Since my divorce, I have taken many photographs of my daughters—Anna Livia and Quentin. Every photograph just another failed attempt on my part to remain in their lives, to hold them and keep them here in the present of what my life has become. Over the years these photographs have taken on a life of their own, have in some ways become a cover story, the story that reminds me that I am a father, their father. The stories behind these photographs haunt me the way that fairy tales haunted me as a child. Stories nearly true enough. Stories on the brink of becoming real. The kinds of stories that open time and place. All those desires that begin with a whisper and a hope. A tiny voice. Once upon a time. And from this breath of story, I enter into believing as easily as if I had opened a door to another room. And together we fall down the rabbit hole.
One photograph of my tiny daughters—delicate in their bodies, their eyes, their hands—in particular haunts me. In this photograph I see what has become their always familiar, forever-lingering fear of abandonment, a fear written deep into Livia and Quentin’s eyes, a fear marking their fingers, fingers not able to stretch out far enough to come to me, their fingers reaching, trying to hold onto something already gone. They fear, they know, with all their hearts, that I am only here, now, for now, only returned for this one moment in order to once again leave. Be gone. To disappear into flight. To become only a voice carried over 2,500 miles of thin telephone lines. So they are learning to protect themselves. Their bodies have become defensive—rigid angles posed against tenderness, to prevent their hearts from opening. They guard themselves—bodies and hearts—hands rigid and still at their sides or fingers linked. They hold onto their breath. And they cannot look at me. At first glance it appears that they are simply shielding their eyes against the bright summer sun. But this is not so. They have lost the courage to look directly into the lens. They look away, away from me, away from here, as if they are seeking some other place that had been promised to them in a forgotten language. In nearly every photograph, Livia and Quentin wait inside this place.
If ever there existed an in-between world, a land not answerable to our laws of gravity and movement, Livia and Quentin inhabit it every time they see me once again for the very first time. Frozen by this neither here nor there moment, they linger with breath held. They wait just as they had been waiting before my arrival for my return. They know not to trust me. They know that even though I have just returned yet once again to Pittsburgh from California that in a week or so I will return to California away from Pittsburgh. The sole purpose for this arrival, of my stepping off the plane, is to make possible another departure. One evening while we are playing outside in my sister’s yard, an airplane flies overhead. Quentin will say, “I hate airplanes.” So my daughters cannot move when they first see me. Will not budge an inch. Not until they find enough courage to release themselves.
The photographs I take too often keep my daughters locked inside this gaze. They inhabit a stillness that holds them separated from the world of the living. A rigid protection against further disappointments. They remain frozen, tentative around the edges of the world of the living. My sister’s son Jack runs aimlessly through the house. Certain. Fearless. Bursting with speed and rambunctious joy, nearly dizzy with energy and trust. He squirms out of his father’s embrace with reckless abandon because he knows tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow he will be able to rest safely again in his father’s arms. He knows his father will hear him when he calls out. Jack does not fear giving himself over to dreams because he does not doubt that tomorrow he will wake up and again his father and his mother will be there waiting for him. Always. So he does not fear sleep. He is not afraid of what will happen while he is sleeping. In the morning, every morning, the world will be new for Jack again but it will, even in its newness, remain stable. Sure. Certain. Quentin and Livia become even more tentative as they near bedtime. My daughters are not so gentle in their sleep. Their blankets end up on the floor even in the cold of winter.
I hear Quentin’s voice. She has appeared beside the bed in my sister’s house where I am sleeping. Livia and Quentin walk hallways so quietly it is as if they have been condemned to always walk on tiptoes. They seem terrified of the possibility of something going wrong, of somehow being responsible for having disturbed the universe. Years ago, my son, Cory, lived trapped by this same fear, this same hesitation, but he has found his way through this uncertainty. And this gives me hope for Quentin and Livia.
On this morning, they keep their eyes averted. Afraid, knowing, that I am about to once again abandon them. No matter how many times, how often, I come home this coming home will only be another homecoming that will quickly lead to another abandonment. And I do. I mean I really do. I do. This time I am saying I do with a commitment that I will honor. And so I leave. This forever leave-taking is what I know I can give as my devotion, as my promise. It is what saying I do has come to mean to me. So, even before I have left, Livia and Quentin stay always already behind in this world of photographs. Taken and stored. Protected.
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