The nursing home smelled like loneliness and Celeste resisted the urge to pinch her nose shut as she walked down its narrow halls. The place was a cross between a hospital and a bingo hall; there were old people everywhere, breathing in old air, lost in old memories. They sat chatting in floral upholstered chairs and stared blankly at faded Monet prints and walked the halls like premature ghosts.
She kept her eyes fixed on the stained yellow floor to avoid making eye contact with any of them, but it was harder to avoid hearing the squeak of wheelchair wheels and hacking, chronic coughs beyond closed doors. Was this what happened to the people society outgrew, the people who couldn’t afford anything better? They got stashed away and forgotten until they finally died and made room in the world for someone better?
Yet there she was at noon on the third Sunday of the month, like clockwork, knocking on door 102 and pushing her way inside. Humidity and the nauseating stench of sour milk and antiseptic hit her at once and she inhaled sharply, pausing at the door. “Yvonne?” she called out.
Silence answered her, and Celeste drew back the curtain that separated Celeste’s grandmother's side of the room from the neighbor's. The most recent neighbor, Trish, was gone—a few weeks dead—and no one had replaced her yet, but the curtain was the closest thing Yvonne had to privacy; everyone who visited—aside from Celeste, only nurses and orderlies—knew to keep it drawn.
"I brought you the pictures you asked for," she said, setting her purse on the window ledge as she began unpacking it. "And the yarn and needles. Zara made dinner, too, so I brought you leftovers in case you were tired of the food here."
She turned to her grandmother expectantly, in time to see the old woman spit scornfully over the safety railing of her bed.
"Don't know why you'd bring me that shit. Her food ain't no better than the food here.”
Yvonne—scornful, tiny Yvonne with the mouth of a trucker, full of teeth despite her age—was the only biological relative that Celeste knew of. She'd met Yvonne a year ago, after her parents died. That was when she'd finally looked up her birth mother only to find out that she, too, was dead. Zara had been the one to find Yvonne. Her name had been hidden in the stack of papers that the adoption agency had given Celeste, nearly lost in a jumble of legal language. Celeste had only skimmed the papers, looking for keywords—biological mother, identifying information, reunification—but Zara had taken the time to read them carefully.
“Les,” she’d said, “come look at this.”
“Did you find her?” Hope ballooned in Celeste’s chest and it made it harder to breathe. It made her nauseous.
“No,” Zara admitted, and the balloon burst. “But come take a look anyway.”
She did, and at once found herself the only grandchild of an elderly woman she’d never known.
Before Celeste could defend her wife’s cooking, Yvonne waved a gnarled hand at the tiny dresser by her bed, already covered with dried petals and a vase full of brown, stinking water. "Put the photos over there."
"And the food?"
"In the trash."
Celeste laughed and did as she was told with the photos. She leaned over to kiss Yvonne's cheek and placed the Tupperware container in her lap. "Nice to see you, too. How're you feeling? The nurse said you had a fever all week."
"That woman blabs my business all over this place," the old woman grumbled, but her scowl softened. “I’m feeling fine.”
“Fine enough to answer a few questions?”
Yvonne made a noise low in her throat, which was as much of a yes as Celeste would get. “Get me out this bed and we’ll see.”
Celeste helped her up.
There was a balance to their relationship that they hadn’t quite figured out yet, some sort of bartering system by which information was traded for affection and vice versa. During Celeste’s visits, they took what they needed from each other in increments: an offhand comment from Yvonne asking to know where Celeste lived that she could visit so easily once a month; a tentative question from Celeste about any potential allergies she should be on the lookout for in her twins. But last month’s visit had been a Sunday of nothing. A Sunday of alternating between cold and warm washcloths and brushing tangled gray curls and humming old, half-remembered lullabies. A Sunday of cold palms grabbing Celeste’s cheeks and murmurs about how much Celeste looked like her mother. Last Sunday had been an anomaly, affection without regard for information, and Celeste was eager to get things back on track.
