Later on, I would be amazed by this. Not by the fact that Celeste had been in love with a woman, which was, in retrospect, not surprising at all, and which anyone else who spoke casually with her or even saw a photograph of her would probably have guessed right away, but the fact that she had been in love at all, that she had had a lover, that there had been this important part of her life about which she had told me absolutely nothing. I would be angry at Celeste for giving me only the abridged version of her life: why had she left so much out? First the secret, although it wasn’t a secret to anyone but me, that Celeste belonged to a world of artists, and then this other and in some ways even greater secret of Mara. Although at that point I would already know that Mara and art were not two distinct secrets. If Celeste had not been an artist she would never have met Mara and if she had not met Mara (this was Mara’s opinion) Celeste would have been a much lesser artist than she eventually turned out to be. And then I should say, as long as I am not leaving anything out, trying to not leave anything out, that the secret of Celeste’s sexuality did eventually bother me, not just because I felt stupid for not having guessed it, but because it made me wonder: was Celeste afraid to tell me that she was in love with a woman because she thought I wouldn’t be able to react properly? Or, and this is a more complicated thought which I should probably put off for elsewhere, but what the hell, I am thinking it now and the world might end tomorrow, or I might forget it, I’m no Proust to construct great designs and then spend years filling them in, secure in the thought that both I and the designs will exist years hence, anyway, what I am thinking is, was Celeste afraid to tell me about Mara because of the light it would have shed on her relationship with Marie? Was Celeste in love with her sister, was that why she wouldn’t let my mother (i.e., Marie) run away with Richard Ente? Do I have Celeste’s love and jealousy to thank for the death of my father? Oh goodness, that’s a tangled thought, and one which will make more sense in reference to the account of my time in Thebes. Backing up. Later (this is a different later: 2003, when I went to visit Mara in New Mexico) I confessed to Mara that I had been stung by Celeste’s secretiveness. If Celeste and Mara had been so happy together for so long, I said, angrily, why didn’t Celeste ever bother to tell me about it? I should do just the smallest amount of scene-setting here: Mara and I are sitting at the long dinner table of Mara’s house, in a desert suburb of Santa Fe. It’s winter and the house smells like piñon. We have both been drinking, but only I am drunk. There is a fire in the woodstove, cast-iron pots soak incorrectly in the sink, in short, everything speaks of peace and comfort and resourcefulness, of a lack of anguish about small things or large ones, and it’s this lack of anguish which sets me off. Mara should be more bereaved than I am; how is it that she’s not angry, not sad? How can she live alone in the desert and still be smooth and pink and content, when I, who bounce between cities, am hollow and utterly isolated? Why didn’t Celeste tell me? Mara listens and pats the table, as though to reassure it that I mean no harm. “Well,” she says, when I am finished, “if you wanted to know about Celeste’s life so much, how come you never asked her?” And I have no answer. The truth is, I found Celeste hard to get along with. I was often angry with her. When she was alive I would have liked to know less about her; sometimes I would have preferred (I thought, then) not to know her at all.
All of that was later on. In the moment I am trying to write about, the moment from which I keep slipping, Mara and I stood together for a moment in the awful arts club, eyeing each other like castaways on the same inhospitable island, wondering, at least I was wondering, whether we would cooperate or whether this would end with one of us cracking the other’s thighbone open and sucking out the hot marrow. I wouldn’t have bet on myself. Mara, I guessed, had been wrecked on islands like this one before.
“So,” I said, after a while, “are you an artist too?”
“Yes,” Mara said.
That was the end of our first conversation. There was a trailing silence, then, when it became clear to the onlookers, who I hadn’t even noticed looking on until that moment, anyway, when they figured out that neither of us had anything further to say and that we were probably hoping to be rescued from our encounter, or at least that Mara was hoping to be rescued, because, in fact, not one of them knew me or seemed to care how I felt, anyway, anyway, when the silence between us had gone on for a certain length of time, the magic bubble or whatever which had previously surrounded us burst, and Mara’s friends came rushing in, all arms and pats and red-rimmed eyes. A man in a green wool blazer mouthed nice speech at me but it was like he couldn’t summon up the conviction to say the words out loud. (At least that was what I thought at the time. Later, this is only a couple of months later, when Mara and I were talking about Celeste’s memorial exhibition, anyway, later, Mara would tell me that her friends all found me forbiddingly unhappy and didn’t speak to me because they were afraid to disturb the privacy of my grief.) I set my plastic cup of red wine next to the cheese ball and left Celeste’s memorial without even saying goodbye to my mother.