Estimated reading time — 9 minutes
There’s this painting my wife loves, called “Death and Life”, by Klimt. I don’t know what she finds so fascinating about it. I made all the right noises when she showed me her beloved framed print when we were first dating, “oohing” and “ahhing” and making up some bullshit about warm and cold color schemes and the specific choice of angles and line. She was an artist, our first few dates involved long walks through museums, starting in Picasso’s blue period and ending in heavy petting and blue balls.
I took an art history course as an elective when I was finishing up my doctorate, I remembered enough of the lingo to charm my fantastically gorgeous future wife and lure her back to my stupidly filthy apartment. We’re talking me as the foul bachelor frog, sitting on a lily pad made of empty take out containers surrounded by pond of enough unwashed clothes to keep a laundromat in business for a cool six months.
I remember scrambling to find two of any sort of cup-like container for the bottle of wine we had brought back while she was in the bathroom. I rinsed out a couple of coffee mugs and ran into the bedroom to try to clean up the condom wrappers that had been sitting on my bedside table since 2003. On the bed, neatly laid out against the rest of the chaos, were my wife’s dress, bra and panties. She came out of the bathroom completely nude aside from a pair of high heels, took the wine from me and took a swig straight from the bottle. I fell totally, completely and irrevocably in love.
I have no head for artistic things – I work in finance, I get creative with numbers, not paint – but I fucking love her stuff. She’s made a name for herself over the past few years, critics call her the American Damien Hirst. One of her first exhibits was composed of a dozen oil paintings of rotting pastries, surrounding an actual cake filled with thousands of dead ladybugs being fed to a mummified tarantula dressed up as Little Miss Muffet. I have no idea what it meant but it was sick, successful and catered by Balthazar so I ate about 20 croissants. They did not have bugs in them. I checked.
She was amazing. She had the body of a Laker girl and the face of a Modigliani model, and still does. She’s charming, charismatic, deep – the kind of person people flock to, want to be around constantly. She fucked like she had something to prove, she had a twisted sense of humor. As soon as I hooked a job with enough figures to keep a girl like her satisfied the way she should be, I proposed, bought her a historical brownstone in the city with a garden full of roses and hardwood mahogany floors. And for the first few years, she seemed happy. We were the kind of couple you see in New York Magazine and scoff at because they’re just too damned lucky.
But we had a rough spot, like all married couples do. She was still the superficially the same woman I fell in love with – looked amazing, people always asked me when she was going to host the next dinner party, she still had an amazing eye for art. I knew, though – I knew she was miserable. I could see it – the misery – in the corners of her eyes and the curve of her mouth.
It happened gradually. First it was the shower curtain. She bought three or four from a small boutique downtown, brought them home so we could choose one out together. We decided on one, pale blue, made of material that was impractical and way too expensive for a drapery in a bathroom but we had the money and it made her happy so why the hell not. A few days later, I was shaving and realized she still hadn’t put the curtain up. It wasn’t until about a month after that I caught a glimpse of it hanging up in her studio, cut to shreds and dyed till it was almost unrecognizable.
I chose to ignore it because I had learned it’s usually not the best course of action to call an artist out on their creative license, unless you want to start an all-out war with no discernible end.
A year after that, though, I had no choice. She had been so on edge it was like she was standing on a razor. She usually had a show every 3, 4 months or so, and if anything she had too many ideas, the galleries always asked her to trim down her collections. When the year passed without so much as a single finished painting, I started to worry, both about her well-being and our bank account. We were extravagant spenders, and each of her shows would bring in a cool $20,000 that paid for a few months of European beaches and ski trips in Aspen.
The final straw, though, is when she burned down the roses. It turned out she had finished dozens of projects over the year, she had hated all of it and had either destroyed or painted over everything. While I was at the office, she flew off the handle, doused about 16 canvases in lighter fluid, and set the yard on fire. When I got the call from the fire department, I rushed home to find her sitting in the back of the ambulance, covered in ashes, blonde hair singed at the ends. She was smoking a cigarette. I looked over the burnt flowers, the skeletons of her paintings, the ruined limbs of broken sculptures, and asked her what happened and why. She took a drag of the cigarette and said, “It was mine to burn.”
She took big, fancy pictures of the inferno. A family of bunnies suffocated in the smoke, she had them stuffed and mounted in size order on a baking soda volcano like the kind you see in middle school science fairs. She gathered up a few of the charred bits and pieces, wired it together, and made some warped, pained-looking kind of phoenix thing weighing in at 400 pounds and easily over eight feet high. She called the whole thing “From the Ashes”, and the reviews in the Times called it “…incendiary. Her first foray into becoming a true artist.” Someone bought the phoenix. I pity the person who wakes up every day and looks at that strange thing, suspended in constant agony.
We were both drunk, at a random, expensive, vaguely Dante’s Inferno-themed bar in San Francisco when I finally got a chance to ask her what was bothering her. We had been making dark jokes all night about the beautiful irony of her show and our current locale. At first she vehemently denied anything was wrong, angrily pointing out that we had made four times as much off of her last show as anything before it, that it had more than covered the damages, that it had paid for the vacation we were on. I stayed silent. She tossed her newly cropped hair, and looked like she was going to open up for a second. I saw her soft blue eyes fill with tears, then she took a shot of whiskey from a glass that had a bull’s head and smirked.
“Well, for starters,” she slurred, nonchalantly dangling the glass from the bull’s nose ring. “I’m fairly certain I’m pregnant.”
