It was a practice of Celine’s to steer clear of the folksy playhouse on Claremont’s main drag, a few short blocks that served the neighborhood. The community theater was tucked into the basement of the local cineplex, some oddity of leasing, possibly a tax incentive. The company’s motto was “simple storytelling at the forefront,” which was code for “no production budget.” Its only redeeming quality was that at least tickets were priced accordingly. It cost Celine enough dignity to attend—it need not also bankrupt her.
Tonight—feeling like Big Bird, as she often did, feeling eight-foot-two, ungainly, and bright yellow with tufty hair, a slender neck, and sleepy eyes—Celine approached the creeping box office kiosk line, flowers in hand. They were wilting; even the pockets of shade were hot.
Celine had puttered in from her perch up Telegraph Canyon, in the Oakland-Berkeley suburbs, where she had resided since having relocated from the city center back in 2002. Rich in wildlife, quiet streets, easy parking, well-lit sidewalks she could amble alone at night. So what if it wasn’t Upper Rockridge, with its winding footpaths, or the sweeping view from the hill covering Lyon Street to Divisadero?
Celine had sought to escape the fray, to venture outside the nucleus. She wanted to ease off the pressure to participate. She had never wanted to speak for the world. But this relocation to the suburbs had gradually stoked in Celine the spark of her greatest fear: that she was becoming conventional. But she loved her scraggly little misshapen cottage, something out of a fairy tale, with its tunnel-like proportions, its mismatched styles, rustic then Bohemian, asymmetrical, wearing an unbalanced hat of a chimney. Even the floors were uneven.
Around Celine now, a clump of grad students Sadie’s age milled about. They looked spirited and intelligent, Millennials maturing. She knew their type (they took her class). Drinking cans of something called Yesfolk and reading magazines called Kinfolk and banking with Everence and buying loafers from Everlane. Carrying unmarked leather tote bags in neutral tones, unmarked, unbranded. Sometimes Celine wondered, what did they stand for?
She was grateful for students—even if whenever she thought of her own, she felt a low-level sense of duties left undone. Things had changed around Berkeley. Celine had arrived in 1992, when Berkeley’s Naked Guy was still wandering campus in the buff (but for shoes and his house key hung around his neck), and staging nude sit-ins. Celine didn’t participate, nor did she mind. But by the following year, he had been expelled after a handful of female students alleged this amounted to sexual harassment. He’d killed himself in 2006 in the Santa Clarita jail, awaiting trial on charges of battery and assault.
Picketers across the street from the theater were chanting in protest of the FEMA-funded clearing of eucalyptus trees in Claremont Canyon. These days, what wasn’t endangered?
Community action in Berkeley was so passionately and earnestly undertaken that activists had a tendency to lose perspective and position the prosperity or decline of native plants—or whether the Thomas and Louise Hicks House should get historic designation—on the same level of importance as the city’s rampant homelessness. Everyone always wanted Celine to be an activist. She refused to be so reduced. This made people mad.
At the box office, the young kiosk staffer, a cute girl with thumbprinted eyeglasses, seemed to recognize Celine. “Celine McKeogh. Your ticket is comped.”
Celine ran a hand through her static hair, wavy and woolly as a poodle’s. Even twenty years on, it was still a boon to be recognized. From behind the glassed-in desk, the girl tapped the sealed envelope: rat-a-tat. “You wrote The Body Borne.”
All day, Celine fell in love with women. The girl was cute, no doubt about it. But too young, a student, a child. Celine prided herself on never having been pinioned into the bait-and-lure trap of such a multitude of mediocre men before her—Humbert Humbert’s trip of the tongue as he savored his young lover’s name. Still, she would have stayed and flirted, if not for fear that there would be hell to pay with Sadie. Sadie came first.
Celine pushed open the heavy entrance door. She looked longingly at the latest Fast and the Furious film, wishing she could pick up some popcorn and jujubes and settle in for a real show. No such luck. Due to maintenance, escalators were not running. Celine—trapped behind a slow-moving old lady in a hemp scarf and chiropractic-support Mary Janes—was routed upstairs and down, and down a second set of stairs to a shrunken theater in the deep basement.
The show had not begun. Celine shimmied down the aisle, stepping over a few handbag straps and displacing someone’s aluminum water bottle, which clacked down two sloping ramps and had to be passed back by a pickled old codger. “Scuse me kindly,” Celine said to assuage him, peeling off layers of clothing as she went. Her uniform: a tank top under a T-shirt under a button-down. High-top sneakers. She never deviated. It was part indecision and part unwillingness to consult the daily weather forecast. It was more than halfway unreliable anyway, in the Bay.
