after Barnett Newman
I did not worry enough, at first, when my husband Barney fell into his obsession. Perhaps because I knew him and his bouts of artistic frenzy, or perhaps because his fixation seemed so harmless—simply painting thousands of vertical lines, calling them his “zips”—or perhaps because his new paintings brought his most prestigious gallery openings yet, I adapted easily to his new habits. His sleepless nights, coffee-fueled afternoons, early mornings spent drawing zips down our bathroom mirror with my lipstick, none of them jarred us. I set myself to getting along beside his new passion. That was ’49, and new ways of living came easily then. All of us still recovering from the war, aimed wholeheartedly at a new decade—anything could be celebrated so long as Communists stayed out of it. And so the zips consumed more and more, and my fears for Barney only waned. The summer in Akron, he proposed to paint my mother’s basement. Three hours later, she called, panicked, and when I walked downstairs, he had painted only one stripe of yellow down the wall, and he faced it with tears in his eyes, tugging his tie so tight his face turned swollen and red. I led him away by the arm, but that night we did not mention it, as if I had merely found him on our terrace, daydreaming with his eyes on the rooftops and their upright radio antennas.
Then the zips began to take on some sort of force. In planning The Stations of the Cross, Barney made pencil sketches on rough scraps of watercolor paper. With enough time, his quick, straight strokes sliced clean through the paper. Even dull pencils, somehow, managed to cut. Then his finished canvases began to tear themselves apart, and at the mere stroke of his paintbrush. Now I worried. Through his fits and starts, the tireless quest to make a straight line out of anything and everything, his fixations had never turned destructive. His art tore our apartment to pieces. His painting became frantic. Always nervously rolling up his sleeves, always on a crazed hunt for the surface that would not split beneath his brush. He cut the coffee table with a stripe of orange, the steel basin sink with burgundy, the couch with the slightest thread of cadmium white. Everything gave beneath his hands.
After he broke our bed in two, I finally could not bear living with him anymore. I dragged my half of the bed into the dining room, propped up one side with orange crates, and stayed there through the day. Barney brought me a glass of milk and buttered toast that night. The toast was not cut diagonally in half, but vertical. Barney sat on the foot of my bed while I ate. “I’ve got a new project in mind,” he said, thumbing the callouses on his palms. “I want to put a zip on the front of our building.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Barney, when has it ever been about spectacle for you?”
“Everyone’s got to see the zips. What they can do. What they can do for us.” He picked up a brush and made strokes through the air. “They cut through what doesn’t matter. There’s a depth we’re afraid to look straight on.”
“Okay,” I said. “I guess we can’t live in a building you’ve cut in half.”
“No. No, I suppose not.”
“That’s fine. I already called my mother.”
Barney picked up a piece of scrap paper and dipped his brush in a tray of black paint on the table.
“I don’t want a divorce,” I said.
Barney threw a quick zip down the page. A tattered half fell to the carpet like a scorched wing.
My mother arrived two weeks later. By then, Barney had bought a window cleaner’s rig and scaled the side of our building with a bucket of pastel green hung from his waist. I caught him hovering around the second floor when I stepped outside. He rappelled down to help me carry a box of my Monet prints. Behind us, his new zip dripped down the bricks, descending from the rooftop to stop just a few feet above the ground like a sweaty, aching snake.
I lost track of Barney after that. Moved to Akron with my mother, walked her terrier to the corner store and back, taught for a bit at the elementary school. In fact, the next time I saw him was five years late, when I went to the break room for a smoke and every other teacher was there too, and Mike the janitor, all crowded around the television and completely hushed. The news was on, the cameras shooting a nuclear missile on some military base, a base I’d never heard of, that no one would’ve ever known if not for Barney. And there he was, my sweet Barney. God knows how he climbed that missile.
It was not a tremendous zip he painted. Just one brushstroke wide. It split the warhead like an eggshell. The zip disappeared, and so did he, but the paint spread over the desert, vaporized and blown by a hot wind so strong we seemed to feel it through the television screen and sway. And what was left to see, perhaps that was what Barney meant by depth. The sand, wide open again and with nothing to distract. The gray, nuclear clouds fleeing for the corners of the sky, unzipping the atmosphere. But I doubt I will ever know what he meant for us to see. So much remained unclear. For the black-and-white film, I couldn’t see what color he used. I like to imagine it was some bright red. For love or blood. Or apples, his favorite. Something significant and earthy. I just could not bear to think he’d ascended, alone, beyond us.