She let the glass drop from her finger and it shattered on the floor as she slid out of her seat and stumbled to the exit. I sat there for awhile and drank more, feeling furious, confused, and miserable. I remembered her face when she showed me that Klimt painting. I remembered how she wore glasses back then, and how she pushed them up the bridge of her nose when she smiled as I talked about the fucking warm and the fucking cold colors and the fucking angles and lines.
We converted her studio into a nursery. Rather, I did, while she stayed in San Francisco and did God-knows-what with her artist friends. I had a landscaper come in and replant the roses. I worked a lot of overtime, drank myself to sleep while I skimmed through parenting books. She came back when she was almost full term; I came home from work one night to find sonogram pictures posted all over the fridge of two healthy-looking twins, big baby girls. I walked into our bedroom and saw her dead asleep on top of the covers, belly swollen, smelling faintly like pot and paint thinner. She had a rainbow of dried paint on her fingertips. I loosened my tie and walked to the nursery.
She had been busy.
The canary yellow I had chosen was covered in a layer of translucent blue, and she had covered one wall in Klimt-esque patterns and curlicues. The creamy plush carpet was covered in paint splatters – she had worked furiously to finish. She had cut a swathe from one of the new rose bushes and made a giant bouquet, shoving them so tightly in the vase that some had escaped and made their way from their perch on the changing table to the floor. She had scattered them in the bassinet, on the windowsill. It was chaotic and beautiful. The next few years were peaceful, for the most part. We bonded over raising the girls. Despite my wife’s less than careful prenatal preparation, they were wickedly smart and beautiful. They both looked like her, with long, curly blonde ringlets and blue eyes. Sometimes, when I put them to bed, I wondered if any of my DNA was in them at all. They were like miniature versions of her.
My wife agreed to see a psychiatrist for a little bit. She took some medication for awhile, Xanax, some mood stabilizers. Eventually she and her doctor decided her crisis had been hormonal and temporary. We started having dinner parties again, soothed the gossip that had infected our social circles.
She stopped painting and took up teaching at a university. She seemed content again, even happier than she was before. Every once in a while I would catch a look in her eyes like repressed artillery fire, like she was ready to explode at any second, but it never lasted for longer than a few seconds before they went back to the soft cornflower blue I knew so well. And who doesn’t get a little agitated every once in a while?
I rose through the ranks at work. I loved the feeling of power that came with promotions. I loved my girls. And by God, I loved her. My crazy, disgusting, beautiful, hateful and loving, extraordinary wife.
Then came today.
Today, I came home from work early.
Today, my wife took the day off to be a chaperone on a class trip to the MET. They were after her for months because of her expertise in the art world, they wanted the children to experience the culture in the most sophisticated way possible. I thought it was ridiculous, they were one to three-year-olds in a private daycare; they saw more beauty in Cheerios than in Monet’s water lilies. But they wore my wife down, and she was given a gaggle of toddlers and wide-eyed teachers to tour around the museum.
I came home for lunch because I had forgotten my iPad that had notes on it for a presentation I was giving that night. I walked through the rose garden and noticed a tiny piece of sculpture left over from the Ashes exhibit from so long ago. It was half of a tiny bird – it had the kind of exquisite detail that my wife used to be so famous for. I was pretty sure it was an actual bird that she had cast in clay. I thought I could see a small piece of feather in one of the cracks. I idly wondered why I hadn’t noticed it before.
I went inside and poured myself a glass of orange juice. The fridge had pictures that my daughters’ drew – happy, crooked stick figures that looked nothing like the beautiful horrors their mother used to churn out. I was happy about that. I hoped they would fall in love with numbers like I did.
It was absolutely silent, and I sipped the sweet citrus and enjoyed the nothingness. Then I thought I caught a vague scent of fresh paint in the air.
Curious, I walked into the living room. And there was my wife, sitting on the leather couch with a bottle of wine, looking like an angel of death.
She was covered head to toe in blue-gray body paint, with a special concentration underneath her eyes. She was wearing a revealing patchwork blue dress, covered in crosses of various shapes and sizes. Not a dress, I realized, but the shredded shower curtain from so many years ago. I could see most of her still-perfect breasts, the curve of her waist. The bottle of wine was elongated and painted a strange shade of orange. The smell of paint was stronger in here, an overwhelming smell of lighter fluid, and something else I couldn’t place. She had shaven her head.
I stared at her for awhile – minutes? An hour maybe? Eventually she took a swig of wine from the bottle, swirling it around in her mouth. I noticed paint, deep blues and even deeper reds, around her fingers. I sat down in the arm chair across from her, unable to think of what exactly I wanted to ask her.
Maybe because I knew.
Maybe because I didn’t want to know.
I noticed a camera on the table between us, I went to pick it up and she rested her gray hand on mine before I could, softly, gently, with all the familiarity of years of marriage. She opened her mouth to speak, soft pink lips made pallid by the paint.
“They were mine.”
And I’ve been sitting here, knowing what’s behind the door to my daughters’ room, with the Klimt wall we never repainted. Knowing why my phone keeps ringing with calls from the school, from the NYPD. Knowing why I couldn’t find my sleeping pills last night. Knowing what that smell is. Seeing in my peripheral the red pooling and staining the carpet from underneath the door, the pile of clothes neatly folded next to my wife on the couch. I can picture that thick wire she used to fit all of her subjects where she wanted them, what a perfect, detailed recreation it must be.
Because she’s so perfect.
I see the phoenix in my mind’s eye.
I hope, when she flicks that cigarette she’s about to light, we both fucking burn.