“Obsessed!” —Chloë Sevigny “I am literally obsessed.” —Busy Philipps
Hailed as “richly intimate” and “wickedly delightful” (The New York Times Book Review), this steamy and incisive debut adult novel follows one woman’s affair with her daughter’s best friend, testing the limits of love and ambition.
It’s opening night, but Alice’s performance in the local Bay Area production of The Winter’s Tale is far from glamorous. She doesn’t have dreams of stardom, but the basement theater in a wildfire-choked town isn’t exactly what she envisioned for her career back home in Los Angeles. To make matters worse, her best friend Sadie is not even coming.
Pragmatic, serious Sadie and flighty, creative Alice have been best friends since high school—really one another’s only friends—but now that they are through with college (which they attended together) and living on opposite ends of California, Alice would at least expect her friend’s support. Sadie, determined not to cancel her plans with her boyfriend, ends up enlisting the help of her mother, Celine.
A professor of women’s and gender studies at UC Berkeley, Celine’s landmark treatise on sex and identity made her notorious, but she’s struggling to write her new book in a post-second-wave feminist world. So, when Sadie begs her to attend Alice’s play, she relents, if only to escape writer’s block. But in a turn of perplexing events, Celine becomes entranced by Alice’s performance and realizes that her daughter’s once lanky, slightly annoying best friend is now an irresistible young woman.
Set over the course of decades—from Alice and Sadie’s early friendship days and Celine’s decision to leave her husband to the radical movements of 1990s Berkeley and navigating contemporary Hollywood—Alice and Celine’s affair will test the limits of their love for Sadie and their own beliefs of power, agency, and feminism. Witty and relatable, sexy and surprising, Sarah Blakley-Cartwright’s debut adult novel is a mesmerizing portrait of the inner lives of three very different women.
Chapter One: Alice Chapter One ALICE FRIDAY
Opening night and, as soon as they could get Leontes’s detachable sleeves Velcroed on—the adhesive tape was moist and mucky in the record June heat, not sticking to the tunic—the show would begin. The sun had risen each day that week angry and blinking, baking the asphalt. Alice, sweltering, was tucked away backstage, hidden in the narrow wings.
Sadie had once observed that Alice’s favorite part of acting was disappearing. Alice couldn’t deny this was true. This may have been why she loved coming in with clean hair and knowing someone else would take care of the rest. She would be provided the exact words to speak, down to the punctuation, and directed where to stand. Told which shoes to wear to become queen of Sicily. Alice liked to place herself in others’ hands. She liked how easy it was to slip into another life.
And slip into another life she had. A year and a half ago, ditching the Bay Area—and her family, and her best friend—for Hollywood, to pursue stardust dreams she was scarcely sure she had.
It had all started in second grade, when Alice had auditioned for the school play, Under the Sea, and landed a role! She’d played a cold-water sea urchin who lived in the Shallows, the underworld of King Neptune’s marvelous kingdom. It was considered an undesireable bit part. Alice couldn’t sit down or pee. All the classmates, mermaids and starfish, shunned the monstrous urchin. Alice had one line she did not understand, about being turned into uni. Still, having been cast, in a role, to her, life could not be improved upon.
Now, in L.A., things were more complicated. Staring down the nothing, the zero, the black hole, the unmanifest, the 100-percent-pure potential, the no-thing. Submitting headshots online, not even landing auditions.
But Alice’s mind was peaceful. She was inclined toward the world, and liked participating with it, even if that meant auditioning for a role and being rejected. She had what she realized so many actors lacked. She believed she had a right to be in the room.
Evenings, she worked at the lustrous lobby restaurant of a radiantly white beachside luxury hotel, where $500 a night meant rattan everything, soft-grid cotton blankets in organic shades, and buckets of seashells under museum lighting.
She worked downstairs, in the more casual, beach-level dining hall—Pico Boulevard sloped as it dropped to the shore. Elevators opened straight onto the dining room, out of which merry children poured with harassed nannies. The skinny silver flower vases were always tipping over, the paper teapot handle covers always slipping off. But the job supplied Alice with a chance to be her most refined self. She switched on the waitress role, maintaining a straight face as she logged infants’ orders for Pellegrino, circling back to inquire apologetically whether Perrier would suffice. The nannies nodded, catching her eye. She was glad they did not know she, too, came from a modest dynasty.
