The earth was hollow; we were on the inside of the earth. Our heads pointed downward and our feet rested on a thin concrete crust beyond which there was nothing but empty space. We looked for Celeste in this new upside-down world but it wasn’t really looking. Marie and I put up flyers alongside all the other flyers other people had put up, with a picture of Celeste from a trip she and my mother took to Greece a few years earlier: she’s sitting on a parapet, squinting at the sun which backlights the photographer. We gave DNA samples at the Family Assistance Center in the Lexington Avenue Armory: our bereaved cheeks were swabbed by a nervous kid who looked like he was about eighteen and had just been recruited from bagging groceries in the Midwest. We still jumped when the phone rang because we thought it might be her come back from some improbable story: a ferry, New Jersey, amnesia, anything. But it was never her and the most compelling sign that it was not her was, how many people called to share with us the burden of knowing that she was gone.
Here was Guy Anstine, a sculptor whose work Celeste had disparaged privately when I was a child, and even more later on, when he became famous—which led me to suspect that Celeste’s opinion of his work was refracted through the heavy medium of her own jealousy—anyway, here was Guy Anstine shouting at me, a person he barely knew, that this was an abomination, that the loss of my aunt was irrecuperable, and then practically in the same breath asking if my family was all right for money. Did I want him to organize a memorial fundraising auction? He thought it would be no problem to get work from Chuck Close, from Louise Bourgeois, artists whose names I knew from books and magazines in which my aunt had no place. In fact Celeste had complained about how the Times and Artforum ignored the women artists of her generation, and most of all how they ignored her. I misunderstood: I thought it meant that the arts reporters and editors of these magazines really had no idea who Celeste was, but it turned out that she knew most of them personally and some of them called the apartment to tell Marie how devastated they were by her death. So the crack in the sky which opened up on September 11 led not to a larger world but to a smaller one, in which what had seemed like huge distances turned out to be almost negligible gaps. Celeste was almost famous and Afghanistan was almost New York City, although I didn’t think of the parallel until later.
We had a memorial service for Celeste on October 4, in the upstairs gallery of a private arts club on Gramercy Park. Celeste would have scoffed at the setting: the flocked wallpaper, the oil portraits by members of the club of their wives en déshabille, but it was the only big space we—or rather Guy Anstine, who had taken charge of organizing the memorial with a self-assurance that I found paternalistic and irritating—could book on short notice. By the time Marie and I got there the room was already half-full of guests, and the signs of Guy’s organizational talent were everywhere: in the neat rows of tan folding chairs, in the pretty young ushers who handed us programs, in the ceramic urns full of flowering branches that flanked the lectern. Both Marie and I had decided to speak: I was near the beginning of the program and Marie was at the end. We sat in the front row and listened to the crowd come in. By the time the service started there must have been three hundred people in the room and, craning my head awkwardly around, I realized that I knew almost none of them. Young, old, white, black, Asian, Indian, their solemn unfamiliar faces spoke on the one hand of how well Celeste had been loved and on the other hand of how death and destruction had left in their wake an increased sense of ceremonial obligation, as though the calendar had been turned back a hundred years. Guy Anstine got up. He was lanky and stooped and had a long pointed nose and an underhung chin that made him look like a rodent. Reading from prepared remarks, he said, grandly, that Celeste had been one of the lights of a particular downtown scene in the 1970s and 80s. There was a strange push-and-pull in his words, as though on the one hand he was erecting a giant statue in honor of my aunt, and on the other hand he was trying to stuff her into a fishbowl. I thought of how Celeste had spoken of him: the white box guy, she called him. If the situation had been reversed and it was Guy whose nonexistent corpse we were mourning, I wondered whether a sensitive listener would have heard in my aunt’s remarks the same undertone of dismissal, the secret continuation of how Celeste had thought about Guy when he was alive. Was that always how mourning worked, I wondered: you let your real opinion of someone seep into the eulogy, until the two were thoroughly intermixed, at which point the person you were mourning became, for you, a little less real? I was still thinking about it when Guy coughed and shrugged and left the podium, and it was my turn to speak.
Like Guy I had prepared notes for my speech, and in fact I was planning, in my own way, to do more or less the same thing he had done. My notes described a loving, exacting Celeste whose ambition for me had been steep and sharp, much like her ambition for herself: aunt as mother, aunt as teacher. What was implicit in my speech, I realized, as I stood at the lectern, and three hundred strange faces waited for me to begin, was my sense that Celeste had not achieved as greatly as she wanted to, and that I hadn’t either, and that at some level I blamed the stern quality of her ambition for screwing both of us up. My kind tutelary Celeste was a balloon to be inflated with the gas—stored until now in the pressurized tank of my head—of my disappointment. And maybe that was mourning, maybe that was what mourning was, but I didn’t want to do it. I set my notes on the lectern and looked up at the crowd. “Celeste was a mother to me,” I said, “and I thought I knew her as well as I know anyone. But today, looking out at all of you, I wonder whether I knew anything about her at all. What is a person?” Then, seeing before me a kind of rabbit hole of unpremeditated thought into which I was about to fall, I said, “Thank you,” and sat down.
Marie squeezed my arm with unexpected strength. Other people stood up and spoke: the famous critic, L., who I’d met many years before, avoided what I was beginning to think of as the mourning trap by speaking about Celeste hardly at all: “Our presence here today,” she said, “must not be a closing of the ranks around a fallen comrade. We ought not to face each other and turn our backs on everyone else. When you leave this room I hope you all look outward, to understand what is happening in the rest of the world.” Her speech drew applause from the otherwise mostly quiet audience, which made me wonder if some people were there not because of Celeste but because of L., or out of general political conviction. Finally my mother spoke. She talked about the experience of being a twin: how it wasn’t really like having a sister so much as having a second self, a person you loved as yourself in a way that you could never actually love yourself. She talked about the interests she and Celeste had shared as children, in painting and poetry and photography, in folk music and sewing and collage. I had never thought of the interests she described as belonging to both my mothers: some of them were Marie’s and some of them were Celeste’s; but as I listened to my mother talk, the possibility that grief had caused her to confuse herself with her sister never entered my mind. She and Celeste had always been one, I felt, the way quaking aspens, apparently different entities, are really outgrowths of the same rhizome of roots. They were one person and the terrible consolation of this was that, even as Marie had died with Celeste, so Celeste was still alive in Marie.
No one who heard this speech was not weeping by the end of it, when Marie, dry-eyed herself, sat down, and I put my arm around her shoulders, pretending to comfort her but really hoping that she would comfort me. But she didn’t even look at me. Her eyes were fixed on the carpet; her shoulders were stiff; her speech seemed to have exhausted everything in her and her sister both, so that in order to continue being a person at all she would henceforth have to be someone new. Which in fact sort of turned out to be true, but I didn’t know it, I didn’t even think of it; I was standing next to my mother, encircled by well-wishers, people wiping their eyes and shaking my mother’s will-less hand, and saying again the kinds of warm improbable things I’d been hearing for weeks on the phone: Celeste was a great artist, Celeste would be missed, Celeste would be remembered. No one said anything to me but after my awkward non-speech I didn’t expect them to. It was only after the crowd had moved to the other room for wine and crackers and chunks of the arts club’s famous cheese ball, that a woman I had never seen before approached me.
“You’re wiser than I thought,” she said.
“Thanks,” I said, nonplussed.
“I’m Mara.” She held out her hand.
I took it. Mara was short, broad, with dull silver hair. She wore what looked to me like a mourning poncho and a necklace of irregular turquoises set in silver.
“How did you know Celeste?” I asked.
Mara winced. “I was her lover.”