She located her seat and concealed the tasteful bouquet beneath. Sadie had brought the flowers by that afternoon, rushing off toward her mysterious destination. Sadie had summoned Celine to the theater but would not reveal a thing about where she was going. Sadie did not explain herself. That was not her way.
At the last moment, pleased with herself, struck by a stroke of inspiration, Celine remembered a shopping bag she had been saving, with ribbon handles, and tied one on. Then she’d gotten ready, slashing at her stupid hair with a comb. Her hair was a preoccupation. It never sat right.
It had been nice to see Sadie, even for all of forty-five seconds. She had looked like a bisque porcelain doll—her skin always took on a silky luster in the heat. Celine felt Sadie, flesh of her flesh, like something amputated. She always had, since the separation of birth, as something severed from her body. A part of her. When Sadie had moved out of the house and across town, Celine had tangled with awareness of the proximity. A mother could feel her baby in the next room.
Sadie was Celine’s anchor. She made Celine feel happy, weighted with history. To Celine, Sadie was home.
Were flowers for closing night? Maybe they were bad luck, an extension of the dramaturge’s omen that “Good luck” would yield its opposite. “Break a leg” meant you wouldn’t.
Good, then. Celine would keep the bouquet for herself. It was a nice bouquet her daughter had put together.
The truth was Celine was baffled by her daughter and a little afraid of her. Sadie put the fear of God in Celine—no one else did. Celine was proud to have raised a strong woman. Nevertheless, it could make life difficult. Sadie could be temperamental, flaring up, then with a superior pivot—a pirouette on the head of a dime— default back to implacable serenity. As a child, Sadie had micromanaged her ant farm.
Tonight’s request had taken audacity. Sadie could effortlessly have attended the play. North Berkeley not so far, a fifteen-minute jaunt if you drove. And less than thirty by public transport. Why, then, send Celine? It became apparent that Sadie was withholding regarding her romantic life. That much Celine knew. The only thing she did not know was why. Sadie got like this, hermetic. She had allowed only, “It’s important that I spend this weekend with Cormac. I can’t explain why.”
Cormac was an okay guy, decent, Celine thought, adding to herself cynically: if your standards were low. Sadie said he was a beekeeper and a bicycle repairman and knew about computers. Celine herself, as his professor, had seen him twice a week for months. He was tall as a pine and dressed like a Jeopardy! contestant. He was like plankton, she had told Sadie, overstating the case to see if she would defend him. He wasn’t hurting anybody. All to say, he did not deserve Sadie.
Shortly after Celine had given Sadie the green light earlier that afternoon, a bright text had appeared from an unknown number.
Dear lovely Celine, I’m so glad you’re coming to the show tonight!
Words candied with affection. The text closed with more Xs than Celine cared to count. Sadie had shared her number. Celine had closed her phone without responding to Alice.
She had known Alice what, now? Say eight years? Since she was a young teenager, flat-ironed and velour-clad, legs studded with bug bites from summer camp, and yet also anatomically faultless, as young girls tended to be. A tawny brunette with a foggy beauty that had gradually rolled sharply into focus. Those freckles all over her face like a painter’s final flourish, a flamboyant finishing touch. And her eyes: huge discs, precisely circular with smooth edges, saucers that seemed to engulf anything they set upon.
Alice flopped casually around the house (though Celine had noticed she always tidied herself and straightened when Celine came into the room)—nothing like Sadie, with her majestic composure. Sadie was imperiously beautiful in a way that someone uninspired would consider plain or unremarkable. Sadie’s hair had a metallic sheen, the color of terra-cotta. Cheekbones so defined that Celine had always wondered if they hurt. She favored a high waist, even occasionally empire, whether it was skinny jeans or a bikini bottom. Alice’s presence, and attire, were softer, looser. She was to everyone’s taste.
Sadie was so discriminating in all things that for years Celine had searched to perceive what was unparalleled in Alice. She hadn’t found it yet; besides that she had stayed bonded to Sadie with an almost duty-bound sense, Celine detected a certain slavish quality in Alice that she did not think was healthy for her daughter. Alice was from an utterly banal, tedious, salmon-pink East Coast background, her family among the enduring 1 percent.
The only thing Celine did welcome: Alice had consumed Celine’s book, which her own hypercritical daughter hadn’t. Thank God there was someone around the house who appreciated her.
