more so in what has just happened. It certainly isn’t staged, and they certainly aren’t putting on airs with each other or with the camera. From what my mother has told me, bit by bit, my father was “full of grace.” In the photo, you can see the height and width difference between the two men. This photo reminds me of the picture of the American pilot captured and led by a small Vietcong woman. My father has one of his arms around Evan’s waist, the other around his back. Both men’s heads are down but not their eyes. It’s easy to read into the photo that my father’s are locked on the car where my mother waits. Evan’s eyes have turned elsewhere, perhaps along the narrow shoal. My father seems to look at the camera or something out there that’s captured his attention. Evan slumps into my father’s arms, as though he is dragging something heavy and smothering back to the car with him. I have heard he dragged it everywhere he went, unable to cut it loose, continuously dragging this weight from outside to inside, and again. But I understand now that there was neither outside nor inside with him.

Back in those days, my mother was quite the photographer. It was something she loved and, she confided in me, something she had to do, especially as things worsened between Evan and her. “Good times and bad times,” she said, but I now know this photo is towards the end of the bad times. “Your dad was a good friend for me when things were tough,” my mother said. She had a nice camera that she had bought with her own money, money that she hid from Evan, and went to a camera shop for supplies and developing when she lived in Foggy Bottom, the same camera shop where my father worked after he graduated from George Washington University. Having only a high-school degree, she worked as administrative support in admissions at GW. She said she always had a camera on her, no matter where she was. It all started in high school. “I found something I really liked to do,” she explained. “I wasn’t a cheerleader, and I wasn’t popular. It just worked out this way.” My father would develop her photos, and after a while, he couldn’t help but comment on their intimacy, and wanted to get to know her. I imagine him talking to and smiling with her as he adjusted a brown-and-powder-blue tie, the one that fell from the top of the storage closet after I had pulled down the box at the old house.

After Vietnam, Evan could go back to being a farmer’s son or get a job at the rendering plant because his uncle had connections there, or my mother and he could move to DC where my mother had, for her, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to leave their small hometown and be, at the time, with her high-school sweetheart. Her supervisor at the Army base, where she was the office manager, knew of the opening at GW. By then my father had graduated from GW and was working part-time at the photography shop and part-time in the “dungeon,” as he liked to call it, of the National Archives.

I found out that they all lived in the same apartment complex during this time. “We were friends, more or less, not close, but we hung out from time to time. Meant to be,” my father chuckled, smoothing it all out. Evan and my mother lived on the second floor, and my father on the first. The woman, who was my father’s fiancée at the time, had left him about a year after moving in. “She took my car. I loved that car,” he reminisced. “Red MG. I scrimped and saved for that thing. Your mom offered me a ride to work. That’s how it all started. I guess she got cold feet,” he winked. “You can see why,” my mom likes to joke, even today. Evan never liked the apartment, said DC reminded him of all that was wrong with America, said it was too far from his family, especially his sister, but his sister was only ever home when she had to detox there rather than on the floor of the county jail. Towards the end, Evan came to believe that someone like John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald was waiting around every corner, every step he took, waiting to get him.

When my mother and my father started getting a little too close, Evan had some choice words for my father back then, words, my mother said in a lower, quieter voice to me, that Evan picked up from his time in Vietnam. If you want to put yourself in Evan’s shoes, I guess maybe you’d say the same things or assume, as he did, that at first glance “they all look the same.” To be fair, the same thing has been said of me. Put me in a room full of other blue-eyed blondes, and suddenly we’re all “Swedish” or “Aryans” or “Nazis.” But on the other hand, I have always picked out my father from a crowd, never confusing him for anyone else.

After the war and after they moved to DC, Evan was hospitalized from time to time until a little became a lot. He thought his construction gig messed with his brain; he never thought the war had done something. His sister’s death from overdosing had a lot to do with it, but both my father and mother say the war played a bigger part than anyone first thought when he returned. It was called something other than PTSD back then. Shellshock, flashbacks, nightmares. He heard things, saw things. They were building up all inside his head, stacking themselves against his memories and blockading the present. The doctors at the hospitals tried to figure them out and, if need be, pull them into a sharper light.

“I know during those summers he worked construction he was quite the boxer,” my father said of Evan when I had some questions about who he was, what he was like. “He had joined a boxing gym and spent most of his hours there after work. At first, your mom was happy he did that, channeling his frustration and anger.” My mother later said she showed Evan a photo of himself boxing. He didn’t remember it or any of the bouts she described to him. He squinted and tried understanding what she explained as she held it in her hand. “He was awake but not there,” she said. My father shrugged. “What else can you do when you’ve been stuck in a different place for so long?”

I once tried reaching out to Evan. I was nineteen, and after years of holding in what I had been told, after years of the photo clutching me, after moving from rapid questions to long valleys of silence and indifference, I decided to look for him on spring break during my sophomore year at college. His brother had started a family tree on Ancestry.com. I could see Evan Henry Boyer (1950–, Culpepper, VA) and Meredith Vanderkamp Lee (1951–, Winchester, VA). Between Evan and his brother was Elizabeth (1961–1979). A little tile with Bryan Henry Lee (1980–) dropped below Evan and my mother, connecting them. The link to my name was dead: no other details. I checked it many times, almost once a week, for several months after I saw it, making sure it wasn’t technical, something missing or dropped on their end. I even drafted an e-mail asking them to look into it but never sent it. I checked the page many times until I no longer wanted to check it.