Though she didn’t need to, Alice always had a job, whether or not she was suited for them. During school, she had worked retail, at a boutique first, then a cruelty-free “skin hair and body formulations” shop, but had been rightly suspected by the manager of extending most patrons her employee discount after failing to ring up every fourth item. What could Alice say? She was a giver. It was just her nature.
And last month, she had put her waitress role on hold to return to the sweltering East Bay for rehearsals and for the show tonight—to the Brackendale, a pocket-sized community playhouse. The theater was in the basement of a large, underused movieplex—the kind that were vanishing everywhere, with the advent of streaming, on their last legs—elaborate with elevators. Audience members occasionally overheard a burst of volume, the action upstairs, giving the quieter live plays downstairs the feeling of a second-tier show.
The theater was located, providentially, not ten minutes from the childhood home of her best friend, Sadie. And yet, stunningly, Sadie had bailed on attending, with the excuse of a prebooked trip with her boyfriend. Alice felt sure she was being punished. Sadie had never forgiven Alice for moving to L.A. “Doesn’t it bother you, to be a make-believe person?” she had inquired when Alice planned to pursue acting. Los Angeles was a place where Sadie, with all her managing, counseling, and advocating, wasn’t. A place where Alice could reinvent herself. Not that she would. Just that she… could.
Perhaps for the best Sadie wasn’t here. Tonight’s show was off to an unsound start—Archidamus’s microphone level was set to a higher input than Camillo’s, so his voice thundered and boomed. Alice was aware of the sound operator taking penitent notes beside her; he’d have to recalibrate the mics’ volumes.
Rehearsals were one thing, but it was different tonight, the proceedings activated by the presence of the audience. There were particulars Alice hadn’t noticed before. The curtains were cheaply made: by no means velvet, not even velour. The sound operator had been munching Pringles before showtime and the can stood upright on the audio monitor beneath the call-board. His breath smelled of sour cream and onion. It was so hot the windows of the theater could fold and melt. Pity the audience. Alice hoped they’d be able to forgive it.
“Pardon,” a stagehand tech whispered, scooting past with a rack of polyester-fleece prop sheep.
Every mistake that night counted; any extension of the show’s three-week run would be provisional. Truth be told, there were still eight or ten lines in the play that Alice did not understand. She did not have the Folger edition many of her castmates had fluffed up with sticky tags. The edition gave a synopsis of every scene. Alice did not want to look as if she needed footnotes to digest something so handily absorbed that the entire audience broke into merriment before Leontes was even through with the line.
Why Alice didn’t just SparkNotes them she could not say. Hermione’s lines of dialogue were straightforward enough. That was the benefit of playing an openhanded character. No machinations, no dissembling wordplay, no complex, conflicting motivations.
Goodness was clear. Decency made sense.
Alice readied herself, positioning her velvet bodice with voluminous sleeves tight over her jeans. If the small details were sound, the rest would follow. She tried to summon regality. At her cue, she took a steadying breath and her place at center stage, beside her wrathful, insecure, and tyrannical husband. Hot, hot, the lights were. She felt her freckles flush. Her face, really: every inch was blanketed with them. Back one middle-school summer, at Fernwood summer camp, a hardy, indelicate girl—probably sensing the effect Alice had already even then over the male gender in general and specifically the one male she coveted—had accosted Alice in the dining hall, waving a napkin: “Oops. I thought you had mud on your face. I guess it’s just your freckles.” Mean, mean, girls were mean.
As a teenager Alice’s face had resolved into beauty—like a camera brought into focus. And Alice’s fate was set. Her fate: to be exquisite. Alice knew it, couldn’t help knowing—even as she knew it would have benefited her not to know. An innocence impossible to retain when she saw the facts plastered across the face of every person whose eyes she met.
A handful of lines later, Alice moved downstage left, to lay her hand on Polixenes’s elegant, ornamented arm, radiating heat under the embellishments. She squinted out at the shifting audience—only forty people, though it looked like an ocean. She was scanning for her best friend’s mother, who had come in her stead. Or who was supposed to have—though Alice had comped her ticket, she knew she was liable not to show.
As a renowned feminist, Celine was a woman who defined what women were. Gender was a construct, she alleged, smiling lopsidedly, daring someone to hold her to account. Bio-sex meant nothing. Simple as that.
Alice was surprised that someone who wrote about women’s solidarity could have such a complicated relationship with her own daughter. Sadie had shrugged when first introducing Alice to her mother. “Sometimes moms have charisma and sometimes they don’t.” Alice hadn’t known they could.