When she was with Yvonne, Celeste was every version of herself she'd ever been: she was introverted, passive-aggressive teenage Celeste, who brought up her adoption in every interaction with her parents and couldn’t get through an entire meal without asking why they’d chosen her; rebellious college freshman Celeste, who took eighteen shots in a row to celebrate her 18th birthday, drunk-dialed her parents because she had no ex to call, and ended up in the hospital; middle-aged lesbian Celeste, who was failing at juggling her children’s dance practices and football tryouts and worrying about maintaining some spark in her marriage big enough to keep Zara from getting bored with her. Celeste tried to cram every identity into a two-hour visit once a month—to show Yvonne who she’d been and who she was—and ended up losing herself. She would not let herself visit more often; that was a recipe for attachment. Nor would she stop visiting; she was curious, and her curiosity demanded answers, even if they were slow to come.
As the two women walked down the hall, Yvonne leaned heavily on Celeste, her arm hooked into the crook of an elbow. She’d refused to use the walker stashed in the corner of her room and Celeste hadn’t bothered pressing the issue. As they walked, they passed a few nurses, who smiled and said their hellos, and Yvonne ignored them all. She greeted the few residents who acknowledged her, though—a pair of toothless old women with blue-gray hair and chunky sweaters and a surprisingly tall bald man with dimples in his wrinkled cheeks and bushy eyebrows. He made Yvonne smile wider than Celeste had ever seen her.
“Friend of yours?” she asked, biting back a smile, and Yvonne snorted, ignoring her and shuffling toward the communal room with a bit more speed.
"Pictures," Celeste said once they’d settled in on opposite sides of a lumpy sofa, trying hard to ignore the smell of piss and bleach it gave off. "That's what you asked me for and that's what I want from you."
The pictures Celeste had brought with her were mostly childhood photos—Celeste learning to crawl, Celeste in the awkward phase that spanned her middle and high school years, Celeste graduating from college—but she’d also included a few of Zara and the kids, blurry candid shots and family portraits where someone was always looking away.
Yvonne flipped through the pictures without a response and Celeste watched her face, trying to glean from Yvonne’s expressions which picture she was looking at. Aside from the slight quirk or downturn of her lips, the older woman’s face gave nothing away.
“You look like your mom in some of ‘em,” she said, shuffling them into a neat stack.
“I could judge that for myself if I knew what she looked like,” Celeste tried again. But when she reached out to take the pictures back, her grandmother pulled her hands, and the pictures, into her lap.
Yvonne looked at her. "You think I brought my pictures here? You think I brought anything here worth a damn?"
It was a fair point. Unlike the other rooms Celeste passed, with their collages of grandchildren's school pictures and older, yellowing snapshots of the occupants’ younger selves, Yvonne's room was completely impersonal. Celeste had assumed it was because there was no one to bring her anything. She hadn't considered that the emptiness was deliberate.
"Then where are they? Where’s all your stuff?” Celeste tried to curb any hints of her excitement, but in her mind she pictured a house, tiny and yellow, its front yard littered with browning leaves. In a house, there would be physical proof of her mother’s existence: photo albums and childhood belongings and maybe even a height chart etched onto a blank wall in faded pencil.
"Storage locker downtown," the old woman said.
Celeste blinked away the fantasy of the tiny yellow house. "And your stuff is there?"
"All the stuff I felt like keeping."
Celeste smiled. “Do you think you could show me?”
Yvonne turned her face up to the sky in the middle of the parking lot and stood still for a moment. The sun was hidden behind a mass of clouds and there was a chill in the air that cut straight to the bone, but Celeste watched the woman soak it all up anyway. Celeste didn't rush her. She was enjoying the fresh air, too, and the cold was better than the musty humidity inside the nursing home.
"Remind me of your kids' names," Yvonne said when she finally allowed Celeste to help her into the car.
"Jayden and Cassandra; Jay and Cass.”
Yvonne had never directly asked her about the children before, except to see pictures of them, so Celeste tried not to bring them up. They asked about her, though, the mysterious great-grandmother they’d heard their moms talk about; with Zara’s parents living on the other side of the country and Celeste’s parents gone, they were lacking somewhat in the grandparent department.
“Can she come to our birthday party?” Cass had asked last month, on the way home from dance class.
Seven wasn’t a milestone as far as birthdays went, but Celeste and Zara threw a small party for the kids every year, this year’s theme was “PJ Masks,” a show on Disney Jr whose theme song the two women hadn’t been able to get out of their heads for months.