There were other stacks of photos in this package from the old house my mother mailed to me. June 1974. Evan’s home from the war, for good now, and my mother’s hand rests on his chest and on his olive-colored military jacket and the big buttons that were once gold. Another one says B’s 5th, Alexandria, VA, 1985 written on it, and I can see birthday streamers in the back of the first house we lived in when we were all in Alexandria. My friends and I have on hats and ice-cream-stained bibs with Transformers printed on them, the robots’ fists clenched or gripping weapons. In another photo, the one with the green-striped lawn chairs and a picnic, Evan has his denim shirtsleeves rolled up, and some scars are visible on his forearms, his nose slightly hawk-billed, probably from shots to the face. My father has a short-sleeved striped shirt on. Evan has bushy blonde sideburns and a moustache; my father’s shiny black hair drapes over his eyebrows. DC, August 1978 it says. A grill is in the background; a yellow plastic Whiffle-ball bat lies between the lawn chairs. Evan holds one beer can and has another one propped next to by the metal leg of his lawn chair. His palms are flat on his jeans, his fingers hanging over his knees. My father has a glass of water that he balances on his knee, his leg crossed, sandal pointing up, and he’s smiling and looking at the camera, which means my mother is behind it and smiling back at him. It must have been tough for her to juggle these two men, one she loved deeply, the other she could only care for.

This other stack, marked Corolla, NC, Oct. 1979, with the photos I had never seen until now, completes what I once asked for. The photo of my father and Evan is the last image, and I don’t know if it’s there on purpose, but it finishes the sequence that led them all here, place and time tied to this one day’s worth of film. In this roll: plenty of the ocean, several of the landscape and gulls floating through the grey fall sky, and several on the road, so many things heading towards the ocean. In one, my mother and Evan stand in front of the Atlantic, sea grass tufting on the sides of the photo, the sand now white from all the years of fading away. A picket fence rolls over the dunes behind them. No one I know lives in Corolla, let alone North Carolina, no relatives from any of the three sides. It wasn’t my mother and Evan’s honeymoon because they never got married. And it’s about six months until I’m in the picture.

“Just had to get away for a while. It was time. Besides,” my mother said of that day, “after I heard about that area from Dad, I had to photograph it. I wanted to go, but not by myself.” Evan was inside himself the whole trip. “Oh, he was in one of his moods. He said he was laid off, but he just up and quit one day. He came home and hid in the basement. He got fired. It was construction. How do you get fired from something like that?” That night she said he emerged from the basement, scaring her. He had forgotten where he was and, for a brief moment, who she was. “He had a butcher knife in his hand and dropped it when I called his name. It was time to get out of there for a little while.”

Going through the new photos my mother had included, I understand how much the weather rules there, how it can be a welcomed distraction. A thin strip of barrier islands nestled inside the Atlantic Ocean, scattered near the mainland, sandy lumps parallel to the coast, chains of them, forming tides and inlets, extending nearly without interruption, as my mother saw it, the breaks attached by ferries and boats, not bridges, the narrow, flat two-lane road strung between the waves like a tightrope, water casting itself on both edges of the shoreline, the ocean on one side, the sound on the other.

My father later said to me, “The three of us drove down there. We all needed a change of scenery. Your mom asked me if I wanted to come along. How could I say no to that? Back then it was isolated. My coworker told me about it. They have horses down there, mustangs from a Spanish shipwreck, or so the legend goes, and traffic would be backed up for miles if they got out on that road, which happened a lot, until they built the preserve for them, fenced them in at one end. But that happened long after we had been there. That road used to have so many horses on it.”

These new photos finish what the one photo started, bridging them together, and I can now see how they could make a flipbook, an unbroken story, like a hand-cranked silent movie. They might even be more interesting than what they are, if I were willing to place them out of order. But it’s better to keep them the way that they are.

Starting with this one, slightly in front of my mother’s car and slightly out of focus, the head of a horse can be seen near the ground, its ears jutting up into the frame, tips of brown triangles above the low horizon of the car’s dashboard. The rear end of another horse is visible, moving out of the frame on the left, where the ocean lies. Another seems to have stopped and turned its head towards the car, my mother, who sits in the back, and Evan, who sits behind the wheel. In front of them, a car’s hood is smashed like an accordion, its body diagonal on the road, the horse on the ground limp between them. Evan gets out. A third horse enters the frame. Having played with my mom’s cameras when I was younger, I can hear the winding of the film after the clicking, the finger keeping up with the action. This horse remains in the shadows. A woman approaches this horse and looks like she’s calming it, maybe shepherding it, her body between it and the horse on the road. In several photos, this woman looks over her shoulder at Evan or at the horse wounded on the road. In a few, I’m convinced she’s looking at my mother.

Eventually Evan reaches the driver. My mother remains where she is, but she has zoomed in. Evan drops his head a little to the driver whose face blurs as he looks up and nods. Evan returns to the car and opens the door. He rests one knee in the seat and reaches down and across the passenger seat. In the middle of it all, Evan looks back at my mother, his eyes are very white but calm, almost sad with what he has to do. Shoulder slumping, he walks back to the scene and speaks again to the driver whose face blurs with movement. The driver lays his hands on Evan’s shoulder; Evan doesn’t reciprocate. The driver lowers his head and wipes his mouth. He and the woman could turn away, look at the ocean or at the road behind my mother, but they don’t look away. Evan stands over the horse on the ground and aims the gun down.

The next image is of my father, whose face and black hair can be seen in the passenger’s seat. How could I not recognize that it was him? It was immediate. He steps out of the car and walks towards the driver and Evan and the horse on the road, whose ears and hard-angled head have sunk below the horizon of the car’s dashboard. My father’s arms wrap around Evan, ready to carry him back. When they turn, maybe they both are looking at my mother. Maybe they both are looking at the ocean or at the sun or at the gulls that must be circling over them, or maybe they are looking at the wild horses that have scattered like flowers around the road, the descendants of those jettisoned there centuries ago.

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