“How about the pages on rape and infantilization, Alice?” Celine had asked once, meeting the girl in the hallway on her way to the kitchen. Celine had recently been criticized by some starchy blog. It was a minefield if one wasn’t current on that week’s values. Like the Soviet purge trials, one week someone like Celine was a hero in the court of Literary Twitter, the next a traitor. The internet was where the active mind went to die. “Do you think that disaggregating the clusters by gender was incautious?”
Alice had blushed, a pretty hint of pink. “Can you give me twenty-four hours on that?”
This made Celine laugh. And she was touched when, amid her morass of misunderstanding, Alice had even picked up on Celine’s adoption of certain words for her own use in a chapter on the semantic derogation in Jacobean-era texts. This happened to be one of the author’s personal favorite subtleties. Not unintelligent, then. No one had ever pointed that out before. Occasionally, Celine had probably teased Alice a little. Celine couldn’t quite remember, but then she must have, as was her habit with pretty girls.
There was a bleary sound, now, as a mousy house manager tapped the microphone. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.” Celine waited. The mic squealed like a piglet, then quieted. “Welcome to the Brackendale production of The Winter’s Tale. Thank you for your patience. The show will begin shortly. This would be a good time to silence your cell phones.”
Celine turned on her phone to check the time. Late.
She was ravenous. Celine was an impatient chef, slicing when she was supposed to chop, chopping when she was supposed to mince. For this reason, she lived on sashimi from Quan Sushi. Uni, downed with an ungodly heap of wasabi, was her lifeblood. Kept her young. Before the show, she had called down to Quan. They were used to her order: five pieces uni, seven servings wasabi. But, annoyingly, they were closed tonight for renovations.
She had barely had a hot meal since Sadie had lived at home. Sadie had used to prepare bone broth and poke, nourishments labeled biodiverse and biodynamic, that Celine was happy to eat but did not understand. If Alice was over, Sadie would double the portions and disappear down the hall with her pretty friend and two thirds of the meal. They came out in pajamas, with their hair freshly and intricately braided, eerily silent as they rinsed their empty plates. “How’s it going?” Celine might ask, hands jammed in pockets. “Fine,” Sadie would say, the ash-gray cat fastened to her side, Alice just smiling, a ballerina bun at the tip-top of her head—as if responsible for keeping the whole thing upright, imparting the sense that without it she would lose her equilibrium.
Celine wondered if Alice, so quiet but with that sway in her step, judged their humble home. The moment Celine turned her back, they would explode into laughter, giggles hitched to no intelligible joke. Those two always seemed to conspire, sharing some covert secret they were shutting Celine out of. Probably Sadie had told Alice the same thing: “It would mean a lot to my mother to go.” Celine loved being Sadie’s mother but hated being someone’s doting mom. The show had not begun. The teenager to Celine’s left slouched halfway over the armrest. Celine’s sense of indignation pulsed. Only because she was a woman. He wouldn’t do that to a man. Just when Celine was thinking she might even leave, to hell with it—she was impatient, despite being herself often late—the room dimmed. Stage lights rose.
The production had taken liberties. The fable-like tale of sixteen years of family tragedy, jealous patriarchal delusions, and deceitful accusal—with a superficial and abrupt tacked-on happy ending— had been transposed to an unspecified metallic future, Bohemia dropped onto New York City’s silvery, geometric boroughs. The first lines were pronounced, the show promising to be the slog Celine imagined it would, and then it was time for Hermione’s entrance.
Alice strutted out, taking her place under the set’s starry glow. Celine had never been able to see Alice before. Standing hip-to-hip with Sadie, as they always were, they were like one unit, inseparable into parts. Alice was a silver-lined silhouette in dust-blue jeans that hugged her close. Celine leaned forward in her seat. Immediately, a hazardous feeling. Deep in her blood, she felt something stir, almost like dirt.
“I do feel it gone but know not how it went.” Alice’s lips landed together after she spoke, like butterfly wings.
Those dust-colored jeans were evocative for Celine. They were Jordache, were Sergio Valente’s longhorn label, the iconic H.I.S. jeans ad. Were the model in heeled boots, with her leg hiked up onto a bistro chair, the brand’s lettermark embroidered onto the back pocket. They were Nastassja Kinski and Monica Bellucci. Now were Alice. It was as though Celine had never laid eyes on her.
“I never wished to see you sorry,” Hermione says. The words rang out like vengeance, despite only being the bare fact of premonition. “Now I trust I shall.”
So this was what Sadie had been hiding, stashed in her room.
From Alice Sadie Celine by Sarah Blakley-Cartwright. Used with permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2023 by Sarah Blakley-Cartwright.