“Can who come?” Celeste had asked, glancing at her daughter in the rearview mirror. The girl’s pigtails had unraveled sometime during the day and her hair frizzed around her face; her eyes were bright and expectant as she looked back at her mother.
“Your grandma. Grandma Elle and Poppop Charlie are coming, so she can come, too, right? We can meet her and show her around and I can show her the new dance from my recital.”
“Um.” Celeste wasn’t good at saying no. She was good at promising the moon and stressing herself out trying to deliver it. “Probably not,” she admitted.
Cass frowned, looking almost wounded. “Why not?”
“Yvonne, she … we’re … just no, okay, Cass?” Celeste sighed. “No, she’s not coming.”
“That’s not fair,” the little girl grumbled. “You didn’t even ask her. You didn’t even try.”
“It doesn’t matter; I already said no,” Celeste said firmly, in a voice that always made her feel a little bad and reminded her of her own mom.
Yvonne hmphed, startling Celeste back into the present, but she sounded less disparaging than usual. "Kendall, your mom, used t’love cloudy days. Said having no sun meant she could focus on the rest of the sky. Never did understand what she meant by it, though."
Celeste nodded quietly, soaking up this newest gem of information before she filed it in the mental folder of bits and pieces she’d compiled. They were few and paltry, even after the months she'd spent with Yvonne, and she worried that she was running out of time and reliable sources. When Yvonne died, that would be the end of it. All of Celeste’s biological history—every embarrassing family story, every hereditary habit, every answer to any potential question she had—would be lost to her.
She put the car in drive and shook the thought from her head.
The units at A-Z Storage reminded Celeste of suburban houses. They were all identical—rows and rows of bright orange roll-up doors with nothing but numbers to set them apart from one another. She tried to guess what might be behind them—an ex-husband's golf clubs; bins full of clothes and toys kids had grown out of; dusty lawn furniture that had no place in a new apartment.
The man at the front gate had looked up Yvonne's name to give them the unit number and a spare key to replace the one she had lost. He told them that the security gate closed at five; they had a few hours yet. Celeste had thanked him, and Yvonne had said nothing as they drove past him and into the lot, toward the very back, where the smaller rentals were located. Celeste had never been to a storage rental place before and, unappealing as it was, she hadn't ever been so excited to be somewhere as she was to be there. Half of her biological history was somewhere inside. It was all she could do to keep her movements calm as she parked and helped Yvonne out of the car and up the stairs.
The inside was poorly lit, sickly yellow lights showing a path down the hall, where smaller versions of the doors from the larger units spanned the length of the walls on either side of them. Despite the chill outside, the AC hummed, and their footsteps echoed loudly against the linoleum. It was, Celeste thought, a sad place to store a life.
They stopped in front of unit 454 and she took a deep breath, breathing in dust and mildew. This was what her life had led to, at least the last year of it.
It was unfair to say that her parents had kept her from this, would still have kept her from this if they were alive, but they had nonetheless discouraged her from trying to find herself in a biological sense. From the moment she was old enough to understand what adopted meant, she'd had questions but they hadn't had answers. Her questions made them defensive, worried them, and they deflected them every time with some version of We love you like you were our own, which never failed to annoy her. They had adopted her; she was their own. Eventually, she learned to stop asking questions, burrowing them deeper into herself until her identity was one big unanswerable question. When her parents died, after the shock and the grief of the accident had sharpened and then tapered off, she'd felt something close to relief; she could search for the missing parts of herself without guilt.
The storage locker opened with a creak of protest, and the lights were slow to turn on. There were boxes everywhere. They leaned against the wall, stacked up like miniature towers, and sat like guests on top of an old, plastic-covered couch in the middle of the room. Most of them were taped shut, ready to be carted away at any time, but a few were wide open, flaps gnawed as if rodents had gotten to them.
Celeste stared in excitement, but also dismay. “Where are we supposed to start?” she asked, turning to look at her grandmother.
Yvonne had shoved one of the boxes on the couch aside and wedged herself into the space. Despite the tight squeeze, she looked almost comfortable as she gazed at her surroundings. “I put all this in here after Kendall died, y’know. Just dumped all of it and locked it away somewhere I didn’t have to look at it.” She shook her head. “A person shouldn’t live surrounded by dead folks’ things.”
