A few years ago, in the course of inviting people to contribute to Project:Object, a series of themed nonfiction narratives about people’s significant possessions, my longtime collaborator, the writer Rob Walker, and I repeatedly heard variations on the following excuse: “Sorry! I used to have an object that would have fit your project perfectly . . . but I lost it.”
We learned that very few of the lost items — a mullet wig, for example, not to mention a chestnut, a baseball mitt, and a tiny pickled octopus — were valuable in any monetary sense. Yet each object had left behind an unfillable hole in its ex-owner’s heart.
Everyone, we realized, “owns” a lost object they will never forget. Which led us to the realization that of all objects, a lost one may be the most significant kind.
Having persuaded 50 people to tell us stories about the things they’ve lost, we recruited artists to illustrate the missing objects. Here are three excerpts from the resulting book, “Lost Objects: 50 Stories About the Things We Miss & Why They Matter.”
Karma parka, written and illustrated by Alex Gerasev
This story begins in the winter of 1983, when I was 8 years old. The city I loved was still called Leningrad, and Russia was still part of the Soviet Union. At that time, most stores only carried Soviet-made products, which tended to be utilitarian and drab. But a few select people, because of their positions in government or business or by some stroke of luck, had access to vouchers for special stores that carried high-quality foreign-made items.
A contact of my father’s obtained some of those hard-to-get vouchers, which he sold to my parents for a high price. They used those vouchers to buy me a parka. It was an extravagant expense, deep black with a bright orange lining and countless pockets, and many sizes too large so that I could wear it for years to come. I loved that coat, not just because it was warm and made me feel like a cross between a military hero and a gangster but because I understood that my parents had used their good fortune to get something not for themselves but for me.
That spring, after watching one too many American Westerns, a friend and I decided to become bank robbers. We would practice in our neighborhood grocery store. My friend waited on his bike — our getaway vehicle — while I went in wearing my giant parka. The plan was for me to fill its many pockets with ice creams but only pay for one or two. We pictured ourselves distributing our bounty to friends and becoming neighborhood heroes. Of course, in the warmer weather my bulky coat was an easy giveaway, and the store clerk quickly recognized what I was up to. My friend abandoned me, and I was detained until my parents were summoned.
Each time I put on the parka after that, my shame felt fresh, yet I had no choice but to keep wearing it for as long as it fit, even after I became a teenager. It was years before I could face going back to that store. Sometimes, my guilt caused me to imagine I was being followed as I walked to school. But on the many days while I stood in line for bread in stores with shelves that might be empty, I would fantasize about what might have been if I hadn’t been caught.
One night, as I slept in our summer house, someone broke in and stole the coat. In one way, it was a relief, but it also made me sad. The coat had kept me warm through many winters and had also taught me a lesson about right and wrong. To this day, when I find myself considering doing something I might regret, I remember that beautiful parka and my parents’ sacrifice, and I feel a chill. At the same time, I can’t help but be a little mad at the store clerk who cut short my life of crime. I would have been good at being bad.
Alex Gerasev is an illustrator, painter, printmaker, and muralist who teaches illustration at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
Batman ring, written by Leah Hennessey and illustrated by Dean Haspiel
When I was finally starting to be cool (13-ish), my unofficial godmother used to invite me over to try on hand-me-downs. On one of these lucky visits I was sifting through a Lucite tray of costume jewelry and pairless earrings when I found a Batman ring: a dainty silver band with an inlaid logo of onyx-like plastic. It was the Batman symbol of my childhood, the “Batman: The Animated Series” / Michael Keaton Batman — a bonafide Bat Ring. There was no question of me not having it, it was nothing. I don’t think I dared express what a treasure this was for me, afraid I would alert its owner to its value.
I wore it as a wedding ring, and when people remarked on it, especially people who were boys, I always said, “Yes, I’m married to Batman.”
I loved the idea of Claddagh rings; the Irish heart-hands-crown ring that signified relationship status. Wearing the heart facing outward means you’re available. When your heart is captured, you turn the ring around. I wore a Claddagh ring at the time, but as my romantic entanglements became nebulous, I found its symbology too literal and revealing. The binary of taken / not taken was not adequate for my teenage heart, and I found myself fidgeting, turning it back and forth, unable to express myself in its language.
