My mother loved Mark Rothko. She kept prints of his work around the house, each frame hanging one foot apart from the other — a little less than the width of a person.
Her affinity for Rothko came from his closeness to human emotion. She was a repressed woman and didn’t cry or laugh or smile. Instead, she possessed a tendency to sigh.
“Rothko,” she said, “claimed his art wasn’t abstract, but rather something that was living and breathing. Would you call a human being abstract? No, you wouldn’t.”
Art as a person. As an entity to be felt instead of seen, as an active presence in the room. People cried when they saw Rothko for the first time. It was cathartic. My mother stared at Rothko’s prints intently, her nose to the canvas, but remained expressionless. One day, the whites of her eyes turned red, little suction cups drawing the crimson paint into her body.
“Life is easier when you aren’t so emotional,” she informed me.
“Sometimes,” I told my first boyfriend, “I’m afraid I’ll lose myself.”
Like her. He rubbed circles into my back, and I hiccupped.
“Don’t cry,” he said. I wet the front of his shirt.
A week later, I brought him home, his warm hand in mine. He wanted to take me to the bedroom and make love — like in the movies. We crossed the threshold and were greeted by the sight of my mother holding a painting to the sun and letting it photosynthesize.
“The art needs to breathe, too, like you and me,” she said, her voice full of reproach.
I told him to run. He did, and I never saw him again.
“I don’t bring the paintings out enough,” my mother told me. Her face was tanned and round. She’d had a rough and isolated upbringing and as a result was not a woman unaccustomed to suffering. “Sometimes I worry they’ll die.”
The insides of her palms were red, and her veins were green and bulging. She was bleeding. She’d gouged the center of her hands, as if to blind them to the world.
The dark red of Rothko’s Light Red Over Black was smeared with a familiar chunky, metallic blood. In the sun, the thick, viscous markings had furled into little paper scars. The undried liquid dripping, like the remnants of a dog-marked territory, muddying the black paint.
“Are you okay?” I asked her.
She told me she was fine, and she’d only gotten into a small accident. Then she sighed, the puff of air releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
I took a deep breath and swallowed it back up. I went inside to get some gauze.
A month passed without incident. Our collection of Rothko paintings only grew larger and larger, some of them duplicates. My bedroom grew so crowded that I couldn’t turn around without being confronted by a large canvas print and the tugging sensation of crying.
My mother brought them outside, one by one. “They need to photosynthesize,” she said, and we watched as the paintings sucked in desperate breaths. In and out. When we brought them outside and took care of them, they forgave us for emotion.
Her hands healed well. In the end, they were concave and boneless and flopped across her wrists. I made breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I cleaned the house, avoiding her paintings.
“Rothko’s work is a study in restraint,” she said. “Patience and virtue.”
“Does it hurt?” I asked, referring to her hands.
She told me she didn’t feel any pain. That she was numb.
That year, I swept through three boyfriends and broke up with all of them. I fractured my ankle on a streetlight, which swayed but did not fall. My mother scooped out the maimed bone and drenched the couch red. It’s better than letting the pain linger.
I thought I would die but woke up the next morning, alive. I started using crutches.
The day I turned eighteen, I realized my mother was missing.
“I can’t find her,” I explained to the police. “It’s not like she ever goes anywhere.”
They investigated the house and touched the paintings with their guns. In the dark, the prints were beginning to shrivel. An officer gave me a strange look.
They couldn’t find her.
“If you need help, there’s a support group that meets downtown.” He handed me a pamphlet and squeezed my shoulder. “Don’t worry. Any grief is natural.”
That night, I heard my mother’s voice in the paintings, but I did not panic. I had expected her. I did not cry. I waited until sunrise, then took my mother’s paintings out to the yard and watched them photosynthesize under the sun, breathing in the air through their tiny mouths. In and out. The canvas whispering, Would you call a human being abstract?
These paintings were meant to elicit big emotions — anger, sadness, fear, ecstasy. I was none of that at all. Did I even exist? I thought of my mother and brought out her kitchen knife.
I stared at the paintings, and my eyes prickled. I let out a sob. A large, heaving sob that shook my shoulders. Then I stopped. My body shivered as I fell to my knees, and I coughed, trying to force myself to scream and wail. I grabbed my eyes and popped them out of their sockets, but without any moisture, they were as dry as sawdust, lolling like eggs. It didn’t hurt like I’d expected it to. I shoved two fingers down my throat, trying to elicit tears to no avail.
Trembling, I took my mother’s knife and held the blade to my heart. Sharp as a paintbrush. With one deft motion, my blood splattered the nearest painting, and as it disappeared into the paint, so did I. Suddenly my skin was flat against the canvas. Was I imagining it? The sun was bright, as forgiving as a mother, and warm too. Slowly I let myself photosynthesize.