“When did she die?” Celeste asked. The information that she had from the adoption agency was limited; her mother’s death had been added to her file as a date on a sticky note.
For a moment, Celeste wasn’t sure Yvonne would answer her. The silence stretched itself thin between them before the old woman eventually sighed. “Must be goin’ on almost thirty years now. Thought I’d’ve gone off and joined her a lot sooner than this.”
Celeste let her words sink in. Thirty years. Thirty years ago, she’d been a little girl drinking invisible tea with the idea of the mother she’d held in her head, trying to picture what she would say to her when they finally met in person. She felt a fresh wave of grief as the childhood memory unraveled, replaced with the truth.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this place when I first came to visit? Were you ever going to tell me, or have I passed some sort of litmus test that makes me worthy of being your granddaughter now?” The words came out more sharply than she’d intended. In this locker, among her mother’s and grandmother’s things, armed with some new version of the truth, she felt out of place and overwhelmed. Maybe her parents had been right—maybe she should have been content with what she had and what she knew.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” Celeste repeated in a whisper. She was trembling—from anger, from grief—and sat down hard on the nearest box, which caved slightly beneath her weight. “Why? Why wouldn’t you have shown me? This place could’ve been the answer to all my questions and I never would have—”
"You never woulda what? Bothered with me all this time? Like I’m some livin’ archive to answer your questions about Kendall?” Yvonne scoffed, and the sound was full of disgust. “You want some answers? The girl was a damn junkie who you were better off without, and before she died, I hadn't talked to her since she left you on my doorstep in the middle of the night."
Celeste placed her hands flat on the floor to steady herself. It was cold and damp beneath her palms. “She … ?" There was another version of the mother she’d built up in her head: gone.
She looked at her grandmother. Yvonne, too, she realized, was trembling.
"I'm sorry," Celeste began, but the old woman shooed away the apology. The lines in her face looked starker, and Celeste wondered how many of them were from grief rather than age.
"Should've told you when you first came to visit. But you kept comin' and comin' with all your questions and—” She sighed. “I figured you'd keep on comin' to get your answers if I kept my mouth shut."
Celeste closed her eyes. If she'd gotten all the answers she wanted on that first visit, would she ever have gone back?
That day, Yvonne's eyes had bored into her, dark and searching, and she’d stared back. This old woman, propped up in a hospital bed with the purple-black skin of a wrinkled plum, was related to her. For the first time in her life, Celeste could see her features reflected back at her in someone else, but instead of giving her the reassurance and affirmation she’d expected, the resemblance only added to her questions: if she looked this much like her grandmother, and her grandmother like her, what had her mother looked like?
Celeste tried for a smile but could feel the disappointment in the curve of her lips and the crinkling of her eyes. This woman was family, sure. But she was not the mother Celeste had dreamed of her entire life. She was not Kendall.
"What's your name, girl?" Yvonne asked and her voice sent a low thrum through Celeste as if her blood were reacting to it.
"Celeste," she said. "I'm Celeste. Your ..." She trailed off. Granddaughter seemed presumptuous, as if she was trying to claim a relationship she hadn't earned. She could add biological in front of it, but that felt rude, like people who called their siblings “half” siblings. So she had just let the space remain blank, let herself remain title-less. She was Celeste. That would have to do. "It’s nice to meet you,” she said instead.
The old woman nodded and Celeste wondered what else she was supposed to say. She wished Yvonne would give her an opening, say something about her mother or ask about her life or even just why the hell she was there, but she only stared. Celeste didn’t have time to waste on the pleasantries of reunion; she’d been waiting her entire life and she was tired of it. “Do you mind if I ask you some questions?"
"You can ask me one," Yvonne said after a moment of uncomfortable silence. "Don't got a lot of time for answerin' questions."
The lie was obvious, as Celeste was sure it was meant to be. What else was there to do in a nursing home except watch TV and wait to die? Still, she swallowed the argument lodged in her throat. One question. How was she supposed to pack into a single question everything she'd ever wanted to know about the woman who'd given birth to her?
"Um..." The anguish must have shown on her face because something in the older woman's—the tightness of her eyes, the slight clenching of her jaw—softened.