Tonight, Alice knew Celine would report back to Sadie. Sanford Meisner could be there, and his opinion would matter less.
Alice stammered, “I had thought, sir, to have held my peace…” But before her character could even get through her line, she was being hauled off for sins she had not committed. The play was a tragicomedy and Alice felt unsteadied by the shifts in tone, finding them difficult to track.
“Away with her!” Leontes shouted, in the low growl he had cultivated over the prior week of rehearsals. He paused for audience reaction. The king, undone by his mania, exiles his one true ally: “To prison! He who shall speak for her is afar off guilty but that he speaks.” This spoken more limply than in the prior four days of rehearsals, when he had still been full of freshly cast bravado, and before the heat wave had hit like an anvil.
Alice was always surprised at the ease with which acting came to her. She did not want to be a movie star. Really, she didn’t. She just wanted to stretch her sense of self. She wanted to get to know other people, within the comfort of her own person. The only hiccup was that, as Alice understood it, genuine artistic expression required suffering. “Raise the stakes,” Alice’s teacher had advised. This, Alice was not sure how to do. She had never, as a rule, sought out suffering, never been attracted to it.
“You gods,” Alice pleaded, as Hermione. Pregnant and powerless, she is imprisoned for a crime she has not committed. Another actress might lose patience with the character’s abiding, saintlike composure.
Before Alice knew it, her character had died of grief, then revived, and reunited with her daughter, her husband’s allegations having been proven unfounded. Alice wondered if, out in the audience, Celine was thinking of Sadie. Alice hurtled through the final scene, then the stage lights bumped off, a zero-count fade to black. Then the lights were up again for curtain call.
Bowing blindly, Alice’s eyes swept over the audience. There she was. Once you caught sight of her, it was hard to see anyone else. That slow, rebel grin, lopsided, kind of cowboy. Her effortless lean, inclining from her waist, still slender at forty-seven, her hair tightly curled and slightly ragged. Scowling and alone, she remained seated. In an unfriendly mood, then. Celine.
She was a big-league lesbian, a patron saint of the case for social construction. Celine was as close as a sex critic came to a household name. Rumor had it that she had once been piloting a one-seater plane when it crashed into Buchanan Field, and waltzed away from the wreckage without a scratch.
As a child, Alice’s favorite cartoon character was the Brain, a mouse scientist with a bulbous noggin to accommodate his outsized brain. That was what she thought smart looked like. Now she thought it looked like Celine. Celine looked like she had spent time at distant, clandestine coral-sand beaches, like she had just sauntered in from a day in the sun. She made it appear effortless, to change the world.
In the theater lobby, the king was encircled and laureled. Alice struggled through the clamorous crowd, in heat so sultry it could burst a ripe fruit. The air wavered. There was the stage manager, Darius, who during rehearsals had begun steering Alice, only Alice, into position onstage with his arm encircling her waist. She knew he wanted something from her. If she had not relocated down to Los Angeles, she might have tried to figure out what.
Alice’s eye found her. Celine loitered in the dim light of a portico under the exit sign, her hair aflame, perfectly backlit by the white LED signage. She was leaning casually against a column, her set brow keenly directed at the greenroom outlet, not knowing that Alice would come out the opposite side. Celine was leggy, five-eleven, with well-built shoulders. She struck Alice as solid, durable as a mountain. Mother and daughter bore little resemblance, except when they crossed swords. In those moments, you could mistake one voice for the other.
Alice waved like a windshield wiper, but Celine didn’t see. Alice shouldered through the crowd, sidestepping a few well-wishers. She cleared her throat to attract Celine’s attention. She wiped her forehead.
Celine turned left, straightened, and patted her pockets. She had a particularly masculine way of inhabiting a space. A demonic, flaring hank of orange hair tumbled over her forehead.
Her words cut through the thickness of the air: “There you are, hey-hi.” Her voice was scratchy over the rising noise and she smelled spicy, like men’s red deodorant. Just like Sadie’s, her skin glowed, lunar. “Didn’t see you come out.”
They moved together toward the dormant concession area. It smelled of the coffee that had been poured out after intermission.
That askew mouth, tilting when Celine smiled. “In Shakespeare, the women reliably—” And she made a casual noose gesture over her neck.
