Omega Constellation

Unwinding what I lost

Alexander Chee
"Omega Parts" by JingKe888 adapted and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Objects of Desire is a new column in which we invite a writer to meditate on an everyday item that haunts them.

A few months after my father’s death in 1983, my mother sat down with me and drew out a watch I had never seen before. She told me the watch had belonged to my father, but I had only seen him wearing a Rolex divers’ watch.

My father was an actual scuba diver, unlike so many who wear that style of watch. In the years after the car accident that would eventually take his life, he’d ask about it every so often, pointing to his bare wrist, until a friend gave him the watch off his own wrist, an Omega with a navy-blue fabric band, which my mother later gave to my younger brother. My father missed his Rolex, which my mother believed had been stolen off his wrist by the policeman who first found him in the wreckage. A cop, it seemed to me, who didn’t believe he’d survive. The driver of the car, although injured less seriously, had died.

The watch my mother put on my wrist is an Omega Constellation, stainless steel, self-winding, made in 1967, the year of my birth. On the back of the watch face is embossed an observatory with a few stars enclosed in a circle, and it presses, when worn, against the wearer’s wrist. The watch is self-winding and needs to be worn to stay wound—I still remember when I put it on and it began to tick again, as if I had brought it back to life. The wearer’s life and the watch’s life linked this way.

My mother said this watch was a gift from my grandfather on the occasion of my birth, honoring my father for giving him his first grandson and the first male descendant in my generation, the forty-second of the family line. For a traditional Korean family like mine living in Korea after the end of the Japanese occupation, this was important, an event to commemorate.

The watch is self-winding and needs to be worn to stay wound.

I was a teenager and had only owned Swatches with plastic bands. The Omega Constellation band felt almost woven against my skin, oddly silky—a design known as the rice bead bracelet. It was sized to my father’s wrist, and so, much wider than mine, it slid around on my arm like a bangle, which I liked. The way the watch would appear and vanish into my sleeves felt effeminate, even flamboyant. The band size reminded me of my tae kwon do champion father’s powerful wrists. And so I never changed it because it reminded me of him.

In the first decades I owned it, I wanted to own it forever. To be buried with it. As an experiment, the first short story I wrote had a character who wore a watch like this—a young woman who drops it into the ocean to say goodbye to her father, a gesture of letting go and a private memorializing of him. It never once occurred to me that I would ever let it go, much less lose it. And then one day it went missing, and I have never found it again.

The watch’s band had begun to snag, and so I wore it less and less, putting it in the drawers of different desks for safekeeping. I told myself I’d hidden it in my husband’s apartment in New York in 2011, when we had a party there early in our relationship. But I never found it there. When a storage space in Massachusetts sold the contents of my unit in 2012 after a bill payment went missing, I wondered if I had left the watch in the stainless steel teacher’s desk that had been in that storage unit. When we moved to Vermont in 2016, I searched for it in all the little containers of precious things that were so much less precious than the watch and yet had not been lost. It was not there.

Eventually, I stopped actively searching for the watch. Every now and then I tear everything apart and yet still don’t find it. This has gone on for over twelve years now. I feel the failure of having lost something that was once animated by my father’s movements and then by mine—the break in what should have been an unbroken connection.

Last year I decided I would replace the watch. I was grown. I could afford this watch—it is prized by certain collectors but is not a particularly expensive model. I learned the different terms for the watch’s features as I searched online again and again for the one I felt was right. I examined photos of myself wearing the watch to fact-check my sense of it. The rice bead bracelet, the pie-pan face, the numbers in a tiny window on that same face for the days of the month. And then I found one, exactly the same, I told myself and, after hesitating, bought it. The watch lingered in a kind of twilight in shipping until I paid some unanticipated taxes, and then it was delivered.

It came in a red fabric case. I opened it and put it on. The band barely closed around my now-middle-aged wrist, and as the second hand sprang back to life, I smiled at my own hubris.

The next task is quite simple, really. I must get a new bracelet band for the watch if I want it to slide around the way it once did. The watch sits on my desk as I write this, the pearl-like gleam of the face and the steel glowing softly in the bright sun. A beautiful changeling. And yet I know wearing it won’t be more than a performance of a kind, even though it is a beautiful watch.

The band barely closed around my now-middle-aged wrist, and as the second hand sprang back to life, I smiled at my own hubris.

Some part of me thinks that after I get the band replaced, I will find the original watch somewhere. That it is a sympathetic magic spell I need to cast. And that this will dislodge it from within the apartment. In some corner of a desk that I haven’t searched. I tried again just this last weekend, letting myself explore the contents of one drawer.

I haven’t yet asked a psychic or a mudang, a Korean shaman, about where it is, and on the visits I have made to mudangs, I have never been chastised for losing the watch—a clue that it is perhaps still in my home. I haven’t yet scoured the pawnshops and vintage stores in Amherst, either. There is also always the chance that the watch is on the wrist of whoever bought my old teacher’s desk at auction back in 2012—if it was in that drawer. I imagine sitting across from them at a bar and comparing notes, me trying to buy it off them on the spot. Perhaps, if on our deaths we receive the knowledge of that which was denied us in this life, I will finally find out where it went. Meet the person who stole it, if it was stolen. Experience the reproof of my father’s and grandfather’s spirits.

Until then, the real story of the watch continues, somewhere I can’t see, won’t ever see, until I do.

Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night and the essay collection How To Write An Autobiographical Novel. He is a full professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College.
Originally published:
April 10, 2024


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