"Not sayin' this is the only question you can ever ask me. S'just the only one I'm answerin' right now."
Celeste took a breath and found her voice again. She’d asked her question.
"So? How was she?" Zara had asked once Celeste came home and they'd settled onto the couch, wine in hand. Baths had been taken, stories read, the kids were asleep and the women had a brief window of time to themselves before they followed suit.
"Different than I expected," Celeste admitted.
"Which is, itself, to be expected."
"I know, I know. But Yvonne was … I don't know. She wasn't mean. She didn't seem upset to see me. Maybe just a little surprised." Celeste shrugged. "Uninterested.”
A furrow formed between Zara's arched brows, her wine glass pausing by her mouth. "Did she say that?"
"No, of course not. But it felt like I'd ruined something. You should've seen how she looked at me. Like…"
"Like she'd seen a ghost?"
"Nothing as simple as that, no. Remember that time you found that perfect vase, the blue one with the flowers from the antique shop in Lawton?" Zara nodded. "Remember how much you'd loved it when you brought it home and how upset you were when the kids broke it playing tag in the house?"
Celeste worried her bottom lip between her teeth. "She looked at me like I was that vase and the one who broke it at the same time." She sighed. "I think we were both a little disappointed in each other."
"You just met, Les; don't try to overanalyze things already. Give it time; give her time." Zara set down her glass and took her wife’s face in both hands; her palms were cool on Celeste's cheeks. "Can you do that?"
"Yeah," she muttered.
Zara laughed, nuzzling her nose into Celeste’s neck. "I can't hear you.”
Celeste rolled her eyes. "Yes," she repeated, louder, and Zara grinned, leaning in to kiss her properly.
No, Celeste realized now. If Yvonne hadn’t withheld information, if Zara hadn’t urged her to go back, she probably wouldn’t have visited Yvonne again. Maybe on holidays or when her guilt spoke up, but not every month. Yvonne was right. Celeste had treated her like a link to her past; she’d pumped her for answers and information and hadn’t really taken into account that Yvonne was her family as fully as Kendall was.
"I didn't think—"
"Didn't think is right.”
“I didn’t think,” Celeste continued, “that you would care about me. Or that I would care about you. My entire life I’d expected to eventually meet my mother—she was the only person I thought about. I mean, I thought of my father, too, whoever he might’ve been, but I never … yearned … for him the way I did for her. I was so full of wanting and waiting for this woman who I’d never even seen a picture of and when I found you, even you weren’t what I wanted. But you were the closest thing I had to her and I thought that if I asked the right questions, worded them in the right way, I could piece together who she’d been for myself.”
Celeste shut her eyes to stop the tears that burned them. “I’m sorry.”
Yvonne shook her head and heaved herself up with a soft grunt, ambling over to the nearest tower of boxes. “You still wanna look through this stuff?”
“Is that okay? I mean …” Celeste took a deep breath, shoving down any disappointment she felt. “I know where this place is now. We don’t have to do it today if you don’t want to.”
“We’re already here, ain’t we?”
“Then we might as well do it. C’mere and help me grab one of these,” Yvonne said, gesturing toward the box at the top of the nearest pile.
Relief flooded through Celeste, anxiety hot on its heels. Joining her grandmother, she reached for the top box and eased it down carefully, setting it on the floor. A cloud of dust sprang up as she knelt by it, opening the box’s flaps, and she blinked it out of her eyes as quickly as she could, eager to see what was inside. Her hands trembled a little.
Later, over dinner with Zara, and the kids—and Yvonne—Celeste would laugh at her overzealousness. Everything in the box had been sacred before it was opened because it had belonged to a mythological figure she'd imagined since she was old enough to think. Everything connected to that figure had held weight and history and such gravity that Celeste was nearly humbled before it.
Then Yvonne reached into the box.
The first thing she pulled out was a Walkman—a dull gray box like an old tape recorder attached to thin over-ear headphones.
Celeste took it and slipped on the headphones, holding her breath as she pressed play. She didn't know what she expected. A message from the ether in the form of some eighties R&B song? A voice recording?
What she got was dead air and a weary little smile from Yvonne.
"You look like her with those on," she said.