A dark and glossy bouquet of exotic flowers, tied oddly with a raggedy ribbon, hung limp at her side, as though she were trying to keep it from Alice’s line of sight. Here’s flowers for you was a line in the play. Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram, the marigold. What was hot lavender? Alice liked the sound of it. Celine tucked the bouquet behind her further. “Sadie insisted I come.” The words seemed prickly on her tongue.
Alice would not let this get to her. This was no slap in the face. It was just Celine, waiting for this little ceremony to run its course. Alice was habituated to Celine’s oddity of manner. And yet, for her uniform lack of social grace, Celine felt uncomplicated to Alice. She was just the way she was. Alice vowed not to let this diminish her.
As a teenager, Alice had come across a feature spread promoting self-confidence in a monthly magazine. A sunny-haired girl perched on the front stoop of a brownstone, smiling hugely with her teeth. So unlike the mean models you usually saw, with drawn faces and drained bodies.
Alice had decided, in that moment, that happy people were beautiful. Much of her fate seemed to have been decided just then. She was grateful to have come across that photo, on what must have been an impressionable day.
“Rude of her not to come, you must be thinking,” Celine said, with deadly accuracy.
“That’s not true.”
What eyes Celine had. The better to eat you with. Celine’s tank top was road sign orange. Caution, her jacket said. Warning. Detour.
“I’m sorry, have I said too much? I have a terrible habit of that.”
Alice searched Celine’s eyes to gauge which Alice she would prefer: the devotee or the disinterested. Alice suspected that her customary persona around Celine—quiet ghost gone unseen, veering clear of the friction between mother and daughter; occasionally trying to curry favor with household deeds, scouring the cast-iron pot and toting in the grocery haul—would not suit the occasion, that in this escalation of their proximity, something more was required of her.
“No, I’m glad you’re here.”
Celine’s eyes froze. Wrong, all wrong. In that family, they addressed one another with coolness and irony. “But I’m sorry if you had other things to do tonight—I mean, I’m sure you did.”
A little under two years prior, Alice had audited Celine’s Cal Berkeley class alongside Sadie—after a persistent campaign, she had talked her friend into it; convinced her that someday she’d regret not having seen what was said to be her mother’s best quality.
In the library, Alice had plucked Celine’s book of lesbian-feminist theory off the shelf. Sadie had been righteously indignant: “No big deal, just some casual reading by your best friend’s sworn enemy.” Alice had smiled to herself: Sadie and her mother shared a sense of drama. Sadie dismissed the major feminist text summarily: “It’s guerilla scholarship, derivative Paglia.” Once, while Celine and Sadie were squabbling in the kitchen, Alice had peeked into Celine’s office to admire the stack of pages on her desk, scrawled with handwriting black and perilous.
It made Alice sad, how unconscious Sadie was of her mother’s wonderful qualities of perception. Alice had been intoxicated by the book—Celine coming across, as Alice devoured the stream of saturated prose, like a friend Alice wished she had, an antidote to Sadie, the friend she did. The only way she could describe it was that she wanted to turn the text on its side, fry the text up, and eat it like a hamburger patty. The chapter on mother-love, “Nurturance and Tyranny,” was unapologetically about Sadie and managed to be, by turns, both razor-sharp and heartfelt.
The archaic myth of sexuality, Celine had written, is not just a façade but an overprotective armor against emancipation. A hard outer shell so that we feel the cold and the wind only in our private ocean, inside the conch shell in which we can hear the remote whisper of the self.
Alice should not have pointed out to her friend, the subject of the chapter, that it was like nothing else she had ever read. Sadie would not engage with the grist of the content, retorting only that Alice was impressed purely because it was the only book Alice had read that school year, focusing instead on having fun. It was not precisely true that Alice did not read. It was that she read the same books over the years, for comfort. She had an inclination for nice stories with nice endings. Pretty books with good morals: Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder; stories of women facing a certain hardship and pulling through with aplomb. Each time she revisited, she saw something new.
Sadie read biographies and was interested in life in its most material terms.
Celine had come from Ohio, from nothing, her appetites propelling her like an engine. She was a hip, interesting person who had made her own way. Alice’s family was nothing like this. For the millionth time, Alice was struck by the dissimilitude. Alice had grown up in the upscale valley town of Moraga, where corn grew bearded with long blue silk. Though it was only twenty minutes by car, it was a different world. Alice felt a cramp of guilt at the thought. She had never been nearby without telling her mother, Hadley.
Seeming to decide something, Celine thrust her flowers at Alice, gripping the stalk far south, like the hilt of a sword. “Here.”
