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Family Portrait, Guam, 1979

Katherine Lien Chariott, Nonfiction

Man (38 then, 61 forever)
You are not that man in those glasses, wearing those flared maroon slacks, brown hair styled in a comb-over, flashing that fabulous smile. You could never be that man in that wide-collared shirt, unbuttoned too far, with those heavy gold chains shiny against the chest. No, most definitely not that man with the half-crazy look in his eyes, the one in that photograph, who pretends to be you. Instead, you are the images in my head; the sounds that stay with me; the smells, the colors, the emotions that overwhelm me from out of nowhere.

You are our townhouse on Guam, or rather you are the darkened living room: those beams of sunlight coming, highlighting the dust in the air, forming spotlights on our shag carpet. You are the clean, crisp scent of cherry blossom trees—brown and pink and covered with snow—in our front yard in Japan. You are that Citroen we had in Germany, or, rather, you are the rattle of its engine; you are its color (the exact shade of green your hazel eyes became in your final years). You are the couch in our family room in Maryland, with its sad flowered upholstery, that couch I took with me when I escaped to my first apartment at eighteen. You are the dust in the air of that foreign city I moved to wanting to forget you, the dust that choked me like regret. You are the laughter spinning into rage that took over both of us, that rage that takes over me still, today.

Finally, you are the man who visited me in exactly one dream, more than a decade after your death, as the father I knew at twenty-two, during those months I took refuge at home. The father of that time when, knowing already that we were both sick, I managed to believe that we could still, somehow, become the people that family portrait promised. You came to me as that father, and stayed with me when I woke for five disorienting minutes, giving me the gift of mistaking this one-room apartment for my bedroom in that house where we once, too briefly, were happy.

Woman (30 then, 63 now)
You never were her: that woman with one perfect hand up blocking the sun; the one standing so casually, wearing those bellbottom jeans and that striped button-down shirt, both fitted to show off her figure, God that figure you somehow managed to keep into your fifties, though it was not really yours, since it belonged to that smiling woman in this picture, the one who is not you. How could you be her, when you are those hands I know so well, with their crooked, arthritic fingers; when you are that dimple under your eye that shows when you are angry, the one I have only seen on other Asian faces, that dimple missing (significantly) from this photograph? No, that woman is not you.

I know who you are. You are the girl of twenty, in that black and white photograph I held onto for years, that girl so beautiful she filled me with shame, just as she filled me with pride. You are the blue-flowered evening gown you wore that one New Year’s Eve, a night I remember so well more than thirty years later. That very same dress I myself wore to a party in Baltimore when I was twenty. You are the women on the streets of that foreign city I moved to, the one I had to escape to escape you, all those women I saw who confused me, with their black hair, with those faces of theirs, which were so much like yours, even in their differences. Those women who made me think, again and again, that you were there with me, when you were really thousands of miles away.

More than all this, you are the woman, just twenty-eight, who pretended to be a ghost; who told me, so many times, that my mother was gone, filling me with ecstasies of fright, each and every time. That woman, that mother, I did not believe, then, but who, I know now, was foretelling a truth that I only understood when I finally came back to this country, and found myself on the phone with the stranger who had replaced you, the one whose voice sounded so much like yours that I called her by your name, and call her that still.

Girl (8 then, 41 now)
That girl is an imposter, of course. You are not her and never could have been. Impossible for you to be that girl with the wind feathering her hair, the one with the dark tan and crooked smile, standing in that halter-top and those shorts. Impossible for you to be the girl in that photograph, when you are the station wagon, with its wooden sides, that Daddy drove the first time we lived in Japan, the one that you insisted was yours. You are those RVs in that car lot in Guam, the ones we loved to play in, where we sat across from each other at tiny tables, pretending to eat. You are the grey Chevy Cavalier you drove at sixteen, the one you crashed, with me in the passenger seat, just as you are that teenage girl, after the crash, not knowing what to do until I told you to go, just go. The one who sped away, at last, leaving behind no evidence of her crime, except for the shards of glass on the asphalt, those shards that are also, somehow, most definitely, you. I would recognize you in them from any distance.

I recognize you in them even here, so far from you in this apartment that is just one mile from your own, but that mile somehow becomes equal to the distance that separates now from then. I saw you in similar shards, just last week. You, right there, in that broken glass, glinting on my floor. I knew you at once, which is how I knew, too, that you could not be that woman at the train station, the one who walked up to me yesterday, so hesitantly, expecting, surely, even before she spoke, my curt nod, my quick hello, the only possible response to a greeting from a stranger whose face reminds me so painfully of yours.

Girl (5 then, 39 now)
No matter what they claim, I know: that is not me in that photograph. I am not that little girl in hot-pants and a tube top, with that golden-brown body she did not know enough about to hate, or to hide. I could never be her, that girl welcoming the camera, caught somewhere between a smile and a laugh, the one who was so clearly destined for a life other than mine. Instead, I was, I am: the girl, the woman, who tried to avoid all clicks and flashes, who wanted to—but could not—protect herself from all the damning evidence that cameras leave behind. I was, and am: those harsh words, that anger, that you can just barely read on my lips, all caught on film, so that I am saying, forever, things I wish I could take back. I am, today, what I was then, what I have always been: not that joyful little girl, no, never her, but the one who disappeared herself, who kept trying to disappear. The woman who moved herself again and again, farther from home each time, until, finally, she moved halfway around the world, wanting, of course, to escape the past and the future, but, of course, finding both of them there with me, always.

I am the woman, returned to her own country, at last, who sits here now, alone, in this home that is not home, endlessly re-viewing photographs in her head. The one imagining, and reimagining people who no longer exist; the one trying and failing to understand a family that ended when you left us. You crossed that line between is and was as we watched, not understanding then that, even as you took your last breath, we three who remained would change so much that all of us, still living, would be just as gone as you are.