Celeste didn’t know what Kendall had looked like. She’d never seen a picture of her mother and she was suddenly desperate to. “Pictures,” she said. That was what they’d come there for in the first place. “Do you have any pictures of her?”
“Of course I do,” Yonne said, frowning. “Somewhere around here.”
They sorted through the rest of the box together in silence, Celeste feeling guilty about going through her mother’s things and foolish for feeling guilty. Every faded Polaroid or snapshot sparked hope that Yvonne repeatedly dashed; the pictures were all of friends, ex-friends, cousins. Kendall had apparently taken pictures of everyone but herself.
Any chance of finding a picture of Kendall steadily faded as they emptied out the box. There were tattered Beanie Babies and empty lipstick tubes and broken pens and every other nonessential thing that teenagers kept stuffed in drawers or beneath beds. It didn’t look like Yvonne had bothered to sort through any of it before she’d shoved it all into a box and put it in a storage locker.
“Any chance she had a diary or something? A planner, maybe?” Celeste asked.
Yvonne laughed. “Kendall didn’t write down her feelings, just yelled ‘em at everybody to make sure we all knew. There are still the other boxes, you know.”
“I know,” she said. But Celeste—stubbornly, foolishly—wanted some sort of answer out of this one.
Nodding, Yvonne flipped through the pages of yet another teen magazine they’d founded crammed into the box. They both paused when something small and square fell out. A picture.
Celeste made sure to keep breathing as she reached for it and turned it over. It was not Kendall. It was not a woman at all. It was a baby, howling and clearly wriggling when the picture was taken, little more than a blur of brown limbs against white hospital blankets. She flipped it back over for a name and was disappointed, but not surprised, to find it blank.
She glanced at Yvonne. “My mom?” she asked.
The old woman didn’t move, her eyes fixed on the image as she reached for it. “No.”
Celeste handed it over. Watched her grandmother hold it with her gnarled, wrinkled hands. Allowed herself a moment’s hesitation and a moment’s hope. “Me?”
“I thought you said this was a box of her teenage stuff.”
“It is. She wasn’t but sixteen when she had you, though. I didn’t know she took this.”
That much was clear from the look on Yvonne’s face, as if she were waking up from a thirty-eight-year-long coma. Her fingers trembled from how tightly she gripped the old photo.
“I never knew if I did the right thing. When she left you with me, I didn’t know if she meant for me to raise you myself or to get rid of you or just to watch you for a little while. I kept you for two weeks and I thought about it every second of every day. Every time you cried, every time I changed a diaper, every time you made a face that reminded me of her, I looked at you and wondered what I did wrong with Kendall. The day I took you to that hospital was the day I decided I couldn’t do wrong by you, too, not knowing if the wrong was in raising you or in giving you up.” She kept her eyes on the photo as she spoke, as if she were speaking directly to the baby.
Celeste opened her mouth, prepared to reassure her, but the old woman kept talking, kept barreling forward out of the past.
“And I held onto that not knowing and that guilt and that fear, scared every time I opened up my damn door that you’d be standing there. Hoping for it a little, too. And when you do show up, I’m in that rotting place and you … you looked just like her. Just some grown-up version of my baby, and I hated you that first day. Hated you for looking like her and for not being her. Hated you for showing up and not letting all that not knowing just kill me.”
When she laughed, the sound was low and broken. “And then all you wanted from me was some connection to her and I didn’t know what pieces of her to give you that I hadn’t already cracked.”
Yvonne lifted her head to look at Celeste, eyes rheumy and red, and Celeste had the feeling that Yvonne was seeing Kendall as much as she was seeing her for herself. She took Yvonne’s hand in her own, stroking the deep lines that mapped out her life.
She opened her mouth to speak, to assure her grandmother that she’d done the right thing, and the words died on her lips. Who was she to say what the right thing was when neither of them knew what the outcome of a different choice could have been? But it was soothing, somehow, to know that even while she’d longed for and daydreamed about a woman who was already dead, there’d been someone else out there thinking and daydreaming about her — wondering what she was like and how she looked and who she would grow up to become.
Celeste shut her mouth and smiled at her grandmother and they repacked the box, everything but the baby picture, and moved on to the next one in silence.