Alice presumed she was meant to take them.
“These are from Sadie. Anthuriums. You’re supposed to snip the stems.” Celine rubbed the scar on her inner forearm. Alice nodded gamely. The flowers were scary: black-brown, plasticky vinyl, rubbery, with assaulting stamens. “Otherwise, they won’t drink.”
Darius’s eyes rippled in their direction, through the congested lobby, from the nucleus of his crowded circle. Alice knew he was holding out hope, one of these days, either during rehearsal or the run, for her to consent to an after-show drink. For once, she wished he would come over, spread his entourage’s chatter, and relieve Celine of her. If he’d asked for a drink right then, Alice would have said yes.
“That was nice of her.” Alice was a sucker for flowers. She had grown up with them. They did not seem frivolous to her, but essential. She breathed in deeply, the bloomy scent hitting deep in her belly. They probably were from Sadie. That would be like her, to go to the shop, select the flowers, wrap them, tie the ribbon, and drop them at Celine’s.
“Is your mother here?” Celine asked, a little sour. She had always been suspicious of Alice’s mother, mistrustful of Sadie’s open interest in her. Alice had vowed to invite her mother next week when the show’s kinks were ironed out. She suspected that Hadley thought, behind her façade, that her daughter was a nonstarter, like bread that wouldn’t rise. Not that Hadley, brisk and clarifying as sea air, inevitably halfway out the door before Alice could get a word in, would be idling, awaiting an invitation. She was used to hearing little from Alice.
“She doesn’t leave the house in this heat.” Alice tidied the scruffy ribbon on the bouquet. “It would be a whole situation.”
They stood there. Celine’s smell had softened. It was nice, actually, like spiced cloves mixed with sunny morning. When she still lived at home, Sadie had always hung both their sets of washed clothing outside to dry. She said it made the clothes last longer and made them smell of sunshine.
The bright light radiated from the popcorn vitrine and, in the clotted room, their two shadows merged into one. Alice was just wondering how to resuscitate the conversation when Celine shifted foot-to-foot. “You were really good.”
Alice gloated. She didn’t like approval. She loved it. She couldn’t live without it. It was why she lived.
Sidelong, Celine seemed to suppress something. “I mean that.” Her voice was shaky, not unkind.
“There was a prop flop. Did you notice?” Celine stared at Alice so that she had no recourse but to keep talking. “When the goatherd tripped on the tablecloth? And the whole feast came crashing down and Perdita stepped on a prop chicken, and it squeaked because it was a dog toy?”
“Fine, just a hiccup.”
“Was it all right, really?”
Together, they were gaining no ground, spinning wheels in gravel.
“I already said it was.” Celine hooked her jacket on her finger. “Sayonara.” And then, inexplicably, she paused, as if there were something more she wanted. She even leaned in for a brief, exhilarating moment before seeming to conclude the space between them was a gulf she would not breach. And then she turned heel, not offering so much as a handshake.
Entering the relative cool of the theater the next afternoon, Alice could not help thinking about Celine’s awkward departure of the preceding night, and what it might mean. It drew Alice’s uneasy attention to the thing she hated most: upsetting others.
It was impossible to find a moment to call Sadie. Alice ducked into the scene dock, where the theater group kept set pieces—the cardboard pillars of the Sicilian court and the stuffed “exit-pursued-by-a-bear” bear—to call Sadie and ascertain how dismal Celine’s report had been. But as soon as she had settled in among the oversized chicken-wire-and-spray-foam enchanted oaks that signified pastoral Bohemia, she was called to makeup, where soft hands would layer foundation over the existing foundation Alice had not succeeded in removing the night before, and then Darius called her to the stage to rework a flawed bit of blocking.
The two best friends had not spoken since the week before, when Sadie had phoned just as Alice was leaving rehearsal, enlivened by an eccentric prospect. “Get ready for this,” Alice had said. “Someone in the show has a contact at Anaheim Disney. They’re casting for a new Cinderella. I’d ride in the parade, stroll around Fantasyland in PVC slippers, and sit at a banquet at the Royal Table. I don’t know if they actually serve dinner. What if it was actually fun, meeting kids and blowing kisses and strutting around in a sparkly hoop dress?”
Sadie was deadpan. “Cinderella’s a blonde.”
“She wears a wig.”
“Get real, Alice. These are the things that ruin a career.”
Sadie saw the world with unclouded eyes, joyless but calm and cool as a lake.