The Bat Ring, on the other hand, was eloquent. If my heart was to truly belong to someone, it would be a Batman, someone secret and unquestionably superlative. I was not available, but the entity to which I belonged was fictional. Maybe it meant that I was Batman. It was a subtle and silly signifier, but people understood. I felt that I was given the respect due to a favorite of a god, and I moved through Gotham under the protection of His Shadow.
Weirdly, as I got older, I found men seemed to react to the wedding ring more viscerally; a nervous twitch of a frown, a step back. They had, perhaps recently, finally come to terms with Not Being Batman, and it was not a failure of which they wished to be reminded.
As the Age of the Comic Book Movie reached its apogee, it became clear that allegiance to a superhero no longer signified any misfit otherness. There was no nerdiness or awkward childishness in wearing a Batman ring, and Batman himself was just one among an ever expanding pantheon. In true reactionary hipster fashion, I set aside the talisman into which I had invested so much libidinal energy, most likely in a box of broken and unfashionable doodads, and forgot about it.
For the past few years I’ve been sifting through catchalls and repurposed ashtrays, dissecting the tumbleweeds of hair and Philip K. Dick-ian kipple, searching for it. I have not made any lasting connections with a piece of jewelry in its absence.
Leah Victoria Hennessey is a writer, artist, and performer in New York City. She performs as a singer-songwriter under the name Hennessey.
Dean Haspiel is an Emmy Award-winning cartoonist and playwright.
Hunting hat, written by Stephen O’Connor and illustrated by Oliver Munday
When I was 7 years old, I was given a red hunting hat. It was made out of rough flannel and shaped like a baseball cap, although with a small band over the brim where the team logo would have been. I don’t know what the band was for, but I remember imagining a pack of cigarettes slipped behind it. I have a vague sense that the hat originally belonged to my mother, even though I can’t imagine her wearing such a thing except as a joke. I do know, however, that it fit my head as well as it did hers and so was evidence that I had reached a milestone on my journey to adulthood.
I loved that hat, partly because it was red, my favorite color at the time; partly because it looked like the hat worn by the boy on the cover of my “Peter and the Wolf” record album, and partly because that rough red flannel seemed consummately utilitarian and so decidedly unchildlike. I didn’t exactly feel capable of shooting a wolf when I wore it, but it did make me feel competent and powerful as I walked through the snowy woods around our house.
Only a few days after I got the hat, my family drove from our home in northern New Jersey to see friends in Westchester County, N.Y. There was no snow that day, and the weather was so warm we drove with the windows open. As we passed along the circular approach road to the Tappan Zee Bridge, my brother, who was two years my junior, asked if he could try on my hat. I didn’t want to give it to him, but my father told me I was being selfish, so I reluctantly passed it over.
I will never know what possessed my brother, but as soon as he had put on the hat, he stuck his head out the window and, in an instant, the hat was caught by the wind and flipped off. I flung myself against the rear windshield, where I watched the hat flutter through the air, roll over on the grass several times and finally settle in a ditch. I shouted to my father to stop the car, but he said it was too dangerous, and so I watched the hat grow smaller and smaller and finally disappear as we rounded the long arc of the approach road. I was riven with sorrow as I watched that hat recede — not just for my own sake but for the hat’s. I imagined it growing lonely and cold all by itself beside the noisy highway. I imagined rain falling on it, and snow. I was so overcome that even before the hat was out of sight, I began to cry.
Absurd as it might be, I feel that sorrow intensely to this very day. I am not sure why, but I think that the disappearance of my red hat gave me my first intimation that in this adult world into which I was growing, things I loved dearly would be taken away from me and I would never get them back — a lesson I have learned over and over since that time, of course, and it has never gotten any easier.
Stephen O’Connor is the author of six books, including his most recent novel, “Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings.” He teaches in the Sarah Lawrence MFA writing program.
Oliver Munday is the author of “Don’t Sleep: The Urgent Messages of Oliver Munday” and is the design director of The Atlantic.
Join Joshua Glenn and Boston-area contributors on Sept. 23 at Brookline Booksmith for a launch event. Got a lost object story of your own? Share it via Instagram: @lostobjectsbook.