It was for my sake that my mothers ran away from Thebes. They didn’t want to have their child in a little town in the Catskills where things happened so slowly that people were still speaking French six generations after the first settlers arrived. By Thebes standards, my mothers were more like weather than like people: they changed fast, and they moved on. They took me to New York, where they were going to be famous artists, only they had no idea about money and knew how to do nothing, nothing. For a few scary years in the 1970s my mothers barely scraped by, she, waitressing, and she, clerking in a photo lab; she, selling ladies’ clothes, and she, waitressing; she, answering telephones for a Senegalese clairvoyant, and she, answering telephones for an Israeli dentist. The three of us, she, she, and me, lived in an apartment on West Ninety-eighth Street, with two tiny bedrooms, and a view, if you leaned dangerously far out the living-room window, of a blue-gray shard that was alleged to be the Hudson River.
Later, when they had real jobs and even health insurance, my mothers liked to tell stories about those years, to prove how tough we had all been and how close we’d come to not making it. There was the time, Celeste said, when she lit a fire in the ornamental fireplace, because the heat in the apartment was broken, and how was she supposed to know the chimney had been sealed since the nineteenth century? The apartment filled with smoke and the three of us were nearly evicted and if you lifted the living-room rug you could still see the burned boards where the fire had spread before the super put it out, using a blanket from my mothers’ bed, which was a technique for fire prevention that Celeste had never seen before. And the worst of it was, she said, that afterward the blanket was ruined, and she and her sister had to sleep in their coats.
“You slept in my coat,” Marie said, if she was present. “Your coat had those big horn buttons, remember? You said they dug into you?”
Celeste pretended to be perplexed. “But if I slept in your coat, what did you sleep in?”
“Sweaters, I guess.”
“Those were difficult times.”
There was something in Celeste’s voice, though, that made me think she missed those years, that in retrospect they seemed less difficult than the ones that came later. My mothers went to Hunter College; after they graduated Celeste got a job teaching art to middle-school students in the Bronx. Marie worked in the offices of semi-legitimate publications with names like California Lifestyle and Platonic Caves, typing, making copies, answering the telephone, always in a short skirt, which Celeste didn’t approve of, but Marie rebutted that she couldn’t type to save her life, and without the skirts she’d be back to working for the clairvoyant, who could, presumably, see up her skirt no matter how long it was.
In the evenings my mothers sat at their worktables in the living room, making their art. They knitted sweaters for monsters with wrong arms and extra heads; they stamped papier-mâché medallions of modern saints of their own invention; they mixed brightly colored fluids in the sink and bottled them in glass phials on which they pasted labels, Potion of Temporary Resistance to Temptation, Elixir of Getting That Opportunity Back, Low-Flying Potion, Potion for Those Afraid to Drink the Other Potions in This Collection. Celeste painted miniature landscapes in the manner of Hieronymus Bosch, in which the Upper West Side revealed its true, hellish character; Marie applied a Ouija board to a subway map and took photographs of the places the spirits told her to go. I loved the things they made, which was fortunate, because our apartment was becoming a museum of their work. The potions took up residence in the medicine cabinet; the demons capered over the nonworking fireplace. I found a three-armed sweater in my dresser, a joke, I think, but maybe not; the apartment wasn’t big and my mothers were always making.
They weren’t famous yet, but they had friends, and those friends had friends, who had taken steps in that direction. My mothers talked about them all the time, enthusiastically but not uncritically, as though they, my mothers, were commenting on a sport from which they themselves had retired some years before. From their conversation I got the impression that it wasn’t hard to become famous. One day a gallery owner came to visit, and the next you had a show; the critic from the Times praised your work even if he didn’t understand what it was about. Then collectors sought you out, and you had to be careful; it was important to turn away from the collectors and their vulgar need, to encapsulate yourself in solitude and silence, so that you could emerge a few years later with your mature work, which was extremely difficult and cut no deals with anybody. That’s when the museums took you on, and afterward things happened without you, international exhibitions, retrospectives, scholarly monographs; the secret nominators spoke your name in secret and you got the MacArthur genius grant and as to what happened after that, why, you could imagine it yourself.
With a mixture of excitement and dread—I wanted them to get their wish, but I didn’t know what would happen to me when they did—I pictured my mothers rising into the sky like two unwinking stars, possessed, finally, of all the solitude and silence they could ask for. Mostly it was a matter of not making mistakes along the way. Not like Leonora Kurtz, who worked with Marie, and had talent but listened to her boyfriend too much; not like Donatello DelAmbrosio, Celeste’s friend of the wonderful name, who needed to get out of the shadow of Fluxus. Not like Katy Gladwin, whose paintings were too theoretical, or Hugh Heap, whose string sculptures were cute but not really about anything, or Guy Anstine, whose white boxes were just white boxes, you’ve seen one you’ve seen a thousand. Not like Javier Provo whose murals were in a Warhol movie and who was becoming actually famous, but was nonetheless completely preoccupied with his own body image. My mothers would not make these mistakes. They were ready to go up; they were waiting in our apartment, waiting and making.
Maybe their potions weren’t strong enough, maybe the demons they compacted with turned out not to have the powers they, the demons, had promised, maybe their saints were spurious; the ascension my mothers were waiting for did not arrive. Of course we were still waiting for it. We would always be waiting for it, but by the time I was nine or ten years old, my mothers had begun to glance backward to those first years in New York when food was scarce and success certain.
“You remember the time we saw that rat?” Celeste asked Marie wistfully. “It was about four feet long, sitting on the kitchen windowsill?”
“I saw the rat,” Marie said. “I told you about it. You wouldn’t come and look.”
“There were a lot of rats on the Upper West Side back then. Do you remember?” she asked me.
“No,” I said. “I remember bugs, but no rats.”
“Ah, bugs,” said Celeste. “Those enormous roaches. I remember when I was taking a bath, and this roach fell into the tub. I’d never seen such an enormous cockroach.”
“I remember your scream,” Marie said. “I’d never heard such an enormous scream.”
“Those were difficult times,” Celeste said.
Celeste Marie, Marie Celeste. My low-flying stars.