“Natalie Portman was discovered at a pizza joint!”
“Stop shouting.” Alice could feel Sadie’s smile of veiled knowing, of always knowing better. “Don’t delude yourself. This is where your career and your substance of character go to die.”
Alice groaned inwardly. Anything less than Euripides or Ibsen was, according to both Sadie and Alice’s mothers, beneath a person of substance.
Sadie spoke drily. “Brain scans show actors have decreased brain activity in the regions that form a sense of self.”
“What is it about my acting that grates on you?” Alice asked, clicking her key fob and settling into her hatchback’s driver’s seat. Though her two-hour parking was up, she did not insert the key into the ignition. “You’re very hard on me.”
Alice tapped the steering wheel, ostensibly to the beat of the bubblegum pop song playing over her car stereo but really, she knew, to fill the silence. To the question What do you want to do? Alice had always wanted to reply, Can’t I just be?
“Listen.” Sadie sighed, softening slightly. “I think you’d make a great Cinderella. You’re so good with kids, you’re patient, and you’re beautiful, and it would be very like you to fall out of a shoe and leave it at an epic party. But not at a theme park. You’re better than that.”
The truth of Sadie’s tough counsel surfaced. She had softened, so Alice could, too. “You’re right. It would probably be depressing, and career suicide. How’s it going with Cormac?”
“Oh, god, horrible. I mean, he’s great. But I’m a nightmare.”
“Clamshelling again? We should talk about why. Why you can’t be open with him.”
Alice made a noise of acknowledgment. “You know, we did emotional recall in rehearsal today—dredging up our own pain to access a character’s.”
“Dig up any bodies?”
Maybe was an understatement. Once Alice started on her insecurities it was like Night of the Living Dead.
Exhumed: Alice’s feeling that she was blank and passive, bare and undeveloped.
Disinterred: Alice was a shadow person, a raw hunk of clay waiting to be shaped, a canvas on which others could express themselves, a coloring-book page.
Resurrected: Alice was a perfectly acceptable outline who required another person—whoever she happened to come across—to add the substance.
“Has anyone studied the psychological effects of all this?” Sadie asked.
Maybe this was why Alice allowed so many men access to her. Each one, substituting the prior, represented a chance at self-actualization, of shading her into completion. No wonder Celine had balked the night before.
These thoughts consumed Alice, back in the playhouse, and before she knew it, the show was on, and soon enough Camillo was saying, “Come, sir, away.” Lights out on Act II, ushering in the forty-minute stretch she was offstage, “imprisoned” by Leontes, possessed of a jealous rage, then dead.
Like a lizard into a wall, Alice slipped into the wings. Concealed for sixteen stage-years, Alice vowed to stay in character. She watched the mechanisms of the scene changes without seeing them, as if with a glass eye. Raise the front cloth, lower the tab. She peeked out at the blue-lit house.
Startled, she checked again.
Celine was in a similar seat as last night, if not the same one, shifting her weight in the cushioned folding chair, even wearing the same clothes, rumpled like she’d never gone home the night before. One could only imagine.
Alice hurtled through her performance, eyes fixed on Celine, herself transfixed among the assembled crowd. All the light was strange under the blue-white gels. Finally, Alice, as Hermione’s stock-still statue, thoroughly vindicated after enduring wrongful accusal, blinked into waking life, and the second act was concluded. Applause at curtain rolled over Alice like a wave. She raced offstage and bustled out of her costume, snagging it sidewise onto the hanger.
Turning from the rack, she saw that Darius had followed her into the clogged dressing room and was gawking, looking appalled as she swiped off her lashes. “I thought those were real!” He seemed wounded, as if she had deliberately misled him.
The costume designer snorted in Alice’s direction. “Isn’t that just like men?”
Alice, who did not like to generalize, swept around, gathering her belongings. Darius cornered her near the whirring fan. “Who was that woman last night?” he asked, bemused voice chirred by the blades. “My brother was seated next to her. He said she was rustling around the whole time, making noise fidgeting and slurping a soda.”
Alice had the sudden thought that perhaps Celine had come again because she felt bad about being rude the night before.
“I’m sorry.” Alice did not bother to remove her makeup. Her face, still contoured for the stage, was tight with a batter of foundation. She patted Darius’s arm on the way out. “Promise I’ll tell you later.”
Alice twitched. She had been watched, again, by Celine. She thought of texting Sadie to tell her that Celine came twice. Instead, she chased through the swarm of the exiting audience. Around her, the lobby erupted, but Celine wasn’t there.
By the third night, Alice knew where to direct her attention. She fastened hot, agitated, steady eyes on Celine, who was present in the audience just the same as before, rooted in the same seat. From Alice’s marble pedestal, still as stone, something stirred inside her.
She focused on Celine the concentration of her performance. It was surely ill-considered and irresponsible. Celine had every right to rubberneck Alice—she was paying audience—but what right had Alice to return the thrill? Though she did not understand it, the charge of electricity was already ignited and, like a current, traveling a wire.
Around Alice, the stage lights deepened. She offered her performance to one single person. She even directed a condemnatory finger at Celine at, “Not guilty.” Alice’s costar, the king of the stage, attempted to regain her attention with an emphatic, effectless wheeze. No: tonight, the self-denying Hermione had a new focal point. Tonight, Hermione was having her fun.
After the bow, before house lights had a chance to rise and before Alice could wonder what she had done, she flew past her cast members, following the weak glow tape offstage into the wings. The heat had risen, making Friday’s low nineties seem moderate in comparison.
The nominal back changing room was hot, despite the timeworn AC unit, and heavy with the scent of pickles and onions. “That was a penetrating performance,” a stagehand remarked, a little fearful. Alice felt a pinch in her stomach. “Anyone have a Tylenol?” No one did.
Her ardent performance had to have disconcerted the audience.
The heavy-chested costume designer was installed at the vanity mirror, at work on the hoagie sandwich she opened toward the conclusion of every performance. “This is delicious,” she said over the wax paper, “and profoundly hard to eat.”
Alice could not listen, kindled with the current that for the moment had no outlet. Her adhesive mink eyelashes stuck to her fingers. She wrangled with them, finally managing to flick them onto the vanity counter, coiled like dying caterpillars, rather than into their diminutive plastic case. The falsity of them dogged Alice suddenly, arousing in her a scorching antipathy. Why the ruse? Celine would never allow anyone to amend her. Why should Alice? Feeling emboldened, she flung her costume headlong over the hanging rack.
The costume designer swallowed hard. “Really?” She set down her sandwich. “You’re not going to hang that up?”
“I’m sorry.” Alice stepped into her street clothes, a fragile vintage housedress the color of a pale winter peach. Sadie said that Alice’s clothes always looked like they were about to fall off her body. Her heart sped along as she zipped up the side of the brittle, delicate dress. “In a rush.” She scooped up the mink lashes with a swipe of her finger and scraped them straight into the costume designer’s vinegary hands. Alice had taken such good care of them so far. She had been so meticulous. The costume designer looked up at her, aghast. Alice wished fleetingly that there were two of her. Sadie called it the Disease to Please; Alice hated to disappoint people.
Alice emerged into the still, languid heat and found Celine waiting at the front of the playhouse. She looked uncharacteristically small in her oversized white T-shirt, her button-down balled up in her hand. She leaned to one side, her smile wonky. She was wearing an edgy pair of high-top sneakers this time, kumquat and lime. She was lit by the adjacent street-level storefront, the crowd dispersing around her. Greeting Alice, Celine tugged at her earlobe. She mumbled something inaudible. Alice noticed her small breasts, all but nothing really, curved against her T-shirt.
“Some people are going out,” Alice said, her breath thin.
A car honked from the street, a ride anticipating its rider. Alice felt the world of concessions, the smells of coffee and popcorn, the anxieties of the play she was not sure she understood, fade.
Alice had begun to sweat. She pressed her fingers to her hot, doughy cheeks. Celine’s olive-colored eyes watched Alice’s fingers imprint her flushed skin.
“Don’t go,” Celine said, her smile off-center. Her eyes met Alice’s with a look that brought a warmth to the base of her stomach, a trailing, emptying feeling, like a drain. Alice felt something shift within her, substantial as Earth’s plates.
“All right.” Two words, easy enough to say. Then two more: “I won’t.”
Celine’s eyes brightened, lifted, then lowered with a forbidding finality. There seemed to be something they each wanted to say. The urge whispered through Alice. The lobby air was stifling, hot as a furnace. Five-blade ceiling fans spun pointlessly, far away at the room’s upper limits.
“Your place or mine,” Celine blurted out. It wasn’t a question; it was a certainty. The words evidently shocked Celine as she spoke them, the pull of a gun’s trigger disarming its operator.
Beneath Alice, the sun-warmed concrete seemed to slant upward. Sadie did not live, anymore, with Celine. Nonetheless, the place would be full of her. The answer came to Alice crisply. It was easy enough. Her Airbnb—attached to nothing, familiar to no one—was the only option. The street rippled. Feverish heat lifted from the asphalt. A police siren blipped, turning a corner.
Not half an hour later, cramming tightly together, Alice and Celine stepped into the single-occupancy Tower C elevator. The rasping elevator carriage smelled stale and rattled slightly. Celine stood close enough, a mere few inches away, that Alice could feel her adrenaline. Even here, the heat was inching in.
“I might have half a bottle of wine I brought up from L.A.,” Alice began, “but I’m not sure and it might be vinegar by now.”
Alice parted her lips to say more, but Celine put a finger to them. She squeezed closer in the elevator compartment, compressing Alice, shutting her up. The vintage slip dress Alice had selected so deliberately, only hours ago, in this very same multistory edifice, was swiftly hiked up around her waist. Alice felt the elevator winches shudder as Celine’s strong fingers slipped under the thin strap of Alice’s G-string, then inside her. There was a callus on Celine’s thumb, the skin rough as a guitarist’s. Craggy from what? From work? Flattened, Alice ebbed from her body. She could not begin to think.
Sarah Blakley-Cartwright is the author of Red Riding Hood, a #1 New York Times bestseller published worldwide in thirty-eight editions and fifteen languages. She is the editor of Hauser & Wirth’s The Artist’s Library for Ursula magazine. She is publishing director of the Chicago Review of Books, and associate editor of A Public Space.
“The absence of commas in the title of Sarah Blakley-Cartwright’s richly intimate debut adult novel hints at the characters’ boundary-less enmeshment in one another’s lives… Wickedly delightful.” —THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
“Blakley-Cartwright's stylish and quippy writing offers thoughtful commentary on the women's many-faceted, much-entangled relationships, and how they've shaped, and been shaped by, one another.” —BOOKLIST
“A heartfelt, smart, and keenly observed take on friendship and fulfillment, and what it means to start thinking of parents as actual people.” —TOWN & COUNTRY MAGAZINE
"A lighthearted romp, tinged with melancholy, that gently pokes fun at sexual mores and those who defy them.” —KIRKUS REVIEWS
“An elegant study of three women exploring their gender and sexuality… Packed with spiky insights. This satisfies the head and the heart.” —PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
“Obsessed! Each sentence of Alice Sadie Celine is chock full of playful irreverence for feminist and gender theory, hip popular culture references, and the wide breadth of what defines female sexuality.” —Chloë Sevigny
“I am literally obsessed.” —Busy Philipps, actress and New York Times bestselling author of This Will Only Hurt a Little
“The three unforgettable women in this novel remind me of the dancing figures in the Matisse painting, their secrets joyful and mysterious, their dramas delightful and powerful. Delicious and subversive, Alice Sadie Celine is a mesmerizing read.” —Yiyun Li, winner of the PEN Jean Stein Award, PEN Hemingway Award, and author of The Book of Goose and Where Reasons End
“Sarah Blakley-Cartwright subverts all kinds of expectations with this sharply drawn trio of strong-willed women. Vibrant, sensual, and full of irreverent humor, Alice, Sadie, Celine is an outstanding first novel.” —Idra Novey, author of Take What You Need
"Alice Sadie Celine is the story of a forbidden love triangle, of the complexities of female friendship, and of the inextricable bond between mothers and daughters. Taut, tense, sexy, and lucid, Sarah Blakley-Cartwright’s debut adult novel is an unforgettable, irresistible, daring page-turner." —Hannah Lillith Assadi, author of The Stars Are Not Yet Bells and Sonora
“Like Didion but with more warmth and a queer sensibility, Alice Sadie Celine is packed with so much of what I love in a book: tight prose, smart, fully realized characters grappling with inappropriate love affairs, and bright California land and light. It's extraordinarily lovely and I savored every word and didn’t want it to end.” —Bethany Ball, Center for Fiction First Novel Prize Finalist and author of The Pessimists
“Here come three indelible women and, with them, one of contemporary fiction’s most delicious love triangles. Sarah Blakley-Cartwright has written a gem of a novel – super smart, slyly sexy, and crackling throughout with kindhearted humor.” —Hermione Hoby, author of Virtue